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Tarpeian Rock

An Annual Literary Magazine

"Hinc ad Tarpeiam sedem et Capitolia ducit
aurea nunc, olim siluestribus horrida dumis."

                    --Virgil's Aeneid, VIII, l. 347-8
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Agnella and Her Nurse

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Agnella and Her Nurse

by John Mason Neale

In the early 4th century AD, the Roman emperor Diocletian declared an empire-wide persecution of that most despised sect known as the Christians. Though thousands of Christians were put to torture and death during this time, many more existed in secret.

Following is an exceprt from The Daughters of Pola, a novella written in the form of letters among the characters. In this passage, we see the main character, a noble Roman girl named Agnella, confiding a most strange experience to her beloved friend, Correlia.

Agnella to her darling Corellia, Health.
     I have just heard from my father—O happy tidings!—that I am to spend some time with you, and that we set forth on the 7th of the Kalends. But I had rather tell you my secret by letter than by word of mouth: for indeed, by word, I do not think that I could summon courage to speak it.
     You have heard me talk to you of my poor old nurse, Apollonia, the same who, while you were with me, went to the More. She had been ill for four months. Several times I saw her in her illness, and ever I marvelled at her great patience, and, I had almost said, happiness. In such miserable, worn-out, poor old age, it seemed to me little less than magic that she should always be so cheerful, so grateful for any little present, so ready to hear every matter about her old family, quite forgetting her own sufferings, even as if they were those of a stranger. I often asked her how she could so bear up under her sorrow, but never could get any other answer than this, “You shall know before I die.” Once I saw in her room, though but for one moment, a most pleasing old man, so gentle, so friendly, who seemed to be comforting her to his best of power. I asked who he was, and still the same answer—“You shall know, lady, before I die.”
     Two days—now it comes, darling. Do not hate me, pet. Do not despise me—two days before you came, I went again to her miserable room, leaving Agathodorus below. She was stretched, as usual, on her wretched sack, a bundle of straw forming her pillow, and now clearly near death, her poor hands folded on her breast, her breath laboring, and by her side was this good man.
     “Oh nurse!” I said, and I could not help bursting into tears.
     “Do not weep for me, little lamb,” she replied; “and I will tell you why not. But if I do, will you keep my secret till the breath is out of my body?”
     “Surely, dear nurse, I will.”
     “You may trust her, father. Now read to her and to me once more the story about—” I did not catch the name.
     In a very sweet voice, but with a slightly foreign accent, he read a most lovely story about a beggar who lay at a rich man’s gate, himself full of sores and desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from that man’s table; how the dogs licked his sores; how then he died. You will say, “Nothing much in that. What then?” He went on to say that he was carried by messengers into the bosom of one of the gods, and how the rich man died and was buried, and woke up in Tartarus, and there asked for one drop of water to cool his tongue, and there was none to give it him, and how the poor beggar was comforted, but he tormented.
     “Who wrote that?” I asked.
     The old man paused a moment, and then said, “Christ.”
     Then it flashed on me that they were Christians. “Oh, nurse, nurse! How can you? How can you? Oh, what will become of you and of me?”
     “Become of me?” she said. “Why, by God’s goodness, in a few hours I shall be where that poor beggar now is. And there, sweet lamb, I want you to be.”
     “Never! Never! Worship an ass’s head? Never!”
     “My child,” said the old man, “someday you will learn, I hope, that we do none of these wicked things that are imputed to us, that we worship none but God and His only Son, our Lord, with Whom your dear nurse is soon going to live.”
     I could not help being struck by his words, and could only cry.
     “Come nearer to me, darling. Pet, this is what I have always meant to tell you, and to ask you before I go. You have wondered that I should be so happy. You knew the worship of your gods could not make me so, but because I put my whole trust in Jesus Christ—”
     “But He was a crucified wretch,” said I.
     “Father, forgive her,” said the old man, very softly, “she knows not what she says.”
     “He was crucified,” said Apollonia. “He bore all I bear, and a thousand-fold more, and for that very reason I love Him and trust Him, and shall soon, I hope, be with Him. Father, you will pray for her ?”
     “I will,” he said.
     “How long have you been a Christian, nurse?”
     “Four years.”
     Then came on a paroxysm of hard breathing, and I thought she was going. But she recovered, and then said, “Now you must not stay, and you will not see me again. But I hope you will see the priest.”
     “No, no,” I answered. “I hope so, and if of His goodness I ever enter into rest, I will not cease to pray for you. I must not trust you with his dwelling, but—”
     “But, lady,” said he, “if God shall touch your heart and you ever do desire to see me, you have but to leave a written message in this very room. I know I am putting myself somewhat in your power, but I believe that I may trust you. At all events, I will trust you, and I am sure that, at least while your nurse lives, you will do nothing which could injure her.”
     “So far I promise you,” I said, “for though I hate your religion and hate Christ, you shall never have to complain that I betrayed any one who put confidence in me.” And so I bade Apollonia farewell, and went home with Agathodorus. Somehow, what I had seen made a great impression on me, even while you were there, and more so when I heard that the poor thing was dead. I could not help particularly remembering the story of the beggar that was carried by the messengers into the bosom of the gods. But since you have left us, something much more wonderful has happened. First I must tell you how it began.
     My father had given a great supper at the new stibadium which you admired. As he generally wishes, I was there, and sat between him and Marcus Terentius, who has come over here on some business from the Augustus. It was a long tedious business—from the eggs to the apples must have been at least four hours—and there was a stupid poet who stood at the bottom of the table and read a panegyric on my father, and had some of the broken meat given him afterwards.


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     Well, at last it was over, and I was very glad to find myself in my own room that looks into the garden, and to send Glycerium away when she had let down my tower. I sat down before the window that you and I have so often looked out of. It was a dark night, a soft, hazy, perfumed, spring night, everything was quite quiet, except the croaking of frogs a long way off. And the night breeze brought in all the thousand scents of our garden, and blew so pleasantly on me after the heat and turmoil of our party. I know not how long I had been looking out of the window at nothing. My lamp burnt out, and still I sat on, thinking in a dreamy way of our banquet, and the mullet that my father had been vexed with, because it died directly after it was set on the table, and the rich man that went to Tartarus, and the dogs that licked the poor beggar’s sores. Well, all on a sudden (I cannot tell you how I could see in the dark, but so it was) Apollonia seemed to stand between me and the window. It was she, and yet it was not. The features were the same, only so much younger, and so beautiful, and she was dressed, not in the rags in which I last saw her, nor yet in the nurse-fashion in which I can remember her when I was a child, but in a most glorious white garment, which shone as if it were gold. And she had the sweetest smile on her lips that I ever saw, and either she said, or I fancied it, “I told you I would pray for you, and I have.” And then it was all dark again.
     You will think, my darling, that I must have lost my senses, and sometimes I think so myself. But yet I cannot tell you how this comes back and back upon me. I am sure that you will keep what I have written a secret, for my father would be grievously angry if he thought that I had had any communication with those Christians. But to go on, there was no sleep for me that night. I had a great mind to call back Glycerium, only I did not well know what excuse to make for asking her to stay with me, and so I lay hour after hour till after daybreak. The next morning, my father enquired, as well he might, if I were ill. And that was the beginning, I think, of his wanting to send me to you. Now before I leave home, let me have one little letter, just to say that you do not think me mad and that you do not love me the less. Farewell.
     From Pola, the 9th of the Kalends.

John Mason Neale (1818-1866) was a renowned scholar and Anglican priest of the Oxford Movement. Due to his love for Christian antiquity and his affinity for Catholic practices, he was suspected as an “agent of Popery” and persecuted. The Daughters of Pola was one of numerous novels he penned that is set in the days of the early Christian martyrs.


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