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 that?”
“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 profound sleep.
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 day.