‘But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.’— St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, ii. II.
HIS mother, a devout and well-born Roman widow, decided that he was doing himself no good in an Eastern Legion so near to free-thinking Constantinople, and got him seconded for civil duty in Antioch, where his uncle, Lucius Sergius, was head of the urban Police. Valens obeyed as a son and as a young man keen to see life, and, presently, cast up at his uncle’s door.
‘That sister-inlaw of mine,’ said the elder, ‘never remembers me till she wants something. What have you been doing?’
‘That’s what mother thinks. But I haven’t.’
‘We shall see. Your quarters are across the inner courtyard. Your — er — baggage is there already . . . Oh, I shan’t interfere with your private arrangements! I’m not the uncle with the rough tongue. Get your bath. We’ll talk at supper.’
But before that hour ‘Father Serga,’ as the Prefect of Police was called, learned from the Treasury that his nephew had marched overland from Constantinople in charge of a treasure-convoy which, after a brush with brigands in the pass outside Tarsus, he had duly delivered.
‘Why didn’t you tell me about it?’ his uncle asked at the meal.
‘I had to report to the Treasury first,’ was the answer.
Serga looked at him. ‘Gods! You are like your father,’ said he. ‘Cilicia is scandalously policed.’
‘So I noticed. They ambushed us not five miles from Tarsus town. Are we given to that sort of thing here?’
‘You make yourself at home early. No. We are not, but Syria is a Non-regulation Province — under the Emperor — not the Senate. We’ve the entire unaccountable East to one side; the scum of the Mediterranean on the other; and all hellicat Judaea southward. Anything can happen in Syria. D’you like the prospect?’
‘I shall — under you.’
‘It’s in the blood. The same with men as horses. Now what have you done that distresses your mother so?’
‘She’s a little behind the times, sir. She follows the old school, of course — the home-worships, and the strict Latin Trinity. I don’t think she recognises any Gods outside Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.’
‘I don’t either — officially.’
‘Nor I, as an officer, sir. But one wants more than that, and — and — what I learned in Byzant squared with what I saw with the Fifteenth.’
‘You needn’t go on. All Eastern Legions are alike. You mean you follow Mithras — eh?’
The young man bowed his head slightly.
‘No harm, boy. It’s a soldier’s religion, even if it comes from outside.’
‘So I thought. But Mother heard of it. She didn’t approve and — I suppose that’s why I’m here.’
‘Off the trident and into the net! Just like a woman! All Syria is stuffed with Mithraism. My objection to fancy religions is that they mostly meet after dark, and that means more work for the Police. We’ve a College here of stiff-necked Hebrews who call themselves Christians.’
‘I’ve heard of them,’ said Valens. ‘There isn’t a ceremony or symbol they haven’t stolen from the Mithras ritual.’
‘‘No news to me! Religions are part of my office-work; and they’ll be part of yours. Our Synagogue Jews are fighting like Scythians over this new faith.’
‘Does that matter much?’
‘So long as they fight each other, we’ve only to keep the ring. Divide and rule — especially with Hebrews. Even these Christians are divided now. You see — one part of their worship is to eat together.’
‘Another theft! The Supper is the essential Symbol with us,’ Valens interrupted.
‘With us, it’s the essential symbol of trouble for your uncle, my dear. Anyone can become a Christian. A Jew may; but he still lives by his Law of Moses (I’ve had to master that cursed code, too), and it regulates all his doings. Then he sits down at a Christian love-feast beside a Greek or Westerner, who doesn’t kill mutton or pig — No! No! Jews don’t touch pork — as the Jewish Law lays down. Then the tables are broken up — but not by laughter — No! No! Riot!’
‘That’s childish,’ said Valens.
‘‘Wish it were. But my lictors are called in to keep order, and I have to take the depositions of Synagogue Jews, denouncing Christians as traitors to Caesar. If I chose to act on half the stuff their Rabbis swear to, I’d have respectable little Jew shop-keepers up every week for conspiracy. Never decide on the evidence, when you’re dealing with Hebrews! Oh, you’ll get your bellyful of it! You’re for Market-duty tomorrow in the Little Circus ward, all among ’em. And now, sleep you well! I’ve been on this frontier as far back as anyone remembers — that’s why they call me the Father of Syria — and oh — it’s good to see a sample of the old stock again!’
Next morning, and for many weeks after, Valens found himself on Market-inspection duty with a fat Aedile, who flew into rages because the stalls were not flushed down at the proper hour. A couple of his uncle’s men were told off to him, and, of course, introduced him to the thieves’ and prostitutes’ quarters, to the leading gladiators, and so forth.
One day, behind the Little Circus, near Singon Street, he ran into a mob, where a race-course gang were trying to collect, or evade, some bets on recent chariot-races. The Aedile said it was none of his affair and turned back. The lictors closed up behind Valens, but left the situation in his charge. Then a small hard man with eyebrows was punted on to his chest, amid howls from all around that he was the ringleader of a conspiracy. ‘Yes,’ said Valens, ‘that was an old trick in Byzant; but I think we’ll take you, my friend.’ Turning the small man loose, he gathered in the loudest of his accusers to appear before his uncle.
‘You were quite right,’ said Serga next day.
‘That gentleman was put up to the job — by someone else. I ordered him one Roman dozen. Did you get the name of the man they were trying to push off on you?’
‘Yes. Gaius Julius Paulus. Why?’
‘I guessed as much. He’s an old acquaintance of mine, a Cilician from Tarsus. Well-born — a citizen by descent, and well-educated, but his people have disowned him. So he works for his living.’
‘He spoke like a well-born. He’s in splendid training, too. ‘Felt him. All muscle.’
‘Small wonder. He can outmarch a camel. He is really the Prefect of this new sect. He travels all over our Eastern Provinces starting their Colleges and keeping them up to the mark. That’s why the Synagogue Jews are hunting him. If they could run him in on the political charge, it would finish him.’
‘Is he seditious, then?’
‘Not in the least. Even if he were, I wouldn’t feed him to the Jews just because they wanted it. One of our Governors tried that game down-coast — for the sake of peace — some years ago. He didn’t get it. Do you like your Market-work, my boy?’
‘It’s interesting. D’you know, uncle, I think the Synagogue Jews are better at their slaughter-house arrangements than we.’
‘They are. That’s what makes ’em so tough. A dozen stripes are nothing to Apella, though he’ll howl the yard down while he’s getting ’em. You’ve the Christians’ College in your quarter. How do they strike you?’
‘‘Quiet enough. They’re worrying a bit over what they ought to eat at their love-feasts.’
‘I know it. Oh, I meant to tell you — we mustn’t try ’em too high just now, Valens. My office reports that Paulus, your small friend, is going down-country for a few days to meet another priest of the College, and bring him back to help smooth over their difficulties about their victuals. That means their congregation will be at loose ends till they return. Mass without mind always comes a cropper. So, now is when the Synagogue Jews will try to compromise them. I don’t want the poor devils stampeded into what can be made to look like political crime. ‘‘Understand?’
Valens nodded. Between his uncle’s discursive evening talks, studded with kitchen-Greek and out-of-date Roman society-verses; his morning tours with the puffing Aedile; and the confidences of his lictors at all hours; he fancied he understood Antioch.
So he kept an eye on the rooms in the colonnade behind the Little Circus, where the new faith gathered. One of the many Jew butchers told him that Paulus had left affairs in the hands of some man called Barnabas, but that he would come back with one, Petrus — evidently a well-known character — who would settle all the food-differences between Greek and Hebrew Christians. The butcher had no spite against Greek Christians as such, if they would only kill their meat like decent Jews.
Serga laughed at this talk, but lent Valens an extra man or two, and said that this lion would be his to tackle, before long.
The boy found himself rushed into the arena one hot dusk, when word had come that this was to be a night of trouble. He posted his lictors in an alley within signal, and entered the common-room of the College, where the love-feasts were held. Everyone seemed as friendly as a Christian — to use the slang of the quarter — and Barnabas, a smiling, stately man by the door, specially so.
‘I am glad to meet you,’ he said. ‘You helped our Paulus in that scuffle the other day. We can’t afford to lose him. I wish he were back!’
He looked nervously down the hall, as it filled with people, of middle and low degree, setting out their evening meal on the bare tables, and greeting each other with a special gesture.
‘I assure you,’ he went on, his eyes still astray, ‘we’ve no intention of offending any of the brethren. Our differences can be settled if only —’
As though on a signal, clamour rose from half a dozen tables at once, with cries of ‘Pollution! Defilement! Heathen! The Law! The Law! Let Caesar know!’ As Valens backed against the wall, the crowd pelted each other with broken meats and crockery, till at last stones appeared from nowhere.
‘It’s a put-up affair,’ said Valens to Barnabas.
‘Yes. They come in with stones in their breasts. Be careful! They’re throwing your way,’ Barnabas replied. The crowd was well-embroiled now. A section of it bore down to where they stood, yelling for the justice of Rome. His two lictors slid in behind Valens, and a man leaped at him with a knife.
Valens struck up the hand, and the lictors had the man helpless as the weapon fell on the floor. The clash of it stilled the tumult a little. Valens caught the lull, speaking slowly: ‘Oh, citizens,’ he called, ‘must you begin your love-feasts with battle? Our tripe-sellers’ burial-club has better manners.’
A little laughter relieved the tension.
‘The Synagogue has arranged this,’ Barnabas muttered. ‘The responsibility will be laid on me.’
‘Who is the Head of your College?’ Valens called to the crowd.
The cries rose against each other.
‘Paulus! Saul! He knows the world —— No! No! Petrus! Our Rock! He won’t betray us. Petrus, the Living Rock.’
‘When do they come back?’ Valens asked. Several dates were given, sworn to, and denied.
‘Wait to fight till they return. I’m not a priest; but if you don’t tidy up these rooms, our Aedile (Valens gave him his gross nick-name in the quarter) will fine the sandals off your feet. And you mustn’t trample good food either. When you’ve finished, I’ll lock up after you. Be quick. I know our Prefect if you don’t.’
They toiled, like children rebuked. As they passed out with baskets of rubbish, Valens smiled. The matter would not be pressed further.
‘Here is our key,’ said Barnabas at the end. ‘The Synagogue will swear I hired this man to kill you.’
‘Will they? Let’s look at him.’
The lictors pushed their prisoner forward.
‘Ill-fortune!’ said the man. ‘I owed you for my brother’s death in Tarsus Pass.’
‘Your brother tried to kill me,’ Valens retorted.
The fellow nodded.
‘Then we’ll call it even-throws,’ Valens signed to the lictors, who loosed hold. ‘Unless you really want to see my uncle?’
The man vanished like a trout in the dusk. Valens returned the key to Barnabas, and said:
‘If I were you, I shouldn’t let your people in again till your leaders come back. You don’t know Antioch as I do.’
He went home, the grinning lictors behind him, and they told his uncle, who grinned also, but said that he had done the right thing — even to patronising Barnabas.
‘Of course, I don’t know Antioch as you do; but, seriously, my dear, I think you’ve saved their Church for the Christians this time. I’ve had three depositions already that your Cilician friend was a Christian hired by Barnabas. ‘Just as well for Barnabas that you let the brute go.’
‘You told me you didn’t want them stampeded into trouble. Besides, it was fair-throws. I may have killed his brother after all. We had to kill two of ’em.’
‘Good! You keep a level head in a tight corner. You’ll need it. There’s no lying about in secluded parks for us! I’ve got to see Paulus and Petrus when they come back, and find out what they’ve decided about their infernal feasts. Why can’t they all get decently drunk and be done with it?’
‘They talk of them both down-town as though they were Gods. By the way, uncle, all the riot was worked up by Synagogue Jews sent from Jerusalem — not by our lot at all.’
‘You don’t say so? Now, perhaps, you understand why I put you on market-duty with old Sow–Belly! You’ll make a Police-officer yet.’
Valens met the scared, mixed congregation round the fountains and stalls as he went about his quarter. They were rather relieved at being locked out of their rooms for the time; as well as by the news that Paulus and Petrus would report to the Prefect of Police before addressing them on the great food-question.
Valens was not present at the first part of that interview, which was official. The second, in the cool, awning-covered courtyard, with drinks and hors-d’oeuvre, all set out beneath the vast lemon and lavender sunset, was much less formal.
‘You have met, I think,’ said Serga to the little lean Paulus as Valens entered.
‘Indeed, yes. Under God, we are twice your debtors,’ was the quick reply.
‘Oh, that was part of my duty. I hope you found our roads good on your journey,’ said Valens.
‘Why, yes. I think they were.’ Paulus spoke as if he had not noticed them.
‘We should have done better to come by boat,’ said his companion, Petrus, a large fleshy man, with eyes that seemed to see nothing, and a half-palsied right hand that lay idle in his lap.
‘Valens came overland from Byzant,’ said his uncle. ‘He rather fancies his legs.’
‘He ought to at his age. What was your best day’s march on the Via Sebaste?’ Paulus asked interestedly, and, before he knew, Valens was reeling off his mileage on mountain-roads every step of which Paulus seemed to have trod.
‘That’s good,’ was the comment. ‘And I expect you march in heavier order than I.’
‘What would you call your best day’s work? ‘ Valens asked in turn.
‘I have covered . . . ’ Paulus checked himself. ‘And yet not I but the God,’ he muttered. ‘It’s hard to cure oneself of boasting.’
A spasm wrenched Petrus’ face.
‘Hard indeed,’ said he. Then he addressed himself to Paulus as though none other were present. ‘It is true I have eaten with Gentiles and as the Gentiles ate. Yet, at the time, I doubted if it were wise.’
‘That is behind us now,’ said Paulus gently.
‘The decision has been taken for the Church — that little Church which you saved, my son.’ He turned on Valens with a smile that half-captured the boy’s heart. ‘Now — as a Roman and a Police-officer — what think you of us Christians?’
‘That I have to keep order in my own ward.’
‘Good! Caesar must be served. But — as a servant of Mithras, shall we say — how think you about our food-disputes?’
Valens hesitated. His uncle encouraged him with a nod. ‘As a servant of Mithras I eat with any initiate, so long as the food is clean,’ said Valens.
‘But,’ said Petrus, ‘that is the crux.’
‘Mithras also tells us,’ Valens went on, ‘to share a bone covered with dirt, if better cannot be found.’
‘You observe no difference, then, between peoples at your feasts?’ Paulus demanded.
‘How dare we? We are all His children. Men make laws. Not Gods,’ Valens quoted from the old Ritual.
‘Say that again, child!’
‘Gods do not make laws. They change men’s hearts. The rest is the Spirit.’
‘You heard it, Petrus? You heard that? It is the utter Doctrine itself!’ Paulus insisted to his dumb companion.
Valens, a little ashamed of having spoken of his faith, went on:
‘They tell me the Jew butchers here want the monopoly of killing for your people. Trade feeling’s at the bottom of most of it.’
‘A little more than that perhaps,’ said Paulus. ‘Listen a minute.’ He threw himself into a curious tale about the God of the Christians, Who, he said, had taken the shape of a Man, and Whom the Jerusalem Jews, years ago, had got the authorities to deal with as a conspirator. He said that he himself, at that time a right Jew, quite agreed with the sentence, and had denounced all who followed the new God. But one day the Light and the Voice of the God broke over him, and he experienced a rending change of heart — precisely as in the Mithras creed. Then he met, and had been initiated by, some men who had walked and talked and, more particularly, had eaten, with the new God before He was killed, and who had seen Him after, like Mithras, He had risen from His grave. Paulus and those others — Petrus was one of them — had next tried to preach Him to the Jews, but that was no success; and, one thing leading to another, Paulus had gone back to his home at Tarsus, where his people disowned him for a renegade. There he had broken down with overwork and despair. Till then, he said, it had never occurred to any of them to show the new religion to any except right Jews; for their God had been born in the shape of a Jew. Paulus himself only came to realise the possibilities of outside work, little by little. He said he had all the foreign preaching in his charge now, and was going to change the whole world by it.
Then he made Petrus finish the tale, who explained, speaking very slowly, that he had, some years ago, received orders from the God to preach to a Roman officer of Irregulars down-country; after which that officer and most of his people wanted to become Christians. So Petrus had initiated them the same night, although none of them were Hebrews. ‘And,’ Petrus ended, ‘I saw there is nothing under heaven that we dare call unclean.’
Paulus turned on him like a flash and cried ‘You admit it! Out of your own mouth it is evident.’ Petrus shook like a leaf and his right hand almost lifted.
‘Do you too twit me with my accent?’ he began, but his face worked and he choked.
‘Nay! God forbid! And God once more forgive me!’ Paulus seemed as distressed as he, while Valens stared at the extraordinary outbreak.
‘Talking of clean and unclean,’ his uncle said tactfully, ‘there’s that ugly song come up again in the City. They were singing it on the city-front yesterday, Valens. Did you notice?’
He looked at his nephew, who took the hint.
‘If it was “Pickled Fish,” sir, they were. Will it make trouble?’
‘As surely as these fish’— a jar of them stood on the table —‘make one thirsty. How does it go? Oh yes.’ Serga hummed:
‘From the Shark and the Sardine — the clean and the unclean —
To the Pickled Fish of Galilee, said Petrus, shall be mine.
He twanged it off to the proper gutter-drawl.
In the nets or on the line.
Till the Gods Themselves decline.
When the Pickled Fish of Galilee ascend the Esquiline!
That’ll be something of a flood — worse than live fish in trees! Hey?’
‘It will happen one day,’ said Paulus.
He turned from Petrus, whom he had been soothing tenderly, and resumed in his natural, hardish voice:
‘Yes. We owe a good deal to that Centurion being converted when he was. It taught us that the whole world could receive the God; and it showed me my next work. I came over from Tarsus to teach here for a while. And I shan’t forget how good the Prefect of Police was to us then.’
‘For one thing, Cornelius was an early colleague,’ Serga smiled largely above his strong cup. ‘“Prime companion”— how does it go? —“we drank the long, long Eastern day out together,” and so on. For another, I know a good workman when I see him. That camel-kit you made for my desert-tours, Paul, is as sound as ever. And for a third — which to a man of my habits is most important — that Greek doctor you recommended me is the only one who understands my tumid liver.’
He passed a cup of all but unmixed wine, which Paulus handed to Petrus, whose lips were flaky white at the corners.
‘But your trouble,’ the Prefect went on, ‘will come from your own people. Jerusalem never forgives. They’ll get you run in on the charge of laesa majestatis soon or late.’
‘Who knows better than I?’ said Petrus. ‘And the decision we all have taken about our love-feasts may unite Hebrew and Greek against us. As I told you, Prefect, we are asking Christian Greeks not to make the feasts difficult for Christian Hebrews by eating meat that has not been lawfully killed. (Our way is much more wholesome, anyhow.) Still, we may get round that. But there’s one vital point. Some of our Greek Christians bring food to the love-feasts that they’ve bought from your priests, after your sacrifices have been offered. That we can’t allow.’
Paulus turned to Valens imperiously.
‘You mean they buy Altar-scraps,’ the boy said. ‘But only the very poor do it; and it’s chiefly block-trimmings. The sale’s a perquisite of the Altar-butchers. They wouldn’t like its being stopped.’
‘Permit separate tables for Hebrew and Greek, as I once said,’ Petrus spoke suddenly.
‘That would end in separate churches. There shall be but one Church,’ Paulus spoke over his shoulder, and the words fell like rods. ‘You think there may be trouble, Valens?’
‘My uncle —’ Valens began.
‘No, no!’ the Prefect laughed. ‘Singon Street Markets are your Syria. Let’s hear what our Legate thinks of his Province.’
Valens flushed and tried to pull his wits together.
‘Primarily,’ he said, ‘it’s pig, I suppose. Hebrews hate pork.’
‘Quite right, too. Catch me eating pig east the Adriatic! I don’t want to die of worms. Give me a young Sabine tush-ripe boar! I have spoken!’
Serga mixed himself another raw cup and took some pickled Lake fish to bring out the flavour.
‘But, still,’ Petrus leaned forward like a deaf man, ‘if we admitted Hebrew and Greek Christians to separate tables we should escape —’
‘Nothing, except salvation,’ said Paulus. ‘We have broken with the whole Law of Moses. We live in and through and by our God only. Else we are nothing. What is the sense of harking back to the Law at meal-times? Whom do we deceive? Jerusalem? Rome? The God? You yourself have eaten with Gentiles! You yourself have said —’
‘One says more than one means when one is carried away,’ Petrus answered, and his face worked again.
‘This time you will say precisely what is meant,’ Paulus spoke between his teeth. ‘We will keep the Churches one — in and through the Lord. You dare not deny this?’
‘I dare nothing — the God knows! But I have denied Him . . . I denied Him . . . And He said — He said I was the Rock on which His Church should stand.’
‘I will see that it stands, and yet not I—’ Paulus’ voice dropped again. ‘To-morrow you will speak to the one Church of the one Table the world over.’
‘That’s your business,’ said the Prefect. ‘But I warn you again, it’s your own people who will make you trouble.’
Paulus rose to say farewell, but in the act he staggered, put his hand to his forehead and, as Valens steered him to a divan, collapsed in the grip of that deadly Syrian malaria which strikes like a snake. Valens, having suffered, called to his rooms for his heavy travelling-fur. His girl, whom he had bought in Constantinople a few months before, fetched it. Petrus tucked it awkwardly round the shivering little figure; the Prefect ordered lime juice and hot water, and Paulus thanked them and apologised, while his teeth rattled on the cup.
‘Better today than tomorrow,’ said the Prefect. ‘Drink — sweat — and sleep here the night. Shall I send for my doctor?’
But Paulus said that the fit would pass naturally, and as soon as he could stand he insisted on going away with Petrus, late though it was, to prepare their announcement to the Church.
‘Who was that big, clumsy man?’ his girl asked Valens as she took up the fur. ‘He made more noise than the small one, who was really suffering.’
‘He’s a priest of the new College by the Little Circus, dear. He believes, uncle told me, that he once denied his God, Who, he says, died for him.’
She halted in the moonlight, the glossy jackal skins over her arm.
‘Does he? My God bought me from the dealers like a horse. Too much, too, he paid. Didn’t he? ‘Fess, thou?’
‘No, thee!’ emphatically.
‘But I wouldn’t deny my God — living or dead! . . . Oh — but not dead! My God’s going to live — for me. Live — live Thou, my heart’s blood, for ever!’
It would have been better had Paulus and Petrus not left the Prefect’s house so late; for the rumour in the city, as the Prefect knew, and as the long conference seemed to confirm, was that Caesar’s own Secretary of State in Rome was, through Paulus, arranging for a general defilement of the Hebrew with the Greek Christians, and that after this had been effected, by promiscuous eating of unlawful foods, all Jews would be lumped together as Christians — members, that is, of a mere free-thinking sect instead of the very particular and troublesome ‘Nation of Jews within the Empire.’ Eventually, the story went, they would lose their rights as Roman citizens, and could then be sold on any slave-stand.
‘Of course,’ Serga explained to Valens next day, ‘that has been put about by the Jerusalem Synagogue. Our Antioch Jews aren’t clever enough. Do you see their game? Petrus is a defiler of the Hebrew nation. If he is cut down to-night by some properly primed young zealot so much the better.’
‘He won’t be,’ said Valens. ‘I’m looking after him.’
‘‘Hope so. But, if he isn’t knifed,’ Serga went on, ‘they’ll try to work up city riots on the grounds that, when all the Jews have lost their civil rights, he’ll set up as a sort of King of the Christians.’
‘At Antioch? In the present year of Rome? That’s crazy, Uncle.’
‘Every crowd is crazy. What else do we draw pay for? But, listen. Post a Mounted Police patrol at the back of the Little Circus. Use ’em to keep the people moving when the congregation comes out. Post two of your men in the Porch of their College itself. Tell Paulus and Petrus to wait there with them, till the streets are clear. Then fetch ’em both over here. Don’t hit till you have to. Hit hard before the stones fly. Don’t get my little horses knocked about more than you can help, and — look out for “Pickled Fish”!’
Knowing his own quarter, it seemed to Valens as he went on duty that evening, that his uncle’s precautions had been excessive. The Christian Church, of course, was full, and a large crowd waited outside for word of the decision about the feasts. Most of them seemed to be Christians of sorts, but there was an element of gesticulating Antiochene loafers, and like all crowds they amused themselves with popular songs while they waited. Things went smoothly, till a group of Christians raised a rather explosive hymn, which ran
‘Enthroned above Caesar and Judge of the Earth!
We wait on Thy coming — oh tarry not long!
As the Kings of the Sunrise
Drew sword at Thy Birth.
So we arm in this midnight of insult and wrong!’
‘Yes — and if one of their fish-stalls is bumped over by a camel — it’s my fault!’ said Valens. ‘Now they’ve started it!’
Sure enough, voices on the outskirts broke into ‘Pickled Fish,’ but before Valens could speak, they were suppressed by someone crying:
‘Quiet there, or you’ll get your pickle before your fish.’
It was close on twilight when a cry rose from within the packed Church, and its congregation breasted out into the crowd. They all talked about the new orders for their love-feasts, most of them agreeing that they were sensible and easy. They agreed, too, that Petrus (Paulus did not seem to have taken much part in the debate) had spoken like one inspired, and they were all extremely proud of being Christians. Some of them began to link arms across the alley, and strike into the ‘Enthroned above Caesar’ chorus.
‘And this, I think,’ Valens called to the young Commandant of the Mounted Patrol, ‘is where we’ll begin to steer ’em home. Oh! And “Let night also have her well-earned hymn,” as Uncle ‘ud say.’
There filed out from behind the Little Circus four blaring trumpets, a standard, and a dozen Mounted Police. Their wise little grey Arabs sidled, passaged, shouldered, and nosed softly into the mob, as though they wanted petting, while the trumpets deafened the narrow street. An open square, near by, eased the pressure before long. Here the Patrol broke into fours, and gridironed it, saluting the images of the Gods at each corner and in the centre. People stopped, as usual, to watch how cleverly the incense was cast down over the withers into the spouting cressets; children reached up to pat horses which they said they knew; family groups re-found each other in the smoky dusk; hawkers offered cooked suppers; and soon the crowd melted into the main traffic avenues. Valens went over to the Church porch, where Petrus and Paulus waited between his lictors.
‘That was well done,’ Paulus began.
‘How’s the fever?’ Valens asked.
‘I was spared for today. I think, too, that by The Blessing we have carried our point.’
‘Good hearing! My uncle bids me say you are welcome at his house.’
‘That is always a command,’ said Paulus, with a quick down-country gesture. ‘Now that this day’s burden is lifted, it will be a delight.’
Petrus joined up like a weary ox. Valens greeted him, but he did not answer.
‘Leave him alone,’ Paulus whispered. ‘The virtue has gone out of me — him — for the while.’ His own face looked pale and drawn.
The street was empty, and Valens took a short cut through an alley, where light ladies leaned out of windows and laughed. The three strolled easily together, the lictors behind them, and far off they heard the trumpets of the Night Horse saluting some statue of a Caesar, which marked the end of their round. Paulus was telling Valens how the whole Roman Empire would be changed by what the Christians had agreed to about their love-feasts, when an impudent little Jew boy stole up behind them, playing ‘Pickled Fish’ on some sort of desert bag-pipe.
‘Can’t you stop that young pest, one of you?’ Valens asked laughing. ‘You shan’t be mocked on this great night of yours, Paulus.’
The lictors turned back a few paces, and shook a torch at the brat, but he retreated and drew them on. Then they heard Paulus shout, and when they hurried back, found Valens prostrate and coughing — his blood on the fringe of the kneeling Paul’s robe. Petrus stooped, waving a helpless hand above them.
‘Someone ran out from behind that well-head. He stabbed him as he ran, and ran on. Listen!’ said Paulus.
But there was not even the echo of a footfall for clue, and the Jew boy had vanished like a bat. Said Valens from the ground
‘Home! Quick! I have it!’
They tore a shutter out of a shop-front, lifted and carried him, while Paulus walked beside. They set him down in the lighted inner courtyard of the Prefect’s house, and a lictor hurried for the Prefect’s physician.
Paulus watched the boy’s face, and, as Valens shivered a little, called to the girl to fetch last night’s fur rug. She brought it, laid the head on her breast, and cast herself beside Valens.
‘It isn’t bad. It doesn’t bleed much. So it can’t be bad — can it?’ she repeated. Valens’ smile reassured her, till the Prefect came and recognised the deadly upward thrust under the ribs. He turned on the Hebrews.
‘To-morrow you will look for where your Church stood,’ said he.
Valens lifted the hand that the girl was not kissing.
‘No — no!’ he gasped. ‘The Cilician did it! For his brother! He said it.’
‘The Cilician you let go to save these Christians because I—?’ Valens signed to his uncle that it was so, while the girl begged him to steal strength from her till the doctor should come.
‘Forgive me,’ said Serga to Paulus. ‘None the less I wish your God in Hades once for all . . . But what am I to write his mother? Can’t either of you two talking creatures tell me what I’m to tell his mother?’
‘What has she to do with him?’ the slave-girl cried. ‘He is mine — mine! I testify before all Gods that he bought me! I am his. He is mine.’
‘We can deal with the Cilician and his friends later,’ said one of the lictors. ‘ But what now?’
For some reason, the man, though used to butcher-work, looked at Petrus.
‘Give him drink and wait,’ said Petrus. ‘I have — seen such a wound.’ Valens drank and a shade of colour came to him. He motioned the Prefect to stoop.
‘What is it? Dearest of lives, what troubles?’
‘The Cilician and his friends . . . Don’t be hard on them . . . They get worked up . . . They don’t know what they are doing . . . Promise!’
‘This is not I, child. It is the Law.’
‘‘No odds. You’re Father’s brother . . . Men make laws — not Gods . . . . Promise! . . . It’s finished with me.’
Valens’ head eased back on its yearning pillow.
Petrus stood like one in a trance. The tremor left his face as he repeated
‘“Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Heard you that, Paulus? He, a heathen and an idolator, said it!’
‘I heard. What hinders now that we should baptize him?’ Paulus answered promptly.
Petrus stared at him as though he had come up out of the sea.
‘Yes,’ he said at last. ‘It is the little maker of tents . . . And what does he now — command?’
Paulus repeated the suggestion.
Painfully, that other raised the palsied hand that he had once held up in a hall to deny a charge.
‘Quiet!’ said he. ‘Think you that one who has spoken Those Words needs such as we are to certify him to any God?’
Paulus cowered before the unknown colleague, vast and commanding, revealed after all these years.
‘As you please — as you please,’ he stammered, overlooking the blasphemy. ‘Moreover there is the concubine.’
The girl did not heed, for the brow beneath her lips was chilling, even as she called on her God who had bought her at a price that he should not die but live.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56