Verus bent on the old man the same closely scrutinising look with which he had regarded the slave. Again he failed, it seemed, to connect the face with any recollections in his mind. There was, as we shall see, a dark past in his life which he was most unwilling to have dragged into the light. But he had no reason to associate Antistius with it, and nothing more than a vague sense of distrust haunted him, but he felt that if the old man had anything to say against him, he would be a far more formidable witness than the young Phrygian slave.
"You have been in Rome?" said the knight to Verus.
"Yes," he answered; "but not for some years past."
"Nor I," went on the old man; "nor do I want ever to see it again. She is the mother of harlots, drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus! But when I left it last, seventeen years ago, I carried away with me a memorial of a deed that I shall never forget, nor you either, if there is any thing human in you."
The speaker produced from the folds of his toga a small packet wrapped in a cover of silk. Unwrapping it with reverent care, he brought out a handkerchief stained nearly all over of a dull brownish red.
"Know you this?" he said to Verus.
"Why do you ask me? What have I to do with it?" answered the man, with a certain insolence in his tone. The majority in his favour made him confident.
"Yet you should know it, for it is a blood that was shed by your hands, though the blow was dealt by the axes of Cæsar. If seventeen years are enough to make you forget the martyr Flavius, yet there are those who remember him."
It is impossible to describe the effect which these words produced. In those days of peril, next to his love for his God and Saviour, the strongest emotion in a Christian's heart was his reverence for the martyrs. They were the champions who had fought and fallen for his faith, for all that he held dearest and most precious. He could not, he thought, reverence too much their patience and their courage. Were these not the virtues which he might at any hour be himself called on to exercise.
This reverence had, of course, its meaner counterpart in a base and cowardly nature such as Verus'. The man had not belief enough to make him honest and pure; but he had enough to give him many moments of agonizing fear. It was such a fear that overpowered him now. Any wrongdoer might tremble when thus confronted with the visible, palpable relic of a crime which he believed to be unknown or forgotten. But this was no ordinary wickedness. The betrayer of a martyr was looked upon with a horror equal to the reverence which attached itself to his victim.
Nor was it only the scorn and hatred of his fellow-men that he had to dread. There were awful stories on the men's lips of informers and traitors who had been overtaken by a vengeance more terrible than any that human hands could inflict; and these crowded upon the wretched creature's recollection. His face could not have shown a more overpowering fear had the pit itself opened before him. The staring eyes, the forehead and cheeks turned to a ghastly paleness and dabbled with cold drops of sweat, proved a terror that in itself was almost punishment enough.
But the criminal was almost forgotten in the thrill of admiring awe that went through the whole assembly. With one impulse men and women surged up to the place where the old knight was standing with the venerable relic in his hand. To see it close, if it might be to press their lips to it, was their one desire. The old man was nearly swept off his feet by the rush. The minister stepped forward, and took him within the sanctuary at the end of the meeting-house. The habit of reverence kept the people from pressing beyond the line which separated it from the body of the building, and they were partially satisfied when the handkerchief was held up for their gaze.
When silence and quiet had been restored, Antistius told his story.
"I went to Rome in the last year of Domitian's reign. It was at the season of the holiday of Saturn, which as some of you know, the heathen in Italy keep in the month of December. But it was no holiday time in Rome. The Emperor was mad with suspicious rage, and no man's life was safe for an hour; and the higher the place, the greater the danger. Yet there was one whom, though he was near to the throne, every one thought to be safe. This was Flavius Clemens. He was the Emperor's cousin: his sons were the next heirs to the throne. He was the gentlest, the least ambitious of men. It is true that he was a Christian, and the Emperor's rage at the time burned more fiercely against the Christians than against any one else; but the Emperor knew it, had known it for years, and had made him Consul in spite of it.
"When I reached Rome, he was near the end of his year of office. I dined with him on the Ides of December, for he was an old friend, and he told me—for we were alone—how he looked forward to being rid of his honours. 'Only eighteen days more,' he said, 'and I shall be free!'' Ah! he spoke the truth, but he little thought how the freedom was to come. He told me, I remember, what an anxious time his Consulship had been. The Consul, you see, has to see many things, and even do many things, which a Christian would gladly avoid. To sit at the theatre, to look on at the horrid butchery of the games, to be present at the public sacrifices, these are the things which a man can hardly do without sin.
" 'But', he said, 'my good cousin, the Emperor, has considered me. Happily he has been my colleague, and he has taken a hundred duties off my hands, which would have been a grievous burden on me.' And then he went to tell me of some troubles which had arisen in the Church. A certain Verus had the charge of the pensions paid to the widows, and of other funds devoted to the service of the poor, and he had embezzled a large part of them. 'You see,' he went on, 'we are helpless. We cannot appeal to the courts, as we have no standing before them; in fact, our witnesses would not dare to come forward. For a man to own himself a Christian would be certain death; and though one is ready for death if it comes, we must not go to meet it. So, whether we will or no, we must deal gently with this Verus.' And he did deal gently with him. Of course, he had to be dismissed; but he was not even asked to repay what he had taken—Flavius positively paid the whole of the deficiency out of his own pocket. And he spoke in the kindest way, I know, to the wretch, hoped that it would be a lesson to him, begged him to be an honest man in the future, and even offered to lend him money to start in business with.
"And yet the fellow laid an information against him with the Emperor! It would not have been enough to charge him with being a Christian; he was accused of witchcraft, and of laying plots against the Emperor's life. He used to mention Domitian's name in his prayers, for he was his kinsman as well as his emperor, and they got some wretched slave to swear that he heard him mutter incantations and curses. And Domitian, who was mad with fear—as he well might be, considering all the innocent blood that he had shed—believed it.
"I shall never forget what I saw in the senate-house that day. It was the last day of the year, and Flavius was to resign his office. There sat Domitian with that dreadful face, a face of the colour of blood, with such a savage scowl as I never saw before or since. Flavius took the oath that he had done the duties of his office with good faith, and then came down from his chair of office.
"In the common course of things the senate would have been adjourned at once. But that day the Emperor stood up. What a shudder ran through the assembly! Every one saw that the tale of victims for that year was not yet told. The question was, whose name was to be added? Domitian called on Regulus, a wretch who had grown gray in the trade of the informer. He rose in his place. 'I accuse Flavius Clemens, ex-consul, of treason,' he said. Why should I weary you, my brethren, with the wretched tale? To name a man in those days was to condemn him. I have heard it said by men who have crossed the deserts of the South that if a beast drops sick or weary on the road, in a moment the vultures are seen flocking to it from every quarter of the sky. Before, not one could be seen; but scarce is the dying beast stretched on the sand, but the air is black with their wings. So it was then. One day a man might seem not to have an enemy; let him be accused, and on the morrow they might be numbered by scores.
"Flavius, as I have said, was the gentlest, kindest, most blameless of men. But had he been the worst criminal in Rome, witnesses could not have been found more easily to testify against him. They brought in that wretched slave with his story of muttered incantations.
"You will say, perhaps, 'But he could not bear witness against his master!' Ah! my friends, they had a device to meet that difficulty. They sold him first, and, mark you, without his master's consent, to the State. Then he could give evidence, and the law not be broken. Then this villain Verus came forward. He told the same story, and with this addition, that he had been bribed to keep the secret, and he brought out the letter in which Flavius had offered him the money, as I have told you. Kind as ever, the Consul had written thus: 'We will bury this matter in silence. Meanwhile you shall not want means for your future support. Flaccus the banker shall pay you 100,000 sesterces [about £1,000].'
"Then senator after senator rose and repeated something that they had heard him say, or had heard said of him—for no evidence was refused in that court. At last one Opimius stood up. 'Lord Cæsar,' he said, 'and Conscript Fathers, of the chief of the crimes of Flavius no mention has been made. I accuse him of the detestable superstition of the Christians.'
" 'Answer for yourself,' said the Emperor, turning to the accused.
"He stood up. Commonly, I was told, he was a faltering speaker, but that day his words came clear and without hindrance. We know, my brethren, Who was speaking by his lips. He spoke briefly and disdainfully of the other charges, utterly breaking down the evidence, as any other court on earth but that would have held. Then he went on, 'But as to what Opimius has called "the detestable superstition of the Christians," I confess it, affirming at the same time that this same superstition has made me more loyal to all duties, public or private, of a citizen of Rome. I appeal to Cæsar, who hath known me from my boyhood, as one kinsman knows another, and who, being aware of my belief, conferred upon me this dignity of the Consulship, which is next only to his own majesty. I appeal to Cæsar whether this be not so.'
"He turned to Domitian as he spoke. That unchanging flush upon the tyrant's face fortified him, as I have heard it said, against shame. But he kept his eyes fixed upon the ground, and for a while he was silent. Then he said, 'I leave the case of Flavius Clemens to the judgment of the fathers.'
"You will ask, 'Did no one rise to speak for him?' I did see one half-rise from his seat. They told me afterwards that it was one Cornelius Tacitus, a famous writer, but his friends that were sitting by caught his gown and dragged him back, and he was silent. And indeed, speech would have served no purpose but to involve him in the ruin of the accused.
"Then the Emperor spoke again, 'We postpone this matter till to-morrow.' Then turning to the lictors—
" 'Lictors,' he said, 'conduct Flavius Clemens to his home. See that you have him ready to produce when he shall be required of you.'
"This, you will understand, was what was counted mercy in those days. A man not condemned was allowed the opportunity of putting an end to his own life. That saved his property for his family. In the evening I went to Flavius's house. He was surrounded by kinsfolk and friends. With one voice they were urging him to kill himself. Even his wife—she was not a Christian, you should know—joined her entreaties to theirs. Perhaps she thought of the money, and it was hard to choose beggary instead of wealth; certainly she thought of the disgrace. Were she and her children to be the widow and orphans of a criminal or an ex-consul?
"He never wavered for an instant. 'When my Lord offers me the crown of martyrdom,' he said, 'shall I put it from me?' That was his one answer; and though before he had been always yielding and weak of will, he did not flinch a hair's-breadth from this purpose.
"That night, I was told, he slept as calmly as a child. The next day he was taken again to the Senate, and condemned. But I heard that at least half of the senators had the grace to absent themselves. One favour the Emperor granted to him, as a kinsman; he might choose the manner and place of his death. He chose death by beheading, and the third milestone on the road to Ostia. It was then and there that the holy Apostle Paul had suffered; and Paul, whom he had heard in his youth, was his father in the faith. I saw him die; and besides his memory, that handkerchief, stained with his blood, is all that remains to me of him."
"What answer you to these charges?" said the minister to Verus.
He said nothing; and his silence itself was a confession.
Still it would have ill become the Church to act in haste. Antistius was asked to give proofs of the identity of the Verus who was present that day with the Verus who had brought about the death of Clemens. The old man told how his suspicions had been first aroused; how a number of circumstances, trifling in themselves had turned this suspicion into certainly. And he then indicated, though only in outline, his discoveries—that Verus had been following again the same dishonest practices that had brought him into disgrace at Rome. He promised that he would bring the evidence in detail before the Church at some future time.
The accused was still silent.
Then the minister addressed him:—"Verus, you have heard what has been witnessed against you. We do not repent that you were acquitted of the first charges. Be they true or no—and what we have since heard inclines us to believe them—they were not rightly proved. God forbid that the Church should be less scrupulous of justice than the tribunals of the unbeliever; but to the accusations of Antistius you yourself oppose no denial. Therefore hear the sentence of the Church.
"I have thought whether, after the example of the holy Apostle Paul, I should deliver you over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. I do not doubt either of my power or of your guilt; yet I shrink from such severity. Therefore I simply sever you from the Communion of the Church. Repent of your sin, for God gives you, in His mercy, a place for repentance. Make restitution for aught in which you have wronged your brethren, or them that are without. And now depart!"
The congregation left a wide space, as if to avoid even the chance of touching the garment of the guilty man, as he hurried, with his head bent downwards to the door.
When he had gone, the minister addressed the congregation.
"Brothers and sisters," he said, "I cannot doubt but that we shall be soon called to resist unto blood. There are signs that grow plainer every day, that the rulers of this world are gathering themselves together against Christ and His Church. It was but yesterday that I received certain news of that of which we had before heard rumours, to wit, that the holy Ignatius of Antioch suffered at Rome, being thrown to the wild beasts by command of the Emperor. But the fury that begins at Rome spreads ever into the provinces, and it cannot be hoped that we shall escape. We have this day made an enemy, for assuredly Caius Verus will not forget the disgrace that he has suffered, but will betray us, even as Judas betrayed his Lord. Therefore it becomes us to be ready. Provoke not the danger, lest your pride go before a fall. Many a time have they that were over-bold and presumptuous failed in the time of peril, and so have sinned against their own souls and done dishonour to the name of Christ. So far, therefore, as lieth in you, study to be quiet; and assuredly, when the time of need shall come, you will not be the less bold to confess Him who died for you. More I will say, if the Lord permit, when the occasion comes. Should it seem dangerous to meet in this place, I will summon those with whom I would speak to my own home."
Some words of advice about smaller matters connected with the management of the Church affairs followed this address. He then pronounced a blessing, and the congregation dispersed.