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Chapter 27

 

FROM that moment Lygia showed herself more rarely in the common chamber, and approached his couch less frequently. But peace did not return to her. She saw that Vinicius followed her with imploring glance; that he was waiting for every word of hers, as for a favor; that he suffered and dared not complain, lest he might turn her away from him; that she alone was his health and delight. And then her heart swelled with compassion. Soon she observed, too, that the more she tried to avoid him, the more compassion she had for him; and by this itself the more tender were the feelings which rose in her. Peace left her. At times she said to herself that it was her special duty to be near him always, first, because the religion of God commands return of good for evil; second, that by conversing with him, she might attract him to the faith. But at the same time conscience told her that she was tempting herself; that only love for him and the charm which he exerted were attracting her, nothing else. Thus she lived in a ceaseless struggle, which was intensified daily. At times it seemed that a kind of net surrounded her, and that in trying to break through it she entangled herself more and more. She had also to confess that for her the sight of him was becoming more needful, his voice was becoming dearer, and that she had to struggle with all her might against the wish to sit at his bedside. When she approached him, and he grew radiant, delight filled her heart. On a certain day she noticed traces of tears on his eyelids, and for the first time in life the thought came to her, to dry them with kisses. Terrified by that thought, and full of self-contempt, she wept all the night following.

He was as endurmg as if he had made a vow of patience. When at moments his eyes flashed with petulance, self-will, and anger, he restrained those flashes promptly, and looked with alarm at her, as if to implore pardon. This acted stifi more on her. Never had she such a feeling of being greatly loved as then; and when she thought of this, she felt at once guilty and happy. Vinicius, too, had changed essentially. In his conversations with Glaucus there was less pride. It occurred to him frequently that even that poor slave physician and that foreign woman, old Miriam, who surrounded him with attention, and Crispus, whom he saw absorbed in continual prayer, were still human. He was astonished at such thoughts, but he had them. After a time he conceived a liking for Ursus, with whom he conversed entire days; for with him he could talk about Lygia. The giant, on his part, was inexhaustible in narrative, and while performing the most simple services for the sick man, he began to show him also some attachment. For Vinicius, Lygia had been at all times a being of another order, higher a hundred times than those around her: nevertheless, he began to observe simple and poor people, — a thing which he had never done before, — and he discovered in them various traits the existence of which he had never suspected.

Nazarius, however, he could not endure, for it seemed to him that the Young lad had dared to fall in love with Lygia. He had restrained his aversion for a long time, it is true; but once when he brought her two quails, which he had bought in the market with his own earned money, the descendant of the Quiites spoke out in Vinicius, for whom one who had wandered in from a strange people had less worth than the meanest worm. When he heard Lygia's thanks, he grew terribly pale; and when Nazarius went out to get water for the birds, he said,— "Lygia, canst thou endure that he should give thee gifts? Dost thou not know that the Greeks call people of his nation Jewish dogs?"

"I do not know what the Greeks call them; but I know that Nazarius is a Christian and my brother."

When she had said this she looked at Vinicius with astonishment and regret, for he had disaccustomed her to similar outbursts; and he set his teeth, so as not to tell her that he would have given command to beat such a brother with sticks, or would have sent him as a compeditus 1 to dig earth in his Sicilian vineyards. He restrained himself, however, throttled the anger within him, and only after a while did he say, — "Pardon me, Lygia. For me thou art the daughter of a king and the adopted child of Plautius." And he subdued himself to that degree that when Nazarius appeared in the chamber again, he promised him, on returning to his villa, the gift of a pair of peacocks or flamingoes, of which he had a garden full.

Lygia understood what such victories over himself must have cost him; but the oftener he gained them the more her heart turned to him. His merit with regard to Nazarius was less, however, than she supposed. Vinicius might be indignant for a moment, but he could not be jealous of him. In fact the son of Miriam did not, in his eyes, mean much more than a dog; besides, he was a child yet, who, if he loved Lygia, loved her unconsciously and servilely. Greater struggles must the young tribune have with himself to submit, even in silence, to that honor with which among those people the name of Christ and His religion was surrounded. In this regard wonderful things took place in Vinicius. That was in every case a religion which Lygia believed; hence for that single reason he was ready to receive it. Afterward, the more he returned to health, the more he remembered the whole series of events which had happened since that night at Ostrianum, and the whole series of thoughts which had come to his head from that time, the more he was astonished at the superhuman power of that religion which changed the souls of men to their foundations. He understood that in it there was something uncommon, something which had not been on earth before, and he felt that could it embrace the whole world, could it ingraft on the world its love and charity, an epoch would come recalling that in which not Jupiter, but Saturn had ruled. He did not dare either to doubt the supernatural origin of Christ, or His resurrection, or the other miracles. The eye-witnesses who spoke of them were too trustworthy and despised falsehood too much to let him suppose that they were telling things that had not happened. Finally, Roman scepticism permitted disbelief in the gods, but believed in miracles. Vinicius, therefore, stood before a kind of marvellous puzzle which he could not solve. On the other hand, however, that religion seemed to him opposed to the existing state of things, impossible of practice, and mad in a degree beyond all others. According to him, people in Rome and in the whole world might be bad, but the order of things was good. Had C~csar, for example, been an honest man, had the Senate been composed, not of insignificant libertines, but of men like Thrasea, what more could one wish? Nay, Roman peace and supremacy were good; distinction among people just and proper. But that religion, according to the understanding of Vinicius, would destroy all order, all supremacy, every distinction. What would happen then to the dominion and lordship of Rome? Could the Romans cease to rule, or could they recognize a whole herd of conquered nations as equal to themselves? That was a thought which could find no place in the head of a patrician. As regarded him personally, that religion was opposed to all his ideas and habits, his whole character and understanding of life. He was simply unable to imagine how he could exist were he to accept it. He feared and admired it; but as to accepting it, his nature shuddered at that. He understood, finally, that nothing save that religion separated him from Lygia; and when he thought of this, he hated it with all the powers of his soul.

Still he acknowledged to himself that it had adorned Lygia with that exceptional, unexplained beauty which in his heart had produced, besides love, respect, besides desire, homage, and had made of that same Lygia a being dear to him l~eyond all others in the world. And then he wished anew to love Christ. And he understood clearly that he must either love or hate Him; he could not remain indifferent. Meanwhile two opposing currents were as if driving him: he hesitated in thoughts, in feelings; he knew not how to choose, he bowed his head, however, to that God by him uncomprehended, and paid silent honor for this sole reason, that He was Lygia's God.

Lygia saw what was happening in him; she saw how he was breaking himself, how his nature was rejecting that religion; and though this mortified her to the death, compassion, pity, and gratitude for the silent respect which he showed Christ inclined her heart to him with irresistible force. She recalled Pomponia Graecina and Aulus. For Pomponia a source of ceaseless sorrOw and tears that never dried was the thought that beyond the grave she would not find Aulus. Lygia began now to understand better that pain, that bitterness. She too had found a being dear to her, and she was threatened by eternal separation from this dear one.

At times, it is true, she was self-deceived, thinking that his soul would open itself to Christ's teaching; but these illusions could not remain. She knew and understood him too well. Vinicius a Christian! — These two ideas could find no place together in her unenlightened head. If the thoughtful, discreet Aulus had not become a Christian under the influence of the wise and perfect Pomponia, how could Vinicius become one? To this there was no answer, or rather there was only one, — that for him there was neither hope nor salvation.

But Lygia saw with terror that that sentence of condemnation which hung over him instead of making him repulsive made him still dearer simply through compassion. At moments the wish seized her to speak to him of his dark future; but once, when she had sat near him and told him that outside Christian truth there was no life, he, having grown stronger at that time, rose on his sound arm and placed his head on her knees suddenly. "Thou art life!" said he. And that moment breath failed in her breast, presence of mind left her, a certain quiver of ecstasy rushed over her from head to feet. Seizing his temples with her hands, she tried to raise him, but bent the while so that her lips touched his hair; and for a moment both were overcome with delight, with themselves, and with love, which urged them the one to the other.

Lygia rose at last and rushed away, with a flame in her veins and a giddiness in her head; but that was the drop which overflowed the cup filled already to the brim. Vinicius did not divine how dearly he would have to pay f or that happy moment, but Lygia understood that now she herself needed rescue. She spent the night after that evening without sleep, in tears and in prayer, with the feeling that she was unworthy to pray and could not be heard. Next morning she went from the cubiculum early, and, calling Crispus to the garden summer-house, covered with ivy and withered vines, opened her whole soul to him, imploring him at the same time to let her leave Miriam's house, since she could not trust herself longer, and could not overcome her heart's love for Vinicius.

Crispus, an old man, severe and absorbed in endless enthusiasm, consented to the plan of leaving Miriam's house, but he had no words of forgiveness for that love, to his thinking sinful. His heart swelled with indignation at the very thought that Lygia, whom he had guarded since the time of her flight, whom he had loved, whom he had confirmed in the faith, and on whom he looked now as a white lily grown up on the field of Christian teaching undefiled by any earthly breath, could have found a place in her soul for love other than heavenly. He had believed hitherto that nowhere in the world did there beat a heart more purely devoted to the glory of Christ. He wanted to offer her to Him as a pearl, a jewel, the precious work of his own hands; hence the disappointment which he felt filled him with grief and amazement.

"Go and beg God to forgive thy fault," said he, gloomily. "Flee before the evil spirit who involved thee bring thee to utter fall, and before thou oppose the Saviour. God died on the cross to redeem thy soul with His blood, but thou hart preferred to love him who wished to make thee his concubine. God saved thee by a miracle of His own hands, but thou hart opened thy heart to impure desire, and hast loved the son of darkness. Who is he? The friend and servant of Antichrist, his copartner in crime and profligacy. Whither will he lead thee, if not to that abyss and to that Sodom in which he himself is living, but which God will destroy with the flame of His anger? But I say to thee, would thou hadst died, would the walls of this house had fallen on thy head before that serpent had crept into thy bosom and beslimed it with the poison of iniquity."

And he was borne away more and more, for Lygia's fault filled him not only with anger but with loathing and contempt for human nature in general, and in particular for women, whom even Christian truth could not save from Eve's weakness. To him it seemed nothing that the maiden had remained pure, that she wished to flee from that love, that she had confessed it with compunction and penitence. Crispus had wished to transform her into an angel, to raise her to heights where love for Christ alone existed, and she had fallen in love with an Augustian. The very thought of that filled his heart with horror, strengthened by a feeling of disillusion and disappointment. No, no, he could not forgive her. Words of horror burned his lips like glowing coals; he struggled still with himself not to utter them, but he shook his emaciated hands over the terrified gil. Lygia felt guilty, but not to that degree. She had judged even that withdrawal from Miriam's house would be her victory over temptation, and would lessen her fault. Crispus rubbed her into the dust; showed her all the misery and insignificance of her soul, which she had not suspected hitherto. She had judged even that the old presbyter, who from the moment of her flight from the Palatine had been to her as a father, would show some compassion, console her, give her courage, and strengthen her.

"I offer my pain and disappointment to God," said he, "but thou hast deceived the Saviour also, for thou hast gone as it were to a quagmire which has poisoned thy soul with its miasma. Thou mightst have offered it to Christ as a costly vessel, and said to Him, 'Fill it with grace, O Lord!' but thou hart preferred to offer it to the servant of the evil one. May God forgive thee and have mercy on thee; for till thou cast out the serpent, I who held thee as chosen—"

But he ceased suddenly to speak, for he saw that they were not alone. Through the withered vines and the ivy, which was green alike in summer and winter, he saw two men, one of whom was Peter the Apostle. The other he was unable to recognize at once, for a mantle of coarse woollen stuff, called cilicium, concealed a part of his face. It seemed to Crispus for a moment that that was Chilo.

They, hearing the loud voice of Crispus, entered the summer-house and sat on a stone bench. Peter's companion had an emaciated face; his head, which was growing bald, was covered at the sides with curly hair; he had reddened eyelids and a crooked nose; in the face, ugly and at the same time inspired, Crispus recognized the features of Paul of Tarsus.

Lygia, casting herself on her knees, embraced Peter's feet, as if from despair, and, sheltering her tortured head in the fold of his mantle, remained thus in silence.

"Peace to your souls!" said Peter.

And seeing the child at his feet he asked what had happened. Crispus began then to narrate all that Lygia had confessed to him, — her sinful love, her desire to flee from Miriam's house, — and his sorrow that a soul which he had thought to offer to Christ pure as a tear had defiled itself with earthly feelings for a sharer in all those crimes into which the pagan world had sunk, and which called for God's vengeance.

Lygia during his speech embraced with increasing force the feet of the Apostle, as if wishing to seek refuge near them, and to beg even a little compassion.

But the Apostle, when he had listened to the end, bent down and placed his aged hand on her head; then he raised his eyes to the old presbyter, and said,— "Crispus, hast thou not heard that our beloved Master was in Cana, at a wedding, and blessed love between man and woman?"

Crispus's hands dropped, and he looked with astonishment on the speaker, without power to utter one word. After a moment's silence Peter asked again,— "Crispus, dost thou think that Christ, who permitted Mary of Magdala to lie at his feet, and who forgave the public sinner, would turn from this maiden, who is as pure as a lily of the field?"

Lygia nestled up more urgently to the feet of Peter, with sobbing, understanding that she had not sought refuge in vain. The Apostle raised her face, which was covered with tears, and said to her, — 'While the eyes of him whom thou lovest are not open to the light of truth, avoid him, lest he bring thee to sin, but pray for him, and know that there is no sin in thy love. And since it is thy wish to avoid temptation, this will be accounted to thee as a merit. Do not suffer, and do not weep; for I tell thee that the grace of the Redeemer has not deserted thee, and that thy prayers will be heard; after sorrow will come days of gladness."

When he had said this, he placed both hands on her head, and, raising his eyes, blessed her. From his face there shone a goodness beyond that of earth.

The penitent Crispus began humbly to explain himself; "I have sinned against mercy," said he; "but I thought that by admitting to her heart an earthly love she had denied Christ."

"I denied Him thrice," answered Peter, "and still He forgave me, and commanded me to feed His sheep."

"And because," concluded Crispus, "Vinicius is an Augustian."

"Christ softened harder hearts than his," replied Peter.

Then Paul of Tarsus, who had been silent so far, placed his finger on his breast, pointing to himself, and said, — "I am he who persecuted and hurried servants of Christ to their death; I am he who during the stoning of Stephen kept the garments of those who stoned him; I am he who wished to root out the truth in every part of the inhabited earth, and yet the Lord predestined me to declare it in every land. I have declared it in Judea, in Greece, on the Islands, and in this godless city, where first I resided as a prisoner. And now when Peter, my superior, has summoned me, I enter this house to bend that proud head to the feet of Christ, and cast a grain of seed in that stony field, which the Lord will fertilize, so that it may bring forth a bountiful harvest."

And he rose. To Crispus that diminutive hunchback seemed then that which he was in reality, — a giant, who was to stir the world to its foundations and gather in lands and nations.