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- Homo Sum, Volume 3. - 4/8 -
spot in the desert."
Phoebicius waved his hand with a negative movement, implying that he knew better, and said, "I will show you what your nice night-bird left in my nest. It may be that you can tell me to whom it belongs."
Just as he hastily stepped across the court-yard to his own dwelling Paulus entered by the now open gate; he greeted the senator and his family, and offered Petrus the key of the church.
The sun meanwhile had risen, and the Alexandrian blushed to show himself in Dame Dorothea's presence in his short and ragged under-garment, which was quite inefficient to cover the still athletic mould of his limbs. Petrus had heard nothing but good of Paulus, and yet he measured him now with no friendly eye, for all that wore the aspect of extravagance repelled his temperate and methodical nature. Paulus was made conscious of what was passing in the senator's mind when, without vouchsafing a single word, he took the key from his hand. It was not a matter of indifference to him, that this man should think ill of him, and he said, with some embarrassment:
"We do not usually go among people without a sheepskin, but I have lost mine."
Hardly had he uttered the words, when Phoebicius came back with Hermas' sheepskin in his hand, and cried out to Petrus:
"This I found on my return home, in our sleeping-room."
"And when have you ever seen Polykarp in such a mantle?" asked Dorothea.
"When the gods visit the daughters of men," replied the centurion, "they have always made choice of strange disguises. Why should not a perfumed Alexandrian gentleman transform himself for once into one of those rough fools on the mountain? However, even old Homer sometimes nodded--and I confess that I was in error with regard to your son. I meant no offence, senator! You have lived here longer than I; who can have made me a present of this skin, which still seems to be pretty new--horns and all."
Petrus examined and felt the skin, "This is an anchorite's garment," he said; "the penitents on the mountain are all accustomed to wear such."
"It is one of those rascals then that has found his way into my house!" exclaimed the centurion. "I bear Caesar's commission, and I am to exterminate ill vagabonds that trouble the dwellers in the oasis, or travellers in the desert. Thus run the orders which I brought with me from Rome. I will drive the low fellows together like deer for hunting, for they are all rogues and villains, and I shall know how to torture them until I find the right one."
"The emperor will ill-requite you for that," replied Petrus. "They are pious Christians, and you know that Constantine himself--"
"Constantine!" exclaimed the centurion scornfully. "Perhaps he will let himself be baptized, for water can hurt no one, and he cannot, like the great Diocletian, exterminate the masses who run after the crucified miracle-monger, without depopulating the country. Look at these coins; here is the image of Caesar, and what is this on the other side? Is this your Nazarene, or is it the old god, the immortal and invincible sun? And is that man one of your creed, who in Constantinople adores Tyche and the Dioscuri Castor and Pollux? The water he is baptized with to-day he will wipe away to-morrow, and the old gods will be his defenders, if in more peaceful times he maintains them against your superstitions."
"But it will be a good while till then," said Perrus coolly. "For the present, at least, Constantine is the protector of the Christians. I advise you to put your affair into the hands of Bishop Agapitus."
"That he may serve me up a dish of your doctrine, which is bad even for women," said the centurion laughing; "and that I may kiss my enemies' feet? They are a vile rabble up there, I repeat it, and they shall be treated as such till I have found my man. I shall begin the hunt this very day."
"And this very day you may end it, for the sheepskin is mine."
It was Paulus who spoke these words in a loud and decided tone; all eyes were at once turned on him and on the centurion.
Petrus and the slaves had frequently seen the anchorite, but never without a sheepskin similar to that which Phoebicius held in his hand. The anchorite's self-accusation must have appeared incredible, and indeed scarcely possible, to all who knew Paulus and Sirona; and nevertheless no one, not even the senator, doubted it for an instant. Dame Dorothea only shook her head incredulously, and though she could find no explanation for the occurrence, she still could not but say to herself, that this man did not look like a lover, and that Sirona would hardly have forgotten her duty for his sake. She could not indeed bring herself to believe in Sirona's guilt at all, for she was heartily well disposed towards her; besides--though it, no doubt, was not right--her motherly vanity inclined her to believe that if the handsome young woman had indeed sinned, she would have preferred her fine tall Polykarp--whose roses and flaming glances she blamed in all sincerity--to this shaggy, wild-looking graybeard.
Quite otherwise thought the centurion. He was quite ready to believe in the anchorite's confession, for the more unworthy the man for whom Sirona had broken faith, the greater seemed her guilt, and the more unpardonable her levity; and to his man's vanity it seemed to him easier--particularly in the presence of such witnesses as Petrus and Dorothea--to bear the fact that his wife should have sought variety and pleasure at any cost, even at that of devoting herself to a ragged beggar, than that she should have given her affections to a younger, handsomer, and worthier man than himself. He had sinned much against her, but all that lay like feathers on his side of the scales, while that which she had done weighed down hers like a load of lead. He began to feel like a man who, in wading through a bog, has gained firm ground with one foot, and all these feelings gave him energy to walk up to the anchorite with a self-control, of which he was not generally master, excepting when on duty at the head of his soldiers.
He approached the Alexandrian with an assumption of dignity and a demeanor which testified to his formerly having taken part in the representations of tragedies in the theatres of great cities. Paulus, on his part, did not retreat by a single step, but looked at him with a smile that alarmed Petrus and the rest of the bystanders. The law put the anchorite absolutely into the power of the outraged husband, but Phoebicius did not seem disposed to avail himself of his rights, and nothing but contempt and loathing were perceptible in his tone, as he said:
"A man who takes hold of a mangy dog in order to punish him, only dirties his hand. The woman who betrayed me for your sake, and you--you dirty beggar--are worthy of each other. I could crush you like a fly that can be destroyed by a blow of my hand if I chose, but my sword is Caesar's, and shall never be soiled by such foul blood as yours; however, the beast shall not have cast off his skin for nothing, it is thick, and so you have only spared me the trouble of tearing it off you before giving you your due. You shall find no lack of blows. Confess where your sweetheart has fled to and they shall be few, but if you are slow to answer they will be many. Lend me that thing there, fellow!"
With these words he took a whip of hippopotamus hide out of a camel- driver's band, went close up to the Alexandrian, and asked: "Where is Sirona?"
"Nay, you may beat me," said Paulus. "However hard your whip may fall on me, it cannot be heavy enough for my sins; but as to where your wife is hiding, that I really cannot tell you--not even if you were to tear my limbs with pincers instead of stroking me with that wretched thing."
There was something so genuinely honest in Paulus' voice and tone, that the centurion was inclined to believe him; but it was not his way to let a threatened punishment fail of execution, and this strange beggar should learn by experience that when his hand intended to hit hard, it was far from "stroking." And Paulus did experience it, without uttering a cry, and without stirring from the spot where he stood.
When at last Phoebicius dropped his weary arm and breathlessly repeated his question, the ill-used man replied, "I told you before I do not know, and therefore I cannot reveal it."
Up to this moment Petrus, though he had felt strongly impelled to rush to the rescue of his severely handled fellow-believer, had nevertheless allowed the injured husband to have his way, for he seemed disposed to act with unusual mildness, and the Alexandrian to be worthy of all punishment; but at this point Dorothea's request would not have been needed to prompt him to interfere.
He went up to the centurion, and said to him in an undertone, "You have given the evil-doer his due, and if you desire that he should undergo a severer punishment than you can inflict, carry the matter--I say once more--before the bishop. You will gain nothing more here. Take my word for it, I know the man and his fellow-men; he actually knows nothing of where your wife is hiding, and you are only wasting the time and strength which you would do better to save, in order to search for Sirona. I fancy she will have tried to reach the sea, and to get to Egypt or possibly to Alexandria; and there--you know what the Greek city is--she will fall into utter ruin."
"And so," laughed the Gaul, "find what she seeks--variety, and every kind of pleasure. For a young thing like that, who loves amusement, there is no pleasant occupation but vice. But I will spoil her game; you are right, it is not well to give her too long a start. If she has found the road to the sea, she may already--Hey, here Talib!" He beckoned to Polykarp's Amalekite messenger. "You have just come from Raithu; did you meet a flying woman on the way, with yellow hair and a white face?"
The Amalekite, a free man with sharp eyes, who was highly esteemed in the senator's house, and even by Phoebicius himself, as a trustworthy and steady man, had expected this question, and eagerly replied:
"At two stadia beyond el Heswe I met a large caravan from Petra, which rested yesterday in the oasis here; a woman, such as you describe, was running with it. When I heard what had happened here I wanted to speak, but who listens to a cricket while it thunders?"
"Had she a lame greyhound with her?" asked Phoebicius, full of expectation.
"She carried something in her arms," answered the Amalekite. "In the moonlight I took it for a baby. My brother, who was escorting the caravan, told me the lady was no doubt running away, for she had paid the charge for the escort not in ready money, but with a gold signet-ring."
The Gaul remembered a certain gold ring with a finely carved onyx, which long years ago he had taken from Glycera's finger, for she had another one like it, and which he had given to Sirona on the day of their marriage.
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