Homo Sum by Georg Ebers
Petrus went up the mountain side with Hermas. The old man followed the youth, who showed him the way, and as he raised his eyes from time to time, he glanced with admiration at his guide's broad shoulders and elastic limbs. The road grew broader when it reached a little mountain plateau, and from thence the two men walked on side by side, but for some time without speaking till the senator asked: "How long now has your father lived up on the mountain?"
"Many years," answered Hermas. "But I do not know how many--and it is all one. No one enquires about time up here among us."
The senator stood still a moment and measured his companion with a glance.
"You have been with your father ever since he came?" he asked.
"He never lets me out of his sight;" replied Hermas. "I have been only twice into the oasis, even to go to the church."
"Then you have been to no school?"
"To what school should I go! My father has taught me to read the Gospels and I could write, but I have nearly forgotten how. Of what use would it be to me? We live like praying beasts."
Deep bitterness sounded in the last words, and Petrus could see into the troubled spirit of his companion, overflowing as it was with weary disgust, and he perceived how the active powers of youth revolted in aversion against the slothful waste of life, to which he was condemned. He was grieved for the boy, and he was not one of those who pass by those in peril without helping them. Then he thought of his own sons, who had grown up in the exercise and fulfilment of serious duties, and he owned to himself that the fine young fellow by his side was in no way their inferior, and needed nothing but to be guided aright. He thoughtfully looked first at the youth and then on the ground, and muttered unintelligible words into his grey beard as they walked on. Suddenly he drew himself up and nodded decisively; he would make an attempt to save Hermas, and faithful to his own nature, action trod on the heels of resolve. Where the little level ended the road divided, one path continued to lead upwards, the other deviated to the valley and ended at the quarries. Petrus was for taking the latter, but Hermas cried out, "That is not the way to our cave; you must follow me."
"Follow thou me!" replied the senator, and the words were spoken with a tone and expression, that left no doubt in the youth's mind as to their double meaning. "The day is yet before us, and we will see what my laborers are doing. Do you know the spot where they quarry the stone?"
"How should I not know it?" said Hermas, passing the senator to lead the way. "I know every path from our mountain to the oasis, and to the sea. A panther had its lair in the ravine behind your quarries."
"So we have learnt," said Petrus. "The thievish beasts have slaughtered two young camels, and the people can neither catch them in their toils nor run them down with dogs."
"They will leave you in peace now," said the boy laughing. "I brought down the male from the rock up there with an arrow, and I found the mother in a hollow with her young ones. I had a harder job with her; my knife is so bad, and the copper blade bent with the blow; I had to strangle the gaudy devil with my hands, and she tore my shoulder and bit my arm. Look! there are the scars. But thank God, my wounds heal quicker than my father's. Paulus says, I am like an, earth-worm; when it is cut in two the two halves say good-bye to each other, and crawl off sound and gay, one way, and the other another way. The young panthers were so funny and helpless, I would not kill them, but I did them up in my sheepskin, and brought them to my father. He laughed at the little beggars, and then a Nabataean took them to be sold at Clysma to a merchant from Rome. There and at Byzantium, there is a demand for all kinds of living beasts of prey. I got some money for them, and for the skins of the old ones, and kept it to pay for my journey, when I went with the others to Alexandria to ask the blessing of the new Patriarch."
"You went to the metropolis?" asked Petrus. "You saw the great structures, that secure the coast from the inroads of the sea, the tall Pharos with the far-shining fire, the strong bridges, the churches, the palaces and temples with their obelisks, pillars, and beautiful paved courts? Did it never enter your mind to think that it would be a proud thing to construct such buildings?"
Hermas shook his head. "Certainly I would rather live in an airy house with colonnades than in our dingy cavern, but building would never be in my way. What a long time it takes to put one stone on another! I am not patient, and when I leave my father I will do something that shall win me fame. But there are the quarries--" Petrus did not let his companion finish his sentence, but interrupted him with all the warmth of youth, exclaiming: "And do you mean to say that fame cannot be won by the arts of building? Look there at the blocks and flags, here at the pillars of hard stone. These are all to be sent to Aila, and there my son Antonius, the elder of the two that you saw just now, is going to build a House of God, with strong walls and pillars, much larger and handsomer than our church in the oasis, and that is his work too. He is not much older than you are, and already he is famous among the people far and wide. Out of those red blocks down there my younger son Polykarp will hew noble lions, which are destined to decorate the finest building in the capital itself. When you and I, and all that are now living, shall have been long since forgotten, still it will be said these are the work of the Master Polykarp, the son of Petrus, the Pharanite. What he can do is certainly a thing peculiar to himself, no one who is not one of the chosen and gifted ones can say, 'I will learn to do that.' But you have a sound understanding, strong hands and open eyes, and who can tell what else there is hidden in you. If you could begin to learn soon, it would not yet be too late to make a worthy master of you, but of course he who would rise so high must not be afraid of work. Is your mind set upon fame? That is quite right, and I am very glad of it; but you must know that he who would gather that rare fruit must water it, as a noble heathen once said, with the sweat of his brow. Without trouble and labor and struggles there can be no victory, and men rarely earn fame without fighting for victory."
The old man's vehemence was contagious; the lad's spirit was roused, and he exclaimed warmly: "What do you say? that I am afraid of struggles and trouble? I am ready to stake everything, even my life, only to win fame. But to measure stone, to batter defenceless blocks with a mallet and chisel, or to join the squares with accurate pains--that does not tempt me. I should like to win the wreath in the Palaestra by flinging the strongest to the ground, or surpass all others as a warrior in battle; my father was a soldier too, and he may talk as much as he will of 'peace,' and nothing but 'peace,' all the same in his dreams he speaks of bloody strife and burning wounds. If you only cure him I will stay no longer on this lonely mountain, even if I must steal away in secret. For what did God give me these arms, if not to use them?"
Petrus made no answer to these words, which came is a stormy flood from Hermas' lips, but he stroked his grey beard, and thought to himself, "The young of the eagle does not catch flies. I shall never win over this soldier's son to our peaceful handicraft, but he shall not remain on the mountain among these queer sluggards, for there he is being ruined, and yet he is not of a common sort."
When he had given a few orders to the overseer of his workmen, he followed the young man to see his suffering father.
It was now some hours since Hermas and Paulus had left the wounded anchorite, and he still lay alone in his cave. The sun, as it rose higher and higher, blazed down upon the rocks, which began to radiate their heat, and the hermit's dwelling was suffocatingly hot. The pain of the poor man's wound increased, his fever was greater, and he was very thirsty. There stood the jug, which Paulus had given him, but it was long since empty, and neither Paulus nor Hermas had come back. He listened anxiously to the sounds in the distance, and fancied at first that he heard the Alexandrian's footstep, and then that he heard loud words and suppressed groans coming from his cave. Stephanus tried to call out, but he himself could hardly hear the feeble sound, which, with his wounded breast and parched mouth, he succeeded in uttering. Then he fain would have prayed, but fearful mental anguish disturbed his devotion. All the horrors of desertion came upon him, and he who had lived a life overflowing with action and enjoyment, with disenchantment and satiety, who now in solitude carried on an incessant spiritual struggle for the highest goal--this man felt himself as disconsolate and lonely as a bewildered child that has lost its mother.
He lay on his bed of pain softly crying, and when he observed by the shadow of the rock that the sun had passed its noonday height, indignation and bitter feeling were added to pain, thirst and weariness. He doubled his fists and muttered words which sounded like soldier's oaths, and with them the name now of Paulus, now of his son. At last anguish gained the upperhand of his anger, and it seemed to him, as though he were living over again the most miserable hour of his life, an hour now long since past and gone.
He thought he was returning from a noisy banquet in the palace of the Caesars. His slaves had taken the garlands of roses and poplar leaves from his brow and breast, and robed him in his night-dress; now, with a silver lamp in his hand, he was approaching his bedroom, and he smiled, for his young wife was awaiting him, the mother of his Hermas. She was fair and he loved her well, and he had brought home witty sayings to repeat to her from the table of the emperor. He, if any one, had a right to smile. Now he was in the ante-room, in which two slave-women were accustomed to keep watch; he found only one, and she was sleeping and breathing deeply; he still smiled as he threw the light upon her face--how stupid she looked with her mouth open! An alabaster lamp shed a dim light in the bed-room, softly and still smiling he went up to Glycera's ivory couch, and held up his lamp, and stared at the empty and undisturbed bed--and the smile faded from his lips. The smile of that evening came back to him no more through all the long years, for Glycera had betrayed him, and left him--him and her child. All this had happened twenty years since, and to-day all that he had then felt had returned to him, and he saw his wife's empty couch with his "mind's eye," as plainly as he had then seen it, and he felt as lonely and as miserable as in that night. But now a shadow appeared before the opening of the cave, and he breathed a deep sigh as he felt himself released from the hideous vision, for he had recognized Paulus, who came up and knelt down beside him.
"Water, water!" Stephanus implored in a low voice, and Paulus, who was cut to the heart by the moaning of the old man, which he had not heard till he entered the cave, seized the pitcher. He looked into it, and, finding it quite dry, he rushed down to the spring as if he were running for a wager, filled it to the brim and brought it to the lips of the sick man, who gulped the grateful drink down with deep draughts, and at last exclaimed with a sigh of relief; "That is better; why were you so long away? I was so thirsty!" Paulus who had fallen again on his knees by the old man, pressed his brow against the couch, and made no reply. Stephanus gazed in astonishment at his companion, but perceiving that he was weeping passionately he asked no further questions. Perfect stillness reigned in the cave for about an hour; at last Paulus raised his face, and said, "Forgive me Stephanus. I forgot your necessity in prayer and scourging, in order to recover the peace of mind I had trifled away--no heathen would have done such a thing!" The sick man stroked his friend's arm affectionately; but Paulus murmured, "Egoism, miserable egoism guides and governs us. Which of us ever thinks of the needs of others? And we--we who profess to walk in the way of the Lamb!"
He sighed deeply, and leaned his head on the sick man's breast, who lovingly stroked his rough hair, and it was thus that the senator found him, when he entered the cave with Hermas.
The idle way of life of the anchorites was wholly repulsive to his views of the task for men and for Christians, but he succored those whom he could, and made no enquiries about the condition of the sufferer. The pathetic union in which he found the two men touched his heart, and, turning to Paulus, he said kindly: "I can leave you in perfect comfort, for you seem to me to have a faithful nurse."
The Alexandrian reddened; he shook his head, and replied: "I? I thought of no one but myself, and left him to suffer and thirst in neglect, but now I will not quit him--no, indeed, I will not, and by God's help and yours, he shall recover."
Petrus gave him a friendly nod, for he did not believe in the anchorite's self-accusation, though he did in his good-will; and before he left the cave, he desired Hermas to come to him early on the following day to give him news of his father's state. He wished not only to cure Stephanus, but to continue his relations with the youth, who had excited his interest in the highest degree, and he had resolved to help him to escape from the inactive life which was weighing upon him.
Paulus declined to share the simple supper that the father and son were eating, but expressed his intention of remaining with the sick man. He desired Hermas to pass the night in his dwelling, as the scanty limits of the cave left but narrow room for the lad.
A new life had this day dawned upon the young man; all the grievances and desires which had filled his soul ever since his journey to Alexandria, crowding together in dull confusion, had taken form and color, and he knew now that he could not remain an anchorite, but must try his over abundant strength in real life.
"My father," thought he, "was a warrior, and lived in a palace, before he retired into our dingy cave; Paulus was Menander, and to this day has not forgotten how to throw the discus; I am young, strong, and free-born as they were, and Petrus says, I might have been a fine man. I will not hew and chisel stones like his sons, but Caesar needs soldiers, and among all the Amalekites, nay among the Romans in the oasis, I saw none with whom I might not match myself."
While thus he thought he stretched his limbs, and struck his hands on his broad breast, and when he was asleep, he dreamed of the wrestling school, and of a purple robe that Paulus held out to him, of a wreath of poplar leaves that rested on his scented curls, and of the beautiful woman who had met him on the stairs of the senator's house.