Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of the miraculous Recall of Sinners, and of the Consolations which Piety offers to the distressed
OF THE MIRACULOUS RECALL OF SINNERS, AND OF THE CONSOLATIONS WHICH PIETY OFFERS TO THE DISTRESSED.
In the reign of Trajan there lived a knight named Placidus, who was commander-in-chief of the emperor's armies. He was of a very merciful disposition, but a worshipper of idols. His wife also participated in the same feelings, and adhered to the same religious rites. They had two sons, educated in all the magnificence of their age and station; and from the general kindness and goodness of their hearts, they merited a revelation of the way of truth. As he was one day following the chase, he discovered a herd of deer, amongst which was one remarkable for the beauty and magnitude of its form. Separating itself from the rest, it plunged into the thickest part of the brake. While the hunters, therefore, occupied themselves with the remainder of the herd, Placidus gave his attention to the noble animal in question, and pursued the course it had taken with all the celerity in his power. After much exertion the stag scaled a lofty precipice, and Placidus approaching as near to it as he could, considered by what means it might be secured. But as he regarded it with fixed attention, there appeared, impressed upon the centre of the brow, the form of the cross, which glittered with greater splendour than a meridian sun. Upon this cross an image of Jesus Christ was suspended; (17) and as formerly happened to the ass of Balaam, utterance was supplied to the stag, which thus addressed the hunter; "Why dost thou persecute me, Placidus? For thy sake have I assumed the shape of this animal: I am Christ whom thou ignorantly worshippest. Thine alms have gone up before me, and therefore I come; but as thou hast hunted this stag, so will I hunt thee." Some indeed assert that the image, hanging between the deer's antlers, said these things. However that may be, Placidus filled with terror fell from his horse; and in about an hour returning to himself, arose from the earth and said, "Declare what thou wouldst have, that I may believe in thee." "I am Christ, O Placidus! I created heaven and earth; I caused the light to arise, and divided it from the darkness. I appointed days, and seasons, and years. I formed man out of the dust of the earth; and I became incarnate for the salvation of mankind. I was crucified and buried; and on the third day I rose again." When Placidus understood these sublime truths he fell again upon the earth, and exclaimed "I believe, O Lord, that thou hast done all this; and that thou art he who bringest back the wanderer." The Lord answered, "If thou believest this, go into the city and be baptized."
"Wouldst thou, O Lord, that I impart what has befallen me to my wife and children, that they also may believe?"
"Do so; tell them that they also may be cleansed from their iniquities. And do you, on the morrow, return hither, where I will appear again, and shew you more fully of the future."
Placidus, therefore, departed to his own home, and communicated all that had passed to his wife. But she too had had a revelation; and in like manner had been enjoined to believe in Christ, together with her children. So they hastened to the city of Rome, where they were entertained and baptized with great joy. Placidus was called Eustacius, and his wife, Theosbyta; the two sons, Theosbytus and Agapetus. In the morning Eustacius, according to custom, went out to hunt, and coming with his attendants near the place, he dispersed them, as if for the purpose of discovering the prey. Immediately the vision of yesterday re-appeared, and prostrating himself, he said—"I implore, thee, O Lord, to manifest thyself according to thy word."
"Blessed art thou, Eustacius, because thou hast received the laver of my grace, and thereby overcome the devil. Now hast thou trod him to dust, who beguiled thee. Now will thy fidelity appear; for the devil, whom thou hast deserted, will rage against thee in a variety of ways. Much must thou undergo ere thou possessest the crown of victory. Much must thou suffer from the dignified vanity of the world; and much from spiritual intolerance. Fail not, therefore; nor look back upon thy former condition. Thou must demonstrate thyself another Job; but from the very depth of thy humiliation, I will restore thee to the summit of earthly splendour. Choose then, whether thou wouldst prefer thy trials at the conclusion of life." Eustacius replied, "If it become me, O Lord, to be exposed to trials, let them presently approach; but do thou uphold me, and supply me with patient fortitude."
"Be bold, Eustacius: my grace shall support your souls." Saying thus, the Lord ascended into heaven. After which Eustacius returned home to his wife, and explained to her what had been decreed. In a few days, a pestilence carried off the whole of their men-servants and maid-servants; and before long the sheep, horses, and cattle, also perished. Robbers plundered their habitation, and despoiled them of every ornament; while he himself, together with his wife and sons, fled naked and in the deepest distress. But devoutly they worshipped God; and apprehensive of an Egyptian redness, (18) went secretly away. Thus were they reduced to utter poverty. The king and the senate, greatly afflicted with their general's calamities, sought for, but found not the slightest trace of him. In the mean time this unhappy family approached the sea; and finding a ship ready to sail they embarked in it. The master of the vessel observing that the wife of Eustacius was very beautiful, determined to secure her; and when they had crossed the sea, demanded a large sum of money for their passage, which, as he anticipated, they did not possess. Notwithstanding the vehement and indignant protestations of Eustacius, he seized upon his wife; and beckoning to the mariners, commanded them to cast the unfortunate husband headlong into the sea. Perceiving, therefore, that all opposition was useless, he took up his two children, and departed with much and heavy sorrow: "Merciful heaven," he exclaimed, as he wept over his bereaved offspring—"your poor mother is lost; and, in a strange land, in the arms of a strange lord, must lament her fate." Travelling along, he came to a river, the water of which ran so high, that it appeared hazardous in an eminent degree to cross with both the children at the same time: one, therefore he placed carefully upon the bank, and then passed over with the other in his arms. This effected, he laid it upon the ground, and returned immediately for the remaining child. But in the midst of the river accidentally glancing his eye back, he beheld a wolf hastily snatch up the child, and run with it into an adjoining wood. Half maddened at a sight so truly afflicting, he turned to rescue it from the destruction with which it was threatened; but at that instant a huge lion approached the child he had left; and seizing it presently disappeared. (19) To follow was useless; for he was in the middle of the water. Giving himself up, therefore, to his desperate situation, he began to lament and to pluck away his hair; and would have cast himself into the stream, had not Divine Providence preserved him.
Certain shepherds, however, observing the lion carrying off the child in his teeth, pursued him with dogs; and by the peculiar dispensation of heaven it was dropped unhurt. As for the other, some ploughman witnessing the adventure, shouted lustily after the wolf, and succeeded in liberating the poor victim from its jaws. Now it happened, that both the shepherds and ploughmen resided in the same village, and brought up the children amongst them. But Eustacius knew nothing of this, and his affliction was so poignant, that he was unable to control his complaints. "Alas!" he would say, "once I flourished like a luxuriant tree, but now I am altogether blighted. Once I was encompassed with military ensigns, and bands of armed men; now, I am a single being in the universe: I have lost all my children and every thing that I possessed. I remember, O Lord, that thou saidst, my trials should resemble Job's; behold they exceed them. For although he was destitute, he had a couch, however vile, to repose upon; I, alas! have nothing. He had compassionating friends; while I, besides the loss of my children, am left a prey to the savage beasts. His wife remained; but mine is forcibly carried off. Assuage my anguish, Lord! and place a bridle upon my lips, lest I utter foolishness, and stand up against thee." With such words, he gave free course to the fulness of his heart; and after much travel entered a village, where he abode. In this place he continued for fifteen years, as the hired servant of one of the villagers.
To return to the two boys. They were educated in the same neighbourhood, but had no knowledge of their consanguinity. And as for the wife of Eustacius, she preserved her purity, and suffered not the infamous usage which circumstances led her to apprehend. After some time her persecutor died.
In the mean while the Roman emperor was beset by his enemies, and recollecting how valiantly Placidus had behaved himself in similar straits, his grief at the deplorable mutation of fortune, was renewed. He despatched soldiers through various parts of the world in pursuit of them; and promised to the discoverer infinite rewards and honours. It happened that some of the emissaries, being of those who had attended upon the person of Placidus, came into the country in which he laboured, and one of them he recognized by his gait. The sight of these men brought back to the exile's mind the situation of wealth and honour which he had once possessed; and being filled with fresh trouble at the recollection—"O Lord!" he exclaimed, "even as beyond expectation I have seen these people again, so let me be restored to my beloved wife. Of my children I speak not; for I know too well that they are devoured by wild beasts." At that moment a voice whispered, "Be faithful, Eustacius, and thou wilt shortly recover thy lost honours, and again look upon thy wife and offspring." Now when the soldiers met Placidus they knew not who he was; and accosting him, they asked if he were acquainted with any foreigner named Placidus, with his wife and two sons. He replied in the negative, but requested that they would tarry in his house. Complying with his request he conducted them home, and waited on them. And here, as before, at the recollection of his former splendour, his tears flowed. Unable to contain himself, he went out of doors, and when he had washed his face he re-entered, and continued his service. By and by the appearance of their ancient master underwent a more exact scrutiny; and one said to the other, "Surely this man bears great resemblance to him we enquire after." "Of a truth," answered his companion, "you say well. Let us examine if he possess a sabre-mark on his head, which he received in action." They did so, and finding a scar which indicated a similar wound, they leaped up and embraced him, and inquired after his wife and sons. He related his adventures; and the neighbours coming in, listened with wonder to the account delivered by the soldiers of his military achievements and former magnificence. Then, obeying the command of the emperor, they clothed him in sumptuous apparel. On the fifteenth day they reached the imperial court; and the emperor, apprized of his coming, went out to meet him, and saluted him with great gladness. Eustacius related all that had befallen him; he was then invested with the command of the army, and restored to every office that he had held prior to his departure. He now therefore prepared with energy to encounter their enemies. He drew together from all parts the young men of the country; and it fell to the lot of the village where his own children were educated, to send two to the army; and these very youths were selected by the inhabitants as the best and bravest of their number. They appeared before the general; and their elegant manners, so much above their station, united to a singular propriety of conduct, won his esteem. He placed them in the van of his troops, and began his march against the enemy. Now the spot on which he pitched his tent was in the vicinity of his wife's abode; and, strange to say, the sons themselves, in the general distribution of the soldiers, were quartered with their own mother; but all the while ignorant with whom they were stationed.
About mid-day, the lads sitting together, related the various mutations to which their infancy had been subject; and the mother, who was at no great distance, became an attentive auditor. "Of what I was, while a child," said the elder of the brothers, "I remember nothing, except that my beloved father was a leader of a company of soldiers; and that my mother, who was very beautiful, had two sons, of whom I was the elder. We accompanied our parents from the habitation in which we had constantly resided, during the night, and embarking on board a vessel that immediately put to sea, sailed I know not whither. Our mother remained in the ship, but wherefore, I am also ignorant. In the meantime, our father carried my brother and myself in his arms, and me he left upon the nearer bank of a river, until he had conveyed the younger of us across. But no sooner had he accomplished his design, and was returning to my assistance, than a wolf darted from a thicket and bore him off in his mouth. Before he could hasten back to his succour, a prodigious lion seized upon me, and carried me into a neighbouring wood. Certain shepherds, however, observing the dangerous extremity to which I was reduced, delivered and educated me amongst them." The younger brother here burst into a flood of tears, and exclaimed, "Surely I have found my brother; for they who brought me up frequently declared that I was emancipated from the jaws of a wolf." The other acknowledged the probability of the relationship, and mutually exchanged embraces and congratulation. The mother, who listened, it may be well supposed, with intense interest to what was going forward, felt a strong conviction that they were her own children. She was silent, however: and the next day, went to the commander of the forces, and entreated permission to go into her own country. "I am a Roman woman," said she, "and a stranger in these parts." As she uttered these words, her eye fixed with an earnest and anxious gaze upon the countenance of him she addressed. It was her husband, whom she now for the first time recollected; and she threw herself at his feet unable to contain her joy. "My lord," cried the enraptured matron, "I entreat you to relate some circumstances of your past life; for unless I greatly mistake, you are Placidus, the master of the soldiery, since known by the name of Eustacius, whom our blessed Saviour converted, and tried by such and such temptations: I am his wife, taken from him at sea by a perfidious wretch, but who accomplished not his atrocious purposes. I had two sons, called Agapetus and Theosbytus." The tenor of these words recalled Eustacius to himself; time and sorrow had made much change in both, but the recognition was full of happiness. They embraced and wept; giving glory to God as the God of all consolation. The wife then observed, "My lord, what has become of our children?" "Alas!" replied he, "they were carried off by wild beasts;" and he repeated the circumstance of their loss. "Give thanks," said his wife, "give manifold thanks to the Lord; for as His Providence hath revealed our existence to each other, so will He give us back our beloved offspring." "Did I not tell you," returned he, "that wild beasts had devoured them?"
"True; but yesternight as I sat in the garden I overheard two young men relate the occurrences of their childhood, and whom I believe to be our sons. Interrogate them, and they will tell you."
Messengers were immediately despatched for this purpose, and a few questions convinced Eustacius of the full completion of his happiness. They fell upon each other's neck and wept aloud. It was a joyful occasion; and the whole army participated in the pleasure of their general: a splendid victory ensued. Previous to their return the emperor Trajan died, and was succeeded by Adrian, more wicked even than his predecessor. (20) However, he received the conqueror and his family with great magnificence, and sumptuously entertained them at his own table. But the day following the emperor would have proceeded to the temple of his idols to sacrifice, in consequence of the late victory; and desired his guests to accompany him. "My lord," said Eustacius, "I worship the God of the Christians; and Him only do I serve, and propitiate with sacrifice." Enraged at an opposition he had not contemplated, he placed the man who had freed Rome from a foreign yoke, with his whole family, in the arena, and let loose a ferocious lion upon them. But the lion, to the astonishment of all, held down his head before them, as if in reverence. On which the ungrateful emperor ordered a brazen ox to be fabricated, and heated to the highest degree. In this his victims were cast alive; but with prayer and supplication they commended themselves to the mercy of God, and three days after, being taken out of the furnace in the presence of the emperor, it appeared as if they had died tranquilly in bed. Not a hair of their heads was scorched, nor was there the smallest perceptible change, more than the easiest transition from life occasions. The Christians buried their corpses in the most honourable manner, and over them constructed an oratory. They perished in the first year of Adrian, A.D. 120, in the calends of November: or as some write, the 12th of the calends of October . (21)
My beloved, the emperor is Christ; Placidus, any worldly-minded man. The stags, are the senses. The large and beautiful stag is reason, it ascends a precipice, which is justice or rectitude. The horns, are the old and new law. The wife of Placidus is the soul; the two sons are the will, and the works of man. The master of the ship is a prelate, who would detain the soul from error; and the ship is the Church. The river is the world; the lion is the devil; and the wolf, the flesh. The shepherds are confessors, and the ploughmen, preachers. The messengers sent in pursuit of Placidus, represent the patriarchs and prophets.
- "Sir Placidas is the name of a knight in the Faerie Queene."—Warton.
- Something like this is told of Col. Gardener's singular reformation. See the account in the notes.
- This mystery one would have thought quite needless.
- A curious picture of the olden times!
- However inartificial the structure of this tale, it conveys an admirable moral. It teaches, that the eye of God is vigilant for the safeguard of mankind; and that in the darkest hour with which humanity can be visited, "all things are working together for good." But the tendency of the whole of these stories is unexceptionable.
Note 17.Page 100.
There is a surprising similarity in the marvellous conversion here spoken of, to that which is on record relative to Colonel Gardiner.
"This memorable event happened towards the middle of July, 1719; but I cannot be exact as to the day. The major had spent the evening (and, if I mistake not, it was the Sabbath,) in some gay company, and had an unhappy assignation with a married woman, of what rank or quality I did not particularly inquire, whom he was to attend exactly at twelve. The company broke up about eleven; and not judging it convenient to anticipate the time appointed, he went into his chamber to kill the tedious hour, perhaps with some amusing book, or some other way. But it very accidentally happened, that he took up a religious book, which his good mother or aunt had, without his knowledge, slipped into his portmanteau. It was called, if I remember the title exactly, The Christian Soldier, or Heaven taken by Storm; and was written by Mr. Thomas Watson. Guessing by the title of it that he should find some phrases of his own profession spiritualized in a manner which he thought might afford him some diversion, he resolved to dip into it; but he took no serious notice of any thing he read in it: and yet, while this book was in his hand, an impression was made upon his mind, (perhaps God only knows how), which drew after it a train of the most important and happy consequences.
"There is indeed a possibility, that while he was sitting in this attitude, and reading in this careless and profane manner, he might suddenly fall asleep, and only dream of what he apprehended he saw. But nothing can be more certain, than that, when he gave me this relation, he judged himself to have been as broad awake during the whole time as he ever was in any part of his life; and he mentioned it to me several times afterwards as what undoubtedly passed, not only in his imagination, but before his eyes.
"He thought he saw an unusual blaze of light fall on the book while he was reading, which he at first imagined might happen by some accident in the candle. But lifting up his eyes, he apprehended, to his extreme amazement, that there was before him, as it were, suspended in the air, a visible representation of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross, surrounded on all sides with a glory; and was impressed, as if a voice, or something equivalent to a voice, had come to him, to this effect, (for he was not confident as to the very words), 'Oh, sinner! did I suffer this for thee, and are these the returns?' But whether this were an audible voice, or only a strong impression on his mind equally striking, he did not seem very confident; though, to the best of my remembrance, be rather judged it to be the former. Struck with so amazing a phenomenon as this, there remained hardly any life in him; so that he sunk down in the arm-chair in which he sat, and continued, he knew not exactly how long, insensible, (which was one circumstance that made me several times take the liberty to suggest that he might possibly be all this while asleep.) But however that were, he quickly after opened his eyes, and saw nothing more than usual.
"It may easily be supposed he was in no condition to make any observation upon the time in which he had remained in an insensible state; nor did he, throughout all the remainder of the night, once recollect that criminal and detestable assignation which had before engrossed all his thoughts. He rose in a tumult of passions not to be conceived, and walked to and fro in his chamber, till he was ready to drop down, in unutterable astonishment and agony of heart, appearing to himself the vilest monster in the creation of God, who had all his lifetime been crucifying Christ afresh by his sins, and now saw, as he assuredly believed, by a miraculous vision, the horror of what he had done. With this was connected such a view both of the majesty and goodness of God, as caused him to loathe and abhor himself, and to repent as in dust and ashes. He immediately gave judgment against himself, that he was most justly worthy of eternal damnation. He was astonished that he had not been immediately struck dead in the midst of his wickedness: and (which I think deserves particular remark) though he assuredly believed that he should ere long be in hell, and settled it as a point with himself for several months, that the wisdom and justice of God did almost necessarily require that such an enormous sinner should be made an example of everlasting vengeance, and a spectacle as such both to angels and men, so that he hardly durst presume to pray for pardon; yet what he then suffered was not so much from the fear of hell, though he concluded it would soon be his portion, as from a sense of that horrible ingratitude he had shewn to the God of his life, and to that blessed Redeemer who had been in so affecting a manner set forth as crucified before him.—Doddridge's Life of Col. Gardener, p. 45, et seq.
Note 18.Page 104.
"Rubor Ægyptus,"—this I take to be the leprosy; which the following account from Pliny's Natural History seems to confirm.
"This disease also began, for the most part, in the face, and namely it took the nose, where it put forth a little specke, or pimple, no bigger than a small lentill; but soone after, as it spread farther, and ran over the whole bodie, a man should perceive the skin to be painted and spotted with divers and sundrie colours, and the same uneven, bearing out higher in one place than another, thicke here but thin there, and hard every where; rough also, like as if a scurfe or scab over-ran it, untill, in the end, it would grow to be blackish, bearing downe the flesh flat to the bones, whiles the fingers of the hands, and toes of the feet, were puffed up and swelled againe. A peculiar malady is this, and natural to the Ægyptians; but looke when any of their kings fell into it, woe worth the subjects and poore people, for there were the tubs and bathing vessels wherein they sate in the baine filled with men's blood for their cure." P. H. T. lib. xxvi. c. 2.
The leprosy was of different kinds, and that peculiar to the Ægyptians might, perhaps, wear a red appearance.
Note 19.Page 106.
The romance of "Sir Isumbras," in many respects corresponds with this story, and particularly with the striking incident detailed below.
"The knight, afflicted by Heaven in consequence of his sins, was met by a part of his household, who, with many tears, informed him that his horses and oxen had been suddenly struck dead with lightning, and that his capons were all stung to death with adders. He received the tidings with humble resignation, commanded his servants to abstain from murmurs against Providence, and passed on. He was next met by a page, who related that his castle was burned to the ground; that many of his servants had lost their lives; and that his wife and children had with great difficulty escaped from the flames. Sir Isumbras, rejoiced that Heaven had yet spared those who were most dear to him, bestowed upon the astonished page his purse of gold as a reward for the intelligence.
"A doleful sight then gan he see;
His wife and his children three
Out of the fire were fled:
There they sat, under a thorn,
Bare and naked as they were born,
Brought out of their bed.
A woeful man then was he,
When he saw them all naked be.
The lady said, all so blive,
'For nothing, sir, be ye adrad.'
He did off his surcote of pallade,
And with it clad his wife.
His scarlet mantle then shore he;
Therein he closed his children three
That naked before him stood.
"He then proposed to his wife, that as an expiation of their sins, they should instantly undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; and, cutting with his knife a sign of the cross on his shoulder, set off with the four companions of his misery, resolved to beg his bread till he should arrive at the holy sepulchre.
"After passing through 'seven lands,' supported by the scanty alms of the charitable, they arrived at length at a forest where they wandered during three days without meeting a single habitation. Their food was reduced to the few berries which they were able to collect; and the children, unaccustomed to such hard fare, began to sink under the accumulated difficulties of their journey. In this situation they were stopped by a wide and rapid though shallow river. Sir Isumbras, taking his eldest son in his arms, carried him over to the opposite bank, and placing him under a bush of broom, directed him to dry his tears, and amuse himself by playing with the blossoms till his return with his brother. But scarcely had he left the place when a lion, starting from a neighbouring thicket, seized the child, and bore him away into the recesses of the forest. The second son, became, in like manner, the prey of an enormous leopard; and the disconsolate mother, when carried over with her infant to the fatal spot, was with difficulty persuaded to survive the loss of her two elder children. Sir Isumbras, though he could not repress the tears extorted by this cruel calamity, exerted himself to console his wife, and, humbly confessing his sins, contented himself with praying that his present misery might be accepted by Heaven as a partial expiation.
"Through forest they went days three,
Till they came to the Greekish sea;
They grete, and were full wo!
As they stood upon the land,
They saw a fleet come sailand,
Three hundred ships and mo.
With top-castels set on-loft,
Richly then were they wrought,
With joy and mickle pride:
A heathen king was therein,
That Christendom came to win;
His power was full wide.
"It was now seven days since the pilgrims had tasted bread or meat; the soudan's galley, therefore, was no sooner moored to the beach than they hastened on board to beg for food. The soudan, under the apprehension that they were spies, ordered them to be driven back on shore; but his attendants observed to him that these could not be common beggars; that the robust limbs and tall stature of the husband proved him to be a knight in disguise; and that the delicate complexion of the wife, who was 'bright as blossom on tree,' formed a striking contrast to the ragged apparel by which she was very imperfectly covered. They were now brought into the royal presence; and the soudan, addressing Sir Isumbras, immediately offered him as much treasure as he should require, on condition that he should renounce Christianity, and consent to fight under the Saracen banners. The answer was a respectful but peremptory refusal, concluded by an earnest petition for a little food; but the soudan, having by this time turned his eyes from Sir Isumbras to the beautiful companion of his pilgrimage, paid no attention to this request;
"The soudan beheld that lady there,
Him thought an angel that she were,
Comen a-down from heaven:
'Man! I will give thee gold and fee,
An thou that woman will sellen me,
More than thou can neven.
I will thee given an hundred pound
Of pennies that ben whole and round,
And rich robes seven:
She shall be queen of my land;
And all men bow unto her hand;
And none withstand her steven'
Sir Isumbras said 'Nay!
My wife I will nought sell away,
Though ye me for her sloo!
I wedded her in Godis lay,
To hold her to mine ending day,
Both for weal and wo.'
"It evidently would require no small share of casuistry to construe this declaration into an acceptance of the bargain; but the Saracens, having heard the offer of their sovereign, deliberately counted out the stipulated sum on the mantle of Sir Isumbras; took possession of the lady; carried the knight with his infant son on shore; beat him till he was scarcely able to move; and then returned for further orders."—Specimens of E. E. Rom. V. 111.
This accordance of Sir Isumbras with the tale in the Gesta has not been noticed by Mr. Ellis.
Note 20.Page 114.
Neither Trajan nor Adrian deserve this character; but the former is vilely slandered.
Note 21.Page 116.
This story is found in Caxton's Golden Legend, and in the metrical Lives of the Saints.
- Palata, Lat. Paletot, O. Fr. sometimes signifying a particular stuff, and sometimes a particular dress. See Du Cange.