The centurion's message was duly delivered to Rhoda, nor, thought it failed in its immediate object, was it sent wholly in vain. The girl herself never for one moment entertained the idea of profiting by the warning so as to secure her own safety. She would have been even capable of suppressing it altogether, if she could have been quite as sure of others as she was of herself. There was nothing that she felt to be more desirable that the martyr's crown, and why should she hinder those who were dear to her from attaining the same glory? But these high-wrought feelings had not wholly banished common sense. She was perfectly well aware that such aspirations were beyond the average capacity of her fellow-creatures. She doubted whether her own sister was equal to them. She was quite sure that some of her fellow-believers would fail under the fiery trial of martyrdom, and she shrank from the peril of exposing them to it. Nothing could be more dreadful than that they should fall away and deny their Lord. It would be a deadly sin in them, and, to say the least, a lifelong remorse to her, if she should have led them into such temptation. Her mind was soon made up. Her first step was to find her father, and give him the warning, only keeping back, as she felt bound to do, the name of her informant. Bion, whose practical good sense told him that dangers come quickly enough without one's going to meet them, resolved to keep all his family at home. Under ordinary circumstances, knowing the temper of his elder daughter, he would have charged her on his obedience not to venture out. But Rhoda's action in freely coming to him with the warning that she had received, put him off his guard. He took it for granted that she would attend to it herself, and, not a little to her relief, let her go without exacting any promise from her.
The next morning she started earlier than usual for the place of meeting. Her hope was to see the Elders, communicate what she knew to them, and leave the matter in their hands. They would know what was best for their people. If they judged it better that the disciples should hide from the storm rather than meet it, she would obey their decision, whatever might be her own disappointment. If, as she hoped, their counsel should be "to resist unto blood," then she would be there to share the glorious peril.
One of the little accidents, as we call them, that so often come in to hinder the carrying out of great plans, hindered Rhoda from accomplishing her design. She started at an earlier hour than usual, before there was even a glimmer of twilight, and instead of being more careful than was her want in picking her way along the rough lane that led from the farmhouse into the public road, was, in her haste, more heedless. Before she had gone fifty yards from the house, she stumbled on a stone, and for some moments felt as if she could not move another step. Then her resolute spirit came to her help. "To think of the martyr's crown, and then be daunted by a sprained ankle!" she said to herself; and she struggled on. But all the courage in the world could not give her back her usual speed of foot; so that the hour of meeting had already passed while she was still some distance from the chapel. She was still crawling along when another of the worshippers, a young slave who had been detained at home by some work which he could not finish in time, overtook her. She at once made up her mind that he must act as her messenger, and that the message must be as brief and emphatic as possible.
The young man halted when he recognised her figure, saluted her, and asked whether he could give her any help.
"Leave me, Dromio", she answered, "leave me to shift for myself; but run with all the speed you can tell the Elder Anicetus that there is danger."
Dromio waited for no second bidding. He started off at once at the top of his speed, and as he was vigorous and fleet of foot, he reached the place of assembly in a very few minutes.
The celebration of the Holy Communion was going on, and the congregation was engaged in silent prayer previous to the distribution of the bread and wine, when the breathless messenger, pushing aside the door-keeper who would have barred his entrance at what seemed so inopportune a time, burst into the midst.
"Venerable Anicetus," cried the young man, "there is danger!"
Such alarms were not unknown in those perilous times, and though the congregation was startled, there was nothing like panic.
Anicetus, a veteran in the service of his Master, and a confessor who had stood more than once in peril of his life, kept all his presence of mind.
"Be calm, my son," he said; "tell me whence or from whom you bring this message."
"I bring it from Rhoda the deaconess"—for as such the girl was known, though, as has been said before, she had not been formally admitted to the order—"I overtook her on my way hither. She was limping along, in pain as it seemed, though she said nothing, and she bade me hasten on, and deliver this message."
"It is no false alarm," said the elder, "if it came from our sister Rhoda. Saw you or heard you any signs of an enemy as you came?"
"I saw and heard nothing," answered Dromio.
"And you came from the town?"
"Yes, from the town."
"Then the soldiers have not yet started," said the old man in an undertone to himself, "and we have a few moments to think."
By common consent the whole assembly waited for his decision. This deference was not so much paid to his office as to the man. Ordinarily such a matter would have been discussed by the community. But Anicetus was one of the men to whom in a time of peril all look for guidance. After a very brief pause for deliberation he spoke.
"All brethren and sisters that are of the servile condition will depart at once, and do their best to escape the soldiers."
There were doubtless one or two bolder spirits among the male slaves who murmured inwardly at this command. But they obeyed it without hesitation. Indeed, they knew only too well the cogent force or the reasoning which dictated it. A free man or woman was exempted by law from torture, but it might be applied to a slave; and it would be applied almost certainly to some at least of those who might be arrested in the act of attending an unlawful assembly. If, on the other hand, they could escape for the time, their masters, even for the mere selfish motive of saving valuable property damage, would do their best to protect them. It was well, therefore, to get them out of the way, both for their own sake and for the sake of the community. The Church had found many times what a horribly effective instrument her persecutors had in this power of torturing the slaves. It was not that she dreaded the truth that they might be thus compelled to speak, it was the falsehoods that might be forced out of them that were so much to be feared. Again and again, miserable creatures, whose courage had broken down under this pitiless infliction, had purchased relief from their sufferings by inventing hideous charges against their brethren. The mere truth had not satisfied the persecutor, who often really believed that there must be something more behind; and so they had been driven, as it were, to lie.
When the slaves were gone, Anicetus spoke again: "Brethren and sisters, you must be brave; that, I do not doubt, you will be. And you must be prudent; that, to some of you, will be less easy. Therefore I warn you. Court no danger. You shall have strength for your day, but not beyond it. When you are accused, be silent—as far as you may. The law does not compel you to bring peril upon yourselves, and they cannot force you to speak. Acts unlawful to a Christian you will, of course, refuse. There you will not yield so much as a hair's breadth. But see that these acts be such as may lawfully be demanded of you. This is the counsel that I give you, so far as things of this life are concerned. Spiritual help you will not lack, if, indeed, you have not believed in vain. And now, while there is yet time, let us strengthen ourselves with the Communion of the Body and Blood of our Lord. It shall be provision for a way that may lie through rough places."
Just as the Elder had finished speaking, Rhoda entered the chapel. The strength that had supported her through her painful journey failed when she reached its end, and she sank, almost fainting, on the floor. Two of the women helped her into a little ante-chamber, and gave her such comfort and relief as was possible. Meanwhile the interrupted rite went on. The little congregation again offered up their hearts in silent prayer—not less earnest, we may be sure, than that which had been broken into by the arrival of the messenger of danger. This ended, the sacred Bread and Wine were administered: with what depth of feeling in ministers and people it is impossible for us to realize, whether (as will be the case with most who read these lines) we are living quiet and peaceful lives, or even are brought face to face with great perils, such as the perils of the sea and the battle-field. To "resist unto blood," as these weak men and women were called to do, wanted an enthusiasm of courage far greater than is needed for the lifeboat or the forlorn hope.
The Communion was almost ended when a loud knocking on the door of the meeting-house showed that the soldiers had come. The Centurion Fabius had not ventured to evade the duty of executing in person the order of the Governor; but to make the actual arrest was more than he could bring himself to endure. To enter the chapel on such an errand would have been an intolerable profanation. Happily, military etiquette permitted him to delegate this duty to his deputy. It was this officer, who had been duly cautioned to perform his office as gently as he could, who now presented himself at the chapel door. It was thrown open at once. One point that the Christians were always careful to insist upon was that, though they might find it prudent to meet in secret, they had nothing to conceal. Anicetus was just about to administer the Bread and Wine to Rhoda—who was now partially recovered—when the deputy centurion entered the building. With a gesture of command, which the rough soldier felt himself strangely constrained to obey, he motioned the man back, and then, without a change of look or voice, performed his sacred office.
The rite finished, he turned to the soldier, and courteously asked him his errand. The man produced the Governor's order to arrest all the persons who should be found assembled in the guild-house of the wool-combers. Anicetus perused the document deliberately, and then returned it to the officer, with the words, "It seems to be in order. We are ready to obey."
The number of prisoners who had been thus taken was a few less than forty, of whom six, including Rhoda, were women. The men were lightly bound—that is, the right arm of one was attached to the left arm of another. The old knight Antistius, and the Elder Anicetus, both of whom were Roman citizens, were not subjected to this indignity; nor was it thought necessary to secure the women.
The question then arose, What was to be done with Rhoda, who was clearly unable to walk? The deputy consulted his chief.
"There is a woman among the arrested," he said, "whom it will be necessary to carry, if she is to accompany the others. Will you be pleased to give your commands?"
No sooner had Fabius heard these words than an agonizing suspicion of the truth crossed his mind. Something, he knew not what, told him that this disabled woman could be no other than Rhoda herself. The wild idea of making this a pretext for releasing her occurred to him, only to be dismissed the next moment. She could not be left; and if she was to be taken, she must go with the rest. With a sinking heart he entered the chapel, and a single glance at her figure, though her face was turned from him, convinced him that his fears had not been vain. It was Rhoda. His warning had been fruitless, although a hasty glance showed him that neither Bion nor Cleoné was among the prisoners. She had been more careful for others than for herself.
It was agony to Fabius to feel that he was the man to put her into the hands of her enemies, and he was glad to leave the chapel before she could recognize him.
Meanwhile the practical difficulty had been solved by an ingenious soldier who had fetched a bier from the mortuary of the burial ground. A little contrivance converted this into a litter. It was convenient enough, and was made comfortable with the cloaks of the party; but Fabius shuddered at the sight of the living borne on the vehicle of the dead.
The departure of the soldiers from the town had not been unnoticed, and a crowd was assembled to witness their return. The principal street was indeed thronged with the spectators as the prisoners were marched along it to the Governor's quarters. A few groans and hisses were heard at one point, where Arruns with some of his friends had stationed himself; but on the whole the feeling was friendly rather than hostile. Few knew much about these Christians, but men had already begun to find out that they were friends of the sick, the poor, the unhappy.