Chapter 27. Am I a Christian?

{291} THE sun had now descended for the last time before the solemn day which was charged with the fate of Callista, and what was the state of mind of one who excited such keen interest in the narrow circle within which she was known? And how does it differ from what it was some weeks before, when Agellius last saw her? She would have been unable to say herself. "So is the kingdom of God: as if a man should cast seed into the earth, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, whilst he knoweth not." She might, indeed, have been able afterwards, on looking back, to say many things of herself; and she would have recognised that while she was continually differing from herself, in that she was changing, yet it was not a change which involved contrariety, but one which expanded itself in (as it were) concentric circles, and only fulfilled, as time went on, the promise of its beginning. Every day, as it came, was, so to say, the child of the preceding, the parent of that which followed; and the end to which she tended could not get beyond the aim with which she set out. Yet, had she been asked, {292} at the time of which we speak, where was her principle and her consistency, what was her logic, or whether she acted on reason, or on impulse, or on feeling, or in fancy, or in passion, she would have been reduced to silence. What did she know about herself, but that, to her surprise, the more she thought over what she heard of Christianity, the more she was drawn to it, and the more it approved itself to her whole soul, and the more it seemed to respond to all her needs and aspirations, and the more intimate was her presentiment that it was true? The longer it remained on her mind as an object, the more it seemed (unlike the mythology or the philosophy of her country, or the political religion of Rome) to have an external reality and substance, which deprived objections to it of their power, and showed them to be at best but difficulties and perplexities.

But then again, if she had been asked, what was Christianity, she would have been puzzled to give an answer. She would have been able to mention some particular truths which it taught, but neither to give them their definite and distinct shape, nor to describe the mode in which they were realised. She would have said, "I believe what has been told me, as from heaven, by Chione, Agellius, and Cęcilius:" and it was clear she could say nothing else. What the three told her in common and in concord was at once the measure of her creed and the ground of her acceptance of it. It was that wonderful unity of sentiment and belief in persons so dissimilar from each other, so {293} distinct in their circumstances, so independent in their testimony, which recommended to her the doctrine which they were so unanimous in teaching. She had long given up any belief in the religion of her country. As to philosophy, it dwelt only in conjecture and opinion; whereas the very essence of religion was, as she felt, a recognition of the worshippers on the part of the Object of it. Religion could not be without hope. To worship a being who did not speak to us, recognise us, love us, was not religion. It might be a duty, it might be a merit; but her instinctive notion of religion was the soul's response to a God who had taken notice of the soul. It was loving intercourse, or it was a name. Now the three witnesses who had addressed her about Christianity had each of them made it to consist in the intimate Divine Presence in the heart. It was the friendship or mutual love of person with person. Here was the very teaching which already was so urgently demanded both by her reason and her heart, which she found nowhere else; which she found existing one and the same in a female slave, in a country youth, in a learned priest.

This was the broad impression which they made upon her mind. When she turned to consider more in detail what it was they taught, or what was implied in that idea of religion which so much approved itself to her, she understood them to say that the Creator of heaven and earth, Almighty, All-good, clothed in all the attributes which philosophy gives Him, the Infinite, had loved the soul of man so much, and her {294} soul in particular, that He had come upon earth in the form of a man, and in that form had gone through sufferings, in order to unite all souls to Him; that He desired to love, and to be loved; that He had said so; that He had called on man to love Him, and did actually bring to pass this loving intercourse of Him and man in those souls who surrendered themselves to Him. She did not go much further than this; but as much as this was before her mind morning, noon, and night. It pleaded in her; it importuned her; it would not be rebuffed. It did not mind her moods, or disgusts, or doubts, or denials, or dismissals, but came again and again. It rose before her, in spite of the contempt, reproach, and persecution which the profession of it involved. It smiled upon her; it made promises to her; it opened eternal views to her; and it grew upon her convictions in clearness of perception, in congruity, and in persuasiveness.

Moreover, the more she thought of Chione, of Agellius, and of Cęcilius the more surely did she discern that this teaching wrought in them a something which she had not. They had about them a simplicity, a truthfulness, a decision, an elevation, a calmness, and a sanctity to which she was a stranger, which spoke to her heart and absolutely overcame her. The image of Cęcilius, in particular, came out prominently and eloquently in her memory,—not in his words so much as in his manner. In spite of what she had injuriously said to him, she really felt drawn to worship him, as if he were the shrine and the {295} home of that Presence to which he bore such solemn witness.

O the change, when, as if in punishment for her wild words against him, she found herself actually in the hands of lawless men, who were as far below her in sentiment as he was above her! O the change, when she was dizzied by their brutal vociferations and rapid motion, and that breath and atmosphere of evil which steamed up from the rankness of their impiety! O the thankfulness which rose up in her heart, though but vaguely directed to an object, when she found the repose and quiet, though it was that of a prison! for young as she was, she had become tired of all things that were seen, and had no strong desire, except for meditation on the great truths which she did not know.

One day passes and then another; and now the morning and the hour is come when she must appear before the magistrates of Sicca. With dread, with agitation, she looks forward to the moment. She has not yet a peace within her. Her peace is the stillness of the room in which she is imprisoned. She knows it will pass away when she leaves it; she knows that again she must be in the hands of cruel, godless men, with whom she has no sympathy; but she has no stay whereon to lean in the terrible trial. Her brother comes to her: he affects to forget her perverseness or delusion. He comes to her with a smile, and throws his arms around her; and Callista repels, from some indescribable feeling, his ardent caress, as {296} if she were no longer his. He has come to accompany her to court, by an indulgence which he had obtained; to support her there,—to carry her through, and to take her back in triumph home. My sister,—why that strange, piteous look upon thy countenance?—why that paleness of thy cheek?—why that whisper of thy lips?—why those wistful, gentle pleadings of thine eyes? Sweet eyes, and brow, and cheek, in which I have ever prided myself! Why so backward?—why so distant and unfriendly? Am I not come to rescue thee from a place where thou never shouldst have been?—where thou ne'er shalt be again? Callista, what is this mystery?—speak!

Such as this was the mute expostulation conveyed in Aristo's look, and in the fond grasp of his hand; while treading down forcibly within him his memory and his fears of her great change, he determined she should be to him still all that she had ever been. But how altered was that look, and how relaxed that grasp, when at length her misery found words, and she said to him in agitation, "My time is short: I want some Christian, a Christian priest!"

It was as though she had never shown any tendency before to the proscribed religion. The words came to him with the intensity of something new and unimagined hitherto. He clasped his hands in emotion, turned white, and could but say, "Callista!" If she had made confession of the most heinous of crimes,—if she had spoken of murder, or some black treachery against {297} himself,—of some enormity too great for words, it might have been; but his sister!—his pride and delight, after all and certainly a Christian! Better far had she said she was leaving him for ever, to abandon herself to the degrading service of the temples; better had she said she had taken hemlock, or had an asp in her bosom, than that she should choose to go out of the world with the tortures, the ignominy, the malediction of the religion of slaves.

Time waits for no man, nor does the court of justice, nor the subsellia of the magistrate. The examination is to be held in the Basilica at the Forum, and it requires from us a few words of explanation beforehand. The local magistrates then could only try the lesser offences, and decide civil suits; cases of suspected Christianity were reserved for the Roman authorities. Still, preliminary examinations were not unfrequently conducted by the city Duumvirs, or even in what may be called the police courts. And this may have especially been the case in the Proconsulates. Proprętors and Presidents were in the appointment of the Emperor, and joined in their persons the supreme civil and military authority. Such provinces, perhaps, were better administered; but there would be more of arbitrariness in their rule, and it would not be so acceptable to the ruled. The Proconsuls, on the other hand, were representatives of the Senate, and had not the military force directly in their hands. The natural tendency of this arrangement was to create, on the {298} one hand, a rivalry between the civil and military establishments; and, on the other, to create a friendly feeling between the Proconsul and the local magistracy. Thus, not long before the date of this history, we read of Gordian, the Proconsul, enjoying a remarkable popularity in his African province; and when the people rose against the exactions of the imperial Procurator, as referred to in a former page, they chose and supported Gordian against him. But however this might be in general, so it was at this time at Sicca, that the Proconsular Officium and the city magistrates were on a good understanding with each other, whereas there was some collision between the latter and the military. Not much depends in the conduct of our story upon this circumstance; but it must be taken to account for the examination of Callista in the Forum, and for some other details which may follow before we come to the end of it.

The populace was collected about the gates and within the ample space of the Basilica, but they gave expression to no strong feeling on the subject of a Christian delinquent. The famine, the sickness, and, above all, the lesson which they had received so lately from the soldiers, had both diminished their numbers and cowed their spirit. They were sullen, too, and resentful; and, with the changeableness proverbial in a multitude, had rather have witnessed the beheading of a magistrate, or the burning of a tribune, than the torture and death of a dozen of wretched Christians. {299} Besides, they had had a glut of Christian blood; a reaction of feeling had taken place, and, in spite of the suspicion of witchcraft, the youth and the beauty of Callista recommended her to their compassion.

The magistrates were seated on the subsellia, one of the Duumvirs presiding, in his white robe bordered with purple; his lictors, with staves, not fasces, standing behind him. In the vestibule of the court, to confront the prisoner on her first entrance, were the usual instruments of torture. The charge was one which can only be compared, in the estimation of both state and people in that day, to that of witchcraft, poisoning, parricide, or other monstrous iniquity in Christian times. There were the heavy boię, a yoke for the neck, of iron, or of wood; the fetters; the nervi, or stocks, in which hands and feet were inserted, at distances from each other which strained or dislocated the joints. There, too, were the virgę, or rods with thorns in them; the flagra, lori, and plumbati, whips and thongs, cutting with iron or bruising with lead; the heavy clubs; the hook for digging into the flesh; the ungula, said to have been a pair of scissors; the scorpio, and pecten, iron combs or rakes for tearing. And there was the wheel, fringed with spikes, on which the culprit was stretched; and there was the fire ready lighted, with the water hissing and groaning in the large caldrons which were placed upon it. Callista had lost for ever that noble intellectual composure of which we have several times spoken; she shuddered at what she saw, and almost fainted, and, while waiting {300} for her summons, leaned heavily against the merciless cornicularius at her side.

At length the judge began—"Let the servant from the Officium stand forth." The officialis answered that he had brought a prisoner charged with Christianity; she had been brought to him by the military on the night of the riot.

The scriba then read out the deposition of one of the stationarii, to the effect that he and his fellow-soldiers had received her from the hands of the civic force on the night in question, and had brought her to the office of the Triumvirs.

"Bring forward the prisoner," said the judge; she was brought forward.

"Here she is," answered the officialis, according to the prescribed form.

"What is your name?" said the judge.

She answered, "Callista."

The judge then asked if she was a freewoman or a slave.

She answered, "Free; the daughter of Orsilochus, lapidary, of Proconnesus."

Some conversation then went on among the magistrates as to her advocate or defensor. Aristo presented himself, but the question arose whether he was togatus. He was known, however, to several magistrates, and was admitted to stand by his sister.

Then the scriba read the charge—viz., that Callista was a Christian, and refused to sacrifice to the gods. {301}

It was a plain question of fact, which required neither witnesses nor speeches. At a sign from the Duumvir in came two priests, bringing in between them the small altar of Jupiter; the charcoal was ready lighted, the incense at the side, and the judge called to the prisoner to sprinkle it upon the flame for the good fortune of Decius and his son. All eyes were turned upon her.

"I am not a Christian," she said; "I told you so before. I have never been to a Christian place of worship, nor taken any Christian oath, nor joined in any Christian sacrifice. And I should lie did I say that I was in any sense a Christian."

There was a silence; then the judge said, "Prove your words; there is the altar, the flame, and the incense; sacrifice to the genius of the Emperor."

She said, "What can I do? I am not a Christian." The judges looked at each other, as much as to say, "It is the old story; it is that inexplicable, hateful obstinacy, which will neither yield to reason, common sense, expediency, or fear."

The Duumvir only repeated the single word, "Sacrifice."

She stopped awhile; then she came forward with a hurried step. "O my fate!" she cried, "why was I born? why am I in this strait? I have no god. What can I do? I am abandoned; why should I not do it?" She stopped; then she went right on to the altar; she took the incense: suddenly she looked up to heaven and started, and threw it away. "I cannot! {302} I dare not!" she cried out. There was a great sensation in court. "Evidently insane," said some of the more merciful of the Decurions; "poor thing, poor thing!" Her brother ran up to her; talked to her, conjured her, fell down on his knees to her; took her hand violently, and would have forced her to offer. In vain; all he could get from her was, "I am not a Christian; indeed, I am not a Christian. I have nothing to do with them. O the misery!"

"She is mad!" cried Aristo; "my lord judges, listen to me. She was seized by brutal ruffians during the riot, and the fright and shock have overcome her. Give her time, oh! give her time, and she will get right. She's a good religious girl; she has done more work for the temples than any girl in Sicca; half the statues in the city are her finishing. Many of you, my lords, have her handiwork. She works with me. Do not add to my anguish in seeing her deranged, by punishing her as a criminal, a Christian: do not take her from me. Sentence her, and you end the whole matter; give her a chance, and she will certainly be restored to the gods and to me. Will you put her to death because she is mad?"

What was to be done? The court was obsequious to the Proconsul, afraid of Rome; jealous that the mob should have been more forward than the magistracy. Had the city moved sooner, as soon as the edict came, there would have been no rising, no riot. Already they had been called on for a report about that riot and an explanation; if ever they had need {303} to look sharp what they were doing, it was now. On the other hand, Callista and her brother had friends among the judges, as we have said, and their plea was at once obvious and reasonable. "If she persists, she persists, and nothing can be said; we don't wish to be disloyal, or careless of the emperor's commands. If she is obstinate, she must die; but she dies quite as usefully to us, with quite as much effect, a month hence as now. Not that we ask you to define a time on your own authority; simply do this, write to Carthage for advice. The government can answer within an hour, if it chooses. Merely say, 'Here is a young woman, who has ever been religious and well conducted, of great accomplishments, and known especially for her taste and skill in religious art, who since the day of the riot has suddenly refused to take the test. She can give no reason for her refusal, and protests she is not a Christian. Her friends say that the fright has turned her brain, but that if kindly treated and kept quiet, she will come round, and do all that is required of her. What are we to do?'"

At last Callista's friends prevailed. It was decided that the judges should pass over this examination altogether, as if it had been rendered informal by Callista's conduct. Had they recognised it as a proper legal process, they must have sentenced and executed her. Such a decision was of this further advantage to her, that nothing was altered as to her place of confinement. Instead of being handed over to the state {304} prison, she remained in her former lodging, though in custody, and was allowed to see her friends. There had been very little chance of her recovery, supposing she was mad, or of ever coming out, if she had once gone into the formidable Carcer. Meanwhile the magistrates sent to Carthage for instructions.

Chapter 28

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