Last Days of Pompeii

Chapter IV


RESTLESS and anxious, Apaecides consumed the day in wandering through the most sequestered walks in the vicinity of the city. The sun was slowly setting as he paused beside a lonely part of the Sarnus, ere yet it wound amidst the evidences of luxury and power. Only through openings in the woods and vines were caught glimpses of the white and gleaming city, in which was heard in the distance no din, no sound, nor 'busiest hum of men'. Amidst the green banks crept the lizard and the grasshopper, and here and there in the brake some solitary bird burst into sudden song, as suddenly stifled. There was deep calm around, but not the calm of night; the air still breathed of the freshness and life of day; the grass still moved to the stir of the insect horde; and on the opposite bank the graceful and white capella passed browsing through the herbage, and paused at the wave to drink.

As Apaecides stood musingly gazing upon the waters, he heard beside him the low bark of a dog.

'Be still, poor friend,' said a voice at hand; 'the stranger's step harms not thy master.' The convert recognized the voice, and, turning, he beheld the old mysterious man whom he had seen in the congregation of the Nazarenes.

The old man was sitting upon a fragment of stone covered with ancient mosses; beside him were his staff and scrip; at his feet lay a small shaggy dog, the companion in how many a pilgrimage perilous and strange.

The face of the old man was as balm to the excited spirit of the neophyte: he approached, and craving his blessing, sat down beside him.

'Thou art provided as for a journey, father,' said he: 'wilt thou leave us yet?'

'My son,' replied the old man, 'the days in store for me on earth are few and scanty; I employ them as becomes me travelling from place to place, comforting those whom God has gathered together in His name, and proclaiming the glory of His Son, as testified to His servant.'

'Thou hast looked, they tell me, on the face of Christ?'

'And the face revived me from the dead. Know, young proselyte to the true faith, that I am he of whom thou readest in the scroll of the Apostle. In the far Judea, and in the city of Nain, there dwelt a widow, humble of spirit and sad of heart; for of all the ties of life one son alone was spared to her. And she loved him with a melancholy love, for he was the likeness of the lost. And the son died. The reed on which she leaned was broken, the oil was dried up in the widow's cruse. They bore the dead upon his bier; and near the gate of the city, where the crowd were gathered, there came a silence over the sounds of woe, for the Son of God was passing by. The mother, who followed the bier, wept—not noisily, but all who looked upon her saw that her heart was crushed. And the Lord pitied her, and he touched the bier, and said, "I SAY UNTO THEE, ARISE," And the dead man woke and looked upon the face of the Lord. Oh, that calm and solemn brow, that unutterable smile, that careworn and sorrowful face, lighted up with a God's benignity—it chased away the shadows of the grave! I rose, I spoke, I was living, and in my mother's arms—yes, I am the dead revived! The people shouted, the funeral horns rung forth merrily: there was a cry, "God has visited His people!" I heard them not—I felt—I saw—nothing but the face of the Redeemer!'

The old man paused, deeply moved; and the youth felt his blood creep, and his hair stir. He was in the presence of one who had known the Mystery of Death!

'Till that time,' renewed the widow's son, 'I had been as other men: thoughtless, not abandoned; taking no heed, but of the things of love and life; nay, I had inclined to the gloomy faith of the earthly Sadducee! But, raised from the dead, from awful and desert dreams that these lips never dare reveal—recalled upon earth, to testify the powers of Heaven—once more mortal, the witness of immortality; I drew a new being from the grave. O faded—O lost Jerusalem!—Him from whom came my life, I beheld adjudged to the agonized and parching death! Far in the mighty crowd I saw the light rest and glimmer over the cross; I heard the hooting mob, I cried aloud, I raved, I threatened—none heeded me—I was lost in the whirl and the roar of thousands! But even then, in my agony and His own, methought the glazing eye of the Son of Man sought me out—His lip smiled, as when it conquered death—it hushed me, and I became calm. He who had defied the grave for another—what was the grave to him? The sun shone aslant the pale and powerful features, and then died away! Darkness fell over the earth; how long it endured, I know not. A loud cry came through the gloom—a sharp and bitter cry!—and all was silent.

'But who shall tell the terrors of the night?' I walked along the city—the earth reeled to and fro, and the houses trembled to their base—theliving had deserted the streets, but not the Dead: through the gloom I saw them glide—the dim and ghastly shapes, in the cerements of the grave—with horror, and woe, and warning on their unmoving lips and lightless eyes!—they swept by me, as I passed—they glared upon me—I had been their brother; and they bowed their heads in recognition; they had risen to tell the living that the dead can rise!'

Again the old man paused, and, when he resumed, it was in a calmer tone.

'From that night I resigned all earthly thought but that of serving HIM. A preacher and a pilgrim, I have traversed the remotest corners of the earth, proclaiming His Divinity, and bringing new converts to His fold. I come as the wind, and as the wind depart; sowing, as the wind sows, the seeds that enrich the world.

'Son, on earth we shall meet no more. Forget not this hour,—what are the pleasures and the pomps of life? As the lamp shines, so life glitters for an hour; but the soul's light is the star that burns for ever, in the heart of inimitable space.'

It was then that their conversation fell upon the general and sublime doctrines of immortality; it soothed and elevated the young mind of the convert, which yet clung to many of the damps and shadows of that cell of faith which he had so lately left—it was the air of heaven breathing on the prisoner released at last. There was a strong and marked distinction between the Christianity of the old man and that of Olinthus; that of the first was more soft, more gentle, more divine. The heroism of Olinthus had something in it fierce and intolerant—it was necessary to the part he was destined to play—it had in it more of the courage of the martyr than the charity of the saint. It aroused, it excited, it nerved, rather than subdued and softened. But the whole heart of that divine old man was bathed in love; the smile of the Deity had burned away from it the leaven of earthlier and coarser passions, and left to the energy of the hero all the meekness of the child.

'And now,' said he, rising at length, as the sun's last ray died in the west; 'now, in the cool of twilight, I pursue my way towards the Imperial Rome. There yet dwell some holy men, who like me have beheld the face of Christ; and them would I see before I die.'

'But the night is chill for thine age, my father, and the way is long, and the robber haunts it; rest thee till to-morrow.'

'Kind son, what is there in this scrip to tempt the robber? And the Night and the Solitude!—these make the ladder round which angels cluster, and beneath which my spirit can dream of God. Oh! none can know what the pilgrim feels as he walks on his holy course; nursing no fear, and dreading no danger—for God is with him! He hears the winds murmur glad tidings; the woods sleep in the shadow of Almighty wings—the stars are the Scriptures of Heaven, the tokens of love, and the witnesses of immortality. Night is the Pilgrim's day.' With these words the old man pressed Apaecides to his breast, and taking up his staff and scrip, the dog bounded cheerily before him, and with slow steps and downcast eyes he went his way.

The convert stood watching his bended form, till the trees shut the last glimpse from his view; and then, as the stars broke forth, he woke from the musings with a start, reminded of his appointment with Olinthus.

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