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To the Lions by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

A DISCOVERY

[150] "THE mills of God," says an old writer, "grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small;" and Lucilius was beginning to find out this truth for himself. Again and again he bitterly reproached himself for lending his help to the conspiracy which had been hatched in the wine-shop of Theron. So far, none of the gains that he had expected to flow in from the confiscated estates had reached his coffers. Antistius, who was a really wealthy man, had died (as has been said) in Rome, and it was a doubtful point who would benefit by his property. Would it go where the appeal had been decided—that is, in the Capital—or where he had been condemned in the first instance? The provincial claimant might have the better right in law, but Lucilius knew perfectly well that when such rights came to collision with the demands of the Imperial purse, they were [151] pretty sure to go to the wall. Anicetus had been far too generous in his lifetime to leave anything behind him after his death. Most of the richer among the accused had saved their properties as well as their lives by denying their faith. In short, the speculation, so far, had been a failure.

On the other hand, the prospect at home grew darker and darker. Whatever feeling his long-indulged habit of avarice had left him was centred in his son, and this son's life was trembling in the balance. At first it had seemed a lucky chance that brought the two sisters to his house. They had kept the boy alive. Latterly, Rhoda's increasing weakness had compelled her to give up her share in the nursing, and Cleoné had assumed the whole.

She was simply indispensable to the boy. It was from her hand only that he would take food or drink. When his delirium was at its worst, it was her hand that soothed and quieted him. But if she had to leave him, it would have been better that she had never come.

The old physician was furious at the thought. All his cases interested him deeply, but in this he was especially wrapt up. Never had he fought against disease more pertinaciously and more skilfully, and never had he been more ably helped by the physician's best ally, a good nurse. It was [152] simply maddening to him to have this assistance removed, for the loss meant defeat. He cursed with impartial rage every one concerned in the matter: the busybodies who had stirred up the movement against the Christians; the foolish obstinacy—for so he described it—which made these people cling to their absurd superstition.

But nothing could be done. The Emperor's commands had to be executed, and all persons who had confessed their adherence to the Christian faith would have to be dealt with according to law. Among these were the two sisters. A formal demand was made by the officials upon Lucilius for their surrender, and he had no alternative but to submit. They were included in the company of prisoners arraigned before the Governor's tribunal on the day that followed the execution of Anicetus. Lucilius was among the crowd of spectators which thronged the court-house and awaited the result with feelings of despair.

Nothing could save the sisters. He knew them too well to have the least hope that they would renounce their faith to save their lives. A vague suggestion to that effect on which he had once ventured during the time of their sojourn in his house had been received by Cleoné with a scorn that brought conviction to his mind. Their condemnation, then, was certain.

[153] Hard-hearted as he was, he could not contemplate this result with indifference. They had lived in his house for some weeks. Their grace and goodness, seen in the close intercourse of family life, had touched him as he had never dreamt of being touched, and he shuddered at the thought of their being handed over to the shame and torture of the slave's death.

And then there was the thought of his son. Even if he were to battle through the disease without the help of his nurse, what would be the result when he heard, as hear he must, of the horrible fate which had overtaken her? The wretched man groaned aloud when he thought of what the future had in store for him.

He was roused from the stupor of despair into which he had fallen by the voice of the court-crier calling aloud the names of Rhoda and Cleoné. Rhoda was described as an ancilla, i.e., a female slave, and as a deaconess attached to a certain unlawful society which called itself by the name of Christus. Cleoné was also described as being of servile condition.

When the clerk of the court had finished reading what we may call the indictment, the Governor addressed the prisoners. "The clemency of our most gracious lord and master, Trajan Augustus, has ordered that even for the most obstinate [154] offenders there should be provided a place of repentance, if only, even at the last moment, they will submit themselves to lawful authority, and renounce their obstinate adherence to a mischievous superstition. Therefore I call upon you, Rhoda, for the last time. Are you willing to burn incense to the statue of the divine Trajan, and to curse this Christus, whom you superstitiously and rebelliously have honoured as a God?"

Rhoda had remained seated during the proceedings. Her weakness did not permit her to stand with the rest of the prisoners. She now rose, and confronted the Governor. Fear she had never known; and, for the moment, her bodily strength seemed to have been restored to her.

"I thank the Emperor," she said, in a voice which never faltered for a moment, "for the clemency which he offers, though I cannot but refuse the conditions. For him, as our ruler appointed by God, I pray all blessings; and especially light, that he may discern the truth. Such honour as a man may receive, I willingly pay; more I refuse; for it is written, 'Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.' That I should blaspheme my Lord and Saviour is a thing too monstrous to be thought, much more spoken."

"What say you, Cleoné?" went on the Governor, addressing himself to the other sister.

[155] "I am of one mind with my sister. I will not worship a man; neither will I blaspheme my God."

"Rhoda and Cleoné," said the Governor, "are condemned to suffer the punishment of death in such manner as is customary with those of servile condition."

At this moment a commotion was heard at the back of the court. The young Greek, Clitus, whose acquaintance we have already made in his character as Cleoné's suitor, made his way with difficulty through the crowd that besieged the door into the body of the chamber. He had just arrived in Nicæa, and his dress bore the marks of travel.

"My lord," he said, addressing the Governor, "is it permitted me to speak on a matter of urgency, which concerns the administration of justice in this matter, and especially the case of the two prisoners Rhoda and Cleoné?"

Rhoda, who had sunk again into her seat, seemed not to notice this interruption of the proceedings. But Cleoné turned an eager look upon the speaker. She had never seen or even heard of the young Greek since the day on which they had spoken together among the vines. She had striven to school herself into the persuasion that it was well that it should be so. He had spoken of love [156] in days past, it was true, but all was now changed. He was a citizen of Rome, and had it not been proved that she was a slave? In any case, there was henceforth a hopeless separation between them. And then, what had she, a condemned woman, to do with thoughts of love? No, it was well that he had not attempted to hold any communication with her. It was only what prudence, and even duty, dictated—that he should keep aloof. So she had thought, or tried to think. Nevertheless, her heart gave a glad bound when she knew that, after all, he had not forgotten her; and the exalted look on her face, which showed how she had braced herself up to confess and suffer, changed to a softer and more tender expression as she listened to what he said.

"Speak on," said the Governor, "if you have anything of importance to engage the ear of the court."

The young Greek proceeded. "Your Excellency is aware that the two women, Rhoda and Cleoné, hitherto reputed daughters of one Bion and Rhoda his wife, were adjudged to be of servile condition on testimony by which it was proved that they were not in truth daughters of the said Bion, but were castaway children, adopted by him and his wife.

"I have now to bring under your Excellency's [157] notice the terms of an Imperial rescript quoted by yourself in this court last December, as settling a certain question concerning the condition of exposed children submitted by you to the Emperor. These terms were in substance as follows—your Excellency will correct me if I am wrong, but I took them down in writing at the time, as seeming to me to be of great importance:—'If it should be proved that children so exposed were born of free parents, their free condition shall not be held to have been impaired by such exposure.'  This, my lord, is exactly what I am now prepared to prove of the two women Rhoda and Cleoné. And first I will, with your permission, produce the witness on whose testimony I chiefly rely, though indeed it can easily be confirmed by other evidence."

"Inform the court of the name and condition of this witness. But it will promote the ends of justice if you will first inform us of your own proceedings in this case, and of how you were led to believe that our adjudications needed to be corrected."

"My lord," began the young advocate, "it must have occurred to you and to others who were present on the first day of the trial, as certainly it occurred to me, that nature had committed, if I may so speak, a strange freak when she [158] ordered that maidens of an appearance so noble, so worthy of freedom, should be born of slaves."

"The thought was not unreasonable," said the Governor; "but such eccentricities are not unknown, and the evidence seemed to support the presumption."

"Further, my lord, I was aware that this nobility was not of appearance only, but of mind also and disposition, for I had been admitted into the home of Bion, the reputed father of the two, and know that none could be more worthy of respect and love."

Cleoné cast down her eyes, blushing to hear these praises from her lover's lips.

"But I will leave suppositions, my lord, and proceed to facts. I gathered from the evidence that there was a secret connected with the birth of these two children—that the only person who had been known to be cognisant of this secret was a certain nurse, and that this person was now deceased. It was also proved that, when about to die, she had refused to communicate the knowledge that she evidently possessed. The only hope that seemed to me to remain was, if I could discover that there had been some other person who had shared, or might be supposed likely to have shared, in this knowledge. I made many inquiries for such a person, and for a long [159] time could hear of none. Her husband had been long dead. She had left no children behind her. But at last I heard from a woman of the same age, who is yet alive, that she had a brother who had been a slave in the city. All that I could learn about him was that he had suddenly disappeared from this neighbourhood; that some supposed that he had been drowned, but others doubted, seeing that his body had never been found. Here, then, my inquiries seemed to have an end.

"But now, my lord, listen to what followed. Your Excellency sent me on business, wholly unconnected with this matter, to a certain village on the borders of Phrygia. It was finished sooner than I had expected, and as I could not return till my horse had had a day's rest, I had some time to spare. I spent it in wandering about the downs which are above the village, and in the course of my walks I fell in with an old shepherd. The man interested me with his talk, which touched upon more things than such a man commonly knows. He happened to let fall something, from which I gathered that he knew this town. When I asked him a question about it, he seemed unwilling to speak. I pressed him. Something seemed to warn me that by chance, if there is such thing as chance, I had found the man whom I wanted."

[160] "You are a student," interrupted the Governor, and you know doubtless how one of your historians speaks of an 'inspired chance.' It was that, if I remember right, which made the baby Cypselus smile in the face of the men who came to murder him. Chance, I take it, is an ordering of things which we do not understand, and we may well call it inspired. But go on."

"Well, my lord, as I said, I pressed him, and he told me that he knew this town well. And then he gave me the story of how he came to leave it. But as this story bears directly upon the matter in hand, I would suggest, with your permission, that you should hear it from the man's own lips."

The witness, who had been waiting outside in the charge of one of the officers of the court, was called in. His face, curiously seamed with lines and wrinkles beyond all counting, indicated an extreme old age; but it was an age that was still vigorous and green. His blue eyes were bright and piercing. His hair was abundant, and showed amidst the prevailing grey much of the auburn which had been its color in the days of his prime. His tall figure was but little bowed by years; and his broad shoulders and sinewy arm (the right of them left bare by his one-sleeved tunic) showed that he might still be a match for many a younger man.

[161] It was evident that the scene into which he had been brought was wholly strange to him, and that he was not at all at his ease. He had stood nervously shifting his red Phrygian cap from one hand to another, while his eye roved restlessly over the crowded court.

"Tell us your name," said the Governor.

"My lord," said the man in Greek, "let me first implore your protection." The refinement of his voice and accent contrasted curiously with his uncultured look. In garb he was a rustic of the rustics; but it might be seen that he had once been a dweller in cities.

"You can speak without fear," said the Governor.

"I shall have to say that which may be brought up against myself. It concerns years long past; but if the man against whom I offended still lives, he is not one of those who forgive."

"No one shall harm you if you will speak the truth. I promise it by the majesty of Augustus."

"More than twenty years ago I was steward in the household of a certain merchant in Nicæa."

"What was his name?" asked the Governor.

"With your permission, I will reserve this to the end of the story which I have to relate. I was a slave, but I had been well taught, and he trusted me with much of his business. I kept his [162] accounts, and I knew much of his affairs. He was, at the time of which I speak, a man of about forty years of age. Five years before, he had married the only daughter of the merchant Lycophron of Nicomedia. Lycophron was reputed to be rich, and my master, who was very greedy after money, expected to inherit much wealth from him.

"Lycophron had given but a very small portion to his daughter on her marriage. This was a grievance with my master; but he hoped to have it made up to him. I have heard the two talking about it—they always spoke openly before me. ' Never mind,' the old man would say; 'there will be the more when you come to unseal the tablets, and by that time you will know how to use it and keep it better.' This was a joke of the old man's, for no man could make more of money, or cared less for spending it, than my master.

"Well, at the time of which I am speaking, news came that old Lycophron was dead, and my master started at once for Nicomedia. He was not very willing, for my mistress was then not very well. Three days after, he came back. He was in a furious rage, and broke out as soon as he saw me. 'Listen, Geta,' he said: 'that old villain has deceived me. He has not left so much as a single [163] drachma behind him. His house was mortgaged; the very bed on which he died was pledged. When I came to open his will—for he had the impudence to leave a will, though there was nothing to dispose of—I found written in it—"The only possession of value that belongs to me I have already given away, to wit, my daughter Eubule. My son-in-law, who has now known for five years what a treasure he has found in her, will not be disappointed to know that I can give him nothing more."  These were his very words. Yes; he palmed off his beggar's brat on me very cleverly. A treasure, indeed!'

"Just at this moment the nurse who had been attending on my mistress came into the room carrying two babies, one on each arm. Her face was wreathed in smiles, and she was so full of her own importance—as such women, I have observed, are wont to be—that she did not see what a state my master was in. 'Thank the gods, sir,' she said, 'who have given you two most beautiful daughters.'—'Curse them!' he began. By chance one of the children began to cry at the very moment, and the woman did not hear what he said. By the time she had quieted the baby he had recovered himself. He kissed the children, and went up to see his wife as soon as he was allowed to do so.

[164] "Some days afterwards my mistress became very ill. Fever showed itself, and she became delirious. The children had to be taken from her, and brought up by a nurse. I think my master was getting reconciled to his disappointment, when, as bad luck would have it, he heard of another loss. This time it was his wife's brother had failed. He farmed some of the taxes of the province, and my master had become security for him. I heard him say to himself when he had read the letter that told him about it, 'This family will be my ruin.'

"That night, after I had been asleep about an hour, he woke me up. He looked very wild. I think his losses had half-crazed him. He was carrying a cradle, and the two babies were in it, lying head to feet, and sound asleep. 'Geta,' he said, 'these children will be my ruin. If they were boys, now—but how can a beggar like me keep two girls? You must put them out on the hill.'—'O master!' I said, 'not these beautiful babies!'—'It is better than strangling them,' he said.

"Well, I had scarcely a moment to think what was to be done. He looked as if he might do the poor things a mischief, so I made up my mind. 'Very well, master,' I said, 'it shall be done.'—'Their mother,' he said, 'knows nothing; per- [165] haps never will know. Take them, and do it at once.' I got up and went out with the children. It was a stormy night, and raining in torrents. I was at my wits' end. Then a thought occurred to me. I had a sister, a nurse, living in the town; perhaps she might help me. I took the babies to her house, and told her the whole story.

" 'You have come in time,' she said; 'I know of a home for the dear little beauties. It is with one of the best couples in the world, but the gods have not given them any children.'—'So be it,' I said; 'but you must swear that you will never tell where they came from.' So she took an oath, and I left them there. But I did not dare to go back to my master. I ran away, leaving my hat and shoes on the river-side, to make people think that I had been drowned. I made my way to a village in Phrygia, and took up a shepherd's business, in which I had had some experience when I was young. There I was when this young lawyer found me."

"And now tell us your master's name," said the Governor.

The whole audience listened in breathless silence for his answer.

"My master's name was Lucilius."


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