Chapter 9. Jucundus Baits his Trap

{92} AGELLIUS is busily employed upon his farm. While the enemies of his faith are laying their toils for him and his brethren in the imperial city, in the proconsular officium, and in the municipal curia,—while Jucundus is scheming against him personally in another way and with other intentions,—the unconscious object of these machinations is busy about his master's crops, housing the corn in caves or pits, distilling the roses, irrigating the khennah, and training and sheltering the vines. And he does so, not only from a sense of duty, but the more assiduously, because he finds in constant employment a protection against himself, against idle thoughts, wayward wishes, discontent, and despondency. It is doubtless very strange to the reader how any one who professed himself a Christian in good earnest should be open to the imputation of resting his hopes and his heart in the tents of paganism; but we do not see why Agellius has not quite as much right to be inconsistent in one way as Christians of the present time in another, and perhaps he has more to say for himself than they. They have not had the trial of solitude, {93} nor the consequent temptation to which he has been exposed, of seeking relief from his own thoughts in the company of unbelievers. When a boy he had received his education at that school in the Temple of Mercury of which we heard in the foregoing chapter; and though happily he had preserved himself from the contagion of idolatry and sin, he had on that very account formed no friendships with his schoolfellows. Whether there were any Christians there besides himself he did not know; but while the worst of his schoolfellows were what heathen boys may be supposed to be, the lightest censure which could be passed on any was that they were greedy, or quarrelsome, or otherwise unamiable. He had learned there enough to open his mind, and to give him materials for thinking, and instruments for reflecting on his own religion, and for drawing out into shape his own reflections. He had received just that discipline which makes solitude most pleasant to the old, and most insupportable to the young. He had got a thousand questions which needed answers, a thousand feelings which needed sympathy. He wanted to know whether his guesses, his perplexities, his trials of mind, were peculiar to himself, or how far they were shared by others, and what they were worth. He had capabilities for intellectual enjoyment unexercised, and a thirst after knowledge unsatisfied. And the channels of supernatural assistance were removed from him at a time when nature was most impetuous and most clamorous. {94}

It was under circumstances such as these that two young Greeks, brother and sister, the brother older, the sister younger, than Agellius, came to Sicca at the invitation of Jucundus, who wanted them for his trade. His nephew in time got acquainted with them, and found in them what he had sought in vain elsewhere. It is not that they were oracles of wisdom or repositories of philosophical learning; their age and their calling forbade it, nor did he require it. For an oracle, of course, he would have looked in another direction; but he desiderated something more on a level with himself, and that they abundantly supplied. He found, from his conversations with them, that a great number of the questions which had been a difficulty to him had already been agitated in the schools of Greece. He found what solutions were possible, what the hinge was on which questions turned, what the issue to which they led, and what the principle which lay at the bottom of them. He began better to understand the position of Christianity in the world of thought, and the view which was taken of it by the advocates of other religions or philosophies. He gained some insight into its logic, and advanced, without knowing it, in the investigation of its evidences.

Nor was this all; he acquired by means of his new friends a great deal also of secular knowledge as well as philosophical. He learned much of the history of foreign countries, especially of Greece, of its heroes and sages, its poets and its statesmen, of {95} Alexander, of the Syro-Macedonic empire, of the Jews, and of the series of conquests through which Rome advanced to universal dominion.

To impart knowledge is as interesting as to acquire it; and Agellius was called upon to give as well as to take. The brother and sister, without showing any great religious earnestness, were curious to know about Christianity, and listened with the more patience that they had no special attachment to any other worship. In the debates which ensued, though there was no agreement, there was the pleasure of mental exercise and excitement; he found enough to tell them without touching upon the more sacred mysteries; and while he never felt his personal faith at all endangered by their free conversation, his charity, or at least his good-will and his gratitude, led him to hope, or even to think, that they were in the way of conversion themselves. In this thought he was aided by his own innocence and simplicity; and though, on looking back afterwards to this eventful season, he recognized many trivial occurrences which ought to have put him on his guard, yet he had no suspicion at the time that those who conversed so winningly, and sustained so gracefully and happily the commerce of thought and sentiment, might in their actual state, nay, in their governing principles, be in utter contrariety to himself when the veil was removed from off their hearts.

Nor was it in serious matters alone, but still more on lighter occasions of intercourse, that Aristo and {96} Callista were attractive to the solitary Agellius. She had a sweet thrilling voice, and accompanied herself on the lyre. She could act the improvisatrice, and her expressive features were a running commentary on the varied meaning, the sunshine and the shade, of her ode or her epic. She could relate how the profane Pentheus and the self-glorious Hippolytus gave a lesson to the world of the feebleness of human virtue when it placed itself in opposition to divine power. She could teach how the chaste Diana manifests herself to the simple shepherd Endymion, not to the great or learned; and how Tithonus, the spouse of the Morn, adumbrates the fate of those who revel in their youth, as if it were to last for ever; and who, when old, do nothing but talk of the days when they were young, wearying others with tales of "their amours or their exploits, like grasshoppers that show their vigour only by their chirping." [Note] The very allegories which sickened and irritated Arnobius when spouted out by Polemo, touched the very chords of poor Agellius's heart when breathed forth from the lips of the beautiful Greek.

She could act also; and suddenly, when conversation flagged or suggested it, she could throw herself into the part of Medea or Antigone, with a force and truth which far surpassed the effect produced by the male and masked representations of those characters at the theatre. Brother and sister were Œdipus and Antigone, Electra and Orestes, Cassandra and the {97} Chorus. Once or twice they attempted a scene in Menander; but there was something which made Agellius shrink from the comedy, beautiful as it was, and clever as was the representation. Callista could act Thais as truly as Iphigenia, but Agellius could not listen as composedly. There are certain most delicate instincts and perceptions in us which act as first principles, and which, once effaced, can never, except from some supernatural source, be restored to the mind. When men are in a state of nature, these are sinned against, and vanish very soon, at so early a date in the history of the individual that perhaps he does not recollect that he ever possessed them; and since, like other first principles, they are but very partially capable of proof, a general scepticism prevails both as to their existence and their truth. The Greeks, partly from the vivacity of their intellect, partly from their passion for the beautiful, lost these celestial adumbrations sooner than other nations. When a collision arose on such matters between Agellius and his friends, Callista kept silence; but Aristo was not slow to express his wonder that the young Christian should think customs or practices wrong which, in his view of the matter, were as unblamable and natural as eating, drinking, or sleeping. His own face became almost satirical as Agellius's became grave; however, he was too companionable and good-natured to force another to be happy in his own way; he imputed to the extravagance of his friend's religion what in any but a Christian he would {98} have called moroseness and misanthropy; and he bade his sister give over representations which, instead of enlivening the passing hour, did but inflict pain.

This friendly intercourse had now gone on for some months, as the leisure of both parties admitted. Once or twice brother and sister had come to the suburban farm; but for the most part, in spite of his intense dislike of the city, he had for their sake threaded its crowded and narrow thoroughfares, crossed its open places, and presented himself at their apartments. And was it very strange that a youth so utterly ignorant of the world, and unsuspicious of evil, should not have heard the warning voice which called him to separate himself from heathenism, even in its most specious form? Was it very strange, under these circumstances, that a sanguine hope, the hope of the youthful, should have led Agellius to overlook obstacles, and beguile himself into the notion that Callista might be converted, and make a good Christian wife? Well, we have nothing more to say for him; if we have not already succeeded in extenuating his offence, we must leave him to the mercy, or rather to the justice, of his severely virtuous censors.

But all this while Jucundus had been conversing with him; and, unless we are quick about it, we shall lose several particulars which are necessary for those who wish to pursue without a break the thread of his history. His uncle had brought the conversation round to the delicate point which had occasioned his {99} visit, and had just broken the ice. With greater tact, and more ample poetical resources than we should have given him credit for, he had been led from the scene before him to those prospects of a moral and social character which ought soon to employ the thoughts of his dear Agellius. He had spoken of vines and of their culture, apropos of the dwarf vines around him, which stood about the height of a currant-bush. Thence he had proceeded to the subject of the more common vine of Africa, which crept and crawled along the ground, the extremity of each plant resting in succession on the stock of that which immediately preceded it. And now, being well into his subject, he called to mind the high vine of Italy, which mounts by the support of the slim tree to which it clings. Then he quoted Horace on the subject of the marriage of the elm and the vine. This lodged him in medias res; and Agellius's heart beat when he found his uncle proposing to him, as a thought of his own, the very step which he had fancied was almost a secret of his own breast, though Juba had seemed to have some suspicion of it.

"My dear Agellius," said Jucundus, "it would be a most suitable proceeding. I have never taken to marrying myself; it has not lain in my way, or been to my taste. Your father did not set me an encouraging example, but here you are living by yourself, in this odd fashion, unlike any one else. Perhaps you may come in time and live in Sicca. We shall find some way of employing you, and it will be {100} pleasant to have you near me as I get old. However, I mean it to be some time yet before Charon makes a prize of me; not that I believe all that rubbish more than you, Agellius, I assure you."

"It strikes me," Agellius began, "that perhaps you may think it inconsistent in me taking such a step, but,—"

"Ay, ay, that's the rub," thought Jucundus; then aloud, "Inconsistent, my boy! who talks of inconsistency? what superfine jackanapes dares to call it inconsistent? You seem made for each other, Agellius—she town, you country; she so clever and attractive, and up to the world, you so fresh and Arcadian. You'll be quite the talk of the place."

"That's just what I don't want to be," said Agellius. "I mean to say," he continued, "that if I thought it inconsistent with my religion to think of Callista—"

"Of course, of course," interrupted his uncle, who took his cue from Juba, and was afraid of the workings of Agellius's human respect; "but who knows you have been a Christian? no one knows anything about it. I'll be bound they all think you an honest fellow like themselves, a worshipper of the gods, without crotchets or hobbies of any kind. I never told them to the contrary. My opinion is, that if you were to make your libation to Jove, and throw incense upon the imperial altar tomorrow, no one would think it extraordinary. They would say for certain that they {101} had seen you do it again and again. Don't fancy for an instant, my dear Agellius, that you have anything whatever to get over."

Agellius was getting awkward and mortified, as may be easily conceived, and Jucundus saw it, but could not make out why. "My dear uncle," said the youth, "you are reproaching me."

"Not a bit of it," said Jucundus, confidently, "not a shadow of reproach; why should I reproach you? We can't be wise all at once; I had my follies once, as you may have had yours. It's natural you should grow more attached to things as they are,—things as they are, you know,—as time goes on. Marriage, and the preparation for marriage, sobers a man. You've been a little headstrong, I can't deny, and had your fling in your own way; but 'nuces pueris,' as you will soon be saying yourself on a certain occasion. Your next business is to consider what kind of a marriage you propose. I suppose the Roman, but there is great room for choice even there."

It is a proverb how different things are in theory and when reduced to practice. Agellius had thought of the end more than of the means, and had had a vision of Callista as a Christian, when the question of rites and forms would have been answered by the decision of the Church without his trouble. He was somewhat sobered by the question, though in a different way from what his uncle wished and intended. Jucundus proceeded—"First, there is matrimonum confarreationis. You have nothing to do with that: {102} strictly speaking, it is obsolete; it went out with the exclusiveness of the old patricians. I say 'strictly speaking'; for the ceremonies remain, waiving the formal religious rite. Well, my dear Agellius, I don't recommend this ceremonial to you. You'd have to kill a porker, to take out the entrails, to put away the gall, and to present it to Juno Pronuba. And there's fire, too, and water, and frankincense, and a great deal of the same kind, which I think undesirable, and you would too; for there, I am sure, we are agreed. We put this aside then, the religious marriage. Next comes the marriage ex coemptione, a sort of mercantile transaction. In this case the parties buy each other, and become each other's property. Well, every man to his taste; but for me, I don't like to be bought and sold. I like to be my own master, and am suspicious of anything irrevocable. Why should you commit yourself (do you see?) for ever, for ever, to a girl you know so little of? Don't look surprised: it's common sense. It's very well to buy her; but to be bought, that's quite another matter. And I don't know that you can. Being a Roman citizen yourself, you can only make a marriage with a citizen; now the question is whether Callista is a citizen at all. I know perfectly well the sweeping measure some years back of Caracalla, which made all freemen citizens of Rome, whatever might be their country; but that measure has never been carried out in fact. You'd have very great difficulty with the law and the customs of the country; and {103} then, after all, if the world were willing to gratify you, where's your proof she is a freewoman? My dear boy, I must speak out for your good, though you're offended with me. I wish you to have her, I do; but you can't do impossibilities—you can't alter facts. The laws of the empire allow you to have her in a certain definite way, and no other; and you cannot help the law being what it is. I say all this, even on the supposition of her being a freewoman; but it is just possible she may be in law a slave. Don't start in that way; the pretty thing is neither better nor worse for what she cannot help. I say it for your good. Well, now I'm coming to my point. There is a third kind of marriage, and that is what I should recommend for you. It's the matrimonium ex usu, or consuetudine; the great advantage here is, that you have no ceremonies whatever, nothing which can in any way startle your sensitive mind. In that case, a couple are at length man and wife præscriptione. You are afraid of making a stir in Sicca; in this case you would make none. You would simply take her home here; if, as time went on, you got on well together, it would be a marriage; if not,"—and he shrugged his shoulders—"no harm's done; you are both free."

Agellius had been sitting on a gate of one of the vineyards; he started on his feet, threw up his arms, and made an exclamation.

"Listen, listen, my dear boy!" cried Jucundus, hastening to explain what he considered the cause of {104} his sudden annoyance; "listen, just one moment, Agellius, if you can. Dear, dear, how I wish I knew where to find you! What is the matter? I'm not treating her ill, I'm not indeed. I have not had any notion at all even of hinting that you should leave her, unless you both wished the bargain rescinded. No, but it is a great rise for her; you are a Roman, with property, with position in the place; she's a stranger, and without a dower: nobody knows whence she came, or anything about her. She ought to have no difficulty about it, and I am confident will have none."

"O my good, dear uncle! O Jucundus, Jucundus!" cried Agellius, "is it possible? do my ears hear right? What is it you ask me to do?" and he burst into tears. "Is it conceivable," he said, with energy, "that you are in earnest in recommending me—I say in recommending me—a marriage which really would be no marriage at all?"

"Here is some very great mistake," said Jucundus, angrily; "it arises, Agellius, from your ignorance of the world. You must be thinking I recommend you mere contubernium, as the lawyers call it. Well, I confess I did think of that for a moment, it occurred to me; I should have liked to have mentioned it, but knowing how preposterously touchy and skittish you are on supposed points of honour, or sentiment, or romance, or of something or other indescribable, I said not one word about that. I have only wished to consult for your comfort, present and future. You don't do me justice, Agellius. I have been attempting {105} to smooth your way. You must act according to the received usages of society! you cannot make a world for yourself. Here have I proposed three or four ways for your proceeding: you will have none of them. What will you have? I thought you didn't like ceremonies; I thought you did not like the established ways. Go, then, do it in the old fashion; kill your sheep, knead your meal, light your torches, sing your song, summon your flamen, if he'll come. Any how, take your choice; do it either with religion or without."

"O Jucundus!" said the poor fellow, "am I then come to this?" and he could say no more.

His distress was not greater than his uncle's disappointment, perplexity, and annoyance. The latter had been making everything easy for Agellius, and he was striking, do what he would, on hidden, inexplicable impediments, whichever way he moved. He got more and more angry the more he thought about it. An unreasonable, irrational coxcomb! He had heard a great deal of the portentous stubbornness of a Christian, and now he understood what it was. It was in his blood, he saw; an offensive, sour humour, tainting him from head to foot. A very different recompense had he deserved. There had he come all the way from his home from purely disinterested feelings. He had no motive whatever, but a simple desire of his nephew's welfare; what other motive could he have? "Let Agellius go to the crows," he thought, "if he will; what is it to me if he is seized {106} for a Christian, hung up like a dog, or thrown like a dead rat into the cloaca of the prison? What care I if he is made a hyæna's breakfast in the amphitheatre, all Sicca looking on, or if he is nailed on a cross for the birds to peck at before my door? Ungrateful puppy! it is no earthly concern of mine what becomes of him. I shall be neither better nor worse. No one will say a word against Jucundus; he will not lose a single customer, or be shunned by a single jolly companion, for the exposure of his nephew. But a man can't be saved against his will. Here am I, full of expedients and resources for his good; there is he, throwing cold water on everything, and making difficulties as if he loved them. It's his abominable pride, that's the pith of the matter. He could not have behaved worse though I had played the bully with him, and had reproached him with his Christianity. But I have studiously avoided every subject which could put his back up. He's a very Typhon or Enceladus for pride. Here he'd give his ears to have done with Christianity; he wants to have this Callista; he wants to buy her at the price of his religion; but he'd rather be burned than say, I've changed! Let him reap as he has sown; why should I coax him further to be merciful to himself? Well Agellius," he said aloud, "I'm going back."

Agellius, on the other hand, had his own thoughts; and the most urgent of them at the moment was sorrow that he had hurt his uncle. He was sincerely attached to him, in consequence of his faithful guardianship, {107} his many acts of kindness, the reminiscences of childhood, nay, the love he bore to the good points of his character. To him he owed his education and his respectable position. He could not bear his anger, and he had a fear of his authority; but what was to be done? Jucundus, in utter insensibility to certain instincts and rules which in Christianity are first principles, had, without intending it, been greatly dishonouring Agellius, and his passion, and the object of it. Uncle and nephew had been treading on each other's toes, and each was wincing under the mischance. It was Agellius's place, as the younger, to make advances, if he could, to an adjustment of the misunderstanding; and he wished to find some middle way. And, also, it is evident he had another inducement besides his tenderness to Jucundus to urge him to do so. In truth, Callista exerted a tremendous sway over him. The conversation which had just passed ought to have opened his eyes, and made him understand that the very first step in any negotiations between them was her bonâ fide conversion. It was evident he could not, he literally had not the power of marrying her as a heathen. Roman might marry a Roman; but a degradation of each party in the transaction was the only way by which a Roman could make any sort of marriage with a Greek. If she were converted, they would be both of them under the rules of the Catholic Church. But what prospect was there of so happy an event? What had ever fallen from her lips which looked that way? {108} Could not a clever girl throw herself into the part of Alcestis, or chant the majestic verses of Cleanthes, or extemporize a hymn upon the spring, or hold an argument on the pulchrum and utile, without having any leaning towards Christianity? A calm, sweet voice, a noble air, an expressive countenance, refined and decorous manners, were these specific indications of heavenly grace? Ah, poor Agellius! a fascination is upon you; and so you are thinking of some middle term, which is to reconcile your uncle and you; and therefore you begin as follows:—

"I see by your silence, Jucundus, that you are displeased with me, you who are always so kind. Well, it comes from my ignorance of things; it does indeed. I ask your forgiveness for anything which seemed ungrateful in my behaviour, though there is not ingratitude in my heart. I am too much of a boy to see things beforehand, and to see them in all their bearings. You took me by surprise by talking on the subject which led to our misunderstanding. I will not conceal for an instant that I like Callista very much; and that the more I see her, I like her the more. It strikes me that, if you break the matter to Aristo, he and I might have some talk together, and understand each other."

Jucundus was hot-tempered, but easily pacified; and he really did wish to be on confidential terms with his nephew at the present crisis; so he caught at his apology. "Now you speak like a reasonable fellow, Agellius," he answered. "Certainly, I will speak to {109} Aristo, as you wish; and on this question of consuetudo or prescription. Well, don't begin looking queer again. I mean I will speak to him on the whole question and its details. He and I will talk together for our respective principals. We shall soon come to terms, I warrant you; and then you shall talk with him. Come, show me round your fields," he continued, "and let me see how you will be able to present things to your bride. A very pretty property it is. I it was who was the means of your father thinking of it. You have heard me say so before now, and all the circumstances.

"He was at Carthage at this time, undecided what to do with himself. It so happened that Julia Clara's estates were just then in the market. An enormous windfall her estates were. Old Didius was emperor just before my time; he gave all his estates to his daughter as soon as he assumed the purple. Poor lady! she did not enjoy them long; Severus confiscated the whole, not, however, for the benefit of the state, but of the res privata. They are so large in Africa alone, that, as you know, you are under a special procurator. Well, they did not come into the market at once; the existing farmers were retained. Marcus Juventius farmed a very considerable portion of them; they were contiguous, and dovetailed into his own lands, and accordingly, when he got into trouble, and had to sell his leases, there were certain odds and ends about Sicca which it was proposed to lease piecemeal. Your employer, Varius, would have {110} given any money for them, but I was beforehand with him. Nothing like being on the spot; he was on business of the proconsul at Adrumetum. I sent off Hispa instantly to Strabo; not an hour's delay after I heard of it. The sale was at Carthage; he went to his old commander, who used his influence, and the thing was done.

"I venture to say there's not such a snug little farm in all Africa; and I am sanguine we shall get a renewal, though Varius will do his utmost to outbid us. Ah, my dear Agellius, if there is but a suspicion you are not a thorough-going Roman! Well, well,—here! ease me through this gate, Agellius; I don't know what's come to the gate since I was here. Indeed!— yes! you have improved this very much. That small arbour is delicious; but you want an image, an Apollo or a Diana. Ah! do now stop for a moment; why are you going forward at such a pace? I'll give you an image: it shall be one that you will really like. Well, you won't have it? I beg you ten thousand pardons. Ha, ha! I mean nothing. Ha, ha, ha! Oh, what an odd world it is! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Well, I am keeping you from your labourers. Ha, ha, ha!"

And having thus smoothed his own ruffled temper, and set things right, as he considered, with Agellius, the old pagan took his journey homewards, assuring Agellius that he would make all things clear for him in a very short time, and telling him to be sure to make a call upon Aristo before the ensuing calends.

Chapter 10

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