Homo Sum by Georg Ebers
Paulus was sitting in front of the cave that had sheltered Polykarp and Sirona, and he watched the torches whose light lessened as the bearers went farther and farther towards the valley. They lighted the way for the wounded sculptor, who was being borne home to the oasis, lying in his mother's easy litter, and accompanied by his father and his sister.
"Yet an hour," thought the anchorite, "and the mother will have her son again, yet a week and Polykarp will rise from his bed, yet a year and he will remember nothing of yesterday but a scar--and perhaps a kiss that he pressed on the Gaulish woman's rosy lips. I shall find it harder to forget. The ladder which for so many years I had labored to construct, on which I thought to scale heaven, and which looked to me so lofty and so safe, there it lies broken to pieces, and the hand that struck it down was my own weakness. It would almost seem as if this weakness of mine had more power than what we call moral strength for that which it took the one years to build up, was wrecked by the other in a' moment. In weakness only am I a giant."
Paulus shivered at these words, for he was cold. Early in that morning when he had taken upon himself Hermas' guilt he had abjured wearing his sheepskin; now his body, accustomed to the warm wrap, suffered severely, and his blood coursed with fevered haste through his veins since the efforts, night-watches, and excitement of the last few days. He drew his little coat close around him with a shiver and muttered, "I feel like a sheep that has been shorn in midwinter, and my head burns as if I were a baker and had to draw the bread out of the oven; a child might knock me down, and my eyes are heavy. I have not even the energy to collect my thoughts for a prayer, of which I am in such sore need. My goal is undoubtedly the right one, but so soon as I seem to be nearing it, my weakness snatches it from me, as the wind swept back the fruit-laden boughs which Tantalus, parched with thirst, tried to grasp. I fled from the world to this mountain, and the world has pursued me and has flung its snares round my feet. I must seek a lonelier waste in which I may be alone--quite alone with my God and myself. There, perhaps I may find the way I seek, if indeed the fact that the creature that I call 'I,' in which the whole world with all its agitations in little finds room--and which will accompany me even there--does not once again frustrate all my labor. He who takes his Self with him into the desert, is not alone."
Paulus sighed deeply and then pursued his reflections: "How puffed up with pride I was after I had tasted the Gaul's rods in place of Hermas, and then I was like a drunken man who falls down stairs step by step. And poor Stephanus too had a fall when he was so near the goal! He failed in strength to forgive, and the senator who has just now left me, and whose innocent son I had so badly hurt, when we parted forgivingly gave me his hand. I could see that he did forgive me with all his heart, and this Petrus stands in the midst of life, and is busy early and late with mere worldly affairs."
For a time he looked thoughtfully before him, and then he went on in his soliloquy, "What was the story that old Serapion used to tell? In the Thebaid there dwelt a penitent who thought he led a perfectly saintly life and far transcended all his companions in stern virtue. Once he dreamed that there was in Alexandria a man even more perfect than himself; Phabis was his name, and he was a shoemaker, dwelling in the White road near the harbor of Kibotos. The anchorite at once went to the capital and found the shoemaker, and when he asked him, 'How do you serve the Lord? How do you conduct your life?' Phabis looked at him in astonishment. 'I? well, my Saviour! I work early and late, and provide for my family, and pray morning and evening in few words for the whole city.' Petrus, it seems to me, is such an one as Phabis; but many roads lead to God, and we--and I--"
Again a cold shiver interrupted his meditation, and as morning approached the cold was so keen that he endeavored to light a fire. While he was painfully blowing the charcoal Hermas came up to him.
He had learned from Polykarp's escort where Paulus was to be found, and as he stood opposite his friend he grasped his hand, stroked his rough hair and thanked him with deep and tender emotion for the great sacrifice he had made for him when he had taken upon himself the dishonoring punishment of his fault.
Paulus declined all pity or thanks, and spoke to Hermas of his father and of his future, until it was light, and the young man prepared to go down to the oasis to pay the last honors to the dead. To his entreaty that he would accompany him, Paulus only answered:
"No--no; not now, not now; for if I were to mix with men now I should fly asunder like a rotten wineskin full of fermenting wine; a swarm of bees is buzzing in my head, and an ant-hill is growing in my bosom. Go now and leave me alone."
After the funeral ceremony Hermas took an affectionate leave of Agapitus, Petrus, and Dorothea, and then returned to the Alexandrian, with whom he went to the cave where he had so long lived with his dead father.
There Paulus delivered to him his father's letter to his uncle, and spoke to him more lovingly than he had ever done before. At night they both lay down on their beds, but neither of them found rest or sleep.
From time to time Paulus murmured in a low voice, but in tones of keen anguish, "In vain--all in vain--" and again, "I seek, I seek--but who can show me the way?"
They both rose before daybreak; Hermas went once more down to the well, knelt down near it, and felt as though he were bidding farewell to his father and Miriam.
Memories of every kind rose up in his soul, and so mighty is the glorifying power of love that the miserable, brown-skinned shepherdess Miriam seemed to him a thousand-fold more beautiful than that splendid woman who filled the soul of a great artist with delight.
Shortly after sunrise Paulus conducted him to the fishing-port, and to the Israelite friend who managed the business of his father's house; he caused him to be bountifully supplied with gold and accompanied him to the ship laden with charcoal, that was to convey hire to Klysma.
The parting was very painful to him, and when Hermas saw his eyes full of tears and felt his hands tremble, he said, "Do not be troubled about me, Paulus; we shall meet again, and I will never forget you and my father."
"And your mother," added the anchorite. "I shall miss you sorely, but trouble is the very thing I look for. He who succeeds in making the sorrows of the whole world his own--he whose soul is touched by a sorrow at every breath he draws--he indeed must long for the call of the Redeemer."
Hermas fell weeping on his neck and started to feel how burning the anchorite's lips were as he pressed them to his forehead.
At last the sailors drew in the ropes; Paulus turned once more to the youth. "You are going your own way now," he said. "Do not forget the Holy Mountain, and hear this: Of all sins three are most deadly: To serve false gods, to covet your neighbor's wife, and to raise your hands to kill; keep yourself from them. And of all virtues two are the least conspicuous, and at the same time the greatest: Truthfulness and humility; practise these. Of all consolations these two are the best: The consciousness of wishing the right however much we may err and stumble through human weakness, and prayer."
Once more he embraced the departing youth, then he went across the sand of the shore back to the mountain without looking round.
Hermas looked after him for a long time greatly distressed, for his strong friend tottered like a drunken man, and often pressed his hand to his head which was no doubt as burning as his lips.
The young warrior never again saw the Holy Mountain or Paulus, but after he himself had won fame and distinction in the army he met again with Petrus' son, Polykarp, whom the emperor had sent for to Byzantium with great honor, and in whose house the Gaulish woman Sirona presided as a true and loving wife and mother.
After his parting from Hermas, Paulus disappeared. The other anchorites long sought him in vain, as well as bishop Agapitus, who had learned from Petrus that the Alexandrian had been punished and expelled in innocence, and who desired to offer him pardon and consolation in his own person. At last, ten days after, Orion the Saite found him in a remote cave. The angel of death had called him only a few hours before while in the act of prayer, for he was scarcely cold. He was kneeling with his forehead against the rocky wall and his emaciated hands were closely clasped over Magdalena's ring. When his companions had laid him on his bier his noble, gentle features wore a pure and transfiguring smile.
The news of his death flew with wonderful rapidity through the oasis and the fishing-town, and far and wide to the caves of the anchorites, and even to the huts of the Amalekite shepherds. The procession that followed him to his last resting-place stretched to an invisible distance; in front of all walked Agapitus with the elders and deacons, and behind them Petrus with his wife and family, to which Sirona now belonged. Polykarp, who was now recovering, laid a palm-branch in token of reconcilement on his grave, which was visited as a sacred spot by the many whose needs he had alleviated in secret, and before long by all the penitents from far and wide.
Petrus erected a monument over his grave, on which Polykarp incised the words which Paulus' trembling fingers had traced just before his death with a piece of charcoal on the wall of his cave:
"Pray for me, a miserable man--for I was a man."