The Lost Word
by Henry Van Dyke
THE LOST WORD
A Christmas Legend of Long Ago
I. THE POVERTY
II. A CHRISTMAS
BUT NO FAREWELL
IV. LOVE IN
SEARCH OF A WORD
VI. GREAT FEAR
"DEDICATED TO MY FRIEND HAMILTON W. MABIE"
I. THE POVERTY OF HERMAS
"COME down, Hermas, come down! The night is past. It is time to be
stirring. Christ is born to-day. Peace be with you in His name. Make
haste and come down!"
A little group of young men were standing in a street of Antioch,
in the dusk of early morning, fifteen hundred years ago. It was a
class of candidates who had nearly finished their two years of
training for the Christian church. They had come to call their
fellow-student Hermas from his lodging.
Their voices rang out cheerily through the cool air. They were full
of that glad sense of life which the young feel when they awake and
come to rouse one who is still sleeping. There was a note of friendly
triumph in their call, as if they were exulting unconsciously in
having begun the adventure of the new day before their comrade.
But Hermas was not asleep. He had been waking for hours, and the
dark walls of his narrow lodging had been a prison to his restless
heart. A nameless sorrow and discontent had fallen upon him, and he
could find no escape from the heaviness of his own thoughts.
There is a sadness of youth into which the old cannot enter. It
seems to them unreal and causeless. But it is even more bitter and
burdensome than the sadness of age. There is a sting of resentment in
it, a fever of angry surprise that the world should so soon be a
disappointment, and life so early take on the look of a failure. It
has little reason in it, perhaps, but it has all the more weariness
and gloom, because the man who is oppressed by it feels dimly that it
is an unnatural and an unreasonable thing, that he should be separated
from the joy of his companions, and tired of living before he has
fairly begun to live.
Hermas had fallen into the very depths of this strange self-pity.
He was out of tune with everything around him. He had been thinking,
through the dead, still night, of all that he had given up when he
left the house of his father, the wealthy pagan Demetrius, to join
the company of the Christians. Only two years ago he had been one of
the richest young men in Antioch. Now he was one of the poorest. And
the worst of it was that, though he had made the choice willingly and
accepted the sacrifice with a kind of enthusiasm, he was already
dissatisfied with it.
The new life was no happier than the old. He was weary of vigils
and fasts, weary of studies and penances, weary of prayers and
sermons. He felt like a slave in a treadmill. He knew that he must go
on. His honour, his conscience, his sense of duty, bound him. He could
not go back to the old careless pagan life again; for something had
happened within him which made a return impossible. Doubtless he had
found the true religion, but he had found it only as a task and a
burden; its joy and peace had slipped away from him.
He felt disillusioned and robbed. He sat beside his hard little
couch, waiting without expectancy for the gray dawn of another empty
day, and hardly lifting his head at the shouts of his friends.
"Come down, Hermas, you sluggard! Come down! It is Christmas morn.
Awake and be glad with us!"
"I am coming," he answered listlessly; "only have patience a
moment. I have been awake since midnight, and waiting for the day."
"You hear him!" said his friends one to another. "How he puts us
all to shame! He is more watchful, more eager, than any of us. Our
master, John the Presbyter, does well to be proud of him. He is the
best man in our class. When he is baptized the church will get a
While they were talking the door opened and Hermas stepped out. He
was a figure to be remarked in any company—tall, broad-shouldered,
straight-hipped, with a head proudly poised on the firm column of the
neck, and short brown curls clustering over the square forehead. It
was the perpetual type of vigourous and intelligent young manhood,
such as may be found in every century among the throngs of ordinary
men, as if to show what the flower of the race should be. But the
light in his dark blue eyes was clouded and uncertain; his smooth
cheeks were leaner than they should have been at twenty; and there
were downward lines about his mouth which spoke of desires unsatisfied
and ambitions repressed. He joined his companions with brief
greetings,—a nod to one, a word to another,— and they passed
together down the steep street.
Overhead the mystery of daybreak was silently transfiguring the
sky. The curtain of darkness had lifted softly upward along the edge
of the horizon. The ragged crests of Mount Silpius were outlined with
pale rosy light. In the central vault of heaven a few large stars
twinkled drowsily. The great city, still chiefly pagan, lay more than
half asleep. But multitudes of the Christians, dressed in white and
carrying lighted torches in their hands, were hurrying toward the
Basilica of Constantine to keep the latest holy day of the church, the
new festival of the birthday of their Master.
The vast, bare building was soon crowded, and the younger converts,
who were not yet permitted to stand among the baptized, found it
difficult to come to their appointed place between the first two
pillars of the house, just within the threshold. There was some
good-humoured pressing and jostling about the door; but the
candidates pushed steadily forward.
"By your leave, friends, our station is beyond you. Will you let us
pass? Many thanks."
A touch here, a courteous nod there, a little patience, a little
persistence, and at last they stood in their place. Hermas was taller
than his companions; he could look easily over their heads and survey
the white sea of people stretching away through the columns, under the
shadows of the high roof, as the tide spreads on a calm day into the
pillared cavern of Staffa, quiet as if the ocean hardly dared to
breathe. The light of many flambeaux fell, in flickering, uncertain
rays, over the assembly. At the end of the vista there was a circle of
clearer, steadier radiance. Hermas could see the bishop in his great
chair, surrounded by the presbyters, the lofty desks on either side
for the readers of the Scripture, the communion-table and the table of
offerings in the middle of the church.
The call to prayer sounded down the long aisle. Thousands of hands
were joyously lifted in the air, as if the sea had blossomed into
waving lilies, and the "Amen" was like the murmur of countless
ripples in an echoing place.
Then the singing began, led by the choir of a hundred trained
voices which the Bishop Paul had founded in Antioch. Timidly, at
first, the music felt its way, as the people joined with a broken and
uncertain cadence, the mingling of many little waves not yet gathered
into rhythm and harmony. Soon the longer, stronger billows of song
rolled in, sweeping from side to side as the men and the women
answered in the clear antiphony.
Hermas had often been carried on those "Tides of music's golden sea
Setting toward eternity." But to-day his heart was a rock that stood
motionless. The flood passed by and left him unmoved.
Looking out from his place at the foot of the pillar, he saw a man
standing far off in the lofty bema. Short and slender, wasted by
sickness, gray before his time, with pale cheeks and wrinkled brow,
he seemed at first like a person of no significance—a reed shaken in
the wind. But there was a look in his deep-set, poignant eyes, as he
gathered all the glances of the multitude to himself, that belied his
mean appearance and prophesied power. Hermas knew very well who it
was: the man who had drawn him from his father's house, the teacher
who was instructing him as a son in the Christian faith, the guide and
trainer of his soul—John of Antioch, whose fame filled the city and
began to overflow Asia, and who was called already Chrysostom, the
Hermas had felt the magic of his eloquence many a time; and to-day,
as the tense voice vibrated through the stillness, and the sentences
moved onward, growing fuller and stronger, bearing argosies of costly
rhetoric and treasures of homely speech in their bosom, and drawing
the hearts of men with a resistless magic, Hermas knew that the
preacher had never been more potent, more inspired.
He played on that immense congregation as a master on an
instrument. He rebuked their sins, and they trembled. He touched their
sorrows, and they wept. He spoke of the conflicts, the triumphs, the
glories of their faith, and they broke out in thunders of applause. He
hushed them into reverent silence, and led them tenderly, with the
wise men of the East, to the lowly birthplace of Jesus.
"Do thou, therefore, likewise leave the Jewish people, the troubled
city, the bloodthirsty tyrant, the pomp of the world, and hasten to
Bethlehem, the sweet house of spiritual bread. For though thou be but
a shepherd, and come hither, thou shalt behold the young Child in an
inn. Though thou be a king, and come not hither, thy purple robe shall
profit thee nothing. Though thou be one of the wise men, this shall be
no hindrance to thee. Only let thy coming be to honour and adore, with
trembling joy, the Son of God, to whose name be glory, on this His
birthday, and forever and forever."
The soul of Hermas did not answer to the musician's touch. The
strings of his heart were slack and soundless; there was no response
within him. He was neither shepherd, nor king, nor wise man, only an
unhappy, dissatisfied, questioning youth. He was out of sympathy with
the eager preacher, the joyous hearers. In their harmony he had no
part. Was it for this that he had forsaken his inheritance and
narrowed his life to poverty and hardship? What was it all worth?
The gracious prayers with which the young converts were blessed and
dismissed before the sacrament sounded hollow in his ears. Never had
he felt so utterly lonely as in that praying throng. He went out with
his companions like a man departing from a banquet where all but he
had been fed.
"Farewell, Hermas," they cried, as he turned from them at the door.
But he did not look back, nor wave his hand. He was alone already in
When he entered the broad Avenue of the Colonnades, the sun had
already topped the eastern hills, and the ruddy light was streaming
through the long double row of archways and over the pavements of
crimson marble. But Hermas turned his back to the morning, and walked
with his shadow before him.
The street began to swarm and whirl and quiver with the motley life
of a huge city: beggars and jugglers, dancers and musicians, gilded
youths in their chariots, and daughters of joy looking out from their
windows, all intoxicated with the mere delight of living and the
gladness of a new day. The pagan populace of Antioch— reckless,
pleasure-loving, spendthrift—were preparing for the Saturnalia. But
all this Hermas had renounced. He cleft his way through the crowd
slowly, like a reluctant swimmer weary of breasting the tide.
At the corner of the street where the narrow, populous Lane of the
Camel-drivers crossed the Colonnades, a story-teller had bewitched a
circle of people around him. It was the same old tale of love and
adventure that many generations have listened to; but the lively
fancy of the hearers lent it new interest, and the wit of the
improviser drew forth sighs of interest and shouts of laughter.
A yellow-haired girl on the edge of the throng turned, as Hermas
passed, and smiled in his face. She put out her hand and caught him
by the sleeve.
"Stay," she said, "and laugh a bit with us. I know who you are—
the son of Demetrius. You must have bags of gold. Why do you look so
black? Love is alive yet."
Hermas shook off her hand, but not ungently.
"I don't know what you mean," he said. "You are mistaken in me. I
am poorer than you are."
But as he passed on, he felt the warm touch of her fingers through
the cloth on his arm. It seemed as if she had plucked him by the
He went out by the Western Gate, under the golden cherubim that the
Emperor Titus had stolen from the ruined Temple of Jerusalem and
fixed upon the arch of triumph. He turned to the left, and climbed
the hill to the road that led to the Grove of Daphne.
In all the world there was no other highway as beautiful. It wound
for five miles along the foot of the mountains, among gardens and
villas, plantations of myrtles and mulberries, with wide outlooks
over the valley of Orontes and the distant, shimmering sea.
The richest of all the dwellings was the House of the Golden
Pillars, the mansion of Demetrius. He had won the favor of the
apostate Emperor Julian, whose vain efforts to restore the worship of
the heathen gods, some twenty years ago, had opened an easy way to
wealth and power for all who would mock and oppose Christianity.
Demetrius was not a sincere fanatic like his royal master; but he was
bitter enough in his professed scorn of the new religion, to make him
a favourite at the court where the old religion was in fashion. He had
reaped a rich reward of his policy, and a strange sense of consistency
made him more fiercely loyal to it than if it had been a real faith.
He was proud of being called "the friend of Julian"; and when his son
joined himself to the Christians, and acknowledged the unseen God, it
seemed like an insult to his father's success. He drove the boy from
his door and disinherited him.
The glittering portico of the serene, haughty house, the repose of
the well-ordered garden, still blooming with belated flowers, seemed
at once to deride and to invite the young outcast plodding along the
dusty road. "This is your birthright," whispered the clambering
rose-trees by the gate; and the closed portals of carven bronze said:
"You have sold it for a thought—a dream."
II. A CHRISTMAS LOSS
HERMAS found the Grove of Daphne quite deserted. There was no sound
in the enchanted vale but the rustling of the light winds chasing
each other through the laurel thickets, and the babble of innumerable
streams. Memories of the days and nights of delicate pleasure that the
grove had often seen still haunted the bewildered paths and broken
fountains. At the foot of a rocky eminence, crowned with the ruins of
Apollo's temple, which had been mysteriously destroyed by fire just
after Julian had restored and reconsecrated it, Hermas sat down beside
a gushing spring, and gave himself up to sadness.
"How beautiful the world would be, how joyful, how easy to live in,
without religion. These questions about unseen things, perhaps about
unreal things, these restraints and duties and sacrifices—if I were
only free from them all, and could only forget them all, then I could
live my life as I pleased, and be happy."
"Why not?" said a quiet voice at his back.
He turned, and saw an old man with a long beard and a threadbare
cloak (the garb affected by the pagan philosophers) standing behind
him and smiling curiously.
"How is it that you answer that which has not been spoken?" said
Hermas; "and who are you that honour me with your company?"
"Forgive the intrusion," answered the stranger; "it is not ill
meant. A friendly interest is as good as an introduction."
"But to what singular circumstance do I owe this interest?"
"To your face," said the old man, with a courteous inclination.
"Perhaps also a little to the fact that I am the oldest inhabitant
here, and feel as if all visitors were my guests, in a way"
"Are you, then, one of the keepers of the grove? And have you given
up your work with the trees to take a holiday as a philosopher?"
"Not at all. The robe of philosophy is a mere affectation, I must
confess. I think little of it. My profession is the care of altars.
In fact, I am that solitary priest of Apollo whom the Emperor Julian
found here when he came to revive the worship of the grove, some
twenty years ago. You have heard of the incident?"
"Yes," said Hermas, beginning to be interested; "the whole city
must have heard of it, for it is still talked of. But surely it was a
strange sacrifice that you brought to celebrate the restoration of
"You mean the goose? Well, perhaps it was not precisely what the
emperor expected. But it was all that I had, and it seemed to me not
inappropriate. You will agree to that if you are a Christian, as I
guess from your dress."
"You speak lightly for a priest of Apollo."
"Oh, as for that, I am no bigot. The priesthood is a professional
matter, and the name of Apollo is as good as any other. How many
altars do you think there have been in this grove?"
"I do not know."
"Just four-and-twenty, including that of the martyr Babylas, whose
ruined chapel you see just beyond us. I have had something to do with
most of them in my time. They—are transitory. They give employment to
care-takers for a while. But the thing that lasts, and the thing that
interests me, is the human life that plays around them. The game has
been going on for centuries. It still disports itself very pleasantly
on summer evenings through these shady walks. Believe me, for I know.
Daphne and Apollo were shadows. But the flying maidens and the
pursuing lovers, the music and the dances, these are the realities.
Life is the game, and the world keeps it up merrily. But you? You are
of a sad countenance for one so young and so fair. Are you a loser in
The words and tone of the speaker fitted Hermas' mood as a key fits
the lock. He opened his heart to the old man, and told him the story
of his life: his luxurious boyhood in his father's house; the
irresistible spell which compelled him to forsake it when he heard
John's preaching of the new religion; his lonely year with the
anchorites among the mountains; the strict discipline in his
teacher's house at Antioch; his weariness of duty, his distaste for
poverty, his discontent with worship.
"And to-day," said he, "I have been thinking that I am a fool. My
life is swept as bare as a hermit's cell. There is nothing in it but
a dream, a thought of God, which does not satisfy me."
The singular smile deepened on his companion's face. "You are
ready, then," he suggested, "to renounce your new religion and go back
to that of your father?"
"No; I renounce nothing, I accept nothing. I do not wish to think
about it. I only wish to live."
"A very reasonable wish, and I think you are about to see its
accomplishment. Indeed, I may even say that I can put you in the way
of securing it. Do you believe in magic?"
"I have told you already that I do not know whether I believe in
anything. This is not a day on which I care to make professions of
faith. I believe in what I see. I want what will give me pleasure."
"Well," said the old man, soothingly, as he plucked a leaf from the
laurel-tree above them and dipped it in the spring, "let us dismiss
the riddles of belief. I like them as little as you do. You know this
is a Castalian fountain. The Emperor Hadrian once read his fortune
here from a leaf dipped in the water. Let us see what this leaf tells
us. It is already turning yellow. How do you read that?"
"Wealth," said Hermas, laughing, as he looked at his mean garments.
"And here is a bud on the stem that seems to be swelling. What is
"Pleasure," answered Hermas, bitterly.
"And here is a tracing of wreaths upon the surface. What do you
make of that?"
"What you will," said Hermas, not even taking the trouble to look.
"Suppose we say success and fame?"
"Yes," said the stranger; "it is all written here. I promise that
you shall enjoy it all. But you do not need to believe in my promise.
I am not in the habit of requiring faith of those whom I would serve.
No such hard conditions for me! There is only one thing that I ask.
This is the season that you Christians call the Christmas, and you
have taken up the pagan custom of exchanging gifts. Well, if I give to
you, you must give to me. It is a small thing, and really the thing
you can best afford to part with: a single word—the name of Him you
profess to worship. Let me take that word and all that belongs to it
entirely out of your life, so that you shall never need to hear it or
speak it again. You will be richer without it. I promise you
everything, and this is all I ask in return. Do you consent?"
"Yes, I consent," said Hermas, mocking. "If you can take your
price, a word, you can keep your promise, a dream."
The stranger laid the long, cool, wet leaf softly across the young
man's eyes. An icicle of pain darted through them; every nerve in his
body was drawn together there in a knot of agony.
Then all the tangle of pain seemed to be lifted out of him. A cool
languor of delight flowed back through every vein, and he sank into a
III. PARTING, BUT NO FAREWELL
THERE is a slumber so deep that it annihilates time. It is like a
fragment of eternity. Beneath its enchantment of vacancy, a day seems
like a thousand years, and a thousand years might well pass as one
It was such a sleep that fell upon Hermas in the Grove of Daphne.
An immeasurable period, an interval of life so blank and empty that he
could not tell whether it was long or short, had passed over him when
his senses began to stir again. The setting sun was shooting arrows of
gold under the glossy laurel-leaves. He rose and stretched his arms,
grasping a smooth branch above him and shaking it, to make sure that
he was alive. Then he hurried back toward Antioch, treading lightly as
if on air.
The ground seemed to spring beneath his feet. Already his life had
changed, he knew not how. Something that did not belong to him had
dropped away; he had returned to a former state of being. He felt as
if anything might happen to him, and he was ready for anything. He
was a new man, yet curiously familiar to himself—as if he had done
with playing a tiresome part and returned to his natural state. He was
buoyant and free, without a care, a doubt, a fear.
As he drew near to his father's house he saw a confusion of
servants in the porch, and the old steward ran down to meet him at the
"Lord, we have been seeking you everywhere. The master is at the
point of death, and has sent for you. Since the sixth hour he calls
your name continually. Come to him quickly, lord, for I fear the time
Hermas entered the house at once; nothing could amaze him to-day.
His father lay on an ivory couch in the inmost chamber, with shrunken
face and restless eyes, his lean fingers picking incessantly at the
"My son!" he murmured; "Hermas, my son! It is good that you have
come back to me. I have missed you. I was wrong to send you away. You
shall never leave me again. You are my son, my heir. I have changed
everything. Hermas, my son, come nearer—close beside me. Take my
hand, my son!"
The young man obeyed, and, kneeling by the couch, gathered his
father's cold, twitching fingers in his firm, warm grasp.
"Hermas, life is passing—long, rich, prosperous; the last sands,
I—cannot stay them. My religion, a good policy—Julian was my
friend. But now he is gone—where? My soul is empty—nothing
beyond—very dark—I am afraid. But you know something better. You
found something that made you willing to give up your life for it—it
must have been almost like dying—yet you were happy. What was it you
found? See, I am giving you everything. I have forgiven you. Now
forgive me. Tell me, what is it? Your secret, your faith—give it to
me before I go."
At the sound of this broken pleading a strange passion of pity and
love took the young man by the throat. His voice shook a little as he
"Father, there is nothing to forgive. I am your son; I will gladly
tell, you all that I know. I will give you the secret of faith.
Father, you must believe with all your heart, and soul, and strength
Where was the word—the word that he had been used to utter night
and morning, the word that had meant to him more than he had ever
known? What had become of it?
He groped for it in the dark room of his mind. He had thought he
could lay his hand upon it in a moment, but it was gone. Some one had
taken it away. Everything else was most clear to him: the terror of
death; the lonely soul appealing from his father's eyes; the instant
need of comfort and help. But at the one point where he looked for
help he could find nothing; only an empty space. The word of hope had
vanished. He felt for it blindly and in desperate haste.
"Father, wait! I have forgotten something—it has slipped away
from me. I shall find it in a moment. There is hope—I will tell you
The bony hand gripped his like a vice; the glazed eyes opened
wider. "Tell me," whispered the old man; "tell me quickly, for I must
The voice sank into a dull rattle. The fingers closed once more,
and relaxed. The light behind the eyes went out.
Hermas, the master of the House of the Golden Pillars, was keeping
watch by the dead.
IV. LOVE IN SEARCH OF A WORD
THE break with the old life was as clean as if it had been cut with
a knife. Some faint image of a hermit's cell, a bare lodging in a
back street of Antioch, a class-room full of earnest students,
remained in Hermas' memory. Some dull echo of the voice of John the
Presbyter, and the murmured sound of chanting, and the murmur of
great congregations, still lingered in his ears; but it was like
something that had happened to another person, something that he had
read long ago, but of which he had lost the meaning.
His new life was full and smooth and rich—too rich for any sense
of loss to make itself felt. There were a hundred affairs to busy
him, and the days ran swiftly by as if they were shod with winged
Nothing needed to be considered, prepared for, begun. Everything
was ready and waiting for him. All that he had to do was to go on with
it. The estate of Demetrius was even greater than the world had
supposed. There were fertile lands in Syria which the emperor had
given him, marble-quarries in Phrygia, and forests of valuable timber
in Cilicia; the vaults of the villa contained chests of gold and
silver; the secret cabinets in the master's room were full of precious
stones. The stewards were diligent and faithful. The servants of the
magnificent household rejoiced at the young master's return. His table
was spread; the rose-garland of pleasure was woven for his head, and
his cup was already filled with the spicy wine of power.
The period of mourning for his father came at a fortunate moment,
to seclude and safeguard him from the storm of political troubles and
persecutions that fell upon Antioch after the insults offered by the
mob to the imperial statues in the year 887. The friends of
Demetrius, prudent and conservative persons, gathered around Hermas
and made him welcome to their circle. Chief among them was Libanius,
the sophist, his nearest neighbour, whose daughter Athenais had been
the playmate of Hermas in the old days.
He had left her a child. He found her a beautiful woman. What
transformation is so magical, so charming, as this? To see the
uncertain lines of-youth rounded into firmness and symmetry, to
discover the half-ripe, merry, changing face of the girl matured into
perfect loveliness, and looking at you with calm, clear, serious eyes,
not forgetting the past, but fully conscious of the changed
present—this is to behold a miracle in the flesh.
"Where have you been, these two years?" said Athenais, as they
walked together through the garden of lilies where they had so often
"In a land of tiresome dreams," answered Hermas; "but you have
wakened me, and I am never going back again."
It was not to be supposed that the sudden disappearance of Hermas
from among his former associates could long remain unnoticed. At
first it was a mystery. There was a fear, for two or three days, that
he might be lost. Some of his more intimate companions maintained that
his devotion had led him out into the desert to join the anchorites.
But the news of his return to the House of the Golden Pillars, and of
his new life as its master, filtered quickly through the gossip of the
Then the church was filled with dismay and grief and reproach.
Messengers and letters were sent to Hermas. They disturbed him a
little, but they took no hold upon him. It seemed to him as if the
messengers spoke in a strange language. As he read the letters there
were words blotted out of the writing which made the full sense
His old companions came to reprove him for leaving them, to warn
him of the peril of apostasy, to entreat him to return. It all sounded
vague and futile. They spoke as if he had betrayed or offended some
one; but when they came to name the object of his fear—the one whom
he had displeased, and to whom he should return—he heard nothing;
there was a blur of silence in their speech. The clock pointed to the
hour, but the bell did not strike. At last Hermas refused to see them
One day John the Presbyter stood in the atrium. Hermas was
entertaining Libanius and Athenais in the banquet-hall. When the
visit of the Presbyter was announced, the young master loosed a
collar of gold and jewels from his neck, and gave it to his scribe.
"Take this to John of Antioch, and tell him it is a gift from his
former pupil—as a token of remembrance, or to spend for the poor of
the city. I will always send him what he wants, but it is idle for us
to talk together any more. I do not understand what he says. I have
not gone to the temple, nor offered sacrifice, nor denied his
teaching. I have simply forgotten. I do not think about those things
any longer. I am only living. A happy man wishes him all happiness
But John let the golden collar fall on the marble floor. "Tell your
master that we shall talk together again, after all," said he, as he
passed sadly out of the hall.
The love of Athenais and Hermas was like a tiny rivulet that sinks
out of sight in a cavern, but emerges again as a bright and brimming
stream. The careless comradery of childhood was mysteriously changed
into a complete companionship.
When Athenais entered the House of the Golden Pillars as a bride,
all the music of life came with her. Hermas called the feast of her
welcome "the banquet of the full chord." Day after day, night after
night, week after week, month after month, the bliss of the home
unfolded like a rose of a thousand leaves. When a child came to them,
a strong, beautiful boy, worthy to be the heir of such a house, the
heart of the rose was filled with overflowing fragrance. Happiness was
heaped upon happiness. Every wish brought its own accomplishment.
Wealth, honour, beauty, peace, love—it was an abundance of felicity
so great that the soul of Hermas could hardly contain it.
Strangely enough, it began to press upon him, to trouble him with
the very excess of joy. He felt as if there were something yet needed
to complete and secure it all. There was an urgency within him, a
longing to find some outlet for his feelings, he knew not how— some
expression and culmination of his happiness, he knew not what.
Under his joyous demeanour a secret fire of restlessness began to
burn—an expectancy of something yet to come which should put the
touch of perfection on his life, He spoke of it to Athenais, as they
sat together, one summer evening, in a bower of jasmine, with their
boy playing at their feet. There had been music in the garden; but
now the singers and lute-players had withdrawn, leaving the master
and mistress alone in the lingering twilight, tremulous with
inarticulate melody of unseen birds. There was a secret voice in the
hour seeking vainly for utterance—a word waiting to be spoken at the
centre of the charm.
"How deep is our happiness, my beloved!" said Hermas; "deeper than
the sea that slumbers yonder, below the city. And yet I feel it is
not quite full and perfect. There is a depth of joy that we have not
yet known—a repose of happiness that is still beyond us. What is it?
I have no superstitious fears, like the king who cast his signet-ring
into the sea because he dreaded that some secret vengeance would fall
on his unbroken good fortune. That was an idle terror. But there is
something that oppresses me like an invisible burden. There is
something still undone, unspoken, unfelt— something that we need to
complete everything. Have you not felt it, too? Can you not lead me to
"Yes," she answered, lifting her eyes to his face; "I, too, have
felt it, Hermas, this burden, this need, this unsatisfied longing. I
think I know what it means. It is gratitude—the language of the
heart, the music of happiness. There is no perfect joy without
gratitude. But we have never learned it, and the want of it troubles
us. It is like being dumb with a heart full of love. We must find the
word for it, and say it together. Then we shall be perfectly joined in
perfect joy. Come, my dear lord, let us take the boy with us, and give
Hermas lifted the child in his arms, and turned with Athenais into
the depth of the garden. There was a dismantled shrine of some
forgotten fashion of worship half hidden among the luxuriant flowers.
A fallen image lay beside it, face downward in the grass. They stood
there, hand in hand, the boy drowsily resting on his father's
shoulder—a threefold harmony of strength and beauty and innocence.
Silently the roseate light caressed the tall spires of the
cypress-trees; silently the shadows gathered at their feet; silently
the crystal stars looked out from the deepening arch of heaven. The
very breath of being paused. It was the hour of culmination, the
supreme moment of felicity waiting for its crown. The tones of Hermas
were clear and low as he began, half speaking and half chanting, in
the rhythm of an ancient song:
"Fair is the world, the sea, the sky, the double kingdom of day and
night, in the glow of morning, in the shadow of evening, and under
the dripping light of stars.
"Fairer still is life in our breasts, with its manifold music and
meaning, with its wonder of seeing and hearing and feeling and
knowing and being.
"Fairer and still more fair is love, that draws us together,
mingles our lives in its flow, and bears them along like a river,
strong and clear and swift, rejecting the stars in its bosom.
"Wide is our world; we are rich; we have all things. Life is
abundant within us—a measureless deep. Deepest of all is our love,
and it longs to speak.
"Come, thou final word! Come, thou crown of speech! Come, thou
charm of peace! Open the gates of our hearts. Lift the weight of our
joy and bear it upward.
"For all good gifts, for all perfect gifts, for love, for life, for
the world, we praise, we bless, we thank—"
As a soaring bird, struck by an arrow, falls headlong from the sky,
so the song of Hermas fell. At the end of his flight of gratitude
there was nothing—a blank, a hollow space.
He looked for a face, and saw a void. He sought for a hand, and
clasped vacancy. His heart was throbbing and swelling with passion;
the bell swung to and fro within him, beating from side to side as if
it would burst; but not a single note came from it. All the fulness of
his feeling, that had risen upward like a living fountain, fell back
from the empty sky, as cold as snow, as hard as hail, frozen and dead.
There was no meaning in his happiness. No one had sent it to him.
There was no one to thank for it. His felicity was a closed circle, a
wall of eternal ice.
"Let us go back," he said sadly to Athenais; "the child is heavy
upon my shoulder. We will lay him to sleep, and go into the library.
The air grows chilly. We were mistaken. The gratitude of life is only
a dream. There is no one to thank."
And in the garden it was already night.
V. RICHES WITHOUT REST
NO outward change came to the House of the Golden Pillars.
Everything moved as smoothly, as delicately, as prosperously, as
before. But inwardly there was a subtle, inexplicable transformation.
A vague discontent—a final and inevitable sense of incompleteness,
overshadowed existence from that night when Hermas realized that his
joy could never go beyond itself.
The next morning the old man whom he had seen in the Grove of
Daphne, but never since, appeared mysteriously at the door of the
house, as if he had been sent for, and entered, to dwell there like
an invited guest.
Hermas could not but make him welcome, and at first he tried to
regard him with reverence and affection as the one through whom
fortune had come. But it was impossible. There was a chill in the
inscrutable smile of Marcion, as he called himself, that seemed to
mock at reverence. He was in the house as one watching a strange
experiment—tranquil, interested, ready to supply anything that might
be needed for its completion, but thoroughly indifferent to the
feelings of the subject; an anatomist of life, looking curiously to
see how long it would continue, and how it would behave, after the
heart had been removed.
In his presence Hermas was conscious of a certain irritation, a
resentful anger against the calm, frigid scrutiny of the eyes that
followed him everywhere, like a pair of spies, peering out over the
smiling mouth and the long white beard.
"Why do you look at me so curiously?" asked Hermas, one morning, as
they sat together in the library. "Do you see anything strange in
"No," answered Marcion; "something familiar."
"And what is that?"
"A singular likeness to a discontented young man that I met some
years ago in the Grove of Daphne."
"But why should that interest you? Surely it was to be expected."
"A thing that we expect often surprises us when we see it. Besides,
my curiosity is piqued. I suspect you of keeping a secret from me."
"You are jesting with me. There is nothing in my life that you do
not know. What is the secret?"
"Nothing more than the wish to have one. You are growing tired of
your bargain. The game wearies you. That is foolish. Do you want to
try a new part?"
The question was like a mirror upon which one comes suddenly in a
half-lighted. room, A quick illumination falls on it, and the
passer-by is startled by the look of his own face.
"You are right," said Hermas. "I am tired. We have been going on
stupidly in this house, as if nothing were possible but what my
father had done before me. There is nothing original in being rich,
and well fed, and well dressed. Thousands of men have tried it, and
have not been very well satisfied. Let us do something new. Let us
make a mark in the world."
"It is well said," nodded the old man; "you are speaking again like
a man after my own heart. There is no folly but the loss of an
opportunity to enjoy a new sensation."
From that day Hermas seemed to be possessed with a perpetual haste,
an uneasiness that left him no repose. The summit of life had been
attained, the highest possible point of felicity. Henceforward the
course could only be at a level—perhaps downward. It might be brief;
at the best it could not be very long. It was madness to lose a day,
an hour. That would be the only fatal mistake: to forfeit anything of
the bargain that he had made. He would have it, and hold it, and enjoy
it all to the full. The world might have nothing better to give than
it had already given; but surely it had many things that were new to
bestow upon him, and Marcion should help him to find them.
Under his learned counsel the House of the Golden Pillars took on a
new magnificence. Artists were brought from Corinth and Rome and
Byzantium to adorn it with splendour. Its fame glittered around the
world. Banquets of incredible luxury drew the most celebrated guests
into its triclinium, and filled them with envious admiration. The
bees swarmed and buzzed about the golden hive. The human insects,
gorgeous moths of pleasure and greedy flies of appetite, parasites
and flatterers and crowds of inquisitive idlers, danced and fluttered
in the dazzling light that surrounded Hermas.
Everything that he touched prospered. He bought a tract of land in
the Caucasus, and emeralds were discovered among the mountains. He
sent a fleet of wheat-ships to Italy, and the price of grain doubled
while it was on the way. He sought political favour with the emperor,
and was rewarded with the governorship of the city. His name was a
word to conjure with.
The beauty of Athenais lost nothing with the passing seasons, but
grew more perfect, even under the inexplicable shade of
dissatisfaction that sometimes veiled it as a translucent cloud that
passes before the full moon. "Fair as the wife of Hermas" was a
proverb in Antioch; and soon men began to add to it, "Beautiful as
the son of Hermas"; for the child developed swiftly in that favouring
clime. At nine years of age he was straight and strong, firm of limb
and clear of eye. His brown head was on a level with his father's
heart. He was the jewel of the House of the Golden Pillars; the pride
of Hermas, the new Fortunatus.
That year another drop of success fell into his brimming cup. His
black Numidian horses, which he had been training for three years for
the world-renowned chariot-races of Antioch, won the victory over a
score of rivals. Hermas received the prize carelessly from the judge's
hands, and turned to drive once more around the circus, to show
himself to the people. He lifted the eager boy into the chariot beside
him to share his triumph.
Here, indeed, was the glory of his life—this matchless son, his
brighter counterpart carved in breathing ivory, touching his arm, and
balancing himself proudly on the swaying floor of the chariot. As the
horses pranced around the ring, a great shout of applause filled the
amphitheatre, and thousands of spectators wavd their salutations of
praise: "Hail, fortunate Hermas, master of success! Hail, little
Hermas, prince of good luck!"
The sudden tempest of acclamation, the swift fluttering of
innumerable garments in the air, startled the horses. They dashed
violently forward, and plunged upon the bits. The left rein broke.
They swerved to the right, swinging the chariot sideways with a
grating noise, and dashing it against the stone parapet of the arena.
In an instant the wheel was shattered. The axle struck the ground, and
the chariot was dragged onward, rocking and staggering.
By a strenuous effort Hermas kept his place on the frail platform,
clinging to the unbroken rein. But the boy was tossed lightly from
his side at the first shock. His head struck the wall. And when
Hermas turned to look for him, he was lying like a broken flower on
VI. GREAT FEAR AND RECOVERED JOY
THEY carried the boy in a litter to the House of the Golden
Pillars, summoning the most skilful physician of Antioch to attend
him. For hours the child was as quiet as death. Hermas watched the
white eyelids, folded close like lily-buds at night, even as one
watches for the morning. At last they opened; but the fire of fever
was burning in the eyes, and the lips were moving in a wild delirium.
Hour after hour that sweet childish voice rang through the halls
and chambers of the splendid, helpless house, now rising in shrill
calls of distress and senseless laughter, now sinking in weariness and
dull moaning. The stars waxed and waned; the sun rose and set; the
roses bloomed and fell in the garden, the birds sang and slept among
the jasmine-bowers. But in the heart of Hermas there was no song, no
bloom, no light—only speechless anguish, and a certain fearful
looking-for of desolation.
He was like a man in a nightmare. He saw the shapeless terror that
was moving toward him, but he was impotent to stay or to escape it.
He had done all that he could. There was nothing left but to wait.
He paced to and fro, now hurrying to the boy's bed as if he could
not bear to be away from it, now turning back as if he could not
endure to be near it. The people of the house, even Athenais, feared
to speak to him, there was something so vacant and desperate in his
At nightfall, on the second of those eternal days, he shut himself
in the library. The unfilled lamp had gone out, leaving a trail of
smoke in the air. The sprigs of mignonette and rosemary, with which
the room was sprinkled every day, were unrenewed, and scented the
gloom with a close odor of decay. A costly manuscript of Theocritus
was tumbled in disorder on the floor. Hermas sank into a chair like a
man in whom the very spring of being is broken. Through the darkness
some one drew near. He did not even lift his head. A hand touched him;
a soft arm was laid over his shoulders. It was Athenais, kneeling
beside him and speaking very low:
"Hermas—it is almost over—the child! His voice grows weaker hour
by hour. He moans and calls for some one to help him; then he laughs.
It breaks my heart. He has just fallen asleep. The moon is rising now.
Unless a change comes he cannot last till sunrise. Is there nothing we
can do? Is there no power that can save him? Is there no one to pity
us and spare us? Let us call, let us beg for compassion and help; let
us pray for his life!"
Yes; that was what he wanted—that was the only thing that could
bring relief: to pray; to pour out his sorrow somewhere; to find a
greater strength than his own, and cling to it and plead for mercy
and help. To leave that undone was to be false to his manhood; it was
to be no better than the dumb beasts when their young perish. How
could he let his boy suffer and die, without an effort, a cry, a
He sank on his knees beside Athenais.
"Out of the depths—out of the depths we call for pity. The light
of our eyes is fading—the child is dying. Oh, the child, the child!
Spare the child's life, thou merciful—"
Not a word; only that deathly blank. The hands of Hermas, stretched
out in supplication, touched the marble table. He felt the cool
hardness of the polished stone beneath his fingers. A book, dislodged
by his touch, fell rustling to the floor. Through the open door, faint
and far off, came the footsteps of the servants, moving cautiously.
The heart of Hermas was like a lump of ice in his bosom. He rose
slowly to his feet, lifting Athenais with him.
"It is in vain," he said; "there is nothing for us to do. Long ago
I knew something. I think it would have helped us. But I have
forgotten it. It is all gone. But I would give all that I have, if I
could bring it back again now, at this hour, in this time of our
A slave entered the room while he was speaking, and approached
"Master," he said, "John of Antioch, whom we were forbidden to
admit to the house, has come again. He would take no denial. Even now
he waits in the peristyle; and the old man Marcion is with him,
seeking to turn him away."
"Come," said Hermas to his wife, "let us go to him; for I think I
see the beginning of a way that may lead us out of this dreadful
In the central hall the two men were standing; Marcion, with
disdainful eyes and sneering lips, taunting the unbidden guest to
depart; John silent, quiet, patient, while the wondering slaves
looked on in dismay. He lifted his searching gaze to the haggard face
"My son, I knew that I should see you again, even though you did
not send for me. I have come to you because I have heard that you are
"It is true," answered Hermas, passionately; "we are in trouble,
desperate trouble, trouble accursed. Our child is dying. We are poor,
we are destitute, we are afflicted. In all this house, in all the
world, there is no one that can help us. I knew something long ago,
when I was with you,—a word, a name,—in which we might have found
hope. But I have lost it. I gave it to this man. He has taken it away
from me forever."
He pointed to Marcion. The old man's lips curled scornfully. "A
word, a name!" he sneered. "What is that, O most wise and holy
Presbyter? A thing of air, an unreal thing that men make to describe
their own dreams and fancies. Who would go about to rob any one of
such a thing as that? It is a prize that only a fool would think of
taking. Besides, the young man parted with it of his own free will.
He bargained with me cleverly. I promised him wealth and pleasure and
fame. What did he give in return? An empty name, which was a burden—"
"Servant of demons, be still!" The voice of John rang clear, like a
trumpet, through the hall. "There is a name which none shall dare to
take in vain. There is a name which none can lose without being lost.
There is a name at which the devils tremble. Depart quickly, before I
Marcion had shrunk into the shadow of one of the pillars. A bright
lamp near him tottered on its pedestal and fell with a crash. In the
confusion he vanished, as noiselessly as a shade.
John turned to Hermas, and his tone softened as he said: "My son,
you have sinned deeper than you know. The word with which you parted
so lightly is the key-word of all life and joy and peace. Without it
the world has no meaning, and existence no rest, and death no refuge.
It is the word that purifies love, and comforts grief, and keeps hope
alive forever. It is the most precious thing that ever ear has heard,
or mind has known, or heart has conceived. It is the name of Him who
has given us life and breath and all things richly to enjoy; the name
of Him who, though we may forget Him, never forgets us; the name of
Him who pities us as you pity your suffering child; the name of Him
who, though we wander far from Him, seeks us in the wilderness, and
sent His Son, even as His Son has sent me this night, to breathe again
that forgotten name in the heart that is perishing without it. Listen,
my son, listen with all your soul to the blessed name of God our
The cold agony in the breast of Hermas dissolved like a fragment of
ice that melts in the summer sea. A sense of sweet release spread
through him from head to foot. The lost was found. The dew of a
divine peace fell on his parched soul, and the withering flower of
human love lifted its head again. The light of a new hope shone on
his face. He stood upright, and lifted his hands high toward heaven.
"Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord! O my God, be
merciful to me, for my soul trusteth in Thee. My God, Thou hast
given; take not Thy gift away from me, O my God! Spare the life of
this my child, O Thou God, my Father, my Father!"
A deep hush followed the cry. "Listen!" whispered Athenais,
Was it an echo? It could not be, for it came again—the voice of
the child, clear and low, waking from sleep, and calling: "My father,