HOW AUGUSTINE WENT TO CARTHAGE, AND HOW PATRICIUS DIED A CHRISTIAN DEATH
Augustine's year at home did not do for him what Monica had hoped. His old pagan schoolfellows gathered round him; he was always with them; the happy home-life seemed to have lost its charm. The want of principle and of honour in most of them disgusted him in his better moments; nevertheless he was content to enjoy himself in their company. He was even ashamed, when they boasted of their misdoings, to seem more innocent than they, and would pretend to be worse than he really was, lest his prestige should suffer in their eyes. There were moments when he loathed it all, and longed for the old life, with its innocent pleasures; but it is hard to turn back on the downhill road.
He tells us how he went one night with a band of these wild companions to rob the fruit-tree of a poor neighbour. It was laden with pears, but they were not very good; they did not care to eat them, and threw them to the pigs. It was not schoolboy greed that prompted the theft, but the pure delight of doing evil, of tricking the owner of the garden. There was the wild excitement, too, of the daring; the fear that they might be caught in the act. He was careful to keep such escapades a secret from his mother, but Monica was uneasy, knowing what might be expected from the companions her son had chosen.
Patricius was altogether unable to give Augustine the help that he needed. The Christian ideals of life and conduct were new to him as yet; the old pagan ways seemed only natural. He was scarcely likely to be astonished at the fact that his son's boyhood was rather like what his own had been. He was standing, it is true, on the threshold of the Church, but her teaching was not yet clear to him. His own feet were not firm enough in the ways of Christ to enable him to stretch a steadying hand to another.
His mother was failing fast; the end could not be far off. Monica was devoting herself heart and soul to the old woman, who clung to her with tender affection, and was never happy in her absence.
Patricius watched them together, and marvelled at the effects of the grace of Baptism. Was that indeed his mother, he asked himself, that gentle, patient old woman, so thoughtful for others, so ready to give up her own will? She had used to be violent and headstrong like himself, resentful and implacable in her dislikes, but now she was more like Monica than like him. That was Monica's way, though; her sweetness and patience seemed to be catching. She was like the sunshine, penetrating everywhere with its light and warmth. He, alas! was far behind his mother. Catechumen though he was, the old temper would often flash out still. Self-conquest was the hardest task that he had ever undertaken, and sometimes he almost lost heart, and was inclined to give it up altogether. Then Monica would gently remind him that with God's help the hardest things were possible, and they would kneel and pray together, and Patricius would take heart again for the fight. She had a wonderful gift for giving people courage; Patricius had noticed that before. He supposed it was because she was so full of sympathy, and always made allowances. And then she seemed to think—to be sure, even—that if one went on trying, failures did not matter, God did not mind them; and that was a very comforting reflection for poor weak people like himself. To go on trying was possible even for him, although he knew he could not always promise himself success.
Patricius was anxious about Augustine's future. All his efforts had not succeeded in saving the sum required for his first year at Carthage. He had discovered that it would cost a good deal more than he had at first supposed, and it was difficult to see where the money was to come from.
It was at this moment that Romanianus, a wealthy and honourable citizen of Tagaste, who knew the poverty of his friend, came forward generously and put his purse at Patricius's disposal. The sum required was offered with such delicacy that it could not be declined. Augustine was sure to bring glory on his native town, said Romanianus; it was an honour to be allowed to help in his education.
Monica was almost glad to see her son depart. The old boyish laziness had given way to a real zeal for learning and thirst after knowledge. The idle life at home was certainly the worst thing for him. Hard work and the pursuit of wisdom might steady his wild nature and bring him back to God. It was her only hope now, as with prayers and tears she besought of Him to watch over her son.
But Monica did not know Carthage. If it was second only to Rome for its culture and its schools, it almost rivalled Rome in its corruption. There all that was worst in the civilization of the East and of the West met and mingled. The bloody combats between men and beasts, the gladiatorial shows that delighted the Romans, were free to all who chose to frequent the amphitheatre of Carthage. Such plays as the Romans delighted in, impossible to describe, were acted in the theatre. The horrible rites of the Eastern religions were practised openly.
There was neither discipline nor order in the schools. The wealthier students gloried in their bad reputation. They were young men of fashion who were capable of anything, and who were careful to let others know it. They went by the name of "smashers" or "upsetters," from their habit of raiding the schools of professors whose teaching they did not approve, and breaking everything on which they could lay hands. They treated new-comers with coarse brutality, but Augustine seems in some manner to have escaped their enmity. Perhaps a certain dignity in the young man's bearing, or perhaps his brilliant gifts, won their respect, for he surpassed them all in intelligence, and speedily outstripped them in class.
Augustine was eager for knowledge and eager for enjoyment. He frequented the theatre; his pleasure-loving nature snatched at everything that life could give; yet he was not happy. "My God," he cried in later years, "with what bitter gall didst Thou in Thy great mercy sprinkle those pleasures of mine!" He could not forget; and at Tagaste his mother was weeping and praying for her son.
Patricius prayed with her; he understood at last. Every day the germs of a noble nature that had lain so long dormant within him were gaining strength and life. Every day his soul was opening more and more to the understanding of spiritual things, while Monica watched the transformation with a heart that overflowed with gratitude and love. The sorrows of the past were all forgotten in the joy of the present, that happy union at the feet of Christ. There was but one cause for sadness—Patricius's health was failing. His mother had already shown him the joys of a Christian deathbed. She had passed away smiling, with their hands in hers, and the name of Jesus on her lips. The beautiful prayers of the Church had gone down with the departing soul to the threshold of the new life, and had followed it into eternity. She seemed close to them still in the light of that wonderful new Faith, and to be waiting for them in their everlasting home.
But Monica's happiness was to be short-lived, for it seemed that Patricius would soon rejoin his mother. He did not deceive himself. He spoke of his approaching death to Monica, and asked her to help him to make a worthy preparation for Baptism, which he desired to receive as soon as possible. With the simplicity and trustfulness of a child, he looked to her for guidance, and did all that she desired.
The ceremony over, he turned to his wife and smiled. A wonderful peace possessed him. The old life, with all its stains, had passed from him in those cleansing waters; the new life was at hand. Once more he asked her to forgive him all the pain he had caused her, all that he had made her suffer. No, she must not grieve, he told her; the parting would be but for a little while, the meeting for all eternity. She had been his angel, he said; he owed all his joy to her. It was her love, her patience, that had done it all. She had shown him the beauty of goodness and made him love it. He thanked her for all that she had been to him, all that she had shown him, all that she had done for him. Her tears fell on his face, her loving arms supported him; her sweet voice, broken with weeping, spoke words of hope and comfort.
On the threshold of that other world Monica bade farewell to her husband, and one more soul that she had won for Christ went out into a glorious eternity.