St. Pelagius, the Spanish Hostage
"He that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
Our LORD JESUS CHRIST tells of the great feast and of the guests assembled for the banquet. One man, thinking himself of some importance, took his seat among the higher places. The Master of the house saw him, and bade him yield to one worthier than himself. Another guest had humbly taken his seat in the lowest place: to him the Master said, "Friend, go up higher."
A boy was once sent to take the place of a man in a prison because the man was accounted of more importance than the child. But it was the child who was bidden, "Friend, go up higher," in the kingdom of his LORD.
In Cordova, in Southern Spain, the sun was shining brightly on mosque and minaret, on humble dwellings of the poor and on the palace of the king. At last its rays pierced a narrow prison-window far down one of the long corridors of the royal dwelling, and waked a boy who was sleeping there. He stirred uneasily on his hard bed, sighed, and sat up. Chains jangled on his wrists as he turned lovingly to the young sunlight dancing on the wall. It was only in the first hours of morning that he could see it.
He was thirteen years old, a Spanish boy of great beauty, beauty wonderful still in spite of his thinness and the pallor consequent on a long imprisonment. As he knelt by his bed in his poor discoloured garments, made the sign of the Cross, and began his prayers with the sunbeams crowning him with ruddy glory, it would have been difficult to find in all Cordova a fairer creature than in that prison-cell.
As a prison, considering the times—for this was in A.D. 925, under the Moorish dominion in Spain—the cell was, perhaps, not so bad. It is true that it was small, not over-clean, and possessing but one window, barred and high up in the wall over the young captive's head. He himself was poorly fed, poorly clad, and fettered. Still, he had, to a certain degree, air and light, and Abdurrahman, King of Cordova, had, underground, worse dungeons for those who had offended him. This child had not done that. He was here, himself innocent, as a Christian hostage, and security to the king for the good faith and behaviour of some one else, who was free; and he would have to pay, not with his liberty alone, but even with his young life, if the person whom he represented were to be found guilty of any treachery or broken word to Abdurrahman.
Three years before, in the contests between the Moors and the Christians in Gallicia, the Christians were on one occasion defeated, and a bishop, named Hermoygius, taken prisoner by Abdurrahman, who carried him in chains to Cordova and imprisoned him there.
Now Hermoygius did not like to be in prison, and he was also anxious for the welfare of his flock. He entered into terms with Abdurrahman. Hermoygius had a young cousin, named Pelagius, and the bishop offered him as hostage, while he himself returned to his people, either to raise ransom-money or to effect an exchange of prisoners. The king agreed, the child was handed over, and the bishop set free. The latter hoped soon to have the ransom-money, and meanwhile his freedom seemed of more importance than that of a little boy of no more use in the affairs and issues at stake in the great world than thousands of other little boys. Only, "The last shall be first!"
Meanwhile, three years had passed. During those weary months the Christian boy languished in the Mohammedan prison, for—by what oversight it is not known—the ransom never came, nor did Hermoygius return to free the little hostage. Pelagius was now thirteen, pale, and weary, and weak from those wearing years of captivity. How long the days seemed! In the morning he waked to wonder it that day would set him free. In the evening he humbly prayed that, if it was GOD'S will, he might come forth to-morrow into the sunshine. As the weeks dragged on and no answer was vouchsafed he strove patiently to endure, bearing no resentment against Hermoygius, believing that at last the ransom would surely come.
Patience, Pelagius! Your prayers are heard, and you are soon to be free, soon to go home in triumph. How boundless that freedom shall be, how unspeakably august that triumph you have no idea.
On this morning of his life, when he had said his prayers and set his cell in order, he sat down to wait till his food might be brought him. Presently he heard in the corridor the rattling of bolts, and then a step at his door. Pelagius looked up with genuine pleasure to greet his jailer, for the man who had had charge of him during the last six months had been really kind to him, adding what he could to his food, and even a few times allowing him to stretch his limbs in the low, long corridor between the cell and the jailer's quarters.
The door was opened, and a sturdy Moor entered. "Good news at last, Pelagius!" he cried; "thou art to go before the king to-day!"
The prisoner sprang up with a glad shout.
"Then the ransom has come?" he asked—" Oh, Abdullah, that is good news indeed!"
"I know not about the ransom," answered the man, as he took the boy's face between his hands and turned it to the light, to scan it, feature by feature.
"But all my talking and my reports about thy beauty—and thou art most beautiful, not all thy prison life has spoilt thee—has come at last to the ears of the king. Abdurrahman returned here last night, and the governor spoke to him of thee. He remembers all about thee, and would see thee. So, no doubt, thy fortune is made, for he cannot fail to be pleased with thee."
"Thou thinkest so?" asked the prisoner a little anxiously. He was disappointed about the ransom, and his heart did so yearn for the certainty of freedom.
"Fear not," said Abdullah; "he likes a handsome boy, and there is none like thyself here—not even Prince Selim. He will free thee. When thou art of liberty, thou wilt speak a word in my favour? Thou wilt say that I treated thee kindly?"
"Indeed, I will, dear Abdullah," said Pelagius gaily, catching the unaffected good-humour of the man; "thou hast been more than kind." He stretched out his hand impulsively—"May CHRIST reward thee!"
The Mohammedan's face darkened for a moment as he heard that Name; but he truly loved the little prisoner, Christian though he was, and wished him well.
"Just so, just so," he murmured, turning aside; "yet, Pelagius, if thou wilt do well to-day, let there be no such talk as that before Abdurrahman. Now I must leave thee awhile. Here is water, and a white robe of my Hafid, who is about thy age, and a red sash, for thou must not spoil thy beauty with faded rags; and I have brought a little wine with thy food, to put heart into thee. I shall come back soon, that thou mayest see the king before the afternoon."
It is not needful to say that Pelagius was ready by the time his jailer returned. The white dress suited his dark beauty. His eyes sparkled with excitement. The jailer scanned him carefully, and noted with satisfaction the delicate flush that hope had brought into his usually pale cheeks. There was no doubt that he would please the king.
Pelagius could hardly wait while the door was unfastened. It seemed to him, though the fetters were still on his wrists, that he was already free. They went along the corridor (Abdullah meanwhile prattling about the magnificence and kindness of Abdurrahman), through two or three rooms, up a staircase, and out through an arcade of the most wonderful columns to a terrace overlooking the garden.
PELAGIUS HELD FORTH HIS CHAINED HANDS.
Pelagius stopped entranced. To him it was like coming into Paradise. Over his head stretched the deep blue sky; round the horizon, beyond the stately piled-up domes and minarets, lay the snowy girdle of "the everlasting hills," and at his feet the king's rose-garden. There it stretched, lawns, and bowers, and fountains; and, around and over everything, a thousand thousand roses—white, pink, yellow, blood-red, and purple-black, they lifted their dewy heads to the sky. Pelagius, his eyes tear-dimmed, held forth his chained hands towards their beauty and their perfume. Oh, to go down among them, to bury his face in their sweetness, to pluck them in great handfuls, to weave a wreath for his head, and tread the fallen petals of yesterday with his feet! Well, perhaps that very afternoon he might be allowed to walk there if the king was as kind as Abdullah said.
He was reluctant to turn away, when the jailer suggested that they should hurry on to the royal presence; but, with his eyes still turned towards the rose-garden, he suffered himself to be led along the terrace to a doorway opening into a lofty and splendid hall. Here he found himself in the presence of Abdurrahman.
No formal court was being held that day. The king sat at the other end of the hall, on an eminence raised a couple of steps above the level of the floor; some of his courtiers were with him. He himself and most of the elder men there wore the green turbans denoting that they had made the pilgrimage to their holy city, Mecca. A few boys, sons of the king and his nobles, and some slaves were also present; and, though Pelagius did not know it, behind the "grille "high in the wall under the farther arch, the ladies and slaves of the royal harem were peeping curiously down to see the handsome captive, the account of whose good looks had penetrated also to them.
Abdurrahman was not in the best of humours. He was irritated at the bishop's conduct, and at what he reasonably considered his bad faith in leaving a mere child in place of his valuable self, and never sending the ransom. But his wrath had been mollified by the accounts of the boy's beauty and his own curiosity to see him; and, as Pelagius was led in, the king bent forward to scan him with a look of genuine pleasure on his dark features.
Pelagius stood before the king (unaware that the murmur that greeted him was one of admiration for himself), respectfully yet fearlessly. The gentle courage of his bearing pleased Abdurrahman even more than his beauty. He had heard too of the boy's uncomplaining patience during his imprisonment. He turned to the jailer.
"Take off his chains," he commanded quickly.
The fetters were unfastened, and Pelagius shot a look of gratitude at his master.
"Come up here to me," continued Abdurrahman.
Pelagius ascended the steps to the side of the king's seat. Abdurrahman placed his hands on the boy's shoulders, carefully looking at him feature by feature, and turning him from side to side. Evidently he was well pleased, for a smile of satisfaction broadened on his face.
"They certainly did not lie, who said thou wast of uncommon beauty," he remarked. "See him!" and he turned Pelagius, still holding him by the shoulders, to the nobles, till the boy did not know where to look for embarrassment. "Selim, come here."
When one of the young princes, perhaps a littlejealous in his heart of this handsome stranger, stepped up, the king made the children stand back to back, and noted with satisfaction their equal height, though the Spaniard was a year younger than the Moor.
The king again drew Pelagius to him.
"And thou wilt prefer to be my page, rather than go back a prisoner to thy cell?" he asked smiling.
"Oh, sire," replied Pelagius, his eyes alight with gratitude, "I will be a good servant to thee, in return for thy kindness. I have so longed to be free!" and he looked, with a sigh, at the marks of the chains on the wrists that lay now, white and slender, in the dark grasp of the Moorish king.
"Thou hast been badly enough treated!" cried Abdurrahman, his resentment and his pride flashing out anew against Hermoygius. "Thy rascally bishop has dealt ill with thee, and with me too, in saving his own skin scot-free, and leaving a child in payment. Only, thou art a very handsome child," he added in more contented tones.
"Do not speak so, sire," Pelagius said boldly; "the good bishop meant no harm. The ransom will surely come at last. Besides, he was bound, if possible, as thou thyself wouldest be, to return as soon as he could to his people, who needed him."
"Well, well," replied Abdurrahman, not so ill-pleased, for, after all, loyalty was not a bad attribute; "we will let that pass. So thou wilt enter my service!" He pushed the hair back from Pelagius's forehead, and looked into his wide, glad eyes. "We will make a page of thee, and thou canst be the companion of my sons. We will train thee up in arms. Who knows, too, if thy people will ever claim thee? We may even, a few years later, for so handsome a boy find a well-born fair maid who will take thee gladly enough for a husband."
He was just about to call his slaves to lead Pelagius to a room of his own, and to see that he had all he needed, when a man, standing near the king—a man who wore the Mecca turban, and had a fierce, cruel face, and had looked, from the first, with scarcely veiled disfavour on the young Spaniard—bent down and whispered a few words in the king's ear.
Abdurrahman heard, and nodded in recollection, with a gesture he recalled Pelagius.
"One moment," he said, "I had forgotten. There is one little thing thou must first do for me. Poor child, thou art an infidel. We will teach thee better. Thine own folk, too, have not been so thoughtful of thee as to make thee cling to them. We only ask that thou shouldest deny thy CHRIST, and acknowledge our Mohammed."
As a sudden hushed silence fell on the crowd, Pelagius knew which King it was to Whose Presence he was summoned.
When we read of the glorious martyrs, we think and rightly, first of those white robes, unfading palms, and shining crowns, that they have for ever in heaven; and perhaps, sometimes, too little of what it cost to win them. Yet the mortal flesh may have shrunk from the torment; and the mortal eyes, darkened in physical anguish, may have failed, for a moment, to see clearly the everlasting crown. Pelagius had, as he thought, found a happy freedom. He saw instead, before his very feet, the waters of the red sea of martyrdom. Death? Liberty? He remembered the king's rose-garden—could almost smell the sweetness of it. For a moment the hall was dim before him. Then he fell back from the king's side, and in the stillness, with a little catching of his breath, he answered slowly and quite clearly,
"I can never do that."
There was a movement of surprise in the hall, and a smile of satisfaction woke on the face of the Mohammedan who had whispered to Abdurrahman. As for the latter, he seemed hardly able to believe his ears.
"Is the boy mad?" he exclaimed; then, turning to him, continued, "Pelagius, come, be reasonable. All that is asked of thee is to repeat a few words, to satisfy us. We will be content with that for the present. Then thou shalt be advanced in honour among us, free, and loved as one of my own sons. Come, now—and remember," he added sternly, "that I have power not only over thy liberty, but over thy life."
"There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet."
Pelagius knew that if he would but say those few words once, the king would be satisfied. But that meant to deny CHRIST. True, that, as far as he knew, no fellow Christian would witness his denial. Even if he were at last claimed by his own people, they need never know of his momentary apostasy. But—his holy guardian angel stood at his side, the blessed ones in heaven leaned towards him over the golden barrier, and CHRIST Himself blessed him with hands pierced for his sake, and bade him be a faithful servant. He lifted brave eyes to the king.
"I will, indeed, be true to thee and obedient in all else," he answered; "but first, I am CHRIST'S. Nothing may part me from Him."
"Silly child," exclaimed Abdurrahman, "dost thou not think that I have means at hand to force thee to comply. Better yield now, with a good grace, than crawl into my favour later after torture."
Pelagius stood silent. A mutter woke in the crowd. The Mohammedans who had been so ready to praise Pelagius's beauty saw in him now only the hated Christian. Abdurrahman watched him under lowering brows. Then the boy Selim strode up to him and, with a mocking laugh, struck him on the cheek with such violence that he staggered. The hot Spanish blood boiled under the insult, as Pelagius recovered himself, and for a second or two he faced his tormenter with clenched fists. He was the stronger, he knew, and something within him whispered that, if he revenged himself swiftly, he would not fare the worse in his captor’s sight. But only for a moment—then he turned away, and, stretching out his arms almost exultantly towards the lofty, sun-lit dome, he cried aloud,—
"I am a Christian, and believe in CHRIST. CHRIST I will never deny."
The green-turbaned man laughed.
"He mocks you," he said in the king’s ear: "the Spaniard mocks you, as his friend the bishop did, in His Christian insolence."
He touched Abdurrahman on his weakest spot—his pride, a pride already hurt by the conduct of Hermoygius. The king clutched the arms of his chair in anger. He had suffered enough at the bishop’s hands. Should this boy too, here, in his own palace—a boy whom he wished to befriend and to place, as a companion, with his sons; a boy to whom he had openly offered all these advantages—should this youngster defy him to his face and shout aloud the Name of his CHRIST, as though the king’s command and the king’s power of life and death went for nothing?
His face darkened with wrath. The beauty of Pelagius was forgotten. What Abdurrahman saw before him was only a hateful Spanish Christian dog.
Turning aside he struck the gong that stood near him. A slave entered.
"Summon the executioner at once," he commanded, and leant back in his chair. He would demean himself no more by speaking to the ungrateful boy.
Pelagius heeded nothing. His hour of trial had come upon him so suddenly, and he was praying with all the strength of his soul that he might endure to the end.
The executioner came—a burly negro, with knotted hands and a cruel smile. Abdurrahman nodded towards the prisoner.
"Take him out," he said shortly, "and hang him up by his wrists till the pain forces him to deny his CHRIST."
The negro laid his hands on the slender boy, and dragged him from the room. Some of the king's attendants hurried after them to see what was done. Abdurrahman sat silent and immovable, waiting, with rage in his heart. But nothing happened, and no cry came from beyond the doorway.
The minutes crept on, and the long, still silence seemed to grow heavy. At last the negro came back. "He has fainted," he said.
Abdurrahman stood up angrily.
"Revive him, and bring him here," he replied.
The executioner carried the little white-clad figure in, and laid him on the ground. His arms fell limply apart, and a trickle of blood from the rope-galled wrists stained the bright marble: but his eyes were uplifted and his lips smiled. Abdurrahman strode over to him.
"Once more, and for the last time," he said, "infidel and ungrateful as thou art, I give thee another chance. Happy freedom, honour, my favour and protection—or death. Choose!"
"I have chosen," replied the boy firmly, turning away his head. "CHRIST!"
The king scowled sullenly at the little victim.
"Take him away," said Abdurrahman; "cut off his hands and feet and throw him into the river."
With a nod to his nobles to follow him, he left the hall.
They carried Pelagius—for he was too weak to walk—to the terrace, and down the steps and through the rose-garden to a gate opening on to the river. As the perfume of the flowers breathed on his faintness, he smiled a little, remembering how, a few hours ago, he had longed to be among the fragrant buds and blossoms, whilst he had wondered whether the king would be pleased with him. His captors marked the glory that grew and shone in his eyes. The martyr knew that his King would be pleased with him—"Well done, thou good and faithful servant; . . . enter thou into the joy of thy LORD."
An hour or so later, while Abdurrahman sat at table, the negro sent in word to him that his commands had been carried out.
So Pelagius was set free and brought home in triumph at last. And instead of walking in the rose-garden of Abdurrahman, the Moorish King of Cordova, he walks by the River of Life in the unfading garden of the King of kings, and is crowned for ever with the roses of martyrdom.