The Roses from Paradise
E ARLY in the fourth century after Christ, a group of girls were living in the city of Cæsarea on the coast of Palestine. They were all Christians, and most of them came of noble families, and had played together on the shores of the Mediterranean since their childhood. Now, they had little heart for games, as Fabricius, the Roman governor, was seeking out the Christians in his province, and offering them the choice between death and sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Many had failed to stand the test—a test which the girls were aware might be put to them at any moment. Would they be stronger than these others when the trial came? Would they fail also?
It was not long before they knew, for two of them, Agnes and Lucy by name, were betrayed to the governor, dragged from their homes, and thrown into prison. In a few days they were brought before Fabricius, and called upon to deny their faith or die for it. Now that the dreaded instant was actually before them, they were no longer afraid. Christ Himself seemed standing by them, and their eyes were steady and their voices calm, as they answered the governor.
"Take them away," he said after he had asked a few questions. "Take them away, and do with them even as unto the others," and he left the court to be present at a banquet.
The evil tidings soon reached the ears of Dorothea, who was born of noble parents, and held to be the most beautiful maiden in all Cæsarea; and while she rejoiced that they had stood fast and gone gladly to their deaths, she trembled greatly for herself lest, when her turn came, as come it surely would, she might prove too weak to face the sword, and be herself a castaway. It was horrible to think of, yet all her life she had shrunk from pain, and how was she to bear what certainly lay before her? Then she knelt and prayed for strength, and waited.
"Dorothea, Fabricius the governor has sent for thee."
The summons soon came, and Dorothea was almost thankful, for the strain of expecting something day after day is very hard to endure. She rose at once and accompanied the officer, who was in such haste that he hardly allowed her to say farewell to her parents, and in a few minutes she was in the governor's house and in the presence of Fabricius.
The Roman was a hard man, not wantonly cruel perhaps, but not permitting anything to interfere with his duty, and he prided himself on the manner with which he carried out his orders from Rome. Yet when Dorothea stood before him in the beauty whose fame had spread far and wide, his heart suddenly melted, and a strange feeling came over him that was quite new. He tried to shake it off; to recall to his mind all the lovely women he had seen in Rome and in Greece, lovelier surely than this Christian girl. But it was the Christian girl and not they who made his pulses throb, and he kept his eyes fixed on the floor, as he put the customary questions.
"Remove her to the prison," he said at last, "and, Marcellus, bid the keeper treat her well, or he shall answer for it to me," so, with her hands unchained and her head held high, Dorothea walked between her guards to her cell, while Fabricius watched her from the window. She sank down with relief as the door was locked behind her. The first part, perhaps the worst, of the trial was over, and out of her weakness she had been made strong. Now there only remained, the scaffold; for she never dreamed that she would see Fabricius again, still less of what he would say to her.
The gaoler brought her some food and wine, which she ate gladly, for she was much exhausted; then she fell asleep, and was awakened by the noise of the key grating in the door. Had the moment come? But there only entered two women, strangers to her.
Tired though she was, Dorothea noticed something odd in their manner, for they appeared shy and troubled, yet to be making an effort to be bold and at ease. Dorothea spoke to them gently, and inquired if they had any message for her, and who had sent them.
Their reply did not help her much. They stammered and hesitated, and interrupted each other, but at last Dorothea understood with horror who they were and what they wanted—they were apostates, who had denied Christ, and they were offering her money to deny Him also!
Dorothea gasped, and for a while the words seemed to die in her throat. The women saw the depths of the shame that possessed her, and knew it was for them, that they should have sunk so low. Suddenly they beheld themselves with Dorothea's eyes, and covered their faces with their hands.
"I did not mean to pain you," she said when at last she spoke. "I dread my own weakness too much. Who knows if I shall be any stronger than you," and she told them how her friends had died and how fervently she prayed to follow in their footsteps, till the faith the apostates had forsworn was born in them again, and with it a courage which never had been theirs.
"Enough; we will go to Fabricius," they said at length, "and will tell him that you have given our souls back to us. Farewell, for never shall we meet in this world again."
Yet meet they did, as Fabricius, burning with love for Dorothea, and rage at the failure of his plan, ordered them to be burnt in the public square, and bade the gaoler take care that Dorothea was present, that she might learn what fate awaited her. It was a sore trial, but when the maiden beheld the faces of the two poor women brighten as they caught sight of her, she rejoiced at the cruelty which had brought her there, and encouraged them with her prayers and brave words till their sufferings were ended.
"Dorothea, Fabricius the governor has sent for thee." A second time the summons came, and she was led into the governor's house. Long and earnestly he pleaded with her; she should be his wife, he said, and a great Roman lady, and have servants and slaves and all that she could desire, if only she would sacrifice to the gods. It was such a little thing he asked of her, merely to throw some incense on the altar of the emperor, and that only once. Was it reasonable that she should throw her life away for nothing? She had, he knew, spent many hours visiting the poor of her own people. Well, the Romans had their poor too; and she might help them if she wished, and would she not listen to him, who loved her, and would fain save her.
"I am the bride of Christ," answered Dorothea, "and am content with roses from the heavenly garden, which fade not away."
When Fabricius saw that nothing he could say would move her, his love turned to fierce wrath, and he called a centurion and bade him tell the headsman to be ready at sunset, as there was work for him to do. After that he shut himself up in his own room and would see nobody.
The streets of Cæsarea were crowded with people as Dorothea walked through them on the way to the scaffold. The story of the sudden love that Fabricius had felt for her, and her answer to his offer of marriage, had somehow got abroad, and all were anxious to see the girl who had preferred death to marriage with a Roman governor.
In the chief street, where the throng was thickest, a young man, Theophilus by name, stepped in front of her, and mockingly cried, loud enough for all to hear:
"Goest thou to join thy Bridegroom, fair maiden? Do not forget me, I pray thee, but send me some of the fruit and flowers from the heavenly garden, of which thou speakest."
"Thy prayer is granted, O Theophilus," replied Dorothea, and the young man and his friends laughed again and lost themselves in the crowd.
The scaffold was set up in the square, where Dorothea had stood only yesterday watching the death of the two poor women. She went quickly up the steps of the little platform surrounded by soldiers, where the headsman awaited her, and, kneeling, covered her face with her hands for a short prayer. Then she looked up at the headsman, in token that she was ready, and she saw between him and her a boy holding out to her a basket full of apples and roses, sweeter and more beautiful than any she had ever seen before.
"Take them to Theophilus," she said, "and tell him that Dorothea has sent them, and that they come from the heavenly garden whither she is going, and where he will one day find her."
Theophilus and his friends were feasting and making merry when the boy appeared at his side.
"Whence comes he?" asked one of the young men. "His face is not of this country nor yet is he Roman. And as for his apples and roses, tell me where they grow that I may get some, for never have I seen the like."
Then the boy spoke and delivered his message, and the tongues of all were silent.
For a time Theophilus was seen no more in Cæsarea; but one day he came back and confessed himself a Christian, and was sent by the governor to pluck the roses of the heavenly garden.