A Christian Household
We will follow one party of worshipers to their own home, a farmhouse lying about a mile further from the city than the chapel which has just been described. This party consists of four persons, a husband and wife, and two daughters.
The head of this little family is a man who may perhaps count seventy summers. But though seventy years commonly mean much more in the East than they do in our more temperate climate, he shows few signs of age, beyond the white hair, itself long and abundant, which may be seen under his broad-brimmed hat. His tread is firm, his figure erect, his cheek ruddy with health, his eyes full of fire; yet he had seen much service, of one kind or another, during these threescore years and ten. Bion, for that was the veteran's name, was a Syrian by birth. He had followed Antiochus, son of the tributary king who ruled part of Northern Syria under the Romans, to the siege of Jerusalem. A more hot-headed, hare-brained pair than the young prince and his favourite aide-de-camp could not have been found. They laughed to scorn the caution of the Romans in attacking the great city by regular approaches. "We will show you the way in," said the prince to the centurion who showed him the works.
Of course this effort failed. If success had been possible in this way the Romans would have achieved it long before. Scarcely a third of the Syrian contingent came back alive from the forlorn hope to which they had been led. Bion was one of the survivors, but he was desperately wounded, and had not recovered in time to take part in the final assault. He did not lose, indeed, either pay or promotion. Before he was five-and-twenty he was commander-in-chief of the army which the Syrian king was permitted to maintain.
This was a sufficiently dignified post, and his pay, coming as it did from what was notoriously the best furnished treasury in Asia, was ample. He might have been satisfied, if he had been content to be a show soldier. But he was not content; and unfortunately, now that the turbulent Jews had been quieted, it seemed, for good, there appeared no chance of being anything else. His restless spirit led him into intrigues with the Parthians: a compromising letter fell into the hands of the Roman Governor, and he had barely time to escape across the Euphrates. The Parthians, with whom he now took service, gave him fighting enough with the wild tribes who were perpetually trespassing over their northern and eastern borders.
Again his reckless valour brought him promotion; and his promotion brought him enemies. An arrow which certainly could not have come from any but his own men, missed him only by a hair's-breadth; two nights afterwards, the cords of his tent were cut, and he narrowly escaped the dagger which was driven several times through the canvas before he could extricate himself from the ruins; and it was nothing but a vague feeling of suspicion, for which he could not account, that kept him from draining a wine-cup which had been poisoned for his benefit. These were hints that it was well to take. He left the camp without saying a word to any one, and made the best of his way out of Parthia.
The difficulty was where to go. The world in those days consisted of Parthia and Rome, and he was not safe in either. Nothing was left for him, he thought, but becoming a brigand; and a brigand he accordingly became. It was a perilous profession, for the Roman governors of Asia kept a strict look-out, and did not approve of any one plundering the provincials but themselves. One band after another that he joined was broken up, and at last he bound himself to one in the neighbourhood of Ephesus. His chief here was a young man of singular beauty, and of a fine, generous temper who had been driven into this lawless life by the oppression of the Roman officials. Bion, who was by some years his senior, formed a great friendship for him, and the two contrived to keep their rough followers in as good order as was possible in a band of brigands.
And now came the strange incident that was to change the course of Bion's future life. The two were watching the road that ran from Ephesus across the heights of Mount Tmolus to Smyrna for a tax-gatherer who was expected to come that way with his money-bags. It was not long before a solitary rider could be seen, slowly making his way along the steep road which wound up the wooded mountain side. The companions rushed from their hiding-place, and in a few moments were at his side. Bion seized the bridle of his mule, and the chief called upon him to give up all the money that he had with him. The rider, whose figure and face were concealed by a traveller's cloak and cape, answered in a voice of singular sweetness, "Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give thee." At the same time he threw aside his disguise. If the brigand chief had seen a grinning skull instead of the sweet and loving face, with eyes full of compassion and tenderness, bent upon him, he could not have been more startled. He turned to fly.
The rider dismounted with an agility which no one would have expected from so old a man, followed him, and caught him by the cloak. "Listen to me, my son," he said. "Four years since, I left you in the charge of Polydorus of Smyrna. At the end of two years, when I had finished my visiting of the churches of Asia, I went to Smyrna. They told me that you had left the city. Some said that you had fled to the mountains, and were living by robbing. I went to Polydorus. I said to him, 'Where is the treasure that I left in your hands?' He did not know what I meant. 'You left no treasure in my hands,' he said. 'I left a treasure which the Lord himself had committed to me,' I answered, 'even the soul of the young man Eucrates.'
"Then I went out to seek you. For if I had trusted it to an unfaithful steward, I should have myself to answer for it to my Lord. But now, thanks to our Father and His Christ, I have found it again. And you, my son, will surely not take it from me."
This good shepherd, who had thus sought and found his wandering sheep upon the hills, was the Apostle St. John. The persuasiveness of this constraining love was such as no one could resist. Before he had finished his appeal the young man was sobbing at his feet. The three returned to Ephesus together, for Bion would not leave his friend. He too had been touched by some power that he did not understand, that seemed to dwell in the old man's words.
The Apostle was a man of no small influence in Ephesus. His character was of that rare sweetness and beauty which even the world is constrained to love. And with this love a certain awe was mingled. It was rumoured that a Divine protection guarded him from danger. Had he not been thrown into a caldron of burning oil and come out unhurt? Hence he was able with little difficulty to obtain from the Roman governor of the province an amnesty for his two companions, and even to get for Eucrates restitution of the property which had been taken from him. The young man did not forget Bion, but made him the tenant and afterwards the purchaser of a farm which he owned in the neighbourhood of Nicæa.
Meanwhile Bion had been listening with a heart disposed to conviction to the instructions of St. John. It was the late autumn when he had given up his brigand's life, and he was among the candidates who presented themselves for baptism at the Whitsuntide of the following year.
No more devout and earnest soul was to be found among the converts than Bion. The fiery temper which he shared with the teacher who had brought him to Christ was tamed rather than broken. He had found, too, during his sojourn at Ephesus, earthly happiness as well as heavenly peace.
One of the most trusted lay-helpers of the Church was a devout centurion, who had served under Titus at the siege of Jerusalem. Bion recognised in him, not without a smile at his own foolish boastfulness in times past, the very officer who had been appointed to attend on his master, and who had afterwards helped to nurse him during his tedious recovery. The old comrades were glad to meet again.
But Bion found in Manilius' house a more powerful attraction than friendship. This was the centurion's adopted daughter, Rhoda. Manilius had found her, then a girl of some seven years old, in a burning house on that terrible day when the Holy City was destroyed. Her father, mortally wounded in the last desperate struggle which his countrymen had waged against the Roman storming parties, had crawled back to his home, and the child, made old beyond her years by the dreadful experiences of those months of siege, was sitting by the dying man, striving in vain to staunch the flow of blood from his wounds.
Anxiety for his child mastered the Jew's hatred of foreigners. In broken Latin he besought Manilius to be good to his daughter. It was a strange responsibility for a lazy and somewhat reckless soldier, but it seemed to sober him in an instant. He found his Tribune, and obtained permission to take his young charge to the camp. From thence she was transferred as soon as possible to the house of a merchant of his acquaintance at Cæsarea.
No spoil that he could have carried off from the sack of Jerusalem could have proved such a treasure to him as the little Rhoda. She had learnt from her Christian mother, who, happily for herself, had passed to her rest just before Jerusalem was finally invested, some Gospel truths, and Manilius listened with attention which he might not have given to an older teacher when she told him in her childish prattle the story of the life and death of Jesus.
When the rewards for services in the great siege were distributed, he received a permanent appointment at Ephesus. Here he came under the influence of St. John, and here he, his wife, and the little Rhoda were received into the Christian community.
Rhoda was now a beautiful young woman of two-and-twenty; but no suitor had hitherto touched her heart. Bion, in the full strength of his matured manhood, for he was now close upon the borders of forty, with the double romance of his strange conversion and his old life of adventure, took it by storm. The lovers were married on the day after his baptism, and took possession of the Bithynian farm before the end of the year.
Rhoda's story has been given in the story of her husband. She was a woman of a character gentle yet firm, who never seemed to assert herself, whom a casual observer might even suppose to be of a yielding temper, but who was absolutely inflexible when any question of right or wrong, or of the faith which she clung to with a passionate earnestness of conviction was concerned.
The two girls, Rhoda and Cleoné, were singularly alike in figure and face, and singularly different in character. They were twins, and they had all the mutual affection, one might almost say, the identity of feeling, which is sometimes seen, a sight as beautiful as it is strange, in those who are so related. Rhoda was the elder, and the ruling spirit of the two. This superior strength of will might be traced by a shrewd observer in the girl's face. To a casual glance the sisters seemed so exactly alike as to defy distinction. But those who knew them well never confounded them together. The dark chestnut hair and violet eyes, rare beauties under that Southern sky, the delicately rounded cheeks, with their wild-rose tinge of colour, the line of forehead and exquisitely chiselled nose, modified by the faintest curve from the severely straight classical outline, were to be seen in both. But Rhoda's lips were firmly compressed; Cleoné's were parted in a faint smile; and the gaze of Rhoda's eyes had a directness which her sister's never showed. Rhoda's nature was of the stuff of which saints are made; Cleoné's was rather that which gives peace and sunshine to happy homes. Hitherto the quiet in which the two lives had been passed had given little to occasion anything like a divergence of will. In the small questions that occurred in daily affairs Cleoné had followed without hesitation the lead of her sister. A time was now at hand which was to apply to their affection and to Rhoda's influence a severe test.