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- Homo Sum, Volume 3. - 6/8 -
as he was away. She is as timid as a bird, and flew off as soon as she had set down the jug."
"She belongs to Petrus and cannot leave her goats for long," said Paulus. "Now I will go and find you some herbs for a relish; there will be no more wine in the first place. Look me in the face--for how great a sinner now do you take me? Think the very worst of me, and yet perhaps you will hear worse said of me. But here come two men. Stay! one is Hilarion, one of the bishop's acolytes, and the other is Pachomius the Memphite, who lately came to the mountain. They are coming up here, and the Egyptian is carrying a small jar. I would it might hold some more wine to keep up your strength."
The two friends had not long to remain in ignorance of their visitor's purpose. So soon as they reached Stephanus' cave, both turned their backs on Paulus with conspicuously marked intention; nay the acolyte signed his brow with the cross, as if he thought it necessary to protect himself against evil influences.
The Alexandrian understood; he drew back and was silent, while Hilarion explained to the sick man that Paulus was guilty of grave sins, and that, until he had done full penance, he must remain excluded as a rotten sheep from the bishop's flock, as well as interdicted from waiting on a pious Christian.
"We know from Petrus," the speaker went on, "that your son, father, has been sent across the sea, and as you still need waiting on, Agapitus sends you by me his blessing and this strengthening wine; this youth too will stay by you, and provide you with all necessaries until Hermas comes home."
With these words he gave the wine-jar to the old man, who looked in astonishment from him to Paulus, who felt indeed cut to the heart when the bishop's messenger turned to him for an instant, and with the cry, "Get thee out from among us!" disappeared. How many kindly ties, how many services willingly rendered and affectionately accepted were swept away by these words--but Paulus obeyed at once. He went up to his sick friend, their eyes met and each could see that the eyes of the other were dimmed with tears.
"Paulus!" cried the old man, stretching out both his hands to his departing friend, whom he felt he could forgive whatever his guilt; but the Alexandrian did not take them, but turned away, and, without looking back, hastily went up the mountain to a pathless spot, and then on towards the valley--onwards and still onwards, till he was brought to a pause by the steep declivity of the hollow way which led southwards from the mountains into the oasis.
The sun stood high and it was burning hot. Streaming with sweat and panting for breath he leaned against the glowing porphyry wall behind him, hid his face in his hands and strove to collect himself, to think, to pray--for a long time in vain; for instead of joy in the suffering which he had taken upon himself, the grief of isolation weighed upon his heart, and the lamentable cry of the old man had left a warning echo in his soul, and roused doubts of the righteousness of a deed, by which even the best and purest had been deceived, and led into injustice towards him. His heart was breaking with anguish and grief, but when at last he returned to the consciousness of his sufferings physical and mental, he began to recover his courage, and even smiled as he murmured to himself:
"It is well, it is well--the more I suffer the more surely shall I find grace. And besides, if the old man had seen Hermas go through what I have experienced it would undoubtedly have killed him. Certainly I wish it could have been done without--without--aye, it is even so--without deceit; even when I was a heathen I was truthful and held a lie, whether in myself or in another, in as deep horror as father Abraham held murder, and yet when the Lord required him, he led his son Isaac to the slaughter. And Moses when he beat the overseer--and Elias, and Deborah, and Judith. I have taken upon myself no less than they, but my lie will surely be forgiven me, if it is not reckoned against them that they shed blood."
These and such reflections restored Paulus to equanimity and to satisfaction with his conduct, and he began to consider, whether he should return to his old cave and the neighborhood of Stephanus, or seek for a new abode. He decided on the latter course; but first he must find fresh water and some sort of nourishment; for his mouth and tongue were quite parched.
Lower down in the valley sprang a brooklet of which he knew, and hard by it grew various herbs and roots, with which he had often allayed his hunger. He followed the declivity to its base, then turning to the left, he crossed a small table land, which was easily accessible from the gorge, but which on the side of the oasis formed a perpendicular cliff many fathoms deep. Between it and the main mass of the mountain rose numerous single peaks, like a camp of granite tents, or a wildly tossing sea suddenly turned to stone; behind these blocks ran the streamlet, which he found after a short search.
Perfectly refreshed, and with renewed resolve to bear the worst with patience, he returned to the plateau, and from the edge of the precipice he gazed down into the desert gorge that stretched away far below his feet, and in whose deepest and remotest hollow the palmgroves and tamarisk-thickets of the oasis showed as a sharply defined mass of green, like a luxuriant wreath flung upon a bier. The whitewashed roofs of the little town of Pharan shone brightly among the branches and clumps of verdure, and above them all rose the new church, which he was now forbidden to enter. For a moment the thought was keenly painful that he was excluded from the devotions of the community, from the Lord's supper and from congregational prayer, but then he asked, was not every block of stone on the mountain an altar--was not the blue sky above a thousand times wider, and more splendid than the mightiest dome raised by the hand of man, not even excepting the vaulted roof of the Serapeum at Alexandria, and he remembered the "Amen" of the stones, that had rung out after the preaching of the blind man. By this time he had quite recovered himself, and he went towards the cliff in order to find a cavern that he knew of, and that was empty--for its gray-headed inhabitant had died some weeks since. "Verily," thought he, "it seems to me that I am by no means weighed down by the burden of my disgrace, but, on the contrary, lifted up. Here at least I need not cast down my eyes, for I am alone with my God, and in his presence I feel I need not be ashamed."
Thus meditating, he pressed on through a narrow space, which divided two huge masses of porphyry, but suddenly he stood still, for he heard the barking of a dog in his immediate neighborhood, and a few minutes after a greyhound rushed towards him--now indignantly flying at him, and now timidly retreating--while it carefully held up one leg, which was wrapped in a many-colored bandage.
Paulus recollected the enquiry which Phoebicius lead addressed to the Amalekite as to a greyhound, and he immediately guessed that the Gaul's runaway wife must be not far off. His heart beat more quickly, and although he did not immediately know how he should meet the disloyal wife, he felt himself impelled to go to seek her. Without delay he followed the way by which the dog had come, and soon caught sight of a light garment, which vanished behind the nearest rock, and then behind a farther, and yet a farther one.
At last he came up with the fleeing woman. She was standing at the very edge of a precipice, that rose high and sheer above the abyss--a strange and fearful sight; her long golden hair had got tangled, and waved over her bosom and shoulders, half plaited, half undone. Only one foot was firm on the ground; the other-with its thin sandal all torn by the sharp stones--was stretched out over the abyss, ready for the next fatal step. At the next instant she might disappear over the cliff, for though with her right hand she held on to a point of rock, Paulus could see that the boulder had no connection with the rock on which she stood, and rocked too and fro.
She hung over the edge of the chasm like a sleepwalker, or a possessed creature pursued by demons, and at the same time her eyes glistened with such wild madness, and she drew her breath with such feverish rapidity that Paulus, who had come close up to her, involuntarily drew back. He saw that her lips moved, and though he could not understand what she said, he felt that her voiceless utterance was to warn him back.
What should he do? If he hurried forward to save her by a hasty grip, and if this manoeuvre failed, she would fling herself irredeemably into the abyss: if he left her to herself, the stone to which she clung would get looser and looser, and as soon as it fell she would certainly fall too. He had once heard it said, that sleep-walkers always threw themselves down when they heard their names spoken; this statement now recurred to his mind, and he forbore from calling out to her.
Once more the unhappy woman waved him off; his very heart stopped beating, for her movements were wild and vehement, and he could see that the stone which she was holding on by shifted its place. He understood nothing of all the words which she tried to say--for her voice, which only yesterday had been so sweet, to-day was inaudibly hoarse--except the one name "Phoebicius," and he felt no doubt that she clung to the stone over the abyss, so that, like the mountain-goat when it sees itself surprised by the hunter, she might fling herself into the depth below rather than be taken by her pursuer. Paulus saw in her neither her guilt nor her beauty, but only a child of man trembling on the brink of a fearful danger whom he must save from death at any cost; and the thought that he was at any rate not a spy sent in pursuit of her by her husband, suggested to him the first words which he found courage to address to the desperate woman. They were simple words enough, but they were spoken in a tone which fully expressed the childlike amiability of his warm heart, and the Alexandrian, who had been brought up in the most approved school of the city of orators, involuntarily uttered his words in the admirably rich and soft chest voice, which he so well knew how to use.
"Be thankful," said he, "poor dear woman--I have found you in a fortunate hour. I am Paulus, Hermas' best friend, and I would willingly serve you in your sore need. No danger is now threatening you, for Phoebicius is seeking you on a wrong road; you may trust me. Look at me! I do not look as if I could betray a poor erring woman. But you are standing on a spot, where I would rather see my enemy than you; lay your hand confidently in mine--it is no longer white and slender, but it is strong and honest--grant me this request and you will never rue it! See, place your foot here, and take care how you leave go of the rock there. You know not how suspiciously it shook its head over your strange confidence in it. Take care! there--your support has rolled over into the abyss! how it crashes and splits. It has reached the bottom, smashed into a thousand pieces, and I am thankful that you preferred to follow me rather than that false support." While Paulus was speaking he had gone up to Sirona, as a girl whose bird has escaped from its cage, and who creeps up to it with timid care in the hope of recapturing it; he offered her his hand, and as soon as he felt hers in his grasp, he had carefully rescued her from her fearful position, and had led her down to a secure footing on the plateau. So long as she followed him unresistingly he led her on towards the mountain--without aim or fixed destination--but away, away from the abyss.
She paused by a square block of diorite, and Paulus, who had not failed to observe how heavy her steps were, desired her to sit down; he pushed up a flag of stone, which he propped with smaller ones, so that Sirona might not lack a support for her weary back. When he had accomplished
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