Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 42A Cruel Proclamation
Thereupon the council drew up letters, under the emperor’s hand and seal, and sent them out to all the world, bidding all mothers with children of seven years of age or under to bring them with speed to Rome, that there the blood of the innocents might prove healing to the emperor’s malady. Alas! what weeping and [Pg 67] wailing there was among the mothers when they heard this cruel decree! How they cried, and clasped their babes to their breasts, and how they called Constantine more cruel than Herod, who killed the Holy Innocents! The eastern ruler, they said, slew only the infants of one poor village, but their emperor, more ruthless, claimed the lives of all the young children of his whole empire.
Constantine is Conscience-stricken
But though the mothers lamented bitterly, they must needs bow to the emperor’s decree, whether they were lief or loath, and thus a great multitude gathered in the great courtyard of the imperial palace at Rome: women nursing sucking-babes at the breast, or holding toddling infants by the hand, or with little children running by their sides, and all so heart-broken and woebegone that many swooned for very grief. The mothers wailed aloud, the children cried, and the tumult grew until Constantine heard it, where he sat lonely and wretched in his darkened room. He looked out of his window on the mournful sight in the courtyard, and was roused as from a trance, saying to himself: “O Divine Providence, who hast formed all men alike, lo! the poor man is born, lives, suffers, and dies, just as does the rich; to wise man and fool alike come sickness and health; and no man may avoid that fortune which Nature’s law hath ordained for him. Likewise to all men are Nature’s gifts of strength and beauty, of soul and reason, freely and fully given, so that the poor child is born as capable of virtue as the king’s son; and to each man is given free will to choose virtue or vice. Yet thou givest to men diversity of rank, wealth or poverty, lordship or servitude, not always according to their deserts; so much the more [Pg 68] virtuous should that man be to whom thou hast put other men in subjection, men who are nevertheless his fellows and wear his likeness. Thou, O God, who hast put Nature and the whole universe under law, wouldst have all men rule themselves by law, and thou hast said that a man must do to others such things as he would have done to himself.”
His Noble Resolve
Thus Constantine spoke within himself as he stood by the window and looked upon the weeping mothers and children, the very sentinels of his palace pitying them, and trying in vain to comfort them; and a strife grew strong within him between his natural longing for healing and deliverance from this loathsome disease which had darkened his life, and the pity he felt for these poor creatures, and his horror at the thought of so much human blood to be shed for himself alone. The great moaning of the woeful mothers came to him and the pitiful crying of the children, and he thought: “What am I that my health is to outweigh the lives and happiness of so many of my people? Is my life of more value to the world than those of all the children who must shed their blood for my healing? Surely each babe is as precious as Constantine the Emperor!” Thus his heart grew so tender and so full of compassion that he chose rather to die by this terrible sickness than to commit so great a slaughter of innocent children, and he renounced all other physicians, and trusted himself wholly to God’s care.