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- Pearl-Maiden - 3/74 -


holy Apostles departed, blessing us before they went, and Demas, who would play no double part, told my father of what we had done. Oh! mother, it was awful to see. He raved, shouted and cursed us in his rage, blaspheming Him we worship. More, woe is me that I should have to tell it: When we refused to become apostates he denounced us to the priests, and the priests denounced us to the Romans, and we were seized and thrown into prison; but my husband's wealth, most of it except that which the priests and Romans stole, stayed with my father. For many months we were held in prison here in Cęsarea; then they took my husband to Berytus, to be trained as a gladiator, and murdered him. Here I have stayed since with this beloved servant, Nehushta, who also became a Christian and shared our fate, and now, by the decree of Agrippa, it is my turn and hers to die to-day."

"Child, you should not weep for that; nay, you should be glad who at once will find your husband and your Saviour."

"Mother, I am glad; but, you see my state. It is for the child's sake I weep, that now never will be born. Had it won life even for an hour all of us would have dwelt together in bliss until eternity. But it cannot be--it cannot be."

Anna looked at her with her piercing eyes.

"Have you, then, also the gift of prophecy, child, who are so young a member of the Church, that you dare to say that this or that cannot be? The future is in the hand of God. King Agrippa, your father, the Romans, the cruel Jews, those lions that roar yonder, and we who are doomed to feed them, are all in the hand of God, and that which He wills shall befall, and no other thing. Therefore, let us praise Him and rejoice, and take no thought for the morrow, unless it be to pray that we may die and go hence to our Master, rather than live on in doubts and terrors and tribulations."

"You are right, mother," answered Rachel, "and I will try to be brave, whatever may befall; but my state makes me feeble. The spirit, truly, is willing, but oh! the flesh is weak. Listen, they call us to partake of the Sacrament of the Lord--our last on earth"; and rising, she began to walk towards the arches.

Nehushta stayed to help Anna to her feet. When she judged her mistress to be out of hearing she leaned down and whispered:

"Mother, you have the gift; it is known throughout the Church. Tell me, will the child be born?"

The old woman fixed her eyes upon the heavens, then answered, slowly:

"The child will be born and live out its life, and I think that none of us are doomed to die this day by the jaws of lions, though some of us may die in another fashion. But I think also that your mistress goes very shortly to join her husband. Therefore it was that I showed her nothing of what came into my mind."

"Then it is best that I should die also, and die I will."

"Wherefore?"

"Because I go to wait upon my mistress?"

"Nay, Nehushta," answered Anna, sternly, "you stay to guard her child, whereof when all these earthly things are done you must give account to her."

CHAPTER II

THE VOICE OF A GOD

Of all the civilisations whose records lie open to the student, that of Rome is surely one of the most wonderful. Nowhere, not even in old Mexico, was high culture so completely wedded to the lowest barbarism. Intellect Rome had in plenty; the noblest efforts of her genius are scarcely to be surpassed; her law is the foundation of the best of our codes of jurisprudence; art she borrowed but appreciated; her military system is still the wonder of the world; her great men remain great among a multitude of subsequent competitors. And yet how pitiless she was! What a tigress! Amid all the ruins of her cities we find none of a hospital, none, I believe, of an orphan school in an age that made many orphans. The pious aspirations and efforts of individuals seem never to have touched the conscience of the people. Rome incarnate had no conscience; she was a lustful, devouring beast, made more bestial by her intelligence and splendour.

King Agrippa in practice was a Roman. Rome was his model, her ideals were his ideals. Therefore he built amphitheatres in which men were butchered, to the exquisite delight of vast audiences. Therefore, also, without the excuse of any conscientious motive, however insufficient or unsatisfactory, he persecuted the weak because they were weak and their sufferings would give pleasure to the strong or to those who chanced to be the majority of the moment.

The season being hot it was arranged that the great games in honour of the safety of Cęsar, should open each day at dawn and come to an end an hour before noon. Therefore from midnight onwards crowds of spectators poured into the amphitheatre, which, although it would seat over twenty thousand, was not large enough to contain them all. An hour before the dawn the place was full, and already late comers were turned back from its gates. The only empty spaces were those reserved for the king, his royal guests, the rulers of the city, with other distinguished personages, and for the Christian company of old men, women and children destined to the lions, who, it was arranged, were to sit in full view of the audience until the time came for them to take their share in the spectacle.

When Rachel joined the other captives she found that a long rough table had been set beneath the arcades, and on it at intervals, pieces of bread and cups and vases containing wine of the country that had been purchased at a great price from the guards. Round this table the elders or the infirm among the company were seated on a bench, while the rest of the number, for whom there was not room, stood behind them. At its head was an old man, a bishop among the Christians, one of the five hundred who had seen the risen Lord and received baptism from the hands of the Beloved Disciple. For some years he had been spared by the persecutors of the infant Church on account of his age, dignity, and good repute, but now at last fate seemed to have overtaken him.

The service was held; the bread and wine, mixed with water, were consecrated with the same texts by which they are blessed to-day, only the prayers were extempore. When all had eaten from the platters and drunk from the rude cups, the bishop gave his blessing to the community. Then he addressed them. This, he told them, was an occasion of peculiar joy, a love-feast indeed, since all they who partook of it were about to lay down the burden of the flesh and, their labours and sorrows ended, to depart into bliss eternal. He called to their memory the supper of the Passover which had taken place within the lifetime of many of them, when the Author and Finisher of their faith had declared to the disciples that He would drink no more wine till He drank it new with them in His kingdom. Such a feast it was that lay spread before them this night. Let them be thankful for it. Let them not quail in the hour of trial. The fangs of the savage beasts, the shouts of the still more savage spectators, the agony of the quivering flesh, the last terror of their departing, what were these? Soon, very soon, they would be done; the spears of the soldiers would despatch the injured, and those among them whom it was ordained should escape, would be set free by the command of the representative of Cęsar, that they might prosecute the work till the hour came for them to pass on the torch of redemption to other hands. Let them rejoice, therefore, and be very thankful, and walk to the sacrifice as to a wedding feast. "Do you not rejoice, my brethren?" he asked. With one voice they answered, "We rejoice!" Yes, even the children answered thus.

Then they prayed again, and again with uplifted hands the old man blessed them in the holy Triune Name.

Scarcely had this service, as solemn as it was simple, been brought to an end when the head jailer, whose blasphemous jocosity since his reproof by Anna was replaced by a mien of sullen venom, came forward and commanded the whole band to march to the amphitheatre. Accordingly, two by two, the bishop leading the way with the sainted woman Anna, they walked to the gates. Here a guard of soldiers was waiting to receive them, and under their escort they threaded the narrow, darkling streets till they came to that door of the amphitheatre which was used by those who were to take part in the games. Now, at a word from the bishop, they began to chant a solemn hymn, and singing thus, were thrust along the passages to the place prepared for them. This was not, as they expected, a prison at the back of the amphitheatre, but, as has been said, a spot between the enclosing wall and the podium, raised a little above the level of the arena. Here, on the eastern side of the building, they were to sit till their turn came to be driven by the guards through a little wicket-gate into the arena, where the starving beasts of prey would be loosed upon them.

It was now the hour before sunrise, and the moon having set, the vast theatre was plunged in gloom, relieved only here and there by stray torches and cressets of fire burning upon either side of the gorgeous, but as yet unoccupied, throne of Agrippa. This gloom seemed to oppress the audience with which the place was crowded; at any rate none of them shouted or sang, or even spoke loudly. They addressed each other in muffled tones, with the result that the air seemed to be full of mysterious whisperings. Had this poor band of condemned Christians entered the theatre in daylight, they would have been greeted with ironical cries and tauntings of "Dogs' meat!" and with requests that they should work a miracle and let the people see them rise again from the bellies of the lions. But now, as their solemn song broke upon the silence, it was answered only by one great murmur, which seemed to shape itself to the words, "the Christians! The doomed Christians!"

By the light of a single torch the band took their places. Then once more they sang, and in that chastening hour the audience listened with attention, almost with respect. Their chant finished, the bishop stood up, and, moved thereto by some inspiration, began to address the mighty throng, whom he could not see, and who could not see him. Strangely enough they hearkened to him, perhaps because his speech served to while away the weary time of waiting.

"Men and brethren," he began, in his thin, piercing notes, "princes, lords, peoples, Romans, Jews, Syrians, Greeks, citizens of Idumęa, of Egypt, and of all nations here gathered, hearken to the words of an old man destined and glad to die. Listen, if it be your pleasure, to the story of One whom some of you saw crucified under Pontius Pilate, since to know the truth of that matter can at least do you no hurt."

"Be silent!" cried a voice, that of the renegade jailer, "and cease preaching your accursed faith!"

"Let him alone," answered other voices. "We will hear this story of


Pearl-Maiden - 3/74

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