Homo Sum by Georg Ebers
High above the ravine where the spring was lay a level plateau of moderate extent, and behind it rose a fissured cliff of bare, red-brown porphyry. A vein of diorite of iron-hardness lay at its foot like a green ribbon, and below this there opened a small round cavern, hollowed and arched by the cunning hand of nature. In former times wild beasts, panthers or wolves, had made it their home; it now served as a dwelling for young Hermas and his father.
Many similar caves were to be found in the holy Fountain, and other anchorites had taken possession of the larger ones among them.
That of Stephanus was exceptionally high and deep, and yet the space was but small which divided the two beds of dried mountain herbs where, on one, slept the father, and on the other, the son.
It was long past midnight, but neither the younger nor the elder cave-dweller seemed to be sleeping. Hermas groaned aloud and threw himself vehemently from one side to the other without any consideration for the old man who, tormented with pain and weakness, sorely needed sleep. Stephanus meanwhile denied himself the relief of turning over or of sighing, when he thought he perceived that his more vigorous son had found rest.
"What could have robbed him of his rest, the boy who usually slept so soundly, and was so hard to waken?"
"Whence comes it," thought Stephanus, "that the young and strong sleep so soundly and so much, and the old, who need rest, and even the sick, sleep so lightly and so little. Is it that wakefulness may prolong the little term of life, of which they dread the end? How is it that man clings so fondly to this miserable existence, and would fain slink away, and hide himself when the angel calls and the golden gates open before him! We are like Saul, the Hebrew, who hid himself when they came to him with the crown! My wound burns painfully; if only I had a drink of water. If the poor child were not so sound asleep I might ask him for the jar."
Stephanus listened to his son and would not wake him, when he heard his heavy and regular breathing. He curled himself up shivering under the sheep-skin which covered only half his body, for the icy night wind now blew through the opening of the cave, which by day was as hot as an oven.
Some long minutes wore away; at last he thought he perceived that Hermas had raised himself. Yes, the sleeper must have wakened, for he began to speak, and to call on the name of God.
The old man turned to his son and began softly, "Do you hear me, my boy?"
"I cannot sleep," answered the youth.
"Then give me something to drink," asked Stephanus, "my wound burns intolerably."
Hermas rose at once, and reached the water-jar to the sufferer.
"Thanks, thanks, my child," said the old man, feeling for the neck of the jar. But he could not find it, and exclaimed with surprise: "How damp and cold it is--this is clay, and our jar was a gourd."
"I have broken it," interrupted Hermas, "and Paulus lent me his."
"Well, well," said Stephanus anxious for drink; he gave the jar back to his son, and waited till he had stretched himself again on his couch. Then he asked anxiously: "You were out a long time this evening, the gourd is broken, and you groaned in your sleep. Whom did you meet?"
"A demon of hell," answered Hermas. "And now the fiend pursues me into our cave, and torments me in a variety of shapes."
"Drive it out then and pray," said the old man gravely. "Unclean spirits flee at the name of God."
"I have called upon Him," sighed Hermas, "but in vain; I see women with ruddy lips and flowing Hair, and white marble figures with rounded limbs and flashing eyes beckon to me again and again."
"Then take the scourge," ordered the father, "and so win peace."
Hermas once more obediently rose, and went out into the air with the scourge; the narrow limits of the cave did not admit of his swinging it with all the strength of his arms.
Very soon Stephanus heard the whistle of the leathern thongs through the stillness of the night, their hard blows on the springy muscles of the man and his son's painful groaning.
At each blow the old man shrank as if it had fallen on himself. At last he cried as loud as he was able "Enough--that is enough."
Hermas came back into the cave, his father called him to his couch, and desired him to join with him in prayer.
After the 'Amen' he stroked the lad's abundant hair and said, "Since you went to Alexandria, you have been quite another being. I would I had withstood bishop Agapitus, and forbidden you the journey. Soon, I know, my Saviour will call me to himself, and no one will keep you here; then the tempter will come to you, and all the splendors of the great city, which after all only shine like rotten wood, like shining snakes and poisonous purple-berries--"
"I do not care for them," interrupted Hermas, "the noisy place bewildered and frightened me. Never, never will I tread the spot again."
"So you have always said," replied Stephanus, "and yet the journey quite altered you. How often before that I used to think when I heard you laugh that the sound must surely please our Father in Heaven. And now? You used to be like a singing bird, and now you go about silent, you look sour and morose, and evil thoughts trouble your sleep."
"That is my loss," answered Hermas. "Pray let go of my hand; the night will soon be past, and you have the whole live-long day to lecture me in." Stephanus sighed, and Hermas returned to his couch.
Sleep avoided them both, and each knew that the other was awake, and would willingly have spoken to him, but dissatisfaction and defiance closed the son's lips, and the father was silent because he could not find exactly the heart-searching words that he was seeking.
At last it was morning, a twilight glimmer struck through the opening of the cave, and it grew lighter and lighter in the gloomy vault; the boy awoke and rose yawning. When he saw his father lying with his eyes open, he asked indifferently, "Shall I stay here or go to morning worship?"
"Let us pray here together," begged the father. "Who knows how long it may yet be granted to us to do so? I am not far from the day that no evening ever closes. Kneel down here, and let me kiss the image of the Crucified."
Hermas did as his father desired him, and as they were ending their song of praise, a third voice joined in the 'Amen.'
"Paulus!" cried the old man. "The Lord be praised! pray look to my wound then. The arrow head seeks to work some way out, and it burns fearfully."
"The new comer, an anchorite, who for all clothing wore a shirt-shaped coat of brown undressed linen, and a sheep-skin, examined the wound carefully, and laid some herbs on it, murmuring meanwhile some pious texts.
"That is much easier," sighed the old man. "The Lord has mercy on me for your goodness' sake."
"My goodness? I am a vessel of wrath," replied Paulus, with a deep, rich; sonorous voice, and his peculiarly kind blue eyes were raised to heaven as if to attest how greatly men were deceived in him. Then he pushed the bushy grizzled hair, which hung in disorder over his neck and face, out of his eyes, and said cheerfully: "No man is more than man, and many men are less. In the ark there were many beasts, but only one Noah."
"You are the Noah of our little ark," replied Stephanus.
"Then this great lout here is the elephant," laughed Paulus.
"You are no smaller than he," replied Stephanus.
"It is a pity this stone roof is so low, else we might have measured ourselves," said Paulus. "Aye! if Hermas and I were as pious and pure as we are tall and strong, we should both have the key of paradise in our pockets. You were scourging yourself this night, boy; I heard the blows. It is well; if the sinful flesh revolts, thus we may subdue it."
"He groaned heavily and could not sleep," said Stephanus.
"Aye, did he indeed!" cried Paulus to the youth, and held his powerful arms out towards him with clenched fists; but the threatening voice was loud rather than terrible, and wild as the exceptionally big man looked in his sheepskin, there was such irresistible kindliness in his gaze and in his voice, that no one could have believed that his wrath was in earnest.
"Fiends of hell had met him," said Stephanus in excuse for his son, "and I should not have closed an eye even without his groaning; it is the fifth night."
"But in the sixth," said Paulus, "sleep is absolutely necessary. Put on your sheep-skin, Hermas; you must go down to the oasis to the Senator Petrus, and fetch a good sleeping-draught for our sick man from him or from Dame Dorothea, the deaconess. Just look! the youngster has really thought of his father's breakfast--one's own stomach is a good reminder. Only put the bread and the water down here by the couch; while you are gone I will fetch some fresh--now, come with me."
"Wait a minute, wait," cried Stephanus. "Bring a new jar with you from the town, my son. You lent us yours yesterday, Paulus, and I must--"
"I should soon have forgotten it," interrupted the other. "I have to thank the careless fellow, for I have now for the first time discovered the right way to drink, as long as one is well and able. I would not have the jar back for a measure of gold; water has no relish unless you drink it out of the hollow of your hand! The shard is yours. I should be warring against my own welfare, if I required it back. God be praised! the craftiest thief can now rob me of nothing save my sheepskin."
Stephanus would have thanked him, but he took Hermas by the hand, and led him out into the open air. For some time the two men walked in silence over the clefts and boulders up the mountain side. When they had reached a plateau, which lay on the road that led from the sea over the mountain into the oasis, he turned to the youth, and said:
"If we always considered all the results of our actions there would be no sins committed."
Hermas looked at him enquiringly, and Paulus went on, "If it had occurred to you to think how sorely your poor father needed sleep, you would have lain still this night."
"I could not," said the youth sullenly. "And you know very well that I scourged myself hard enough."
"That was quite right, for you deserved a flogging for a misconducted boy."
Hermas looked defiantly at his reproving friend, the flaming color mounted to his cheek: for he remembered the shepherdess's words that he might go and complain to his nurse, and he cried out angrily:
"I will not let any one speak to me so; I am no longer a child."
"Not even your father's?" asked Paulus, and he looked at the boy with such an astonished and enquiring air, that Hermas turned away his eyes in confusion.
"It is not right at any rate to trouble the last remnant of life of that very man who longs to live for your sake only."
"I should have been very willing to be still, for I love my father as well as any one else."
"You do not beat him," replied Paulus, "you carry him bread and water, and do not drink up the wine yourself, which the Bishop sends him home from the Lord's supper; that is something certainly, but not enough by a long way."
"I am no saint!"
"Nor I neither," exclaimed Paulus, "I am full of sin and weakness. But I know what the love is which was taught us by the Saviour, and that you too may know. He suffered on the cross for you, and for me, and for all the poor and vile. Love is at once the easiest and the most difficult of attainments. It requires sacrifice. And you? How long is it now since you last showed your father a cheerful countenance?"
"I cannot be a hypocrite."
"Nor need you, but you must love. Certainly it is not by what his hand does but by what his heart cheerfully offers, and by what he forces himself to give up that a man proves his love."
"And is it no sacrifice that I waste all my youth here?" asked the boy.
Paulus stepped back from him a little way, shook his matted head, and said, "Is that it? You are thinking of Alexandria! Ay! no doubt life runs away much quicker there than on our solitary mountain. You do not fancy the tawny shepherd girl, but perhaps some pretty pink and white Greek maiden down there has looked into your eyes?"
"Let me alone about the women," answered Hermas, with genuine annoyance. "There are other things to look at there."
The youth's eyes sparkled as he spoke, and Paulus asked, not without interest, "Indeed?"
"You know Alexandria better than I," answered Hermas evasively. "You were born there, and they say you had been a rich young man."
"Do they say so?" said Paulus. "Perhaps they are right; but you must know that I am glad that nothing any longer belongs to me of all the vanities that I possessed, and I thank my Saviour that I can now turn my back on the turmoil of men. What was it that seemed to you so particularly tempting in all that whirl?"
Hermas hesitated. He feared to speak, and yet something urged and drove him to say out all that was stirring his soul. If any one of all those grave men who despised the world and among whom he had grown up, could ever understand him, he knew well that it would be Paulus; Paulus whose rough beard he had pulled when he was little, on whose shoulders he had often sat, and who had proved to him a thousand times how truly he loved him. It is true the Alexandrian was the severest of them all, but he was harsh only to himself. Hermas must once for all unburden his heart, and with sudden decision he asked the anchorite:
"Did you often visit the baths?"
"Often? I only wonder that I did not melt away and fall to pieces in the warm water like a wheaten loaf."
"Why do you laugh at that which makes men beautiful?" cried Hermas hastily. "Why may Christians even visit the baths in Alexandria, while we up here, you and my father and all anchorites, only use water to quench our thirst? You compel me to live like one of you, and I do not like being a dirty beast."
"None can see us but the Most High," answered Paulus, "and for him we cleanse and beautify our souls."
"But the Lord gave us our body too," interrupted Hermas. "It is written that man is the image of God. And we! I appeared to myself as repulsive as a hideous ape when at the great baths by the Gate of the Sun I saw the youths and men with beautifully arranged and scented hair and smooth limbs that shone with cleanliness and purification. And as they went past, and I looked at my mangy sheepfell, and thought of my wild mane and my arms and feet, which are no worse formed or weaker than theirs were, I turned hot and cold, and I felt as if some bitter drink were choking me. I should have liked to howl out with shame and envy and vexation. I will not be like a monster!"
Hermas ground his teeth as he spoke the last words, and Paulus looked uneasily at him as he went on: "My body is God's as much as my soul is, and what is allowed to the Christians in the city--"
"That we nevertheless may not do," Paulus interrupted gravely. "He who has once devoted himself to Heaven must detach himself wholly from the charm of life, and break one tie after another that binds him to the dust. I too once upon a time have anointed this body, and smoothed this rough hair, and rejoiced sincerely over my mirror; but I say to you, Hermas--and, by my dear Saviour, I say it only because I feel it, deep in my heart I feel it--to pray is better than to bathe, and I, a poor wretch, have been favored with hours in which my spirit has struggled free, and has been permitted to share as an honored guest in the festal joys of Heaven!"
While he spoke, his wide open eyes had turned towards Heaven and had acquired a wondrous brightness. For a short time the two stood opposite each other silent and motionless; at last the anchorite pushed the hair from off his brow, which was now for the first time visible. It was well-formed, though somewhat narrow, and its clear fairness formed a sharp contrast to his sunburnt face.
"Boy," he said with a deep breath, "you know not what joys you would sacrifice for the sake of worthless things. Long ere the Lord, calls the pious man to Heaven, the pious has brought Heaven down to earth in himself."
Hermas well understood what the anchorite meant, for his father often for hours at a time gazed up into Heaven in prayer, neither seeing nor hearing what was going on around him, and was wont to relate to his son, when he awoke from his ecstatic vision, that he had seen the Lord or heard the angel-choir.
He himself had never succeeded in bringing himself into such a state, although Stephanus had often compelled him to remain on his knees praying with him for many interminable hours. It often happened that the old man's feeble flame of life had threatened to become altogether extinct after these deeply soul-stirring exercises, and Hermas would gladly have forbidden him giving himself up to such hurtful emotions, for he loved his father; but they were looked upon as special manifestations of grace, and how should a son dare to express his aversion to such peculiarly sacred acts? But to Paulus and in his present mood he found courage to speak out.
"I have sure hope of Paradise," he said, "but it will be first opened to us after death. The Christian should be patient; why can you not wait for Heaven till the Saviour calls you, instead of desiring to enjoy its pleasures here on earth? This first and that after! Why Should God have bestowed on us the gifts of the flesh if not that we may use them? Beauty and strength are not empty trifles, and none but a fool gives noble gifts to another, only in order to throw them away."
Paulus gazed in astonishment at the youth, who up to this moment had always unresistingly obeyed his father and him, and he shook his head as he answered,
"So think the children of this world who stand far from the Most High. In the image of God are we made no doubt, but what child would kiss the image of his father, when the father offers him his own living lips?"
Paulus had meant to say 'mother' instead of 'father,' but he remembered in time that Hermas had early lost the happiness of caressing a mother, and he had hastily amended the phrase. He was one of those to whom it is so painful to hurt another, that they never touch a wounded soul unless to heal it, divining the seat of even the most hidden pain.
He was accustomed to speak but little, but now he went on eagerly:
"By so much as God is far above our miserable selves, by so much is the contemplation of Him worthier of the Christian than that of his own person. Oh! who is indeed so happy as to have wholly lost that self and to be perfectly absorbed in God! But it pursues us, and when the soul fondly thinks itself already blended in union with the Most High it cries out 'Here am I!' and drags our nobler part down again into the dust. It is bad enough that we must hinder the flight of the soul, and are forced to nourish and strengthen the perishable part of our being with bread and water and slothful sleep to the injury of the immortal part, however much we may fast and watch. And shall we indulge the flesh, to the detriment of the spirit, by granting it any of its demands that can easily be denied? Only he who despises and sacrifices his wretched self can, when he has lost his baser self by the Redeemer's grace, find himself again in God."
Hermas had listened patiently to the anchorite, but he now shook his head, and said: "I cannot under stand either you or my father. So long as I walk on this earth, I am I and no other. After death, no doubt, but not till then, will a new and eternal life begin"
"Not so," cried Paulus hastily, interrupting him. "That other and higher life of which you speak, does not begin only after death for him who while still living does not cease from dying, from mortifying the flesh, and from subduing its lusts, from casting from him the world and his baser self, and from seeking the Lord. It has been vouchsafed to many even in the midst of life to be born again to a higher existence. Look at me, the basest of the base. I am not two but one, and yet am I in the sight of the Lord as certainly another man than I was before grace found me, as this young shoot, which has grown from the roots of an overthrown palmtree is another tree than the rotten trunk. I was a heathen and enjoyed every pleasure of the earth to the utmost; then I became a Christian; the grace of the Lord fell upon me, and I was born again, and became a child again; but this time--the Redeemer be praised!--the child of the Lord. In the midst of life I died, I rose again, I found the joys of Heaven. I had been Menander, and like unto Saul, I became Paulus. All that Menander loved--baths, feasts, theatres, horses and chariots, games in the arena, anointed limbs, roses and garlands, purple-garments, wine and the love of women--lie behind me like some foul bog out of which a traveller has struggled with difficulty. Not a vein of the old man survives in the new, and a new life has begun for me, mid-way to the grave; nor for me only, but for all pious men. For you too the hour will sound, in which you will die to--"
"If only I, like you, had been a Menander," cried Hermas, sharply interrupting the speaker: "How is it possible to cast away that which I never possessed? In order to die one first must live. This wretched life seems to me contemptible, and I am weary of running after you like a calf after a cow. I am free-born, and of noble race, my father himself has told me so, and I am certainly no feebler in body than the citizens' sons in the town with whom I went from the baths to the wrestling-school."
"Did you go to the Palaestra?" asked Paulus in surprise.
"To the wrestling-school of Timagetus," cried Hermas, coloring. "From outside the gate I watched the games of the youths as they wrestled, and threw heavy disks at a mark. My eyes almost sprang out of my head at the sight, and I could have cried out aloud with envy and vexation, at having to stand there in my ragged sheep-skin excluded from all competition. If Pachomius had not just then come up, by the Lord I must have sprung into the arena, and have challenged the strongest of them all to wrestle with me, and I could have thrown the disk much farther than the scented puppy who won the victory and was crowned."
"You may thank, Pachomius," said Paulus laughing, "for having hindered you, for you would have earned nothing in the arena but mockery and disgrace. You are strong enough, certainly, but the art of the discobolus must be learned like any other. Hercules himself would be beaten at that game without practice, and if he did not know the right way to handle the disk."
"It would not have been the first time I had thrown one," cried the boy. "See, what I can do!" With these words he stooped and raised one of the flat stones, which lay piled up to secure the pathway; extending his arm with all his strength, he flung the granite disk over the precipice away into the abyss.
"There, you see," cried Paulus, who had watched the throw carefully and not without some anxious excitement. "However strong your arm may be, any novice could throw farther than you if only he knew the art of holding the discus. It is not so--not so; it must cut through the air like a knife with its sharp edge. Look how you hold your hand, you throw like a woman! The wrist straight, and now your left foot behind, and your knee bent! see, how clumsy you are! Here, give me the stone. You take the discus so, then you bend your body, and press down your knees like the arc of a bow, so that every sinew in your body helps to speed the shot when you let go. Aye--that is better, but it is not quite right yet. First heave the discus with your arm stretched out, then fix your eye on the mark; now swing it out high behind you--stop! once more! your arm must be more strongly strained before you throw. That might pass, but you ought to be able to hit the palm-tree yonder. Give me your discus, and that stone. There; the unequal corners hinder its flight--now pay attention!" Paulus spoke with growing eagerness, and now he grasped the flat stone, as he might have done many years since when no youth in Alexandria had been his match in throwing the discus.
He bent his knees, stretched out his body, gave play to his wrist, extended his arm to the utmost and hurled the stone into space, while the clenched toes of his right foot deeply dinted the soil.
But it fell to the ground before reaching which Paulus had indicated as the mark.
"Wait!" cried Hermas. "Let me try now to hit the tree."
His stone whistled through the air, but it did not even reach the mound, into which the palm-tree had struck root.
Paulus shook his head disapprovingly, and in his, turn seized a flat stone; and now an eager contest began. At every throw Hermas' stone flew farther, for he copied his teacher's action and grasp with increasing skill, while the older man's arm began to tire. At last Hermas for the second time hit the palm-tree, while Paulus had failed to reach even the mound with his last fling.
The pleasure of the contest took stronger possession of the anchorite; he flung his raiment from him, and seizing another stone he cried out--as though he were standing once more in the wrestling school among his old companions; all shining with their anointment.
"By the silver-bowed Apollo, and the arrow-speeding Artemis, I will hit the palm-tree."
The missile sang through the air, his body sprang back, and he stretched out his left arm to save his tottering balance; there was a crash, the tree quivered under the blow, and Hermas shouted joyfully: "Wonderful! wonderful! that was indeed a throw. The old Menander is not dead! Farewell--to-morrow we will try again."
With these words Hermas quitted the anchorite, and hastened with wide leaps down the hill in the oasis. Paulus started at the words like a sleep-walker who is suddenly wakened by hearing his name called. He looked about him in bewilderment, as if he had to find his way in some strange world. Drops of sweat stood on his brow, and with sudden shame he snatched up his garments that were lying on the ground, and covered his naked limbs.
For some time he stood gazing after Hermas, then he clasped his brow in deep anguish and large tears ran down upon his beard.
"What have I said?" he muttered to himself; "That every vein of the old man in me was extirpated? Fool! vain madman that I am. They named me Paulus, and I am in truth Saul, aye, and worse than Saul!"
With these words he threw himself on his knees, pressing his forehead against the hard rock, and began to pray. He felt as if he had been flung from a height on to spears and lances, as if his heart and soul were bleeding, and while he remained there, dissolved in grief and prayer, accusing and condemning himself, he felt not the burning of the sun as it mounted in the sky, heeded not the flight of time, nor heard the approach of a party of pilgrims, who, under the guidance of bishop Agapitus, were visiting the Holy Places. The palmers saw him at prayer, heard his sobs, and, marvelling at his piety, at a sign from their pastor they knelt down behind him.
When Paulus at last arose, he perceived with surprise and alarm the witnesses of his devotions, and approached Agapitus to kiss his robe. But the bishop said: "Not so; he that is most pious is the greatest among us. My friends, let us bow down before this saintly man!"
The pilgrims obeyed his command. Paulus hid his face in his hands and sobbed out: "Wretch, wretch that I am!"
And the pilgrims lauded his humility, and followed their leader who left the spot.