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- Homo Sum, Volume 2. - 6/10 -
refuses, shall by some means or other be brought to it, but those who continue stiff-necked shall suffer death. For a long time much consideration had been shown to the prisoners, but now they were alarmed by having the edict read to them anew. Many hid themselves groaning and lamenting, others prayed aloud, and most awaited what might happen with pale lips and painful breathing.
"Magdalen remained perfectly calm. The names of the Christian prisoners were called out, and the imperial soldiers led them all together to one spot. Neither my name nor hers was called, for I did not belong to the prisoners, and she had not been apprehended for the faith's sake. The officer was rolling up his list, when Magdalen rose and stepped modestly forward, saying with quiet dignity, 'I too am a Christian.'
"If there be an angel who wears the form and features of man, his face must resemble hers, as she looked in that hour. The Roman, a worthy man, looked at her with a benevolent, but searching gaze. I do not find your name here,' he said aloud, shaking his head and pointing to the roll; and he added in a lower voice, 'Nor do I intend to find it.'
"She went closer up to him, and said out loud, Grant me my place among the believers, and write down, that Magdalen, the Christian, refuses to sacrifice.'
"My soul was deeply moved, and with joyful eagerness I cried out, 'Put down my name too, and write, that Menander, the son of Herophilus, also refuses.' The Roman did his duty.
"Time has not blotted out from my memory a single moment of that day. There stood the altar, and near it the heathen priest on one side, and on the other the emperor's officer. We were taken up two by two; Magdalen and I were the last. One word now--one little word--would give us life and freedom, another the rack and death. Out of thirty of us only four had found courage to refuse to sacrifice, but the feeble hearted broke out into lamentations, and beat their foreheads, and prayed that the Lord might strengthen the courage of the others. An unutterably pure and lofty joy filled my soul, and I felt, as if we were out of the body floating on ambient clouds. Softly and calmly we refused to sacrifice, thanked the imperial official, who warned us kindly, and in the same hour and place we fell into the hands of the torturers. She gazed only up to heaven, and I only at her, but in the midst of the most frightful torments I saw before me the Saviour beckoning to me, surrounded by angels that soared on soft airs, whose presence filled my eyes with the purest light, and my ears with heavenly music. She bore the utmost torture without flinching, only once she called out the name of her son Hermas; then I turned to look at her, and saw her gazing up to Heaven with wide open eyes and trembling lips-living, but already with the Lord --on the rack, and yet in bliss. My stronger body clung to the earth; she found deliverance at the first blow of the torturer.
"I myself closed her eyes, the sweetest eyes in which Heaven was ever mirrored, I drew a ring from her dear, white, blood-stained hand, and here under the rough sheepskin I have it yet; and I pray, I pray, I pray --oh! my heart! My God if it might be--if this is the end--!"
Paulus put his hand to his head, and sank exhausted on the bed, in a deep swoon. The sick man had followed his story with breathless interest. Some time since he had risen from his bed, and, unobserved by his companion, had sunk on his knees; he now dragged himself, all hot and trembling, to the side of the senseless man, tore the sheep's fell from his breast, and with hasty movement sought the ring; he found it, and fixing on it passionate eyes, as though he would melt it with their fire, he pressed it again and again to his lips, to his heart, to his lips again; buried his face in his hands and wept bitterly.
It was not till Hermas returned from the oasis that Stephanus thought of his exhausted and fainting friend, and with his son's assistance restored him to conscious ness. Paulus did not refuse to take some food and drink, and in the cool of the evening, when he was refreshed and invigorated, he sat again by the side of Stephanus, and understood from the old man that Magdalen was certainly his wife.
"Now I know," said Paulus, pointing to Hermas, "how it is that from the first I felt such a love for the lad there."
The old man softly pressed his hand, for he felt himself tied to his friend by a new and tender bond, and it was with silent ecstasy that he received the assurance that the wife he had always loved, the mother of his child, had died a Christian and a martyr, and had found before him the road to Heaven.
The old man slept as peacefully as a child the following night, and when, next morning, messengers came from Raithu to propose to Paulus that he should leave the Holy Mountain, and go with them to become their elder and ruler, Stephanus said, "Follow this high call with all confidence, for you deserve it. I really no longer have need of you, for I shall get well now without any further nursing."
But Paulus, far more disturbed than rejoiced, begged of the messengers a delay of seven days for reflection, and after wandering restlessly from one holy spot to another, at last went down into the oasis, there to pray in the church.
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
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