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The Crown of Pine by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

AN EXILED NATION

[93] NARCISSUS had prophesied only too truly when he had said that there would be shipwrecks in Rome when the decree of banishment was issued. The fourteen days' grace conceded was by far too short a time. It gave the exiles time to collect and secure personal belongings and portable property generally; but a merchant had very little opportunity of disposing of his warehouse goods, or a dealer of his stock-in-trade. The immediate effect of the decree, with its cruelly short limit of time, was, of course, to shut the market almost completely against Jewish sellers. The conspiracy of buyers holds good for a short time, though it is sure to break down sooner or later. It would infallibly have broken down before the end of six months if so long a period had been conceded. Some buyer would have applied the proverb that a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. He would have said to himself, "I may get nothing if I wait till the general [94] scramble at the end; but I may make sure of something now. I shall have to pay for it, it is true, but only half the proper price." And so he would have gone, stealthily, indeed, not without a certain approving glow of conscience. As it was, it was almost impossible for a Jew to sell anything. Probably the purchasers who thus held back made a mistake. The organizers of the affair never intended to enrich chance comers. The property of the exiles was to go into the public coffers; and a portion did actually reach them; but most of the cargo—to go back to Narcissus's metaphor—became the spoil of those who had brought about the shipwreck.

The loss as usual fell more heavily on the poor than on the rich. Great firms such as that over which Manasseh presided had taken precautions against such emergencies. They made a point of having a Gentile partner, who, being exempt from the action of the decree, took up the character of sole owner. Of course there was considerable risk of loss. The Gentile partner was not always an honest man. And there remained the great personal inconvenience, though always mitigated, as every trouble on earth is mitigated, by the possession of money. The poorer Jews had no such alleviation of their lot; the small tradesman lost his capital, the artisan lost his [95] employment. The Jewish race is patient and tenacious of life beyond all others, with a quite unparalleled power of recovery; all the same it suffered a great blow, and the misery endured by individual members of it was past all reckoning. And there were not a few cases in which others who could have had no share in the supposed misdeeds of the people suffered along with it.

Aquila had of course to close his factory. He did his best to lighten the blow to his workmen. He had a branch establishment at Brundisium, and to this he transferred as much of his business and as many of his hands as was possible. At present the decree of banishment did not extend beyond Rome and its environs, and the provincial towns were comparatively unaffected by the hostile feeling that was so strong in the capital. Those who could not be thus provided for, Aquila helped liberally with money for their journey. Do what he could there was much suffering to which he could not minister; but he made the lot of many much more endurable than it would otherwise have been, and Priscilla, it need hardly be said, did all that could be done to second his efforts.

One great calamity, however, they could do little or nothing to mitigate, and that was the calamity which their departure brought on their [96] neighbours. A Roman poet, who was certainly not harder of heart then the average of his fellow citizens, counted it among the blessings of a countryman's life that he had not to feel the pang of pity for the poor. This was a blessing which Aquila and his highborn wife did not covet. The new sense of the brotherhood of man which the Christian faith had brought with it had touched them and made them active in works of charity, the works which are almost a matter of course in modern life, but were a novelty in the ancient world. The Jew had always been generous to his own countrymen, and certainly not less charitable than others to the stranger, but Aquila and his helpmeet set no limitations to their bounty. No Gentile workmen were employed, it is true, in the factory, not on account of any exclusive feeling in Aquila—he had mastered with marvellous promptitude the lesson that in the Master there was neither Jew nor Greek—but because he felt himself bound to respect the convictions of his countrymen. He hoped that they would reach a better frame of mind in the future; meanwhile he had to recognize facts. But outdoor work was largely done by Roman hands, and these brought him into contact with the poverty and suffering of the neighbourhood. There was not a case of [97] destitution or sickness in the thickly populated quarter in which the factory stood of which he and his wife were unaware. Their visits were received at first with astonishment and even suspicion. "What do these rich people want of us?" was the question which many of them asked, and to which no answer could be imagined. A century before it might have been thought that Aquila was canvassing for some public office, some post, honourable and lucrative, which could be gained by popular election. But popular election had by this time become the merest show. The Emperor appointed to every office, and a handful of idlers who had nothing better to do with their time, assembled in the field of Mars, the scene of the stormy conflicts of old, to hear the names of his nominees. And then at last it dawned upon the people that these newcomers simply desired to help them. The notion was so new that it came upon them almost like a shock. The poor of our own day look upon such offices as their due; anyhow they are common enough to excite no surprise. It is impossible to imagine what a passion of gratitude was kindled in the sick or poverty-stricken dwellers in the Suburra, for that, the meanest region of Rome, was the quarter in which Aquila and his wife exercised their labour of love. They prostrated [98] themselves before them, kissed the hem of their garments, and addressed them in language of adoration which, to the Jew at least, seemed almost shocking. And now when the news went through the quarter that its benefactors were to be driven from among them the excitement was intense. If Aquila had had anything of the turbulent spirit which was common among his countrymen he might have raised a riot, almost an insurrection. As it was, he did his best to comfort and calm. He and his wife would not forget them. Perhaps they might be permitted to return. Meanwhile they had left something in trustworthy hands for the relief of pressing needs.

That they could do this was a great consolation to the two. They felt keenly the breaking up of their life in Rome, especially on its side of active benevolence. But it was something to know that it might be taken up elsewhere. They had, indeed, liberty of action in an uncommon degree. Aquila had made savings which, though not very large, would amply suffice for a time, and Priscilla was rich. As much of her property in Italy as could be sold without exciting suspicion—and suspicion was an ever-present element in the atmosphere of Roman life, had been disposed of, and the proceeds had [99] been invested in safe quarters. Some had been lent to private traders; and here Aquila had had the advantage of that system of commercial intelligence which the Jews had brought to such perfection. Something like a gazette circulated among them, and a borrower whose name was unfavourably mentioned in it would only be wasting his time if he applied for a loan. More had been invested with municipalities, as ready then to borrow as they are now, in Greece, Asia Minor, Gaul and Spain. One loan, as we have seen, had been made to the city of Corinth. It had been arranged, my readers will remember, that the business should be concluded at that place, and this would have to be done either by Aquila himself or by some confidential agent. Corinth, therefore, was manifestly pointed out as a convenient choice, if a choice had to be made. What other interests would thus come into his life, Aquila did not so much as imagine. But the prospect of going there pleased him as much as any such prospect could please, when so many ties had to be broken, so many interests relinquished? It was the seat of a busy and prosperous trade, and as such appealed to his tastes. Possibly he traced a parallel between its fate and the fate of his own mother-city, Jerusalem. Both had been made utterly deso- [100] late, and both had recovered with marvellous celerity. On the whole, as he had to go, Corinth promised as well as any place outside his own land.


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