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To the Lions by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

"THE CHRISTIANS TO THE LIONS"

[187] SIXTEEN Christian prisoners in all had been sent from Nica to the great show at Ephesus. They were confined in cells, constructed under the seats of the amphitheatre, and indeed close to the cages of the wild beasts. That which was occupied by the two sisters, who, by special favour, were allowed to be together, was separated by nothing more than a wooden partition from the habitation of the lions. The heat, the darkness, and the stench were such as it would be impossible to describe. And if anything was wanted to aggravate the horror of the situation, the two prisoners heard day and night the restless pacing to and fro, and now and then the deep growling, of their ferocious neighbours.

Rhoda, indeed, was almost beyond suffering from these or any other causes. The journey to Ephesus had exhausted the scanty remnants of her [188] strength, and since her arrival she had lain in an almost unconscious condition. All the noise of the amphitheatre had failed to rouse her, and even the fierce cry of "The Christians to the lions!" seemed not to reach her ears. Cleoné watched by her sister with the tenderest care. It was little indeed that she could do; but the beauty of the twins had touched the heart of the keeper of the beasts, and he had provided them with such little comforts as his means could furnish, the chief among them being a supply, often renewed, of fresh water from a well celebrated for its depth and coldness.

The first rays of dawn were just falling through the hole in the dungeon which admitted such light and air as were permitted to visit it, when, for the first time since her arrival, Rhoda seemed to rouse herself from her stupor. Cleoné, who, after a wakeful night, had fallen into a brief sleep, heard her move, and was immediately at her side. The sick girl turned a smiling face on her sister.

"I am going home to-day," she said.

"Yes, dearest," answered Cleoné, who had no difficulty in putting a meaning on her words.

"But you will stay," she went on.

"Nay, dearest, we will go together," said Cleoné, with a little tone of reproach in her voice.

[189] "The Lord has not willed it so. You have something to do for Him here; but me He suffers to depart and be with Him; which," she added, after a pause, "is far better."

For a few minutes she was lost in thought. Then she threw her arms round her sister's neck, kissed her tenderly, and said: "You will marry Clitus, dearest?"

Cleoné, lost in astonishment, said nothing; she thought that her sister was wandering.

"I was wrong," Rhoda went on to say, "to hinder his love for you. Wives, too, have a vocation from the Lord. You will be not less faithful because you are happy."

"But, sister dear, you forget!" said Cleoné.

"No," returned the other, "I do not forget. But I have had a dream, and I know that the Lord showed me in it what shall be. This is what I saw. I dreamt that we two were walking together on a narrow road; and as we walked I saw two men in shining apparel who were talking together; and it was given to me to understand that they were two of the blessed Apostles, and that one, who seemed to be a man of middle age, and somewhat rugged and stern of look, was Peter; and the other, a youth of very fair and sweet countenance, was John. And Peter pointed to us two as we walked, and said to his companion, [190] 'Brother, how shall it be with these two? Will they follow me or thee?' To whom answered John, 'One for thee, and one for me.' And it was given me to know that they to whom the Lord gives the crown of martyrdom are they that follow Peter, and that they who live long, and die after the common manner of men, follow John. For thus it was with these two when they were upon earth. And, lest I should doubt which of us two should live, and which should die, I dreamt again. And this time I saw you sitting with children standing by your knees; but the place where you were was wholly strange to me, and all the things about you such as I had never seen. Therefore I am sure that for you the Lord will shut the lions' mouths. And now, dearest, I would sleep again, that I may be ready when the time shall come."

Both sisters were resting peacefully when the keeper's wife entered their cell, about an hour after daybreak. She brought with her some food, which she had made as dainty as her means and skill permitted, and a pitcher of wine. Those doomed to death were commonly wont to dull their senses with heavy draughts of some intoxicating drink, and the kind woman was doing, as she thought, her best for the prisoners by giving them a liberal allowance. The sisters surprised [191] her by begging for their usual supply of water from the well.

"Please yourselves," said the woman, "but I will leave the pitcher, in case you should think better of it when the time comes."

"Sister," said Rhoda, when they were left alone, "nothing need hinder us from remembering the Lord's death, according to His commandment, even though there be no minister to give us the bread and wine."

Cleoné gave a ready assent, and the two went through the simple ritual which St. Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians. This finished, they took their meal, which Rhoda ate with an appetite that she had not known for many weeks. All the time that was left to them they devoted to prayer. About nine o'clock the wife of the keeper of the beasts knocked at the door of the cell. She carried on her arm two white dresses.

"By special favour of the Governor," she said, "you are permitted to wear your usual clothing, and I have brought you these, for what you have is sadly soiled."

"The Lord reward you!" said the two sisters together.

The woman helped them to dress and arrange their hair, which, for want of a mirror (not part of the furniture of a prison), was sadly in disorder. [192] She had just finished when the barrier that separated the cell from the arena was raised. One of the attendants of the amphitheatre beckoned them to come forward. Their companions had preceded them, and were standing in front of the Governor's seat. As the sisters, in obedience to the bidding of the attendant, moved across the arena to join them, there were visible and audible signs of emotion in the vast multitude that watched them. More pathetic figures could not have been seen than these two, as, hand in hand, with downcast eyes but unfaltering steps, they walked to their death. A ray of sunshine, falling through a chink in the awning, touched with a golden light the long tresses which fell over their shoulders. The angry cries which had greeted their fellow-victims were changed to a murmur of mingled admiration and pity. Not a few voices even raised a cry of "Pardon! pardon!" Had the Governor interposed to save them at that moment, not the sternest bigot for the old faith, not the most cruel frequenter of those hideous spectacles, would have questioned his action. But the multitude had not yet tasted blood; let them once have feasted their eyes on death, and innocence and beauty would plead for mercy in vain.

The condemned, after being thus exhibited, were put into an enclosure, from which they could be [193] brought out one by one, or in pairs to be exposed to the fury of the wild beasts.

I shall not harrow the feelings of my readers by describing in detail the hideous scenes which followed. Each victim was provided with a weapon, a short sword or javelin, according to the animal which he was called upon to encounter. It was supposed that he fought  with the beast, and the weapon was to give him a chance of victory—a chance that was a mere mockery, as scarcely even the most practised hunter could have used it to any purpose. Most dropped the weapon on the ground; one or two would have thought it sinful to use it. There was one exception, and this was the centurion Fabius, the officer whom my readers will remember as having commanded the arresting party on the occasion when the Christian assembly was surprised. Fabius had felt great remorse for the part which he had played on this occasion. The courage and faith of the prisoners whom he had been the unwilling instrument of taking had touched him to the heart, and he had resolved to make his long-delayed profession. Between the first and second hearing of the accused he had been secretly baptized, travelling to a neighbouring city for the purpose, and had then come forward and boldly avowed himself to be a Christian. He was now matched with a [194] panther from Cappadocia, an animal of unusual size, which, in preparation for its duty as an executioner, had been kept in a state of starvation for several days.

The old fighting instincts of the soldier revived when the weapon was put into his hand, and though he did not hope or even wish for life, he resolved to strike a blow for himself. A pole stood in the centre of the arena, with the ground slightly rising round it. Fabius planted himself by this, with his short sword in his hand, and his eyes fixed on the panther as it crept cat-like towards him, waving its long tail backwards and forwards in its rage. His resolute attitude was greeted with a roar of applause from the spectators, who had viewed with contempt and disgust what they regarded as the cowardly submission of the other prisoners to their fate. When the panther had come within the length of its leap it paused awhile, dropping its eyes before the soldier's resolute gaze, but watching its opportunity. This was not long in coming. A puff of wind moved aside one of the edges of the awning, and sent a ray of sunshine into the soldier's face. For a moment he was dazzled, and at that moment, with a loud roar, the panther made his spring. Simultaneously, Fabius dropped upon his left knee, holding his sword firmly with both hands, as if it [195] had been a pike. Had it been a more effective weapon, he might have escaped almost unharmed; as it was, the blade inflicted a long gash in the animal's breast, but bent, so poor was its temper, when it came into contact with the bone. Still, it checked the panther's attack, and the soldier was able to find a temporary shelter behind the pole. But the creature was not seriously wounded, and what was he to do without a weapon? The bent sword lay useless on the ground, and the beast was gathering its forces for another spring. Suddenly the soldier's eye seemed to be caught by something which he saw on one of the benches near the Proconsul's seat. He ran in this direction at the top of his speed, amidst a howl of disapprobation from the spectators, who thought this attempt at flight as cowardly as it was useless. But as he approached the side of the arena the reason for this strange movement became evident. A long hunting-knife, thrown by one of the spectators, came whirling through the air. An old comrade of the centurion's had bethought him of this as the only possible help that he could give. Fabius caught it dexterously by the hilt, and turned to face his savage antagonist. Man and beast closed in fierce encounter. More than once they rolled together on the sand. But the blade of the knife was of a better temper than the faithless sword. [196] Again and again the soldier plunged it into the animal's side. In a few minutes he stood breathless, and bleeding from a score of deep scratches, but substantially unhurt, with the panther dead at his feet. A roar of applause, mingled with cries of "Pardon! pardon!" went up from the multitude.

The Governor beckoned the centurion to approach. "Well done, comrade!" he said. "The Emperor must not lose so brave a soldier. Hush!" he went on, perceiving that the centurion was about to speak, and fearing lest some ill-timed declaration of his faith might make it impossible to save him. "Hush! it is not a time to ask questions. A surgeon must look to your wounds; I will see you to-morrow." And the centurion was led out of the arena.

The turn of the two sisters was now come. Led to the centre of the arena, they sat down side by side awaiting their fate. Immediately the barrier of one of the dens was raised, and a huge lion bounded forth with a roar. It walked round the arena, and not a few of the spectators on the lowest tier trembled as he passed them even behind the stout iron railings which protected them. Of the two stationary figures in the centre the creature seemed to take no notice.

The spectators watched its movements with so [197] fixed an attention that they scarcely noticed the darkness that had been for some time spreading over the building. A storm had been working up against the wind, and now broke, as it seemed, directly overhead. A vivid flash was followed by a deafening crash of thunder, and this again by a loud cry of dismay. The huge gilded eagle that stood over the Proconsul's seat had been struck, and came crashing to the ground, striking in its fall, and instantaneously killing, two of the Governor's attendants.

A thrill of fear was felt by the boldest and most philosophical spectator. As for the multitude, their superstitious terror rose to the pitch of agony. "The gods are angry!"—"Dismiss the assembly!"—"Let us depart!" were the cries that could be heard on all sides. The Governor rose in his place, and at the very moment of his rising the darkness seemed to roll away, and all eyes were turned again to the arena. Two white-robed figures were lying prostrate on the ground, clasped in each other's arms, and the lion was standing motionless by their side.


[Illustration]

"HE HATH SHUT THE LION'S MOUTH."

A few minutes afterwards, in obedience to the Proconsul's commands, the animal's keeper appeared. Several attendants accompanied him, for his errand was a dangerous one, and his best chance of safety was in being able to distract the creature's [198] attention. As it turned out, nothing could have been more easily done. The lion seemed entirely to forget his hunger and his rage, and answering to the call of his name as readily as if he had been a dog, walked quietly back to his cage.

The sisters still lay motionless on the sand. The lion had not touched them, for there was not a trace of blood on their white robes; nor did it seem likely, so undisturbed were the two figures, that the lightning had struck them. But the attendants who had advanced to carry out the bodies readily perceived the truth. Rhoda was dead. Her strange revival on the morning of the day had been the last flash of an expiring fire. She had died, clasped in her sister's arms, without a struggle and without a pang. Cleoné had felt the heart cease to beat, and the cheek pressed against her own grow chill in death. Then her own sorrows were lost in a merciful unconsciousness. The spectators almost universally believed that the attendants were carrying away two corpses.


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