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On the Quirinal Hill, not far from the Gardens of Sallust,
Loudly he knocked at the gate and entered a high-ceilèd dwelling;
Placed the maid on a couch, and thus he gently addressed her:
"Child, I see by thy garb that thou art free-born and gentle,
Sprung of patrician race, perchance, for thy bearing is noble.
Far be the thought from my heart to make thee a slave in my household.
Rather my child shalt thou be, and my daughters will comfort and soothe thee,
Till thy young soul shall rebound from its dark and morbid deflection
Back to its natural poise of healthful enjoyment and gladness.
But, till thy wound be healed, I ask no importunate question
Touching thy birth and thy name, but bide my time till thou comest
Like mine own child to my knee, and reposest confidence in me."
PALE through the azure expanse of the sky the moon was ascending;
Like intangible snow its breath of silvery vapor
Softly fell through the fields of the air o'er the slumbering city.
Then, with tremulous gleam, the stars burst forth, and Orion
Shone with a frosty sheen, and a vague and luminous shimmer
Rained from the Milky Way. But pure, and ghostly, and solemn
Rose the stately façade of the temple of Jupiter Stator;
Hushed and empty beneath, as if touched with a chilly remoteness,
Lay the white square of the Forum, where loomed the Phocian column
High in the moon-bathed stillness. The sculptured arch of Severus
Glimmered palely amidst the temples of deified Cæsars;
While, 'neath the brow of the Palatine Hill, the vast Coliseum
Flung its mantle of gloom to hide the deeds of the darkness,
Wrought on this terrible day for the joy of a barbarous people.
Sheltered deep in the shade of those huge and cavernous portals
Stood, close pressed to the stone, a little quivering maiden.
Fearless she stood and with burning eyes through the iron-barred gate-way
Gazed at the sated beasts that yawning drowsed in the shadow,—
Drowsed or slunk with velveted tread o'er the star-lit arena,
Snuffing, perchance, as they went the mangled form of a martyr,
Sightless, that stared with insensible orbs to the moon-flooded heavens.
Trembling she stood, and hugged the rigid bars of the iron
Close to her breast; but her sense seemed dead, and feeling, she felt not.
Silence brooded about her; until at the mouth of the portal
Sounded the clank of a lance upon the pavement of lava.
Then she turned with a start, though she long had expected the signal,
Saw 'gainst the brightness without three men advancing to meet her-
One a youth in the garb of the far-famed imperial legion,
Rugged the others and clad in the humble attire of the freedmen.
"Glaucus, I thank thee," so spoke in a shuddering whisper the maiden;
"Christ, who seeth in secret this kindly deed, will requite thee.
Now unbar me the gate and bid these brethren await me
Here, in the gloom of this arch, until I have rescued the bodies
Safe from the fangs of the beasts, that piously we may commit them
Unto the consecrate earth. My soul is constant and fearless,
Though this frail flesh be weak. Yet, if the Lord hold me worthy
Here to receive for the sake of His name the crown of the martyr,
Then return to our brethren, and bid them before the Lord's altar
Breathe a prayer for the soul of their sorrowful sister, Calpurnia."
"Child, thou temptest the Lord," the soldier Glaucus made answer.
"Let the dead bury their dead,' for thus the Master hath spoken;
Wheresoever they rest, His hand, O sister, will reach them."
Glaucus," she said, "I am lonely, and yearn and weep for my mother. Lo, my poor life is a smoking flax and a reed that is bruisèd. Pray the good Jesus to quench the feeble spark of my being
He hath no work on the earth for one that was weak and denied Him."
Heaving a sigh, the soldier undid the bolts and the barriers,
And with unfaltering feet Calpurnia passed through the gate-way,
Murmured the blessed name which protects from the powers of evil,
Feeling a new-born strength that gushed through her veins and her fibers;
While with loud-beating heart the soldier gazed from the portal:
"Ah, Christ Jesus defend her! Death's jaws are yawning before her!
Seest thou not the sleek beast that yonder lurks by the pillar,
Crouching now for the leap ?-now leaping? My vision forsakes me!
Heavenly Lord, where art thou that thus-but my sense is delirious-
Brothers, support me! Great God! Unharmed she stands, and a halo
Beams from her sorrowful face! Now stoops she and tenderly gazes
Into the sunken eyes of a saint. Oh, hie thee, sweet sister,
Dangers untold encompass thy path! Behold how she raises
Full to the moon the prostrate form, and kisses the pallid
Lips of the dead. O brothers, make haste-why stand we inactive ?
Quick, draw the bolts from the gate! Oh, why do ye linger?
Hush! How the air doth quake! The roar of the Libyan lion
Rolls with thunderous echoes around the empty arena.
Darkness gathers about me! The moon in the mist-flooded distance
Loses her light and fades. The stars grow dim and unsteady.
Hark! from afar a faint shriek-a groan! Ye angels, forsake her
Not in her hour of need! I tremble! What see ye, my brethren?
Aid mine unfaithful eyes! Do ye hear a choked supplication
Rise through the stillness of night? And footsteps methinks that draw nearer—
Now retreating again? What is that? On the brink of perdition
Totters my foot! For behold, do ye see in the seat of the Cæsars,
Yonder, above the black arch, the shape of a toga-clad Roman?
Lost! Just God, I am lost! Do you see how he stares unaverted
Fierce at the white void within, like a beast that is sated with murder?
He resembles, methinks, Ausonius Mycon, the prætor!
Lord, thou hast visited swiftly my sin and my weakness upon me!
Yet I shall tremble no more! I will tread where thou, Lord, hast trodden!"
Thus spake Glaucus, but ere his sad voice had expired in the twilight,
Saw he Calpurnia stand at the portal and beckoning to him.
Pale she stood and erect, and her frame seemed frail and translucent,
As if the light of the radiant soul were shimmering through it;
And at her feet, with withered lips and rigidly staring,
Lay her beloved dead; and Glaucus, forgetting his terror,
Straightway unbarred the gate, that, grating, swung on its hinges,—
Lifted the lifeless clay of the saints, and tenderly placed them
Side by side on a bier, and hid their blood-sprinkled garments,
Hid their gaping wounds, 'neath a shroud of precious linen.
Seizing the bier the freedmen emerged from the gloom of the portal;
Swiftly they moved through the night, and Calpurnia followed behind them,
Down the Appian Way and on through the Porta Latina.
Tearless and dumb she hurried away o'er the smooth-trodden pavement,
Feeling scarcely the weight of her limbs, nor the touch of the lava-
Feeling only a world of woe that throbbed in her bosom.
"Ah, little maid, thy grief makes thee blind, and thy vigilant senses
List to the tumult within and thy heart's tempestuous beating;
Dulled are thine ears to the muffled tread of sandaled footsteps—
Footsteps whose shadowy sound awakens no treacherous echo
From the gates of the tombs, where sleep the mighty departed.
Nor do thy fevered eyes descry in the gathering dimness
Something that steals through the mist, now tarries a while at the way-side,
Then, with a peering gaze and noiselessly, hasteneth onward,
Pausing when thou dost pause, and when thou advancest, advancing."
IN THE CATACOMBS OF ST. CALIXTUS.
HUSHED from the depths of the earth, with a sweet, ethereal cadence,
Came the soft strains of a song—a hymn of praise and of gladness:
"Blessed," they sang, "are the dead who die in the Lord"; and a youthful Voice, with the virginal dew of faith and childhood upon it, Rose through the sod and hovered aloft like a joy-wingèd seraph: "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection." Here, 'neath the boughs of a cypress copse, in the sheltering shadow (Dense and opaque, like a hoar-frost of darkness congealed on the tiny Spears of the vernal grass), Calpurnia paused, and the freedmen; Then, with wary hand, she knocked on a stone that was hidden Half in a jungle of roses that grew 'mid the roots of the cypress. "Christ is risen," she said; and the answer came to the watchword:
Yea, He is risen, indeed"; and lo! the stone was uplifted
Quickly by strong arms beneath; and straightway clearer and tenderer,
Like a sweet face that is quickly revealed 'neath the veil that has hid it,
Burst the glad chant from the womb of the earth and soared to the heavens:
"Thou wilt show me the path of life; behold, in Thy presence,
Lord, there is fullness of joy." A moment's glare of the torches,
Flaming red in the gloom, but ghostly and white in the moonlight;
Then a dull thud of the stone, as the martyred dead and the living
Vanished beneath it. Now ceased the chant, and in reverent silence
Bore they the saints to their rest through the long, subterranean chambers,
Haunted by shadowy watchers, and reached the cave where the brethren
Praised the Lord in prayer and song, while the white-haired bishop
Spoke the words of life to strengthen the weak and the weary,
Spoke to refresh the souls that drooping fell at the way-side.
When Calpurnia saw his mild, compassionate visage,
Forth she sprang, embracing his knees; and as the smooth billow
Dumbly swells till it breaks on the strand in melodious ripples,
Thus her imprisoned grief, that had mutely swelled in her bosom,
Burst in a shower of tears at the goal of her perilous wandering.
"Father," she cried, "the Lord hath turned His countenance from me!
Him I denied in my weakness, and now, in His wrath, He rejects me.
Cæsar I prayed for death, but he made me a slave. Oh, my father,
Even the Libyan lion that lurks in the Flavian arena
Harmed me not; so vile I am, and the Lord will not take me;
Lo, I went in this night to save the clay that was precious
Unto my heart from the impious hands of the base and ungodly.
Here I have brought it to thee; thou wilt bury my father and mother
Here in the hallowed soil where sleep generations of martyrs."
"Daughter," the patriarch answered, and murmured a soft benediction,
Placing his hands on her throbbing brow and soothing her gently,
"Thou hast sinned in denying the Lord; but the Saviour is gracious;
He has forgiven thy sin, for hard was thy self-imposed penance.
Think not, child, that He has thrust thee away from His bosom;
If He withheld the martyr's crown in the bloody arena,
He has desired thee to live and, living, to further His kingdom."
"Oh, but my father," Calpurnia sobbed, "I am weak and unworthy!
What is the life of a maiden slave, that the Lord in His glory
E'er should bethink Him of her, and the flickering flame of her being
Shield with His mighty hands against the breath of destruction?
Father, oh pray that I die, for I am alone and am weary."
"Child," the bishop replied, "two sparrows are sold for a farthing;
Yet falls not one to the ground without the will of Our Father.
Wondrous, indeed, are the ways of the Lord, and even thy weakness
He has preserved to work His will, though obscurely and blindly.
Death hast thou sought, and thou weepest that martyrdom is denied thee;
Life has its martyrs, my daughter, as brave, as strong, and as faithful,
Ay, as the martyrs of death. And thine is the work of confession,
Not by thy blood, but by deeds of heroic meekness and patience.
Deeds of forbearance and kindness 'mid unending toil and injustice-
Deeds that calmly shall shine in the gloom which thy path shall encompass,
Like the small flame of a lamp that unsteadily glimmers and flickers
Lone in the night, and showeth the gloom, though it cannot disperse it.
Christ has withheld the fangs of the beasts from thy delicate body,
Shielding thee, child, from the martyr's death, because He will grant thee
That which, my daughter, is harder to bear-the life of a martyr."
Thus the patriarch spoke, and knelt in prayer at the altar
Close at Calpurnia's side, and all the brethren assembled
Bowed their heads in silence, and prayed for the souls of the martyrs
Summoned to stand this night before the face of the Saviour,
Hearing the joyful words from His lips, "Ye blest of my Father,
Enter ye into the kingdom"; while in the dim light of the tapers
Gleamed on the wall, indistinctly, an outline mosaic of Jesus
Drawn as the Shepherd who bears the lamb that was lost on His shoulders.
Deep was the stillness, save for the crackle, perchance, of the torches,
Save for the smothered sobs of a maiden bereaved, or a widow,
Striving in vain to strangle her natural grief, and to follow
Upward her loved one in thought to his blessèd rest from his labors
Safe in the kingdom of God. Then suddenly from the watchers
Came a loud shriek of alarm, and, ere the brethren assembled
Woke from the rapture of prayer, beheld they standing among them-
Toga-clad, tall, and erect-Ausonius Mycon, the prætor.
"Stay, disciples of Christ!" he cried, and his sword he uplifted.
"Fear me no more, for alas! the strength of my arm it is broken.
Here is my sword," and he flung the blade at the feet of the bishop.
"Wreak your vengeance upon me, for swordless stand I among you;
Red are my hands with the innocent blood of your fathers and daughters."
Half re-assured, yet fearful, the brethren paused in the door-ways,
Gazing over their shoulders with glances of doubt and suspicion,
While at the altar immovable stood the reverent bishop,
Grave and serene and pale at his feet lay the maiden Calpurnia.
"Priest," the prætor resumed, "I know not the God whom thou servest;
Yet have I seen the strength He has given this pale little maiden,
Hidden, have heard the words which, through thy mouth, He hath spoken..
Lo! I have waged against Him a vain, ineffectual warfare,
And by the deeds of this night I am utterly broken and conquered.
Late in the watches nocturnal I rose, and the light mists of slumber
Rubbed from mine eyes, and tracked this child through devious path-ways
Unto the Flavian arena. I hoped, perchance, to discover
Where in the womb of the night your hidden worship eluded
Ever my vigilant search. I had not resolved to betray you,
But, by my knowledge armed, to keep you in bitter subjection.
Ah, but this shy little maid has vanquished her valiant pursuer!
Now he is fain to fall at her feet, and beg her to lead him
Unto that fountain of life whence spring such trust and devotion,
Courage so high and serene in the face of death and of danger,
Valor in frailty clad and strength thus wedded to weakness.
Therefore, the God whom Calpurnia serves, O priest, I will worship;
I and my household will bend our knees bringing gifts to His altars;
Thou wilt teach us the wingèd ways that lead to His favor.”
Silently burned in haloes of mist the delicate tapers,
Fell their pale sheen on faces upturned in prayerful rapture,
Fell on the reverent priest as he on the brow of the maiden
Placed his hands and blessed her, and spake in a tremulous whisper:
"Daughter, behold! 'tis the voice of the Lord hath given thee answer.
Now thou knowest the worth of the life which He has protected,