Chapter 35. The Corpo Santo

{371} THE sun of Africa has passed over the heavens, but has not dared with one of his fierce rays to profane the sacred relics which lie out before him. The mists of evening rise up, and the heavy dews fall, but they neither bring the poison of decay to that gracious body, nor receive it thence. The beasts of the wild are roaming and roaring at a distance, or nigh at hand: not any one of them presumes to touch her. No vultures may promise themselves a morning meal from such a victim, as they watch through the night upon the high crags which overlook her. The stars have come out on high, and, they too look down upon Callista, as if they were funeral lights in her honour. Next the moon rises up to see what has been going on, and edges the black hangings of the night with silver. Yet mourning and dirge are but of formal observance, when a brave champion has died for her God. The world of ghosts has as little power over such an one as the world of nature. No evil spirit has aught to say to her, who has gone in her baptismal white before the Throne. No penal {372} fire shall be her robe, who has been carried in her bright flammeum to the Bridal Chamber of the Lamb. A divine odour fills the air, issuing from that senseless, motionless, broken frame. A circle of light gleams round her brow, and, even when the daylight comes again, it there is faintly seen. Her features have reassumed their former majesty, but with an expression of childlike innocence and heavenly peace. The thongs have drawn blood at the wrists and ankles, which has run and soaked into the sand; but angels received the body from the soldiers when they took it off the rack, and it lies, sweetly and modestly composed, upon the ground.

Passers-by stand still and gaze; idlers gather round. The report spreads in Sicca that neither sun by day, nor moon by night, nor moist atmosphere, nor beast of prey, has power over the wonderful corpse. Nay, that they cannot come near it without falling under some strange influence, which makes them calm and grave, expels bad passions, and allays commotion of mind. Many come again and again, for the mysterious and soothing effect she exerts upon them. They cannot talk freely about it to each other, and are seized with a sacred fear when they attempt to do so. Those who have merely heard their report without seeing her, say that these men have been in a grove of the Eumenides, or have suddenly encountered the wolf. The popular sensation continues and extends; some say it is magical, others that it is from the great gods. Day sinks again into evening, evening {373} becomes night; the night wears out, and morning is coming again.

It begins to dawn: a glimmer is faintly spread abroad, and, mixing with the dark, makes twilight, which gradually brightens, and the outlines of nature rise dimly out of the night. Gradually the sacred body comes to sight; and, as the light grows stronger around it, gradually too the forms of five men emerge, who had not been there the night before. One is in front; the rest behind with a sort of bier or litter. They stand on the mountain side of her, and must have come from the country. It has been a bold enterprise theirs, to expose themselves to the nightly beasts, and now again to the rabble and the soldiers. The soldiers are at some little distance, silent and watchful; such of the rabble as have passed the night there have had some superstitious object in their stay. They have thought to get portions of the flesh for magical purposes; a finger, or a tooth, or some hair, or a portion of her tunic, or the blood-stained rope which was twisted round her wrist and ankle.

As the light makes her at length quite visible to the youth on the other side, who stands by himself with clasped hands and tearful eyes, he shrinks from the sight. He turns round to his companions who are provided with a large winding-sheet or pall, and with the help of one of them, to the surprise of the populace, he spreads it all over the body. And having done this, he stands again trembling, just for a few seconds, absorbed in his meditations, praying and {374} weeping, and nerving himself for what is to follow. Ah, poor Agellius! you have not risen yet to the pitch of triumph; and other thoughts must be let to range through your breast, other emotions must spend themselves, before you are prepared simply to rejoice, exult, and glory in the lifeless form which lies before you. You are upon a brave work, but your heart is torn while you set hand to it, and you linger before you begin.

It was in the pride of her earthly beauty, and the full vigour and elevation of her mind, that he last had seen her. It seemed an age since that morning, as if a chasm ran between the now and the then, when she so fascinated him with her presence, and so majestically rebuked him for bowing to that fascination. Yet on his memory every incident of that interview was fixed, and was indelible. O why should the great Creator shatter one of His most admirable works! If the order of the sun and stars is adorable, if the laws by which earth and sea are kept together mark the Hand of supreme Wisdom and Power, how much nobler perfection of beauty is manifested in man! And of human nature itself here was the supereminent crown, a soul full of gifts, full of greatness, full of intellect, placed in an outward form, equally surpassing in its kind, and still more surpassingly excellent from its intimate union and subordination to the soul, so as almost to be its simple expression; yet this choicest, rarest specimen of Almighty skill, the Almighty had pitilessly shattered, in order that it {375} might inherit a higher, an eternal perfection. O mystery of mysteries, that heaven should not be possibly obtained without such grinding down and breaking up of our original nature! O mysterious, that principle in us, whatever it is, and however it came there, which is so antagonistic to God, which has so spoilt what seems so good, that all must be undone, and must begin anew! "An enemy hath done this;" and, knowing as much as this, and no more, we must leave the awful mystery to that day when all things shall be made light.

Agellius has not been idle while these thoughts pass through his mind. He has stooped down and scooped up such portions of the sand as are moistened with her blood, and has committed them to a small bag which he has taken out of his bosom. Then without delay, looking round to his attendants, and signing to them, with two of the party he resolutely crossed over to the other side of the corpse, covering it from attack, while his two assistants who were left proceeded quickly to lay hold of it. They had raised it, laid it on the bier, and were setting off by an unusual track across the waste, while Agellius, Aspar, and the third were grappling with some ruffians who had rushed upon them. Few, however, were there as yet to take part against them, but their cries of alarm were bringing others up, and the Christians were in growing danger of being worsted and carried off, when suddenly the soldiers interfered. Under pretence of keeping the peace, they laid about { 376} them with their heavy maces; and so it was, the blows took effect on the heads and shoulders of the rabble, with but slight injury to Agellius and his companions. The latter took instant advantage of the diversion, and vanished out of view by the same misleading track which their comrades had already chosen. If they, or the party who had preceded them, came within the range of sight of any goatherds upon the mountains, we must suppose that angels held those heathen eyes that they should not recognise them.

Chapter 36

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