The Elder felt that his position, so to speak, had been turned. His silence, however skilfully justified, was useless—nay, it was worse than useless, for it had brought this daughter of the Church, one for whom they would all gladly have suffered, into terrible peril. They had escaped for the time; but at what a cost, if Rhoda was to be tortured!
He made a last effort to save her. "My lord," he said, "I withdraw my refusal to speak. Any questions that you or the prosecutor may put to me I will answer; and what I say for myself, I say also for all the accused."
"What say you to this?" asked the Governor.
There was another brief consultation between the advocate and Lucilius. Then the former rose.
"My lord, our interest, our only interest, is the truth. Our aim, and, I presume, the aim of all persons not being criminal or hostile to the State, is that the truth should be fully told, and amply confirmed. Therefore we must have the best evidence that can be procured, nor can we allow our private feelings to hinder its forthcoming. Is it not a maxim of the law that when slaves are at hand you do not use the testimony of freemen, it being agreed that the truth is more surely drawn forth by the more powerful compulsion?"
The Governor referred the point to his assessor, and that official decided, though with evident reluctance, that the contention was just.
Nothing now stood between the prisoner and her fate. The instrument of torture was sent for. Whilst it was being brought there was a terrible pause of expectation in the court. Tacitus rose as if to leave the room, but a whispered entreaty from the Governor made him resume his seat. In the audience the agitation was extreme. Several persons fainted; many, both men and women, burst into uncontrollable weeping. The least troubled of all was the girl herself. There was something more than calm on her countenance; there was exaltation—almost, it might be said, rapture. Even as it had been with the judges of Stephen—for so we learn from the confession of one of their number—those who looked upon her saw her face "as it had been the face of an angel."
The instrument of torture was something like a rack. The savage humour which gives a half-comic name to these hideous implements of cruelty had invented for it the nickname of the "Little Horse." The resemblance lay in the four beams, projecting from a timber frame, to which the limbs of the sufferer were attached.
Before this was done the Governor ordered the court to be cleared of all persons not immediately interested in the trial. A few heartless creatures were probably disappointed that their curiosity was not to be gratified; but most of the spectators, however intense their interest, felt the order to be a relief. Bion and his wife claimed to be allowed to remain. It would break their hearts to see such a sight, but their presence might comfort the sufferer; and as she was their slave, if not their daughter, their claim was, of course, allowed. The elder Rhoda's whole thought was centred on the desire to minister to this, the child of her heart if not the child of her womb. Bion watched what was done with a set, tearless face, crushing down the wild impulse to fly to the sufferer's rescue. Most of the spectators averted their eyes; even Lucilius was seen to bury his face in a fold of his toga.
The preparations were now complete, and the executioner awaited the signal of the judge to commence his hideous task. This was given by a gesture, and the man immediately followed it up by the first turn of the dreadful instrument. No one who was present that day ever forgot the horrible creaking sound of the timbers, mingled with a groan of the sufferer, forced from her by the pain, but stifled almost as soon as uttered. There was not a heart, not even of the ruthless Lucilius, in which the blood did not curdle; not a forehead on which the cold drops of sweat did not stand.
The Governor thundered, in a voice such as had never been heard to issue from his lips before: "Hold!"
The executioner, brutalized as he was by familiarity with the horrid details of his office, was not sorry to stay his hand.
The Governor went on: "The law has so far been satisfied. The torture has been applied, and in my judgment, which in this matter is final, has been applied sufficiently. If the accused is now willing to make confession, I will hear her."
Rhoda was unfastened from the rack. The executioner assisted her to rise; but she could not stand, and the Governor directed that a seat should be provided for her. "Now," he said to the prosecutor, "put your questions."
"Are you one of the people that are called Christians?"
"Are you accustomed to assemble together?"
"We are so accustomed."
"On what days, and at what time?"
"Once in seven days at the least, and at other times also. The hour of our assembling is before daybreak."
"And what do you at these gatherings?"
"We offer up prayers, and sing praises to God."
"To what god?"
"To God Almighty, who made the heavens and the earth, and is the Father of all men."
"Who, then, is this Christus by whose name you are called?"
"He is God."
"Then you worship two gods—the Father, of whom you speak, and Christus?"
"Nay, for Christus is the Son of the Father, and they two are one God. But ask me not to explain these matters, for I am unlearned in them."
"Is there anything else that you do when you have finished these prayers and hymns?"
"These being finished we depart to our own homes. But in the evening of the same day we meet together and have our Feast of Love."
"With what preparations do you make this feast? With what dainties in meat and drink is it furnished?"
"The preparation is of the very simplest; there is nothing, indeed, beyond bread and wine."
"Why do you take such trouble to do that which is easier done in your own homes?"
"Because it has been so commanded us by our Master, that we may remember Him and His death for us, and may also show forth the love by which we are bound one to another."
"Do you, then, all sit down together at this feast?"
"Yes, we all sit down; nor is there any distinction made of rich and poor, bond and free."
"And do you bind yourselves by any oath?"
"Yes, if you will have it so, for this very feast is an oath to us."
"And to what does this oath constrain you?"
"That we should neither kill, nor steal, nor commit uncleanness, nor break a promise, nor refuse when called upon to account for moneys committed to our charge."
"Does this oath concern at all the Emperor and the State?"
"Only so far that we are bound to be loyal and obedient."
"Obedient in all things?"
"In all things that are lawful to us as followers of the Lord Christ."
"I pray you, my lord, to take a note of this reservation," said the prosecutor, addressing this observation to the Governor. He then proceeded with his examination of the prisoner. "Can you tell the names of others who were accustomed to be present at these assemblies?"
The girl hesitated for a moment when this question was put to her. Then she spoke with a firm voice: "Concerning myself I will speak the truth, nor seek to conceal anything; but of others I am not free to speak."
The Elder did not lose a moment in intervening at this point. "Permit me, my lord," he said addressing the Governor, "to admit for myself, and for all that are here present with me that we are of the people called Christians."
The prosecutor proceeded with his examination of Rhoda. "Can you tell us the names of others not here present?"
"Nay," interrupted the Governor; "on behalf of the absent, whom the magistrate is always especially bound to protect, I disallow that question."
The prosecutor then turned to the Elder: "Are you a ruler among these people?"
"Yes, if you will have it so. I am, as it were, the first among the brethren; but if they obey me it is of their own free will."
"Yet they are accustomed to follow your advice?"
"Certainly; they are so accustomed."
"Do you know that his Excellency the Governor, by command of our lord Trajan, issued an edict by which it was forbidden to hold unlawful assemblies?"
"Yes, I knew that such an edict was issued."
"Did you, therefore, cease to hold your assemblies?—though, indeed, seeing that you are year to-day, I need scarcely ask this question."
"We did not cease to hold them."
"Was the matter debated among you?"
This was a difficult question to answer. The matter had been debated, and that with considerable energy, in the Christian community. Some, of a more timorous spirit, had advised that the assemblies should cease; but Anicetus had been firm for their continuance. It would be a risk to hold them, for it might bring the Church into conflict with the law; but the spiritual danger, the dangers of growing coldness, of want of faith, of laxity of practice, that would follow on their discontinuance, were, in his view, much more serious. Prudent Christian that he was, and anxious to avoid a conflict of which he could not see the end, his voice had been given without hesitation for disregarding the edict, or, at least, treating it as if it did not apply. A division had followed. Some members of the community had preferred to follow the safer course. The majority had held with Anicetus, and the assemblies had gone on without interruption. Nothing, of course, remained for him now but to speak the truth.
"It was debated. We differed in opinion. I held that the edict did not apply to us, and advised my brethren accordingly. Some thought differently, and came no more to our meetings."
This frank reply gave a very serious appearance to the whole affair. It could hardly be otherwise regarded than as an avowal of guilt, or at least of what was guilt in the eye of Roman law. The Governor, who had begun the inquiry with a feeling of tolerance, and had become more and more favourably disposed to the accused as it proceeded, was adversely impressed by it. He seemed to see himself face to face with the invincible obstinacy of which he had been warned. Still, he would gladly have sheltered the accused if he could. His own private opinion was that the Emperor's opposition to what were called secret societies was over-strained and excessive. No trace of loose behaviour or mischievous aims could be found in these people. He was unwilling to condemn, and yet, in view of their own admission, he could not acquit them. The only thing that remained was to postpone the trial. If a time for consideration were given, perhaps some compromise might become possible. This accordingly was the course on which he determined.
"I postpone this inquiry," he announced, "till the ides of May [the 15th]. The prisoners will be released on giving bail. The woman Rhoda will be delivered to her master Bion, who will give sufficient surety for producing her when she shall be required."
The court was then adjourned.