IT has been sometimes said that there has been in our times an entire decline in the spirit of Christian heroism.
We assume the contrary, and design to show the sufferings of a modern martyr, a modern edition of St. Perpetua. And first we will extract from Butler’s Lives of the Saints, under date of March 7th, some account of the heroic sufferings of the ancient St. Perpetua.
It appears she was a noble Carthaginian lady, who, in the reign of the Emperor Severus, was condemned, with a small company of fellow-Christians, to encounter the wild beasts in the arena. Thus the narrative: —
“ The day of their triumph being come, they went out of prison to go to the amphitheatre; joy sparkled in their eyes and appeared in all their gestures and words. Perpetua walked with a composed countenance and easy pace, as a woman cherished by Jesus Christ, with her eyes modestly cast down; she sang, as being already victorious.”
After describing her as witnessing the cruel deaths of her fellow-martyrs under the claws of lions and tigers, the narrative goes on to say: —
“ Perpetua and Felicitas (her slave) were first exposed to a wild cow. Perpetua was first attacked, and being tossed fell to the earth; rising to a sitting posture, and perceiving her clothes were torn, she gathered them about her in the best manner she could, thinking more of decency than of her sufferings. Getting up, not to seem disconsolate, she tied her hair, which was fallen loose, and perceiving Felicitas on the ground, much hurt by the tossing of the cow, she helped her to rise, and the two were removed to the place where the executioner dispatched those who had not been killed by the beasts.”
Perpetua, it is said, seemed to bo returning to herself out of a long ecstasy, to have been entirely unconscious of all that had occurred, and she could not believe the account of what had happened till she saw on her body and clothes the marks of what had taken place.
St. Austin, relating this, cries out: “ Where was she when assaulted and torn by the furious beast ? By what love, by what potion, was she so transported out of herself as to seem without feeling in a mortal body ? ”
She called her brother, and said, “ Continue firm in the faith, and be not disheartened by my sufferings,” and so walked to the place of butchery.
Such is the story of the ancient saint, and dull is the heart that gives no answering thrill to it.
Our modern St. Perpetua lived in an elegant square brick mansion with brown stone trimmings, situated in the midst of ample, well-adorned grounds in the pleasant, half-rural, manufacturing town of Prosperita. You have seen the place, and remember its wide streets, bordered on each side with rows of shadowy maples and elms, and carpeted with well-kept velvet grass. It was one of those many New England towns where life seemed rationally desirable and prosperous, and people were living as one should imagine it was right and proper, on the whole, that human beings should live, in peace, and in cultured affluence.
Our saint was a serene, middle-aged lady, whose ample mansion was the seat of hospitality, refinement, culture, and religion. She was well known as foremost in every good word and work. Occupied mainly with works of charity to her neighbor, and with devout contemplation directed heavenwards, our St. Perpetua had those notions about outward array which were derived from evangelical reading, such as the following: “ Whose adorning, let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of g jld, or of putting on of apparel. But let it be the hidden man of the heart, . . . even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which in the sight of God is of great price.”
So our saint seemed in the quiet ripeness of middle life to be sinking gradually into that goodly type of ancient womanhood which has almost perished from modern society. Her rich, heavy, oldfashioned silks were worn from year to year with scarce any modification from changing fashion; her bonnets, made so as to protect her ears in winter and shade her eyes in summer, circled serenely round her tranquil countenance; and the transparent laces which surrounded her face might by a slight effort of the imagination have seemed the aureole of a saint.
With a calm persistence this good woman maintained that one of the first purposes of clothing was comfort, and smilingly declined the good offices of the dress-maker to squeeze her lungs out of shape, or to stop the circulation of her blood, for any supposed ornamental effect. She declined also to make her dresses a means of sweeping the streets, and wore them at such a distance from the ground that the borders thereof were neither fringed nor frayed by the contact. Reserving these rights of health and decency, she allowed her anxious dressmaker to make only such changes in her wardrobe, from time to time, as should slightly harmonize it with the reigning mode, so that she should escape the imputation of singularity.
There were some artists, and people not biased by reigning conventions, who expressed admiration of this arrangement of costume, and went so far as to say that the sight of St. Perpetua at church, with her face radiant with celestial joy as she joined the service, or her benign grace as she shook hands with one neighbor or another coming down the aisle after service, was a subject worthy of a picture of " woman as she should be.”
Thus matters moved smoothly on with our saint, till the time of her trial came on. We must remark here that the conditions of saintship have altered in our days. Holy women now do not encounter dragons as St. Margaret did, as one may remember her in Raphael’s picture, standing serene as a star against the darkness of his great open mouth, bearing the victorious palm in her hands. No, dragons are decidedly gone out of vogue; nobody hears of them; they only occur now and then, when Darwin or somebody else alludes to prehistoric animals. Neither in our day are Christians thrown to lions and tigers, or threatened by wild cows. Our age being a refined and intellectual one, our temptations, trials, and martyrdoms are those of the more ethereal and refined portion of our nature.
The tempter in fact came in the form of an angel of light. The fair Melusina, lately graduated from Omnium College, returned home with all the muses and graces in her train; with eyes fair as stars, and golden hair frizzed divinely over a low, Grecian forehead; with persuasive dimples twinkling around a rosy mouth, which had been trained at college in all the arts and devices of eloquence, so that not merely “ truth divine ” came mended from her tongue, but things that were but half true, or not true at all, enjoyed a similar advantage.
The fair Melusina, though a college graduate and a believer in the modern theory of woman’s rights, had no notion of renouncing any of the worldwide privileges and immunities of her sex. She considered the doctrine of woman’s rights to mean that women were to keep all the rights they had already, in virtue of the fascinations of Venus, but to have added to them all those of the men, thus reigning queen of hearts and of society.
Our fair queen of hearts, however, was no heathen. She had been duly confirmed in church, with a white veil on her head, and with an indefinite but very pleasing emotion of self-devotion and self-sacrifice in her heart; certainly intending always thereafter fully to order her life as a good Christian girl ought. She was not without sentiment and love of the heroic, and when the white-robed choir entered the church singing, —
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before,”
her heart beat heroically, under the latest arrangement, of bows and laces, with a real warm throb of sympathy. It was an inexpensive way of marching after the cross of Jesus.
The fair Melusina early determined to bring the canons of fashion to bear upon her mother’s apparel and belongings.
“ Now, dear mamma,” — thus the attack began, — “ you know that I am not one of those frivolous girls who think fashion is everything, and ran talk and think of nothing but dress. I despise such girls as much as anybody; but yet I do think there is a propriety, a certain respectability ” —
“ My dear child, you certainly can’t mean to say that I am not dressed respectably? ”
“ Yes, dear mamma. This bonnet, now,” turning it on her hand, disparagingly, “why, mamma, it’s as old as the ark! Nobody wears such bonnets, now. Dear mamma,” — here her voice trembled with pathos and her eyes grew moist with emotion,—“you have really no idea what a horrid thing it is! It doesn’t look suitable and respectable for a lady in your position. Now, mamma, you are so absorbed in your good books and your charities and all that that you have n’t the slightest idea how differently people of our position must dress. Why, the style of this bonnet is ten years old at the least; and then, mamma, that silk of yours is n’t fit to be seen; the silk has grown shiny with age, and it is made hideously,—short and skimpy, — and altogether it’s not presentable. Now, mamma, everybody that knows anything will tell you I’m right. Miss Hibbens, who does your dress-making, spoke to me about it the other day, and said, ' I do hope, now you ’ve come home, you will fit your mother up a little, for really she does not appear as a lady in her circumstances ought.’ And just ask aunt Maria, and see what she will tell you.”
Aunt Maria, being appealed to, in counsel employed a stroke of generalship worthy the attention of all who seek to change the courses of New England saints. She put the question to her as a matter of self-sacrifice and penance. “ My dear sister,” she remarked, “ we are told Christians must not live to please themselves. Dress, being a matter of no moral character in itself, is fairly one of those things in which it is our duty to sacrifice our own feelings to give pleasure to our friends. Besides that, a woman who conforms to fashion acquires influence thereby, and influence is a talent for good which we should none of us neglect. Your sons are young men now, your daughter just coming into society, and all are desirous of seeing their mother appear as becomes her station and position in life; and your husband, I know, would think just as I do, for he said to me that nothing pleased him better than to see you handsomely dressed. As to the money, — why, that is no object with him, and you have enough to do all you want to for the poor, and yet dress as becomes a lady.”
This line of argument conquered. St. Perpetua meekly yielded, and was led, as a lamb to tlie sacrifice, to Miss Hibbens’s feet, who, enchanted to have her fairly in her power, cut and snipped and trimmed and pinched and pared to her heart’s content, — not regarding very much an occasional tender protest of her victim, thus: “Now, Miss Hibbens, do remember I love simplicity.”
“ Oh, yes, ma’am; simplicity is just your style. I understand. I have a lovely idea for the trimming; it will take only eighty yards of knife-pleating, with a heading of bugle fringe; so lovely, and so perfectly simple.”
“Don’t make too much of a train, Miss Hibbens,” says the saint, plaintively.
“ Oh, certainly not. Leave it to me; I understand.”
“ Miss Hibbens, these sleeves feel very tight. I can’t bear anything tight about my arms.”
“ Oh, no, I never make tight sleeves, — some dress-makers do, but I don’t. These will seem perfectly easy when they ’re finished; don’t be anxious about them.’ ’
And so on through all the process.
And now the sun had risen over the elms of Prosperita, and our saint was preparing to walk to the house of God in all her new appointments.
Everything had come home; a bonnet from Madame Adrienne’s in New York, ordered expressly for its simplicity and severity, consisting apparently of a gauzy bunch of black tulle, with winking fringes of jet, and a smart, neat aigrette of black feathers perking up jauntily on one side, and a cascade of lace and ribbon streaming down behind. Everybody declared it to be the concentrated essence of simple elegance. The black tissue from Miss Hibbens’s lay in voluminous folds on the bed and floor; and the fair Melusina, radiant and joyful, was there to induct her mother properly into these habiliments.
The historical St. Perpetua herself could not have looked more resigned and bowed down in meek surrender than our modern saint. First, her hair was taken out of crimp and frizzed in conformity with the most approved style. Then the dress was put on, and it appeared that the treacherous heart of the dress-maker gave out at the last, and could not allow her to retrench the amplitude of the train. Our saint regarded its sweep with an exclamation of horror: “ Mercy on us! How shall I ever get to church with this? ”
“ Don’t say a word, mamma; it’s just lovely. I ’ll show you how to carry it; it’s perfectly easy when one is used to it.”
“ But, dear, this waist pinches me.”
“ Oh, no, mamma, it does n’t. New dresses always feel a little stiff at first; it’ll stretch; and I never saw you have anything that fitted you so beautifully. You really have a nice figure, mamma.”
“ But these sleeves! They are too tight. Why, see here; I can’t lift my arms to my head! ”
‘‘ Well, mamma, you need n’t lift your arms to your head. The sleeves are lovely, and fit your arms beautifully; and I shall put your bonnet on and tie it for you, of course; ladies that have dressing - maids like me never have to raise their arms.”
“ But really, dear,”— anxiously surveying herself in the mirror, — “ I don’t like my skirt drawn so close round me; it shows all my figure.”
“ W *11, that is the fashion, mamma; that’s just what it’s for.”
“ But it hurts me to step. I really don’t think T can walk in it. I feel so tied up 1 can hardly move.”
“ Oh, you’ll get used to it, mamma dear; everybody does. I would n’t alter a thing; your dress is lovely. Sit down now, and let me put ou your bonnet. There!”
“It hurts me to sit down; it’s too tight. ”
“ Oh, mamma, you must just slip the skirt up a little; you haven’t got the knack; it will come all right. There — so. Now for the bonnet. It’s a perfect love, and so simple.”
Simple it was, to that degree that when it was on, our saint looked about and felt quite bare-headed.
“ Is n’t it too small? Why, it won’t shade ray eyes a bit! ”
“ Dear mamma, nobody lias their eyes shaded now.”
“ But it feels just as if it was slipping off the back of my head.”
“ Oh, I shall pin it on.” And Melusina proceeded to spear the same to the maternal head with long, black pins. “There!”
“ It hurts my head,” murmured the saint.
“ Dear mamma, you’ll get used to it. It’s just because you never wore such a bonnet before. There, now, you are done, and I never saw you look so splendid. Mamma, you are not an old woman; you are not going to be; you don’t look more than thirty at the most. I ’m going to call papa to look at you.”
Papa came in with The Churchman in his hand, the pious side out, and contemplated our saint first with a stare of astonishment, but soon, being kissed and variously manipulated and instructed by Melusina, he declared that she looked young and pretty, and that he should begin his courtship over again. What a delicate flush came into her cheeks, and how our saint brightened with celestial roses!
Having now assumed every possible appliance of discomfort and torture from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet (which, by the bye, were encased in a smart new pair of tight boots with the heel in the middle of the foot), St. Perpetua proceeded under the arches of the elms to the church. The dear saint had always enjoyed these tranquil summer walks with her husband to church, but now, with a bonnet that hurt her head, with a dress drawn so close that she could hardly step, with her tight: sleeves pinching the arm which tided to hold a sunshade over her head, and with the other hand sustaining the heavy harden of flounces and bugle trimming which had to he cared for, our saint had no time to say, " I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”The pilgrim who started with peas in his shoes was at ease compared with her. Her face settled into a pathetic expression of resignation and endurance. Arrived in church, she could not sink on her knees for the entering prayer without being violently called back to earth by her " tie-back.” Melusina assisted her to manage her draperies, but the subtle essence of devotion spread its wings and fled like a frightened bird before the bustle. Our saint lost her prayer, and could only remember her clothes. Once posed, however, the noble church service awakened again the heavenly spirit within, and she began to forget herself. She rose to the “ Te Deum,”and her heart thrilled and throbbed as she joined the glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, and the noble army of martyrs; she was almost in heaven as the last strain vibrated, “ let me never be confounded,” and she sank, inadvertently, into her seat, and felt her bonnet jerked violently backward by the cascade of lace and ribbon which streamed from it behind, and which had been caught between her back and the back of the pew. It was only the pins that kept it from going off, but the tug upon them was so violent that her head ached, and the fear that her bonnet really would go off backward suddenly seized her. She tried to put up her arms, but could not, and looked with a frightened, appealing glance at Melusina, who serenely reassured her, whispering that she must be careful how she leaned back.
If heaven is to be won or grace attained by self-torture, our St. Perpetua this morning was worthy of mention with those who wore hair-cloth vests and belts with spikes and other saintly enginery of pain; and if these be means of grace, she was in the way of making rapid attainments.
The Sunday was a sultry one; and though her dress was by courtesy supposed to be thin, yet the tissue being superimposed over a heavy silk formed in fact a double dress, and only mocked her with an outward suggestion of coolness. She was hot, breathless, aching, annoyed, and, as a result of all, terribly tempted of the devil. There were moments when our saint felt as if violent and profane language would have been a relief to her, and it was only by victorious grace overcoming these propensities that her saintship was perfected.
Never had she experienced so unpleasant a service; but remembering that the essence of religion is self-sacrifice, she meekly resigned herself, with profound humility repenting of her irritable impulses, and resolving not to give way to them any more. Arrived at home she was delayed by compliments from all sides, and being permitted to retire to the solace of a loose wrapper, in consideration of the extreme heat, became somewhat more composed.
Our saint did not rise in rebellion against the yoke; meekly she submitted. In time she learned to divide her sacred thoughts in church with the care of her bonnet and her tie-back, and never in any ecstasy of devotion to forget she was mortal. As to the pain her clothes gave her, the sense of compression, the weariness, she learned to endure that in the spirit of sacrifice. If St. Perpetua of old could maintain a heavenly ecstasy when tossed by a wild cow, might she not hope in time, by spiritual forces, to rise above the sense of bodily torture? At all events, she tried it, and was the meekest, sweetest looking saint ever sacrificed on the altar of Fashion.
One heavy trial she had to bear. Certain sisters of the church called her change of costume extravagance, and mourned for her in good, set terms as a professing Christian entirely given over to worldliness and in danger of going the broad way.
These hard judgments went to her heart, but the worst she was ever known to wish her most censorious critics was that they might have to wear the same things themselves.
Our readers will meet this saint now and then at Saratoga or Long Branch, where the lovely Melusina carries her. They will see her serenely and meekly bearing on her patient person all the present enormities of fashion. She does not remonstrate, she does not rebel; she bears them as a cross she has become accustomed to.
Respect her when you meet her, and consider what an amount of saintly merit she has acquired by these years of selfrenunciation and torture.
Harriet Beecher Stowe.