"But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed."
--St Paul's Epistle to the Galatians 2:11
His mother, a devout and well-born Roman widow, decided that he was doing himself no good in an Eastern Legion so near to free-thinking Constantinople, and got him seconded for civil duty in Antioch, where his uncle, Lucius Sergius, was head of the urban Police. Valens obeyed as a son and as a young man keen to see life, and, presently, cast up at his uncle's door.
"That sister-in-law of mine," said the elder, "never remembers me till she wants something. What have you been doing?"
"That's what Mother thinks. But I haven't."
"We shall see. Your quarters are across the inner courtyard. Your - er - baggage is there already . . . Oh, I shan't interfere with your private arrangements! I'm not the uncle with the rough tongue. Get your bath. We'll talk at supper."
But before that hour "Father Serga," as the Prefect of Police was called, learned from the Treasury that his nephew had marched overland from Constantinople in charge of a treasure- convoy which, after a brush with brigands in the pass outside Tarsus, he had duly delivered.
"Why didn't you tell me about it?" his uncle asked at the meal.
"I had to report to the Treasury first," was the answer.
Serga looked at him. "Gods! You are like your father," said he. "Cilicia is scandalously policed."
"So I noticed. They ambushed us not five miles from Tarsus town. Are we given to that sort of thing here?"
"You make yourself at home early. No. We are not, but Syria is a Non-regulation Province - under the Emperor not the Senate. We've the entire unaccountable East to one side; the scum of the Mediterranean on the other; and all hell-cat Judaea southward. Anything can happen in Syria. D'you like the prospect?"
"I shall - under you."
"It's in the blood. The same with men as horses. Now what have you done that distresses your mother so?"
"She's a little behind the times, sir. She follows the old school, of course - the home-worships, and the strict Latin Trinity. I don't think she recognises any Gods outside Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva."
"I don't either officially."
"Nor I, as an officer, sir. But one wants more than that, and - and - what I learned in Byzant squared with what I saw with the Fifteenth."
"You needn't go on. All Eastern Legions are alike. You mean you follow Mithras - eh?"
The young man bowed his head slightly.
"No harm, boy. It's a soldier's religion, even if it comes from outside."
"So I thought. But Mother heard of it. She didn't approve and - I suppose that's why I'm here."
"Off the trident and into the net! Just like a woman! All Syria is stuffed with Mithraism. My objection to fancy religions is that they mostly meet after dark, and that means more work for the Police. We've a College here of stiffnecked Hebrews who call themselves Christians."
"I've heard of them " said Valens. "There isn't a ceremony or symbol they haven't stolen from the Mithras ritual."
"No news to me! Religions are part of my office-work; and they'll be part of yours. Our Synagogue Jews are fighting like Scythians over this new faith."
"Does that matter much?"
"So long as they fight each other, we've only to keep the ring. Divide and rule - especially with Hebrews. Even these Christians are divided now. You see - one part of their worship is to eat together."
"Another theft! The Supper is the essential Symbol with us," Valens interrupted.
"With us, it's the essential symbol of trouble for your uncle, my dear. Any one can become a Christian. A Jew may; but he still lives by his Law of Moses (I've had to master that cursed code, too), and it regulates all his doings. Then he sits down at a Christian love-feast beside a Greek or Westerner, who doesn't kill mutton or pig -- No! No! Jews don't touch pork -- as the Jewish Law lays down. Then the tables are broken up - but not bv laughter - No! No! Riot!"
"That's childish," said Valens.
"Wish it were. But my lictors are called in to keep order, and I have to take the depositions of Synagogue Jews, denouncing Christians as traitors to Caesar. If I chose to act on half the stuff their Rabbis swear to, I'd have respectable little Jew shop-keepers up every week for conspiracy. Never decide on the evidence, when you're dealing with Hebrews! Oh, you'll get your bellyful of it! You're for Market-duty tomorrow in the Little Circus ward, all among 'em. And now, sleep you well! I've been on this frontier as far back as any one remembers - that's why they call me the Father of Syria - and oh - it's good to see a sample of the old stock again! "
Next morning, and for many weeks after, Valens found himself on Market-inspection duty with a fat Aedile, who flew into rages because the stalls were not flushed down at the proper hour. A couple of his uncle's men were told off to him, and, of course, introduced him to the thieves' and prostitutes' quarters, to the leading gladiators, and so forth.
One day, behind the Little Circus, near Singon Street, he ran into a mob, where a race-course gang were trying to collect, or evade, some bets on recent chariot-races. The Aedile said it was none of his affair and turned back. The lictors closed up behind Valens, but left the situation in his charge. Then a small hard man with eyebrows was punted on to his chest, amid howls from all around that he was the ringleader of a conspiracy. "Yes," said Valens, "that was an old trick in Byzant; but I think we'll take you, my friend." Turning the small man loose, he gathered in the loudest of his accusers to appear before his uncle.
"You were quite right," said Serga next day. "That gentleman was put up to the job - by someone else. I ordered him one Roman dozen. Did you get the name of the man they were trying to push off on you?"
"Yes. Gaius Julius Paulus. Why?"
"I guessed as much. He's an old acquaintance of mine, a Cilician from Tarsus. Well-born - a citizen by descent, and well-educated, but his people have disowned him. So he works for his living."
"He spoke like a well-born. He's in splendid training, too. Felt him. All muscle."
"Small wonder. He can outmarch a camel. He is really the Prefect of this new sect. He travels all over our Eastern Provinces starting their Colleges and keeping them up to the mark. That's why the Synagogue Jews are hunting him. If they could run him in on the political charge, it would finish him."
"Is he seditious, then?"
"Not in the least. Even if he were, I wouldn't feed him to the Jews just because they wanted it. One of our Governors tried that game down-coast - for the sake of peace - some years ago. He didn't get it. Do you like your Market-work, my boy?"
"It's interesting. D'you know, Uncle, I think the Synagogue Jews are better at their slaughterhouse arrangements than we."
"They are. That's what makes 'em so tough. A dozen stripes are nothing to Apella, though he'll howl the yard down while he's getting 'em. You've the Christians' College in your quarter. How do they strike you?"
"Quiet enough. They're worrying a bit over what they ought to eat at their love-feasts."
"I know it. Oh, I meant to tell you - we mustn't try 'em too high just now, Valens. My office reports that Paulus, your small friend, is going down-country for a few days to meet another priest of the College, and bring him back to help smooth over their difficulties about their victuals. That means their congregation will be at loose ends till they return. Mass without mind always comes a cropper. So, now is when the Synagogue Jews will try to compromise them. I don't want the poor devils stampeded into what can be made to look like political crime. Understand?"
Valens nodded. Between his uncle's discursive evening talks, studded with kitchen-Greek and out- of-date Roman society-verses; his morning tours with the puffing Aedile; and the confidences of his lictors at all hours; he fancied he understood Antioch.
So he kept an eye on the rooms in the colonnade behind the little Circus, where the new faith gathered. One of the many Jew butchers told him that Paulus had left affairs in the hands of some man called Barnabas, but that he would come back with one, Petrus - evidently a well-known character - who would settle all the food-differences between Greek and Hebrew Christians. The butcher had no spite against Greek Christians as such, if they would only kill their meat like decent Jews.
Serga laughed at this talk, but lent Valens an extra man or two, and said that this lion would be his to tackle, before long.
The boy found himself rushed into the arena one hot dusk, when word had come that this was to be a night of trouble. He posted his lictors in an alley within signal, and entered the common-room of the College, where the love-feasts were held. Every one seemed as friendly as a Christian - to use the slang of the quarter - and Barnabas, a smiling, stately man by the door, specially so.
"I am glad to meet you," he said. "You helped our Paulus in that scuffle the other day. We can't afford to lose him. I wish he were back!"
He looked nervously down the hall, as it filled with people, of middle and low degree, setting out their evening meal on the bare tables, and greeting each other with a special gesture.
"I assure you," he went on, his eyes still astray, "we've no intention of offending any of the brethren. Our differences can be settled if only--"
As though on a signal, clamour rose from half a dozen tables at once, with cries of "Pollution! Defilement! Heathen! The Law! The Law! Let Caesar know!" As Valens backed against the wall, the crowd pelted each other with broken meats and crockery, till at last stones appeared from nowhere.
"It's a put-up affair," said Valens to Barnabas.
"Yes. They come in with stones in their breasts. Be careful! They're throwing your way," Barnabas replied. The crowd was well embroiled now. A section of it bore down to where they stood, yelling for the Justice of Rome. His two lictors slid in behind Valens, and a man leaped at him with a knife.
Valens struck up the hand, and the lictors had the man helpless as the weapon fell on the floor. The clash of it stilled the tumult a little. Valens caught the lull, speaking slowly: "Oh, citizens," he called, "must you begin your love-feasts with battle? Our tripe-sellers' burial-club has better manners."
A little laughter relieved the tension.
"The Synagogue has arranged this," Barnabas muttered. "The responsibility will be laid on me."
"Who is the Head of your College?" Valens called to the crowd.
The cries rose against each other.
"Paulus! Saul! He knows the world -- No! No! Petrus! our Rock! He won't betray us. Petrus, the living Rock."
"When do they come back?" Valens asked. Several dates were given, sworn to, and denied.
"Wait to fight till they return. I'm not a priest; but if you don't tidy up these rooms, our Aedile" (Valens gave him his gross nick-name in the quarter) "will fine the sandals off your feet. And you mustn't trample good food either. When you've finished, I'll lock up after you. Be quick. I know our Prefect if you don't."
They toiled, like children rebuked. As they passed out with baskets of rubbish, Valens smiled. The matter would not be pressed further.
"Here is our key," said Barnabas at the end. "The Synagogue will swear I hired this man to kill you."
"Will they? Let's look at him."
The lictors pushed their prisoner forward.
"Ill-fortune!" said the man. "I owed you for my brother's death in Tarsus Pass."
"Your brother tried to kill me," Valens retorted.
The fellow nodded.
"Then we'll call it even-throws," Valens signed to the lictors, who loosed hold. "Unless you really want to see my uncle?"
The man vanished like a trout in the dusk. Valens returned the key to Barnabas, and said:
"If I were you, I shouldn't let your people in again till your leaders come back. You don't know Antioch as I do."
He went home, the grinning lictors behind him, and they told his uncle, who grinned also, but said that he had done the right thing - even to patronising Barnabas.
"Of course, I don't know Antioch as you do; but, seriously, my dear, I think you've saved their Church for the Christians this time. I've had three depositions already that your Cilician friend was a Christian hired by Barnabas. Just as well for Barnabas that you let the brute go."
"You told me you didn't want them stampeded into trouble. Besides, it was fair-throws. I may have killed his brother after all. We had to kill two of 'em."
"Good! You keep a level head in a tight corner. You'll need it. There's no lying about in secluded parks for us! I've got to see Paulus and Petrus when they come back, and find out what they've decided about their infernal feasts. Why can't they all get decently drunk and be done with it?"
"They talk of them both down-town as though they were Gods. By the way, Uncle, all the riot was worked up by Synagogue Jews sent from Jerusalem - not by our lot at all."
"You don't say so? Now, perhaps, you understand why I put you on market-duty with old Sow-Belly! You'll make a Police-officer yet."
Valens met the sacred, mixed congregation round the fountains and stalls as he went about his quarter. They were rather relieved at being locked out of their rooms for the time; as well as by the news that Paulus and Petrus would report to the Prefect of Police before addressing them on the great food-question.
Valens was not present at the first part of that interview, which was official. The second, in the cool, awning-covered courtyard, with drinks and hors-d'oeuvre, all set out beneath the vast lemon and lavender sunset, was much less formal.
"You have met, I think," said Serga to the little lean Paulus as Valens entered.
"Indeed, yes. Under God, we are twice your debtors," was the quick reply.
"Oh, that was part of my duty. I hope you found our roads good on your journey," said Valens.
"Why, yes. I think they were." Paulus spoke as if he had not noticed them.
"We should have done better to come by boat," said his companion, Petrus, a large fleshy man, with eyes that seemed to see nothing, and a half palsied right hand that lay idle in his lap.
"Valens came overland from Byzant," said his uncle. "He rather fancies his legs."
"He ought to at his age. What was your best day's march on the Via Sebaste?" Paulus asked interestedly, and, before he knew, Valens was reeling off his mileage on mountainroads every step of which Paulus seemed to have trod.
"That's good," was the comment. "And I expect you march in heavier order than I."
"What would you call your best day's work?" Valens asked in turn.
"I have covered..." Paulus checked himself. "And yet not I but the God," he muttered. "It's hard to cure oneself of boasting."
A spasm wrenched Petrus's face.
"Hard indeed," said he. Then he addressed himself to Paulus as though none other were present. "It is true I have eaten with Gentiles and as the Gentiles ate. Yet, at the time, I doubted if it were wise."
"That is behind us now," said Paulus gently. "The decision has been taken for the Church -- that little Church which you saved, my son." He turned on Valens with a smile that half-captured the boy's heart. "Now -- as a Roman and a Police-officer - what think you of us Christians?"
"That I have to keep order in my own ward."
"Good! Caesar must be served. But - as a servant of Mithras, shall we say - how think you about our food-disputes?"
Valens hesitated. His uncle encouraged him with a nod. "As a servant of Mithras I eat with any initiate, so long as the food is clean," said Valens.
"But," said Petrus, "that is the crux."
"Mithras also tells us," Valens went on, "to share a bone covered with dirt, if better cannot be found."
"You observe no difference, then, between peoples at your feasts?" Paulus demanded.
"How dare we? We are all His children. Men make laws. Not Gods," Valens quoted from the old Ritual.
"Say that again, child!"
"Gods do not make laws. They change men's hearts. The rest is the Spirit."
"You heard it, Petrus? You heard that? It is the utter Doctrine itself!" Paulus insisted to his dumb companion.
Valens, a little ashamed of having spoken of his faith, went on:
"They tell me the Jew butchers here want the monopoly of killing for your people. Trade feeling's at the bottom of most of it."
"A little more than that perhaps," said Paulus. "Listen a minute." He threw himself into a curious tale about the God of the Christians, Who, he said, had taken the shape of a Man, and Whom the Jerusalem Jews, years ago, had got the authorities to deal with as a conspirator. He said that he himself, at that time a right Jew, quite agreed with the sentence, and had denounced all who followed the new God. But one day the Light and the Voice of the God broke over him, and he experienced a rending change of heart - precisely as in the Mithras creed. Then he met, and had been initiated by, some men who had walked and talked and, more particularly, had eaten, with the new God before He was killed, and who had seen Him after, like Mithras, He had risen from His grave. Paulus and those others - Petrus was one of them - had next tried to preach Him to the Jews, but that was no success; and, one thing leading to another, Paulus had gone back to his home at Tarsus, where his people disowned him for a renegade. There he had broken down with overwork and despair. Till then, he said, it had never occurred to any of them to show the new religion to any except right Jews; for their God had been born in the shape of a Jew. Paulus himself only came to realise the possibilities of outside work, little by little. He said he had all the foreign preaching in his charge now, and was going to change the whole world by it.
Then he made Petrus finish the tale, who explained, speaking very slowly, that he had, some years ago, received orders from the God to preach to a Roman officer of Irregulars down-country; after which that officer and most of his people wanted to become Christians. So Petrus had initiated them the same night, although none of them were Hebrews. "And," Petrus ended, "I saw there is nothing under heaven that we dare call unclean."
Paulus turned on him like a flash and cried:
"You admit it! Out of your own mouth it is evident." Petrus shook like a leaf and his right hand almost lifted.
"Do you too twit me with my accent?" he began, but his face worked and he choked.