Roses of Martyrdom - C. M. Cresswell

A Child-Martyr of Corsica

The name of the little saint of this story has probably never come to the ears of most people, though she also was found worthy of the crown of martyrdom. The "noble army of martyrs "has countless soldiers in its ranks, more than can be numbered, known and unknown to us, though their names stand in the Book of Life and are known, one and all, to Him for Whom they died. Martyrs there are who suffered before the watching world; martyrs also on whose lonely agony no eyes looked save their tormentors'—and His; and what more than the latter Witness did they desire? Many are the blessed ones who died in fullest courage, as though pain was not; and many are the blessed ones who triumphed no less gloriously, through fear and trembling, when the crown and palm seemed lost in mortal darkness, and they held fast, they knew not how. Now, if they at all remember the pain and fear, they smile to know it was He Who upheld them, as we, in our great weakness, pray that He may uphold us.

One spring morning a little girl was playing in the atrium of a house in one of the towns of Corsica, playing as happily and thoughtlessly as any child who reads this may play any day of his or her life. It was a very pretty atrium, with its tiny blue-tiled pond in the middle, where gold-fish swam among lily and iris-stems, and where a jet of water flowed from a column with the head of a Hermes above it. The atrium was paved in grey and blue, and the walls beneath the colonnade were painted with little Cupids, brewing, baking, hunting, like those which may be seen in the house of the Vettii, at Pompeii. Above these, on a black ground, were graceful, floating female figures. The court opened on one side on a tiny garden, where grew some flowers and an orange-tree in a tub. Against the farther wall stood a shrine, also very tiny (to suit the miniature garden over which it presided), inlaid with bright blue mosaics, its little red roof, supported by two columns, sheltering a bronze god.

The little girl matched in charm and delicate simplicity this dainty realm where she evidently ruled like a fairy queen. She was about twelve, with soft brown hair, falling round her sweet little face to her waist. Her eyes were as blue as the Corsican sky, her arms and feet bare, except for a bracelet or two, and white sandals, fastened with amethysts set in gold. She wore a white dress, reaching to her ankles, girdled with a gold belt, and partly covered with a short outer robe of palest pansy mauve. To-day she had also made herself a wreath of pansies of the same colour, from the garden. She had a thin gold chain round her neck, the end of which was hidden under her dress. What lay concealed there was a gold cross—perhaps a strange ornament to be worn in those days by the child of a house that had a Hermes in its courtyard and a bronze god in its garden shrine.

White doves flew all about her, or pecked at the grain her hands had just scattered for them; whilst she trailed a white lily over the pavement among the tame, scuffling feeders, playfully tickling their snowy backs or little red legs, as they pecked away, quite undisturbed. Her bright laughter rang out merrily in the silence. She looked like some one's spoilt, pretty pet, the darling of the whole household.

A man had come into the atrium, stepping from the street over the salve and cave canem pavement of the entrance-passage. He had pulled back the curtain over the door, and, for a minute, before she noticed him, watched the happy child in her white dress amid the flutter of silver wings and the eager, hungry birds. As the curtain fell back, the little girl turned and saw him. With a glad shout she dropped the lily and sprang towards him, to leap into his arms, kiss him again and again, and to stroke his grizzled hair and beard with her hands.

"Dear uncle," she cried; "Uncle Eutyches, come back again at last."

"My little Devota," he said fondly, kissing her lips, and eyes, and soft cheeks, scanning her face lovingly and tenderly, yet, at the same time, with a fear so terrible and anxious that she could not help noticing it.

"Now you are in trouble," she said, half teasingly; "that is not good—to come back so grave when you have been away so long. What is it?—may I know?"

He looked at her in silence, before he spoke, his eyes fixed almost hungrily on her sweetness, as though he could not bear to think of a hair of her head being injured, and his hands closed over the little childish fingers till he almost hurt them. At last he answered—"When I landed to-day, after coming from Gaul, I learnt that the edict against the Christians had just reached here also."

Then—for child as she was, she knew what that meant—she too turned just a little pale, while one hand, loosed from his, tremblingly, yet with sweetest instinctive trust, crept to her breast where the cross hung. She stood quite still and waited for him to speak again.

"There is no doubt that the news is true," he continued, "for the crew of our boat spoke with the crew of the legate's boat as we lay off the harbour. So the dreadful business is to begin here also. The old gods—if they be gods—at least they are mine—will shield me well enough. But you, dear!—by Jupiter, when I think—," and he broke off and his eyes darkened.

She drew a little closer to him, in love and pity for his distress; and he looked away from her, as he added, half-ashamed, "I suppose it would not be possible for you—here, privately, perhaps?—the matter of a mere outward form of sacrifice—"

"Hush!" she spoke quickly and firmly enough now. "You never have said that to me—never, since I was brought here to you, when only a little child. Least of all, say it now, uncle dear."

He looked at her sadly.

"As you will, Devota. After all, I would not be unfaithful to the promise given to your dying parents. Perhaps the old gods may defend you, innocently enough, against your will; for, of course, I shall sacrifice with the rest; and you will, likely enough, escape notice. Only, you must not go out, dear. We will not have you seen more than we can help. At best we must hope the persecution will not last long, or may not be very violent here. This—praise be to the gods—is not Rome. I saw your friend, priest Benenatus, as I came through the town; and Gratian, the boatman, rowed me ashore. I told them the news, so they both know and can warn the other Christians. Benenatus agrees with me that you should show yourself as little as possible. You will obey me, my darling?"

She laughed teasingly at this. "Though every one says you have spoilt your little Devota, yet you know she loves to do as you wish."

"Besides," and she looked at him gravely, "I am young and weak, and how should I dare to put myself wilfully into temptation of apostasy by going out against your will—and His? How could I hope He would help me then? Uncle, let us think no more about it now. Come in and rest, and I will pray to CHRIST."

The two went into the house together.

Eutyches, senator, wealthy, and a worshipper, in the lax fashion of his day, of the pagan gods, was not really Devota's uncle, though in love she called him so, but only a distant relative into whose hands the little girl, left an orphan when scarcely more than a baby, had been entrusted. She was of Christian parentage, and he had not only never once tried to turn her from CHRIST, but had allowed her freely to be brought up in her faith, for he was a kindly-natured man, disliking persecution and loving the child as his own daughter. She had grown up with an equal love for him, happy in her simple child-life, and in her worship at the little hidden Christian church, whither Eutyches sent her, carefully attended. She had only one sorrow—Eutyches would never listen to her persuasions that he too should become a Christian.

Now the last and greatest persecution of the Church had swept down over the faithful throughout the Roman world.

After the edict things were only a little different in that quiet house. Eutyches, his clients, servants, and slaves sacrificed at the same time as the other senators, with much ceremony, and it was hoped that the absence of one little maiden would not attract attention. Girls in those days were far more secluded than now. So Devota was only more in the atrium and a little less frequently with her attendants outside the house. Of course she sorrowed that she might not be with her fellow Christians in their time of trial, when they crept secretly and by night to their stolen acts of worship. But the priest Benenatus had managed to send her a message, bidding her in all things follow the wise advice of her uncle, and she obeyed. Did not she pray daily, "Lead us not into temptation"? She did not know much of what was happening, for her uncle kept the sufferings of the Christians from her; but she had heard of the earlier soldiers of CHRIST who had died for Him, and she knew what the tender mercies of the Roman law were. So perhaps she guessed more than Eutyches thought, and that made her sweet face a little graver.

Spies were everywhere. We cannot tell how it happened—whether one of Eutyches' friends or a slave of the household, in thoughtless talk, first said it to ears only too glad to listen. In some way the report spread abroad that Eutyches sheltered a little Christian maiden in his home.

Another morning came when Devota was playing in the atrium with her flowers and her doves, little guessing how soon to the lily of her girlhood was to be added the palm of martyrdom. Eutyches was reading in the library, so it was not his footsteps that Devota heard in the outer passage. She turned to see a Roman soldier at the door, where, a few weeks ago, her uncle had come with his news. The man stood there, firm and inexorable as the great power he represented. If his heart felt a sudden pang of pity for the white-robed child, with her floating veil of brown hair, among her pets, that tender feeling never reached his face.

Devota stood up quickly.

"What do you want?"

The soldier produced a sealed missive.

"I bring this for the Senator Eutyches," he answered; "let him be summoned."

Devota crossed the atrium quietly to the door of the library. Eutyches looked at her and knew instantly that something was amiss. She laid one finger on her lips and stretched out her other hand to him. Both guessed at once that the end had come.

"There is a centurion outside," she said; "he has a letter for you from the governor."

The man and the child went out together, he holding her hand in his. The centurion had come into the court, and the doves had taken flight before him, as though some dread presence had entered with him. Eutyches was trembling and white to the lips in fear for his darling. She, however, stood quiet, with her wide grave eyes on the soldier's face, as Eutyches took the fatal missive from him, broke the seals, and read.

It was an order from the governor of the town, commanding the instant arrest of the Christian Devota and the death of Eutyches the senator by poison, as punishment for having harboured an enemy of the empire and of the gods.

Eutyches' first thought was for the child—to save her, if possible; but, if she must die (and he also knew the Roman law and the hopelessness of resistance), he desired to spare her what he knew would be more cruel than all else to her—the thought that she was partly responsible for his death.

He called the centurion aside.

"There is no possibility of appeasing the governor? He knows I have sacrificed."

"She has not," replied the soldier, "and you have sheltered and abetted her. The law must take its course. I warn you against any resistance. The house is already surrounded by my men, and we only wait to see your sentence carried out before we arrest her—unless, of course, she consents to sacrifice. If you can persuade her to that, her submission might very likely buy your pardon."

Eutyches turned his face away; but his great and steadfast love never wavered. Would she consent, he might live! And he knew that no pain, nor loss, no, nor death, could shake her firmness as would the knowledge that, on the one hand, her submission would save him, and that, on the other hand, her refusal would condemn him to die for a cause not his own. But his faithful heart was not going to let him say now, and for his own sake, the words of persuasion he never had said—words that would cause her tenfold more shame and agony if spoken by his lips than if uttered by any other's.

"That is impossible," he said roughly.

"Then the sentence must be carried out," replied the soldier, at the same time moving as if to call in the other men.

"One moment," pleaded Eutyches, "I have a last request, that it will not harm you to grant. Do not let her know that I also am to die."

The man hesitated; but something in the sorrowful love of the senator's face moved him. After all, this was little to ask.

"So be it," he replied; "when she has gone, I will leave my fellow centurion here, who will see your sentence carried out."

Eutyches still lingered.

"Her death will be an easy one? Might not she die here, as I must, by some swift poison?"

"You ask too much!" was the soldier's quick and angry retort. Then, as the Roman brutality broke out in him, he added, "Besides, means will be taken to force her to comply with the law."

Eutyches' heart was bursting within him. He knew what some of the "means" were, which would be used on that slender body, and those little limbs. He was unarmed, else, in that moment, he might have killed her himself as Virginius killed his daughter Virginia. In agony he threw his toga over his face and groaned aloud.

Devota had stood quietly apart, while the two men spoke together; but now, in an instant, she was in his arms, stroking his cheeks, kissing him and comforting him.

"Dear uncle," she said, "do not grieve so. See, I do not grieve. I am ready to go. I am glad to go, to die for Him Who died for me. I used to think I might be afraid, but now the time has come, I am not. Good-bye dearest uncle. I thank you for all your loving care of me. And, oh!" with the utmost earnestness, "if you would but seek Him! I do pray it now with all my heart, that we may be for ever together, before His throne."

She stretched out her hand, to sign his forehead with the sign of the Cross, and, as she did so, the court re-sounded with the trampling of soldiers' feet. Eutyches' face was bathed in tears, but Devota smiled brightly back at him that he might, at least, be comforted to see that she felt only peace and gladness at the approach of death. The two would have been torn roughly apart, had not Eutyches, to spare her any idea of his own fate, loosened the arms that clung to him, not in fear but in love. Then the soldiers took her unresisting, and led her from the atrium to the outer passage; and the curtain fell and hid her from her uncle's sight.

Little time was wasted in the carrying out of his sentence. From the days of the first emperors, death by suicide at the order of the imperial master, had been common enough for those who held high rank. Indeed, compared with other possible deaths, it was a merciful one.

Eutyches had no desire to live now that his darling had been taken from him. He went back to his library. The fatal draught was brought, and he drank it at once, while a soldier remained on guard outside, till the end overtook him. In his last hour, did he turn to the merciful Redeemer, to Whom Devota had so often commended him? We do not know. But we like to think it was so, and to hope for the kind and tender man who had loved and sheltered, to the loss of his own life, one of our Blessed LORD'S little ones, now more than that, one of CHRIST'S glorious martyrs in the Church Triumphant.

For what, meanwhile, was happening to Devota? It is better to pass quickly over those last few hours, not dwelling on them longer than is necessary to under-stand how great was this little girl's love for her Saviour, and how great the strength that He gave her. She was only a child, among rough soldiers and cruel executioners, torn suddenly from her play and her home, to go to a dreadful death. The soldiers bound her feet together with cords, and in this manner, amid laughter and jeers, dragged her over the rough ground to the hall of judgement, till her pretty clothes were torn from her body, and her skin cut and bruised. When, at last, the governor's court was reached, she was wounded from head to foot, and so faint that a soldier was forced to support her before the judge's seat, while mother-hearts in the watching crowd pitied her wretchedness. And yet, oh, blessed child! great is thy reward in heaven.

They asked her if she would sacrifice. Her eyes, uplifted in prayer, gave their silent answer. So the judge ordered her to be stretched on the rack.

Yet her love never faltered, and her LORD spared her further pain. As she lay bound, exhausted, and aching in every slender limb, she prayed to CHRIST to take her to Himself. Her prayer was heard and granted; and her gentle soul fled to His embrace for Whom she died.

Suddenly, in the sunshine that poured down through the open roof in a blaze of glory over the cruel rack and the dead body on it, a little white dove, even whiter than the radiance of the midday sun, was seen fluttering over Devota's breast. For a moment it hovered there. Then it spread its wings, and, while the judge and court watched in wonder, flew up and up through the stream of light and into the free air! and then, again, up and up, till it was lost in the deep blue vault of heaven.

In the hushed silence that followed, the judge's voice broke in harshly, for he feared a popular movement in favour of the martyred child.

"Slaves," he commanded, "throw the body into the outer court. It can be burnt to-night on the pyre with the common dead."

His order was obeyed. All the long afternoon the mortal loveliness that had held the far greater immortal beauty of Devota lay among the refuse and dirt of the lower court. But the news had spread among the Christians, and those were not wanting who were ready to risk all to save the body of CHRIST'S holy servant from dishonour.

When dusk fell, an old man stole softly through the court, and slipped a purse into the hands of the watching slave. The latter knew well enough what was meant, and that the judge need never find out that one body the less had been burnt on the pyre: so he conveniently turned his back, as the stranger gathered the little form in his arms. He was the old Christian boatman, Gratian, whom she had loved and who had often rowed her in his boat among the rocks on the seashore. His tears fell on the pure dead face as he carried her down the darkening street. Under some olive-trees at the end of the town, two more men were waiting—the priest Benenatus, and his deacon Apollinarius. The former stepped out of the shadow and took Devota from Gratian.

"Dear, blessed child!" he said softly, "and blessed beyond all words that peace and glory she now enjoys before His face! May her innocent soul pray for us all!" and the others murmured, "Amen."

Benenatus, with his companions, carried Devota down the steep way to the beach, where Gratian had previously made preparations for her reception in his hut; and while the water lapped against his boat outside, they cleansed her wounds and set her brown hair in order, speaking softly the while, as in the presence of a holy thing. Then they wrapped her in white, with sweet-smelling spices, set her lily and her palm in her hand, and carrying her out, put her in the little boat. When they had themselves embarked, scarce knowing what they meant to do, they rowed out to sea.

By this time the moon had risen, and poured her pale glory over the waves, the boat and its white-robed treasure. The three men wondered whither they should go next.

"See yonder," said Apollinarius suddenly, pointing to the bows of the boat—" what is that?"

His companions turned to look where he pointed.

Silvered in the white, quivering moonbeams, shone a little dove. It fluttered before the bows of the boat, as if inviting them to follow it. They looked at one another in silence, for the appearance of a dove at the martyr's death had been made known to them by witnesses, and the remembrance of it at once flashed into their minds.

Saint Apollinarius


"We must follow where it leads," whispered Benenatus, "for it comes from GOD. We are in His hands, and He has made the sea calm for us."

The boat was steered to follow the dove. Through the pale moonlight and the growing dawn, and into the sunshine the bird flew before them, now skimming over the waves, now fluttering on, and now waiting for them to follow, but never leaving them. Under its guidance they came, at last, after a long voyage, to the town which is now called Monaco, where they laid the body of the child-martyr to await the Resurrection morning.

But Devota herself, in the kingdom to which she has gone, has now a playground in one of the "many mansions "of our FATHER'S house; and the Holy Innocents make daisy-chains with her in the meadows that stretch around the Tree of Life.