Mediæval Tales [Gesta Romanorum Selections] | Annotated Tale

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IN THE reign of Trajan there lived a knight named Placidus, who was commander-in-chief of the emperor's armies. He was very merciful, but a worshipper of idols. His wife too was an idolater. They had two sons, brought up in all magnificence, and from the kindness and goodness of their hearts, they deserved a revelation of the way of truth.

               As he was one day following the chase, Placidus discovered a herd of deer, amongst which was one remarkable for size and beauty. Separating itself from the rest, it plunged into the thickest part of the brake. While the hunters, therefore, occupied themselves with the remainder of the herd, Placidus swiftly followed this deer's track. The stag scaled a lofty precipice, and Placidus, approaching as near as he could, considered how it might be followed yet. But as he regarded it with fixed attention, there appeared upon the centre of the brow, the form of the cross, which glittered with more splendour than the noonday sun. Upon this cross an image of Jesus Christ was suspended; and the stag thus addressed the hunter: "Why dost thou persecute me, Placidus? For thy sake have I assumed the shape of this animal. I am Christ, whom thou ignorantly worshippest. Thine alms have gone up before me, and therefore I come; but as thou hast hunted this stag, so will I hunt thee."

               Some indeed assert that the image, hanging between the deer's antlers, said these things. However that may be, Placidus, filled with terror, fell from his horse; and in about an hour, returning to himself, arose from the earth and said, "Declare what thou wouldst have, that I may believe in thee."

               "I am Christ, O Placidus! I created heaven and earth; I caused the light to arise, and divided it from the darkness. I appointed days, and seasons, and years. I formed man out of the dust of the earth; and I became incarnate for the salvation of mankind. I was crucified, and buried; and on the third day I rose again."

               When Placidus understood these sublime truths, he fell again upon the earth, and exclaimed: "I believe, O Lord, that thou hast done all this; and that thou art He who bringest back the wanderer."

               The Lord answered: "If thou believest this, go into the city and be baptized."

               "Wouldst thou, O Lord, that I tell what has befallen me to my wife and children, that they also may believe?"

               "Do so; tell them, that they also may be cleansed from their iniquities. And on the morrow return hither, where I will appear again, and show you of the future."

               Placidus, therefore, went to his own home, and told all that had passed to his wife. But she too had had a revelation; and in like manner had been enjoined to believe in Christ, together with her children. So they hastened to the city of Rome, where they were entertained and baptized with great joy. Placidus was called Eustacius, and his wife, Theosbyta; the two sons, Theosbytus and Agapetus.

               In the morning, Eustacius, according to custom, went out to hunt, and coming with his attendants near the place, he dispersed them, as if for the purpose of discovering the prey. Immediately the vision of yesterday reappeared, and prostrating himself, he said, "I implore thee, O Lord, to manifest thyself according to thy word."

               "Blessed art thou, Eustacius, because thou hast received the laver of my grace, and thereby overcome the devil. Now hast thou trod him to dust, who beguiled thee. Now will thy fidelity appear; for the devil, whom thou hast deserted, will rage against thee in many ways. Much must thou undergo ere thou possessest the crown of victory. Much must thou suffer from the dignified vanity of the world; and much from spiritual intolerance. Fail not, therefore; nor look back upon thy former condition. Thou must be as another Job; but from the very depth of thy humiliation, I will restore thee to the height of earthly splendour. Choose, then, whether thou wouldst prefer thy trials at the end of life."

               Eustacius replied: "If it become me, O Lord, to be exposed to trials, let them presently approach; but do thou uphold me, and supply me with patient strength."

               "Be bold, Eustacius: my grace shall support your souls." Saying thus, the Lord ascended into heaven. After which Eustacius returned home to his wife, and explained to her what had been decreed.

               In a few days a pestilence carried off the whole of their men-servants and maid-servants; and before long the sheep, horses, and cattle also perished. Robbers plundered their habitation, and despoiled them of every ornament; while he himself, together with his wife and sons, fled naked and in the deepest distress. But devoutly they worshipped God; and apprehensive of an Egyptian redness, went secretly away. Thus were they reduced to utter poverty. The king and the senate, greatly afflicted with their general's calamities, sought for, but found not the slightest trace of him.

               In the meantime this unhappy family approached the sea; and finding a ship ready to sail, they embarked in it. The master of the vessel observing that the wife of Eustacius was very beautiful, determined to secure her; and when they had crossed the sea, demanded a large sum of money for their passage, which, as he anticipated, they did not possess. Notwithstanding the vehement and indignant protestations of Eustacius, he seized upon his wife; and beckoning to the mariners, commanded them to cast the unfortunate husband headlong into the sea. Perceiving, therefore, that all opposition was useless, he took up his two children, and departed with much and heavy sorrow. "Merciful heaven," he exclaimed, as he wept over his bereaved offspring, "your poor mother is lost; and, in a strange land, in the arms of a strange lord, must lament her fate."

               Travelling along, he came to a river, the water of which ran so high, that it appeared hazardous in an eminent degree to cross with both the children at the same time. One, therefore, he placed carefully upon the bank, and then passed over with the other in his arms. This effected, he laid it upon the ground, and returned immediately for the remaining child. But in the midst of the river, accidentally glancing his eye back, he beheld a wolf hastily snatch up the child, and run with it into an adjoining wood. Half maddened at a sight so truly afflicting, he turned to rescue it from the destruction with which it was threatened; but at that instant a huge lion approached the child he had left; and seizing it, presently disappeared. To follow was useless, for he was in the middle of the water. Giving himself up, therefore, to his desperate situation, he began to lament and to pluck away his hair, and would have cast himself into the stream, had not Divine Providence preserved him.

               Certain shepherds, however, observing the lion carrying off the child in his teeth, pursued him with dogs, and by the peculiar dispensation of heaven it was dropped unhurt. As for the other, some ploughmen witnessing the adventure, shouted lustily after the wolf, and succeeded in liberating the poor victim from its jaws. Now it happened that both the shepherds and ploughmen resided in the same village, and brought up the children amongst them. But Eustacius knew nothing of this, and his affliction was so poignant that he was unable to control his complaints. "Alas!" he would say, "once I nourished like a luxuriant tree, but now I am altogether blighted. Once I was encompassed with military ensigns and bands of armed men; now I am a single being in the universe. I have lost all my children and everything that I possessed. I remember, O Lord, that thou saidst my trials should resemble Job's; behold they exceed them. For although he was destitute, he had a couch, however vile, to repose upon; I, alas! have nothing. He had compassionating friends; while I, besides the loss of my children, am left a prey to the savage beasts. His wife remained, but mine is forcibly carried off. Assuage my anguish, O Lord, and place a bridle upon my lips, lest I utter foolishness, and stand up against thee." With such words he gave free course to the fulness of his heart; and after much travel, entered a village, where he abode. In this place he continued for fifteen years, as the hired servant of one of the villagers.

               To return to the two boys. They were educated in the same neighbourhood, but had no knowledge of their consanguinity. And as for the wife of Eustacius, she preserved her purity, and suffered not the infamous usage which she had to fear. After some time her persecutor died.

               In the meanwhile the Roman emperor was beset by his enemies, and recollecting how valiantly Placidus had behaved himself in similar straits, his grief at the deplorable change of fortune was renewed. He despatched soldiers through various parts of the world in pursuit of them; and promised to the discoverer infinite rewards and honours. It happened that some of the emissaries, being of those who had attended upon the person of Placidus, came into the country in which he laboured, and one of them he recognized by his gait. The sight of these men brought back to the exile's mind the situation of wealth and honour which he had once possessed; and being filled with fresh trouble at the recollection--"O Lord!" he exclaimed, "even as beyond expectation I have seen these people again, so let me be restored to my beloved wife. Of my children I speak not; for I know too well that they are devoured by wild beasts."

               At that moment a voice whispered, "Be faithful, Eustacius, and thou wilt shortly recover thy lost honours, and again look upon thy wife and offspring."

               Now when the soldiers met Placidus they knew not who he was; and accosting him, they asked if he were acquainted with any foreigner named Placidus, with his wife and two sons. He replied that he did not, but requested that they would rest in his house. And so he took them home, and waited on them. And here, as before, at the recollection of his former splendour, his tears flowed. Unable to contain himself, he went out of doors, and when he had washed his face he re-entered, and continued his service. By-and-by one said to the other, "Surely this man bears great resemblance to him we inquire after." "Of a truth," answered his companion, "you say well. Let us examine if he possess a sabre-mark on his head, which he received in action." They did so, and finding a scar which indicated a similar wound, they leaped up and embraced him, and inquired after his wife and sons.

               He told his adventures; and the neighbours coming in, listened with wonder to the account delivered by the soldiers of his military achievements and former magnificence. Then, obeying the command of the emperor, they clothed him in sumptuous apparel. On the fifteenth day they reached the imperial court, and the emperor, apprised of his coming, went out to meet him, and saluted him with great gladness. Eustacius told all that had befallen him. He was then invested with the command of the army, and restored to every office that he had held before his departure.

               He now therefore prepared with energy to encounter their enemies. He drew together from all parts the young men of the country; and it fell to the lot of the village where his own children were educated, to send two to the army; and these very youths were selected by the inhabitants as the best and bravest of their number. They appeared before the general, and their elegant manners, so much above their station, united to a singular propriety of conduct, won his esteem. He placed them in the van of his troops, and began his march against the enemy. Now the spot on which he pitched his tent was near his wife's abode; and, strange to say, the sons themselves, in the general distribution of the soldiers, were quartered with their own mother, but all the while ignorant with whom they were stationed.

               About mid-day, the lads sitting together, related the various chances to which their infancy had been subject; and the mother, who was at no great distance, became an attentive listener. "Of what I was while a child," said the elder of the brothers, "I remember nothing, except that my beloved father was a leader of a company of soldiers; and that my mother, who was very beautiful, had two sons, of whom I was the elder. We left home with our parents during the night, and embarking on board a vessel that immediately put to sea, sailed I know not whither. Our mother remained in the ship, but wherefore I am also ignorant. In the meantime, our father carried my brother and myself in his arms, and me he left upon the nearer bank of a river, until he had borne the younger of us across. But when he was returning to me, a wolf darted from a thicket and bore him off in his mouth. Before he could hasten back to him, a prodigious lion seized upon me, and carried me into a neighbouring wood. But shepherds delivered me, and brought me up amongst them."

               The younger brother here burst into a flood of tears, and exclaimed, "Surely I have found my brother; for they who brought me up frequently declared that I was saved from the jaws of a wolf." They exchanged embraces, and the mother, who listened, felt a strong conviction that they were her own children. She was silent, however, and the next day went to the commander of the forces, and begged leave to go into her own country. "I am a Roman woman," said she, "and a stranger in these parts."

               As she uttered these words, her eye fixed with an earnest and anxious gaze upon the countenance of him she addressed. It was her husband, whom she now for the first time recollected; and she threw herself at his feet, unable to contain her joy. "My lord," cried the glad woman, "I entreat you to tell something of your past life; for unless I greatly mistake, you are Placidus, the master of the soldiery, since known by the name of Eustacius, whom our blessed Saviour converted and tried by temptations. I am his wife, taken from him at sea by a wretch, who yet spared me from the worst. I had two sons, Agapetus and Theosbytus."

               These words recalled Eustacius to himself. Time and sorrow had made much change in both, but the recognition was full of happiness. They embraced and wept, giving glory to God as the God of all consolation. The wife then said, "My lord, what has become of our children?" "Alas!" replied he, "they were carried off by wild beasts;" and he told the manner of their loss. "Give thanks," said his wife, "give manifold thanks to the Lord; for as His Providence hath revealed our existence to each other, so will He give us back our beloved offspring." "Did I not tell you," returned he, "that wild beasts had devoured them?"

               "True; but yesternight as I sat in the garden I overheard two young men tell of their childhood, and whom I believe to be our sons. Ask them, and they will tell you."

               Messengers were immediately despatched for this purpose, and a few questions convinced Eustacius of the full completion of his happiness. They fell upon each other's neck and wept aloud. It was a joyful occasion; the whole army shared the joy of their general. A splendid victory ensued. Before their return the Emperor Trajan died, and was succeeded by Adrian, more wicked even than his predecessor. However, he received the conqueror and his family with great magnificence, and sumptuously entertained them at his own table. But the day following the emperor would have proceeded to the temple of his idols to sacrifice, in consequence of the late victory, and desired his guests to accompany him. "My lord," said Eustacius, "I worship the God of the Christians; and Him only do I serve and propitiate with sacrifice."

               Enraged at an opposition he had not contemplated, he placed the man who had freed Rome from a foreign yoke, with his whole family, in the arena, and let loose a ferocious lion upon them. But the lion, to the astonishment of all, held down his head before them, as if in reverence. On which the ungrateful emperor ordered a brazen ox to be fabricated, and heated to the highest degree. In this his victims were cast alive; but with prayer and supplication they commended themselves to the mercy of God, and three days after, being taken out of the furnace in the presence of the emperor, it appeared as if they had died tranquilly in bed. Not a hair of their heads was scorched, nor was there the smallest perceptible change, more than the easiest transition from life occasions. The Christians buried their corpses in the most honourable manner, and over them constructed an oratory. They perished in the first year of Adrian, A.D. 120, in the kalends of November; or, as some write, the 12th of the kalends of October.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Placidus
Tale Author/Editor: Morley, Henry
Book Title: Mediæval Tales [Gesta Romanorum Selections]
Book Author/Editor: Morley, Henry
Publisher: George Routledge & Sons
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1884
Country of Origin: Europe
Classification: unclassified

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