Homo Sum by Georg Ebers
Sirona was sitting at the open window of her bedroom, having her hair arranged by a black woman that her husband had bought in Rome. She sighed, while the slave lightly touched the shining tresses here and there with perfumed oil which she had poured into the palm of her hand; then she firmly grasped the long thick waving mass of golden hair and was parting it to make a plait, when Sirona stopped her, saying, "Give me the mirror."
For some minutes she looked with a melancholy gaze at the image in the polished metal, then she sighed again; she picked up the little greyhound that lay at her feet, and placing it in her lap, showed the animal its image in the mirror.
"There, poor Iambe," she said, "if we two, inside these four walls, want to see anything like a pleasing sight we must look at ourselves."
Then she went on, turning to the slave. "How the poor little beast trembles! I believe it longs to be back again at Arelas, and is afraid we shall linger too long under this burning sky. Give me my sandals."
The black woman reached her mistress two little slippers with gilt ornaments on the slight straps, but Sirona flung her hair off her face with the back of her hand, exclaiming, "The old ones, not these. Wooden shoes even would do here."
And with these words she pointed to the court-yard under the window, which was in fact as ill contrived, as though gilt sandals had never yet trodden it. It was surrounded by buildings; on one side was a wall with a gateway, and on the others buildings which formed a sharply bent horseshoe.
Opposite the wing in which Sirona and her husband had found a home stood the much higher house of Petrus, and both had attached to them, in the background of the court-yard, sheds constructed of rough reddish brown stones, and covered with a thatch of palm-branches; in these the agricultural implements were stored, and the senator's slaves lived. In front lay a heap of black charcoal, which was made on the spot by burning the wood of the thorny sajala species of acacia; and there too lay a goodly row of well smoothed mill-stones, which were shaped in the quarry, and exported to Egypt. At this early hour the whole unlovely domain lay in deep shadow, and was crowded with fowls and pigeons. Sirona's window alone was touched by the morning sun. If she could have known what a charm the golden light shed over her figure, on her rose and white face, and her shining hair, she would have welcomed the day-star, instead of complaining that it had too early waked her from sleep--her best comfort in her solitude.
Besides a few adjoining rooms she was mistress of a larger room, the dwelling room, which look out upon the street.
She shaded her eyes with her hand, exclaiming, "Oh! the wearisome sun. It looks at us the first thing in the morning through the window; as if the day were not long enough. The beds must be put in the front room; I insist upon it."
The slave shook her head, and stammered an answer, "Phoebicius will not have it so."
Sirona's eyes flashed angrily, and her voice, which was particularly sweet, trembled slightly as she asked, "What is wrong with him again?"
"He says," replied the slave, "that the senator's son, Polykarp, goes oftener past your window than altogether pleases him, and it seems to him, that you occupy yourself more than is necessary with his little brothers and sisters, and the other children up there."
"Is he still in there?" asked Sirona with glowing cheeks, and she pointed threateningly to the dwelling-room.
"The master is out," stuttered the old woman. "He went out before sunrise. You are not to wait for breakfast, he will not return till late."
The Gaulish lady made no answer, but her head fell, and the deepest melancholy overspread her features. The greyhound seemed to feel for the troubles of his mistress, for he fawned upon her, as if to kiss her. The solitary woman pressed the little creature, which had come with her from her home, closely to her bosom; for an unwonted sense of wretchedness weighed upon her heart, and she felt as lonely, friendless, and abandoned, as if she were driving alone--alone--over a wide and shoreless sea. She shuddered, as if she were cold--for she thought of her husband, the man who here in the desert should have been all in all to her, but whose presence filled her with aversion, whose indifference had ceased to wound her, and whose tenderness she feared far more than his wild irritability--she had never loved him.
She had grown up free from care among a number of brothers and sisters. Her father had been the chief accountant of the decurions' college in his native town, and he had lived opposite the circus, where, being of a stern temper, he had never permitted his daughters to look on at the games; but he could not prevent their seeing the crowd streaming into the amphitheatre, or hearing their shouts of delight, and their eager cries of approbation.
Sirona thus grew up in the presence of other people's pleasure, and in a constantly revived and never satisfied longing to share it; she had, indeed, no time for unnecessary occupations, for her mother died before she was fully grown up, and she was compelled to take charge of the eight younger children. This she did in all fidelity, but in her hours of leisure she loved to listen to the stories told her by the wives of officials, who had seen, and could praise, the splendors of Rome the golden.
She knew that she was fair, for she need only go outside the house to hear it said; but though she longed to see the capital, it was not for the sake of being admired, but because there was there so much that was splendid to see and to admire. So, when the Centurion Phoebicius, the commandant of the garrison of her native town, was transferred to Rome, and when he desired to take the seventeen-years-old girl with him to the imperial city, as his wife--she was more than forty years younger than he--she followed him full of hope and eager anticipation.
Not long after their marriage she started for Rome by sea from Massilia, accompanied by an old relative; and he went by land at the head of his cohorts.
She reached their destination long before her husband, and without waiting for him, but constantly in the society of her old duenna, she gave herself up with the freedom and eagerness of her fresh youth to the delights of seeing and admiring.
It did not escape her, while she did so, that she attracted all eyes wherever she went, and however much this flattered and pleased her at first, it spoilt many of her pleasures, when the Romans, young and old, began to follow and court her. At last Phoebicius arrived, and when he found his house crowded with his wife's admirers he behaved to Sirona as though she had long since betrayed his honor.
Nevertheless he dragged her from pleasure to pleasure, and from one spectacle to another, for it gratified him to show himself in public with his beautiful young wife. She certainly was not free from frivolity, but she had learnt early from her strict father, as being the guide of her younger sisters, to distinguish clearly right from wrong, and the pure from the unclean; and she soon discovered that the joys of the capital, which had seemed at first to be gay flowers with bright colors, and redolent with intoxicating perfume, bloomed on the surface of a foul bog.
She at first had contemplated all that was beautiful, pleasant, and characteristic with delight; but her husband took pleasure only in things which revolted her as being common and abominable. He watched her every glance, and yet he pointed nothing out to her, but what was hurtful to the feelings of a pure woman. Pleasure became her torment, for the sweetest wine is repulsive when it has been tasted by impure lips. After every feast and spectacle he loaded her with outrageous reproaches, and when at last, weary of such treatment, she refused to quit the house, he obliged her nevertheless to accompany him as often as the Legate Quintillus desired it. The legate was his superior-officer, and he sent her every day some present or flowers.
Up to this time she had borne with him, and had tried to excuse him, and to think herself answerable for much of what she endured. But at last--about ten months after her marriage--something occurred between her and Phoebicius--something which stood like a wall of brass between him and her; and as this something had led to his banishment to the remote oasis, and to his degradation to the rank of captain of a miserable maniple, instead of his obtaining his hoped for promotion, he began to torment her systematically while she tried to protect herself by icy coldness, so that at last it came to this, that the husband, for whom she felt nothing but contempt, had no more influence on her life, than some physical pain which a sick man is doomed to endure all through his existence.
In his presence she was silent, defiant, and repellent, but as soon as he quitted her, her innate, warm-hearted kindliness and child-like merriment woke up to new life, and their fairest blossoms opened out in the senator's house among the little troop who amply repaid her love with theirs.
Phoebicius belonged to the worshippers of Mithras, and he often fasted in his honor to the point of exhaustion, while on the other hand he frequently drank with his boon companions, at the feasts of the god, till he was in a state of insensibility.
Here even, in Mount Sinai, he had prepared a grotto for the feast of Mithras, had gathered together a few companions in his faith, and when it happened that he remained out all day and all night, and came home paler even than usual, she well knew where he had been. Just now she vividly pictured to herself the person of this man with his eyes, that now were dull with sleep and now glowed with rage, and she asked herself whether it were indeed possible that of her own free will she had chosen to become his wife. Her bosom heaved with quicker breathing as she remembered the ignominy he had subjected her to in Rome, and she clenched her small hands. At this instant the little dog sprang from her lap and flew barking to the window-sill; she was easily startled, and she drew on her morning-gown, which had slipped from her white shoulders; then she fastened the straps of her sandals, and went to look down into the court-yard.
A smile played upon her lips as she perceived young Hermas, who had already been for some time leaning motionless against the wall of the house opposite, and devouring with his gaze the figure of the beautiful young woman. She had a facile and volatile nature. Like the eye which retains no impression of the disabling darkness so soon as the rays of light have fallen on it, no gloom of suffering touched her so deeply that the lightest breath of a new pleasure could not blow her troubles to the winds. Many rivers are quite different in color at their source and at their mouth, and so it was often with her tears; she began to weep for sorrow, and then found it difficult to dry her eyes for sheer overflow of mirth. It would have been so easy for Phoebicius to make her lot a fair one! for she had a most susceptible heart, and was grateful for the smallest proofs of love, but between him and her every bond was broken.
The form and face of Hermas took her fancy; she thought he looked of noble birth in spite of his poor clothing, and when she observed that his checks were glowing, and that the hand in which he held the medicine phial trembled, she understood that he was watching her, and that the sight of her had stirred his youthful blood. A woman--still more a woman who is pleased to please--forgives any sin that is committed for her beauty's sake, and Sirona's voice had a friendly ring in it as she bid Hermas good-morning and asked him how his father was, and whether the senator's medicine had been of service. The youth's answers were short and confused, but his looks betrayed that he would fain have said quite other things than those which his indocile tongue allowed him to reiterate timidly.
"Dame Dorothea was telling me last evening," she said kindly, "that Petrus had every hope of your father's recovery, but that he is still very weak. Perhaps some good wine would be of service to him--not to-day, but to-morrow or the day after. Only come to me if you need it; we have some old Falerman in the loft, and white Mareotis wine, which is particularly good and wholesome."
Hermas thanked her, and as she still urged him to apply to her in all confidence, he took courage and succeeded in stammering rather than saying,--"You are as good as you are beautiful."
The words were hardly spoken when the topmost stone of an elaborately constructed pile near the slaves' house fell down with a loud clatter. Sirona started and drew back from the window, the grey-hound set up a loud barking, and Hermas struck his forehead with his hand as if he were roused from a dream.
In a few instants he had knocked at the senator's door; hardly had he entered the house when Miriam's slight form passed across behind the pile of stones, and vanished swiftly and silently into the slaves' quarters. These were by this time deserted by their inhabitants, who were busy in the field, the house, or the quarries; they consisted of a few ill-lighted rooms with bare, unfinished walls.
The shepherdess went into the smallest, where, on a bed of palm-sticks, lay the slave that she had wounded, and who turned over as with a hasty hand she promptly laid a fresh, but ill-folded bandage, all askew on the deep wound in his bend. As soon as this task was fulfilled she left the room again, placed herself behind the half open door which led into the court-yard, and, pressing, her brow against the stone door-post, looked first at the senator's house, and then at Sirona's window, while her breath came faster and faster.
A new and violent emotion was stirring her young soul; not many minutes since she had squatted peacefully on the ground by the side of the wounded man, with her head resting on her hand, and thinking of her goats on the mountain. Then she had heard a slight sound in the court, which any one else would not have noticed; but she not only perceived it, but knew with perfect certainty with whom it originated. She could never fail to recognize Hermas' foot-step, and it had an irresistible effect upon her. She raised her head quickly from her hand, and her elbow from the knee on which it was resting, sprang to her feet, and went out into the yard. She was hidden by the mill-stones, but she could see Hermas lost in admiration. She followed the direction of his eyes and saw the same image which had fascinated his gaze--Sirona's lovely form, flooded with sunlight. She looked as if formed out of snow, and roses, and gold, like the angel at the sepulchre in the new picture in the church. Yes, just like the angel, and the thought flew through her mind how brown and black she was herself, and that he had called her a she-devil. A sense of deep pain came over her, she felt as though paralyzed in body and soul; but soon she shook off the spell, and her heart began to beat violently; she had to bite her lip hard with her white teeth to keep herself from crying out with rage and anguish.
How she wished that she could swing herself up to the window on which Hermas' gaze was fixed, and clutch Sirona's golden hair and tear her down to the ground, and suck the very blood from her red lips like a vampire, till she lay at her feet as pale as the corpse of a man dead of thirst in the desert. Then she saw the light mantle slip from Sirona's shoulders, and observed Hermas start and press his hand to his heart.
Then another impulse seized her. It was to call to her and warn her of his presence; for even women who hate each other hold out the hand of fellowship in the spirit, when the sanctity of woman's modesty is threatened with danger. She blushed for Sirona, and had actually opened her lips to call, when the greyhound barked and the dialogue began. Not a word escaped her sharp ears, and when he told Sirona that she was as good as she was beautiful she felt seized with giddiness; then the topmost stone, by which she had tried to steady herself, lost its balance, its fall interrupted their conversation, and Miriam returned to the sick man.
Now she was standing at the door, waiting for Hermas. Long, long did she wait; at last he appeared with Dorothea, and she could see that he glanced up again at Sirona; but a spiteful smile passed over her lips, for the window was empty and the fair form that he had hoped to see again had vanished.
Sirona was now sitting at her loom in the front room, whither she had been tempted by the sound of approaching hoofs. Polykarp had ridden by on his father's fine horse, had greeted her as he passed, and had dropped a rose on the roadway. Half an hour later the old black slave came to Sirona, who was throwing the shuttle through the warp with a skilful hand.
"Mistress," cried the negress with a hideous grin; the lonely woman paused in her work, and as she looked up enquiringly the old woman gave her a rose. Sirona took the flower, blew away the road-side dust that had clung to it, rearranged the tumbled delicate petals with her finger-tips, and said, while she seemed to give the best part of her attention to this occupation, "For the future let roses be when you find them. You know Phoebicius, and if any one sees it, it will be talked about."
The black woman turned away, shrugging her shoulders; but Sirona thought, "Polykarp is a handsome and charming man, and has finer and more expressive eyes than any other here, if he were not always talking of his plans, and drawings, and figures, and mere stupid grave things that I do not care for!"