A Letter from Trajan
"Is this man Lucilius in court?" asked the Governor of one of the officials.
"I saw him this morning, my lord," said the person addressed.
"Crier, call Lucilius."
The crier called the name, but there was no answer. The wretched man had listened to the evidence of the slave with growing apprehension, which was soon changed into dismay. At first, indeed, he had wholly failed to recognise the man. The lapse of twenty years and more had of course made a great change in Geta's appearance. The old shepherd, tanned to an almost African hue by exposure to wind and sun, with his grizzled beard and moustache, and long, unkempt locks falling over his shoulders, and his roughly made garments of skin, was as different a figure as possible from the neat, well-dressed, confidential servant whom Lucilius had known in time past. Still, some vague indication of the voice, as soon as the man began to speak, had troubled him; and of course little room had been left to him for doubt as soon as the man began to tell his story.
Lucilius was not so heartless but that he had often thought with regret of the two beautiful girl babies whom he had put out to die. The crime was indeed far too common in the ancient world to rouse the horror which it now excites. Indeed, it was a recognised practice. The fate of a new-born child was not considered to be fixed till the father by taking it up in his arms had signified his wish that it should be reared.
Still, the remembrance of that night's deed had troubled him. Prosperous days had soon come, and the losses which had infuriated him had been repaired. Then the grief of his wife, whom he loved with all the affection of which his nature was capable, had much troubled him. As a mere matter of domestic peace, her mourning for her lost darlings—though, as we shall see, she did not know of their actual fate—had destroyed all the comfort of his home. And for some years his home was childless. When, after an interval, a son was born, and the mother forgot something of her grief in the care which she lavished upon him, the father was stricken by a new fear—what if this child should be taken from him by way of retribution for the hard-heartedness with which he had treated his first-born? Every ailment of infancy and childhood had made him terribly anxious ; and he watched over the boy who was to carry out his ambitions with an apprehension which conscience never allowed him to set free.
As the lad grew up these fears had fallen into the background. But we have seen how they had of late been revived, and, it seemed, justified. The shepherd's story made them more intense than ever, while it added a new horror. It was a hideous thought that he should have helped to doom his own daughters to torture and death; and he saw what would be the end when his son should know of it. The wretched man waited in court till he had heard enough to banish all doubt from his mind, and then hurried home, half expecting as he came near the house to hear the lamentations for the newly dead.
As a matter of fact, no change had taken place in the condition of the invalid. He had woke two or three times since the departure of Cleoné, but never so thoroughly as to become aware of her absence. He had taken mechanically from his mother's hand the nourishment offered him, and had almost instantly fallen asleep. The physician had just paid his morning visit, and was more hopeful. For the present at least the lad was doing well. But when the explanation had to be made, that was another matter altogether.
Lucilius entered the sick boy's chamber with a silent step. His wife took no notice of his coming; but when he stood fronting her on the opposite side of the bed, and she could not help seeing his face, her woman's heart was touched by its inexpressible misery. She went round to his side, and laid her hand with a caressing gesture on his arm.
"What ails you, my husband?" she said. "Our darling, I hope, is doing well. The good Dioscorides speaks well of him."
He made no answer, but, falling on his knees beside the bed, buried his face in the coverlet. She could see his body shaken with silent and tearless sobs. At last he managed to articulate: "Call Manto"—Manto was an old and trustworthy servant who had been long a member of the household—"and let her watch for a while. I have something to tell you."
When Manto had obeyed the summons, Lucilius, who seemed to have become almost helpless, was led by his wife into an adjoining chamber.
Then, in a voice broken by sobs and tears, he told the miserable story.
He had scarcely finished when an official arrived from the Governor's court, bringing a summons for his attendance.
The wretched man rose from his seat as if to obey. But the limit of his strength and endurance had been reached, and he fell swooning upon the floor. Before long he was restored to partial consciousness; but it was evident that his attendance at the court was out of the question. In fact, he was suffering from a slight shock of paralysis.
"Let me go instead of him," said the wife. "I can at least tell what I know, and you can examine him when he is fit to answer."
Accordingly, after giving directions to Manto as to what was to be done for the patient during her absence, she accompanied the official to the court.
It was not much that she had to say; but, so far as it went, it confirmed the shepherd's story.
"I became the mother of two female children," she said, "on the fourteenth of May, twenty-one years ago. They were born alive, and were healthy and strong. I nursed them for fourteen days, as far as I can remember. Then I fell ill of a fever, and they had to be taken from me. I remember seeing them several times in the day for two or three days afterwards; then I knew nothing more. When I recovered my senses they were gone. It was then nearly the end of June. My husband told me that they were dead."
"Had you any doubt whether he was telling you the truth?" asked the Governor.
"I had none. Why should I? And when we were reckoning up our expenses at the end of the year, I found a paper which seemed to show the sum paid for the funeral."
"Do you remember the slave Geta?"
"Yes; I remember him. My husband said that he had been drowned. Some articles of his clothing were found by the river."
"Have you had any suspicion at all up to this time?"
"Lately I have had. Since my son has been ill, my husband has been much troubled in mind. He has talked in his sleep; and he said the same things over and over again, till I could not choose but heed them. 'Why did I kill them? Why did I kill them?' 'Geta, Geta, bring them back!' and 'Childless! Childless!' These were the things that he repeated. I put them together till I began to suspect that there had been some foul play. And then I remembered some words the old woman, Geta's sister, had said."
"And have you anything else to say?"
"Nothing, my lord, except that within the last hour my husband has confessed to me the whole."
"Why is he not here?"
"He is paralysed."
Here the poor woman, who had given her evidence with extraordinary firmness and self-possession, utterly broke down.
The Governor took but little time to consider his decision. It was to this effect:—
"The legal proof in this case is not complete, for it needs the formally attested confession of the man Lucilius. Substantially, however, the truth has been established, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing the sisters Rhoda and Cleoné to be of free condition."
Clitus now rose to address the court.
"I have an application to make that the proceedings in this case be annulled."
"On what ground?" said the Governor.
"On the ground that they were essentially illegal; that the evidence of the free-woman Rhoda was extorted from her by questioning that could not lawfully be applied."
"And you contend, therefore, that she should be set free?"
"That is my contention."
"And how about the woman Cleoné?"
"The question was embarrassing. Cleoné had suffered no actual wrong, and Clitus felt that here his case was weak. He tried to make the best of it.
"She has been treated as if she were of servile condition. The indictment against her is made out in these terms—'Also the slave-girl Cleoné,' are the words. I contend that it is informal, and ought therefore to be quashed."
The young advocate had the sympathies of the court—so far, at least, as the Governor was concerned—in his favour. He adjourned the court in order to consult his assessors. He found them adverse to the claim. A long argument ensued. In the end the opinion of the Governor prevailed, and he returned to the tribunal and began to deliver judgment.
"Having carefully considered the circumstances of this case, and remembering especially that the law, if ever it has been unwittingly betrayed into error, is anxious to make such amends as may be possible, I direct that the free women, Rhoda and Cleoné, wrongfully condemned as being of the servile condition——"
At this point the delivery of judgment was interrupted by the arrival of a messenger bearing an imperial rescript.
The Governor rose to receive the messenger, took the despatch from his hand, and, after making a gesture of respect to the document, proceeded to cut the sealed thread which fastened it. He read it, every one in court watching his face as he did so with intense interest.
It ran thus:—"Trajan Augustus, to his dearly beloved Cæcilius Plinius, Proprætor of Bithynia, greeting.—It is my pleasure that all persons, whether men or women, bond or free, who shall have been found guilty of cherishing the detestable superstition which has taken to itself the name of Christus, be forthwith sent to Ephesus, there to be held at the disposition of the Proconsul of Asia."
Every one knew what this meant, for the great show of wild beasts and gladiators that was about to be exhibited at Ephesus was the talk of the whole province.