Chapter 29. Conversion

{317} IF there is a state of mind utterly forlorn, it is that in which we left the poor prisoner after Polemo had departed. She was neither a Christian, nor was she not. She was in the midway region of inquiry, which as surely takes time to pass over, except there be some almost miraculous interference, as it takes time to walk from place to place. You see a person coming towards you, and you say, impatiently, "Why don't you come faster?—why are you not here already?" Why?—because it takes time. To see that heathenism is false,—to see that Christianity is true,—are two acts, and involve two processes. They may indeed be united, and the truth may supplant the error; but they may not. Callista obeyed, as far as truth was brought home to her. She saw the vanity of idols before she had faith in Him who came to destroy them. She could safely say, "I discard Jupiter:" she could not say, "I am a Christian." Besides, what did she know of Christians? How did she know that they would admit her, if she wished it? They were a secret society, with an election, an initiation, and oaths;—not a mere philosophical {318} school, or a profession of opinion, open to any individual. If they were the good people that she fancied them to be,—and if they were not, she would not think of them at all,—they were not likely to accept of her.

Still, though we may account for her conduct, its issue was not, on that account, the less painful. She had neither the promise of this world, nor of the next, and was losing earth without gaining heaven. Our Lord is reported to have said, "Be ye good money-changers." Poor Callista did not know how to turn herself to account. It had been so all through her short life. She had ardent affections, and keen sensibilities, and high aspirations; but she was not fortunate in the application of them. She had put herself into her brother's hands, and had let him direct her course. It could not be expected that he would be very different from the world. We are cautioned against "rejoicing in our youth." Aristo rejoiced in his without restraint; and he made his sister rejoice in hers, if enjoyment it was. He himself found in the pleasures he pointed out a banquet of fruits:—she dust and ashes. And so she went on; not changing her life, from habit, from the captivity of nature, but weary, disappointed, fastidious, hungry, yet not knowing what she would have; yearning after something, she did not well know what. And as heretofore she had cast her lot with the world, yet had received no price for her adhesion, so now she had bid it farewell; yet had nothing to take in its place. {319}

As to her brother, after the visit of Polemo, he got more and more annoyed—angry rather than distressed, and angry with her. One more opportunity occurred of her release, and it was the last effort he made to move her. Cornelius, in spite of his pomposity, had acted the part of a real friend. He wrote from Carthage, that he had happily succeeded in his application to government, and, difficult and unusual as was the grace, had obtained her release. He sent the formal documents for carrying it through the court, and gained the eager benediction of the excitable Aristo. He rushed with the parchments to the magistrates, who recognised them as sufficient, and got an order for admission to her room.

"Joy, my dearest," he cried; "you are free! We will leave this loathsome country by the first vessel. I have seen the magistrates already."

The colour came into her wan face, she clasped her hands together, and looked earnestly at Aristo. He proceeded to explain the process of liberation. She would not be called on to sacrifice, but must sign a writing to the effect that she had done so, and there would be an end of the whole matter. On the first statement she saw no difficulty in the proposal, and started up in animation. Presently her countenance fell; how could she say that she had done what it was treason to her inward Guide to do? What was the difference between acknowledging a blasphemy by a signature or by incense? She smiled sorrowfully at him, shook her head, and lay down again upon her {320} rushes. She had anticipated the Church's judgment on the case of the Libellatici.

Aristo could not at first believe he heard aright, that she refused to be saved by what seemed to him a matter of legal form; and his anger grew so high as to eclipse and to shake his affection. "Lost girl," he cried, "I abandon you to the Furies!" and he shook his clenched hand at her. He turned away, and said he would never see her again, and he kept his word. He never came again. He took refuge, with less restraint than was usual to him, in such pleasures as the city could supply, and strove to drive his sister from his mind by dissipation. He mixed in the games of the Campus Martius under the shadow of the mountain; took part with the revellers in the Forum, and ended the evening at the Thermę. Sometimes the image of dear Callista, as once she looked, would rush into his mind with a force which would not be denied, and he would weep for a whole night.

At length he determined to destroy himself, after the example of so many great men. He gave a sumptuous entertainment, expending his means upon it, and invited his friends to partake of it. It passed off with great gaiety; nothing was wanting to make it equal to an occasion so special and singular. He disclosed to his guests his purpose, and they applauded; the last libations were made—the revellers departed—the lights were extinguished. Aristo disappeared that night: Sicca never saw him again. {321} After some time it was found that he was at Carthage, and he had been provident enough to take with him some of his best working tools, and some specimens of his own and poor Callista's skill.

Strange to say, Jucundus proved a truer friend to the poor girl than her brother. In spite of his selfishness and hatred of Christians, he was considerably affected as her case got more and more serious, and it became evident that only one answer could be returned to the magistrates from Carthage. He was quite easy about Agellius, who had, as he considered, successfully made off with himself, and he was reconciled to the thought of never seeing him again. Had it not been for this, one might have fancied that some lurking anxiety about the fate of his nephew might have kept alive the fidget which Callista's dismal situation gave him, for the philosopher tells us, that pity always has something in it of self; but, under the circumstances, it would be rash judgment to have any such suspicion of his motives. He was not a cruel man: even the "hoary-headed Fabian," or Cyprian, or others whom he so roundly abused, would have found, when it came to the point, that his bluster was his worst weapon against them; at any rate he had enough of the "milk of human kindness" to feel considerable distress about that idiotic Callista.

Yet what could he do? He might as well stop the passage of the sun, as the movements of mighty Rome, and a rescript would be coming to a certainty {322} in due time from Carthage, and would just say one thing, which would forthwith be passing into the region of fact. He had no one to consult, and to tell the truth, Callista's fate was more than acquiesced in by the public of Sicca. Her death seemed a solution of various perplexities and troubles into which the edict had brought them; it would be purchasing the praise of loyalty cheaply. Moreover, there were sets of men actually hostile to her and her brother; the companies of statuaries, lapidaries, and goldsmiths, were jealous of foreign artists like them, who showed contempt for Africa, and who were acquainted, or rather intimate, with many of the higher classes, and even high personages in the place. Well, but could not some of those great people help her now? His mind glanced towards Calphurnius, whom he had heard of as in some way or other protecting her on the evening of the riot, and to him he determined to betake himself.

Calphurnius and the soldiery were still in high dudgeon with the populace of Sicca, displeased with the magistrates, and full of sympathy for Callista. Jucundus opened his mind fully to the tribune, and persuaded him to take him to Septimius, his military superior, and in the presence of the latter many good words were uttered both by Calphurnius and Jucundus. Jucundus gave it as his opinion that it was a very great mistake to strike at any but the leaders of the Christian sect; he quoted the story of King Tarquin and the poppies, and assured the great {323} man that it was what he had always said and always prophesied, and that, depend upon it, it was a great mistake not to catch Cyprianus.

"The strong arm of the law," he said, "should not, on the other hand, be put forth against such butterflies as this Callista, a girl who, he knew from her brother, had not yet seen eighteen summers. What harm could such a poor helpless thing possibly do? She could not even defend herself, much less attack anybody else. No," he continued, "your proper policy with these absurd people is a smiling face and an open hand. Recollect the fable of the sun and the wind; which made the traveller lay aside his cloak? Do you fall in with some sour-visaged, stiff-backed worshipper of the Furies? fill his cup for him, crown his head with flowers, bring in the flute-women. Observe him—he relaxes; a smile spreads on his countenance; he laughs at a jest; 'captus est; habet:' he pours a libation. Great Jove has conquered! he is loyal to Rome; what can you desire more? But beat him, kick him, starve him, turn him out of doors; and you have a natural enemy to do you a mischief whenever he can."

Calphurnius took his own line, and a simple one. "If it was some vile slave or scoundrel African," he said, "no harm would have been done; but, by Jupiter Tonans, it's a Greek girl, who sings like a Muse, dances like a Grace, and spouts verses like Minerva. 'Twould be sacrilege to touch a hair of her head; and we forsooth are to let these cowardly dogs {324} of magistrates entrap Fortunianus at Carthage into this solecism."

Septimius said nothing, as became a man in office; but he came to an understanding with his visitors. It was plain that the Duumvirs of Sicca had no legal custody of Callista; in a criminal matter she might seem to fall under the jurisdiction of the military; and Calphurnius gained leave to claim his right at the proper moment. The rest of his plan the tribune kept to himself, nor did Septimius wish to know it. He intended to march a guard into the prison shortly before Callista was brought out for execution, and then to make it believed that she had died under the horrors of the Barathrum. The corpse of another woman could without difficulty be found to be her representative, and she herself would be carried off to the camp.

Meanwhile, to return to the prisoner herself, what was the consolation, what the occupation of Callista in this waiting time, ere the Proconsul had sent his answer? Strange to say, and, we suppose, from a sinful waywardness in her, she had, up to this moment, neglected to avail herself of a treasure, which by a rare favour had been put into her possession. A small parchment, carefully written, elaborately adorned, lay in her bosom, which might already have been the remedy of many a perplexity, many a woe. It is difficult to say under what feelings she had been reluctant to open the Holy Gospel, which Cęcilius had intrusted to her care. Whether she was so low {325} and despondent that she could not make the effort, or whether she feared to convince herself further, or whether she professed to be waiting for some calmer time, as if that were possible, or whether her unwillingness was that which makes sick people so averse to eating, or to remedies which they know would be useful to them, cannot well be determined; but there are many of us who may be able, from parallel instances of infirmity, to enter into that state of mind, which led her at least to procrastinate what she might do any minute. However, now left absolutely to herself, Aristo gone, and the answer of the government to the magistracy not having yet come, she recurred to the parchment, and to the Bishop's words, which ran, "Here you will see who it is we love," or language to that effect. It was tightly lodged under her girdle, and so had escaped in the confusion of that terrible evening. She opened it at length and read.

It was the writing of a provincial Greek; elegant, however, and marked with that simplicity which was to her taste the elementary idea of a classic author. It was addressed to one Theophilus, and professed to be a carefully digested and verified account of events which had been already attempted by others. She read a few paragraphs, and became interested, and in no long time she was absorbed in the volume. When she had once taken it up, she did not lay it down. Even at other times she would have prized it, but now, when she was so desolate and lonely, it was {326} simply a gift from an unseen world. It opened a view of a new state and community of beings, which only seemed too beautiful to be possible. But not into a new state of things alone, but into the presence of One who was simply distinct and removed from anything that she had, in her most imaginative moments, ever depicted to her mind as ideal perfection. Here was that to which her intellect tended, though that intellect could not frame it. It could approve and acknowledge, when set before it, what it could not originate. Here was He who spoke to her in her conscience; whose Voice she heard, whose Person she was seeking for. Here was He who kindled a warmth on the cheek of both Chione and Agellius. That image sank deep into her; she felt it to be a reality. She said to herself, "This is no poet's dream; it is the delineation of a real individual. There is too much truth and nature, and life and exactness about it, to be anything else." Yet she shrank from it; it made her feel her own difference from it, and a feeling of humiliation came upon her mind, such as she never had had before. She began to despise herself more thoroughly day by day; yet she recollected various passages in the history which reassured her amid her self-abasement, especially that of His tenderness and love for the poor girl at the feast, who would anoint His feet; and the full tears stood in her eyes, and she fancied she was that sinful child, and that He did not repel her.

O what a new world of thought she had entered! it {327} occupied her mind from its very novelty. Everything looked dull and dim by the side of it; her brother had ever been dinning into her ears that maxim of the heathen, "Enjoy the present, trust nothing to the future." She indeed could not enjoy the present with that relish which he wished, and she had not any trust in the future either; but this volume spoke a different doctrine. There she learned the very opposite to what Aristo taught—viz., that the present must be sacrificed for the future; that what is seen must give way to what is believed. Nay, more, she drank in the teaching which at first seemed so paradoxical, that even present happiness and present greatness lie in relinquishing what at first sight seems to promise them; that the way to true pleasure is, not through self-indulgence, but through mortification; that the way to power is weakness, the way to success failure, the way to wisdom foolishness, the way to glory dishonour. She saw that there was a higher beauty than that which the order and harmony of the natural world revealed, and a deeper peace and calm than that which the exercise, whether of the intellect or of the purest human affection, can supply. She now began to understand that strange, unearthly composure, which had struck her in Chione, Agellius, and Cęcilius; she understood that they were detached from the world, not because they had not the possession, nor the natural love of its gifts, but because they possessed a higher blessing already, which they loved above everything else. Thus, by degrees, {328} Callista came to walk by a new philosophy; and had ideas, and principles, and a sense of relations and aims, and a susceptibility of arguments, to which before she was an utter stranger. Life and death, action and suffering, fortunes and abilities, all had now a new meaning and application. As the skies speak differently to the philosopher and the peasant, as a book of poems to the imaginative and to the cold and narrow intellect, so now she saw her being, her history, her present condition, her future, in a new light, which no one else could share with her. But the ruling sovereign thought of the whole was He, who exemplified all this wonderful philosophy in Himself.

Chapter 30

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