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"The peace of God, which passeth all understanding."--PHILIPPIANS IV. 7.
Three months had gone by since then. Rome had acclaimed the Cęsar and rejoiced over his homecoming. There were holidays and spectacles, chariot races and gladiatorial combats, and the people of Rome forgot that it had ever shouted: "Hail Taurus Antinor Cęsar! Hail!"
Now the calls were for Caius Julius Cęsar Caligula, and those who had most loudly shouted for his death, cringed most obsequiously at his feet. The very name of the ex-praefect of Rome was already forgotten.
His testament, made, it appears, just before his death, had been copiously commented on at first. All his slaves had received their freedom together with a sufficient sum to enable one and all to live in comfort in the new state of freedom. The rest of the vast property owned by the late praefect was being somewhat mysteriously administered, and up to this hour no one had been able to gain any definite information with regard to its ultimate destination. There were those who averred that a great deal of ready money--including the proceeds of the sale of the late praefect's house in Rome and of his villa at Ostia--had found its way to a section of very poor freedmen who lived on the Aventine and who formed a somewhat isolated little colony not viewed altogether kindly by the official magistracy of the city.
But all that was mere gossip and did not withstand the test of time. After three months people had plenty of other matters to think of and to talk about.
There were the festivals and games which had accompanied the re-entry of the Cęsar into Rome. The city had been beflagged and adorned with banners and with garlands. For thirty days did the rejoicings last, and brilliant sunshine shone over the golden glories of autumn and kissed the foliage of oleanders until they blushed a brilliant crimson, and tinged the marble of palaces and temples every morning with rose.
The games in the great Circus went on without intermission for thirty days; there were military and naval pageants, combats between the lions from Numidia and the new hyenas and crocodiles; there were gladiatorial contests and chariot races. Much human blood was shed for the delectation of the masters of the world, much skill displayed, much prowess vanquished by prowess greater, much valour laid to dust.
But the Cęsar's pet black panther did not appear again in the Circus. The mighty fist of the dead praefect had mayhap laid the creature low; in any case it were not safe to re-awaken dormant memories.
And Caius Julius Cęsar Caligula, the father of his armies, the best and greatest of Cęsars, showed himself at all these pageants more crazed than ever; he hardly ever spoke now to the people. 'Twas averred that Cęsonia, his wife, had given him a potion to cure him of his infatuation for Dea Flavia, his kinswoman, whom he had exalted above all the other Augustas, and whose absence from Rome and from all festivities had rendered him half distracted with wrath.
He would have liked to vent that wrath on Dea, but he could not lay hands on her. She had left her palace even before his re-entry into Rome, taking none but two of her most trusted slaves with her; the others did not know whither she had gone. Some thought that she had gone on a journey to a villa which she possessed in Sicilia, others thought that she was living a life of retirement in a lonely dwelling on the Sabine Hills, preparatory to devoting her virginity to the glory of Vesta.
Caius Julius Cęsar Caligula prepared to have her sought for throughout the length and breadth of his Empire, and would no doubt have succeeded in time in this search had not a few months later Chaerea, the praetorian tribune, done the work with his hands which the dagger of young Escanes had failed to do.
The winter had been slow in coming, but it had come at last. An icy wind blew from across the sea. Overhead the sky was the colour of lead and great banks of clouds chased one another wantonly above the hills that tower over Jerusalem.
There was hardly a path up the rugged incline, the rains and winds and snows of the past seven years had obliterated the marks which a surging crowd had once made in the wake of the sacred feet.
It was close on the ninth hour and the shadows of evening were already drawing in very fast. A tall figure dressed in sombre garments walked slowly up the hill which is called Calvary.
His head was uncovered and he had no wand wherewith to ease his footsteps; the blustering gusts of wind blew the tawny hair over his brow.
He held his head erect and his eyes did not watch the places where trod his feet. They were fixed on ahead, up toward the summit of the hill, there where a Cross stood broken and lonely with wooden arms outstretched and the birds of heaven circling all round it.
Every day for seven days now had the pilgrim wandered up the steep desolate hill. Every day for seven days he had reached the summit ere the ninth hour was called from the city walls. He lived at a small inn just inside the third wall, and every day at noon he set out upon his pilgrimage and only came home when the darkness of the night lay dense upon the valley.
To-day he was more weary than he had ever been before. His feet felt like leaden weights that seemed to be dragging him down and ever downwards, and the loneliness of the place had its image within his heart.
On the summit he fell on his knees and knelt at the foot of the Cross, leaning his aching forehead against the cold, dank wood.
"How long, oh my God, how long?" he murmured. "The misery is more than I can bear. I am ready to do Thy work, oh God, to speak Thy Word where Thou dost bid me go, but take her image, dear Lord, from before mine eyes, it stands for ever 'twixt Thy Cross and me. Break my heart, oh God, since her image fills it and its every beat is not in Thy name. Take the cup from me, dear Lord! It is too bitter and I cannot drink!"
The night drew in around him; the lights in the city below were extinguished one by one. The croaking birds on the lonely Cross had found a home far away in the gloom.
The pilgrim knelt against the Cross, he could hardly see the objects nearest to him, the small prickly shrubs, the rough grass, the loose stones that looked so white and spectral in the waning light. He could hardly see, for his eyes ached with the dull misery of tears that would not fall; but suddenly a sound softer than that made by a night-bird in its flight struck upon his ear.
It was like the drawing of a garment upon the rugged ground. One or two small stones detached themselves from their bed of wet earth and rolled away from under the tread of feet that walked upwards toward the summit.
The pilgrim did not move, and yet he heard the sound. It came nearer to him, and nearer, and suddenly he was not alone; something living and warm knelt on the stony ground beside him, and gentle fingers that had the softness and the coolness of snow were laid upon his burning hands.
"I came as quickly as I could," said a tender voice close to his ear. "But it has taken me some time to find thee. Had it not been for Folces and his devotion I might mayhap never have found thee. We came to Jerusalem yesterday. To-day at noon I saw thee starting forth from out the city. I followed thee, but the way was rough.... I feared I should never reach the summit ... and yet 'twas here I wished to speak to thee."
All this while he had remained numb and silent. He knew even when first her hand touched his that God had ended his sorrow and taken his aching soul into His keeping at last. But for the moment he thought that sweet death had kissed his eyelids and that this was the first taste of paradise. Darkness was closing in around them both; he could scarcely distinguish her features, but it seemed to him as if glory shone out of her eyes, glory so radiant that it illumined the darkness and pierced the walls of the night.
"Is it thou?" he murmured. "Oh God! have pity on me! Her image, her sweet image, allow it to fade from my mind ere my brain becomes a traitor to Thee!"
"'Tis not a vision, dear heart," she whispered softly, "'tis not a dream. It is I, Dea Flavia, whom thou didst call the beloved of thy heart. I came because I loved thee and because here on this spot I would learn from thee the mysteries of thy God."
"Is it thou? And hast thou come to me from heaven?"
"No, dear heart, only from far-off Rome. And I have come to thee, to be with thee and to follow thee wherever thou wilt lead me."
"Yet will my wanderings lead me far," he said, "my Lord has called and I must go."
"Then will I go with thee," she said.
"To far-off lands, dear heart, to speak the Word of God to those who heard it not."
"I will go with thee," she reiterated simply.
"To far-off lands whence I came, a sea-girt land which once was mine own. My fathers lived there. I would go back and tell my people of all that I saw here on Calvary seven years ago."
"Then thither will I go with thee," she replied, "thy home will be my home, thy people my people and thy God shall be my God, for thine am I now and always. I am ignorant yet but this I do know, that thy God must be the great, the true and only God. None other God but He could have put in thy heart the strength of sacrifice which hath brought thee--who had Rome at thy feet--a lonely wanderer to the foot of this Cross."
She knelt beside him and he no longer cowered, limitless joy was in his heart and immeasurable gratitude.
"For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of the Father with His angels, and then He shall reward every man according to his works."
The wings of the wind brought the sacred words to his ears. He kissed the rough wooden Cross there where the Divine feet had rested, and Dea Flavia pressed her lips on it too, and the peace that passeth all understanding descended upon them both.
Overhead the clouds had parted, their silver lining showed clearly against the dull blue sky, and in the midst of that rent in the firmament, far away in the limitless beyond, a star shone out bright and clear.
Then they both rose, and hand in hand they walked slowly down the hill.
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