To the Lions - Alfred J. Church

A Plot

On the evening of the day when Clitus and Cleoné held their conversation among the vines, as described in the last chapter, another conversation, which was to have no little influence on their fate, was going on. The place was a wine-shop, kept by a certain Theron, in the outskirts of Nicæa, and not far from the Christian meeting-house. Theron's customers were, for the most part, of the artisan class. But he kept a room reserved for his few patrons that were of a higher rank. In this room three persons were sitting at a citron-wood table, one of the innkeeper's most cherished possessions, which only favoured customers were permitted to see uncovered. A flagon, which could not have held less than two gallons stood in the middle of the table. It was about half full of the potent wine from Mount Tmolus, mixed, however, with about half its bulk of water. From this flagon each guest ladled out the liquid into his own drinking-cup.

One of the three is already known to us. This is Verus, the unworthy member whose banishment from the Christian community has been described. The second, to whom, it may be observed, his companions pay a certain respect, is an elderly man, in the ordinary dress of a well-to-do merchant. There is a certain air of intelligence in his face. But the keen, hungry look of the eyes, the pinched nose, the thin, bloodless lips, tightly closed, but sometimes parting in a smile that never reaches the eyes, give it a sinister look. Lucilius—for this was his name—was a man of good birth and education, but he had given up all his thoughts to money-making, and the tyrant passion had set the mark of his servitude on his face.

The third is a professional soothsayer or fortune-teller. The fortune-teller of to-day commonly exercises his art by means of a pack of cards, while he sometimes consults a tattered book of dreams, or even professes to gather his knowledge of the future from the motions of the planets. Cards were not then invented; dream-interpreting and star-reading were not held in very great repute. Our soothsayer practised the curious art of discovering the future by the signs that might be discerned in the entrails of animals. My readers would think it tedious were I to give them the details of this system. Let it suffice to say that the liver was held to carry most meaning in its appearance. If the proper top to it were wanting, something terrible was sure to happen. There were lines of life in it, and lines of wealth. Each of the four "fibres" into which it was divided had its own province. From this you could discern perils by water, from that perils by fire; a third warned you of losses in business, a fourth gave you hopes of a legacy. This was the art, then, which the third of the three guests professed. He called himself Arruns, but this was not his real name. Arruns is Etruscan, whilst the man was a Sicilian, who, after trying almost everything for a livelihood, had settled down as an haruspex  in Nicæa. But the Etruscans were famous over all the Roman world as the inventors of the soothsaying art, and professors of it found an Etruscan name as useful as singers sometimes find one that is borrowed from Italy, or French teachers a supposed birthplace in Paris. Arruns, if he had little of the Etruscan about him in his language, which was Latin of the rudest kind, spoken in a broad Greek accent, had at least the corpulence for which the foretellers of the future were proverbial. His small dull eyes, sometimes lit up with a little spark of greed or cunning, his thick sensual lips, and heavy bloated cheeks, flushed with habitual potations, showed how the animal predominated in him.

He was now holding forth on his grievances in a loud, harsh voice, which he did not forget to refresh with frequent draughts of Tmolian wine.

"It is monstrous, this neglect of the gods! It must bring a curse upon the country. There will be nothing left sacred soon. Who can suppose that if men do not care for the gods, they will go on caring for each other? Children will not honour their parents, nor parents love their children. The sanctity of marriage, the rights of property, everything will disappear, if these atheists are suffered to go unpunished, while they spread abroad their pernicious doctrines."

"Your zeal does you credit," interrupted Lucilius, with a slight cynical smile. "But we all know that Arruns is careful of all that concerns the sacredness of the home."

Arruns was a notoriously ill-conducted fellow, whose life was a scandal to the better behaved, not to say the more pious of the heathen. His wife had long since left him in disgust, and was supporting herself as a nurse. His children he had turned out of doors. The shaft did not wound him very deeply, but he took the hint and became more practical.

"Look at the temples," he went on; "the court-yards are grass-grown. Day after day not a worshipper comes near them. To see smoke going from the altars is as rare as to see snow in summer. And when a man does bring a beast, 'tis some paltry, half-starved creature: a scabby sheep, or a worn-out bullock from the plough, which are not good enough for the butcher's knife, let alone the priest's hatchet. And as often as not, when there is a decent sacrifice, they do not call me in. They grudge me my ten drachmas—for I have had to cut down the fee to ten. 'What should a calf or a sheep's liver have to tell us about the future?' they say. What monstrous impiety! What a flagrant contradiction of all history! Did not Galba's haruspex, on the very day of his death, warn him that he was in danger from an intimate friend? and did not Otho, who was such a friend, kill him within two hours afterwards?"

"Yes," said Lucilius, a little peremptorily, "we know all about these examples and instances. But go on to your own grievances."

"Well, to put the matter plainly, it is simple starvation to me. Twice, thrice last week I had to live on beans and bread. Ten years ago there did not a day pass without two or three sacrifices. I had my pick of good things—beef, mutton, lamb, veal, pork, every day; and now I am positively thankful for a rank piece of goat's flesh, that once I would not have given to my slave. Oh! it is awful; there must be a judgment from the gods on such impiety."

"One would hardly think, from your looks, my Arruns," said Lucilius, "that things were quite so bad as you say. But, tell me, what do you suppose to be the cause of this impious neglect of the gods, and this indifference to the future?"

"The Christians, of course," said Arruns; "the Christians."

"But," interrupted Lucilius, "they can be scarcely numerous enough to make much difference, and I am told that they are mostly poor people, and even slaves; so that they could hardly, in any case, be clients of yours."

"My good lord," said Arruns, "it is not so much the Christians themselves; it is the example they set. People say to themselves: 'These seem to be very decent, honest sort of fellows; they never murder or rob; they are very kind to the sick and poor; we can always be safe in having dealings with them; and they seem to be tolerably prosperous too. And yet they never go inside a temple, nor offer so much as a lamb to the gods.' What could be worse than that? They do ten times more harm than if they were so many murderers and thieves. A good citizen who neglects the gods is a most mischievous person. There is sure to be a number of people who imitate him so far. It is the Christians who are at the bottom of all this trouble."

"But what do you want me to do?" said Lucilius. "Grant that what you say is true, still I see no reason for interfering. I have two or three tenants who are said to be Christians, and they are honest and industrious fellows who always pay me my rent to the day. Why should I trouble them?"

"Pardon me, sir," interrupted Verus, who had as yet taken no part in the conversation. "Pardon me if I remind you that there is something more to be said. The association of the Christians is an unlawful society."

"Of course it is," cried Lucilius; "we all know that; though you, my dear Verus, seem to have been a long time finding it out, if, as I understand, you have been acting as their treasurer."

"I have but lately discovered their true character," said Verus. "When I did, I hastened to leave them."

"Ah!" said Lucilius, with a sneer, "that must have been at the very time when they examined your accounts. Do you know that people have been saying that they, too, made some discoveries?"

Verus, who would have given a great deal to be able to stab the speaker, forced his features into a sickly smile. "You are pleased to jest, honourable sir," he said. "But these Christians are not quite so insignificant or so poor as you think. There is the old knight, Antistius. No one would suppose that he was a rich man. He drinks wine that cannot cost more than a denarius a gallon, and very little of that; but we know what he gives away in alms. It is not only here that he gives. His money goes to Smyrna, to Ephesus, and positively to Rome. You may rely upon this, because it used to pass through my hands."

"And stick there sometimes, I have heard," retorted the other, whose passion for saying bitter things was sometimes too strong for his prudence, and even for his avarice. "But what does that matter to me? What do I care for the way in which an old fool and his money are parted? It does not concern me if he feeds all the beggars and cripples in the Empire."

"You forget sir," returned Verus, "that if Antistius is convicted of belonging to an unlawful society—and there can be no doubt that the community of Christians is such a society—his goods are confiscated to the Emperor's purse, and that those who assist the cause of justice will have their share."

There was a sudden change in Lucilius's careless, supercilious manner, though he did his best not to seem too eager.

"Ah!" he said, "there may be something in that, though I should not particularly like a business of that kind."

"Don't suppose, sir," went on Verus, "that there are not others besides Antistius. There are plenty who are worth looking after. Bion the farmer is wealthy, though one would hardly think it. And there are others who are entangled in this business. You would hardly believe me, if I were to tell you their names. And then it is not only here, it is all through the province that you may find them. I have all the threads in my hand, and I could make a very pretty unravelling if I chose."

"What, then, do you propose?" asked Lucilius.

"That we should lay information to the Governor."

"Will he act? He is all for being philosophic and tolerant."

"He cannot choose but act. The Emperor's orders are stringent. He is very strict about these secret societies. Did you not hear about the fire-brigade that the people of Nicomedia wanted to have? They were nearly ruined by the fire last December. Nothing was ready: not a bucket nor a yard of hose; and when some things were got together, then there was nobody to work. The consequence was that more than half the city, and all the finest buildings in it, were burnt. The people wanted to have a fire-brigade, and the Governor wrote to the Emperor, recommending that the request should be granted. But no. Trajan would not have anything of the kind. If it was not a secret society, it might be turned into one, he said in his letter. No; if we once set the thing going, the Governor must act, whether he like it or no. We must send in as many informations as we can. There will be one from you, and another from Arruns here, who can back it up if he likes with his complaint about the sacrifices. Then there is Theron, our host here, who complains that the Christians are so sober that they are taking the bread out of the tavern-keepers' mouths. As for myself, perhaps my name had better not appear. I should not like to be seen acting against old friends and employers. But it does not much matter who signs them, or, indeed, whether they are signed or not. As long as there are plenty of them, it will be enough; and your secretary can see to that."

At Verus's suggestion, Theron, the innkeeper, was called into the council. He, of course, had a very bad opinion of the Christians. "They are a very poor, mean-spirited lot," he said; "if they had their way there would not be a tavern open in the Empire. I never see one of them inside my doors. Sometimes, when I have a late company here, I have seen them on their way to their meeting-place, one of the guildhouses in the cemetery here. They are a shabby lot, for the most part—half of them slaves, I should think. I suspect an out-door man of my own of being one of them. He never drinks, or gambles, or fights. I always suspect there is something wrong with a young fellow when he goes on like that. Yes, I should very much like to see the whole business put a stop to. If it is not, the world will soon be no place for an honest man to live in."

A plan of action was agreed upon. A number of memorials were to be presented to the Governor, praying him to interfere with a certain unlawful society, bearing the name of Christians, or followers of Jesus, that was accustomed to meet in the neighborhood of Nicæa. Lucilius, Verus, and Arruns were each to send in such a document, and were to get others sent in by their friends. A number of anonymous memorials in various handwritings were also to be prepared. The more there were, the more likely was the Governor to be impressed.

When the party was separating, Arruns tried to do a little stroke of business on his own account. "This is an important undertaking," he said, in his most professional tone, to Lucilius. "Don't you think that it would be well to consult the gods?"

"My Arruns," said Lucilius, who had no idea of spending his money in any such way, "when I make an offering, I prefer that it should be a thank-offering. When we have done something, I shall not be ungrateful."

The soothsayer was not going to let himself be baffled. If he could get nothing out of the cupidity of Lucilius, he might be more successful in working on the fears of Verus.

"It would have an excellent effect, my dear Verus," he said, "if people could see some proof of your piety. They know that you have been mixed up with these Christians, and they don't all know that you have come out from among them. If there should be anything like a rising of the people—there was one in Galatia the other day, and half a dozen of these impious creatures were torn to pieces before the Governor's guard could interfere—there might be some awkward mistake. We should have plenty of people protesting that they had never been Christians at all, or had left off being so, and you might not be believed, particularly if you had anything to lose. Now, if you were to offer a sacrifice, you would be perfectly safe. No one would dare to wag his tongue against you."

Verus, who, if he had not learnt to believe Christianity, must have at least learned thoroughly to disbelieve the whole Pagan system, heard the suggestion with very little fervour, but felt too uneasy about his position to reject it. He knew that he had compromised himself, and that the danger which Arruns had pictured was not completely imaginary.

"There may be something in what you suggest," he said, after a pause. "Perhaps a lamb to Jupiter or Apollo——"

"A lamb!"  interrupted Arruns, who was not disposed to be satisfied with so paltry an offering. "A lamb!  The whole country would cry shame upon you. It ought to be nothing less than a hecatomb."

"A hecatomb!" cried Verus, "what are you talking about? Am I the Emperor, that you should suggest such a thing?"

"Well," returned the other, "a hecatomb might, perhaps, be a little ostentatious for a man in your position. But I assure you that nothing less than a 'swine, sheep, and bull' sacrifice would be acceptable. It must be something a little out of the common, for yours is not a common case."

"Well, let it be so," said Verus, "only it must be done cheaply. No gilding of the bulls horns or expensive flowers; I really cannot afford it."

"Leave it to me," answered Arruns. "I will spare your pocket."

With this they separated, the soothsayer chuckling over his success, and the prospect of a plenty which he had not enjoyed for some months, Verus ruefully calculating how many gold pieces the three animals, with the ornaments and the temple fees, would cost him.