Παππαδιά μου, εἶπεν ὁ παππα Νάρκισσος, ἀφοῦ ἀπέφαγε καὶ ἔκαμε τὸν σταυρόν του, παππαδιά μου, μοῦ κατεβαίνει ὁ ὕπνος γλυκὰ γλυκά. Μὲ τὴν ἄδειάν σου θὰ τὸν πάρω.
- Νὰ τὸν πάρῃς καὶ νὰ τὸν καλοπάρῃς, παππά μου. Σοῦ ἀξίζει νὰ ἡσυχάσῃς ὕστερα ἀπὸ τόσην κούρασιν σήμερον. Καὶ οὔτε θὰ ἔλθη κανεὶς νὰ σὲ ταράξῃ, μὲ αὐτὸ τὸ ἡλιοπύρι.
Καὶ ἤρχισεν ἡ παππαδιὰ νὰ μεταφέρῃ ἀπὸ τὴν τράπεζαν εἰς τὸν νεροχύτην τὰ ὀλίγα πινάκια καὶ τὰ δυὸ μαχαιροπήρουνα, διὰ νὰ τὰ καθαρίση, προτοῦ τὰ τοποθετήση εἰς τὴν ἐξέχουσαν ἐπὶ τοῦ τοίχου σανίδα, μεταξὺ τοῦ νεροχύτου καὶ τῆς ἑστίας. Διότι τὸ δωμάτιον ἐκεῖνο ἦτo συγχρόνως καὶ μαγειρεῖον καὶ ἑστιατόριον καὶ αἴθουσα. Ἡ τράπεζα ἐπὶ τῆς ὁποίας ἔφαγον τὸ λιτὸν γεῦμα των, τέσσαρες ξύλιναι καθέκλαι καὶ εἷς ψάθινος καναπὲς ἦσαν τὰ μόνα ἔπιπλά του. Ὁ καναπὲς ἦτο ἀντίκρυ τῆς ἑστίας. Ἄνωθεν αὐτοῦ ἐκρέματο ἐπὶ τοῦ τοίχου, ἐντὸς μαύρου ξυλίνου πλαισίου (χωρὶς ὅμως ὕαλον), λιθογραφία, κιτρίνη ἐκ τῆς πολυκαιρίας, παριστῶσα τὴν ἄφιξιν τοῦ βασιλέως Ὄθωνος εἰς Ναύπλιον. Ἀπέναντι τῆς εἰσόδου, εἰς μὲν τὴν πρὸς τὰ δεξιὰ γωνίαν τοῦ τοίχου ἦτο ἡ θύρα τοῦ κοιτῶνος, εἰς δὲ τὴν πρὸς τ᾿ ἀριστερὰ ἡ θύρα τοῦ κήπου. Μεταξὺ τῶν δυὸ θυρῶν ἔκειτο κιβώτιον ὀγκῶδες πρασίνου χρώματος, ἐπ᾿ αὐτοῦ δὲ τάπης μικρὸς διπλωμένος εἰς τέσσαρα. Τὸν τοῖχον, ἄνωθεν τοῦ κιβωτίου, ἐστόλιζεν ἑτέρα λιθογραφία, ἄνευ πλαισίου αὕτη, προσηλωμένη ἐπὶ τοῦ τοίχου διὰ τεσσάρων μικρῶν καρφίων, καὶ παριστῶσα, ὄχι πολὺ ἐντέχνως, τὴν ἄποψιν τοῦ ἐν Τήνῳ ναοῦ τῆς Εὐαγγελιστρίας· ἐνθύμημα τοῦτο, προδήλως, εὐλαβοῦς τοῦ οἰκοδεσπότου ἀποδημίας εἰς τὸ προσκυνητήριoν ἐκεῖνο.
Κατάντικρυ τοῦ κιβωτίoυ ἦτο ἡ θύρα τῆς οἰκίας, ἑκατέρωθεν δὲ αὐτῆς δύο παράθυρα, τῶν ὁποίων τὰ φύλλα ἦσαν κλειστά. Ἡ θύρα ἐχωρίζετο ὁριζοντίως εἰς δυὸ φύλλα, ἐκ τῶν ὁποίων τὸ μὲν κάτω ἤτo κλειστόν, τὸ δὲ ἄνω ἀνοικτὸν πρὸς τὸν στενὸν ἔξω δρομίσκον, καὶ εἰσήρχετο δι᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐντὸς τοῦ δωματίου τὸ ἄφθονον φῶς τοῦ μεσημβρινοῦ ἡλίου.
Ἐν τούτοις ὁ παππα Νάρκισσος ἐγερθεὶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν κοιτῶνα, ἔφερεν ἐκεῖθεν τὸ προσκέφαλόν του, τὸ ἔθεσεν ἐπὶ τοῦ καναπέ, ἔκλεισε καὶ τὸ ἄνω φύλλον τῆς θύρας διὰ νὰ γείνῃ τὸ δωμάτιον σκοτεινὸν καὶ δροσερόν, καὶ ἐξηπλώθη εἰς τὸν καναπέν. Ἀλλὰ μετ᾿ ὀλίγα λεπτὰ ἠγέρθη πάλιν, ἐπῆρε τὸν ἐπὶ τοῦ κιβωτίου τάπητα, τὸν ἐξεδίπλωσε, τὸν ἥπλωσε μετὰ προσοχῆς ἐπὶ τοῦ καναπὲ καὶ ἐστρώθη μετὰ μεγαλειτέρας ἢ πρότερον εὐχαριστήσεως, ἐνῷ ἡ παππαδιὰ ἐξηκολούθει ἐν σιωπῇ τὴν παρὰ τὸν νεροχύτην ἐργασίαν της.
Ἐδικαιοῦτο πράγματι ὁ παππα Νάρκισσος νὰ θέλῃ ἀνάπαυσιν τὴν μεσημβρίαν τῆς Κυριακῆς ἐκείνης. Ἦτο ἐπὶ ποδὸς ἀπὸ τὰ ἐξημερώματα. Ἐν ἐλλείψει ἄλλου ἱερέως, ἢ διακόνου, ἢ καὶ ἀναγνώστου, αὐτὸς ἀνέγνωσε κατὰ τὸ σύνηθες τὸν ὄρθρον καὶ ἐτέλεσε τὴν λειτουργίαν εἰς τὴν μόνην ἐκκλησίαν τοῦ μικροῦ χωρίου του. Μετὰ δὲ τὴν ἀπόλυσιν τῆς ἐκκλησίας μετέβη πεζὸς εἰς ἀπομεμακρυσμένον μέρος τῆς νήσου, μετὰ τοῦ εἰρηνοδίκου καὶ μαρτύρων, πρὸς ἐξακρίβωσιν τῶν ὁρίων ἑνὸς ἐκεῖ ἀγροῦ του, τοῦ ὀπoίου ὁ γείτων ἀντεποιεῖτο μίαν λωρίδα. Καὶ ἐπέστρεψε μὲν ἱκανοποιηθείς, διότι ἀνεγνωρίσθη τὸ δίκαιόν του ἐπισήμως, ἀλλ᾿ ὅμως ὁ δρόμος ἦτο μικρός, ὁ δὲ καύσων ὑπερβολικός. Εἶχε παρέλθει ἡ συνήθης τοῦ γεύματος ὥρα ὅτε ἐπανῆλθεν εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν του, ὅπου ἡ παππαδιὰ ἐπερίμενεν ἀνησυχοῦσα μὴ χαλάσῃ τὸ φαγητόν. Ἀλλ᾿ ὁ πεινασμένος παππὰς τὸ εὖρεν ἐξαίρετον καὶ τὸ ἐτίμησε κατὰ κόρον, πρὸς ἄκραν της συζύγου του εὐχαρίστησιν. Συνετέλεσε δὲ καὶ τοῦτο ἴσως πρὸς αὔξησιν τοῦ βάρους τῶν βλεφάρων του.
Ὁ μεσημβρινὸς καύσων, εὐαρέστως μετριαζόμενος ἀπὸ τὸ σκότος τοῦ δωματίου, ἡ ἄκρα σιωπή, διακοπτομένη ἀπὸ μόνην ἔξω τῶν τεττίγων τὴν μονότονον μουσικήν, ἐντὸς δὲ τῆς οἰκίας ἀπὸ τὰς ἐλαφρὰς κινήσεις τῆς παππαδιᾶς τοποθετούσης τὰ πινάκια εἰς τὴν θέσιν των - ὁ κάματος τοῦ χορτασθέντος παππᾶ - ὁ ἁπαλὸς ἐπὶ τοῦ καναπὲ τάπης, τὰ πάντα προσεκάλουν τὸν ὕπνον.
Μὲ ἠμίκλειστα τὰ βλέφαρα ὁ ἱερεὺς παρηκολούθει τὴν ἐργασίαν τῆς συζύγου του, ἡ δὲ ξανθή του γενειὰς μόλις ὑπέκρυπτε μειδείαμα ἀφάτου ἀγαλλιάσεως. Ἐσκέπτετο ὅτι ἐντὸς ὀλίγων μηνῶν θὰ προστεθῇ κοιτὶς βρέφους εἰς τὸν κοιτῶνα των. Χθὲς μόνον ἔμαθε τὸ χαρμόσυνον μυστικόν. Ἡ παππαδιὰ τὸ ἐξεμυστηρεύθη τὴν νύκτα, εἰς τὰ σκοτεινά, συστελλομένη νὰ τὸ εἴπῃ εἰς τὸ φῶς τῆς ἡμέρας.
Καὶ ἐνῷ ἐστήριζε τρυφερῶς τὰ νυσταλέα βλέμματα εἰς τὴν νεαράν του γυναῖκα, διέβαινον ταυτοχρόνως ἐνώπιον τῆς φαντασίας του σκηναὶ διάφοροι τοῦ παρελθόντος βίου, προσλαμβάνουσαι βαθμηδὸν μορφὴν ὀνείρου καὶ συναρμολογούμεναι ἐν τῇ ταχείᾳ αὐτῶν καὶ νεφελώδει διελίξει μὲ τὴν εὐφρόσυνον συναίσθησιν τῆς παρούσης εὐτυχίας.
Πρὸ τριῶν μόνον μηνῶν ἀπήλαυσεν ὁ παππα Νάρκισσος τὴν διπλὴν τιμήν του νὰ γείνῃ ἱερεὺς καὶ σύζυγος. Παιδιόθεν ἐφόρει τὸ ράσον, ταχθεὶς εἰς τὴν Ἐκκλησίαν προτοῦ εἰσέτι γεννηθῇ. Ἐξ ἀμνημονεύτων χρόνων οἱ πρωτότοκοι τῆς μητρικῆς οἰκογενείας του ἐγίνοντο ἱερεῖς, πρὸς ἐξυπηρέτησιν τῆς ἰδιοκτήτου μικρᾶς ἐκκλησίας τῆς Ὑπαπαντῆς, ἥτις ἦτο τὸ στόλισμα, τὸ καύχημα καὶ τὸ προσκυνητήριον τῆς νήσου. Ἀλλ᾿ ὁ προκάτοχος τοῦ Ναρκίσσου, καὶ θεῖος του, ἦτο κατ᾿ ἐξαίρεσιν ἄτεκνος. Διὰ τοῦτο, ὅτε ἐνύμφευσε τὴν νεωτέραν αὐτοῦ καὶ μόνην ἀδελφήν, ἐτέθη ὅρος ρητὸς εἰς τὸ προικοσύμφωνον, ὅτι ὁ πρῶτος υἱός της θὰ γείνῃ ἱερεὺς καὶ κληρονόμος του.
Ἡ χαρὰ τῆς οἰκογενείας, ὅτε ἐγεννήθη ἄῤῥεν, ὑπερέβη τὴν συνήθως ἐκδηλουμένην εἰς τοιαύτας περιστάσεις, πρὸς ἀδικαιολόγητον ὑποτίμησιν τῆς ἀξίας τῶν θηλέων. Ὁ μικρὸς Νάρκισσος ἐθηλάσθη μετὰ σεβασμοῦ, καθὃ μέλλων ἱερεύς, παιγνίδια του ἦσαν κομβολόγια καὶ σταυροί, ὅτε δὲ ἤρχισε νὰ ὁμιλῇ, πρώτας λέξεις, μετὰ τὰ παγκόσμια παπᾶ καὶ μαμά, ἐδιδάχθη νὰ ψελλίζῃ τὸ Κύριε, ἐλέησον. Μόλις ἠδύνατο νὰ περιπατῇ στερεῶς, ὅτε ἔλαβε τὸ προνόμιόν του νὰ κρατῇ τὴν λαμπάδα ἐνώπιον τοῦ θείου του ἱερουργοῦντος. Οὗτος ἐδίδαξεν εἰς τὸν μικρὸν ἀνεψιόν του τὸ ἀλφάβητον διὰ τῶν ἐρυθρῶν ψηφίων τοῦ Ὡρολογίoυ, βραδύτερον δὲ τὴν ἀνάγνωσιν διὰ τῆς Ὀκτωήχου. Ἀλλ᾿ ὅμως ταῦτα πάντα δὲν περιέστελλον τὰς πρὸς τὸ παίζειν ὁρμὰς τοῦ μικροῦ ἱερωμένου, οὐδὲ τὸν ἀπήλλασσον χειροτονίας ἄλλου εἴδους, ὅτε ἤρχετο μὲ τὸ ράσον κατεσχισμένον ἀπὸ τὰς ἀναῤῥιχήσεις εἰς βράχους, ἢ ἀπὸ διαπληκτισμοὺς ὑπὲρ τὸ δέον ζωηροὺς μετὰ τῶν συνηλικιωτῶν του.
Ἅμα εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὸ δωδέκατον ἔτος τῆς ἡλικίας του ὁ μικρὸς ρασοφόρος ἐξενιτεύθη, διὰ νὰ μὴ ἐξαμβλύνῃ ἡ πολλὴ σχέσις τὸ σέβας τοῦ ποιμνίου πρὸς τὸν ἐπίδοξον πoιμένα του. Εἰς Ἄνδρον ἰδιώτευε γέρων θεῖος τῆς μητρός του, ὅστις, χρηματίσας ἐπίσκοπος Σαλμαθοῦντος, παρητήθη τοῦ ἱεροῦ ἀξιώματος, ἀφοῦ ἀπεθησαύρισε τὰ ἀρκοῦντα ὅπως ζήσῃ ἐν ἀνέσει τὸ λοιπὸν τοῦ βίου. Πρὸς τοῦτον ἀπεστάλη ὁ Νάρκισσος. Ὁ Δεσπότης τὸν προσεδέχθη εὐχαρίστως, παραχωρήσας εἰς αὐτὸν τὴν θέσιν καὶ τὸν τίτλον ἀναγνώστου. Πρὸς δικαίωσιν δὲ τοῦ πρώτου τούτου βαθμοῦ τῆς ἱερωσύνης, ὁ Νάρκισσος ἐξηκολούθησε τὰ μαθήματά του ὄχι μόνον εἰς τὸ σχολεῖον τῆς Ἄνδρου, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὑπὸ τὸν πρωτοσύγκελλον τοῦ πρώην Σαλμαθοῦντος, ὅστις ἰδίως τὸν προήλειφεν εἰς τὰ ἐκκλησιαστικά.
Ἐντὸς τοιαύτης προσφυοῦς ἀτμοσφαίρας προητοιμάζετο ὁ νέος διὰ τὸ στάδιόν του. Μετὰ παρέλευσιν ἐτῶν τινων ὁ ἀναγνώστης ἐπρόκειτο νὰ προχειρισθῇ εἰς διάκονον, ὅτε ἦλθεν εἰς Ἄνδρον ἡ εἴδησις ὅτι ἀπεβίωσεν ὁ θεῖος του, οἱ δὲ συμπολῖται του τὸν προσεκάλουν πρὸς παραλαβὴν τῆς ἱερᾶς διαδοχῆς. Ἦτο νέος εἰσέτι διὰ τὰ καθήκοντα ἱερέως, ἀλλὰ δὲν ἔπρεπε νὰ περιπέσῃ εἰς ξένας χεῖρας τὸ οἰκογενειακὸν προνόμιον. Ὁ πρώην Σαλμαθοῦντος, καίτοι φέρων βαρέως τὴν στέρησιν τοῦ ἀναγνώστου καὶ μέλλοντος διακόνου του, τὸν ἔστειλε μὲ τὴν εὐχήν του εἰς τὴν πατρίδα πρὸς εὕρεσιν νύμφης προτοῦ τὸν χειροτονήσῃ.
Τοῦτο οὐδαμῶς δυσηρέστει οὔτε ἐδυσκόλευε τὸν Νάρκισσον, καθόσον ἡ ἐκλογὴ ἦτο ἐκ τῶν προτέρων ὡρισμένη. Ἐκ βρεφικῆς σχεδὸν ἡλικίας ἐθεώρει τὴν Ἀρετούλαν ὡς μέλλουσαν γυναῖκα του. Οἱ γονεῖς τῶν δυὸ παιδίων ἐπεκύρωσαν παιδιόθεν τὸ συνοικέσιον, κατὰ τὸ ἥμισυ παίζοντες καὶ κατὰ τὸ ἥμισυ σπουδάζοντες, ἀλλ᾿ ὁ μικρὸς Νάρκισσος παρεδέχθη ἐξ ἀρχῆς τὸ σπουδαῖον μόνον μέρος τῆς ὑποθέσεως, ὅτε δὲ ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς Ἄνδρον, ἀντήλλαξε μετὰ τῆς μικρᾶς συμπαικτρίας του ὑπόσχεσιν ἀμοιβαίας πίστεως.
Μετὰ ὀκτὼ ἐτῶν ἀπουσίαν εὗρε τὴν Ἀρετούλαν μεταβληθεῖσαν εἰς νέαν κoμψὴν καὶ ὡραίαν, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἡ ξανθὴ κεφαλὴ τοῦ Ναρκίσσου δὲν ἡλαττοῦτο ὡραιότητος ὑπὸ τὸν μαῦρον σκοῦφον τοῦ ἀναγνώστου. Ὁ συνοδεύσας τὸν γαμβρὸν Δεσπότης ηὐλόγησε τὸν γάμον, ἐχειροτόνησε τὸν νεανίαν διάκονον καὶ πρεσβύτερον, καὶ ἐπέστρεψε πάλιν εἰς Ἄνδρον.
Πρὸ τριῶν ἤδη μηνῶν ὁ Νάρκισσος ἦτο ἱερεύς, τὰ πάντα δ᾿ ἔβαινον κατ᾿ εὐχήν. Οἱ χωρικοὶ ἐφέροντο πρὸς τὸν ἐφημέριόν των μὲ σέβας ἀνώτερον τοῦ ὀφειλομένου εἰς τὴν ἡλικίαν του, ἡ σύζυγός του προητοίμαζε τὸν διάδοχον, οἱ ἀγροί του προεμήνυον εὐκαρπίαν, αἱ πρόσοδοι τῆς ἐκκλησίας δὲν ἡλαττώθησαν. Τί ἄλλο ἠδύνατο νὰ ἐπιθυμήσῃ; Καὶ ὅμως ἡ εὐτυχία του δὲν ἦτο ἐντελής. Τὴν ἐπεσκίαζε μία μεγάλη καὶ διαρκὴς ἀνησυχία. Ὁ ἱερεὺς παραμυθεῖ τοὺς ψυχοῤῥαγοῦντας καὶ κηδεύει τοὺς νεκρούς. Τοὺς νεκρούς! Ἰδοὺ ἡ σκέψις ἡ ὁποία τὸν ἐβασάνιζε, τὸ νέφος τοῦ ὁποίου ἡ σκιὰ ἐμαύριζε τὸν φαιδρὸν ἄλλως ὁρίζοντα τοῦ βίου του.
Ὁ τρόμος τοῦ θανάτου τὸν κατεῖχεν ἀφότου τὸν ἔφερον, μικρὸν ἔτι, ν᾿ ἀσπασθῆ τὰ κλειστὰ ψυχρὰ βλέφαρα τοῦ νεκροῦ πατρός του. Ἀληθῶς παρευρέθη εἰς πολλὰς κηδείας ἔκτοτε. Ζῶν πλησίον ἱερέων πάντοτε, ἀνατραφεὶς οὕτως εἰπεῖν ἐντὸς τῆς ἐκκλησίας, πῶς ἠδύνατο νὰ μὴ παρακολουθῇ καὶ νὰ μὴ λαμβάνῃ καὶ οὖτος τὸ μέρος του εἰς τὰς νεκρωσίμους τελετάς; Ἀλλ᾿ ὅμως εὕρισκε πάντοτε τὸν τρόπον νὰ ὑπεκφεύγῃ τὴν θέαν τοῦ θανάτου. Προσηλῶν τὰ ὄμματα εἰς τὴν λαμπάδα ἢ εἰς τὸ ψαλτήριον τὸ ὁποῖον ἐκράτει, κρυπτόμενος τὸ κατὰ δύναμιν ὄπισθεν τῶν ὑψηλοτέρων ὁμηλίκων του, ποτὲ δὲν ἀνύψωσε τὸ βλέμμα πρὸς τὸ ἄπνουν τοῦ νεκροκραββάτου φορτίον, ποτὲ δὲν ὑπήκουσεν εἰς τὴν σπαραξικάρδιον πρὸς τοὺς ἐπιζῶντας πρόσκλησίν του νὰ δώσουν τὸν τελευταῖον ἀσπασμὸν εἰς τὴν σάρκα, ἐξ ἧς ἀπεχωρίσθη ἡ ψυχή.
Ἀλλ᾿ ὅμως πῶς ἠδύνατο, γενόμενος ἱερεύς, νὰ ἀποφύγη ἐφεξῆς τῆς ἀποσυνθέσεως τὴν ἐπαφήν; Ἠσθάνετο ὅτι δὲν ἦτο δυνατὸν νὰ ἐξοικειωθῇ πρὸς τὸ ἀπαίσιον θέαμα. Ἐξωμολόγησεν εἰς τὸν Δεσπότην τοὺς φόβους του, ἐξεμυστηρεύθη τοὺς ἐνδοιασμούς του, ἀπεκάλυψε τὴν ἀδυναμίαν του, ἀλλ᾿ ὁ γέρων τὸν ἐνουθέτησε, τὸν ἐπέπληξε, τὸν ἐνεθάρρυνε, τὸν ἐβεβαίωσεν ὅτι θὰ συνηθίση καὶ αὐτὸς καθὼς τόσοι ἄλλοι εἰς τὴν φρίκην τοῦ θανάτου, ἀνύψωσε τὸ φρόνημά του ὑποδεικνύων τὸ μεγαλεῖον τῆς ἀποστολῆς τοῦ ἱερέως παρὰ τὴν κοίτην τοῦ ἀποθνῄσκοντος καὶ τὸν λάκκον τοῦ τεθνεῶτος. Ὁ Νάρκισσος ἐπείσθη. Ἐπείσθη, ἀλλ᾿ ὁ φόβος δὲν ἐξέλιπεν. Ἐπὶ τρεῖς ἤδη μῆνας, ὀψέποτε ἤρχετό τις πρὸς ἐπίσκεψίν του, ἔτρεμε μὴ ἔρχεται φέρων ἀγγελίαν θανάτου. Μέχρι τοῦδε διέφυγε τὴν τρομερὰν δοκιμασίαν, ἀλλ᾿ ἐσκέπτετο ὅτι δὲν ἦτο δυνατὸν νὰ παραταθῆ ἐπὶ πολὺ ἡ μὴ ἐμφάνισις τοῦ θανάτου εἰς τὴν νῆσον του. Καὶ τώρα, ἐνῷ κατέβαινε γλυκὺς ὁ ὕπνος εἰς τὰ βλέφαρά του, μεταξὺ τῶν εὐαρέστων εἰκόνων ὅσαι ἐπλανῶντο ὡς σκιαὶ ὀνείρων ἐνώπιόν του, ἀνεμιγνύοντο καὶ σκηναὶ ὀδυνηραὶ ἐπιθανάτου ἐξομολογήσεως.
Ἀλλὰ βαθμηδὸν αἱ εἰκόνες αὗται ἐθολώθησαν πᾶσαι καὶ ἀπεσβέσθησαν, τὰ ἠμίκλειστα βλέφαρά του ἐκλείσθησαν ἐντελῶς, ἡ χεὶρ ἔπεσε βαρεῖα ἐπὶ τοῦ τάπητος, ἡ παρειὰ ἐβυθίσθη εἰς τὸ προσκέφαλον, καὶ ἐντὸς τοῦ σκιεροῦ καὶ ἡσύχου δωματίου ἀντήχησεν ἰσχυρὰ καὶ ἰσόχρονος ἡ ὑγιὴς ἀναπνοὴ τοῦ ἀποκοιμηθέντος ἱερέως.
Ἡ παππαδιὰ ἐντούτοις ἀπετελείωσε τὴν ἐργασίαν της καί, βαίνουσα ἀκροποδητὶ διὰ νὰ μὴ ταράξη τὸν ἄνδρα της, μετέβη εἰς τὸν κοιτῶνα καὶ μετ᾿ ὀλίγον ἐπανῆλθε φέρουσα μικρὸν δέμα. Ἐκάθισεν εἰς τὸ παρὰ τὴν σβεστὴν ἑστίαν σκαμνίον, ἤνοιξε τὸ δέμα καὶ ἥπλωσεν ἐπὶ τῶν γονάτων της τὸ ἓν μετὰ τὸ ἄλλο τὰ περιεχόμενα. Ἦσαν βρεφικὰ ἐνδύματα, δανεισθέντα ὡς δεῖγμα διὰ τὰ ἐργόχειρα, εἰς τὰ ὁποῖα ἐσκόπευε ν᾿ ἀφοσιωθῇ ἐφεξῆς. Καὶ τὰ ἔβλεπεν ἡ παππαδιὰ μετὰ πόθου, καὶ τὰ παρετήρει μετὰ βραδύτητος εἰς τὴν ὁποίαν ὑπεκρύπτετο ἄλλο αἴσθημα ἢ ἡ περὶ τὴν ἐπεξεργασίαν τῶν προσοχή. Καὶ διακόπτουσα τὴν ἐξέτασιν τῶν ἐνδυμάτων, ἔστρεφεν ἐν τῷ μεταξὺ τὸ βλέμμα καὶ ἔβλεπε ῥεμβάζουσα τὸν ἡσύχως κοιμώμενον σύζυγόν της.
Ἦχος βημάτων βαρέων προχωρούντων πρὸς τὴν οἰκίαν διέκοψεν αἴφνης τὴν ἔξω ἡσυχίαν. Τὰ βήματα, διεκόπησαν πρὸ τῆς θύρας, καὶ τὸ ἄνω φύλλον αὐτῆς, ὑπεῖκον εἰς πίεσιν χειρὸς ὠθούσης ἔξωθεν, ἔτριξεν ἐλαφρῶς καὶ ἠνοίχθη κατὰ τὸ ἥμισυ. Τὸ φῶς εἰσῆλθεν ἄφθονον ἐντὸς τοῦ δωματίου, ἡ ἀναπνοὴ τοῦ ἱερέως μετέβαλε ρυθμόν, ἀλλ᾿ ὅμως δὲν ἔπαυσεν ἀντηχοῦσα, ἡ δὲ παππαδιὰ στρέψασα τὴν κεφαλὴν πρὸς τὸ ἀνοιχθὲν θυρόφυλλον, ἔθεσε τὸν δάκτυλον εἰς τὰ χείλη διὰ νὰ ἐπιβάλῃ σιωπὴν εἰς τὸν ἀνοίξαντα.
Ἐντὸς τοῦ φωτεροῦ τετραγώνου, τοῦ σχηματισθέντος διὰ τοῦ ἀνοίγματος τοῦ ἄνω μέρους τῆς θύρας, προέκυπτε τὸ στῆθος καὶ ἡ κεφαλὴ γέροντος χωρικοῦ. Τὸ παλαιὸν φέσι του περιέδεε μανδήλιον βαμβακερόν, τοῦ ὁποίου αἱ λευκαὶ ἄκραι ἐκρέμαντο ὄπισθεν πρὸς προφύλαξιν τοῦ ρυτιδωμένου αὐχένος του. Ὑπὸ τὸ φέσι ἔλαμπον oι ζωηροὶ ὀφθαλμοί του σκιαζόμενοι ἀπὸ δασείας πολιᾶς ὀφρύς. Ὁ ἱδρὼς ἔσταζεν ἀπὸ τοὺς κροτάφους του. Διὰ τῆς δεξιᾶς χειρὸς ἐκράτει ράβδον στηριζομένην ἐπὶ τοῦ ὤμου του, ἀπὸ δὲ τὴν ἄκραν της ράβδου ἐκρέματο ἐπὶ τῶν νώτων του καλάθιον σκεπασμένον μὲ φύλλα λαχάνων.
Ἡ παππαδιὰ ἐγερθεῖσα ἐπλησίασεν ἀψοφητὶ πρὸς τὴν θύραν.
- Καλὴ μέρα, Γεροθανάση, ἐψιθύρισεν. Ὁ παππὰς κοιμᾶται.
- Τὸ βλέπω, παππαδιά μου, ἀπεκρίθη ὁ γέρων, προσπαθῶν ἀνετιτυχῶς νὰ καταβιβάσῃ εἰς ψιθυρισμὸν καὶ οὖτος τὸν ἦχον τῆς βραγχώδους φωνῆς του.
Τὸ βλέπω, ἀλλὰ εἶναι ἀνάγκη νὰ ξυπνήσῃ.
- Τί τρέχει; Τί τὸν θέλεις;
- Δὲν τὸν θέλω ἐγώ, δόξα σοι ὁ Θεός! Ὁ λεπρὸς τὸν θέλει.
- Κύριε, ἐλέησον! Ὁ λεπρός! ἐπανέλαβεν ἡ παππαδιά.
Καὶ ἀνελογίσθη διὰ μιᾶς τοὺς φόβους τοῦ συζύγου της -- τὴν φρίκην του ν᾿ ἀρχίσῃ ἀπὸ τὸν λεπρὸν τὴν ἐξάσκησιν τῶν δυσχερῶν καθηκόντων του -- καὶ τὴν ἀπόστασιν ἕως εἰς τὸ ἄλλο ἄκρον τῆς νήσου, ὅπου ὁ δυστυχὴς ἐκεῖνος διήρχετο τὸν ἔρημον βίον -- καὶ τὸν πολὺν καύσωνα τῆς θερινῆς ἐκείνης ἡμέρας.
-Ἐτελείωσαν, μοῦ φαίνεται, τὰ ψωμιά του, ὑπέλαβεν ὁ χωρικός.
- Κύριε, ἐλέησον, ἐπανέλαβεν ἡ παππαδιά, μὴ εὑρίσκουσα ἄλλας λέξεις πρὸς ἔκφρασιν τῆς ἀδημονίας της, καὶ στρέφουσα τὰ ἀνήσυχα βλέμματα πρὸς τὸν καναπέν.
Ὁ ἱερεὺς ἤκουσε τὰ πάντα, ἀλλὰ τὰ ἤκουσεν ὡς εἰς ὄνειρον. Τὸ ἄνοιγμα τῆς θύρας διέκοψε τὸν ὕπνον του, ἀλλ᾿ αἱ αἰσθήσεις του ἔμενον εἰσέτι εἰς νάρκωσιν, αἱ δὲ ἰδέαι συνωθοῦντο συγκεχυμέναι καὶ ἄνευ σειρᾶς ἐντὸς τῆς κεφαλῆς του. Εἶδε διὰ τῶν κλειστῶν βλεφάρων τὸ χυθὲν ἐντὸς τοῦ δωματίου φῶς, ἤκουσε τὴν γυναῖκα του προσαγορεύουσαν τὸν Γεροθανάσην, ἤκουσεν ὅτι ὁ λεπρὸς τὸν θέλει... Ἀλλ᾿ ἡ τελευταία τοῦ γέροντος φράσις καὶ τὸ δεύτερον τῆς συζύγου του «Κύριε, ἐλέησον» τὸν ἀφύπνισαν ἐντελῶς.
Ἀνέκυψε τὴν κεφαλήν, κατεβίβασε τοὺς πόδας, καὶ καθήμενος ἐπὶ τοῦ καναπέ, μὲ τὰς δυὸ χεῖρας στηριζομένας ἐπὶ τοῦ τάπητος, μὲ τὰ βλέμματα προσηλωμένα πρὸς τὴν θύραν καὶ τὰ χείλη ἡμιανοικτά, ἔμενεν ἀκίνητος καὶ σιωπηλός. Ἐσκέπτετο ἄρα γε; Ὄχι, δὲν ἐσκέπτετο, ἀλλ᾿ ἐφαντάζετο ὅτι βλέπει ἐνώπιόν του τὴν ἐλεεινὴν καλύβην ἐπὶ τῶν βράχων, ὑπεράνω τῆς θαλάσσης, ὅπου πρὸ ἐτῶν πολλῶν, ὠθούμενος ὑπὸ παιδικῆς περιεργείας, ἐπλησίασε διὰ νὰ ἴδῃ τί ἐστι λεπρός. Ἐφαντάζετο ὅτι βλέπει τὸν δυστυχῆ τῆς καλύβης κάτοικον, καθὼς τὸν εἶδε τότε καθήμενον κατὰ γῆς εἰς τὴν σκιὰν μιᾶς κέδρου καθαρίζοντα χόρτα ἄγρια ἐντὸς τῆς πηλίνης χύτρας του καὶ στρέφοντα μετ᾿ ἀπορίας τὴν κεφαλὴν πρὸς τὸν μικρὸν ρασοφόρον. Ἀνεπόλει πώς, ὅτε εἶδε τὴν ἀποτρόπαιον ἐκείνην μορφήν, ῥῖγος φρίκης τὸν κατέλαβε καὶ ἔφυγε δρομαῖος πρὸς τοὺς συντρόφους του, οἵτινες ἀτολμότεροι τὸν ἐπερίμενον μακράν της καλύβης...
- Νὰ μὲ συμπαθήσῃς, παππά μου, εἶπεν ὁ Γεροθανάσης. Σ᾿ ἐξύπνησα. Ἀλλὰ ψυχομαχεῖ ὁ λεπρὸς καὶ σὲ θέλει, καὶ εἶναι πολὺς ὁ δρόμος ἕως ἐκεῖ. Ἴσως δὲν τὸν προφθάσῃς.
Ὁ παππα-Νάρκισσος ἠγέρθη.
- Παππαδιά, εἶπεν, ἡ δὲ φωνή του ἔτρεμεν ὀλίγον. Τὸ καλυμμαύχι καὶ τὸ ῥάσον μου.
Ὑπήκουσεν ἐκείνη σιωπῶσα καὶ ἔφερεν ἐκ τοῦ κοιτῶνος τὰ ζητηθέντα.
- Δὲν θὰ κάμῃς πεζὸς τόσον δρόμον, παππά μου, ὑπέλαβε θωπευτικῶς.
- Ὄχι, ὄχι, εἶπεν ὁ Γεροθανάσης. Πηγαίνω νὰ εὕρω κτῆμα, κ᾿ ἔρχομαι ἀμέσως νὰ τὸν πάρω.
- Θὰ ἔλθῃς μαζί μου; ἠρώτησεν ὁ ἱερεύς.
- Καὶ βέβαια!
Ὁ γέρων ἀνεχώρησεν ἐσπευσμένως πρὸς εὕρεσιν κτήματος, ὡς ὀνομάζουν εὐφήμως τὰ κτήνη των oι νησιῶται.
-Ἴδε, ἔλεγεν ὁ ἱερεὺς πρὸς τὴν σύζυγόν του, ἐνῷ ἔνιπτε τὰς χεῖρας καὶ τὸ πρόσωπον εἰς τὸν νεροχύτην. Ἴδε, ὁ Γεροθανάσης εἶδε τὸν λεπρὸν καὶ τὸν ἐβοήθησεν, ἔρχεται πεζὸς ἀπ᾿ ἐκεῖ, καὶ εἶναι πρόθυμος νὰ κάμῃ πάλιν τὸν δρόμον μαζί μου. Διατί; Χάριν φιλανθρωπίας. Κ᾿ ἐγὼ συλλογίζομαι τὴν φρίκην τοῦ νὰ παρασταθῶ εἰς τὸ ψυχομαχητὸν ἑνὸς χριστιανοῦ; Θὰ διστάσω ἐνῷ πρόκειται περὶ ἐκτελέσεως τοῦ καθήκοντός μου;
Ἡ παππαδιὰ τὸν ἤκουε προσπαθοῦντα διὰ τῶν λόγων τούτων νὰ ἀνυψώσῃ τὸ θάρρος του, ἀλλὰ δὲν ἐτόλμα νὰ προσθέσῃ τι καὶ αὕτη πρὸς ἐνίσχυσίν του. Ἐπρόσφερεν ἐν σιωπῇ τὸ προσόψιον εἰς τὸν ἄνδρα της, ἐκεῖνος δὲ ἐσπογγίσθη, ἐφόρεσε τὸ ράσον, ἔθεσεν ἐπὶ κεφαλῆς τὸ καλυμμαύχιον, ἐφίλησε τὴν σύζυγόν του εἰς τὸ μέτωπον καὶ ἐξῆλθε κρατῶν εἰς χεῖρας τὰ κλειδία τῆς Ἐκκλησίας.
Ἡ oικία τοῦ ἱερέως ἔκειτο, τελευταία καὶ ἀπομονωμένη, εἰς τοὺς πρόποδας τῆς ἀποτόμου κορυφῆς, τῆς ὁποίας τὰ πλευρὰ κατεῖχον αἱ λοιπαὶ οἰκοδομαὶ τοῦ χωρίου, ὑπερκείμεναι ἀλλήλων. Εἰς τὸ μέσον περίπου αὐτῶν ἦτο ἡ μικρὰ ἐκκλησία τῆς Ὑπαπαντῆς, κτίριον παλαιὸν Βυζαντινοῦ ρυθμοῦ, μὲ τρoῦλλον πυργοειδῆ ὑψούμενον ὑπεράνω τῶν πέριξ ταπεινῶν oικιῶν. Ἀπὸ τὴν οἰκίαν τοῦ ἱερέως μέχρι τῆς ἐκκλησίας ἡ στενὴ λιθόστρωτος ὁδὸς ἀνέβαινεν ἑλικοειδῶς, ὁ δὲ ἥλιος, ἀκτινοβολῶν κατὰ κάθετον, ἀποκαθίστα κατὰ τὴν ὥραν ἐκείνην τὴν ἀνάβασιν κοπιωδεστέραν τοῦ συνήθους.
Τὰ παράθυρα τῶν ἑκατέρωθεν οἰκίσκων, ἦσαν κλειστά, ποῦ καὶ ποῦ ὅμως τὸ ἄνω φύλλον τῆς θύρας ἦτο ἀνοικτόν, ὁ δὲ οἰκοδεσπότης, ἢ καὶ ἡ σύζυγός του, στηρίζοντες τοὺς βραχίονας ἐπὶ τοῦ κλειστοῦ κάτω φύλλου ἐφαίνοντο περιμένοντες τὴν διάβασιν τοῦ ἱερέως. Ὁ Γεροθανάσης διαβαίνων διέδωκε τὴν εἴδησιν ὅτι ὁ λεπρὸς ἀποθνῄσκει. Καὶ ἐχαιρέτα ὁ ἱερεὺς τοὺς χωρικούς. «--Καλὴ μέρα, κὺρ Γιάννη.-- Ὥρα καλή, κυρὰ Θάναινα.-- Ἡ εὐχή σου, παππᾶ μου.»
Προφανῶς εἶχον πάντες διάθεσιν δι᾿ ἐκτενεστέραν συνδιάλεξιν, ἀλλ᾿ ὁ παππᾶς ἐβιάζετο. Ἀνῆλθεν ἱδρωμένος εἰς τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, ἤνοιξε τὴν θύραν, εἰσῆλθεν ἐντὸς τοῦ δροσεροῦ ναοῦ, ἔλαβεν εὐλαβῶς ἐκ τοῦ ἀναιμάκτου θυσιαστηρίου τὸ ἱερὸν τῆς θείας μεταλήψεως σκεῦος καὶ τὸ εὐχολόγιόν του, τὰ ἐτύλιξεν ἐντὸς τοῦ περιτραχηλίου του, περιέδεσε τὸ περιτραχήλιον ἐντὸς μαύρης λινῆς ὀθόνης καὶ ἐξῆλθεν.
Ἔκλειε μόλις τὴν θύραν τῆς Ἐκκλησίας, ὅτε ἤκουσε τὴν φωνὴν τοῦ Γεροθανάση παροτρύνοντας τὸ κτῆμα. Τὸ ζῷον δὲν ἐφαίνετο πρόθυμον εἰς ἐκδρομὴν ἐντὸς τοῦ καύσωνος. Ὁ ἱερεὺς προέβη εἰς προϋπάντησίν του, τὸ ἐθώπευσεν, ἀνέβη εἰς τὴν ράχιν του, ἀφοῦ ἐναπέθεσεν ἀσφαλῶς τὸ δέμα ἐντὸς τοῦ κόλπου του, καὶ ἤρχισεν ἡ πορεία. Ὁ γέρων χωρικὸς παρηκολούθει πεζός.
Πλειότεραι θύραι ἦσαν ἤδη ἀνοικταί, οἱ δὲ εὐσεβεῖς χωρικοί, γνωρίζοντες τί ἔφερεν ἐντὸς τοῦ κόλπου ὁ ἱερεύς, ἐσταυροκοποῦντο, ἐνῷ διήρχετο. Εἰς τὴν θύραν τῆς οἰκίας του ἐπερίμενεν ἡ παππαδιά, σκιάζουσα διὰ τῆς χειρὸς τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς της. Μειδίαμα εὐφρόσυνον ἐπέλαμψεν εἰς τὸ πρόσωπον τοῦ ἱερέως. Ἐκράτησε τὸ ζῷον πρὸ τῆς θύρας καὶ ἠθέλησε ν᾿ ἀποτείνῃ τὸν λόγον πρὸς τὴν σύζυγόν του, ἀλλά, δὲν ἀνήρχοντο αἱ λέξεις εἰς τὰ χείλη του. Οὔτε ἐκείνη ἐπρόφερε λέξιν, ἐνῷ τὸν ἠτένιζε τρυφερῶς προσπαθοῦσα νὰ μειδιάσῃ. Ὁ παππα Νάρκισσος ἐκίνησε τὴν κεφαλὴν πρὸς ἀποχαιρετισμόν, ἐκτύπησε τὸν λαιμὸν τοῦ ὄνου διὰ τοῦ σχοινίου, τὸ ὁποῖον ἐχρησίμευεν ἀντὶ χαλινοῦ, καὶ ἐπροχώρησε μετὰ τοῦ γέροντος. Τὸ βεβιασμένον μειδίαμα τῆς παππαδιᾶς ἐσβέσθη, ἅμα εἶδε τὴν συνοδίαν ἀπομακρυνομένην, καὶ διὰ τοῦ ἀντίχειρος ἀπέμαξεν ἓν δάκρυ ἐκ τῶν βλεφαρίδων της.
Ὁ δρόμος ἐξηκολούθει καταβαίνων ἀνὰ μέσον τῶν εἰς τοὺς πρόποδας τοῦ χωρίου ἀγρῶν καὶ ἀμπελώνων, ἔπειτα ἀνέβαινε πάλιν, διασχίζων πυκνὸν ἐλαιῶνα, μέχρι τῆς κορυφῆς τοῦ ἀπέναντι λόφου, ὅπου τρεῖς ἀνεμόμυλοι ἐπερίμενον πνοὴν ἀέρος νὰ κινήση τοὺς ἤδη ἀργοὺς ἱστιοφόρους τροχοὺς τῶν. Ἐκεῖθεν ἠπλοῦτο εὐρὺ ὀροπέδιον κατωφερές, ἀπολῆγον εἰς βράχους ἀποκρήμνους πρὸς τὸ μεσημβρινὸν μέρος τῆς νήσου. Ἡ ὁδὸς ἦτο τραχεία καὶ ἀπεριποίητος, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὁ Γεροθανάσης καὶ τὸ κτῆμα του ἐφαίνοντο συνηθισμένοι εἰς τὰς πέτρας, αἵτινες ἐπηύξανον τὸ δύσβατον τοῦ ἐδάφους. Τοῖχοι χαμηλοί, ξηροτρόχαλοι, ἄνευ πηλοῦ ἢ ἀσβέστου, ἐχώριζον ἑκατέρωθεν τοὺς ἀμπελῶνας. Καθόσον δὲ ἡ ὁδὸς ἀπεμακρύνετο, διεδέχοντο τοὺς ἀμπελῶνας ἀγροὶ θερισθέντες ἤδη. Πέραν τῆς καλλιεργημένης ἐκτάσεως, ἀριστερόθεν μὲν τὸ ὀροπέδιον ἀνυψούμενον ἐσχημάτιζε σειρὰν λόφων θαμνοσκεπῶν, δεξιόθεν δὲ ἔκλινε βαθμιαίως πρὸς τὴν παραλίαν, καὶ ἡ κυανὴ τοῦ Αἰγαίου θάλασσα, ἐξηπλοῦτο ἐκεῖθεν ἀπέραντος, ποικιλλομένη ἀπὸ τὰ ἀπέχοντα βουνὰ τῶν ἄλλων νήσων.
Ἦτο ἀληθῶς ὡραῖον τὸ θέαμα, ἀλλ᾿ ὁ ἱερεὺς δὲν τὸ ἔβλεπεν. Ὁ νοῦς του ἦτο ἀλλαχοῦ προσηλωμένος. Οἱ φόβoι τοὺς ὁποίους ἡ συναίσθησις τοῦ καθήκοντος καὶ τὸ παράδειγμα τοῦ Γεροθανάση εἶχον κατ᾿ ἀρχὰς περιστείλει, ἐπανήρχοντο καὶ πάλιν ἐντὸς τῆς ψυχῆς του. Αἱ πρὸ τῆς ἀναχωρήσεως προετοιμασίαι, ἡ παρουσία τῶν χωρικῶν εἰς τὰς θύρας τῶν οἰκιῶν των, ἡ θέα τῆς συζύγου του, εἶχον ὁπωσδήποτε ἀναστηλώσει τὴν κλονιζομένην καρδίαν του. Ἀλλὰ τώρα εἰς τὴν ἐρημίαν τῆς ἐξοχῆς, ἐν τῷ μέσῳ τῆς σιωπῆς, τὴν ὁποίαν ἐφαίνετο ἐπιτείνων ὁ διπλοῦς κρότος τῶν πετάλων τοῦ ζῴου καὶ τῶν βημάτων τοῦ γέροντος χωρικοῦ, ἐνῷ ὁ ἥλιος ἔκαιε τοὺς ὤμους του, εἰκόνες ἀπαίσιοι ἐξετυλίσσοντο καὶ πάλιν ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀφηρημένων ὀφθαλμῶν του. Ἐπροσπάθει διά, τῆς σκέψεως νὰ ὑπερνικήση τὴν φαντασίαν του, ἀλλ᾿ ἡ σκέψις δὲν ἴσχυεν. Ἐφοβεῖτο, ἐφοβεῖτο ὁ δυστυχής!
Δὲν εἶχεν εἰσέτι ὁμιλήσει, ἀλλ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ὁ συνοδοιπόρος του διέκοψε τὴν σιωπήν. Ὅτε περιπατεῖ τις ὑπὸ τὸν ἥλιον, ἐπὶ ἐδάφους δυσκόλου, ἀκoλουθῶν μάλιστα τὸ βάδισμα ζώου εὐρώστου, δὲν θεωρεῖ συνήθως τὴν περίστασιν ἁρμοδίαν πρὸς συνομιλίαν, καὶ ἂν ἔτι δὲν ἔχῃ τὴν ἡλικίαν τοῦ Γεροθανάση. Ἐπὶ τέλους ὁ ἱερεὺς ἀνέκυψεν ἐκ τῶν ζοφερῶν ῥεμβασμῶν του. Ἤκουσε τὸν γέροντα ὄπισθέν του ἀσθμαίνοντα καί, σύρας πρὸς τὸ στῆθος του τὸ σχοινίον, ἐκράτησε τὸν ὄνον. Ὁ χωρικὸς ἔσπευσε τὸ βῆμα καὶ ἦλθε πλησίον του.
- Τί ἔπαθες, παππά μου; Τί στέκεις;
- Θὰ κατέβω ν᾿ ἀνέβης σύ, καὶ ὅταν κουρασθῶ, ἀλλάζομεν.
- Καλέ, τί λόγος! Νὰ καθίσω ἐγὼ καὶ νὰ περιπατῇς ἐσύ!
- Εἶσαι κουρασμένος, γέρο μου.
-Ἐγὼ κουρασμένος! Βαστοῦν ἀκόμη τὰ κόκκαλά μου κ᾿ ἔννοιά σου! Ποὺ ἠκούσθη νὰ περιπατῇ ὁ παππᾶς μὲ τὰ ἅγια καὶ νὰ πηγαίνῃ ἐμπρὸς ὁ ἀγωγιάτης μὲ τὸ κτῆμα! Ἐμπρός!
Τὸ πρᾶγμα δὲν ἐπεδέχετο περαιτέρω συζήτησιν. Ὁ ὄνος ὑπείκων καὶ εἰς τὴν ἠθικὴν πίεσιν τῆς φωνῆς τοῦ γέροντος καὶ εἰς τὴν διὰ τοῦ γρόνθου του ἐπικύρωσιν τοῦ ἐκφωνηθέντος «Ἐμπρός», ἐπανέλαβε ζωηρῶς τὴν πορείαν. Ἀλλ᾿ ὁ ἱερεὺς ἐχαλίνωσε τὴν ὁρμήν του διὰ ν᾿ ἀκολουθῇ μετὰ πλειοτέρας ἀνέσεως ὁ πεζὸς γέρων καὶ διὰ νὰ ἐπαναλάβῃ τὴν μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ συνομιλίαν.
- Θὰ τὸν προφθάσωμεν ζωντανόν; Τί λέγεις;
- Τί νὰ σοῦ πῶ; Ὁ ἄνθρωπος εἶναι εἰς τὰ ἔσχατά του.
- Πῶς τὸν ἄφησες; Πῶς ἦτο;
- Πῶς νὰ εἶναι; Ὡσὰν ἄνθρωπος ὁποῦ ψυχομαχεῖ.
Τοῦτο ἤθελε νὰ μάθῃ. Πῶς εἶναι ὁ ἄνθρωπος ὅτε ψυχομαχεῖ, ἀλλ᾿ ἡ ἀπόκρισις τοῦ χωρικοῦ δὲν τὸν ἐφώτισεν. Ἐπεθύμει ν᾿ ἀκούσῃ περιγραφόμενον τὸ θέαμα, τὸ ὁποῖον ἀπετροπιάζετο προτοῦ τὸ ἴδῃ. Ἤλπιζεν ὅτι ἡ ἐκ τῶν προτέρων περιγραφὴ ἤθελεν ἐξoικειώσει αὐτὸν πρὸς ὅ,τι παιδιόθεν ἐφαντάζετο μετὰ φρίκης. Καὶ ἐπάλαιεν ἐντὸς τῆς ψυχῆς του τὸ ταπεινὸν αἴσθημα τοῦ φόβου πρὸς τὸ εὐγενὲς αἴσθημα τοῦ καθήκοντος. Ἡ ἀδιαφορία μὲ τὴν ὁποίαν ὁ γέρων ὠμίλει περὶ τῆς ἀγωνίᾳς τοῦ θανάτου, ἡ προθυμία του νὰ ἐπανέλθῃ πρὸς τὸν ψυχορραγοῦντα λεπρόν, ἐπηύξανον τὴν ἐνδόμυχόν του ἱερέως ἐντροπὴν διὰ τὴν ἀτολμίαν του.
- Διατὶ ἦλθες μαζί μου, ἠρώτησε μετά τινα σιωπήν. Διὰ νὰ μὲ συντροφεύσῃς;
- Καὶ διὰ τοῦτο. Ἀλλ᾿ ὄχι τόσον διὰ τοῦτο, ὅσον διὰ νὰ τὸν παρασταθῶ εἰς τὰ τέλη του. Ἐσύ, παππά μου, νὰ τὸν μεταλάβῃς καὶ ἔπειτα νὰ φύγῃς. Ἐγὼ θὰ μείνω. Ὅλην του τὴν ζωὴν τὴν ἐπέρασεν ἔρημος καὶ μόνος, ἂς ἔχῃ ἕνα χριστιανὸν εἰς τὸ πλευρόν του, ἐνῷ ἀποθνῄσκει, ὁ κακόμοιρος!
- Εἶσαι ἀλήθεια καλὸς χριστιανός, Γεροθανάση. Ὁ Θεὸς νὰ σ᾿ εὐλογήσῃ!
Ἀλλὰ τὸ χρέος τοῦτο εἶναι ἰδικόν μου, καὶ θὰ τὸ ἐκτελέσω ἐγώ. Ἐγὼ θὰ τοῦ κλείσω τὰ βλέφαρα.
Καὶ ἠσθάνθη τὸν λάρυγγά του στενούμενον ὑπὸ συγκινήσεως.
Ἐξηκολούθησαν ἐν σιωπῇ τὴν ὁδοιπορίαν. Ἡ ὁδὸς δὲν ἐφράσσετο πλέον ἑκατέρωθεν ὑπὸ τοίχων, ἀλλὰ διέσχιζε θάμνους σχοίνων καὶ κομάρων καταβαίνουσα πρὸς τὰ ἀπόκρημνά της νήσου παράλια. Ἐντὸς ὀλίγου ἔκαμψε πρὸς τ᾿ ἀριστερά, παρὰ τὰς ὑπωρείας γυμνοῦ λοφίσκου, καὶ εἶδε μακρόθεν ὁ ἱερεὺς μίαν κέδρον ἐκεῖ μονήρη, ὑπὸ δὲ τὴν σκιὰν τῆς τοὺς τοίχους τῆς καλύβης τοῦ λεπροῦ.
Πρὸ δεκαπέντε ἐτῶν ὑπὸ τοὺς κλώνας τῆς κέδρου ἐκείνης εἶδεν ὁ Νάρκισσος τὸν δυστυχῆ ἐρημίτην, ὅστις πρὸ πολλῶν καὶ τότε ἐτῶν κατώκει ἐκεῖ. Εἰς τὴν ἐσχατιὰν ἐκείνην τῆς νήσου, μόνος, ἔρημος, μακρὰν πάσης κοινωνίας ἀνθρώπων, διῆλθε τὸν βίον φέρων τὸ βάρος προγονικῆς συμφορᾶς, ἀνεύθυνος αὐτός, ζῶν ἄνευ ἐλπίδος, ἄνευ παρηγορίας, ἄνευ σκοποῦ. Ὀρφανός, ἄκληρος, ἄπορος, κατελήφθη νεώτατος ἔτι ὑπὸ τῆς βδελυρᾶς νόσου. Οἱ ὁμόχωροί του τὸν ἠνάγκασαν νὰ ὑποβληθῇ εἰς ἀπομόνωσιν, ἀναλαβόντες τὴν ὑποχρέωσιν τῆς συντηρήσεώς του. Δὲν ἦτο βεβαίως ὑπέρογκον τὸ βάρος διὰ τὴν κοινότητα τῆς νήσου. Ὁ Γεροθανάσης, τοῦ ὁποίου oι ὀλίγοι ἀγροὶ ἔκειντο πέραν τῆς καλύβης τοῦ λεπροῦ, ἀνεδέχθη τὴν μεταφορὰν τῆς ἑβδομαδιαίας προμηθείας ἄρτου. Ἀλλὰ δὲν περιωρίσθη εἰς τοῦτο ἡ ἀγαθότης τοῦ φιλανθρώπου χωρικοῦ. Ἐβοήθει τὸν ἄθλιον ἐρημίτην εἰς τὴν καλλιέργειαν τοῦ μικροῦ κήπου του, ἐπισκευάζων τὰ ἐργαλεῖα του, προμηθεύων σπόρους, δίδων συμβουλάς. Ἔμενε συνομιλῶν μὲ τὸν ἀσθενῆ, ἐξοικειωθεὶς ἐκ τῆς μακρᾶς συνηθείας πρὸς τὸ ἀπεχθὲς νόσημά του. Καὶ τὸν ἐπερίμενεν ὁ λεπρός, μετρῶν τὰς ἡμέρας καὶ τὰς ὥρας μέχρι τῆς προσεχοῦς ἐπισκέψεως. Ὁ Γεροθανάσης ἦτο ὁ μόνος σύνδεσμος μεταξὺ αὐτοῦ καὶ τοῦ λοιποῦ κόσμου. Οὐδεὶς ἄλλος τὸν ἐπλησίαζεν. Ἐὰν χωρικός τις διέβαινεν ἐκεῖθεν, τὸν προσηγόρευεν ἐνίοτε μακρόθεν, ἐναπέθετεν ἴσως ἐπὶ βράχου ἀπέχοντος τὴν ἐλεημοσύνην του, ἀλλ᾿ οὐδεὶς ἐτόλμα νὰ τὸν ἴδῃ καὶ νὰ τὸν ὁμιλήσῃ ἐκ τοῦ πλησίον.
Ὁ περὶ τὴν καλύβην κῆπος τοῦ λεπροῦ περιεκλείετο διὰ φραγῆς ἐκ σπάρτων καὶ κομάρων καὶ ῥοδοδαφνῶν. Ἀπέναντι τῆς θαλάσσης ἡ φραγὴ διεκόπτετο, δυὸ δὲ λίθοι ὀγκώδεις, ἐν εἴδει παραστάδων, ἐσχημάτιζον τὴν εἴσοδον, ἀλλὰ θύρα μεταξὺ τῶν λίθων δὲν ὑπῆρχεν.
Ποσάκις ἐπὶ τῶν λίθων ἐκείνων καθήμενος, ἀπέναντι τῆς ἀπεράντου ἐκτάσεως τοῦ πελάγους, ἔβλεπε τὰ κύματα, πλήττοντα τοὺς βράχους ἀγρίως, ἢ θωπεύοντα ἡσύχως τὴν παραλίαν ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας του! Ποσάκις, βλέπων ἐκεῖθεν τὰς λευκὰς πτέρυγας τῶν ἀπεχόντων πλοίων, ἐζήλευε τοὺς ναύτας, οἱ ὁποῖοι, εὔρωστοι καὶ ρωμαλέοι, ἐπάλαιον κατὰ τῶν στοιχείων, περιφερόμενοι ἀπὸ τόπου εἰς τόπον καὶ ποθοῦντες τὴν παραλίαν τῆς πατρίδος, ὅπου ὄντα προσφιλῆ τους ἐπερίμενον, ἐνῷ αὐτός, δέσμιος ἐπὶ τοῦ βράχου του, ἔρημος καὶ ἐλεεινός, ἐπερίμενε τὸν θάνατον!
Ἐκεῖ, ἔμπροσθεν τῶν δυὸ λίθων, ἐπέζευσεν ὁ παππα Νάρκισσος. Ὁ Γεροθανάσης ἔδεσε διὰ τοῦ σχοινίου τοὺς δυὸ ἐμπροσθίους πόδας τοῦ ὄνου, πρὸς περιορισμὸν τῆς ἐλευθερίας του, καὶ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν μικρὸν καλλιεργημένον περίβολον, προχωρῶν πρὸς τὴν καλύβην. Ὁ ἱερεὺς τὸν παρηκολούθει. Μετ᾿ ὀλίγα βήματα ὁ χωρικὸς ἐστράφη.
- Κάθισε ὀλίγον ἔξω ἐκεῖ εἰς τὴν πέτραν, παππά μου, νὰ ἰδῶ πρῶτα τί γίνεται μέσα ὁ ἄμοιρος αὐτός.
Ὁ ἱερεὺς ὑπήκουσε σιωπῶν. Ἔλαβε τὸ δέμα ἐκ τοῦ κόλπου του, τὸ ἔλυσε μὲ τὰς χεῖρας τρεμούσας ὀλίγον, ἔθεσε τὸ περιτραχήλιον μὲ τὰ ἐν αὐτῷ ἐπὶ τῆς πέτρας, ἀπέθεσεν ἐκεῖ καὶ τὸ καλυμμαύχιόν του, καὶ μὲ γυμνὴν τὴν κεφαλήν, τὰς χεῖρας σταυρωμένας ἐπὶ τοῦ στήθους, ἐπερίμενεν ὄρθιος τὸν γέροντα. Ἦτο κάτωχρος. Μία ἀκούσιος εὐχή, μία ἁμαρτωλὴ ἐπιθυμία εἰσέδυσεν αἴφνης εἰς τὴν ψυχήν του. -- Ὤ! Ἐὰν ὁ γέρων ἐπανερχόμενος ἔλεγε: Τετέλεσται! -- Ἀλλ᾿ ἀπεδίωξε μετὰ ρίγους τὸν πονηρὸν στοχασμόν, ἐπεκαλέσθη τὴν ἐξ ὕψους βοήθειαν, ἔκαμε τὸν σταυρόν του, καὶ λαβὼν ἐκ τοῦ διπλωμένου περιτραχηλίου τὸ εὐχολόγιον ἤρχισε ν᾿ ἀναγινώσκῃ τὰς ὡραίας προσευχὰς τῆς νεκρωσίμου ἀκολουθίας. Ἀνεγίνωσκε, καὶ ὅμως ὁ νοῦς του ἦτo εἰς τὴν καλύβην. -- Διατί ἀργεῖ ὁ Γεροθανάσης; --Ἠθέλησε νὰ πλησιάσῃ πρὸς τὴν θύραν τῆς καλύβης, ἀλλ᾿ εἰς τὸ μέσον τοῦ περιβόλου ἐστάθη διστάζων. Ἠθέλησε νὰ ἐρωτήσῃ ἐκεῖθεν τὸν γέροντα, ἀλλὰ δὲν ἐτόλμησε νὰ ὑψώσῃ τὴν φωνήν.
Ἐπὶ τέλους ὁ γέρων ἐξῆλθε τῆς καλύβης. Ὁ ἱερεὺς τὸν ἠτένισε μὲ βλέμμα ἐρωτηματικόν.
-Ἦτον εἰς βύθος. Τὸν ἐξύπνησα μὲ κόπον. Μόλις ἄκουεται ἡ φωνή του. Ἔλαμψαν τὰ σβυσμένα του μάτια, ὅταν ἤκουσε ὅτι εἶσαι ἐδῶ. Ἔλα, παππά, ἔλα νὰ τὸν μεταλάβῃς.
Ὁ ἱερεὺς ἐπέστρεψε πρὸς τὴν εἴσοδον, περιεβλήθη τὸ περιτραχήλιον, ἔλαβεν εὐλαβῶς εἰς χεῖρας τὰ ἅγια καὶ ἐπορεύθη πρὸς τὴν καλύβην. Ἡ ὠχρότης του μόνη ἐμαρτύρει τὴν ταραχήν του. Τὸ βῆμα του ἦτο στερεόν, αἱ χεῖρες του δὲν ἔτρεμον καθὼς πρίν, δὲν ἐδίσταζε πλέον. Ἐνίκησε τοὺς τελευταίους ἐνδοιασμοὺς τῆς δειλίας ἡ συναίσθησις τῆς ἱερᾶς ἀποστολῆς του.
Ὅτε ἔφθασεν εἰς τὴν θύραν, ὁ γέρων, ὅστις τὸν ἠκολούθει παρὰ πόδας, ἔθιξεν ἐλαφρῶς τὸ ράσον του. Ὁ ἱερεύς, μὲ τὸν ἕνα πόδα ἐπὶ τοῦ κατωφλίου, ἐστάθη καὶ ἔστρεψε τὴν κεφαλήν. Ἡ ξανθή του κόμη ἐκυμάτιζε λυτὴ ἐπὶ τοῦ αὐχένος του.
- Παππά μου, μὴ ἐγγίσης τὸ μανδήλι εἰς τὸ πρόσωπόν του. Ἐκεῖνος μοῦ παρήγγειλε νὰ τὸν σκεπάσω διὰ νὰ μὴ τὸν ἰδῆς.
- Καλά, εἶπεν ὁ ἱερεὺς σοβαρῶς. Μὴ ἔλθῃς μέσα, ἐὰν δὲν σὲ κράξω.
Καὶ εἰσῆλθεν ἐντὸς τῆς καλύβης.
Ὁ Γεροθανάσης ἐκάθισεν ἐπὶ τῆς πέτρας παρὰ τὴν εἴσοδον καὶ ἐπερίμενεν. Ἔμεινεν ἐπὶ ὥραν πολλὴν καθήμενος ἐκεῖ. Ἠπόρει πῶς ὁ ἱερεὺς οὔτε φαίνεται οὔτε ἀκούεται. Εἶχε τὴν περιέργειαν νὰ ὑπάγῃ πρὸς τὴν καλύβην, ἀλλὰ δὲν ἐτόλμα νὰ παρακούσῃ τὴν διαταγήν. Ἐπερίμενε λοιπόν, βλέπων τὴν κυανὴν θάλασσαν ῥυτιδουμένην ὑπὸ τοῦ ἀνέμου, ὅστις ἐγειρόμενος ἤρχιζε νὰ δροσίζῃ τὴν ἀτμοσφαίραν. Οἱ πέριξ θάμνοι ἀνέδιδον εὐωδίαν ζωογόνον, αἱ σιταρῆθραι πετώσαι ὁρμητικῶς πρὸς τὰ ὕψη ἐπλήρουν τὸν ἀέρα μὲ τὸ κελάδημά των, ἡ φύσις ἐφαίνετο φαιδρὰ ὅλη καὶ εὐτυχής, ἐνῷ ὁ λεπρὸς ἀπέθνησκεν ἐντὸς τῆς καλύβης του.
Αἴφνης ὁ γέρων χωρικὸς ἤκουσε βηματισμὸν πλησίον του ἐλαφρόν. Ἐστράφη ἀπορῶν καὶ εἶδεν ἐρχομένην πρὸς τὴν καλύβην τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ ἱερέως. Ἠγέρθη ἀμέσως καὶ προέβη εἰς προϋπάντησίν της.
- Τί σοῦ ἦλθε νὰ κάμῃς τόσον δρόμον πεζῄ, παππαδιά;
- Ἐνόμιζα ὅτι θὰ σᾶς ἀπαντήσω εἰς τὰ μισά του δρόμου καὶ ὀλῖγ᾿ ὀλίγον ἦλθα ἕως ἐδῶ. Ποῦ εἶναι ὁ παππᾶς;
- Μέσα, μὲ τὸν λεπρόν.
- Ζῇ ἢ ἀπέθανε;
- Ὅ,τι καὶ ἂν σοῦ πῶ, σὲ γελῶ.
- Δὲν πηγαίνεις νὰ ἰδῆς;
- Μοῦ τὸ ἔχει ἐμποδισμένον ὁ παππᾶς.
Ἡ παππαδιὰ ἐσιώπησεν ἐπ᾿ ὀλίγον καὶ ἔπειτα ἐπανέλαβε μετά τινος ἀνησυχίας:
- Θὰ νυχτωθῆτε ἐδῶ.
- Δὲν πειράζει. Ἔχει φεγγάρι. Μόνον ἐσύ, τί ἤθελες νὰ ἔλθῃς;
- Ἔφερα τὸ ράσον.
Καὶ ἔδειξε κρεμάμενον ἐπὶ τοῦ βραχίονός της, ἐπιμελῶς διπλωμένον, τὸ καλὸν ράσον τοῦ παππα Νάρκισσου.
- Τί τὸ ἔφερες; Μὴ εἶναι κρύον νὰ τὰ φορέσῃ ἐπανωτά;
- Ἴσως χρειασθῇ, εἶπεν ἡ παππαδιά.
Καὶ λέγοντες ταῦτα ἔφθασαν εἰς τὴν εἴσοδον τοῦ περιβόλου.
- Κάθισ᾿ ἐδῶ, παππαδιά, εἰς τὴν πέτραν. Θὰ εἶσαι κουρασμένη.
- Ὄχι, δὲν ἐκουράσθηκα. Νὰ πάγω μέσα, Γεροθανάση;
- Νὰ μὴ θυμώσῃ ὁ παππάς!
Ἡ παππαδιὰ ἐκάθισεν ἐπὶ τῆς πέτρας. Ἀνὰ πᾶσαν στιγμὴν ἔστρεφε τὴν κεφαλὴν πρὸς τὴν καλύβην. Ἡ ἀνησυχία, ἐζωγραφίζετο εἰς τὸ πρόσωπόν της. Ὁ γέρων τὴν ἐλυπήθη, ἢ συνεμερίζετο ἴσως καὶ αὐτὸς τὴν ἀνυπομονησίαν της.
- Μὴ χολοσκάνῃς, εἶπε. Πηγαίνω σιγὰ-σιγὰ νὰ ἰδῶ.
Ἐπροχώρησε βραδέως πρὸς τὴν καλύβην τείνων τὰ ὦτα ἀνὰ πᾶν βῆμα. Δὲν ἤκουε τίποτε. Ὅτε ἔφθασεν εἰς τὴν θύραν, ἐστάθη. Ὁ ἱερεὺς ἔλεγέ τι ταπεινῇ τῇ φωνῇ. Μόλις ἠδύνατο ν᾿ ἀκούσῃ ὁ γέρων. Ἔκυψε τὴν κεραλὴν ἐντὸς τῆς καλύβης. Τοῦ λεπροῦ ἡ κεφαλὴ δὲν ἐφαίνετο. Τὴν ἀπέκρυπτον τὰ νῶτα τοῦ ἱερέως, ὅστις γονατιστὸς ἐπὶ τοῦ ἐδάφους κλίνων τὸν αὐχένα πρὸς τὸν λεπρόν, πρoσηύχετο. Ἡ λευκὴ ὀθόνη, διὰ τῆς ὁποίας ὁ Γεροθανάσης εἶχε καλύψει τὸ πρόσωπον τοῦ ἀσθενοῦς, ἔκειτο ἐκεῖ ἐρριμμένη παρὰ τοὺς πόδας του.
Ὁ χωρικὸς ἀπεσύρθη ἡσύχως καὶ ἐπέστρεψε πρὸς τὴν εἴσοδον. Ἡ παππαδιὰ ἀκίνητος ἐπὶ τῆς πέτρας, ἀκολουθοῦσα διὰ τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν τὰς κινήσεις του, ἐπερίμενε τὴν ἐπιστροφήν του.
- Τί εἶδες; ἠρώτησε.
Κατ᾿ ἐκείνην τὴν στιγμὴν ὁ ἱερεὺς ἐξῆλθε τῆς καλύβης καὶ μὲ βήματα ἀργὰ διέσχισε τὸν κῆπον. Δὲν ἐφόρει τὸ ράσον του. Εἰς τὰς ἀνυψωμένας χεῖρας ἐκράτει τὸ εὐχολόγιον καὶ τὸ ἀρτοφόριον. Ἐβάδιζε μὲ ὀρθίαν καὶ ἀκίνητον τὴν κεφαλήν, μὲ τὸ βλέμμα ἤρεμον, ἐνῷ ἔσειεν ὁ ἄνεμος τὴν λυτὴν κόμην του. Ἐφαίνετο ἄλλος ἤδη ἄνθρωπος!
Ἐπλησίασε πρὸς τὸν γέροντα καὶ πρὸς τὴν σύζυγόν του χωρὶς οὐδεμίαν νὰ ἐκφράσῃ ἀπορίαν διὰ τὴν ἔλευσίν της. Ἀμφότεροι ἐκεῖνοι δὲν ἐκινήθησαν πρὸς προϋπάντησίν του. Τὸν ἐπερίμενον νὰ ἔλθῃ. Δὲν ἀπηύθυναν ἐρώτησιν πρὸς αὐτόν. Ἐπερίμενον νὰ ὁμιλήσῃ.
- Ἀνεπαύθη, εἶπεν ὁ ἱερεύς.
Ὁ Γεροθανάσης καὶ ἡ παππαδιὰ ἔκαμαν ἐν σιωπῇ τὸν σταυρόν των.
- Αὔριoν τὸ πρωῒ θὰ ἔλθωμεν νὰ τὸν θάψωμεν, ἐξηκολούθησεν.
Ἡ φωνή του εἶχέ τι τὸ σοβαρόν, τὸ ἐπιβάλλον. Οὐδέποτε ἡ σύζυγός του τὸν ἤκουσεν ὁμιλοῦντα οὕτω. Τὸν ἤκουε καὶ τὰ δάκρυα ἀνέβαινον ἡσύχως εἰς τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς της. Ἠσθάνετο ὅτι ἡ δοκιμασία αὕτη ἐνίσχυσε διὰ παντὸς τὴν ψυχήν του.
- Νὰ μείνω ἐδῶ τὴν νύκτα; ἠρώτησεν ὁ Γεροθανάσης.
- Μεῖνε. θὰ ἔλθω πολὺ πρωΐ.
Καὶ βλέπων τὴν σύζυγόν του, ἥτις ἔτεινε πρὸς αὐτὸν τὸ ράσον,
- Καλὰ ἔκαμες καὶ μοῦ τὸ ἔφερες, εἶπεν. Ἐσκέπασα μὲ τὸ ἄλλο τὸν νεκρόν.
Καὶ βαδίζοντες ὁ εἷς παρὰ τὸν ἄλλον ἐπέστρεψαν εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν των πεζοὶ ὁ ἱερεὺς καὶ ἡ σύζυγός του.
By Dimitrios Vikelas
Adapted by: Vassilis C. Militsis
Whereupon, the priest’s wife busied herself with carrying from the table to the sink the few plates and cutlery to wash them before putting them away on the protruding sideboard made fast on the wall between the sink and the fireplace. The room served at the same time as kitchen, dining room and lounge. The table, on which they had eaten their frugal meal, four wooden chairs and a wicker couch, were the only furniture in it. The couch was opposite the fireplace. Above it on the wall, in a black frame and unglazed, hung a litho, yellow with time, that portrayed King Otto’s arrival at Nafplion. Across the entrance, on the right corner of the wall, was the door to the bedroom and on the left another door leading to the garden. Between the two doors there was a bulky green chest covered with a small cover, folded in four. The wall above the chest was adorned by another litho – this one unframed and fixed on the wall with four tacks – which pictured, not very artfully, the view of the Church of Our Lady’s Annunciation on the island of Tinos; obviously a souvenir after the host’s devout pilgrimage to that shrine.
Right opposite the chest was the entrance to the house, and on either side of which, there were two windows with closed shutters. The door was horizontally divided by two folds; the nether one was shut while the upper one opened with a view of the alley outside. The bright light of the noon sun illumined the room.
And yet papa Narkissos rose and went into the bedroom whence he fetched his pillow, put it on one end of the couch, closed the upper shutter to darken and thus cool the room, and then lay down on the couch. But after a while he got up again and took the cover from the chest, unfolding and carefully spreading it on the couch. After this, he lay down on the couch more contentedly than before, while his papadia silently went on with her task in the sink.
Truly papa Narkissos deserved his noon siesta on that particular Sunday. He had been up and about since dawn. In default of another priest or a deacon, or even a chanter, he had to read, as usual, the matins himself and say the Mass in the only church of his hamlet. After the service was over, he, the magistrate and witnesses walked to a distant part of the island to settle the boundaries of one of his fields, a strip of which had been appropriated by a neighbor. Indeed, he came back satisfied as his rightful claim had been acknowledged; however the way was long and it was too hot. In addition, it was beyond the wont lunch time on arriving home, where papadia was waiting worried lest the meal would go bad. But the ravenous priest found it excellent and honored it duly to his wife’s extreme satisfaction. Perhaps it also contributed to his drowsiness.
The midday heat, pleasantly moderated by the obscurity of the room, the stillness of the place, interrupted only by the monotonous music of the cicadas outdoors, and in the house by the light movements of papadia, who was stowing away the crockery – the weariness of the priest having eating his fill – the soft cover on the couch: all these conduced him to sleep.
With half-closed eyelids the priest was watching the chores of his wife, while his blond beard barely concealed a smile of indescribable elation. He was looking forward to adding in their bedroom a babe’s cradle. It was only yesterday that he learned the joyful secret. Papadia divulged it at night, in the dark, for she felt shy to tell him of it in full daylight.
And while he was directing his tender, somnolent gaze on his young wife, various scenes were simultaneously passing through his phantasy, events of his previous life, assuming gradually the form of dreams, and being connected in their speedy and vague train with the euphoric feeling of his present happiness.
Only three months ago, papa Narkissos enjoyed the double honor of becoming both priest and husband. Since early childhood, he used to wear the clergyman’s habit, for he had been dedicated to Church even before he was born. Since immemorial years the firstborn in the maternal branch of the family became priests to serve the small family owned church, devoted to the Feast of Candlemas, the pride shrine of the island. However, the predecessor of Narkissos, his uncle, was childless. Therefore, when he married off her younger sister, it was explicitly settled in the marriage contract that her firstborn son was bound to become his heir and succeed him in the priesthood.
When a male was born into the family, the rejoicing displayed in such cases was beyond measure to the undue belittlement of the merit of the fair sex. Little Narkissos, as the future priest, was respectfully nursed while his first toys were rosaries and crucifixes. When he began to utter his first words, along with the wonted papa and mama, he was taught to falter Kyrie eleison. When he could walk steadily, he was privileged to hold the candle by his uncle saying the Mass. The latter taught his little nephew the alphabet by the red letters of the Book of Hours (Horologion) and later he taught him how to read from the Book of Eight Sounds (Octoechos). But all these did not curb the impulse of the little divine to play, nor was he spared from an occasional spanking when he came home, his cassock in tatters from climbing on cliffs, or from his too lively altercations with his coevals.
Upon becoming twelve years of age the little clergyman-to-be emigrated so that the respect of his flock for their future divine would not peter out. On the island of Andros lived an old uncle of his mother, who had been the bishop of the Salmathous diocese; he had retired after securing the necessities to live the remainder of his life. Narkissos was sent to him. The bishop gladly welcomed him and granted him the title of lector. In order to honor his first degree of ordination, Narkissos pursued his studies not only at the school of Andros, but also by his uncle’s canon, who initiated him in church matters.
The young man was being prepared for his career in such opportune circumstances. After some years the lector was about to be ordained a deacon, when tidings arrived at Andros about the demise of his uncle, the priest, and his fellow townsmen invited him to accept the holy succession. He was still too young to assume the duties of a priest, but the family privilege should not go to other hands. The ex-bishop of Salmathous – his mother’s uncle – greatly resenting the loss of his lector and future deacon, nevertheless sent him with his blessings to his home island to find a wife before he should be ordained.
The whole affair did not displease nor impeded Narkissos in the least, for his choice for a wife had already been made. Since almost infancy he considered Aretoula his wife to be. The parents of both children had since agreed on the match, half in jest, half in earnest; however, little Narkissos accepted from the beginning only the gist of the affair and leaving for Andros his playmate and he exchanged vows of mutual trust.
After an absence of eight years he found Aretoula changed into an elegant and pretty young damsel, but also Narkissos’ blond hair under the black lector’s cap did not lack in handsomeness. The bishop, who accompanied the groom, blessed the wedding himself and ordained the youngster first a deacon and then a priest, before he returned to Andros.
Narkissos had been a priest for three months and all went according to plan. The peasants showed more respect that it was due for his age, his wife was going to give him an heir, his fields promised good crops and the church income did not diminish. What else could he wish for? And yet, his happiness was not complete. It was shadowed by a big and constant anxiety. A priest is wont to succor the dying and bury the dead. The dead! Lo the thought that was tormenting him, the cloud the shadow of which blackened the otherwise cheerful perspective of his life.
The horror of death had crushed him since he was brought, a little boy, to kiss the closed eyelids of his dead father. Truly, he attended many burials since then, and as he lived among the clergy and he was brought up, as it were, in the bosom of the church, how could he avoid participating himself in burial rituals? However, he always had a way of eluding the view of death. During burial services he would fix his gaze either at the candle he was holding or at the chanter stand, hiding as much as he could behind his taller coevals, and never did he dare to glance at the lifeless burden in the bier, nor did he obey to hark the heartrending appeal of the living to bestow their last kiss to the flesh from which the soul was detached.
But how could he, becoming a priest, continue to shun contact with the decay of death? He felt that he could never become accustomed to this sinister spectacle. He confessed his fears to the bishop, unbosomed his apprehensions and revealed his weakness; the elder clergyman counseled, admonished, encouraged and assured him that he also would become used to the horror of death as a host of others did; he also boosted his morale by indicating the greatness of a priest’s mission to be at the deathbed of the dying and the grave of the dead. Narkissos was convinced, but he was not entirely freed from his fear. For three months now, whenever someone visited him, he had dreaded the tidings of death. Until now he escaped the terrible test, but he reflected that it was a matter of time that death would make its presence on the island. And now while his eyelids were enveloped in sweet slumber, among his pleasant phantasies, wandering like dream shadows before him, painful scenes of confessions of the dying were making their appearance.
These images were gradually clouded and were all deleted, his half-shut eyelids were completely closed, his hand fell heavily on the cover, his cheek sank in the pillow, and in the shady, quiet room the dozed priest’s healthy, noisy and rhythmical respiration was heard.
Papadia finished off her chores and going into the bedroom on tiptoe not to disturb her husband, she came out shortly carrying a small parcel. She sat on a stool by the empty fireplace and spread its contents successively on her lap. These were infants’ clothes, borrowed as samples for embroideries, with which she intended to busy herself from then on. Papadia looked at them with yearning and examined them with such slowness as it concealed another feeling from the attention at needlework. Occasionally she stopped examining the garments and looked wistfully upon her peacefully sleeping husband.
Heavy footfalls advancing towards the house interrupted suddenly the prevailing stillness of the place. The footfalls stopped at the door the upper fold of which yielding under the pressure, wielded by a hand from outside, creaked slightly and stood ajar. The light shone profusely into the room and the priest’s breathing changed its rhythm without, however, ceasing its resonance. Papadia turned her head to the open door fold and put her finger on her lips to shush the intruder.
Framed against the lit square of the upper open door-fold, the head and the torso of an old peasant made their appearance. A timeworn fez was tied circularly by a cotton kerchief, the ends of which fell behind his head and protected his wrinkled neck. Under his fez a pair of eyes sparkled vividly shaded by thick, gray eyebrows. Sweat ran in rills on his temples. In his right hand, and poised upon his shoulder, he was carrying a staff, on the one end of which a basket covered with cabbage leaves hung.
The priest’s wife rose and noiselessly approached the door.
And she immediately recalled her husband’s fears – his horror to commence performing his difficult duties on a leper – and she considered the distance to the other end of the island, where that ill-fated person led his forlorn life, as well as the unbearable heat of that summer day.
The priest heard everything as in a dream. The opening of the door interrupted his sleep, but his senses remained still in torpor, and his thoughts crammed confusedly in his mind. Through his closed eyelids he felt the light shed inside the room, he heard his wife addressing Gerothanassi and realized that the leper had asked for him… However the old man’s last sentence and his wife’s renewed exclamation of “God have mercy” aroused him entirely.
He rose his head, drew his legs down from the couch and sitting up, his hands leaning on the cover, his eyes fixed on the door and his mouth half-open, he remained motionless and silent. Was he thinking perhaps? No, he was not, but he imagined that in front of him he saw the squalid hovel on the cliff above the sea, where many years ago, urged by his childish curiosity, he approached the place to find out what a leper is like. And now he called into his memory the hapless dweller of the hovel sitting upon the ground in the shade of a cedar and cleaning wild herbs in an earthen pot, while he cast an inquiring look at the little “clergyman”. He reminisced being seized by a shudder of horror, upon seeing that execrable figure, and ran away to join his playmates, who, being more diffident, were waiting for him at a distance from the leper’s cabin…
Papa Narkissos stood up.
She obeyed silently and brought his things to him from the bedroom.
The old man hurried in search of the possession, as the islanders called the pack animals euphemistically.
Papadia heard him trying to boost his courage with such words, but she dare not add something herself to reinforce it. She silently handed her husband a towel. He wiped hands and face, donned his cassock, put his cap on his head, kissed his wife on the forehead and exited the house, the church keys in hand.
The priest’s house lay last and isolated, at the foot of a bluff, the both sides of which were occupied by the rest abodes of the village, one above the other. In the middle was the small church of Candlemas, built in byzantine style with a castellated dome soaring above the surrounding humble houses. A narrow cobbled street wound up from the priest’s house to the church. The bright sun shone headlong at that hour and made the ascent more laborious than usual.
The windows of the small houses on either side of the street were closed with an occasional upper door-fold open; its host or his wife leaning their arms on the lower fold appeared to be expecting the priest’s passage. Gerothanassi having previously passed through spread the tidings of the leper’s impending death. The priest greeted the peasants: “Good day, master Yianni – God be with you, mistress Thanaina.” To which they responded: “Your blessing, reverend.”
Apparently, they were disposed for more extensive talk, but the priest was in a hurry. He reached the church sweating, opened the gate and went into the cool interior. He devoutly took from the altar the sainted communion chalice and his prayer book, and wrapped them up in his stole, which he bound in a black linen cloth, and came out of the church.
As he was closing the church gate, he heard Gerothanassi’s voice urging his pack animal. The beast seemed reluctant to trek out in this heat. The priest went up to the animal, caressed and mounted it after securing the parcel in his bosom. They started off for their toilsome journey, while the old peasant followed on foot.
More doors were now open and the pious peasants, knowing what the priest carried in his embrace, crossed themselves as he was passing by. At the door of his own house, papadia was waiting shading her eyes with her palm. The priest’s countenance beamed with a joyful smile. He halted the animal in front of the door to say something to his wife, but he could not utter a word. Neither could she, while she was looking at him tenderly making an effort to smile. Papa Narkissos nodded a greeting, struck lightly the neck of the beast with the rope that served as a halter and went his way accompanied with the old man. Papadia’s self-conscious smile faded when the twosome drew away, and with her thumb wiped a tear from her eyelids.
The road descending through the fields and vineyards at the foot of the village, ascended again crossing a thick olive orchard as far as the top of the opposite hill, where three windmills were awaiting a breath of air to set in motion their slow sails. From that part there spread a wide declivitous plateau ending to some precipitous cliffs on the southern quarter of the island. The road was rough and unattended, but Gerothanassi and his beast were seemingly used to the rocks which augmented the roughness of the ground. Low, rugged walls, constructed without mortar or lime, demarcated the vineyards on both sides. As they plodded on, the vineyards were succeeded by fields, already reaped. Beyond the cultivated expanse, the ascending plateau on the left formed a series of shrub covered hills, and on the right it gradually descended to the coast, where the blue Aegean archipelago spread immense, varied by the distant mountains of the other islands.
The spectacle was truly captivating, but the priest did not heed it. His mind wandered elsewhere. His fears, which at first had been suppressed by his sense of duty and Gerothanassi’s example, crept back into his soul. The preparation before their departure and the presence of the peasants at their doorways had certainly boosted his shaky morale. But now in the isolation of the country and the stillness, which was enhanced by the double rattle of the animal’s hoof shoes and the old man’s footfalls, while the sun burned his shoulders, terrible images were unfolded before his abstracted eyes. He was endeavoring to overcome his fantasies by rational thinking, but his thoughts were powerless. The poor man was afraid!
The priest so far did not speak a word; nor did his companion disturb his silence. When one walks under the sun on a rough ground following the stride of a robust animal, one does not hold the occasion appropriate for conversation, even if he is not in Gerothanassi’s age. Finally the priest emerged from his dreary reverie. He heard the old man behind him pant and drawing the rope to his chest, halted the animal. The peasant hurried abreast of him.
The case brooked no further discussion. The donkey, obeying the moral urge of the old man’s voice and its sanction by the wielding of his fist upon his crupper with the order ”forward”, resumed its course. Also, the priest curbed the animal’s momentum so that the old man might follow at an easier pace and the priest could resume the conversation with him.
That was what the priest wanted to know. What it is like when one is breathing his last. However, the peasant’s response did not enlighten him. He wished to hear the thing he abhorred described to him before he came face to face with it. He had hoped that an a priori description could familiarize him with the object of his horror since he was a child. And within his soul the lowly feeling of fear fought the noble sense of duty. The indifference the old man treated the agony of death with or his readiness to return to the moribund leper added to the priest’s inner shame for his repulsion.
He choked with emotion.
They silently trudged on. The road was surrounded on both sides with walls going through mastic and arbutus shrubs and descending to the precipitous shoreline of the island. Shortly they turned to the left at the foot of a bare hillock and from a distance the priest discerned a lone cedar tree shading the walls of the leper’s cabin.
Fifteen years ago, under its branches Narkissos saw the hapless hermit, who had been residing there for many years. At that extremity of the island, alone and derelict, utterly excluded from all human society, has led his life bearing the burden of an ancestral misfortune, blameless himself, hopeless, unsuccored, his life being purposeless. Orphaned and indigent, he contracted in his early youth the abominable disease. His fellow villagers ostracized him to his isolation assuming the obligation of sustaining him. Besides, the expense of his sustenance was not very heavy to the community of the island. Gerothanassi, whose fields lay a little way off from the leper’s cabin, agreed to the weekly transport of the bread provision. However, the kindliness of the compassionate peasant did not stop therein. He aided the miserable hermit with the tending of his small garden by repairing the tools, supplying him with seeds and giving advice. He also stayed and talked with the afflicted man, being familiarized with his execrable illness. The leper was always looking forward to the old man’s next visit, counting the days and the hours. Gerothanassi was the sole link between him and the rest of the world. None else approached him. If a villager happened to pass by, he addressed the patient from a distance, laid down upon a stone his charity, not daring to draw nearer and talk to him.
The garden around the cabin was enclosed by a hedge of arbutus and oleander bushes. The hedge was interrupted at the spot with the view of the sea, where two bulky boulders formed a sort of entrance between them without a gate.
Many a time, sitting on those boulders, across the spacious sea, the leper gazed at the waves crashing wildly upon the rocks or the calm surf quietly caressing the shore under his feet. Many a time, viewing the white sails of the ships standing out far into the sea, envied the sailors, who, able-bodied and robust, fought against the elements of nature and sailed from place to place longing finally for the return to shores of their homeland, where their beloved ones were expecting them, while he, captive in his rock, deserted and deplorable, was expecting his death!
There, in front of the twin boulders, papa Narkissos dismounted his beast. Gerothanassi shackled the donkey’s forelegs with a piece of rope to limit his freedom of escape, entered the small cultivated garden and proceeded to the hut. The priest was watching him. After walking a few steps the peasant turned around.
The priest silently obeyed. He produced the parcel from his bosom, undid it with trembling hands, put his stole and the items wrapped in it on the stone, took off his cap putting it thereon, too, and bare-headed, his hands crossed on his chest, was waiting for the old man. He was very pale. An unwitting wish, a sinful desire found suddenly its way into his soul. Oh! If the old man came out and announced: finished! However, he chased away the wicked thought with a shudder, invoked help from God on high, crossed himself and taking from his folded stole the prayer book, he began to read the becoming prayers of the burial service. He kept reading but his mind was in the cabin. Why did Gerothanassi take so long? He started to approach the door, but he halted half-way hesitating. He wanted to ask the old man from there, but he did not dare to speak up.
At last the old man issued from the hut. The priest took an inquiring look at him.
The priest went back to the entrance, put his stole over his head, took devoutly the holy vessels in his hand and advanced towards the cabin. The pallor of his face betrayed his agitation. But his step was steady; his hands did not shake as before and hesitated no more. The sense of his holy mission overcame his last apprehensions and his cravenness.
The old man followed the priest, and, as the latter reached the door, he touched his cassock lightly. The priest with one foot on the doorway stood and turned his head. His unbound blonde hair fell in waves on his neck.
And saying this, the priest went into the cabin.
Gerothanassis sat on the boulder at the entrance of the courtyard and waited. He remained sitting there for a long time. He was wondering why the priest was not heard or seen. He was seized by curiosity to go to the cabin, but he did not dare to disobey the priest’s order. Therefore, he was waiting, his gaze fixed at the blue sea, growing choppy by the blowing wind, which began to cool the atmosphere. The surrounding shrubs gave off an invigorating fragrance, while the twitter of the wood-larks, flying high up in the sky, reverberated in the air. Nature itself appeared cheerful and blithe, whereas the leper was dying in his hovel.
Suddenly the old man heard the sound of light footfalls nearby. He turned casting an inquiring look and saw the priest’s wife coming toward the cabin. He immediately stood up and went to meet her.
Papadia was silent for a while and then resumed talking with some anxiety.
And she showed papa Narkissos’ best Sunday cassock, hanging on her arm, carefully folded.
Thus conversing they reached the courtyard entrance.
Papadia sat down on the boulder. Every now and then she turned her head to the cabin. Her face was tense with anxiety. The old man felt sorry for her; besides, he also shared her impatience.
He advanced slowly to the cabin, every stride on the alert. He could hear nothing. As soon as he reached the door, he paused. The priest was speaking in a low voice. He could barely hear what he was saying. He peered inside the cabin. He could not see the leper’s head because it was obstructed by the priest, who had gone down on his knees and with his head lowered over the leper he was praying. The white kerchief wherewith Gerothanassi had covered the dying man’s face was lying at his feet.
The peasant withdrew quietly and returned to the entrance. Papadia motionless on the boulder and following the peasant’s movements was waiting for his return.
At that moment the priest came out of the cabin and with slow strides crossed the garden. He was not wearing his cassock. In his lifted hands he was holding the prayer book and the chalice. He was walking with his head steady and straight, his look calm, while the wind was blowing on his loose hair. He appeared to be a changed person!
He approached them not wondering in the least about his wife’s coming. Both the old man and his wife did not advance to meet him. They only waited for him to draw near. They did not address him, either. They expected him to speak first.
Gerothanassi and papadia crossed themselves silently.
His voice was grave and imposing. Never before had his wife heard him speak thus. She was listening to him while silent tears welled up in her eyes. She felt certain that this trial has strengthened his soul forever.
Seeing his wife giving him his cassock, he said:
Thereafter, the priest with his wife returned home walking together.