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Chapter 63

 

AFTER the spectacle in Caesar's gardens the prisons were emptied considerably. It is true that victims suspected of the Oriental superstition were seized yet and imprisoned, but pursuit brought in fewer and fewer persons, — barely enough for coming exhibitions, which were to follow quickly. People were sated with blood; they showed growing weariness, and increasing alarm because of the unparalleled conduct of the condemned. Fears like those of the superstitious Vestinius seized thousands of people. Among the crowds tales more and more wonderful were related of the vengefulness of the Christian God. Prison typhus, which had spread through the city, increased the general dread. The number of funerals was evident, and it was repeated from ear to ear that fresh piacula were needed to mollify the unknown god. Offerings were made in the temples to Jove and Libitina. At last, in spite of every effort of Tigellinus and his assistants, the opinion kept spreading that the city had been burned at command of Caesar, and that the Christians were suffering innocently.

But for this very reason Nero and Tigellinus were untiring in persecution. To calm the multitude, fresh orders were issued to distribute wheat, wine, and olives. To relieve owners, new rules were published to facilitate the building of houses; and others touching width of streets and materials to be used in building so as to avoid fires in future. Caesar himself attended sessions of the Senate, and counselled with the "fathers" on the good of the people and the city; but not a shadow of favor fell on the doomed. The ruler of the world was anxious, above all, to fix in people's minds a conviction that such merciless punishments could strike only the guilty. In the Senate no voice was heard on behalf of the Christians, for no one wished to offend Caesar; and besides, those who looked farther into the future insisted that the foundations of Roman rule could not stand against the new faith.

The dead and the dying were given to their relatives, as Roman law took no vengeance on the dead. Vinicius received a certain solace from the thought that if Lygia died he would bury her in his family tomb, and rest near her. At that time he had no hope of rescuing her; half separated from life, he was himself wholly absorbed in Christ, and dreamed no longer of any union except an eternal one. His faith had become simply boundless; for it eternity seemed something incomparably truer and more real than the fleeting life which he had lived up to that time. His heart was overflowing with concentrated enthusiasm. Though yet alive, he had changed into a being almost immaterial, which desiring complete liberation for itself desired it also for another. He imagined that when free he and Lygia would each take the other's hand and go to heaven, where Christ would bless them, and let them live in light as peaceful and boundless as the light of dawn. He merely implored Christ to spare Lygia the torments of the Circus, and let her fall asleep calmly in prison; he felt with perfect certainty that he himself would die at the same time. In view of the sea of blood which had been shed, he did not even think it permitted to hope that she alone would be spared. He had heard from Peter and Paul that they, too, must die as martyrs. The sight of Chilo on the cross had convinced him that even a martyr's death could be sweet; hence he wished it for Lygia and himself as the change of an evil, sad, and oppressive fate for a better.

At times he bad a foretaste of life beyond the grave. That sadness which hung over the souls of both was losing its former burning bitterness, and changing gradually into a kind of trans-terrestrial, calm abandon to the will of God. Vinicius, who formerly had toiled against the current, had struggled and tortured himself, yielded now to the stream, believing that it would bear him to eternal calm. He divined, too, that Lygia, as well as he, was preparing for death, — that, in spite of the prison walls separating them, they were advancing together; and he smiled at that thought as at happiness.

In fact, they were advancing with as much agreement as if they had exchanged thoughts every day for a long time. Neither had Lygia any desire, any hope, save the hope of a life beyond the grave. Death was presented to her not only as a liberation from the terrible walls of the prison, from the hands of Caesar and Tigellinus, — not only as liberation, but as the hour of her marriage to Vinicius. In view of this unshaken certainty, all else lost importance. After death would come her happiness, which was even earthly, so that she waited for it also as a betrothed waits for the wedding-day.

And that immense current of faith, which swept away from life and bore beyond the grave thousands of those first confessors, bore away Ursus also. Neither had he in his heart been resigned to Lygia's death; but when day after day through the prison walls came news of what was happening in the amphitheatres and the gardens, when death seemed the common, inevitable lot of all Christians and also their good, higher than all mortal conceptions of happiness, he did not dare to pray to Christ to deprive Lygia of that happiness or to delay it for long years. In his simple barbarian soul he thought, besides, that more of those heavenly delights would belong to the daughter of the Lygian chief, that she would have more of them than would a whole crowd of simple ones to whom he himself belonged, and that in eternal glory she would sit nearer to the "Lamb" than would others. He had heard, it is true, that before God men are equal; but a conviction was lingering at the bottom of his soul that the daughter of a leader, and besides of a leader of all the Lygians, was not the same as the first slave one might meet. He hoped also that Christ would let him continue to serve her. His one secret wish was to die on a cross as the "Lamb" died. But this seemed a happiness so great that he hardly dared to pray for it, though he knew that in Rome even the worst criminals were crucified. He thought that surely he would be condemned to die under the teeth of wild beasts; and this was his one sorrow. From childhood he had lived in impassable forests, amid continual hunts, in which, thanks to his superhuman strength, he was famous among the Lygians even before he had grown to manhood. This, occupation had become for him so agreeable that later, when in Rome, and forced to live without hunting, he went to vivaria and amphitheatres just to look at beasts known and unknown to him. The sight of these always roused in the man an irresistible desire for struggle and killing; so now he feared in his soul that on meeting them in the amphitheatre he would be attacked by thoughts unworthy of a Christian, whose duty it was to die piously and patiently. But in this he committed himself to Christ, and found other and more agreeable thoughts to comfort him. Hearing that the "Lamb" had declared war against the powers of hell and evil spirits with which the Christian faith connected all pagan divinities, he thought that in this war he might serve the "Lamb" greatly, and serve better than others, for he could not help believing that his soul was stronger than the souls of other martyrs. Finally, he prayed whole days, rendered service to prisoners, helped overseers, and comforted his queen, who complained at times that in her short life she had not been able to do so many good deeds as the renowned Tabitha of whom Peter the Apostle had told her. Even the prison guards, who feared the terrible strength of this giant, since neither bars nor chains could restrain it,'came to love him at last for his mildness. Amazed at his good temper,'aethey asked more than once what its cause was. He spoke with such firm certainty of the life waiting after death for him, that they listened with surprise, seeing for the first time that happiness might penetrate a dungeon which; sunlight could not reach. And when he urged them to believe in the "Lamb," it occurred to more than one of those people that his own service was the service of a slave, his own life the life of an unfortunate; and he fell to thinking over his evil fate, the only end to which was death.

But death brought new fear, and promised nothing beyond; while that giant and that maiden, who was like a flower cast on the straw of the prison, went toward it with delight, as toward the gates of happiness.