Volume 4.
Chapter XV.
 

It was a splendid morning; not a cloud dimmed the sky which spread high above desert, mountain, and oasis, like an arched tent of uniform deep-blue silk. How delicious it is to breathe the pure, light, aromatic air on the heights, before the rays of the sun acquire their mid-day power, and the shadows of the heated porphyry cliffs, growing shorter and shorter, at last wholly disappear!

With what delight did Sirona inhale this pure atmosphere, when after a long night--the fourth that she had passed in the anchorite's dismal cave-she stepped out into the air. Paulus sat by the hearth, and was so busily engaged with some carving, that he did not observe her approach.

"Kind good man!" thought Sirona, as she perceived a steaming pot on the fire, and the palm-branches which the Alexandrian had fastened up by the entrance to the cave, to screen her from the mounting sun. She knew the way without a guide to the spring from which Paulus had brought her water at their first meeting, and she now slipped away, and went down to it with a pretty little pitcher of burnt clay in her hand. Paulus did indeed see her, but he made as though he neither, saw nor heard, for he knew she was going there to wash herself, and to dress and smarten herself as well as might be--for was she not a woman! When she returned, she looked not less fresh and charming than on that morning when she had been seen and watched by Hermas. True, her heart was sore, true, she was perplexed and miserable, but sleep and rest had long since effaced from her healthy, youthful, and elastic frame all traces left by that fearful day of flight; and fate, which often means best by us when it shows us a hostile face, had sent her a minor anxiety to divert her from her graver cares.

Her greyhound was very ill, and it seemed that in the ill-treatment it had experienced, not only its leg had been broken, but that it had suffered some internal injury. The brisk, lively little creature fell down powerless when ever it tried to stand, and when she took it up to nurse it comfortably in her lap, it whined pitifully, and looked up at her sorrowfully, and as if complaining to her. It would take neither food nor drink; its cool little nose was hot; and when she left the cave, Iambe lay panting on the fine woollen coverlet which Paulus had spread upon the bed, unable even to look after her.

Before taking the dog the water she had fetched in the graceful jar--which was another gift from her hospitable friend--she went up to Paulus and greeted him kindly. He looked up from his work, thanked her, and a few minutes later, when she came out of the cave again, asked her, "How is the poor little creature?"

Sirona shrugged her shoulders, and said sadly, "She has drunk nothing, and does not even know me, and pants as rapidly as last evening--if I were to lose the poor little beast!--"

She could say no more for emotion, but Paulus shook his head.

"It is sinful," he said, "to grieve so for a beast devoid of reason."

"Iambe is not devoid of reason," replied Sirona. "And even if she were, what have I left if she dies? She grew up in my father's house, where all loved me; I had her first when she was only a few days old, and I brought her up on milk on a little bit of sponge. Many a time, when I heard the little thing whining for food, have I got out of bed at night with bare feet; and so she came to cling to me like a child, and could not do without me. No one can know how another feels about such things. My father used to tell us of a spider that beautified the life of a prisoner, and what is a dirty dumb creature like that to my clever, graceful little dog! I have lost my home, and here every one believes the worst of me, although I have done no one any harm, and no one, no one loves me but Iambe."

"But I know of one who loves every one with a divine and equal love," interrupted Paulus.

"I do not care for such a one," answered Sirona. "Iambe follows no one but me; what good can a love do me that I must share with all the world! But you mean the crucified God of the Christians? He is good and pitiful, so says Dame Dorothea; but he is dead--I cannot see him, nor hear him, and, certainly, I cannot long for one who only shows me grace. I want one to whom I can count for something, and to whose life and happiness I am indispensable."

A scarcely perceptible shudder thrilled through the Alexandrian as she spoke these words, and he thought, as he glanced at her face and figure with a mingled expression of regret and admiration, "Satan, before he fell, was the fairest among the pure spirits, and he still has power over this woman. She is still far from being ripe for salvation, and yet she has a gentle heart, and even if she has erred, she is not lost."

Sirona's eyes had met his, and she said with a sigh, "You look at me so compassionately--if only Iambe were well, and if I succeeded in reaching Alexandria, my destiny would perhaps take a turn for the better."

Paulus had risen while she spoke, and had taken the pot from the hearth; he now offered it to his guest, saying:

"For the present we will trust to this broth to compensate to you for the delights of the capital; I am glad that you relish it. But tell me now, have you seriously considered what danger may threaten a beautiful, young, and unprotected woman in the wicked city of the Greeks? Would it not be better that you should submit to the consequences of your guilt, and return to Phoebicius, to whom unfortunately you belong?"

Sirona, at these words, had set down the vessel out of which she was eating, and rising in passionate haste, she exclaimed:

"That shall never, never be!--And when I was sitting up there half-dead, and took your step for that of Phoebicius, the gods showed me a way to escape from him, and from you or anyone who would drag me back to him. When I fled to the edge of the abyss, I was raving and crazed, but what I then would have done in my madness, I would do now in cold blood--as surely as I hope to see my own people in Arelas once more! What was I once, and to what have I come through Phoebicius! Life was to me a sunny garden with golden trellises and shady trees and waters as bright as crystal, with rosy flowers and singing birds; and he, he has darkened its light, and fouled its springs, and broken down its flowers. All now seems dumb and colorless, and if the abyss is my grave, no one will miss me nor mourn for me."

"Poor woman!" said Paulus. "Your husband then showed you very little love."

"Love," laughed Sirona, "Phoebicius and love! Only yesterday I told you, how cruelly he used to torture me after his feasts, when he was drunk or when he recovered from one of his swoons. But one thing he did to me, one thing which broke the last thread of a tie between us. No one yet has ever heard a word of it from me; not even Dorothea, who often blamed me when I let slip a hard word against my husband. It was well for her to talk--if I had found a husband like Petrus I might perhaps have been like Dorothea. It is a marvel, which I myself do not understand, that I did not grow wicked with such a man, a man who--why should I conceal it--who, when we were at Rome, because he was in debt, and because he hoped to get promotion through his legate Quintillus, sold me--me--to him. He himself brought the old man--who had often followed me about--into his house, but our hostess, a good woman, had overheard the matter, and betrayed it all to me. It is so base, so vile--it seems to blacken my soul only to think of it! The legate got little enough in return for his sesterces, but Phoebicius did not restore his wages of sin, and his rage against me knew no bounds when he was transferred to the oasis at the instigation of his betrayed chief. Now you know all, and never advise me again to return to that man to whom my misfortune has bound me.

"Only listen how the poor little beast in there is whining. It wants to come to me, and has not the strength to move."

Paulus looked after her sympathetically as she disappeared under the opening in the rock, and he awaited her return with folded arms. He could not see into the cave, for the space in which the bed stood was closed at the end by the narrow passage which formed the entrance, and which joined it at an angle as the handle of a scythe joins the blade. She remained a long time, and he could hear now and then a tender word with which she tried to comfort the suffering creature. Suddenly he was startled by a loud and bitter cry from Sirona; no doubt, the poor woman's affectionate little companion was dead, and in the dim twilight of the cave she had seen its dulled eye, and felt the stiffness of death overspreading and paralyzing its slender limbs. He dared not go into the cavern, but he felt his eyes fill with tears, and he would willingly have spoken some word of consolation to her.

At last she came out, her eyes red with weeping. Paulus had guessed rightly for she held the body of little Iambe in her arms.

"How sorry I am," said Paulus, "the poor little creature was so pretty."

Sirona nodded, sat down, and unfastened the prettily embroidered band from the dog's neck, saying half to herself, and half to Paulus, "My little Agnes worked this collar. I myself had taught her to sew, and this was the first piece of work that was all her own." She held the collar up to the anchorite. "This clasp is of real silver," she went on, "and my father himself gave it to me. He was fond of the poor little dog too. Now it will never leap and spring again, poor thing."

She looked sadly down at the dead dog. Then she collected herself, and said hurriedly, "Now I will go away from here. Nothing--nothing keeps me any longer in this wilderness, for the senator's house, where I have spent many happy hours, and where everyone was fond of me, is closed against me, and must ever be so long as he lives there. If you have not been kind to me only to do me harm in the end, let me go today, and help me to reach Alexandria."

"Not to-day, in any case not to-day," replied Paulus. "First I must find out when a vessel sails for Klysma or for Berenike, and then I have many other things to see to for you. You owe me an answer to my question, as to what you expect to do and to find in Alexandria. Poor child--the younger and the fairer you are--"

"I know all you would say to me," interrupted Sirona. "Wherever I have been, I have attracted the eyes of men, and when I have read in their looks that I pleased them, it has greatly pleased me--why should I deny it? Many a one has spoken fair words to me or given me flowers, and sent old women to my house to win me for them, but even if one has happened to please me better than another, still I have never found it hard to send them home again as was fitting."

"Till Hermas laid his love at your feet," said Paulus. "He is a bold lad--"

"A pretty, inexperienced boy," said Sirona, "neither more nor less. It was a heedless thing, no doubt, to admit him to my rooms, but no vestal need be ashamed to own to such favor as I showed him. I am innocent, and I will remain so that I may stand in my father's presence without a blush when I have earned money enough in the capital for the long journey."

Paulus looked in her face astonished and almost horrified.

Then he had in fact taken on himself guilt which did not exist, and perhaps the senator would have been slower to condemn Sirona, if it had not been for his falsely acknowledging it. He stood before her, feeling like a child that would fain put together some object of artistic workmanship, and who has broken it to pieces for want of skill. At the same time he could not doubt a word that she said, for the voice within him had long since plainly told him that this woman was no common criminal.

For some time he was at a loss for words; at last he said timidly:

"What do you purpose doing in Alexandria?"

"Polykarp says, that all good work finds a purchaser there," she answered. "And I can weave particularly well, and embroider with gold-thread. Perhaps I may find shelter under some roof where there are children, and I would willingly attend to them during the day. In my free time and at night I could work at my frame, and when I have scraped enough together I shall soon find a ship that will carry me to Gaul, to my own people. Do you not see that I cannot go back to Phoebicius, and can you help me?"

"Most willingly, and better perhaps than you fancy," said Paulus. "I cannot explain this to you just now; but you need not request me, but may rather feel that you have a good right to demand of me that I should rescue you."

She looked at him in surprised enquiry, and he continued:

"First let me carry away the little dog, and bury it down there. I will put a stone over the grave, that you may know where it lies. It must be so, the body cannot be here any longer. Take the thing, which lies there. I had tried before to cut it out for you, for you complained yesterday that your hair was all in a tangle because you had not a comb, so I tried to carve you one out of bone. There were none at the shop in the oasis, and I am myself only a wild creature of the wilderness, a sorry, foolish animal, and do not use one.

"Was that a stone that fell? Aye, certainly, I hear a man's step; go quickly into the cave and do not stir till I call you."

Sirona withdrew into her rock-dwelling, and Paulus took the body of the dog in his arms to conceal it from the man who was approaching. He looked round, undecided, and seeking a hiding-place for it, but two sharp eyes had already detected him and his small burden from the height above him; before he had found a suitable place, stones were rolling and crashing down from the cliff to the right of the cavern, and at the same time a man came springing down with rash boldness from rock to rock, and without heeding the warning voice of the anchorite, flung himself down the slope, straight in front of him, exclaiming, while he struggled for breath and his face was hot with hatred and excitement:

"That--I know it well-that is Sirona's greyhound--where is its mistress? Tell me this instant, where is Sirona--I must and will know."

Paulus had frequently seen, from the penitent's room in the church, the senator and his family in their places near the altar, and he was much astonished to recognize in the daring leaper, who rushed upon him like a mad man with dishevelled hair and fiery eyes, Polykarp, Petrus' second son.

The anchorite found it difficult to preserve his calm, and composed demeanor, for since he had been aware that he had accused Sirona falsely of a heavy sin, while at the same time he had equally falsely confessed himself the partner of her misdeed, he felt an anxiety that amounted to anguish, and a leaden oppression checked the rapidity of his thoughts. He at first stammered out a few unintelligible words, but his opponent was in fearful earnest with his question; he seized the collar of the anchorite's coarse garment with terrible violence, and cried in a husky voice, "Where did you find the dog? Where is--?"

But suddenly he left go his hold of the Alexandrian, looked at him from head to foot, and said softly and slowly:

"Can it be possible? Are you Paulus, the Alexandrian?"

The anchorite nodded assent. Polykarp laughed loud and bitterly, pressed his hand to his forehead, and exclaimed in a tone of the deepest disgust and contempt:

"And is it so, indeed! and such a repulsive ape too! But I will not believe that she even held out a hand to you, for the mere sight of you makes me dirty." Paulus felt his heart beating like a hammer within his breast; and there was a singing and roaring in his ears. When once more Polykarp threatened him with his fist he involuntarily took the posture of an athlete in a wrestling match, he stretched out his arms to try to get a good hold of his adversary, and said in a hollow, deep tone of angry warning, "Stand back, or something will happen to you that will not be good for your bones."

The speaker was indeed Paulus--and yet--not Paulus; it was Menander, the pride of the Palaestra, who had never let pass a word of his comrades that did not altogether please him. And yet yesterday in the oasis he had quietly submitted to far worse insults than Polykarp had offered him, and had accepted them with contented cheerfulness. Whence then to-day this wild sensitiveness and eager desire to fight?

When, two days since, he had gone to his old cave to fetch the last of his hidden gold pieces, he had wished to greet old Stephanus, but the Egyptian attendant had scared him off like an evil spirit with angry curses, and had thrown stones after him. In the oasis he had attempted to enter the church in spite of the bishop's prohibition, there to put up a prayer; for he thought that the antechamber, where the spring was and in which penitents were wont to tarry, would certainly not be closed even to him; but the acolytes had driven him away with abusive words, and the door-keeper, who a short time since had trusted him with the key, spit in his face, and yet he had not found it difficult to turn his back on his persecutors without anger or complaint.

At the counter of the dealer of whom he had bought the woollen coverlet, the little jug, and many other things for Sirona, a priest had passed by, had pointed to his money, and had said, "Satan takes care of his own."

Paulus had answered him nothing, had returned to his charge with an uplifted and grateful heart, and had heartily rejoiced once more in the exalted and encouraging consciousness that he was enduring disgrace and suffering for another in humble imitation of Christ. What was it then that made him so acutely sensitive with regard to Polykarp, and once more snapped those threads, which long years of self-denial had twined into fetters for his impatient spirit? Was it that to the man, who mortified his flesh in order to free his soul from its bonds it seemed a lighter matter to be contemned as a sinner, hated of God, than to let his person and his manly dignity be treated with contempt? Was he thinking of the fair listener in the cave, who was a witness to his humiliation? Had his wrath blazed up because he saw in Polykarp, not so much an exasperated fellow-believer, as merely a man who with bold scorn had put himself in the path of another man?

The lad and the gray-bearded athlete stood face to face like mortal enemies ready for the fight, and Polykarp did not waver, although he, like most Christian youths, had been forbidden to take part in the wrestling-games in the Palaestra, and though he knew that he had to deal with a strong and practised antagonist.

He himself was indeed no weakling, and his stormy indignation added to his desire to measure himself against the hated seducer.

"Come on--come on!" he cried; his eyes flashing, and leaning forward with his neck out-stretched and ready on his part for the struggle. "Grip hold! you were a gladiator, or something of the kind, before you put on that filthy dress that you might break into houses at night, and go unpunished. Make this sacred spot an arena, and if you succeed in making an end of me I will thank you, for what made life worth having to me, you have already ruined whether or no. Only come on. Or perhaps you think it easier to ruin the life of a woman than to measure your strength against her defender? Clutch hold, I say, clutch hold, or--"

"Or you will fall upon me," said Paulus, whose arms had dropped by his side during the youth's address. He spoke in a quite altered tone of indifference. "Throw yourself upon me, and do with me what you will; I will not prevent you. Here I shall stand, and I will not fight, for you have so far hit the truth--this holy place is not an arena. But the Gaulish lady belongs neither to you nor to me, and who gives you a claim--?"

"Who gives me a right over her?" interrupted Polykarp, stepping close up to his questioner with sparkling eyes. "He who permits the worshipper to speak of his God. Sirona is mine, as the sun and moon and stars are mine, because they shed a beautiful light on my murky path. My life is mine--and she was the life of my life, and therefore I say boldly, and would say, if there were twenty such as Phoebicius here, she belongs to me. And because I regarded her as my own, and so regard her still, I hate you and fling my scorn in your teeth--you are like a hungry sheep that has got into the gardener's flower-bed, and stolen from the stem the wonderful, lovely flower that he has nurtured with care, and that only blooms once in a hundred years--like a cat that has sneaked into some marble hall, and that to satisfy its greed has strangled some rare and splendid bird that a traveller has brought from a distant land. But you! you hypocritical robber, who disregard your own body with beastly pride, and sacrifice it to low brutality--what should you know of the magic charm of beauty--that daughter of heaven, that can touch even thoughtless children, and before which the gods themselves do homage! I have a right to Sirona; for hide her where you will--or even if the centurion were to find her, and to fetter her to himself with chains and rivets of brass--still that which makes her the noblest work of the Most High--the image of her beauty--lives in no one, in no one as it lives in me. This hand has never even touched your victim--and yet God has given Sirona to no man as he has given her wholly to me, for to no man can she be what she is to me, and no man can love her as I do! She has the nature of an angel, and the heart of a child; she is without spot, and as pure as the diamond, or the swan's breast, or the morning-dew in the bosom of a rose. And though she had let you into her house a thousand times, and though my father even, and my own mother, and every one, every one pointed at her and condemned her, I would never cease to believe in her purity. It is you who have brought her to shame; it is you--"

"I kept silence while all condemned her," said Paulus with warmth, "for I believed that she was guilty, just as you believe that I am, just as every one that is bound by no ties of love is more ready to believe evil than good, Now I know, aye, know for certain, that we did the poor woman an injustice. If the splendor of the lovely dream, that you call Sirona, has been clouded by my fault--"

"Clouded? And by you?" laughed Polykarp. "Can the toad that plunges into the sea, cloud its shining blue, can the black bat that flits across the night, cloud the pure light of the full-moon?"

An emotion of rage again shot through the anchorite's heart, but he was by this time on his guard against himself, and he only said bitterly, and with hardly-won composure:

"And how was it then with the flower, and with the bird, that were destroyed by beasts without understanding? I fancy you meant no absent third person by that beast, and yet now you declare that it is not within my power even to throw a shadow over your day-star! You see you contradict yourself in your anger, and the son of a wise man, who himself has not long since left the school of rhetoric, should try to avoid that. You might regard me with less hostility, for I will not offend you; nay, I will repay your evil words with good--perhaps the very best indeed that you ever heard in your life. Sirona is a worthy and innocent woman, and at the time when Phoebicius came out to seek her, I had never even set eyes upon her nor had my ears ever heard a word pass her lips."

At these words Polykarp's threatening manner changed, and feeling at once incapable of understanding the matter, and anxious to believe, he eagerly exclaimed:

"But yet the sheepskin was yours, and you let yourself be thrashed by Phoebicius without defending yourself."

"So filthy an ape," said Paulus, imitating Polykarp's voice, "needs many blows, and that day I could not venture to defend myself because--because--But that is no concern of yours. You must subdue your curiosity for a few days longer, and then it may easily happen that the man whose very aspect makes you feel dirty--the bat, the toad--"

"Let that pass now," cried Polykarp. "Perhaps the excitement which the sight of you stirred up in my bruised and wounded heart, led me to use unseemly language. Now, indeed, I see that your matted hair sits round a well featured countenance. Forgive my violent and unjust attack. I was beside myself, and I opened my whole soul to you, and now that you know how it is with me, once more I ask you, where is Sirona?"

Polykarp looked Paulus in the face with anxious and urgent entreaty, pointing to the dog as much as to say, "You must know, for here is the evidence."

The Alexandrian hesitated to answer; he glanced by chance at the entrance of the cave, and seeing the gleam of Sirona's white robe behind the palm-branches, he said to himself that if Polykarp lingered much longer, he could not fail to discover her--a consummation to be avoided.

There were many reasons which might have made him resolve to stand in the way of a meeting between the lady and the young man, but not one of them occurred to him, and though he did not even dream that a feeling akin to jealousy had begun to influence him, still he was conscious that it was his lively repugnance to seeing the two sink into each other's arms before his very eyes, that prompted him to turn shortly round, to take up the body of the little dog, and to say to the enquirer:

"It is true, I do know where she is hiding, and when the time comes you shall know it too. Now I must bury the animal, and if you will you can help me."

Without waiting for any objection on Polykarp's part, he hurried from stone to stone up to the plateau on the precipitous edge of which he had first seen Sirona. The younger man followed him breathlessly, and only joined him when he had already begun to dig out the earth with his hands at the foot of a cliff. Polykarp was now standing close to the anchorite, and repeated his question with vehement eagerness, but Paulus did not look up from his work, and only said, digging faster and faster:

"Come to this place again to-morrow, and then it may perhaps be possible that I should tell you."

"You think to put me off with that," cried the lad. "Then you are mistaken in me, and if you cheat me with your honest-sounding words, I will--"

But he did not end his threat, for a clear longing cry distinctly broke the silence of the deserted mountain: "Polykarp--Polykarp." It sounded nearer and nearer, and the words had a magic effect on him for whose ear they were intended.

With his head erect and trembling in every limb, the young man listened eagerly. Then he cried out, "It is her voice! I am coming, Sirona, I am coming." And without paying any heed to the anchorite, he was on the point of hurrying off to meet her. But Paulus placed himself close in front of him, and said sternly: "You stay here."

"Out of my way," shouted Polykarp beside himself. "She is calling to me out of the hole where you are keeping her--you slanderer--you cowardly liar! Out of the way I say! You will not? Then defend yourself, you hideous toad, or I will tread you down, if my foot does not fear to be soiled with your poison."

Up to this moment Paulus had stood before the young man with out-spread arms, motionless, but immovable as an oak-tree; now Polykarp first hit him. This blow shattered the anchorite's patience, and, no longer master of himself, he exclaimed, "You shall answer to me for this!" and before a third and fourth call had come from Sirona's lips, he had grasped the artist's slender body, and with a mighty swing he flung him backwards over his own broad and powerful shoulders on to the stony ground.

After this mad act he stood over his victim with out-stretched legs, folded arms, and rolling eyes, as if rooted to the earth. He waited till Polykarp had picked himself up, and, without looking round, but pressing his hands to the back of his head, had tottered away like a drunken man.

Paulus looked after him till he disappeared over the cliff at the edge of the level ground; but he did not see how Polykarp fell senseless to the ground with a stifled cry, not far from the very spring whence his enemy had fetched the water to refresh Sirona's parched lips.