Chapter 14. A Small Cloud

{159} THIS sort of intercourse, growing in frequency and fulness, went on for about a week, till Agellius was able to walk with support, and to leave the cottage. The priest and his own slave took him between them, and seated him one evening in sight of the glorious prospect, traversed by the long shadow of the far mountains, behind which the sun was making its way. The air was filled with a thousand odours; the brilliant colouring of the western heavens was contrasted with the more sober but varied tints of the rich country. The wheat and barley harvest was over; but the beans were late, and still stood in the fields. The olives and chestnut-trees were full of fruit; the early fig was supplying the markets with food; and the numerous vineyards were patiently awaiting the suns of the next month slowly to perfect their present promise. The beautiful scene had a moral dignity, from its associations with human sustenance and well-being. The inexpressible calmness of evening was flung, like a robe, over it. Its sweetness was too much for one who had been confined {160} to the monotony of a sick-room, and was still an invalid. He sat silent, and in tears. It was life from the dead; and he felt he had risen to a different life. And thus he came out evening after evening convalescent, gradually and surely advancing to perfect restoration of his health.

One evening he said, after feeding his eyes and thoughts for some time with the prospect, "'Mansueti hereditabunt terram.' They alone have real enjoyment of this earth who believe in its Maker. Every breath of air seems to whisper how good He is to me."

Cęcilius answered, "These sights are the shadows of that fairer Paradise which is our home, where there is no beast of prey, no venomous reptile, no sin. My child, should I not feel this more than you? Those who are shut up in crowded cities see but the work of man, which is evil. It is the compensation of my flight from Carthage that I am brought before the face of God."

"The heathen worship all this, as if God Himself," said Agellius; "how strange it seems to me that any one can forget the Creator in His works!"

Cęcilius was silent for a moment, and sighed; he then said, "You have ever been a Christian, Agellius."

"And you have not, my father?" answered he; "well, you have earned that grace which came to me freely."

"Agellius," said the priest, "it comes freely to all; and is only merited when it has already prevailed. {161} Yet I think you earned it too, else why the difference between you and your brother?"

"What do you know of us?" asked Agellius quickly.

"Not a great deal," answered he, "yet something. Three or four years back an effort was made to rekindle the Christian spirit in these parts, and to do something for the churches of the proconsulate, and to fill up the vacant sees. Nothing has come of it as yet; but steps were taken towards it: one was to obtain a recovery of the Christians who remained in them. I was sent here for that purpose, and in this way heard of you and your brother. When my life was threatened by the persecution, and I had to flee, I thought of your cottage. I was obliged to act secretly, as we did not know friends from foes."

"You were led here for other purposes towards me, my father," said Agellius; "yet you cannot have a safer refuge. There is nothing to disturb, nothing to cause suspicion here. In this harvest time numbers of strangers pour in from the mountains, of various races; there is nothing to distinguish you from one of them, and my brother is away convoying some grain to Carthage. Persecution drove you hither, but you have not been suffered to be idle, my father, you have brought home a wanderer." He added, after a pause, "I am well enough to go to confession to you now. May it be this evening?"

"It will be well," answered Cęcilius; "how long I shall still be here, I cannot tell. I am expecting my {162} trusty messenger with despatches. It is now three days since he was here. However, this I say without misgiving, we do not part for long. What do you here longer? you must come to me. I must prepare you, and send you bank to Sicca, to collect and restore this scattered flock."

Agellius turned, and leaned against the priest's shoulder, and laughed. "I am laughing," he said, "not from lightness of mind, but from the depth of surprise and of joy that you should so think of me. It was a dream which once I had; but impossible! you do not think that I, weak I, shall ever be able to do more than save my own soul?"

"You will save your own soul by saving the souls of others," said Cęcilius; "my child, I could tell you more things if I thought it good for you."

"But, my father, I have so weak, so soft a heart," cried Agellius; "what am I to do with myself? I am not of the temper of which heroes are made."

"'Virtus in infirmitate perficitur,'" said the priest. "What! are you to do any thing of yourself? or are you to be simply the instrument of Another? We shall have the same termination, you and myself, but you long after me."

"Ah, father, because you will burn out so much more quickly!" said Agellius.

"I think," said Cęcilius, "I see my messenger; there is some one who has made his way by stealth into the garden, or at least not by the beaten way."

There was a visitor, as Cęcilius had said; however, {163} it was not his messenger, but Juba, who approached, looking with great curiosity at Cęcilius, and absorbed in the sight. Cęcilius in turn regarded him steadfastly, and then said to Agellius, "It is your brother."

"What brings you here, Juba?" said the latter.

"I have been away on a distant errand," said Juba; "and find you have been ill. Is this your nurse?" he eyed him almost sternly, and added, "'Tis a Christian priest."

"Has Agellius no acquaintance but Christians?" asked Cęcilius.

"Acquaintance! O surely!" answered Juba; "agreeable, innocent, sweet acquaintance of another sort; myself to begin with. My lad," he continued, "you did not rise to their price, but you did your best."

"Juba," said his brother, "if you have any business here, say it, and have done. I am not strong enough to hold any altercation with you."

"Business!" said Juba, "I can find quite business enough here, if I choose. This is a priest of the Christians. I am sure of it."

Cęcilius looked at him with such calmness and benevolence, that at length Juba turned away his eyes with something of irritation. He said, "If I am a priest, I am here to claim you as one of my children."

Juba winced, but said scornfully, "You are mistaken there, father; speak to those who own you. I am a free man." {164}

"My son," Cęcilius answered, "you have been under instruction; it is your duty to go forward, not back."

"What do you know about me?" said Juba; "he has been telling."

"Your face, your manner, your voice, tells a tale; I need no information from others. I have heard of you years ago; now I see you."

"What do you see in me?" said Juba.

"I see pride in bodily shape, treading down faith and conviction," said Cęcilius.

Juba neighed rather than laughed, so fierce and scornful was its expression. "What you slaves call pride," he said, "I call dignity."

"You believe in a God, Creator of heaven and earth, as certainly as I do," said the priest, "but you deliberately set yourself against Him."

Juba smiled. "I am as free," he said, "in my place, as He in His."

"You mean," answered Cęcilius, "free to do wrong, and free to suffer for it."

"You may call it wrong, and call it suffering," replied Juba; "but for me, I do not call wrong what He calls wrong; and if He puts me to pain, it is because He is the stronger."

The priest stopped awhile; there was no emotion on either side. It was strange to see them so passionless, so antagonistic, like St. Michael and his adversary.

"There is that within you," said Cęcilius, "which {165} speaks as I speak. That inward voice takes the part of the Creator, and condemns you."

"He put it there," said Juba; "and I will take care to put it out."

"Then He will have justice as well as power on His side," said the priest.

"I will never fawn or crouch," said Juba; "I will be lord and master in my own soul. Every faculty shall be mine; there shall be no divided allegiance."

Cęcilius paused again; he said at length, "My son, my soul tells me, or rather my Maker tells me, and your Maker, that some heavy judgment is impending over you. Do penance while you may."

"Tell your forebodings to women and children," said Juba; "I am prepared for anything. I will not be crushed."

Agellius was not strong enough to bear a part in such a scene. "Father," he said, "it is his way, but don't believe him. He has better thoughts. Away with you, Juba, you are not wanted here."

"Agellius," said the priest, "such words are not strange to me. I am not young, and have seen much of the world; and my very office and position elicits blasphemies from others from time to time. I knew a man who carried out his bad thoughts and words into act. Abjuring his Maker, he abandoned himself to the service of the evil one. He betrayed his brethren to death. He lived on year after year, and became old. He was smitten with illness; then I first saw him. I made him contemplate a picture; it was the picture of {166} the Good Shepherd. I dwelt on the vain efforts of the poor sheep to get out of the fold; its irrational aversion to its home, and its desperate resolution to force a way through the prickly fence. It was pierced and torn with the sharp aloe; at last it lay imprisoned in its stern embrace, motionless and bleeding. Then the Shepherd, though He had to wound His own hands in the work, disengaged it, and brought it back. God has His own times; His power went along with the picture, and the man was moved. I said, 'This is His return for your enmity: He is determined to have you, cost Him what it will.' I need not go through the many things that followed, but the issue may be told in few words. He came back; he lived a life of penance at the Church's door; he received the peace of the Church in immediate prospect of the persecution, and has within the last ten days died a martyr's death."

Juba had listened as if he was constrained against his will. When the priest stopped he started, and began to speak impetuously, and unlike his ordinary tone. He placed his hands violently against his ears. "Stop!" he said, "no more. I will not betray them; no: I need not betray them;" he laughed; "the black moor does the work himself. Look," he cried, seizing the priest's arm, and pointing to a part of the forest, which happened to be to windward. "You are in their number, priest, who can foretell the destinies of others, and are blind to their own. Read there, the task is not hard, your coming fortunes." {167}

His finger was directed to a spot where, amid the thick foliage, the gleam of a pool or of a marsh was visible. The various waters round about issuing from the gravel, or drained from the nightly damps, had run into a hollow, filled with the decaying vegetation of former years, and were languidly filtered out into a brook, more healthy than the vast reservoir itself. Its banks were bordered with a deep, broad layer of mud, a transition substance between the rich vegetable matter which it once had been, and the multitudinous world of insect life which it was becoming. A cloud or mist at this time was hanging over it, high in air. A harsh and shrill sound, a whizzing or a chirping, proceeded from that cloud to the ear of the attentive listener. What these indications portended was plain. "There," said Juba, "is what will tell more against you than imperial edict, informer, or proconsular apparitor; and no work of mine."

He turned down the bank and disappeared. Agellius and his guest looked at each other in dismay. "It is the locusts," they whispered to each other, as they went back into the cottage.

Chapter 15

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