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- Homo Sum, Volume 3. - 3/8 -
with my own eyes. Demons in women's form rush up the mountain out of the oasis to tempt and torture us in our sleep. What could it have been that the goblin in a white robe and with flowing hair held in its arms? Very likely the stone with which the incubus loads our breast when he torments us. The other one seemed to fly, but I did not see its wings. That side-building must be where the Gaul lives with his ungodly wife, who has ensnared my poor Hermas. I wonder whether she is really so beautiful! But what can a youth who has grown up among rocks and caves know of the charms of women. He would, of course, think the first who looked kindly at him the most enchanting of her sex. Besides she is fair, and therefore a rare bird among the sunburnt bipeds of the desert. The centurion surely cannot have found the sheepskin or all would not be so still here; once since I have been here an ass has brayed, once a camel has groaned, and now already the first cock is crowing; but not a sound have I heard from human lips, not even a snore from the stout senator or his buxom wife Dorothea, and it would be strange indeed if they did not both snore."
He rose, went up to the window of Phoebicius dwelling, and listened at the half open shutters, but all was still.
An hour ago Miriam had been listening under Sirona's room; after betraying her to Phoebicius she had followed him at a distance, and had slipped back into the court-yard through the stables; she felt that she must learn what was happening within, and what fate had befallen Hermas and Sirona at the hands of the infuriated Gaul. She was prepared for anything, and the thought that the centurion might have killed them both with the sword filled her with bitter-sweet satisfaction. Then, seeing the light through the crack between the partly open wooden shutters, she softly pushed them farther apart, and, resting her bare feet against the wall, she raised herself to look in.
She saw Sirona sitting up upon her couch, and opposite to her the Gaul with pale distorted features; at his feet lay the sheepskin; in his right hand he held the lamp, and its light fell on the paved floor in front of the bed, and was reflected in a large dark red pool.
"That is blood," thought she, and she shuddered and closed her eyes.
When she reopened them she saw Sirona's face with crimson cheeks, turned towards her husband; she was unhurt--but Hermas?
"'That is his blood!" she thought with anguish, and a voice seemed to scream in her very heart, "I, his murderess, have shed it."
Her hands lost their hold of the shutters, her feet touched the pavement of the yard, and, driven by her bitter anguish of soul, she fled out by the way she had come--out into the open and up to the mountain. She felt that rather would she defy the prowling panthers, the night-chill, hunger and thirst, than appear again before Dame Dorothea, the senator, and Marthana, with this guilt on her soul; and the flying Miriam was one of the goblin forms that had terrified Paulus.
The patient anchorite sat down again on the stone seat. "The frost is really cruel," thought he, "and a very good thing is such a woolly sheepskin; but the Saviour endured far other sufferings than these, and for what did I quit the world but to imitate Him, and to endure to the end here that I may win the joys of the other world. There, where angels soar, man will need no wretched ram's fell, and this time certainly selfishness has been far from me, for I really and truly suffer for another--I am freezing for Hermas, and to spare the old man pain. I would it were even colder! Nay, I will never, absolutely never again lay a sheepskin over my shoulders."
Paulus nodded his head as if to signify assent to his own resolve; but presently he looked graver, for again it seemed to him that he was walking in a wrong path.
"Aye! Man achieves a handful of good, and forthwith his heart swells with a camel-load of pride. What though my teeth are chattering, I am none the less a most miserable creature. How it tickled my vanity, in spite of all my meditations and scruples, when they came from Raithu and offered me the office of elder; I felt more triumphant the first time I won with the quadriga, but I was scarcely more puffed up with pride then, than I was yesterday. How many who think to follow the Lord strive only to be exalted as He is; they keep well out of the way of His abasement. Thou, O Thou Most High, art my witness that I earnestly seek it, but so soon as the thorns tear my flesh the drops of blood turn to roses, and if I put them aside, others come and still fling garlands in my way. I verily believe that it is as hard here on earth to find pain without pleasure, as pleasure without pain."
While thus he meditated his teeth chattered with cold, but suddenly his reflections were interrupted, for the dogs set up a loud barking. Phoebicius was knocking at the senator's door.
Paulus rose at once, and approached the gate-way. He could hear every word that was spoken in the court-yard; the deep voice was the senator's, the high sharp tones must be the centurion's.
Phoebicius was demanding his wife back from Petrus, as she had hidden in his house, while Petrus positively declared that Sirona had not crossed his threshold since the morning of the previous day.
In spite of the vehement and indignant tones in which his lodger spoke, the senator remained perfectly calm, and presently went away to ask his wife whether she by chance, while he was asleep, had opened the house to the missing woman. Paulus heard the soldier's steps as he paced up and down the court-yard, but they soon ceased, for Dame Dorothea appeared at the door with her husband, and on her part emphatically declared that she knew nothing of Sirona.
"Your son Polykarp then," interrupted Phoebicius, "will be better informed of her whereabouts."
"My son has been since yesterday at Raithu on business," said Petrus resolutely but evasively; "we expect him home to-day only."
"It would seem that he has been quick, and has returned much sooner," retorted Phoebicius. "Our preparations for sacrificing on the mountain were no secret, and the absence of the master of the house is the opportunity for thieves to break in--above all, for lovers who throw roses into their ladies' windows. You Christians boast that you regard the marriage tie as sacred, but it seems to me that you apply the rule only to your fellow-believers. Your sons may make free to take their pleasure among the wives of the heathen; it only remains to be proved whether the heathen husbands will be trifled with or not. So far as I am concerned, I am inclined for anything rather than jesting. I would have you to understand that I will never let Caesar's uniform, which I wear, be stained by disgrace, and that I am minded to search your house, and if I find my undutiful wife and your son within its walls, I will carry them and you before the judge, and sue for my rights."
"You will seek in vain," replied Petrus, commanding himself with difficulty. "My word is yea or nay, and I repeat once more no, we harbor neither her nor him. As for Dorothea and myself--neither of us is inclined to interfere in your concerns, but neither will we permit another--be he whom he may--to interfere in ours. This threshold shall never be crossed by any but those to whom I grant permission, or by the emperor's judge, to whom I must yield. You, I forbid to enter. Sirona is not here, and you would do better to seek her elsewhere than to fritter away your time here."
"I do not require your advice!" cried the centurion wrathfully.
"And I," retorted Petrus, "do not feel myself called upon to arrange your matrimonial difficulties. Besides you can get back Sirona without our help, for it is always more difficult to keep a wife safe in the house, than to fetch her back when she has run away."
"You shall learn whom you have to deal with!" threatened the centurion, and he threw a glance round at the slaves, who had collected in the court, and who had been joined by the senator's eldest son. "I shall call my people together at once, and if you have the seducer among you we will intercept his escape."
"Only wait an hour," said Dorothea, now taking up the word, while she gently touched her husband's hand, for his self-control was almost exhausted, "I and you will see Polykarp ride home on his father's horse. Is it only from the roses that my son threw into your wife's window, that you suppose him to be her seducer--she plays so kindly with all his brothers and sisters--or are there other reasons, which move you to insult and hurt us with so heavy an accusation?"
Often when wrathful men threaten to meet with an explosion, like black thunder-clouds, a word from the mouth of a sensible woman gives them pause, and restrains them like a breath of soft wind.
Phoebicius had no mind to listen to any speech from Polykarp's mother, but her question suggested to him for the first time a rapid retrospect of all that had occurred, and he could not conceal from himself that his suspicions rested on weak grounds. And at the same time he now said to himself, that if indeed Sirona had fled into the desert instead of to the senator's house he was wasting time, and letting the start, which she had already gained, increase in a fatal degree.
But few seconds were needed for these reflections, and as he was accustomed when need arose to control himself, he said:
"We must see--some means must be found--" and then without any greeting to his host, he slowly returned to his own house. But he had not reached the door, when he heard hoofs on the road, and Petrus called after him, "Grant us a few minutes longer, for here comes Polykarp, and he can justify himself to you in his own person."
The centurion paused, the senator signed to old Jethro to open the gate; a man was heard to spring from his saddle, but it was an Amalekite--and not Polykarp--who came into the court.
"What news do you bring?" asked the senator, turning half to the messenger and half to the centurion. "My lord Polykarp, your son," replied the Amalekite--a dark brown man of ripe years with supple limbs, and a sharp tongue--"sends his greetings to you and to the mistress, and would have you to know that before mid-day he will arrive at home with eight workmen, whom he has engaged in Raithu. Dame Dorothea must be good enough to make ready for them all and to prepare a meal."
"When did you part from my son?" inquired Petrus.
"Two hours before sundown."
Petrus heaved a sigh of relief, for he had not till now been perfectly convinced of his son's innocence; but, far from triumphing or making Phoebicius feel the injustice he had done him, he said kindly--for he felt some sympathy with the Gaul in his misfortune:
"I wish the messenger could also give some news of your wife's retreat; she found it hard to accommodate herself to the dull life here in the oasis, perhaps she has only disappeared in order to seek a town which may offer more variety to such a beautiful young creature than this quiet
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