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The Crown of Pine by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

IN THE JEWS' QUARTER

[23] MANASSEH and Raphael had granaries, with an office and a permanent staff, at Ostia. When instructions had been given for the unlading and storing of the cargo of The Twin Brothers, the business calling for their personal attention was concluded, and they prepared to return to Rome. A pair of fast-trotting horses were scarcely an hour in traversing the twelve miles that lay between the harbour and the city. The road, lying generally along the right bank of the Tiber, though not following the windings of the river, was almost level and in admirable condition. Entering by the harbour gate, they passed through the famous Gardens which the first of the Caesars had bequeathed to the Roman people, and so reached the Jewish Quarter. Manasseh's home lay a little to the right of the road, occupying a slight elevation, probably artificial, from which it overlooked the Gardens, [24] while a garden of its own of a size quite unusual within the city walls led down to the river. Eleazar excused himself from joining his relatives at dinner—they dined at four, a happy compromise, as they thought, between two, the favourite hour of the fashionable and luxurious, and six, the time commonly affected by men of business.

Eleazar was bound for the other end of the Quarter, a region of shops and factories. He had no difficulty in finding the place of which he was in search. It was a factory where the hair of the goats that roamed over the hills of Rough Cilicia was worked up into tents, rugs and the like. A large building, as it appeared in those days, though it would be absolutely insignificant compared with the huge factories of modern times, it was occupied by some thirty workers, all men and boys—the Jew then, as now, does not approve of his womenkind doing any work not domestic—busy combing the hair weaving the cloth and pressing and otherwise preparing for use the manufactured material. A man of middle age, somewhat insignificant in appearance, as far as stature was concerned, but with a singularly pleasing and expressive coun- [25] tenance, was moving about among the workers and examining the results of their labour. Obviously he was the master of the place, or his representative, and Eleazar, approaching him with a respectful salutation, put into his hands a letter addressed to "Asa ben Ephraim, otherwise Caius Cilnius Aquila, at his house in the Janiculum at Rome." The letter was written in Aramaic, which may be called the modern or popular form of Hebrew, but was arranged in Roman form. It ran thus—

"Lucius Cilnius Aquila of Alexandria to his brother Caius heartily greeting.

"I commend to you and to my sister, your most honoured consort, the bearer of this epistle, Eleazar ben Nathaniel, an inhabitant of this city, a young man zealous of all good things, and filled with a most laudable desire to increase his knowledge of such matters as concern the spiritual life. I am assured that he is altogether faithful and trustworthy. Nevertheless there are certain things, which, especially in these days, it is better not to write with paper and ink, but to communicate by word of mouth. For this reason I leave the young man himself to set forth to you that which is in his mind. Farewell."

As Aquila read the letter, the brightness of his face seemed to grow more intense.

[26] "All my brother's friends are mine," he cried. "And when did you see my dear brother last? Was he quite well?"

"Quite well when I saw him, and that was just a fortnight since. He gave me this the night before I sailed, and I landed this very morning at Ostia."

"You bring good news," said Aquila. "You are in every way welcome. But where are you lodging? Won't you take up your quarters with us?"

Eleazar explained that he was his uncle's guest.

"Ah," said Aquila with a smile, "we must not meddle with what is Manasseh's, guest, or business, or anything else. But you can give us your company at supper?"

"Yes, with pleasure," replied Eleazar. "I excused myself from the meal at my uncle's, because I did not know when I should be free."

"Come, then," said Aquila, "follow me," and he conducted his guest along a short covered way which connected the factory with the private dwelling. Throwing aside a curtain which covered the end of the passage, he led the way into a small plainly furnished chamber. Its sole occupant was a lady who sat with bent head over a piece of embroidery.

[27] "A friend of our dear Lucius, my Priscilla," said Aquila.

When the lady rose from her place to greet him, Eleazar thought that he had never seen a nobler looking woman. That she was not a countrywoman of his own he felt sure. At least he had never seen a Hebrew lady with so commanding a figure, with such a wealth of golden hair, and a complexion of such dazzling brightness. And, indeed, Priscilla was no countrywoman of his. He was but seldom at Rome, his business keeping him by far the greatest part of his time at Alexandria. But for this he would probably have heard of an affair which had caused no little surprise, not to say scandal, in fashionable circles in the capital, when one of the most beautiful and high born of Roman maidens had married a Jewish merchant. Prisca—for that was the lady's name, Priscilla being a half-humorous diminutive suggested by her unusual stature—belonged to the ancient house of the Fabii. This was one of the very few great patrician houses which had survived into the days of the Empire. Her father, a Fabius Maximus, who claimed direct descent from the great general who had been the first Roman to meet Hannibal in the field of battle without disaster, had enjoyed the perilous privilege of friendship with the Emperor [28] Augustus, and had been brought to his end by his inconvenient knowledge of a State secret. His family were naturally out of favour with Augustus' successor, and had suffered both in property and in social position. Still, it had the prestige of a pedigree which went back far into mythical times, and the young Fabia, who was a child of some three years at her grandfather's death, might have made a splendid marriage, had she so willed it, when the time came. But things were otherwise ordered for her. Her most intimate friend was a married woman, Pomponia Graecina by name, some fifteen years older than herself, the wife of a Roman noble, who was afterwards to be one of the most distinguished soldiers of his time. The young Fabia was in her eighteenth year, when her friend's husband was raised to the Consulship. In the course of his official duties, Plautius came into contact with [29] a young Jew. The occasion was of no particular importance, a civil suit in which the Jew was a plaintiff, seeking to recover the value of some jewellery which he had made for a customer. The articles were exhibited in Court, and the Consul was struck with the elegance of design and the delicacy of workmanship which they displayed. He gave the young man a commission, and the commission brought him in course of time to the Consul's private residence. The jewellery was naturally submitted to the Consul's wife. Fabia happened to be visiting her friend when the Jew with his wares was introduced. Both ladies were struck with a novel design which they saw repeated on some of the articles, familiar enough to us, but then a novelty even among Christians, and of course absolutely strange to any one outside the narrow circle of believers

The young Jew—I may say at once that he was Aquila—was not prepared for questions on the subject. In fact, it was by an oversight that the article in question had been included in the parcel, and he endeavoured to evade the subject. It was easy to see, however, that the questions were not put from mere idle curiosity. Pomponia had for some years been attracted by what she [30] had heard of the Jewish faith. It may be easily understood that the religious traditions in which she had been brought up failed to satisfy her. It was indeed almost impossible for a Roman man or woman of the time to be at once intelligent and devout. The old Italian faith, which was an elaborate nature-worship, in which every process or development of life had its presiding deity, had passed away. The gods and goddesses which Rome worshipped were practically those which the Greek literature had personified, being greater than man in strength and beauty, but below him in morals.

The one characteristic Roman worship was that of the Deified Augustus, with whom were associated other princes of the Imperial house. Pomponia had not broken with the ordinary observances of private and public religion. At home she hung the usual garland on the family Lar, and saw that the usual offerings of food were placed before the image; in public, she attended such festivals as public opinion, now grown very lax in such matters, made obligatory. But these [31] devotions were perfunctory; her real thoughts in this province of her life were very different. What she heard from the Jew gave to these thoughts a definite shape. Little, of course, was said at the first interview. Aquila was naturally cautious and reticent. The Jew had every reason for not wearing his heart upon his sleeve, least of all in such a city as Rome, where the representatives of the official religion, augurs, and flamens, and pontiffs were so numerous and so powerful. But by degrees he took courage to speak more plainly and openly. As he set forth the Hebrew conception of God, the One and Undivided, the hearts of his hearers—for the young Fabia was not less interested and zealous than her friend—were greatly moved. The One Maker and Ruler of all things, dwelling in a serene region above all human passions, untouched by the anger, jealousies, caprices of favour and disfavour which degraded the gods of the old faith, yet ceaselessly careful for the wellbeing of His creatures, demanded and received their allegiance. As time went on, Aquila would bring a small scroll of his national scriptures, parts of the great work which we know as the version of the Seventy, the Septuagint. The two ladies were as familiar with Greek as with their own language, and they listened with rapt attention as Aquila read the pure and lofty [32] precepts of the Law, the outpourings of the Hebrew singers, touching, as they have done in every age, the joys and sorrows of the human heart, and the sublime utterances of the prophets. And all this time the young Jew was himself learning. He had renewed at Rome a friendship of his boyhood. His birthplace was the ancient city of Cabira in Pontus, and his closest companion in early days in lessons and in sport had been a young Jew who was a native of the same town. Their lots fell in different places. Andronicus, who claimed kinship with no less a person than St. Paul, had found employment at Alexandria. There his surroundings had been, as might be expected, wholly Greek, and he had assumed a Greek name. Such a name was more convenient for business, and, we may add, more agreeable to the hearing than the accidental or intentional mispronunciation of his own Hebrew appellation. From Alexandria he had come, at the call of business, to Rome, and at Rome he had chanced upon, or, may be, had been led to a meeting with his old friend Aquila. But Andronicus had had experiences which had not been vouchsafed to his friend. He had journeyed to Jerusalem some ten years before to attend the feast of Pentecost, and had witnessed events which were to influence profoundly the rest of his life. [33] He found the congregation or synagogue to which he naturally attached himself (that supported by natives of, or visitors from, the two great Greek cities of Northern Africa, Cyrene and Alexandria) in a state of the greatest excitement. The preaching of a young Jew, Stephen by name, had moved them profoundly, rousing an angry hostility in most, admiration in a few, wonder in all. Andronicus was a devout soul, and he had the open mind which often goes with the devoutness that can pierce beneath forms and names to the very heart of religion. And he had had the immense advantage of hearing at Alexandria the teaching of the great Philo. Philo, though he seems never to have heard of Christ, did in a manner prepare the way for Him. Disciples who listened to him intelligently were prepared for the doctrine of a Divine Word proceeding from the supreme Jehovah. The preaching of Stephen put their vague ideas into shape. This Divine Word had actually dwelt upon earth; he was the Master to whom Stephen and his fellow [34] believers—"the Way," as they had come to be called in Jerusalem—proclaimed their allegiance. Every time that Andronicus listened to the fervent eloquence of the young preacher, his conviction that the hope of the Hebrew race had found its fulfilment grew stronger. Then came the tragical end, the savage outburst which seemed to silence this wonderful voice, but in reality gave it new power and a wider audience. Andronicus was present when the sudden rage of the crowd vented itself upon the man whom it could not silence by argument. He was carried, against his will, by the rush of the angry multitude into the meeting place of the Seventy. There he had seen the face of the accused glowing with a noble rage, and had listened to the great defence which the impetuosity of the orator so soon turned into a great attack. His voice, with the voices of a few companions who sympathized with him, were raised in ineffectual protest against the savage cries which clamoured for the speaker's [35] death. He had even followed in the faint hope of rescuing the victim. Then he had been present at the last scene, and if anything had been wanting to complete the conviction that he had been listening to a messenger of God he found it then, in the majestic patience, in the divine forgiveness of the sufferer, in the irresistible appeal which no one who was present could ever have forgotten to a King throned far above the tumults of earth. Andronicus resolved at once to learn all that could be learnt about a matter in which he was so deeply interested. This for a time he found no easy task. There was a general flight of Christians from the city; those who remained were cautious of entering into communication with an unknown inquirer who might only be seeking to entrap them. But there were some who neither deserted their post, nor shunned any opportunity of avowing the Faith. The Apostles, protected by the reverence in which they were held, and possibly by their habit of devout attendance at the Temple, still remained in Jerusalem. Philip, whose Greek name seemed to indicate him as a proper person to approach, made no difficulty about seeing the young Alexandrian, and answering all his questions. For the next few weeks, Andronicus, as may easily be supposed, could think of nothing else. Day after day he [36] sat at the apostles' feet and listened eagerly to the story of the Master's life, impressive beyond all that we can conceive when heard from the lips of an eye witness. When the time came for him to return to his home, whither he was called on business that could not be any longer postponed, he petitioned to be admitted to baptism, nor did the apostles find any difficulty in granting the request of a disciple so well instructed, so intelligent, so thoroughly in earnest.

It was a momentous event, therefore, for themselves and for others when the two natives of Cabira happened to meet in the streets at Rome. This meeting took place, it has been said, some time after Aquila's acquaintance with the two Roman ladies had begun. It was not long before the newcomer's experiences at Jerusalem were made known to his friend. Andronicus had committed to writing as much as he had been able of Philip's reminiscences and instructions, and he lost no time in giving Aquila the benefit of what he himself prized so highly. Aquila listened with eager attention; what he heard seemed at once new and familiar. It was familiar because it seemed to put old hopes and longings into shape; it was new because the shape had a reality and an attraction such as far transcended his largest imaginings. One of his first thoughts was to [37] communicate his own knowledge to Pomponia and Fabia. He asked leave to bring Andronicus with him on his next visit, and the permission was gladly given. The two ladies listened to the story with the same rapt attention which Aquila had given it, and it had the same convincing effect. But when it came to the question how the conviction thus wrought was to take shape in action, the situation that presented itself was perplexing. Pomponia could not see her way plain before her. Her husband held high office in the State, and as a soldier of distinction and experience, was a confidential counsellor of the Emperor. Claudius, well meaning, though weak, was already too much under the dominion of unworthy favourites, and it seemed to her a lamentable thing to do anything that would weaken her husband's more salutary influence. And she was convinced that such a result would follow were she to make open profession of her new belief. Perhaps she would have done better to have ventured all, but if she held back it was not from any fear of consequences to herself, but because she had a profound faith in her husband and in what he would do for Rome. Fabia had no such ties. She was almost alone in the world, and had consequently far more practical independence than a woman could commonly hope to have in Rome. She [38] made up her mind to be baptized—and after? Then her difficulties began. For an unmarried woman to live alone in Rome was practically impossible. She had suitors, for she was of the noblest blood in Rome, she was beautiful, and she had an adequate, even a large fortune. But her suitors were, of course, of the old faith. The Christian minister whose counsel she sought confirmed her own conviction that marriage with a Pagan was impossible. The suitor might promise, but the husband would not be likely, probably would not be able, to perform.

At this point Pomponia had a sudden impulse to intervene. Why should not her young friend find one who would be at once husband, protector and teacher, in Aquila? The suggestion was startling, and at first distasteful. Priscilla had her full share of pride of race, and she could not relinquish it in a moment. That this daughter of men who had made themselves masters of the world should own as her own master one of a subject race seemed at first preposterous. But the thought that was at first so strange became familiar. There were at work the persuasions of her friend, always tactfully employed and never missing when an occasion presented itself; there was the conviction that there was no better way out of a singularly difficult position; there was [39] the consciousness of the young Jew's heartfelt admiration, which he now ventured, at Pomponia's suggestion, to make a little more evident than he would otherwise have dared to do. And then, most potent motive of all, there was the thought that in what concerned the deepest interest of her life, the young man was in the fullest sympathy with her. To say, as one might say if the scene of the story were in the England of this twentieth century, that Fabia fell in love with Aquila, would be incorrect. This was hardly the way with a Roman maiden, and certainly not with Fabia. But she yielded by degrees to the conviction that the marriage was in the path of duty, and it was not long before she began to feel that the path was one which she would willingly follow. At the season of Whitsuntide the two were baptized. Aquila, who had actually been for some time accepted as a candidate for the holy rite, had delayed his profession till he could make it with the woman he loved. On the third day after, the marriage was celebrated. This was the Priscilla to whom Eleazar was now introduced.


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