Homo Sum by Georg Ebers
It was a delicious refreshing evening; the full moon rose calmly in the dark blue vault of the night-sky, and poured a flood of light down on the cool earth. But its rays did not give a strong enough light to pierce the misty veil that hung over the giant mass of the Holy Mountain; the city of the oasis on the contrary was fully illuminated; the broad roadway of the high-street looked to the wanderer who descended from the height above like a shining path of white marble, and the freshly plastered walls of the new church gleamed as white as in the light of day. The shadows of the houses and palm-trees lay like dark strips of carpet across the road, which was nearly empty in spite of the evening coolness, which usually tempted the citizens out into the air.
The voices of men and women sounded out through the open windows of the church; then the door opened and the Pharanite Christians, who had been partaking of the Supper--the bread and the cup passed from hand to hand--came out into the moonlight. The elders and deacons, the readers and singers, the acolytes and the assembled priesthood of the place followed the Bishop Agapitus, and the laymen came behind Obedianus, the head-man of the oasis, and the Senator Petrus; with Petrus came his wife, his grown up children and numerous slaves.
The church was empty when the door-keeper, who was extinguishing the lights, observed a man in a dark corner of an antechamber through which a spring of water softly plashed and trickled, and which was intended for penitents. The man was prostrate on the ground and absorbed in prayer, and he did not raise himself till the porter called him, and threw the light of his little lamp full in his face.
He began to address him with hard words, but when he recognized in the belated worshipper the anchorite Paulus of Alexandria he changed his key, and said, in a soft and almost submissive tone of entreaty, "You have surely prayed enough, pious man. The congregation have left the church, and I must close it on account of our beautiful new vessels and the heathen robbers. I know that the brethren of Raithu have chosen you to be their elder, and that his high honor was announced to you by their messengers, for they came to see our church too and greatly admired it. Are you going at once to settle with them or shall you keep the high-feast with us?"
"That you shall hear to-morrow," answered Paulus, who had risen from his knees, and was leaning against a pillar of the narrow, bare, penitential chamber. "In this house dwells One of whom I would fain take counsel, and I beg of you to leave me here alone. If you will, you can lock the door, and fetch me out later, before you go to rest for the night."
"That cannot be," said the man considering, "for my wife is ill, and my house is a long way from here at the end of the town by the little gate, and I must take the key this very evening to the Senator Petrus, because his son, the architect Antonius, wants to begin the building of the new altar the first thing to-morrow morning. The workmen are to be here by sunrise, and if--"
"Show me the key," interrupted Paulus. "To what untold blessing may this little instrument close or open the issues! Do you know, man, that I think there is a way for us both out of the difficulty! You go to your sick wife, and I will take the key to the senator as soon as I have finished my devotions."
The door-keeper considered for a few minutes, and then acceded to the request of the future presbyter of Raithu, while at the same time he begged him not to linger too late.
As he went by the senator's house he smelt the savor of roast meat; he was a poor man and thought to himself, "They fast in there just when it pleases them, but as for us, we fast when it pleases us least."
The good smell, which provoked this lament, rose from a roast sheep, which was being prepared as a feast-supper for the senator and the assembled members of his household; even the slaves shared in the late evening meal.
Petrus and Dame Dorothea sat in the Greek fashion, side by side in a half reclining position on a simple couch, and before them stood a table which no one shared with them, but close to which was the seat for the grown up children of the house. The slaves squatted on the ground nearer to the door, and crowded into two circles, each surrounding a steaming dish, out of which they helped themselves to the brown stew of lentils with the palm of the hand. A round, grey-looking cake of bread lay near each, and was not to be broken till the steward Jethro had cut and apportioned the sheep. The juicy pieces of the back and thighs of the animal were offered to Petrus and his family to choose from, but the carver laid a slice for each slave on his cake--a larger for the men and a smaller for the women. Many looked with envy on the more succulent piece that had fallen to a neighbor's share, but not even those that had fared worst dared to complain, for a slave was allowed to speak only when his master addressed him, and Petrus forbid even his children to discuss their food whether to praise it or to find fault.
In the midst of the underlings sat Miriam; she never ate much, and all meat was repulsive to her, so she pushed the cut from the ribs that was given to her over to an old garden-woman, who sat opposite, and who had often given her a fruit or a little honey, for Miriam loved sweet things. Petrus spoke not a word to-day to his slaves, and very little even to his family; Dorothea marked the deep lines between his grave eyes, not without anxiety, and noted how he pinched his lips, when, forgetful of the food before him, he sat lost in meditation.
The meal was ended, but still he did not move, nor did he observe the enquiring glances which were turned on him by many eyes; no one dared to rise before the master gave the signal.
Miriam followed all his movements with more impatience than any of the others who were present; she rocked restlessly backwards and forwards, crumbled the bread that she had left with her slender fingers, and her breath now came fast and faster, and now seemed to stop entirely. She had heard the court-yard gate open, and had recognized Hermas' step.
"He wants to speak to the master, in a moment he will come in, and find me among these--" thought she, and she involuntarily stroked her hand over her rough hair to smooth it, and threw a glance at the other slaves, in which hatred and contempt were equally marked.
But Hermas came not. Not for an instant did she think that her ear had deceived her--was he waiting now at the door for the conclusion of the meal? Was his late visit intended for the Gaulish lady, to whom she had seen him go yesterday again with the wine jar?
Sirona's husband, Phoebicius, as Miriam well knew, was upon the mountain, and offering sacrifice by moonlight to Mithras with his fellow heathen in a cave which she had long known. She had seen the Gaul quit the court during the time of evening-prayer with a few soldiers, two of whom carried after him a huge coffer, out of which rose the handle of a mighty cauldron, and a skin full of water, and various vessels. She knew that these men would pass the whole night in the grotto of Mithras, and there greet "the young god"--the rising sun--with strange ceremonies; for the inquisitive shepherdess had more than once listened, when she had led her goats up the mountain before the break of day, and her ear had detected that the worshippers of Mithras were performing their nocturnal solemnities. Now it flashed across her mind, that Sirona was alone, and that the late visit of Hermas probably concerned her, and not the senator.
She started, there was quite a pain in her heart, and, as usual, when any violent emotion agitated her mind, she involuntarily sprang to her feet prompted by the force of her passion, and had almost reached the door, when the senator's voice brought her to a pause, and recalled her to the consciousness of the impropriety of her behavior.
The sick man still lay with his inflamed wound and fever down in the court, and she knew that she should escape blame if in answer to her master's stern questioning she said that the patient needed her, but she had never told a lie, and her pride forbade her even now to speak an untruth. The other slaves stared with astonishment, as she replied, "I wanted to get out; the supper is so long."
Petrus glanced at the window, and perceiving how high the moon stood, he shook his head as if in wonder at his own conduct, then without blaming her he offered a thanksgiving, gave the slaves the signal to leave the room, and after receiving a kiss of "good-night" from each of his children--from among whom Polykarp, the sculptor, alone was missing--he withdrew to his own room. But he did not remain alone there for long: so soon as Dorothea had discussed the requirements of the house for the next day with Marthana and the steward, and had been through the sleeping-room of her younger children, casting a loving glance on the peaceful sleepers, arranging here a coverlet, and there a pillow--she entered her husband's room and called his name.
Petrus stood still and looked round, and his grave eyes were full of grateful tenderness as they met those of his wife. Dorothea knew the soft and loving heart within the stern exterior, and nodded to him with sympathetic understanding: but before she could speak, he said, "Come in, come nearer to me; there is a heavy matter in hand, and you cannot escape your share of the burden."
"Give me my share!" cried she eagerly. "The slim girl of former years has grown a broad-shouldered old woman, so that it may be easier to her to help her lord to bear the many burdens of life. But I am seriously anxious--even before we went to church something unsatisfactory had happened to you, and not merely in the council-meeting. There must be something not right with one of the children."
"What eyes you have!" exclaimed Petrus.
"Dim, grey eyes," said Dorothea, "and not even particularly keen. But when anything concerns you and the children I could see it in the dark. You are dissatisfied with Polykarp; yesterday, before he set out for Raithu, you looked at him so--so--what shall I say? I can quite imagine what it is all about, but I believe you are giving yourself groundless anxiety. He is young, and so lovely a woman as Sirona--"
Up to this point Petrus had listened to his wife in silence. Now he clasped his hands, and interrupted her, "Things certainly are not going on quite right--but I ought to be used to it. What I meant to have confided to you in a quiet hour, you tell me as if you knew all about it!"
"And why not?" asked Dorothea. "When you graft a scion on to a tree, and they have grown well together, the grafted branch feels the bite of the saw that divides the stock, or the blessing of the spring that feeds the roots, just as if the pain or the boon were its own. And you are the tree and I am the graft, and the magic power of marriage has made us one. Your pulses are my pulses, your thoughts have become mine, and so I always know before you tell me what it is that stirs your soul."
Dorothea's kind eyes moistened as she spoke, and Petrus warmly clasped her hands in his as he said, "And if the gnarled old trunk bears from time to time some sweet fruit, he may thank the graft for it. I cannot believe that the anchorites up yonder are peculiarly pleasing to the Lord because they live in solitude. Man comes to his perfect humanity only through his wife and child, and he who has them not, can never learn the most glorious heights and the darkest depths of life and feeling. If a man may stake his whole existence and powers for anything, surely it is for his own house."
"And you have honestly done so for ours!" cried Dorothea.
"For ours," repeated Petrus, giving the words the strongest accent of his deep voice. Two are stronger than one, and it is long since we ceased to say 'I' in discussing any question concerning the house or the children; and both have been touched by to-day's events."
"The senate will not support you in constructing the road?"
"No, the bishop gave the casting-vote. I need not tell you how we stand towards each other, and I will not blame him; for he is a just man, but in many things we can never meet half-way. You know that he was in his youth a soldier, and his very piety is rough--I might almost say warlike. If we had yielded to his views, and if our head man Obedianus had not supported me, we should not have had a single picture in the church, and it would have looked like a barn rather than a house of prayer. We never have understood each other, and since I opposed his wish of making Polykarp a priest, and sent the boy to learn of the sculptor Thalassius--for even as a child he drew better than many masters in these wretched days that produce no great artists--since then, I say, he speaks of me as if I were a heathen--"
"And yet he esteems you highly, that I know," interrupted Dame Dorothea.
"I fully return his good opinion," replied Petrus, "and it is no ordinary matter that estranges. He thinks that he only holds the true faith, and ought to fight for it; he calls all artistic work a heathen abomination; he never felt the purifying influence of the beautiful, and regards all pictures and statues as tending to idolatry. Still he allows himself to admire Polykarp's figures of angels and the Good Shepherd, but the lions put the old warrior in a rage. 'Accursed idols and works of the devil,' are what he calls them."
"But there were lions even in the temple of Solomon," cried Dorothea.
"I urged that, and also that in the schools of the catechists, and in the educational history of animals which we possess and teach from, the Saviour himself is compared to a lion, and that Mark, the evangelist, who brought the doctrine of the gospel to Alexandria, is represented with a lion. But he withstood me more and more violently, saying that Polykarp's works were to adorn no sacred place, but the Caesareum, and that to him is nothing but a heathen edifice, and the noble works of the Greeks that are preserved there he calls revolting images by which Satan ensnares the souls of Christian men. The other senators can understand his hard words, but they cannot follow mine; and so they vote with him, and my motion to construct the roadway was thrown over, because it did not become a Christian assembly to promote idolatry, and to smooth a way for the devil."
"I can see that you must have answered them sharply!"
"Indeed I believe so," answered Petrus, looking down. "Many painful things were no doubt said, and it was I that suffered for them. Agapitus, who was looking at the deacons' reports, was especially dissatisfied with the account that I laid before them; they blamed us severely because you gave away as much bread to heathen households as to Christians. It is no doubt true, but--"
"But," cried Dorothea eagerly, "hunger is just as painful to the unbaptized, and their Christian neighbors do not help them, and yet they too are our flesh and blood. I should ill fulfil my office if I were to let them starve, because the highest comfort is lacking to them."
"And yet," said Petrus, "the council decided that, for the future, you must apply at the most a fourth part of the grain allotted to their use. You need not fear for them; for the future some of our own produce may go to them out of what we have hitherto sold. You need not withdraw even a loaf from any one of your proteges, but certainly may now be laid by the plans for the road. Indeed there is no hurry for its completion, for Polykarp will now hardly be able to go on with his lions here among us. Poor fellow! with what delight he formed the clay models, and how wonderfully he succeeded in reproducing the air and aspect of the majestic beasts. It is as if he were inspired by the spirit of the old Athenian masters. We must now consider whether in Alexandria--"
"Rather let us endeavor," interrupted Dorothea, "to induce him at once to put aside his models, and to execute other more pious works. Agapitus has keen eyes, and the heathen work is only too dear to the lad's heart."
The senator's brow grew dark at the last words, and he said, not without some excitement, "Everything that the heathen do is not to be condemned. Polykarp must be kept busy, constantly and earnestly occupied, for he has set his eyes where they should not be set. Sirona is the wife of another, and even in sport no man should try to win his neighbor's wife. Do you think, the Gaulish woman is capable of forgetting her duty?"
Dorothea hesitated, and after some reflection answered, "She is a beautiful and vain child--a perfect child; I mean in nature, and not in years, although she certainly might be the grandchild of her strange husband, for whom she feels neither love nor respect, nor, indeed, anything but utter aversion. I know not what, but something frightful must have come between them even in Rome, and I have given up all attempts to guide her heart back to him. In everything else she is soft and yielding, and often, when she is playing with the children, I cannot imagine where she finds her reckless gaiety. I wish she were a Christian, for she is very dear to me, why should I deny it? It is impossible to be sad when she is by, and she is devoted to me, and dreads my blame, and is always striving to win my approbation. Certainly she tries to please every one, even the children; but, so far as I can see, not more Polykarp than any one else, although he is such a fine young man. No, certainly not."
"And yet the boy gazes at her," said Petrus, "and Phoebicius has noticed it; he met me yesterday when I came home, and, in his sour, polite manner, requested me to advise my son, when he wished to offer a rose, not to throw it into his window, as he was not fond of flowers, and preferred to gather them himself for his wife."
The senator's wife turned pale, and then exclaimed shortly and positively, "We do not need a lodger, and much as I should miss his wife, the best plan will be for you to request him to find another dwelling."
"Say no more, wife," Petrus said, sternly, and interrupting her with a wave of his hand. "Shall we make Sirona pay, for it because our son has committed a folly for her sake? You yourself said, that her intercourse with the children, and her respect for you, preserve her from evil, and now shall we show her the door? By no means. The Gauls may remain in my house so long as nothing occurs that compels me to send them out of it. My father was a Greek, but through my mother I have Amalekite blood in my veins, and I should dishonor myself, if I drove from my threshold any, with whom I had once broken bread under my roof. Polykarp shall be warned, and shall learn what he owes to us, to himself, and to the laws of God. I know how to value his noble gifts, and I am his friend, but I am also his master, and I will find means of preventing my son from introducing the light conduct of the capital beneath his father's roof."
The last words were spoken with weight and decision, like the blows of a hammer, and stern resolve sparkled in the senator's eyes. Nevertheless, his wife went fearlessly up to him, and said, laying her hand on his arm, "It is, indeed, well that a man can keep his eyes set on what is just, when we women should follow the hasty impulse of our heart. Even in wrestling, men only fight with lawful and recognized means, while fighting women use their teeth and nails. You men understand better how to prevent injustice than we do, and that you have once more proved to me, but, in carrying justice out, you are not our superiors. The Gauls may remain in our house, and do you take Polykarp severely to task, but in the first instance as his friend. Or would it not be better if you left it to me? He was so happy in thinking of the competition of his lions, and in having to work for the great building in the capital, and now it is all over. I wish you had already broken that to him; but love stories are women's affairs, and you know how good the boy is to me. A mother's word sometimes has more effect than a father's blow, and it is in life as it is in war; the light forces of archers go first into the field, and the heavily armed division stays in the background to support them; then, if the enemy will not yield, it comes forward and decides the battle. First let me speak to the lad. It may be that he threw the rose into Sirona's window only in sport, for she plays with his brothers and sisters as if she herself were one of them. I will question him; for if it is so, it would be neither just nor prudent to blame him. Some caution is needed even in giving a warning; for many a one, who would never have thought of stealing, has become a thief through false suspicion. A young heart that is beginning to love, is like a wild boy who always would rather take the road he is warned to avoid, and when I was a girl, I myself first discovered how much I liked you, when the Senator Aman's wife--who wanted you for her own daughter--advised me to be on my guard with you. A man who has made such good use of his time, among all the temptations of the Greek Sodom, as Polykarp, and who has won such high praise from all his teachers and masters, cannot have been much injured by the light manners of the Alexandrians. It is in a man's early years that he takes the bent which he follows throughout his later life, and that he had done before he left our house. Nay--even if I did not know what a good fellow Polykarp is--I need only look at you to say, 'A child that was brought up by this father, could never turn out a bad man.'"
Petrus sadly shrugged his shoulders, as though he regarded his wife's flattering words as mere idle folly, and yet he smiled, as he asked, "Whose school of rhetoric did you go to? So be it then; speak to the lad when he returns from Raithu. How high the moon is already; come to rest--Antonius is to place the altar in the early dawn, and I wish to be present."