Chapter 19. A Passage of Arms

{212} HOW many hours passed while Cęcilius was thus employed, he did not know. The sun was declining when he was roused by a noise at the door. He hastily restored the sacred treasure to its hiding-place in his breast, and rose up from his knees. The door was thrown back, and a female form presented itself at the opening. She looked in at the priest, and said, "Then Agellius is not here?"

The woman was young, tall, and graceful in person. She was clad in a yellow cotton tunic, reaching to her feet, on which were shoes. The clasps at her shoulders, partly visible under the short cloak or shawl which was thrown over them, and which might, if necessary, be drawn over her head, seemed to serve the purpose, not only of fastening her dress, but of providing her with sharp prongs or minute stilettos for her defence, in case she fell in with ruffians by the way; and though the expression of her face was most feminine, there was that about it which implied she could use them for that purpose on an emergency. {213} That face was clear in complexion, regular in outline, and at the present time pale, whatever might be its ordinary tint. Its charm was a noble and majestic calm. There is the calm of divine peace and joy; there is the calm of heartlessness; there is the calm of reckless desperation; there is the calm of death. None of these was the calm which breathed from the features of the stranger who intruded upon the solitude of Cęcilius. It was the calm of Greek sculpture; it imaged a soul nourished upon the visions of genius, and subdued and attuned by the power of a strong will. There was no appearance of timidity in her manner; very little of modesty. The evening sun gleamed across her amber robe, and lit it up till it glowed like fire, as if she were invested in the marriage flammeum, and was to be claimed that evening as the bride of her own bright god of day.

She looked at Cęcilius, first with surprise, then with anxiety; and her words were, "You, I fear, are of his people. If so, make the most of these hours. The foe may be on you tomorrow morning. Fly while you can."

"If I am a Christian," answered Cęcilius, "what are you who are so careful of us? Have you come all the way from Sicca to give the alarm to mere atheists and magic-mongers?"

"Stranger," she said, "if you had seen what I have seen, what I have heard of today, you would not wonder at my wish to save from a like fate the vilest being on earth. A hideous mob is rioting in the city, {214} thirsting for the blood of Christians; an accident may turn it in the direction of Agellius. He is gone; where is he? Murderous outrages have already been perpetrated; you remain."

"She who is so tender of Christians," answered the priest, "must herself have some sparks of the Christian flame in her own breast."

Callista sat down half unconsciously upon the bench or stool near the door; but she at once suddenly started up again, and said, "Away, fly! perhaps they are coming; where is he?"

"Fear not," said Cęcilius; "Agellius has been conveyed away to a safe hiding-place; for me, I shall be taken care of; there is no need for hurry; sit down again. But you," he continued, "you must not be found here."

"They know me," she said; "I am well known here. I work for the temples. I have nothing to fear. I am no Christian;" and, as if from an inexplicable overruling influence, she sat down again.

"Not a Christian yet, you mean," answered Cęcilius.

"A person must be born a Christian, sir," she replied, "in order to take up the religion. It is a very beautiful idea, as far as I have heard anything about it; but one must suck it in with one's mother's milk."

"If so, it never could have come into the world," said the priest.

She paused for a while. "It is true," she answered {215} at length; "but a new religion begins by appealing to what is peculiar in the minds of a few. The doctrine, floating on the winds, finds its own; it takes possession of their minds; they answer its call; they are brought together by that common influence; they are strong in each other's sympathy; they create and throw around them an external form, and thus they found a religion. The sons are brought up in their fathers' faith; and what was the idea of a few becomes at length the profession of a race. Such is Judaism; such the religion of Zoroaster, or of the Egyptians."

"You will find," said the priest, "that the greater number of African Christians at this moment, for of them I speak confidently, are converts in manhood, not the sons of Christians. On the other hand, if there be those who have left the faith, and gone up to the capitol to sacrifice, these were Christians by hereditary profession. Such is my experience, and I think the case is the same elsewhere."

She seemed to be speaking more for the sake of getting answers than of objecting arguments. She paused again, and thought; then she said, "Mankind is made up of classes of very various mental complexion, as distinct from each other as the colours which meet the eye. Red and blue are incommensurable; and in like manner, a Magian never can become a Greek, nor a Greek a Cœlicolist. They do but make themselves fools when they attempt it." {216}

"Perhaps the most deeply convinced, the most tranquil-minded in the Christian body," answered Cęcilius, "will tell you, on the contrary, that there was a time when they hated Christianity, and despised and ill-treated its professors."

"I never did any such thing," cried Callista, "since the day I first heard of it. I am not its enemy, but I cannot believe in it. I am sure I never could; I never, never should be able."

"What is it you cannot believe?" asked the priest.

"It seems too beautiful," she said, "to be anything else than a dream. It is a thing to talk about, but when you come near its professors you see it is impossible. A most beautiful imagination, that is what it is. Most beautiful its precepts, as far as I have heard of them; so beautiful, that in idea there is no difficulty. The mind runs along with them, as if it could accomplish them without an effort. Well, its maxims are too beautiful to be realized; and then on the other hand, its dogmas are too dismal, too shocking, too odious to be believed. They revolt me."

"Such as what?" asked Cęcilius.

"Such as this," answered Callista. "Nothing will ever make me believe that all my people have gone and will go to an eternal Tartarus."

"Had we not better confine ourselves to something more specific, more tangible?" asked Cęcilius, gravely. "I suppose if one individual may have that terrible {217} lot, another may—both may, many may. Suppose I understand you to say that you never will believe that you will go to an eternal Tartarus."

Callista gave a slight start, and showed some uneasiness or displeasure.

"Is it not likely," continued he, that you are better able to speak of yourself, and to form a judgment about yourself, than about others? Perhaps if you could first speak confidently about yourself, you would be in a better position to speak about others also."

"Do you mean," she said, in a calm tone, "that my place, after this life, is an everlasting Tartarus?"

"Are you happy?" he asked in turn.

She paused, looked down, and in a deep clear voice said, "No." There was a silence.

The priest began again: "Perhaps you have been growing in unhappiness for years; is it so? you assent. You have a heavy burden at your heart, you don't well know what. And the chance is, that you will grow in unhappiness for the next ten years to come. You will be more and more unhappy the longer you live. Did you live till you were an old woman, you would not know how to bear your existence."

Callista cried out as if in bodily pain, "It is true, sir, whoever told you. But how can you have the heart to say it, to insult and mock me!"

"God forbid!" exclaimed Cęcilius, "but let me go on. Listen, my child. Be brave, and dare to look at {218} things as they are. Every day adds to your burden. This is a law of your present being, somewhat more certain than the assertion which you just now so confidently made, the impossibility of your believing in that law. You cannot refuse to accept what is not an opinion, but a fact. I say this burden which I speak of is not simply a dogma of our creed, it is an undeniable fact of nature. You cannot change it by wishing; if you were to live on earth two hundred years, it would not be reversed, it would be more and more true. At the end of two hundred years you would be too miserable even for your worst enemy to rejoice in it."

Cęcilius spoke, as if half in soliloquy or meditation, though he was looking towards Callista. The contrast between them was singular: he thus abstracted; she too, utterly forgetful of self, but absorbed in him, and showing it by her eager eyes, her hushed breath, her anxious attitude. At last she said impatiently, "Father, you are speaking to yourself; you despise me."

The priest looked straight at her with an open, untroubled smile, and said, "Callista, do not doubt me, my poor child; you are in my heart. I was praying for you shortly before you appeared. No; but, in so serious a matter as attempting to save a soul, I like to speak to you in my Lord's sight. I am speaking to you, indeed I am, my child; but I am also pleading with you on His behalf, and before His throne." {219}

His voice trembled as he spoke, but he soon recovered himself. "Suffer me," he said. "I was saying that if you lived five hundred years on earth, you would but have a heavier load on you as time went on. But you will not live, you will die. Perhaps you will tell me that you will then cease to be. I don't believe you think so. I may take for granted that you think with me, and with the multitude of men, that you will still live, that you will still be you. You will still be the same being, but deprived of those outward stays and reliefs and solaces, which, such as they are, you now enjoy. You will be yourself, shut up in yourself. I have heard that people go mad at length when placed in solitary confinement. If, then, on passing hence, you are cut off from what you had here, and have only the company of yourself, I think your burden will be, so far, greater, not less than it is now.

"Suppose, for instance, you had still your love of conversing, and could not converse; your love of the poets of your race, and no means of recalling them; your love of music, and no instrument to play upon; your love of knowledge, and nothing to learn; your desire of sympathy, and no one to love: would not that be still greater misery?

"Let me proceed a step further: supposing you were among those whom you actually did not love; supposing you did not like them, nor their occupations, and could not understand their aims; suppose there be, as Christians say, one Almighty God, and {220} you did not like Him, and had no taste for thinking of Him, and no interest in what He was and what He did; and supposing you found that there was nothing else anywhere but He, whom you did not love and whom you wished away: would you not be still more wretched?

"And if this went on for ever, would you not be in great inexpressible pain for ever?

"Assuming then, first, that the soul always needs external objects to rest upon; next, that it has no prospect of any such when it leaves this visible scene; and thirdly, that the hunger and thirst, the gnawing of the heart, where it occurs, is as keen and piercing as a flame; it will follow there is nothing irrational in the notion of an eternal Tartarus."

"I cannot answer you, sir," said Callista, "but I do not believe the dogma on that account a whit the more. My mind revolts from the notion. There must be some way out of it."

"If, on the other hand," continued Cęcilius, not noticing her interruption, "if all your thoughts go one way; if you have needs, desires, aims, aspirations, all of which demand an Object, and imply, by their very existence, that such an Object does exist also; and if nothing here does satisfy them, and if there be a message which professes to come from that Object, of whom you already have the presentiment, and to teach you about Him, and to bring the remedy you crave; and if those who try that remedy say with one voice that the remedy answers; are you not bound, {221} Callista, at least to look that way, to inquire into what you hear about it, and to ask for His help, if He be, to enable you to believe in Him?"

"This is what a slave of mine used to say," cried Callista, abruptly; " ... and another, Agellius, hinted the same thing ... What is your remedy, what your Object, what your love, O Christian teacher? Why are you all so mysterious, so reserved in your communications?"

Cęcilius was silent for a moment, and seemed at a loss for an answer. At length he said, "Every man is in that state which you confess of yourself. We have no love for Him who alone lasts. We love those things which do not last, but come to an end. Things being thus, He whom we ought to love has determined to win us back to Him. With this object He has come into His own world, in the form of one of us men. And in that human form He opens His arms and woos us to return to Him, our Maker. This is our Worship, this is our Love, Callista."

"You talk as Chione," Callista answered; "only that she felt, and you teach. She could not speak of her Master without blushing for joy ... And Agellius, when he said one word about his Master, he too began to blush ..."

It was plain that the priest could hardly command his feelings, and they sat for a short while in silence. Then Callista began, as if musing on what she had heard.

"A loved One," she said, "yet ideal; a passion so {222} potent, so fresh, so innocent, so absorbing, so expulsive of other loves, so enduring, yet of One never beheld;—mysterious! It is our own notion of the First and only Fair, yet embodied in a substance, yet dissolving again into a sort of imagination ... It is beyond me."

"There is but one Lover of souls," cried Cęcilius, "and He loves each one of us, as though there were no one else to love. He died for each one of us, as if there were no one else to die for. He died on the shameful cross. 'Amor meus crucifixus est.' The love which he inspires lasts, for it is the love of the Unchangeable. It satisfies, for He is inexhaustible. The nearer we draw to Him, the more triumphantly does He enter into us; the longer He dwells in us, the more intimately have we possession of Him. It is an espousal for eternity. This is why it is so easy for us to die for our faith, at which the world marvels."

Presently he said, "Why will not you approach Him? why will not you leave the creature for the Creator?"

Callista seldom lost her self-possession; for a moment she lost it now; tears gushed from her eyes. "Impossible!" she said, "what, I? you do not know me, father!" She paused, and then resumed in a different tone, "No! my lot is one way, yours another. I am a child of Greece, and have no happiness but that, such as it is, which my own bright land, my own glorious race, give me. I may well be {223} content, I may well be resigned, I may well be proud, if I possess that happiness. I must live and die where I have been born. I am a tree which will not bear transplanting. The Assyrians, the Jews, the Egyptians, have their own mystical teaching. They follow their happiness in their own way; mine is a different one. The pride of mind, the revel of the intellect, the voice and eyes of genius, and the fond beating heart, I cannot do without them. I cannot do without what you, Christian, call sin. Let me alone; such as nature made me I will be. I cannot change."

This sudden revulsion of her feelings quite overcame Cęcilius; yet, while the disappointment thrilled through him, he felt a most strange sympathy for the poor lost girl, and his reply was full of emotion. "Am I a Jew?" he exclaimed; "am I an Egyptian. or an Assyrian? Have I from my youth believed and possessed what now is my Life, my Hope, and my Love? Child, what was once my life? Am not I too a brand plucked out of the fire? Do I deserve anything but evil? Is it not the Power, the Mighty Power of the only Strong, the only Merciful, the grace of Emmanuel, which has changed and won me? If He can change me, an old man, could He not change a child like you? I, a proud, stern Roman; I, a lover of pleasure, a man of letters, of political station, with formed habits, and life-long associations, and complicated relations; was it I who wrought this great change in me, who gained {224} for myself the power of hating what I once loved, of unlearning what I once knew, nay, of even forgetting what once I was? Who has made you and me to differ, but He who can, when He will, make us to agree? It is His same Omnipotence which will transform you, if you will but come to be transformed."

But a reaction had come over the proud and sensitive mind of the Greek girl. "So after all, priest," she said, "you are but a man like others; a frail, guilty person like myself. I can find plenty of persons who do as I do; I want some one who does not; I want some one to worship. I thought there was something in you special and extraordinary. There was a gentleness and tenderness mingled with your strength which was new to me. I said, Here is at last a god. My own gods are earthly, sensual; I have no respect for them, no faith in them. But there is nothing better anywhere else ... Alas! … " She started up, and said with vehemence, "I thought you sinless; you confess to crime ... Ah! how do I know," she continued with a shudder, "that you are better than those base hypocrites, priests of Isis or Mithras, whose lustrations, initiations, new birth, white robes, and laurel crowns, are but the instrument and cloak of their intense depravity?" And she felt for the clasp upon her shoulder.

Here her speech was interrupted by a hoarse sound, borne upon the wind as of many voices blended into {225} one and softened by the distance, but which, under the circumstances, neither of the parties to the above conversation had any difficulty in assigning to its real cause. "Dear father," she said, "the enemy is upon you."

Chapter 20

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