Chapter 18. Agellius Flits

{199} A CHANGE had passed over the fair face of Nature, as seen from the cottage of Agellius, since that evening on which our story opened; and it is so painful to contemplate waste, decay, and disappointment, that we mean to say little about it. There was the same cloudless sky as then; and the sun travelled in its silent and certain course, with even a more intense desire than then to ripen grain and fruit for the use of man; but its occupation was gone, for fruit and grain were not, nor man to collect and to enjoy them. A dark broad shadow passed across the beautiful prospect and disfigured it. When you looked more closely, it was as if a fire had burned up the whole surface included under that shadow, and had stripped the earth of its clothing. Nothing had escaped; not a head of khennah, not a rose or carnation, not an orange or an orange blossom, not a boccone, not a cluster of unripe grapes, not a berry of the olive, not a blade of grass. Gardens, meadows, vineyards, orchards, copses, instead of rejoicing in the rich variety of hue which lately was their characteristic, {200} were now reduced to one dreary cinder-colour. The smoke of fires was actually rising from many points, where the spoilt and poisonous vegetation was burning in heaps, or the countless corpses of the invading foe, or of the cattle, or of the human beings whom the pestilence had carried off. The most furious inroad of savage hordes, of Vandals, or of Saracens, who were destined at successive eras to come and waste that country, could not have spread such thorough desolation. The slaves of the farm of Varius were sorrowfully turning to a new employment, that of clearing away the wreck and disappointment of the bright spring from flower-bed, vineyard, and field.

It was on the forenoon of the eventful day whose course we have been tracing in the preceding Chapters, that a sharp-looking boy presented himself to Agellius, who was directing his labourers in their work. "I am come from Jucundus," he said; "he has instant need of you. You are to go with me, and by my way; and this is the proof I tell you truth. He sends you this note, and wishes you in a bad time the best gifts of Bacchus and Ceres."

Agellius took the tablets, and went with them across the road to the place where Cęcilius was at work, in appearance a slave. The letter ran thus:—"Jucundus to Agellius. I trust you are well enough to move; you are not safe for many days in your cottage; there is a rising this morning against the Christians, and you may be visited. Unless you are ambitious of Styx and Tartarus, follow the boy without {201} questioning." Agellius showed the letter to the priest.

"We are no longer safe here, my father," he said; "whither shall we go? Let us go together. Can you take me to Carthage."

"Carthage is quite as dangerous," answered Cęcilius, "and Sicca is more central. We can but leap into the sea at Carthage; here there are many lines to retreat upon. I am known there, I am not known here. Here, too, I hear all that goes on through the proconsulate and Numidia."

"But what can we do?" asked Agellius; "here we cannot remain, and you at least cannot venture into the city. Somewhither we must go, and where is that?

The priest thought. "We must separate," he said. The tears came into Agellius's eyes.

"Though I am a stranger," continued Cęcilius, "I know more of the neighbourhood of Sicca than you who are a native. There is a famous Christian retreat on the north of the city, and by this time, I doubt not, or rather I know, it is full of refugees. The fury of the enemy is extending on all hands, and our brethren, from as far as Cirtha round to Curubis, are falling back upon it. The only difficulty is how to get round to it without going through Sicca."

"Let us go together," said Agellius.

Cęcilius showed signs of perplexity, and his mind retired into itself. He seemed for the moment to be simply absent from the scene about him, but soon {202} his intelligence returned. "No," he said, "we must separate,—for the time; it will not be for long. That is, I suppose, your uncle will take good care of you, and he has influence. We are safest just now when most independent of each other. It is only for a while. We shall meet again soon; I tell you so. Did we keep together just now, it would be the worse for each of us. You go with the boy; I will go off to the place I mentioned."

"O my father," said the youth, "how will you get there? What shall I suffer from my fears about you?"

"Fear not," answered Cęcilius, "mind, I tell you so. It will be a trying time, but my hour is not yet come. I am good for years yet; so are you, for many more than mine. He will protect and rescue me, though I know not how. Go, leave me to myself, Agellius!"

"O my father, my only stay upon earth, whom God sent me in my extreme need, to whom I owe myself, must I then quit you; must a layman desert a priest; the young the old? ... Ah! it is I really, not you, who am without protection. Angels surround you, father; but I am a poor wanderer. Give me your blessing that evil may not touch me. I go."

"Do not kneel," said the priest; "they will see you. Stop, I have got to tell you how and where to find me." He then proceeded to give him the necessary instructions. "Walk out," he said, "along the road to Thibursicumbur to the third milestone, {203} you will come to a country road; pursue it; walk a thousand steps; then again for the space of seven paternosters; and then speak to the man upon your right hand. And now away with you, God speed you, we shall not long be parted," and he made the sign of the cross over him.

"That old chap gives himself airs," said the boy, when Agellius joined him; "what may he be? one of your slaves, Agellius?"

"You're a pert boy," answered he, "for asking me the question."

"They say the Christians brought the locusts," said Firmian, "by their enchantments; and there's a jolly row beginning in the Forum just now. The report goes that you are a Christian."

"That's because your people have nothing better to do than talk against their neighbours."

"Because you are so soft, rather," said the boy. "Another man would have knocked me down for saying it; but you are lackadaisical folk, who bear insults tamely. Arnobius says your father was a Christian."

"Father and son are not always the same religion now-a-days," said Agellius.

"Ay, ay," answered Firmian, "but the Christians came from Egypt: and as cook there is the son of cook, and soldier is son of soldier, so Christian, take my word for it, is the son of a Christian."

"Christians boast, I believe," answered Agellius, "that they are of no one race or country, but are {204} members of a large unpatriotic family, whose home is in the sky."

"Christians," answered the boy, "would never have framed the great Roman empire; that was the work of heroes. Great Cęsar, Marius, Marcus Brutus, Camillus, Cicero, Sylla, Lucullus, Scipio, could never have been Christians. Arnobius says they are a skulking set of fellows."

"I suppose you wish to be a hero," said Agellius.

"I am to be a pleader," answered Firmian; "I should like to be a great orator like Cicero, and every one listening to me."

They were walking along the top of a mud wall, which separated Varius's farm from his neighbour's, when suddenly Firmian, who led the way, leapt down into a copse, which reached as far as the ravine in which the knoll terminated towards Sicca. The boy still went forward by devious paths, till they had mounted as high as the city wall.

"You are bringing me where there is no entrance," said Agellius.

The boy laughed. "Jucundus told me to bring you by a blind way," he said. "You know best why. This is one of our ways in and out."

There was an aperture in the wall, and the bricks and stones about it were loose, and admitted of removal. It was such a private way of passage as schoolboys know of. On getting through, Agellius found himself in a neglected garden or small close. Everything was silent about them, as if the inhabitants {205} were away; there was a great noise in the distance, as if something unusual were going on in the heart of the town. The boy told him to follow him as fast as he could without exciting remark; and, leading him by lanes and alleys unknown to Agellius, at last brought him close upon the scene of riot. At this time the expedition in search of Christians had just commenced; to cross the Forum was to shorten his journey, and perhaps was safer than to risk meeting the mob in the streets. Firmian took the step; and while their attention was directed elsewhere, brought Agellius safely through it. They then proceeded cautiously as before, till they stood before the back door of the house of Jucundus.

"Say a good word for me to your uncle," said the boy, "I have done my job. He must remember me handsomely at the Augustalia," and he ran away.

Meanwhile Cęcilius had been anxiously considering the course which it was safest for him to pursue. He must move, but he must wait till dusk, when the ways were clear, and the light uncertain. Till then he must keep close indoors. There was a remarkable cavern in the mountains above Sicca, which had been used as a place of refuge for Christians from the very time they had first suffered persecution in Roman Africa. No spot in its whole territory seemed more fit for what is called a base of operations, from which the soldiers of the Cross might advance, or to which they might retire, according as {206} the fury of their enemy grew or diminished. While it was in the midst of a wilderness difficult of access, and feared as the resort of ghosts and evil influences, it was not far from a city near to which the high roads met from Hippo and from Carthage. A branch of the Bagradas, navigable for boats, opened a way from it through the woods, where flight and concealment were easy on a surprise, as far as Madaura, Vacca, and other places; at the same time it commanded the vast plain on the south which extended to the roots of the Atlas. Just now, the persecution growing, many deacons, other ecclesiastics, and prominent laymen from all parts of the country had fallen back upon this cavern or grotto; and in no place could Cęcilius have better means than here of learning the general state of affairs, and of communicating with countries beyond the seas. He was indeed on his way thither, when the illness of Agellius made it a duty for him to stop and restore him, and attend to his spiritual needs; and he had received an inward intimation, on which he implicitly relied, to do so.

The problem at this moment was how to reach the refuge in question. His direct road lay through Sicca; this being impracticable at present, he had to descend into the ravine which lay between him and the city, and, turning to the left, to traverse the broad plain, the Campus Martius of Sicca, into which it opened. Here the mountain would rise abruptly on his right with those steep cliffs which we have already {207} described as rounding the north side of Sicca. He must traverse many miles before he could reach the point at which the rock lost its precipitous character, and changed into a declivity allowing the traveller to ascend. It was a bold undertaking; for all this he had to accomplish in the dark before the morning broke, a stranger too to the locality, and directing his movements only by the information of others, which, however accurate and distinct, could scarcely be followed, even if without risk of error, at least without misgiving. However, could he master this point before the morning he was comparatively safe; he then had to strike into the solitary mountains, and to retrace his steps for a while towards Sicca along the road, till he came to a place where he knew that Christian scouts or videttes (as they may be called) were always stationed.

This being his plan, and there being no way of mending it, our confessor retired into the cottage, and devoted the intervening hours to intercourse with that world from which his succour must come. He set himself to intercede for the Holy Catholic Church throughout the world, now for the most part under persecution, and for the Roman Empire, not yet holy, which was the instrument of the evil powers against her. He had to pray for the proconsulate, for Numidia, Mauretania, and the whole of Africa; for the Christian communities throughout it, for the cessation of the trial then present, and for the fortitude and perseverance of all who were tried. He had to pray {208} for his own personal friends, his penitents, converts, enemies; for children, catechumens, neophytes; for those who were approaching the Church, for those who had fallen away, or were falling away from her; for all heretics, for all troublers of unity, that they might be reclaimed. He had to confess, bewail and deprecate the many sins and offences which he knew of, foreboded, or saw in prospect as to come. Scarcely had he entered on his charge at Carthage four years before, when he had had to denounce one portentous scandal in which a sacred order of the ministry was implicated. What internal laxity did not that scandal imply! And then again what a low standard of religion, what niggardly faith, and what worn-out, used-up sanctity in the community at large, was revealed in the fact of those frequent apostasies of individuals which then were occurring! He prayed fervently that both from the bright pattern of martyrs, and from the warning afforded by the lapsed, the Christian body might be edified and invigorated. He saw with great anxiety two schisms in prospect, when the persecution should come to an end, one from the perverseness of those who were too rigid, the other from those who were too indulgent towards the fallen; and in proportion to his gift of prescience was the earnestness of his intercession that the wounds of the Church might be healed with the least possible delay. He then turned to the thought of his own correspondence then in progress with the Holy Roman Church, which had lately lost its bishop by martyrdom. This indeed was no unusual {209} event with the see of Peter, in which the successors of Peter followed Peter's steps, as Peter had been bidden to follow the King and Exemplar of Martyrs. But the special trouble was, that months had passed, full five, since the vacancy occurred, and it had not yet been supplied. Then he thought of Fabian, who made the vacancy, and who had already passed through that trial which was to bring to so many Christians life or condemnation, and he commended himself to his prayers against the hour of his own combat. He thought of Fabian's work, and went on to intercede for the remnant of the seven apostles whom that Pope had sent into Gaul, and some of whom had already obtained the martyr's crown. He prayed that the day might come, when not the cities only of that fair country, but its rich champaigns and sunny slopes should hear the voice of the missionary. He prayed in like manner for Britain, that the successful work of another Pope, St. Eleutherius, might be extended even to its four seas. And then he prayed for the neighbouring island on the west, still in heathen darkness, and for the endless expanse of Germany on the east, that there too the one saving name and glorious Faith might be known and accepted.

His thoughts then travelled back to Rome and Italy, and to the martyrdoms which had followed that of St. Fabian. Two Persians had already suffered in the imperial city; Maximus had lost his life, and Felix had been imprisoned, at Nola. Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt had already afforded victims to the persecution, {210} and cried aloud to all Christians for their most earnest prayers and for repeated Masses in behalf of those who remained under the trial. Babylas, Bishop of Antioch, the third see in Christendom, was already martyred in that city. Here again Cęcilius had a strong call on him for intercession, for a subtle form of freethinking was there manifesting itself, the issue of which was as uncertain as it might be frightful. The Bishop of Alexandria, that second of the large divisions or patriarchates of the Church, the great Dionysius, the pupil of Origen, was an exile from his see, like himself. The messenger who brought this news to Carthage had heard at Alexandria a report from Neocęsarea, that Gregory, another pupil of Origen's, the Apostle of Pontus, had also been obliged to conceal himself from the persecution. As for Origen himself, the aged, laborious, gifted, zealous teacher of his time, he was just then engaged in answering the works of an Epicurean called Celsus, and on him too the persecution was likely to fall; and Cęcilius prayed earnestly that so great a soul might be kept from such high untrue speculations as were threatening evil at Antioch, and from every deceit and snare which might endanger his inheriting that bright crown which ought to be his portion in heaven. Another remarkable report had come, viz., that some young men of Egypt had retired to the deserts up the country under the stress of the persecution,—Paul was the name of one of them,—and that they were there living in the practice of mortification and prayer so singular, and had {211} combats with the powers of darkness and visitations from above so special, as to open quite a new era in the spiritual history of the Church.

And then his thoughts came back to his poor Agellius, and all those hundred private matters of anxiety which the foes of the Church, occupied only with her external aspect, little suspected. For Agellius, he prayed, and for his; for the strange wayward Juba, for Jucundus, for Callista; ah! that Callista might be brought on to that glorious consummation, for which she seemed marked out! But the ways of the Most High are not as our ways, and those who to us seem nearest are often furthest from Him; and so our holy priest left the whole matter in the hands of Him to whom he prayed, satisfied that he had done his part in praying.

This was the course of thought which occupied him for many hours, after (as we have said) he had closed the door upon him, and knelt down before the cross. Not merely before the symbol of redemption did he kneel; for he opened his tunic at the neck, and drew thence a small golden pyx which was there suspended. In that carefully fastened case he possessed the Holiest, his Lord and his God. That Everlasting Presence was his stay and guide amid his weary wanderings, his joy and consolation amid his overpowering anxieties. Behold the secret of his sweet serenity, and his clear unclouded determination. He had placed it upon the small table at which he knelt, and was soon absorbed in meditation and intercession.

Chapter 19

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