Volume 5.
Chapter XXI.
 

The fight was ended; the sun as it went to its rest behind the Holy Mountain had lighted many corpses of Blemmyes, and now the stars shone down on the oasis from the clear sky.

Hymns of praise sounded out of the church, and near it, under the hill against which it was built, torches were blazing and threw their ruddy light on a row of biers, on which under green palm-branches lay the heroes who had fallen in the battle against the Blemmyes. Now the hymn ceased, the gates of the house of God opened and Agapitus led his followers towards the dead. The congregation gathered in a half-circle round their peaceful brethren, and heard the blessing that their pastor pronounced over the noble victims who had shed their blood in fighting the heathen. When it was ended those who in life had been their nearest and dearest went up to the dead, and many tears fell into the sand from the eye of a mother or a wife, many a sigh went up to heaven from a father's breast. Next to the bier, on which old Stephanus was resting, stood another and a smaller one, and between the two Hermas knelt and wept. He raised his face, for a deep and kindly voice spoke his name.

"Petrus," said the lad, clasping the hand that the senator held out to him, "I felt forced and driven out into the world, and away from my father--and now he is gone for ever how gladly I would have been kept by him."

"He died a noble death, in battle for those he loved," said the senator consolingly,

"Paulus was near him when he fell," replied Hermas. "My father fell from the wall while defending the tower; but look here this girl--poor child--who used to keep your goats, died like a heroine. Poor, wild Miriam, how kind I would be to you if only you were alive now!"

Hermas as he spoke stroked the arm of the shepherdess, pressed a kiss on her small, cold hand, and softly folded it with the other across her bosom.

"How did the girl get into the battle with the men?" asked Petrus. "But you can tell me that in my own house. Come and be our guest as long as it pleases you, and until you go forth into the world; thanks are due to you from us all."

Hermas blushed and modestly declined the praises which were showered on him on all sides as the savior of the oasis. When the wailing women appeared he knelt once more at the head of his father's bier, cast a last loving look at Miriam's peaceful face, and then followed his host.

The man and boy crossed the court together. Hermas involuntarily glanced up at the window where more than once he had seen Sirona, and said, as he pointed to the centurion's house, "He too fell."

Petrus nodded and opened the door of his house. In the hall, which was lighted up, Dorothea came hastily to meet him, asking, "No news yet of Polykarp?"

Her husband shook his head, and she added, "How indeed is it possible? He will write at the soonest from Klysma or perhaps even from Alexandria."

"That is just what I think," replied Petrus, looking down to the ground. Then he turned to Hermas and introduced him to his wife.

Dorothea received the young man with warm sympathy; she had heard that his father had fallen in the fight, and how nobly he too had distinguished himself. Supper was ready, and Hermas was invited to share it. The mistress gave her daughter a sign to make preparations for their guest, but Petrus detained Marthana, and said, "Hermas may fill Antonius' place; he has still something to do with some of the workmen. Where are Jethro and the house-slaves?"

"They have already eaten," said Dorothea.

The husband and wife looked at each other, and Petrus said with a melancholy smile, "I believe they are up on the mountain."

Dorothea wiped a tear from her eye as she replied, "They will meet Antonius there. If only they could find Polykarp! And yet I honestly say--not merely to comfort you--it is most probable that he has not met with any accident in the mountain gorges, but has gone to Alexandria to escape the memories that follow him here at every step--Was not that the gate?"

She rose quickly and looked into the court, while Petrus, who had followed her, did the same, saying with a deep sigh, as he turned to Marthana--who, while she offered meat and bread to Hermas was watching her parents--"It was only the slave Anubis."

For some time a painful silence reigned round the large table, to-day so sparely furnished with guests.

At last Petrus turned to his guest and said, "You were to tell me how the shepherdess Miriam lost her life in the struggle. She had run away from our house--"

"Up the mountain," added Hermas. "She supplied my poor father with water like a daughter."

"You see, mother," interrupted Marthana, "she was not bad-hearted--I always said so."

"This morning," continued Hermas, nodding in sad assent to the maiden, "she followed my father to the castle, and immediately after his fall, Paulus told me, she rushed away from it, but only to seek me and to bring me the sad news. We had known each other a long time, for years she had watered her goats at our well, and while I was still quite a boy and she a little girl, she would listen for hours when I played on my willow pipe the songs which Paulus had taught me. As long as I played she was perfectly quiet, and when I ceased she wanted to hear more and still more, until I had too much of it and went away. Then she would grow angry, and if I would not do her will she would scold me with bad words. But she always came again, and as I had no other companion and she was the only creature who cared to listen to me, I was very well-content that she should prefer our well to all the others. Then we grew order and I began to be afraid of her, for she would talk in such a godless way--and she even died a heathen. Paulus, who once overheard us, warned me against her, and as I had long thrown away the pipe and hunted beasts with my bow and arrow whenever my father would let me, I was with her for shorter intervals when I went to the well to draw water, and we became more and more strangers; indeed, I could be quite hard to her. Only once after I came back from the capital something happened--but that I need not tell you. The poor child was so unhappy at being a slave and no doubt had first seen the light in a free-house.

"She was fond of me, more than a sister is of a brother--and when my father was dead she felt that I ought not to learn the news from any one but herself. She had seen which way I had gone with the Pharanites and followed me up, and she soon found me, for she had the eyes of a gazelle and the ears of a startled bird. It was not this time difficult to find me, for when she sought me we were fighting with the Blemmyes in the green hollow that leads from the mountain to the sea. They roared with fury like wild beasts, for before we could get to the sea the fishermen in the little town below had discovered their boats, which they had hidden under sand and stones, and had carried them off to their harbor. The boy from Raithu who accompanied me, had by my orders kept them in sight, and had led the fishermen to the hiding-place. The watchmen whom they had left with the boats had fled, and had reached their companions who were fighting round the castle; and at least two hundred of them had been sent back to the shore to recover possession of the boats and to punish the fishermen. This troop met us in the green valley, and there we fell to fighting.

"The Blemmyes outnumbered us; they soon surrounded us before and behind, on the right side and on the left, for they jumped and climbed from rock to rock like mountain goats and then shot down their reed-arrows from above. Three or four touched me, and one pierced my hair and remained hanging in it with the feather at the end of the shaft.

"How the battle went elsewhere I cannot tell you, for the blood mounted to my head, and I was only conscious that I myself snorted and shouted like a madman and wrestled with the heathen now here and now there, and more than once lifted my axe to cleave a skull. At the same time I saw a part of our men turn to fly, and I called them back with furious words; then they turned round and followed me again.

"Once, in the midst of the struggle, I saw Miriam too, clinging pale and trembling to a rock and looking on at the fight. I shouted to her to leave the spot, and go back to my father, but she stood still and shook her head with a gesture--a gesture so full of pity and anguish--I shall never forget it. With hands and eyes she signed to me that my father was dead, and I understood; at least I understood that some dreadful misfortune had happened. I had no time for reflection, for before I could gain any certain information by word of mouth, a captain of the heathen had seized me, and we came to a life and death struggle before Miriam's very eyes. My opponent was strong, but I showed the girl--who had often taunted me for being a weakling because I obeyed my father in everything--that I need yield to no one. I could not have borne to be vanquished before her and I flung the heathen to the ground and slew him with my axe. I was only vaguely conscious of her presence, for during my severe struggle I could see nothing but my adversary. But suddenly I heard a loud scream, and Miriam sank bleeding close before me. While I was kneeling over his comrade one of the Blemmyes had crept up to me, and had flung his lance at me from a few paces off. But Miriam--Miriam--"

"She saved you at the cost of her own life," said Petrus completing the lad's sentence, for at the recollection of the occurrence his voice had failed and his eyes overflowed with tears.

Hermas nodded assent, and then added softly: "She threw up her arms and called my name as the spear struck her. The eldest son of Obedianus punished the heathen that had done it, and I supported her as she fell dying and took her curly head on my knees and spoke her name; she opened her eyes once more, and spoke mine softly and with indescribable tenderness. I had never thought that wild Miriam could speak so sweetly, I was overcome with terrible grief, and kissed her eyes and her lips. She looked at me once more with a long, wide-open, blissful gaze, and then she was dead."

"She was a heathen," said Dorothea, drying her eyes, "but for such a death the Lord will forgive her much."

"I loved her dearly," said Marthana, "and will lay my sweetest flowers on her grave. May I cut some sprays from your blooming myrtle for a wreath?"

"To-morrow, to-morrow, my child," replied Dorothea. "Now go to rest; it is already very late."

"Only let me stay till Antonius and Jethro come back," begged the girl.

"I would willingly help you to find your son," said Hermas, "and if you wish I will go to Raithu and Klysma, and enquire among the fishermen. Had the centurion--" and as he spoke the young soldier looked down in some embarrassment, "had the centurion found his fugitive wife of whom he was in pursuit with Talib, the Amalekite, before he died?"

"Sirona has not yet reappeared," replied Petrus, and perhaps--but just now you mentioned the name of Paulus, who was so dear to you and your father. Do you know that it was he who so shamelessly ruined the domestic peace of the centurion?"

"Paulus!" cried Hermas. "How can you believe it?"

"Phoebicius found his sheepskin in his wife's room," replied Petrus gravely. "And the impudent Alexandrian recognized it as his own before us all and allowed the Gaul to punish him. He committed the disgraceful deed the very evening that you were sent off to gain intelligence."

"And Phoebicius flogged him?" cried Hermas beside himself. "And the poor fellow bore this disgrace and your blame, and all--all for my sake. Now I understand what he meant! I met him after the battle and he told me that my father was dead. When he parted from me, he said he was of all sinners the greatest, and that I should hear it said down in the oasis. But I know better; he is great-hearted and good, and I will not bear that he should be disgraced and slandered for my sake." Hermas had sprung up with these words, and as he met the astonished gaze of his hosts, he tried to collect himself, and said:

"Paulus never even saw Sirona, and I repeat it, if there is a man who may boast of being good and pure and quite without sin, it is he. For me, and to save me from punishment and my father from sorrow, he owned a sin that he never committed. Such a deed is just like him--the brave--faithful friend! But such shameful suspicion and disgrace shall not weigh upon him a moment longer!"

"You are speaking to an older man," said Petrus angrily interrupting the youth's vehement speech. "Your friend acknowledged with his own lips--"

"Then he told a lie out of pure goodness," Hermas insisted. "The sheepskin that the Gaul found was mine. I had gone to Sirona, while her husband was sacrificing to Mithras, to fetch some wine for my father, and she allowed me to try on the centurion's armor; when he unexpectedly returned I leaped out into the street and forgot that luckless sheepskin. Paulus met me as I fled, and said he would set it all right, and sent me away--to take my place and save my father a great trouble. Look at me as severely as you will, Dorothea, but it was only in thoughtless folly that I slipped into the Gaul's house that evening, and by the memory of my father--of whom heaven has this day bereft me--I swear that Sirona only amused herself with me as with a boy, a child, and even refused to let me kiss her beautiful golden hair. As surely as I hope to become a warrior, and as surely as my father's spirit hears what I say, the guilt that Paulus took upon himself was never committed at all, and when you condemned Sirona you did an injustice, for she never broke her faith to her husband for me, nor still less for Paulus."

Petrus and Dorothea exchanged a meaning glance, and Dorothea said:

"Why have we to learn all this from the lips of a stranger? It sounds very extraordinary, and yet how simple! Aye, husband, it would have become us better to guess something of this than to doubt Sirona. From the first it certainly seemed to me impossible that that handsome woman, for whom quite different people had troubled themselves should err for this queer beggar--"

"What cruel injustice has fallen on the poor man!" cried Petrus. "If he had boasted of some noble deed, we should indeed have been less ready to give him credence."

"We are suffering heavy punishment," sighed Dorothea, "and my heart is bleeding. Why did you not come to us, Hermas, if you wanted wine? How much suffering would have been spared if you had!"

The lad looked down, and was silent; but soon he recollected himself, and said eagerly:

"Let me go and seek the hapless Paulus; I return you thanks for your kindness but I cannot bear to stay here any longer. I must go back to the mountain."

The senator and his wife did not detain him, and when the court-yard gate had closed upon him a great stillness reigned in Petrus' sitting-room. Dorothea leaned far back in her seat and sat looking in her lap while the tears rolled over her cheeks; Marthana held her hand and stroked it, and the senator stepped to the window and sighed deeply as he looked down into the dark court. Sorrow lay on all their hearts like a heavy leaden burden. All was still in the spacious room, only now and then a loud, long-drawn cry of the wailing women rang through the quiet night and reached them through the open window; it was a heavy hour, rich in vain, but silent self-accusation, in anxiety, and short prayers; poor in hope or consolation.

Presently Petrus heaved a deep sigh, and Dorothea rose to go up to him and to say to him some sincere word of affection; but just then the dogs in the yard barked, and the agonized father said softly--in deep dejection, and prepared for the worst:

"Most likely it is they."

The deaconess pressed his hand in hers, but drew back when a light tap was heard at the court-yard gate. "It is not Jethro and Antonius." said Petrus, "they have a key."

Marthana had gone up to him, and she clung to him as he leaned far out of the window and called to whoever it was that had tapped:

"Who is that knocking?"

The dogs barked so loud that neither the senator nor the women were able to hear the answer which seemed to be returned.

"Listen to Argus," said Dorothea, "he never howls like that, but when you come home or one of us, or when he is pleased."

Petrus laid his finger on his lips and sounded a clear, shrill whistle, and as the dogs, obedient to this signal, were silent, he once more called out, "Whoever you may be, say plainly who you are, that I may open the gate."

They were kept waiting some few minutes for the answer, and the senator was on the point of repeating his enquiry, when a gentle voice timidly came from the gate to the window, saying, "It is I, Petrus, the fugitive Sirona." Hardly had the words tremulously pierced the silence, when Marthana broke from her father, whose hand was resting on her shoulder, and flew out of the door, down the steps and out to the gate.

"Sirona; poor, dear Sirona," cried the girl as she pushed back the bolt; as soon as she had opened the door and Sirona had entered the court, she threw herself on her neck, and kissed and stroked her as if she were her long lost sister found again; then, without allowing her to speak, she seized her hand and drew her--in spite of the slight resistance she offered--with many affectionate exclamations up the steps and into the sitting-room. Petrus and Dorothea met her on the threshold, and the latter pressed her to her heart, kissed her forehead and said, "Poor woman; we know now that we have done you an injustice, and will try to make it good." The senator too went up to her, took her hand and added his greetings to those of his wife, for he knew not whether she had as yet heard of her husband's end.

Sirona could not find a word in reply. She had expected to be expelled as a castaway when she came down the mountain, losing her way in the darkness. Her sandals were cut by the sharp rocks, and hung in strips to her bleeding feet, her beautiful hair was tumbled by the night-wind, and her white robe looked like a ragged beggar's garment, for she had torn it to make bandages for Polykarp's wound.

Some hours had already passed since she had left her patient--her heart full of dread for him and of anxiety as to the hard reception she might meet with from his parents.

How her hand shook with fear of Petrus and Dorothea as she raised the brazen knocker of the senator's door, and now--a father, a mother, a sister opened their arms to her, and an affectionate home smiled upon her. Her heart and soul overflowed with boundless emotion and unlimited thankfulness, and weeping loudly, she pressed her clasped hands to her breast.

But she spared only a few moments for the enjoyment of these feelings of delight, for there was no happiness for her without Polykarp, and it was for his sake that she had undertaken this perilous night-journey. Marthana had tenderly approached her, but she gently put her aside, saying, "Not just now, dear girl. I have already wasted an hour, for I lost my way in the ravines. Get ready Petrus to come back to the mountain with me at once, for--but do not be startled Dorothea, Paulus says that the worst danger is over, and if Polykarp--"

"For God's sake, do you know where he is?" cried Dorothea, and her cheeks crimsoned while Petrus turned pale, and, interrupting her, asked in breathless anxiety, "Where is Polykarp, and what has happened to him?"

"Prepare yourself to hear bad news," said Sirona, looking at the pair with mournful anxiety as if to crave their pardon for the evil tidings she was obliged to bring. "Polykarp had a fall on a sharp stone and so wounded his head. Paulus brought him to me this morning before he set out against the Blemmyes, that I might nurse him. I have incessantly cooled his wound, and towards mid-day he opened his eyes and knew me again, and said you would be anxious about him. After sundown he went to sleep, but he is not wholly free from fever, and as soon as Paulus came in I set out to quiet your anxiety and to entreat you to give me a cooling potion, that I may return to him with it at once." The deepest sorrow sounded in Sirona's accents as she told her story, and tears had started to her eyes as she related to the parents what had befallen their son. Petrus and Dorothea listened as to a singer, who, dressed indeed in robes of mourning, nevertheless sings a lay of return and hope to a harp wreathed with flowers.

"Quick, quick, Marthana," cried Dorothea eagerly and with sparkling eyes, before Sirona had ended. "Quick, the basket with the bandages. I will mix the fever-draught myself." Petrus went up to the Gaulish woman.

"It is really no worse than you represent?" he asked in a low voice. "He is alive? and Paulus--"

"Paulus says," interrupted Sirona, "that with good nursing the sick man will be well in a few weeks."

"And you can lead me to him?"

"Oh, alas! alas!" Sirona cried, striking her hand against her forehead. "I shall never succeed in finding my way back, for I noticed no way-marks! But stay--Before us a penitent from Memphis, who has been dead a few weeks--"

"Old Serapion?" asked Petrus.

"That was his name," exclaimed Sirona. "Do you know his cave?"

"How should I?" replied Petrus. "But perhaps Agapitus--"

"The spring where I got the water to cool Polykarp's wound, Paulus calls the partridge's-spring."

"The partridge's-spring," repeated the senator, "I know that." With a deep sigh he took his staff, and called to Dorothea, "Do you prepare the draught, the bandages, torches, and your good litter, while I knock at our neighbor Magadon's door, and ask him to lend us slaves."

"Let me go with you," said Marthana. "No, no; you stay here with your mother."

"And do you think that I can wait here?" asked Dorothea. "I am going with you."

"There is much here for you to do," replied Petrus evasively, "and we must climb the hill quickly."

"I should certainly delay you," sighed the mother, "but take the girl with you; she has a light and lucky hand."

"If you think it best," said the senator, and he left the room.

While the mother and daughter prepared everything for the night-expedition, and came and went, they found time to put many questions and say many affectionate words to Sirona. Marthana, even without interrupting her work, set food and drink for the weary woman on the table by which she had sunk on a seat; but she hardly moistened her lips.

When the young girl showed her the basket that she had filled with medicine and linen bandages, with wine and pure water, Sirona said, "Now lend me a pair of your strongest sandals, for mine are all torn, and I cannot follow the men without shoes, for the stones are sharp, and cut into the flesh."

Marthana now perceived for the first time the blood on her friend's feet, she quickly took the lamp from the table and placed it on the pavement, exclaiming, as she knelt down in front of Sirona and took her slender white feet in her hand to look at the wounds on the soles, "Good heavens! here are three deep cuts!"

In a moment she had a basin at hand, and was carefully bathing the wounds in Sirona's feet; while she was wrapping the injured foot in strips of linen Dorothea came up to them.

"I would," she said, "that Polykarp were only here now, this roll would suffice to bind you both." A faint flush overspread Sirona's cheeks, but Dorothea was suddenly conscious of what she had said, and Marthana gently pressed her friend's hand.

When the bandage was securely fixed, Sirona attempted to walk, but she succeeded so badly that Petrus, who now came back with his friend Magadon and his sons, and several slaves, found it necessary to strictly forbid her to accompany them. He felt sure of finding his son without her, for one of Magadon's people had often carried bread and oil to old Serapion and knew his cave.

Before the senator and his daughter left the room he whispered a few words to his wife, and together they went up to Sirona.

"Do you know," he asked, "what has happened to your husband?"

Sirona nodded. "I heard it from Paulus," she answered. "Now I am quite alone in the world."

"Not so," replied Petrus. "You will find shelter and love under our roof as if it were your father's, so long as it suits you to stay with us. You need not thank us--we are deeply in your debt. Farewell till we meet again wife. I would Polykarp were safe here, and that you had seen his wound. Come, Marthana, the minutes are precious."

When Dorothea and Sirona were alone, the deaconess said, "Now I will go and make up a bed for you, for you must be very tired."

"No, no!" begged Sirona. "I will wait and watch with you, for I certainly could not sleep till I know how it is with him." She spoke so warmly and eagerly that the deaconess gratefully offered her hand to her young friend. Then she said, "I will leave you alone for a few minutes, for my heart is so full of anxiety that I must needs go and pray for help for him, and for courage and strength for myself."

"Take me with you," entreated Sirona in a low tone. "In my need I opened my heart to your good and loving God, and I will never more pray to any other. The mere thought of Him strengthened and comforted me, and now, if ever, in this hour I need His merciful support."

"My child, my daughter!" cried the deaconess, deeply moved; she bent over Sirona, kissed her forehead and her lips, and led her by the hand into her quiet sleeping-room.

"This is the place where I most love to pray," she said, "although there is here no image and no altar. My God is everywhere present and in every place I can find Him."

The two women knelt down side by side, and both besought the same God for the same mercies--not for themselves, but for another; and both in their sorrow could give thanks--Sirona, because in Dorothea she had found a mother, and Dorothea, because in Sirona she had found a dear and loving daughter.