Chapter 28. A Sick Call

{305} ARISTO was not a fellow to have very long distresses; he never would have died of love or of envy, for honour or for loss of property; but his present calamity was one of the greatest he could ever have, and weighed upon him as long as ever any one could. His love for his sister was real, but it would not do to look too closely into the grounds of it; if we are obliged to do so, we must confess to a suspicion that it lay rather in certain outward, nay, accidental attributes of Callista, than in Callista herself. Did she lose her good looks, or her amiable unresisting submission to his wishes, whatever they were, she would also lose her hold upon his affections. This is not to make any severe charge against him, considering how it is with the common run of brothers and sisters, husbands and wives; at the same time, most people certainly are haunted by the memory of the past, and love for "Auld lang syne," and this Aristo might indeed have had, and perhaps had not. He loved chiefly for the present, and by the hour.

However, at the present time he was in a state of acute suffering, and, under its paroxysm, he bethought {306} him again of Cornelius's advice, which he had rejected, to betake himself to Polemo. He had a distant acquaintance with him, sufficient for his purpose, and he called on him at the Mercury after the latter's lecture. Polemo was no fool, though steeped in affectation and self-conceit, and Aristo fancied that his sister might be more moved by a philosophical compatriot than any one else. Polemo's astonishment, however, when the matter was proposed to him surpassed words, and it showed how utterly Aristo was absorbed in his own misery, that the possibility of such a reception should not have occurred to him. What, he, the friend of Plotinus, of Rogatian, and the other noble men and women who were his fellow-disciples at Rome; he, a member of the intellectual aristocracy of the metropolis of the world; what, he to visit a felon in prison! and when he found the felon was a Christian, he fully thought that Aristo had come to insult him, and was on the point of bidding him leave him to himself. Aristo, however, persisted; and his evident anguish, and some particulars which came out, softened him. Callista was a Greek; a literate, or blue stocking. She had never indeed worn the philosophic pallium (as some Christian martyrs afterwards, if not before, have done—St. Catherine and St. Euphemia), but there was no reason why she should not do so. Polemo recollected having heard of her at the Capitol, and in the triclinium of one of the Decurions, as a lady of singular genius and attainments; and he lately had made an attempt to form a female {307} class of hearers, and it would be a feather in his cap to make a convert of her. So, not many days after, one evening, accompanied by Aristo, he set out in his litter to the lodging where she was in custody; not, however, without much misgiving when it came to the point, some shame, and a consequent visible awkwardness and stiffness in his manner. All the perfumes he had about him could not hinder the disgust of such a visit rising up into his nostrils.

Callista's room was very well for a prison; it was on the ground-floor of a house of many stories, close to the Officium of the Triumvirate. Though not any longer under their strict jurisdiction, she was allowed to remain where she had first been lodged. She was in one of the rooms belonging to an apparitor of that Officium, and, as he had a wife, or at least a partner, to take care of her, she might consider herself very well off. However, the reader must recollect that we are in Africa, in the month of July, and our young Greek was little used to heats, which made the whole city nothing less than one vast oven through the greater part of the twenty-four hours. In lofty spacious apartments the resource adopted is to exclude the external air, and to live as Greenlanders, with closed windows and doors; this was both impossible, and would have been unsuccessful, if attempted in the small apartment of Callista. But fever of mind is even worse than the heat of the sky; and it is undeniable that her health, and her strength, and her appearance are affected by both the physical and the {308} moral enemy. The beauty, which was her brother's delight, is waning away; and the shadows, if not the rudiments of a diviner loveliness, which is of expression, not of feature, which inspires not human passion, but diffuses chaste thoughts and aspirations, are taking its place. Aristo sees the change with no kind of satisfaction. The room has a bench, two or three stools, and a bed of rushes in one corner. A staple is firmly fixed in the wall; and an iron chain, light, however, and long, if the two ideas can be reconciled, reaches to her slender arm, and is joined to it by an iron ring.

On Polemo's entering the room, his first exclamation was to complain of its closeness; but he had to do a work, so he began it without delay. Callista, on her part, started; she had no wish for his presence. She was reclining on her couch, and she sat up. She was not equal to a controversy, nor did she mean to have one, whatever might be the case with him.

"Callista, my life and joy, dear Callista," said her brother, "I have brought the greatest man in Sicca to see you."

Callista cast upon him an earnest look, which soon subsided into indifference. He had a rose of Cyrene in his hand, whose perfume he diffused about the small room.

"It is Polemo," continued Aristo, "the friend of the great Plotinus, who knows all philosophies and all philosophers. He has come out of kindness to you." {309}

Callista acknowledged his presence; it was certainly, she said, a great kindness for any one to visit her, and there.

Polemo replied by a compliment; he said it was Socrates visiting Aspasia. There had always been women above the standard of their sex, and they had ever held an intellectual converse with men of mind. He saw one such before him.

Callista felt it would be plunging her soul still deeper into shadows, when she sought realities, if she must take part in such an argument. She remained silent.

"Your sister has not the fit upon her?" asked Polemo of Aristo aside, neither liking her reception of him, nor knowing what to say. "Not at all, dear thing," answered Aristo; "she is all attention for you to begin."

"Natives of Greece," at length said he, "natives of Greece should know each other; they deserve to know each other; there is a secret sympathy between them. Like that mysterious influence which unites magnet to magnet; or like the echo which is a repercussion of the original voice. So, in like manner, Greeks are what none but they can be," and he smelt at his rose and bowed.

She smiled faintly when he mentioned Greece. "Yes," she said, "I am fonder of Greece than of Africa."

"Each has its advantages," said Polemo; "there is a pleasure in imparting knowledge, in lighting flame {310} from flame. It would be selfish did we not leave Greece to communicate what they have not here. But you," he added, "lady, neither can learn in Greece nor teach in Africa, while you are in this vestibule of Orcus. I understand, however, it is your own choice; can that be possible?"

"Well, I wish to get out, if I could, most learned Polemo," said Callista sadly.

"May Polemo of Rhodes speak frankly to Callista of Proconnesus?" asked Polemo. "I would not speak to every one. If so, let me ask, what keeps you here?"

"The magistrates of Sicca and this iron chain," answered Callista. "I would I could be elsewhere; I would I were not what I am."

"What could you wish to be more than you are?" answered Polemo; "more gifted, accomplished, beautiful than any daughter of Africa."

"Go to the point, Polemo," said Aristo, nervously, though respectfully; "she wants home-thrusts."

"I see my brother wants you to ask how far it depends on me that I am here," said Callista, wishing to hasten his movements; "it is because I will not burn incense upon the altar of Jupiter."

"A most insufficient reason, lady," said Polemo.

Callista was silent.

"What does that action mean?" said Polemo; "it proposes to mean nothing else than that you are loyal to the Roman power. You are not of those Greeks, I presume, who dream of a national insurrection at {311} this time? then you are loyal to Rome. Did I believe a Leonidas could now arise, an Harmodius, a Miltiades, a Themistocles, a Pericles, an Epaminondas, I should be as ready to take the sword as another; but it is hopeless. Greece, then, makes no claim on you just now. Nor will I believe, though you were to tell me so yourself, that you are leagued with any obscure, fanatic sect who desire Rome's downfall. Consider what Rome is;" and now he had got into the magnificent commonplace, out of his last panegyrical oration with which he had primed himself before he set out. "I am a Greek," he said, "I love Greece, but I love truth better; and I look at facts. I grasp them, and I confess to them. The wide earth, through untold centuries, has at length grown into the imperial dominion of One. It has converged and coalesced in all its various parts into one Rome. This, which we see, is the last, the perfect state of human society. The course of things, the force of natural powers, as is well understood by all great lawyers and philosophers, cannot go further. Unity has come at length, and unity is eternity. It will be for ever, because it is a whole. The principle of dissolution is eliminated. We have reached the apotelesma of the world. Greece, Egypt, Assyria, Libya, Etruria, Lydia, have all had their share in the result. Each of them, in its own day, has striven in vain to stop the course of fate, and has been hurried onwards at its wheels as its victim or its instrument. And shall Juda do what profound Egypt and subtle Greece have tried in vain? {312} If even the freedom of thought, the liberal scepticism, nay, the revolutionary theories of Hellas have proved unequal to the task of splitting up the Roman power, if the pomp and luxury of the East have failed, shall the mysticism of Syria succeed?"

"Well, dear Callista, are you listening?" cried Aristo, not over-confident of the fact, though Polemo looked round at him with astonishment.

"Ten centuries," he continued, "ten centuries have just been completed since Rome began her victorious career. For ten centuries she has been fulfilling her high mission in the dispositions of Destiny, and perfecting her maxims of policy and rules of government. For ten centuries she has pursued one track with an ever-growing intensity of zeal, and an ever-widening extent of territory. What can she not do? just one thing; and that one thing which she has not presumed to do, you are attempting. She has maintained her own religion, as was fitting; but she has never thrown contempt on the religion of others. This you are doing. Observe, Callista, Rome herself, in spite of her great power, has yielded to that necessity which is greater. She does not meddle with the religions of the peoples. She has opened no war against their diversities of rite. The conquering power found, especially in the East, innumerable traditions, customs, prejudices, principles, superstitions, matted together in one hopeless mass; she left them as they were; she recognised them; it would have been the worse for her if she had done otherwise. {313} All she said to the peoples, all she dared say to them, was, 'You bear with me, and I will bear with you.' Yet this you will not do; you Christians, who have no pretence to any territory, who are not even the smallest of the peoples, who are not even a people at all, you have the fanaticism to denounce all other rites but your own, nay, the religion of great Rome. Who are you? upstarts and vagabonds of yesterday. Older religions than yours, more intellectual, more beautiful religions, which have had a position, and a history, and a political influence, have come to nought; and shall you prevail, you, a congeries, a hotch-potch of the leavings, and scraps, and broken meat of the great peoples of the East and West? Blush, blush, Grecian Callista, you with a glorious nationality of your own to go shares with some hundred peasants, slaves, thieves, beggars, hucksters, tinkers, cobblers, and fishermen! A lady of high character, of brilliant accomplishments, to be the associate of the outcasts of society!"

Polemo's speech, though cumbrous, did execution, at least the termination of it, upon minds constituted like the Grecian. Aristo jumped up, swore an oath, and looked round triumphantly at Callista, who felt its force also. After all, what did she know of Christians?—at best she was leaving the known for the unknown: she was sure to be embracing certain evil for contingent good. She said to herself, "No, I never can be a Christian." Then she said aloud, "My Lord Polemo, I am not a Christian;—I never said I was." {314}

"That is her absurdity!" cried Aristo. "She is neither one thing nor the other. She won't say she's a Christian, and she won't sacrifice!"

"It is my misfortune," she said, "I know. I am losing both what I see, and what I don't see. It is most inconsistent: yet what can I do?"

Polemo had said what he considered enough. He was one of those who sold his words. He had already been over-generous, and was disposed to give away no more.

After a time, Callista said, "Polemo, do you believe in one God?"

"Certainly," he answered; "I believe in one eternal, self-existing something."

"Well," she said, "I feel that God within my heart. I feel myself in His presence. He says to me, 'Do this: don't do that.' You may tell me that this dictate is a mere law of my nature, as is to joy or to grieve. I cannot understand this. No, it is the echo of a person speaking to me. Nothing shall persuade me that it does not ultimately proceed from a person external to me. It carries with it its proof of its divine origin. My nature feels towards it as towards a person. When I obey it, I feel a satisfaction; when I disobey, a soreness—just like that which I feel in pleasing or offending some revered friend. So you see, Polemo, I believe in what is more than a mere 'something.' I believe in what is more real to me than sun, moon, stars, and the fair earth, and the {315} voice of friends. You will say, Who is He? Has He ever told you anything about Himself? Alas! no!—the more's the pity! But I will not give up what I have, because I have not more. An echo implies a voice; a voice a speaker. That speaker I love and I fear."

Here she was exhausted, and overcome too, poor Callista! with her own emotions.

"O that I could find Him!" she exclaimed, passionately. "On the right hand and on the left I grope, but touch Him not. Why dost Thou fight against me?—why dost Thou scare and perplex me, O First and Only Fair? I have Thee not, and I need Thee." She added, "I am no Christian, you see, or I should have found Him; or at least I should say I had found Him."

"It is hopeless," said Polemo to Aristo, in much disgust, and with some hauteur of manner: "she is too far gone. You should not have brought me to this place."

Aristo groaned.

"Shall I," she continued, "worship any but Him? Shall I say that He whom I see not, whom I seek, is our Jupiter, or Csar, or the goddess Rome? They are none of them images of this inward guide of mine. I sacrifice to Him alone."

The two men looked at each other in amazement: one of them in anger.

"It's like the demon of Socrates," said Aristo, timidly. {316}

"I will acknowledge Csar in every fitting way," she repeated; "but I will not make him my God."

Presently she added, "Polemo, will not that invisible Monitor have something to say to all of us,—to you,—at some future day?"

"Spare me! spare me, Callista!" cried Polemo, starting up with a violence unsuited to his station and profession. "Spare my ears, unhappy woman!—such words have never hitherto entered them. I did not come to be insulted. Poor, blind, hapless, perverse spirit—I separate myself from you for ever! Desert, if you will, the majestic, bright, beneficent traditions of your forefathers, and live in this frightful superstition! Farewell!"

He did not seem better pleased with Aristo than with Callista, though Aristo helped him into his litter, walked by his side, and did what he could to propitiate him.

Chapter 29

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