Malchus the Monk
W HEN the learned St. Jerome was living in Antioch with Evagrius the priest, he heard much of a holy man named Malchus, dwelling in a village three miles away, and Jerome was filled with desire to go to see him. On his side, many tales of the wonderful knowledge of Jerome had reached the ears of Malchus, and gladly did he welcome his guest and answer his questions.
"Tell me somewhat of yourself," said Jerome at last, "and how you came here," and Malchus answered in this wise:
"In Nisibis I was born, and as my parents had no other child, they set great store by me, and thought I deserved great riches and honour. When I came to be a man they wished me to marry that they might have grand-children to play with in their old age, but my heart was not with them. "Let me become a monk," I said, "and serve the Lord." But to this they would not listen, and even threatened me with imprisonment and punishment. For a while I tried to prevail with them to grant me my wish, but all being of no use, I departed secretly in the night, carrying with me only what money I needed for my journey.
"In the beginning I had resolved to go into a monastery of the East, but, as the Persians were about to make war on the Greeks, I changed my mind, and turned westwards beyond the river Euphrates, to the south of Aleppo. There, in that desert country I remained for several years, and the monks in the house held me to be a holy man, because I obeyed the rules, and fasted often and prayed much. But in this they were mistaken, for the love of money, which is the root of all evil, held its place deep down in my soul.
"This no one guessed, least of all I myself, till it was made known to me after this manner.
"News came to me of my father's death, and the evil one put it into my heart that it was my duty to return home and comfort my mother and look after the property which had come to me, lest any of it should be wasted; and that after his death I should have the more to give to the poor. And more than that, I might even build a monastery myself, and die an abbot.
"These thoughts took possession of me, but for long I kept silence concerning them, till at length the abbot of the monastery perceived that all was not well with me, and questioned me about the matter.
"When I told him that I desired to return home, he shook his head and warned me against listening to the voice of the tempter. But finding my resolve to go was still unchanged, he ceased to urge me, saying sadly:
"So we parted, and next day I set forth and journeyed as far as the town of Edessa, where I stayed, hoping to hear of a company of travellers going towards Nisibis, for greatly was that road infested with robbers.
"After some weeks, seventy people were gathered together who were desirous of making the journey, and we set forth. But we had not got very far when we perceived a band of the terrible Arabs approaching us, and we were forced to surrender so as to save our lives. I was seated by order of their leader upon a camel, with a woman behind me, and much we both feared that we should fall off, for we were not used to these awkward beasts. Thus we travelled back to the camp and there the Arab chief led the woman and me into his tent, and commanded us to obey his wife, and to look on her as our mistress. Then woolen garments were given me and I was sent to tend the sheep and the goats, which rejoiced me greatly, for I was alone, and felt myself treading in the steps of the sons of Jacob, and of David the King.
"Now it often happened that for the space of a month I was left to do as I would, but if my master was passing near the place of pasture, he would stop to see in what case his sheep might be. And when he found them fat and healthy he knew that I had tended them faithfully, and he praised and rewarded me.
"In this manner I lived for some time, eating goat's cheese, and drinking milk, and in my solitude I had much time for pondering on the past, as well as on the future. It was my own fault that I had fallen into captivity, and often did I seem to behold the face of the abbot of the monastery that I had left, in my willfulness and greed of gain.
"I was sitting thus one day, thinking thoughts of sadness and shame, when my eyes fell upon an ant's nest, close at my feet. Busily the little creatures came and went, and as I watched them day by day it appeared as if they had some purpose in their goings, and did not wander idly to and fro. They had made a narrow passage which led into the nest, and though multitudes were hurrying up and down it, none got in the way of his fellows. Some carried seeds which they had picked up from outside to store them in their garner that they might not be without food in winter; others were bearing on their backs their comrades who had met with accidents in the world that was so full of great big creatures, and these they seemed to be taking to some spot where they might be healed. And as I looked, I observed that at the entrance a crowd of ants which had settled themselves, as I guessed, unlawfully in the nest, were being thrust out to make room for those whose home it was, while others again were loaded with grains of dust, perhaps to strengthen the walls of their nest, so that these might not be washed away in the rains of winter.
"All this and more I saw, and wondered at the wisdom of those small insects, and marvelled not that Solomon had bidden us learn from them.
"So the days went by, and more and more I longed to leave the tents of those Arab thieves, and to be once more among my own people. And one evening I went to the woman who was my fellow captive, and was employed by the chief's wife to make cheeses out of the milk of the beasts of the tribe, and told her that it was in my mind to escape. On hearing this, she besought me to take her also, that she might seek a nunnery in which to end her days; to which I consented.
"Then I killed two large goats, and fashioned their skins into water-bottles, and roasted the flesh, so that we should not be without food on our journey, and as soon as it was dark we set forth. In spite of our terrors lest we should be pursued, the road seemed short, for were we not free? and quickly we went till we came to a wide river.
"But I soothed her, and bade her be of good courage, for a way had been made plain to me. And this was the way.
"I took the water skins, and blew them up till they were quite tight, and tied the necks tightly so that the air could not escape. Then I placed them in the water, and we sat upon them, holding each other's hands and paddling with our feet till we got towards the middle of the river, when the current carried us down and swept us to the other side.
"Deep was our joy at finding ourselves on dry ground again, and we drank of the river, not knowing when we might again taste water; then we started afresh with hope in our hearts, though we were ever looking behind to see if the Arabs were pursuing after us.
"For this cause, and also by reason of the burning sun, we hid ourselves in the day, and travelled only when night had fallen.
"We had gone five days in this manner, and were beginning to feel ourselves safe, when on turning our heads as we had grown used to do almost without thinking of it, we beheld the Arab chief and one of his men riding after us, with naked swords in their hands. Heretofore we had kept ourselves concealed till the sun had set, but we had become somewhat careless, and besides our water had failed us, and we were anxious to reach some wells not very far off. Therefore when we beheld our enemies, and knew that they had seen us, so great was our agony that the sun itself appeared to grow dark. Escape seemed impossible, yet were we thankful to note a cave among the rocks, in which all the snakes that dwell in the desert had taken refuge, for they like not the heat of the sun. The woman who was with me had at most times a great dread of serpents, but now she heeded them not at all, in her fear of the Arabs. Hardly able to walk from the trembling of our legs, we staggered towards the cave, saying to each other:
"Our master and his followers had no difficulty in tracking our footsteps as far as the cave's mouth, where they alighted from their camels and prepared to enter. Crouching in the dark we watched, and felt that only a few moments more of life were left us, and already the sharp edge of the steel seemed to strike cold against our throats.
"Now his master outside supposed that we had overpowered the young man, so that he was unable to cry out; therefore he drew his sword and ran to the mouth of the cave, calling to us. But the light of the sun was in his eyes also and what had befallen the young man, befell him likewise.
"And having slain the Arab chief as well as his comrade, the lioness took up her cub in her mouth, and went forth into the desert.
"So close had death been to us that we seemed to have no strength left to move, and it was not till dawn next day that we ventured forth, to where the camels were lying, with food and skins of water on their backs. After eating and drinking we felt strong again, and mounting the camels we rode across the rest of the desert, till we reached a camp which had been pitched by the Greeks. Here we told our tale, and the officer in command of it sent us with an escort of armed soldiers to one Sabinus, then Duke of Mesopotamia, in whose country we were at last safe. Sabinus gave us the price of the camels, and we set forth to the nearest convent, where I placed the woman who had shared so many dangers with me. As for myself, the love of money had departed from my heart, and with it my wish to go to Nisibis. So I returned to my own monastery, where I dwelt for many years, till in the end I came hither. That is my tale."