Chapter 10. The Divine Callista

{111} THE day came which Agellius had fixed for paying his promised visit to Aristo. It is not to be denied that, in the interval, the difficulties of the business which occasioned his visit had increased upon his apprehensions. Callista was not yet a Christian, nor was there any reason for saying that a proposal of marriage would make her one; and a strange sort of convert she would be, if it did. He would not suffer himself to dwell upon difficulties which he was determined never should be realized. No; of course a heathen he could not marry, but a heathen Callista should not be. He did not see the process, but he was convinced she would become a Christian. Yet somehow so it was, that, if he was able to stultify his reason, he did not quite succeed to his satisfaction with his conscience. Every morning found him less satisfied with himself, and more disposed to repent of having allowed his uncle to enter on the subject with Aristo. But it was a thing done and over; he must either awkwardly back out, or he must go on. His middle term, as he hastily had considered it, was nothing else than siding with his uncle, and committing {112} himself to go all lengths, unless some difficulty rose with the other party. Yet could he really wish that the step had not been taken? Was it not plain that if he was to put away Callista from his affections, he must never go near her? And was he to fall back on his drear solitude, and lose that outlet of thought and relief of mind which he had lately found in the society of his Greek friends?

We may easily believe that he was not very peaceful in heart when he set out on that morning to call upon Aristo; yet he would not allow that he was doing wrong. He recurred to the pleasant imagination that Callista would certainly become a Christian, and dwelt pertinaciously upon it. He could not tell on what it was founded; he knew enough of his religion not to mean that she was too good to be a heathen; so it is to be supposed he meant that he discerned what he hoped were traces of some supernatural influence operating upon her mind. He had a perception, which he could not justify by argument, that there was in Callista a promise of something higher than anything she yet was. He felt a strange sympathy with her, which certainly unless he utterly deceived himself, was not based on anything merely natural or human,—a sympathy the more remarkable from the contrariety which existed between them in matters of religious belief. And hope having blown this large and splendid bubble, sent it sailing away, and it rose upon the buoyant atmosphere of youth, beautiful to behold. {113}

And yet, as Agellius ascended the long flight of marble steps which led the foot-passenger up into that fair city, while the morning sun was glancing across them, and surveyed the outline of the many sumptuous buildings which crested and encircled the hill, did he not know full well that iniquity was written on its very walls, and spoke a solemn warning to a Christian heart to go out of it, to flee it, not to take up a home in it, not to make alliance with anything in it? Did he not know from experience full well that, when he got into it, his glance could no longer be unrestrained, or his air free; but that it would be necessary for him to keep a control upon his senses, and painfully guard himself against what must either be a terror to him and an abhorrence, or a temptation? Enter in imagination into a town like Sicca, and you will understand the great Apostle's anguish at seeing a noble and beautiful city given up to idolatry. Enter it, and you will understand why it was that the poor priest, of whom Jucundus spoke so bitterly, hung his head, and walked with timid eyes and clouded brow through the joyous streets of Carthage. Hitherto we have only been conducting heathens through it, boys or men, Jucundus, Arnobius, and Firmian; but now a Christian enters it with a Christian's heart and a Christian's hope.

Well is it for us, dear reader, that we in this age do not experience—nay, a blessed thing that we cannot even frame to ourselves in imagination—the actual details of evil which hung as an atmosphere over the {114} cities of Pagan Rome. An Apostle calls the tongue "a fire, a world of iniquity, untameable, a restless evil, a deadly poison;" and surely what he says applies to hideous thoughts represented to the eye, as well as when they are made to strike upon the ear. Unfortunate Agellius! what takes you into the city this morning? Doubtless some urgent, compulsive duty; otherwise you would not surely be threading its lanes or taking the circuit of its porticoes, amid sights which now shock and now allure; fearful sights—not here and there, but on the stateliest structures and in the meanest hovels, in public offices and private houses, in central spots and at the corners of the streets, in bazaars and shops and house-doors, in the rudest workmanship and in the highest art, in letters or in emblems or in paintings—the insignia and the pomp of Satan and of Belial, of a reign of corruption and a revel of idolatry which you can neither endure nor escape. Wherever you go it is all the same; in the police-court on the right, in the military station on the left, in the crowd around the temple, in the procession with its victims and its worshippers who walk to music, in the language of the noisy market-people; wherever you go, you are accosted, confronted, publicly, shamelessly, now as if a precept of religion, now as if a homage to nature, by all which, as a Christian, you shrink from and abjure.

It is no accident of the season or of the day; it is the continuous tradition of some thousands of years; it is the very orthodoxy of the myriads who have {115} lived and died there. There was a region once, in an early age, lying upon the Eastern Sea, which is said at length to have vomited out its inhabitants for their frightful iniquity. They, thus cast forth, took ship, and passed over to the southern coast; and then, gradually settling and spreading into the interior, they peopled the woody plains and fertile slopes of Africa, and filled it with their cities. Sicca is one of these set up in sin; and at the time of which we write that sin was basking under the sun, and rioting and extending itself to its amplest dimensions, like some glittering serpent or spotted pard of the neighbourhood, without interposition from heaven or earth in correction of so awful a degradation. In such scenes of unspeakable pollution, our Christian forefathers perforce lived; through such a scene, though not taking part in it, Agellius, blessed with a country home, is unnecessarily passing.

He has reached the house, or rather the floor, to which he has been making his way. It is at the back of the city, where the rock is steep; and it looks out upon the plain and the mountain range to the north. Its inmates, Aristo and Callista, are engaged in their ordinary work of moulding or carving, painting or gilding the various articles which the temples or the private shrines of the established religion required. Aristo has received from Jucundus the overtures which Agellius had commissioned him to make, and finds, as he anticipated, that they are no great news to his sister. She perfectly understands what is going {116} on, but does not care to speak much upon it, till Agellius makes his appearance. As they sit at work, Aristo speaks:—

"Agellius will make his appearance here this morning. I say, Callista, what can he be coming for?"

"Why, if your news be true, that the Christians are coming into trouble, of course he means to purchase, as a blessing on him, some of these bits of gods."

"You are sharp enough, my little sister," answered Aristo, "to know perfectly well who is the goddess he is desirous of purchasing."

Callista laughed carelessly, but made no reply. "Come, child," Aristo continued, "don't be cruel to him. Wreath a garland for him by the time he comes. He's well to do, and modest withal, and needs encouragement."

"He's well enough," said Callista.

"I say he's a fellow too well off to be despised as a lover," proceeded her brother, "and it would be a merit with the gods to rid him of his superstition."

"Not much of a Christian," she made answer, "if he is set upon me."

"For whose sake has he been coming here so often, mine or yours, Callista?"

"I am tired of such engagements," she replied. She went on with her painting, and several times seemed as if she would have spoken, but did not. Then, without interrupting her work, she said calmly, "Time was, it gratified my conceit and my feelings to have hangers on. Indeed, without them, how {117} should we have had means to come here? But there's a weariness in all things."

"A weariness! Where is this bad humour to end?" cried Aristo; "it has been a long fit; shake it off while you can, or it will be too much for you. What can you mean? a weariness! You are over young to bid youth farewell. Aching hearts for aching bones. So young and so perverse! We must take things as the gods give them. You will ask for them in vain when you are old. One day above, another day beneath; one while young, another while old. Enjoy life while you have it in your hand." He had said this as he worked. Then he stopped, and turned round to her, with his graving-tool in his hand. "Recollect old Lesbia, how she used to squeak out to me, with her nodding head and trembling limbs"—here he mimicked the old crone—"'My boy, take your pleasure while you can. I can't take pleasure—my day is over; but I don't reproach myself. I had a merry time of it while it lasted. Time stops for no one, but I did my best; I don't reproach myself.' There's the true philosopher, though a slave; more outspoken than Ęsop, more practical than Epictetus."

Callista began singing to herself:—

"I wander by that river's brink
    Which circles Pluto's drear domain;
I feel the chill night breeze, and think
    Of joys which ne'er shall be again.

"I count the weeds that fringe the shore,
    Each sluggish wave that rolls and rolls;
I hear the ever-splashing oar
    Of Charon, ferryman of souls.

"Heigho!" she continued, "little regret, but much dread. The young have to fear more than the old have to mourn over. The future outweighs the past. Life is not so sweet as death is bitter. It is hard to quit the light, the light of heaven."

"Callistidion!" he said, impatiently; "my girl, this is preposterous. How long is this to go on? We must take you to Carthage; there is more trade there, if we can get it; and it will be on the bright, far-resounding sea. And I will turn rhetorician, and you shall feed my classes."

"O beautiful, divine light," she continued, "what a loss! O, to think that one day I must lose you for ever! At home I used to lie awake at night longing for the morning, and crying out for the god of day. It was like choice wine to me, a cup of Chian, the first streaks of the Aurora, and I could hardly bear his bright coming, when he came to me like Semele, for rapture. How gloriously did he shoot over the hills! and then anon he rested awhile on the snowy summit of Olympus, as in some luminous shrine, gladdening the Phrygian plain. Fair, bright-haired god! thou art my worship, if Callista worships aught: but somehow I worship nothing now. I am weary."

"Well," said her brother in a soothing tone, "it is a change. That light, elastic air, that transparent heaven, that fresh temperate breeze, that majestic sea! Africa is not Greece; O, the difference! That's it, Callista; it is the nostalgia; you are home-sick."

"It may be so," she said; "I do not well know {119} what I would have. Yes, the poisonous dews, the heavy heat, the hideous beasts, the green fever-gendering swamps. This vast thickly-wooded plain, like some mysterious labyrinth, oppresses and disquiets me with its very richness. The luxuriant foliage, the tall, rank plants, the deep, close lanes, I do not see my way through them, and I pant for breath. I only breathe freely on this hill. O, how unlike Greece, with the clear, soft, delicate colouring of its mountains, and the pure azure or the purple of its waters!"

"But, my dear Callista," interrupted her brother, "recollect you are not in those oppressive, gloomy forests, but in Sicca, and no one asks you to penetrate them. And if you want mountains, I think those on the horizon are bare enough."

"And the race of man," she continued, "is worse than all. Where is the genius of our bright land? where its intelligence, playfulness, grace, and noble bearing? Here hearts are as black as brows, and smiles as treacherous as the adders of the wood. The natives are crafty and remorseless; they never relax; they have no cheerfulness or mirth; their very love is a furnace, and their sole ecstasy is revenge."

"No country like home to any of us," said Aristo; "yet here you are. Habit would be a second nature if you were here long enough; your feelings would become acclimated, and would find a new home. People get to like the darkness of the extreme north in course of time. The painted Britons, the Cimmerians, the Hyperboreans, are content never to see the {120} sun at all, which is your god. Here your own god reigns; why quarrel with him?"

"The sun of Greece is light," answered Callista; "the sun of Africa is fire. I am no fire-worshipper."

"I suspect even Styx and Phlegethon are tolerable, at length," said her brother, "if Phlegethon and Styx there be, as the poets tell us."

"The cold, foggy Styx is the north," said Callista, "and the south is the scorching, blasting Phlegethon, and Greece, clear, sweet, and sunny, is the Elysian fields." And she continued her improvisations:—

"Where are the islands of the blest?
    They stud the Ęgean sea;
And where the deep Elysian rest?
It haunts the vale where Peneus strong
Pours his incessant stream along,
While craggy ridge and mountain bare
Cut keenly through the liquid air,
And, in their own pure tints arrayed,
Scorn earth's green robes which change and fade,
And stand in beauty undecayed,
    Guards of the bold and free."

"A lower flight, if you please, just now," said Aristo, interrupting her. "I do really wish a serious word with you about Agellius. He's a fellow I can't help liking, in spite of his misanthropy. Let me plead his cause. Like him or not yourself, still he has a full purse; and you will do a service to yourself and to the gods of Greece, and to him too, if you will smile on him. Smile on him at least for a time; we will go to Carthage when you are tired. His looks have very little in them of a Christian left; you may blow it away with your breath." {121}

"One might do worse than be a Christian," she answered slowly, "if all is true that I have heard of them."

Aristo started up in irritation. "By all the gods of Olympus," he said, "this is intolerable! If a man wants a tormentor, I commend him to a girl like you. What has ailed thee some time past, you silly child? What have I done to you that you should have got so cross and contrary and so hard to please?"

"I mean," she said, "if I were a Christian, life would be more bearable."

"Bearable!" he echoed; "bearable! ye gods! more bearable to have Styx and Tartarus, the Furies and their snakes, in this world as well as in the next? to have evil within and without, to hate one's self and to be hated of all men! to live the life of an ass, and to die the death of a dog! Bearable! But hark! I hear Agellius's step on the staircase. Callista, dear Callista, be yourself. Listen to reason."

But Callista would not listen to reason, if her brother was its embodiment; but went on with her singing:—

"For what is Afric but the home
    Of burning Phlegethon?
What the low beach and silent gloom,
And chilling mists of that dull river,
Along whose bank the thin ghosts shiver,
The thin, wan ghosts that once were men,
But Tauris, isle of moor and fen;
Or, dimly traced by seaman's ken,
    The pale-cuffed Albion?"

Here she stopped, looked down, and busied herself with her work.

Chapter 11

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