Serapis by Georg Ebers
There was much bustle and stir in the hall of the Episcopal palace. Priests and monks were crowding in and out; widows, who, as deaconesses, were entrusted with the care of the sick, were waiting, bandages in hand, and discussing their work and cases, while acolytes lifted the wounded on to the litters to carry them to the hospitals.
The deacon Eusebius, whom we have met as the spiritual adviser of Marcus, was superintending the good work, and he took particular care that as much attention should be shown to the wounded heathen as to the Christians.
In front of the building veterans of the twenty-first legion paced up and down in the place of the ordinary gate-keepers, who were sufficient protection in times of peace.
Agne looked in vain for any but soldiers, but at last she slipped in unobserved among the men and women who were tending the wounded. She was terribly thirsty, and seeing one of the widows mixing some wine and water and offer it to one of the wounded men who pushed it away, she took courage and begged the deaconess to give her a drink. The woman handed her the cup at once, asking to whom she belonged that she was here.
"I want to see my lord, the Bishop," replied Agne, but then correcting herself, she added hastily: "If I could see the Bishop's gate-keeper, I might speak to him."
"There he is," said the deaconess, pointing to an enormously tall man standing in the darkest and remotest corner of the hall. The darkness reminded her for the first time that it was now evening. Night was drawing on, and then where could she take refuge and find shelter? She shuddered and simply saying: "Thank you," she went to the man who had been pointed out to her and begged that if her little brother should be found and brought to him, he would take charge of him.
"To be sure," said the big man good-naturedly. "He can be taken to the orphanage of the 'Good Samaritan' if they bring him here, and you can enquire for him there."
She then made so bold as to ask if she could see a priest; but for this she was directed to go to the church, as all those who were immediately attached to the Bishop were to-day fully occupied, and had no time for trifles. Agne, however, persisted in her request till the man lost patience altogether and told her to be off at once; but at this instant three ecclesiastics came in at the door by which her friend was on guard, and Agne, collecting all her courage, went up to one of them, a priest of advanced age, and besought him urgently:
"Oh! reverend Father, I beg of you to hear me. I must speak to a priest, and that man drives me away and says you none of you have time to attend to me!"
"Did he say that!" asked the priest, and he turned angrily on the culprit saying: "The Church and her ministers never lack time to attend to the needs of any faithful soul--I will follow you, brothers.--Now, my child, what is it that you need?"
"It lies so heavily on my soul," replied Agne, raising her eyes and hands in humble supplication. "I love my Saviour, but I cannot always do exactly as I should wish, and I do not know how I ought to act so as not to fall into sin."
"Come with me," said the priest, and leading the way across a small garden, he took her into a wide open court and from thence in at a side door and up a flight of stairs which led to the upper floor. As she followed him her heart beat high with painful and yet hopeful excitement. She kept her hands tightly clasped and tried to pray, but she could hardly control her thoughts of her brother and of all she wanted to say to the presbyter.
They presently entered a lofty room where the window-shutters were closed, and where a number of lamps, already lighted, were hanging over the cushioned divans on which sat rows of busy scribes of all ages.
"Here we are," said the priest kindly, as he seated himself in an easy-chair at some little distance from the writers. "Now, tell me fully what troubles you; but as briefly as you can, for I am sparing you these minutes from important business."
"My lord," she began, "my parents were freeborn, natives of Augusta Trevirorum. My father was a collector of tribute in the Emperor's service . . ."
"Very good--but has this anything to do with the matter?"
"Yes, yes, it has. My father and mother were good Christians and in the riots at Antioch--you remember, my lord, three years ago--they were killed and I and my brother--Papias is his name . . ."
"Yes, yes--go on."
"We were sold. My master paid for us--I saw the money; but he did not treat us as slaves. But now he wants me--he, Sir, is wholly devoted to the heathen gods-and he wants me . . ."
"To serve his idols?"
"Yes, reverend Father, and so we ran away."
"Quite right, my child."
"But the scriptures say that the slave shall obey his master?"
"True; but higher than the master in the flesh is the Father in Heaven, and it is better a thousand times to sin against man than against God."
This conversation had been carried on in an undertone on account of the scribes occupied at the desks; but the priest raised his voice with his last words, and he must have been heard in the adjoining room, for a heavy curtain of plain cloth was opened, and an unusually deep and powerful voice exclaimed:
"Back again already, Irenaeus! That is well; I want to speak with you."
"Immediately, my lord--I am at your service in a moment.--Now, my child," he added, rising, "you know what your duty is. And if your master looks you up and insists on your assisting at the sacrifice or what ever it may be, you will find shelter with us. My name is Irenaeus."
Here he was again interrupted, for the curtain was lifted once more and a man came out of the inner room whom no one could forget after having once met him. It was the Bishop whom Agne had seen on the balcony; she recognized him at once, and dropped on her knees to kiss the hem of his robe in all humility. Theophilus accepted the homage as a matter of course, hastily glancing at the child with his large keen eyes; Agne not daring to raise hers, for there was certainly something strangely impressive in his aspect. Then, with a wave of his long thin hand to indicate Agne, he asked:
"What does this girl want?"
"A freeborn girl--parents Christian--comes from Antioch. . ." replied Irenaeus. "Sold to a heathen master--commanded to serve idols--has run away and now has doubts. . ."
"You have told her to which Lord her service is due?" interrupted the Bishop. Then, turning to Agne, he said: "And why did you come here instead of going to the deacon of your own church?"
"We have only been here a few days," replied the girl timidly, as she ventured to raise her eyes to the handsome face of this princely prelate, whose fine, pale features looked as if they had been carved out of marble.
"Then go to partake of the sacred Eucharist in the basilica of Mary," replied the Bishop. "It is just now the hour--but no, stop. You are a stranger here you say; you have run away from your master--and you are young, very young and very. . . . It is dark too. Where are you intending to sleep?"
"I do not know," said Agne, and her eyes filled with tears.
"That is what I call courage!" murmured Theophilus to the priest, and then he added to Agne: "Well, thanks to the saints, we have asylums for such as you, here in the city. That scribe will give you a document which will secure your admission to one. So you come from Antioch? Then there is the refuge of Seleucus of Antioch. To what parish--[Parochia in Latin]--did your parents belong?"
"To that of John the Baptist?"
"Where Damascius was the preacher?"
"Yes, holy Father. He was the shepherd of our souls."
"What! Damascius the Arian?" cried the Bishop. He drew his fine and stately figure up to its most commanding height and closed his thin lips in august contempt, while Irenaeus, clasping his hands in horror, asked her:
"And you--do you, too, confess the heresy of Arius?"
"My parents were Arians," replied Agne in much surprise. "They taught me to worship the godlike Saviour."
"Enough!" exclaimed the Bishop severely. "Come Irenaeus."
He nodded to the priest to follow him, opened the curtain and went in first with supreme dignity.
Agne stood as if a thunderbolt had fallen, pale, trembling and desperate. Then was she not a Christian? Was it a sin in a child to accept the creed of her parents? And were those who, after charitably extending a saving hand, had so promptly withdrawn it--were they Christians in the full meaning of the All-merciful Redeemer?
Agonizing doubts of everything that she had hitherto deemed sacred and inviolable fell upon her soul; doubts of everything in heaven and earth, and not merely of Christ and of his godlike, or divine goodness--for what difference was there to her apprehension in the meaning of the two words which set man to hunt and persecute man? In the distress and hopeless dilemma in which she found herself, she shed no tears; she simply stood rooted to the spot where she had heard the Bishop's verdict.
Presently her attention was roused by the shrill voice of an old writer who called out to one of the younger assistants.
"That girl disturbs me, Petubastis; show her out." Petubastis, a pretty Egyptian lad, was more than glad of an interruption to his work which somehow seemed endless to-day; he put aside his implements, stroked back the black hair that had fallen over his face, and removing the reed-pen from behind his ear, stuck in a sprig of dark blue larkspur. Then he tripped to the door, opened it, looked at the girl with the cool impudence of a connoisseur in beauty, bowed slightly, and pointing the way out said with airified politeness:
Agne at once obeyed and with a drooping head left the room; but the young Egyptian stole out after her, and as soon as the door was shut he seized her hand and said in a whisper: "If you can wait half an hour at the bottom of the stairs, pretty one, I will take you somewhere where you will enjoy yourself."
She had stopped to listen, and looked enquiringly into his face, for she had no suspicion of his meaning; the young fellow, encouraged by this, laid his hand on her shoulder and would have drawn her towards him but that she, thrusting him from her as if he were some horrible animal, flew down the steps as fast as her feet could carry her, and through the courtyard back into the great entrance-hall.
Here all was, by this time, dark and still; only a few lamps lighted the pillared space and the flare of a torch fell upon the benches placed there for the accommodation of priests, laymen and supplicants generally.
Utterly worn out--whether by terror or disappointment or by hunger and fatigue she scarcely knew--she sank on a seat and buried her face in her hands.
During her absence the wounded had been conveyed to the sick-houses; one only was left whom they had not been able to move. He was lying on a mattress between two of the columns at some little distance from Agne, and the light of a lamp, standing on a medicine-chest, fell on his handsome but bloodless features. A deaconess was kneeling at his head and gazed in silence in the face of the dead, while old Eusebius crouched prostrate by his side, resting his cheek on the breast of the man whose eyes were sealed in eternal sleep. Two sounds only broke the profound silence of the deserted hall: an occasional faint sob from the old man and the steady step of the soldiers on guard in front of the Bishop's palace. The widow, kneeling with clasped hands, never took her eyes off the face of the youth, nor moved for fear of disturbing the deacon who, as she knew, was praying--praying for the salvation of the heathen soul snatched away before it could repent. Many minutes passed before the old man rose, dried his moist eyes, pressed his lips to the cold hand of the dead and said sadly:
"So young--so handsome--a masterpiece of the Creator's hand! . . . Only to-day as gay as a lark, the pride and joy of his mother-and now! How many hopes, how much triumph and happiness are extinct with that life. O Lord my Saviour, Thou hast said that not only those who call Thee Lord, Lord, shall find grace with our Father in Heaven, and that Thou hast shed Thy blood for the salvation even of the heathen--save, redeem this one! Thou that are the Good Shepherd, have mercy on this wandering sheep!"
Stirred to the bottom of his soul the old man threw up his arms and gazed upwards rapt in ecstasy. But presently, with an effort, he said to the deaconess:
"You know, Sister, that this lad was the only son of Berenice, the widow of Asclepiodorus, the rich shipowner. Poor, bereaved mother! Only yesterday he was driving his guadriga out of the gate on the road to Marea, and now--here! Go and tell her of this terrible occurrence. I would go myself but that, as I am a priest, it might be painful to her to learn of his tragic end from one of the very men against whom the poor darkened youth had drawn the sword. So do you go, Sister, and treat the poor soul very tenderly; and if you find it suitable show her very gently that there is One who has balm for every wound, and that we--we and all who believe in Him--lose what is dear to us only to find it again. Tell her of hope: Hope is everything. They say that green is the color of hope, for it is the spring-tide of the heart. There may be a Spring for her yet."
The deaconess rose, pressed a kiss on the eyes of the dead youth, promised Eusebius that she would do her best and went away. He, too, was about to leave when he heard a sound of low sobbing from one of the benches. He stood still to listen, shook his old head, and muttering to himself:
"Great God--merciful and kind. . . . Thou alone canst know wherefore Thou hast set the rose-garland of life with so many sharp thorns," he went up to Agne who rose at his approach.
"Why, my child," he said kindly, "what are you weeping for? Have you, too, lost some dear one killed in the fray?"
"No, no," she hastily replied with a gesture of terror at the thought.
"What then do you want here at so late an hour?"
"Nothing--nothing," she said. "That is all over! Good God, how long I must have been sitting here--I--I know I must go; yes, I know it."
"And are you alone-no one with you?"
She shook her head sadly. The old man looked at her narrowly.
"Then I will take you safe home," he said. "You see I am an old man and a priest. Where do you live, my child?"
"I? I. . ." stammered Agne, and a torrent of scalding tears fell down her cheeks. "My God! my God! where, where am I to go?"
"You have no home, no one belonging to you?" asked the old man. "Come, child, pluck up your courage and tell me truly what it is that troubles you; perhaps I may be able to help you."
"You?" she said with bitter melancholy. "Are not you one of the Bishop's priests?"
"I am a deacon, and Theophilus is the head of my church; but for that very reason . . ."
"No," said Agne sharply, "I will deceive no one. My parents were Arians, and as my beliefs are the same as theirs the Bishop has driven me away as an outcast, finally and without pity."
"Indeed," said Eusebius. "Did the Bishop do that? Well, as the head of a large community of Christians he, of course, is bound to look at things in their widest aspect; small things, small people can be nothing to him. I, on the contrary, am myself but a small personage, and I care for small things. You know, child, that the Lord has said 'that in his Father's kingdom there are many mansions,' and that in which Arius dwells is not mine; but it is in the Father's kingdom nevertheless. It cannot be so much amiss after all that you should cling to the creed of your parents. What is your name?"
"Agne, or the lamb. A pretty, good name! It is a name I love, as I, too, am a shepherd, though but a very humble one, so trust yourself to me, little lamb. Tell me, why are you crying? And whom do you seek here? And how is it that you do not know where to find a home?"
Eusebius spoke with such homely kindness, and his voice was so full of fatherly sympathy that hope revived in Agne's breast, and she told him with frank confidence all he wanted to know.
The old man listened with many a "Hum" and "Ha"--then he bid her accompany him to his own house, where his wife would find a corner that she might fill.
She gladly agreed, and thanked him eagerly when he also told the doorkeeper to bring Papias after them if he should be found. Relieved of the worst of her griefs, Agne followed her new friend through the streets and lanes, till they paused at the gate of a small garden and he said: "Here we are. What we have we give gladly, but it is little, very little. Indeed, who can bear to live in luxury when so many are perishing in want and misery?"
As they went across the plot, between the little flower-beds, the deacon pointed to a tree and said with some pride: "Last year that tree bore me three hundred and seven peaches, and it is still healthy and productive."
A hospitable light twinkled in the little house at the end of the garden, and as they entered a queer-looking dog came out to meet his master, barking his welcome. He jumped with considerable agility on his fore-legs, but his hind legs were paralyzed and his body sloped away and stuck up in the air as though it were attached to an invisible board.
"This is my good friend Lazarus," said the old man cheerfully. "I found the poor beggar in the road one day, and as he was one of God's creatures, although he is a cripple, I comfort myself with the verse from the Psalms: 'The Lord has no joy in the strength of a horse, neither taketh he pleasure in any man's legs.'"
He was so evidently content and merry that Agne could not help laughing too, and when, in a few minutes, the deacon's wife gave her a warm and motherly reception she would have been happier than she had been for a long time past, if only her little brother had not been a weight on her mind and if she had not longed so sadly to have him safe by her side. But even that anxiety presently found relief, for she was so weary and exhausted that, after eating a few mouthfuls, she was thankful to lie down in the clean bed that Elizabeth had prepared for her, and she instantly fell asleep. She was in the old deacon's bed, and he made ready to pass the night on the couch in his little sitting-room.
As soon as the old couple were alone Eusebius told his wife how and where he had met the girl and ended by saying:
"It is a puzzling question as to these Arians and other Christian heretics. I cannot be hard on them so long as they cling faithfully to the One Lord who is necessary to all. If we are in the right--and I firmly believe that we are--and the Son is of one substance of the Father, he is without spot or blemish; and what can be more divine than to overlook the error of another if it concerns ourselves, or what more meanly human than to take such an error amiss and indulge in a cruel or sanguinary revenge on the erring soul? Do not misunderstand me. I, unfortunately--or rather, I say, thank God!--I have done nothing great here on earth, and have never risen to be anything more than a deacon. But if a boy comes up to me and mistakes me for an acolyte or something of that kind, is that a reason why I should flout or punish him? Not a bit of it.
"And to my belief our Saviour is too purely divine to hate those who regard Him as only 'God-like.' He is Love. And when Arius goes to Heaven and sees Jesus Christ in all His divine glory, and falls down before Him in an ecstasy of joy and repentance, the worst the Lord will do to him will be to take him by the ear and say: 'Thou fool! Now thou seest what I really am; but thine errors be forgiven!'"
Elizabeth nodded assent. "Amen," she said, "so be it.--And so, no doubt, it will be. Did the Lord cast out the woman taken in adultery? Did he not give us the parable of the Samaritan?--Poor little girl! We have often wished for a daughter and now we have found one; a pretty creature she is too. God grants us all our wishes! But you must be tired, old man; go to rest now."
"Directly, directly," said Eusebius; but then, striking his forehead with his hand, he went on in much annoyance: "And with all this tumult and worry I had quite forgotten the most important thing of all: Marcus! He is like a possessed creature, and if I do not make a successful appeal to his conscience before he sleeps this night mischief will come of it. Yes, I am very tired; but duty before rest. It is of no use to contradict me, Mother. Get me my cloak; I must go to the lad." And a few minutes later the old man was making his way to the house in the Canopic street.