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Music the Conqueror by James Huneker

 

The hot hush of noon was stirred into uneasy billows by the shuffling of sandals over marble porches; all Rome sped to the spectacle in the circus. A brave day, the wind perfumed, a hard blue sky, the dark shadows cool and caressing and in the breeze a thousand-colored canopies fainted and fluttered. The hearts of the people on the benches were gay, for Diocletian, their master, had baited the trap with Christians; living, palpitating human flesh was to be sacrificed and the gossips spoke in clear, crisp sentences as they enumerated the deadly list, dwelling upon certain names with significant emphasis. This multitude followed with languid interest the gladiatorial displays, the chariot races; even a fierce duel between two yellow-haired barbarians evoked not a single cry. Rome was in a killing mood: thumbs were not often upturned. The imperial one gloomed as he sat high in his gold and ivory tribune. His eyes were sullen with satiety, his heart flinty.

As the afternoon waned the murmurs modulated clamorously and a voice shrilled forth, “Give us the Christians!” The cry was taken up by a thundrous chorus which chaunted alternately the antiphonies of hate and desire until the earth trembled. And Diocletian smiled.

The low doors of the iron cages adjoining the animals opened, and a dreary group of men, women, children were pushed to the centre of the arena; a half million of eyes, burning with anticipation, watched them. Shouts of disappointment, yells of disgust arose. To the experts the Christians did not present promise of a lasting fight with the lions. The sorry crew huddled with downcast looks and lips moving in silent prayer as they awaited the animals. In the onslaught nothing could be heard but the snarls and growls of the beasts. A whirlwind of dust and blood, a brief savage attack of keepers armed with metal bars heated white, and the lions went to their cages, jaws dripping and bellies gorged. The sand was dug, the bored spectators listlessly viewing the burial of the martyrs' mangled bones; it was all over within the hour.

Rome was not yet satisfied and Diocletian made no sign. Woefully had the massacre of the saints failed to please the palate of the populace. So often had it been glutted with butcheries that it longed for more delicate devilries, new depths of death. Then a slim figure clad in clinging garments of pure white was led to the imperial tribune and those near the Emperor saw him start as if from a wan dream. Her bronze-hued hair fell about her shoulders, her eyes recalled the odor of violets; and they beheld the vision of the Crucified One. She was a fair child, her brow a tablet untouched by the stylus of sin.

The populace hungered. Fresh incense was thrown on the brazier of coals glowing before the garlanded statue of Venus as flutes intoned a languorous measure. A man of impassive priestly countenance addressed her thrice, yet her eyes never wandered, neither did she speak. She thus refused to worship Venus, and angered at the insult offered to the beautiful foe of chastity, Rome screamed and hooted, demanding that she be given over to the torture. Diocletian watched.

A blare of trumpets like a brazen imprecation and the public pulse furiously pounded, for a young man was dragged near the Venus. About his loins a strip of linen, and he was goodly to see—slender, olive-skinned, with curls clustering over a stubborn brow; but his eyes were blood-streaked and his mouth made a blue mark across his face. He stared threateningly at Diocletian, at the multitude cynically anticipating the punishment of the contumacious Christians.

Sturdy brutes seized the pair, but they stood unabashed, for they saw open wide the gates of Paradise. And Diocletian's eyes were a deep black. Urged by rude hands maid and youth were bound truss-wise with cords. Then the subtile cruelty caught the mob's fancy. This couple, once betrothed, had been separated by their love for the Son of Galilee. She looked into his eyes and saw there the image of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. He moistened his parched lips. The sun blistered their naked skins and seemed to laugh at their God, while the Venus in her cool grot sent them wreathéd smiles, bidding them worship her and forget their pale faith. And the two flutes made dreamy music that sent into the porches of the ear a silvery, feverish mist. Breathless the lovers gazed at the shimmering goddess. The vast, silent throng questioned them with its glance. Suddenly they were seen to shudder, and Diocletian rose to his feet rending his garments. In the purple shadows of the amphitheatre a harsh, prolonged shout went up.

That night at his palace the Master of the World would not be comforted. And the Venus was carried about Rome; great was the homage accorded her. In their homes the two flute players, who were Christians, wept unceasingly; well they knew music and its conquering power for evil.

 
 
 

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