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THE TRIAL AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
“Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of CHRIST’S sufferings, that when His glory shall be revealed ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” – 1 S. Pet. IV, 13.
LYSIAS enters the Roman Forum, round which are situated the various courts of justice. Towards one of these, already well filled with people, he bends his steps, for it is there that the morning’s business is to be transacted, and the fate of the newly taken prisoner decided.
Early as is the hour the prefect is seated in his judgment chair, and before him are standing two culprits awaiting their examination, which is just about to begin.
One of these is a man in the prime of life; the other a young girl, the innocent victim of Lysias’ avarice, and now the cause of his discontent, and the object of the spectators’ pity. Her hair, which is of raven blackness, falls in virginal tresses (1) over her delicately moulded shoulders, and her large dark eyes, full of passionate eagerness, are turned wonderingly on the surrounding crowd, who in return survey her with glances of commiseration.
Her companion is of mild aspect, and apparently about thirty-five years old, with light brown hair, and grave sublime eyes of the same colour. To him the prefect first turns, and addresses him as follows:
“Prisoner, what is your name?”
To this question the other replies, raising his eyes to the stern face of his interrogator, “My name is Crescentianus, and I am a Roman by birth and parentage.”
“Are you a Christian?”
“You must sacrifice to the gods.”
“I refuse,” is the mild rejoinder.
Hereupon the prefect grows angry, and
exclaims, “I tell you, impious man, you must either obey the emperor’s edict or suffer death. Which will you do therefore? obey, and enjoy life and honour, or remain obstinate, and perish? It is an important question, especially to you who are in the full vigour of health and reason. I advise you therefore to consider well before you decide, for the law admits of no alteration or alternative. You must yield obedience to the gods, or perish miserably. I cannot mitigate the severity of the punishment, l can only advise you to escape it. Prisoner, I have warned you of your dangerous position, I now ask you which you will have, life or death?”
There is a momentary hush of silence throughout the court, and every individual in the crowd leans eagerly forward to catch the prisoner’s answer.
What says he?
He joins his hands firmly together, and his lips move in silent prayer, while the judge regards him with an impatient frown, and the young girl at his side watches him nervously.
Presently he turns again to the prefect, and gives his answer with calm resolution. It is a brief reply contained in one short monosyllable, but it is nevertheless an important word, which must seal his destiny in this world.
No sooner had the sound escaped his lips, than a general hum and buzz arises among the crowd, each member of it expressing his astonishment or wonder at the cool intrepidity of Crescentianus.
When the whispering has subsided, and silence is again restored, the prefect addresses the young girl, whom perhaps my readers may have already recognized as the friend and confidant of Beatrice, and thus begins the examination from which Lysias hopes to gather some clue to the whereabouts of the lady.
“What is your name?”
“Donata,” answers the poor girl, with her eyes steadily fixed on the ground, half with a sense of shame at her situation, and half in terror at the formidable appearance of her judge, who perceiving her agitation, changes his tone of voice, and continues more kindly, “How old are you, my child?”
“Nearly eighteen, noble sir,” replies Donata reassured by his altered manner, but still keeping her glance riveted to the ground.
“You are a Christian, I believe?” he asks with assumed negligence.
Donata raises her right hand to her forehead, and makes upon it the sign of the cross, (1) then
lifting her eyes suddenly to the prefect’s face, she answers with a steady voice, “I am a Christian, and I glory in the name!”
A thrill of mingled horror and compassion agitates the spectators, but the prefect continues unmoved, and in the same bland tone as before, “Are you of noble family?”
“No, sir,” is the timid reply, for the speaker is somewhat abashed at the sensation her previous answer has created, “my parents were poor people who both died when I was scarcely more than an infant; a charitable lady of the Julian House then adopted me and brought me up as her own daughter.”
“Her name, my child?” asked the judge insinuatingly.
“Memmia,” replies the unsuspecting girl.
“Is she living?”
“Yes, noble sir.”
“Is she a Christian?”
“She is, and from her I also learnt Christianity.”
“Where does she reside?”
“In a house on the Appian Way.”
“Is she married?”
“She is a widow, and lives with her sister, the lady Juliana.”
“Are you acquainted with the lady Beatrice?”
“Yes, noble sir.”
“Was she not with you in the cave when you were arrested?”
“Were not the bodies of Simplicius and Faustinus taken there for burial after having been recovered from the Tiber?”
Here the recollection of the martyred brothers arouses Donata’s indignation, and raising her head angrily she answers, “No, they were not.”
“I must not tell.”
“It is of no consequence,” returns the prefect with a sneer, “they are at least dead.”
Donata’s blood rises hotly to her cheeks, and her eyes flash fire at this unfeeling remark, but she remembers her LORD and is silent.
“You left the lady Beatrice in the cave?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Do you think she is there now?”
“Are you aware then of her having any intention to hide elsewhere?”
“And where do you suppose she is at present?”
Donata is silent.
“Answer me, girl, where is the lady Beatrice?”
A profound stillness hushes the spectators, and Lysias bends anxiously forward to catch the answer on which all his hopes depend.
The poor girl bursts into tears. “What am l to do?” she cries out piteously between her sobs, “would you have me betray my friend?”
“Obedience to the laws,” replied the prefect, “is of more consequence than private friendship. You must tell us therefore where the lady Beatrice is concealed, and you shall be rewarded accordingly.”
Alas, poor Donata! here is a temptation which would lead her into the very sin of Lysias; but young and weak as she is her nature is too noble and honest to be ensnared by the hope of gain. Her timidity and irresolution at once forsake her, she dashes her tears angrily away, and exclaims in an almost passionate voice, “Your laws are cruel and worthless if they can sanction such perfidy as that of which you would make me guilty! What, shall I sell my friend to you for gold? Do your gods allow such baseness, do they commend it, and do you call it holy?”
She ceases, her wild dark eyes gleaming with noble indignation, and her slender figure drawn proudly up to its full height, while her judge, enraged to hear his rewards disdained and the laws censured by such a mere child,
replies in a stern voice, “Prithee, obstinate girl, give over your foolish talk and listen to me, for I have an important question to ask you, and have already wasted too much time over it. You heard what I said to the prisoner Crescentianus, that the law enjoined either obedience to the emperors, or death. The same law applies to you. Renounce your Christianity, and you are free; persist in it, and you die. Notwithstanding your last bold speech I confess I feel some pity for your youth and beauty, and I therefore advise you to sacrifice to the gods, or you will find to your cost that the laws you have but just now abused are less worthless than you imagine.”
“Proceed with your sentence,” answers the undaunted girl, “my determination is unaltered.”
“And what is that?” asks the prefect.
“To die in my faith,” replies Donata, “I will gladly give myself for my LORD, even as He once gave Himself for me. Blessed CHRIST,” she continues, stretching forth her hands in prayer, “I thank Thee that Thou hast found me worthy to drink with Thee the cup of martyrdom on earth, that I may sit in glory with Thee in heaven.”
The angry judge, dreading the effects of Donata’s example on the surrounding crowd,
proceeds hastily to give sentence according to the established form.
“Crescentianus and the woman Donata, having confessed themselves Christians, and refused obedience to the sacred emperors and the gods of Rome, we order to be punished by the sword on the Salarian Way.”
The prisoners are then removed, and the spectators silently withdraw, many of them deeply affected by the artless piety of Donata, and almost inclined to pity her simplicity, and to blame the undue severity of the laws whose justice required the death even of such an innocent and harmless creature.
Among the last to leave the court we recognise the old white-haired man and the youth with whom we saw him disputing so warmly in the opening scene of our narrative. They are walking together, and from their earnest tone of voice and manner are evidently employed in discussing some topic of unusual interest. Let us accompany them on their way, and listen to their conversation.
“Alban,” says the old man, “what think you of this poor girl? For my part I confess I sincerely pity her, and would do everything in my power to save her life, were such a thing possible. I have seen only two Christian trials, – that of Simplicius and Faustinus, and this last, – and l assure you my sympathies are
already so far awakened in behalf of these poor oppressed men and women, that I am inclined to accuse our laws of injustice towards them.”
“You have but echoed my own sentiments,” replies the other gravely, – “I perfectly agree with all you have said; and what seems to me the most inexplicable, is, that notwithstanding all the means taken to destroy the Christians, their numbers are always on the increase, nor does the prospect even of death, in its most horrible shape, seem in the least to dismay or discourage them; but rather seems to augment their courage, and inflame their resolution. Some attribute this uncommon hardihood to the practice of sorcery and the black art, but I fancy such stories are only invented by superstitious persons, who, having always a love of mystery and wonder, are glad of some opportunity to indulge their favourite passion. I am inclined myself to suspect that the Christians thus give themselves up to destruction, with the view of propitiating their Deity, and are on that account more to be pitied than blamed. They evidently nourish some such delusion, or they would not be so willing to part with life, nor so apparently happy in the certainty of impending death. Do you remember how curiously Beatrice conducted herself, while her brothers were in arrest? She was as calm and as cheerful as
possible, and assured me so readily of their well doing, that I could scarcely believe you, when you told me they were in prison. She is an orphan too, poor girl, and they were her only brothers!”
“Ay,” says the old man, the tears rushing to his eyes as he speaks, “I did not know when I entered the Forum on the day of their execution, what a scene I was going to witness. And she, poor maid, how earnestly she strained her eyes and her ears, to catch every expression of their faces, and every word they uttered, during the trial! She spoke to them once or twice, but I could not hear the words she said, though I have no doubt they were intended to reanimate and encourage them. This poor girl Donata, whom we have just heard sentenced to death, was with her then, but her demeanour was not nearly so calm as just now. She would apparently rather herself suffer death, than see others die. Ah, Alban, I fear there are few of us who would so easily think of ending life! And if not we who are men, what shall be said of tender maidens, and children who daily give themselves up for their religion. Certainly, their’s is very wonderful courage, and I marvel not, that it has been ascribed to magical arts. I should like much to know more of Christianity, and whenever I find an opportunity shall certainly inquire into it.”
“You will do very right, Sergius,” replies the young man looking up at his companion – “I shall follow your example, for my curiosity is strongly awakened with regard to these Christians; meanwhile I bid you farewell, for I must return quickly home, may our parting not be a long one.” So speaking Alban takes leave of the old man, and turns hastily into an adjoining street, while Sergius moves slowly away in another direction.
Presently a quick light step is heard approaching the spot, and the figure of a young girl about fifteen years old, comes tripping along the pathway with a covered basket on her arm. She salutes Sergius with a bright merry smile, and a few kindly words of greeting, and is about to pass on, but he calls her to him, and begs her to stay a few minutes.
“What is your errand, this morning, little one?” he cries smiling, “it must be a very important one that you cannot spare a moment to speak with your old friend! But come, what have you there in your basket, some great treasure I suppose, since it is so carefully covered up? Nay,” he adds laughingly, as she attempts to pull it away from his grasp, “you must really let me look at its contents, or I shall fancy you are carrying stolen goods! What is this?” he continues taking off the cover, – “leaves of bread, garments,
and wine? What do you do with these, Cyriacides?”
She hesitates for an answer, and begins to blush, until on the repetition of the question, she replies tremulously, “I am carrying them to give to the poor, who often need such things, but have not the means to obtain them.”
“But you are not rich yourself, Cyriacides? and how then can you afford to give to others?”
“I can earn money,” she answers smiling, “and have also a few jewels which I sell sometimes, and so get sufficient to help myself and those whom I love and care for. Besides, you know, it is my duty to feed and clothe the poor, and to visit the sick, for so we are commanded to do.”
“By whom?” asks the old man.
“Forgive me, Sir,” stammers she reddening as she speaks, – “I forget, – I did not think of what I said, but I remember now you are not a Christian, – I mean you are not one of us, and therefore of course, cannot know what I mean.” And she snatches her basket from him, and runs quickly away.
“And is she too then a Christian?” says Sergius to himself, looking after her retreating form, “she whom I imagined so zealously devoted to the gods? Surely a disposition so generous, noble, and loveable as her’s is incompatible
with the profession of such superstitious vanities as I have heard attributed to the Christians! If Beatrice and Cyriacides are both Christians, it would surely do me no harm to be one also!”
(63:1) Flowing hair was a sign of the maiden state.
(65:1) Tertullian says it was the custom of the early Christians to sign their foreheads with this holy symbol very frequently in the occasions of their daily life.
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