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STANDARD SELECTIONS

I

NARRATIVE, DESCRIPTIVE, PATHETIC

THE ARENA SCENE FROM “QUO VADIS1

HENRYK SIENKIEWICZ

The Roman Empire in the first century presents the most revolting picture of mankind to be found in the pages of history. Society founded on superior force, on the most barbarous cruelty, on crime and mad profligacy, was corrupt beyond the power of words to describe. Rome ruled the world, but was also its ulcer, and the horrible monster, Nero, guilty of all hideous and revolting crimes, seems a fit monarch for such a people.

A few years ago appeared "Quo Vadis ?” the story from which this selection is made. The book attained so great a popularity, that it was translated into almost every tongue. In spite of its many faults, it invited the attention, and, although it shocked the sensibilities, when its great purpose was understood it melted the heart.

The author drew a startlingly vivid and horrible picture of humanity at this lowest stage, and in conflict with it he showed us the Christ spirit.

The extract is the story of how the young Vinicius, a patrician, a soldier, a courtier of Nero, through the labyrinth of foul sin, of self-worship and self-indulgence, with love for his guide,

Copyright, 1896, by Jeremiah Curtin.

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found his way home to the feet of Him who commanded, "Be ye pure even as I am pure.”

It is the love story of Vinicius and the Princess Lygia, a convert to Christ. The girl's happy and innocent life was rudely disturbed by a summons to the court of the profligate emperor. Arrived there, she found that Nero had given her to Vinicius, who had fallen passionately in love with her; but on the way to Vinicius' house she was rescued by the giant Ursus, one of her devoted attendants and a member of her own faith. They escaped in safety to the Christians, who were living in hiding in the city.

The imperious nature of the youthful soldier for the first time in his life met resistance. He was so transported with rage and disappointment that he ordered the slaves from whom Lygia had escaped to be flogged to death, while he set out to find the girl who had dared to thwart his desire. His egotism was so great that he would have seen the city and the whole world sunk in ruins rather than fail of his purpose. For days and days his search was unceasing, and at last he found Lygia, but in making a second attempt to carry her off was severely wounded by the giant Ursus. Finding himself helpless in the Christians' hands, he expected nothing but death ; but instead he was carefully and tenderly nursed back to health. Waking from his delirium, he found at his bedside Lygia — Lygia, whom he had most injured, watching alone, while the others had gone to rest. Gradually in his pagan head the idea began to hatch with difficulty that at the side of naked beauty, confident and proud of Greek and Roman symmetry, there is another in the world, new, immensely pure, in which a soul resides. As the days went by, Vinicius was thrilled to the very depths of his soul by the consciousness that Lygia was learning to love him. With that revelation came the certain conviction that his religion would forever make an inseparable barrier between them. Then he hated Christianity with all the powers of his soul, yet he could not but acknowledge that it had adorned Lygia with that exceptional, unexplained beauty, which was producing in his heart besides love, respect ; besides desire, homage. Yet, when he thought of accepting the religion of the Nazarene, all the Roman in him rose up in revolt against the idea. He knew that if he were to accept that teaching he would have to throw, as on a burning pile, all his thoughts, ideas, ambitions, habits of life, his very nature up to that moment, burn them into ashes and fill himself with an entirely new life, and from his soul he cried that it was impossible; it was impossible!

Before Vinicius had entirely recovered Nero commanded his presence at Antium, whither the court was going for the hot summer months. Nero was ambitious to write an immortal epic poem which should rival the “Odyssey,” and in order that he might describe realistically a burning city, gave a secret command while he was in Antium that Rome should be set on fire.

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One evening, when the court was assembled to hear Nero recite some of his poetry, a slave appeared.

“Pardon, Divine Imperator, Rome is burning! The whole city is a sea of flames !” A moment of horrified silence followed, broken by the cry of Vinicius. He rushed forth, and, springing on his horse, dashed into the deep night. A horseman, rushing also like a whirlwind, but in the opposite direction, toward Antium, shouted as he raced past: "Rome is perishing!” To the ears of Vinicius came only one more expression: “Gods!” The rest was drowned by the thunder of hoofs. But the expression sobered him. “Gods!” He raised his head suddenly, and, stretching his arms toward the sky filled with stars, began to pray.

"Not to you, whose temples are burning, do I call, but to Thee. Thou Thyself hast suffered. Thou alone hast understood people's pain. If Thou art what Peter and Paul declare,

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save Lygia. Seek her in the burning; save her and I will give Thee my blood !”

Before he had reached the top of the mountain he felt the wind on his face, and with it the odor of smoke came to his nostrils. He touched the summit at last, and then a terrible sight struck his eyes. The whole lower region was covered with smoke, but beyond this gray, ghastly plain the city was burning on the hills. The conflagration had not the form of a pillar, but of a long belt, shaped like the dawn.

Vinicius' horse, choking with the smoke, became unmanageable. He sprang to the earth and rushed forward on foot. The tunic began to smolder on him in places; breath failed his lungs; strength failed his bones; he fell! Two men, with gourds full of water, ran to him and bore him away. When he regained consciousness he found himself in a spacious cave, lighted with torches and 'tapers. He saw a throng of people kneeling, and over him bent the tender, beautiful face of his soul's beloved.

Lygia was indeed safe from the burning, but before the first thrill of relief was over an infinitely more horrible danger threatened her. The people were in wrath and threatened violence to Nero and his court, for it was popularly believed that the city had been set on fire at the emperor's instigation. The coward, Nero, was startled and thoroughly alarmed, and welcomed gladly the suggestion that the calamity should be blamed on the Christians, who were viewed with great suspicion by the common people, and obliged even then to live in hiding. In order to clear himself and to divert the people's minds, he instituted at once against the Christians the most horrible persecutions that have ever stained man's history. For days and days the people came in countless numbers to witness the tortures of the innocent victims; but at last they grew weary of blood-spilling. Then it was given out that Nero had arranged a climax for the last of the Christians who were to die

as snow.

at an evening spectacle in a brilliantly lighted amphitheater. Chief interest both of the Augustinians and the people centered in Lygia and Vinicius, for the story of their love was now generally known, and everybody felt that Nero was intending to make a tragedy for himself out of the suffering of Vinicius.

At last the evening arrived. The sight was in truth magnificent. All that was powerful, brilliant and wealthy in Rome was there. The lower seats were crowded with togas as white

In a gilded padium sat Nero, wearing a diamond collar and a golden crown upon his head. Every eye was turned with strained gaze to the place where the unfortunate lover was sitting. He was exceedingly pale, and his forehead was covered with drops of sweat. To his tortured mind came the thought that faith of itself would spare Lygia. Peter had said that faith would move the earth to its foundations. He crushed doubt in himself, compressed his whole being into the sentence, “I believe," and he looked for a miracle.

The prefect of the city waved a red handkerchief, and out of the dark gully into the brilliantly lighted arena came Ursus. In Rome there was no lack of gladiators, larger by far than the common measure of man; but Roman eyes had never seen the like of Ursus. The people gazed with the delight of experts at his mighty limbs, as large as tree trunks; at his breast, as large as two shields joined together, and his arms of a Hercules. He was unarmed, and had determined to die as became a follower of the Lamb, peacefully and patiently. Meanwhile he wished to pray once more to the Saviour. So he knelt on the arena, joined his hands and raised his eyes towards the stars. This act displeased the crowd. They had had enough of those Christians, who died like sheep. They understood that if the giant would not defend himself, the spectacle would be a failure. Here and there hisses were heard. Some began to cry for scourgers, whose office it was to lash combatants unwilling to fight. But soon all had grown silent, for no one knew what was

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