Roses of Martyrdom - C. M. Cresswell

The Promise of St. Dorothea

"Christeta and Callista have sacrificed. Pray for them and for us."

It was a very short note, but few could have been sadder in the days in which it was written, A.D. 303, during the last great persecution of the Church. It meant that two of CHRIST'S servants had fallen away from Him, becoming apostates by offering incense on the altars of the pagan gods, thus, by denying Him before men, calling down upon themselves the fear that He would deny them before His FATHER.

The lady—or girl, rather—for she was only about nineteen or twenty, to whom the note had been sent that afternoon by the sorrowing relatives of the apostate sisters, sat with her hands folded in her lap, and her face bowed in most gentle pity. She was the Lady Dorothea, a Christian of Caesarea in Cappadocia, rich in this world's goods, as the beautiful yet simple room in which she sat, testified; far richer in the imperishable treasure above, where, in thought and longing, she ever walked with CHRIST her Spouse. Christeta and Callista were her friends. They had played together as children, and grown up together to happy girlhood. Now, when they should have gone before her, by martyrdom, to heaven, they had utterly fallen away. She had heard of their arrest, of their first examination, and of their courage under torture. She had known that their second examination had been fixed for that day; then, while she hoped they might be enjoying the first moments of their eternal triumph, the note had been brought to her—"Christeta and Callista have sacrificed."

She felt no anger or contempt for them—only an infinite sorrow and yearning, and compassionate sympathy at their loss. After all, she thought, who was she that she should blame them? If she feared less for herself was it not only because she knew her love and her LORD would bring her safely through all pain to His embrace? And even this blessed certainty was His own gift to her. Also, she thought, "she was in body and health stronger than they were; and little Callista, at least, was two years younger." So, finding every excuse and no blame, she prayed earnestly for them, and for those who sorrowed over them.

"My turn must come soon," she thought; "they cannot pass me over. For, before the persecution, I ever lived openly as a Christian. While I suffer, and when it pleases Him to bring me to see His face, I can pray for my friends."

Even as she pondered thus, a thunderous knocking shook the calm of the house. Dorothea stood up smiling.

"So soon!" she said to herself; "well, thank GOD, I am ready."

She took a lamp in her hand; she, the wise virgin, with her light ever burning brightly, ever prepared to go forth gladly when the call came, to meet her Bridegroom, and went down through the corridors to those who had come to take her away. One of her servants had opened the door, and outside, seen by the smoky light of torches, was a group of rough men and soldiers.

"We seek the Lady Dorothea," their leader said. "We hold an order for her arrest."

"I am she," Dorothea replied. "I pray you to trouble my servants no more, as I am ready."

She paused to whisper a few words of instruction and farewell into the ears of the sorrowful doorkeeper, who, like all the household, was a Christian, and then calmly surrendered herself to be bound and hurried along the streets to the prison, where they thrust her into a dark cell. But Dorothea knew no terror. "Perfect love casteth out fear "; and no darkness could touch that soul which walked ever in the light of CHRIST.

Sapritius, attended by his guard of lictors and soldiers, sat in his chair of state on the raised platform. At the further end of the hall a crowd of rough people from the town had gathered in cheerful expectation of seeing another Christian tortured. Nearer the judge were an equal number of people, men and women too, well-born and well educated, quite equally ready to be similarly entertained. Among them sat a lawyer named Theophilus; he was about thirty, but looked older, owing to his weary eyes, and discontented mouth. He was a man well known in the city, and a favourite, in spite of his great self-assurance, which amounted at times to a positive rudeness. A young man leant at his elbow, one of the pagan philosophers of the day, bent on expounding a very confused theory respecting the future life. Theophilus waved him away, with undisguised boredom.

"I am afraid," he said, "this does not much interest me. I am not, and shall not try to become worthy of sharing the joys of the gods in Olympus; while Hades, whither you say I am bound, has always appeared so gloomy, that I will gladly forego it altogether. But you must stop talking now, for the prisoner is coming. These Christians are dreadfully in earnest; and, as that is a quality I shall never possess, it amuses me to see it in others."

The gentle maiden victim, introduced before them, excited an unusual interest in the hard-hearted assembly. The men began to compare notes on her tall, delicate figure, her brown hair, and the confidence of her bearing. The ladies—for there were ladies there, though it might seem strange that they should have come to witness so cruel a scene—were disposed to be scornful. Theophilus bent his bold eyes on Dorothea's face, measuring her strength and capacity for endurance, and wondering how long she would hold out, or which of the hideous tools lying near would be the one to shake her at the last.

The judge addressed her gently (he was well pleased with his success with her two friends), and asked her to sacrifice. Dorothea calmly replied that for her to do so was impossible.

"Think well, lady," he said; "we would deal gently with you. But, remember, we have means to compel you, as we have compelled Christeta and Callista."

"I fear none of your tools," she answered; "rather I count myself happy to bear pain for Him Who bore so much for me. As to my friends, I pray with all my heart that my torture and death might yet awaken in them the resolution to undergo the same."

"But think," persisted Sapritius; "will you, so young, surrender life, and go out from this fair world, from the blue heavens and the hills, and the green country and the flowers, into a darkness of which we know naught?"

"I go into no darkness," said Dorothea smiling, "but into a garden where there is neither death nor decay, where the Tree of Life yields its fruit for ever, and the lilies and roses bloom with unfading petals under the beams of a Sun Which never sets."

Theophilus settled himself in contented amusement. To his unbelieving mind her faith was most diverting.

Only, he began to think, she might be rather longer in yielding to torment than he had at .first supposed.

"Think again," said Sapritius; "you are beautiful, and your life is but beginning. In a few years you may be happy with husband and children. If the loveliness of the world holds no allurement for you, do these joys of home also mean nothing to you?"

"You speak truly," she answered gently, "in thinking these joys most blessed. For all love is fair—and no earthly love fairer than that of husband and wife. But"—and she raised her fettered hands—" my Love is in heaven. My Bridegroom awaits me there, CHRIST, the Eternal SON, the Incarnate Word, Whom mine eyes long to behold. I pray you, seek no more to persuade me, but set about your work at once, that I may be the sooner crowned by Him with the ever-lasting roses of His kingdom."

Theophilus thought that perhaps she would not yield at all.

"You are obstinate enough," continued Sapritius, whose temper was rising; "but we have heard the like before, and sometimes seen swift submission afterwards. Only we are unwilling to proceed to the torture of one so fair if other means may prevail. Perhaps you may listen to your playfellows, when your stubbornness refuses to listen to me. The ladies, Christeta and Callista, await you in a room near by. Will you go to them, or will you refuse this offer also?"

"I will go, and gladly," replied Dorothea, her whole face lighting up. "I pray you lead me there at once."

The judge graciously ordered a soldier to take her to her friends. As she was led away, Theophilus rubbed his chin in perplexed meditation. Was the girl, then, going to submit before she had tasted any torture? Truly, the Nazarenes were an incomprehensible race!

The room into which they led Dorothea was small, beautifully decorated, and opening with a small semi-circle of columns, on a garden. Two girls, pale and ill-at-ease, sat on a marble seat under the colonnade. Dorothea was ushered in, and the jailer, closing the door, left the three together. At the first moment Christeta and Callista averted their eyes. They were, both of them, obviously ashamed to meet her. But when Dorothea, with a pitying smile, stretched out her arms to them, and they heard, at the same time, the jangle of her chains and her sweet voice, asking, "Christeta and Callista, have you nothing to say to your old playfellow?" the younger of the two got up and, running to her, buried her face in the bosom of her friend's dress. Dorothea, who was taller by a head, kissed the fair curls, and, still holding Callista, crossed to the seat, placed herself by the elder girl, and made the younger sit down also by her. For a moment there was silence. Dorothea looked at the pale, disconcerted faces, the averted glances, and the restless, intertwining fingers. Suddenly she put an arm round each, and, with a half-whimsical laugh, said, "I think you are both dumb. Have you nothing to tell me? In the court they gave me to understand that you would have so much to say."

The younger girl caught her breath with a dry sob; the elder sat still, with her head turned away. Dorothea looked from one to the other, and laughed softly.

"It seems that I must do the talking, and I think it is best so. For I know all they would have you say—the joys of life here, the happiness and beauty of this world, the anguish of torture, and the darkness of death. Listen to me while I tell you what you know you have lost."

She got up, and led them swiftly to the open colonnade, overlooking the gardens.

"Look out yonder. It is drawing towards evening. Where you should be is no night. Here, to-day, the skies are cold and grey. There they do not even need the sunshine, in those gardens where the flowers never fade. Unhappy ones, whose joy, already assured, I, in my mortal trial, might even now be envying."

She waited a minute or two, and then continued, speaking softly,—

"It was yesterday, was it not, that your call came? Yesterday, oh, happy ones, who have already been long hours in heaven! Hush! You have passed the dark river, and the gates of pearl. You hear the harpers and the angelic voices and the new song around the Lamb. And that whisper—it is the waves of the crystal sea breaking at the foot of His throne. How bright the golden pavement you tread! how white your robes, and how dazzling the crowns that deck you! Behold, too, the majesty of the angels at your side, and the blessed ones who have come here before you! I see Polycarp, and Perpetua; and yonder is Laurence; and there, Blandina, the slave-girl of Lyons, whose brightness would blind you, were you not yourselves as she is. And above, and beyond, yet around and near, on Whose beauty and on Whose wounds my mortal eyes cannot look, but on Whom your eyes, oh, immortal ones! are fixed for the ages of eternity—He is before you on His throne, and calls you to Him, and before the holy saints and angels, and before His FATHER, confesses you His brides and martyrs, while He wipes away all tears from your eyes.

"Only, it is getting dark here, and the winds of earth are chill, and the marbie pavement of Sapritius' hall of judgement is cold at your feet, as night comes on over the world."

Callista, with a cry, slipped from Dorothea's sup-porting arm, and fell before her in an agony of tears. Christeta's lips quivered, and her friend felt the shudder of her whole body. She spoke again in a sterner tone, from which the sisters flinched.

"And all this is true—for never dare to speak to me what they would have you say of doubt and uncertainty. Whilst in your uncrowned, discomforted, apostate souls is worse night and worse death than that which you escaped yesterday, worse death than the mortal passing that must come at last—that might have come, and have been by now blessedly endured and ended for ever. Is this to be? Is His face to be turned in denial from you? Are your eyes to be filled through long years, perhaps through an awful eternity, with tears His hand will not wipe away? Christeta and Callista, will you not," and her voice sank now from sternness to an infinite hopefulness, "go up to the marriage feast, only one day late?"

"Dorothea!" cried Christeta, and she too fell at her friend's feet, "what could we, what can we do? It was the torture that moved us. We are not brave and strong like you—though," with a sob, "we have suffered worse torments in our souls since."

"I am not brave or strong of myself," replied Dorothea, "it is He that maketh me so; and He will do the same for you also. He is waiting for you out yonder in the court of judgement. He, your Love, waiting to receive you again and take you yonder—" and she pointed upwards, "and you cannot now refuse Him."

"Pray for us, then," whispered Callista, "pray for us that we may be faithful."

Dorothea knelt with them and prayed long and fervently. At first their eyes were fixed only on her bright face, as if they drew their courage through her. But at length they too lifted their eyes more hopefully, and presently their trembling lips joined in her petition for forgiveness and strength to obtain their crowns at last. They were calm and composed when the jailer came for Dorothea. He was amazed to see the three on their knees. But they arose at once, and went hand in hand back to the hall: and before the seat of Sapritius Dorothea kissed her friends and commended them to CHRIST.

"What is this?" cried Sapritius, "you witch, have you perverted them?"

"His strength," answered Dorothea, has led them back to their King and Saviour."

A stir of interest moved the audience. The young lawyer, raised from his langour, leant forward curiously, for a better sight of the girl, whose convictions, foolish as he deemed them, had been strong enough to nerve two of her companions, after their terrible experience of yesterday, to face death. But Sapritius, in wrath, ordered Christeta and Callista to instant execution. They went, joyful, and by their steadfast faithfulness set the seal on their repentance, happy to be, as Dorothea said, only one day late at the marriage feast.

A determination had grown on the prefect not to slay, but to force Dorothea to his will. Did she now at last sacrifice, it would be the greater triumph for him, the greater humiliation for her. He called the executioner and his brutal assistants, and bade them proceed to her torture. When they had bound her, he once more commanded her to yield and sacrifice. But she turned away her head, and told them to do their worst, for so should she the sooner go to be with her Love.

So this blessed martyr, a delicate, high-born girl, entered upon her trial alone—yet not alone, for her Saviour stood at her side to strengthen her, and she suffered in silence, upborne by His arm. Those assembled round her watched with cruel interest judge, soldiers, townsfolk, and, alas! ladies, well-born and, according to their ideas, refined. More than that, even girls watched the torment of one who, in age, was their fellow. If some of the younger ones were at first inclined to shrink away in pity, their hearts soon hardened. For was not this one of those impious Christians—enemies of the Emperor?

The lawyer Theophilus lay back in his comfortable chair, and watched with growing attention, wondering a little at Dorothea's courage, but a great deal that any one could be so mad.

The afternoon wore on. The setting sun made a rift in the grey clouds, and for a moment bathed the court, the crowd, and the calm martyr-face with its rich glow. It was plain now that Dorothea was sinking fast, and when, at the judge's command, they freed her from her bonds, she was already dying. Sapritius abruptly ordered that her head should be struck off.

Dorothea thanked him in a low voice, and turned to follow the headsman to the place of death. As it chanced, she had to pass quite close to Theophilus. He had risen, and, as she came towards him, he leant to address her over the marble balustrade that parted them.

"Spouse of CHRIST!"

He spoke half-mockingly, half-cynically, in a voice that cut like steel. She stopped, and lifted her eyes to his. For a moment they faced each other—she so broken, but so gently patient; he so sneeringly insolent.

"Spouse of CHRIST!" he repeated, bowing, as the bold smile grew on his lips, "when thou comest at last into that garden, whither thou dost hasten, I pray thee, in remembrance, send me some of its roses."

Her look never wavered: and she too smiled now, but how differently!

"I will," she answered.

Amid the titter of amusement that arose near them, she was led away to death. She bent her head a moment in prayer, then laid it on the block. And with one blow the executioner severed her neck.

When the lictor announced that the sentence of death had been carried out, the court broke up, and the people gathered in groups to talk of the occurrences of the afternoon. Theophilus was in high good humour, and very pleased with himself, complimenting the ladies, chaffing his friends and chaffed by them for his last witty words to the prisoner, and going here and there, reminding a few favoured ones that they were to be at his house for supper not long hence. At length, as the litters arrived for the noble ladies, and the young men sauntered away, he went out also, and descended the steps into the road, arranging to his taste the folds of his toga. As he passed a side-street that had an entrance adjoining the court of the prison, he chanced to look down it, and saw a solemn group of people laying a white-shrouded form on a bier. They were some Christians who had waited for and received the body of the holy martyr.

For the first time, a shade of compunction smote on his hard heart. He suddenly remembered a white, uplifted face and earnest eyes. He had been rather a brute, he thought, to say what he had said, mocking the girl and her belief at such a moment. After all, she was a woman, suffering and dying, and his man-hood had made but a sorry show of itself before her.

He walked on, his cynical assurance passed, leaving in its place a puzzled weariness that pained him strangely. But when he came to his house, he found that arrangements for supper needed his superintendence, and that he had scarcely half an hour to make ready for his friends. In the bustle of pleasant preparation, he soon forgot Dorothea and became the old, self-complacent Theophilus.

He waited—perfumed, white-robed, chapleted—in the hall by his dining-room, where the bronze and gold lamps glimmered here and there through his beautiful home. Presently, two or three guests arrived. Theophilus stood with them under the portico, and they talked lightly and cheerfully of the news of the day, and of some art treasure of statuary that the lawyer had recently bought. He was pointing out its beauties, when a step behind them made them turn.

A young man stood by them. He was a youth in whose countenance perfect tenderness and gentleness were blended with a majesty before which the men, strong in the knowledge and power of this world, felt their eyes droop, abashed. About his golden locks a strange light played, his white robe flowed in folds to his feet, and in his hand he held a bunch of roses—fresh-gathered, dewy, wonderful. He held them out to Theophilus.

Saint Dorothea


"Dorothea, according to her promise, sends you these," he said, "from the garden whither she has gone before you."

He put the flowers into Theophilus's hands. The latter took them, speechless and stupefied with amazement. His friends pressed to him to look, and to touch the marvellous petals. When, moved by a common impulse, they all turned to inquire further of the stranger—he was gone.

Through the hall, where the flickering lights were reflected on every side in polished marble—silence! and the breath of the wondrous roses, rising up, floating on the night air, filling every corner with the ambrosial scent of the bowers of Paradise!

"By Bacchus!" then said one of the men in an awed whisper, "how was that done?"

Theophilus still stood silent. At last he lifted his eyes from the roses.

"Domitius," he said quietly, "you will stay here, and send away the other guests. There can be no supper to-night. I am going."

"Is he mad?" exclaimed his friend. "Art possessed, man? What ails thee?"

Theophilus placed his hand a moment before his eyes as if a great light had dazzled him. Then he spoke, firmly, triumphantly.

"I, too, am going to that garden where Dorothea has gone."

Domitius caught him by the arm.

"Are you, too, bewitched? By all the gods, Theophilus, are you a Christian?"

"I am," he answered calmly: "these are real. What she said was true. I go to give myself up to Sapritius. I mocked her, and she kept her promise. And I am going to that garden to find her; and not all Rome, nor all the world, nor death itself, nor Hell, shall hold me back."

His voice rang out, strong and strange, in the flood of earnestness that had come to him. He was no longer their old Theophilus. While they stood and wondered, he had already passed out of his house to seek the garden where Dorothea awaited him.

Burning with the zeal of his new-found faith and with love for that pure soul who had thus repaid his scorn, Theophilus sought the house of Sapritius and sent in word that he too was a Christian. As he waited for the answer, he stood humbly among the jeering slaves at the doorway—he, the proud and fastidious lawyer, who had disbelieved the soul's immortality, and had ever flinched at the thought of death—while he longed and prayed for martyrdom.

Sapritius, angry, and thinking that he was the victim of a fool's trick, came out most unwillingly from his dinner. When he really saw Theophilus before him, his wrath changed to bewilderment.

They faced each other in the archway, the torchlight glaring over them and over the intent faces of the watching slaves.

The young man eagerly stepped forward.

"I am a Christian," he said; "I am here to die."

And he persisted in his profession of faith. To all Sapritius's words of incredulity, surprise, persuasion, and mockery; in spite of all the bewilderment and rage that followed, the calm voice ever answered, "I am a Christian!" and the calm eyes, once so languid, looked into the eyes of the judge with the steadfastness that had gladdened Dorothea's in her last hour. When threats followed swiftly on wrath, he still quietly answered,—

"I am a Christian; I am here to die."

Before the stroke of midnight had announced the birth of another day, Theophilus, dying by the sword, was born to the Life Immortal.

Come for a moment to the threshold of that garden, where angels walk hand in hand with the blessed saints, among the stems of the unfading rose-trees. Through the garden, and through the dazzling light, with wondering eyes and overflowing heart, Theophilus goes up to find her who had gone before him. Amidst the flowers, St. Dorothea, palm—sceptred, crowned, and garlanded with the lilies and roses of Paradise, angel-messenger before her, and Christeta and Callista on either side, steps to meet him. She smiled on him when he mocked her before the judgement-seat of Sapritius, yonder on that little earth, so far below. But with what a smile does she greet him now, her fellow martyr, under the rainbow-arch of effulgence, where the seraphs' wings flash and quiver around the throne of Almighty GOD.