Homo Sum by Georg Ebers
At noon of the following day the senator went to the women's room, and while he was still on the threshold, he asked his wife--who was busy at the loom:
"Where is Polykarp? I did not find him with Antonius, who is working at the placing of the altar, and I thought I might find him here."
"After going to the church," said Dorothea, "he went up the mountain. Go down to the workshops, Marthana, and see if your brother has come back."
Her daughter obeyed quickly and gladly, for her brother was to her the dearest, and seemed to her to be the best, of men. As soon as the pair were alone together Petrus said, while he held out his hand to his wife with genial affection, "Well, mother--shake hands." Dorothea paused for an instant, looking him in the face, as if to ask him, "Does your pride at last allow you to cease doing me an injustice?" It was a reproach, but in truth not a severe one, or her lips would hardly have trembled so tenderly, as she said.
"You cannot be angry with me any longer, and it is well that all should once more be as it ought."
All certainly had not been "as it ought," for since the husband and wife had met in Polykarp's work-room, they had behaved to each other as if they were strangers. In their bedroom, on the way to church, and at breakfast, they had spoken to each no more than was absolutely necessary, or than was requisite in order to conceal their difference from the servants and children. Up to this time, an understanding had always subsisted between them that had never taken form in words, and yet that had scarcely in a single case been infringed, that neither should ever praise one of their children for anything that the other thought blameworthy, and vice versa.
But in this night, her husband had followed up her severest condemnation by passionately embracing the wrong-doer. Never had she been so stern in any circumstances, while on the other hand her husband, so long as she could remember, had never been so softhearted and tender to his son, and yet she had controlled herself so far, as not to contradict Petrus in Polykarp's presence, and to leave the work-room in silence with her husband.
"When we are once alone together in the bedroom," thought she, "I will represent to him his error as I ought, and he will have to answer for himself."
But she did not carry out this purpose, for she felt that something must be passing in her husband's mind that she did not understand; otherwise how could his grave eyes shine so mildly and kindly, and his stern lips smile so affectionately after all that had occurred when he, lamp in hand, had mounted the narrow stair.
He had often told her that she could read his soul like an open book, but she did not conceal from herself that there were certain sides of that complex structure whose meaning she was incapable of comprehending. And strange to say, she ever and again came upon these incomprehensible phases of his soul, when the images of the gods, and the idolatrous temples of the heathen, or when their sons' enterprises and work were the matters in hand. And yet Petrus was the son of a pious Christian; but his grandfather had been a Greek heathen, and hence perhaps a certain something wrought in his blood which tormented her, because she could not reconcile it with Agapitus' doctrine, but which she nevertheless dared not attempt to oppose because her taciturn husband never spoke out with so much cheerfulness and frankness as when he might talk of these things with his sons and their friends, who often accompanied them to the oasis. Certainly, it could be nothing sinful that at this particular moment seemed to light up her husband's face, and restore his youth.
"They just are men," said she to herself, "and in many things they have the advantage of us women. The old man looks as he did on his wedding-day! Polykarp is the very image of him, as every one says, and now, looking at the father, and recalling to my mind how the boy looked when he told me how he could not refrain from making Sirona's portrait, I must say that I never saw such a likeness in the whole course of my life."
He bid her a friendly good night, and extinguished the lamp. She would willingly have said a loving word to him, for his contented expression touched and comforted her, but that would just then have been too much after what she had gone through in her son's workroom. In former years it had happened pretty often that, when one of them had caused dissatisfaction to the other, and there had been some quarrel between them, they had gone to rest unreconciled, but the older they grew the more rarely did this occur, and it was now a long time since any shadow had fallen on the perfect serenity of their married life.
Three years ago, on the occasion of the marriage of their eldest son, they had been standing together, looking up at the starry sky, when Petrus had come close up to her, and had said, "How calmly and peacefully the wanderers up there follow their roads without jostling or touching one another! As I walked home alone from the quarries by their friendly light, I thought of many things. Perhaps there was once a time when the stars rushed wildly about in confusion, crossing each other's path, while many a star flew in pieces at the impact. Then the Lord created man, and love came into the world and filled the heavens and the earth, and he commanded the stars to be our light by night; then each began to respect the path of the other, and the stars more rarely came into collision till even the smallest and swiftest kept to its own path and its own period, and the shining host above grew to be as harmonious as it is numberless. Love and a common purpose worked this marvel, for he who loves another, will do him no injury, and he who is bound to perfect a work with the help of another, will not hinder nor delay him. We two have long since found the right road, and if at any time one of us is inclined to cross the path of the other, we are held back by love and by our common duty, namely to shed a pure light on the path of our children."
Dorothea had never forgotten these words, and they came into her mind now again when Petrus held out his hand to her so warmly; as she laid hers in it, she said:
"For the sake of dear peace, well and good--but one thing I cannot leave unsaid. Soft-hearted weakness is not usually your defect, but you will utterly spoil Polykarp."
"Leave him, let us leave him as he is," cried Petrus, kissing his wife's brow. "It is strange how we have exchanged parts! Yesterday you were exhorting me to mildness towards the lad, and to-day--"
"To-day I am severer than you," interrupted Dorothea. "Who, indeed, could guess that an old graybeard would derogate from the duties of his office as father and as judge for the sake of a woman's smiling face in clay--as Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage?"
"And to whom would it occur," asked Petrus, taking up his wife's tone, "that so tender a mother as you would condemn her favorite son, because he labored to earn peace for his soul by a deed--by a work for which his master might envy him?"
"I have indeed observed," interrupted Dorothea, that Sirona's image has bewitched you, and you speak as if the boy had achieved some great miracle. I do not know much about modelling and sculpture, and I will not contradict you, but if the fair-haired creature's face were less pretty, and if Polykarp had not executed any thing remarkable, would it have made the smallest difference in what he has done and felt wrong? Certainly not. But that is just like men, they care only for success."
"And with perfect justice," answered Petrus, "if the success is attained, not in mere child's play, but by a severe struggle. 'To him, that hath, shall more be given,' says the scripture, and he who has a soul more richly graced than others have--he who is helped by good spirits--he shall be forgiven many things that even a mild judge would be unwilling to pardon in a man of poor gifts, who torments and exerts himself and yet brings nothing to perfection. Be kind to the boy again. Do you know what prospect lies before you through him? You yourself in your life have done much good, and spoken much wisdom, and I, and the children, and the people in this place, will never forget it all. But I can promise you the gratitude of the best and noblest who now live or who will live in centuries to come--for that you are the mother of Polykarp!"
"And people say," cried Dorothea, "that every mother has four eyes for her children's merits. If that is true, then fathers no doubt have ten, and you as many as Argus, of whom the heathen legend speaks--But there comes Polykarp."
Petrus went forward to meet his son, and gave him his hand, but in quite a different manner to what he had formerly shown; at least it seemed to Dorothea that her husband received the youth, no longer as his father and master, but as a friend greets a friend who is his equal in privileges and judgment. When Polykarp turned to greet her also she colored all over, for the thought flashed through her mind that her son, when he thought of the past night, must regard her as unjust or foolish; but she soon recovered her own calm equanimity, for Polykarp was the same as ever, and she read in his eyes that he felt towards her the same as yesterday and as ever.
"Love," thought she, "is not extinguished by injustice, as fire is by water. It blazes up brighter or less bright, no doubt, according to the way the wind blows, but it cannot be wholly smothered--least of all by death."
Polykarp had been up the mountain, and Dorothea was quite satisfied when he related what had led him thither. He had long since planned the execution of a statue of Moses, and when his father had left him, he could not get the tall and dignified figure of the old man out of his mind. He felt that he had found the right model for his work. He must, he would forget--and he knew, that he could only succeed if he found a task which might promise to give some new occupation to his bereaved soul. Still, he had seen the form of the mighty man of God which he proposed to model, only in vague outline before his mind's eye, and he had been prompted to go to a spot whither many pilgrims resorted, and which was known as the Place of Communion, because it was there that the Lord had spoken to Moses. There Polykarp had spent some time, for there, if anywhere--there, where the Law-giver himself had stood, must he find right inspiration.
"And you have accomplished your end?" asked his father.
Polykarp shook his head.
"If you go often enough to the sacred spot, it will come to you," said Dorothea. "The beginning is always the chief difficulty; only begin at once to model your father's head."
"I have already begun it," replied Polykarp, "but I am still tired from last night."
"You look pale, and have dark lines under your eyes," said Dorothea anxiously. "Go up stairs and he down to rest. I will follow you and bring you a beaker of old wine."
"That will not hurt him," said Petrus, thinking as he spoke--"A draught of Lethe would serve him even better."
When, an hour later, the senator sought his son in his work-room, he found him sleeping, and the wine stood untouched on the table. Petrus softly laid his hand on his son's forehead and found it cool and free from fever. Then he went quietly up to the portrait of Sirona, raised the cloth with which it was covered, and stood before it a long time sunk in thought. At last he drew back, covered it up again, and examined the models which stood on a shelf fastened to the wall.
A small female figure particularly fixed his attention, and he was taking it admiringly in his band when Polykarp awoke.
"That is the image of the goddess of fate--that is a Tyche," said Petrus.
"Do not be angry with me, father," entreated Polykarp. "You know, the figure of a Tyche is to stand in the hand of the statue of the Caesar that is intended for the new city of Constantine, and so I have tried to represent the goddess. The drapery and pose of the arms, I think, have succeeded, but I failed in the head." Petrus, who had listened to him with attention, glanced involuntarily at the head of Sirona, and Polykarp followed his eyes surprised and almost startled.
The father and son had understood each other, and Polykarp said, "I had already thought of that."
Then he sighed bitterly, and said to himself, "Yes and verily, she is the goddess of my fate." But he dared not utter this aloud.
But Petrus had heard him sigh, and said, "Let that pass. This head smiles with sweet fascination, and the countenance of the goddess that rules the actions even of the immortals, should be stern and grave."
Polykarp could contain himself no longer.
"Yes, father," he exclaimed. "Fate is terrible--and yet I will represent the goddess with a smiling mouth, for that which is most terrible in her is, that she rules not by stern laws, but smiles while she makes us her sport."