« PredošláPokračovať »
Christ. Whoso apprehends in his soul the meaning of the Great Sacrifice, will thenceforth count not his life dear unto him for the testimony of Jesus."
“But is the way of the Cross such a thorny, bloodstained path ?” asked the Greek, with quavering voice.
“Are those noble souls, the highborn and beautiful Valeria, the good and gentle Callirhoë, exposed to such appalling
perils ? "
“We live in troublous times," answered Adauctus. “ Christ came not to send peace on the earth but a sword. Whoso will save his life by cowardice and treachery shall basely lose it. Whoso will lose it for Christ's sake shall gloriously and forever find it !”
These words burned into the heart and brain of the craven Greek, and he winced and shrank beneath them as if a hot iron were searing his quivering flesh.
“But we must hope for the best,” went on Adauctus more cheerfully. "We must take every precaution. Life and liberty are glorious gifts. We may not rashly imperil them. I trust that our august mistress, standing so near the throne, stands in no peculiar peril; and you may be sure her power will be used for the protection of her friends. So,” he added with a laugh of keen intelligence, “if thou hast any special interest in the fair Callirhoë, be sure she enjoys the most potent patronage in Rome.”
"But you, take you no precaution for yourself?” entreated the Greek. “ You know not the bitterness of the jealousy and hate of your enemies."
Oh, yes, I do," the Imperial treasurer calmly replied. “As for me, my work is here. By ruling righteously and dealing justly I can prevent much fraud, and wrong, and suffering. I can shield the innocent and frustrate the villany of public thieves—and there are many such in the high places of this degenerate city. Our heroic ancestors decreed that we must never dispair of our country. But I confess, were it not for that salt of Christian faith that preserves the old Roman world, I believe it would sink into moral putrescence. It is this divine leaven which alone can leaveu the whole mass.”
'HE scene of our story is now transferred to
the Palace of the Emperor Galerius, one of the most sumptuous of the group of marble buildings which crowned the Palatine Hill. It is the hour of midnight; and in one of the most private chambers of the palace a secret conspiracy is in progress, which has for its object the destruction of the Christians—especially of those high in rank and influence. The lamps in the aula and vestibule burned dimly, and, in iron sockets along the outside of the palace walls, flared and smoked torches made of tow covered with a coating of clay or plaster. *
* Such torch-holders may still be seen on the walls of the Palazzo Strozzi and in Florence and elsewhere. Torches of the sort we have described were purchased by the writer at Pozzuoli, near Naples.
Fausta, the mother of Galerius, and Furca, the high-priest of Cybele, were already conferring upon their secret plot. With them was Black Juba, who had just returned from gathering, at "the witching hour of night," upon the unballowed ground set apart for the burning of the dead, certain baleful plants—wolf's bane, bitter briony, and aconite—which she used in wicked spells and incantations. In her native Nubia she had an evil reputation as a sorceress, and in Rome she still carried on by stealth her nefarious art. It was hinted, indeed, in the palace, that by her subtle, deadly potions she fulfilled her own prophecies of ill against the objects of the hatred of her employers.
“ 'Tis certain," hissed through her teeth the spiteful old Fausta, while murder gleamed from her sloe-black eyes, “that Galerius will not include in the Imperial rescript that painted doll, Valeria. She exerts unbounded fascination over him. It must be the spell of her false religion.”
“ The spell of her beauty and grace, rather," answered Furca, with a grin.
“What! Are you duped by her wiles, too ?” asked Fausta, with bitterness.
"No; I hate her all the more,” said the priest; “ but I cannot close my eyes to what every one sees.”
" It is something that I, at least, do not see,” muttered the withered crone, whose own harsh features seemed the very incarnation of hatred and cruelty. “If we cannot get rid of her under the decree," she went on, " we can, at least, in a surer but more perilous way. Cunning Juba, here, has access to her person; and by her skilled decoctions can make her beauty waste, and her life flicker to extinction, like a lamp unreplenished with oil.”
“ Yes, Juba has learned, in the old land of the Nile, some of the dark secrets of Egypt," whispered, with bated breath, the dusky African. “ But it is very perilous to use them. The palace is full of suspicion; and that new favourite, Callirhoë,—how I hate her —keeps watch over her mistress like the wild gazelle of the desert over its mate. It will take much gold to pay for the risk.”
“Gold thou shalt have to thy heart's content, if thou do but rid me of that cockatrice, who has usurped my place in my son's affections," hissed the wicked woman, who still felt a fierce, tigerlike love for the soldier-son whom she had trained up like a tiger cub. And Juba retired, to await further orders.
“But if she die thus," said Furca, with a malignant gleam in his eyes, “she dies alone. What we want is to have her drag others down with her-her mother, Prisca; that haughty