Chapter 30. Torres Vedras

{329} THERE were those, however, whom Callista could understand, and who could understand her; there were those who, while Aristo, Cornelius, Jucundus, and Polemo were moving in her behalf, were interesting themselves also in her, and in a more effectual way. Agellius had joined Cęcilius, and, if in no other way, by his mouth came to the latter and his companions the news of her imprisonment. On the morning that Agellius had been so strangely let out of confinement by his brother, and found himself seated at the street-door, with his tunic on his arm and his boots on the ground before him, his first business was to recollect where he was, and to dispose of those articles of dress according to their respective uses. What should he do with himself, was of course his second thought. He could not stay there long without encountering the early risers of Sicca, the gates being already open. To attempt to find out where Callista was, and then to see her or rescue her, would have ended at once in his own capture. To go to his own farm would have been nearly as dangerous, and would have had less {330} meaning. Cęcilius too had said, that they were not long to be separated, and had given him directions for finding him.

Immediately then he made his way to one of the eastern gates, which led to Thibursicumbur. There was indeed no time to be lost, as he soon had indications; he met several men who knew him by sight, and one of the apparitors of the Duumviri, who happily did not. An apostate Christian, whose zeal for the government was notorious, passed him and looked back after him. However, he would soon be out of pursuit, if he had the start of them until the sun got round the mountains he was seeking. He walked on through a series of rocky and barren hills, till he got some way past the second milestone. Before he had reached the third he had entered a defile in the mountains. Perpendicular rocks rose on each side of him, and the level road, reaching from rock to rock, was not above thirty feet across. He felt that if he was pursued here, there was no escape. The third milestone passed, he came to the country road; he pursued it, counting out his thousand steps, as Cęcilius had instructed him. By this time it had left the stony bottom, and was rising up the side of the precipice. Brushwood and dwarf pines covered it, mingled with a few olives and caroubas. He said out his seven pater nosters as he walked, and then looked around. He had just passed a goatherd, and they looked hard at each other. Agellius wished him good morning.

"You are wishing a kid for Bacchus, sir," said the {331} man to him as he was running his eye over the goats. On Agellius answering in the negative, he said in a clownish way, "He who does not sacrifice to Bacchus does not sacrifice goats."

Agellius, bearing in mind Cęcilius's directions, saw of course there was something in the words which did not meet the ear, and answered carelessly, "He who does not sacrifice, does not sacrifice to Bacchus."

"True," said the man, "but perhaps you prefer a lamb for a sacrifice."

Agellius replied, "If it is the right one; but the one I mean was slain long since."

The man, without any change of manner, went on to say that there was an acquaintance of his not far up the rock, who could perhaps satisfy him on the point. He said, "Follow those wild olives, though the path seems broken, and you will come to him at the nineteenth."

Agellius set out, and never was path so untrue to its own threats. It seemed ending in abrupt cliffs every turn, but never fulfilled the anticipation; that is, while he kept to the olive-trees. After ascending what was rather a flight of marble steps, washed and polished by the winter torrents, than a series of crags, he fulfilled the number of trees, and looked round at the man sitting under it. O the joy and surprise! it was his old servant Aspar.

"You are safe, then, Aspar," he said, "and I find you here. O what a tender Providence!"

"I have taken my stand here, master," returned {332} Aspar, "day after day, since I got here, in hopes of seeing you. I could not get back to you from Jucundus's that dreadful morning, and so I made my way here. Your uncle sent for you in my presence, but at the time I did not know what it meant. I was able to escape."

"And now for Cęcilius," said Agellius.

Behind the olive-tree a torrent's bed descended; the descent being so easy, and yet so natural, that art had evidently interfered with nature, yet concealed its interference. After tracing it some yards, they came to a chasm on the opposite side; and, passing through it, Agellius soon found himself, to his surprise, on a bleak open hill, to which the huge mountain formed merely a sort of faēade. Its surface was half rock, half moor, and it was surrounded by precipices. It was such a place as some hermit of the middle ages might have chosen for his solitude. The two walked briskly across it, and at length came to a low, broad yawning opening, branching out into several passages which, if pursued, would have been found to end in nothing. Aspar, however, made straight for what appeared a dead wall of rock, in which, on his making a signal, a door, skilfully hidden, was opened from within, and was shut behind them by the porter. They now stood in a gallery running into the mountain. It was very long, and a stream of cold air came along it. Aspar told him that at the extremity of it they should find Cęcilius.

Agellius was indeed in the vestibule of a remarkable {333} specimen of those caves which had been used for religious purposes, first by the aborigines of the country, then by the Phœnician colonists, and in the centuries which had just passed, for the concealment of the Christians. The passage along which they were proceeding might itself be fitly called a cave, but still it was only one of several natural subterraneans, of different shapes, and opening into each other. Some of them lay along the face of a ravine, from which they received light and air; and here in one place there were indications of a fortified front. They were perfectly dry, though the water had at some remote period filtered through the roof, and had formed pendants and pillars of semi-transparent stalactite, of great beauty. It was another and singular advantage that a particular spot in one of the caverns, which bordered on the ravine, was the focus of an immense ear or whispering-gallery, such, that whatever took place in the public road in which the ravine terminated, could be distinctly heard there, and thus they were always kept on guard against the attack of an enemy, if expected. Had either Agellius or Aspar been curious about such a matter, the latter might have pointed out the place where a Punic altar once had been discovered, with a sort of tumulus of bones of mice near at hand, that animal coming into the list of victims in the Phœnician worship.

But the two Christians were engaged, as they first halted, and then walked along the corridor, in other thoughts, than in asking and answering questions {334} about the history of the place of refuge in which they found themselves. We have already remarked on the central position of Sicca for the purpose of missionary work and of retreat in persecution; such a dwelling in the rocks did but increase its advantageousness, and in consequence at this moment many Christians had availed themselves of it. It is an English proverb that three removes are as bad as a fire; and so great were the perils and the hardships of flight in those times, that it was a question, in a merely earthly point of view, whether the risk of being apprehended at home was not a far less evil than the evils which were certain upon leaving it. There was nothing, then, ungenerous in the ecclesiastical rule that they alone should flee, in persecution, who were marked out for death, if they stayed. The laity, private families, and the priests, on whose ministrations they depended, remained; bishops, deacons, and what may be called the staff of the episcopate, notaries, messengers, seminarists, and ascetics, would disappear from the scene of persecution.

Agellius learned from his slave that the cave had been known to him from the time he was a boy, and that it was one of the secrets which all who shared it religiously observed. Holy men, it seemed, had had intimations of the present trial for several years past; and it was the full persuasion of the heads of the Church, that, though it might blow over for a short time, it would recur at intervals for many years, ending in a visitation so heavy and long, that the times {335} of Antichrist would seem to have arrived. However, the impression upon their minds was, that then would come a millennium, or, in some sort, a reign of the saints upon the earth. That, however, was a date which even Agellius himself, young as he was, would not be likely to reach; indeed, who could expect to escape, who might not hope to gain, a Martyr's death, in the interval, in the series of assaults, between which Christianity had to run the gauntlet? Aspar said, moreover, that some martyrs lay in the chapels within, and that various confessors had ended their days there. At the present time there were representatives, there collected, of a large portion of the Churches of the Proconsulate. A post, so to call it, went between them and Carthage every week, and his friend and father, the bishop of that city, was especially busy in correspondence.

Moreover, Agellius learned from him that they had many partisans, well-wishers, and sympathizers, about the country, whom no one suspected; the families of parents who had conformed to the established worship, nay, sometimes the apostates themselves, and that this was the case in Sicca as well as elsewhere. For himself, old and ignorant as he was, the persecution had proved to him an education. He had been brought near great men, and some who, he was confident, would be martyrs in the event. He had learned a great deal about his religion which he did not know before, and had drunk in the spirit of Christianity, with a fulness which he trusted would not turn to his {336} ultimate condemnation. He now too had a consciousness of the size and populousness of the Church, of her diffusion, of the promises made to her, of the essential necessity of what seemed to be misfortune, of the episcopal regimen, and of the power and solidity of the see of Peter afar off in Rome, all which knowledge had made him quite another being. We have put all this into finer language than the good old man used himself, and we have grouped it more exactly, but this is what his words would come to, when explained.

Coming down to sublunary matters, Aspar said the cave was well provisioned; they had bread, oil, figs, dried grapes, and wine. They had vessels and vestments for the Holy Sacrifice. Their serious want was a dearth of water at that season, but they relied on Divine Providence to give them by miracle, if in no other way, a supply. The place was piercingly cold too in the winter.

By this time they had gained the end of the long gallery, and passed through a second apartment, when suddenly the sounds of the ecclesiastical chant burst on the ear of Agellius. How strange, how transporting to him! he was almost for the first time coming home to his father's house, though he had been a Christian from a child, and never, as he trusted, to leave it, now that it was found. He did not know how to behave himself, nor indeed where to go. Aspar conducted him into the seats set apart for the faithful; he knelt down and burst into tears. {337}

It was approaching the third hour, the hour at which the Paraclete originally descended upon the Apostles, and which, when times of persecution were passed, was appointed in the West for the solemn mass of the day. In that early age, indeed, the time of the solemnity was generally midnight, in order to elude observation; but even then such an hour was considered of but temporary arrangement. Pope Telesphorus is said to have prescribed the hour, afterwards in use, as early even as the second century; and in a place of such quiet and security as the cavern in which we just now find ourselves, there was no reason why it should not be selected. At the lower end of the chapel was a rail extending across it, and open in the middle, where its two portions turned up at right angles on each side towards the altar. The enclosure thus made was the place proper for the faithful, into which Agellius had been introduced, and about fifty persons were collected about him. Where the two side-rails which ran up the chapel ceased, there was a broad step; and upon it two pulpits, one on each side. Then came a second elevation, carrying the eye on to the extremity of the upper end.

In the middle of the wall at that upper end is a recess, occupied by a tomb. On the front of it is written the name of some glorious champion of the faith who lies there. It is one of the first bishops of Sicca, and the inscription attests that he slept in the Lord under the Emperor Antoninus. Over the sacred relics is a slab, and on the slab the Divine {338} Mysteries are now to be celebrated. At the back is a painting on the wall, very similar to that in Agellius's cottage. The ever-blessed immaculate Mother of God is exercising her office as the Advocate of sinners, standing by the sacrifice as she stood at the cross itself, and offering up and applying its infinite merits and incommunicable virtue in union with priest and people. So instinctive in the Christian mind is the principle of decoration, as it may be called, that even in times of suffering, and places of banishment, we see it brought into exercise. Not only is the arch which overspans the altar ornamented with an arabesque pattern, but the roof or vault is coloured with paintings. Our Lord is in the centre, with two figures of Moses on each side, on the right unloosing his sandals, on the left striking the rock. Between the centre figure and the altar may be seen the raising of Lazarus; in the opposite partition the healing of the paralytic; at the four angles are men and women alternately in the attitude of prayer.

At this time the altar-stone was covered with a rich crimson silk, with figures of St. Peter and St. Paul worked in gold upon it, the gift of a pious lady of Carthage. Beyond the altar, but not touching it, was a cross; and on one side of the altar a sort of basin or piscina cut in the rock, with a linen cloth hanging up against it. There were no candles upon the altar itself, but wax lights fixed into silver stands were placed at intervals along the edge of the presbytery or elevation.

The mass was in behalf of the confessors for the {339} faith then in prison in Carthage; and the sacred ministers, some half-hour after Agellius's entrance, made their appearance. Their vestments already varied somewhat from the ordinary garments of the day, and bespoke antiquity; and, though not so simply sui generis as they are now, they were so far special, that they were never used on any other occasion, but were reserved for the sacred service. The neck was bare, the amice being as yet unknown; instead of the stole was what was called the orarium, a sort of handkerchief resting on the shoulders, and falling down on each side. The alb had been the inner garment, or camisium, which in civil use was retained at night when the other garments were thrown off; and, as at the present day, it was confined round the waist by a zone or girdle. The maniple was a napkin, supplying the place of a handkerchief; and the chasuble was an ample pęnula, such as was worn by the judges, a cloak enveloping the whole person round, when spread out, with an opening in the centre, through which the head might pass. The deacon's dalmatic was much longer than it is now, and the subdeacon's tunicle resembled the alb. All the vestments were of the purest white.

The mass began by the bishop giving his blessing; and then the Lector, a man of venerable age, taking the roll called Lectionarium, and proceeding to a pulpit, read the Prophets to the people, much in the way observed among ourselves still on holy Saturday and the vigil of Pentecost. These being finished, the people chanted the first verse of the Gloria Patri, {340} after which the clergy alternated with the people the Kyrie, pretty much as the custom is now.

Here a fresh roll was brought to the Lector, then or afterwards called Apostolus, from which he read one of the canonical epistles. A psalm followed, which was sung by the people; and, after this, the Lector received the Evangeliarium, and read a portion of the Gospel, at which lights were lighted, and the people stood. When he had finished, the Lector opened the roll wide, and, turning round, presented it to bishop, clergy, and people to kiss.

The deacon then cried out, "Ite in pace, catechumeni," "Depart in peace, catechumens;" and then the kiss of peace was passed round, and the people began to sing some psalms or hymns. While they were so engaged, the deacon received from the acolyte the sindon, or corporal, which was of the length of the altar, and perhaps of greater breadth, and spread it upon the sacred table. Next was placed on the sindon the oblata, that is, the small loaves, according to the number of communicants, with the paten, which was large, and a gold chalice, duly prepared. And then the sindon, or corporal, was turned back over them, to cover them as a pall.

The celebrant then advanced: he stood at the further side of the altar, where the candles are now, with his face to the people, and then began the holy sacrifice. First he incensed the oblata, that is, the loaves and chalice, as an acknowledgment of God's sovereign dominion, and as a token of uplifted prayer {341} to Him. Then the roll of prayers was brought him, while the deacon began what is sometimes called the bidding prayer, being a catalogue of the various subjects for which intercession is to be made, after the manner of the Oremus dilectissimi, now used on Good Friday. This catalogue included all conditions of men, the conversion of the world, the exaltation of Holy Church, the maintenance of the Roman empire, the due ripening and gathering of the fruits of the earth, and other spiritual and temporal blessings,—subjects very much the same as those which are now called the Pope's intentions. The prayers ended with a special reference to those present, that they might persevere in the Lord even to the end. And then the priest began the Sursum corda, and said the Sanctus.

The Canon or Actio seems to have run, in all but a few words, as it does now, and the solemn words of consecration were said secretly. Great stress was laid on the Lord's prayer, which in one sense terminated the function. It was said aloud by the people, and when they said, "Forgive us our trespasses," they beat their breasts.

It is not wonderful that Agellius, assisting for almost the first time at this wonderful solemnity, should have noted everything as it occurred; and we must be considered as giving our account of it from his mouth.

It needs not to enlarge on the joy of the meeting which followed between Cęcilius and his young penitent. {342} "O my father," he said, "I come to thee, never to leave thee, to be thy dutiful servant, and to be trained by thee after the pattern of Him who made thee what thou art. Wonderful things have happened; Callista is in prison on the charge of Christianity; I was in a sort of prison myself, or what was worse for my soul; and Juba, my brother, in the strangest of ways, has this morning let me out. Shall she not be saved, my father, in God's own way, as well as I? At least we can all pray for her; but surely we can do more—so precious a soul must not be left to herself and the world. If she has the trials, she may claim the blessings of a Christian. Is she to go back to heathenism? Is she, alas! to suffer without baptism? Shall we not hazard death to bestow on her that grace?"

Chapter 31

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