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- The Emperor, Part 2, Volume 8. - 5/10 -
entered the little hall. Her eyes were still full of tears and she had great difficulty in finding words to return Hannah's greeting.
"Why what ails you my child?" asked the Christian anxiously when by the dim light, she saw how tearful and sad the girl looked. Arsinoe was long before she could answer. At last she collected herself sufficiently to sob out amid her tears:
"Oh dame Hannah! It is all over with us--my father, our poor father--"
The widow guessed at the blow that bad fallen on the sisters and full of anxiety on Selene's account she interrupted the weeping child saying:
"Hush, hush my child-Selene must not hear you. Come out with me and then you can tell me all." Once outside the door Hannah put her arm round Arsinoe drew her towards her, kissed her forehead, and said:
"Now speak and tell me every thing; think that I am your mother or your sister. Poor Selene is still too weak to advise or help you. Take courage. What happened to your poor father?"
"Struck by apoplexy, dead--dead!" wept the girl. Poor, dear little orphan," said the widow in a husky voice and she clasped Arsinoe closely in her arms. For some time she allowed the girl to weep silently on her bosom; then she spoke:
"Give me your hand my daughter and tell me how it has all happened so suddenly. Your father was quite well yesterday and now? Yes my girl life is a grave matter, you have to learn it while you are still young. I know you have six little brothers and sisters and perhaps you may soon lack even the necessaries of life. But that is no disgrace; I am certainly even poorer than you and yet, by God's help, I hope to be able to advise you and perhaps even to assist you. Every thing that I can possibly do shall be done, but first I must know how matters stand with you and what you need."
There was so much kindness and consolation in the Christian's tones, so much to revive hope that Arsinoe willingly complied with her demand and began her story.
At first, to be sure, her pride shunned confessing how poor, how absolutely destitute they were; but Hannah's questions soon brought the truth to light; and when Arsinoe perceived that the widow understood the misfortunes of their house in their fullest extent, and that it would be unavailing to conceal how matters stood with her and the children, she yielded to the growing impulse to relieve her soul by pouring out her griefs and described frankly and without reserve the whole position of the family, to the good woman who listened with attention and sympathy. The widow asked about each child separately, and ended by enquiring who, in Arsinoe's absence, was left in charge of the little ones; and when she heard that the old slave-woman to whose care the children were entrusted, was infirm and half-blind, she shook her head thoughtfully.
"Here help is needed and at once," she said decidedly. "You must go back to the little ones presently. Your sister must not at present hear of your father's death; when your future lot is to some extent secure we will tell her by degrees all that has occurred. Now come with me, it is by the Lord's guidance that you came here at the right moment."
Hannah conducted Arsinoe to Paulina's villa, first into a small room at the side of the entrance hall, where the deaconesses took off their veils and their warm wraps in winter evenings. There the girl could be alone, and safe from inquisitive questionings which could not fail to be painful to her. Hannah desired her to await her return, and then joined her colleagues.
In order to do so she had to pass through the room where the elders and deacons were sitting in council. The bishop, who presided over the assembly, sat on a raised seat at the head of an oblong table, and on his right hand and his left sat a number of elderly men, some of whom seemed to be of Jewish or Egyptian extraction but most of them were Greeks. In these the lofty intellectual brow was conspicuous, in those a bright, ecstatic expression particularly in the eyes. Hannah went past the assembly with a reverential greeting into the adjoining room in which the deaconesses sat waiting, for women were not admitted to join or hear the deliberations of the elders. The bishop, a fine old man with a full white beard; raised his kindly eyes as the door closed upon Hannah, fixed them for a few moments on the tips of his fingers that he had raised and then addressed the presbyter who had presented for baptism several candidates who had been grounded during the past year in the Christian faith and doctrine, as follows:
"Most of the catechumens you have presented to me cling faithfully no doubt to the Redeemer. They believe in Him and love Him. But have they attained to that sanctification, that new birth in Christ, which alone can justify us in admitting them through baptism among the lambs of our Good Shepherd? Let us beware of the tainted sheep which may infect the whole flock. Verily, in these latter years there has been no lack of them, and they have been received among us and have brought the name of Christian into evil repute. Shall I give you an example? There was an Egyptian in Rhakotis; few seemed to strive so fervently as he for the remission of his sins. He could fast for many days, and yet no sooner was he baptized than he broke into a goldsmith's shop. He was condemned to death, and before his end he sent for me and confessed to me that in former years he had soiled his soul with many robberies and murders. He had hoped to win forgiveness of his sins by the act of baptism, the mere washing in water, not by repentance and a new birth to a pure and holy life; and he had gone on boldly in new sin because he confidently hoped that he might again count on the unwearying mercy of the Saviour. Others again, who had been brought up in the practice of the ablutions which have to be performed by those who are initiated into the deeper secrets of the heathen mysteries, regarded baptism as an act of purification, a mystical process of happy augury, or at the best a figurative purification of the soul, and crowded to receive it. Here, in Alexandria, the number of these deluded ones is especially great; for where could any superstition find a more favorable soil than in this seat of philosophical half-culture, or over-culture; of the worship of Serapis, of astrology, of societies of Mystics, of visionaries and exorcisers, and of incredulity--the twin-sister of credulity. Be cautious then to hold back from baptism all those who regard it as a preserving charm or an act of good omen--remembering that the same water which, sprinkled on sanctified hearts, leads them to holy living, brings death to the unclean soul. It is your turn to speak, Irenaeus."
"I only have to say," began the young Christian thus designated, "that I have recently met among the catechumens with some who have attached themselves to us from the basest motives. I mean the idlers who are glad to receive our alms. Have you noticed here a cynic philosopher whose starving brother we maintain? Our deacon Clemens has just ascertained that he is the only son of his father--"
"We will investigate this matter more closely when we discuss the distribution of alms," replied the bishop. "Here we have petitions from several women who desire to have their children baptized; this question we cannot decide here; it must be referred to the next Synod. So far as I am concerned, I should be inclined not to reject the prayer of the mothers. Wherein does the utmost aim of the Christian life consist? It seems to me in being perfectly conformable to the example of the Saviour. And was not he a Man among men, a Youth among the young, a Child among children? Did not His existence lend sanctity to every age, and especially childhood? He commanded that little children should be brought to Him, and He promised them the Kingdom of Heaven. Wherefore then should we exclude them and deny them baptism?"
"I cannot share your views," replied a presbyter with a high forehead and sunken eyes. "We ought no doubt to follow the Saviour, but those who tread in His steps should do so of their own free choice, out of love for Him, and after He has sanctified their souls. What is the sense of a new birth in a life that has scarcely begun.
"Your discourse," replied the bishop, "only confirms my opinion that this question is one for a higher assembly. We will now close our discussion of that point, and go on to the care of the poor. Call in the women, my good Justinius."
The deaconesses came into the room and took seats at the lower end of the table, Paulina, the widow of Pudeus, taking her place opposite the bishop in the middle of the other women. She had learnt from Selene's kind nurse in what pressing difficulties the children of the deceased steward now found themselves, and that Hannah had promised to assist them.
The deacons first gave their reports of what their works had been among the poor; after them the women were allowed to speak. Paulina, a tall, slight woman with black hair faintly streaked with gray, drew from her dress, which was perfectly plain, but made of particularly soft, fine white woollen stuff--a tablet that she placed before her, and slowly raising her eyes and looking at the assembly she said:
"Dame Hannah has a melancholy story to tell you, for which I crave your sympathy. Will you be so good as to allow her to speak?"
Paulina seemed to feel that she was the hostess to her brethren. She looked ill and suffering; a line of pain had settled about her lips, and there were always dark shades under her eyes; still, there was something firm and decisive in her voice, and her glance was anything rather than soft and winning. After her commanding tones Hannah's tale sounded as soft as a song. She described the different natures of the two sisters as lovingly as though they were her own daughters, each in her own way seemed to her so worthy of compassion, and she spoke with pathetic lament of the unprotected, helpless orphans abandoned to misery, and among them a pretty little blind boy. And she ended her speech by saying:
"The steward's second daughter--she is sixteen and so beautiful that she must be exposed to every temptation--has now the whole charge of the nourishment and care of her six young brothers and sisters. Ought we to withhold from them a protecting hand? No, so surely as we love the Saviour we ought not. You agree with me? Well then, do not let us delay our help. The second daughter of the deceased Keraunus is here, in this house; to-morrow early the children must all quit the palace, and now, while I am speaking, are at home alone and but ill tended."
The Christian woman's good words fell on kindly soil, and the presbyters and deacons determined to recommend the congregation who should assemble at the love-feast to give their assistance to the steward's children.
The elders had still much to discuss, so Hannah and Paulina were charged with the task of appealing to the hearts of the well-to-do members of the congregation to provide for the orphans. The poor widow first conducted her wealthy friend and hostess to the little room where Arsinoe was waiting with growing impatience. She looked paler than usual but, in spite of her tear-reddened eyes which she kept fixed on the ground, she was so lovely, so touchingly lovely, that the mere sight of her moved Paulina's heart. She had once had two children, an only daughter besides her son. The girl bad died in the spring-time of her maidenhood, and Paulina thought of her at every hour of her life. It was for her sake that she had been baptized and devoted her existence to a series of painful sacrifices. She strove with all her might to be a good Christian--for surely she, the self-denying woman who had taken up the cross of her own free will, the suffering creature who loved stillness and who had made her country-house, which she visited daily, a scene of
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