From A Roman Reporter, by Arthur Aikin Brodribb, London: The Society for The Promotion of Christian Knowledge, New York: E. & J. B. Young & Co.; [c. 1893], pp. 7-28.
A ROMAN REPORTER
by A. A. Brodribb.
Twas a warm morning in the spring of the year 308, and to the traveller who approached the smiling agricultural lands of Imola from the marshes near Ravenna, the vineyards of the little town and the vine-clad slopes beyond it — for Imola lies under one of the northern spurs of the Apennines — seemed inexpressibly delightful. But on the present occasion our traveller had no leisure to admire the beauties of Nature, and in any case the rough life of a soldier had never inclined him to habits of contemplation. He entered the little town hastily, like a man 8 whose errand admitted of no delay, and addressed himself to the very first person whom he met, a little red-headed slave, who had been ordered to deliver a love-letter with all possible speed, and was naturally in no hurry.
“Where does Cassianus live?” was his first inquiry, in a somewhat peremptory tone.
“Wants to learn shorthand, I reckon,” murmured the boy, with all the impudence of a favourite slave.
“I ask you, where does Cassianus live?” repeated the veteran, only half conscious of the boy’s impertinence, but standing full in the lad’s way, and slightly lifting his switch. The boy had seen his master a hundred times in that very attitude, and knew precisely what the switch meant. He answered sulkily —
“Round the corner, by that plane-tree.”
“Good. And where is the inn?” demanded the soldier, still barring the pathway.
“You have passed it.”
“I don’t believe you,” said the soldier bluntly, thinking such an oversight impossible to a thirsty man.9
“It is behind you, nevertheless. It is close to the gate. And what is your business with old Cassianus?” continued the boy, as the soldier turned in the direction of the inn. But the soldier had no mind to gossip with a trumpery little slave boy, and again the switch rose rather ominously, and the boy sauntered up a side alley and disappeared.
A few minutes later, refreshed by a copious draught of cheap wine, the soldier presented himself at Cassianus’s house, which, like certain houses in modern English country towns, was unmistakably the residence of a professional man. Cassianus, in fact, kept a school — a school of an unusually lucrative kind; for he taught shorthand, and prepared young men for appointments as private secretaries and as official reporters in the courts of law. He was himself the chief notary or official shorthand writer of the court at Ravenna; but Ravenna was distant 25 miles from Imola, and it was only on important occasions that he performed in person the duties of his office. Ordinarily these duties were discharged by deputy, and sometimes 10 they were even entrusted to the ’prentice hand of promising pupil. Cassianus had by this time a more than provincial reputation. He had amplified and improved the earlier systems of shorthand; half the best secretaries and reporters in Rome itself had been his pupils, and now that he was sixty years old it was more agreeable to him to take tuition fees at Imola than to wield the stilus in the noisy law courts of Ravenna. He almost vowed never to enter again that low-lying town, half seaport and half barracks, which always gave him ague or rheumatism. At Imola, on the other hand, the drier and more bracing air suited him admirably, and if his pupils — his whelps and cubs, as he called them — sometimes tried his temper, they were almost his only trials. Almost, but not quite; for Cassianus, having duly married and buried his wife, was beginning to wonder, as have others, both before his time and since, “how any man alive can ever rear a daughter.”
Priscilla, this daughter of his, was, at the age of twenty, admittedly the most beautiful girl in Imola. She was dark, as became a girl with 11 plenty of real Roman blood in her veins; and, though somewhat slightly built, had all the health and strength that are necessary for a perfect picture of youth and innocence. Cassianus knew that she was beautiful, and would willingly have given her to some honest man who would pilot her safely through all the changes and chances of the anxious times in which they lived. Anxious times they were, in all conscience; for politics moved so fast in the Roman world of those days that it was not always possible to say with certainty who was emperor and who pretender, so quickly did one unsubstantial figure after another flit across the stage. This, perhaps, would have been a comparatively small matter to the dwellers in remote country places, who might have gone on growing their vines and olives, and tending their flocks and herds without greatly caring which Cæsar prevailed or which pretender; far worse than political unrest was the terrible question, which came home to so many hearts, whether the Christian religion was to be tolerated or persecuted. True, Diocletian had left his cruel policy in no manner of 12 doubt; but that weary prince had abdicated three years ago, and was now devoting the evening of his life to his Dalmatian garden. His successors were less consistent in their treatment of the Christians. Here the new religion was proscribed, there it flourished; in one place men were executed for the faith, in another they were allowed to go scot free; in short, all was doubtful and uncertain from year to year, though the old creed was safer than the new in most parts of the empire. This being the case, some substantial and sensible man of the old religion was evidently the proper husband for Priscilla.
But the girl would have none of them, and turned up her pretty nose in the most provoking manner at every eligible suitor for ten miles round. As for her father’s pupils, she was rarely allowed a glimpse of any of them, and at the best they were mere lads who might, or might not, ultimately become prosperous. Besides, with one or two exceptions, they all hated Cassianus, who was a harsh, exacting, and insulting preceptor, and were only anxious to escape from his premises at the earliest possible 13 moment. Rejecting, therefore, the prosaic farmers and wine-growers whom her father favoured, and not giving one single thought to any of the smart young reporters whom he was training, Priscilla had lately accepted a handsome centurion in one of the legions quartered at Ravenna. Marcellinus, all the handsomer for a few scars, and the more interesting for his travels and adventures, had alone touched her heart. He had served in the army ever since the age of seventeen, and next year would be able to retire with a donation which, added to what he had saved from the fairly liberal pay of a centurion, would enable him to settle down in comfort for the rest of his life. He would beat his spear into a pruning-hook, and Priscilla should be mistress of the prettiest upland farm in the world. Such were his schemes and hers, and Cassianus, who loved his daughter almost more than he hated soldiers, was compelled to admit that Priscilla might have gone farther and fared worse.
There was little in common between the burly and simple-minded centurion and the choleric 14 little notary; but the acquaintance had been auspiciously begun, and Cassianus was under a great obligation to Marcellinus, who had delivered him from a robber a full mile from the gates of Imola a year or so before our story opens.
“A mere cowardly footpad,” said Marcellinus, minimizing the incident.
“Very likely,” rejoined Cassianus, drily; “but I do not like footpads, and it is hard both to earn and to defend my money with the same stilus.”
The reporter had been working at Ravenna, and would have lost his purse if Marcellinus had not chanced to come to his aid.
“You may thank God for your safety,” observed Marcellinus.
“Eh?” said Cassianus, with a queer look at his rescuer, “yes, um — yes; we may thank the gods, assuredly.”
“I did not say that!” said Marcellinus, gravely.
The religious difference was apparent, but the occurrence so powerfully impressed Cassianus that in an unusual access of gratitude he invited 15 the centurion to his home, and made him acquainted, not only with his best wine, but also with his daughter’s deep dark eyes and musical voice. The soldier, though his trade was bloodshed, was upright and humane. He spoke freely of his travels, but little of his own achievements, and he discussed with liberal common sense the vicissitudes of Roman politics. On his next visit he declared that his ambition was limited to a farm and an honourable discharge from the army; and in a few weeks more he and Priscilla had come to a complete understanding.
“I believe he is a Christian,” said Cassianus, with a touch of contempt for all to whom Christianity was more than a philosophic opinion.
“Yes, father,” said the girl; and she added in a timid undertone, “so am I.”
“A very pretty pair you will be,” said her father, not unkindly, and thinking in his heart of hearts that his beautiful daughter would indeed be well matched with her brave centurion.
This had been for some months the position of affairs when our tired soldier, only partially 16 refreshed by his draught of wine at the inn, reached Cassianus’s door.
“See Cassianus!” exclaimed Geta, the slave who opened the door; “it is simply out of the question. My master sees no one at this time of the day.”
“But I must see him, and at once.”
“Must you?” retorted Geta, with a rough attempt at irony; “you cannot.” Then he surveyed the traveller’s coarse military dress from top to toe, and continued in imitation of his master’s most sarcastic manner, “I presume you are a person of great importance — a person, I should have said a personage!”
“I am not,” said the solider, longing to cane Geta on the spot, but carefully restraining himself; “I am a messenger only; but the importance of a messenger lies in his message, and that, as yet, you know not.”
“From one who has been welcomed in this house.”
“My master,” said Geta, with a dignified drawl, “will be disengaged at noon. Will your 17 riddle keep till then? It is contrary to my orders to disturb him now.”
It was a very hot morning, and there was perfect quiet throughout the house, so that the young lady who was reading in the room nearest to the entrance hall necessarily heard what passed between Geta and the visitor. The messenger’s serious language convinced her that he came on no ordinary business, and his reference to one who had been welcomed in that house further piqued her curiosity. Instantly she thought of Marcellinus; but Marcellinus had been at Imola only a few days before, and had never yet sent a messenger. Besides, what messenger from Ravenna could have reached Imola so early? Still, something important had happened, and however improper it might be, she would see the mysterious messenger herself.
“Geta,” said Priscilla, coming into the entrance hall, “you can withdraw.” It was a very short interview, and in less than two minutes Priscilla ran distractedly down the long garden.18
Here, as far from the dwelling-house as it could possibly be contrived, Cassianus had built his class room; and here, “aloft in awful state” at a raised desk at one end of the room, he raved and roared and ranted at the ten or a dozen meek young men who sat, stilus and wax tablets in hand, on the benches in front of him. Now he would declaim a passage from some famous orator while his pupils did their best to follow it with their note-books; now the oration would change to a rapid dialogue such as might be heard in the law-courts — a much more difficult exercise than the other; now would come scraps of poetry that had been quoted in the Senate House; and now, worst of all, and most difficult, he would introduce odd fragments of nonsense verses in which the jingle and rhyme of the words proved an extreme test of the young reporters’ ability. At intervals, when this energetic master grew hot and red in the face from his exertions, he would pause, and each lad would be called upon to read aloud what he had written, and, as a matter of course, to receive torrents of abuse, both in classical and unclassical Latin, 19 for words omitted or sentences misunderstood. “Idiots! Incapables! None of you will ever learn; and I think the worst of you all is my young friend over there, Florus; or is it Flaurus?* How do you pronounce your name, Flaurus? There, never mind, man; don’t sit there scowling, as if you meant to put your stilus into me; you’ll do well enough some day, and a fine practice you’ll have, at Anticyra†, or Morbonia. Gaudentius, you are a more cheerful subject, the best of the bunch, eh? — though that’s not saying much. An Imola lad, too. You shall come and help me the next time I go to Ravenna. What does Martial say?
“With easy grace the statesmen speaks his mind;
But shorthand leaves the loitering words behind.”
“ ‘Loitering words!’ Nonsense! It’s the loitering pen and the dull brain with most of you, eh? What, what, what? What’s that?”
And as he turned round towards the door behind his chair, angrily conscious of an unwonted interruption, he was amazed to find 20 his daughter, his own beautiful Priscilla, who had long ago been forbidden to enter the schoolroom, standing at his desk. She was out of breath with haste and excitement, but managed to gasp out —
“Father, terrible news, father! dreadful news! I must speak to you at once, in the garden.”
“Wait,” shouted Cassianus to his pupils; and Priscilla half led and half dragged him through the open door, and sank down upon a stone bench under an apple-tree.
“Now,” said her father, “what is all this about, and why do you disturb me at my work?”
“This,” sobbed the girl, holding out a ring; “he gave it to me just now; he has come all the way from Ravenna. Oh, it is a true token — my own ring, don’t you see? I gave it him last month; and it is all true — horribly true. Oh, what shall we do, father? Let me go to him; let me die with him.” And she cried as though her heart would break.
“What is it, little one?” asked her father with sudden tenderness; “I don’t understand; this is your ring, sure enough, with your name 21 inside it; but who is here, and what is the matter?”
“The man — the messenger; go and see him,” was all that poor Priscilla could say.
Cassianus hastened indoors, and turning into his study ordered Geta to send Nanna, Priscilla’s old nurse, to her mistress in the garden, and to bring the messenger into the room. The soldier entered, gave Cassianus a military salute, and remained standing near the door.
“You are early, and urgent,” said Cassianus, “and I understand you bring ill news?”
“I do,” replied the soldier in a serious voice; ‘I have been the bearer of ill news ever sine I left Ravenna at daybreak this morning. I come from Marcellinus, the best and bravest of all our centurions, and I have left him in prison. You know his temper, perhaps? In a just cause he will not yield an inch, either in peace or war. I have stood by him in many a fight — once, indeed, he saved my life ——”
“Ah, he saved mine too, or at any rate my purse,” interposed Cassianus, with a vivid recollection of his adventure with the robber.22
“You know him, then” continued the soldier, “and know him as we all do, for a brave man. Did you also know that he was a Christian?”
“Well, perhaps. But of late years we have talked very little about such matters to strangers. However, that does not signify now that we have got rid of Severus; and I do not see much harm in it myself.”
“He is a Christian,” repeated the soldier, “and has been for years. Some of us have known it for a long time, but kept silence; and now, just when it mattered so little whether he avowed it or not, his religion has been his ruin.”
The messenger paused, partly from emotion, and partly to collect words and thoughts for his narrative.
“Man alive,” said Cassianus, sharply, “go on. We have no time for politics and religion now.”
“It happened thus,” said the soldier, anxious to make his account clear and intelligible, and speaking deliberately; “yesterday there was a festival at Ravenna, with songs, processions, sacrifices, and the like, in the market place and in most of the temples. You have been there, 23 no doubt, on such occasions. Most of the soldiers and citizens took part in it, while the others — the Christians, that is — were allowed to do as they pleased. We stood apart, not altogether separating ourselves from our comrades, but keeping on the whole to ourselves and only looking on at the spectacle. And foremost among the worshippers of these many dead gods — foremost came one, a lieutenant of our legion, who we had ourselves deemed to be a Christian. He came forward, perfumed with incense, and crowned with roses, and so he approached the altar. It was the man, a stout enough soldier, whom Marcellinus had himself named as his lieutenant, thinking by this means to promote a servant of God. Pardon me if I speak too freely of religion to my senior in years.”
“Go on,” said Cassianus, eagerly; “and never mind your religion; only go on.”
“The sight was more than some of us could bear, and especially Marcellinus. He ran forward as though he had been charging an enemy, and, seizing the young man, hurled his garland 24 of roses into the flames of the altar, and dragged him into our midst. Instantly there was a crowd round us, and a disturbance, and one or two men pointed to the roses shrivelling in the altar flames, and called out “Marcellinus’s sacrifice; cheers for Marcellinus!” There was a laugh at this, and if he had taken no notice of it all would have been well, even then; but before any of his friends could restrain him he stepped down among the crowd, and the people, seeing that he was an officer, fell back. And he stood here between the crowd and the altar, with his back to the altar, and said, as nearly as I can remember: — “Friends, my lieutenant, whom I have myself appointed, shall not sacrifice to your gods. He is a Christian, and cannot serve two masters. Neither will I, and I blame myself that I am here to-day, a Christian and a centurion in this legion serving — whom shall we say? — yesterday Diocletian and Maximian, to-day Maxentius, and to-morrow, for aught I know, some new Severus or Galerius. Who spoke just now of ‘Marcellinus’s sacrifice’? This is my sacrifice, — 25 all the sacrifice I will make, after nineteen years’ service. Here I throw down my sword and my belt, and my vine stick. I render them unto your Cæsar. I am no more a soldier of Cæsar, but of God.”
“Well,” said Cassianus, realising only that Marcellinus had behaved very imprudently.
“You can imagine what happened next. A dozen stout fellows threw themselves upon him, and he spent the rest of the day and last night in prison. Late last night I was allowed to see him, and obtained leave of absence to come hither with my news. You have seen the ring which he gave me as a token; I have strict orders to bring it back with me.”
Cassianus got up, and walked about the room in the utmost perturbation, audibly upbraiding the folly of a man who had served nineteen years in the army and could not hold his tongue till the day of his discharge some months hence.
“Fanatic! Pig-headed fool!” he muttered; “if the sacrifices were nothing, why could he not have let the young man join in them, hey?”26
“Nay,” replied the soldier, “we do not think them nothing.”
“Oh, you are all alike, you Christians: all as obstinate as mules. Bother your religion, as I said before. And now I should like to know what in the world is to be done. Does he want any money for lawyers? He will be tried, I suppose?”
“No doubt. He said nothing as to want of money; but my interview with him was very brief.”
Again Cassianus paced round and round the table, while the soldier stood like a sentinel in his original position by the door. Then the little notary turned on his heel and looked up at his towering visitor.
“What will they do to him if he is judged guilty, hey? Drum him out of the army?”
The soldier shook his head.
“Fine him heavily, perhaps? If they do, I could help him.”
Another shake of the head.
“The mines, then? Servitude in the mines? But that is not very likely.”
But still the soldier shook his head.27
“Exile, probably; he will be exiled as sure as fate.”
“To a land that is very far off,” said the soldier, with a strange gleam in his eyes.
“What do you mean?” said Cassianus, noticing the changed expression in the man’s face; “that sounds like one of your cant phrases.”
“It is a far-off land,” returned the other; “for the penalty will be death.”
“Nonense, man, nonsense; not in these days. You don’t know what you are talking about. Severus would have done it, no doubt, but he has just had his bath‡ and pair of scissors at Rome; and as for Maxentius, he is quite a philosopher, and does not care a straw about religion.”
“It is a military offence, like desertion, or mutiny; and it will be punished as I have said. Oh, that I should live to see my master, my friend, my teacher, my preserver, in such a plight!”
Cassianus was horrified. It had not occurred to him that the offence was military rather than 28 civil; prompted, of course, by Marcellinus’s glowing sense of religion, but savouring more of mutiny than of heresy. He thought of his daughter; how would she bear such a misfortune? Then he burst out into a long and loud torrent of abuse against the authorities, roundly cursing emperors, Cæsars, prætors, magistrates, laws, and all who administered them.
“The walls, then, have no ears at Imola?” quietly suggested the soldier.
“Get you gone, and tell my poor friend that I am coming with all speed. Geta,” he called out, opening the door and clapping his hands to summon his slave, “let this man rest, and give him food and wine; and where is your mistress?”
* Greek for “worthless.”
‡ Severus was allowed to commit suicide by opening his veins in a warm bath.