Chapter 11. Callista's Preaching, and What Came of it

{122} IT is undeniably a solemn moment, under any circumstances, and requires a strong heart, when any one deliberately surrenders himself, soul and body, to the keeping of another while life shall last; and this, or something like this, reserving the supreme claim of duty to the Creator, is the matrimonial contract. In individual cases it may be made without thought or distress, but surveyed objectively, and as carried out into a sufficient range of instances, it is so tremendous an undertaking that nature seems to sink under its responsibilities. When the Christian binds himself by vows to a religious life, he makes a surrender to Him who is all-perfect, and whom he may unreservedly trust. Moreover, looking at that surrender on its human side, he has the safeguard of distinct provisos and regulations, and of the principles of theology, to secure him against tyranny on the part of his superiors. But what shall be his encouragement to make himself over, without condition or stipulation, as an absolute property, to a fallible being, and that not for a season, but for life? The mind shrinks from such a sacrifice, and demands that, as {123} religion enjoins it, religion should sanction and bless it. It instinctively desires that either the bond should be dissoluble, or that the subjects of it should be sacramentally strengthened to maintain it. "So help me God," the formula of every oath, is emphatically necessary here.

But Agellius is contemplating a superhuman engagement without superhuman assistance; and that in a state of society in which public opinion, which in some sense compensates for the absence of religion, supplied human motives, not for, but against keeping it, and with one who had given no indication that she understood what marriage meant. No wonder then, that, in spite of his simplicity, his sanguine temperament, and his delusion, the more he thought of the step he had taken, the more unsatisfactory he found it, and the nearer he grew to the time when he must open the subject with Aristo, the less he felt able to do so. In consequence he was in a distress of mind, as he ascended the staircase which led to his friend's lodging, to which his anxiety, as he mounted the hill on the other side of the city, was tranquillity itself; and, except that he was coming by engagement, he would have turned back, and for the time at least have put the whole subject from his thoughts. Yet even then, as often as Callista rose in his mind's eye, his scruples and misgivings vanished before the beauty of that image, as mists before the sun; and when he actually stood in her sweet presence, it seemed as if some secret emanation from {124} her flowed in upon his heart, and he stood breathless and giddy under the intensity of the fascination.

However, the reader must not suppose that in the third century of our era such negotiations as that which now seems to be on the point of coming off between Callista and Agellius, were embellished with those transcendental sentiments and that magnificent ceremonial with which chivalry has invested them in these latter ages. There was little occasion then for fine speaking or exquisite deportment; and if there had been, we, who are the narrators of these hitherto unrecorded transactions, should have been utterly unable to do justice to them. At that time of day the Christian had too much simplicity, the heathen too little of real delicacy, to indulge in the sublimities of modern love-making, at least as it is found in novels; and in the case before us both gentleman and lady will be thought, we consider, sadly matter-of-fact, or rather semi-barbarous, by the votaries of what is just now called European civilization.

On Agellius's entering the room, Aristo was pacing to and fro in some discomposure; however, he ran up to his friend, embraced him, and, looking at him with significance, congratulated him on his good looks. "There is more fire in your eye," he said, "dear Agellius, and more eloquence in the turn of your lip, than I have ever yet seen. A new spirit is in you. So you are determined to come out of your solitude? That you should have been able to exist in it so long is the wonderment to me." {125}

Agellius had recovered himself, yet he dared not look again on Callista. "Do not jest, Aristo," he said; "I am come, as you know, to talk to you about your sister. I have brought her a present of flowers; they are my best present, or rather not mine, but the birth of the opening year, as fair and fragrant as herself."

"We will offer them to our Pallas Athena," said his friend, "to whom we artists are especially devout." And he would have led Agellius on, and made him place them in her niche in the opposite wall.

"I am more serious than you are," said Agellius; "and I have brought the best my garden contains as an offering to your sister. She will not think I bring them for any other purpose. Where are you going?" he continued, as he saw his friend take down his broad petasus.

"Why," answered Aristo, "since I am so poor an interpreter of your meaning, you can dispense with me altogether. I will leave you to speak for yourself, and meanwhile will go and see what old Dromo has to tell, before the sun is too high in the heavens."

Saying this, with a half-imploring, half-satirical look at his sister, he set off to the barber's at the Forum.

Agellius took up the flowers, and laid them on the table before her, as she sat at work. "Do you accept my flowers, Callista?" he asked.

"Fair and fragrant, like myself, are they?" she made reply. "Give them to me." She took them, and bent over them. "The blushing rose," she said, {126} gravely, "the stately lily, the royal carnation, the golden moly, the purple amaranth, the green bryon, the diosanthos, the sertula, the sweet modest saliunca, fit emblems of Callista. Well, in a few hours they will have faded; yes, they will get more and more like her."

She paused and looked him steadily in the face, and then continued: "Agellius, I once had a slave who belonged to your religion. She had been born in a Christian family, and came into my possession on her master's death. She was unlike any one I have seen before or since; she cared for nothing, yet was not morose or peevish or hard-hearted. She died young in my service. Shortly before her end she had a dream. She saw a company of bright shades, clothed in white, like the hours which circle round the god of day. They were crowned with flowers, and they said to each other, 'She ought to have a token too.' So they took her hand, and led her to a most beautiful lady, as stately as Juno and as sweet as Ariadne, so radiant in countenance that they themselves suddenly looked like Ethiopians by the side of her. She, too, was crowned with flowers, and these so dazzling that they might be the stars of heaven or the gems of Asia for what Chione could tell. And that fair goddess (angel you call her) said, 'My dear, here is something for you from my Son. He sends you by me a red rose for your love, a white lily for your chastity, purple violets to strew your grave, and green palms to flourish over it.' Is this the reason why you give me {127} flowers, Agellius, that I may rank with Chione? and is this their interpretation?"

"Callista," he answered, "it is my heart's most fervent wish, it is my mind's vivid anticipation, that the day may come when you will receive such a crown, nay, a brighter one."

"And you are come, of course, to philosophize to me, and to put me in the way of dying like Chione," she made answer. "I implore your pardon. You are offering me flowers, it seems, not for a bridal wreath, but for a funeral urn."

"Is it wonderful," said Agellius, "that the two wishes should have gone together in my heart; and that while I trusted and prayed that you might have the same Master in heaven as I have myself, I also hoped you would have the same service, the same aims, the same home upon earth?"

"And that you should speak one word for your Master and two for yourself!" she retorted.

"It has been by feeling how much you could be to me," he answered, "that I have been led to think how much my Master may be doing for you already, and how much in time to come you might do for Him. Callista, do not urge me with your Greek subtlety, or expect me to analyze my feelings more precisely than I have the ability to do. May I calmly tell you the state of my mind, as I do know it, and will you patiently listen?"

She signified her willingness, and he continued—"This only I know," he said, "what I have experienced {128} ever since I first heard you converse, that there is between you and me a unity of thought so strange that I should have deemed it could not have been, before I found it actually to exist, between any two persons whatever; and which, widely as we are separated in opinion and habit, and differently as we have been brought up, is to me inexplicable. I find it difficult to explain what I mean; we disagree certainly on the most important subjects, yet there is an unaccountable correspondence in the views we take of things, in our impressions, in the line in which our minds move, and the issues to which they come, in our judgment of what is great and little, and the manner in which objects affect our feelings. When I speak to my uncle, when I speak to your brother, I do not understand them, nor they me. We are moving in different spheres, and I am solitary, however much they talk. But to my astonishment, I find between you and me one language. Is it wonderful that, in proportion to my astonishment, I am led to refer it to one cause, and think that one Master Hand must have engraven those lines on the soul of each of us? Is it wonderful that I should fancy that He who has made us alike has made us for each other, and that the very same persuasives by which I bring you to cast your eyes on me, may draw you also to cast yourself in adoration at the feet of my Master?"

For an instant tears seemed about to start from Callista's eyes, but she repressed the emotion, if it were such, and answered with impetuosity, "Your Master! {129} who is your Master? what know I of your Master? what have you ever told me of your Master? I suppose it is an esoteric doctrine which I am not worthy to know; but so it is, here you have been again and again, and talked freely of many things, yet I am in as much darkness about your Master as if I had never seen you. I know He died; I know too that Christians say He lives. In some fortunate island, I suppose; for, when I have asked, you have got rid of the subject as best you could. You have talked about your law and your various duties, and what you consider right, and what is forbidden, and of some of the old writers of your sect, and of the Jews before them; but if, as you imply, my wants and aspirations are the same as yours, what have you done towards satisfying them? what have you done for that Master towards whom you now propose to lead me? No!" she continued, starting up, "you have watched those wants and aspirations for yourself, not for Him; you have taken interest in them, you have cherished them, as if you were the author, you the object of them. You profess to believe in One True God, and to reject every other; and now you are implying that the Hand, the Shadow of that God is on my mind and heart. Who is this God? where? how? in what? O Agellius, you have stood in the way of Him, ready to speak for yourself, using Him as a means to an end."

"O Callista," said Agellius, in an agitated voice, when he could speak, "do my ears hear aright? do you really wish to be taught who the true God is?" {130}

"No, mistake me not," she cried passionately, "I have no such wish. I could not be of your religion. Ye Gods! how have I been deceived! I thought every Christian was like Chione. I thought there could not be a cold Christian. Chione spoke as if a Christian's first thoughts were goodwill to others; as if his state were of such blessedness, that his dearest heart's wish was to bring others into it. Here is a man who, so far from feeling himself blest, thinks I can bless him! comes to me—me, Callista, a herb of the field, a poor weed, exposed to every wind of heaven, and shrivelling before the fierce sun—to me he comes to repose his heart upon. But as for any blessedness he has to show me, why, since he does not feel any himself, no wonder he has none to give away. I thought a Christian was superior to time and place; but all is hollow. Alas, alas, I am young in life to feel the force of that saying, with which sages go out of it, 'Vanity and hollowness!' Agellius, when I first heard you were a Christian, how my heart beat! I thought of her who was gone; and at first I thought I saw her in you, as if there had been some magical sympathy between you and her; and I hoped that from you I might have learned more of that strange strength which my nature needs, and which she told me she possessed. Your words, your manner, your looks were altogether different from others who came near me. But so it was; you came, and you went, and came again; I thought it reserve, I thought it timidity, I thought it the caution of a persecuted sect; but O, my disappointment, {131} when first I saw in you indications that you were thinking of me only as others think, and felt towards me as others may feel; that you were aiming at me, not at your God; that you had much to tell of yourself, but nothing of Him! Time was I might have been led to worship you, Agellius; you have hindered it by worshipping me."

It is not often, we suppose, that such deep offence is given to a lady by the sort of admiration of which Agellius had been guilty in the case of Callista; however, startled as he might be, and startled and stung he was, there was too much earnestness in her distress, too much of truth in her representations, too much which came home to his heart and conscience, to allow of his being affronted or irritated. She had but supplied the true interpretation of the misgiving which had haunted him that morning, from the time he set out till the moment of his entering the room. Jucundus some days back had readily acquiesced in his assurance that he was not inconsistent; but Callista had not been so indulgent, though really more merciful. There was a pause in the conversation, or rather in her outpouring; each had bitter thoughts, and silently devoured them. At length, she began again:—

"So the religion of Chione is a dream; now for four years I had hoped it was a reality. All things again are vanity; I had hoped there was something somewhere more than I could see, but there is nothing. Here am I a living, breathing woman, with an overflowing {132} heart, with keen affections, with a yearning after some object which may possess me. I cannot exist without something to rest upon. I cannot fall back upon that drear, forlorn state, which philosophers call wisdom, and moralists call virtue. I cannot enrol myself a votary of that cold Moon, whose arrows do but freeze me. I cannot sympathize in that majestic band of sisters whom Rome has placed under the tutelage of Vesta. I must have something to love; love is my life. Why do you come to me, Agellius, with your every-day gallantry. Can you compete with the noble Grecian forms which have passed before my eyes? Is your voice more manly, are its tones more eloquent, than those which have thrilled through my ears since I ceased to be a child? Can you add perfume to the feast by your wit, or pour sunshine over grot and rushing stream by your smile? What can you give me? There was one thing which I thought you could have given me, better than anything else; but it is a shadow. You have nothing to give. You have thrown me back upon my dreary, dismal self, and the deep wounds of my memory ... Poor, poor Agellius! but it was not his fault, it could not be helped," she continued, as if in thought; "it could not be helped; for, if he had nothing to give, how could he give it? After all, he wanted something to love, just as I did; and he could find nothing better than me ... And they thought to persuade her to spend herself upon him, as she had spent herself upon others. Yes, it was Jucundus and Aristo— {133} my brother, even my own brother. They thought not of me." Here her tears gushed out violently, and she abandoned herself to a burst of emotion. "They were thinking of him. I had hoped he could lead me to what was higher; but woe, woe!" she cried, wringing her hands, "they thought I was only fit to bring him low. Well; after all, is Callista really good for much more than the work they have set her to do?"

She was absorbed in her own misery in an intense sense of degradation, in a keen consciousness of the bondage of nature, in a despair of ever finding what alone could give meaning to her existence, and an object to her intellect and affections. And Agellius on the other hand, what surprise, remorse, and humiliation came upon him! It was a strange contrast, the complaint of nature unregenerate on the one hand, the self-reproach of nature regenerate and lapsing on the other. At last he spoke, and they were his last words.

"Callista," he said, "whatever injury I may have unwillingly inflicted upon you, you at least have returned me good for evil, and have made yourself my benefactress. Certainly, I now know myself better than I did; and He who has made use of you as His instrument of mercy towards me, will not forget to reward you tenfold. One word will I say for myself; nay, not for myself, but for my Master. Do not for an instant suppose that what you thought of the Christian religion is not true. It reveals a present God, who satisfies every affection of the heart, yet {134} keeps it pure. I serve a Master," he continued, blushing from modesty and earnestness as he spoke, "I serve a Master whose love is stronger than created love. God help my inconsistency! but I never meant to love you as I love Him. You are destined for His love. I commit you to Him, your true Lord, whom I never ought to have rivalled, for whom I ought simply to have pleaded. Though I am not worthy to approach you, I shall trace you at a distance, who knows where? perhaps even to the prison and to the arena of those who confess the Saviour of men, and dare to suffer and die for His name. And now, farewell; to His keeping and that of His holy martyrs I commit you."

He did not trust himself to look at her as he turned to the door, and left the room.

Chapter 12

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.