Chapter 22. Jucundus Propounds his View of the Situation

{239} FOR thirty-six hours Agellius had been confined in his underground receptacle, light being almost excluded, a bench and a rug being his means of repose, and a full measure of bread, wine, and olives being his dole. The shrieks and yells of the rioters could be distinctly heard in his prison, as the day of his seizure went on, and they passed by the temple of Astarte; but what happened at his farm, and how it fared with Cęcilius, he had no means of conjecturing; nor indeed how it was to fare with himself, for on the face of the transaction, as was in form the fact, he was in the hands of the law, and only indulged with the house of a relative for his prison. On the second night he was released by his uncle's confidential slave, who brought him up to a small back closet on the ground floor, which was lighted from the roof, and next morning, being the second day after the riot, Jucundus came in to have his confidential conversation with him.

His uncle began by telling him that he was a government prisoner, but that he hoped by his influence in high places to get him off and out of {240} Sicca without any prejudice to his honour. He told him that he had managed it privately, and if he had treated him with apparent harshness up to the evening before, it was in order to save appearances with the apparitors who had attended him. He then went on to inform him that the mob had visited his cottage, and had caught some man there; he supposed some accomplice or ally of his nephew's. They had seized him, and were bringing him off, but the fellow had been clever enough to effect his escape. He did not know more than this, but it had happened very fortunately, for the general belief in the place was, that it was Agellius who had been taken, and who had managed to give them the slip. Since it could not any longer be safely denied that he was a Christian, though he (Jucundus) did not think so himself, he had encouraged or rather had given his confirmation to the report; and when some persons who had means of knowing had asserted that the culprit was double the age of his nephew and more, and not at all of his make or description, but a sort of slave, or rather that he was the slave of Agellius who had belonged to his father Strabo, Jucundus had boldly asserted that Agellius, in the emergency, had availed himself of some of the remarkably powerful charms which Christians were known to possess, and had made himself seem what he really was not, in order to escape detection. It had not indeed answered the purpose entirely, for he had actually been taken; but no blame in the charm, which {241} perhaps, after all, had enabled him to escape. However, Agellius was gone, he told people, and a good riddance, and he hoped never to see him again. "But you see, my dear boy," he concluded, "this was all talk for the occasion, for I hope you will live here many years in respectability and credit. I intend you should close my eyes when my time comes, and inherit whatever I have to leave you; for as to that fellow Juba, he inspires me with no confidence in him at all."

Agellius thanked his uncle with all his heart for his kind and successful efforts on his behalf; he did not think there was a word he had said, in the future he had sketched for him, which he could have wished altered. But he thought Jucundus over-sanguine; much as he should like to live with him and tend him in his old age, he did not think he should ever be permitted to return to Sicca. He was a Christian, and must seek some remote corner of the world, or at least some city where he was unknown. Every one in Sicca would point at him as the Christian; he would experience a thousand rubs and collisions, even if the mob did not rise against him, without corresponding advantage; on the other hand, he would have no influence. But were he in the midst of a powerful and widely-extended community of Christians, he might in his place do work, and might extend the faith as one of a number, unknown himself, and strong in his brethren. He therefore proposed as soon as {242} possible to sell his effects and stock, and retire from the sight of men, at least for a time.

"You think this persecution, then, will be soon at an end?" asked Jucundus.

"I judge by the past," answered Agellius; "there have been times of trial and of rest hitherto, and I suppose it will be so again. And one place has hitherto been exempt from the violence of our enemies, when another has been the scene of it."

"A new time is coming, trust me," said Jucundus, gravely. "Those popular commotions are all over. What happened two days ago is a sample of what will come of them; they have received their coup-de-grāce. The State is taking up the matter, Rome itself, thank the gods! a tougher sort of customer than these villain ratcatchers and offal-eaters, whom you had to do with two days since. Great Rome is now at length in earnest, my boy, which she ought to have been a long time back, before you were born; and then you know," and he nodded, "you would have had no choice; you wouldn't have had the temptation to make a fool of yourself."

"Well, then," answered Agellius, "if a new time is really coming, there is less chance than ever of my continuing here."

"Now be a sensible fellow, as you are when you choose," said his uncle; "look the matter in the face, do. You cannot wrestle with impossibilities, you cannot make facts to pattern. There are lawful religions, there are illicit. Christianity is illicit; it {243} is not tolerated; that's not your fault; you cannot help it; you would, if you could; you can't. Now you have observed your point of honour; you have shown you can stand up like a man, and suffer for your own fancy. Still Rome does not give way; and you must make the best of it. You must give in, and you are far too good (I don't compliment, I speak my mind), far too amiable, excellent, sweet a boy for so rascally a superstition."

"There is something stronger than Rome," said the nephew almost sternly.

Jucundus cut him short. "Agellius!" he said, "you must not say that in this house. You shall not use that language under my roof. I'll not put up with it, I tell you. Take your treason elsewhere ... This accursed obstinacy!" he said to himself; "but I must take care what I am doing;" then aloud, "Well, we both of us have been railing; no good comes of railing; railing is not argument. But now, I say, do be sensible, if you can. Is not the imperial government in earnest now? better late than never, but it is now in earnest. And now mark my words, by this day five years, five years at the utmost,—I say by this day five years there will not be a single ragamuffin Christian in the whole Roman world." And he looked fierce. "Ye gods! Rome, Rome has swept from the earth by her very breath conspiracies, confederacies, plots against her, without ever failing; she will do so now with this contemptible, Jew-begotten foe." {244}

"In what are we enemies to Rome, Jucundus?" said Agellius; "why will you always take it for granted?"

"Take it for granted!" answered he, "is it not on the face of the matter? I suppose they are enemies to a state, whom the state calls its enemies. Besides, why a pother of words? Swear by the genius of the emperor, invoke the Dea Roma, sacrifice to Jove; no, not a bit of it, not a whisper, not a sign, not a grain of incense. You go out of your way to insult us; and then you come with a grave face, and say you are loyal. You kick our shins, and you wish us to kiss you on both cheeks for it. A few harmless ceremonies; we are not entrapping you; we are not using your words against yourselves; we tell you the meaning beforehand, the whole meaning of them. It is not as if we tied you to the belief of the nursery: we don't say, 'If you burn incense, you profess to believe that old Jupiter is shivering atop of Olympus;' we don't say, 'You swear by the genius of Cęsar, therefore he has a genius, black, or white, or piebald.' No, we give you the meaning of the act; it is a mere expression of loyalty to the empire. If then you won't do it, you confess yourself ipso facto disloyal. It is incomprehensible." And he had become quite red.

"My dear uncle," said Agellius, "I give you my solemn word, that the people whom you so detest do pray for the welfare of the imperial power continually, as a matter of duty and as a matter of interest." {245}

"Pray! pray! fudge and nonsense!" cried Jucundus, almost mimicking him in his indignation; "pray! who thanks you for your prayers? what's the good of prayers? Prayers, indeed! ha, ha! A little loyalty is worth all the praying in the world. I'll tell you what, Agellius; you are, I am sorry to say it, but you are hand and glove with a set of traitors, who shall and will be smoked out like a nest of wasps. You don't know; you are not in the secret, nor the wretched slave, poor beast, who was pulled to pieces yesterday (ah! you don't know of him) at the Flamen's, nor a multitude of other idiots. But, d'ye see," and he chucked up his head significantly, "there are puppets, and there are wires. Few know what is going on. They won't have done (unless we put them down; but we will) till they have toppled down the state. But Rome will put them down. Come, be sensible, listen to reason; now I am going to put facts before my poor, dear, well-meaning boy. Oh that you saw things as I do! What a trouble you are to me! Here am I"—

"My dearest uncle, Jucundus," cried Agellius, "I assure you, it is the most intense pain to me"—

"Very well, very well," interrupted the uncle in turn, "I believe it, of course I believe it; but listen, listen. Every now and then," he continued in a more measured and lower tone, "every now and then the secret is blabbed—blabbed. There was that Tertullianus of Carthage, some fifty years since. He wrote books; books have done a great deal of harm before {246} now; but read his books—read and ponder. The fellow has the insolence to tell the proconsul that he and the whole government, the whole city and province, the whole Roman world, the emperors, all but the pitiful clique to which he belongs, are destined, after death, to flames for ever and ever. There's loyalty! but the absurdity is greater than the malevolence. Rightly are the fellows called atheists and men-haters. Our soldiers, our statesmen, our magistrates, and judges, and senators, and the whole community, all worshippers of the gods, every one who crowns his head, every one who loves a joke, and all our great historic names, heroes, and worthies,—the Scipios, the Decii, Brutus, Cęsar, Cato, Titus, Trajan, Antoninus,—are inmates, not of the Elysian fields, if Elysian fields there be, but of Tartarus, and will never find a way out of it."

"That man, Tertullianus, is nothing to us, uncle," answered Agellius; "a man of great ability, but he quarrelled with us, and left us."

"I can't draw nice distinctions," said Jucundus. "Your people have quarrelled among themselves perhaps on an understanding; we can't split hairs. It's the same with your present hierophant at Carthage, Cyprianus. Nothing can exaggerate, I am told, the foulness of his attack upon the gods of Rome, upon Romulus, the Augurs, the Ancilia, the consuls, and whatever a Roman is proud of. As to the imperial city itself, there's hardly one of their high priests that has not died under the hands of the executioner, as a {247} convict. The precious fellows take the title of Pontifex Maximus; bless their impudence! Well, my boy, this is what I say; be, if you will, so preternaturally sour and morose as to misconceive and mislike the innocent, graceful, humanising, time-honoured usages of society; be so, for what I care, if this is all; but it isn't all. Such misanthropy is wisdom, absolute wisdom, compared with the Titanic presumption and audacity of challenging to single combat the sovereign of the world. Go and kick down Mount Atlas first."

"You have it all your own way, Jucundus," answered his nephew, "and so you must move in your own circle, round and round. There is no touching you, if you first assume your premisses, and then prove them by means of your conclusion."

"My dear Agellius," said his uncle, giving his head a very solemn shake, "take the advice of an old man. When you are older than you are, you will see better who is right and who is wrong. You'll be sorry you despised me, a true, a prudent, an experienced friend; you will. Shake yourself, come do. Why should you link your fortunes, in the morning of life, with desperate men, only because your father, in his last feeble days, was entrapped into doing so? I really will not believe that you are going to throw away hope and life on so bad a bargain. Can't you speak a word? Here you've let me speak, and won't say one syllable for yourself. I don't think it kind of you."

Thus adjured, Agellius began. "Well," he said, {248} "it's a long history; you see, we start, my dear uncle, from different points. How am I possibly to join issue with you? I can only tell you my conclusion. Hope and life, you say. Why, my only hope, my only life, my only joy, desire, consolation, and treasure is that I am a Christian."

"Hope and life!" interrupted Jucundus, "immortal gods! life and hope in being a Christian! do I hear aright? Why, man, a prison brings despair, not hope; and the sword brings death, not life. By Esculapius! life and hope! you choke me, Agellius. Life and hope! you are beyond three Anticyras. Life and hope! if you were old, if you were diseased, if you were given over, and had but one puff of life left in you, then you might be what you would, for me; but your hair is black, your cheek is round, your limbs are strong, your voice is full; and you are going to make all these a sacrifice to Hecate! has your good genius fed that plump frame, ripened those goods looks, nerved your arm, bestowed that breadth of chest, that strength of loins, that straightness of spine, that vigour of step, only that you may feed the crows? or to be torn on the rack, scorched in the flame, or hung on the gibbet? is this your gratitude to nature? What has been your price? for what have you sold yourself? Speak, man, speak. Are you dumb as well as dement? Are you dumb, I say, are you dumb?"

"O Jucundus," cried Agellius, irritated at his own inability to express himself or hold an argument, "if you did but know what it was to have the Truth! The {249} Christian has found the Truth, the eternal Truth, in a world of error. That is his bargain, that is his hire; can there be a greater? Can I give up the Truth? But all this is Punic or Barbar to you."

It certainly did pose Jucundus for half a minute, as if he was trying to take in, not so much the sense, as the words of his nephew's speech. He looked bewildered, and though he began to answer him at once, it took several sentences to bring him into his usual flow of language. After one or two exclamations, "The truth!" he cried, "this is what I understand you to say,—the truth. The truth is your bargain; I think I'm right, the truth; Hm; what is truth? What in heaven and earth do you mean by truth? where did you get that cant? What oriental tomfoolery is bamboozling you? The truth!" he cried, staring at him with eyes, half of triumph, half of impatience, "the truth! Jove help the boy—the truth! can truth pour me out a cup of melilotus? can truth crown me with flowers? can it sing to me? can it bring Glyceris to me? drop gold into my girdle? or cool my brows when fever visits me? Can truth give me a handsome suburban with some five hundred slaves, or raise me to the duumvirate? Let it do this, and I will worship it; it shall be my god; it shall be more to me than Fortune, Fate, Rome, or any other goddess on the list. But I like to see, and touch, and feel, and handle, and weigh, and measure what is promised me. I wish to have a sample and an instalment. I am too old for chaff. Eat, drink, and be merry, that's my philosophy, {250} that's my religion; and I know no better. Today is ours, tomorrow is our children's."

After a pause, he added, bitterly, "If truth could get Callista out of prison, instead of getting her into it, I should have something to say to truth."

"Callista in prison!" cried Agellius with surprise and distress, "what do you mean, Jucundus?"

"Yes, it's a fact; Callista is in prison," answered he, "and on suspicion of Christianity."

"Callista! Christianity!" said Agellius, bewildered, "do I hear aright? She a Christian! oh, impossible, uncle! you don't mean to say that she is in prison. Tell me, tell me, my dear, dear Jucundus, what this wonderful news means."

"You ought to know more about it than I," answered he, "if there is any meaning in it. But if you want my opinion, here it is. I don't believe she is more a Christian than I am; but I think she is over head and ears in love with you, and she has some notion that she is paying you a compliment, or interesting you in her, or sharing your fate—(I can't pretend to unravel the vagaries and tantarums of the female mind)—by saying that she is what she is not. If not, perhaps she has done it out of spite and contradiction. You can never answer for a woman."

"Whom should she spite? whom contradict?" cried Agellius, thrown for the moment off his balance. "O Callista! Callista in prison for Christianity! Oh if it's true that she is a Christian! but what if she is not?" he added with great terror, "what if she's not, and yet {251} in prison, as if she were? How are we to get her out, uncle? Impossible! no, she's not a Christian—she is not at all. She ought not to be there! Yet how wonderful!"

"Well, I am sure of it, too," said Jucundus; "I'd stake the best image in my shop that she's not a Christian; but what if she is perverse enough to say she is? and such things are not uncommon. Then, I say, what in the world is to be done? If she says she is, why she is. There you are; and what can you do?"

"You don't mean to say," exclaimed Agellius, "that that sweet delicate child is in that horrible hole; impossible!" and he nearly shrieked at the thought. "What is the meaning of it all? dear, dear uncle, do tell me something more about it. Why did you not tell me before? What can be done?"

Jucundus thought he now had him in his hand. "Why, it's plain," he answered, "what can be done. She's no Christian, we both agree. It's certain, too, that she chooses to say she is, or something like it. There's just one person who has influence with her, to make her tell the truth."

"Ha!" cried Agellius, starting as if an asp had bitten him.

Jucundus kept silence, and let the poison of the said asp work awhile in his nephew's blood.

Agellius put his hands before his eyes; and with his elbows on his knees, began moving to and fro, as if in intense pain. {252}

"I repeat what I have said," Jucundus observed at length; "I do really think that she imagines a certain young gentleman is likely to be in trouble, and that she is determined to share the trouble with him."

"But it isn't true," cried Agellius with great vehemence; "it's not true ... If she really is not a Christian, O my dear Lord, surely they won't put her to death as if she was?"

"But if she has made up her mind to be in the same boat with you, and will be a Christian while you are a Christian, what on earth can we do, Agellius?" asked Jucundus. "You have the whole matter in a nutshell."

"She does not love me," cried Agellius; "no, she has given me no reason to think so. I am sure she does not. She's nothing to me. That cannot be the reason of her conduct. I have no power over her; I could not persuade her. What, what does all this mean? and I shut up here?" and he began walking about the little room, as if such locomotion tended to bring him out of it.

"Well," answered Jucundus, "it is easy to ascertain. I suppose you could be let out to see her."

But he was going on too fast; Agellius did not attend to him. "Poor, sweet Callista," he exclaimed, "she's innocent, she's innocent; I mean she's not a Christian. Ah!" he screamed out in great agony, as the whole state of the case unrolled itself to his apprehension, "she will die though not a Christian; she will die without faith, without love; she will die {253} in her sins. She will die, done to death by false report of accepting that, by which alone she could be carried safely through death unto life. O my Lord, spare me!" and he sank upon the ground in a collapse of misery.

Jucundus was touched, and still more alarmed. "Come, come, my boy," he said, "you will rouse the whole neighbourhood. Give over; be a man; all will be right. If she's not a Christian (and she's not), she shall not die a Christian's death; something will turn up. She's not in any hole at all, but in a decent lodging. And you shall see her, and console her, and all will be right."

"Yes, I will see her," said Agellius, in a sort of musing manner; "she is either a Christian, or she is not. If she is a Christian ..." and his voice faltered; "but if she is not, she shall live till she is."

"Well said!" answered Jucundus, "till she is. She shall live till she is. Yes, I can get you to see her. You shall bring her out of prison; a smile, a whisper from you, and all her fretfulness and ill-humour will vanish, like a mist before the powerful burning sun. And we shall all be as happy as the immortal gods."

"O my uncle!" said Agellius, gravely. The language of Jucundus had shocked him, and brought him to a better mind. He turned away from Jucundus, and leant his face against the wall. Then he turned round again, and said, "If she is a Christian, I ought to rejoice, and I do rejoice; God be praised. If she is not a Christian, I ought at once to {254} make her one. If she has already the penalty of a Christian, she is surely destined for the privilege. And how should I go," he said, half speaking to himself, "how should I go to tell her that she is not yet a Christian, and bid her swear by Jupiter, because that is her god, in order that she may escape imprisonment and death? Am I to do the part of a heathen priest or infidel sophist? O Cęcilius, how am I forgetting your lessons! No; I will go on no such errand. Go, I will, if I may, Jucundus, but I will go on no conditions of yours. I go on no promise to try to get her out of prison anyhow, poor child. I will not go to make her sacrifice to a false god; I go to persuade her to stay in prison, by deserving to stay. Perhaps I am not the best person to go; but if I go, I go free. I go willing to die myself for my Lord; glad to make her die for Him."

Agellius said this in so determined a way, so calmly, with such a grasp of the existing posture of affairs, and of the whole circumstances of the case, that it was now Jucundus's turn to feel surprise and annoyance. For a time he did not take in what Agellius meant, nor could he to the last follow his train of feeling. When he saw what may be called the upshot of the matter, he became very angry, and spoke with great violence. By degrees he calmed; and then the strong feeling came on him again that it was impossible, if a meeting took place between the two, that it could end in any way but one. He defied {255} any two young people who loved each other, to come to any but one conclusion. Agellius's mood was too excited, too tragic to last. The sight of Callista in that dreadful prison, perhaps in chains, waiting, in order to be free, for ability to say the words, "I am not a Christian;" and that ability waiting for the same words from himself, would bring the affair to a very speedy issue. As if he could love a fancy better than he loved Callista! Agellius, too, had already expressed a misgiving himself on that head; so far they were agreed. And, to tell the truth, it was a very difficult transaction for a young man; and giving our poor Agellius all credit for pure intention and firm resolve, we really should have been very sorry to see him involved in a trial, which would have demanded of him a most heroic faith and the detachment of a saint. We, therefore, are not sorry that in matter of fact he gained the merit of so virtuous a determination, without being called on to execute it. For it so happened, that a most unexpected event occurred to him not many hours afterwards, which will oblige us to take up here rather abruptly the history of one of our other personages.

Chapter 23

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