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A STRAY GLEAM
The last blue headland of Sardinia was fading fast on the north-west horizon, and a steady breeze bore before it innumerable ships, the wrecks of Heraclian's armament, plunging and tossing impatiently in their desperate homeward race toward the coast of Africa. Far and wide, under a sky of cloudless blue, the white sails glittered on the glittering sea, as gaily now, above their loads of shame and disappointment terror and pain, as when, but one short month before, they bore with them only wild hopes and gallant daring. Who can calculate the sum of misery in that hapless flight? .... And yet it was but one, and that one of the least known and most trivial, of the tragedies of that age of woe; one petty death-spasm among the unnumbered throes which were shaking to dissolution the Babylon of the West. Her time had come. Even as Saint John beheld her in his vision, by agony after agony, she was rotting to her well-earned doom. Tyrannising it luxuriously over all nations, she had sat upon the mystic beast--building her power on the brute animal appetites of her dupes and slaves: but she had duped herself even more than them. She was finding out by bitter lessons that it was 'to the beast', and not to her, that her vassal kings of the earth had been giving their power and strength; and the ferocity and lust which she had pampered so cunningly in them, had become her curse and her destruction .... Drunk with the blood of the saints; blinded by her own conceit and jealousy to the fact that she had been crushing and extirpating out of her empire for centuries past all which was noble, purifying, regenerative, divine, she sat impotent and doting, the prey of every fresh adventurer, the slave of her own slaves .... 'And the kings of the earth, who had sinned with her, hated the harlot, and made her desolate and naked, and devoured her flesh, and burned her with fire. For God had put into their hearts to fulfil His will, and to agree, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God should be fulfilled.' .... Everywhere sensuality, division, hatred, treachery, cruelty, uncertainty, terror; the vials of God's wrath poured out. Where was to be the end of it all? asked every man of his neighbour, generation after generation; and received for answer only, 'It is better to die than to live.'
And yet in one ship out of that sad fleet, there was peace; peace amid shame and terror; amid the groans of the wounded, and the sighs of the starving; amid all but blank despair. The great triremes and quinqueremes rushed onward past the lagging transports, careless, in the mad race for safety, that they were leaving the greater number of their comrades defenceless in the rear of the flight; but from one little fishing-craft alone no base entreaties, no bitter execrations greeted the passing flash and roll of their mighty oars. One after another, day by day, they came rushing up out of the northern offing, each like a huge hundred-footed dragon, panting and quivering, as if with terror, at every loud pulse of its oars, hurling the wild water right and left with the mighty share of its beak, while from the bows some gorgon or chimaera, elephant or boar, stared out with brazen eyes toward the coast of Africa, as if it, too, like the human beings which it carried, was dead to every care but that of dastard flight. Past they rushed, one after another; and off the poop some shouting voice chilled all hearts for a moment, with the fearful news that the Emperor's Neapolitan fleet was in full chase .... And the soldiers on board that little vessel looked silently and steadfastly into the silent steadfast face of the old Prefect, and Victoria saw him shudder, and turn his eyes away--and stood up among the rough fighting men, like a goddess, and cried aloud that 'the Lord would protect His own'; and they believed her, and were still; till many days and many ships were passed, and the little fishing-craft, outstripped even by the transports and merchantmen, as it strained and crawled along before its single square-sail, was left alone upon the sea.
And where was Raphael Aben-Ezra?
He was sitting, with Bran's head between his knees, at the door of a temporary awning in the vessel's stern, which shielded the wounded men from sun and spray; and as he sat he could hear from within the tent the gentle voices of Victoria and her brother, as they tended the sick like ministering angels, or read to them words of divine hope and comfort-in which his homeless heart felt that he had no share....
'As I live, I would change places now with any one of those poor mangled ruffians to have that voice speaking such words to me....and to believe them.' .... And he went on perusing the manuscript which he held in his hand.
'Well!' he sighed to himself after a while 'at least it is the most complimentary, not to say hopeful, view of our destinies with which I have met since I threw away my curse's belief that the seed of David was fated to conquer the whole earth, and set up a second Roman Empire at Jerusalem, only worse than the present one, in that the devils of superstition and bigotry would be added to those of tyranny and rapine.'
A hand was laid on his shoulder, and a voice asked' 'And what may this so hopeful view be?'
'Ah! my dear General!' said Raphael, looking up. 'I have a poor bill of fare whereon to exercise my culinary powers this morning. Had it not been for that shark who was so luckily deluded last night, I should have been reduced to the necessity of stewing my friend the fat decurion's big boots.'
'They would have been savoury enough, I will warrant, after they had passed under your magical hand.'
'It is a comfort, certainly, to find that after all one did learn something useful in Alexandria! So I will even go forward at once, and employ my artistic skill.'
'Tell me first what it was about which I heard you just now soliloquising, as so hopeful a view of some matter or other?'
'Honestly--if you will neither betray me to your son and daughter, nor consider me as having in anywise committed myself--it was Paul of Tarsus's notion of the history and destinies of our stiff-necked nation. See what your daughter has persuaded me into reading!' And he held up a manuscript of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
'It is execrable Greek. But it is sound philosophy, I cannot deny. He knows Plato better than all the ladies and gentlemen in Alexandria put together, if my opinion on the point be worth having.'
'I am a plain soldier, and no judge on that point, sir. He may or may not know Plato; but I am right sure that he knows God.'
'Not too fast,' said Raphael with a smile. 'You do not know, perhaps, that I have spent the last ten years of my life among men who professed the same knowledge?'
'Augustine, too, spent the best ten years of his life among such; and yet he is now combating the very errors which he once taught.'
'Having found, he fancies, something better!'
'Having found it, most truly. But you must talk to him yourself, and argue the matter over, with one who can argue. To me such questions are an unknown land.'
'Well .... Perhaps I may be tempted to do even that. At least a thoroughly converted philosopher--for poor dear Synesius is half heathen still, I often fancy, and hankers after the wisdom of the Egyptian--will be a curious sight; and to talk with so famous and so learned a man would always be a pleasure; but to argue with him, or any other human being, none whatsoever.'
'My dear sir, I am sick of syllogisms, and probabilities, and pros and contras. What do I care if, on weighing both sides, the nineteen pounds weight of questionable arguments against, are overbalanced by the twenty pounds weight of equally questionable arguments for? Do you not see that my belief of the victorious proposition will be proportioned to the one over-balancing pound only, while the whole other nineteen will go for nothing?'
'I really do not.'
'Happy are you, then. I do, from many a sad experience. No, my worthy sir. I want a faith past arguments; one which, whether I can prove it or not to the satisfaction of the lawyers, I believe to my own satisfaction, and act on it as undoubtingly and unreasoningly as I do upon my own newly-rediscovered personal identity. I don't want to possess a faith. I want a faith which will possess me. And if I ever arrived at such a one, believe me, it would be by some such practical demonstration as this very tent has given me.'
'Yes, sir, this tent; within which I have seen you and your children lead a life of deeds as new to me the Jew, as they would be to Hypatia the Gentile. I have watched you for many a day, and not in vain. When I saw you, an experienced officer, encumber your flight with wounded men, I was only surprised. But since I have seen you and your daughter, and, strangest of all, your gay young Alcibiades of a son, starving yourselves to feed those poor ruffians-- performing for them, day and night, the offices of menial slaves-- comforting them, as no man ever comforted me--blaming no one but yourselves, caring for every one but yourselves, sacrificing nothing but yourselves; and all this without hope of fame or reward, or dream of appeasing the wrath of any god or goddess, but simply because you thought it right .... When I saw that, sir, and more which I have seen; and when, reading in this book here, I found most unexpectedly those very grand moral rules which you were practising, seeming to spring unconsciously, as natural results, from the great thoughts, true or false, which had preceded them; then, sir, I began to suspect that the creed which could produce such deeds as I have watched within the last few days, might have on its side not merely a slight preponderance of probabilities, but what the Jews used once to call, when we believed in it--or in anything--the mighty power of God.'
And as he spoke, he looked into the Prefect's face with the look of a man wrestling in some deadly struggle; so intense and terrible was the earnestness of his eye, that even the old soldier shrank before it.
'And therefore,' he went on, 'therefore, sir, beware of your own actions, and of your children's. If, by any folly or baseness, such as I have seen in every human being whom I ever met as yet upon this accursed stage of fools, you shall crush my new-budding hope that there is something somewhere which will make me what I know that I ought to be, and can be--If you shall crush that, I say, by any misdoing of yours, you had better have been the murderer of my firstborn; with such a hate--a hate which Jews alone can feel--will I hate you and yours.'
'God help us and strengthen us!'said the old warrior in a tone of noble humility.
'And now,' said Raphael, glad to change the subject, after this unwonted outburst, 'we must once more seriously consider whether it is wise to hold on our present course. If you return to Carthage, or to Hippo--'
'I shall be beheaded.'
'Most assuredly. And how much soever you may consider such an event a gain to yourself, yet for the sake of your son and your daughter-- '
'My dear sir,' interrupted the Prefect, 'you mean kindly. But do not, do not tempt me. By the Count's side I have fought for thirty years, and by his side I will die, as I deserve.'
'Victorius! Victoria!' cried Raphael; 'help me! Your father,' he went on, as they came out from the tent, 'is still decided on losing his own head, and throwing away ours, by going to Carthage.'
'For my sake--for our sakes--father!' cried Victoria, clinging to him.
'And for my sake, also, most excellent sir,' said Raphael, smiling quietly. 'I have no wish to be so uncourteous as to urge any help which I may have seemed to afford you. But I hope that you will recollect that I have a life to lose, and that it is hardly fair of you to imperil it as you intend to do. If you could help or save Heraclian, I should be dumb at once. But now, for a mere point of honour to destroy fifty good soldiers, who know not their right hands from their left--Shall I ask their opinion?'
'Will you raise a mutiny against me, sir?' asked the old man sternly.
'Why not mutiny against Philip drunk, in behalf of Philip sober? But really, I will obey you .... only you must obey us .... What is Hesiod's definition of the man who will neither counsel himself nor be counselled by his friends? .... Have you no trusty acquaintances in Cyrenaica, for instance?'
The Prefect was silent.
'Oh, hear us, my father! Why not go to Euodius? He is your old comrade--a well-wisher, too, to this .... this expedition .... And recollect, Augustine must be there now. He was about to sail for Berenice, in order to consult Synesius and the Pentapolitan bishops, when we left Carthage.'
And at the name of Augustine the old man paused.
'Augustine will be there; true. And this our friend must meet him. And thus at least I should have his advice. If he thinks it my duty to return to Carthage, I can but do so, after all. But the soldiers!'
'Excellent sir,' said Raphael, 'Synesius and the Pentapolitan landlords--who can hardly call their lives their own, thanks to the Moors--will be glad enough to feed and pay them, or any other brave fellows with arms in their hands, at this moment. And my friend Victorius, here, will enjoy, I do not doubt, a little wild campaigning against marauding blackamoors.'
The old man bowed silently. The battle was won.
The young tribune, who had been watching his father's face with the most intense anxiety caught at the gesture, and hurrying forward, announced the change of plan to the soldiery. It was greeted with a shout of joy, and in another five minutes the sails were about, the rudder shifted, and the ship on her way towards the western point of Sicily, before a steady north-west breeze.
'Ah!' cried Victoria, delighted. 'And now you will see Augustine! You must promise me to talk to him!'
'This, at least, I will promise, that whatsoever the great sophist shall be pleased to say, shall meet with a patient hearing from a brother sophist. Do not be angry at the term. Recollect that I am somewhat tired, like my ancestor Solomon, of wisdom and wise men, having found it only too like madness and folly. And you cannot surely expect me to believe in man, while I do not yet believe in God?'
Victoria sighed. 'I will not believe you. Why always pretend to be worse than you are?'
'That kind souls like you may be spared the pain of finding me worse than I seem .... There, let us say no more; except that I heartily wish that you would hate me!'
'Shall I try?'
'That must be my work, I fear, not yours. However, I shall give you good cause enough before long' doubt it not.'
Victoria sighed again, and retired into the tent to nurse the sick.
'And now, sir,' said the Prefect, turning to Raphael and his son; 'do not mistake me. I may have been weak, as worn-out and hopeless men are wont to be; but do not think of me as one who has yielded to adversity in fear for his own safety. As God hears me, I desire nothing better than to die; and I only turn out of my course on the understanding that if Augustine so advise, my children hold me free to return to Carthage and meet my fate. All I pray for is, that my life may be spared until I can place my dear child in the safe shelter of a nunnery.'
'Yes, indeed; I have intended ever since her birth to dedicate her to the service of God. And in such times as these, what better lot for a defenceless girl?'
'Pardon me!' said Raphael; 'but I am too dull to comprehend what benefit or pleasure your Deity will derive from the celibacy of your daughter .... Except, indeed, on one supposition, which, as I have some faint remnants of reverence and decency reawakening in me just now, I must leave to be uttered only by the pure lips of sexless priests.'
'You forget, sir, that you are speaking to a Christian.'
'I assure you, no! I had certainly been forgetting it till the last two minutes, in your very pleasant and rational society. There is no danger henceforth of my making so silly a mistake.'
'Sir!' said the Prefect, reddening at the undisguised contempt of Raphael's manner .... , 'When you know a little more of St. Paul's Epistles, you will cease to insult the opinions and feelings of those who obey them, by sacrificing their most precious treasures to God.'
'Oh, it is Paul of Tarsus, then, who gives you the advice! I thank you for informing me of the fact; for it will save me the trouble of any future study of his works. Allow me, therefore, to return by your hands this manuscript of his with many thanks from me to that daughter of yours, by whose perpetual imprisonment you intend to give pleasure to your Deity. Henceforth the less communication which passes between me and any member of your family, the better.' And he turned away.
'But, my dear sir!' said the honest soldier, really chagrined, 'you must not!--we owe you too much, and love you too well, to part thus for the caprice of a moment. If any word of mine has offended you-- forget it, and forgive me, I beseech you!' and he caught both Raphael's hands in his own.
'My very dear sir,' answered the Jew quietly; 'let me ask the same forgiveness of you; and believe me, for the sake of past pleasant passages, I shall not forget my promise about the mortgage .... But-here we must part. To tell you the truth, I half an hour ago was fearfully near becoming neither more nor less than a Christian. I had actually deluded myself into the fancy that the Deity of the Galileans might be, after all, the God of our old Hebrew forefathers--of Adam and Eve, of Abraham and David, and of the rest who believed that children and the fruit of the womb were an heritage and gift which cometh of the Lord--and that Paul was right--actually right--in his theory that the church was the development and fulfilment of our old national polity .... I must thank you for opening my eyes to a mistake which, had I not been besotted for the moment, every monk and nun would have contradicted by the mere fact of their existence, and reserve my nascent faith for some Deity who takes no delight in seeing his creature: stultify the primary laws of their being. Farewell!'
And while the Prefect stood petrified with astonishment, he retired to the further extremity of the deck, muttering to himself--
'Did I not know all along that this gleam was too sudden and too bright to last? Did I not know that he, too, would prove himself like all the rest--an ass? .... Fool! to have looked for common sense on such an earth as this! .... Back to chaos again, Raphael Aben-Ezra, and spin ropes of sand to the end of the farce!'
And mixing with the soldiers, he exchanged no word with the Prefect and his children, till they reached the port of Berenice; and then putting the necklace into Victoria's hands, vanished among the crowds upon the quay, no one knew whither.
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