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To the Lions by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

ESCAPE

[199] CLITUS had watched the proceedings in the amphitheatre, not indeed from among the spectators, whose company would have been odious to him, but from the barred opening of one of the cages, which he had induced an attendant to allow him to occupy. As to what his course of action should be, he had been greatly perplexed. One thing only was clear to him: that he would not survive Cleoné. The law of his faith forbade suicide; yet surely, he thought to himself, it would not be difficult to die! He armed himself with a hunting-knife, though, of course, the idea of rescue was hopeless, and to use the weapon could only serve to provoke his own fate. Perhaps this was not very logical, if it was his duty not without necessity to endanger his own life; but much may be pardoned to a lover reduced to such desperate straits.

[200] He had, as may easily be believed, never taken his eyes off the sisters. When, in the very crisis of the thunderstorm, he saw the lion approach them, he actually started from his hiding-place, and traversed half of the distance that separated them from him. When he saw them fall to the ground, some old story that he had read, of how the lion will not tear what he thinks to be a dead body, had come back to him, and this with such force that it seemed a message. He retraced his steps, and, so occupied was the audience with the storm, was unobserved both in coming and going.

He had since heard from the keeper's wife of the real fact about the sisters, and he had been anxiously considering what he could do. His hope, of course, was in Pliny. The Governor of Bithynia had treated him as a personal friend, and, though his conduct with regard to the Christians had not been consistent, it was clear that, on the whole, his leaning was to mercy. But how was he to be approached? He was the Proconsul's guest, and was probably now assisting at some state banquet, from which he could hardly be called. Yet time was short, and the need of taking some immediate action was urgent. He was walking up and down in front of the Proconsul's palace, deep in thought about his next step, when the problem was unexpectedly solved [201] for him. A hand was laid upon his shoulder, and, turning to see who it was that wished to speak to him, he recognised the Governor's private secretary.

"Well met, most excellent Clitus!" was the young man's greeting. "I was just about to seek you at your lodgings. The Governor desires to see you without delay. Follow me!"

The secretary led the way to the Governor's apartment. Pliny was reclining on a couch. He was reading, for he never lost a moment that could be given to study; but he put down the volume when he heard the door open, and beckoned Clitus to approach. The secretary saluted, and withdrew.

The young Greek, who had not seen his patron close at hand for some time, was shocked at the change in his appearance. Occupied though he was with his own thoughts, he could not help remarking it. Pliny had the look of one who had not many days to live. He was beginning some expression of regret, when the Governor interrupted him.

"That matters not. I have more important things to speak of, and things that will not wait. But how did my secretary find you so soon? It is but just now that I sent him to fetch you."

"I had myself come, most Excellent, to the [202] palace, in the hope of seeing you, but did not know how it was to be done. I thought you must be still at the Proconsul's table."

"Ah!" said Pliny, "I escaped from him. But not till I had got from him what I wanted. Look here!"

He took from a writing-case three documents sealed with the Proconsul's seal. He handed two of them to Clitus. They were orders addressed to the keeper of the prisoners, authorizing him to deliver up to the bearer the persons of Cleoné and the centurion Fabius.

"I had not much difficulty about the matter," said Pliny. "As to the girl Cleoné, I fancy that the way had been smoothed for me. The Proconsul has a heart, and possibly he might have let the girl go free after the wonderful deliverance of to-day; but her father has been with him, my secretary tells me, and, I fancy, gave him substantial reasons for pardoning her. He came yesterday, indeed, and offered three million sesterces for her and her sister's liberty; but then, of course, it was impossible. What he has paid now I do not know, but I feel sure that it was something large. However, this does not matter. There is the order for her release. As for the centurion, there was never any doubt. The Proconsul—you see, I [203] speak freely to you—did not require any inducement here. He can admire a brave man without being bribed. So they are free. But the question is: Where can they go? Have you anything to suggest?"

"I thought of making my way into the Cilician Highlands," answered the young Greek.

" 'Tis a long journey to make, and a doubtful refuge after all. I have a better thought than that. There is a merchant of my acquaintance at Miletus who trades with Massilia and Britain. I have been able to do him some service, and he is anxious to repay me. Ever since I came I have cherished a hope of being able to do something for the prisoners, especially for the two sisters, whose case touched me more than I can say; indeed, but for this reason, I would have had nothing to do with this horrible spectacle. Well, I sent for my friend the merchant. He has a ship ready to sail, I believe, to-morrow morning. Get Cleoné and the centurion on board without delay: it should be done, if possible, before dawn to-morrow. I should say, Go as far as Britain. It is quite out of the world; no questions will be asked you there as to what you are or whence you come. But now there is another matter. Look at this!"

And he handed him the third of the three documents. It was an order for the delivery to the [204] bearer of the body of Rhoda, lately a prisoner in the amphitheatre of Ephesus.

"There will be a difficulty here," Pliny continued; "I must leave you to overcome it. Cleoné, hard as it will be, must leave the care of her sister's funeral to others. To delay might be to ruin all. Unless you escape at once, there are some in this city who will take care that you do not escape at all. My advice is this. Take this document at once to the chiefs of your Society in Ephesus. Do it, I would say, before Cleoné knows anything about it. Let them remove the body. When it is gone, and not before, tell her. She will ask to see her sister before she goes. Then you must tell her. It will be a bitter pang to her; but she will see that it has been for the best. And now go—there is no time to lose; you have much to do before morning. The Proconsul has provided horses for your party, and an escort under an officer whom he can trust. And now for a few words for yourself. I shall never see you again; for my days, as I know well, are numbered. It seems a pity to banish so fine a scholar to an island of barbarians; but there is clearly no choice, and you can court the Muses there also. And then you will have your Cleoné. But you must not go penniless. I have arranged with my friend the merchant to hand you some- [205] thing wherewith you can start. That you may consider a loan, if you will, and repay to my estate. I shall not be alive to receive it. And I have put your name into my will; a legacy you can hardly choose but take. And now farewell! Remember me to Cleoné, and bid her not think too hardly of the Governor, though he was a pagan and an enemy of the faith."

"O my lord," broke in the young Athenian, eagerly, "it is not too late! There are those who will teach you; and if, as you say, you have but a few days to live——"

"I must make haste, you mean," said Pliny, with a faint smile. "Nay, my dear young friend, it is too late; or, rather, this faith of yours was never meant for me. It seems to make good men and women. I am sure that no one would die for the old gods as bravely and cheerfully as I have seen slaves and weak women die for their Christ. And you have a hope, too, I hear, of a life after death. It is a beautiful thought. I wish that I could have heard of it before. But now, you see, it is impossible. You will think of me, and pray for me. I hear that you do pray for others, even for those who hate you. Perhaps it will be well with me, after all; and, if not, I must bear it as I can, for I have tried to do my duty as a Roman and a man. But I must not keep you, or else our [206] trouble will have been wasted. And now farewell!"

He reached his hand to Clitus. The young man would have kissed it, but Pliny drew him towards him, kissed him on both cheeks, and then laid both hands on his head. "My blessing on you," he said, "if the blessing of a heathen can avail. The gods, or, rather, the God, the Father whom we all acknowledge, protect you! And now, do not lose another moment."

It was a hard night's work that Clitus had to do. His first care was to see the Bishop of Ephesus. The good man willingly, or, it should rather be said, joyfully undertook the care of Rhoda's burial rites. One lock of her hair was taken as a remembrance for her sister. Then the body was removed by the bishop himself, with some helpers of assured loyalty, who might be trusted not to reveal the secret of her resting-place till the return, if such should be granted to the Church, of more peaceful times. The pious task was finished by the time, an hour after midnight, when Clitus presented himself at the house of the keeper of the amphitheatre, with the order of release in his hand.

In a few minutes Cleoné knew that she would never again see the outward form of the sister whom she loved, who was more than the half of [207] her heart. But she had a faith, more vivid than is often granted to us, that the body is but the perishable image of the true man, and a hope of a future life, which the tribulations of the present intensified into an absolute assurance. And then she saw that the safety of her two companions, not to speak of herself, depended upon speedy action.

"You have done well," she said, after the first burst of grief was over, "and I trust you."

And she reached her hand to him, with a little smile that flashed for a moment through her tears.


The sun had scarcely risen when the good ship Centaur  had cleared the harbour of Miletus and was speeding westward over the waters of the Ægean. Pliny, anxious to secure as far as was possible the party against disaster, had arranged with the captain to make the voyage to Britain direct, touching at as few ports as possible on the way, and these the most obscure. For some weeks after her embarkation, Cleoné was prostrated by illness—the natural consequence of all that she had endured. She was carefully and tenderly nursed by the captain's wife, for whose companionship the thoughtful care of Pliny had provided. Once or twice during her illness she seemed to herself to catch the tones of familiar voices; and [208] several times, while she was slowly coming back to health, she saw figures which she seemed to know, and which appeared carefully to avoid her. It was not till after she had landed that the secret was revealed. It was her father and mother whom she had seen.

"Forgive him, for my sake," cried the poor woman, falling on her knees before her child; "you are all that he, that we, have left to us."

The old man stood two or three paces behind, his head bowed down with a shame and a remorse that passed all utterance. Cleoné threw her arms round his neck. Her tenderness divined that it was to him who had sinned that her love must first be shown. And the mother, to whom, by all laws of justice, that first embrace was due, was glad to have it so.

Lucilius had lost his son, who died the day after the removal of the sisters to Ephesus. Most of his property had been spent in purchasing the Proconsul's favour; with what remained he had determined to commence a new life in the land for which his daughter was bound. Clitus and Cleoné were married at the Christmas festival next after their arrival in the island, which, indeed, they did not reach till late in November. The next Easter Lucilius and his wife were baptized. Of the life of the family thus strangely brought together, [209] little need be said, but that it was remarkably happy and prosperous. As the years went on, a little Bion and a little Rhoda recalled the sweet and tender memory of those who were sleeping far away under an Asian sky,—far away, but in that "sure and certain hope" which under all skies is still the same. Both were dear to their good neighbour Fabius, one of the senators of their little colony; but it was to Rhoda that the stout soldier-farmer would talk of one who had borne her name in days long past, best and most beautiful of women upon earth, and now bearing the martyr's palm before the Throne in heaven.


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