Paul returned to Stephanas’s house the next day.

“Greetings, Fortunatus! Fine morning, don’t you think?” He squinted up at the heavy overcast skies, pregnant with rain, and grinned back at the boy. “I’ve come to speak with your master.”

Paul was a different man this morning. He’d spent much of the night in prayer, wrestling with his anger and disappointment. And, though he’d slept little, he’d found in the praying a refreshment he rarely experienced from sleep. For, in his prayers, the Spirit reminded him that the church in Corinth—the church everywhere, for that matter—did not depend on him or anyone else for its health and character. It was God’s church and God would look after it.

Paul needed the reminder on occasion. He needed the relief such reminders brought.

The boy ushered Paul inside and closed the door behind him. The house was quiet. The study door was closed.

“Let me tell the master you’re here.”

He began to move towards Stephanas’s study. But Paul caught him by the arm. “I never asked you. Did you talk to Stephanas about using his library?” He gave the boy a mischievous smile.

The boy smiled back, an expression he’d never shown Paul before, and nodded. “He said I could read anything I wanted.” The permission obviously pleased him.

“So what have you been reading?” They conducted the conversation in murmurs and mumbles.

“History mainly. Herodotus. Xenophon.”

Paul raised an approving eyebrow. “Excellent. And which do you like better?”

“Xenophon, no question!”

But Paul shook his head. “No. I mean the reading or the sneaking?”

The question took Fortunatus by surprise. He laughed out loud.

Well! Paul thought. We’re making progress!

At that moment, Stephanas poked his head out of his study door, astonished by the almost forgotten sound of the young man’s laughter.


II

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Stephanas. Again.” Paul moved to the center of the room as Stephanas closed the door behind him.

“Nonsense! How can I help you? Have you come for the scrolls?” He reached to his desk and patted the parchments fondly.

Paul sat and studied the man before him for a moment. “No. No scrolls this morning. I have something important to talk over with you, Stephanas. Personal. But first,” he smiled weakly, “I need to apologize for last night. It was late and I wasn’t in the best mood.”

But Stephanas waved away the apology. “It’s nothing. P-P-Please, don’t give it another thought.”

Paul shook his head. “It wasn’t ‘nothing,’ my friend. My words with Gaius made me doubt you … and Crispus. I should’ve known better. I should’ve had more faith.”

Now it was Stephanas’s turn to study Paul. “That’s true, actually. You should have trusted us. But I understand. Gaius isn’t the first convert to disappoint you. And he p-p-probably won’t be the last.” He gave Paul a small smile. “But I won’t disappoint you, P-P-Paul. I p-p-promise.”

The smile broadened. “So, what do we need to talk about?”

“I think I’ve found a way with Fortunatus.”

Stephanas sat back in his chair. “Really? I’ve been wracking my brain for weeks trying to think of something.”

Paul shifted uneasily. “But to get to him, we’ll need to go through something else.”

Stephanas lifted his hands, an invitation.

Paul stared at him for a long moment. “There was a mistress of this house once, wasn’t there, Stephanas? A wife?”

Stephanas grew very still. He steepled his fingers in front of his face, an unconscious attempt to erect a barrier between himself and a difficult topic. “You really did mean ‘p-p-personal,’ didn’t you?” He looked down at the top of his desk. “Have my servants been speaking out of turn?” he asked softly.

“Let’s call it an old man’s hunch. I can see the hurt she left behind.”

Stephanas took a quill from the desk and twirled it between his fingers, as though he needed something to play with to keep his hands from shaking. He was quiet for a while. Paul could see evidence of an internal debate in the way his eyes fixed on the quill, the way the quill turned and spun. When Stephanas finally decided to tell the story, he determined to tell it all.

“I did take a wife. A few years ago,” he said finally, placing the quill back on the desktop. “The daughter of a business associate. He wanted closer ties between our households and offered the match. She … well … I doubt she was consulted in the matter.” He sighed heavily.

“But truthfully, I wanted the match as well. She was very lovely, you see. I’d watched her for a long time before her father approached me with the offer of marriage.” The telling was difficult for him. He set the quill aside and looked down at his hands. “The fact is, I was quite smitten. Foolish, I know, for a man of my years. But that’s the way it was. I made the mistake of wanting her and hoped she would glad for the match.

“I believed … I thought I could make her happy. I tried to make her happy. And, for the first year, I thought I’d succeeded. She seemed content. But it didn’t last. She started spending a great deal of money, shopping with her friends for the latest fashions from Rome. I asked her once what one woman did with so many shoes. She didn’t speak to me for a week. She took no interest in the household … cared nothing for menus or guests or upkeep. By that time, she was gone most of the time … hardly ever here. My servants annoyed her. She became impatient, critical. Orantes could barely bring himself to speak civilly to her, she treated him so badly.” He paused and took a moment before starting in again.

“I had a servant here, a good man who’d been with me for years. She accused him of stealing some triffle. He wasn’t a thief. He’d made the mistake of crossing her, that was all. But she insisted he be p-p-punished. I had him whipped in the atrium for her sake.” His eyes spoke of the shame he felt. “I was sick for a week. Gave him his freedom after, I felt so bad. But what could I do?” he shrugged and managed a small smile. “It was her word or his. I knew she was being spiteful. But she was my wife.” The small smile became bitter.

“There’s more, but I won’t bore you with the details. It’s enough to say she was spoiled, willful, and unhappy with me. Mostly,” he sighed, “she was very young. And I …” he looked up at Paul, “well, I was born old, or so p-p-people tell me.

“I blame myself, of course. I don’t understand women—they speak in tongues.” He flashed a smile at Paul. “I had my scrolls and started spending more time with them than with her”—he looked around the room at the parchments, old friends—“especially as we grew more awkward with each other … as I felt a gulf between us that I did not understand.” He shrugged. “I traveled a lot. Business trips. She … well … she grew bored with me. She wanted … she needed something more, she told me later. Something exciting and alive.

“Anyway, she began an affair with a man I thought of as a friend.” He closed his eyes to shut out the memory but opened them at once, determined to face the facts. “Discrete at first. I had no idea. And then more flagrant. But, still, I had no idea.” He gave a hard laugh, a damning of his own stupidity.

“Disdain became disgust and disgust became contempt. She grew to loathe me so completely that she flaunted her infidelities. If I were too blind to see what was happening, why not let others enjoy the show? She took a series of lovers. We … well … we were quite an item of gossip around the city for awhile. She and her latest conquest … me and my blissful ignorance.” He picked up the quill again and stared at it, a place to rest his eyes.

“Her father, my old associate … he finally told me what was happening. Can you imagine that conversation?” He smiled bitterly. “‘My daughter, your wife, is a harlot. And you, son-in-law, are a blind fool.’ Actually,” Stephanas glanced briefly at Paul, “he didn’t say that last p-p-part. But he didn’t have to. I know how to read.

“I confronted her. She … she just smiled at me.” He put the quill on the desk and smoothed its feather with his fingers. “She actually smiled. As if I were a bit slow. As if she were glad that I’d finally woken up.” His eyes remained on the quill. “I told her I would forgive her. She said she did not want my forgiveness. I begged her to stop the affairs. She … declined. I asked if there were something I could do to p-p-persuade her. She couldn’t think of anything. She wanted a divorce. She told me her contempt for me was so vast she could no longer stomach the sight of my face, the sound of my breathing, the thought of my touch. Only a divorce would suffice. Unless, she suggested … unless I would consider suicide?” Up came the quill again. Round and round it went. He looked at Paul. “She was lovely, but she was never kind.

“In the end, I gave her the only thing she wanted from me by then. I divorced her. Most of Corinth was laughing their heads off, but I didn’t care. I just wanted it to be over.” He threw the quill on the table and sat back in his chair.

“She quickly remarried. One of her lovers who doesn’t mind her sexual samplings. I hear she’s very happy.”

The two of them stared at each other. Paul could feel the hurt radiating off of his friend … his heart a furnace … his pain rolling waves of heat. He spoke for the first time since Stephanas started his story.

“You were humiliated and heartbroken.”

“Yes, I was. Still am.”

“You felt like a fool … for not seeing who she really was … for not noticing what was happening right under your nose … for not hearing the snickers and whispers of the people around you.”

“Yes, I did. Still do.”

“And so you’ve closed yourself off, in this room and in your heart. You misjudged badly once … you won’t do it again. You were hurt once … you won’t let that happen again. You’ve been closing doors against anything that makes you vulnerable. You married the thing that has broken you. And ever since, you been gouging out your eyes as punishment.”

Stephanas smiled weakly. “We all have a little Oedipus in us.”

Paul studied his friend for a few moments. “What made you trust me? Why would you take the risk of the gospel?”

Stephanas shook his head in agreement. “Yes, I know. It surprised me as well.” He looked at Paul fondly. “P-p-part of it, I think, was that I saw in you someone who had suffered, who understood suffering, but wasn’t crushed by suffering. I wanted to know how you managed that little trick.” He looked at the scrolls for a moment. “P-p-part of it was your story—grace and cross and ungrateful sons.” He looked up at the window, his face bathed in afternoon light. “Mostly, though, I was desperate. I felt trapped. I couldn’t p-p-put her behind me. Beneath all that clap-trap about fate and destiny, I really wanted to choose a different life.” He looked down at his desk. “What she did to me was awful. But that I let her keep doing it, long after she was gone … that I couldn’t find a way to get over her … that was unbearable.”

His eyes wandered over to Paul again. “I looked at you. I listened to your gospel. And I saw hope. I decided to open one of those doors I’d closed, locked, and nailed shut. And I’m glad I did, P-P-Paul. I think it may have saved my life.”

“So what’s changed?”

“I know what to do with her now. I realize I have a choice.” He shook his head, as if in awe. “I can’t change what’s happened. I can’t change how it hurt. But I can change what I do with that. I can forgive her.” His smile was genuine this time. “Not because she wants it. Not because she deserves it. Just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what Jesus did for me.” He shook his head again. “I never thought I’d find the strength to do that, P-P-Paul. But then you told me about those ungrateful sons. And I realized that it doesn’t matter whether grace changed them. It changed me. And if I’m going to be a grateful son, I have to give to her what I’ve been given—an undeserved grace … forgiveness without conditions.”

He looked down at his hands. “Forgiveness won’t change her heart. It won’t make her love me. But it will do good for me, I think. It will help me let her go.”

“Turn the other cheek,” Paul murmured. “Blessings for curses.”

“Yes. The way Jesus taught us to live. Not an easy p-p-path.” He nodded and sat back. “But I don’t understand what any of this has to do with Fortunatus.”

Paul looked hard at his wounded friend. “I’m going to ask you to do something with Fortunatus that will require great risk. You’ll have to open yourself to being hurt again. Can you do that after what you’ve just told me?”

Stephanas considered the question for a long while. “What is it you want me to do?”

“There were no children?”

Stephanas grunted. “No. And that’s a blessing, I guess.” Though he looked as if he regretted it.

“You have a child, you know.”

He glanced up sharply. “What are you talking about?”

“A son.” Paul permitted himself a small smile. “He likes Xenophon.”

Stephanas stared at him with blank, uncomprehending eyes.

“The boy.” Paul nodded towards the atrium.

“Fortunatus?”

“Yes. Fortunatus. You half raised him. You and Orantes. You love the boy, Stephanas. That’s one secret your servants do not keep well.”

His eyes softened. “I do, you know.” He looked as though Paul had just wrung a confession from him. “Why do I seem to love people who won’t love me back?”

“I think you’re wrong about that,” Paul countered. “He’s seventeen, Stephanas. He’s grieving his father. And he doesn’t know what his future is with this household, with you, now that his father is gone. Do you keep him on just because of his father? Does he have a place of his own here, by his own right? Is he just a slave, valuable because he’s useful? Or is he something more? Those are heavy questions for a young man to bear. You shouldn’t be surprised if he stumbles beneath them on occasion.”

“But of course he has a p-p-place here,” Stephanas spread his hands, a gesture of frustration. “This is his home.”

“You know that. But does he? Especially after what’s happened this past year?”

The question caught Stephanas. He sat back, blinking.

He and the boy had never actually spoken about it. Stephanas assumed he knew. “I’ve tried to give him time. I’ve tried to be p-p-patient with him.” Stephanas spread his hands in a pleading gesture. “What more can I do?”

“Grant the boy his freedom …” Paul began.

“I would … I mean … I’d like to,” Stephanas interrupted with real anguish, “if I could find a way for him to survive outside this household. He’s too young. He has no skills …”

But Paul raised both hands to stop him. “Let me finish. Grant the boy his freedom … and then adopt him as your heir.”

Stephanas sat back in his chair, stunned. It was a thought he’d never entertained. He opened his mouth to list all the reasons why such a thing couldn’t work, but realized he couldn’t think of any that really mattered. He hadn’t thought about because … well … because he hadn’t thought about it. He stared at Paul, shaking his head as though trying to clear his brain after a hard blow.

“Adopt the boy?” he finally croaked.

“Yes.” Paul controlled his facial muscles. But only with great effort. “Give him a permanent place in this household. Give him a family again. Make a partner of him. Show him that he is the son you’ve always wanted.”

“Adopt the boy?” Stephanas asked again, only now he was beginning to see the possibilities. A grace larger than his loss.

“It’s not an uncommon thing.” Paul continued. “Childless Romans do it all the time—to preserve their name, to ensure the stability of their businesses and assets.” He shrugged and swept his hand around the room. “Better than your library being sold off to strangers when you die.”

Stephanas began to laugh. “Oh, far better! P-P-Paul, this could work. This could be the answer.”

Paul smiled. “I thought you might like it, once you got your arms around it.”

“Fortunatus will have his freedom. I will have an heir. And his future … I mean … his p-p-prospects,” Stephanas was getting really excited, “will be tied to this household. He can’t run away from that, now, can he?”

“No. I think not.” Paul was enjoying himself.

The two men smiled at each other across the desk.

But then Stephanas sobered. “Will he agree to this? He’s blamed me for his father’s death, after all.”

Paul nodded. “There’s the risk. He may reject you. And that would hurt. Or he may accept and use his new position in the household to keep hurting you. There are no guarantees with grace, remember.”

“Not every son is changed,” Stephanas recalled.

“But perhaps the few are worth the risk.” Paul smiled. “I think Fortunatus wants to find his way back to you. And gratitude may just be the bridge he needs. He knows you don’t control the weather on the Aegean. Besides, you’ve got seventeen years of history together. So talk to him. Ask him. Whatever’s happened since his father died, Fortunatus understands this is the only home he’s ever known, that you’re as close to family as he’s got.”

They fell silent, each lost in his own thoughts.

“Grace for the sake of his father,” Stephanas whispered finally. “Grace to reach the son.”

Paul smiled again and stood to leave. “The boy knows how you felt about his father. I wonder if he knows how you feel about him?”

“Of course he knows.”

“Really? Have you told him?”

“Well, not in so many words. Such things … such things don’t need to be said.”

“Really?” Paul looked skeptical. “When you talk to him about the adoption, I’d start there.”

“He might throw it back in my face.”

“Like I said, there are no guarantees. But the fact that you love him enough to take this risk is where it has to start.”

He moved towards the door and pulled it open.

“What was her name, by the way?”

“Who?” He was still thinking about adoption.

“Your wife.”

Stephanas blinked at him a few times. “P-P-P-P-Popeia.”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]