The young soldier Pudens had been fully employed since we last heard of him. The work of clearing away the débris of the fire had proved to be so vast that the ordinary supply of labour had been insufficient to meet the demand, and the help of the soldiers had been called in. A force, half naval and half military, which was raised from the fleets of Ravenna and Misenum, and which indeed was accustomed to do the work of pioneers, was told off for the purpose, and Pudens, partly through the interest of his friend Subrius, was appointed to be second in command. Among the civilians employed in the same work was an elderly man with whom he happened to be brought into frequent contact, and whose manners and conversation interested him very much. From some chance remark, Pudens learnt that his new acquaintance was a freedman, who had been emancipated by Pomponia shortly after her husband's death, and indeed in obedience to a request made in his will. The man could not say too much in praise of his patroness, of her blameless life, her boundless charity. "They call her sad and gloomy, sir," he said, on one occasion; "and indeed she does not care for the gayeties and pleasures of Rome; but a happier woman does not live within the borders of the Empire, if to be always content, to have nothing to repent of in life, and to fear nothing in death, be happiness." He was apparently going to say more, but checked himself. More than once Pudens observed a similar pause, and as he was not a little interested in the lady herself, and still more in her young companion Claudia, his curiosity was greatly excited. It should be said that, acting on a hint from Subrius, he had not attempted to improve his acquaintance with the two ladies. Visitors would attract attention, and it was necessary, he had been given to understand, that they should live for the present in complete retirement.
Before long an accident enabled him to penetrate the secret of the freedman's reserve. Returning to his quarters one evening in the late summer, he found his friend—for such the freedman had by this time become—in the hands of some soldiers. The spot happened to be on the boundary of two townships, and a statue of the god Terminus—a pedestal with a roughly carved head—had been placed there. The men, who were half tipsy, were insisting that the freedman—whom we may hereafter call by his name Linus—should pay his homage to the statue; Linus was resolutely refusing to comply.
"Hold!" cried Pudens, as he appeared on the scene, knowing of course nothing of what had happened, and only seeing a civilian in the hands of some unruly soldiers. "Hold! what do you mean by assaulting a peaceable citizen?"
"He is an atheist, a Christian; he refuses to worship the gods," cried one of the men.
"Who made you a champion of the gods?" retorted Pudens. "You are behaving more like robbers than like god-fearing men."
"Lay hold of him, too, comrades," shouted one of the men.
Pudens recognized the voice of the last speaker. He was a Deputy-Centurion, who had been for a time one of his own subordinates.
"What, Stertinius!" he cried, "don't you know any better than to mix yourself up in a brawl, if indeed it is not a robbery?"
Stertinius, who, like his comrades, was not quite sober, and in his excitement had not recognized the newcomer, was taken aback at being thus addressed by his name. The next moment his memory returned to him.
"Hold, friends!" he shouted to his companions; "it is the second in command of the pioneers."
The men immediately released their victim, and falling into line, stood at attention, and saluted.
Stertinius took it upon himself to be their spokesman: "We are very sorry to have annoyed one of your honour's friends, and hope that you and he will overlook the offence."
"Begone!" cried Pudens, who had a feeling that it would be better for the freedman's sake not to take the affair too seriously. "Begone! and in future let your devotion to Bacchus, at least, be a little less fervent."
When the men had disappeared the freedman explained to his protector what had happened.
"But," asked Pudens, when he had heard the story, "what made the fellows behave in this fashion to you? I presume that they don't commonly go about compelling people to do reverence to wayside statues."
Linus hesitated for a while before he replied to this question. "Sir," he said at last, "I will be frank with you. I won't ask you to keep secret what I tell you. You are not, I know, the man to betray a confidence; and, besides, there can hardly be any question of secrecy in this matter hereafter. These men have got hold of the notion that I do not worship the gods whom they worship. An ill-conditioned fellow, whom I once employed, and had to discharge for his laziness and dishonesty, told them something about me, and since then I have been very much annoyed by them."
"I don't understand you," said Pudens, who was quite unused to hear it treated as a serious matter whether a man did or did not believe in the gods. He was conscious of not believing in them himself in any real sense of the words; but he went through the usual forms of respect to their images, would put, for instance, a portion of food before the household god, when he remembered it, and, equally when he remembered it, would salute a wayside Mercury or Terminus. "What do you believe in then? The Egyptian trio, or what?"
Linus sank his voice to a whisper: "I am a Christian," he said.
The word conveyed, it may be said, no meaning to the young soldier. He had heard it, and that was all. Subrius, he now remembered, had said, when he was about to introduce him to Pomponia, "A really good woman, though they do say that she is a Christian," but the remark had made no impression on him.
"A Christian," he repeated. "What is that?"
"No harm, certainly," Linus answered; "but, on the contrary, I hope much good. One thing I have learnt from it, that there is but one God in heaven and earth, and that all these gods, as they call them, are but vain things, or worse. But don't suppose," he went on, "that I go out of my way to insult what others hold in reverence. That I have not learnt to do. Only, when any one would compel me, as those drunken soldiers would have compelled me, to pay honour to the idols, as we call them, I cannot do it. 'Thou shalt not bow down to them nor worship them,' says my law, and I should be false and disobedient if I did. They say dreadful things about us, sir, I know, things that it would be a shame to repeat; but they are not true, believe me, sir, they are not true. I have done many wrong things in other days, but my dear Lord, who died for me, has delivered me from the curse of evil."
He uttered these last words with a fervent earnestness which greatly impressed his hearer, though he had scarcely even the dimmest notion of what was meant. The young man, whose heart was touched and purified by an honest emotion which made the follies of the past seem hateful to him, was deeply interested and eager to hear more.
In the course of the next few weeks many conversations on the subject followed. Linus at first expressed himself with much reserve. Already a bitter experience had taught the disciples the need of their Master's caution, that they were not to cast their pearls before swine. But the earnestness of the inquirer was so manifest, he was so unmistakably absorbed in what he heard, that the freedman soon told him all that he himself knew. He even permitted him to see what he held to be the choicest of all his possessions, a record of the Master's life. Pudens was half disposed to be disappointed when the treasure, kept, it was evident, with the most elaborate care,—for three caskets, each fastened with the most elaborate locks that the ingenuity of the age could devise, had to be opened before it could be seen,—proved to be a parchment volume of the very plainest kind. None of the customary ornaments of a book were there. The edges had been left in their native roughness; the knobs of the wooden pin, so to call it, round which the parchment had been rolled, were not painted, much less gilded. A bailiff's account-book or tradesman's ledger could not well have had a plainer exterior. But when Linus opened the volume and read some of its contents, there was no more disappointment. He made choice of what was most suitable to his listener with much care. If we had the book now in our hands we should not be able, it may be, actually to identify it with any one of the four Gospels which we now possess. Still, it is not impossible that it may have been an early draft of that which bears the name of St. Luke, the companion, it will be remembered, of the long imprisonment of St. Paul, and not unreasonably believed by many to have availed himself of this opportunity of putting together his "narrative concerning those matters which were fully established among" the early believers. If so, what could have been more appropriate for the needs of the inquirer than the story of the Prodigal's Return to his Father, of the Rich Man and the Beggar, of the Good Samaritan? As the reader went on to other passages less easy of comprehension, Pudens began to ask questions to which the freedman was not able to give a satisfactory answer. "He was unlearned and ignorant," he hastened to explain, "knowing and understanding enough to satisfy his own wants, but not competent to explain difficulties."
"But you have teachers and wise men among you, I presume," said the young soldier. "Why should I not go to them?"
Linus hesitated. Circumstances had compelled him to put his own life in the young man's hands, for though there had been as yet no persecution, a man who owned himself to be a Christian felt himself to be doing as much as that. But to bring the lives of others into the same danger, to trust the safety of the little community to one who, a few weeks before, had been an absolute stranger, was another matter. And then the interests of the young man himself were to be considered. It was no light thing to suggest that he should openly associate with people of whom Rome, as far as it had heard anything at all about them, had the very worst opinion. Hence he had never proposed to his friend a visit to the Christian places of assembly, and when the young man himself had suggested it, he was conscious of no little perplexity. However, he had now gone too far to be able to draw back. If the young soldier had been trusted so far, he would have to be trusted altogether. Without making any further difficulty, Linus agreed to take his friend to an assembly that was to be held on the following day.
The meeting-place was outside the city walls. It was the old club-house of a guild of artisans, disused partly because it had fallen into bad repair, partly because the burial-ground in which it stood, and which had much to do with its original purpose, had been filled up by interments. The guild had removed its quarters to larger and more commodious premises elsewhere, and had been glad to lease what was almost a valueless property to the representative of the Christian community, in this case no other than Linus himself. It was an oblong building with a semicircular end, something like that form of chancel which we know under the name of apse. The place was absolutely without ornament, though at the back of the seat which lined the apse were curtains of some very rough material. No religious symbol of any kind was visible. It was important that in case of any investigation nothing should be seen that could give the meeting the character of a secret society. Against secret societies the government of the Empire was then, as always, mercilessly severe.
Pudens was not destined on that occasion to hear any such exposition of mysteries as he had been expecting from the authorized teachers to whom Linus had referred him. The community were intensely agitated by an unexpected blow which had suddenly fallen upon them. It had always, indeed, a certain consciousness of danger, for it was aware that it was undisturbed only because it was unknown; but some years had passed without any interference from the authorities, and a general feeling of security had been the result. This was now to be destroyed, and, indeed, till more than two centuries and a half had passed, was not to be known again by the Christian Church.
A whispered introduction from Linus to the door-keeper was sufficient to secure the admission of Pudens. The building was nearly full, rather more than half the congregation being composed of slaves. The majority of the remainder were artisans, farmers, or small tradesmen, most of them showing by their features a Jewish origin. The sprinkling of men of higher rank was very small. Two wore a toga fringed with the narrow purple stripe that was the sign of equestrian rank. There were a few women, numbering, perhaps, a sixth part of the whole, who sat together on the hindermost benches.
Just as Linus and Pudens entered, the presiding minister rose from the seat which he occupied by the wall of the apse with a paper in his hand. He came forward as far as the railing which separated the semicircle from the rest of the building, and after a brief salutation addressed the assembled congregation.
"Brethren and sisters," he said, "a great danger threatens us. To-morrow, possibly to-day, if sufficient copies can be made, the edict which I am about to read to you will be published throughout Rome. Listen and judge for yourselves.
" 'Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus Augustus Imperator to the Senate and People of Rome, Greeting:—
" 'Whereas it has come to my knowledge as a certain fact that that most terrible disaster by which the city of Rome has lately been visited, to wit, the conflagration, which, raging continuously for many days and nights, destroyed not only the dwellings of men, but the most precious monuments of our ancestors and the very temples of the immortal gods, was brought about by the malice of certain abandoned persons, who have assumed to themselves the name of Christians, and who, inflamed with an insatiable hatred of the human race, conceived the idea of destroying this, its fairest and noblest seat, I hereby charge and command all men whatsoever, that they do forthwith give up to the magistrates, and to other persons whom I shall appoint for that purpose, the names of all, whether men, women, or children,—for this infection has not spared even the tenderest age,—whom they know or suspect to be poisoned with this detestable superstition. And I hereby declare that such as shall be found guilty of this wickedness shall forthwith be visited with the most condign punishment. Farewell.' "
The dismay which followed the reading of this document defies description. Of petty social persecution the Christians knew something; they had suffered also from one or two outbreaks of mob violence; already their heathen neighbours had begun to connect them with dear food and unhealthy seasons, as cause and effect; but this formal arraignment of them as men who had inflicted on their fellow-citizens the most frightful of sufferings, was an unprecedented and wholly overwhelming experience.
After a short pause the minister spoke again. "Brethren and sisters," he said in a voice whose calm and measured accents contrasted strangely with the excitement of his audience: "We do not now for the first time learn the truth of the Master's words, 'They shall accuse you falsely for My name's sake.' Yet I must confess that this charge, so monstrous in itself, and so far reaching in its application, exceeds the very worst that we could have feared. And now what shall I say to you? Great, indeed, is this tribulation, but the grace of Him who loved you and gave Himself for you is more than sufficient. It may be that He will deliver you even now from the mouth of the lion, even as he delivered our holy brother Paul from it not many months ago; but if not"—the speaker paused awhile, and then raising his voice went on with the world-famous defiance of the dauntless three to the Chaldaean tyrant—"if not, be it known unto thee, O King, that we will not serve the golden image which thou hast set up."
The bold utterance met with an immediate response from the congregation. A subdued murmur of approval went round, and every head was lifted higher.
The speaker went on: "But it is not so much to courage as to caution that I would at this moment exhort you. If it may be, do the Master's bidding when he said, 'If they persecute you in one city, flee ye to another.' If you must needs stay in Rome, be not overbold. Confess your faith, if you are called, but do not flaunt it in the faces of the persecutors. The Lord will support you in trials to which He brings you, not in those that you find for yourselves. Let us pray for His grace that we may be found faithful even unto death."
The whole congregation fell upon their knees and prayed in a silence that was only broken by some deep sob that could not be controlled. At last the minister rose, and stretching out his hands over his people, committed them with words of blessing to the Divine protection.
"How is it that your chief became possessed of that document so soon?" asked Pudens of his companion.
Linus smiled. "We have always had friends in Cæsar's household. It will not avail much now, I fear, but it at least gives us time to think."
"You will flee, of course," resumed the young man.
"Impossible," replied his companion. "I have a bedridden sister, and my place is with her. But let us hope that no one saw you to-day among us, no one, at least, who should not have seen you."
"But have you traitors among you?"
"Who has not? Do you not remember that the Master Himself had one in His own small company of twelve? But anyhow we must part; you must not be seen with me."
Pudens saw the prudence of this advice, and could not refuse to follow it. He wrung his new friend's hand, and with a fervent prayer, "Your Master keep you!" turned away.
For his own safety he had little fear. He could truly say that he was not a Christian, though he was conscious of a strange feeling that there would be something shameful about such a denial. The next moment he had forgotten all about himself. A thought had shot across his mind that made his blood run cold. What would be the fate of Pomponia? And if she was arrested,—and that she had a deadly enemy in Poppæa he knew,—how would it fare with Claudia?