Chapter 31. The Baptism

{343} WE have already had occasion to mention that there were many secret well-wishers, or at least protectors, of Christians, as in the world at large, so also in Sicca. There were many persons who had received benefits from their charity, and had experience of the scandalous falsehood of the charges now circulated against them. Others would feel a generosity towards a cruelly persecuted body; others, utterly dead to the subject of religion, or rather believing all religions to be impostures, would not allow it to be assumed that only one was worthy of bad treatment. Others liked what they heard of the religion itself, and thought there was truth in it, though it had no claim to a monopoly of truth. Others felt it to be true, but shrank from the consequences of openly embracing it. Others, who had apostatised through fear of the executioner, intended to come back to it at the last. It must be added that in the African Church confessors in prison had, or were considered to have, the remarkable privilege of gaining the public forgiveness of the Church for those who had lapsed; it was an object, then, for all those {344} who, being in that miserable case, wished some day to be restored, to gain their promise of assistance, or their good-will. To these reasons was added, in Callista's case, the interest which naturally attached to a woman, young and defenceless.

The burning sun of Africa is at the height of its power. The population is prostrated by heat, by scarcity, by pestilence, and by the decimation which their riot brought upon them. They care neither for Christianity, nor for anything else just now. They lie in the porticoes, in the caverns under the city, in the baths. They are more alive at night. The apparitor, in whose dwelling Callista was lodged, who was himself once a Christian, lies in the shade of the great doorway, into which his rooms open, asleep, or stupefied. Two men make their appearance about two hours before sunset, and demand admittance to Callista. The jailor asks if they are not the two Greeks, her brother and the rhetorician, who had visited her before. The junior of the strangers drops a purse heavy with coin into his lap, and passes on with his companion. When the mind is intent on great subjects or aims, heat and cold, hunger and thirst, lose their power of enfeebling it; thus perhaps we must account for the energy now displayed both by the two ecclesiastics and by Callista herself.

She too thought it was the unwelcome philosopher come again; she gave a start and a cry of delight when she saw it was Cęcilius. "My father," she said, "I want to be a Christian, if I may; He came to {345} save the lost sheep. I have learnt such things from this book—let me give it you while I can. I am not long for this world. Give me Him who spoke so kindly to that woman. Take from me my load of sin, and then I will gladly go." She knelt at his feet, and gave the roll of parchment into his hand.

"Rise and sit," he answered. "Let us think calmly over the matter."

"I am ready," she insisted. "Deny me not my wish, when time is so urgent—if I may have it."

"Sit down calmly," he said again; "I am not refusing you, but I wish to know about you." He could hardly keep from tears, of pain, or of joy, or of both, when he saw the great change which trial had wrought in her. What touched him most was the utter disappearance of that majesty of mien, which once was hers, a gift, so beautiful, so unsuitable to fallen man. There was instead of it a frank humility, a simplicity without concealment, an unresisting meekness, which seemed as if it would enable her, if trampled on, to smile and to kiss the feet that insulted her. She had lost every vestige of what the world worships under the titles of proper pride and self-respect. Callista was now living, not in the thought of herself, but of Another.

"God has been very good to you," he continued; "but in the volume you have returned to me He bids us 'reckon the charges.' Can you drink of His chalice? Recollect what is before you."

She still continued kneeling, with a touching earnestness {346} of face and demeanour, and with her hands crossed upon her breast.

"I have reckoned," she replied; "heaven and hell: I prefer heaven."

"You are on earth," said Cęcilius; "not in heaven or hell. You must bear the pangs of earth before you drink the blessedness of heaven."

"He has given me the firm purpose," she said, "to gain heaven, to escape hell; and He will give me too the power."

"Ah, Callista!" he answered, in a voice broken with distress, "you know not what you will have to bear, if you join yourself to Him."

"He has done great things for me already; I am wonderfully changed; I am not what I was. He will do more still."

"Alas, my child!" said Cęcilius, "that feeble frame, ah! how will it bear the strong iron, or the keen flame, or the ruthless beast? My child, what do I feel, who am free, thus handing you over to be the sport of the evil one?"

"Father, I have chosen Him," she answered, "not hastily, but on deliberation. I believe Him most absolutely. Keep me not from Him; give Him to me, if I may ask it; give me my Love."

Presently she added, "I have never forgotten those words of yours since you used them; 'Amor meus crucifixus est.'"

She began again, "I will be a Christian; give me my place among them. Give me my place at the {347} feet of Jesus, Son of Mary, my God. I wish to love Him. I think I can love Him. Make me His."

"He has loved you from eternity," said Cęcilius, and, therefore, you are now beginning to love Him."

She covered her eyes with her hands, and remained in profound meditation. "I am very ignorant—very sinful," she said at length; "but one thing I know, that there is but One to love in the whole world, and I wish to love him. I surrender myself to Him, if He will take me; and He shall teach me about Himself."

"The angry multitude, their fierce voices, the brutal executioner, the prison, the torture, the slow, painful death." He was speaking, not to her, but to himself. She was calm, in spite of her fervour; but he could not contain himself. His heart melted within him; he felt like Abraham, lifting up his hand to slay his child.

"Time passes," she said; "what may happen? you may be discovered. But, perhaps," she added, suddenly changing her tone, "it is a matter of long initiation, Woe is me!"

"We must gird ourselves to the work, Victor," he said to his deacon who was with him. Cęcilius fell back and sat down, and Victor came forward. He formally instructed her so far as the circumstances allowed. Not for baptism only, but for confirmation, and Holy Eucharist; for Cęcilius determined to give her all three sacraments at once.

It was a sight for angels to look down upon, and {348} they did; when the poor child, rich in this world's gifts, but poor in those of eternity, knelt down to receive that sacred stream upon her brow, which fell upon her with almost sensible sweetness, and suddenly produced a serenity different in kind from anything she had ever before even had the power of conceiving.

The bishop gave her confirmation, and then the Holy Eucharist. It was her first and last communion; in a few days she renewed it, or rather completed it, under the very Face and Form of Him whom she now believed without seeing.

"Farewell, my dearest of children," said Cęcilius, "till the hour when we both meet before the throne of God. A few sharp pangs which you can count and measure, and all will be well. You will be carried through joyously, and like a conqueror. I know it. You could face the prospect before you were a Christian, and you will be equal to the actual trial, now that you are."

"Never fear me, father," she said in a clear, low voice. The bishop and his deacon left the prison.

The sun had all but set, when Cęcilius and Victor passed the city gate; and it was more than twilight as they crossed the wild hills leading to the precipitous pass. Evil men were not their only peril in this work of charity. They were also in danger from wild beasts in these lone wastes, and, the heathen would have added, from bad spirits. Bad spirits Cęcilius {349} recognised too; but he would not have granted that they were perilous. The two went forward, saying prayers lowly, and singing psalms, when a sudden cry was heard, and a strong tall form rushed past them. It might be some robber of the wild, or dangerous outcast, or savage fanatic, who knew and hated their religion; however, while they stopped and looked, he had come, and he was gone. But he came again, more slowly; and from his remarkable shape Cęcilius saw that it was the brother of Agellius. He said, "Juba;" Juba started back, and stood at a distance. Cęcilius held out his hand, and called him on, again mentioning his name. The poor fellow came nearer: Cęcilius's day's work was not at an end.

Since we last heard of him, Juba had dwelt in the mountainous tract over which the two Christians were now passing; roaming to and fro, or beating himself in idle fury against the adamantine rocks, and fighting with the stern necessity of the elements. How he was sustained can hardly be guessed, unless the impulse, which led him on the first accession of his fearful malady, to fly upon the beasts of the desert, served him here also. Roots too and fruits were scattered over the wild; and still more so in the ravines, wherever any quantity of soil had been accumulated. Alas! had the daylight lasted, in him too, as well as in Callista, Cęcilius would have found changes, but of a very different nature; yet even in him he would have seen a change for the better, for that old awful expression of pride and defiance was gone. What {350} was the use of parading a self-will, which every moment of his life belied? His actions, his words, his hands, his lips, his feet, his place of abode, his daily course, were in the dominion of another, who inexorably ruled him. It was not the gentle influence which draws and persuades; it was not the power which can be propitiated by prayer; it was a tyranny which acted without reaction, energetic as mind, and impenetrable as matter.

"Juba," said Cęcilius a third time. The maniac came nearer, and then again suddenly retreated. He stood at a short distance from Cęcilius, as if afraid to come on, and cried out, tossing his hands wildly, "Away, black hypocrite, come not near me! Away! hound of a priest, cross not my path, lest I tear you to shreds!" Such visitations were no novelties to Cęcilius; he raised his hand and made the sign of the cross, then he said, "Come." Juba advanced, shrieked, and used some terrible words, and rushed upon Cęcilius, as if he would treat him as he had treated the savage wolf. "Come?" he cried, "yes, I come!" and Victor ran up, fearing his teeth would be in Cęcilius's throat, if he delayed longer. The latter stood his ground, quailing neither in eye nor in limb; he made the sign of the cross a second time; and in spite of a manifest antagonism within him, the stricken youth, with horrid cries, came dancing after him.

Thus they proceeded, with some signs of insurrection from time to time on Juba's part, but with a {351} successful reduction of it as often on the part of Cęcilius, till they got to the ascent by the olive-trees, where careful walking was necessary. Then Cęcilius turned round, and beckoned him. He came. He said, "Kneel down." He knelt down. Cęcilius put his hand on his head, saying to him, "Follow me close and without any disturbance." The three pursued their journey, and all arrived safe at the cavern. There Cęcilius gave Juba in charge to Romanus, who had been intrusted with the energumens at Carthage.

Chapter 32

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