St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
This is the story of St. Agnes. Perhaps you have already heard it, for all the world knows her, in her spotless innocence, with her loose, bright hair, and the lamb at her side. But, as these stories are first of all for children, it seems only fit to begin with her who is the queen of all child-saints, and, after the ever-blessed Virgin Mother, who bore the Incarnate Word, the queen of all maiden martyrs.
It was a fine morning in Rome, towards the end of January, 303. Although cool—for at daybreak hoar-frost had sparkled on the ground, and the mountain-ring, engirdling the plain in which the queen of cities stands, was snow-covered—the air had a genuine touch of spring in it, far-off and elusive, but spring-like none the less. Overhead stretched a sky palely, dearly blue. A delicate movement stirred the trees, and the almonds were bursting into bud.
Nowhere did the morning seem so lovely as in the garden of a Roman house, lying some distance beyond the gates on the Nomentan Way. The early sun struck full on the white marbles and columns, making them flash like the distant snows towards which the building looked out from its shelter of cypresses and ilex-trees, and the groves of evergreen shrubs that lay dark before the terraced approach to the garden. In the grounds themselves the touch of winter was still apparent in bare borders and ponds destitute of water-plants; but wealth and care had succeeded in producing many flowers in the sheltered corners near the lemon-grove, and the pigeons and a very busy flight of hedge-sparrows, twittering among the pinky almonds nearer the house, were quite of opinion that spring had already come.
Under a hedge of myrtles and laurels, warm in the sun, and so sheltered that the breezes scarcely stirred her blue dress, sat a little studious girl, with a big sleepy dog at her side. She was about thirteen, lovely with the dark rich beauty of the Latin peasantry. One brown hand stroked the dog's ears, and her rosy crossed feet swung to-and-fro—for her seat was too high for her—as she bent earnestly over the scroll in her lap; so earnestly that the pigeons and the noisy sparrows were unheeded by her, and she never raised her eyes till a movement of the big dog made her look up.
Another little girl had come out from the house, and, before descending, stood for a moment at the head of the steps leading down through the shrubs.
Slight and graceful as a white lily against the background of dark green myrtles, she was as fair as the other child was dark—so fair, that her high-born, delicate beauty, her white dress and her gold locks, coiled at her neck, presented an almost ethereal appearance, as the full blaze of the sunshine fell on her, and the wind on the terrace swept her thin, gold-embroidered draperies, cloud-like, round her slenderness. Though but a child in years, with all childhood's happy simplicity, she wore on her face an earnestness that made her not quite as other children. In her too, as in the day, stirred a touch of awakening, a breath upon her soul from the far-oft eternal spring-time, the voice of the Bridegroom whispering,—
"Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. . . . Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."
Her appearance was the signal for all the various living things near her to make a movement in her direction. The dog was at her side in a moment. The flock of twittering sparrows came fluttering round her like little falling brown leaves, till a kitten, as small as the dog was large, darted out from behind a lemon-tree and began to play with her trailing dress.
A tame heron, who spent a favoured existence between the pond in the atrium and the larger hunting-grounds in the garden, advanced towards her with stately steps. It seemed as if the very flowers were gladder, and the sunshine brighter for her presence.
Most gladly of all, the little dark girl had risen, dropping her scroll, and moved forward half impulsively, half shyly, as if in the presence of some dearly loved and higher creature.
The golden-haired child ran swiftly across the open space, caught her in her arms, and kissed her. Seen side by side, they were evidently of just the same age, though the new-corner was rather the taller and slighter. She looked more like a lily than ever, as the black curls and blue frock now fluttered close to the gold-flecked whiteness of her own raiment, and the brown tanned arms of her little friend encircled her neck in a hug of genuine affection, from which all the shyness had vanished.
"You have good news, Emerentiana," said the white-robed child at length, "I see it in your eyes. Sit down and tell me."
Together they climbed on the high marble seat; and now four rosy feet dangled and swung in a row.
"Dear lady Agnes," said the peasant, "I have, indeed. How can I ever thank you for having sent for me to come to Rome? The good priest says my course of instruction is nearly over, and that I am to be shortly admitted to Baptism."
'YOU HAVE GOOD NEWS, EMERENTIANA.'
"Dear sister Emerentiana," corrected the other gently, "you know we arranged it should be so between us, when we sent for you—my very own foster-sister—to be my friend and companion here. Well, who could be more glad than I am at your news? And, if GOD wills, I hope to be at your Baptism, and to be one of your sponsors. Only, I too have news that you ought to know."
Emerentiana looked anxiously at her foster-sister. The words were not re-assuring, though she saw no fear on Agnes's face, and waited for her to continue.
"The son of Symphronius has been here again to ask for my hand in marriage."
"And you still have no love for him," asked the peasant child, "though he is wealthy, well-born, and handsome?"
Agnes stopped her.
"I love none but CHRIST," she said.
Her voice lingered tenderly, and a light colour glowed in her cheeks, as if merely to speak that Name gave her untold pleasure; while she lifted her eyes to the spring sky, seeking Him there.
You may think it strange for two children of thirteen to be thus talking about marriage. But, remember, this was in the year 303, and in Rome, where girls were sometimes married when only twelve years old.
"But I am dreaming again," said Agnes, at length; "no, Emerentiana, I shall never marry. I have given myself, for this world and the next, to Him Whom alone I love, Who has adorned me with His jewels, and pledged me with His betrothal ring; and so I told the son of Symphronius. Now he is jealous!"
Such a heavenly smile broke over her face that Emerentiana could almost have worshipped her.
"Poor man!" continued her friend, "jealous of Him Whom the angels serve, and on Whose beauty the Sun and Moon hang in adoration! However, he came again, and guessed that I was a Christian. So his father sent for my parents and frightened them into urging me to agree to the marriage, lest, as he said, worse should befall me. But I told mother, as I have told her before, that I was betrothed already, to CHRIST. They would never force me to marry, and so they sent back word to Symphronius that I could not be the wife of his son. Now we must see what will happen next."
Emerentiana's brown cheeks turned pale.
"Agnes!" she cried, "they may come and take you by force! If they know that you are a Christian, they may even—"
Agnes slipped down on her knees by her friend's side, and clasped her arms round her waist.
"If some wealthy husband took me away from my home to his, you would not grieve. If CHRIST come to take me to His home, shall you grieve then?"
Her rapture grew and shone in her face; but the little peasant looked down at her with troubled eyes, only half-comforted. Agnes noticed it, laughed, and jumped up.
"Come, now," she cried, "how do we know what will happen? Least of all, why should we be sad this glorious morning? Let us go down the garden and tease old Lucius to give us lilies for the chapel altar. He always scolds me for asking, and gives them to me by handfuls. I have found out from his son that, if other people ask for them, he says 'No, they are all for Lady Agnes.'"
Reassured at last, Emerentiana slipped off the seat, and, hand in hand, laughing and chattering, the children, now running, now walking, went down the path together, with the dog and the kitten, to the gardener's house. Only, from time to time, Agnes's feet lingered, and her cheeks flushed delicately. For the Voice of her Love whispered ever to her,—
"Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."
That night Emerentiana was awakened from her first sleep in her little bedroom not far from Agnes's by the tramp of heavy feet, and the glare of torches through the folds of her curtains. Then came the weeping of women and slaves, and then a heavy silence. The little peasant, newly come from her hill-side farm to the patrician house in this great, terrible Rome, sat up, with her heart beating wildly.
Presently the mother of Agnes, lamp in hand, stole in. Seeing the child awake, sitting up in bed, wild-eyed, pallid, her little fingers twisted in terror into the tangles of her dark hair, she caught her up, weeping and lamenting that now she had no daughter but her. Symphronius had revenged himself, and Agnes was gone.
Or, shall we say, that the Bridegroom had spoken no longer in whispers, but clearly, "Come away."
Symphronius sat next morning in a quiet room of his palace, and ordered Agnes to be brought to him. Both because of his son, who loved her desperately, and on account of her tender age and her rank, he had decided to examine her privately. Only a few soldiers stood on guard, when she was led in, looking indeed a child. Last night her captors had taken her in haste, giving her no time for preparations, so that she now wore only a plain white linen robe, and had neither sandals for her bare feet nor fillet for her head. Her long gold hair, too, fell uncoiled to her knees, confined by a ribbon at her neck.
Eyeing her wonderingly for a moment, as she stood, modest but '.confident, before him, the Governor leant forward and, with all the eloquence he could command, dwelt on the advantages of the marriage, and urged her to submit. She replied gently, that she intended to remain ever unwed.
"If that is really your desire," said Symphronius, "we will let: that pass. Consent, however, to renounce your superstition. Then, with all honour, you may be exalted to the rank of a vestal virgin.
"Shall I," replied the child, "who have refused your living son, give myself to an idol of stone?"
"Do not be so headstrong," answered Symphronius warmly; "in years you are nothing but a child, and must therefore yield to the wisdom of those older than yourself, who can guide you better."
"It is true that I am very young," replied Agnes, "but faith dwells in my heart, and I have for my help a Strength and a Wisdom that neither pain nor death can destroy."
Symphronius frowned. So many were the Christians whose sufferings he had witnessed that he knew at once, from her manner, that this little prisoner of thirteen would not be frightened by threats of death. For the moment he was worsted.
Then Satan whispered a dreadful suggestion into the ears of Symphronius. It is dreadful even to write it, but it shows how great is our Blessed LORD'S love and protection to those who, like the holy Agnes, trust themselves wholly to Him.
"Listen to me," said Symphronius sternly; "if you are obstinate, I shall deal with you thus. Your clothes will be taken from you, and you shall be driven out into the streets of Rome for the people to mock at."
Agnes lifted her blue eyes to his. He saw no terror in them. Neither did her voice tremble, as she replied,—
"You may do so; yet shall that never part me from CHRIST. Nay, rather will He show His love to His handmaiden, and send His angel to defend me."
Symphronius signed to the soldiers. In fear of him, but with shame in their hearts—for one saw his sister, another his daughter, another his young new-made wife, in the sweetness before them—they thrust Agnes towards the door, opened it, and tore her robes from her slender, childish body. As their whiteness fell away from her, she loosened the ribbon at her neck, and the rippling torrent of gold flowed over her, so that she stood on the threshold, before the wondering crowd, clothed in the GOD-given robe of her own bright hair. The next moment, while those who would have mocked hushed their words in a strange awe before her purity, a stronger light than the sunshine flashed round her, and she saw her Guardian Angel, powerful and terrible, stand as her protector by her side.
He smiled at her, and held out his hands. They were filled with a white, glistening web, that streamed through his fingers like silver rain. As she meekly bent her head before him, she felt his gentle touch on her shoulders. The next moment she was robed in a garment white as snow, falling in gleaming folds to her feet. The people, looking on her beauty, clothed now in a radiance of silver and gold, cried out in amazement. Heedless of them, Agnes crossed her little hands and raised her glad eyes in thankfulness to her Angel's face, and from him to the clear heavens above her; while such favour from GOD shone over her youth, her innocence, and her fearlessness, that the hearts of those watching her were touched, and they began to move away, murmuring against the laws and expressing their sympathy for the child.
Meanwhile, the son of Symphronius, hearing about Agnes from his father, had hastened out of the palace to find her. As he drew near, he seemed to see nothing but a blinding light; and from the midst of it some awful avenging power struck him, so that he fell senseless at Agnes's feet. Amidst cries of consternation from the people, soldiers rushed forward to lift the young noble, and Symphronius, hearing the tumult, hurried thither also to seek his son.
When he saw him lifted, fainting, from the ground, and Agnes standing by, clothed in dazzling whiteness, he was overwhelmed with fear and rage.
"Who dared to clothe you thus, against my command?" he asked her.
"My angel," replied the child, "whom CHRIST gave me, to protect me from harm."
"You are a witch, and shall die for this," cried Symphronius; "you have killed my son."
Agnes smiled, and stretched out her hands to the young man. Shuddering, he opened his eyes again to the light. As he raised himself from the arms of the soldiers who had supported him, and saw the little prisoner, sweet and gentle, in her lovely whiteness, standing near him, shame at his share in the treatment of one so young overtook him.
He turned to his father.
"Let her be," he said, "she is only a child. Besides, something watches over her, unknown to us, to shield her."
Fear stole over Symphronius. None the less was he determined that Agnes should not escape. So, writing at once to the deputy Aspasius, he told him all that had happened, and demanded that the witch should be punished by law.
Presently, soldiers came to lead Agnes to the place of judgement. She was tranquil as ever. Her holy angel had indeed withdrawn his visible presence, but she knew that he still watched at her side. And had not her Bridegroom given her a marvellous proof of His love and protection? Even though cries of "Witch!" were now raised against her by those who were in Symphronius's favour and feared to lose it, she still smiled, unmoved, seeming not a prisoner going to death, but a bride passing to her new home, in her shining raiment, and with her hair as her golden "flammeum "(the yellow veil worn by Roman maidens at their wedding) spread over her. Should not her LORD'S own dear arms soon enfold her, and lift her feet safely over His threshold?
Standing at last, a child, in the wide open Forum, before the deputy Aspasius, with the people around clamouring for her death, she still maintained, unmoved, her calm trust and faith. The deputy asked her a few questions, but on receiving her steadfast answer that nothing could part her from CHRIST, he ordered her to be burnt alive as a witch.
The wood was piled up, and the child set in the midst. As the flames began to mount, Agnes spread out her hands and prayed, "O LORD, Almighty, most to be adored and worshipped, most powerful, I bless and glorify Thy Name for ever and ever."
The gleaming fire, and the little white-robed figure made a picture from which many began to turn away their eyes in pity. One of the officials, even, seated near Aspasius, veiled his face. But neither shame nor pain were to disturb the peace of CHRIST'S happy bride on the day of her espousals.
Suddenly a shout arose. As Agnes finished her prayer, the flames had ceased to leap and spread. Presently they died down altogether. A few threads of grey smoke floated around her like incense; and the fire was extinct.
Louder and louder grew the cries of the crowd, some clamouring in anger, many now in pity for the innocent victim. It was clearly dangerous to waste more time, so Aspasius called the executioner to him, and bade him loosen Agnes and dispatch her at once with his sword.
The man slowly climbed the pyre to where Agnes awaited him. When he had loosened the chain that held her erect to the stake, she smiled on him, fell on her knees, and stretched out her hands to heaven for a moment before she bent her neck to receive the blow. The man at her side faltered. Rough and hardened as he was, public executioner and torturer, who had taken his part, unmoved, in inflicting many a dreadful death; beside this fair flower of spring and the drift of yellow locks now sweeping the ground, he could only stand and tremble. The crowd and the judge noticed his emotion. Aspasius, in a fury, stamped.
"Do thy duty," he cried; "dost wish, also, to die by the sword?"
A dimness before the executioner's eyes had blurred all the beautiful vision to a mist of gold-shot whiteness. But, with a sigh, he brushed it away and raised his sword.
Agnes has come at last to the King's palace, where the angels roll back the gates for her, as the Bride-groom comes forth to greet the little bride.
Her parents received her body, whose white robes were now stained with a holy crimson. Sorrowing, indeed, at her loss, but consoled at the thought of her glorious victory and reward, they carried her to her tomb. Emerentiana, parted from the sister she had so lately found and so adoringly loved, walked at her side, holding one little dead hand in hers, and feeling, in her child-like desolation, further off still from Agnes because she was as yet herself unbaptized: whilst her heart almost broke at the remembrance that only yesterday they had run, hand in hand, together down the garden to tease old, scolding, devoted Lucius for the gift of lilies just like those that lay now with the new-cut palm-branch at the martyr's side.
On the same day, in the evening, the mourners laid Agnes in a tomb of one of the catacombs, not far from their own house. Here, in an underground chamber, lit by an opening in the roof, approached by a flight of steps, and sheltered by myrtles and laurels, they placed the body of the holy martyr in a stone sarcophagus, under a wide archway, painted and decorated with symbols of the life immortal. Lilies, white roses, and palms were piled up on the stone that covered the lovelier lily within; and high up in the dark arch burned a little lamp. The news of Agnes's victory had spread rapidly through Rome; and the Christians gathered by hundreds on the Nomentan Way, and crowded round the shrine, to glorify GOD in His saint, and to pray for strength for themselves.
In the tomb knelt a little blue-robed girl, her arms spread out on the stone, among the lilies, and her dark hair lying like a shadowing cloud on the drifts of whiteness. It was Emerentiana.
"O CHRIST, Incarnate Word," she prayed, "I am not yet Thine by Baptism; but I confess Thee, and I love Thee. Make me Thine indeed, and let me not be long parted from my sister Agnes."
The evening grew apace, and, as night came on, many of the watchers went to their homes; but within the tomb-chamber, the peasant child still knelt among the palms and lilies.
The sun rose again, and the faithful began to collect in greater numbers round the shrine. Within, Emerentiana had scarcely stirred. She was pale with weariness, but her heart never failed, and her lips murmured—
"CHRIST, make me Thine indeed, and bring me to my sweet sister Agnes."
Outside a tumult arose. The deputy, hearing of the concourse of Christians, had sent men with staves and swords to drive them away. The morning air was filled with cries of pain, and the sound of hurrying feet. A soldier looked down into the tomb.
"Come here!" he cried to his fellows, "here is still one of them."
Men cried to Emerentiana to come up at once; but the kneeling figure and cloud of dusky hair never moved. With an oath, the soldier who had first spoken sent a sharp and heavy stone crashing down on her shoulders.
The child lifted her head, as she was struck, and crossed her hands on her breast, praying for the last time—
"CHRIST, make me Thine indeed!"
Then stone followed stone, in a cruel shower, till she bowed herself; a tumbled, blue heap, among the scattered palms and lilies, their whiteness enriched now with another martyr's blood.
Sealed with the Baptism of martyrdom, at her foster-sister's tomb, the Christians found her, and buried her. Now her peasant feet tread the golden pavement at the side of patrician Agnes, in that land where—
"The bondsman and the noble,
The peasant and the king,
All gird one glorious Monarch
In one eternal ring."
Still, that is not the end of the story of St. Agnes.
Her parents thought hourly of their little daughter's glorious lot in heaven; but it made them very sad to think that, perhaps, for a long while yet, they would see her face no more. Day by day they went to pray at her tomb. So a week passed. On the eighth night they were there as usual. In the dusk above them the lamp glimmered over the fresh-cut flowers that poor old Lucius brought now with tears, not scoldings, for the dear little mistress who would lovingly tease him no more. Father and mother prayed long and earnestly, not without weeping. At last, as the hour grew late, they both prepared to turn homewards. Suddenly they saw Agnes before them.
She stood under the high archway, clothed in dazzling garments, a glory crowning her head and shining hair. About her flashed angelic faces and the tremor of angelic wings, half revealed; and round her flowed and pulsed an effluence of unimagined light, as the crimson radiance of her martyrdom alternated with the blinding whiteness of her purity. Yet, amidst all this, she was the same Agnes; the same gentle dignity and innocence shone on her face, and the same smile played about her lips. She bore a lily and a palm and a white lamb in her arms, and bent towards her father and mother with her usual caressing love.
"Grieve not," she said gently, as they knelt overwhelmed with awe and joy, "for you see me as I am, and is there cause for tears? These are now my blessed companions, and, with them, others, angels and saints without number. Beyond all joys a throne also is prepared for me at His side Whom alone on earth I loved, and to Whom in heaven I am united for ever."