Jerusalem fell on September 2nd. About six weeks after, Pudens was once more in Rome, the bearer of a despatch from Titus to his father, the Emperor, announcing his success, and giving the details of the final assault and of the events which followed it.
He had reached Rome late at night, too late to present himself at the palace. He snatched a few hours of sleep at an inn which was conveniently near, and proceeded to discharge his duty at the earliest possible hour next morning. The day had scarcely dawned, but the Emperor's ante-chamber was already open, and already contained two or three occupants. Vespasian was a very early riser, and Pudens, who announced himself to the usher in waiting as the bearer of despatches from the army of the East, was not kept waiting more than two or three minutes. Admitted to the Imperial presence, he met with a very warm greeting from his old chief; the despatches were read, and the information they contained had, of course, to be supplemented by a number of details which Pudens was able to supply. The interview was naturally protracted to a very great length, and when Pudens was at last dismissed, not without a hearty assurance of future favour from the Emperor, he found the ante-chamber crowded with applicants who had been vainly waiting for an audience. Their hopes were summarily dashed, at least for the day, by an announcement from the usher that the Emperor was too much occupied by a sudden pressure of business to see any other visitor that morning.
A groan of disappointment went up from the little crowd.
"You have done us all an ill turn, sir," said a young man with a remarkably clever face and brilliant eyes, shabbily dressed, but evidently a gentleman. "But doubtless your business with the Emperor was much more important than all of ours put together. You are a soldier, I see, and if I guess rightly, from the East. Is your news a secret, may I ask?"
"Not at all," answered Pudens. "All Rome may, and probably will, know it in the course of a few hours. Briefly, Jerusalem is taken."
"Ah!" said the other, "there have been rumours of the kind about for the last two or three days. And so it has actually happened. No wonder that the Emperor could think of nothing else."
"I hope, sir," said our hero, "that the business which I unwittingly interrupted or postponed was not very pressing?"
His new acquaintance, whom I may introduce to my readers by his full name of M. Valerius Martialis, smiled. "Certainly not, it was a trifle. I have a little poem in my pocket, which I should be glad if you would do me the favour of hearing at your leisure, and I wanted to get an order for some more of the same kind from the Emperor. To tell you the truth, he does not care much for poets and their verses, and his ideas of remuneration are of the most moderate kind. A very frugal person, sir, is Cæsar. Perhaps it is as well, for another Nero would certainly have made the Empire hopelessly bankrupt; but still there's a limit, and when it comes to paying ten sesterces a line for really tolerable verses,—if I may say so much of my own work,—one may say that the virtue is a little in excess."
"I hope," remarked Pudens, "that private patrons are more liberal, and that there are those who buy."
"As for private patrons," returned the poet, "there are good and bad, and as I said of my own epigrams, a few good and more bad. As for the public that buy, very little of their money comes to us. The publishers send us in large bills, and what with copying, price of parchment, ink, vermilion, pumice-stone, polishing, and I know not what else, there is very little left. And then, if a book does sell, there are rascals who copy it, and give us nothing at all. But I am running on, and tiring you with things that don't interest you. Will you dine with me to-day? Mind, there will be simple poet's fare—a few oysters, a roast kid, and a jar of Alban wine. If you want flowers or perfume or Falernian, you must even bring them yourself."
Pudens, who had very few friends in Rome, gladly accepted.
"Remember, then," said the poet, "at the eleventh hour. I have some work to do, and I cannot afford to be fashionable and early."
"You must see the great beauty about whom all the golden youth of Rome is raving," said Martial, in the course of their after-dinner talk. "That is to say, if you can contrive it, for it is no easy matter to catch a glimpse of her. She is never at the theatre or the Circus. Her mother—mother by adoption, you will understand—is a very strange person, follows some curious superstition, I am told, the chief part of which, it seems, is to take all the pleasure out of life. But the girl is a great beauty, not in our Roman style at all, but dazzlingly fair, a British princess they say she is, whatever that may mean."
Pudens, of course, recognized Claudia in this description. He did not care to betray his acquaintance with her, nor indeed to encourage his host in talking about her. Martial's way of speaking about women, was, to be candid, not very edifying, and though he had nothing but good to say about this northern beauty, Pudens did not care to hear her name upon his lips.
The years which the young soldier had spent between his departure from the capital and his return to it had been a time in which he had learnt and thought much. In particular, the knowledge of Christianity which he had begun to acquire under the instruction of Linus had been greatly deepened and broadened. The new faith had been commended to him by the purity, the courage, the self-devotion of its professors. He now began to realize what a power it already was, to what vast proportions it was likely to grow. In the East, while he was living in Antioch, and afterwards, while he was in camp before the walls of Jerusalem, he had many opportunities of hearing the marvellous history of its origin and its growth. Scarcely a single generation had passed since it had been founded by an obscure Galilean peasant, and already there was not a city or town, scarcely a village, in which it did not possess a company, often a very numerous company, of devoted followers. The young man had never heard or read of anything like it. That, he felt, could be no mere superstition, which, without any attraction of pomp or power, offering to its followers nothing but a life of self-denial, made burdensome by the hatred and contempt of society, had yet found disciples wherever it had come. Here was something which, before long, would match, and more than match, the world-wide influence of the great Roman Empire itself. The impression thus made had been deepened by his intercourse with men, of whom he met not a few both at Antioch and in Judæa, who had had personal knowledge both of the Founder and of his first followers. The story which they had to tell of wonders which they had witnessed, and of which, in some cases, they had been themselves the subjects, interested him profoundly. He was even more touched by the picture they drew of a sanctity, a purity, a burning zeal for the good of mankind, which was more marvellous than the healing of the sick, the restoring of sight to the blind, even the bringing back of the dead to life.
And with this influence in the young man's life there had always mingled his recollection of Claudia. She embodied to him the noblest ideal of womanhood, an ideal, too, inseparably linked with the faith of which he had been learning so much. For these years he had heard nothing of her, and of course did not escape the fancies and fears with which lovers are wont to torment themselves. She might be dead, or, a thought even yet harder to endure, she might be lost to him.
It was therefore with no common emotion that he had now heard from his new acquaintance that she was in Rome, that she was well, that, possibly, she was still free.
As early as possible the next morning he presented himself at Pomponia's house. His reception was all that he could have desired. The elder lady had a grateful recollection of his kindness and zeal, and Claudia had no more forgotten him than he had forgotten her. The two women listened with an untiring interest to the story of adventure which the young soldier had to tell. When the great siege in which he had been taking part came to be discussed, the conversation inevitably turned on the subject of Christianity. Pudens was led on to speak of the thoughts which had been occupying his mind, and Pomponia particularly inquired whether he had made a regular profession of the faith which had so greatly impressed him. Pudens answered that he had not. Circumstances had hindered him from submitting himself to a regular course of instruction, but his mind had been made up; he had only been waiting for an opportunity of giving expression to convictions which he had long since formed.
"You will come with us to-morrow," said Pomponia to her visitor, when, after some hours of conversation, he rose to take his leave. "We have a duty to perform which it will interest you, I am sure, to witness, if you cannot actually take a part in it. We leave the house early, before daybreak, indeed, if that is not too soon for you."
Pudens did not fail to present himself at the appointed hour. A carriage was waiting at the gate of Pomponia's mansion, and the ladies were already seated in it. He joined them, and became so engrossed in the conversation that followed that he did not notice the direction in which they proceeded. It was with no little surprise and emotion that when the carriage stopped he found himself at the entrance to the Catacombs.
"We commemorate to-day," said Pomponia, "those who had the privilege five years ago of witnessing their faith and love by their deaths. You will watch the rite from without; another year, I hope, you will be one of us."
Thus did Pudens, standing with the catechumens, of whom he was reckoned to be virtually one, witness again the solemn act of worship on which he had looked, under very different circumstances, five years before. This ended, came the commemoration itself. The presiding Elder read the list of saints and martyrs who had sealed their testimony with their blood. Foremost on the list came the two Apostles, Peter and Paul, who had suffered two years before, the first the death of a slave, the second by the headsman's axe on the Ostian Road. Then followed a list of names, unknown and yet known, long since forgotten upon earth, but remembered by Him Who is faithful to keep all that is committed unto Him.
There is little more for me to tell. Pudens lost no time in putting himself under instruction. The Elder who undertook to examine and teach him found him so well prepared that there was no need to delay the rite. Pudens was received into the Church at the festival of Christmas, and a week afterwards became the husband of Claudia.
Many old friends were gathered at the wedding, among them Phlegon, still vigorous in spite of his fourscore years, and Linus, who, as Pudens did not fail to remember, had been the first to show him what Christian belief and practice really were. Nor did he forget his debt to another, without whose courage and devotion he had scarcely lived to see that happiest hour of his life, the Tribune Subrius. As he knelt with his bride in silent prayer after receiving the minister's final blessing, he put up a fervent supplication that some rays of the light which had fallen upon him might reach, he knew not where or how, the brave, true-hearted man to whom he owed life and happiness.
A few days after their marriage the young couple held a reception of their friends and acquaintances. Among them was the poet Martial, who brought with him not the least acceptable of the wedding gifts which they had received, an epigram written in praise of the bride. It ran thus:—
The author, though he spoke of his offering as a gift, was not displeased when the bridegroom pressed into his hand a roll of ten gold pieces. He whispered to a friend, "There is a real lover of the Muses! He would have made an admirable Emperor, at least from my point of view; but he is certainly happier as he is."