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- Homo Sum, Volume 5. - 4/10 -
smooth it, and washed her face with as much zeal as if she thought she should succeed in washing the dark hue out of her skin. And all this she did for him, that on his return she might charm him as much as the white woman in the oasis, whom she hated as fiercely as she loved him passionately.
During the heavy storm of last night a torrent from the mountain-height had shed itself into her retreat and had driven her out of it. Wet through, shelterless, tormented by remorse, fear and longing, she had clambered from stone to stone, and sought refuge and peace under first one rock and then another; thus she had been attracted by the glimmer of light that shone out of the new dwelling of the pious Paulus; she had seen and recognized the Alexandrian, but he had not observed her as he cowered on the ground near his hearth deeply sunk in thought.
She knew now where the excommunicated man dwelt after whom Stephanus often asked, and she had gathered from the old man's lamentations and dark hints, that Paulus too had been ensnared and brought to ruin by her enemy.
As the morning-star began to pale Miriam went up to Stephanus' cave; her heart was full of tears, and yet she was unable to pour out her need and suffering in a soothing flood of weeping; she was wholly possessed with a wild desire to sink down on the earth there and die, and to be released by death from her relentless, driving torment. But it was still too early to disturb the old man--and yet--she must hear a human voice, one word--even if it were a hard word--from the lips of a human being; for the bewildering feeling of distraction which confused her mind, and the misery of abandonment that crushed her heart, were all too cruelly painful to be borne.
She was standing by the entrance to the cave when, high above her head, she heard the falling of stones and the cry of a human voice. She started and listened with out-stretched neck and strung sinews, motionless. Then she broke suddenly into a loud and piercing shout of joy, and flinging up her arms she flew up the mountain towards a traveller who came swiftly down to meet her.
"Hermas! Hermas!" she shouted, and all the sunny delight of her heart was reflected in her cry so clearly and purely that the sympathetic chords in the young man's soul echoed the sound, and he hailed her with joyful welcome.
He had never before greeted her thus, and the tone of his voice revived her poor crushed heart like a restorative draught offered by a tender hand to the lips of the dying. Exquisite delight, and a glow of gratitude such as she had never before felt flooded her soul, and as he was so good to her she longed to show him that she had something to offer in return for the gift of friendship which he offered her. So the first thing she said to him was, "I have staid constantly near your father, and have brought him water early and late, as much as he needed."
She blushed as she thus for the first time praised herself to him, but Hermas exclaimed, "That is a good girl! and I will not forget it. You are a wild, silly thing, but I believe that you are to be relied on by those to whom you feel kindly."
"Only try me," cried Miriam holding out her hand to him. He took it, and as they went on together he said:
"Do you hear the brass? I have warned the watchmen up there; the Blemmyes are coming. Is Paulus with my father?"
"No, but I know where he is."
"Then you must call him," said the young man. "Him first and then Gelasius, and Psoes, and Dulas, and any more of the penitents that you can find. They must all go to the castle by the ravine. Now I will go to my father; you hurry on and show that you are to be trusted." As he spoke he put his arm round her waist, but she slipped shyly away, and calling out, "I will take them all the message," she hurried off.
In front of the cave where she had hoped to meet with Paulus she found Sirona; she did not stop with her, but contented herself with laughing wildly and calling out words of abuse.
Guided by the idea that she should find the Alexandrian at the nearest well, she went on and called him, then hurrying on from cave to cave she delivered her message in Hermas' name, happy to serve him.
They were all collected behind the rough wall on the edge of the ravine- the strange men who had turned their back on life with all its joys and pails, its duties and its delights, on the community and family to which they belonged, and had fled to the desert, there to strive for a prize above and beyond this life, when they had of their own free-will renounced all other effort. In the voiceless desert, far from the enticing echoes of the world, it might be easy to kill every sensual impulse, to throw off the fetters of the world, and so bring that humanity, which was bound to the dust through sin and the flesh, nearer to the pure and incorporate being of the Divinity.
All these men were Christians, and, like the Saviour who had freely taken torments upon Himself to become the Redeemer, they too sought through the purifying power of suffering to free themselves from the dross of their impure human nature, and by severe penance to contribute their share of atonement for their own guilt, and for that of all their race. No fear of persecution had driven them into the desert--nothing but the hope of gaining the hardest of victories.
All the anchorites who had been summoned to the tower were Egyptians and Syrians, and among the former particularly there were many who, being already inured to abstinence and penance in the service of the old gods in their own country, now as Christians had selected as the scene of their pious exercises the very spot where the Lord must have revealed Himself to his elect.
At a later date not merely Sinai itself but the whole tract of Arabia Petraea--through which, as it was said, the Jews at their exodus under Moses had wandered--was peopled with ascetics of like mind, who gave to their settlements the names of the resting-places of the chosen people, as mentioned in the Scriptures; but as yet there was no connection between the individual penitents, no order ruled their lives; they might still be counted by tens, though ere long they numbered hundreds and thousands.
The threat of danger had brought all these contemners of the world and of life in stormy haste to the shelter of the tower, in spite of their readiness to die. Only old Kosmas, who had withdrawn to the desert with his wife--she had found a grave there--had remained in his cave, and had declared to Gelasius, who shared his cave and who had urged him to flight, that he was content in whatever place or whatever hour the Lord should call him, and that it was in God's hands to decide whether old age or an arrow-shot should open to him the gates of heaven.
It was quite otherwise with the rest of the anchorites, who rushed through the narrow door of the watchtower and into its inner room till it was filled to overflowing, and Paulus, who in the presence of danger had fully recovered his equanimity, was obliged to refuse admission to a new- comer in order to preserve the closely packed and trembling crowd from injury.
No murrain passes from beast to beast, no mildew from fruit to fruit with such rapidity as fear spreads from man to man. Those who had been driven by the sharpest lashings of terror had run the fastest, and reached the castle first. They had received those who followed them with lamentation and outcries, and it was a pitiable sight to see how the terrified crowd, in the midst of their loud declarations of resignation to God's guidance and their pious prayers, wrung their hands, and at the same time how painfully anxious each one was to hide the little property he had saved first from the disapproval of his companions, and then from the covetousness of the approaching enemy.
With Paulus came Sergius and Jeremias to whom, on the way, he had spoken words of encouragement. All three did their utmost to revive the confidence of the terrified men, and when the Alexandrian reminded them how zealously each of them only a few weeks since had helped to roll the blocks and stones from the wall, and down the precipice, so as to crush and slay the advancing enemy the feeling was strong in many of them that, as he had already proved himself worthy in defence, it was due to him now to make him their leader.
The number of the men who rushed out of the tower was increasing, and when Hermas appeared with his father on his back and followed by Miriam, and when Paulus exhorted his companions to be edified by this pathetic picture of filial love, curiosity tempted even the last loiterers in the tower out into the open space.
The Alexandrian sprang over the wall, went up to Stephanus, lifted him from the shoulders of the panting youth and, taking him on his own, carried him towards the tower; but the old warrior refused to enter the place of refuge, and begged his friend to lay him down by the wall. Paulus obeyed his wish and then went with Hermas to the top of the tower to spy the distance from thence.
As soon as he had quitted him, Stephanus turned to the anchorites who stood near him, saying, "These stones are loose, and though my strength is indeed small still it is great enough to send one of them over with a push. If it comes to a battle my old soldier's eyes, dim as they are now, may with the help of yours see many things that may be useful to you young ones. Above all things, if the game is to be a hot one for the robbers, one must command here whom the others will obey."
"It shall be you, father," interrupted Salathiel the Syrian. "You have served in Caesar's army, and you proved your courage and knowledge of war in the last raid. You shall command us."
Stephanus sadly shook his head and replied, "My voice is become too weak and low since this wound in my breast and my long illness. Not even those who stand nearest to me would understand me in the noise of battle. Let Paulus be your captain, for he is strong, cautious and brave."
Many of the anchorites had long looked upon the Alexandrian as their best stay; for many years he had enjoyed the respect of all and on a thousand occasions had given proof of his strength and presence of mind, but at this proposal they looked at each other in surprise, doubt and disapproval.
Stephanus saw what was passing in their minds.
"It is true he has erred gravely," he said. "And before God he is the least of the least among us; but in animal strength and indomitable courage he is superior to you all. Which of you would be willing to take his place, if you reject his guidance."
"Orion the Saite," cried one of the anchorites, "is tall and strong. If
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