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Title: No. XIII; or, The Story of the Lost Vestal
Author: Marshall, Emma
Language: English
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  COLLECTION
  OF
  BRITISH AUTHORS

  TAUCHNITZ EDITION.

  VOL. 2388.

  No. XIII; OR, THE STORY OF THE LOST VESTAL
  BY
  EMMA MARSHALL.

  IN ONE VOLUME.



TAUCHNITZ EDITION.

By the same Author,


  MRS. MAINWARING’S JOURNAL                            1 vol.
  BENVENUTA                                            1 vol.
  LADY ALICE                                           1 vol.
  DAYSPRING                                            1 vol.
  LIFE’S AFTERMATH                                     1 vol.
  IN THE EAST COUNTRY                                  1 vol.
  IN FOUR REIGNS                                       1 vol.
  ON THE BANKS OF THE OUSE                             1 vol.
  IN THE CITY OF FLOWERS                               1 vol.
  ALMA                                                 1 vol.
  UNDER SALISBURY SPIRE                                1 vol.
  THE END CROWNS ALL                                   1 vol.
  WINCHESTER MEADS                                     1 vol.
  EVENTIDE LIGHT                                       1 vol.
  WINIFREDE’S JOURNAL                                  1 vol.
  BRISTOL BELLS                                        1 vol.
  IN THE SERVICE OF RACHEL LADY RUSSELL                1 vol.
  A LILY AMONG THORNS                                  1 vol.
  PENSHURST CASTLE                                     1 vol.
  KENSINGTON PALACE IN THE DAYS OF QUEEN MARY II.      1 vol.
  THE WHITE KING’S DAUGHTER                            1 vol.
  THE MASTER OF THE MUSICIANS                          1 vol.
  AN ESCAPE FROM THE TOWER                             1 vol.
  A HAUNT OF ANCIENT PEACE                             1 vol.
  CASTLE MEADOW                                        1 vol.
  IN THE CHOIR OF WESTMINSTER ABBEY                    1 vol.
  THE YOUNG QUEEN OF HEARTS                            1 vol.
  UNDER THE DOME OF ST. PAUL’S                         1 vol.
  THE PARSON’S DAUGHTER                                1 vol.



  NO. XIII;
  OR, THE
  STORY OF THE LOST VESTAL.

  BY
  EMMA MARSHALL,

  AUTHOR OF “LIFE’S AFTERMATH,” “DAYSPRING,”
  “IN THE EAST COUNTRY,” ETC.

  _COPYRIGHT EDITION._


  LEIPZIG
  BERNHARD TAUCHNITZ
  1886.

  _The Right of Translation is reserved._


            “The darkness is past,
  And the True Light now shineth.”

  “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good
     works.”



INTRODUCTION.


Recent discoveries in the Roman Forum have brought to light many
interesting relics. Amongst these are the statues of the Vestales
Maximæ, of which, in spite of the efforts of the lime-burners and
stone-cutters of the Middle Ages, who were distinguished for their
work of wholesale destruction, thirty-six inscriptions, and fourteen
statues, have been discovered.

The pedestals on which the statues were placed bear inscriptions, and
the names of the Vestales Maximæ whose virtues are recorded.

There is one exception--the name is carefully erased--and we can know
her of whom so much is said in praise, only as _Number Thirteen_.

An attempt has been made to clothe the memory of this Vestal with some
probable, though of course wholly fictitious, incidents; and to assume
as a certainty the idea, which has been thrown out as a possibility,
that her conversion to Christianity was discovered, and that one in
authority desired to leave no trace of her family or her name to future
generations.

But, though her name has perished, her virtues remain engraven on the
imperishable stone, and these help us to call her before us, in all the
grace and dignity of a beautiful life, passed in the cloisters of the
Vestals’ home.

The incidents which have gathered round her supposed history, are more
or less connected with the persecution and martyrdom of the Early
Church in Britain, and afterwards in Rome.

A glance like this into the past may be made useful to the young
reader, if it should quicken a desire for the intelligent study of
history, and help the student to look upon the events of bygone ages as
they affected real men and women, who had the same hopes and fears, and
aims and ends, as we have, who are living so long after them.

We are, naturally perhaps, too apt to think of those of whom we read in
these distant ages, as myths rather than as the brothers and sisters
of the one great family of God, to which we all belong. Their human
hearts beat with the same affections as ours, and through the mists of
superstition and ignorance the lamp of an undying love shines out here
and there, as a light in a dark place.

Thus, through the symbol of the sacred fire, which the Vestals vowed
to keep for ever burning, we may see the foreshadowing of the mission
of every Christian woman, matron or maiden, whose high vocation it is
to keep the light of truth, purity, and love, for ever burning in her
daily life, and by giving light to those around fulfil the command of
her Master, when He said--

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works,
and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”



CONTENTS.


                                                    Page

  CHAPTER I.   A silent City                           9

    --   II.   Night                                  21

    --  III.   The missing Slave                      39

    --   IV.   Capture and Death                      55

    --    V.   Claudius fulfils his Vow               72

    --   VI.   By Land and Sea                        92

    --  VII.   Rome                                  105

    -- VIII.   Discipleship                          122

    --   IX.   Dayspring                             142

    --    X.   Sunset                                161

    --   XI.   June, 313--The Festival of Vesta      177

    --  XII.   Vanishing                             198

    -- XIII.   A.D. 333--Alexandria                  211

    --  XIV.   The Cross                             227

    --   XV.   The Crown of Light                    240

    --  XVI.   Onward and Upward                     248

    -- XVII.   Triumph                               266



  No. XIII;
  OR,
  THE STORY OF THE LOST VESTAL.



CHAPTER I.

A SILENT CITY.


There was silence in the city of Verulam on a bright summer day now
nearly sixteen hundred years ago. It was a strange silence which
reigned in the deserted streets of the old Roman city, which, with its
baths and public buildings, was reckoned one of the finest in that
sea-girt island, which the mistress of the world had made her own.

A vast crowd had left the city gates at dawn on that cloudless morning
of early summer; women and children, stately matrons and tender
maidens, all poured out of the town towards a river, some in chariots,
many on foot, but all eager to get a good position on a flower-covered
hill where a scene which would fill their hearts with an unhealthful
excitement was to be enacted. For many of the Roman ladies, who wore
costly robes, and fared delicately, and were at once the envy and
admiration of the Britons, had inherited for the most part the passion
for a sight which would now blanch the cheeks of their descendants, and
fill their hearts with horror and shame.

There are exceptions to every rule, and though at a first glance the
city looked entirely deserted, business and pleasure alike stopped, and
the forum and temples empty, yet from one or two of the houses of the
higher class of Roman nobility the inhabitants had not gone forth with
the multitude, but had preferred remaining at home.

The villa of the noble Roman, Severus, was one of these; it was built,
like all Roman houses, round a square, which was open to the sky above.
A fountain played in the centre, and round the marble basin were
planted the golden iris with its long-pointed leaves, and palms with
their fan-like foliage; while the water-lilies, just opening their
rounded buds, were rocking on the water, as it rose and fell with a
gentle splash, pleasant to the ear and soothing to the spirit.

Couches covered with rich stuffs were arranged round this outer hall or
“atrium,” and on one of them a lady was reclining; a little maiden of
eleven years old at her feet, and a slave standing by her side, with a
cup in one hand and a cloth in the other, fringed with gold lace, with
which she wiped the lips of her mistress when she sipped the draught
offered her, after nibbling at a sweet hard cake which she held in her
hand.

The early sunshine had not yet come into the court, and the lady said,
shuddering--

“Another scarf, Ebba, it is so cold. Ah, me! how I long for the warmth
of my own country.”

Ebba placed the salver on a shelf which was just behind the couch, and
taking a rich violet mantle from a carved chest threw it round her
mistress.

“Is thy master gone with the multitude, and has he taken Casca with
him?”

“Yes, lady, there is no one left in the house but myself and the child
Hyacintha.”

At the sound of her name the young girl looked up. She had been so
engrossed with a chain of Venetian shells she was threading upon gold
silk, that she had apparently no thought for anything besides.

“Mother!” she exclaimed, “tell me about the sight every one has gone
forth to see. Why could I not go? My father might have taken me with
Casca.”

“Nay, Hyacintha, the crowd would have been too great. I dare not expose
thee to its dangers.”

“The man who is to die is a very evil man, is he not, mother?”

“Nay, child, I have not heard so much said.”

Then the fair-haired British Ebba turned towards the child.

“The man is a good man,” she said. “He gave bread to the hungry, he
clothed the naked, and he has perished because he would fain save the
life of his friend.”

“Ah, that is noble!” said the little maiden with a light of interest
kindled in her clear eyes. “Ah! that is noble; why should he die?”

“Thou art too young, my daughter, to understand the reason why a man
like this Alban should die. But the reason is good, nevertheless. The
old faith must be protected and defended, if it be possible.”

Ebba’s lips were seen to move, but no sound passed them.

“These Christians,” the lady continued, “are trying to upset, and pull
down, and destroy our religion and our worship; it is only meet that
they should be hindered from further mischief.”

Again Ebba’s lips moved, and the child, looking up, thought she caught
the words--

“They cannot be hindered, for God is for them.”

“Ebba is murmuring to herself, mother,” Hyacintha said. “Bid her to
speak so that we may hear.”

But the curtain which fell over the entrance to the dining-hall was
seen to quiver as the British slave-girl disappeared behind it.

Then the lady exclaimed, “I wish Ebba would take more heed of her ways,
for if she is defiled with the foreign superstitions, there will be
trouble for us. There is enough trouble as it is. Ah! me, why do people
make so much of religion? Jupiter or Apollo, or the Christian’s God, it
is all the same to me!”

And the lady leaned back upon her pillow, and very soon the dark lashes
were resting on her cheeks, and she was wrapt in a gentle slumber.

There are always people in all ages of the world of the same easy
temperament as this wife of the noble Severus. The city might be
deserted; the rage of a tyrannical governor might vent itself on the
brave and loyal-hearted Alban, by torture and death, but what did it
concern Cæcilia?

As I said, many other ladies of her rank had gone out that day to
see the cruel sight, and to feast their eyes on a scene from which
delicately nurtured women might have been supposed to turn with
loathing. But Cæcilia, the wife of Severus, hated trouble, and looking
on life as one long festival, disliked to think of anything which
seemed to point to the probability, that to many it was a season of
trial and suffering. So, lulled by the fountain in the atrium of
her husband’s beautiful villa, she enjoyed a dreamy repose, and was
unconscious of all that was passing about her, and that her little
daughter had put aside the shells and also disappeared behind the
curtain.

Ebba was on the gallery that ran round the atrium, and when she saw
Hyacintha pull aside the curtain she came to the head of the marble
stairs, and beckoned to her.

The child went up to her, saying--

“What is it you said, Ebba?”

“Come hither and look from the gallery over the country, and you will
see.”

As she spoke, Ebba mounted still higher to the square opening in the
roof, on one side of which was a small covered gallery, whence an
extensive view was spread out, of the town and river and country
beyond. The child gazed upon the view before her with wistful,
questioning eyes.

The throng of people spread over the fields, which were smiling in
the June sunshine; and along the great Watling Street, and across the
bridge, there was a continuous stream of all ages and sexes.

The low murmur of the moving multitude reached the place where the
Briton slave and her little mistress stood, and upon a hill rising on
the opposite bank by the river there was an erection, round which the
glittering helmets of soldiers were shining in the sun. Hyacintha drew
closer to Ebba, and said, in a low tone--

“Tell me, Ebba, are they going to see the man killed? I wish you would
speak, and,” she murmured, “tell me all you know.”

“If I were to tell you that,” the young Briton said, “I should be
seized and tortured; and I am not ready to confess my faith.”

“Thy faith? Is not thy faith to believe that the gods are above, and
watch over men; and that if men and women submit to their decrees they
are protected and safe.”

Ebba shook her head.

“I know not if the Romans are safe under the care of their gods. I know
they have enslaved us and are stern masters.”

“Am I not kind to thee, Ebba?” said Hyacintha; “I would fain be kind;
but of late thou hast been so strange and sad. Never can I win a laugh
from thee. Never wilt thou play the harp for me to dance and sing. Tell
me all that is in thy heart.”

Ebba clasped her hands, and leaning upon the balustrade she said--

“If I were brave, and not a coward, I should tell thee all. Nay, I
should tell the world; but I am a coward, and I durst not.”

Hyacintha seated herself on one of the cushioned seats on the balcony,
while Ebba continued to look out on the moving multitude and the
distant hill, the shining river and the sunny slopes around it,
silently and sadly.

Ebba was a large, strongly-built maiden of some eighteen or twenty
years. She had been born a slave in the Roman’s household, and had
never known any other life. Her complexion was florid, and her hair
the richest auburn. She wore the badge of her master on her arm; and
her dress was of woollen material, girt in at the waist by a band, but
falling loosely to her ankles.

Ebba was skilful and clever, and was a favourite with her mistress, who
had many attendants, but always gave Ebba the preference. Time had been
when Ebba had been foremost in providing amusement, for she could dance
to the tambourine, and her broad face was generally lighted by a smile.

She was quick in arranging flowers, in plaiting her lady’s hair, and
weaving into it coins and gold ornaments with a skill which few could
rival.

Of late a change had passed over her, and instead of a merry girl,
who had a light jest and a sally for every one, she was a grave, sad
woman, often speaking to herself in low tones, and taking no part in
the festive revelries of Severus’s household. The child Hyacintha
was, even at eleven years old, most unusually beautiful. She was born
of a patrician race on both sides, and fulfilled all the conditions
of her noble birth in her form and features. Her figure, even now,
when childhood was passing into girlhood, was lithe and supple, and
the Roman maiden developed early, for fourteen was considered as the
entrance into womanhood.

Hyacintha’s eyes were of that dusky hue which, taking a new colour with
every varying light, defies description. Her hair was of a deep golden
brown; and though she had every distinctive feature of her race in the
well-cut features, and curved, short upper lip, with rather a massive
chin, her complexion was fair.

Hyacintha had been born in the north during her father’s first year
of office about the person of the Governor; thus the Italian sunshine
had not given her complexion the rich dark hue which characterised her
mother.

No one could look at Hyacintha, even at that early age, without seeing
that there was in her something beyond the ordinary type of girlhood.
Her mother might dream away life, and know no higher pleasures than
the acquisition of beautiful dresses and ornaments, and in the
entertainment of guests, and driving along the level Watling Street
in her well-appointed chariot, but Hyacintha had already other aims
and views. The child had heard from her father that maidens of their
house had been chosen to keep the sacred fire burning in the temple
of Vesta--that fire which was never to be quenched--that light which,
coming from heaven, was to keep the sacred flame alive in every Roman’s
hearth and heart!

Hyacintha would ask her mother many questions about this temple, and
the beautiful city so far away, and when her mother complained of the
chilling winds and dark skies of the northern climate, she would ask--

“Why do we not return to Rome?”

The British slave-girl, Ebba, could tell her nothing of that distant
city; but of late, when she spoke of it, she would speak of another
city fairer and more beautiful than Rome could be, and when Hyacintha
asked how people reached it, she would clasp her hands and say--

“By a rough and terrible way, from which the timid shrank, but the
brave of heart went forth boldly to tread.”

Several times in the course of that long summer’s day did little
Hyacintha mount to the balcony and look out on the crowd which covered
the hill-side.

Now and then a few stragglers returned, or a chariot with prancing
steeds rolled along the great Watling Street.

Women, tired of carrying their children, came back to the city, and by
the evening there were knots of people in the city all talking of what
had happened on the hill above the river. Just at sunset the servants
of Severus’s household returned, and the evening meal was laid in
the inner hall or banqueting-room. Very soon the wheels of chariots
were heard rolling up, and Hyacintha ran down to meet her father and
brother, and hear the news.

Severus had several officers and gentlemen with him, and was scarcely
conscious of his little daughter’s presence till she pulled the sleeve
of his robe.

“Tell me, father, is the man dead?”

“Ay, little one, and so may all the enemies of the gods perish. But
such a story is not for thy ears, my Hyacintha. See, take thy lute and
play to us while we sup. These fellows have had enough of freedom for
one day, and the supper is late. How now, slaves!” Severus exclaimed,
clapping his hands, “let the guests be served.”

The couches were soon filled by the company, and Cæcilia reclined at
the head of the board, dressed in the richest violet silk, with gold
trimmings, a long veil floating at the back of her head.

Ebba was in attendance, and a seat at the end of the sofa or couch was
reserved for Hyacintha.

“Where have you left Casca? Where is my son?” Cæcilia asked.

“The boy is weary, and the day has been too much for him. He has not
the nerve and muscle of a Spartan,” was the reply; “not so much as our
little maiden here, I verily believe.”

“And, indeed,” said a grave man, who was one of the guests, “it was a
sight to affect a boy of your son’s tender years.”

The Roman father laughed.

“Nay, may he never see worse sights than that we have witnessed to-day.
There was not enough terror in it; these miserable Christians need
stronger discipline; they are so stubborn. When the beasts spring on
them in the arena, and a huge leopard plays with one like a ball, then
it is somewhat thrilling, I grant, but to-day! Fill the cups, and let
us drink to the health of the Governor, and pour out a libation to the
gods in token of gratitude that it has been given to us to crush out
another at least of these reptiles.”

“Nay, now,” said a young man, “you forget the executioner.”

“Aye, so I did, that was a fine addition to the scene. I could laugh
now to think of it!”

Severus saw that his little daughter was following every word that was
said with extreme earnestness, and that Ebba, who was standing with a
scent-bottle and a large fan close to her mistress, was scanning the
face of the last speaker eagerly.

“Bid the musicians strike up,” Severus said; “our talk is scarcely
pleasant for ladies to hear. And then, when we have had a good stirring
melody, my little daughter shall sing us a good-night strain on her
lute. Eh, my pretty one?”

“Father, I pray you to excuse me to-night,” Hyacintha said; “I am
weary, and I have no heart to sing.”

She stepped down from her place on her mother’s couch, and with a
curtsey, and graceful wave of her hand to the guests at the table,
disappeared.



CHAPTER II.

NIGHT.


Although Casca and Hyacintha were their parents’ only children, there
were no very intimate relations existing between them.

Casca was almost entirely at the schools, where he was preparing for
active service, and receiving such training as was deemed needful for
a young Roman. His father was disappointed that his only boy should
be pale and delicate, that his arms should not be muscular, and that
he was always at fault in any game, or trial of strength. Severus did
his best to harden his only son, and it was with that idea that he had
taken him with him that morning to see the execution of Alban.

Severus was in attendance on the Governor, and, shrinking and
frightened, the boy stood by his father’s side, hiding his face in his
short toga, when the martyr was scourged till the ground was moistened
with his blood. Judge and Governor alike were pitiless, and, believing
they were performing an act of service to their gods by crushing out
the confessors of the Christian faith in Verulam, they were determined
to make the whole scene as impressive as possible.

Alban was no common man: it was necessary that his execution should be
conducted in no ordinary fashion.

He had lived in one of the finest villas in the city, he was a learned
scholar, and had unquestioned taste in the fine arts which the Romans
were introducing into Britain.

Although born at Verulam, Alban had, in his youth, travelled to
Rome, and when he returned had been looked upon with veneration and
respect. Although a Pagan, and scrupulous in his attendance on all high
ceremonies in the temple of the gods, Alban had always been charitable
and compassionate, and the poor found in him a friend.

Thus, full of kindness, when the Emperor’s edict published against the
Christians at Rome and in all Roman provinces was issued, Alban opened
his house to a man who was fleeing from his persecutors, and a minister
of the religion of Christ. This was the turning-point of Alban’s life;
this was the first step to the martyrdom which he had suffered gladly
on this summer day for the faith of Christ crucified.

It is hard for us to realise, or grasp as facts, the terrible
persecutions of those distant times.

Perhaps nothing is a stronger testimony to the Christian faith than
that the more it was attacked, and the fiercer the persecution of its
disciples, the more it grew and strengthened.

It has been so in all times; it will be so in all future ages, “for
the Lord remaineth a King for ever.”

Hyacintha went to find her brother. The child’s head was filled with a
strange yearning curiosity to know all particulars of what had passed.

She went up the marble staircase once more, and again looked out from
the balcony over the city and the country.

The western sky was still aglow, and the outline of the hill was marked
against it in purple lines. The river caught a reflection from a
crescent moon which hung above it, and rippled in the silvery light.

The country beyond the city was asleep, but the city, which had been so
quiet in the morning, was now astir. The buzz and murmur of voices rose
on the still air, and slaves were seen conducting Roman citizens of
note to their homes. Torches were lighted, silver lamps burning in the
“Halls,” while strains of music and the voices of singing girls were
borne on the breath of the evening air.

But Hyacintha did not stay on the balcony long; she turned from it to
a room on the opposite side of the square opening, where she knew she
should find her brother.

She went softly round to the doorway, and gently clapped her hands.

“Enter!” was said in a low voice; “is that you, Claudius?”

“No, Casca, it is only Hyacintha;” and Hyacintha pushed back the
curtain and stood half shyly by her brother’s side.

He had thrown himself down on a couch, his hands folded behind his
head, and his whole attitude one of extreme weariness.

“What do you want, Hyacintha?”

“I want news,” she replied; “tell me what you have seen to-day. Do tell
me all the truth about the death of the evil man.”

Casca sprang up.

“Hush! Do not speak of that you know not, child. Evil, forsooth! he was
good, not evil.”

“That is what I want to be sure of. Be kind, brother, be kind, and tell
me the story.”

But Casca sank back again upon his cushion, and said--

“Not to-night. I shall never sleep if I rehearse it. I could not go
over it again. Who are below?” he asked, as the sounds of music and
singing came from the atrium.

“A few guests, some that my father brought home; no ladies but my
mother.”

“Is not Junia there, the sister of Claudius?”

“No, unless she has arrived since I left the banqueting-hall. I would
not stay, though father prayed me to sing to the lute. I could not
stay, because I wanted to find thee.”

“Dear little sister,” Casca said, “I would not be rough to thee.”

“Thou art never rough, brother,” was the answer, “and I love thee
dearly. I only wish I knew more of thy secrets. May I stay with thee?”

“Yes, draw that stool to the window, and pull the curtain aside. I like
to see the sky and the stars.”

Hyacintha obeyed, and waited for what her brother would say next; he
was contemplating the graceful outline of her head against the sky, as,
with her elbow on the deep stone ledge of the window, her cheek resting
upon her hand, she made a study any artist might long to put on canvas.
Hyacintha waited patiently for her brother to speak, and at last he
broke the silence, though not in the way she expected.

“I am a bitter disappointment to our father, Hyacintha, a poor, puny
weakling like me; there are times when I long for death, to be free of
this life. It may be that the gods would be merciful to me and give me
the strength hereafter I lack here. But to-day, when I saw death, I
shuddered and swooned. I am a wretched coward, with no power to live,
and no power to die.”

Hyacintha’s eyes filled with tears. What comfort had a heathen to offer
in all these exigencies of life and death? What could Hyacintha say
to throw any light or hope over her brother’s darkness? Though but
a child, she had heard much, from the grown-up people with whom she
associated, of the world, and the pleasures of dance and song, and
the games and all the luxuries and refinements of life, which were
supposed to be a cure for heart-aches and trials. But Ebba had talked
of feeding the hungry, nursing the sick, and clothing the naked, as a
way to be happy. She said this man, Alban, had done these things, and
that there was always a light on his face which was not shed there by
any of the pleasures in which others indulged. Poor Hyacintha’s mind
was all confused and bewildered; she almost wished she could be gay and
careless like Junia, whose voice, singing a familiar song, now sounded
from the atrium.

She began dimly to grasp the fact that something was wanted to make
life different from the life her mother led, and many ladies, who
frequented the atrium and lay on the luxurious couches there, and toyed
with their bracelets and ornaments.

“I will pray my father,” Hyacintha thought “that I may go to Rome, and
be trained for a priestess, in the temple of Vesta. Yes, I will pray
him that I may do this, then I shall be happier far, for it will be
doing something grand and noble.”

Her meditations were a second time broken in upon by her brother’s
voice.

“Hark! I think I hear Claudius’s footstep. Yes; run, Hyacintha, and
admit him.”

But Claudius did not wait to be admitted. He came springing in with a
light step, and a cheery voice, a voice that had laughter in it, like
the ripple of a brook hidden amongst moss and stones.

“So, here you are, hiding and moping! Wherefore such dolorous looks,
young Casca? I am in the highest spirits. What think you? I am chosen
for the race to-morrow, and I will win, too. Your pardon, fair
Hyacintha. I did not perceive you in the shadow of the curtain. What
ails you, Casca?”

“Weariness of myself and life, that is all,” the boy said; “you are in
its full zest and enjoyment, while I----”

“Pish! what folly! The best time is coming. Why, as soon as you wear
the toga virilis you will feel the man. Were you on the hill to-day?”

“Yes, I was _forced_ to be there by my father.”

“Forced! Well, it was a fine spectacle; though to say the truth,
there’s many a worse fellow than Alban about the city. Those sly
Christians are doing secretly here in Verulam what Alban did openly,
there’s the difference. They may be unearthed any day, and the sooner
the better.”

“I do not know the whole story,” Hyacintha said. “I pray you, Claudius,
tell it to me. If I ask my father he puts me off; and my mother says it
is only that some wicked men should be got rid of. And Ebba is full of
mystery, and sighs and mutters, but will not speak.”

“I will speak, if so it pleases you, little Hyacintha,” said Claudius,
“and tell what there is to be told, always providing that I agree with
your lady mother, the sooner the reptiles are crushed out the better.”

“You will find a draught in yonder cup,” Casca said, raising himself
lazily on one arm; “that will refresh you before you begin.” Claudius
soon trained the contents of the cup, and then replenished it from a
flagon which stood by it.

“Aye, that is like nectar,” he said. Then he threw his large muscular
limbs upon some cushions piled up in a corner near the window, where
Hyacintha sat, her figure a little bent forward, and her eyes fastened
upon the boy, as he began his tale.

“Only a few months ago, Alban was one of the most devoted worshippers
in the temple of Apollo. He spent large sums on sacrifices, and if
he poured out a libation, it was of the purest wine. There was no
stint with him, as you know, or ought to know. A man who professed to
teach and preach this new superstition was fleeing from his pursuers.
Walking along Watling Street, Alban, noticing his breathless condition,
inquired what ailed him. He said the Governor’s minions were upon him.
Alban, struck with the man’s agony, hastily conducted him to his house,
and harboured him there in secret.

“It is said that the miserable fugitive prayed night and day to his
God, asking for help, and also that Alban should be turned from the old
faith to believe these lies.”

“Are you--is any one--sure they _are_ lies?” Casca asked.

“Look you, Casca,” said Claudius, “it is not for any one here to ask
that question. Suffice it, that they are lies, base lies.”

Casca sighed heavily, and Claudius continued--

“The fugitive, whose name was Amphibalus, at last succeeded in his base
designs. Alban, whom every one respected and honoured here, professed
himself a Christian, and then the scene changed. So well had Alban
hidden this fellow, that it was not for many days that suspicion was
directed to his house. When at least it was searched, he, the stranger,
had fled. Alban had give him one of his best robes, and wearing that,
he escaped suspicion, and passed through the gates. But Alban himself,
clothed in the Caracalla, which is the robe the fellow wore, was now
under suspicion. ‘You will suffer in his stead, unless you at once
sacrifice to the images of the gods,’ the judge said.”

“To tell the truth,” said Claudius, “there was something noble in the
fellow, for no tortures could make him give in. Hush! what is that?”

A low voice was heard to say--

“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his
friends.”

“It is Ebba’s voice,” Hyacintha exclaimed, and running towards the
door, she found Ebba standing there.

“It is Ebba,” Hyacintha repeated. “Permit her to enter and hear the
story to the end.” Casca nodded his head by way of assent, and Ebba,
leaning against the wall over which a curtain hung, listened intently
while Claudius finished his story.

“No tortures,” he continued, “would make the fellow give in. The
scourge ploughed his back pretty well. He had thirty-nine stripes, and
we expected to see him fall down dead.”

“Were you in the hall?” Casca exclaimed.

“Yes, I have seen the whole play played out,” the boy said carelessly.
“The grand climax was to-day, when the executioner threw himself at
Alban’s feet, and begged to die with him, or for him. And then there
was an uproar indeed. A great multitude pressed round Alban, who was
praying and calling upon his God, and crying to Jesus to have mercy,
and turn the hearts of the people to himself.

“The governor and judge, however, made short work. A new executioner,
one of the soldiers, was easily found, and it was not long before the
heads of both Alban and Heraclius were rolling on the turf, and their
blood sprinkled on the flowers. But they say in the city to-night that
there are many who are full of this superstition, and that there will
be many more. Thank the gods I am not one!”

Ebba, who had been standing motionless by the door, murmured something,
which was not distinctly heard, and then vanished.

“I believe Ebba is one of them,” Casca said. “If it is so, it will
bring us all into trouble, and my father ought to know.”

“Well, a truce to the poor wretches. Now,” said Claudius, “let us talk
of other things. Ah! here is Ebba with the light. She will not leave us
in darkness.”

Ebba did not speak, but lighted the two hanging lamps, which cast a
soft radiance on the room, and on those who were in it. The beautiful
childlike face of Hyacintha was brought out from the shadows, and large
tears were seen upon her cheeks.

“Do not tell father, dear brother,” she said, “about Ebba. I pray
you, do not. It might end in her death. And, oh!” exclaimed Hyacintha
passionately, “I do dread death, the darkness whither we must go,
before we reach the Elysian fields.”

“Do not fret, little sister. You are too grave for your tender years;
come, sing to me and Claudius the good-night song you refused to sing
to the guests below.”

“Ah! sing to us, and then I must seek for my sister, and conduct her
home. The guests are leaving the hall, some of them are hilarious
enough.”

As he spoke, loud laughter ascended from the atrium, and the torches
which the attendants and slaves lifted flashed through the street.
There was not much need of their light this evening. The days of our
northern climate were at their longest, and almost before daylight
faded from the west, streaks of dawn brightened the east.

The people of Verulam had gone through a tiring day, and the city was
wrapt earlier than usual in repose.

It was just between midnight and the first hour of the coming day
that a figure, veiled closely, glided across the square, which lay on
one side of the villa Severus, and following the course of the river
crossed it towards the hill, where the great spectacle of the day
before had been witnessed by so many thousands. These were for the most
part sleeping peacefully in Verulam, but some were yet watching on the
spot where the martyrs had shed their blood.

One of them was the priest whose life Alban had saved at the expense
of his own, and as the dark-veiled figure crept up the hill-side he
advanced to meet it.

“Is it thou, my daughter, Ebba, the slave of the Roman house?”

“Yes, father, and I would fain follow thee. I am not afraid now. I will
confess Christ before men. If I am to die, He will be with me, and I
cannot--I dare not--tarry any longer. Baptise me; I am ready.”

“Art thou sure thou art in truth ready to leave all for Christ, to dare
to confess thy faith?”

The girl’s lips faltered, and she said--

“I would fain remain with my mistress if it were possible. I love her
little daughter so well.”

“Ah! I see, thou art _not_ ready to leave all for Christ. There must
be no halting between two opinions. My daughter, he who was done to a
cruel death on this spot to-day, and whose blessed body we have buried
here in silence and darkness, did not halt. Never can I forget the
decision he showed. In the very hour that he believed, he confessed,
and gave up all. Think what a renunciation it was: his fine house,
whither the noblest and the most learned scholars amongst the Romans
resorted; the honour paid him when he went to the temple to sacrifice
to the false gods; the respect also felt for his gifts and talents. Yet
he never faltered, and when the great trial-hour came he sent me forth
in his robe, with a face as glad as if, when he arrayed himself in my
Caracalla,[A] he had donned his wedding garment.

“That robe was the signal for his death. He did not fear to die for
Christ, and he stood before the Governor, so those tell me who saw
him, with a face shining like that of an angel. I have been in hiding
near by, and have remained under cover of the darkness, to make known
to the faithful whither I am gone, that they may perchance follow me,
and in the fastnesses of Wales, we may add daily to our number such as
shall be saved. Say, Ebba, wilt thou follow? See, there are signs of
dawn in the east. I may not tarry. That group yonder seen in dark, dim,
outline, is composed of those who are following me to a meeting-place I
have indicated. Wilt thou join thyself to them?”

The poor British slave bowed her head, and clasping her hands, said, “I
will follow thee.”

Then the priest led her to a spring, and baptised the heathen Ebba by
the name “Anna.”

The morning star was shining brightly, and the summer dawn breaking
over the hills, when, by the grave of the two martyrs, the cross was
signed upon the forehead of the British slave.

The ceremony was performed in haste, and then the little band
dispersed, to escape observation, some in one direction, some in
another, but all to meet in a thick wood, near a place called Radburn,
three miles distant from the city of Verulam.

Ebba, or Anna, as we must now call her, was committed to the care of
a recent convert, named Agatha, who had concealed a little band of
Christians in her house in the city, and who was an aunt to the soldier
who had thrown away his sword and died rather than execute the savage
commands of the Governor and Judge. There was no time for many words.
Agatha kissed Anna on the forehead and said--

“I welcome thee, my daughter, to the inheritance of the saints, be it
death or be it life.” And then in silence the two women pursued their
way through the flower-scented meadow-land, and reached the shelter of
the tangled wood at Radburn before the sun rose.

A cave in this wood, the mouth of which was covered with brushwood, was
the appointed meeting-place. Here Amphibalus the priest had been hiding
since Alban had permitted him to escape. And here, worn out with the
events of the previous day, on beds made of dry leaves and heather,
Anna lay down with her new friend to rest.

The cave was of some extent, and had several divisions. A fissure in
the rock above lighted the inner part, which was allotted to the women.
Even in summer it was a cold habitation, and only when the sun was high
in the heavens could any warmth and cheerfulness penetrate it. As Anna
lay gazing up into the roof, she could see the blue sky far above her
through the interlacing boughs of brambles, and low-growing maples
which grew over the opening.

The thrushes were singing their morning song, and there was innumerable
chirping of newly-fledged birds, while the lowing of distant cattle and
the nearer humming of bees, kept up a continuous low murmur.

Poor Anna could not sleep; she was thinking over the life in the Roman
villa, of all the little offices it would soon be time to perform for
her mistress and for Hyacintha. She knew full well that she would be
missed before long, and perhaps pursued and found. That punishment, if
not death, was the doom of the escaped slave, she knew well. The band,
the badge of that slavery, was still on her arm, and could only be
taken off by the hand of a smith. It would betray her as the runaway
slave of the noble Severus, though the cross, the sign of her new
faith, was invisible to all eyes but the angels.

Anna’s was not a strong, heroic soul; she was, as she had told her
little mistress, a coward. “Yet He giveth strength to the _weak_” was
a promise to be fulfilled in her case, as in that of the thousands who
have learned to “count all things but loss for the love of Christ.”

Agatha was of a very different nature. She was sleeping as soundly and
quietly as a child, while her young companion tossed and turned with
wide-open eyes and restless limbs till noonday was near. The outer
caves were getting full, and the whispers of the fugitives awoke Agatha.

“Have you slept, my daughter?” she said.

“Nay, I cannot sleep. I do not feel any peace, though I would not go
back if I could.” Then she added hastily, and in a weak, low voice, “I
am hungry.”

Agatha smiled.

“Ah!” she said, “hunger and weariness are a part of the cross we must
bear after Christ; but thou art young, my child, and I will see whether
I can find thee some food. We have had but scant measure here.”

Agatha disappeared within the outer cave, and presently returned,
beckoning Anna to follow her.

Awe-struck, the girl obeyed, and there, in the outer cave, a little
congregation was gathered round Amphibalus, who was kneeling at a rude
table formed by a fragment of rock which blocked up the entrance to the
cavern.

At a sign from Agatha, Anna knelt with the rest, and then Amphibalus
rising, turned to the people, and bade them draw near and receive the
sign of the love of the Crucified One, the bread and the wine which
He had commanded. In a few short words, he rehearsed the story of the
Cross to those poor trembling converts who at any moment might be
discovered and dragged off to a cruel death. He told of the life which
now is, and that hope of the life to come, as the blessed experience of
the Christian, and his anchor. For life here without Him is darkness,
and life there without Him is a dread void. What did stripes and
persecution weigh in the balance, when the future exceeding glory and
joy were on the other side! Then he went on to speak of Alban, and the
soldier who died with him, rather than live without him, and to bid all
those present to encourage each other in steadfastness and courage.

The Communion was then celebrated; the water from a neighbouring
spring, being coloured with wine which Amphibalus had preserved in
a small leathern flask in a secret pocket of his robe, filled the
rude cup which was offered to the little band, and small fragments of
wheaten bread were eaten.

The command thus obeyed in all simplicity of faith brought its blessing
with it. Surely the strengthening and refreshing of these fugitives
were a great reality, and poor Anna, rising from her knees with a smile
on her lips, whispered--

“I will feed on Thee in my heart, O Saviour, and I shall know neither
hunger nor thirst.”

There was need of faith, for the bodies of the little band were nearly
exhausted before food came. It was not till darkness covered the face
of the country that a messenger was sent to Radburn to buy bread. He
returned about midnight, with loaves concealed in his clothes, and a
pewter flagon or cup, that could be filled from the spring, and was
handed round.

When the bread was divided every one of the fainting converts received
the right share, and then Amphibalus prayed for a blessing, and that
this food might support the bodies of those who partook of it till more
bountiful provision was vouchsafed.

A consultation was held as to the future, and it was decided that the
small band should remain in hiding in the cave to await the coming in
of any more fugitives from the city.

Agatha, who was a strong and active woman, busied herself in making the
three caves more habitable, by heaping up the heather and dried leaves
for beds, and plaiting some of it into small baskets, which might be
useful for exchanging for food whenever there was any obtainable in
their wanderings.

Wales was the probable destination of the little community, where it
was hoped they might find employment as keepers of pigs and cattle,
and in the fastnesses of that district make converts from the scanty
population, and by degrees found a church there.

Agatha’s cheerful, bright spirit infected Anna, and she began to take
heart, and as the Gospel story was told her by her friend her soul
expanded under its influence, and she only longed that her dear little
mistress could have the same good news, and bitterly repented that
through fear and terror of the consequences she had kept silence, and
that she had not answered many earnest questions that the child had
asked her.

It was too late now.



CHAPTER III.

THE MISSING SLAVE.


There was a good deal of consternation in the household of the noble
Severus when Ebba’s flight was discovered.

An ominous frown upon Severus’s brow, as he entered his wife’s chamber,
showed that a storm was brewing.

His lady had just had her morning bath, and was crying in a very
undignified way for Ebba, declaring that the attendant, who was doing
her best to supply her place, scorched her head with the crimping iron;
that no one could plait her hair as Ebba did; that no one could twist
into it the gold threads, or place the plait in the right position, but
Ebba.

“Silence!” exclaimed Severus; “what mean you, to chide and wail like
a weakling infant? Begone, all of you,” he said, clapping his hands;
“begone, slaves, nor return till I bid you.”

The attendants, frightened by their master’s threatening air, took
flight like a flock of pigeons, and only Hyacintha remained.

“Didst hear my order, child?”

But Hyacintha, whose eyes were swollen with weeping, said--

“Father, do not send me hence, I pray you.”

Severus seldom said a harsh word to his little daughter, and it was not
often that she witnessed his outbursts of passion.

He offered no opposition when Hyacintha nestled closer to her mother on
the couch, merely saying--

“Then hold your peace if you stay, nor make a single objection to what
I have to say. This slave, Ebba, has, it seems, been in league with
the poor reptiles whom, by order of the Emperor, we are to do our
best to crush out of this land. By the gods! it is no pleasant thing
for me to have cold and scornful looks turned on me in the Governor’s
hall to-day; to be suspected as the master of a household of these
creatures. ‘Forsooth,’ one said in my ear, ‘the runaway slave is not
the only tainted one in thy house.’ I swear by the gods, that if he
referred to my own son, I will not spare him, no, I will deliver him
up.”

Hyacintha, who buried her face in her mother’s mantle, gave a low cry
of terror.

“Peace, child,” said her father; “I do not know if Casca is infected,
but I will take care to stop the infection if it be so. I have set a
price on Ebba’s head, and do not doubt I shall scent her out; but it
is of this daughter of ours I wish to speak. I propose to send her to
Rome without delay, to begin her training under our kinswoman, Terentia
Rufilla. It is time--high time--and I shall proceed at once.”

Cæcilia was not a mother to be too much concerned about her child’s
future. The loss of Ebba, which entailed personal inconvenience,
really distressed her more than this proposed separation from her only
daughter. Hyacintha had for some time heard a rumour that this office
in the temple of the goddess Vesta was to be her appointed lot. As,
in later times, the daughters of noble families were consigned to
the convent, and given no choice in the matter by their parents, but
compelled to take the veil, so, in the era of which I write, there
was no question as to the propriety of devoting them to the service
of Vesta, which was considered the most honourable of all services
connected with the temples of the gods.

There were often difficulties in the way, as many requirements had
to be satisfied before a candidate for the office was accepted, but
Hyacintha could fulfil these. She was of noble birth, and fair to look
upon; her disposition was gentle, and her temper sweet. She had never
rebelled against her parents’ wishes in her short life, and she was
not likely to do so now. Indeed, of late she had been herself looking
forward to the temple service; child as she was, she hungered for
service, to do some great and noble deed, and know some higher life
than that which the ladies about her led, of feasting and song, of
excessive ornaments and luxurious plenty on the board of food and wine.

“Yes,” Severus continued, “I can obtain an excellent convoy for
Hyacintha in the course of a few days, and Casca shall accompany her.
The family of Burrhus are returning thither by way of Gaul with a
maniple. The Emperor has ordered their return, as Burrhus’s services
are needed about Diocletian. His wife will care for our little one, and
she will be safe. What sayest thou, Hyacintha, my fair blossom?”

The stern brow relaxed now, and the child saw it. She stepped down from
her mother’s couch, and going to her father said--

“I say, I will go to be trained to serve in the temple, though I grieve
to leave thee and my mother.”

“Ah! Hyacintha,” exclaimed her mother, “thou wert always strange in thy
tastes. Even thy foster-mother said thou never didst care for toys, and
such things as infants love. It will run through thy life, methinks.”

“If I had but Ebba. If I had----”

“Peace! no more of thy hankering for the slave. I will let thee see her
head when it is brought in. A meek-faced hypocrite! I know her well,”
said her father.

“She was ever a helpful maiden to me, and I shall want her sorely,”
complained Cæcilia. “I pray she may escape thy wrath. And be patient
with Casca. The boy has----”

“The boy has no strength of mind or body,” was the answer, as Severus
left the room.

Hyacintha summoned back the attendants at her mother’s order, and
listened for some time to a succession of complaints and regrets for
Ebba, which apparently took as little effect on the other maidens as
the dropping of the water on the marble of the atrium had upon the
smooth polished surface.

At length the toilette was completed, and the lady, richly dressed,
repaired to the public bath, which was as much frequented in Verulam as
in Rome. The baths of these times answered to the fashionable clubs and
resorts of to-day. Acquaintances and friends met there, discussed the
news, expressed surprise at the slow arrival of the post from Rome, one
of the chief stations for news being placed at Verulam, talked gossip
and scandal, as is the custom with unoccupied women of every rank and
every nation, in that time, as in our own.

Cæcilia was accounted beautiful, and a person of distinction. She was
one of the leaders of fashion, and her cosmetics and perfumes were the
admiration of her friends, and the envy of her enemies.

Perhaps the word “enemy” is too strong a word to use. Cæcilia had
scarcely enough character to provoke an enemy. Her colourless nature
knew no strong shadows and no bright lights. She lived for herself and
the passing hour, and the maternal instinct was dead within her--dead,
so far as any trouble about her children was concerned. She could love
them till they needed anything at her hands, but if that point were
reached, her love could not show itself in taking any trouble on their
behalf. From all we can gather in contemporary records, the atmosphere
in which the fashionable Roman lady of these times lived and moved was
a deadening one. A few sprang out of it, who read and studied their own
Latin authors and the Greek tongue, and with a wonderful persistency
of purpose mastered many abstruse questions, and hungered after higher
and better things, and nobler aims.

But Cæcilia, the wife of Severus, was content to be ignorant; she
thought this Christianity, which had cost her the services of her
slave, low and vulgar, too low and vulgar for her to give it a thought,
if she had one to give. And when she had settled herself on a couch in
the public baths with her three attendants, she was not well pleased
to find Junia, the sister of Claudius, next her, and intent on asking
questions and getting them answered.

Junia was the daughter of a British chief, or noble, as the Romans
preferred that title, who had married an Italian girl, previously
attached to the person of one of the ladies brought by a former
governor from Rome.

The stern and rough old Briton had become enslaved by the beauty and
fascination of the young Cornelia, and had laid himself and all he
possessed at her feet.

She had withered under the cold breath of the north country, and the
rude luxury of the Briton’s home had been little in harmony with the
early life Cornelia had spent in Italy. She had died and left her
husband disconsolate, with two children on his hands, whom he found
it hard to manage. They united the bold daring of the Briton with the
quick, hot passions of the Italian, and before Junia was fifteen she
had thrust a stiletto, in a fit of rage, into the breast of a slave,
and killed her!

To our notions this dreadful act would have brought upon the girl a
lifelong misery, and she would have been for ever withdrawn from the
society of her friends and relations. But it was widely different then.
The sharp and highly-polished stiletto was always at hand, and a prick
from it, which drew blood, was frequently administered to a careless or
idle slave.

If the wound had by chance been deeper than was intended--well, it was
only the loss of a piece of property, and the master would bear it!

One slave, more or less, was not of very great moment to a wealthy
proprietor. And the slave herself, unless, as in the case of Ebba, who
had suited the whims of her mistress, was scarcely missed.

Junia was a bold, dark-eyed girl, with the free and confident manner
which was sufficiently dangerous in a society like that in which she
moved. She was conscious that her British extraction on one side placed
her on a lower level than the proud Roman ladies of Verulam, but if
conscious of it, she never showed it, and was perfectly unabashed and
self confident.

Junia now threw herself down by Cæcilia’s side, and tossing back the
broad red ribbon which confined her hair, she exclaimed, “So the
faithful Ebba, the paragon of perfection, is gone. What will you do
without her services, fair Cæcilia?”

“I have other maidens at hand,” said Cæcilia, coldly. “They are
skilful.”

“Yes, doubtless,” Junia said, laughing, and showing a row of white
teeth. “Yes, let her go, I say; but I know the noble Severus will have
her head. I only hope it will not come in alone, but have company.” And
again there was a ringing laugh.

“And tell me, beautiful Cæcilia, is it true that Hyacintha is to be
sent to Rome?”

“Yes, Hyacintha is to go to Rome without delay,” Cæcilia answered.

“To be trained for a priestess to the goddess Vesta?”

“I think it may be so.”

“Alas! What a doleful life for the lovely maiden--a priestess--no
marriage for her, no love, no freedom. I would rather be buried at once
in one of the subterranean places they tell us so much of.”

“My daughter is of tender years,” said Cæcilia. “She will at present
only be educated under the care of her father’s aunt--the noble
Terentia Rufilla. The hall of the Vestals is no mean home. They have
everything that is meet for the children of noble Romans. And,”
continued Cæcilia, with a languid air of pride, “be it remembered that
Vestals can only be chosen from the noblest houses of pure, unmixed
descent.”

Junia laughed.

“I see,” she exclaimed, “no poor maiden whose father is a son of the
conquered race could hope for the honour. Ah! well, she courts it not.
Here comes my warlike brother. Well, Claudius, how fares it to-day in
the wrestling? Hast thou thrown down Casca?”

“Casca!” he exclaimed. “Casca was not in the course at all.”

“What, noble Cæcilia,” the boy said, “is it really true that you part
with Casca and Hyacintha? The arena and the schools are full of rumours
to-day. Some say one thing, some another, but all agree that Christian
superstition has laid an egg in the house of the noble Severus, and
that a brood has been hatched.”

“I am sick of questions,” exclaimed Cæcilia, shrinking, as we all do,
from the knowledge that our private affairs are made food for hungry
gossips. So many of us are like the ostrich, and, hiding our heads in
the sand, persuade ourselves that we are unseen and unnoticed. It was
really very troublesome and fatiguing to be cross-examined by this boy
and girl about private matters, Cæcilia thought! She clapped her hands,
and the maidens in attendance, who had retired to a quarter of the hall
where they and other slaves and attendants were congregated, signified
her desire that her chariot should be ordered for an airing on the
wide, smooth road known as Watling Street.

Claudius conducted her to the chariot with an easy grace which he
inherited from his mother.

He had been quick to notice the cloud which he had called up on the
lady’s face, and Junia’s laugh reached his ear, as, turning to some
young associates with whom she was popular, he heard her repeating the
news of the day to them.

“I crave pardon if I have seemed to fail in respect, lady,” he said. “I
must ask leave to visit Casca before sunset.”

Cæcilia bowed, and smiled graciously.

“We shall see you at supper-time,” she said. “My husband has bidden the
Greek dancing-girls to perform before us, and one of them plays the
lute with uncommon skill. This will afford amusement for you and Casca.”

Claudius thought truly that Casca was in no mood for dancing-girls and
music, but scarcely expected to find him in the state of melancholy
prostration in his chamber, which at first seemed almost like despair.

Claudius had a warm heart, and was sincerely attached to his friend.

He took his accustomed place opposite him, and rallied him on his sad
looks.

“Have you heard my fate?” Casca asked.

“Fate! I hear you are to depart to Rome with Burrhus: a very pleasant
fate, by Apollo! I would I were to accompany you. But, for the sake of
all that is holy, try to wear a brighter face. Half the young Romans in
Verulam will envy you, to say nothing of a hybrid like me, your humble
servant. Nay, now, Casca, be not a woman,” Claudius exclaimed, with
some contempt in his tone; “it is womanish to give in and moan.”

Casca had hidden his face in his long, thin hands, and tears trickled
through his fingers.

“If you had a father like mine,” Casca murmured, “you would not wonder
at my condition. He came up hither this morning, raving like a beast
in the arena. He seized me by the robe, and poured forth a string of
epithets I will not repeat. He accused me of conniving at the poor
slave’s flight, of contaminating my sister, of being the laughing-stock
of all Verulam, a poltroon, a fool, and I know not what beside. He
swore by all the gods that I should be placed under Burrhus to fight
as a true Roman should if the Emperor sends out a legion to one of the
insubordinate provinces. And I, oh! Claudius, I loathe fighting. I hate
bloodshed. I crave for peace.”

“I would I could take your place,” said Claudius, “but my old father
would not hear of it if your father agreed thereto. He looks upon me as
the guardian of Junia, though, forsooth, I am but a poor guardian. She
springs like a tigress if I attempt to check her in any wild course,”
Claudius sighed. “Now, you have a sister who is like a daughter of the
gods. You may well be ready to lay down your life for her. How can her
parents send her hence?”

“It is all from the same cause, the dread of the Christian
superstition,” Casca said. “They dread her being infected by poor
Ebba’s teachers. The poor wretch seldom spoke of her new religion;
until the day of Alban’s execution she kept silence. I trust we shall
be spared the sickening spectacle of her head brought back. I can never
forget the horror when the ghastly head of the runaway Syra was brought
into the atrium,” and Casca shuddered.

“Nay, Casca, thou wert surely not designed by the gods for a Roman.
Thou shouldst have been born in one of those far-off islands in the
south, where the effete Greeks lie in flower-wreathed bowers, and,
chewing the leaves of the lotus, pass away life in alternate slumber
and song. Especially, good Casca, wert thou never designed by the gods
to live in our own rude country and associate with us poor Britons.”

“Nay,” Casca said, “you misjudge me, Claudius. I would that thou were
to accompany me to Rome, and then I could take heart, but as it is----”

“As it is, you must be like a man, and determine to win good opinions
and make a name; fight for Rome if so it be ordered, and end at last in
continuing the noble race to which you belong, and then----”

“Ah!” said Casca, “and _then_ die, and be remembered no more.
Claudius, I think often of all the great dead, the old Greeks, their
brave soldiers, their wise philosophers, Socrates and Plato, Aristides
and Themistocles. Their poets and their heroes, all alike gone--gone as
the man yesterday went on the hill-top--gone, and _whither_? If it be
true that there is another life, what _is_ that life? I torture myself
with questions, and I know that if I were led out to die as Alban was,
I should shiver and tremble, aye, and pray for mercy. While _he_--there
was light in his eye, there was a ring of victory in his voice, and no
wonder that the executioner refused to perform his office, and died
with Alban rather than see him die by his hand. I say, there must be
something grand and noble in the faith which can give a man courage not
only to meet death, but to welcome it, to court it, and to see beyond
it, instead of darkness, light.”

“Yes,” said Claudius, “but remember, my good Casca, that thousands
of Romans, tens of thousands of Greeks, aye, and of our own poor
Britons also, have met death as bravely as this man Alban did. There
is a difference in our bodies--thine and mine, to wit”--and Claudius
stretched out his young, muscular arm, bronzed and bare, from under the
loose sleeve of his toga virilis, which was indeed a contrast to the
white, slender arm of his companion. “There is a difference, my good
Casca, in the make and build of men, aye, and of women too, and it is
the same with their natures. Some are brave as lions, others as timid
as sheep. Christian or Roman, Greek or Briton, it is the same.”

“No,” said Casca, starting up, “but it is _not_ all the same. Poor
Ebba was as timid and shy as any sheep, and yet she has gone to meet
death, for I feel sure they will track her out. May I be gone hence
ere that time comes! But I say it is something more than what we call
nature, which is at work with those who meet death as Alban did.”

“Hist! good Casca, be not too free with thy tongue, or it may bring
trouble. Keep thy thoughts to thyself; even now I fancy I see the
curtain moving. But I must away; I have to practise in the course,
and I have to attend my father to a trial of strength in the circus,
where he is to bestow a prize on the swiftest runner and strongest arm
in throwing the quoit. Vale! good Casca, and pluck up thy courage.”
Claudius sprang lightly from the couch, swept the curtain aside, and
disappeared.

In the gallery, which I have before described, at the top of the villa,
he found Hyacintha. She was looking out over the country, as she had
looked with Ebba two days before. When Claudius stood by her side
she raised her pure, sweet eyes to his, and said, “I have been here
whilst thou hast been talking to Casca. I wanted to speak to you, so I
waited here. I am only a child, and I scarcely know which way I should
turn to find the good and forsake the evil, but this I know, Ebba was
good--faithful and good--and I dread lest she should be cruelly killed.
Claudius,” the child continued, pleading with her eyes as with her
voice, “Claudius, will you try to save her if by any means she falls in
your way? If the Christians are found out she will be found with them.
Do your utmost to save her life, my noble, good Ebba.”

“Beautiful Hyacintha,” Claudius said, “I would serve you to my last
breath. Yes, I swear if I can find any trace of Ebba, I will strive
to save her life and put her in a place of safety till the storm has
passed over.”

“They have been talking of getting her head, and that of Amphibalus,
the man Alban hid in his house, and they have missed another woman,
who was aunt or mother to the soldier who would not kill Alban. There
is a boy who dresses the flowers and shrubs in the atrium, and he has
told me that it is said in Verulam that the Christians have hidden
themselves not far off, and a watch is set on the hills to hinder their
escape to Wales. That is what is said. I know not if it be true.”

“True or false, I will obey thy bidding. Say, Hyacintha, what shall we
do without thee.”

“Without _me_!” the child repeated. “Ah! I do not think any one wants
me here. My mother will have the little Livia from the nurse. She is
the child of my uncle Fabius, and the adopted daughter of my father.
She is very beautiful, and my mother can pet her, and toy with her, and
will love to hear the praises which her loveliness will win. And when
my father’s service is over in Britain they will all return to Rome,
and I shall greet them there, when I am a priestess, and I shall greet
thee also, Claudius.”

“Nay,” said the boy, “thou wilt forget the poor half-Briton,
half-Roman, when thou art a grand priestess, wearing the white stole.”

“Forget! nay, I shall never forget--how can I forget? And when I have
to tend the fire in the great temple at night, and the stars look down
at me, and the wind whispers low, I shall pray that the goddess may
bless thee, Claudius, and keep ever in thy heart a pure bright flame
of love to the city of Verulam first, and of Rome after, and that thou
wilt remember little Hyacintha.”

“I will remember thee through life till death,” the young man said. “I
will worship thee from afar, and, perchance, I may come to Rome only to
behold thee, as I behold a star in the heavens, who blesses me with its
beams, though I can never attain to it.”

He took one of the child’s hands in his, bent his face over it for a
moment, and when Hyacintha withdrew it, it was wetted by the tear which
had fallen from Claudius’s eyes.



CHAPTER IV.

CAPTURE AND DEATH.


The warm summer weather was in favour of the little band of Christians
who had concealed themselves in the cave at Radburn. But the long days
and short nights made their marches towards Wales very slow, as all had
to be done under cover of darkness, and not until they had moved away
some miles from Verulam did Amphibalus dare to allow them to march by
daylight. The little company always separated into detachments, and
Agatha kept Ebba, the Christian Anna, under her especial care. Agatha
was the right person to inspire poor Anna with confidence. She was
bright and active, and had a cheerfulness and even merriment at command
which often surprised the timid and retiring Anna.

The warm, dry weather made it easy to sleep out of doors, and Agatha
and Anna, with an old man and his daughter, had arrived one morning at
a clearing in a thick wood, where a stone altar showed that it was a
resort of the Druids.

“We must not tarry here,” Agatha said, “the danger from the Druids
would be as great as the danger from the Romans. We must push on
westward, and I believe there is a deep forest where we can easily
hide. Amphibalus mentioned it as a secure resting-place for a few days,
and we are sure to meet him before the day is spent.”

“It is so pleasant here,” Anna said; “let us at any rate take some
food, and perform our morning worship.”

But Agatha said they must move on, as it was dangerous to tarry near
what was evidently a resort of the Druids. She had scarcely done
speaking, when some tall figures were seen approaching: an old man,
with a white beard and still whiter robe, and most venerable aspect,
and a few young men and boys.

There was nothing alarming in their appearance, and Agatha, rising,
made a deep reverence. The old man bore in his hand a golden
crescent-shaped knife, and he wore on his white robe a heavy chain of
rudely-moulded emblems.

“Art thou come to worship, my daughter?” said the old priest. “The sun
has risen, and the hour is at hand.”

“Nay,” said Agatha boldly, “I am a fugitive from the Roman city of
Verulam, and only crave permission to pass onwards, with my companions.”

The young men now drew nearer, and scanned the little party with
curious, eager eyes.

“The Romans are our masters and tyrants; no marvel you would escape
them.” Then, turning to Anna, “You, poor child, look pale and wan, and
you, old man, aweary. If it be possible for you, I bid you halt awhile,
while I proceed with our short worship; afterwards we will share a
repast with you.”

But Agatha shook her head. “You are very gracious, my lord, but we are
anxious to get on our way;” and she added, “We are Christians, and
worship only the true God.”

There was a murmur amongst the young men, and Anna trembled. She knew
full well that human sacrifices were a part of her old religion, for
the Briton’s religion was then chiefly represented by the Druidical
faith.

But Anna need not have been afraid. The old priest waved his hand, and
then, disappearing in a thicket with his followers, chanting a low
dirge-like monotone, he returned with a large cluster of the mistletoe,
the sacred plant which was cut and offered on the altar at intervals at
the morning worship. Then followed a strange invocation muttered in a
low, guttural voice, the Druid priest raising his hands to the summer
sky.

The sun was just high enough to strike athwart the grassy glade, and
illuminated the boles of the trees with a golden radiance. The priest’s
white robe shone in the new-born light, and every leaf was turned to an
emerald, every dew-drop to a diamond.

The birds sang, and there was the rustle of awakening activity in the
forest. A squirrel hopped from the overhanging boughs of a tall larch,
and the wood pigeons told their sweet monotonous story of love.

All things seemed to swell the chorus of the earth’s thanksgiving hymn
for light and blessing bestowed.

And who shall say what dim visions of a beautiful and unknown God
filled the heart of the aged priest, as he offered his orison according
to the form hallowed to him by the usage of ages!

When all was over he waved his hand, and his little congregation
dispersed, the priest returning presently with a quantity of dried
fruits and cakes which had been baked over an open fire.

There was also a rudely-shaped stone jar, from which was poured a drink
distilled from certain herbs, and pleasant to the taste.

That beverage, the priest said, had wonderful properties, and he
continually dispensed it as a medicine when strength was exhausted.

Agatha ate a hearty meal, and so did the old man and his daughter, but
Anna could not eat. She was weighed down with a sense of danger and
distress, and her heart turned continually to those whom she had left
behind at Verulam. At Agatha’s order, however, she drank a little from
the jar, and ate a few crumbs broken off the thick mass of dried cake,
which had a bitter rather than a sweet flavour, as it was mixed with
the flour ground out of acorns.

Presently the old priest said--

“Ye are Christians, you say. There has been an arm of fury stretched
out against you, so we have heard. For ourselves, we have no bitterness
against you. The Romans are our conquerors as well as yours, but they
leave us to our old faith undisturbed for the most part. How have you
incurred their dire displeasure? I tell you, you cannot resist the
Romans’ power; they are the masters of the world. They will treat you
like beasts of burden if you resist not, but they will kill you if you
are rebellious. From whom do you flee?”

“We flee from the persecution, which has taken the life of a holy man
named Alban. We are under the guidance of one Amphibalus, who is to
gather us safely in a certain valley amongst the mountains of Wales,
where we may worship our Lord, and form a struggling church.”

“You will fail to do it; the bloodhounds will track you out. Renounce
your false religion, and go back to your homes.”

“Never!” said Agatha, “we will never bow the knee in the heathen
temple, or worship at the sacrifices of the false gods.”

The old Druid priest shook his head sadly.

“My daughter, you are fighting against a legion; you will never
prevail. I know,” he continued, “that the old faiths are shaking. I
know many of our people have been massacred. We have peace now, but I
see--I see in the distance, when I am dead--I see the legions of the
North Sea conquering, trampling down our faith as yours, and wading
through the blood of Druid and Christian alike. We are peaceful, and
there are many of the sick and the stricken in body, even lepers, who
come to us, and not in vain, for cure. We have salves for wounds, and
physic for pain; we are skilled in the compounding of the herbs which
are given for the good of mankind. But we are a body of men diminishing
year by year, and our time is short.”

“Oh! father,” said Agatha, touched by the pathos of the old man’s
words, “oh, father, have you never heard of Jesus the Lord, who died
a cruel death to save us all? I would that I could show you the way
to Him. The father, Amphibalus, could show it. But I tell you that He
opens His arms wide to receive you, and all the Britons, and every
dweller on the face of the earth. Oh! could you but come to Him!”

“Aye,” said the old Christian, “would that you could come!”

“Come whither?” asked the Druid proudly.

“To the Cross of Christ,” said Anna firmly. This was the first time
that she had spoken, and her words sounded with peculiar power.

“To the Cross of Christ,” she repeated, “and if we bear it after Him,
we shall wear a crown.”

The old priest extended his hand towards Anna as if in blessing, and
said--

“And where is that crown, my daughter? It is not to be found in the
depths of the forest, where the wolves roar at night, and the dangers
of robbers and thieves are all around.”

“Yes,” Anna said, “the crown may be even there. As for me, I am a poor
faint-hearted girl, and I can speak with no true courage, as Agatha
can, but like a whisper in my soul from heaven I hear the words, ‘The
crown is laid up in the heavens for you, who are kept by God’s power
through faith.’”

“Our Lord,” Agatha continued, as Anna stopped, “our Lord wore a crown
of thorns, that we might wear a crown of jewels. We know in Whom we
believe. If those who are seeking us were to break through the thicket
yonder, and shed our blood on your altar, yet through death, as
Jesus passed, I know that we should pass to our joyful resurrection.
And, oh!” exclaimed Agatha, “think you we would give up the precious
possession of the love of Christ? Have I not seen its power? Do I not
know that it is as the sunshine piercing the deep of the forest at
dawn, and bringing life and light to the soul? We may not tarry,” she
continued, “for we have to press forward on our journey, but we will
pray for you, father, and may our God reward you for your charity
towards us, the poor hunted Christians, who nevertheless rejoice in
their name.”

The four then moved away, and the thick summer foliage soon hid them
from the Druidical priest.

He stood gazing after them like one in a trance, and the young men
gathered round him, expecting to hear from his lips some strange,
prophetic utterances, or some recital of the past glory of their race.
But no words came, and after a few minutes of profound silence the
young men departed, one by one leaving their chief still wrapt in his
devotions and meditations.

The way through the forest was long and toilsome, and poor Anna often
lay trembling by Agatha’s side, listening all night to the howling of
the wolves. Amphibalus joined them from time to time, and at last, when
the first golden leaf was telling the story of coming autumn in the
woods, the whole band was settled in a remote village on the borders
of Wales, girt in with mountains, and entirely hidden as they thought,
from the eyes of their persecutors.

There were continued additions to their numbers, and we are told that
there were a thousand converts baptised by Amphibalus’s hands.

Amphibalus himself was often absent for days together, and boldly
preached Christ to the poor native idolaters of the district. Some
drank in the good tidings eagerly, like drops of living water, and the
little colony throve for a time.

The mountain streams provided them with fish, and the woods with wild
rabbits and hares, for meat. They constructed huts with twigs and reeds
curiously plaited together, and covered with a sticky clay which, when
mixed with water, kept out the rain and the wind.

The life was a hard one, but it was peaceful, and none of those who had
given up all for Christ turned regretful looks backward.

The leading spirit amongst the women was Agatha, who was always
cheerful and full of hope.

Anna’s skill with her hands was much appreciated, and the women of the
little band were taught by her to plait their hair, and mend their
torn garments, with the delicate spikes of the fir-trees for needles,
and slender strands of dried, long grass for thread.

Amphibalus returned from one of his missionary expeditions early one
morning. By common consent Agatha was considered the adviser-in-chief
of the community, and Amphibalus came at once to the hut where she and
Anna were busily engaged in tying up the long leaves of the bulrush and
iris, which were to be twisted into wicks for the rude lamps that were
to lighten the long winter nights. The oil was made from the fat of the
animals which were snared for food, and carefully preserved by Agatha’s
orders.

Amphibalus’s face was grave and anxious when he appeared at the door or
opening of the hut, and he beckoned Agatha to come outside.

“Is aught wrong?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, “the heathen idolaters of the old British gods have
discovered our hiding-place, and they will be upon us with more
fierceness than the Romans. I dread them, daughter, more than I dread
the Roman torture. Not for myself,” he added, “but for the weak women
and maidens, and the young boys in our community. I have seen a horde
of these wild people, with fierce and threatening aspect, yesterday,
and overheard their jargon, which, as far as I made it out, told of
enmity and bad intentions. An effort must be made to escape from their
clutches, and we must separate, the women under protection of the
bravest men amongst us, and take different ways through the forest.
This village must be broken up, and we must leave as little trace
behind us as we can. But I would fain gather the people together for a
last word of prayer and praise, and break the bread and drink the cup
once more ere we part.”

By mid-day, nearly all his people had assembled, and Amphibalus then
addressed them. He told them he had reason to believe they were
discovered by their enemies, and that the church must be scattered. But
he added--

“Let it be scattered as seed. Let every one of you hold fast the faith,
and wherever you wander, tell the people of the God whom you serve, and
be not afraid to confess Christ. As for myself, I feel that the time of
my departure is at hand, and I will gladly follow the dear and honoured
Alban, who laid down his life for me. Weep not for me, for I may say,
‘I am ready to be offered, and I fear not.’”

Then, amidst tears and sighing, the service was proceeded with, and
scarcely had the blessing left the priest’s lips when the whole
congregation separated in detachments under his orders, having first
pulled down the huts they had so lately erected; and taking different
routes, they spread themselves once more in the forest.

Amphibalus led the little band, in which were Agatha and Anna, with
some sixteen more, stout of heart and strong of limb, able to offer
resistance. There were women and children amongst them, who were placed
in the centre of the square, four men at the rear, and four in the
van, and four on either side. In this order they marched along for
three days, Amphibalus’s aim being to get into another district nearer
Verulam, where he knew a church had been founded.

It was on the evening of the third day’s march that one of the outposts
came running in breathless to the place, under an overhanging rock,
where some thirty of the wanderers had encamped for the night.

“The Romans are upon us!” he exclaimed; “I have heard the clanging of
armour, and climbing a tree, I saw nearly fifty soldiers, and heard
them say they had got on the track of the fugitives.”

Scarcely had the man delivered himself of his message, falling down
exhausted with the exertion he had made to reach Amphibalus, when the
trampling of horses’ hoofs was heard, and the Roman officer who was
in command of the fifty men called to them to halt, “for the game was
scented out at last.” By the side of the Roman commander was a young
man scarcely past boyhood, who had prayed to be allowed to accompany
the expedition, that he might, as he said, see some service for his
master, and track out the Christians to their destruction. This young
man was Claudius, the son of the Briton who held a high position in
Verulam.

At a word from the commander of the force, a rough, stern man, named
Valens, the Christians were seized and bound with manacles, and told
they were to follow on foot to Radburn. But the strong men made a
desperate resistance, and a fearful struggle ensued. Amphibalus in vain
exhorted them to cease to fight, for that he was ready to accompany
Valens, and no coercion would be needful for him. But no one listened
to his voice, and Anna, clinging to Agatha, hid her face, that she
might not see the terrible conflict which dyed the green sward with
blood, and made the wood resound with cries and groans. Some of the
women of the company cried out that they would recant, and Agatha in
vain exhorted them to be firm to their faith. Terror-stricken and
distressed for their husbands and brothers, they threw themselves
before Valens and entreated for mercy.

Alas! none was shown, and Amphibalus was bound tightly, and constrained
to stand by and see his followers fall one by one dead upon the turf,
where several of the Romans’ bodies lay, covered with blood, which
flowed from ghastly wounds.

At last, when the slaughter was ended by the entire mastery of the
Roman band, the word was given to march, and by the light of a pale
moon the remnant of Amphibalus’s followers, fainting and exhausted,
were obliged to follow their captors towards Radburn.

Before they reached Radburn the next day news was brought in that the
idolaters of South Wales had fallen upon and slaughtered the rest of
Amphibalus’s church; and there was a thrill of triumph through the
Roman band that the martyrdom of Alban had not increased the numbers of
the Christians in these parts, for nearly all those who had been won
over by Amphibalus were killed. Only a few remained. Agatha and Anna,
and some half-dozen more women and children, with two old men, whose
aged feet could scarcely bear them along the rugged paths of the forest.

Radburn was reached the next day, and here the Christians were
consigned to dismal dungeons to await the Governor’s orders.

Agatha and Anna were shut into a damp cell, where a little water and
some dry bread were all the food allotted to them, and Amphibalus was
separated from the rest of the poor converts, and, heavily fettered,
was literally thrown into a dungeon under the rude stone dwelling which
served for a prison, and where neither light nor air could penetrate.

He was brought out the next day, and a hasty tribunal was formed. He
stood before his accusers with a calm and unmoved countenance. He was
asked if he would save his life, and he answered--

“I would save it were it my Lord’s will, but if He calls me to the
crown of martyrdom, as He called my friend, who laid down his life for
me, I will humbly receive it.” He was roughly struck upon the mouth,
and then asked if he would at once resort to the temple at Verulam,
and, prostrating himself there, renounce his evil practices.

“Nay,” he said, “I know of no evil practices to renounce, but I will
never deny my Lord.”

“Have you nought else to say?”

“Nay, save that I would pray you to shield two weak women of my company
from the sight of my sufferings.”

This request, as might be expected, had the opposite effect to what
Amphibalus desired. Agatha and Anna were dragged out to the open space,
where a crowd scarcely less numerous than that which had assembled to
witness the death of Alban were pressing round to see Amphibalus suffer.

It may truly be said that they stoned Amphibalus calling upon God, and
commending his spirit to Him for Whose sake he lay down his life. Death
by stoning seemed to make a more profound impression on the spectators
than death by the sword, and the savage executioners who were hired to
fling the stones upon the martyr showed no pity. Rather, they delighted
to prolong his sufferings, and they were intense.

Scarcely less intense were those of the two women who were compelled to
see the cruel deed accomplished. A deep swoon mercifully spared Anna
the prolonged torture which Agatha had to undergo, nor could she at the
first raise her voice, as her friend did, to cheer and encourage the
martyr.

There was one present who watched Anna with something more than common
interest. Claudius remembered the words of little Hyacintha, and his
promise to save her, if it were possible. Now, the boy knew well enough
that to help a Christian to escape was scarcely a less heinous offence
than to profess the faith himself. But Hyacintha’s pleading eyes, her
gentle voice, her beautiful little hands raised in appeal, rose before
him, and he was thinking over every possible way whereby he could save
Anna. The two women were remanded to their cell to await the Governor’s
pleasure, and Claudius obtained permission of Valens after he had
conducted them thither to remain as their guard.

“Thou art early in thy zeal for the gods, brave Claudius, but thy
strong arm yesterday did such good service that I am willing to leave
thee in command here of a handful of soldiers large enough for the
occasion. One of the women looks dead already, and will save us further
trouble. As to the rest, I think the Governor may desire to apply
torture before finally disposing of them. By the gods, Claudius, what
fools these Christians are!”

“Fools, indeed,” said Claudius. “I do not care what short work I make
with the men. I slew three yesterday, after a fierce tussle, but
women--weak women--well, I’d as lief not crush them out.”

“Who are these two women?” Valens asked.

“One belongs to the family of the soldier who refused to strike off
Alban’s head.”

“Ah! then she is a dangerous reptile. The other looks harmless, poor
wretch; and what hair--like the autumn leaves with the sun on it!”

“Yes,” Claudius replied, hastily, “yes, she is a Briton, methinks.”

“Has aught been heard of the runaway slave of the noble Severus? He
offered a high price for her head.”

“Nay, not that I know of. He has forgotten it ere now; the fair Cæcilia
has supplied her place by a Greek, so Junia, my sister, affirms.”

Valens shrugged his broad shoulders. “The fair Cæcilia has freed
herself of all burdens now. That little daughter of hers, and the
weakling Casca, are sent off to Rome under Burrhus’s convoy; the maiden
is to be buried for life in the Temple of Vesta. Why, her beauty, at
this tender age, is enough to turn the heads of a legion. Perhaps it
has turned thine, good Claudius!”

“I have something else to think of than fair faces,” said Claudius.
“Has news arrived of Burrhus’s reaching Rome?” he asked, carelessly.

“Nay, I am not so like to hear as thou art. Thy sister, Junia, is
continually a guest in the house of Severus. He is a high and mighty
man, forsooth; they call him second to the Governor. Methinks he has
more power than the Governor: and I must not delay any longer, but seek
both noble personages and find out their will, and I think I may claim
a reward for the last day’s work. We tracked out the wretches cleverly
enough, and came upon that band of thirty with a swoop. Catching the
chief, Amphibalus, was somewhat a greater catch than if we had only
surprised the others.”

“We were saved that trouble by the Welsh folk,” Claudius said. “A man
came in this morning to say not one of the eight hundred is left.”

“Nay, but that is good hearing. I can now claim my reward with some
assurance. Crushing out the whole swarm of Christians was more than was
expected. I’ll put in your claim, young Claudius; which shall it be, a
gold chain or a slave, eh!”

“I desire neither,” said Claudius, haughtily. “Methinks we Britons want
no slaves, and as to gold collars, let my sister have the chain, if one
be accorded. Commission for foreign service is the only reward I claim.”

“I’ll leave you to press the claim yourself,” Valens said, in an
offended voice. Then in a loud stentorian tone he told off half-a-dozen
of his men, and ordered them to remain under the authority of the young
Claudius until he returned on the following day, and brought back
orders as to the fate of the prisoners who were confined in the dungeon.

And then Valens, followed by his troop, rode off towards Verulam.



CHAPTER V.

CLAUDIUS FULFILS HIS VOW.


Claudius was no more inclined to the Christian faith than he had been
when we last saw him in the room of Casca, the son of Severus. But he
felt himself pledged to perform his vow, sworn by the gods, that if
ever it were in his power he would save Ebba, the British slave, so
well beloved by Hyacintha, the daughter of the noble Severus.

Since she and her brother had left Verulam, in the sunny days of July,
for that distant Rome, which was then, to all intents and purposes, as
far from Verulam as San Francisco or Lima would be from the St. Albans
of to-day, Claudius had felt a terrible blank in his life. Games and
athletic sports, feats of arms, and dashing military exercises, were
much to him, but till he had lost Casca he did not know how his life
had been bound up in him. Those pleasant talks in the twilight with
Casca, who had read much, and was of a studious rather than a warlike
nature, were all over. Claudius had felt the fascination of Casca’s
conversation, although he professed to despise all those aspirations
and longings which were in the boy’s heart, and welled up like an
irrepressible spring, which could not be stopped in its overflow. With
Casca and his young sister’s departure all the gentler elements had
died out of Claudius’s life, and he had thrown himself more eagerly
into any amusements, or any occupation which could drown reflection,
living only in the present, and persuading himself that the present was
enough. His old father had filled a post of honour under Carausius,
who had held Britain as an independent province for ten years. Then
Carausius was assassinated by Allectus, who had at first asserted
himself, and held the command with but few Roman soldiers, and a large
army of the northern tribes, who are now known to be the Caledonians.

When at last the whole province was united under the Imperial sway
of Diocletian, old Caradon lived on in gloomy subjection to Roman
authority, asking no public office, and allowing his two children, left
to him by his Italian wife, to follow their own devices. He found them
harder to control than any of the savage tribes over whom, during the
temporary rule of Carausius, he had held authority; and the evening
of his days was spent in a state of inaction and regret for the times
which were past.

Severus treated him with a hardly concealed contempt, and his temper
was soured and his patience tried by the wild freaks of his daughter
Junia, and the independent spirit of his son Claudius, who had eagerly
caught at the offer of accompanying Valens to hunt out the Christians
under Amphibalus: little thinking that he should find Ebba amongst
them, and be compelled to fulfil the solemn vow he had made to
Hyacintha, the daughter of Severus, and the sister of his friend Casca.

Now, as he paced up and down before the rude stone building which was
used as a sort of courthouse and prison in Radburn, Claudius thought
on all possible means to effect her escape. As soon as it became known
that Ebba was one of the two women who had been brought to Radburn with
Amphibalus, she would be seized and beheaded, so that the price set
upon her head in the spring might be claimed.

Claudius well knew the risk he ran in aiding and abetting Ebba’s
escape, but he was brave and honourable, and held his vow made to
Hyacintha by the gods as binding.

There was no time to lose. Valens would at once see the Governor and
Severus at Verulam, and it was only too probable that the two women,
Agatha and Anna, would be taken before them the next morning. They
would be called upon to renounce their faith, the British slave Ebba
would be recognised, and for her there could be no hope of mercy; while
Agatha’s connection with the soldier who had died rather than carry
out the sentence of death on Alban, would probably cause her to be
tortured, if not instantly beheaded.

Under cover of the darkness of the late October night, before the moon,
now on the wane, rose in the eastern sky, Claudius felt whatever he did
must be done at once.

He summoned the men under his command to the small square hall in the
building. A fire had been kindled there, and the smoke made its way out
by the slits and apertures which pierced at intervals the thick walls.
Claudius was a young commander, and the stout Roman soldiers were at
first rather inclined to resent his authority. Claudius, however, had
that free, pleasant manner which the roughest and hardest natures find
it impossible to resist.

He ordered two of the men to go out and cater for provisions, adding,
“We will sup together to-night, and will not spare the cup. See that
every one of you gets his fill.”

Then he seated himself at the board on the rude bench which was placed
near it, and the village of Radburn was soon found sufficient to supply
the wants of the little band, and satisfy even their large appetites.

They ate and drank, and grew first hilarious and then heavy. The man
in charge of the dungeon was invited to join the party, and several
people from the village were also bidden to come in as they stood round
the open door, and the soldiers’ carousal ended by their stretching
themselves on the floor, and sleeping heavily, from the effects of
over-eating, over-drinking, and fatigue; for the forced marches through
the forest, and the fierce contest with the Christians, had tried even
their herculean strength to the uttermost.

So far, Claudius’s scheme had answered; he feigned to sleep heavily,
and when all was quiet, about nine o’clock, he crept softly past the
sleepers, and went out into the darkness.

As he went down the steep incline from the courthouse, he stumbled
against some dark object, and a piteous voice exclaimed--

“For the love of Heaven, have pity on me!”

“Who are you?” Claudius asked.

“A poor wandering Jew, whose only daughter has fallen down, worn out
with illness and fatigue, and has passed hence, in the darkness, to
Abraham’s bosom.”

“You dog!” Claudius exclaimed, “how came you hither?”

“I came over to Britain seeking for pearls, with which your rivers
abound, but I have found none, but lost my own pearl. She is dead! she
is dead!” he moaned. “I have carried her thus far, and none in this
heathen village would give me shelter. I know by the heavy weight with
which she lies in my arms that she is dead.”

Claudius strode back to the hall, and taking a burning ember from the
mass upon the hearth, and returning, threw the light of a torch he had
kindled upon the girl’s face. Yes, she was dead--must have been dead
for hours.

Her father, gazing on her, burst into a low wail, and rocking himself
to and fro, cried for pity and mercy from Jehovah.

A sudden thought flashed upon Claudius.

“Hearken, old man, wretched dog as you are, if you will do me a service
I will pay you in gold pieces, but it must be done at once. Leave your
daughter’s body to me for burial, and betake yourself to a thicket just
beyond the village. Stay there till I come to you, and I will ensure
you safe departure. If you refuse, by the gods, I will drag you before
the Governor to-morrow, and see you torn limb from limb.”

“Oh! good sir! Oh! kind sir! have pity. My daughter! my daughter!”

“She is dead,” Claudius replied, as throwing the light of the torch on
the pale, still face, wan and attenuated by sickness, and set in its
frame of raven hair it looked white as snow.

“Poor creature!” Claudius said, “she is young to die, but we all die,
some old, some young; it is the fate of all, and the gods take the
best first. Now, Jew, there must be no delay. Shall I carry away your
daughter, and in return will you, for gold, which I will bring you, do
my behest? It must be now, or it will be too late.”

As he spoke, Claudius took the old man roughly by the arm, and setting
him on his feet, raised the body of the dead maiden in his arms, and
bidding the Jew follow him, went down to the road below.

       *       *       *       *       *

The long, dark hours had passed slowly in the dungeon, where, after the
cruel scene of the morning, Agatha and Anna had sat together, waiting
for death. Anna had revived when she had swallowed a few drops of cold
water, and Agatha, though utterly exhausted herself, seating herself
by the wall, had gathered the girl tenderly into her maternal arms, and
revived her, as best she could, by chafing her cold hands, and pressing
her close to her bosom.

Then, while Agatha watched, Anna had slept at intervals, and the elder
woman did her best to encourage and comfort the younger.

“It has been a fearsome day and fiery trial for thee, Anna,” Agatha
said. “How wilt thou bear the morrow?”

“I think,” said poor Anna, in a low but firm voice, “I think I can bear
my own pain better than witnessing that of another.”

“Thou hast no lurking fear, then, that when the trial comes thou wilt
deny thy Lord?”

“Nay,” Anna said, “I, who have been so weak-hearted, feel that He gives
me strength; and, Agatha, I have had a wondrous and beautiful dream. I
dreamed I saw the golden city, and the great gates, through which only
the pure of heart can pass. There was a soft light all round, like the
light in the atrium when all the silver lamps were kindled, and there
was the murmur of many waters. Then, as I stood at the gates, afraid to
enter, I heard a voice say, ‘Come up hither.’

“I answered, ‘I dare not; I am only a slave, a poor slave;’ and the
voice said--

“‘I have bought thee with a price, and thou art Mine.’ And then,
Agatha, I saw my own beautiful little mistress, Hyacintha. I wondered
to see her there, standing at the gate. I thought it must be the
temple of Vesta, and not the Holy City. My mistress was still a child,
yet not a child. She wore a long white robe, and her figure was tall
and stately. Her hair was bound with a gold fillet, which made a
shining circle around her head. She held out her arms to me, and said--

“‘Anna! Anna!’ Then I wondered why she called me Anna, for I had ever
been Ebba to her--Ebba, the British slave-girl. Then she said--

“‘I have come to meet thee at the gate. I have come to bid thee
welcome; the Lord has sent me for thee.’

“I marvelled much how that could be, for I knew my little mistress was
to be a priestess of the goddess Vesta, and that she must worship her,
and not the Lord Jesus.

“But then the voice of one I could not see, seemed to answer my
thoughts, and said--

“‘I have bought you both with a price, you are Mine; enter ye into
the Heavenly City, and go out no more.’ Then my little mistress, fair
Hyacintha, took my hand, and we went up the golden street together,
and there was again the sound of many waters, and of sweet music, and
countless glad voices; and then I opened my eyes, and all was dark--so
dark--but I felt thy arm pressing me to thy heart, Agatha, and was
comforted.”

“My poor child,” Agatha sighed, “I would that thy dream were true.
There is sharp pain first before thou canst enter through the gates.
Say, wilt thou be able to endure to the end, as our master, Amphibalus,
and holy Alban did?”

“I am but weak; I am but weak and young,” Anna said, “but He is with
me. I hope we shall go together, Agatha.”

“I would fain hope so; but it may not be; perchance that would be too
great a favour at the hands of our persecutors. While thou hast been
dreaming, a dream, I doubt not, sent to thee from heaven, by the love
of our Lord, I have been thinking over my life. Here, in this dark
dungeon, I saw before me a peaceful hut, on the borders of the great
river, where as a girl I played, and often went with my father in the
coracle, to gather the oysters from their bed as the water ebbed, and
to pick out the pearls from them when the shells were forced open. I
mind me that my father would say that the oysters the hardest to force
open always held the finest pearls. Since I have become a Christian, I
have thought often of those words. For verily the Pearl of Great Price
is not easy to obtain, and we find it with much pain and searching. I
became afterwards the wife of a brave man, and the mother of two noble
boys. I saw them all killed, in a fight between our people and some
who owed allegiance to Carausius. I thought my heart was broken then,
and I wanted in my blindness to end my life by plunging a dagger into
my breast. But it was then that I came with Heraclius, my kinsman,
under the teaching of Amphibalus, and the Lord showed me that to live
according to His will was a nobler thing than to give up the life He
had bestowed, ere it was His good pleasure to recall it. Thus I lived,
and I have nursed the sick at Verulam, and, in my humble way, held
the cross of Christ before the eyes of those, who, clasping it to
their hearts, have found it turned into a crown. It was at the secret
meetings of the Christians that I first saw thee, the frightened,
trembling Ebba, the slave of the rich and noble Severus. Then how my
love flowed forth to thee on the hill-side, on that early summer night
when Amphibalus baptised thee, and thy name was no longer Ebba but
Anna. And we have shared perils and trials together since then, dear
one, and love has knit our hearts in a bond that death cannot break.”

“Oh! that we may die together,” Anna said. “I thought this morning,
when the darkness came over me like a cold wave, it was death. Will
dying be like that swoon, thinkest thou?”

“Nay, for thou wilt open thy eyes in a glorious light instead of in
this black, chill cell,” Agatha replied.

Thus the two poor prisoners talked to one another, and comforted one
another with the words of Him who had gone the rugged way before them;
and the shadow of the dark valley--for they looked for death on the
morrow--was brightened for them by the presence of their Lord.

Presently Anna said--

“They are pulling back the bolts! they are unlocking the gate! Are they
at hand who will kill us, here in the darkness?”

Agatha sat upright and listened; yes, there was the slow, grating noise
made by the pulling back of heavy bolts, and the rusty key turned in
the rude hole which formed a lock.

Then the heavy gate opened, a draught of chill air came in, and some
one was evidently entering slowly, as one who bore a burden.

No one spoke, the door was closed, and then a lamp or lanthorn, formed
with a wick floating in oil, was uncovered, and showed a tall young
man, standing by the prostrate figure which he had evidently just
deposited at his feet.

“Another prisoner!” Agatha exclaimed. “Sir, what brings you here?”

Anna, shading her dazed eyes with her hands, exclaimed, “It is the
noble Claudius, the friend of my young mistress Hyacintha!”

“Yes, it is I. I was with Valens in the expedition; you saw me then.”

“We saw you, young Claudius,” Agatha said, “and may God forgive your
part in the slaughter of that cruel day. Are you come to end our
sufferings with your sword? If it be so, hasten your work.”

“Nay,” Claudius said; “nay, I have sworn a solemn oath to save Ebba,
the British slave, if it lay in my power. There is only one way by
which I can do it; this dead girl shall be left here, and Ebba shall
come forth with me, to take her place with her father, whom I have,
under cover of the darkness, hidden in the thick brushwood just beyond
the village. Thither I will guide Ebba, leaving the dead girl with you,
and taking the living one to a place of safety.”

Anna clasped her hands.

“I cannot, I cannot come,” she said. “I will remain here to die.”

“Nay, that must not be,” said Claudius. “I swore to the pure fair
maiden who was your mistress, and who loved you so well, to save your
life. I must perform my vow. See here, you elder woman, I shall return
to-morrow to lead you out at the Governor’s command. I call upon you
to make no sign whereby you betray that this poor child lying at your
feet is other than the Christian who was present with you yesterday.
If you do make that sign, you will cost me my life. If not, I will
order the soldiers to kindle a funeral pile, and all that will be left
of this poor child, whom her father calls Rachel, will be burned to
ashes before the sun sets to-morrow. Now,” said Claudius, “I have not a
moment to lose,” and stooping, he raised Anna in his strong arms, and
was striding away with her, when Agatha said,

“Hold! Good Claudius, I will utter no lie about this dead child. I am
forbidden by my Lord to lie. I may be mute, but I will not speak, if
by speaking I am to tell that this corpse is that of Ebba the Saxon
slave.”

“Oh! I pray you, I beseech you, good sir!” Anna exclaimed, “leave me
here. I cannot, cannot, leave Agatha alone with the dead!”

“My vow is upon me,” Claudius said, “and you must come, whether you
will or no.”

“But whither? whither? to die in a forest? to--”

“Hush! I pray you, dear Anna,” Agatha said. “This is the hand of God.
He may desire thy young and vigorous life for service for Him. The
means are in His hands. But I pray you, noble Claudius, assure me that
this poor lamb, who lieth here so still and cold, met her death by no
evil practice.”

“Nay, I know nothing, save that when disturbed in mind as to how I
could perform my vow, and escape the anger of the gods, I stumbled on
an old whining dog, of the people they call the Jews, crying over his
dead child. Here seemed the way for Ebba’s escape, and I took it, and I
can sacrifice to the gods to-morrow with a good heart.”

“Go then, dear child, my child in the Son of God and faith in Christ,
and may the Lord be with thee; one more kiss, and then----”

There was not time for another word; Claudius threw the light burden
over his shoulder, and departed cautiously, as he had come, drawing the
bolts and turning the key, and leaving Agatha, the Christian woman,
alone in darkness with the dead.

Claudius strode along through brambles and thicket, till he reached
the very cave where the Christians had taken refuge after Alban’s
martyrdom. While hunting here one day in the late summer, he had come
upon this cave, and explored it. The beds of heather were still piled
up as Agatha had left them, and on one of these the young man gently
laid his burden down.

“Where is that old dog of a Jew?” he shouted; “has he played me false!”

“Nay, I am here, good sir, kind sir; and a broken-hearted father. Woe
is me! that ever I left my own people; but I was tempted to come in the
train of a Roman, with wife and daughter and two noble boys. All, all
are dead--and I--whither shall I flee?”

“Get out of Britain as fast as may be,” said Claudius, “and take this
maiden as your daughter. Make for the coast, and board a ship which is
to cross to Gaul; here are nine gold pieces for thy pouch.”

“But my daughter, my Rachel!” moaned the old man. “Wilt thou give her
body burial--burial, not heathenish burning? Vow, young man.”

“If possible, I will have her body thrown into a hole, if you deem that
to be a higher fate than burning; but I do not promise. And now I must
be gone. Take two hours’ rest, and then away before day dawns. You know
these parts.”

“Ay, but too well,” the old man said. “This hard rugged Britain, and
its rough people. I would that I had never been tempted by the thought
of goodly merchandise to cross the sea--the angry sea--and suffer
thereby the bitter loss of all I count dear!”

“I dare say you have managed to get together a few pearls. I mind
hearing of some of your race who carried off the biggest pearls from
the river on which Londinium is built, and in conducting the barter
with the Britons for their masters,[B] well filled their own pouches,
as I dare to say yours is filled. Now I must away. Ebba, remember I
have fulfilled my vow at the risk of my life; and if ever you see the
fair Hyacintha commend me to her with these words, ‘I have kept my
vow, and when she makes prayers to the goddess in the temple where her
presence lingers, bid her remember Claudius.’”

When Claudius was gone the Jew carefully stowed away the coins in his
pouch, and drew from it some dried fruit and a small vial of mead. Then
he said,

“Daughter, for I am to call thee daughter in place of her who is in
Abraham’s bosom--better there than in this cold world; come and eat,
before we go on our way.”

At first Anna refused to eat and drink, but then she remembered the
words of Agatha:--

“It may be that the Lord has work for thee to do for Him, and He spares
thy life to do it.”

After a pause, therefore, she roused herself, and in the dim light
which the waning moon shed through the aperture, she saw the Jew’s
face--a face lined with furrows, and giving the appearance of a very
old man, while, in truth, Ezra was scarcely sixty. Poor Anna felt that
she need not fear the old man, and as she saw tears coursing each other
down his cheeks she drew nearer to him.

“Father,” she said, “I would fain eat, as you desire, and live to help
and comfort you.”

Ezra shook his head from side to side, rocking himself to and fro,
after the fashion of his people.

“None can comfort and none can help, but I am as well pleased to have
thy company as to be solitary. He setteth the solitary in families,”
the old man said.

“Are you a Christian?” Anna asked, timidly.

She was surprised at the fierce denial that the Jew hurled at her. “A
Christian! nay. If you mean a follower of the Nazarene--nay, by the
Holy Father, I say _nay_!”

Frightened at the sudden change from calm sorrow to vehement rage, Anna
said no more.

Ezra handed her the vial and the dried fruit, and bade her eat and
drink, and said in the strength of that meal they must pursue their
way, and that the youth bade them not delay.

Before three o’clock the old man and the maiden were on their journey
eastward, making their way to the sea. When day dawned, they were about
five miles from Radburn, and Ezra halted by a spring, and, stooping
down, took a draught of the pure cold water in the hollow of his hand,
bidding Anna do the same. Then the Jew drew out more dried fruit; and
they reached a straggling village of mud dwellings about noon. The
people were friendly, and Ezra thought it wise to tarry there for the
rest and refreshment of his companion, who was, indeed, but the ghost
of the Ebba whom we first saw standing by Cæcilia’s couch.

Ezra drew from his wallet a variety of articles, and giving Anna a
handkerchief of soft white stuff, bordered with gold, he bade her bind
it on her head and confine her hair under it.

“No daughter of our race had ever hair so light in colour,” he
said, “and it is better that thou shouldst take the semblance of my
daughter--my Rachel--my flower of beauty. Eheu! Eheu! She had borne up
so long, but, weak and ailing, she tripped and fell on Watling Street,
striking her head upon the stones of the highway, and scarcely spoke a
word after. I bore her in my arms to a house in Verulam; but they were
rough and cruel barbarians, and turned us out.

“Then I thought to reach Radburn, where I knew the people were more
friendly; and hearing a small body of Roman soldiers were guarding some
prisoners there, I essayed to ascend the steps to the guard-house, and
here my child struggled hard for breath. I sat me down with her, and
then all was still--her spirit had departed, and Ichabod is my name!”

Anna had heard of the Jewish race, and knew that her Lord had been born
of them. She knew, also, that the Jews had crucified Him, and that
the Cross had been set on a hill in their city. Once she remembered
to have seen a man richly clothed in long garments, and heard that
he had come with merchandise and pearls to the Roman nobles. He was
one of the scattered people, who, like the Greeks, were sometimes
conveyed to Britain in the train of the Romans. But Anna knew little
about the Jews. Agatha had, indeed, while rehearsing in her ears many
of the instructions which had fallen from the lips of Amphibalus and
Heraclius, told her of the Jews’ city, Jerusalem, and how the Romans
held the province as they held Britain; and that the Jews, as a
punishment for their sins, were sent forth to wander restlessly over
the face of the earth. But all this time a Jew was seldom seen in
Britain except as an appendage of some great person, so that Anna had
never seen other Jews besides the man in the rich garment, of whom she
heard afterwards that he had been robbed of his treasures and slain on
the highway, no one interfering to save or protect him.

Her heart was filled with strange doubts as she heard the Jew, who
denounced her Saviour with fury, pray to his Lord Jehovah, and chant
in a low monotone from a roll of parchment which he kept hidden in the
breast of his robe, and fastened by a band round his neck. The low,
monotonous chant was one of the Psalms of David--the Penitential Psalm--

  “Out of the deep have I called.”

But the Hebrew rhythm, though pleasant to the ear, was an unknown
tongue to the British maiden, and while Ezra chanted and wept, Anna,
soothed, she scarcely knew why, rested on a skin which was spread upon
the floor of the hut, and slept till Ezra awoke her and said they must
push on towards the sea.

Fatigue and hunger, and weariness of body and mind, had dulled the
sense of pain for the time; but when her powers were more fully awake,
the hideous scenes of the stoning of Amphibalus, the mad shouts of the
people, and the darkness of the dungeon, became once more a haunting
reality. Then came the bitter fear of what might have been the fate
of Agatha, her tender friend, who had been left fainting and ill in
darkness and solitude with the dead, while she, who had shared so many
dangers with her, was borne away. She reproached herself for cowardice,
and in broken words, with many tears, prayed the Jew to let her return
towards Radburn.

But Ezra was proof against her entreaties, and bade her thank Jehovah
for the life He had spared; nor waste strength and time in feeble
wailings.

“I have lost my only one,” he said, “the only thing left to me in this
land of strangers; but I go on towards Rome, the great city, where a
company of my people is gathered, and thence to Jerusalem to lay my
bones where the prophets and righteous men have laid theirs; nor will
I weakly faint or fail of my purpose. I was on my way to the sea coast
when this misfortune befel me, to find by chance a little company, with
whom my child and I might be protected through Gaul. We push on thither
now, and may the Almighty be our strong tower and house of defence.”

This prayer was answered, and the longing fulfilled; the Jew and the
maiden were mercifully protected from harm.

Their quiet, inoffensive bearing, their sorrowful faces and
gentle demeanour, served as a shield as they passed through the
widely-scattered villages of the old Britons and the more pretentious
towns of their conquerors the Romans. They reached the fort of Lyme
in safety, and Claudius’s gold pieces purchased their passage across
the stormy channel in one of those strangely-built boats, with large
curved prow and short mast, which had taken the place of the mud-lined
coracles of the conquered race.



CHAPTER VI.

BY LAND AND SEA.


The party under the convoy of Burrhus had embarked from Lyme, in
Dorsetshire, very soon after Alban’s martyrdom. The remains of the old
harbour, although at a distance from the sea, which has receded from
this part of the coast, can still be seen by those who may be curious
to discover them. The channel had been smooth, for a great gale had
passed over it some days before, and the weather was exceptionally calm
and favourable.

The pain of parting was over, and Hyacintha and her brother gave
themselves up to the full enjoyment of travel, unthinking of the
dangers which in reality threatened them, and delighting in the thought
that every day brought them nearer to Rome.

There was also in Hyacintha’s child-heart a strange yearning for the
office for which she was to be trained under her kinswoman. Years
must pass, she knew, before the care of that sacred fire could really
be entrusted to her, but the time would come, and then what life on
earth could be found to compare to it? Had Hyacintha lived in our day,
she would have had the same visions and dreams of a vocation higher
than that which is pursued year by year by those who live only for
the present. In the higher rank of society, which corresponds to that
in which our little Hyacintha was born, there is the same imperative
demand made for all that can conduce to pleasure.

The London season of to-day, with its ceaseless round of gaiety, its
slavish adherence to prevailing customs, the glare and false brilliancy
of the life of the votaries of fashion, is found quite insufficient for
many who are caught in the vortex and hurried along the stream, to be
carried they have scarcely time to ask whither.

The human heart, with all its joys and sorrows, is the same in the
nineteenth as it was in the fourth century.

The surroundings may be different, and this difference in outside
things is likely to make us look upon the men and women of a remote age
as apart from us, and forget that they had their cares, and joys, and
hopes, and fears, as we have them now.

The woman’s heart then, as now, often sent up a cry for something that
could satisfy it; and half-unconsciously to herself that cry was making
itself heard in Hyacintha’s young heart, like the first notes of a bird
sent forth to meet the dawn.

All travelling was long and dangerous in those times. The tribes of
Gaul--the Burgundæ--had risen in 287, and Carausius, who had carried
all before him for ten years in Britain, had once been amongst them.

The troop which Burrhus commanded did not pass through the country
without several fierce encounters with the Burgundæ, and the women were
terror-struck with the clash of arms, and the savage cries of the wild
bands which again and again attacked them. The wife of Burrhus was
attended by several ladies and slaves, and Hyacintha and Casca each had
their own attendant. Hyacintha’s was a girl of Roman birth, who thought
it an honour to be the servant of a young aspirant to the office of a
priestess in the temple of Vesta.

In one of the most alarming encounters Casca was wounded in the
shoulder. His father had given Burrhus instructions to lose no
opportunity of hardening his son, and to do everything that might make
him worthy to be a Roman soldier, so that he was placed in the front
rank of this skirmish.

Poor Casca suffered terribly from his wound, though in the eyes of the
soldiers it was but a trifling one.

His sensitive organism, so widely different from that of the big and
burly Burrhus, excited contempt rather than pity, and as it was a drag
upon their movements to have to carry a litter with a wounded man,
Burrhus determined to embark his troop on board two Roman galleys which
were lying in the port of Marseilles, and perform the rest of the
journey by water.

This plan was hailed gladly by the ladies of the party, and especially
by Hyacintha, who could sit continually by her brother, as he lay on
the deck of the galley, and talk to him, or be silent, as he liked;
but Casca was gloomy and sad, and lamented that the spear of the wild
warrior who had overpowered him had not made an end of him altogether.

The galley was lying one evening off the coast of that part of southern
France and northern Italy we know as the Riviera.

Beyond the rugged outline of the rocky range, lofty mountains rose--the
peaks of eternal snow, the white-crowned line of the Alpes Maritimes.
The evening was fair and calm, and the sails of the galley hung idly in
the gentle breeze.

Hyacintha’s soul was filled with the beauty before her, and Casca’s
large mournful eyes were turned towards the snowy peaks, now blushing
rosy-red with the last kiss of the setting sun.

“That,” Casca said, “looks like the city Ebba murmured about. I never
could make out where it was, nor how it was to be reached. Poor Ebba!”
he repeated. “I wonder if she is dead, like Alban, and passed hence?
and if so, whither?”

Hyacintha did not reply. She was looking down upon the sapphire water
which rippled against the low, cumbrous vessel, and her eyes were
scanning a dark object which floated slowly past.

“See, Casca!” she said, “see! There are dead women in that boat,
drifting whither?”

“As we drift,” said the boy, raising himself on his elbow, “as we
drift. But I heard some one say that the people of these parts place
their dead that they love best in boats, that they may reach Arles--the
holy city--with money to pay for their burial.”

Hyacintha did not answer, but continued to gaze down upon the boat till
it was carried beyond her sight.

Death everywhere, the child thought. Death by sword, and fire, and
tempest, and sickness. Death! and she had heard Ebba say something
about One who was the Life. Life was so beautiful, and so sweet, and
yet the shadow of death was everywhere.

“I shall be beyond the sights and sounds of woe and trouble in the
temple,” she thought. “I shall have so many beautiful things about me,
and I shall forget all that is dark and dreadful.”

As the sun went down, a cool brisk breeze sprang up, and the little
convoy, of which the ship in which the brother and sister were sailing
was the middle one, began to dance merrily on the water.

The galley on board of which were Burrhus and the chief officers of the
maniple was the scene of feasting and merriment.

There were sounds of music, and of voices singing, and nothing seemed
to depress or sadden the rest of the party.

“How different they are from me,” Casca said. “Do not you wish to join
them in the other vessel?”

“Nay, brother, you know I love best to be with you,” Hyacintha said,
“but I would fain see you happier. Be not so faint-hearted; think of
Rome, and all you will see and do there; and how proud I shall feel
when I hear of my brother as foremost in all things in which young and
noble Romans excel.”

“Nay, little sister, I crave only for peace and study. I know full well
that, by my father’s orders, I shall be hunted about at Rome, as I have
been at Verulam, and I shall have no Claudius to cheer me and help me
there. I marvel much, Hyacintha, what has become of Ebba. If the faith
of the Christian should be the real faith! It seemeth to give the weak
strength and the faint-hearted courage, and for that alone it should be
the faith for such as me.”

Hyacintha turned quickly from her contemplation of the water, and said,
brightly--

“Nay, but Casca, there are brave and courageous ones who follow the old
faith; you forget that everyone is not sad, and----”

“A coward like me”--Casca finished the sentence. “A coward like
me! Well, little sister, you have courage enough for both. I hate
bloodshed.”

“Oh, Casca! Think you that I love to see it? When my mother made me sit
with her, when the wild boars and bulls were let loose on those poor
slaves in the arena at Verulam, I hid my eyes. It is not that sort of
courage I mean. I mean, courage for great and noble things. When the
wild barbarians fell on our troop near Arles, I shuddered. And oh,
Casca! when I saw thee brought in, bleeding so terribly, I could scarce
bear it. I shall be glad to be in Rome, safe in the Vestal’s atrium,
where I am to learn all that befits a priestess of the beautiful
goddess Vesta. I dream of her; and she comes to me in white robes.
I saw her last night walking on the sea--so calm and beautiful--and
on her head burned a star, like that,” the child said, pointing to a
planet which was setting in the eastern heaven, and shone with a steady
radiance in the opal sky.

“The dangers of the way are nearly over now, and then it will be Rome,
and I shall be learning all that I could never learn in Verulam.”

“And have you no longings for our mother and our father? I, who did not
love them, or seem to be loved by them as you were, I have longings.
Our beautiful mother and our noble father! He was hard enough on
me--stern and hard--but then, while it is a gift of the gods to have a
beautiful daughter like thee, Hyacintha, it is a curse for a brave man
to have a weakling like me for an only son.”

Hyacintha was silent for a minute, and then said,

“If they had wanted me sorely it would have been hard to part, but my
mother did not want me. Even Ebba was more to her than I was. And my
father’s desire was that I should be a chosen priestess, as many of his
race have been before; therefore, I am content. And it may be that our
parents will return to Rome, if it be the great Emperor’s will--all he
wills comes to pass. It was his will that the Christians should be put
to death, and who could gainsay him?”

Two of the attendants now came to spread the evening meal under
a canvas canopy, which bore upon it the picture of an eagle with
outstretched wings. This sheltering canopy was made of the most
beautiful and costly material in the ships which belonged to any
great Roman noble. Even that of Burrhus was of purple silk with an
embroidered edge, but the other two small galleys were less costly in
their furnishings, and Hyacintha slept in the superior vessel, only
boarding the other in the day-time that she might be near her brother.

This vessel was under the command of a Roman named Caius, who was a
fine, noble-looking man, of few words; but who, nevertheless, had
conceived a great interest in the two children of the noble house who
were under the care of Burrhus.

He now drew near, and asked Hyacintha whether she and her attendant
would repair to the galley of Burrhus, or remain on board to partake of
the evening meal with Casca.

“I would fain stay here,” she answered, “till the merriment is over
there. The loud voices and music drown the sweet ripple of the water
against the prow, which I love to hear. And, moreover, good Caius,”
Hyacintha said, “I feel safer aboard your vessel from the pirates’
attacks.”

Caius’s dark eyes were fixed on a spot in the horizon, and he did
not reply. He stood motionless at the prow, gazing out in the same
direction, till the moon, nearly at the full, lifted her round face
above the distant horizon, and sent a flood of silvery light across
the water which seemed to come straight to the spot where the galley
was curtseying on the rising waves.

A dark speck upon the line of light was now visible to all eyes.

“Is that a Roman galley?” Casca asked.

Before he could get an answer, Caius had given the word for all sails
to be set.

Then he went to the prow, and shouted to those in Burrhus’s galley that
the foe was nearing them fast.

“All sails set,” was shouted back from the third galley.

And then much trampling and confusion and noise were heard on board
Burrhus’s ship. There had been free circulation of the wine cup, and it
was difficult to get those who were drowsy from drink to perform their
office.

The sailors were all at cross purposes, and the officers on board
shouting their orders, and countermanding them as soon as given.

Meantime, there could be no further doubt of the intentions of the
large ship which was bearing down upon them.

There was not a moment to lose, and Caius, having his men under orders,
with all sails set, drove before the wind, speedily increasing the
distance between his ship and that of Burrhus and the small galley
behind it, which contained the baggage of the maniple.

There was only one large pirate vessel; and, probably concluding that
the Roman galley with the richer awning contained the more important
people, it tacked, and, giving up the pursuit of Caius’s galley, came
alongside that of Burrhus, who was unprepared to defend himself.

Cries and shouts, and the clang of weapons, came borne upon the waters;
and as the gallant little ship commanded by Caius increased the
distance between the vessels, Casca and Hyacintha stood hand-in-hand
on the prow, watching in the bright moonlight the conflict which was
evidently raging.

Just as Caius’s ship had rounded the point which now marks the frontier
at Ventimiglia, the pirate vessel was seen skimming the waters with
her head set out to sea, while Burrhus’s vessel and the small galley
were evidently fastened to the victorious cruiser, and soon became but
specks on the distant line of blue waters.

“We have escaped,” said Caius, “but I fear me all your baggage is lost;
and as for me, I have lost all but honour. I have saved one galley, and
had the fellows on board Burrhus’s ship been sober, and not drunk, I
could have rescued them also. Now they will be seen no more.”

“Were lives lost, think you?” said Casca.

“Ay, if they made a fight for life, they would be hewn down by those
swarthy Moors--for Moors they were. They have the sharpest scimitars of
any nation under heaven, and strong arms to wield them. You are bound
for Rome, methinks?”

“Ah! yes,” said Hyacintha; “I am going to be sent to the noble Terentia
Rufilla, the Vestal Maxima, in the temple of the goddess; but my
brother was to have remained with Burrhus, and now----”

“Fret not for him,” said Caius. “I can bestow him in my home--a humble
one, it may be--till orders can be received from the Governor of
Britain or your father, the noble Severus; and I will conduct you and
your attendant to the palace of the vestals. But we are not at Rome
yet; there is a long voyage before us, though with this fresh wind and
fair weather, we ought to make the Portus Augusti in a few days. We
must make the best of it,” Caius added, “but I fear the accommodation
on board my vessel is not what the fair Hyacintha has a right to
expect.”

“Tell me,” Hyacintha said, “what will be the fate of Burrhus and all
the people with him.”

“Nay, I cannot tell a maiden of thy tender age of all I fear may befall
them, especially the women of the band. Let us thank the gods that thou
art safe, and thy brother also, who looks little fitted to bear the
brunt of war.”

“You know Rome well?” Casca asked. “I pray you tell me if I shall find
it easy to frequent a school of learning there. Now that I am free of
Burrhus, though I wish him no ill, yet I do feel that I lose a hard
master. It is learning for which I crave.”

“Thy craving for learning can be satisfied, boy,” said Caius, “as all
things can be satisfied in Rome. Rome holds within her hand all that
her sons and daughters can need, be it for war, or fame, or pleasure,
or learning. There is a school, kept by one Cassius, who may receive
you for learning by day; and as for a home, I have a poor little villa
not far from the schools, where my good mother lives, and there, as I
have said, you will be welcome till the good pleasure of your father,
the noble Severus, is known. For myself, I must present myself before
the Emperor’s minions and report the loss of the chief part of the
maniple under Burrhus, and the capture of the large galley and the
small baggage vessel by the swart African pirates.

“May the gods protect us from further attacks from them! I did not
forget to sacrifice to Neptune before we set sail. I think I was the
only man who did so propitiate the god; and see how he has rewarded
me! Ay, it is beyond a doubt that no sacrifice or libation poured out
is in vain; and here I have proved it, as my good mother will be glad
to hear. She is one who is always amongst the first in the temples at
grand ceremonies, and the very sight of you, fair maiden, about to be
vowed to the highest service, will fill her old heart with pride that
she is allowed to touch your hand.

“And now it is time for rest. Your couch, and that of your slave, is
made ready; and if Neptune and Æolus deign to favour us, we shall be
well on our voyage ere you open your eyes on another day.”



CHAPTER VII.

ROME.


There are many travellers in the present day who, when they reach Rome,
and exchange the railway for an omnibus, feel a throb of disappointment.

The “eternal city” of their dreams vanishes for the moment into thin
air, and in place of it there is only a modern town, where the voices
of the great past are lost in the noise and din of the present.

But the Rome upon which the eyes of Casca and Hyacintha gazed with
intense wonder, on the September afternoon of 303, may hardly be
adequately described, even by the aid of those wonderful discoveries
which the zeal and untiring exertions of exploring labourers in the
work of excavation have lately brought to light.

There has been, indeed, a partial resurrection of the buried Rome;
the city lying beneath the heaped-up excrescences of a degenerate age
has been unearthed. We can now dimly picture the glories of the noble
Forum, with its temples and statues, the long stretch of the Appian
Way, and the vast and almost illimitable proportions of the Circus
Maximus, with its belt of distant mountains, and over all the cloudless
sky, which seemed, on this glowing autumn day, to be hanging like one
great canopy of celestial blue over the city set upon her seven hills.

The good Caius had taken the tired boy and girl to his mother’s house,
as he had promised, with their two attendants. The stately old Roman
matron received her son with a smile of welcome; and as they stood in
the little atrium, uncertain what to do, she advanced to Casca and
Hyacintha, and bade them welcome to enter, and rest for a season.

Caius, in a few words, related the events of the past few weeks; and
when he came to the encounter with the pirates, and the deliverance of
the small galley under his command, Clœlia clasped her hands, and said--

“Neptune has been pleased to receive my offerings, made daily for you,
my son, since you left me for the region of the barbarian, now three
years ago.”

“Nay, good mother, we speak not of barbarians now in Britain. Verulam
is a little Rome, and as fair a daughter of our great mother as you can
picture. The villa of Severus, which is the home of this fair maiden
and her brother, is scarcely to be excelled here in all its furnishings
and appointments, though, of course, less in size and extent.”

Clœlia led Hyacintha and her attendant to a small chamber, separated
from her own by a curtain, and Caius took Casca, who was still weakened
by the effects of his wound, to his own apartments, which in his
absence were always prepared for his return at any moment.

Caius’s position answered to that of a naval officer of our time; he
was sent out with the troops for foreign service when a galley was
required, and he was, as we have seen, an able commander of a vessel in
time of danger.

Casca and Hyacintha remained two days in the home of Clœlia, and it
was agreed that Clœlia should accompany Hyacintha to the house of the
vestals on the third day.

The child’s heart was filled with wonder as she passed through the
streets of Rome with her new friend.

All her worldly possessions had been carried off by the pirates, and
there was therefore nothing for her to carry to the Vestals’ house.

It was a grand event in Clœlia’s life to think of presenting herself
there, and inquiring for the Vestal Maxima. For these vestals were
looked upon as beings of a superior order, and far above the usual rank
of Roman women.

Clœlia had donned her best robe, which was plain in colour and
material, and had no embroidery or ornament except the purple
segmentum, which is the badge of widowhood. Clœlia wore a veil over her
silvery hair, and walked with the graceful dignity which distinguished
the Roman matron.

As they passed along Clœlia pointed out to Hyacintha the principal
objects of interest, and paused at the Forum, where a variety of
business and some religious rites were going on.

A sacrifice was being offered before the temple of Dioscuri, and a
large car, drawn by milk-white horses, and preceded by a band of girls
and boys playing on silver trumpets, was followed by a large crowd.

Clœlia paused by one of the huge pillars, which seemed to lift its head
to the very skies, and bade Hyacintha look round at the grand statues
and buildings which were on every side.

From one rostrum an orator was speaking to a listening crowd, and
accompanied his oration with the graceful action which kept up the
rhythm of the words as they left his lips, and attracted many to his
feet.

A large caravan rolled past, which seemed to attract attention. From
their post of observation at the base of the pillar, Clœlia addressed
a woman, a widow like herself, and asked, nodding her head in the
direction of the caravan--

“More beasts for the arena?”

“Yes,” was the answer, “and more sport for them. A whole body of
Christians have been seized to-day while burrowing like ants in their
underground resort. There will be good sport to-morrow or next day.
Will you not come with me to see it? They have two huge Barbary lions
in that caravan, six leopards, and a panther that has already done to
death two of his keepers.”

“Yes, there will be fine sport,” the woman repeated, her dark eyes
flashing with a cruel light. “Ah! They have caught another. See!
Two!--three more! Look! they are trying to escape; they are seized by
the lictors. One looks as if she would be a sweet mouthful for the
lion. I must hasten to find out who they are.”

The woman turned away, and Hyacintha could distinguish three figures
being borne off by the guards, one a girl of her own age, the others
two older women.

“They refused to do homage on their knees at the sacrifice,” a voice
said near them. “The vile wretches! It seems they can never be stamped
out.”

“No,” laughed another man.

“They swarm like lizards on a sunny wall. They say the Governor in
Britain has done good service, and several of the reptiles have been
caught and made an end of. The Emperor has vowed he will never stop
till he has got rid of the whole brood, and those fellows in that
caravan will be happy to carry out his intentions!”

A laugh greeted this sally, and, as if in reply, a loud roar from the
captive lion sounded through the Forum.

Then the laugh was repeated, and Clœlia and Hyacintha, as they moved
away, heard the cry of the people answering the roar of the lions.

“Away with the Christians! to the lions let them go! Away with them
from the face of the earth! Away with them!”

Hyacintha caught the cry, and there came back to her thoughts of the
hill-side outside her native city, of the earnest, watching gaze of
Ebba, and of the news of Alban’s death, which had been brought into the
atrium by her father.

And it was the same here in Rome; the Christians must be killed; they
must all be stamped out, like so many “lizards on a sunny wall,” as the
man had said.

Death, then, was here--as everywhere--and was lying like a shadow over
the sunlit Forum, with all its throngs of people, intent on business or
pleasure.

The circular stalls of the bookseller and the scrolls of popular
authors attracted Hyacintha.

Then there were the keen-eyed, sharp-featured money-lenders, seated at
Medius Janus with their clerks around them. Here might be seen young
Romans, who wasted life and substance in all the luxury and folly of
the baths, trying to raise loans at an enormous rate of interest, some
successful, departing with a jaunty air, their slaves following them;
others gathering their robes about them and slinking off with a look
of despair in their faces, to plunge deeper and deeper into the sea of
self-indulgence and misery which it caused.

Clœlia drew Hyacintha onward, for she saw she attracted attention, and
many bold dark eyes were turned towards her.

“We must hasten,” she said; “let us skirt the Forum to the left, where
the crowd is less, and we shall reach the House of the Vestals.”

As they got into a quieter thoroughfare those who were passing gave
way; then a body of lictors appeared, and a most stately, queenlike
figure, clothed in a long stole, which reached to her feet, moved
through the street, with two female attendants.

The lady’s eye fell upon Hyacintha, whose remarkable beauty was
likely to arrest any one’s attention. By a little movement of the
foot-passengers, Hyacintha was pushed out of the line of those who were
standing aside, and a lictor roughly called to her to--

“Stand back!” touching her with no gentle hand on the shoulder.

Then the lady paused.

“Nay,” she said, “do not be rough with the maiden;” and she looked
down upon Hyacintha with a smile, which seemed to raise her drooping
spirits, as the sun raises the head of a flower after a storm.

It was but momentary, and the lady passed on.

“Who is that beautiful lady?” Hyacintha asked.

“She is the Vestal Maxima, the very lady whom you desire to see,”
Clœlia said. “I dare not speak, for the vestals must never be addressed
by the commoner folk when they walk abroad; they are always guarded by
lictors, as you see. But let us follow; we shall reach the House of the
Vestals in a short space now.”

“Oh!” Hyacintha exclaimed, “I am glad that gracious lady is my father’s
kinswoman; her smile is so beautiful. It is a great honour, I think,
that I may one day be a Vestal Maxima.”

“A long time ere that day comes,” said Clœlia. “Ten years must pass
ere you are allowed to take any especial or high office in the temple,
and then it is not every vestal who attains the high rank of Maxima.”

“No,” said Hyacintha, humbly. “I know that well, but there is hope that
it _may_ be my honourable post one day.”

Clœlia nodded her head, and then Hyacintha, feeling that the time of
parting was near, said--

“I pray you to be kind to my brother Casca; he is far tenderer than I
am, and loves quiet and study. As soon as Caius lets it be known to
my father that he is under your roof he will reward you, for he is a
noble, and can command money and treasures.”

Clœlia’s colour rose.

“I need not money or treasures,” she said, “nor aught at thy father’s
hands. Be not afraid, I will tend thy sickly brother till his wound
be healed, and Caius will settle the rest. Our fare is simple, and we
know nought of the luxuries of the Romans of to-day. We belong to a far
stronger race, a race which I fear me is dwindling down from giants
to pigmies. I have, thank the gods, a son who fears neither storm nor
tempest; sword nor famine. He is known as the bravest of the brave,
thank the gods!”

Clœlia’s speech made poor Hyacintha feel as if she had said something
that had unwittingly offended her new friend. Her tender heart was a
little wounded, and she hastened to say--

“I know well how brave good Caius is. I know that we owe our lives to
him. If we had been aboard Burrhus’s vessel, we should have perished.
Oh yes! I know how brave he is, and I shall keep the memory of his
goodness for ever in my heart. We shall meet sometimes, for my father
saith the young disciples of the goddess have leave to come and go
under guard.”

“Yes, we shall meet,” Clœlia said, “but there is a great gulf between
a vestal and one in my position. We are nearly at the porch of the
cloisters now. What if they do not receive thee?”

The possibility now presented itself that in the travel-stained little
maiden, whose robe was far from fresh, and whose chief covering and
ornament were her golden-brown tresses tied back by a plait to which
hung a veil that had been drenched with sea spray and torn in several
places, the grand lady vestal might not recognise a child of the noble
and wealthy Severus. But it was too late now to draw back. They had
crossed the threshold of the cloisters, and two guards demanded their
business.

“We seek an audience with the noble lady, Terentia Rufilla, the Vestal
Maxima.”

“What credentials have you?” asked a small woman in a purple robe and
dark veil.

“I come from my father, the noble Severus, of the house of Rufilla,”
Hyacintha said, in her sweet silvery tones. “I am to be admitted to be
a disciple of the goddess, to serve in her temple.”

“Forsooth, you are bold enough,” said the woman, who called to another
in the same dress.

“Here, Julia, here! This child says she is come to be admitted to the
discipleship.”

“Send her off,” was the scornful reply; “she looks like it, forsooth.
Verily, send her off, nor waste thy own time in prating. Why, child,
those who aspire to such an office as this do not come to present
themselves like beggars.”

Hyacintha’s breast heaved, and tears sprang to her eyes.

Clœlia now spoke--

“The maiden has suffered perils on the way from Britain. She was
brought with her brother to my house three days ago. The ships were
beset by pirates, and everything the maiden possessed is lost. My son,
the brave Caius, brought a small galley safe into the Portus Augusti a
few days past, and he can tell you of the truth of my story.”

“I wear upon my breast,” Hyacintha faltered, “a pierced gold coin
attached to a chain. This coin bears on it the letters of my father’s
house, and his name.

“I bore with me,” she continued, “a letter and many precious things
addressed to the great lady, Terentia Rufilla, but the pirate ship
boarded that on which my baggage was placed, and I reached Rome in a
sorry plight.”

There was now a very perceptible change in the manner of the two women.
The family of Rufilla was one to win respect, and the elder said--

“Will it please you to follow me?”

These words were addressed to Hyacintha, and she was about to obey
when the sound of steps in the long cloisters made the women turn. And
there, coming from the shadows into the dim light where they stood, was
the same graceful, dignified lady who had passed by them on their way
from the Forum. Terentia Rufilla was no longer young--indeed, it was
impossible for the virgins to attain the highest office at a very early
age. Ten years had to pass as a noviciate, and ten more was generally
considered as a necessary probation before the honour of Vestal Maxima
could be aspired to.

The servants and attendants all bowed low as the lady approached, and
Hyacintha’s heart beat so loudly that she could almost hear it.

“What brings you hither, my daughter?” the lady asked.

“I am the daughter of Severus, of the house of Rufilla,” said the
little maiden. “I crave to be admitted to the service of the temple,
and my father has sent me hither from the city of Verulam in Britain.”

“Thy father! Yes, a post brought in despatches from Verulam
yesternight, and there was a letter from thy father, Severus. Welcome,
my daughter,” the lady said, bending over the little shrinking figure.
“Welcome; and I will receive thee here and examine thee on some matters
necessary to be known ere thy training begin. How old art thou?”

“I am eleven years old, lady,” Hyacintha said.

“Eleven! Ten is the accustomed age. Thy companions have mostly entered
upon their services at ten, but we will not let that hinder us, if
other matters prove convenient. Is that good woman related to thee?”

“Nay, lady,” said Clœlia, advancing; and then, encouraged by Terentia’s
kindly manner, Clœlia drew nearer, and, bowing low, kissed the hand
extended to her.

“And canst thou tell me aught of this maiden?” Terentia asked.

Clœlia, in a few words, gave the account of the perils by sea which
the maniple under Burrhus had met. She did not forget to extol the
merits of her son Caius, and to let it be known that by his skilful
seamanship one galley had been saved. “The maiden has lost everything
she possessed; because her sick, weakly, brother was aboard my son’s
galley, and she spent the days with him, and returned to the vessel
of Burrhus by night under the care of his lady Cornelia. The pirate
attacked them at sundown, and soon overpowered the men under Burrhus,
while Caius, seeing it hopeless to help men in their cups, and fearing
this maiden might meet a fate worse than death, set his little vessel’s
head to the breeze and escaped.”

The lady listened with courteous attention, and then taking Hyacintha’s
hand, she said--

“I will now receive her into the house of the vestals consecrated to
the service of the goddess. Has she an attendant?”

“Yes,” Hyacintha exclaimed, “I have one attendant, but she remains at
the house of the good Clœlia.”

“And so may she remain. Of what nation is she--a Briton?”

“Nay, gracious lady,” Hyacintha said, “she is of Roman birth, and her
family are to be found here.”

“Seek them out then,” said the Vestal, “and let her return to them. I
must commit thee, child, to the care of those who will clothe thee in
the proper habit, and to-morrow at dawn thou shalt be led to our high
priest, who shall examine thee, and then consecrate thee for thy high
office in the temple of the goddess.”

Clœlia understood that the time for leaving Hyacintha was come, and she
bade her farewell, making a low reverence to the stately lady, who,
taking Hyacintha by the hand, was leading her away, when she turned
quickly--

“I pray you, Clœlia, commend me to my brother Casca, and let me know of
his welfare. I pray you assure him of my affection.”

“It shall be as you desire,” Clœlia said, as she turned to pursue her
way towards her home on the further side of the Forum.

Hyacintha was led through the cloisters, up a staircase by which the
upper floor was reached, to a small hall where several vestals were
seated, employed in weaving a fine tissue embroidered with gold and
silver, which was used for the service of the altar.

As the Vestal Maxima entered the hall the sound of voices ceased, and
the maidens rose as a token of respect.

“I desire to speak with Lucia, who is the custodian of the robes. I
need the garments for this young girl, who is the daughter of the noble
Severus of my own patrician house, and who is sent hither from the
wilds of Britain, to be restored to the high rank her family has ever
held in Rome.” Then turning to Lucia, who had answered a summons from
an inner hall, separated by a heavy purple curtain from the larger one,
the Vestal Maxima continued--

“Take this maiden, and clothe her in becoming garments, Lucia. See that
she rests well and has proper food, and just before dawn, when I am
leaving the temple, bring her to my presence, where she will meet the
priest and be received as a disciple. Till then,” she said, waving her
hand, “I give her into your keeping.”

Hyacintha was a little surprised at the change in the manner and
bearing of the maidens the instant their superior was out of hearing.

They had stood in respectful silence, with their silks and threads
in their hands, and their tongues, like their fingers, had come to a
pause. But both were now in active operation again. They clustered
round Hyacintha, asking her questions, which she, from imperfect
acquaintance with the colloquial language which they spoke, could
hardly understand. It is true that the Romans of noble birth in Britain
had kept most strictly to their native tongue, regarding the British
language as that of slaves. Still, there were differences then, as
now, in dialect--those differences which we call provincial--and thus
Hyacintha found it far easier to understand the lady Terentia than
these vestal maidens, who were as yet only disciples, and chattered
in the fashion of young creatures in every age and in every country,
clustering round the new arrival like a flock of pigeons round an
addition to the dovecot.

Lucia, who was older and more considerate, said--

“Peace, will you deafen the child with your rattle! It is truly like
the brawling of a brook down the hill-side. Peace, and return to your
tasks.”

Dazed and bewildered, Hyacintha suffered Lucia to lead her away, but
when on the other side of the purple curtain she began to breathe more
freely.

“You are tired, child, and need rest,” Lucia said. “See, I will measure
you for a stole, and cut off your hair, and then you shall have a
refreshing bath, and lie on one of the couches till it is time for
supper. After that meal is over I will fit your garments again on you,
and at dawn you shall be taken to the door of the temple to meet the
priest.”

Hyacintha was quite passive under Lucia’s hands, and as she operated
on her she talked of the vestal’s life, of the insubordination of some
of the disciples, of the serious defalcation of two professed vestals,
and of the fearful punishment which had been awarded them.

Hyacintha listened with a mingled awe and amazement to all she heard.

“Yes,” Lucia said, as one by one the golden-brown tresses dropped to
the marble floor. “Yes, there have been terrible scenes amongst us, and
I often think that children like you, who come hither, know but little
of all that lies hidden within these walls.”

“But,” said Hyacintha, “is it not the most noble and beautiful life for
any woman to keep the sacred fire for ever burning for the Roman people
all over the world. Surely, it is nobler and more beautiful than to
live only for things which when attained make none happy.”

“Happy! Ah, my child, happiness is like the bow across the wide
Campagna. You see its many-coloured arch and hasten to reach it, and,
lo! it is gone; the nearer you think you get to it, the further it
seems. But the gods are kind to us poor mortals, and our goddess Vesta
does not forget us. You are but a child, a young child,” Lucia said,
surveying Hyacintha as she stood up before her in a loose underrobe,
with all her marvellously lovely hair gone, and the little slender
figure, beautifully formed, giving the appearance of extreme youth.

“I am nearly twelve years old!” Hyacintha said.

“Twelve years old. Ah!” Lucia said, with an appraising critical
glance, “there is something in your eyes which tells of thought and
reflection which a child under ten years of age could not possess. And
what hands and feet! Only a Roman patrician could show such. Well, if
you are ready, we will go to the bath that is always required before
the stole can be worn.”

“I would fain keep the token of my birth, and that I am the daughter of
Severus,” Hyacintha said, as she saw Lucia casting aside in a heap all
her travel-stained garments, and the chain which she had worn round her
neck with the coin attached to it.

“I know not whether you will be permitted to retain it,” Lucia said,
“but I will put it in this casket, and consult the Vestal Maxima. And
now let us go to the bath.”



CHAPTER VIII.

DISCIPLESHIP.


Hyacintha slept soundly after her bath, and a supper of fruit and
delicately-baked bread, crisp and fresh, after the fashion of our
modern biscuits. A draught of the pure water from the spring on the
hill above the house of the vestals was refreshing, and it was the
daily duty of the vestals to draw it for the service of the house and
the temple.

Hyacintha was awoke by Lucia’s voice.

“It is nearing the dawn,” she said; “the cock has crowed twice, and I
see the first signs of Aurora’s coming feet in the eastern sky. Now
arise, little maiden, and I will dress you for your presentation to the
priest.”

Hyacintha sprang up at once, and after another ablution of clear cold
water, the attendant vestal put upon her little feet a pair of sandals,
and the fine robe which she was to wear under the stole. The stole
itself and the fillet which was to bind her hair the vestal placed in
a basket, and then telling Hyacintha to follow her, she led the way to
the chamber of Terentia Rufilla.

This chamber was nearly adjoining the temple, and to reach it, it was
necessary to descend again and cross the large atrium, now almost
dark, except for the faint light of a lamp which hung in the large
porta or gateway.

The sunshine could not reach this stately hall, which consisted of
eight Corinthian columns of veined marble, with pure white bases.

The state apartments were on this lower storey of the vestals’ house,
and as the floor was thirty feet below the Nova Via, with the walls
resting against the Palatine, it must have been very damp and chill;
the pure air of heaven could never reach it; and in spite of double
walls, double floors, and hot-water currents--of which distinct traces
are left--it could not have been a healthy abode.

The living rooms from which Hyacintha and Lucia had descended were,
perhaps, more salubrious, but the Imperial Palace, rising at that
time one hundred and fifty feet above the building, must have always
over-shadowed the whole house, and prevented the light from entering,
as well as the air.

A heavy curtain was drawn aside by one of the servants of the temple,
and the next moment Hyacintha found herself in the presence of the
Vestal Maxima, her father’s kinswoman.

She had been keeping watch that night in the temple, and wore
a different and more elaborate dress--as the sign of her high
vocation--than that in which Hyacintha had seen her on the preceding
evening.

The Vestal Maxima wore a long stole of snow-white linen, drooping
gracefully to her feet. A loose hood, falling a little from the back
of the head, displayed a close-fitting cap, bound with gold fillets,
and lay in easy folds over her shoulders. A large pallium, of a deep
violet colour, was gathered over her left arm, and wound closely round
her waist. Terentia Rufilla was in the autumn of her life, and when the
little novice made her profound reverence, as Lucia had instructed her
to do, a smile, which was half pitying and half admiring, spread over
her noble countenance.

“Welcome, little maiden,” she said. “Thy name is of Greek origin, and
scarcely one to be registered as a vestal. Was that name chosen by the
noble Severus?”

“I know not, lady,” said Hyacintha. “Methinks my mother chose it
because she loved the flower and its sweet scent, but I cannot tell.”

“It will, perhaps, be better to register thy name as Severa, and yet
Hyacintha suits thee so well, I think it must stand.

“Hyacintha Severa, the daughter of the noble Severus,” she said, waving
her hand to the maidens; “lead the way.”

The maidens turned towards an entrance to the chamber opposite to that
by which Lucia had entered, and as two of their number held the curtain
aside, the others passed through, chanting a low monotonous song as
they went.

The sun had risen now, and the sky above the temple court was bright,
and of the indescribably lovely blue of early day.

The light fell upon the vestals’ white garments till they glistened
like snow, and upon the short clustering curls of little Hyacintha’s
head till they shone like gold.

The procession crossed the court and ascended a flight of wide and
very shallow steps, shadowed by the portico, on which were seen, in
bas-relief, many figures, illustrating the past history of the vestals,
from the earliest date to the time of which I write.

A nation’s history was almost told by these figures, to which Hyacintha
did not even raise her eyes, so engrossed was she with the first sight
of the temple of her dreams.

At last they were within the sacred building, where in the gloom and
shadows the sacred light of the fire upon the altar shone like a star
of glory.

Hyacintha had eyes for nothing but that light--that clear lambent
light--shed by the sacred and never-to-be-extinguished fire, which
had been brought down from high heaven and preserved here by those
consecrated and set apart for the office.

The child’s heart thrilled with a sense of awe, and a gentle sigh
escaped her. She clasped her hands, and looking up to the opening in
the temple roof to the clear azure sky, her eyes filled with tears,
which one by one fell upon her bare hands and arms in crystal drops.

The Vestal Maxima noticed this unwonted expression of feeling, and her
thoughts went back to the day--now thirty years ago--when she, too, had
entered the temple for the first time to be presented to the priest.

The prime of youth was over for her; the “sacred fire” had grown dim.
The heavenly light and warmth had, she knew, waned. At her noble
heart there was an aching void, and there was a hungry yearning for
something--for _some one_--which was not satisfied. As she looked at
the little earnest enthusiast by her side, she wondered if all the long
years of temple service which stretched before her would be as barren
of real satisfaction and true peace as hers had been.

Terentia Rufilla saw at a glance that Hyacintha, the daughter of
Severus, was not of the ordinary type of the maidens over whom she held
rule. Many of them came with no serious thought of responsibility; many
with positive distaste, and simply because the vocation was chosen for
them by their parents, and they had no choice in the matter.

It was confessedly a grand office, this of the vestal virgins, in the
eyes of the world. To be a vestal was to bear about the imprimatur of
patrician birth and noble ancestry. No plebeian might ever wear that
snow-white stole, or aspire to the high office of a Vestal Maxima.

This pride of rank and personal aggrandisement were often the
distinguishing characteristics of the vestal virgins. As they passed
through the public streets, the way was cleared for them by attendant
lictors. If by chance they met a slave on his way to the arena or the
fire, and he prayed for mercy, the vestal could procure his pardon. Her
word was enough, and the life of the criminal was spared!

All these things conspired to feed the self-importance and vanity of
many women; and then there was their palatial atrium, and their own
chambers, which were furnished with all things befitting the high rank
of Roman ladies.

Terentia Rufilla had seen many of the proud ones brought low, and the
vain and frivolous ones made shipwreck. The cases of the latter were
rare, but there had been such, even during her time of office, and her
heart might well be heavy as she thought over them.

The beauty and rare simplicity of her little kinswoman had touched her
from the first moment of their meeting, and now as she led her up to
the old priest, who was awaiting them in a side vestibule, she felt a
yearning tenderness and love for Hyacintha which made her silvery voice
almost mournful as she said--

“I bring you the daughter of the noble Severus, to be consecrated for
the service of the goddess and of Rome, in this temple.”

The priest, an old man, who had received the candidates for many, many
years, went through the usual form of questions as to Hyacintha’s
willingness to take the solemn oath he tendered to her.

The child understood but little of the meaning of much that was said
to her, but she knew that the penalty was death if she should break her
vow.

As she knelt before the old priest her childlike transparent soul
received no impression but that she was never to have any other home
than the temple; and she wished for no other. She was to learn to spin
and weave the sacred curtains and veils for the altar, and she desired
nothing better.

She was to submit herself entirely to the rule of the Vestal Maxima and
those of the sacred virgins whom she should appoint to watch over her
and instruct her. She was to be under training for eight or ten years,
as the Vestal Maxima should see good, and then her full consecration
would take place, and she would take her turn in watching in the temple
at night and feeding the sacred fire--which only the fully consecrated
were ever allowed to do.

“And now, beloved,” the priest said, “Hyacintha, the daughter of the
noble Severus, I give thee entrance as a disciple, to be educated for a
vestal priestess, to minister in sacred things, and to do for the Roman
people what the law has appointed.”

Then Hyacintha took the vow in the prescribed form, and, rising, the
Vestal Maxima invested her with the stole, and bound a purple fillet
round her head; then bending with an irresistible impulse, she kissed
the pure sweet brow of her little kinswoman, and with a reverence to
the priest, she committed her to the care of Lucia, and, followed by
the band of vestals, chanting low as they went, she slowly left the
temple.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hyacintha’s new life was hardly what she had pictured it would be; what
seemed so solemn and grave a responsibility to her, was an everyday
routine to many of her companions.

The appointed tasks were done, and the appointed work fulfilled, and
then Hyacintha was free to wander about in the gardens, which sloped up
the Cælian Hill, and where the pure cold water of the spring was drawn
of which Hyacintha had drunk a refreshing draught on the first evening
of her arrival.

Lucia had committed the little Hyacintha to the especial care of a
Roman maiden, who had nearly passed her time of probation, and would
soon be allowed to take charge of the sacred fire in the stillness of
the night.

When this vestal, who was named Chloe, went abroad with her lictors in
attendance, Hyacintha often accompanied her; and when the autumn and
winter was passed, and the glory of the Roman spring broke over the
Campagna, strewn broadcast with the flowers of every hue, Hyacintha’s
spirits seemed to rise to meet it, and the child’s heart within her
beat with a gladness which it had not known since she left her northern
home a year before.

Clœlia had paid her several visits; and once or twice, under the charge
of an older vestal, she had seen her brother.

Casca was still living in Clœlia’s house, awaiting more definite orders
from his father, which had not yet arrived. For though the posting
service of the Romans was wonderfully arranged and carried out, whole
months must elapse before the perils and losses of his children could
reach the ear of Severus. It would, indeed, be a downfall to his pride
to know that both his son and daughter had reached Rome robbed of all
the possessions which had been provided for them, as meet for the
children of a man holding high office in the Roman city of Verulam.

Casca was well content. He attended the schools, and listened with
the most profound interest to the orations delivered daily from the
Rostra, where the eloquence of distinguished scholars was in itself an
education.

The military training, on account of his wound, would not have been
possible for Casca under any circumstances, and he rejoiced with all
his heart to be spared the discipline.

The boy’s gentleness and goodness won more and more upon Clœlia’s
heart, and while Casca wrote upon parchment wise sayings, which he
gathered from the teaching of the philosophers and poets, Clœlia would,
when the boy paused for a few minutes to rest his hand, tell him
stories of old Roman valour and adventure, which was a delight to her
to recount and to Casca to hear.

Never had a winter passed so rapidly for Casca; and when, with
lengthening days, the outdoor life of the city began again, neither
Clœlia nor Casca was altogether pleased to think that their long
evenings in the little atrium of the Villa Caius were over.

“Who can foresee what another winter may bring,” Clœlia said. “The
noble Severus will surely send orders for your future, and if he
decrees it, you must leave my humble roof. I know not when I shall see
Caius again; he is never at rest on shore, and must ever be fighting
pirate or storm. The gods have preserved him hitherto--it may be that
they will not forsake him while I, his mother, live. And for the rest,
sons are made for something better than to sit with folded hands by
their mother’s side. That, at least, is not the place of a true Roman.”

It was a sunny morning, early in March, when Casca set forth for the
school with a bundle of papers and vellum rolls, fastened together and
hung across his shoulder.

He yet wore the short toga prætexta which reached below the knee, and
the golden bulla, which was a hollow ball of gold, hung round his neck.

Casca had easily obtained admission to the school, which was presided
over by a master who had no fear that the son of Severus would fail to
recompense him for his trouble. And, indeed, there was something very
winning in the gentle boy. His nervous temperament and dislike of all
scenes of bloodshed and warfare had irritated his warlike father, but
they were qualities which endeared him to the scholar and the poet, and
Casca had become a great favourite in the schools, and was remarkable
for his ability and quickness in learning.

It was now many months since the martyrdom of Alban, and Casca began to
think of that dreadful scene which his father compelled him to witness
as a hideous dream. The persecutions of the Christians still raged,
but in Rome there was so much space and so wide an area that the boy
had not necessarily been brought in contact with the scenes which were
continually enacted in the Coliseum.

To-day there was a chariot race in the Circus Maximus, and when the
morning school was over one of Casca’s companions invited him to stroll
with him in that direction, in the hope of getting near the race. The
Circus Maximus was of such enormous extent that this was no easy matter.

The arena had in the centre a group of columns and obelisks on a raised
platform, and round this the chariots raced. The judges sat here, and
those to whom the chariots and horses belonged, moved round and round,
shouting and waving their hands, and encouraging those who were in the
arena to urge on their fiery horses to the utmost speed.

The spring sunshine illuminated the temple and buildings on either side
of the arena. The tiers of seats were filled with a vast multitude
all in holiday attire, while the Emperor and his suite occupied a
vantage-ground above the rows of seats on the right hand of the arena.

These seats were reached by long flights of steps which divided the
long line into twelve compartments, and the two boys found some vacant
places near the end and commanding a view of the whole arena, though
perhaps a distant one.

It is difficult to picture anything more beautiful than the aspect of
the Circus Maximus on a day like this. The range of mountains which
seemed to shut it in at the further end, were seen in distinct outline
against the clear blue sky--the clear and beautiful sapphire blue of
Italy, which is never seen in our northern climates.

The dark line of the foliage of spiral cypresses and round-topped pines
set off the snowy whiteness of the marble pillars to which they made a
background, and Casca was more fascinated by the grandeur of the place
itself than interested in watching the race.

Something in the boy’s heart seemed to respond to the beauty around
him; and while his friend Fulvius was excited to frenzy at the
hairbreadth success which one of the chariots won, Casca was lost in
his own meditations, from which he was awoke by the over-turning of
one of the unsuccessful carriages, and the cry of pain, which sounded
through the first shout of victory.

“The charioteer was killed!” he heard a voice near him say, “and the
horses will never be worth a silver coin again. So much the worse for
Cassianus, who owns them.”

The fallen horses and the dead charioteer were hastily removed, and
then another race was proclaimed by the herald. And again there was
breathless anxiety as to the result.

Casca turned presently at the sound of a voice, which seemed familiar.

“Do not push him roughly; he will make way!”

“A cursed dog of a Jew!” was the answer, “standing, forsooth, in the
way of a noble.”

“Turn him out!” and then two lictors, who were stationed at the
entrance of every one of the galleries, seized the old man roughly by
the shoulder, and pushed him before them to the outside of the Circus.

Casca forgot the race and the shouts which proclaimed another victory,
forgot Fulvius, and that he had agreed to remain with him and return to
supper with him, and followed the old man, who was leaning on the arm
of a woman whose voice had been familiar.

“Do not push him roughly,” the voice now said. It was the voice of
Ebba, the slave of his mother Cæcilia.

Casca followed the pair at a little distance, till he was beyond the
shouts of the crowd which was thronging the entrances to the Circus.

Then he laid his hand on Ebba’s arm. She started, and turned round--

“Is it possible!” she exclaimed; “but do not speak to me, dear master.”


“Speak! yes, I must speak, and learn whence you came, and who has
brought you hither.”

“Nay, not here, not here; it is dangerous for you and me here.”

“Come on, my daughter,” moaned old Ezra, “come on, nor delay, for this
is no place for us. Young man, what is your business?”

“I will come, father,” said Anna, “I will come. I would you had heeded
me, and never come near the race.”

“Ah, but I furnished the harness--the gold--for the chariot of
Cassianus, and now”----

“Hush, I pray you, father,” Anna whispered. “We are watched.” Then
turning to Casca, she said--

“To-morrow, at dawn, near the fountain of Egeria, that is near to the
temple of Vesta, to-morrow.”

And then Anna hurried on, and Casca was accosted by a man.

“Do you know the woman and the old man?”

Casca shook his head. “The old man is a stranger to me, but _not_ the
woman,” was the rejoinder.

“I would have you beware, Casca, the son of Severus: that woman is
one of the Christians, though she lives with an old Jew, a dealer in
precious stones and pearls, a charlatan and sorcerer. Beware!”

“I know not,” said Casca, with some dignity, “why you should issue
these commands against me.”

“I have the best reason. I have to-day, by the special messenger from
Verulam, received commands from your father, the noble Severus, that
you are to be committed to my care till you come to man’s estate. I
went to seek you at the house of Clœlia Pudentia, and she bade me seek
you at the schools, and thence again I was sent to the Circus Maximus.
Return with me and watch the race out.”

“Nay!” Casca said, “I have had quite enough of the race.”

“You will prefer the Coliseum to-morrow,” the man said, with a
malignant smile. “There is fine sport coming on there, to which I bid
you. But you must see my credentials for thus accosting you. If you
will not return to the Circus, accompany me to my house at the foot
of the Quirinal Hill, and I will lay before you your father’s letter.
Surely you have heard my name--Antonius Scæva--I hold a high office in
the Emperor’s household. I am as well known as the Palatine,” he said,
with a cynical smile.

Casca accompanied his new companion rather reluctantly, and listened to
his somewhat bombastic talk with disgust.

He would greatly have preferred remaining with Clœlia, in the quiet
retirement of her humble home. He dreaded the return to the life that
he had led at Verulam, and yet the commands of his father, he knew too
well, could not be set aside, and he had no alternative but to obey.

Antonius’s house was one of the most magnificent in the valley below
the Quirinal and Esquiline Hills.

Besides the spacious atrium, or large outer court, there was a third
large peristyle, from which immense apartments opened, furnished in the
most magnificent style. There were carpets from Eastern looms, and
many coloured curtains of purple and gold embroidery, from Babylon.
Curious carving in ivory and metal were on every side; and Antonius
said, as he led Casca to one of the most magnificent chambers--

“Well, there is no great hardship in taking up your abode with me. The
emperor himself is pleased to frequent this house, and we are ready
with a banquet for him at any moment. A penalty, you may say, to pay
for imperial favour. Now we will take that couch and throw aside these
parchments, and have a light repast.”

Antonius clapped his hands, and as if by magic a retinue of slaves
appeared, bearing all kinds of refreshments, in silver and gold cups
and flagons, with dishes of all the viands then most in favour with
the luxurious Romans, the degenerate representatives of the noble and
hardy race which had laid the foundation of the great empire, even now
hastening to its fall!

Antonius led the usual life of the Roman nobles of that time. He
lounged, drank, and played for high stakes at the gaming-tables at the
baths. He sauntered into the Forum, and listened to some favourite
orator, or later in the day he attended the Court, and either drove
in his gaily-decorated chariot, or sauntered in the gardens where the
beauty and fashion of Rome resorted. Then he would bid guests to his
supper, who were never unwilling to respond to his invitation, for his
board was always spread with sumptuous fare, and the emperor himself
was frequently announced by heralds as deigning to confer the favour
of his presence upon Antonius.

When Antonius had dismissed the slaves and attendants, he said--

“Here is your father’s letter. He begs me to make a Roman of you, and
mentions that by reason of robbers by land, and pirates by sea, you
had arrived in a sorry plight. You can be equipped by my people in
native attire, and it is time that you left off that prætexta, if your
father’s version of your age be true--near fifteen. He says, and truly,
that you are small and slender, and a contrast to him in all things. He
does not think you will make a soldier.”

Antonius laughed. “And I agree with him; we must turn you into a Roman,
befitting in manners and appearance your high rank. You have a sister a
vestal, I hear.”

“Yes, a young sister received as a disciple,” Casca said.

“A vestal’s brother must needs be careful to do her honour, and you
must submit yourself to the hands of my dresser, and acquire some
accomplishment, play on some instrument, as well as play high at other
games. The Emperor may look kindly on you, and I will get you a place
in his household.”

Then Antonius yawned, and lazily stretching himself on his luxurious
couch, leaned over a few parchments and made a cabalistic sign on one
or two, and then settled himself to his siesta.

Meantime Casca was reading his father’s letter, which Antonius had
tossed to him, and there was also a short one addressed to himself. He
knew already the contents of that written to Antonius, but Severus’s
counsel to his young son may bear to be transcribed here as a specimen
of paternal counsel in those days of Roman decline.

“Severus, pro-consul at Verulam, to my son Casca, greeting.

“My son,--News has reached me of your disasters by sea and land on your
journey towards Rome. This will reach you by the hand of the noble
Antonius, who will by his goodness receive you into his household,
to prepare you to take office in that of the Emperor himself. You
refused the study of arms, to my great disquiet, therefore you must
now study diligently to shape your manners after those of the young
nobles at Rome. You must learn to sing, game, and become an adept on
some instrument of music. You must study dress and deportment, and lie
as occasion requires, when the flattery of your superiors demand it.
My office in this distant province, amidst these barbarous tribes, has
obliged me to live the life of the soldier only. You refused that life,
therefore you must cultivate that of the courtier.

“Have no more intercourse with the woman at whose house you lodged. I
have directed that gold should be given her. Her son Caius did his part
well, but, alas for Burrhus and his maniple! they are prisoners and
slaves, and we doubt if a ransom would avail if offered. We must leave
them to the gods.

“I have received news also from my noble kinswoman Terentia Rufilla,
that my daughter finds favour in her eyes, and that her beauty and
wisdom are far beyond her years.

“Her mother and yours sends greeting. Beware of the vile reptiles
calling themselves Christians; it is told me that they swarm in Rome
like ants. Here in Verulam we have done good work amongst them, and
thanks are due to Valens and Claudius, who crushed out a goodly number
in the forest beyond Radburn. The chief Amphibalus was done to death
by stoning, and when the cell was opened on the morning after his
execution, to our great astonishment the woman Agatha and the miserable
slave Ebba were found dead.

“Claudius lighted a pyre at once and the bodies were burned to ashes,
before we knew we were saved the trouble of roasting them alive. We had
been counselled to try burning, as execution by the sword, and even
stoning, bore small fruit. Again, I say, beware of the Christians as of
lepers and the plague.

“Vale!”

Neither of these letters was in the hand of Severus, who could wield
the sword and battle-axe, but hardly a pen. They were written on the
parchment roll in a clear hand by the man who fulfilled an office which
we should call that of secretary to the Governor’s court.

As Casca read this letter, his face betrayed surprise and emotion,
which Antonius, lying back with half-closed eyes, was not slow to
discern.

“I crave leave,” Casca said, “to return whence I came till the morrow.
I have books and parchments which I must have carried hither, and I
must see good Clœlia, the mother of Caius, and take leave of her.”

“Well, be it so,” was Antonius’s reply, in a lazy tone. “Meet me in the
Coliseum to-morrow, when there will be some sport with thy father’s
enemies, the Christians. By Jove!” Antonius said, “I care not whether
they live or die, though we should miss some sport if there were no
more to be thrown to the beasts. Vale! Vale!” he exclaimed, waving his
hand, and leaving Casca free to depart.



CHAPTER IX.

DAYSPRING.


Clœlia received the news of Casca’s immediate departure with that
self-repression which at the time of greatest trial characterised the
old Roman matron.

The inevitable was accepted, and she merely said--

“It was but likely that your noble father should desire to place you
amongst the nobles, but you depart to scenes of license, I fear, and to
see the hunt after pleasure put before honour and the welfare of Rome.
It was not always thus. There were times when the sons of our great
city strove after all those gifts which should make them her worthy
protectors and defenders. They call Rome now the mistress of the world,
but her children have grown weak since the arms of their great mother
have embraced so many strangers and aliens. I would, my son Casca,
that you were to be committed to one even of less exalted rank than
Antonius, who, if report speaks truly, lives the life of luxury and
ease which is as a canker-worm at the root of the gourd.”

Casca’s tender, gentle spirit was touched at the emotion which Clœlia
could not entirely hide under her quiet calm manner.

“I would that I could stay with you, dear Clœlia,” said the boy. “I am
not fitted for the life to which I go.”

“There is no choice for us; a son must obey his father; and it may be
that in some time of need the mother of Caius may stand you in good
stead, as once the son did, when he rescued you and your sister from
the pursuing sea-robbers and brought you safe into port. If the time
ever comes when you need Clœlia, she will not fail you.”

Clœlia embraced Casca affectionately as she spoke, and then she
bestirred herself to prepare the evening meal, which they were to eat
together for the last time.

Casca thought it wisest to keep the appointment with Ebba to himself.
He intended to leave the house long before dawn, and to return to make
final arrangements for his departure later in the day. The strange
announcement in his father’s letter of the death of both Agatha and
Ebba seemed a mystery he could not unravel. He knew nothing of Agatha,
nor could he believe that it was Ebba who was with her in a cell at
Radburn, and that both women should be found dead when the prison door
was opened.

Certain it was, however, that he had seen Ebba at the Circus--he felt
sure he could not be mistaken. She knew him, and addressed him as
“Master,” and he wanted no further proof.

How she came to Rome, and why she was with the old Jew, he could not
understand, and he was anxious for the meeting at the fountain of
Egeria, below the Cælian Hill.

It was quite dark when Casca left Clœlia’s house the next morning,
except, indeed, for the light of the stars, which had not yet begun to
fade before the dawn.

When the boy reached the deserted and silent Forum, faint streaks of
the coming day were just enough to show the outline of the columns
which supported the façade of the temples, and the statues which
surrounded the pillars.

There were a good many sleepers about the steps of the temple and
plinths of the statues. The outside garment or toga was rolled up for
a pillow, and the poor Roman citizens, who lived, for the most part,
desultory lives out of doors, and earned a scanty pittance by helping
to unlade the mules which came in from the country to supply fruit and
milk and vegetables to the city, never desired easier or more luxurious
couches! Then Casca threaded his way cautiously along till he took the
narrow path which wound by the temple of Vesta to the Cælian Hill. In
the hush before the dawn every sound was distinctly heard--the ripple
of running waters--the low splash of fountains--the fall of solitary
footsteps. Once there was the sound of a band of revellers, who were
returning to one of the palaces in the Palatine, after a night of wild
bacchanalian license. The noise grew nearer, passed below the place
where Casca stood, and then grew fainter and fainter, and died away
in the distance. Then there was a low sullen roar, which was often
heard in the stillness of a Roman night--the lions roaring at daybreak
for their prey, the food which would be supplied to them in the arena
before sunset, when the Christians who might have been in captivity in
some of the adjoining cells would be brought out to die!

Casca pursued his way, leaving the temple of Vesta behind him, pausing
every now and then to look back at the place where his little sister
was one day to minister, to keep the sacred fire burning, for the
safety and welfare of the Roman people all over the world.

The boy’s heart went out in loving tenderness towards Hyacintha, and he
longed for one hour of free intercourse, such as they used to have in
the villa of Severus, in Verulam.

The footpath between the gardens was very narrow, and wound in and
out, till the summit of the Cælian Hill was reached. Here Casca paused
again, and was soon conscious that a figure clothed in a long dark
stole and hood was seated on a fragment of stone waiting for him. It
was, indeed, Ebba, the Christian Anna, who advanced to him, saying--

“Dear master, the son of my lord the noble Severus, I greet you with
humble affection. I have been yearning to see you, for I knew that you
were in Rome, and I have watched and waited, and now you are here!”

“Good Ebba,” exclaimed Casca, “I am right glad to find you here. But
tell me how it has come about.”

“I was delivered from death by Claudius, your noble-hearted friend, who
bade me see my dear young mistress, and tell her that he had fulfilled
his vow. But I have never dared to present myself at the temple, or the
house of the vestals, for I might perchance bring trouble upon my dear
young mistress, for I am a baptised Christian.”

Casca started back--

“A Christian!” he exclaimed. “There is greater peril here than in
Verulam. There is a fresh outbreak of persecution, and a number are to
be thrown to the beasts this very day.”

“I know it,” Anna said, in a firm voice. “The life that my Lord has
given back to me I will guard, nor rashly deliver myself up. But, oh!
my young master, why will you not accept the cross and bear it after
Jesus?

“He is rising over the world,” Anna continued, “like yonder light,
which proclaims the near approach of the sun. He is coming to flood
this sinful world with righteousness, even as the golden flood of
sunrise is bathing the Alban Hills.” As she spoke, she pointed with her
hand to the scene stretched out before them, as they stood under the
shadow of the ilex trees, and looked down upon the prospect, which lay
like a vision of beauty, rather than a reality of this lower world, in
all its loveliness. For one by one the peaks of the Alban Hills rose
from the plain, and a rosy flush touched the highest of all, where the
old temple of Jupiter once stood, the common meeting-place and shrine
of the early Latin race. Soon the Campagna smiled in the early level
rays of the sun, and everything became imbued with life!

Casca was strangely moved as Anna said--

“Here, or at Verulam in the caves, or in the forests of Britain, the
Lord is the light. Oh! my noble Casca, I pray you bathe your soul in
His light, and you will have peace and joy in His presence!”

Casca folded his arms and looked out upon the shining landscape,
wondering much that the slave-girl should have become a woman on whose
face was written a high and noble resolve, the outcome of the reality
and fervour of her faith.

“Yes!” she continued, “I am now living in the Jews’ quarter, on the
slope of the hill. I hear from them the words of their prophets and
sibyls, and I know that these foretold the coming of the Saviour of the
world. They did not know Him, and he was nailed to the cross, like a
malefactor, by the Roman Governor’s order, in the province of Judæa.
The Jews clamoured for His life, as the Romans clamour for the lives of
the Christians. And He laid it down, to take it again, dying for Roman
and Greek, Jew and Christian, Briton and Druid, alike.”

“I would I could believe,” Casca sighed, “for there is a hunger of the
soul nothing can satisfy. But, Anna, this may be a fable or a phantom,
this Christ of whom you speak.”

“Nay, dear master, He is no fable and no phantom. He lives in _us_ and
we live in Him. But----”

She broke off suddenly, for two figures clothed in the purest white
garments were seen ascending the hill with light, agile steps. The
taller of the two bore a pitcher on her head, with the grace with which
only the women of Italy know how to carry a burden. Her young companion
had no burden. She had gathered a large bunch of the pale violet
anemone which carpets the turf in every Roman garden in spring, and had
fastened it under the fillet with which her short shining curls were
bound.

“Two vestals!” Casca said, springing to his feet. “The younger one
is--yes, surely it is--Hyacintha!”

In another moment the brother and sister stood face to face. Hyacintha
gave him a rapturous greeting.

“Chloe!” she exclaimed, “this is my brother Casca.”

Chloe, who had set down her pitcher, smiled pleasantly. And then, with
a wild cry of joy, Hyacintha discovered that Anna, her Ebba of other
times, was with her brother.

“We have come to draw the water from the spring,” she exclaimed;
“little did I think I should find you here. Oh, Ebba, tell me how you
came hither!”

“I have been longing to see you, dear mistress, to give you a message.
My story is indeed so strange, that even to myself it is scarce like
reality.”

“Tell it to me, tell it to me! Oh, Chloe, may I stay, and hear what she
says? She was the dear attendant of my mother and myself, in my old
home at Verulam. She has brought me a message.”

“You can remain here while I go to the fountain,” said Chloe. She was
good-natured and kindly, and the little Hyacintha had been her especial
care and joy since the day of her arrival in the house of the vestals,
now six months before.

Indeed, Hyacintha had won all hearts. There was a gentle grace about
her, and yet a sunny brightness, which made the vestals call her their
singing bird.

The deep earnestness of her nature, and her serious desire to fit
herself for the high office of a vestal, did not prevent her from
entering into every innocent pleasure with the keenest delight.

The anxiety which had awoke in her young heart at Verulam, to find a
more excellent way of life than that led by the ladies she saw in her
mother’s society, had been a weight upon her child-heart. But now she
had found, as she believed, her vocation; and while leaving far behind
her, her young companions in the accomplishments in which they were all
instructed, she was always simple and humble, and her exceeding beauty,
which was increasing month by month, did not make her vain.

“A great gift to lay at the shrine of the goddess,” Terentia had told
her, and Hyacintha joyfully laid down that gift, and would gladly lay
down others also, for the honour of the goddess who had the sacred
fire in her keeping.

Ebba could scarcely restrain her expressions of admiration as Hyacintha
seated herself on a stone bench beneath an outspread ilex tree, and
said,

“Now, Ebba, my message, my message! Dear Ebba, you look so happy now,
no longer like a sad slave, but free and happy.”

“Yes, dearest lady, I am free--free from the fetters which bound me, no
longer a slave, but a _child_ of a loving Father.”

Hyacintha’s questioning eyes were turned wistfully upon Anna as she
spoke. She could hardly understand her.

The sunlight flickered through the branches upon Hyacintha’s spotless
robe, and touched the ruddy gold of her hair with glory.

Her little sandalled feet peeped out beneath the hem of her robe, as
they rested on the mossy turf. Her beautifully-formed hands were folded
in a sort of happy expectation as to what Anna might say next, what the
message might be from her home beyond the stormy sea, and her whole
attitude was one of attention and wonder as to what was coming.

Casca watched his sister with eyes of tender brotherly admiration, and
he wondered it had never struck him before, how beautiful she was!

“Poor Ebba,” Hyacintha said, “the child of a loving Father! I do not
understand. I know you left our home, in Britain, after they had killed
the man on the hill-side, near Verulam. I know my father was angry at
your loss, put a price on your head, but I know no more.”

“Nor need I tell you all that happened, for it would serve no good end,
nor would I throw over your brightness so dark a cloud as the story of
my life since we met would surely throw.”

“I was baptised by the holy Amphibalus on the night of my escape. Then
our little band wandered towards the fastnesses of Wales, after hiding
in a cave at Radburn. We were settling in a village, in peace and rest,
converts daily brought in by the teaching of Amphibalus, when we were
surprised by the barbarians, and to escape them a band of thirty fell
into the hands of a Roman convoy under Valens and Claudius.”

“Claudius! good, dear Claudius!” Hyacintha exclaimed; “nay, I do not
believe he hunted you down.”

“He did as he was commanded, and many fell. Some were carried to
Radburn as prisoners. I was one, and Agatha, the mother’s sister of
Heraclius, who perished before the holy Alban rather than take his
life,--Agatha was my support and stay. We were thrown into a dungeon
together, from which we were dragged to witness the martyrdom of
Amphibalus.

“I remember little more after that, till I found myself committed to
the care of old Ezra, the Jew, by brave Claudius, who rescued me from
death, and bade me say to you, dear Hyacintha, that he had fulfilled
his vow made to the gods and to you, and had saved the life of the
slave whom you loved.”

“Whom I must love always,” Hyacintha murmured. “But how was it done?”

“I have since heard from Ezra that his daughter died on her toilsome
journey from Verulam to Radburn, and that Claudius, finding him weeping
over her body, took it up and carried it to the dungeon, where he left
it with Agatha, and carried me away. I have never heard what befel
Agatha--my friend and mother--for a mother in Christ she was, truly, to
me.”

Severus’s letter to his son became intelligible now. The boy sprang to
his feet.

“I can tell you,” he said. “Both women, so my father writes in his
letter--both women were found dead in their cell, and their bodies were
burned to ashes the next morning. My father believes that you, Ebba,
were one of those women.”

Anna raised her eyes to the sky above her, and the tears which gathered
there flowed down her cheeks.

“She is with Him whom she loved, in Paradise,” she said, “only, would
that our Father had taken me with her!”

“Dear Ebba, do not grieve,” Hyacintha said.

“Nay,” Casca sighed out, “nay, it is over for her, it is to come for
you and for me. Tell me where I can get instruction in the faith of
which you speak.”

“Come to the Via Appia in the early morning, or in the late evening. I
will be on the watch, for I steal thither unperceived, as hundreds of
our faith steal. In the last sleeping-place of the Christians the faith
of the living is built up, and you shall be instructed in that faith.
Think you, Casca, that there is no Rome but that which you see? Yes,
there is a Rome, invisible to all mortal eyes, over which the angels
watch the Christian people of the great city, who are compelled to
worship their Lord in secret and silence.”

“I will come,” Casca said.

“Go whither, dear brother?” asked Hyacintha; “nay, run into no danger.”

Casca smiled.

“I am never bold or daring, little sister; has not that weakness of
mine been ever foremost? Did not good Claudius try to harden me to
danger? Did not my father look on me with scorn, as unworthy of his
noble ancestors? I will run into no danger.”

Chloe’s footsteps were heard approaching, on her return from the
fountain, where she had filled the pitcher with pure crystal water.

This water was used to sprinkle the altar of Vesta, and only those who
were fully qualified by their term of probation were ever allowed to
perform this office.

“Now, Hyacintha,” Chloe said, “the day wears on apace, and we must
return to the temple.”

Hyacintha embraced her brother, and then turned to follow Chloe. The
path bore a little to the left before it descended to the gate of the
garden, and there Hyacintha paused for a moment, and with her hand
waved her farewell to the two who stood below her. The low level rays
of the lately-risen sun glanced through the vines and olive trees
amongst which she stood. Her white robe glistened and glowed in the
sunshine, and her face--that beautiful face--so childlike, and yet so
womanly, made Anna exclaim--

“She is like the Hyacintha of my dream in the dungeon! Oh, that the
journey was indeed over, and that she was standing to welcome me at the
golden gate! but it will come at last--at last.”

Hyacintha had disappeared at the garden gate. A lictor stood to escort
the two vestals along the public thoroughfare to the door of the
vestals’ house. The vestals were never allowed to appear in public
without a guard; for from their high office they formed a part of the
sacred magistracy and state of the city of Rome.

When Casca and Anna were left alone together, Anna said--

“We must not be seen together in the public streets; therefore, dear
young master, I will depart first, and you can follow. The quarter
where the Jews live is below the hill, and I reach it by a side path.”

“Are you happy with that old man, Ebba? Is he good to you?”

“Yes, at times,” was the answer. “He mourns for his lost Rachel and
his lost treasure. The name of Christian is scarcely less hated by the
Jews than by the heathen, and I live a secluded life with Ezra. But he
has taught me much of the words of the old prophets and sibyls in whom
he believes, who worshipped the God of Israel, and I have learned to
sing some of the songs written by one of their kings to the praise of
Jehovah. And now we part till the evening, when I will conduct you to
the place where you shall hear much which my poor tongue cannot tell.
But be wary, for the eyes of many are upon all who are suspected of
being Christians.”

In another moment Anna had glided away, and Casca was left alone.

A new life was beginning for the boy that day; he was to exchange the
toga prætexta for the toga virilis--the boy’s garment for the man’s--a
sign of manhood which the Romans looked upon as imperative.

Before that bright day had closed, Casca had bidden Clœlia farewell,
and, with a heavy heart, had committed his books and parchments to two
slaves from Antonius’s household, who had arrived for them about noon.

Then he penned a dutiful epistle to his father, which would be
despatched by the next special messenger who might be sent on official
business from Rome to her distant province of Britain, and prepared
himself for his fresh start in the palace of Antonius.

It is very hard for us to realise the events of the fourth century, and
any picture of those times, and of the men and women who took part in
the scenes then enacted, must, at the best, be shadowy. To the eye of
the casual observer, Rome, seated on her seven hills, under the sway of
the Emperor Diocletian, was at the zenith of fame and prosperity.

The throngs in the Forum--the gay crowds in the gardens of Circus
Maximus, the race-course, the arena--all told of wealth and prosperity
and pleasure. But this very love of show and outward grandeur, this
excessive devotion to the indulgence of every selfish desire, was
sapping the foundation of the great empire, and its decline had even
then set in.

Still, out of sight, and hidden from general observation, a kingdom
was growing daily in strength and numbers. Like the grain of mustard
seed, like the little lump of leaven, the Church of the Catacombs was
gathering force and extending its boundary, month by month, year by
year. But if it requires a strong effort of the imagination to call
back the individual life of the men and women who flocked to the
resorts of pleasure and business in the Forum and the Circus, it is
almost more difficult to realise the buried life of Rome at that time,
which, nevertheless, was as a spark to be kindled into a light that
should cast its bright beams over the world, when the splendour of the
great Empire, with all its false brilliancy, should have sunk in gloom
and darkness.

The Christians grew and multiplied, and we are told that thousands
were even now converts in heart, though held back by fear from
confessing Christ openly.

The persecution which was raging fiercely in 304 had, perhaps, the
effect of driving timid ones into obscurity, but it was as a stimulant
to many steadfast souls, who died with a smile of victory on their
faces and a song of rejoicing on their lips.

Anna, the British slave, lived in the Jews’ quarter, with old Ezra,
and faithfully fulfilled her duties as his daughter. The old man was
querulous and exacting; the desire of gain, which had taken him to
the distant pearl-fisheries of Britain, was strong upon him. He found
Anna’s skill with her fingers most useful to him, and she was now
engaged in the embroidery of a quantity of rich velvet with gold and
seed-pearls, which Ezra was to sell to a dealer, for the train of the
Empress, and for which he was to receive a fabulous sum. But it was
the gold, and not the advantages which the gold could bring, which was
precious to Ezra. The Jews’ quarter, hidden under a spur of the Cælian
Hill, was thickly populated, and the low square buildings where they
dwelt were poor and overcrowded. They had one rather larger than the
rest, which was set apart for their synagogue, and here the more devout
worshipped the God of their fathers at the appointed seasons.

The community was not a happy or particularly harmonious one;
jealousies were rife, and Ezra was believed to have amassed riches,
though he lived in a mean way, and professed to be poor. One of the
Jewish women would often come and sit with Anna, while she bent over
her embroidery, and she would talk of the expected deliverer of Israel,
who was soon to come, “As a king, to reign,” she would say. And then
Anna would tell of the King who _had_ come--whose dominion was to
spread from sea to sea, and who was to put all enemies under His feet.

Anna had been well taught by Amphibalus and Agatha, and instructed in
the Scriptures, so that she could tell Rebekah many things of which she
had never heard.

As the spring day waned to its close, Anna’s eyes ached with the
continuous work, till pearls and gold thread looked one confused mass;
she laid aside her frame, and invited Rebekah to accompany her to the
Cæmeteria, as soon as the shadows fell upon the city, and they might
pass unnoticed. Rebekah hesitated a little, but finally agreed to bear
Anna company, stipulating that she might return if she heard anything
spoken against the God of Jacob in the place where Anna said she would
be instructed in her faith.

“Nay, you can hear no word against the God of Jacob, for He is our
God for ever and ever,” Anna answered. “You will hear of his Son the
Deliverer, whom your people, knowing not what they did, nailed to the
cross.”

Rebekah shook her head. “Our Jehovah would never suffer Messiah to
perish like a malefactor, it was contrary to His nature. He is the Lord
God merciful and gracious.”

“But,” Anna quietly added, “He will in no wise spare the guilty.”

“We have sacrifices offered for sins once a year,” was the reply, with
a proud sense of security.

“But this one sacrifice of Christ, once offered, avails for all time
and for all people.”

“Well,” the young Jewess said, “I will accompany you, for it is at
least a diversion. I am weary of pining for my espoused husband Joel.
He has departed hence and I have had no tidings of him for two years,
and I can scarce bear my life shut up in this dull corner of Rome,
while I know in Jerusalem I should have a high place in all the feasts
and joyful meetings of my own people. It was a woeful day for me when
my father Ezekiel came hither.”

Rebekah was a fine Jewish woman, with the strongly-marked features and
raven hair of her race, but her face was hard, and the expression of
her mouth cross and discontented.

“I loathe this place,” she repeated, “and I marvel how any one like you
can abide here. You are bound by no tie to old Ezra.”

“Yes, a strong tie,” Anna said; “by the death of his daughter my life
was saved. I must be as a daughter to him while I live.”

“Well, I would not count such a man as a father,” was Rebekah’s reply.
“When shall we start? the sun has nearly set.”

“As soon as you please,” Anna replied; “I must get ready my long cloak,
and cover my head, and set out the evening meal, and light the lamp in
the outer court, that Ezra may find all ready, and think I am gone to
rest.”

“Then do not tarry,” Rebekah said, “for I am cramped with sitting on
the low cushion, and long for air and sights and sounds pleasanter
than those which greet me here. Hark! there’s the sound of a multitude
shouting, there must be sport in the arena; food for the lions, no
doubt.”



CHAPTER X.

SUNSET.


The sun which had been shining with cloudless brilliancy throughout
the day shed the rich glow of its level beams across the Via Sacra or
Appian way. In the clear transparent atmosphere, every monument and
every stately statue stood out sharply defined against the sky--a sky
of clearest azure, except at the horizon, where lines of violet and
rose-coloured clouds, tinged with gold, floated in saffron depths,
which were shaded into flaming orange below them, and to the tenderest
daffodil as it mingled in opal transparency with the blue canopy above.

The grandeur of a Roman sunset must be seen, and cannot be
described--no pen or brush can paint it; and as Anna gazed at the
glorious pageantry before her, her lips moved as she repeated in a low
voice--

“The street of the city is gold, as it were transparent glass. Surely
the gates of heaven--the heaven of the Christian’s hope--might well be
there.”

Her companion Rebekah was not thinking of the sky, nor of the grandeur
of that road between the tombs along which they passed.

A few horsemen in rich and splendid accoutrements were riding slowly
along, and on the broad footway several groups of people were walking,
and she was far more interested in them.

Presently a cry was heard that the Christians were coming. And then
there was a rush of many feet, and two women bound with cords were seen
hurried along towards the spot where Anna and her Jewish companion
stood.

“They have been captured near the Cæmeterium,” a voice said.

And then there was a sudden hush and pause; the oncoming crowd stood
still, as all eyes were turned in the opposite direction, and a voice
cried--

“The Vestal Maxima!”

“They are saved then,” exclaimed Rebekah; “all prisoners on their way
to execution have a free pardon if they are met by a vestal. And this
is the Vestal Maxima.”

Anna looked earnestly, as if she could never look away, at the stately
figure of Terentia Rufilla and the young disciple at her side,
Hyacintha Severa, as she was called.

The vestals who were in attendance were all dressed in their long
stoles of dazzling whiteness, and they were preceded by a guard of
lictors.

The child, Hyacintha, had in her hands a large quantity of flowers,
which had been gathered from the grounds of one of the spacious palaces
where Terentia Rufilla had been paying a visit.

So high was the esteem in which the priestess of Vesta was held that
the members of the Imperial family could not receive greater homage.
Those who were guarding the prisoners halted, and knelt, and Terentia
asked, in a clear ringing voice--

“Who are the prisoners, and of what rank?”

The chief lictor replied that they were peasant women of no rank or
name, and that they were obstinate followers of the false religion.

Terentia’s beautiful expressive face showed but little sign of pity,
for the Christians were enemies of her goddess, and ought to perish,
and there was in the heart of the Vestal Maxima only a sense of duty
and scarcely of satisfaction as she said--

“It is our pleasure that the captives be set free.”

To the surprise of all around, one of the women exclaimed--

“We desire not freedom; we cannot recant; we believe in Jesus the Lord.”

“To the lions with them--they want sport for the arena,” exclaimed a
voice. “If they do not recant, spare them not.”

“Oh, spare them, spare them!” exclaimed Hyacintha.

“There is no need for entreaty,” said Terentia, haughtily. “Unloose
the cords and let the women free. It is the invariable favour granted
by the priestesses of the goddess Vesta, nor can I remit it, though,
forsooth, I have rarely seen a favour so coldly received. Move on,” she
said.

And then the crowd separated, and the two prisoners’ cords being
loosed they were flung aside, with rough blows and angry exclamations.
And the people poured on towards the Coliseum, where they yet hoped to
find the beasts were not disappointed of their prey.

The two women sank down on the highway, utterly exhausted. They had
been rescued from death, but had hardly power to realise it. Anna put
her arm round one of the women, and said--

“Can I lead you home?” and Rebekah, less gently, had taken her
companion by the shoulder and tried to rouse her.

“Are they gone?” she murmured.

“They are gone where you will follow unless you rouse yourselves. Your
lives have been spared; make haste to flee.”

“Whither shall we flee?” said one poor woman. “We had come in from the
country, footsore and weary, when we were seized. We were resting on
the steps of the monument of Cæcilia Metella, when we were asked if
we had attended the great sacrifice in the temple of Jupiter. Nay, we
said, for we are Christians and worship only the Lord Jesus.”

“I can take you to comparative safety,” Anna said, “if you will come
with me. It will be a refuge for you; you will be taken care of.”

One of the women said, “We are poor peasant women, who have come into
the city to get food. The Lord seemed to point the way, and we knew
there were good Christians in Rome.”

“There are good Christians,” said Anna, “but persecution is raging
amongst them now. Lean on me and we will try to find a safe place.”

“I suppose I must not leave you,” Rebekah said, “but I would we had not
met the poor wretches.”

Then by slow degrees the poor women passed along the sacred way amongst
the great monuments of the past glory of Rome, till they turned in at a
low opening in the wall, and a voice said--

“Who enters?”

“In the name of Christ,” was Anna’s answer.

Then out of the darkness a tiny spark was seen burning. It was the
light of a lamp hung from the roof at the distance of some hundred
yards.

“I am here also,” Casca said, touching Anna’s arm. “I have escaped from
the Coliseum, where I was forced to go with Antonius.”

Anna made no rejoinder, except to put her hand upon the boy and lead
him on. The two poor peasant women and Rebekah followed, and the long
passage ended just where the lamp hung. By its dim light they crossed
to another low doorway, and then guided by another lamp, threaded
their way through several galleries and passages, till they reached an
open space where some fifty people had assembled. This larger space
was pierced through the rock and ground above with several openings,
through which the sky could be seen. Two lamps hung over the slab of
a tomb of one of the faithful departed, and there the vessels for the
Holy Communion were placed.

A young deacon was speaking when Anna and her friends came in, leading
the poor women by the hand. The young deacon ceased speaking, and
inquired the names of the new-comers, and their errand.

“I have brought this youth,” Anna said, “a Roman of noble birth, who is
anxious to know more of the Faith. This young woman is a Jewess, and
these peasants,” she continued, “have just been rescued from the jaws
of death. They were being dragged to the arena, when they were met by
a procession of vestal virgins and released.” Several of the little
assembly rose, and made the new-comers welcome, getting food and drink
for them, in their fainting condition, from one of the openings behind
the tombs.

The Catacombs at Rome are now visited by many--and what pictures rise
out of the past as the long subterranean passages become peopled with
the early Christians, who bore thither their dead, laying them in the
tombs cut out of the rock, and encircling them with all the tender
memories of Him whom they believed to have opened the Kingdom of Heaven
to all believers.

The word Catacomb, is, we are told, modern; but the Greek word,
Cæmeteria, or sleeping place, was the one dear to the Christians, and
always used by them to express their faith in the words--“Them that
sleep in Jesus shall God bring unto Him.”

It was this sleeping in Christ and this glorious awakening, which to
those early Christians, with their simple unwavering faith, was a near
and great reality, of which the preacher spoke that night.

Casca, who had been studying deeply since he came to Rome the words of
poets and philosophers, who had listened with profound attention to the
learned orations from the Rostra, and who had, even before he had left
Verulam, pondered much the mysteries of life and death, now followed
every word with hungry eagerness.

The spirit of unbelief in the old system of the gods was spreading
rapidly.

The Olympus of old Rome was fading into thin air.

Many in the educated and higher ranks of society went through the form
of attending the sacrifices, and offering at the shrines on appointed
festivals, who felt it was but a form.

But here, in the dim seclusion of the Catacombs, there was no formal
acceptance of a creed--the Christian faith was to the faithful an
indwelling reality.

The young deacon who had questioned or catechised the congregation,
and instructed them by the familiar form of question and answer, was
followed by an older man, a priest, who had been consecrated by the
bishop or overseer of that hidden Church in the Catacombs of St.
Calixta.

He, too, noticed and welcomed the strangers whom Anna had brought,
and Casca, the young Roman, in his new and handsome toga virilis,
interested him, and he drew him aside and gave him a roll of
manuscript, promising to supply him with others when he returned these.

It was St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, and from the portion which
tells of the great cloud of witnesses the priest founded a discourse,
or, as we should call it, a sermon. He spoke of the invisible watchers
over that hidden Church; many had been sufferers for Christ, and their
bodies were lying in niches of those long galleries awaiting the call
of their Master, which would be surely heard when He came to claim His
own. He spoke of the dangers which surrounded the living, the torture
and the flame, the terrible ordeal of fire, or the fierce conflict
with the beasts. He described the scene which had been enacted in the
Coliseum that very day, and he bade them all remember that their turn
might come next.

Were they ready? or would they faint and fail in the trial hour?

They could do all things through Christ, who strengthened them, and he
would not allow that one would turn back on the way to win the crown,
though the cross might be exceeding bitter and a sore burden.

Prayers followed, and then the little company were bidden to rest till
the dawn broke. Just before cock-crow the priest called them to awake
and draw near to receive the bread and wine for the refreshing of their
souls in remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ. It was the first time
that Casca or the young Jewess had ever seen that solemn service. It
was familiar to Anna, and her thoughts went back to the forests of
Britain and the Radburn cave, where the holy Amphibalus had broken that
bread and drunk of that cup, when dangers of every kind were near.

It was no new thing to the British slave to feel that the profession of
the Christian faith was the signal of danger. The scenes in the forest,
in the dark dungeon, were still as vivid as ever; but Casca had yet to
count the cost. The Jewish maiden felt herself drawn to this Christ of
whom the priest spoke. The lines round her mouth softened, and tears
gathered on her long dark lashes, like rain-drops, and slowly ran down
her cheeks.

If only she dare believe that this Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah
for whom her people had looked for so long! but surely He, that
long-looked-for King, would come with imperial pomp and greatness; not,
as these his followers said, as the child of a humble mother, to die a
shameful death, such as malefactors died!

Ah! that death of Christ! therein was hidden the _Life_, though she
knew it not as yet, nor could discern it.

The little congregation were to separate at dawn, and Casca was led by
Anna through the long and tortuous galleries to another entrance than
that by which they had come in.

It was scarcely more than a hole in the hill-side, and concealed by
the immense profusion of the rare yellow-berried ivy, which still hangs
upon the Walls of the Appian Way.

When they reached the opening, Anna said--

“We must part here, dear master. I counsel you to conceal the
manuscript carefully, and read it with prayer in secret. We may meet no
more; for you pass now to the grand life of Antonius, and I must remain
in the Jews’ quarter, and you must run into no danger in seeking me
out. But I am often to be found here at dark after sunset, and before
sunrise, and it may be that the desire of my heart may be granted, and
you will seek baptism at the hands of the Father in Christ who spoke
to us this night. Ah! it is morning now; speed on your way.” Then Anna
swept the overhanging branches of ivy over the opening with her hand,
and disappeared, while Casca turned towards the city along the Appian
Way.

The first faint pallor of the dawn was touching the colossal figures on
the tombs, as Casca passed along.

In the dim and shadowy light these monuments of the past seemed even
more majestic than in the broad glare of the noonday sun. The boy’s
heart was filled with a yearning longing after some certainty about the
future life which was almost pain.

All the great warriors who had fallen in battle for their country
covered with glory, whom these monuments commemorated--where had they
gone? That dim region of the dead, whence the old traditions said some
favoured ones had been snatched by the strong arm of the gods, and
returned to those who loved them--where was it? Had it, indeed--as many
thought in Rome--no existence but in the songs of the poet and in the
marble of the sculptor?

If the great multitude of whom nothing remained but their ashes in the
urns which were deposited in the grand monuments were utterly gone; if
the life which had ended on the battle-field, or by their own hand was
over--quite over--how short it was! All hopes and fears, and learning
and culture, at an end. Death! which must then mean nothingness?

But a voice in the boy’s soul told him of immortality; that living
witness within seemed to call on him to believe that the spirit within
him _could not die_. With what certainty had the priest spoken of the
cloud of living witnesses--living, caring for those on earth--_loving_
them still! Surely, if this were true, it was a grander and nobler
thought than the consignment to the depth of Hades, or the utter
passing away and annihilation of which so many orators he had lately
heard declare was the fate of every man! Casca thought of his beautiful
young sister in the temple of Vesta, and remembered all their sweet
converse at home in the Villa of Severus, and on the long and perilous
journey to Rome. But she had gained her heart’s desire, and she was
satisfied. Surely her sweet young face, as he had seen it in the garden
on the Cælian Hill, had a happy and satisfied halo shed over it!

He had never seen her look so happy before. She had left the luxurious
frivolous life behind her, and had entered upon her training for what
was considered the very highest vocation for a Roman maiden. She had
the privileges and honours of a vestal virgin before her--possibly she
might reach the highest office of all, and her father’s rank made this
probable; and then, as Vestal Maxima, Hyacintha would have fulfilled
the most sanguine desires which any one who knew her could cherish.

And yet even that must end. Hyacintha must die and pass away from the
temple; her beauty must fade, her powers fail; death would not spare
the vestal virgin any more than the humblest peasant woman, like those
who had knelt with bowed heads and uplifted hands before the priest,
when he had given thanks for their preservation from the lions.

Yes, death must pass on all men, and Anna, the British slave, had been
very near death; but she looked beyond, to the crowd of invisible
witnesses, to Jesus, who had, so the priest said, “Overcome death, and
opened the gates of the kingdom.”

Casca remembered Ebba in the days that were past--uncertain, trembling,
fearful; but now that she had confessed Christ openly, she had a look
of resolute purpose on her face, and her plain features were often
shining with a light which Casca felt was the light of a steadfast
faith, which no cruel death, no terrible torture, could extinguish.

When the boy reached the villa of Antonius it was broad daylight, and
the outer court was filled with slaves and servants preparing for the
morning meal and the day’s pleasure.

Several young men were returning from the night’s carousal, and jested
with each other on the speed with which the young Casca had assumed all
the privileges of his manhood. They made many allusions which Casca did
not understand, and he passed through the atrium, anxious to find his
way to the rooms which had been appointed for him.

Two attendants or slaves were waiting for him, and prepared to conduct
him to the bath, which, with its rich mosaic pavement, was a necessary
appendage to every Roman villa.

The visit to the public baths came later in the day, for these baths
were the resorts of fashion and pleasure. The two slaves helped Casca
to lay aside his dress, and as the toga slipped off the manuscript roll
fell out.

The elder slave picked it up, and a curious expression flitted over
his face, but he was silent. Indeed, unless permitted to speak, these
household slaves were generally silent in the presence of their
superiors.

All Casca’s possessions of books and rolls and pens and parchments were
placed in a large coffer, and the slave, lifting the lid, dropped the
manuscript into it.

Then the work of the morning proceeded. Casca was conducted to the
bath, and when he had bathed his limbs in the clear water, he was
rubbed with some sweet-scented ointment, and then sprinkled with
perfume.

After this a long linen robe was thrown over him, and he was led back
to his room, where two more slaves awaited him, with richly-chased cups
and flagons, and some delicate dishes for the morning meal.

When he had eaten, the chamber was darkened by the drawing of
violet-coloured curtains over the doors, and then he was left to dream
away the early part of the day, till the time came for resorting to the
public baths or the Coliseum, where there was frequently a hand-to-hand
gladiatorial fight, and wrestling with beasts.

Antonius troubled himself very little about his new inmate; he had
received him in accordance with the wishes of Severus, and he was to
take him to the palace at a convenient season, where he was to hold
some office about the Emperor’s person, when duly qualified.

In this life, marked out for him by his father, Casca would have been
miserable, had it not been for his studies and for the interest which
his visits to the Cæmeteria awakened in him. Little by little the boy
withdrew himself from the scenes of license and indulgence which formed
the atmosphere of the villa. He was, like one who had gone before him,
almost persuaded to be a Christian, and yet he held back. He was afraid
to profess what he did not really feel, and when he heard of many
who recanted at the last moment to avoid the torture or the fire, he
would argue with himself that it was better to be assured of his own
faith before he openly professed what in the hour of trial he might be
tempted to recant.

He was not sure of his own heart. Sometimes he was lost in a maze
of doubt and uncertainty; at others he resigned himself to the calm
philosophy of the schools, which looked down from a high vantage-ground
on the old and young faith alike, and taught that the life of man on
earth, fleeting though it was, was all. No beyond, and therefore, no
anxiety as to the future--no cold shadow of dark fear.

“Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,” was the watchword of
thousands in Rome in those days.

Then there were moments when, after careful study of the manuscript
which had been lent to him, he would be strangely moved, and St. Paul’s
eloquent description of all those _who had died in the faith_ would
fasten upon his imagination. Was not the same spirit of endurance
abroad at that very time? Some two hundred and seventy years had gone
by since St. Paul had made up that grand roll of names of those who
esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than any treasure, and
there was the same tale of suffering being told for the faith of which
these men and women were the valiant defenders. They had received the
promise, which promise reached beyond death to the life eternal. “If
only,” Casca thought, “he could know that it was true, would he not
have strength given him to confess Christ openly.” Then the natural
disposition of the boy asserted itself, and he would turn back to the
philosophy of the schools, and try to rest upon the hope rather than
the belief that there was no beyond.

Like many since that time, Casca could not surrender his heart, and,
lost in the mists of human reasoning, he could not become a little
child that he might be wise.

Casca’s natural sweetness of disposition won him friends in that large
and pleasure-seeking household, and the taunts and scoffs that he had
at first to endure, for his pure living and dislike of over-indulgence
and luxury, ceased. It was universally allowed that Casca, the son of
Severus, must be left to go on his own way undisturbed, and as he never
offended any one, it was by common consent conceded that no one should
offend him.



CHAPTER XI.

JUNE, 313--THE FESTIVAL OF VESTA.


Years passed swiftly by, in the fourth century as in the nineteenth!

They brought with them as they came many changes, they bore away with
them many hopes, and left behind the memory of many sorrows, and the
soft radiance of many vanished joys!

The persecution of the Christians had in great measure ceased, and,
with the abdication of Diocletian, the edicts for their arrest and
slaughter had been revoked.

It was comparatively a time of peace, and the conflict between the old
and the new faiths seemed for a season at rest.

Constantius Chlorus had put a stop to the persecution of the Christians
in Britain in the year after Alban had suffered, and now, in the year
313, Constantine was Emperor, and well known to favour the religion of
Christ.

But if the old faiths were shaken to their very foundations, every
effort was made to put on an appearance of increased enthusiasm at
public ceremonials, and to load the altars of the gods and goddesses
with the choicest offerings and the most costly sacrifices.

The great festival in honour of Vesta was to be celebrated this year
with excessive pomp and circumstance. The preparations were organised
on a very large scale, and enormous offerings were continually pouring
in to the vestals’ house and the temple, some time before the great
day, which fell on the ninth of June.

The Vestal Maxima, Terentia Rufilla, was overwhelmed with all the
arrangements which devolved upon her, and on the evening of the seventh
of June was lying on a couch in her own chamber, weary and sad. A
tall and most beautiful maiden was standing at a marble slab or table
covered with evergreens and flowers, which she was weaving into wreaths
and emblems with her long slender fingers.

“Come and rest, Hyacintha,” Terentia said; “come and sit near me, I
have much to say. To-morrow is the day of your first ministration in
the temple, and you will henceforth be a priestess, fully qualified
for the service of the goddess. Surely, never had the goddess a more
beautiful and more true-hearted servant.”

“Dearest lady,” Hyacintha said, “I feel but little worthy to take the
honour upon me; but my heart rejoices to have the longing of years
fulfilled.”

“And thou hast no sad misgivings, dear child--no longings for the
ordinary lot of woman to trouble thee; the home of the matron, the
prattle of children’s voices, the maternal joy and pride which we
vestals can never know.”

Hyacintha’s pure untroubled face was raised to that of her friend as
she answered--

“Nay, I have no such longings; I am contented, nay, thankful, to be
free from all those cares which harass the life of many a woman.”

“Thou art very young yet, dear child, though by special permission thy
ten years’ probation has been shortened. Although in the tenth year of
thy discipleship, it was not till the time of Pomona that first thou
camest hither. How my heart went out to thee then, dear child, and how
much we have been to each other since!”

“Yes,” Hyacintha said, “I have known great happiness with thee, and my
great ambition is, perhaps, too great to tell even to thy ear. It is a
high aim indeed.”

Terentia smiled sadly as she laid her hand upon the beautiful rings of
clustering gold which shadowed Hyacintha’s brow.

“Thy ambition,” she repeated. “Thy high aim--what is it?”

“I was wandering last evening in the atrium,” Hyacintha said, “and
gazing, as I have done since I was quite a child, at the figures of the
past Vestals which stand there. I have often spoken to them. I feel
almost as if I knew them all and their histories, as you have told
them. I do know Flavia Publicia who has all the praises, and I cannot
wonder, so gracious, so beautiful is her face. But I love almost best
the face of Vibidia, who, as you have told me, so generously protected
poor Messalina. That is a grand deed of any one to be remembered--it is
so beautiful, dearest lady, to protect the weak.”

“Is that thy ambition, then, my sweet one?”

“Yes, that is part of my ambition; but the _whole_ is to be a Vestal
Maxima. Oh! do not think me foolish, dearest lady, but I should love to
have my statue carved in marble, and stand for ever in our noble hall,
and for those who pass to read my name, ‘Hyacintha Severa.’ Is it too
much to think of?”

“Dear child!” Terentia said, “when I called you to rest by me, the
thought was in my mind which you have put into words.

“To-morrow, as you know, you will take up your full duties in the
temple. The sculptor is to unveil my likeness in the pure marble in
which it was wrought. It will not be placed with my noble predecessors
till I resign my high office or die while holding it. Then it will be
placed in either case in the atrium, and my name will be followed by
whatsoever it may please the priest and the emperor to inscribe on
the pedestal. But I shall leave on record that it is my will that you
should be elected in my room, and that day may not be far off.”

Hyacintha’s eyes sought those of Terentia anxiously. The joy of her
announcement was tempered with sorrow.

“You must not leave us yet,” she said; “you must not speak of it. And
I am young and untried, and I fear----”

“What dost thou fear, dear child?”

“That many would consider others should take place before me.”

“The future is hidden,” said Terentia. “I may live for years, instead
of months; we will not speak more of this now. Hast thou any longing
beside?”

“Nay; except to hear of those I best love: Casca my brother, and my
faithful Ebba.”

“They are both converts to the Christian faith.”

“Yes,” Hyacintha said, “and they have had peaceful times at Alexandria,
whither they went with old Ezra. I have been hoping for news from
Britain to reach me on this occasion of my full profession in the
temple, but none has come.”

“Thy father is now in the highest office in Verulam, and perchance may
send a special messenger. He knows well that our festival is on the 9th
of June, and it is possible some word may be sent.”

“Dearest lady,” Hyacintha said, “does not all life seem like a
dream?--everything passing, nothing staying. While we say ‘This is
beautiful,’ it is gone; while we exult, the cause of exultation is
over; while we weep, the grief or the vexation is vanishing. Did you
ever feel as I do--as if I could not lay hold of, or grasp anything?”

“Have I not felt it? Ah! child, a thousand times! But, sure, you have
no grief to make you weep.”

“Nay, not grief,” Hyacintha said; “not deep heart-grief, but vexations
that arise in a large community like ours; and sometimes if I try to
stem a torrent of gossip and bitterness the shafts turn on me, from the
young disciple, child though she be, Cœlia, in particular. Not often,”
she said, smiling, “not often, but sometimes. And now that I shall have
to instruct those beneath me I feel there will be more trial.”

“I do not think you will fail, dear one,” Terentia said; “you have had
great success hitherto.”

“When I look back on the records of the priestesses,” Hyacintha said,
“I can but feel that there must be something stronger and more potent
than mere will which keeps us so secure. In all the long thousand years
that have passed since we were first entrusted with the sacred fire,
and Numa built us our first temple, to preserve the palladium of Troy,
so few have failed to fulfil their vow. Surely this is a proof that
what we profess is the true faith. When I first came hither, and Lucia
told me of the punishment which befel the vestals who broke their vow,
I dreamed of it, and used to fancy myself thrust into that dungeon to
starve--so fearful it is to think of--and yet”----Hyacintha paused.

“Tell me what is in thy heart, my daughter; do not be afraid.”

“And yet,” Hyacintha continued, “the disciples of the new faith would
cheerfully be shut into a dungeon and starved rather than deny the Man
of Nazareth whom they worship. It must be a reality to them, though a
false mirage to us. Is it not so?”

Terentia Rufilla was silent. The young maiden, standing at the eve of
her full profession as a priestess of the goddess Vesta, had only given
words to thoughts which seemed to crave for expression within her own
heart.

It must often have been so. The multitude, who knew nothing beyond the
old faith, and who were content with the outside show and splendid
pageantry that marked a festival like that to be celebrated the next
day but one, in honour of Vesta, might be content. But not the earnest,
cultivated, highborn woman like Terentia Rufilla, who had read much,
and thought much, and had put aside as beneath her consideration the
story of the Cross of Christ.

Now that the Church of the Catacombs had been able to lift her head,
and openly practise the rites and celebrate the worship of the religion
of Christ, it was impossible that women like Terentia should fail to
consider what was forced upon their attention. For the vestals did not
lead a secluded life--the seniors amongst them were well acquainted
with what passed in Rome, and it was impossible for them to be ignorant
of the rapid advances which Christianity was making. It was all very
well for the careless and idle to ignore the fact, and deny that the
old temple was in danger, and the old ceremonies growing effete and
languishing. To the thoughtful observer, the base and mean, the low and
contemptible religion, was growing apace, and its branches were casting
their shadows on every side.

“Yes,” Terentia said, “at least the delusion is apparently no delusion
in the eyes of the poor misguided ones who follow it. As a child may
try to reach the horizon line which meets the wide-spread Campagna, the
sky seeming to touch the earth, and the child believes it does touch
it, and runs fast and faster, and lies down at last exhausted, after a
fruitless chase. Let us say no more of the Christians now, Hyacintha,
but tell me if thy robe is ready for the morrow, and thy two-eared
pitcher prepared for the first mission thou hast to perform?”

“Yes, dearest lady. I am to go alone to the fountain unattended, and
bring the fresh water to the goddess’s shrine.”

“The lictor must attend thee to the gate of the garden, and await thy
return. Then follows the choice of a new disciple. They become less and
less numerous every year. I can recall the time when twice twenty young
children were waiting to be chosen, and how those who were rejected
were often sent away weeping. For the last two years the number has
been small, and the noble houses have sent but few aspirants. I
remember when thou first camest, dear child, a little wayworn maiden
clinging to the hand of Clœlia, who brought thee to the atrium,
timidly, and uncertain of thy reception. The daughter of Severus needed
no introduction to me in any case, but how gladly I welcomed thee, my
fair and lovely one!”

Hyacintha pressed her lips upon the hand which was wound round her
neck, and then the two were silent--that silence of perfect sympathy
and affection which is so sweet, sweeter far than any words.

The shadows deepened in the house of the vestals early in the evening
of the glorious June day. Even at noontide the light in the atrium and
state apartments was dim, for the Palatine cliff was behind them, and
the wall really supported the road above it. The Imperial palace rose
to the height of a hundred and fifty feet in the air; and it is not
surprising that sunshine, even at midsummer, only touched the upper
floor, and left the vast area below chill and dim with a mysterious
light.

Damp must have been an enemy to the health of the vestals; but the
recent discoveries have brought to light some curious devices by which
the enemy was combated.

Double walls have been unearthed, and double floors, with skilfully
diverted currents of hot air which flowed through the interstices, must
have in some measure warmed and dried the atmosphere.

Hyacintha could hardly sleep, when at last she retired for the night.
She feared so much that she should not be awake at dawn, that she
begged Lucia to call her at the first cock-crow. But long before the
old vestal had thought of going to her chamber to rouse her, Hyacintha
was up and ready to start.

She was conducted by a lictor to the gate of the garden, where we saw
her as a child, and went with the swift light foot of a young fawn
to the spring on the Cælian Hill. She carried the two-eared vase or
jug gracefully poised on her head, and she was leaning against the
rock whence the spring flowed, the very type of youthful beauty and
radiant health. The dim shadows of the vestals’ house had left her
untouched; no damp had been enough to steal the rose-colour from her
cheeks, nor the lustre from her beautiful eyes. She was indeed a vision
of loveliness, and the tall athletic soldier who, scaling the hill,
came all unawares upon her, as Ebba had done years before, might be
forgiven, if, with a sudden start, he drew back, and exclaimed--

“The goddess herself, methinks!” He was about to bend the knee before
Hyacintha, when he suddenly drew himself erect, and contenting himself
with taking off his heavy helmet, he stood, with bowed head, transfixed.

Hyacintha’s cheeks grew crimson, her lips parted as if to speak, but
no sound came. The long years which lay between her and the home of
her childhood seemed bridged over. Memories of all that had passed in
the little upper chamber at Verulam came thronging back, words spoken
there, a promise made, all flashed upon her, and then with a voice that
was like sound of silvery music, she said--

“Claudius! it is indeed Claudius!”

“Even so, fair and beautiful lady,” the soldier said. “I am Claudius,
and had I not renounced the worship of the false gods, I should lie
prostrate at your feet, and do you sacrifice.”

“Nay, do not speak like that, good Claudius,” Hyacintha said. “I pray
you, let me hear if you bring me news from Verulam.”

“I have seen much foreign service since I left Verulam,” Claudius said;
“I have led a battalion against the northern tribes. I have won my way,
and I am now in Rome the commander of a legion of fine troops. Where is
Casca?”

“Alas! he left Rome some years ago. He is, or was, when last I had
tidings of him, at Alexandria, whither he accompanied Ezra and the
faithful Ebba. My brother and Ebba are both Christians. Alas, that I
should say it!”

“I well know that Ebba is a Christian,” Claudius said; “you have heard
that I fulfilled my vow to you, and saved the British slave’s life?”

“Ah, yes! ah, yes! good Claudius, I thank you. Ebba has told me of the
noble deed, and Casca, too, has spoken of you. But I have seen neither
of them for years. I thank you now for your deed of valour, good
Claudius.”

As she stood in the light of the early morning, Claudius could not have
drawn nearer or taken her hand in his. An invisible but strong barrier
seemed to keep him back.

“My father,” she asked, “is there news of him? I know my mother is
dead, and the little Livia also. These tidings were brought me by
Caius, whose galley has been several times to Londinium since those
far-off days, when he brought us hither, Casca and me.”

“Your father, the noble Severus, has married my sister Junia. Has he
never told you?”

“No,” Hyacintha said, the blush on her cheek fading. “No, I hear it now
for the first time. I would I had never heard it; forgive me, for Junia
is your sister.”

“There is no need to claim forgiveness. I think as hardly of my sister
as any one, but I pray daily for her conversion, and I will believe not
in vain, for the Lord can change the heart and bring sweetness out of
bitterness.”

“Art thou too a Christian?” Hyacintha asked, with an almost
imperceptible start backwards.

“A Christian,” Claudius said, “ay, verily, and I would to God you were
one also.”

“I,” said Hyacintha, proudly. “Nay, this day is my happy day, the day
when I, who have been for near ten years training under the care of the
sacred virgins, have my lot appointed me to minister in the temple and
sprinkle the shrine with this pure water, which I have been allowed to
draw myself alone at dawn for the first time. To-morrow is our glad
festival, and we shall walk through the city in a long procession, and
to-night I shall for the first time keep watch alone in the temple. It
is a great and wonderful thing to be a vestal! I would not exchange my
lot for an Imperial diadem,” she said, with a proud dignified motion of
her head. “I would I were more worthy to fulfil so high a destiny.”

Claudius, who had led a Roman phalanx against hordes of barbarians,
and had never feared danger or shrunk from death, felt strangely timid
in the presence of this beautiful friend of his early years.

He had kept her image before him, as the winning, lovely child, so full
of earnestness of purpose, so gentle and tender to the slaves in her
mother’s household, so full of sympathy with their pain and trouble, so
devoted in her service of affection to her delicate and weakly brother.
Claudius had preserved her image as a child, and loved her; now she was
standing before him in the full beauty of her womanhood, and he felt
his love was nearly worship. He was a Christian now. He had been won to
embrace the faith by the example of a few who professed Christianity
amongst Constantine’s army. Claudius had been with the Emperor’s force,
when he went to repress an incursion of the Franks, one of the hardy
Northern tribes on the banks of the Rhine. It was just at the time when
the treacherous Maximian had taken advantage of Constantine’s absence
to seize all the treasure at Arles, and dispensing it amongst the
soldiers who were stationed in Southern Gaul, hoped to establish his
authority by gifts and bribes. But before that was done Constantine had
returned with extraordinary quickness, and Claudius had been with his
army when he arrived at the gates of Arles with a force which it was
impossible to resist, and which scarcely gave him time to take refuge
in the nearest city of Marseilles.

Claudius had indeed seen much active service since he had gone out
with Valens to pursue the little band of Christians in the forest
near Radburn, and many a time the cries and tears of that innocent and
inoffensive little band seemed to sound in his ears and reproach him.

“I think,” he said, “the first time I ever felt that the religion of
Christ must be a reality was when I saw that brave woman Agatha quietly
submit to receive the dead Jewish girl in the dark dungeon, and, faint
and exhausted, as it proved, even to death, make no murmur at the
lonely vigil with the dead to which I left her. I would not speak to
you here,” Claudius continued, “of my deeds of prowess. Those scenes
in which I have taken part are no theme for your ear, most beautiful
Hyacintha, but I would fain tell you, that face to face with death a
hundred times, I have felt the power of God within me was mighty to
save.

“In the last great fight at Saxa Rubra, where we came unawares upon the
army of Maxentius, I fought side by side with the friend who has so
deeply influenced me. He was a Christian indeed, and though he defended
himself valiantly, he indulged in no barbaric cruelty, such as we
soldiers have often witnessed, and--I say it with shame--indulged in.”

“The story of that battle is well known amongst us,” Hyacintha said.
“We have been rid of the tyrant Maxentius, and Rome may have rest.”

“There can be but little rest,” said Claudius. “I, for one, am weary
of the clang of arms and fighting. Methinks I shall resign my high
post, and try to find Casca in the far-off city where you say he is
gone. The roar of the vanquished ones as they rushed to meet their fate
in the swift-flowing Tiber sounds in my ear many a time and oft, and I
would fain lay down my arms. I have had a glut of battles, and could
almost take up Casca’s cry of--‘Anything but bloodshed.’ I am a rough
fellow, I know, but Christianity can tame the roughest, and subdue the
most ferocious nature. It would lift _you_,” he continued, in a voice
faltering from deep emotion, “to the very height of the angelic host.”

A smile broke over Hyacintha’s face.

“Good Claudius,” she said; “I am in no need of exaltation, neither of
humiliation. For when I think of all the great privileges which lie
before me to-day--of the lonely watch before the altar of Vesta, and of
the part which I shall take to-morrow in the great festival, I feel,
methinks, as if my heart swelled with proud thankfulness.

“The time is come for me,” she continued, “to return, for the sun is
getting high above the horizon.

“Ah!” she said, stretching out her arms to the lovely view before her.
“How beautiful the city is! how grand! how like a queen! and surely
I am highly favoured to be allowed to minister at the sacred altar,
and keep alive the purifying flame which shall ensure the safety of
thousands in Rome.”

“Little do you dream in your seclusion of all the wickedness that
seethes like a turbid fountain whose waters cast up mire and dirt in
Rome!” Claudius exclaimed. “It may be well that you, in your purity
and innocence, should know but little--nay, nothing--of all that lies
below the surface--greed, and lust, and murder, all those things which
are the signs and token, or, rather, the fruits of the flesh.”

“Do not tell me more,” Hyacintha said. “I cannot amend what is wrong.
I am content to believe, as those higher and nobler than I am have
believed for a thousand years.”

“Are you indeed content to believe?” Claudius asked sadly. “I know that
if I were to draw a picture of all, that after only a short residence,
_I_ see in Rome, you would not be content. The wife and daughter of
Diocletian have been foully murdered. Think you not that the blood of
the Christian matrons and maidens who fell under the ban of the Emperor
did not cry for vengeance, and that the cry was answered by their
destruction?”

“The innocent suffering for the guilty? Nay,” said Hyacintha, with a
light laugh; “if the God whom you worship decrees such judgment, He is
not worthy of love.”

“And yet,” said Claudius, “and yet in the sufferings of Christ, the
pure, the undefiled, for the sinner, rests our safety.”

“Nay! not your safety,” exclaimed Hyacintha; “or why did Christ leave
so many to perish, torn by wild beasts, stoned, and tortured?”

“I am no scholar,” Claudius said. “I am not like Casca, learned in
argument and reasoning, but there is in me a witness to the truth
of what I say. The innocent suffered for the guilty, and there is
salvation in that suffering for all who believe; and I _know_ in whom I
believe!”

Hyacintha was silent. Claudius had always seemed to her in her childish
days a brave and athletic youth, when feats of arms and success in the
games had so often brought her father’s angry and contemptuous taunts
on the head of her brother Casca.

Many a time had she heard him declare that Claudius ought to have been
his son, and that the weakly Casca was scarcely better than a girl.
Hyacintha had often shrunk from Claudius’s roughness, his boisterous
laugh, his loud ringing voice as he rallied Casca on his depression.
Now she could but tell herself there was a change. The face, bronzed
by exposure, and scarred in two places by a sword-cut, was benign and
gentle in its expression. The voice that came from under that mass of
reddish hair was subdued and even musical. Claudius was changed--what
had brought about that change? She was, I think, unconscious that
as she stood there--the most winning and beautiful picture of
womanhood--that she filled Claudius’s strong and noble heart with
longing to possess her--to take her from this false faith, to bring her
to the foot of the Cross, that she might live in the true light that
lighteth every man.

Hyacintha’s was one of those pure and noble natures to whom service is
a necessity, and who can know no selfish and ignoble aims.

There was never a little disciple in distress about a torn garment
or a neglected lesson but she came to Hyacintha for help. There was
not wanting the mean spirit of jealousies amongst the vestals; bitter
tongues were often in motion; rivalries, and anxieties for the best
places at the games, and for notice from those in power were rife; the
choicest viands at the table were eagerly sought; and the weariness and
lassitude which are born of the service which is not heart-service,
and therefore becomes drudgery, continually produced ill-temper, which
is so often the outcome of discontent. It was rare, indeed, to find
Hyacintha cross or angry; she bore and forbare, and won her way through
all the trials of her surroundings with a wonderful patience.

Her relationship to Terentia Rufilla, and the close friendship which
existed between them, excited, as was only probable, the envy of many
of her companions. But ill-will could not flourish near her. The bright
serenity of her nature triumphed over every obstacle, and, like the
sun, dispersed the clouds around her, as day by day she rose higher in
the estimation of those with whom she shared the daily routine of the
Vestals’ House.

That these noble characters were by no means uncommon in the days
of which I write is beyond a question. They shine out amongst the
records of those times like stars in the firmament, and many women like
Hyacintha Severa have, when converted to the faith of Christ, shown
that they were true as steel and steadfast as a rock, and glad to
suffer and to die for the name of Christ.

The fountain rippled, and the falling of the water made a low,
monotonous murmur; the sun rising above the hills turned every dew-drop
into a diamond, and lay upon the turf, which was jewelled with flowers
in golden bands.

Hyacintha stood lost in meditation, Claudius watching her.

He drew a step nearer, and she started, as if from a happy dream; then
he spoke in low, earnest tones.

“Hyacintha, would that I could think you knew in whom you believe.
Sweet friend, I will pray for you, and my prayers--rough and untaught
soldier as I am--ascending continually, will be heard. I would not
hurt a hair of your head,” he continued, earnestly. “I would not even
bring the shadow of a cloud over you. I know that you have vowed to
give up all loves of earth, and that the vow you have taken is the vow
for life. Were you other than what you are, I might tell you of the
love I bear you--a love which has kept me in the thickest onslaught of
temptation! As you keep the sacred fire on the altar, so have I kept
this love for you in my heart.

“It will burn there till I die, and after death it will still live
on.... Nay,” he said, as he saw the swift blush mantle Hyacintha’s
cheek--“nay, I would not awaken in you one troubled thought. I shall
never possess you, but the love I bear you is deathless. I seem to see
in the future a land more beautiful than mortal eye has ever looked
upon, and there something tells me I shall find you, my beautiful one,
in garments whiter even than that you now wear, and bought for you by
the Innocent who suffered for the guilty.”

Claudius, like many another man who has loved as a pure, good man only
can love, seemed carried into eloquence by the force of the feeling
within him.

He knelt for a moment at Hyacintha’s feet, took her hand and kissed it,
and the next moment he was gone.

The awakening had come for the Vestal on the very eve of her full
admission to the duties she had so longed for: that awakening comes to
most of us; and there was never a true and good woman who could lightly
esteem the devotion of a noble-hearted man.

Hyacintha stood leaning against the rock whence the fountain flowed;
for a few moments her heart beat fast, and her eyes were dim with
unbidden tears, as she thought over all that Claudius had said.

He was, indeed, in earnest; truth was written on his fine face; and
truth rang out in the tones of his voice.

For a few minutes a vague longing possessed her--a longing which could
hardly be clothed in words. Then she smiled as she said, softly--

“Good Claudius! Brave, noble Claudius! May he find all the happiness he
craves for me!”

The two-eared vase was raised by her unfaltering hand, so that not one
crystal drop was spilled as she bore it on her stately head, and went
down to the gate where the lictors had awaited her coming patiently,
wondering much at her long delay.



CHAPTER XII.

VANISHING.


Throughout that day of preparation for the festival, the new priestess
was continually thinking of her interview with Claudius on the
Cælian Hill. Not even the new dignities which were conferred on her
could entirely banish from her mind the words and bearing of the old
companion of her childish days in Britain.

It was a grand thing to sprinkle with her own hands the sacred shrine
and Palladium, to be consecrated solemnly by the priest for all the
functions of her office, as she had once been dedicated as a child to
be trained to fulfil them.

The beautiful new garments of spotless purity were solemnly placed upon
her, and when the ceremony was over, and she had rested for a time,
Terentia Rufilla led her to her place behind the altar, and gave into
her charge the sacred fire, which was to be replenished continually
during the silent hours of the night.

Then, with a kiss, the Vestal Maxima departed, the temple door was
closed, and Hyacintha was alone.

Through the opening in the roof the deep blue sky of the Italian night
was seen, studded with stars, and from afar came the sound of the
surging multitudes of Rome, like the distant roar of the sea, growing
less and less distinct as the summer night hushed even the busy throngs
of the Roman citizens to rest.

Hyacintha felt a sense of awe, but not of fear. She looked up at the
face of the figure of the goddess, and then beyond it, upwards to the
stars, and she felt as far from the one as from the other.

There was no bond of love between Vesta and her priestess, no sign that
for her she felt any particular care or affection.

It was a high honour to be her priestess; from her childhood she had
craved for it, and now the honour was hers, and yet, surely, there was
a void, a want somewhere, which Vesta could not fill.

It was service for Rome to guard that sacred fire, and as she moved
gently, with a sort of hushed reverence, to the silver vessels where
the fuel was kept, to replenish that clear bright flame, she almost
started at her own movements, and scarcely dared to breathe, as she
gently and reverently fed the sacred fire.

“It is for the good of Rome and her people,” she thought, “it is a
service which many thousands might envy, but there is scarce the
response within my heart of which Claudius spoke; did he not call
it ‘a witness.’ I felt a great glow of joy to-day when I took poor
little Pulcheria to my chamber, and consoled her for her grief that
she was not thought fair enough to lead the procession of the children
disciples through Rome to-morrow. Poor little one! how she wept
because Valeria had been elected and she was rejected. As she threw
her arms round my neck and sobbed out that she loved to be with me,
and that she would not care about Valeria’s unkind words if I were her
friend, I felt that sweetness at my heart which I do not feel here.
Here, where I am fulfilling the most beautiful of offices--the guardian
of the Palladium--the replenishing of the sacred flame!

“I ought to be satisfied and happy, with a happiness greater than that
of the pleasure-seeking ladies, whose life is passed in indulgence, and
who die at last, worn out with the search for that, to judge by many
sad faces, they never find.

“I have a higher and nobler destiny to fulfil, and I can never become
like old Lucia or Agrippina, who go through all the service of the
temple with slow unwilling feet, dark sad eyes, and even mutter words
of dissatisfaction.

“Nor can I ever grow into the nearly worn out victim of pleasure,
still less the sorrowful, heavy-hearted priestess, whose service has
lost its charm. Nay, for the twenty years I may spend here my life
shall at least be happier than that of my poor mother, who died, as
some have said, by poison, administered by a slave whom she had hated.
Yet, how beautiful she was in the atrium at Verulam, with Ebba--dear
Ebba--standing at her side. I can see her now, toying with her lovely
hair, when Ebba had plaited into the tresses the gold ornaments and
arranged the long violet ribbons with their gold fringe. Poor Ebba, and
dear Casca! Shall I ever see them again?”

This desultory train of thought flowed on during the watches of the
short night. For the summer morning of the ninth of June soon broke
over the hills, and touched the Forum and the Temple, and the façades
of the Imperial Palace, and the long vista of stately figures on the
Appian Way, with a soft rosy light. The day of the great festival
dawned in exquisite beauty, and everyone within the precincts of the
Temple and the House of the Vestals was astir.

But the great festival did not attract so much attention as in former
years. Even in the early days of her own priesthood, Terentia Rufilla
remembered how far more numerous were the applications from noble
houses for a place in the procession through the streets of Rome.
Nevertheless, the effect was sufficiently imposing, as the long line
flowed past the spectators, with all the garlands and crowns fluttering
gently in the summer air.

The children came first--sweet grave-eyed little maidens--with
offerings in their hands for the altar of Jupiter Pistor, which was
erected expressly for the occasion. Then came the fully-consecrated
vestals, barefooted, in their flowing robes, which became them so well.

Conspicuous amongst these was Hyacintha Severa. She carried the folds
of her large purple mantle with wonderful grace over her arm, and her
long white robe flowing beneath it to her feet, showed the outline of
her beautifully-proportioned figure to the greatest advantage.

The close covering on her head, which was to some women far from
becoming, seemed only to enhance the beauty of her slender throat,
upon which her head was set like a flower upon a stalk. Long ribbons
floated at the back, and added to the effect of the picture, of which
the recent discoveries of the figures in the Vestals’ House, which the
sculptors of those days delighted to perpetuate in marble, have given
us some faint idea. But no sculptor or painter could perpetuate the
grave happiness which was shed, like the soft halo of a summer night
upon a lovely landscape, over the face of Hyacintha Severa.

As the last fully-consecrated Vestal, she walked a little in front of
the five who followed her, and then came the noble and stately form of
Terentia Rufilla. She had lost, of course, all the charms of youth, but
her features were finely cut, and her carriage stately and imposing.
There were many gorgeously-dressed Roman ladies behind her, whose
splendid crimson and violet robes, glistening with jewels and sparkling
with pearls, contrasted well with the long train of white-robed maidens
which wound slowly on before them through crowds of spectators, the
lictors clearing the road which was in many places strewn with flowers
as they walked.

Claudius was amongst the outside crowd which moved along with the
procession. His high rank as Commander of the Forces under the Emperor
Constantine ensured him respect, and he and a few of his officers
who were with him, drew up in martial array before the temple, as the
Vestals passed in to the great sacrifice.

Some of his officers crossed the threshold and stood gazing at the high
ceremonial with curiosity, prostrating themselves in that mechanical
way which characterised the religious services of the temple in those
the last days of the worship of the heathen gods.

Claudius’s great height placed him on a vantage-ground, and he could
see over the heads of the dense crowd before him. He had never once
lost sight of Hyacintha, but she was utterly unconscious of his
presence. All the enthusiasm of her nature was awakened by this public
acknowledgment of the service to which she had devoted her life.

As the priest in his gorgeous vestments sacrificed before the goddess,
and the clouds of smoke rose and ascended to the sky through the
impluvium or open space in the roof, Hyacintha’s heart went up to
One whom she “ignorantly worshipped;” and if the desire of her soul
could have been put into words, it would have been that she might
be kept pure in her temple ministry, and that the fire of devotion
might be ever burning clear and bright in her heart, as she had vowed
to keep the sacred flame burning on the altar of Vesta. While many
of her companions were looking around them, to see what friends and
acquaintances were in the crowd, Hyacintha was lifted far above the
throng of worshippers, and gazers on the spectacle, and thought
only of the joy of service, and the happiness of being at last a
fully-consecrated priestess, one of a long line which reached back a
thousand years, and reached forward, as she believed, to a future age.

The young priestess that day entering upon her office had no
presentiment of what was indeed the fact, that the years of the Vestals
were numbered, and that Terentia Rufilla was to have but two successors
as Vestal Maxima, and that one of these was herself. Terentia, however,
knew that many new influences were at work, which were undermining the
old traditions or scattering them to the winds of heaven. The fear at
her heart was as great as the joy which filled Hyacintha’s, and she
could scarcely assume a cheerful aspect at the banquet, to which many
of the highest families in Rome were bidden.

The whole day was one of feasting, and games were celebrated, and the
Vestals were present in the Circus Maximus, where seats were, as in the
Coliseum, always reserved for them near those allotted to the Emperor.

It was there that Hyacintha first seemed to be conscious of Claudius’s
presence, and when he saluted her with profound respect, she turned to
Terentia, and said:--

“This is good Claudius, my father’s friend,” and Terentia was not
slow to notice how the soft blush rose to Hyacintha’s cheek, as she
pronounced the few words of introduction.

So the day wore on in feasting and pleasure, and then the shadows of
the evening came down upon the city. Hyacintha, who was sleeping after
the fatigue of the day, was awakened by Terentia’s voice:--

“It is drawing near the hour for thy watch, dear child,” she said;
“shall I watch to-night, and let thee dream? I have been looking at thy
sleeping face for some minutes,” she said, gently smoothing back the
golden-brown rings of short hair which clustered round Hyacintha’s brow.

“Happy dreams they must surely have been, for there was a smile upon
thy lips.”

“Yes,” Hyacintha said, “I had a vision, I think. Wait till I recall
it,” and she drew her hand across her eyes, and pressed it on her
forehead. “I remember,” she said,--“yes, I remember now. I thought I
was looking down on Rome from a high place--not the Cælian Hill or the
Quirinal--it was a hill far higher. Indeed, I saw them beneath me, and
I saw the temples beneath me, and our temple most distinctly of all.
Then, as I looked, it vanished. It was not thrown down or destroyed;
it melted into air slowly--very slowly; but soon it was gone: and then
I looked around me, and lo! all the temples were fading, and a voice
spoke to me, and it was the voice of a humble but true friend--Ebba, or
Anna, the British slave. She, too, was changed. She wore garments like
ours, only whiter and more dazzling, and she held out her hand to me,
and asked me to go up with her to the city to which she pointed. But
when I looked I could see only a golden glory, and nothing distinctly.
My eyes were dazzled, and I turned away. Then Ebba drew me on and told
me to listen, for there was sweet music. But my ears were dull; I could
not hear what she heard. Then she took me in her arms, and I laid my
head upon her breast, as I have often done when I was a child; and she
said:--

“‘Not yet--not yet; but you are coming out of the darkness into the
light.’ And a sweet peace stole over me, and I felt a cool hand on my
brow; and then I awoke, and it was not Ebba at all, but you, dearest
lady--sweet mother--as I love to call you. It was a happy dream; and it
is a happy awakening.”

“It was a vision,” Terentia said, “for I do believe the temples are
vanishing, and soon only the memory will be left. I say soon; it may
not be in my life-time or in yours; but the end is coming, and the
time of our nightly watches yonder is short. I hear a rumour to-day
that an edict establishing Christianity will be published to-morrow,
and then the old faiths will be seen like the phantom of your
dream--vanishing--vanishing, and at last vanish away.”

“And what will be the end?” Hyacintha asked; “what will come after?”

“Nay, child; it is not given me to know, nor even dimly guess; but if
there be a future at all, that future is not for us.”

The sorrowful tone of Terentia’s voice seemed like the
minor chord in the music of the young priestess’s soul.
Vanishing--vanishing--vanished! Was everything to vanish?--life and
youth and hope, and the sacred fire, and the Palladium, and the
goddess herself--all to pass away, and leave no trace behind? Well, it
was not for her to question, or cavil, or doubt. The daily service of
the temple--the nightly watch--these were marked out for her--these
were, at any rate, real and tangible. She would perform them zealously
and faithfully, and make each day like a pearl, which should prove ere
long a strong chain, uniting her with the Great Past, and so making
a bond with all her predecessors who had kept their vow and their
womanhood pure and undefiled. With that simplicity which is the outcome
of the highest gifts, with that entire absence of self-consciousness
which invariably marks those whose beauty is far beyond the ordinary
type of fair women, Hyacintha Severa stands forth to command our love
and admiration as a light that shone in a dark place--a star that
trembled on the verge of dawn, the dawn of a holier and purer day,
which was even then breaking over the world.

The festival of the goddess Vesta had scarcely passed when a crowd
assembled in the Forum to hear the proclamation, that henceforth the
Christians were to be allowed freedom to worship their God without
being interfered with; and from that time Christianity might be said to
be established in Rome and the world.

Great were the rejoicings in the Church. The hidden worship of the
Catacombs became now open and to be heard and seen of all men. The
orders of the Christian Church were enlarged, and bishops and priests
and deacons were appointed to minister to the people. The sun had
risen, at last, over the darkness of the heathen world, and in those
early days was as yet but little clouded by the mists of earth, by
those “superstitious vanities” which so grievously eclipsed the glory
of the Church of Rome in succeeding generations.

Now there was purity of life and doctrine, and, like Claudius,
thousands were won over by the example of the converts rather than by
the preaching of the priests.

The witness in every man’s soul who turned to the living God made
itself seen in the life and conversation, and there were dark places
indeed in that year of Christian freedom which made the opening of the
Christian life more beautiful by force of contrast.

In this very year--313--the most shameful life of Maximian, and his
treatment of the unhappy Valeria, the widow of Galerius, had made even
the luxurious Roman shudder with horror. The story of the foul murders
at Nicomedia reached Rome, and filled many hearts with sorrow. If the
religion of Christ showed the way of escape from such wicked passions
and low base deeds, there was safety in it.

And then, on the lower ground of personal security, many professed
themselves to be Christians; many who had not troubled themselves
to inquire into the doctrines of Christ’s disciples, saw that they
practised purity of life and manners, and now that there was no
persecution or torture to dread, Christianity became more widely
accepted, and the churches were thronged, while the temples were
deserted.

It is not possible to take a comprehensive view of the Roman empire
at this time. The few incidents which are thrown together, directly
or indirectly, affect the action of the story, but a careful study of
these early days of Christianity, and the last days of heathenism, will
well repay the student; and the secret of silent advance and growth
of the faith of Christ will be found to be then, as now, more in the
influence of individual character than in fierce controversy or angry
invective.

The Church of Rome, as it sprang to light when the edict of 313 was
published, was indeed different from the Church, many centuries later,
when the Monk of Erfurt entered the city by the Porta del Popoli, full
of enthusiasm, and ready to climb the “Scala Santa” on his knees in
expiation of his sins.

He entered it a devout son of the Church of the Seven Hills; he left
it depressed, disgusted, but determined to do battle, like the valiant
soul that he was, against its corrupt practices. In ten years the young
monk who had saluted the city on his first entrance as Holy Rome, Rome
venerable with the blood of the martyrs, burned the Pope’s Bull in the
square of Wittenberg, and with a loud voice, which echoed through
Christendom, proclaimed that the Church of the Early Martyrs was so
overlaid by the wickedness of a corrupt age, that she must be utterly
purged of defilement, before she could be resorted to as the mother
under whose wings the people might safely take refuge.



CHAPTER XIII.

A.D. 333--ALEXANDRIA.


Again many years have passed away, and Casca, the son of Severus, is
leaning back in his old languid fashion on a couch placed near a window
commanding one of the loveliest views upon which the eyes of man have
ever rested.

The house was near that magnificent Museum of Alexandria, which,
with its famous library, was famous beyond all fame of later times,
a fitting treasure-house for its precious manuscripts, and raising a
grand white roof against a sky whence rain seldom fell, and turning its
noble frontage of pillars and fresco toward the sapphire plain of the
tideless Mediterranean.

There were no signs of undue luxury about Casca. The furniture of his
room was simple, and yet suggestive of grace and elegance. Large piles
of manuscripts lay on shelves, ranged on one side of the room, and
in another were the toys of a child, heaped up in confusion, as they
had evidently been left by some little tired fingers that were weary
of play. The room where Casca sat was divided by a portière from an
inner chamber, and a murmur might be heard from it of a woman’s voice,
singing in low monotonous tones.

Below the wide open window there was borne on the soft warm air
the sound of chariot wheels passing in the street; the cry of the
charioteer, the voice of the newsman, and now and then the low growl,
which told that the menagerie was near at hand. The sound which was
“the electric touch” that the Poet speaks of, awoke memories in Casca’s
heart of that day, so many years before, when the roar of the wild
beasts which were to tear the Christians to pieces, floated to his ear
as he passed by the Forum to the schools at Rome. He remembered the
horror he had always felt at such sounds, and how once when Antonius
had insisted on his accompanying him to a great fight with the beasts,
he had fainted away, and on recovery had heard the mocking laugh of
some of his companions, and the scornful words of Antonius:--

“Bear him hence; he has not the courage of an infant of days.”

How dreamlike it all seemed now--the fate of his patron Antonius, his
flight, disgraced and dishonoured, from his princely villa; the return
for a time to the house of Clœlia; and then the sudden resolve to cast
in his lot with the old Jew Ezra, and some of his people, who were
bound for Alexandria, learning that trade in precious stones and gold
was making the fortune of some of the Jewish race, who were forming a
large colony there.

His father, Severus, cared little what became of him, and after his
mother’s death and his second marriage with Junia he had heard but
rarely of him.

When he first came to Alexandria, he had to live partly by the office
of scribe, but by degrees his scholarship attracted attention, and his
quickness in deciphering old manuscripts, and his acquaintance with
many languages, for which he had a natural gift, was in his favour.
Casca Severus was now held in honour amongst the literary world of
Alexandria, holding a post in the magnificent library as custodian and
secretary, which had raised him to a position of competence if not
affluence.

Some years before this time, Casca had married the daughter of a Greek
merchant, a beautiful gentle girl, who though less of a companion to
her learned husband than a joy for her beauty and goodness, was most
dear to him. After some years of waiting a little daughter was given
to them, and from the moment of her birth the mother drooped and faded
before Casca’s eyes.

Old Ezra’s death happened about this time, and Anna, the Saxon Ebba,
returned to serve Casca, and to take charge of his motherless child.
The Greek name of Hyacintha, which had been given to Casca’s sister,
was now passed on to his little daughter, and the name was as a sound
of music in Anna’s ears.

The dreaming over the past in which Casca indulged that morning was
broken in upon by the sound of footsteps, and one of his servants drew
aside the curtain from the doorway, and admitted a tall soldier-like
man with grizzled beard, and a face bronzed with exposure, who advanced
towards him with outstretched hands, pronouncing his name--

“Casca!”

“Claudius, is it possible!” was the almost instant reply, and then the
two men looked at each other with that curious inquiring gaze with
which we scan the features of those whom we have known in youth, and
meet in later years.

Time had dealt very gently with the scholar and philosopher. Casca’s
high brow, from which the hair had retreated, was smooth and but
gently marked by lines. His hands, which had wielded the pen to so
much purpose, were white and slender, and his robe fell around him in
graceful folds.

As he and Claudius stood, with their right hands clasped together
and their left resting on each other’s shoulders, they made a fine
contrasted picture of the scholar and the soldier.

Claudius was tall and stalwart, his skin bronzed with exposure to the
sun, several scars of sabre cuts on his brow and cheek, and many deep
wrinkles on his brow, still shadowed by thick masses of tawny hair
which, like his beard, were lined with silver.

“Yes,” Claudius said, “we meet after many years.”

“Do you come from Rome?” Casca asked, “or from Verulam?”

“From Rome,” and Claudius sighed. “From Rome, and I bear you tidings of
your sister, now the Vestal Maxima.”

“Hyacintha!” exclaimed Casca, “she is always dear to my heart, but her
life is on the mountain top, and we poor folk are on a lower level.”

Claudius shook his head.

“The mountain top is but a barren waste to her, I fear. She has much
trouble, and her elevation is dearly bought.”

“Sit down and tell me all,” Casca said. “Ah! good Claudius, it is like
a draught of new wine to see you. Strange that when you entered I was
going over the past--the little chamber at Verulam, Hyacintha sitting
by my side, and your loud ringing voice bidding me meet life as a man,
and not as a coward. Brave advice, whether for the scholar or soldier,
eh, good Claudius?”

“Yes; but methinks, Casca, it is you who must now cheer me, for my
heart is heavy within me, and I scarce dare to look forward or to look
within. You speak of those far-off days. Do you think I have forgotten
them? Nay, they are written on my heart. I would that I were a careless
fellow again, wrestling in the games at Verulam, and contented because
I knew of no life greater than the soldier’s. I am a Christian, it is
true, and ought to rejoice; but, somehow, there is no rejoicing left in
me.”

“I pray you, good Claudius,” Casca said, “do not speak thus. I, too,
have had my sorrows. I have lost my fair young wife, Ianthe, and no
grief can be greater than mine was; but I can rejoice yet in the powers
God has given me, and I live for Him and for our child.”

“Ah! then, Casca, yours is not a desolate, lonely life like mine. I
think, it is true, of the life beyond, and I crave for it with wearying
longing; but the beloved of my soul, your sister Hyacintha, is in
bitter trouble, and I, who would die for her, cannot move, or stretch
forth a finger, to help her.”

And now, just as Casca was about to ask Claudius to tell him
everything, the sound of little naked feet pattering on the floor was
heard, and the curtain which separated Casca’s room from the inner
chamber shook, and from the division in the middle peeped out a little
sunny face, rosy with sleep, with eyes yet dim from dreams, and coral
lips drooping at the corners, as she caught sight of a strange man in
earnest conversation with her father. Casca rose and held out his arms,
and then there was a sudden rush and a pair of clinging arms wound
round his neck, as Cynthia buried her golden head on his shoulder and
said:--

“Send away that big old man.”

“Nay, nay, my Cynthia, that is not the courtesy I would fain teach
thee,” said another voice; and turning, Claudius saw an elderly woman,
plainly dressed in a loose woollen garment, girt around the waist by a
broad belt, and wearing on her head a close cap, which concealed her
hair.

“Nay, my Cynthia,” she repeated--and then Claudius laid his hand on her
arm.

“Do you not know me, Ebba?”

The great tide of memory swept over poor Anna; danger, torture, the
dungeon, and the death she had so dreaded, seemed to cover her again
with a great mantle of fear. Her knees trembled, and she would have
fallen forward had not Claudius’s strong arms prevented it.

“Poor Ebba!” Claudius said, “do you think you are in the dungeons
again?”

“Oh! pardon me, my noble Claudius! You know I was ever but a coward,
and now that I see you, my deliverer from death, I have no words to
thank you.”

“I need no words, good Ebba. I have lived long enough now to know that
there are worse sorrows than death, which must pass on all men, to be
borne. The Lord, who is now my Master as well as yours, sent me to save
your life for a good purpose, I will not doubt.”

“And you, too, are a Christian, thanks be to God!” Anna exclaimed
fervently. “See there, my Cynthia, here is the great Claudius who, at
the request of thy beautiful Aunt Hyacintha, my once dear mistress,
took me out of a dark dungeon, and saved my life. Say ‘Good Claudius!’”

The child, who had raised her wondering face from her father’s
shoulder, now stretched out her arms towards the tall warrior, who had
at first frightened her, and said:--

“Good Claudius!” touching his cheeks with her hand.

“And can you tell me aught of my dear mistress, the lady Hyacintha?”
Anna asked.

“Yes; I have a tale to tell, but it is a sad tale.”

“Take Cynthia in your arms, and sit down, Anna,” said her master. “You,
of all others, ought to hear the tale, be it sad or joyful.”

“Yes,” Claudius said, “there is no reason why you should be in
ignorance of what is in my heart. Nay, I doubt not you know it already,
and that it will, as regards myself, scarcely be news. From my rough
boyish days at Verulam I have loved your dear mistress, and I must love
her always. Though never to be mine in this lower world, I may claim
her yet when all earthly taint of sin has passed away.

“Since the death of Terentia Rufilla, the life of your gracious and
beautiful sister has been full of trial, noble Casca. Bitter jealousy
and envy of her acquirements have been rife in the community. Fair
without these white-robed Vestals may appear, but they not all are fair
within.

“By the voice of the majority, and by the dying desire expressed again
and again by the late Vestal Maxima, Terentia Rufilla, Hyacintha Severa
was elected to succeed her. There was none so fitted as she was; her
rank, as the daughter of a noble house, so high; her accomplishments
and graces of mind and body so rare. But there never was a creature
like her who did not provoke jealousy and ill-will in some minds. Evil
tongues have set afloat rumours concerning her, which, though at first
none heeded, have been like fertile seed cast here and there, and at
last taking root.

“It is not possible for me to see her. Some of the evil rumours say
that she has desired to renounce her vow, and, becoming a Christian,
be free to marry. Were I to present myself at the Vestals’ atrium
it might fasten the charge of aspiring to her on me, and add to her
trouble. Her rule, as those who know it well declare, has been marked
by its wonderful wisdom. The young disciples well-nigh worship her, the
priests consult her on every matter connected with the sacred rites.
The one who works the mischief is the daughter of a princely house, who
desires the highest office.

“Finding all other accusations fail, she now insinuates that the Vestal
Maxima is a Christian in disguise, and that she merits the death of the
faithless virgin.”

“Oh! may God forbid,” exclaimed Anna--“oh! may the Lord protect my
mistress.”

“I think,” Claudius continued, “that they will be saved the trouble of
condemning her. The last time I saw her leading the procession along
the Sacred Way, she looked so wan and ill, and she leaned so heavily on
the shoulder of one of the young priestesses, and the expression of her
beautiful eyes as she turned them upon me was so mournful that----”

Claudius stopped; emotion checked him.

“Is there aught that I can do,” Casca asked, starting up; “aught to
relieve the burden which lies upon my sister! Tell me, Claudius, is
there a way to help her?”

“It was to beg you to start for Rome for her solace and comfort that I
journeyed hither,” Claudius said.

“I will start willingly,” Casca exclaimed, “and take Anna and my little
one with me. Surely the touch of her sweet kisses, the sound of her
merry laughter, will do much to console my sister! Yes; we will return
together, good Claudius. Shall it be next month?”

“Nay, next month may be too late; the journey is long; set forth
without delay, or it may be too late--too late,” he repeated.

“I will give orders to that effect. You have a band of your own people
here?”

“Yes, my galley is manned with a brave band, and lies in the Port to be
ready at any moment. My ship is fitted with all things needful for her
voyage, and it remains for you to give the word for starting from this
fair city, the fairest that men’s eyes ever beheld.”

“Anna, are you ready?”

“Ready at my master’s word,” Anna said; “but the child, the sweet
child, is it safe for her?”

“As safe as man can make it; the voyage in this fair weather ought to
be a pleasurable one; there are no hardships to fear, good Anna! and
I mistake me if any sea robbers will dare attack the ships manned by
soldiers who have seen service under their commander in many a battle
in the far north, with those rough Northmen who seem to be ever closing
round the southern folk in increasing numbers and with added strength.
Give but the word, Casca, and we will start ere the sun sets.”

“Nay, a week hence,” was Casca’s reply. “I have to deliver a lecture
to-morrow in the south hall of the museum. I am pledged to expound a
hard passage of a Greek Poet on the day but one after--I----”

“You have much to do truly,” said Claudius, impatiently. “Of such
labours of the brain I know nought; but this, I say, I believe your
sister hungers for a sight of you, and yearns to clasp your hand in
hers. She cannot speak of her faith, which has slowly risen like the
sun upon her soul, and dispersed the darkness. She may and does love
those around her as her children, but she cannot talk openly with them,
lest haply they should be condemned and punished with a punishment even
more severe than that which might fall on her. But delay your departure
if you will--it is not for a rough soldier like me to enter into the
reasons which a subtle and learned scholar may have for remaining here.
I know what a true heart means, and I have a strong sword-arm to prove
it, but as to the brain of you philosophers and poets, I know nothing
of it, having, as you will say, but a small share thereof myself.”

“Nay, now, good Claudius, do not misjudge me; do not be angry. We will
be ready in the next week; meantime let us renew our close friendship,
and let me show you the treasures of the past and of the present,
contained within the walls of yonder stately pile of buildings, which
is the museum of the world!”

Claudius’s temporary vexation passed away, and the two friends found
themselves knit together by a hundred subtle ties in the far-off past
of their early life.

Claudius listened with surprise to Casca, as he detailed all the
varied phases of thought through which he and many hundreds of men had
passed in Alexandria. Casca was a Christian--that is to say he had
been baptised, and if questioned as to his faith, he would have given
a direct answer that he believed in the true God and his Son Jesus
Christ. But there could be no doubt that the learning of the schools
had the greatest charm for him, and if he studied the manuscripts of
the Gospels, it was more in a critical than a faithful spirit.

He considered the writing of St. Luke’s Gospel so perfect that he
gloried in its study, and he showed Claudius a beautiful copy inscribed
by his own hand, with notes on the margin, for which he told him he had
won high praise and distinction.

The old heathen worship, he said, was dying, and the temples were more
and more deserted day by day. But Casca had not embraced the faith of
Christ with the simplicity of a child; it was rather the acceptance of
a finer theory than any he had yet discerned.

That witness within himself, of which Claudius had spoken to Hyacintha
long before, was wanting; and lost in the mazes of thought, and
yielding to the delight of learning, Casca had missed the humble
faith in a personal Saviour, which had taught the brave Claudius
self-restraint and self-forgetfulness, and made him, the valiant hero
of a hundred fights, humble in his own eyes.

Casca showed Claudius the leading features of interest in Alexandria,
and the bustle and activity of the representatives of many nations
filled the Roman soldier with wonder; for at this time Alexandria, the
greatest sea-port in the world, was crowded with buyers and sellers,
and rich merchant princes from all quarters.

Through the great Moon Gate there was a perpetual stream of camels, and
elephants, and humble asses, all laden with merchandise.

Jews were there, with keen eager eyes; Greeks, with their graceful easy
carriage and soft musical tongue; Romans, too, and representatives of
the great Northern tribes, of which Claudius had spoken.

Rome, the city on the seven hills, had filled the dreams of his boyhood
in Britain; it had been to him as a queen amongst cities in his later
years, but Alexandria was like a vision.

The ranges of buildings were so vast, and the unbroken line presented
a _coup d’œil_ of magnificence scarcely if ever rivalled. Claudius
gazed around him, and but imperfectly heard or understood Casca’s
descriptions and explanations. He was dazzled and bewildered, and he
could only reply to Casca in monosyllables, which were scarcely less
irritating to Casca than silence.

The friends who greeted Casca looked inquiringly at Claudius, and he
felt he had no part or lot in Alexandria; her beauty was a dead letter
to him, and all her treasures of art and literature sealed books. While
Casca lectured in the museum or attended the orations of philosophers,
Claudius found his chief delight centred in little Cynthia. She brought
back the old, old days when the other Hyacintha was the child, and he,
a rough untaught boy, felt always softened and subdued by her presence.

He loved to take the Cynthia of the present on his knees, and while she
toyed with his rough beard, and the ornaments on his military coat,
he would listen to her babyish prattle, which was made up of various
languages, and find in her society far more consolation than in the
declamations of the orators and poets in the lecture-rooms of the
museum.

Anna was much engaged with her preparations for departure, and leaving
all things in Casca’s household in good order. She would look in on
the great soldier sometimes and smile, and bid the child not be too
troublesome, or the good Claudius would weary of her.

Anna had taught the little Cynthia the Gospel story, and Claudius found
that the Lord, who was his acknowledged Master, was a very real Being
to Casca’s little daughter. With the unquestioning faith of the little
child, Cynthia needed no other assurance than “Anna says so,” and
Claudius loved to hear her tell of the birth of the Lord Jesus, and of
the little babes who were killed for His sake.

Cynthia was scarcely more than four years old, but she had inherited
her father’s gifts and her mother’s Greek grace and delicacy, so that
she was wonderfully forward for her age. She would draw with a pointed
stick, dipped in her father’s horn, upon the spare sheets of parchment
which lay about, and she could already form letters, though her great
idea was to “draw pictures.”

Claudius would tell her of her aunt, the Vestal Maxima, at Rome, and
that they were going over the blue sea to see her and comfort her.

“I know,” Cynthia said, one day; “I know you loved that lady, and
took Anna out of a dark hole because you promised. She was shut there
because she loved Jesus the Lord. Do you know Him? Father never says
‘love;’ he says ‘worship.’ I don’t know what that means!”

No; little Cynthia knew only of love, nor had her childish heart
grasped as yet the great reality that love--perfect love--is the
highest form of worship. For love must serve, and service is adoration,
and so the circle is complete, and love must be in all service and in
all worship, and both are valueless without it.

The day for departure came at last, and the finely-equipped galley in
which Claudius had sailed from Rome turned her helm towards the mouth
of the great canal at Alexandria, and with sails set, and oars keeping
precise time and rhythm, went over the Lake Mareotis, and thence out
into the blue waters of the tideless sea. The yellow sand-hills of the
desert shone like burnished gold in the evening light; the multitude
of sails stood up against the carmine sky which melted above the line
of the horizon into the tenderest rose-colour, and again into the
palest colour of the calyx of the daffodil, till it was lost in the
over-arched blue of the summer night.

Stars studded that canopy like eyes of watching love, and Claudius,
seated with his little friend, pressed close in his strong arms, felt
his whole soul filled with the love of Him who is the Redeemer of the
world, and of _him_--wayworn and weary Claudius.

Casca strained his eyes over the lines of a closely-written manuscript
till the light faded, and then Anna carried away little Cynthia, to the
bed prepared for her, where the murmur of the waves against the sides
of the ship soon lulled her to sleep.



CHAPTER XIV.

THE CROSS.


The atrium of the Vestals was full of life, and even merriment, one
bright morning of late summer, in this same year of 333. The want of
sunshine which was so much felt in the winter, was a gain now that the
fierce glare of August lay upon the streets of the city, and beat upon
the images of the gods and façades of the temples like a furnace.

The Vestals were chatting gaily with each other about the grand chariot
race for which they had seats allotted to them. But two were standing
a little apart before a statue which had been placed recently by the
side of Flavia Mamilia, who was the most famous of the order, and whose
statues are multiplied and the descriptions of her graces and gifts
repeated again and again.

“They have placed her in good company,” a tall, commanding-looking
Vestal said, with a little ring of irony in her voice; “how long will
she remain there, and what will be the story of her virtues inscribed
below, I marvel! A long one, doubtless--they will never get it all into
the space allowed.”

The younger Vestal, a maiden of some twenty summers, who had lately
entered upon her fully-consecrated duties, replied:--

“The face is not nearly beautiful enough for our lady Maxima. Ah me!
how soon this stone resemblance will be all that is left us; she is
passing away from us, I know.”

“There are some that say the sooner the better; nay, Hermione, do not
start back as if I were saying some dreadful thing. I repeat, the
sooner the better, for your gracious Hyacintha Severa is acting a part,
and the treachery will be discovered unless death prevents it.”

“Treachery! nay,” said Hermione with youthful fervour; “nay, our lady
is as far removed from treachery as are the heavens from the earth.”

“Poor child!” was the provoking rejoinder, “such faith as yours must be
sweet if it were not misplaced. I can give you a warning, that certain
books have been discovered in the possession of Hyacintha Severa which
would, in stricter times, have brought the masons hither to prepare one
of those little chambers, whence no one who entered ever came forth
alive. It would have been inevitable, but now a loose and careless
government has altered things somewhat.”

“I cannot hear you speak thus, Cœlia, I cannot. You hate our noble and
beautiful lady because she is so far, far above you, because--”

“Tush! now, silly little Hermione, I warn you again, be careful, or who
knows if a little chamber may not be ready for you, and then there will
be a Vestal less, and the stones which will prevent your exit will tell
no tales.”

Hermione was preparing to hurl forth an angry invective, when a hand
was laid on her shoulder:--

“Hermione! nay, do not heed idle threats, but help me to ascend the
staircase; I am expected at the council of the priests at noon. I
have a statement to make to them which may please you to hear, Cœlia
Concordia. You will soon know what that statement is, and may it ease
your heart of the burden of rancour and unkindness which you cherish
towards me. It must needs be a burden, and I would fain, for your
own sake, that you laid it down. My poor statue shall not offend you
longer; orders shall be given to place it near the porta, the lowest
instead of the highest place.”

She spoke slowly and with difficulty, for her breath was short, and a
little dry gasping cough interrupted her again and again.

“You speak in riddles, most gracious lady,” Cœlia replied; “I admire
the excellence of your statue, and give the sculptor the highest meed
of praise for the manner in which it is wrought. Flavia Mamilia is
happy to have your near neighbourhood. I must hasten, as the elder of
the company who resort to the Circus Maximus, to collect my maidens. A
chariot race is a grand thing to witness, but there are many who find
it tame sport in comparison to that of former times, when Christians
were thrown, as they deserved, to the lions.”

A strong emphasis was laid on the word _Christians_, and a glance of
hatred from the Vestal’s dark eyes, directed at Hyacintha, told its own
story, as she made the usual obeisance to the Vestal Maxima, and went
to the farther end of the atrium.

Hyacintha stood for a few moments leaning heavily on Hermione’s arm,
and gazing at the marble resemblance of herself.

A faint smile passed over her face, and she said in a low voice:--

“They will soon forget me, little Hermione, but you will ever love me.”

“Oh, dear lady, we all love you, all but that proud and haughty Cœlia.”

“She will succeed me, as Vestal Maxima,” Hyacintha said; “win her by
submission, and do not irritate her by rebellion. Now let us go.”

She turned for a moment and gazed at the noble hall with its forest
of Corinthian columns, and watched the white-robed Vestals following
Cœlia to the porta on their way to the Circus. Memories of her first
appearance at that door, clinging to Clœlia’s hand, swept over her--the
child of nearly twelve years old, now the woman of mature age!

“Thirty years ago,” she whispered, “thirty years ago! Ah, little
Hermione, I shall soon enter the city where _time_ is not--no counting
of years there. Come, let us begin to mount the staircase, slowly, for
I have but little breath in me.”

In a state room in the upper part of the Vestals’ house the High
Priest sat in solemn conclave with his subordinates, and those who
might be called the Council of the order of Vesta.

It was the custom of the Vestal Maxima to demand an audience, when she
had any especial business to transact, or any dereliction in duty on
the part of the Vestals to report.

Hyacintha had given notice of her coming, and when she reached the
upper corridor which ran round the atrium, with pillars corresponding
to those below, she found a guard of honour waiting to escort her into
the presence of the High Priest.

It was usual for the Vestal Maxima to be attended by two of the elder
Vestals on these occasions, but many had gone to the Circus, and only
Hermione was with her.

To the surprise of the guards, and of Hermione herself, the Vestal
Maxima said:--

“I enter alone.” Then the curtain was raised, and Hyacintha Severa
passed in.

Great respect was always paid to the Vestal Maxima, and the assembled
priests and those at the table with them rose, while Hyacintha was
conducted to a chair, into which she sank apparently exhausted. When
she had recovered herself, she asked permission to address the High
Priest from the chair, as her health had failed, and she could hardly
make herself intelligible if she had to encounter the fatigue of
standing while she spoke.

First she drew from the folds of her pallium a parchment on which was
inscribed, by her own hand, all the financial details of the house, and
its present condition. When that had been handed in and laid on the
table, Hyacintha said:--

“I crave permission to resign the office of Vestal Maxima, and I pray
you, most noble father, to consider the election of my successor. I
have but a short space to live, and I would fain spend that time in the
retirement of my own chamber. The thirty years which are supposed to
limit the service of the Vestals are over. I entered the atrium, sent
hither by my late noble father Severus, in the year three hundred and
three. My consecration followed in due course, and then on the death of
Terentia Rufilla, of whose noble house I am a member, I was honoured
by your choice as Vestal Maxima. I have striven to perform my duty of
late in great suffering of body and of mind. I pray, therefore, to be
released therefrom, and that you appoint a worthy successor to all the
duties which have devolved on me.”

There was a murmur of dissent amongst those who sat around, and then
one of the Council, fixing a pair of keen black eyes upon Hyacintha,
said:--

“There may be hidden motives why you, Hyacintha Severa, resign your
office. Nay, there _are_ hidden motives.”

Then the High Priest raised his hand, and said in a tone of command:--

“We must defer this matter for a season, and we will ask you to appear
before us again at a future time. If matters there be that require
investigation, that investigation must be made.”

Hyacintha rose and seemed about to speak, when a deadly paleness
overspread her face, and she slipped from the chair in a deep swoon
upon the floor.

The attendants outside were summoned, and Hyacintha was carried to
her own chamber, Hermione following, where several women who were
her especial servants received her, and she was laid upon her couch,
apparently lifeless. But the usual nostrums and restoratives had the
desired effect, and the Vestal Maxima revived and looked round on them
all with her sweetest smile.

They piled the cushions up behind her on the couch, and Hermione fanned
her with cool palm leaves, and, stooping every now and then, kissed her
on the forehead. If Hyacintha had been radiantly beautiful in youth and
early womanhood, she was beautiful now with a beauty which is not of
this world. Traces of the mental struggle through which she had passed
were seen on her face, it is true; the delicate flush of youth and
health had vanished, but over that noble countenance there was shed the
calm light of the evening--the earnest of a coming rest, the sign of
the victory won.

Hermione was left alone with her before long, and then Hyacintha spoke.

“Dear one,” she said, “I shall watch no more in the temple at night. I
shall feed the fire no more. I am, as Cœlia implies, a Christian. Would
you like to know how it has come to pass, my sweet one? I am stronger
now, and I will tell you all before I die.”

“Oh! sweet lady, dearest mistress!” Hermione said, “you must not die,
you cannot die, to go down to the darksome Hades, to lose the sunlight!”

“Ah, no! ah, no! my child. I go to _life_; death hath no more power to
quench that life which Jesus the Lord has given to me.”

And as if that life of which she spoke had already begun, Hyacintha
raised herself on her cushions and said, with all her old fire and
earnestness:--

“In that silver coffer, child, are the precious Books--the Word of
Life. The holy father Eusebius has from time to time furnished me with
those Books. For many years I _could_ not let the whole beautiful
fabric of my earthly life slip from me. The struggle between the old
faith and the new--rather between the false and the true--has been a
fierce one to me. I have travailed in soul in the temple in the lonely
watches of the night. I have vowed again and again to the goddess that
I would never forsake her. I have gazed up at her image in the dim
light, and besought her, if she knew me, if she accepted my service, to
give me a sign. But there she has stood, with her veil flowing behind
her, in her long robes, motionless and calm. What were my tears to her?
What were my agonies of soul? She had never felt them. She had ears,
but she heard not; she had eyes, but she saw not. And yet, oh Hermione,
I verily believe no torture of martyrdom could be compared to what I
have suffered for the last six years.

“While Terentia Rufilla lived, I had not this yearning of soul
after better things. I was not the head then, only a member of this
community, and if she, noble and gracious as she was, was content, who
was I, to doubt?

“Once, on the Cælian Hill, on the very morning of my full consecration,
I learned that it was sweet to be loved. My woman’s heart told me that
this was the woman’s highest heritage--to be the beloved of a brave,
good man. In a vision, as with a lightning flash, I seemed to see a
fair landscape stretched out before me, where there was the song of
rejoicing and the happiness which comes of a mutual love. Then a cloud
swept over it, blotting it from my sight, and I was on a mountain
top, so high above others--a Vestal Virgin, devoted to the service of
the goddess; high above others--yes, high--but how cold! how lonely!
Rumours of the wickedness of the city reached me--foul deeds, which
made me blush for the women who took part in them. Emperors and great
ones fell; Christians were not exempt from the love of change; there
were dissensions amongst them; there were envies, and hatreds, and
heartburnings amongst their leaders.

“The Jew hated and cursed the Christian, and yet they both believed
in the true God. Was it not better to be safe in these walls, guarded
from danger, than to go forth into the city, whose cry, under the name
of pleasure, was often a bitter cry, than to confess Christ, and leave
the shadow of the cloisters, the safety of the Temple? If I confessed
Christ, I reasoned, and came forth, how would the finger of scorn have
been pointed at me? how would the unworthiest of motives have been laid
at my door? And then, the cruel death had I been recaptured, the death
which is the slowest of all deaths to die. I might have escaped, for a
word was enough to him of whom I speak, but the motive was mixed, and
of the earth: and I trampled down the longing and went on my way. Dost
thou remember how, when a little child, they brought thee weeping to
Terentia? I held out my arms to thee, and thou didst nestle in them.
Ah! dear one, do not weep. Thy love has been my solace many a time.”
For Hermione had flung herself on her knees by Hyacintha’s couch, and
was weeping wildly and passionately.

She soothed her as a mother soothes a child, and then she said, with a
weary sigh:--

“It has been a long fight, and a bitter struggle, but it is over
now, and the Lord Jesus has shown me Himself, the Crucified One
on the Cross, and that by the Cross alone we may win our Crown. I
have committed to my memory, which has ever been a good one, large
portions of the Gospels in the soft Greek tongue, and the words have
been as honey and the honey-comb. The good father Eusebius baptised
me yestere’en in the name of the Lord, and nothing now remains but
to commit my soul to Him who died for me, and for thee, also, sweet
Hermione, and for the whole world.”

She was silent for a time, and Hermione thought she slept, but
presently she said:--

“My brother Casca, Claudius, good, faithful Ebba, I shall see them
soon! Hermione, in a few short years this temple will be deserted, the
company of Vestals will be broken up, for the Sun has risen far above
the horizon, and He has called the nations into His marvellous light.”

Then she wandered on, no longer of the present, but of the past. The
cruel death of Alban, which was prominent in her childish dreams, the
departure of Ebba, the vow Claudius had sworn. “Good Claudius,” she
repeated, “good Claudius; and he kept that vow. Ah! yes; good, brave
Claudius!”

Hermione and her devoted servants watched over her that night, and her
strength rapidly declined.

There was almost universal sorrow shown when it became known that the
Vestal Maxima was dying.

All the great Roman families sent representatives to the Vestals’ House
to inquire as to her condition.

The young children, the lately-received disciples, were in tears; the
newly-consecrated Vestals went sorrowfully about their work, striving
to perform their duties for the sake of her, who would never again give
them the benefit of her counsel and advice.

The whole community passed in one by one to bid her a farewell.

She smiled on them as they knelt by her side, and murmured words which
were hardly intelligible.

Cœlia Concordia came last.

She dreaded the interview, and would fain have avoided it; but
Hyacintha asked for her again and again.

Proudly and haughtily she stood by the couch of the dying Vestal. Her
dark eyes looked down on the beautiful face before her, without a
shadow of tenderness or sympathy in them.

Hyacintha smiled, and said to Hermione:--

“Tell her to stoop down; I want to say something to her.”

Cœlia obeyed, unwillingly enough, and to her surprise she caught the
words:--

“May the God whom I love in Christ fill you with peace. With my last
breath I pray Him for your conversion.”

But the proud Vestal, wrapt in the impenetrable mantle of her own
self-assertion and self-exaltation, did not respond. She turned away,
whispering to herself:--

“It is true, then, she _is_ a Christian!”

Nevertheless, so greatly was Hyacintha Severa honoured, that the
Council, who met the day after she had appeared before them, handed
over to the sculptor the inscription for the pedestal on which her
statue stood, with its high praise of her virtues and her services.

She had failed in no duty; nothing but good was spoken of her by any
of her companions, with two exceptions, of whom Cœlia Concordia was
one, and the priest who had hinted at hidden motives, that might have
brought about the resignation of the Vestal Maxima, another.

A resolution was carried by a majority in the Council that it was not
needful to enter into these motives. Besides, at the close of thirty
years’ devotion to the service of the temple, by an old statute, the
priestesses were free to depart if so they desired. Very few lived to
avail themselves of the freedom which was thus granted to them. And
those who did survive had become so accustomed to the routine of the
Vestals’ House that they showed no anxiety to leave its shelter in
their declining years.

The privileges, too, of the Vestals were very highly prized, and of
late years their table had been luxuriously appointed, and their life
had been one of ease and refinement, so that the change to a more
ordinary manner of living would have been far from acceptable to many
who had severed the ties of earlier years, and who would have found
themselves adrift in the great city, outside the walls of the Vestals’
House.



CHAPTER XV.

THE CROWN OF LIGHT.


It was the dawn of the third day when Hermione was awoke from a light
slumber by Hyacintha’s voice.

“The watch is nearly over,” she said; “the day is near. I have been in
the temple all night; how came I hither?”

“Nay, dearest lady,” Hermione said; “you have been sleeping on your
couch, and I have watched----”

“I thought I had been in the temple, and I saw there my brother and
Ebba, and myself a little child again. There was a sudden great light,
and it shone on them--and Claudius, good Claudius!”

Hermione thought she was wandering a little, and beckoned to one of the
attendants to bring her a reviving draught.

The Vestal Maxima smiled, saying, “I saw them, and I followed them up
a golden stair to the place where the stars were shining. Casca was
reading from a book the words of Socrates: ‘The soul is most certainly
immortal, and cannot perish; it will exist in the unseen world, taking
nothing with it but the discipline it has gained here.’ I know the
words well, and I cannot be mistaken. They were spoken by my brother’s
voice--Casca’s voice. Whether it were a vision I know not, or a reality
I cannot tell, but there is in me a certainty that Casca is near.”

It not unfrequently happens that the spiritual perceptions of those
who are nearing the unseen world are quickened. However that may be,
Hermione was startled a few hours later by a hasty summons to the
atrium, where she was told some strangers were inquiring for the Vestal
Maxima.

A pale ethereal looking man, in a long scholar’s robe, was holding
a lovely child of five or six years old by the hand, around whom an
admiring group of white-robed Vestals clustered.

Behind stood a plainly-dressed, elderly woman, and a man in the full
accoutrements of a Roman officer by her side.

Hermione recognised the officer. She had seen him often, for whenever
the Vestals were in public, that tall stalwart figure was always
hovering near; and once or twice in the early part of this year
Hyacintha had referred to him as a friend of her childhood’s days in
Verulam.

Claudius had, indeed, watched her from a distance, never offending her
by approaching her, loving her with that purest of all loves, the love
which can sacrifice everything for the one beloved.

Claudius had noted the gradual decay of Hyacintha’s strength, and
reading her aright, he had, as we know, hastened to Alexandria, to
bring, if possible, the brother whom she had so dearly loved to her
side.

Casca now approached Hermione.

“I am Casca Severus,” he said, “the brother of the Vestal Maxima,
Hyacintha Severa. Can I see her?”

“She lies at the point of death,” Hermione answered, with a short quick
sob. “She is leaving us--and, ah! whither is she going?”

Casca did not reply, but little Cynthia, looking up at the Vestal with
her clear wondering eyes, said:--

“She is going to God. Anna says that dead people are only gone to God.”

Hermione stooped, and raising the child in her arms, motioned to Casca
to follow her. Anna’s wistful face seemed to ask that she might also
come, but Claudius turned away, and going to the porta, stood leaning
against the stone columns which supported it, where the lictors in
charge of the Vestals for that morning, coming and going, also stood
with quiet unmoved faces, as if carved in marble like the statues
behind them.

Presently a man, with an attendant, who bore a basket of sharp tools,
came up. They passed Claudius, and he saw them go towards a statue.

Then the workman’s sharp-pointed tools were examined, and a scroll of
parchment laid out on the ground.

With easy grace the sculptor threw himself down at the feet of the
statue, and began to carve the inscription. Claudius watched him like
one in a dream. There was no need to tell him who that noble and
majestic statue represented. He turned and went a few steps further
into the interior of the atrium, and saw the sharp point of the tool in
the skilful hands of the sculptor, carving the words.

They were words of praise, which have, after centuries of obscurity,
been lately brought to light. Every stroke of the chisel, every turn
of the well-skilled wrist, was watched by the brave soldier, who stood
leaning against one of the beautiful pillars.

“Ob meritum castitatis pudicitiæ atque in sacris religionibusque
doctrinæ mirabilis, Hyacinthæ Severæ Virgini Vestali Maximæ.”

That name, which had been for so many years enshrined in the brave
soldier’s heart, was just traced on the stone, when a group of Vestals
came fluttering towards the place.

“The Vestal Maxima is departing,” an old Vestal said, touching
Claudius’s shoulder. “Hermione bids me conduct you to her chamber,
where her brother and her servant have watched for the last hour.”

But Claudius stood rooted to the spot. He had feared his presence might
disturb the last hours of one he loved too well, to make his own wishes
of any moment. He bowed and shook his head, but remained standing,
watching the work of the chisel, while every letter seemed engraved in
his heart.

Presently another messenger came--Hermione.

“She asks for you,” she said--“come!”

Then Claudius drew himself up to his full height, as if he were about
to face some advancing host, and with head erect, and hands clasped
tightly together, he followed Hermione, without uttering a word.

As they passed along the corridor of the upper storey, they met Cœlia
Concordia. Hermione made the customary token of respect to the superior
Vestals from those who were beneath them, and said:--

“We go to see the Vestal Maxima, who is departing.”

“The Vestal Maxima has departed already,” was the cold and haughty
answer. “I have just returned from the Council, where I have been
chosen as her successor in the office she quitted three days ago.”

Hermione’s dark southern eyes flashed through the mists of tears.

“The beloved lady Hyacintha, beloved of all the priestesses, is dying,”
she said, “and leaves no equal behind; her name will live. It is even
now inscribed upon the pedestal of her statue, beneath the words which,
by the common consent of the whole Council, were written on a scroll
for the sculptor, and despatched to him yester-even.”

Cœlia passed on, saying in a low voice, words of which Hermione failed
to catch the meaning, but which were--“_her name shall perish_.”

Hyacintha lay upon the cushions of her couch, with closed eyes; over
her features peace brooded.

The conflict and the struggle were over, and she was only awaiting the
summons.

Suddenly, with one of the flashes of consciousness, which are like
the leaping up of the flame before it dies out she opened her eyes and
said:--

“I see the golden stairs which lead upward to the stars: Claudius, good
Claudius--Claudius!”

The brave soldier drew a step nearer, and in low husky tones, said:--

“I am here, Hyacintha, I am here!”

A bright smile passed over her face as she said:--

“I have found the true Light, Claudius, the Dayspring from on high. I
am going where the Light shall never be put out, and you will come,
good Claudius--promise, vow!”

“I will come, God helping me,” he said--“beloved, I will come.”

Then the brightness faded from her face; she became confused, and
said in distress, that she had slept, and that the sacred fire was
extinguished. Then, with a cry, “The Light! The Light can never be put
out.” She extended her arms as if to greet one who was coming towards
her, and said:--

“I see Him--He is the true Light, Jesus the Lord!”

And so her spirit departed, and Hyacintha Severa entered into the full
shining of the true Light which lighteth every man who cometh into this
sad and weary world.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the sacred Pomœrium, the space marked out by religious rites along
the line of the old wall--the ashes of Hyacintha Severa were laid.

The High Priest and Council, touched by her loss, refused to
acknowledge publicly that she was a Christian. Loved and honoured in
her life by many without, as well as by many within the walls of the
Vestals’ House, the old High Priest silenced the accusers, and carried
the point that the late Vestal Maxima should be honoured in her death,
as she had been loved in her life.

For the old priest knew that the old faith was vanishing away; knew
that the Christians were multiplying daily; knew that even in that
community the seed had been sown, which might bring forth fruit, and
that Hyacintha would not be the only Christian amongst their numbers.

This was no time for suppression by violence or by force; the
supporters of the old faith made the lives of the Vestals more and more
luxurious, increased their privileges, and the last thirty or forty
years of their existence were to all outward seeming their best years.

But the faith in the goddess Vesta and the sacred fire which her
priestesses were vowed to keep a pure and inextinguishable flame,
was even now rotten at its heart. What had once been received with
childlike earnestness and simplicity of belief, was now but a hollow
profession, and the old faith was dying.

Cœlia Concordia held the supreme office of Vestal Maxima for many
years. She was a woman of keen intellect, and a great friend, we
are told, of the famous champion of Polytheism, Vettius Agorius
Prætextatus. Her statue was set up in the house of that nobleman, and
he received the unwonted honour of having his raised in the Vestals’
atrium.

A powerful, vigorous woman, Cœlia Concordia carried things with a high
hand. The little children, timid and tearful in the first few weeks
of their discipleship, did not come to her with their sorrows. The
maidens confided in her none of their hopes and fears. Cœlia loved the
power the office gave her too well to resign it. Strong in body as in
mind, she saw her old companions pass away, the children fade and die,
the maidens droop and lose their fresh bloom; and she persecuted by
a thousand little acts of tyranny two or three whom she suspected of
having embraced the Christian faith; and Hermione was one who felt the
full bitterness of her satire, and often quailed beneath it.



CHAPTER XVI.

ONWARD AND UPWARD.


When Claudius turned away from the Vestals’ home on the day of
Hyacintha’s death, there was in his noble heart only one longing--to
follow her whither she was gone.

Casca and little Cynthia were his guests, with the faithful Anna; and
when Casca spoke of returning to Alexandria, Claudius begged him to
delay. It seemed to Claudius like a second parting from the love of
his whole life to lose the child who bore her name, and who returned
the devotion of the old soldier with a childish affection which was
inexpressibly sweet to him.

But Casca was anxious to return to Alexandria, where now he had made
his home. Rome had lost its charm for him; there were few left to
sympathise with him in his learned researches, and the great Museum of
Alexandria, with its inexhaustible treasury of literature and art, had
no rival in Rome.

To linger about the place where Hyacintha had lived, to recall her in
all the long years of faithful and pure devotion which he had lavished
upon her--this was the comfort of Claudius’s heart, but, naturally,
with Casca it was wholly different.

He had loved her as a brother, and had retained his affection for
her in the long years of separation, thinking tenderly of her as his
little sister in the old home at Verulam, when she cheered him in the
struggles which his early boyhood had known, in the consciousness of
physical weakness, and the inward conviction that he had the mental
power which, if it were but allowed scope, would stand him in far
better stead than the sword and the battle-axe.

But he had made new ties, and gathered round him the joys of home.
While his young wife lived he had been happy in the present; and the
past, which was all to his friend Claudius, was to him like a pleasant
but fading dream.

Then, when his wife was taken from him, his pride and joy centred in
his child, who seemed, even at this early age, to inherit the beauty
and graces of her aunt in no scant measure.

It is always hard to those who are growing old to feel that while
others of their friends and contemporaries have gathered round them
interests and the sweet ties of home-life, they are standing, like the
last of some old forest trees, companionless and alone.

Claudius had been a brave soldier, and was considered a distinguished
officer, who had earned his laurels on many a bloodstained field. But
his brethren in arms, who gave themselves up, on their retirement from
active service, to all the luxuries and often license of Roman society,
found him but a dull and speechless companion.

Gradually Claudius withdrew more and more from public life; and now
what had been the one great interest of his daily routine at Rome was
over!

To watch the Vestal Maxima at a distance, to divine her every look
and gesture, to be present at all public ceremonials where she was
to be seen, to be the presiding genius of her life, though never
to approach her or give her cause for uneasiness--this had been
Claudius’s mission. He had heard of the evil rumours which Cœlia had
tried to sow broadcast; he had watched the once stately step growing
more feeble, the deep earnest eyes lose their intense glow, the
beautifully-chiselled features grow more pinched and wan, and his heart
had sunk within him.

He had held much counsel with the good Father Eusebius, and knew
that the Christian faith which he held dear had taken deep root in
Hyacintha’s heart. And this had been at once the consolation and the
fear of his life of late. Consolation, for he knew well what was the
support of the Faith of Christ; fear, lest the sharp eyes which were
directed towards the Vestal Maxima should scent out the truth, and that
she should be given up by her accusers to disgrace.

This had been assisted by Hyacintha’s resignation at the time when such
resignation was allowed, and the love which she had awakened in the
hearts of the many had triumphed over the maliciousness of the few.

Anna was old now, and her strength did not hold out for the long walks
in which little Cynthia at six years old delighted. So it fell to
Claudius to drive her in his chariot, or take her hand in his and
lead her along the Appian Way, telling her stories of the old heroes,
as Clœlia had told them to Hyacintha and Casca long ago. But their
favourite walk was to the Cælian Hill, and there sometimes they would
meet Hermione on her way to the spring, when, dismissing the attendants
who followed the Roman soldier and the fair child at a distance, they
would sit and speak of the Vestal Maxima, and Hermione would fondle the
little Cynthia, and say to Claudius “that she, too, might have been a
Vestal, so beautiful she was, and so full of wit and cleverness.”

“Ah, no! the child has another and a higher mission than that of the
Vestal virgin. She will be the joy and glory of some good man’s home,
so I pray the good Father of us all, who loves the little children.”

“Who loves the little children,” Cynthia repeated, as she leaned
against Claudius’s knee, her hands full of violets and anemones which
empurpled the hill’s side. “When I am a woman I shall tell every one
about the Lord, who was a little child Himself on earth, and loved
the children who came near Him, just as I come near you, Claudius.
Hermione, don’t you love Him?”

Poor Hermione’s eyes filled with tears. She had not the courage to
confess the Faith openly, which would needs draw upon her instant
dismissal from her office, and end in imprisonment, and perhaps death.
She was suspected, and jealously watched, by the Vestal Maxima; and
nothing but the noble family from which she came, and the rich gifts
which they constantly showered upon the temple of the goddess, could
have saved her.

“Don’t you love Him, Hermione? My aunt loved Him. Anna loves Him, and
so does good Claudius. Father adores Him; he does not say he loves Him.”

Hermione turned away her face. She was like thousands in those days of
persecution, struggling out of the shadows into the light; scarcely
prepared to give up all for Christ, and yet yearning after Him with
that tender yearning which is the aspiration of the soul for One who,
though unseen, it loves.

Shall we not think of such in every age with sympathy and pity?
Shall we not leave them in the loving hands of Him who knoweth our
infirmities, and remembers that we are but dust?

Hermione quickly rallied herself, and said, “My time of leave is over.
I must be hastening home, or the lictors at the gate will be impatient.
When do you depart for Alexandria, good Claudius?”

“Nay, I know not whether I depart at all; but Casca and the child, and
their attendants, are sailing from the Portus Augusti next week.”

Hermione took Cynthia from Claudius for a moment, and said, “Listen,
Cynthia; you must not forget me, for I loved your aunt, and she loved
me. You will write to me as soon as you are able to wield the pen, and
you will tell me of all you learn, and all you do in Alexandria. And do
not forget poor Hermione.”

Cynthia clasped the Vestal round the neck, and said, “Come with us to
our pretty home in Alexandria. Why cannot you come?”

“I am tied and fettered here,” said poor Hermione; “and here I must
live till death comes to me and frees me from bondage.”

“Ah!” said the child, “I am glad I am not to be a Vestal, but that I
belong to the Lord Jesus--so glad!”

Hermione kissed the child fervently, and then turned away, waving her
hands in token of farewell, saying, “Remember your promise, little
Cynthia.”

“What has she asked of thee, little one?” Claudius said, when the child
had returned to him.

“She bade me write to her, and never forget her,” Cynthia said. “I
shall make haste to learn to write; and father says already I am a
little scholar. You will help me to write, good Claudius.”

“Nay, then, little one, this hand of mine is not skilled in using the
pen or scribbling in parchment; but there are many others who will
teach thee.”

“You are going to Alexandria with us? You will not leave us, good
Claudius?”

“Nay, we will not speak of parting yet--not yet.”

“_Never!_” exclaimed Cynthia, emphatically; “never!” And Claudius
evaded a direct answer, but promised that he would at least take care
of her on the coming return voyage, for the season was late, and they
would probably meet with storms in the inland sea through which they
must sail to the fair city of Alexandria.

Claudius found the attractions at Alexandria, where he shared the
home of Casca and his little daughter, too great to be withstood. He
vibrated, it is true, between the two cities for a year or two, but as
age sapped his strength, and brought low the once athletic and vigorous
frame, he became less inclined for action, and was content to live the
quiet life in which his friend Casca delighted, and to enjoy with him
the society of the little daughter who, as she grew in years, grew in
all the graces and attractions which had distinguished the aunt whose
name she bore, and whom she so strongly resembled.

“Good Claudius,” the commander of many brave troops of soldiers,
the noble, valiant, and courageous warrior, became in his old age
gentle and subdued; but his deeds of valour had not died out of the
remembrance of some who had shared in them; and in his retirement at
Alexandria he was sometimes visited by those who had some connection
with him as a leader or companion in arms.

One day, when Cynthia was about fifteen, eight or nine years after the
voyage to Rome and the death of the Vestal Maxima, Claudius was walking
slowly and feebly along the smooth walks of the Museum gardens, waiting
for Cynthia to return from one of the academies, where, attended by one
of her maids, she studied with several young maidens, under a lady who
lectured upon the Greek poets and the Greek authors of a bygone time.

Casca’s anxious desire that his only child should be distinguished for
accomplishments of every kind, and have her mental gifts cultivated to
the utmost, was not likely to be disappointed.

Cynthia was already known as one of the most promising of Zoe’s pupils,
and she seemed to have no difficulty in acquiring and retaining
knowledge.

On this lovely spring morning, Claudius, being a little weary, seating
himself on a bench near one of the principal fountains, which made a
soft musical murmur as the waters fell into a deep marble basin, turned
suddenly as he heard his name.

A man about his own age, leaning on the arm of a youth of eighteen or
twenty, advanced towards him.

“Sure,” he said, “I see before me Claudius, who commanded the fourth
legion under Constantius?”

The two old men stood facing each other silently for a few moments, and
then grasped each other’s hands.

“I never expected to meet you, brave Claudius, again, least of all at
Alexandria.”

“And I, my noble friend and old ally, Varrus, never expected to grasp
your hand in mine again. Methought you lived at Marseilles?”

“Ay, and I have left it only for a short space, to bring hither to this
seat of learning my only son, Heraclitus, who craved for the schools
of wisdom here, and desires to add the learning of the scholar to the
courage of the soldier. And here, my son,” he continued, “is as brave
a soldier as ever wielded a sword, the good and valiant Claudius.”

“It seems that I see your father again in you,” Claudius said. “Varrus,
you live again in your boy.”

“Ah! and I have two fair daughters, whom I have left with their mother
at Marseilles; and here, if I mistake not, comes one of yours.”

For at that moment, speeding towards the place where Claudius sat, came
the graceful figure of a young girl, dressed in pure white silk, her
over-mantle of pale greenish-blue, and a handkerchief embroidered with
gold, in the familiar pattern we call the “key pattern,” thrown over
her sunny head.

“Nay, I have no ties of home, Varrus; I never married. She who is
coming towards us is as dear as any daughter. Why does she tarry?”

For Cynthia had suddenly stopped, and, throwing her large crimson
satchel to her maid, she skirted the marble basin of the fountain with
swift steps.

“I see! I see!” exclaimed the young man; “a little child is dangerously
near the brink of the fountain--and----”

He said no more, but sprang across the emerald turf to the edge of the
deep marble basin, where the clear waters were gently rocking on their
breast the broad leaves of the water-lily, already showing their snowy
heads from the thick green calyx.

But the waters suddenly became disturbed by something more than the
gentle fall of the jets of the fountain. They were swollen into little
wavelets, and as the two elder men reached the spot they heard a cry,
and saw Heraclitus plunge into the basin, which was some six feet in
depth, and some two hundred feet in circumference.

“My mistress plunged in to save a child who had fallen into the water,”
exclaimed Cynthia’s attendant. “Ah me! Ah me! Will she be drowned?”

Then the girl, after the fashion of such maidens in every time, uttered
a long and piercing shriek, which brought to the spot a good many of
those who were wandering about in the Museum gardens on this early
spring morning.

Claudius’s face was blanched with horror, and he clutched the arm of
his friend Varrus for support.

“Be of good courage,” Varrus said; “my son has rescued both the child
and the maiden. See! they are already safe!”

“Yes, dear Claudius,” Cynthia struggled to say, as, breathlessly, and
her clothes heavy with water, Claudius bent anxiously over her.

“Yes, safe; and the little child--is he safe?”

“Thanks to your noble efforts, fair lady,” Heraclitus said, “no harm is
done. Hearken!” And a loud scream from the little boy, as his mother,
who carelessly allowed him to stray too near the edge of the fountain,
clasped him frantically to her breast, testified to the truth of the
young man’s words.

“It is all well, then. Nay, good Claudius, do not be frightened. I
will go home now, and change my wet garments. Ah! look at my poor
handkerchief; see, the gold border is spoiled.”

She said this with childlike earnestness, and then, helped to her feet
by Varrus, she said--

“Who is my father, Casca, to thank for coming to my rescue? You, too,
brave sir, will need change of garments. Claudius, do bid my deliverer
to come to our house.”

Cynthia was fighting against a feeling of faintness and exhaustion
which the sudden plunge into the water had caused; and Heraclitus was
quite forgetting his own share in the rescue of the child, in the
admiration he felt for the beautiful maiden who had so promptly gone to
save the child’s life.

“Come home with us,” Claudius said, in a tremulous voice; “come home,
and let my friend Casca and me show our gratitude. Our greatest
treasure has been in peril, and we owe her preservation to you.”

The mother of the little boy, less grateful than she might have been,
hastened away with her struggling, screaming son, and very soon the
voice of the fountain, which had for the time been lost in the tumult,
was again heard, and the gentle motion of the clear waters rocked the
budding lilies on its breast undisturbed, as before.

       *       *       *       *       *

Some months later a letter from Cynthia to Hermione, written with a
finely-pointed quill on smooth parchment, was delivered by a messenger
at the House of the Vestals at Rome--for Cynthia had never forgotten
her promise, and her letters, at first mere scrawled hieroglyphics, had
been the greatest events in her sad life; for Hermione lived in the
shadow, tolerated simply because of her rank and wealth, but looked
upon, as I have said, with suspicion and dislike by the proud Vestal
Maxima, Cœlia Concordia; and all those who wished to win favour with
her kept aloof from Hermione.

How many sad and disappointed lives, bound by the fetters of an
enforced vow, have been hidden alike in the House of the Vestals, and
later in the monasteries of mediæval times!

Of all pathetic cries which ascend to the Throne of the Father of us
all is the cry of the woman who, mistaking her true vocation as a
helper and consoler, has chafed like a bird against its prison bars,
to obtain the liberty which alone gives the zest to service. Hermione
had, indeed, ceased to struggle against her fate, and a cold and numb
despair had destroyed her beauty, and made her a prematurely old
woman. Her eyes were too dim to read Cynthia’s letter in the shadows
of the atrium, and she hid it in her robe, and took it with her to
the familiar spot on the Cælian Hill, where she had so often come as
a young maiden with Hyacintha Severa, and had watched over the lovely
child who had inherited her grace and wonderful gifts of mind and
person.

“From the Museum Street of the city Alexandria, Cynthia, the daughter
of Casca Severus, greets with affection Hermione, a Vestal virgin, in
the House of the Vestals at Rome.

“When I wrote to you last, dear friend, I was but a child; and now,
though but eighteen months have passed away, I am no longer ‘little
Cynthia,’ but a woman. Ah! dear Hermione, it is a beautiful gift of
God--our God--this heritage of woman. I am as one who has been toying
with flowers in the valley, contented with the flowers, and thinking of
nothing above them, and then suddenly lifted on a mountain top, whence
there lies stretched out a lovely landscape, and a voice tells me it
is mine, that I reign over it, and that the blue arch of heaven above
me encircles me with love. Yes, Hermione, as by a miracle your little
Cynthia has forgotten her childish days, and has come into possession
of her inheritance as a woman.

“But I would fain tell you of all that has happened since eighteen
months ago, when I last wrote to you. It has been a long, long pause,
but I will make up for it now. I will take time, and write fully the
story of this wondrous change.

“It was a bright spring morning, and I was returning from the lecture
room at the Museum, through the gardens, when, just as I was hastening
to join good old Claudius on a bench where he rested, I saw a little
child balancing himself on the slippery edge of the wide basin of the
central fountain.

“In another instant he was in the water; and what could I do, as no one
else was near, but plunge in and seize the boy by his little toga.

“As I had neared good Claudius I had noticed he was not alone, but
that two men were apparently talking to him. It was one of these,
Heraclitus, who sprang forward, and had soon brought from under the
crystal water myself and the child.

“Ah, Hermione! as that noble face bent over me, and I gazed up at it,
I felt at once that thrill which is half-awe, half-joy, like that
foreshadowing of the break of day, which makes the little bird stir in
its nest--for though as yet nothing is clear, and nothing defined, the
_day is near_.

“The day was dawning at that moment; the day of love which has been so
beautiful and fair ever since. Nor can night cast any shadow over that
day of love, with its dark mantle, for my love stretches forward to
that city fairer than Alexandria, fairer than Rome, where there is _no
night_ and no darkness at all, for God is the Light.

“I must, however, go on with my narrative of events. The youth who
snatched me from the water, and laid me on the turf with the child,
is named Heraclitus. His father was a friend and companion in arms of
dear Claudius, and he had come from Marseilles to seek education and
advantages here in Alexandria for his only son.

“You may be sure, Hermione, that my father, Casca, bade both father and
son a warm welcome, and from the first there seemed a bond between us
all. When the father of Heraclitus returned to Marseilles, Heraclitus
was left with my father and good Claudius.

“Heraclitus showed from the first the greatest powers of mind and body,
and from the very first he seemed to account it his greatest happiness
to be with us. Ah, Hermione! with _me_.

“Soon that gentle thrill of awakening in my heart grew stronger. Soon
I knew that I was loved as my father Casca had loved my fair mother,
Ianthe, as Claudius had loved my beautiful aunt Hyacintha.

“The cup of bliss seemed full to overflowing, when there came a drop
of exceeding bitterness to spoil the sweetness. Good old Claudius, in
passing down the long flight of steps from the Museum, fell heavily,
and it was with difficulty that Heraclitus brought him home.

“For many weeks he lay helpless and uncomplaining. Sometimes he would
say, ‘It was a strange end for a soldier, to lie on soft cushions, and
be tended by women’s hands.’

“We did tend him carefully, and cheered his last days with the warmth
of a love we might well bear one who had been so closely bound up in
life with my father Casca and my aunt the Vestal Maxima.

“Claudius spoke much of the past, but little of the present. The
farther off the scene, the clearer the vision. My father, always
absorbed in his manuscript, would sometimes raise his head and smile,
as Claudius spoke of Verulam, and the small upper chamber there and
little Hyacintha and her hair shining under the light of the silver
lamp which hung from the roof. Then of Ebba and her conversion to the
faith of the Christian; his own vehement and angry persecution of the
Christians, and of the dark dungeon into which he entered, bearing the
dead Jewish girl in his arms.

“All this was clear before him, but of the later days at Rome he said
little, and that little was confused. He loved to hear me read the
Gospels, and the vision of the great Apostle of Love at Patmos, I would
repeat again and again. He spoke to me of Heraclitus, and said he was
worthy of my love, if my father consented, but father, dear father,
held back a little. He seemed unable to give me up, even to Heraclitus.

“It was almost the last words that passed dear Claudius’s lips--‘Give
Hyacintha to the young Heraclitus’--for when he lay dying, Claudius
ever called me by my full name. He would gaze at me with dreamy eyes,
and said, though I was so high above him he loved me still.

“He was thinking of the other Hyacintha, no doubt.

“He departed in peace; and then, within a month, dear Anna followed
him. Ah, Hermione! she died in the Faith, and she has left behind her
the memory of true service, which will never pass away.

“My father said no word on the subject nearest my heart. And
Heraclitus, brave and true, and noble, said he would not press an old
man unduly, for there was time before us; we were both so young.

“But it happened one day that another suitor came to my father, and
asked his leave to marry me. I hated this man, though he is one of
the richest in all Alexandria. My father put him off with the excuse
that he could not spare me, and that I was very young, but he did not
acknowledge what was indeed the truth, that in my secret heart I was
bound to Heraclitus.

“My father, ever quiet, and gentle, and courteous, can scarcely think
of others as less so than himself, and he was perhaps not sufficiently
firm in his refusal. Be that as it may, I was walking with my
attendant, Portia, in the Museum gardens one evening, with a book in my
hand, when this hateful man accosted me. He said at first all manner
of smooth and flattering things, and then when I turned away, he grew
angry, and seized my arm. I was frightened, and struggling to get away,
called for help. Help was near. With one blow Heraclitus had felled the
man to the ground, and, leaving him there, bore me in his arms to my
father.

“‘Give her to me,’ he exclaimed. ‘Give me the right to protect her from
all insult henceforth.’ And so it was settled. And my dear father made
preparations for our marriage, and we live with him in such happiness
as I can never tell.

“It cannot but happen that living as I do with such scholars as my
father and my husband, I should become well versed in the literature
of the schools. I love to hear those who are so full of learning
discourse. We have a large house now, and many frequent it. I am the
mistress of it, and I have to fulfil its duties. Ah, Hermione! why am
I so blessed by God? What have I done to merit His goodness, thus
shown to me? It makes me sad at times, to think of you, in your dark,
dim, shadowy life, in the old Vestals’ House. That is not real life,
Hermione, cut off from all the sweet home ties which bind a happy wife
with silken fetters.

“I pray you to send me a letter, and tell me if _she_ is less arrogant
and hard to you, and if the faith of our Lord, yet unconfessed, is
growing clearer to you. I crave to hear it is so. And now, fare you
well. I would fain greet you with a kiss. Think of me as your friend,
the happy wife of Heraclitus, and daughter of Casca Severus.”



CHAPTER XVII.

TRIUMPH.


Hermione did not live long after the reception of this letter. She
kissed it many times, and kept it safe in the breast of her robe, never
allowing any eye to read it, never telling its contents to any mortal
ear.

Sometimes a smile would flit over her sad face as she pictured the
bright and happy Cynthia--the child grown into the woman, the loved and
loving wife of a brave, good man.

Hermione had to suffer much, and the few lines she traced before
her death, addressed to Cynthia, did not reach Alexandria till long
afterwards.

But they breathed of hope in the lovingkindness of the Redeemer of the
world, and told of the humble assurance, that, like as a father pities,
He had pitied her, and would of His mercy receive her to the home of
the blest in heaven.

Hermione’s death was felt to be a relief by the Vestal Maxima, Cœlia
Concordia, who now held undisputed sway in the Vestals’ House. As we
know, she loved the power the office gave her. When Hermione passed
away, a gleam of triumph might be seen to glance from those dark
eagle-like eyes; for another obstacle was removed from her path,
and the accomplishment of a long cherished scheme became easier. The
priests, who had decreed that her predecessor’s memory should be
crystallised for future generations by the laudatory lines engraved on
the pedestal on which her statue was raised, were all in their turn
consigned to the sacred Pomœrium, and their names were soon forgotten.

It did not deeply affect the friend of the great Prætextatus to see the
old and the feeble pass away. She was known and admired in the highest
circles of the time at Rome; but love never seemed to come near her or
soften her proud heart.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was in the stillness of the night, when all the Vestals but the one
who watched in the temple were sleeping, some fifteen years after the
death of Hyacintha, that the tall commanding figure of Cœlia Concordia
passed between the columns of the atrium, bearing a lamp in her hand.

She threaded her way cautiously in the darkness, her silver lamp
casting a ray of bright light before her. She paused at last before the
statue of Hyacintha Severa, and, waving her lamp up and down, examined
the clearly-cut noble features with a triumphant smile.

“Shall thy name live?” she asked, as if addressing the statue, “nay,
thy name shall perish; if I am powerless for aught else, I am powerful
for this.” Then she put down the lamp, and drew from the folds of her
pallium a sharp instrument. She examined the blade carefully, and
kneeling so that she was on a level with the pedestal, she began to
scrape out the letters of the name she hated.

It was no easy task, but at last it was accomplished, and nothing but
the number remained:--

“No. XIII.” Which signified simply the order in which the statues stood
in the atrium.

“Thy name has perished,” she said, rising and addressing the noble
face, which seemed to answer her bitter smile with a quiet calm beauty.

“Thy name has perished, thy praises shall remain, but when future
generations shall ask to whom their false flattery refers, there shall
be but one answer:--

“No. XIII.”

When the erasure of the name was discovered in the light of the next
morning, inquiries were made, but without success. Various opinions
were expressed, and it was generally supposed that some one, through
wanton mischief, had erased the name.

At first there was a talk of re-inscribing it, but the Vestal Maxima
always found some excuses for delay, and at length, as all who had
loved her had passed away, the subject dropped out of memory, and
Hyacintha was forgotten.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was in the reign of Constantius, in the year 357, that the Emperor
paid a visit to the ancient capital of his empire. Julian had married
Helena, and had been accepted as Cæsar of the west, at Milan, with
loud acclamations, while Constantius proceeded along the Emilian and
Flaminian ways, to Rome.

The grandeur of that procession has been described at length, and a
splendid train of nobles and courtiers took part in it.

The Emperor took up his abode in the ancient Palace of Augustus, and,
we are told, presided in the Senate, assisted at the games, and that
the thirty days he passed in the city may be described as one long
festival.

Delighted with his reception in Rome, and filled with the sense of his
own importance, Constantius cast about in his mind for some suitable
gift to the city, which should eternally mark his satisfaction with it
and with himself!

At first, we are told that he wished to imitate the colossal statue in
the Forum of Trajan, but finally he decided on presenting the city with
the huge obelisk which his father, Constantine, had removed from the
Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis and floated down the Nile to Alexandria.

This decision gave universal satisfaction. Orders were at once
dispatched to Alexandria for the transmission of the obelisk.

A ship of huge proportions and strength was provided to convey this
enormous mass of granite from the banks of the Nile to the Tiber.

The command of the expedition was entrusted to a man of high family and
reputation in Alexandria, and preparations for departure were speedily
completed.

Heraclitus was seated with the parchments and drafts before him, in
his own beautiful home at Alexandria, lost in thought, wondering if
the enormous outlay required would not exceed the expectations of the
Emperor and his officers of state, when a light hand was laid on his
shoulder.

“Take me to Rome with thee, dear husband, I pray thee.”

“Nay, nay, my pretty one,” was the reply, “the voyage may not be a
quick one, thy health might suffer, and if the huge obelisk is swamped
by the way, there will be great delay and danger to me, for I am
responsible.”

“Dear husband,” said the sweet voice, “I have a longing to see Rome.
Thou knowest I went thither as a little child, with my dear father,
and nurse, and dear good old Claudius. I pray thee, do not refuse me
my prayer. I have a dim dreamy memory of my beautiful aunt, the Vestal
Maxima, who died in the faith of Christ. I should like to see the place
where she lived, and the spring on the Cælian Hill, where Claudius
said she looked like an angel, as she filled her vase from the pure
fountain. Dear husband, grant my request.”

She had been the happy wife of Heraclitus for some years now. Her
father had died in the preceding summer. Claudius and Anna had both
passed away, and Cynthia, who was standing with her hand on her
husband’s shoulder, urging her plea, is the only link left with those
whose lives, or rather the fragments of whose lives, we have followed
in this story.

Cynthia had known sorrow: one by one her children had faded in their
infancy, and died before she had fully tasted the sweetness of
motherhood.

Perhaps it was the remembrance of this trouble, which had left its
trace on the fair face which was bending over him, that made Heraclitus
feel as if he would not refuse his wife’s request.

“Dear husband,” she pleaded, “I have but thee, and what should I do for
all the long months of thy absence, alone?”

“My sweet one, it is a long voyage, and my mind is so occupied with the
business in hand, the arrangements, and the responsibility which lies
on my shoulders, may so engross me, that I may seem cold and neglectful
of thee.”

“As if that could be! I will not trouble thee with questions; let me
have my own galley, and my maidens, and thou canst come to me for
solace and comfort. Remember, dear husband, I have none but thee to
love, since God has willed that no dear little ones should gladden my
life. I am never lonely with thee, but without thee!”

Heraclitus threw down his quill, and pushed the parchments and charts
aside, taking his wife on his knee and stroking her fair head, as it
rested on his breast with a tender and gentle hand.

“Sweet wife, am I not better to thee than ten sons? If it be God’s will
that we should never see a child grow up, to be our pride and joy, let
us recall how many sons there are who are the curse and sorrow of their
parents’ lives, and at least be thankful we are spared such grief as
that would be to us.”

“I am ashamed to murmur while I have thee,” she whispered, “but do not
leave me here while thou art gone to Rome, with that huge obelisk. It
might be a year of absence, and I feel as if I could scarcely live
without thee.”

“Dear wife, if I carry out this mission with success, I may be
raised to a higher rank, and give thee many more of the luxuries and
adornments of life. But I feel I must have a mind entirely abstracted
from other matters, or I _may fail_, and then--!”

Cynthia sprang up, exclaiming--“Fail! nay, my presence shall assure
thy triumphant success. Let me only come to share thy danger and
difficulty, and I am content.”

The sadness and depression had passed away now, and Heraclitus looking
down into his wife’s eyes, saw in them an earnest of success.

“Be it so then, my sweet one--the galley shall be prepared for thee and
thy attendants. Make thy preparations, and we will go to Rome together!”

       *       *       *       *       *

Like the faint memory of a dream the scene of her childhood came back
to Cynthia, as she presented herself, a few months later, with two of
her maidens at the door of the Vestals’ atrium. Thoughts of her father,
and of Claudius, of dear faithful Anna, to whose hand she clung on
that morning long ago, came thronging to her heart.

She remembered how, when her father and Anna led her to the room where
the Vestal Maxima lay dying, Claudius held back. The greatness of his
unselfish and unchanging love seemed to be clearer to her now than it
had ever been before--the love which was divine in its character, the
love which forgot everything but the good of the one beloved, seemed to
present itself to the fair wife of Heraclitus, as she stood at the gate
of the Vestals’ House.

It was yet early, and there seemed to be no one stirring. The big heavy
door was closed, and the faint tap which Cynthia’s little slender hand
made upon it was not answered.

“Nay, then, lady,” exclaimed one of her maidens, “you must rap harder
than that. What a dark and gloomy place,” she went on; “and yet you
say it is accounted an honour to be chosen a Vestal virgin. Forsooth!
I would account it an honour to be left out of such a choice. See how
the great Palace seems to tower over us, as if it might fall and crush
us as we stand. Except for the sky above, which we can only see by
straining our necks till they are like to break, I can hardly believe I
am in the same world as when I am in our own bright Alexandria.”

Cynthia scarcely heard, or heeded if she heard, the girl’s chatter; but
Portia, who was a sedate, middle-aged woman, said, “We cannot stand
here all day; you will be over-fatigued before you enter this dark
place, which looks like a prison.” And Portia knocked with such good
will at the door that the sound of footsteps within was heard, and the
Vestal in charge of the outer gate or door threw it open.

The Vestal was young, and answered Cynthia’s inquiries carelessly and
indifferently.

“I crave permission to examine the statues of the Vestales Maximæ,” she
said.

“You can enter, if you choose,” was the reply; “the statues are all in
the atrium.”

Cynthia felt chilled by her reception; and after the brilliant light of
the early day out of doors, the atrium seemed so dark and gloomy.

But she passed on, and began to examine the statues.

There were three or four statues of the same Vestal Maxima, Flavia
Publicia, and her praises were on every side. Cynthia wandered about
the atrium, trying to decipher the names.

“Terentia Rufilla!” Cynthia read. “Ah! she was my father’s kinswoman.
It was in her time that my aunt came hither. Cornelia Maxima! Campia
Severina! Severina! Can this be the one I seek? Ah, no! for it is
Severina, not Severa, and the year is 240; besides, why Campia?”

After a long, fruitless search, Cynthia turned to the Vestal who was
following her--

“May it please you to conduct me to the presence of the Vestal Maxima.
I have a question to ask her.”

The Vestal hesitated.

“Nay, I do not know whether I may disturb her. She is in her own
apartment.”

“Say that the wife of Heraclitus, who is charged with the safe transit
of the great obelisk from Alexandria, by the will of the Emperor, seeks
information regarding one of the statues.”

The Vestal shook her head, and, turning to a severe-looking old Vestal
who was passing, seemed to refer the matter to her for decision.

“Nay, surely, the Lady Maxima must not be disturbed. She has been
watching all night, and is resting. Who seeks her?”

“That lady, with two attendants. She says she is the wife of a great
personage.”

Then Cynthia, with her sweet voice, accosted the tall, severe-looking
Vestal, saying, “May it please you to tell me if I can find the statue
of Hyacintha Severa, one of the Vestales Maximæ?”

The dark eyes of the Vestal looked down on the slight form of Cynthia
with a penetrating glance; and, struck with awe, Cynthia hastened to
say:--

“The Vestal Maxima was my father’s sister. I came hither with him when
a little child, of which I have a dim memory; but my aunt was held
in great honour, and love and reverence, by my father and by good
Claudius, our friend, and I wish to see her statue.”

“Methinks,” said the Vestal, grimly enough, “thou art altogether
dreaming. There is one Campia Severina here, but I know of no Severa
whose name is recorded on the pedestals: but,” with a stately bow,
“you are free to search; the statues are all collected here. There are
duplicates of many, but I do not know the name of which you speak.”

Then the Vestal disappeared, and Cynthia, disappointed and sad,
continued her search.

At last one of her ladies exclaimed:--

“Here is a beautiful statue, with no name; only a number--

“No. XIII.”

Cynthia gazed up at the statue for a few moments intensely and lovingly.

“I think that must be my aunt Hyacintha,” she said; “but oh! how dull
and dismal it is here; no sunshine, no warmth. Come, let us depart; it
makes me sad to stay.”

The ladies obeyed her not unwillingly. Rome might be grand, and had
its ancient temples and noble statues, and its yellow, slowly-rolling
Tiber; but life was sweeter and brighter far in sunny Alexandria, where
the waves of the blue Mediterranean danced and sparkled, and the air
and light of heaven were free to come and go.

As they ascended from the House of the Vestals, and climbed the Cælian
Hill, Cynthia spoke for the first time.

The prospect before them was the same over which Hyacintha Severa had
so often looked, as child, and fair maiden, and mature woman.

“I can think of my aunt better here,” Cynthia said, “the beautiful and
the good. I feel her nearer me here than in that dark, gloomy hall; the
statue beneath which is only written, ‘No. XIII,’ may be her likeness,
but I love to think of her as Claudius told me always to think of
her--passed from the darkness of earth into the Light of God, wearing
the Crown of Light, after bearing the Cross of suffering. All earthly
things fade and vanish, but that Crown fadeth not away. Ah! I am glad I
am a Christian!”

And now the shadow of the Great Past closes over those whose lives,
or rather the fragments of whose lives, we have followed through long
years in this little story. The silence which throws its mantle like a
veil over the ruins of the temple and the atrium of the Vestals cannot
be broken.

       *       *       *       *       *

The statues of the Vestales Maximæ stand like voiceless messengers from
that time of darkness--a darkness which was, as we know, the darkness
before the dawn. In the old Rome, which is so continually brought to
the surface from the covering dust of centuries, there can scarcely be
a figure round which so much interest might be supposed to gather as
round the nameless statue of the Vestal, whose story imagination may
supply in many colours and in many forms--each one, for himself, as
he stands before it, may clothe it as he will. But that of the noble,
earnest soul struggling towards the Light, and rising from the dry
chrysalis of a worn-out faith to the flight of the unimprisoned spirit
upward to God--who is the Light--has seemed as full of probability as
of charm. And it is easy to believe that a woman like Cœlia Concordia,
herself unable to soar and yet conscious that her aims were after all
but earthly and sordid, might grudge one of the most beloved and most
highly gifted of the priestesses the unsparing meed of praise which
the inscription commemorates. Yet, she might have reflected, if the
inscription remained without a name the identity of Hyacintha would
never be discovered, and thus the once-honoured and beloved Vestal
would be known henceforth only as

NUMBER THIRTEEN.


THE END.



PRINTING OFFICE OF THE PUBLISHER.



FOOTNOTES:


[A] The Caracalla was a long garment like the habit of a modern monk,
sometimes with, sometimes without, a hood or cowl.

[B] Although there is no record extant of the Jews settling in Britain
till some centuries later than this time, still it is probable that a
few scattered merchants of the despised people may have come over with
some of the Roman nobility--performing menial offices, and conducting
barters with the native Britons for their Roman masters.



TRANSCRIBER’S NOTES:


  Italicized text is surrounded by underscores: _italics_.

  Obvious typographical errors have been corrected.

  Inconsistencies in hyphenation have been standardized.

  Archaic or alternate spelling has been retained from the original.





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