Out of the Triangle: A Story of the Far East

Contents:
Author: Mary Ellen Bamford

Chapter I.

A voice rang through one of the streets of Alexandria.

"Sinners, away, or keep your eyes to the ground! Keep your eyes to the ground!"

The white-robed priestesses of Ceres, carrying a sacred basket, walked in procession through the Alexandrian street, and as they walked they cried aloud their warning.

So, for four centuries, since the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, had priestesses of Ceres walked and called aloud their admonitions through this city; though of late years men had come to know that what the sacred basket held was a live snake, supposed to be the author of sin and death.

Before the great temple of Ceres in the southeast quarter of the city, the crier stood on the steps of the portico, and proclaimed his invitation: "All ye who are clean of hands and pure of heart, come to the sacrifice! All ye who are guiltless in thought and deed, come to the sacrifice!"

Among the passing people, the lad Heraklas shrank back. When the sacred basket of Ceres had met him, he had bent his eyes downward, deeming himself unworthy of the sight. And now, as the crier’s invitation rang from the portico, "All ye who are guiltless in thought and deed, come to the sacrifice!" Heraklas trembled.

Swiftly he hurried away and passed down the broad street that led to the Gate of the Moon on the south of Alexandria.

At length he reached the gate, but swiftly yet he pushed forward a short distance along the vineyard-fringed banks of Lake Mareotis. Heraklas lifted up his eyes, and marked how the vines by the lake’s side contrasted with the burning whiteness of the desert beyond. The glaring sand shimmered in the heat of the flaming Egyptian sun. A thin, vapory mist seemed to move above the heated, barren surface of the grim sea of sand. Heraklas stretched out his hands in agony toward the desert, and cried aloud, "O my brother, my brother Timokles! How shall I live without thee?"

The soft ripple of the lake beside him seemed like mockery. The tears rolled slowly down his cheeks, as he looked toward the pitilessly unresponsive desert of the west and southwest. Then Heraklas, helpless in his misery, raised his hands with the palms outward before him, after the custom of an Egyptian in prayer, and addressed him whom the Egyptians thought the maker of the sun, the god Phthah, "the father of the beginnings," "the first of the gods of the upper world."

"Hail to thee, O Ptahtanen," began Heraklas, "great god who concealeth his form, . . thou art watching when at rest; the father of all fathers and of all gods. . . Watcher, who traversest the endless ages of eternity."

The familiar words brought no comfort. Between him and the shimmering desert came the memory of his brother’s face, and Heraklas forgot Ptahtanen, and cried out again in desperation.

His eyes strained toward the desert. Somewhere in its depths, his twin brother Timokles, the being whom of all on earth Heraklas most loved, lived,—or perhaps, in the brief week that had elapsed since he was snatched from his Alexandrian home, had died. Timokles had forsaken the gods of his own family, the gods his own dead father had adored, Egypt’s gods. The lad would not even worship the gods of Rome. Timokles had become one of the Christians, and had, in consequence, been falsely accused of having, during a former inundation, cut one of the dykes near the Nile. This offense, in the days of Roman rule, was punishable by condemnation to labor in the mines, or by branding and transportation to an oasis of the desert.

Timokles, innocent of the crime charged upon him,—having been at home in Alexandria during the time when he was accused of having been abroad on the evil errand,—was dragged away to exile, for was he not a Christian? Living or dead, the desert held him. The Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, who ruled Egypt, had lately issued an edict that no one should become a Christian. What hope was there for Timokles?

"He will never come back!" said Heraklas now, with a low sob, as the desert swam before his tear-filled eyes. "O Timokles!"

There was a rustle among the leaves not far away. Heraklas turned hastily.

But it was no person who disturbed his solitude. Heraklas saw only the head of an ibis, called "Hac" or "Hib" by the Egyptians, and the lad, mindful of the honor due the bird as sacred to the god Thoth, the Egyptian deity of letters and of the moon, made a gesture of semi-reverence. He remembered what the Egyptians were wont to say, when on the nineteenth day of the first month, they ate honey and eggs in honor of Thoth: "How sweet a thing is truth!"

Heraklas murmured with a heavy sigh, "Timokles told me he had found ’the truth’ O Timokles, is thy ’truth’ sweet to thee now? Oh, my brother, my brother!"

Heraklas cast himself down among the vines, and wept his unavailing tears. Little did the lad, reared in a pagan home, know of the sweetness of the Christian faith, for which Timokles had forsaken all.

Heraklas’ small sister, the child Cocce, sat on the pavement in the central court of her home in Alexandria. Above her towered three palms that shaded the court. Beside the little girl was an Egyptian toy, the figure of a man kneading dough. The man would work, if a string were pulled, but Cocce had thrown the toy aside. Lower and lower sank the small, brown head, more and more sleepily closed the large, brown eyes, till the child drooped against a stone table that was supported by the stone figure of a captive, bending beneath the weight of the table’s top.

As Heraklas entered the court his eyes fell upon his sleeping little sister, but he noted more closely the stone captive against which she leaned. Heraklas marked how the captive was represented to bend beneath the table’s weight. The boy’s eyes grew fierce. Captivity seemed a cruel thing, since Timokles had gone into it.

Heraklas flung himself on a seat covered by a leopard’s skin, and gazed moodily upward at the palm-leaves, one or two of which stirred faintly under the slight wind that came from a corridor, whither the wooden wind-sails,—sloping boards commonly fixed over the terraces of the upper portions of Egyptian houses,—had conducted the current of air.

Borne from the streets of Alexandria, there seemed to Heraklas to come certain new, half-heard noises. He listened, yet nothing definite reached his ears.

At length, seeing through a range of pillars a slave moving in the distance, Heraklas summoned the man, and asked what was the cause of the faintly-heard sounds.

"The people destroy the possessions of some of the Christians," humbly replied the slave, whose name was Athribis; and Heraklas, stung to the quick by the answer, impatiently motioned the man away.

Left alone, Heraklas lifted his head proudly. He would ignore the pain. What had he to do with the Christians? He, who had watched his consecration-night in the temple of Isis; he, who had caught some sight of the Mysteries sacred to that goddess; he, who had worn the harsh linen robe and those symbolic robes in which a novice watches his dream-indicated night—what had he to do with Christians? Would that Timokles had observed the emperor’s command that no one should become a Christian! Heraklas groaned.

The dismissed man-slave, Athribis, looked cautiously back through the pillars, and smiled. None knew better than he how any reference to the Christians stabbed the hearts of this family. Athribis himself hated the Christians. He longed to be out in Alexandria’s streets this moment, that he, too, might be at liberty to pillage the Christians’ houses. Who knew what jewels he might find? And he must stay here, polishing a corridor’s pavement, when such things, were being done in the streets! His dark eyes glanced back again. Heraklas’ head was bowed.

Stealthily Athribis passed out of sight of the court. He threaded his way through corridors.

"Whither goest thou?" asked another slave by the threshold.

"I go to the market to get some lentiles," glibly replied Athribis; and, passing, he quickly gained the portal and the street.

"One, may find that which is better than lentiles," Athribis communed with himself, as he wound hither and thither through the excited crowds. "Should a Christian have jewels, and I none? I, who am faithful to the gods!"

With this the slave plunged into a company of house-breakers, and with them boldly attacked the dwelling of a Christian. It was easily taken, and Athribis rushed with the company into the interior. Stools and couches were wrenched to pieces, cushions were torn, tables were overthrown.

"Woe to the Christians of Alexandria!" fiercely muttered one man. "We will root them from our city! They shall die!"

The crude brick of the building gave way, in places, under repeated blows. The stucco of the outer walls fell off, and was tracked with the crushed brick into the halls. Some of the rude company, rushing to the flat roof of the building, discovered there, hidden by a wind-sail, a treasure-box, as was at first supposed. On being hastily opened, however, the box was found to hold nothing but some rolls of writing. Contemptuously the box was kicked aside.

"Come down! Come down!" cried voices from the court. "Here are the Christians!"

The loud clamor from below announced that the Christian family had indeed been discovered, and would be taken to prison.

The company on the roof made haste to descend, to witness the family’s humiliating exit. As Athribis passed by the box again, he looked more curiously at it. Surely the scrolls must be of some worth. He could not read, but perhaps something of value might be secretly hidden inside each of these scrolls. Who knew? It must be! It seemed incredible that even Christians would be foolish enough to fill a treasure-box with nothing but rolls of writing, and then conceal the box so carefully behind this wind-sail!

Athribis purposely lingered a little behind the other men. He snatched up the rolls, and having hidden them in his garment, hurried from the roof.

"I am a Christian," calmly said a voice in the court. "Yea, I have striven to bring others to Christ."

There stood the father of the household, his wife, and their two children, one a girl of thirteen, the other a boy a little younger. They had broken the emperor’s decree. The father did not deny the charge brought against them. It was his voice that Athribis had heard, and the same voice spoke on:

"My children," continued the father, "our days on earth come to a close. Let us sing our twilight hymn, for now indeed our work is nearly done."

Above the scornful tumult rose the four voices, singing the "Twilight," or "Candle Hymn," of the early Christians. The children’s tones trembled a little at first, but soon grew firm, as if sustained by the calmness with which the parents sang. The angry faces around the court became yet more fierce with hatred, as, through a moment’s pause, the rioters listened to the words of the hymn:

"Calm Light of the celestial glory, O Jesus Son of the Eternal Father, We come to thee now as the sun goes down, And before the evening light We seek thee, Father, Son And Holy Spirit of God. Thou art worthy to be forever praised by holy voices, O Son of God; thou givest life to us, And therefore doth the world glorify thee."

Mocking cries arose from the mob. Not daring to linger longer, Athribis ran out of the house, and hastened homeward, full of apprehension as to what might await him.

"Where are the lentiles?" asked the slave by the threshold, as Athribis, forgetful, in his excitement, of the excuse he had made for his departure, passed swiftly and softly in.

"I found none," quickly answered Athribis, with alarm.

He sped silently to his former place of work, and fell to polishing the pavement with a zeal unknown before. He knew well enough that the slave by the threshold would not believe in that excuse, lentiles being plentiful enough. Terror had robbed Athribis’ deceitful tongue of its usual cunning, and now he silently bewailed his startled answer. If the slave by the threshold should report to Heraklas’ mother the fact that Athribis had been away!

Athribis longed to have time to unroll the scrolls which he had hidden in his garment, but he dared not look at them till he should be alone.

A voice sounded in the court. Athribis redoubled his zeal: He recognized the tones of Heraklas’ mother.

"I was not long gone! I was not long gone!" the guilty Athribis hastily assured himself. "Surely she hath hated the Christians, even as I hate them! I was gone but a moment! Surely she cannot know! If I find treasure in my rolls, I will give some to the slave by the threshold. Surely, treasure is as dumbness to a man!"

The footsteps of the mother of Heraklas drew near. The servant bowed over his work, and dared not lift his eyes. She did not stop! And Athribis looked breathlessly after the woman, as she passed majestically on.

"Surely she hath not known what I did!" he gasped as the stately figure disappeared among the columns. "Isis preserveth me from stripes! My feet are unbeaten!"

Athribis waited till night, when the household slept. Then he crept out of the little chamber on the roof where the slaves were wont to sleep, according to the custom of Egyptian households.

A dim thread of a moon floated toward the west. Athribis crept to a far part of the roof. The wind blew somewhat, but it did not cool the fever of excitement felt by him. Within a moment he might be rich! He might find gold in these scrolls!

He drew out the scrolls. Surely there was something firm inside this one! He felt something! He narrowly scanned the Christians’ papyrus, as he hastily unrolled it. His lips were parted with eagerness, his breath panted into the heart of the scroll, as he held his face down that he might see. He unrolled the papyrus to the end. He sat up, and drew a breath. His bare feet kicked viciously at the unrolled papyrus. No treasure in that first scroll! He seized the second. With eagerness all the greater because of his former disappointment, he searched through this roll, his face bent down till his eyelashes almost swept the surface of the writing. In vain! There was nothing!

"These Christians! What cheats they are!"

He snatched the third roll. With trembling fingers he unrolled this, the last of the papyrus scrolls. There must be something hidden! It could not be possible that he would be disappointed in the last scroll! Was there no treasure? Not a thin wedge of gold at the heart of this papyrus? Not a jewel, not anything that savored of riches?

Athribis’ shaking fingers unrolled the papyrus to its very end. Nothing but the continuous writing, and the stick on which the scroll had been rolled! His limp hand let fall the end of the papyrus. It descended upon the heap at his feet. Had he dared, he would have cried aloud in his disappointment.

But it was not his voice that pierced the night. Some one had seen him!

"A robber!" cried a woman’s tones. "A thief! On the roof!"

Athribis leaped to his feet. He caught the papyri. Alas, alas! they were not rolled, now! The wind tossed the long streamers, and as Athribis in fearful haste snatched them, the breeze blew one scroll entirely free. It, swept from the roof, and, descending into the court, hung in a long strip from one of the palms.

The dismayed Athribis cast the other papyri on the roof, and fled. It was time. The house was being aroused by the cry of the woman. With his bare, silent feet, Athribis sped through the shadows of the corridors to what he thought a secret spot, and hid himself. The house resounded with outcries. Feet ran hither and thither.

Out in the court, hanging all unseen from a palm-tree, swayed the papyrus, the written copy of part of the Sacred Book of the Christians!

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Chicago: Mary Ellen Bamford, "Chapter I.," Out of the Triangle: A Story of the Far East in Out of the Triangle: A Story of the Far East (New York: The Century Co., 1918), Original Sources, accessed May 10, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3YR6YW8MA2LZAJT.

MLA: Bamford, Mary Ellen. "Chapter I." Out of the Triangle: A Story of the Far East, in Out of the Triangle: A Story of the Far East, New York, The Century Co., 1918, Original Sources. 10 May. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3YR6YW8MA2LZAJT.

Harvard: Bamford, ME, 'Chapter I.' in Out of the Triangle: A Story of the Far East. cited in 1918, Out of the Triangle: A Story of the Far East, The Century Co., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 10 May 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3YR6YW8MA2LZAJT.