Love or Duty?
The two sisters, Rhoda and Cleoné, did not lack admirers. Maidens so fair and gracious would have attracted suitors even had they been portionless. But it was well known that they would bring handsome dowries with them, for Bion's farm had prospered under his hands, while Bion's wife had inherited the savings which her adopting father, the centurion Manilius, had made from his pay and prize-money.
But Rhoda's admirers found it impossible to get beyond admiration. In those early days of Christianity there were no vows of celibacy for men or women; though, indeed, the feelings and thoughts that led to them were rapidly growing up. Yet no cloistered nun of after times could have been more absolutely shut out from all thoughts of love and marriage than this daughter of a Bithynian farmer. She did not affect anything like seclusion, or seek to stand aloof from the business and even the little pleasures of daily life. She took her part in the work of the farm. No fingers milked the cows or made the butter more deftly than hers. In the harvest field she would follow the reapers, and bind the sheaves more untiringly and more skillfully than any, except Cleoné. When the vintage came round, and the purple and amber grapes were plucked by the women for the men to tread in the vats, no one filled her baskets more quickly than Rhoda. And if a weakly calf, or lamb, or an early brood of chickens, hatched before the frosts were fairly gone, wanted care, there was no one who could give it so efficiently and tenderly as Rhoda. In fact, it was her vocation from her cradle to serve others. Every good woman has such a vocation in her degree, but some embrace it with a devotion that leaves no room for any personal ties. Rhoda was one of these rare souls; and the boldest lover soon found that she was not for him, and, indeed, had no care for any earthly suit. She never needed to repulse an admirer. A very short time sufficed to show that she was absolutely unapproachable; and she went untroubled on her way, followed by something of the awe which might be felt for an angel come down from heaven.
It was natural, of course, that her first thought should be to serve the community of believers to which she belonged. And there was a way in which this desire could be fulfilled. The early church had the practice, lately revived among ourselves, of calling devout women to the office of deaconess, and of thus making a regular use of their zeal. The need of such helpers in the ministry was especially great when the Greek habits of life prevailed, and women were in a large measure secluded from society. They wanted helpers and advisers of their own sex who might go where men would not have been admitted. Such a helper the Church of Cenchreæ, the busy port of Corinth, had at an earlier time in Phœbe, whom St. Paul commends so kindly to his fellow Christians at Rome. This was the office to which Rhoda inclined. It was her youth only that hindered her admission to it. Though no vows were demanded, still there was a natural feeling that those who put their hands to such a work should not go back from it, and the presiding minister of the Christian community hesitated about giving this regular call to one so young and so beautiful as Rhoda. Bion too, and his wife, though they would not offer a direct opposition to their daughter's wish, were not sorry to see its full accomplishment postponed. They were too good people to grudge her to the service of Christ and His Church; yet they could not help shrinking from all that this vocation seemed to mean. In any case it could hardly fail to take her much from their family life. Nor could they hide from themselves that, if troublous times should come, if the persecution which was always possible, and even probable, should begin, the first victims would be those who held office in the Church.
Next to her own feeling of devotion, Rhoda's strongest desire was to make her sister a sharer in her work. Nothing could have made her draw back, but the thought of not having Cleoné by her side was inexpressibly painful to her, and she banished it with all the force of her resolute will. Her best and truest course would have been to recognise the difference between her sister and herself, of which, indeed, she could not fail to have some knowledge, to acknowledge that Cleoné was made for the duties of happiness and home, and to crush down all the feelings and wishes in her heart that helped to hide this from her. But, in common with many great natures, she had, to use a common phrase, the defects of her good qualities. She said to herself, "I am called to serve my Lord; this service is the highest aim in life, the most perfect happiness that I can enjoy, and what can I do better for the sister who is like a part of my soul than to bring her to share in it? Shall I not be doing well if I can bring two hearts instead of one to Him?"
Cleoné would have yielded with scarcely a struggle to the strong will of her sister—for she was in her way not less devout—if it had not been for another influence. She had found among her suitors one to whose affections her own went out in answer.
Clitus was a Greek, an Athenian by birth, who had come to Bithynia in the train of Pliny, the Roman Governor. He had been a remarkably successful student in the University of Athens. He had been chosen, though then only a junior, to give the complimentary address with which the City of the Muses welcomed a visit from Pliny, as a distinguished Roman man of letters; and his pure Attic style and manly delivery had attracted the visitor's notice. He had been no less successful as an athlete than he was as a learner in the school of philosophy and rhetoric. No competitor could throw him in the wrestling ring or outstrip him in the foot-race. The crew captained by him had won for three years in succession—an unparalleled distinction—the prize in the boat-races in the Bay of Salamis. In the midst of these triumphs he was struck with a sudden sense of the vanity of the pursuits to which he had been devoting himself. A fellow-student, a friendly rival, who had been only less successful than himself in study and sport, had been carried off by a violent fever. He was a stranger from Ephesus, and, as none of his kindred were at hand, Clitus, as his nearest friend, had the sad duty assigned to him of putting the torch to the funeral pile on which the body was to be consumed, and of gathering the ashes for the urn which was to be placed in the family sepulchre at Ephesus. The most brilliant rhetorician that the University contained had been chosen to speak the funeral oration. Clitus listened to him with the closest attention, for he eagerly desired some word of comfort and hope. The speaker was a disciple of a well-known school, which asserted nothing and questioned everything. As long as he spoke of the dead man, of his virtues and his achievements, nothing could be better than his language, so full was it of tenderness and grace; but when he came to treat of the future, he failed. He could only disparage or doubt the beliefs of others. He ridiculed the popular faith, the gloomy pit of Tartarus, the shining fields of Elysium. He reviewed the speculations of philosophers only to express his dissatisfaction. But his chief scorn was for a doctrine which he said had been proclaimed not far from the place where they were standing, some sixty years before. "It was a Jew," he said, "who had the boldness to propound these absurdities in this city of philosophers; nor was he a man without culture. I have heard it said by one who listened to him that, though his accent was detestable, he quoted from our poets. But his teaching was sheer frenzy. Every man was to rise from his grave! Mark you, every man! Criminals, slaves, barbarians—did you ever hear of such madness?" And then the speaker went on to propound his own theory, which, by the way, was amazingly like some that are being thrust upon us now. "Men will survive in their race. The individual perishes; but if he had done anything for his fellows, has been a poet, or an orator, or an inventor, he lives in the greatness of what he has done, and in the fame which waits upon it."
Clitus turned away in profound discontent. Then it occurred to him, "Can I find what I want elsewhere? There is Bion the Golden-Mouth lecturing at Ephesus. Perhaps he has something more satisfying to tell me." To Ephesus he went. But there Clitus heard nothing more than he had heard at Athens. Yet his visit was not fruitless. One day, when his restless thoughts drew him from his bed before sunrise, he fell in with a little company of men and women who were making their way through the half-lighted street. He followed them, entered with them a building in the outskirts of the city, and listened to a discourse on the subject of the very doctrine which he had heard ridiculed at Athens. "Then," he said to himself, "this wild fancy still holds its ground!" He came again and again. What he heard interested him deeply, and when he came to make acquaintance with some of his fellow-hearers, he found that, humble mechanics or slaves as they were, they had a wonderful elevation of thought, and even of language. Meanwhile, it was necessary to find some employment. Just at that time the younger Pliny came to Ephesus, on his way to take possession of his government in Bithynia, and Clitus attended his levée. Pliny, always glad to surround himself with educated men, offered employment as a secretary, and Clitus accompanied him to his province. It was thus that he became acquainted with the little community that worshipped in the guild-house of the wool-combers of Nicæa, with the household of Bion, and with the beautiful Cleoné. An opportunity had occurred of serving Bion in some matter that brought him into the Proconsul's court, and the acquaintance had grown into intimacy. Clitus was now a catechumen, or person under instruction, and it was intended that he should be baptized at Whitsuntide.
In the afternoon of the day following the assembly described in the first chapter, the young Roman had found his way to the farm by help of one of the excuses which lovers are never at a loss to invent. Possibly it was not an accident that his coming was timed for an hour at which Rhoda would be busy with some errand of mercy, for Rhoda viewed the young man as a formidable opponent, and, for all her unworldliness, was clever enough to prevent any private interview between him and her sister. The elder Rhoda was busy with her household cares; Cleoné was helping her father in the vineyard. He was pruning—a delicate task, which he was unwilling to trust to any hands but his own; she followed him along the rows, tying up to their supports the shoots which were left to bear the vintage of the year. It was here that Clitus found her, and as Bion was inclined to favour his suit, no place could have suited him better. If we listen awhile to their talk, we shall see how matters stood between them. Clitus was in high spirits.
"Give me joy, Cleoné," he said; "the letter from the Emperor arrived this morning, and it grants the Governor's request. I am to have the Roman citizenship; and now everything is open to me."
The girl could not refuse her sympathies to his manifest delight; but her mind was somewhat sad, and it was with a forced gaiety that she answered, "Well, my lord—for you will soon be one of the lords of us poor provincials—how shall we speak to you? What Roman name shall you be pleased to adopt? Shall you be a Julius Cæsar or a Tullius Cicero?"
"To you, Cleoné," said the young man, "I shall always be Clitus, the name under which I had the happiness to know you. But, seriously, the Governor is kind enough to let me take his own family name, and I shall be Quintus Cæcilius."
"And when do you leave us for Rome?" said the girl, giving all her attention, it seemed, to binding up a refractory shoot.
"Leave you? for Rome? I said nothing about leaving."
"But the career—in this poor place there is nothing to satisfy you. You said that all things were now open to you, and where are 'all things' to be found, but at Rome?"
"You misunderstand me—you wrong me, Cleoné. I have no such ambition as you seem to think. I desire nothing better than to spend the rest of my days here, if I can but find here the thing that I want. I did but mean that no road by which I may find it well to travel will be shut to me when I am a citizen of Rome. But be sure that the road, whatever it is, will never take me very far from Nicæa."
The girl was silent. She had seen from the first, with a woman's quick apprehension of such things, that there was a serious purpose in the young Greek's manner, and she had tried, as women will try, even when they are not face to face with such perplexities as were troubling poor Cleoné, to put off the crisis.
Clitus went on: "I am to have the government business as a notary in the province. The Governor promises that other things will follow. But I am afraid this does not interest you."
"I am sure," answered the girl, "we all feel the greatest interest in you."
"But you, Cleoné, you!" cried the young man, and he caught her hand in his as he spoke. "You know that this is my ambition: to have something which I can ask you to share. I came to tell you that it seems to be within my reach, and you ask me when I am going to Rome! Oh! it is cruel; and when I have been hoping all the time that there might be something to work for."
Poor Cleoné was in a sad strait. The struggle between love and duty is often a hard one; but at least the issue is clear, and a loyal heart crushes down its pain, and chooses the better course. But here there seemed to be love on both sides, and duty on both sides. Which was she to choose? She knew that Clitus loved her, and though she had never looked quite closely and steadfastly into her own heart, she felt that she loved him. And he was worthy, too. Any woman might be proud of him. Why should she not do as her mother had done before her, and give herself to a good man who loved her? There was love and there was duty here. But then, on the other side, there was the Church, its claim upon her, the work that lay ready for her hand—and Rhoda, who was her second self, from whom she had never had a thought apart, whose love had been the better half of her life ever since she could remember anything. It was a sore perplexity in which she was entangled.
She stood silent. But her silence was eloquent. Clitus, though he was no confident lover, saw that it was not her indifference that he had to fear. If he had been no more to her than other men, she could easily have found words—kind, doubtless, but plain and decisive enough—in which to bid him go. She had even left her hand in his. She was scarcely conscious of it, so full was her mind of the struggle; but consciousness would have come quickly enough if his touch had been repugnant to her.
At last she spoke: "Oh, Clitus, this is not a time for such things as you talk of. Remember what the elder said the other day. There is danger at hand, and we must be ready to meet it. Would it be right to hamper ourselves with things of this world? Does not the holy Apostle Paul tell that they who marry——"
She paused, blushing crimson when she remembered that her lover, though his meaning was plain enough, had not gone as far as speaking of marriage.
"Ah! if you were only my wife," cried Clitus, "I should fear nothing.
"Has he not said," she went on, "that they who marry shall have trouble in the flesh? And, when I might be comforting and strengthening others, to have to think of myself! O, Clitus, I feel that I am called to other things. Rhoda and I are not as other women; she tells me so, and she is always right. I could not go against her."
Perhaps it was as well that just at that moment, Bion, who had finished his work for the time among the vines, advanced with outstretched hands to greet the guest. It was a relief to both to have the interruption.