"Come with me," said the priest, and leading the way across a small garden, he took her into a wide open court and from thence in at a side door and up a flight of stairs which led to the upper floor. As she followed him her heart beat high with painful and yet hopeful excitement. She kept her hands tightly clasped and tried to pray, but she could hardly control her thoughts of her brother and of all she wanted to say to the presbyter.
They presently entered a lofty room where the window-shutters were closed, and where a number of lamps, already lighted, were hanging over the cushioned divans on which sat rows of busy scribes of all ages.
"Here we are," said the priest kindly, as he seated himself in an easy-chair at some little distance from the writers. "Now, tell me fully what troubles you; but as briefly as you can, for I am sparing you these minutes from important business."
"My lord," she began, "my parents were freeborn, natives of Augusta Trevirorum. My father was a collector of tribute in the Emperor's service . . ."
"Very good—but has this anything to do with the matter?"
"Yes, yes, it has. My father and mother were good Christians and in the riots at Antioch—you remember, my lord, three years ago—they were killed and I and my brother—Papias is his name . . ."
"Yes, yes—go on."
"We were sold. My master paid for us—I saw the money; but he did not treat us as slaves. But now he wants me—he, Sir, is wholly devoted to the heathen gods-and he wants me . . ."
"To serve his idols?"
"Yes, reverend Father, and so we ran away."
"Quite right, my child."
"But the scriptures say that the slave shall obey his master?"
"True; but higher than the master in the flesh is the Father in Heaven, and it is better a thousand times to sin against man than against God."
This conversation had been carried on in an undertone on account of the scribes occupied at the desks; but the priest raised his voice with his last words, and he must have been heard in the adjoining room, for a heavy curtain of plain cloth was opened, and an unusually deep and powerful voice exclaimed:
"Back again already, Irenaeus! That is well; I want to speak with you."
"Immediately, my lord—I am at your service in a moment.—Now, my child," he added, rising, "you know what your duty is. And if your master looks you up and insists on your assisting at the sacrifice or what ever it may be, you will find shelter with us. My name is Irenaeus."
Here he was again interrupted, for the curtain was lifted once more and a man came out of the inner room whom no one could forget after having once met him. It was the Bishop whom Agne had seen on the balcony; she recognized him at once, and dropped on her knees to kiss the hem of his robe in all humility. Theophilus accepted the homage as a matter of course, hastily glancing at the child with his large keen eyes; Agne not daring to raise hers, for there was certainly something strangely impressive in his aspect. Then, with a wave of his long thin hand to indicate Agne, he asked:
"What does this girl want?"
"A freeborn girl—parents Christian—comes from Antioch. . ." replied Irenaeus. "Sold to a heathen master—commanded to serve idols—has run away and now has doubts. . ."
"You have told her to which Lord her service is due?" interrupted the Bishop. Then, turning to Agne, he said: "And why did you come here instead of going to the deacon of your own church?"
"We have only been here a few days," replied the girl timidly, as she ventured to raise her eyes to the handsome face of this princely prelate, whose fine, pale features looked as if they had been carved out of marble.
"Then go to partake of the sacred Eucharist in the basilica of Mary," replied the Bishop. "It is just now the hour—but no, stop. You are a stranger here you say; you have run away from your master—and you are young, very young and very. . . . It is dark too. Where are you intending to sleep?"
"I do not know," said Agne, and her eyes filled with tears.
"That is what I call courage!" murmured Theophilus to the priest, and then he added to Agne: "Well, thanks to the saints, we have asylums for such as you, here in the city. That scribe will give you a document which will secure your admission to one. So you come from Antioch? Then there is the refuge of Seleucus of Antioch. To what parish—[Parochia in Latin]—did your parents belong?"
"To that of John the Baptist?"
"Where Damascius was the preacher?"
"Yes, holy Father. He was the shepherd of our souls."
"What! Damascius the Arian?" cried the Bishop. He drew his fine and stately figure up to its most commanding height and closed his thin lips in august contempt, while Irenaeus, clasping his hands in horror, asked her:
"And you—do you, too, confess the heresy of Arius?"
"My parents were Arians," replied Agne in much surprise. "They taught me to worship the godlike Saviour."
"Enough!" exclaimed the Bishop severely. "Come Irenaeus."
He nodded to the priest to follow him, opened the curtain and went in first with supreme dignity.
Agne stood as if a thunderbolt had fallen, pale, trembling and desperate. Then was she not a Christian? Was it a sin in a child to accept the creed of her parents? And were those who, after charitably extending a saving hand, had so promptly withdrawn it—were they Christians in the full meaning of the All-merciful Redeemer?
Agonizing doubts of everything that she had hitherto deemed sacred and inviolable fell upon her soul; doubts of everything in heaven and earth, and not merely of Christ and of his godlike, or divine goodness—for what difference was there to her apprehension in the meaning of the two words which set man to hunt and persecute man? In the distress and hopeless dilemma in which she found herself, she shed no tears; she simply stood rooted to the spot where she had heard the Bishop's verdict.
Presently her attention was roused by the shrill voice of an old writer who called out to one of the younger assistants.
"That girl disturbs me, Petubastis; show her out." Petubastis, a pretty Egyptian lad, was more than glad of an interruption to his work which somehow seemed endless to-day; he put aside his implements, stroked back the black hair that had fallen over his face, and removing the reed-pen from behind his ear, stuck in a sprig of dark blue larkspur. Then he tripped to the door, opened it, looked at the girl with the cool impudence of a connoisseur in beauty, bowed slightly, and pointing the way out said with airified politeness:
Agne at once obeyed and with a drooping head left the room; but the young Egyptian stole out after her, and as soon as the door was shut he seized her hand and said in a whisper: "If you can wait half an hour at the bottom of the stairs, pretty one, I will take you somewhere where you will enjoy yourself."
She had stopped to listen, and looked enquiringly into his face, for she had no suspicion of his meaning; the young fellow, encouraged by this, laid his hand on her shoulder and would have drawn her towards him but that she, thrusting him from her as if he were some horrible animal, flew down the steps as fast as her feet could carry her, and through the courtyard back into the great entrance-hall.
Here all was, by this time, dark and still; only a few lamps lighted the pillared space and the flare of a torch fell upon the benches placed there for the accommodation of priests, laymen and supplicants generally.
Utterly worn out—whether by terror or disappointment or by hunger and fatigue she scarcely knew—she sank on a seat and buried her face in her hands.
During her absence the wounded had been conveyed to the sick-houses; one only was left whom they had not been able to move. He was lying on a mattress between two of the columns at some little distance from Agne, and the light of a lamp, standing on a medicine-chest, fell on his handsome but bloodless features. A deaconess was kneeling at his head and gazed in silence in the face of the dead, while old Eusebius crouched prostrate by his side, resting his cheek on the breast of the man whose eyes were sealed in eternal sleep. Two sounds only broke the profound silence of the deserted hall: an occasional faint sob from the old man and the steady step of the soldiers on guard in front of the Bishop's palace. The widow, kneeling with clasped hands, never took her eyes off the face of the youth, nor moved for fear of disturbing the deacon who, as she knew, was praying—praying for the salvation of the heathen soul snatched away before it could repent. Many minutes passed before the old man rose, dried his moist eyes, pressed his lips to the cold hand of the dead and said sadly:
"So young—so handsome—a masterpiece of the Creator's hand! . . . Only to-day as gay as a lark, the pride and joy of his mother-and now! How many hopes, how much triumph and happiness are extinct with that life. O Lord my Saviour, Thou hast said that not only those who call Thee Lord, Lord, shall find grace with our Father in Heaven, and that Thou hast shed Thy blood for the salvation even of the heathen—save, redeem this one! Thou that are the Good Shepherd, have mercy on this wandering sheep!"
Stirred to the bottom of his soul the old man threw up his arms and gazed upwards rapt in ecstasy. But presently, with an effort, he said to the deaconess:
"You know, Sister, that this lad was the only son of Berenice, the widow of Asclepiodorus, the rich shipowner. Poor, bereaved mother! Only yesterday he was driving his guadriga out of the gate on the road to Marea, and now—here! Go and tell her of this terrible occurrence. I would go myself but that, as I am a priest, it might be painful to her to learn of his tragic end from one of the very men against whom the poor darkened youth had drawn the sword. So do you go, Sister, and treat the poor soul very tenderly; and if you find it suitable show her very gently that there is One who has balm for every wound, and that we—we and all who believe in Him—lose what is dear to us only to find it again. Tell her of hope: Hope is everything. They say that green is the color of hope, for it is the spring-tide of the heart. There may be a Spring for her yet."
The deaconess rose, pressed a kiss on the eyes of the dead youth, promised Eusebius that she would do her best and went away. He, too, was about to leave when he heard a sound of low sobbing from one of the benches. He stood still to listen, shook his old head, and muttering to himself:
"Great God—merciful and kind. . . . Thou alone canst know wherefore Thou hast set the rose-garland of life with so many sharp thorns," he went up to Agne who rose at his approach.
"Why, my child," he said kindly, "what are you weeping for? Have you, too, lost some dear one killed in the fray?"
"No, no," she hastily replied with a gesture of terror at the thought.
"What then do you want here at so late an hour?"
"Nothing—nothing," she said. "That is all over! Good God, how long I must have been sitting here—I—I know I must go; yes, I know it."
"And are you alone-no one with you?"
She shook her head sadly. The old man looked at her narrowly.
"Then I will take you safe home," he said. "You see I am an old man and a priest. Where do you live, my child?"
"I? I. . ." stammered Agne, and a torrent of scalding tears fell down her cheeks. "My God! my God! where, where am I to go?"
"You have no home, no one belonging to you?" asked the old man. "Come, child, pluck up your courage and tell me truly what it is that troubles you; perhaps I may be able to help you."
"You?" she said with bitter melancholy. "Are not you one of the Bishop's priests?"
"I am a deacon, and Theophilus is the head of my church; but for that very reason . . ."
"No," said Agne sharply, "I will deceive no one. My parents were Arians, and as my beliefs are the same as theirs the Bishop has driven me away as an outcast, finally and without pity."
"Indeed," said Eusebius. "Did the Bishop do that? Well, as the head of a large community of Christians he, of course, is bound to look at things in their widest aspect; small things, small people can be nothing to him. I, on the contrary, am myself but a small personage, and I care for small things. You know, child, that the Lord has said 'that in his Father's kingdom there are many mansions,' and that in which Arius dwells is not mine; but it is in the Father's kingdom nevertheless. It cannot be so much amiss after all that you should cling to the creed of your parents. What is your name?"
"Agne, or the lamb. A pretty, good name! It is a name I love, as I, too, am a shepherd, though but a very humble one, so trust yourself to me, little lamb. Tell me, why are you crying? And whom do you seek here? And how is it that you do not know where to find a home?"
Eusebius spoke with such homely kindness, and his voice was so full of fatherly sympathy that hope revived in Agne's breast, and she told him with frank confidence all he wanted to know.
The old man listened with many a "Hum" and "Ha"—then he bid her accompany him to his own house, where his wife would find a corner that she might fill.
She gladly agreed, and thanked him eagerly when he also told the doorkeeper to bring Papias after them if he should be found. Relieved of the worst of her griefs, Agne followed her new friend through the streets and lanes, till they paused at the gate of a small garden and he said: "Here we are. What we have we give gladly, but it is little, very little. Indeed, who can bear to live in luxury when so many are perishing in want and misery?"
As they went across the plot, between the little flower-beds, the deacon pointed to a tree and said with some pride: "Last year that tree bore me three hundred and seven peaches, and it is still healthy and productive."
A hospitable light twinkled in the little house at the end of the garden, and as they entered a queer-looking dog came out to meet his master, barking his welcome. He jumped with considerable agility on his fore-legs, but his hind legs were paralyzed and his body sloped away and stuck up in the air as though it were attached to an invisible board.
"This is my good friend Lazarus," said the old man cheerfully. "I found the poor beggar in the road one day, and as he was one of God's creatures, although he is a cripple, I comfort myself with the verse from the Psalms: 'The Lord has no joy in the strength of a horse, neither taketh he pleasure in any man's legs.'"
He was so evidently content and merry that Agne could not help laughing too, and when, in a few minutes, the deacon's wife gave her a warm and motherly reception she would have been happier than she had been for a long time past, if only her little brother had not been a weight on her mind and if she had not longed so sadly to have him safe by her side. But even that anxiety presently found relief, for she was so weary and exhausted that, after eating a few mouthfuls, she was thankful to lie down in the clean bed that Elizabeth had prepared for her, and she instantly fell asleep. She was in the old deacon's bed, and he made ready to pass the night on the couch in his little sitting-room.
As soon as the old couple were alone Eusebius told his wife how and where he had met the girl and ended by saying:
"It is a puzzling question as to these Arians and other Christian heretics. I cannot be hard on them so long as they cling faithfully to the One Lord who is necessary to all. If we are in the right—and I firmly believe that we are—and the Son is of one substance of the Father, he is without spot or blemish; and what can be more divine than to overlook the error of another if it concerns ourselves, or what more meanly human than to take such an error amiss and indulge in a cruel or sanguinary revenge on the erring soul? Do not misunderstand me. I, unfortunately—or rather, I say, thank God!—I have done nothing great here on earth, and have never risen to be anything more than a deacon. But if a boy comes up to me and mistakes me for an acolyte or something of that kind, is that a reason why I should flout or punish him? Not a bit of it.
"And to my belief our Saviour is too purely divine to hate those who regard Him as only 'God-like.' He is Love. And when Arius goes to Heaven and sees Jesus Christ in all His divine glory, and falls down before Him in an ecstasy of joy and repentance, the worst the Lord will do to him will be to take him by the ear and say: 'Thou fool! Now thou seest what I really am; but thine errors be forgiven!'"
Elizabeth nodded assent. "Amen," she said, "so be it.—And so, no doubt, it will be. Did the Lord cast out the woman taken in adultery? Did he not give us the parable of the Samaritan?—Poor little girl! We have often wished for a daughter and now we have found one; a pretty creature she is too. God grants us all our wishes! But you must be tired, old man; go to rest now."
"Directly, directly," said Eusebius; but then, striking his forehead with his hand, he went on in much annoyance: "And with all this tumult and worry I had quite forgotten the most important thing of all: Marcus! He is like a possessed creature, and if I do not make a successful appeal to his conscience before he sleeps this night mischief will come of it. Yes, I am very tired; but duty before rest. It is of no use to contradict me, Mother. Get me my cloak; I must go to the lad." And a few minutes later the old man was making his way to the house in the Canopic street.
Dread and anxiety had taken possession of the merchant's household after Constantine had left them. Messengers came hurrying in, one after another, to request the presence of Olympius. A heathen secretary of Evagrius the Governor, had revealed what was astir, and the philosopher had at once prepared to return to the Serapeum. Porphyrius himself ordered his closed harmamaxa to be brought out, and undertook to fetch weapons and standards to the temple from a storehouse where they were laid by. This building stood on a plot of ground belonging to him in Rhacotis, behind a timber-yard which was accessible from the streets in front and behind, but sheltered from the public gaze by sheds and wood-stacks.
The old aqueduct, which supplied the courts of sacrifice and the Subterranean crypts of the temple where the mysteries of Serapis were celebrated, passed close by the back-wall of this warehouse. Since the destruction of the watercourse, under the Emperor Julian, the underground conduit had been dry and empty, and a man by slightly stooping could readily pass through it unseen into the Serapeum. This mysterious passage had lately been secretly cleared out, and it was now to be used for the transport of the arms to the temple precincts.
Damia had been present at the brief but vehement interview between her son and Olympius, and had thrown in a word now and again: "It is serious, very serious!" or, "Fight it out—no quarter!"
The parting was evidently a very painful one to Olympius; when the merchant held out both his hands the older man clasped them in his and held them to his breast, saying: "Thanks, my friend; thanks for all you have done. We have lived—and if now we perish it is for the future happiness of our grandchildren. What would life be to you and me if it were marred by scourgings and questionings?—The omens read ill, and if I am not completely deceived we are at the beginning of the end. What lies beyond! . . . we as philosophers must meet it calmly. The supreme Mind that governs us has planned the universe so well, that it is not likely that those things of which we now have no knowledge should not also be ordered for the best. The pinions of my soul beat indeed more freely and lightly as I foresee the moment when it shall be released from the burden of this flesh!"
The High-Priest raised his arms as though indeed he were prepared to soar and uttered a fervent and inspired prayer in which he rehearsed to the gods all that he and his had done in their honor and vowed to offer them fresh sacrifices. His expressions were so lofty, and his flow of language so beautiful and free, that Porphyrius did not dare to interrupt him, though this long delay on the part of the leader of the cause made him intolerably anxious. When the old man—who was as emotional as a boy—ceased speaking, his white beard was wet with tears, and seeing that even Damia's and Gorgo's eyes were moist, he was preparing to address them again; but Porphyrius interposed. He gave him time only to press his lips to Datnia's hand and to bid Gorgo farewell.
"You were born into stirring times," he said to her, "but under a good sign. Two worlds are in collision; which shall survive?—For you, my darling, I have but one wish: May you be happy!"
He left the room and the merchant paced up and down lost in gloomy thoughts. Presently, as he caught his mother's eye fixed uneasily upon him, he murmured, less to her than to himself: "If he can think thus of what the end will be, who can still dare to hope?" Damia drew herself up in her chair.
"I," she exclaimed passionately, "I—I dare, and I do hope and trust in the future. Is everything to perish which our forefathers planned and founded? Is this dismal superstition to overwhelm and bury the world and all that is bright and beautiful, as the lava stream rolled over the cities of Vesuvius? No, a thousand times no! Our retrograde and cowardly generation, which has lost all heart to enjoy life in sheer dread of future annihilation, may perhaps be doomed by the gods, as was that of Deucalion's day. Well—if so, what must be must! But such a world as they dream of never can, never will last. Let them succeed in their monstrous scheme! if the Temple of temples, the House of Serapis, were to be in ashes and the image of the mighty god to be dashed to pieces, what then. . . . I say what then? Then indeed everything will be at an end—we, everybody; but they too, they, too, will perish."
She clenched her fist with hatred and revenge and went on: "I know what I know—there are legible and infallible signs, and it is given to me to interpret them, and I tell you: It is true, unerringly true, as every Alexandrian child has learnt from its nurse: When Serapis falls the earth will collapse like a dry puff-ball under a horse's hoof. A hundred oracles have announced it, it is written in the prophecies of the heavenly bodies, and in the scroll of Fate. Let them be! Let it come! The end is sweet to those who, in the hour of death, can see the enemy thrust the sword into his own breast."
The old woman sank back panting and gasping for breath, but Gorgo hastened to support her in her arms and she soon recovered. Hardly had she opened her eyes again than, seeing her son still in the room, she went on angrily:
"You—here still? Do you think there is any time to spare? They will be waiting, waiting for you! You have the key and they need weapons."
"I know what I am about," replied Porphyrius calmly. "All in good time. I shall be on the spot long before the youngsters have assembled. Cyrus will bring me the pass-words and signs; I shall send off the messengers, and then I shall still be in time for action."
"Messengers! To whom?"
"To Barkas. He is at the head of more than a thousand Libyan peasants and slaves. I shall send one, too, to Pachomius to bid him win us over adherents among the Biamite fishermen and the population of the eastern Delta."
"Right, right—I know. Twenty talents—Pachomius is poor—twenty talents shall be his, out of my private coffer, if only they are here in time."
"I would give ten, thirty times as much if they were only here now!" cried the merchant, giving way for the first time to the expression of his real feelings. "When I began life my father taught me the new superstitions. Its chains still hang about me; but in this fateful hour I feel more strongly than ever, and I mean to show, that I am faithful to the old gods. We will not be wanting; but alas! there is no escape for us now if the Imperial party are staunch. If they fall upon us before Barkas can join us, all is lost; if, on the contrary, Barkas comes at once and in time, there is still some hope; all may yet be well. What can a party of monks do? And as yet only our Constantine's heavy cavalry have come to the assistance of the two legions of the garrison."
"Our Constantine!" shrieked Damia. "Whose? I ask you, whose? We have nothing to do with that miserable Christian!"
But Gorgo turned upon her at once:
"Indeed, grandmother," she exclaimed, quivering with rage, "but we have! He is a soldier and must do his duty; but he is fondly attached to us."
"Us, us?" retorted the old woman with a laugh. "Has he sworn love to you, let me ask? Has he? and you-do you believe him, simple fool? I know him, I know him! Why, for a scrap of bread and a drop of wine from the hand of his priest he would see you and all of us plunged into misery! But see, here are the messengers."
Porphyrius gave his instructions to the young men who now entered the hall, hurried them off, clasped Gorgo in a tender embrace and then bent over his mother to kiss her—a thing he had not done for many a day. Old Damia laid aside her stick, and taking her son's face in both her withered hands, muttered a few words which were half a fond appeal and half a magical formula, and then the women were alone. For a long while both were silent. The old woman sat sunk in her arm-chair while Gorgo stood with her back against the pedestal of a bust of Plato, gazing meditatively at the ground. At last it was Damia who spoke, asking to be carried into the women's rooms.
Gorgo, however, stopped her with a gesture, went close to her and said: "No, wait a minute, mother; first you must hear what I have to say."
"What you have to say?" asked her grandmother, shrugging her shoulders.
"Yes. I have never deceived you; but one thing I have hitherto concealed from you because I was never till this morning sure of it myself—now I am. Now I know that I love him."
"The Christian?" said the old woman, pushing aside a shade that screened her eyes.
"Yes, Constantine; I will not hear you abuse him." Damia laughed sharply, and said in a tone of supreme scorn:
"You will not? Then you had better stop your ears, my dear, for as long as my tongue can wag. . . ."
"Hush, grandmother, say no more," said the girl resolutely. "Do not provoke me with more than I can bear. Eros has pierced me later than he does most girls and has done it but once, but how deeply you can never know. If you speak ill of him you only aggravate the wound and you would not be so cruel! Do not—I entreat you; drop the subject or else. . ."
"Or else I must die, mother—and you know you love me."
Her tone was soft but firm; her words referred to the future, but that future was as clear to Gorgo's view as if it were past. Damia gave a hasty, sidelong glance at her grandchild, and a cold chill ran through her; the—girl stood and spoke with an air of inspiration—she was full of the divinity as Damia thought, and the old woman herself felt as though she were in a temple and in the immediate presence of the Immortals.
Gorgo waited for a reply, but in vain; and as her grandmother remained silent she went back to her place by the pedestal. At last Damia raised her wrinkled face, looked straight in the girl's eyes and asked:
"And what is to be the end of it?"
"Aye—what?" said Gorgo gloomily and she shook her head. "I ask myself and can find no answer, for his image is ever present to me and yet walls and mountains stand between us. That face, that image—I might perhaps force myself to shatter it; but nothing shall ever induce me to let it be defiled or disgraced! Nothing!"
The old woman sank into brooding thought once more; mechanically she repeated Gorgo's last word, and at intervals that gradually became longer she murmured, at last scarcely audibly: "Nothing—nothing!"
She had lost all sense of time and of her immediate surroundings, and long-forgotten sorrows crowded on her memory: The dreadful day when a young freedman—a gifted astronomer and philosopher who had been appointed her tutor, and whom she had loved with all the passion of a vehement nature—had been kicked out of her father's house by slaves, for daring to aspire to her hand. She had given him up—she had been forced to do so; and after she was the wife of another and he had risen to fame, she had never given him any token that she had not forgotten him. Two thirds of a century lay between that happy and terrible time, and the present. He had been dead many a long year, and still she remembered him, and was thinking of him even now. A singular effort of fancy showed her herself, as she had then been, and Gorgo—whom she saw not with her bodily eyes, though the girl was standing in front of her—two young creatures side by side. The two were but one in her vision; the same anguish that embittered one life now threatened the other. But after all she, Damia, had dragged this grief after her through the weary decades, like the iron ball at the end of a chain which keeps the galley-slave to his place at the oar, and from which he can no more escape than from a ponderous and ever-present shadow; and Gorgo's sorrow could not at any rate be for long, since the end of all things was at hand—it was coming slowly but with inevitable certainty, nearer and nearer every hour.
When had a troop of enthusiastic students and hastily-collected peasant-soldiers ever been able to snake an effectual stand against the hosts of Rome? Damia, who only a few minutes since had spoken with such determined encouragement to her son, had terrible visions of the Imperial legions putting Olympius to rout, with the Libyans under Barkas and the Biamite rabble under Pachomius; storming the Serapeum and reducing it to ruin: Firebrands flying through its sacred halls, the roof giving way, the vaults falling in; the sublime image of the god—the magnificent work of Bryaxis—battered by a hail of stones, and sinking to mingle with the reeking dust. Then a cry rose up from all nature, as though every star in heaven, every wave of ocean, every leaf of the forest, every blade in the meadow, every rock on the shore and every grain of sand in the measureless desert had found a voice; and this universal wail of "Woe, woe!" was drowned by rolling thunder such as the ear of man had never heard, and no mortal creature could hear and live. The heavens opened, and out of the black gulf of death-bearing clouds poured streams of fire; consuming flames rose to meet it from the riven womb of earth, rushing up to lick the sky. What had been air turned to fire and ashes, the silver and gold stars fell crashing from the firmament, and the heavens themselves bowed and collapsed, burying the ruined earth. Ashes, ashes, fine grey dusty ashes pervaded space, till presently a hurricane rose and swept away the chaos of gloom, and vast nothingness yawned before her: a bottomless abyss—an insatiable throat, swallowing down with greedy thirst all that was left; till where the world had been, with gods and men and all their works, there was only nothingness; hideous, inscrutable and unfathomable. And in it, above it, around it—for what are the dimensions of nothingness?—there reigned the incomprehensible Unity of the Primal One, in calm and pitiless self-concentration, beyond—the Real, nay even beyond the Conceivable—for conception implies plurality—the Supreme One of the Neo-Platonists to whose school she belonged.
The old woman's blood ran cold and hot as she pictured the scene; but she believed in it, and chose to believe in it; "Nothing, nothing . . ." which she had begun by muttering, insensibly changed to "Nothingness, nothingness!" and at last she spoke it aloud.
Gorgo stood spellbound as she gazed at her grandmother. What had come over her? What was the meaning of this glaring eye, this gasping breath, this awful expression in her face, this convulsive action of her hands? Was she mad? And what did she mean by "Nothingness, nothingness. . ." repeated in a sort of hollow cry?
Terrified beyond bearing she laid her hand on Dalnia's shoulder, saying: "Mother, mother! wake up! What do you mean by saying 'nothingness, nothingness' in that dreadful way?"
Dainia collected her scattered wits, shivered with cold and then said, dully at first, but with a growing cheerfulness that made Gorgo's blood run cold: "Did I say 'nothingness'? Did I speak of the great void, my child? You are quick of hearing. Nothingness—well, you have learnt to think; are you capable of defining the meaning of the word—a monster that has neither head nor tail, neither front nor back—can you, I say, define the idea of nothingness?"
"What do you mean, mother?" said Gorgo with growing alarm.
"No, she does not know, she does not understand," muttered the old woman with a dreary smile. "And yet Melampus told me, only yesterday, that you understood his lesson on conic sections better than many men. Aye, aye, child; I, too, learnt mathematics once, and I still go through various calculations every night in my observatory; but to this day I find it difficult to conceive of a mathematical point. It is nothing and yet it is something. But the great final nothingness!—And that even is nonsense, for it can be neither great nor small, and come neither sooner nor later. Is it not so, my sweet? Think of nothing—who cannot do that; but it is very hard to imagine nothingness. We can neither of us achieve that. Not even the One has a place in it. But what is the use of racking our brains? Only wait till to-morrow or the day after; something will happen then which will reduce our own precious persons and this beautiful world to that nothingness which to-day is inconceivable. It is coming; I can hear from afar the brazen tramp of the airy and incorporeal monster. A queer sort of giant—smaller than the mathematical point of which we were speaking, and yet vast beyond all measurement. Aye, aye; our intelligence, polyp-like, has long arms and can apprehend vast size and wide extent; but it can no more conceive of nothingness than it can of infinite space or time.
"I was dreaming that this monstrous Nought had come to his kingdom and was opening a yawning mouth and toothless jaws to swallow its all down into the throat that it has not got—you, and me, and your young officer, with this splendid, recreant city and the sky and the earth. Wait, only wait! The glorious image of Serapis still stands radiant, but the cross casts an ominous shadow that has already darkened the light over half the earth! Our gods are an abomination to Caesar, and Cynegius only carries out his wishes. . ."
Here Damia was interrupted by the steward, who rushed breathless into the room, exclaiming:
"Lost! All is lost! An edict of Theodosius commands that every temple of the gods shall be closed, and the heavy cavalry have dispersed our force."
"Ah ha!" croaked the old woman in shrill accents. "You see, you see! There it is: the beginning of the end! Yes—your cavalry are a powerful force. They are digging a grave—wide and deep, with room in it for many: for you, for me, and for themselves, too, and for their Prefect.—Call Argus, man, and carry me into the Gynaeconitis—[The women's apartment]—and there tell us what has happened." In the women's room the steward told all he knew, and a sad tale it was; one thing, however, gave him some comfort: Olympius was at the Serapeunt and had begun to fortify the temple, and garrison it with a strong force of adherents.
Damia had definitively given up all hope, and hardly heeded this part of his story, while on Gorgo's mind it had a startling effect. She loved Constantine with all the fervor of a first, and only, and long-suppressed passion; she had repented long since of her little fit of suspicion, and it would have cost her no perceptible effort to humble her pride, to fly to him and pray for forgiveness. But she could not—dared not—now, when everything was at stake, renounce her fidelity to the gods for whose sake she had let him leave her in anger, and to whom she must cling, cost what it might; that would be a base desertion. If Olympius were to triumph in the struggle she might go to her lover and say: "Do you remain a Christian, and leave me the creed of my childhood, or else open my heart to yours." But, as matters now stood, her first duty was to quell her passion and retrain faithful to the end, even though the cause were lost. She was Greek to the backbone; she knew it and felt it, and yet her eye had sparkled with pride as she heard the steward's tale, and she seemed to see Constantine at the head of his horsemen, rushing upon the heathen and driving them to the four winds like a flock of sheep. Her heart beat high for the foe rather than for her hapless friends—these were but bruised reeds—those were the incarnation of victorious strength.
These divided feelings worried and vexed her; but her grandmother had suggested a way of reconciling them. Where he commanded victory followed, and if the Christians should succeed in destroying the image of Serapis the joints of the world would crack and the earth would crumble away. She herself was familiar with the traditions and the oracles which with one consent foretold this doom; she had learnt them as an infant from her nurse, from the slave-women at the loom, from learned men and astute philosophers—and to her the horrible prophecy meant a solution of every contradiction and the bitter-sweet hope of perishing with the man she loved.
As it grew dark another person appeared: the Moschosphragist—[The examiner of sacrificed animals]—from the temple of Serapis, who, every day, examined the entrails of a slaughtered beast for Damia; to-day the augury had been so bad that he was almost afraid of revealing it. But the old woman, sure of it beforehand, took his soothsaying quite calmly, and only desired to be carried up to her observatory that she might watch the risings of the stars.
Gorgo remained alone below. From the adjoining workrooms came the monotonous rattle of the loom at which, as usual, a number of slaves were working.
Suddenly the clatter ceased. Damia had sent a slave-girl down to say that they might leave off work and rest till next day if they chose. She had ordered that wine should be distributed to them in the great hall, as freely as at the great festival of Dionysus.
All was silent in the Gynaeconitis. The garlands of flowers, which Gorgo herself had helped some damsels of her acquaintance to twine for the temple of Isis, lay in a heap-the steward had told her that the venerable sanctuary was to be closed and surrounded by soldiers. This then put an end to the festival; and she could have been heartily glad, for it relieved her of the necessity of defying Constantine; still, it was with tender melancholy that she thought of the gentle goddess in whose sanctuary she had so often found comfort and support. She could remember, as a tiny child, gathering the first flowers in her little garden, and sticking them in the ground near the tank from which water was fetched for libations in the temple; with the pocketmoney given her by her elders, she had bought perfumes to pour on the altars of the divinity; and often when her heart was heavy she had found relief in prayer before the marble statue of the goddess. How splendid had the festivals of Isis been, how gladly and rapturously had she sung in their honor! Almost everything that had lent poetry and dignity to her childhood had been bound up with Isis and her sanctuary—and now it was closed and the image of the divine mother was perhaps lying in fragments in the dirt!
Gorgo knew all the lofty ideals which lay at the foundation of the worship of this goddess; but it was not to them that she had turned for help, but to the image in whose mystical strength she trusted. And what had already been done to Isis and her temple might soon be done to Serapis and to his house.
She could not bear the thought, for she had been accustomed to regard the Serapeum as the very heart of the universe—the centre and fulcrum on which the balance of the earth depended; to her, Serapis himself was inseparable from his temple and its atmosphere of magical and mystical power. Every prophecy, every Sibylline text, every oracle must be false if the overthrow of that image could remain unpunished—if the destruction of the universe failed to follow, as surely as a, flood ensues from a breach in a dyke. How indeed could it be otherwise, according to the explanation which her teacher had given her of the Neo-Platonic conception of the nature of the god?
It was not Serapis but the great and unapproachable One—supreme above comprehension and sublime beyond conception, for whose majesty every name was too mean, the fount and crown of Good and Beauty, in whole all that exists ever has been and ever shall be. He it was who, like a brimful vessel, overflowed with the quintessence of what we call divine; and from this effluence emanated the divine Mind, the pure intelligence which is to the One what light is to the sun. This Mind with its vitality—a life not of time but of eternity—could stir or remain passive as it listed; it included a Plurality, while the One was Unity, and forever indivisible. The concept of each living creature proceeded from the second: The eternal Mind; and this vivifying and energizing intelligence comprehended the prototypes of every living being, hence, also, of the immortal gods—not themselves but their idea or image. And just as the eternal Mind proceeded from the One, so, in the third place, did the Soul of the universe proceed from the second; that Soul whose twofold nature on one side touched the supreme Mind, and, on the other, the baser world of matter. This was the immortal Aphrodite, cradled in bliss in the pure radiance of the ideal world and yet unable to free herself from the gross clay of matter fouled by sensuality and the vehicle of sin.
The head of Serapis was the eternal Mind; in his broad breast slept the Soul of the Universe, and the prototypes of all created things; the world of matter was the footstool under his feet. All the subordinate forces obeyed him, the mighty first Cause, whose head towered up to the realm of the incomprehensible and inconceivable One. He was the sum total of the universe, the epitome of things created; and at the same time he was the power which gave them life and intelligence and preserved them from perishing by perpetual procreation. It was his might that kept the multiform structure of the material and psychical world in perennial harmony. All that lived—Nature and its Soul as much as Man and his Soul—were inseparably dependent on him. If he—if Serapis were to fall, the order of the universe must be destroyed; and with him: The Synthesis of the Universe—the Universe itself must cease to exist.
But what would survive would not be the nothingness—the void of which her grandmother had spoken; it would be the One—the cold, ineffable, incomprehensible One! This world would perish with Serapis; but perhaps it might please that One to call another world into being out of his overflowing essence, peopled by other and different beings.
Gorgo was startled out of these meditations by a wild tumult which came up from the slaves' hall some distance off and reached her ears in the women's sitting-room. Could her grandmother have opened the wine stores all too freely; were the miserable wretches already drunk?
No, the noise was not that of a troop of slaves who have forgotten themselves, and given the rein to their wild revelry under the influence of Dionysus! She listened and could distinctly hear lamentable howls and wild cries of grief. Something frightful must have happened! Had some evil befallen her father? Greatly alarmed she flew across the courtyard to the slaves' quarters and found the whole establishment, black and white alike, in a state of frenzy. The women were rushing about with their hair unbound over their faces, beating their breasts and wailing, the men squatted in silence with their wine-cups before them untouched, softly sobbing and whining.
What had come upon them—what blow had fallen on the house?
Gorgo called her old nurse and learnt from her that the Moschosphragist had just told them that the troops had been placed all round the Serapeum and that the Emperor had commanded the Prefect of the East to lay violent hands on the temple of the King of gods. Today or to-morrow the crime was to be perpetrated. They had been warned to pray and repent of their sins, for at the moment when the holiest sanctuary on earth should fall the whole world would crumble into nothingness. The entrails of the beast sacrificed by Damia had been black as though scorched, and a terrific groan had been heard from the god himself in the great shrine; the pillars of the great hypostyle had trembled and the three heads of Cerberus, lying at the feet of Serapis; had opened their jaws.
Gorgo listened in silence to the old woman's story; and all she said in reply was: "Let them wail."
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Pretended to see nothing in the old woman's taunts Very hard to imagine nothingness
By Georg Ebers
The day had flown swiftly for Dada under the roof of Medius; there were costumes and scenery in wonderful variety for her to look over; the children were bright and friendly, and she had enjoyed playing with them, for all her little tricks and rhymes, which Papias was familiar with by this time, were to them new and delightful. It amused her, too, to see what the domestic difficulties were of which the singer had described himself as being a victim.
Medius was one of those men who buy everything that strikes them as cheap—for instance, that very morning, at Kibotus he had stood to watch a fish auction and had bought a whole tub-full of pickled fish for "a mere trifle;" but when, presently, the cargo was delivered, his wife flew into a great rage, which she vented first on the innocent lad who brought the fish, and then on the less innocent purchaser. They would not get to the bottom of the barrel and eat the last herring, she asserted, till they were a century old. Medius, while he disputed so monstrous a statement, vehemently declared that such wholesome and nutritious food as those fish was undoubtedly calculated to prolong the lives of the whole family to an exceptionally great age.
This discussion, which was not at all by way of a jest, amused Dada far more than the tablets, cylinders and cones covered with numbers and cabalistic signs, to which Medius tried to direct her attention. She darted off in the midst of his eager explanations to show his grandchildren how a rabbit sniffs and moves his ears when he is offered a cabbage-leaf.
The report, which reached them in the afternoon, of the proceedings in the square by the Prefect's house, disturbed Medius greatly, and he set off at once for the scene of action.
He did not return till evening, and then he looked like an altered man. He must have witnessed something very terrible, for his face was as pale as death, and his usually confident and swaggering manner had given place to a stricken and care-worn air. He walked up and down the room, groaning as he went; he flung himself on the divan and stared fixedly at the ground; he wandered into the atrium and gazed cautiously out on the street. Dada's presence seemed suddenly to be the source of much anxiety to him, and the girl, painfully conscious of this, hastened to tell him that she would prefer to return home at once to her uncle and aunt.
"You can please yourself," was all he said, with a shrug and a sigh. "You may stay for aught I care. It is all the same now!"
So far his wife had left him to himself, for she was used to his violent and eccentric behavior whenever anything had crossed him; but now she peremptorily desired to be informed what had happened to him and he at once acceded. He had been unwilling to frighten them sooner than was needful, but they must learn it sooner or later: Cynegius had arrived to overthrow the image of Serapis, and what must ensue they knew only too well. "To-day," he cried, "we will live; but by to-morrow—a thousand to one-by to-morrow there will be an end of all our joys and the earth will swallow up the old home and us with it!"
His words fell on prepared ground; his wife and daughter were appalled, and as Medius went on to paint the imminent catastrophe in more vivid colors, his energy growing in proportion to its effect on them, they began at first to sob and whimper and then to wail loudly. When the children, who by this time were in bed, heard the lamentations of their elders, they, too, set up a howl, and even Dada caught the infection. As for Medius himself, he had talked himself into such a state of terror by his own descriptions of the approaching destruction of the world that he abandoned all claim to his proud reputation as a strong-minded man, and quite forgot his favorite theory that everything that went by the name of God was a mere invention of priests and rulers to delude and oppress the ignorant; at last he even went so far as to mutter a, prayer, and when his wife begged to be allowed to join a family of neighbors in sacrificing a black lamb at daybreak, he recklessly gave her a handful of money.
None of the party closed an eye that night. Dada could not bear to remain in the house. Perhaps all these horrors existed only in Medius' fancy; but if destruction were indeed impending, she would a thousand times rattier perish with her own relations than with these people, in whom there was something—she did not know what—for which she felt a deep aversion. This she explained to her host early in the day and he was ready to set out at once and restore her to the care of Karnis.
In fact, the purpose for which he had needed her must certainly come to nothing. He himself was attached to the service of Posidonius, a great magician and wizard, to whom half Alexandria flocked—Christians, Jews, and heathens—in order to communicate with the dead, with gods and with demons, to obtain spells and charms by which to attract lovers or injure foes, to learn the art of becoming invisible, or to gain a glimpse into the future. In the performance which was being planned Dada was to have appeared to a bereaved mother as the glorified presence of her lost daughter; but the disturbance in the city had driven the matron, who was rich, to take refuge in the country the previous afternoon. Nor was it likely that the sorcerer's other clients—even if all turned out better than could be hoped—would venture into the streets by night. Rich people were timid and suspicious; and as the Emperor had lately promulgated fresh and more stringent edicts against the magic arts, Posidonius had thought it prudent to postpone the meeting. Hence Medius had at present no use for the girl; but he affected to agree so readily to her wishes merely out of anxiety to relieve Isarnis as soon as possible of his uneasiness as to her fate.
The morning was bright and hot, and the town was swarming with an excited mob soon after sunrise. Terror, curiosity and defiance were painted on every face; however, Medius and his young companion made their way unhindered as far as the temple of Isis by the lake. The doors of the sanctuary were closed, and guarded by soldiers; but the southern and western walls were surrounded by thousands and thousands of heathen. Some hundreds, indeed, had passed the night there in prayer, or in sheer terror of the catastrophe which could not fail to ensue, and they were kneeling in groups, groaning, weeping, and cursing, or squatting in stolid resignation, weary, crushed and hopeless. It was a heart-rending sight, and neither Dada—who till this moment had been dreading Dame Herse's scolding tongue far more than the destruction of the world—nor her companion could forbear joining in the wail that rose from this vast multitude. Medius fell on his knees groaning aloud and pulled the girl down beside him; for, upon the wall that enclosed the temple precincts, they now saw a priest who, after holding the sacred Sistrum up to view and muttering some unintelligible prayers and invocations, proceeded to address the people.
He was a short stout man, and the sweat streamed down his face as he stood under the blazing sun to sketch a fearful picture of the monstrous doom which was hanging over the city and its inhabitants. He spoke with pompous exaggeration, in a shrill, harsh voice, wiping his face meanwhile with his white linen robe or gasping for air, when breath failed him, like a fish stranded on the beach. All this, however, did not trouble his audience, for the hatred that inspired his language, and the terror of the immediate future which betrayed itself in every word exactly reflected their feelings. Dada alone was moved to mirth; the longer she looked at him the more she felt inclined to laugh; besides, the day was so bright—a pigeon on the wall pattered round his mate, nodding and wriggling after the funny manner of pigeons in love—and, above all, her heart beat so high and she had such a happy instinctive feeling that all was ordered for the best, that the world seemed to her a beautiful and fairly secure dwelling-place, in spite of the dark forebodings of the zealous preacher. On the eve of destruction the earth must surely look differently from this; and it struck her as highly improbable that the gods should have revealed their purpose to such a queer old driveller as this priest, and have hidden it from other men. The very fact that this burly personage should prophesy evil with such conviction made her doubt it; and presently, when the plumes of three or four helmets became visible behind the speaker, and a pair of strong hands grasped his thick ancles and suddenly dragged him down from his eminence and back into the temple, she could hardly keep herself from laughing outright.
Now, however, there was more real cause for alarm a trumpet-blast was heard, and a maniple of the twenty-second legion marched down in close order on the crowd who fled before them. Medius was one of the first to make off; Dada kept close to his side, and when, in his alarm, he fairly took to his heels, she did the same; for, in spite of the reception she apprehended, she felt that the sooner she could rejoin her own people the better. Never till now had she known how dear they were to her. Herse might scold; but her sharpest words were truer and better than the smooth flattery of Medius. It was a joy to think of seeing them again—Agne, too, and little Papias—and she felt as though she were about to meet them after years of separation.
By this time they were at the ship-yard, which was divided only by a lane from the Temple-grove; there lay the barge. Dada pulled off her veil and waved it in the air, but the signal met with no response. They were at the house, no doubt, for some men were in the very act of drawing up the wooden gangway which connected the vessel with the land. Medius hurried forward and was so fortunate as to overtake the steward, who had been superintending the operation, before he reached the garden-gate.
The old man was rejoiced to see them, and told them at once that his old mistress had promised Herse to give Dada shelter if she should return to them. But Dada was proud. She had no liking for Gorgo or her grandmother; and when she had caught up to Medius, quite out of breath, she positively refused the old lady's hospitality.
The barge was deserted. Karnis—so the steward informed her—had withdrawn to the temple of Serapis with his son, intending to assist in its defence; and Herse had accompanied them, for Olympius had said that women would be found useful in the beleaguered sanctuary, in preparing food for the combatants and in nursing the wounded.
Dada stood looking at their floating home, utterly disappointed and discouraged. She longed to follow her aunt and to gain admission to the Serapeutn; but how could she do this now, and of what use could she hope to be? There was nothing heroic in her composition, and from her infancy she had always sickened at the sight of blood. She had no alternative but to return with Medius, and take refuge under his roof.
The singer gave her ample time for reflection; he had seated himself, with the steward, under the shade of a sycamore, and the two men were absorbed in convincing each other, by a hundred arguments which they had picked up during the last day or two, how inevitably the earth must be annihilated if the statue of Serapis should be overthrown. In the warmth of their discussion they paid no heed to the young girl, who was sitting on a fallen Hermes by the road-side. Her vigorous and lively temperament rendered her little apt to dream, or even meditate, in broad daylight; but the heat and the recent excitement had overwrought her and she felt into a drowsy reverie. Now and again, as her heavy head drooped on her breast, she fancied the Serapeum had actually fallen; then, as she raised it again, she recovered her consciousness that it was hot, that she had lost her home, and that she must, however unwillingly, return with Medius. But at length her eyelids closed, and as she sat in the full blaze of the sun, a rosy light filled her eyes and a bright vision floated before her: Marcus took the modius—the corn measure—from the head of the statue of Serapis and offered it to her; it was quite full of lilies and roses and violets, and she was delighted with the flowers and thanked him warmly when he set the modius down before her. He held out his hands to her calmly and kindly, and she gave him hers, feeling very happy under the steady, compassionate gaze of his large eyes which had often watched her, on board ship, for some minutes at a time. She longed to say something to him, but she could not speak; and she looked on quite unmoved as the statue of the god and the hall in which it stood were wrapt in flames. No smoke mingled with this clear and genial blaze, but it compelled her to shade her dazzled eyes; and as she lifted her hand she woke to see Medius standing in front of her.
He desired her to come home with him at once, and she rose to obey, listening in silence to his assurances that the lives of Karnis and Orpheus would not be worth a sesterce if they fell into the hands of the Roman soldiers.
She walked on, more hopeless and depressed than she had ever felt in her life before, past the unfinished hulks in the ship-yard where no one was at work to-day when, coming down the lane that divided the wharf from the temple precincts, she saw an old man and a little boy. She had not time to ask herself whether she saw rightly or was mistaken before the child caught sight of her, snatched his hand away from that of his companion, and flew towards her, shouting her name. In the next moment little Papias had rushed rapturously into her arms and, as she lifted him up, had thrown his hands round her neck, clinging to her as if he would never leave go again, while she hugged him closely for joy, and kissed him with her eyes full of tears. She was herself again at once; the sad and anxious girl was the lively Dada once more.
The man who had been leading the little boy was immediately besieged with questions, and from his answers they learnt that he had found the child the evening before at the corner of a street, crying bitterly; that he had taken him home, and with some little difficulty had ascertained from him that he belonged to some people who were living on board a barge, close to a ship-yard. In spite of the excitement that prevailed he had brought the child home as soon as possible, for he could fancy how anxious his parents must be. Dada thanked the kind-hearted artisan with sincere warmth, and the man, seeing how happy the girl and the child were at having met, went his way quite satisfied.
Medius had stood by and had said nothing, but he looked on the pretty little boy with much favor. If the earth were not to crumble into nothingness after all, this child would be a real treasure trove; and when Dada begged him to find a corner for Papias in his house, though he hinted at the smallness of his earnings and the limited space at his command, he yielded, if reluctantly, to her entreaties, on her offering him her gold brooch to cover his expenses.
As they made their way back she cast many loving glances at the child; she was extremely fond of him, and he seemed a link to bind her to her own people.
The singer's wife and daughter had joined some neighbors in sacrificing a black lamb to Zeus, a ceremony that was usual on the occasion of earthquakes or very severe storms; but it was done very secretly, for the edicts prohibiting the sacrifice of victims to the gods were promptly and rigidly enforced. The more the different members of the family came into contact with other citizens, the more deeply rooted was their terror that the end of all things was at hand. As soon as it was dark the old man buried all his savings, for even if everyone else were to perish, he felt that he—though how or why he knew not—might be exempt from the common doom.
The night was warm, and great and small alike slept—or lay awake—under the stars so as not to be overwhelmed by the crash of roofs and walls; the next day was oppressively hot, and the family cowered in a row in the scanty shade of a palm and of a fig-tree, the only growth of any size in the singer's garden. Medius himself, in spite of the scorching sun, could not be still.
He rushed off to the town again and again, but only to return each time to enhance the anguish of the household by relating all sorts of horrors which he had picked up in his wanderings. They were obliged to satisfy their hunger with bread, cheese, and fruit, for the two slave-women positively refused to risk their lives by cooking in the house.
Medius' temper varied as he came and went; now he was gentle and affectionate, and then again he raged like a madman; and his wife outdid him. At one moment she would abandon him and the children, while she anointed the household altar and put up prayers; at the next she railed at the baseness and cruelty of the gods. When her husband brought the news that the Serapeum was surrounded by the Imperial troops, she scoffed and spit at the sacred images, and five minutes later she was vowing a sacrifice to the deities of Olympus. The general confusion was distracting; as the sun rose, the anguish, physical and mental, of the whole family greatly increased, and by noon had reached an appalling pitch.
Dada looked on intensely disgusted, and only shook her head when one or another of her companions was sure she felt a shock of earthquake or heard the roll of distant thunder. She could not explain to herself why she, who was usually timid enough, was exempt from the universal panic though she felt deeply pitiful towards the terrified women and children. None of them troubled themselves about her; the day dragged on with intolerable slowness, quenching all her gay vivacity, while she was utterly exhausted by the scorching African sun, of which, till now, she had never known the power. At last, in the afternoon, she found the little garden, which was by this time heated like an oven, quite unbearable, and she looked round for Papias. The child was sitting on the wall looking at the congregation streaming into the basilica of St. Mark. Dada followed his example, and when the many-voiced psalms rang out of the open door of the church, she listened to the music, for it seemed long since she had heard any, and after wiping the perspiration from the little boy's face with her peplos, she pointed to the building and said: "It must be nice and cool in there."
"Of course it is," said Papias.
"It is never too hot in church. I will tell you what—we will go there." This was a bright idea; for, thought Dada, any place must be pleasanter than this; and she felt strongly tempted, too, to see the inside of one of Agne's temples and to sing once more, or, at any rate, hear others sing.
"Come along," she said, and they stole through the deserted house to get into the street by the atrium. Medius saw them, but he made no attempt to detain them; he had sunk into lethargic indifference. It was not an hour since he had taken stock of his life and means, setting the small figure of his average income against his hospitality to Dada and her little companion; but then, again, he had calculated that, if all went well, he might make considerable profits out of the girl and the child. Now, he felt it was all the same to him whether he and his family and Dada met their doom in the house or out of it.
Dada and Papias soon reached the church of St. Mark, the oldest Christian basilica in the city. It consisted of a vestibule—the narthex—and the body of the church, a very long hall, with a flat roof ceiled with stained wood and supported on a double row of quite simple columns. This space was divided into two parts by a screen of pierced work; the innermost portion had a raised floor or podium, on which stood a table with chairs placed round it in a semicircle. The centre seat was higher and more richly decorated than the others. These chairs were unoccupied; a few deacons in 'talares' of light-colored brocade were busied about the table.
In the middle of the vestibule there was a small tank; here a number of penitents had collected who, with their flayed ribs and abject lamentations, offered a more melancholy spectacle than even the terrified crowd whom Dada had seen the day before, gathered round the temple of Isis. Indeed, site would have withdrawn at once but that Papias dragged her forward, and when she had passed through the great door into the nave she breathed a sigh of relief. A soothing sense of respite came over her, such as she had rarely felt; for the lofty building, which was only half full, was deliciously cool and the subdued light was restful to her eyes. The slight perfume of incense and the sober singing of the assembled worshippers were soothing to her senses, and, as she took a seat on one of the benches, she felt sheltered and safe.
The old church struck her as a home of perfect peace; in all the city, she thought, there could hardly be another spot where she might rest so quietly and contentedly. So for some little time she gave herself up, body and soul, to the refreshing influences of the coolness, the solemnity, the fragrance and the music; but presently her attention was attracted to two women in the seats just in front of her.
One of them, who had a child on her arm, whispered to her neighbor:
"You here, Hannah, among the unbaptized? How are you going on at home?"
"I cannot stay long," was the answer. "It is all the same where one sits, and when I leave I shall disturb no one. But my heart is heavy; the child is very bad. The doctor says he cannot live through the day, and I felt as if I must come to church."
Very right, very right. Do you stay here and I will go to your house at once; my husband will not mind waiting."
"Thank you very much, but Katharine is staying with the boy and he is quite safe there."
"Then I will stay and pray with you for the dear little child."
Dada had not missed a word of this simple dialogue. The woman whose child was ill at home, and who had come here to pray for strength or mercy, had a remarkably sweet face; as the girl saw the two friends bow their heads and fold their hands with downcast eyes, she thought to herself: "Now they are praying for the sick child . . ." and involuntarily she, too, bent her curly head, and murmured softly: "O ye gods, or thou God of the Christians, or whatever thou art called that hast power over life and death, make this poor woman's little son well again. When I get home again I will offer up a cake or a fowl—a lamb is so costly."
And she fancied that some invisible spirit heard her, and it gave her a vague satisfaction to repeat her simple supplication over and over again.
Meanwhile a miserable blind dwarf had seated himself by her side; near him stood the old dog that guided him. He held him by a string and had been allowed to bring his indispensable comrade into the church. The old man joined loudly and devoutly in the psalm which the rest of the congregation were singing; his voice had lost its freshness, no doubt, but he sang in perfect tune. It was a pleasure to Dada to listen, and though she only half understood the words of the psalm she easily caught the air and began to sing too, at first timidly and hardly audibly; but she soon gained courage and, following the example of little Papias, joined in with all her might.
She felt as though she had reached land after a stormy and uncomfortable voyage, and had found refuge in a hospitable home; she looked about her to discover whether the news of the approaching destruction of the world had not penetrated even here, but she could not feel certain; for, though many faces expressed anguish of mind, contrition, and a passionate desire—perhaps for help or, perhaps, for something quite different—not a cry of lamentation was to be heard, such as had rent the air by the temple of Isis, and most of the men and women assembled here were singing, or praying in silent absorption. There were none of the frenzied monks who had terrified her in the Xenodochium and in the streets; on this day of tumult and anxiety they are devoting all their small strength and great enthusiasm to the service of the Church militant.
This meeting, at so unusual an hour, had been convened by Eusebius, the deacon of the district, with the intention of calming the spirits of those who had caught the general infection of alarm. Dada could see the old man step up into a raised pulpit on the inner side of the screen which parted the baptized from the unbaptized members of the congregation; his silvery hair and beard, and the cheerful calm of his face, with the high white forehead and gentle, loving gaze, attracted her greatly. She had heard Karnis speak of Plato, and knew by heart some axioms of his doctrine, and she had always thought of the sage as a young man; but in advanced age, she fancied, he might have looked like Eusebius. Aye, and it would have well beseemed this old man to die, like the great Athenian, at a mirthful wedding-feast.
The priest was evidently about to give a discourse, and much as she admired him, this idea prompted her to quit the church; for, though she could sit still for hours to hear music, she found nothing more irksome than to be compelled to listen for any length of time to a speech she might not interrupt. She was therefore rising to leave; but Papias held her back and entreated her so pathetically with his blue baby-eyes not to take him away and spoil his pleasure that she yielded, though the opportunity was favorable for moving unobserved, as the woman in front of her was preparing to go and was shaking hands with her neighbor. She had indeed risen from her seat when a little girl came in behind her and whispered, loud enough for Dada's keen ears to catch the words: "Come mother, come home at once. He has opened his eyes and called for you. The physician says all danger is over."
The mother in her turn whispered to her friend in glad haste: "All is well!" and hurried away with the girl. The friend she had left raised her hands and eyes in thanksgiving, and Dada, too, smiled in sympathy and pleasure. Had the God of the Christian heard her prayer with theirs.
Meanwhile the preacher had ended his preliminary prayer and began to explain to his hearers that he had bidden them to the church in order to warn them against foolish terrors, and to lead them into the frame of mind in which the true Christian ought to live in these momentous times of disturbance. He wished to point out to his brethren and sisters in the Lord what was to be feared from the idols and their overthrow, what the world really owed to the heathen, and what he expected from his fellow-believers when the splendid and imminent triumph of the Church should be achieved.
"Let us look back a little, my beloved," he said, after this brief introduction. "You have all heard of the great Alexander, to whom this noble city owes its existence and its name. He was a mighty instrument in the hand of the Lord, for he carried the tongue and the wisdom of the Greeks throughout all lands, so that, in the fulness of time, the doctrine which should proceed from the only Son of God might be understood by all nations and go home to all hearts. In those days every people had its own idols by hundreds, and in every tongue on earth men put up their prayers to the supreme Power which makes itself felt wherever mortal creatures dwell. Here, by the Nile, after Alexander's death, reigned the Ptolemies; and the Egyptian citizens of Alexandria prayed to other gods than their Greek neighbors, so that they could never unite in worshipping their divinities; but Philadelphus, the second Ptolemy, a very wise man, gave them a god in common. In consequence of a vision seen in a dream he had the divinity brought from Sinope, on the shores of Pontus, to this town. This idol was Serapis, and he was raised to the throne of divinity here, not by Heaven, but by a shrewd and prudent man; a grand temple was built for him, which is to this day one of the wonders of the world, and a statue of him was made, as beautiful as any image ever formed by the hand of man. You have seen and know them both, and you know too, how, before the gospel was preached in Alexandria, crowds of all classes, excepting the Jews, thronged the Serapeum.
"A dim perception of the sublime teaching of the Lord by whom God has redeemed the world had dawned, even before His appearance on earth, on the spirit of the best of the heathen, and in the hearts of those wise men who—though not born into the state of grace—sought and strove after the truth, after inward purity, and an apprehension of the Almighty. The Lord chose them out to prepare the hearts of mankind for the good tidings, and make them fit to receive the gospel when the Star should rise over Bethlehem.
"Many of these sages had infused precious doctrine into the worship of Serapis before the hour of true redemption had come. They enjoined the servants of Serapis to be more zealous in the care of the soul than in that of the body, for they had detected the imperishable nature of the spiritual and divine part of man; they saw that we are brought into existence by sin and love, and we must therefore die to our sinful love and rise again through the might of love eternal. These Hellenes, like the Egyptian sages of the times of the Pharaohs, divined and declared that the soul was held responsible after death for all it had done of good or evil in its mortal body. They distinguished virtue and sin by the eternal law, which was written in the hearts even of the heathen, to the end that they, by nature, might do the works of the law; nay, there were some of their loftiest spirits who, though they knew not the Lord, it is true, required the repentance in the sinner, in the name of Serapis, and pronounced that it was good to give up the delusive joys and vain pleasures of the flesh and to break away from the evil—whether of body or of soul—which we are led into by the senses. They called upon their disciples to hold meetings for meditation whereby they might discern truth and the divinity; and the vast precincts of the Serapeum contained cells and alcoves for penitents and devotees, in which many a soul touched by grace, dead to the world and absorbed in the contemplation of such things as they esteemed high and heavenly, has ripened to old age and death.
"But, my beloved, the Light in which we rejoice, through no merits or deserts of our own, had not yet been shed on the lost children of those days of darkness; and all those noble, and indeed most admirable efforts were polluted by an admixture, even here, of coarse superstition, bloody sacrifices, and foolish adoration of perishable stone idols and beasts without understanding; and in other places by the false and delusive arts of Magians and sorcerers. Even the dim apprehension of true salvation was darkened and distorted by the subtleties of a vain and inconsistent philosophy, which held a theory as immutably true one day and overthrew or denied it the next. Thus, by degrees, the temple of the idol of Sinope degenerated into a stronghold of deceit and bloodshed, of the basest superstition, the pleasures of the flesh, and abominations that cried to Heaven. Learning, to be sure, was still cherished in the halls of the Serapeum; but its disciples turned with hardened hearts from the truth which was sent into the world by the grace of God, and they remained the prophets of error. The doctrines which the sages had associated with the idea of Serapis, debased and degraded by the most contemptible trivialities; lost all their worth and dignity; and after the great Apostle to whom this basilica is dedicated, had brought the gospel to Alexandria, the idol's throne began to totter, and the tidings of salvation shook its foundations and brought it to the verge of destruction in spite of the persecutions, in spite of the edicts of the apostate Julian, in spite of the desperate efforts of the philosophers, sophists, and heathen—for our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, has given certainty and actuality to the fleeting shadow of half-divined truth which lies in the core of the worship of Serapis. The pure and radiant star of Christian love has risen in the place of the dim nebulous mist of Serapis; and just as the moon pales when the sun appears triumphant, the worship of Serapis has died away in a thousand places where the gospel has been received. Even here, in Alexandria, its feeble flame is kept alive only by infinite care, and if the might of our pious and Christian Emperor makes itself felt-tomorrow, or next day—then, my beloved, it will vanish in smoke, and no power on earth can fan it into life again. Not our grandsons, no, but our own children will ask: Who—what was Serapis? For he who shall be overthrown is no longer a mighty god but an idol bereft of his splendor and his dignity. This is no struggle of might against might; it is the death-stroke given to a wounded and vanquished foe. The tree is rotten to the core and can crush no one in its fall, but it will cover all who stand near it with dust and rubbish. The sovereign has outlived his dominion, and when his fingers drop the sceptre few indeed will bewail him, for the new King has already mounted the throne and His is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever! Amen."
Dada had listened to the deacon's address with no particular interest, but the conclusion struck her attention. The old man looked dignified and honest; but Father Karnis was a well-meaning man, no doubt, and one of those who are wont to keep on the winning side. How was it that the preacher could draw so pitiable a picture of the very same god whose greatness her uncle had praised in such glowing terms only two days since? How could the same thing appear so totally different to two different people?
The priest looked more sagacious than the musician; Marcus, the young Christian, had a most kind heart; there was not a better or gentler creature under the sun than Agne—it was quite possible that Christianity was something very different in reality from what her foster parents chose to represent. As to the frightful consequences of the overthrow of the temple of Serapis, on that point she was completely reassured, and she prepared to listen with greater attention as Eusebius went on:
"Let us rejoice, beloved! The great idol's days are numbered! Do you know what that false worship has been in our midst? It has been like a splendid and richly-dressed trireme sailing, plague-stricken, into a harbor full of ships and boats. Woe to those who allow themselves to be tempted on board by the magnificence of its decorations! How great is their chance of infection, how easily they will carry it from ship to ship, and from the ships on to the shore, till the pestilence has spread from the harbor to the city! Let us then be thankful to those who destroy the gorgeous vessel, who drive it from amongst us, or sink or burn it. May our Father in Heaven give courage to their hearts, strength to their hands and blessing on their deeds! When we hear: 'Great Serapis has fallen to the earth and is no more, we and the world are free from him!' then, in this city, and wherever Christians dwell and worship, let a solemn festival be held.
"But still let us be just, still let us bear in mind all the great and good gifts that the trireme brought to our parents when it rode the waves manned by a healthy crew. If we do, it will be with sincere pity that we shall watch the proud vessel sink to the bottom, and we shall understand the grief of those whom once it bore over ebb and flow, and who believe they owe every thing to it. We shall rejoice doubly, too, to think that we ourselves have a safe bark with stout planks and strong masts, and a trustworthy pilot at the helm; and that we may confidently invite others to join us on board as soon as they have purified themselves of the plague with which they have been smitten.
"I think you will all have understood this parable. When Serapis falls there will be lamentation and woe among the heathen; but we, who are true Christians, ought not to pass them by, but must strive to heal and save the wounded and sick at heart. When Serapis falls you must be the physicians—healers of souls, as the Lord hath said; and if we desire to heal, our first task must be to discover in what the sufferings consist of those we wish to succor, for our choice of medicine must depend on the nature of the injury.
"What I mean is this: None can give comfort but those who know how to sympathize with the soul that craves it, who feel the sorrows of others as keenly as though they were their own. And this gift, my brethren, is, next to faith, the Christian grace which of all others best pleases our Heavenly Master.
"I see it in my mind's eye! The ruined edifice of the Serapeum, the masterpiece of Bryaxis laid in fragments in the dust, and thousands of wailing heathen! As the Jews wept and hung their harps on the trees by the waters of Babylon when they remembered Zion, so do I see the heathen weep as they think of the perished splendor. They themselves, indeed, ruined and desecrated the glory they bewail; and when something higher and purer took its place they hardened their hearts, and, instead of leaving the dead to bury their dead and throwing themselves hopefully into the new life, they refused to be parted from the putrefying corpse. They were fools, but their folly was fidelity; and if we can win them over to our holy faith they will be faithful unto death, as they have been to their old gods, clinging to Jesus and earning the crown of life. 'There will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine that need no repentance,'—that you have heard; and whichever among you loves the Saviour can procure him a great joy if he guides only one of these weeping heathen into the Kingdom of Heaven.
"But perhaps you will ask: Is not the sorrow of the heathen a vain thing? What is it after all that they bewail? To understand that, try to picture to yourselves what it is that they think they are losing. Verily it is not a small matter, and it includes many things for which we and all mankind owe them a debt of gratitude. We call ourselves Christians and are proud of the name; but we also call ourselves Hellenes, and are proud of that name too. It was under the protection of the old gods, whose fall is about to be consummated, that the Greeks achieved marvellous deeds, nurturing the gifts of the intellect which the Almighty bestowed on their race, like faithful gardeners, and making them bring forth marvellous fruit. In the realm of thought the Greek is sovereign of the nations, and he has given to perishable matter a perfection of form which has elevated and vivified it to immortality. Nothing more beautiful has ever been imagined or executed, before or since, or by any other people, than was produced by Greece in its prime. But perhaps you will ask, why did not the Redeemer come down among our fathers in those glorious days? Because beauty, as they conceived and still conceive of it, is a mere perishable accident of matter, and because a race which thus devoted every thought and feeling to an inspired and fervent worship of beauty—which was so absorbed in the contemplation of the visible, could have no longing for the invisible which is the real life that came down among us with the only-begotten Son of God. Nevertheless Beauty is beautiful; and when the time shall come when the visible is married to the invisible, when eternal Truth is clothed in perfect form, then, and not till then, will the ideal which our fathers strove after in the great old days be realized, by the grace of the Saviour.
"But this visible beauty, which they so passionately cherished, does us good service too, so long as we do not allow it to dazzle us and lead us astray from the one thing needful. To whom, if not to the heathen Hellenes, do our great teachers owe, under God, the noble art of coordinating their loftiest feelings, and casting them in forms which are intelligible to the Christian and at once instruct, delight, and edify him? It was in a heathen school that each one of your pastors—that even I, the humblest of them—studied that rhetoric which enables me to utter with a flowing tongue the things which the Spirit gives me to speak to you; and if some day there are Christian schools, in which our sons may acquire the same power, they must adopt many of the laws devised by the heathen. If in the future we are rich enough to raise churches to the Almighty, to the Virgin Mary and the great Saints, in any way worthy of their sublime merits, we shall owe our skill to the famous architects of heathen Hellas. We are indebted to the arts of the heathen for a thousand things in daily use, beside numberless others that lend charm to existence. Yes, my beloved, when we consider all they did for us we cannot in justice withhold our tribute of gratitude and admiration.
"Nor can we doubt that the best of them were acceptable to the Almighty himself, for he granted to them to see darkly and from afar what he has brought nigh to us, and poured into our hearts by divine revelation. You all know the name of Plato. He, from whom Salvation was hidden, saw remotely, by presentiment as it were, many things which to us, the Redeemed, are clear and plain and near. He perceived the relation of earthly beauty and heavenly truth. The great gift of Love binds and supports us all and Plato gave the name of the divine Eros, that is divine love, to an inspired devotion to the Imperishable. He placed goodness—the Good—at the top of the great scale of Ideas which he constructed. The Good was, to him, the highest Idea and the uttermost of which we can conceive:—Good, whose properties he made manifest by every means his lofty and lucid mind could command. This heathen, my brethren and sisters, was well worthy of the grace bestowed on us. Do justice then to the blinded souls, justice in Plato's sense of the word; he calls the virtue of reason Wisdom; the virtue of spirit Courage, and the virtue of the senses Temperance. Well, well! 'Prove all things and hold fast that which is good.' That is to say: consider what may be worth anything in the works of the heathen that it may be duly preserved; but, on the other hand, tread all that is idolatry in the dust, all that brings the unclean thing among us, all that imperils our souls and bodies, or anything that is high and pure in life; but do not forget, my beloved, all that the heathen have done for us. Be temperate in all things; avoid excess of zeal; for thus, and thus only, can we be just. 'It is not to hate, but to love each other that we are here.' It was not a Christian but Sophocles, one of the greatest of the heathen, who uttered those words, and he speaks them still to us!"
Eusebius paused and drew a deep breath.
Dada had listened eagerly, for it pleased her to hear all that she had been wont to prize spoken of here with due appreciation. But since Eusebius had begun to discourse about Plato she had been disturbed by two men sitting just in front of her. One was tall and lean, with a long narrow head, and the other a shorter and more comfortable-looking personage. The first fidgeted incessantly, nudging and twitching his companion, and looking now and then as if he were ready to start up and interrupt the preacher. This behavior evidently annoyed his neighbors who kept signing to him to be quiet and hushing him down, while he took no notice of their demonstrations but kept clearing his throat with obtrusive emphasis and at last scraped and shuffled his feet on the floor, though not very noisily. But Eusebius began again:
"And now, my brethren, how ought we to demean ourselves in these fateful times of disturbance? As Christians; only—or rather, by God's aiding grace as Christians in the true sense of our Lord and Master, according to the precepts given by Him through the Apostles. Their words shall be mine. They say there are two paths—the path of Life and the path of Death, and there is a great difference between them. The path of Life is this: First, Thou shalt love God who hath created thee; next thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, and whatsoever thou wouldst men should do unto thee even so do unto them; but what thou wouldst not have done unto thee do thou not to them. And the sum of the doctrine contained in these words is this: Bless those that curse you, pray for your enemies and repent for those who persecute you, for 'if ye love them that love you what thank have ye? Do not even the heathen the same?' Love those that hate you and you will have no enemies.
"Take this teaching of the holy Apostles to heart this day. Beware of mocking or persecuting those who have been your enemies. Even the nobler heathen regarded it as an act of grace to respect the conquered foe, and to you, as Christians, it should be a law. It is not so hard to forgive an enemy when we regard him as a possible friend in the future; and the Christian can go so far as to love him when he remembers that every man is his brother and neighbor, and equally precious in the sight of the Saviour who is dearer to us than life.
"The heathen, the idolater, is the Christian's archfoe; but soon he will be in fetters at our feet. And, then, my brethren, pray for him; for if the Almighty, who is without spot or stain and perfect beyond words, can forgive the sinner, ye who are base and guilty may surely forgive. 'Fishers of souls' we all should be; try to fulfil the injunction. Draw the enemy to you by kindness and love; show him by your example the beauty of the Christian life; let him perceive the benefits of Salvation; lead those whose gods and temples we have overthrown, into our churches; and when, after triumphing over those blind souls by the sword, we have also conquered them by love, faith and prayer—when they can rejoice with us in the Redemption by our Lord Jesus Christ—then shall we all be as one fold under one shepherd, and peace and joy shall reign in the city which is now torn by dissension and strife."