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- Homo Sum, Volume 4. - 4/9 -
she looked not less fresh and charming than on that morning when she had been seen and watched by Hermas. True, her heart was sore, true, she was perplexed and miserable, but sleep and rest had long since effaced from her healthy, youthful, and elastic frame all traces left by that fearful day of flight; and fate, which often means best by us when it shows us a hostile face, had sent her a minor anxiety to divert her from her graver cares.
Her greyhound was very ill, and it seemed that in the ill-treatment it had experienced, not only its leg had been broken, but that it had suffered some internal injury. The brisk, lively little creature fell down powerless when ever it tried to stand, and when she took it up to nurse it comfortably in her lap, it whined pitifully, and looked up at her sorrowfully, and as if complaining to her. It would take neither food nor drink; its cool little nose was hot; and when she left the cave, Iambe lay panting on the fine woollen coverlet which Paulus had spread upon the bed, unable even to look after her.
Before taking the dog the water she had fetched in the graceful jar-- which was another gift from her hospitable friend--she went up to Paulus and greeted him kindly. He looked up from his work, thanked her, and a few minutes later, when she came out of the cave again, asked her, "How is the poor little creature?"
Sirona shrugged her shoulders, and said sadly, "She has drunk nothing, and does not even know me, and pants as rapidly as last evening--if I were to lose the poor little beast!--"
She could say no more for emotion, but Paulus shook his head.
"It is sinful," he said, "to grieve so for a beast devoid of reason."
"Iambe is not devoid of reason," replied Sirona. "And even if she were, what have I left if she dies? She grew up in my father's house, where all loved me; I had her first when she was only a few days old, and I brought her up on milk on a little bit of sponge. Many a time, when I heard the little thing whining for food, have I got out of bed at night with bare feet; and so she came to cling to me like a child, and could not do without me. No one can know how another feels about such things. My father used to tell us of a spider that beautified the life of a prisoner, and what is a dirty dumb creature like that to my clever, graceful little dog! I have lost my home, and here every one believes the worst of me, although I have done no one any harm, and no one, no one loves me but Iambe."
"But I know of one who loves every one with a divine and equal love," interrupted Paulus.
"I do not care for such a one," answered Sirona. "Iambe follows no one but me; what good can a love do me that I must share with all the world! But you mean the crucified God of the Christians? He is good and pitiful, so says Dame Dorothea; but he is dead--I cannot see him, nor hear him, and, certainly, I cannot long for one who only shows me grace. I want one to whom I can count for something, and to whose life and happiness I am indispensable."
A scarcely perceptible shudder thrilled through the Alexandrian as she spoke these words, and he thought, as he glanced at her face and figure with a mingled expression of regret and admiration, "Satan, before he fell, was the fairest among the pure spirits, and he still has power over this woman. She is still far from being ripe for salvation, and yet she has a gentle heart, and even if she has erred, she is not lost."
Sirona's eyes had met his, and she said with a sigh, "You look at me so compassionately--if only Iambe were well, and if I succeeded in reaching Alexandria, my destiny would perhaps take a turn for the better."
Paulus had risen while she spoke, and had taken the pot from the hearth; he now offered it to his guest, saying:
"For the present we will trust to this broth to compensate to you for the delights of the capital; I am glad that you relish it. But tell me now, have you seriously considered what danger may threaten a beautiful, young, and unprotected woman in the wicked city of the Greeks? Would it not be better that you should submit to the consequences of your guilt, and return to Phoebicius, to whom unfortunately you belong?"
Sirona, at these words, had set down the vessel out of which she was eating, and rising in passionate haste, she exclaimed:
"That shall never, never be!--And when I was sitting up there half-dead, and took your step for that of Phoebicius, the gods showed me a way to escape from him, and from you or anyone who would drag me back to him. When I fled to the edge of the abyss, I was raving and crazed, but what I then would have done in my madness, I would do now in cold blood--as surely as I hope to see my own people in Arelas once more! What was I once, and to what have I come through Phoebicius! Life was to me a sunny garden with golden trellises and shady trees and waters as bright as crystal, with rosy flowers and singing birds; and he, he has darkened its light, and fouled its springs, and broken down its flowers. All now seems dumb and colorless, and if the abyss is my grave, no one will miss me nor mourn for me."
"Poor woman!" said Paulus. "Your husband then showed you very little love."
"Love," laughed Sirona, "Phoebicius and love! Only yesterday I told you, how cruelly he used to torture me after his feasts, when he was drunk or when he recovered from one of his swoons. But one thing he did to me, one thing which broke the last thread of a tie between us. No one yet has ever heard a word of it from me; not even Dorothea, who often blamed me when I let slip a hard word against my husband. It was well for her to talk--if I had found a husband like Petrus I might perhaps have been like Dorothea. It is a marvel, which I myself do not understand, that I did not grow wicked with such a man, a man who--why should I conceal it-- who, when we were at Rome, because he was in debt, and because he hoped to get promotion through his legate Quintillus, sold me--me--to him. He himself brought the old man--who had often followed me about--into his house, but our hostess, a good woman, had overheard the matter, and betrayed it all to me. It is so base, so vile--it seems to blacken my soul only to think of it! The legate got little enough in return for his sesterces, but Phoebicius did not restore his wages of sin, and his rage against me knew no bounds when he was transferred to the oasis at the instigation of his betrayed chief. Now you know all, and never advise me again to return to that man to whom my misfortune has bound me.
"Only listen how the poor little beast in there is whining. It wants to come to me, and has not the strength to move."
Paulus looked after her sympathetically as she disappeared under the opening in the rock, and he awaited her return with folded arms. He could not see into the cave, for the space in which the bed stood was closed at the end by the narrow passage which formed the entrance, and which joined it at an angle as the handle of a scythe joins the blade. She remained a long time, and he could hear now and then a tender word with which she tried to comfort the suffering creature. Suddenly he was startled by a loud and bitter cry from Sirona; no doubt, the poor woman's affectionate little companion was dead, and in the dim twilight of the cave she had seen its dulled eye, and felt the stiffness of death overspreading and paralyzing its slender limbs. He dared not go into the cavern, but he felt his eyes fill with tears, and he would willingly have spoken some word of consolation to her.
At last she came out, her eyes red with weeping. Paulus had guessed rightly for she held the body of little Iambe in her arms.
"How sorry I am," said Paulus, "the poor little creature was so pretty."
Sirona nodded, sat down, and unfastened the prettily embroidered band from the dog's neck, saying half to herself, and half to Paulus, "My little Agnes worked this collar. I myself had taught her to sew, and this was the first piece of work that was all her own." She held the collar up to the anchorite. "This clasp is of real silver," she went on, "and my father himself gave it to me. He was fond of the poor little dog too. Now it will never leap and spring again, poor thing."
She looked sadly down at the dead dog. Then she collected herself, and said hurriedly, "Now I will go away from here. Nothing--nothing keeps me any longer in this wilderness, for the senator's house, where I have spent many happy hours, and where everyone was fond of me, is closed against me, and must ever be so long as he lives there. If you have not been kind to me only to do me harm in the end, let me go today, and help me to reach Alexandria."
"Not to-day, in any case not to-day," replied Paulus. "First I must find out when a vessel sails for Klysma or for Berenike, and then I have many other things to see to for you. You owe me an answer to my question, as to what you expect to do and to find in Alexandria. Poor child--the younger and the fairer you are--"
"I know all you would say to me," interrupted Sirona. "Wherever I have been, I have attracted the eyes of men, and when I have read in their looks that I pleased them, it has greatly pleased me--why should I deny it? Many a one has spoken fair words to me or given me flowers, and sent old women to my house to win me for them, but even if one has happened to please me better than another, still I have never found it hard to send them home again as was fitting."
"Till Hermas laid his love at your feet," said Paulus. "He is a bold lad--"
"A pretty, inexperienced boy," said Sirona, "neither more nor less. It was a heedless thing, no doubt, to admit him to my rooms, but no vestal need be ashamed to own to such favor as I showed him. I am innocent, and I will remain so that I may stand in my father's presence without a blush when I have earned money enough in the capital for the long journey."
Paulus looked in her face astonished and almost horrified.
Then he had in fact taken on himself guilt which did not exist, and perhaps the senator would have been slower to condemn Sirona, if it had not been for his falsely acknowledging it. He stood before her, feeling like a child that would fain put together some object of artistic workmanship, and who has broken it to pieces for want of skill. At the same time he could not doubt a word that she said, for the voice within him had long since plainly told him that this woman was no common criminal.
For some time he was at a loss for words; at last he said timidly:
"What do you purpose doing in Alexandria?"
"Polykarp says, that all good work finds a purchaser there," she answered. "And I can weave particularly well, and embroider with gold- thread. Perhaps I may find shelter under some roof where there are children, and I would willingly attend to them during the day. In my free time and at night I could work at my frame, and when I have scraped enough together I shall soon find a ship that will carry me to Gaul, to my own people. Do you not see that I cannot go back to Phoebicius, and can you help me?"
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