Sagaris, making his best speed, soon arrived at Aquinum. He and his horse were bathed in sweat; the shelter of an inn, where he had dinner, tempted him to linger more than he need have done, and the fierce sun was already declining when he rode forth along the Latin Way. As yet he had seen no Goths. Every one talked of Totila, but he had a difficulty in ascertaining where at this moment the king was to be found; some declared he was as near as Venafrum, others that he lay much further down the valley of the Vulturnus. Arrived at Venafrum, the messenger learnt that he could not have less than another whole day's journey before him, so here be harboured for the night.
His wily and unscrupulous mind had all day long been busy with speculations as to the errand on which he was sent. Knowing that his master wrote to Goths in the Gothic tongue, he was spared temptation to break open the letter he carried; otherwise he would assuredly have done so, for the hatred which Sagaris naturally felt for any one in authority over him was now envenomed by jealousy, and for the last month or two he had only waited an opportunity of injuring Marcian and of advancing, by the same stroke, his own fortunes.
Having started from Rome in ignorance of his master's purpose, the events of the night at Praeneste at once suggested to him the name of the person who was being so cautiously and hurriedly conveyed under Marcian's guard, and by the end of the journey he had no doubt left. Here, at last, was the Gothic maiden who had been sought so persistently by Marcian, by Basil, by Bessas, by Heliodora, and doubtless by many others, since her disappearance from Surrentum. Whither was she now being conducted? Sagaris did not know that among her seekers was King Totila himself; on the other hand, he had much reason for suspecting that Marcian pursued Veranilda with a lover's passion, and when the journey ended at the island villa, when the convoy of horsemen was dismissed, when he himself was sent off to a distance, he saw his suspicion confirmed. By some supreme subtlety, Marcian had got the beautiful maiden into his power, and doubtless the letter he was sending to Totila contained some device for the concealing of what had happened.
Now to the Syrian this would have been a matter of indifference, but for his secret communications with Heliodora and all that had resulted therefrom. Heliodora's talk was of three persons -- of Marcian, of Basil, of Veranilda -- and Sagaris, reasoning from all the gossip he had heard, and from all he certainly knew, concluded that the Greek lady had once loved Basil, but did so no more, that her love had turned to Marcian, and that she either knew or suspected Marcian to be a rival of Basil for the love of Veranilda. Thus had matters stood (he persuaded himself) until his own entrance on the scene. That a woman might look with ardent eyes on more than one man in the same moment, seemed to Sagaris the simplest of facts; he consequently found it easy to believe that, even whilst loving Marcian, Heliodora should have conceived a tenderness for Marcian's slave. That Heliodora's professions might be mere trickery, he never imagined; his vanity forbade it; at each successive meeting he seemed to himself to have strengthened his hold upon the luxurious woman; each time he came away with a fiercer hatred of Marcian, and a deeper resolve to ruin him. True, as yet, he had fed only on promises, but being the man he was, he could attribute to Heliodora a selfish interest in combination with a lover's desire; what more intelligible than that she should use him to the utmost against those she hated, postponing his reward until he had rendered her substantial service? Thus did Sagaris feel and reason, whilst riding along the Latin Way. His difficulty was to decide how he should act at this juncture; how, with greatest profit to himself, he could do most scathe to Marcian.
Was his master serving the Greeks or the Goths? Uncertainty on this point had long troubled his meditations, and was now a cause of grave embarrassment. Eager to betray, he could not be sure to which side betrayal should direct itself. On the whole he himself favoured Totila, feeling sure that the Goth would bring the war to a triumphant end; and on this account he was disposed to do his errand faithfully. If the king interrogated him, he could draw conclusions from the questions asked, and could answer as seemed best for his own ends. So he decided to push on, and, despite the storm which broke on this second morning, he rode out from Venafrum.
A few hours' travel, and, drenched with the furious rain, he came to Aesernia. This town stood in a strong position on an isolated hill; its massive walls yet compassed it about. On arriving at the gate he found himself unexpectedly challenged by armed men, who, though Italians, he at once suspected to be in the Gothic service. A moment's hesitancy in replying to the questions, 'Whence?' and 'Whither?' sufficed to put him under arrest. He was led to the captain, in whom with relief he recognised Venantius of Nuceria. His doubts being at an end, for he knew that this Roman noble had long since openly joined Totila, he begged that Venantius would hear him in private, and this being granted, began by telling in whose service he was.
'I thought I somehow remembered your face,' said the captain, whose look seemed to add that the face did not particularly please him. 'And where is the lord Marcian?'
'In Rome, Illustrious.'
'You have come straight from Rome, then?'
The answer was affirmative and boldly given.
'And whither are you bound? On what business?'
Sagaris, still obeying his master's injunctions, declared that he carried a verbal message to the King of the Goths, and for him alone. Having reflected for a moment, Venantius called the soldier who stood without the door.
'See to the wants of this messenger. Treat him hospitably, and bring him hither again in an hour's time.'
The captain then walked to a house close by, where, admitted to the atrium, he was at once met by an elderly lady, who bent respectfully before him.
'Has the traveller yet risen?' he began by asking.
'Not yet, my lord. A little while ago his servant told me that he was still sleeping.'
'Good; he will recover from his fatigue. But pray inquire whether he is now awake, for I would speak with him as soon as may be.'
The lady was absent for a minute or two, then brought word that the traveller had just awoke.
'I will go to his bedside,' said Venantius.
He was led to an upper chamber, a small, bare, tiled-floored room, lighted by a foot-square window, on which the shutter was half closed against the rays of the sun. Some aromatic odour hung in the air.
'Do you feel able to talk?' asked the captain as he entered.
'I am quite restored,' was the reply of a man sitting up in the bed. 'The fever has passed.'
'So much for the wisdom of physicians!' exclaimed Venantius with a laugh. 'That owl-eyed Aesernian who swears by Aesculapius that he has studied at Constantinople, Antioch, and I know not where else, whispered to me that you would never behold to-day's sunset. I whispered to him that he was an ass, and that if he uttered the word plague to any one in the house, I would cut his ears off. Nevertheless, I had you put into this out-of-the-way room, that you might not be disturbed by noises. Who' -- he sniffed -- 'has been burning perfumes?'
'My good fellow Felix. Though travel-worn and wounded, he has sat by me all the time, and would only go to bed when I woke up with a cool forehead.'
'A good fellow, indeed. His face spells honesty. I can't say so much for that of a man I have just been talking with -- a messenger of your friend Marcian.'
The listener started as though he would leap out of bed. A rush of colour to his cheeks banished the heavy, wan aspect which had partly disguised him, and restored the comely visage of Basil. A messenger from Marcian? he exclaimed. With news for him? And, as if expecting a letter, he stretched forth his hand eagerly.
'He has nothing, that I know of, for you,' said the captain. 'If he tells the truth, he is charged with a message for the king.'
'Is it Sagaris -- a Syrian slave?'
'A Syrian, by his looks; one I remember to have seen with Marcian a year ago.'
'Sagaris, to be sure. Then you can trust him. He has the eye of his race, and is a prating braggart, but Marcian has found him honest. I must see him, Venantius. Will you send him to me, dear lord?'
Venantius had seated himself on a chair that was beside the bed; he wore a dubious look, and, before speaking again, glanced keenly at Basil.
'Did you not expect,' he asked, 'to meet Marcian in the king's camp?'
'My last news from him bade me go thither as fast as I could, as he himself was leaving Rome to join the king. I should have gone a little out of my road to visit his villa near Arpinum, on the chance of hearing news of him there; but our encounter with the marauders drove me too far away.'
'So much,' said Venantius, 'I gathered from your talk last night, when you were not quite so clear-headed as you are now. What I want to discover is whether this Syrian has lied to me. He declares that he left Marcian in Rome. Now it happens that some of our men, who were sent for a certain purpose, yesterday, along the Latin Way, came across half a dozen horsemen, riding westward, and as their duty was, learnt all they could from them. These six fellows declared themselves servants of the bishop of Praeneste, and said that they had just been convoying a Roman noble and a lady to a villa not far from Arpinum. And the noble's name -- they had it, said they, from his own servants at the villa, where they had passed a night -- was Marcian.'
Basil stared; he had gone pale again and haggard.
'What lady was with him?' he asked, under his breath.
'That I cannot tell you. The bishop's men knew nothing about her, and had not seen her face. But' -- Venantius smiled -- 'they left her safely housed with our friend Marcian. How comes this Syrian to say that his master is at Rome? Does he lie? Or did the horsemen lie? Or are there, perchance, two Marcians?'
'I must speak with him,' said Basil. 'Leave me to find out the truth for you. Send Sagaris here, Venantius, I entreat you.'
The captain appeared to hesitate, but, on Basil's beseeching him not to delay, he agreed and left the room. As soon as he was alone, Basil sprang up and dressed. He was aching from head to foot, and a parched mouth, a hot hand, told of fever in his blood. On receipt of Marcian's last letter, he had not delayed a day before setting forth; all was in readiness for such a summons, and thirty well-mounted, well-armed men, chosen from the slaves and freedmen on his Asculan estate in Picenum, rode after him to join the King of the Goths. The journey was rapidly performed; already they were descending the lower slopes of the westward Apennine, when they had the ill-luck to fall in with that same band of marauders which Marcian so narrowly escaped. Basil's first thought was that the mounted troop coming towards him might hem the Gothic service, but this hope was soon dispelled. Advancing with fierce threats, the robbers commanded him and his men to alight, their chief desire being no doubt to seize the horses and arms. Though outnumbered, Basil shouted defiance; a conflict began, and so stout was the resistance they met that, after several had fallen on either side, the brigands drew off. Not, however, in final retreat; galloping on in hope of succour, Basil found himself pursued, again lost two or three men, and only with the utmost difficulty got clear away.
It was the young Roman's first experience of combat. For this he had been preparing himself during the past months, exercising his body and striving to invigorate his mind, little apt for warlike enterprise. When the trial came, his courage did not fail, but the violent emotions of that day left him so exhausted, so shaken in nerve, that he could scarce continue his journey. He had come out of the fight unwounded, but at nightfall fever fell upon him, and he found no rest. The loss of some half dozen men grieved him to the heart; had the brave fellows fallen in battle with the Greeks, he would have thought less of it; to see them slain, or captured, by mere brigands was more than he could bear. When at length he reached Aesernia, and there unexpectedly met with Venantius, he fell from his horse like a dying man. A draught given by the physician sent him to sleep, and from the second hour after sunset until nearly noon of to-day he had lain unconscious.
What he now learnt from Venantius swept into oblivion all that he had undergone. If it were true that Marcian had travelled in this direction with a lady under his guard, Basil could not doubt for a moment who that lady was. The jest of Venantius did not touch him, for Venantius spoke, it was evident, without a thought of Veranilda, perhaps had forgotten her existence; not the faintest tremor of uneasiness stirred in Basil's mind when he imagined Veranilda at his friend's house; Marcian had discovered her, had rescued her, had brought her thither to rest in safety till her lover could join them -- brave Marcian, truest of friends! For this had he sent the summons southward, perhaps not daring to speak more plainly in a letter, perhaps not being yet quite sure of success. This had he so often promised -- O gallant Marcian!
Quivering with eagerness, he stood at the door of his chamber. Footsteps sounded; there appeared a slave of the house, and behind him that dark, handsome visage which he was expecting.
'Sagaris! My good Sagaris!' he cried joyously.
The Syrian knelt before him and kissed his hand, but uttered no word. At sight of Basil, for which he was not at all prepared, Sagaris felt a happy shock; he now saw his way before him, and had no more anxiety. But, on rising from the obeisance, he let his head drop; his eyes wandered: one would have said that he shrank from observation.
'Speak low,' said Basil, standing by the open door so as to guard against eavesdropping. 'What message have you for me?'
Sagaris replied that he had none.
'None? Your lord charged you with nothing for me in case you should meet me on your way?'
Again Sagaris murmured a negative, and this time with so manifest an air of confusion that Basil stared at him, suspicious, angry.
'What do you mean? What are you keeping from me?'
The man appeared to stammer incoherencies.
'Listen,' said Basil in a low, friendly voice. 'You know very well that the lord Marcian has no secrets from me. With me you can speak in entire confidence. What has come to you, man? Tell me -- did your lord leave Rome before or after you?'
'At the same time.'
No sooner had this reply fallen from his lips than Sagaris seemed stricken with alarm. He entreated pardon, declared he knew not what he was saying, that he was dazed by the weariness of travel.
'I should have said -- neither before nor after. My lord remains in the city. I was to return with all speed.'
'He remains in the city?'
Basil reflected. It was possible that Marcian had either purposely concealed his journey from this slave, and had suddenly found himself able to set forth just after Sagaris had started.
'You bear a letter for the king?' he asked.
'A letter, Illustrious,' answered the slave, speaking very low.
'Ah, a letter?'
Sagaris went on to say that he had kept this a secret from Venantius, his master having bidden him speak of it to no one and deliver it into the king's own hand.
'It is in the Gothic tongue,' he added, his head bent, his look more furtive than ever; 'and so urgent that I have scarce rested an hour since leaving the villa.'
A terrible light flashed into Basil's eyes. Then he sprang at the speaker, caught him by the throat, forced him to his knees.
'Scoundrel, you dare to lie to me! So you started from the villa and not from Rome?'
Sagaris cried out for mercy, grovelled on the floor. He would tell everything; but he implored Basil to keep the secret, for, did his master learn what had happened, his punishment would be terrible.
'Fool!' cried Basil fiercely. 'How come you to have forgotten all at once that I am your lord's chosen friend, and that everything concerning him is safe with me. In very deed, I think you have ridden too hard in the sun; your brains must have frizzled. Blockhead! If in haste, the lord Marcian did not speak of me, he took it for granted that, should you meet me ----'
Something so like a malicious smile flitted over the slave's countenance that in extremity of wrath he became mute.
'Your Nobility is deceived,' said Sagaris, in the same moment. 'My lord expressly forbade me to tell you the truth, should I see you on my journey.'
Basil stared at him.
'I swear by the holy Cross,' exclaimed the other, 'that this is true. And if I did not dread your anger, I could tell you the reason. I dare not. By all the saints I dare not!'
A strange quiet fell upon Basil. It seemed as if he would ask no more questions; he half turned away, and stood musing. Indeed, it was as though he had already heard all the slave had to tell, and so overcome was he by the revelation that speech, even connected thought, was at first impossible. As he recovered from the stupefying blow, the blood began to boil in his veins. He felt as when, in the fight of two days ago, he saw the first of his men pierced by a javelin. Turning again to Sagaris, he plied him with brief and rapid questions, till he had learnt every detail of Marcian's journey from Rome to the villa. The Syrian spoke of the veiled lady without hesitation as Veranilda, and pretended to have known for some time that she was in a convent at Praeneste; but, when interrogated as to her life at the villa, he affected an affectation of doubt, murmuring that he had beheld nothing with his own eyes, that perhaps the female slaves gossiped idly.
'What do they say?' asked Basil with unnatural self-control.
'They speak of her happy mien and gay talk, of her walking with my lord in private. But I know nothing.'
Basil kept his eyes down for a long minute, then moved like one who has taken a resolve.
'Show me the letter you bear,' he commanded.
Sagaris produced it, and having looked at the seal, Basil silently handed it back again.
'Thrice noble,' pleaded the slave, 'you will not deliver me to my lord's wrath?'
'Have no fear; unless in anything you have lied to me. Follow.'
They descended the stairs, and Basil had himself conducted to the house where Venantius sate at dinner. He spoke with the captain in private.
'This slave has a letter, not merely a message, for the king. He says it is urgent, and so it may be; but, from what I have learnt I doubt whether he is wholly to be trusted. Can you send some one with him?'
'I,' continued Basil, 'ride straightway for Arpinum. Ask me no questions, Venantius. When I return, if I do return, you shall know what sent me there. I may be back speedily.'
He took food, and in an hour's time was ready to start. Of his followers, he chose ten to accompany him. The rest remained at Aesernia. Felix, worn out by watching and with a slight wound in the side which began to be troublesome, he was reluctantly obliged to leave. Having inquired as to the road over the mountains by which he might reach Arpinum more quickly than by the Latin Way, he rode forth from the town, and was soon spurring at headlong speed in a cloud of dust.
His thoughts far outstripped him; he raged at the prospect of long hours to elapse ere he could reach Marcian's villa. With good luck he might arrive before nightfall. If disappointed in that, a whole night must pass, an eternity of torment, before he came face to face with him he had called his dearest friend, now his abhorred enemy.
What if he did not find him at the villa? Marcian had perhaps no intention of remaining there. Perhaps he had already carried off his victim to some other place.
Seeing their lord post so furiously, the men looked in wonder at each other. Some of them were soon left far behind, and Basil, though merciless in his frenzy, saw at length that his horse was seriously distressed; he slackened pace, allowed his followers to rejoin him, and rode, perforce, at what seemed to him a mere crawl. The sun was a flaming furnace; the earth seemed to be overspread with white fire-ash, which dazed the eyes and choked. But Basil felt only the fire in his heart and brain. Forgetful of all about him, he had not ridden more than a few miles, when he missed the road; his men, ignorant of the country, followed him without hesitation, and so it happened that, on stopping at one of the few farms on their way, to ask how far it still was to Arpinum, he learnt that he must ride back for nearly a couple of hours to regain the track he should have taken. He broke into frantic rage, cursed the countrymen who directed him, and as he spurred his beast, cursed it too because of its stumbling at a stone.
There was now no hope of finishing the journey to-day. His head on his breast, Basil rode more and more slowly. The sun declined, and ere long it would be necessary to seek harbourage. But here among the hills no place of human habitation came in view. Luckily for themselves some of the horsemen had brought provender. Their lord had given thought to no such thing. The sun set; the hills cast a thickening shadow, even Basil began to gaze uneasily ahead. At length there appeared a building, looking in the dusky distance like a solitary country house. It proved to be the ruin of a temple.
'Here we must stop,' said Basil. 'My horse can go no further. Indeed, the darkness would stay us in any case. We must shelter in these walls.'
The men peered at each other, and a whisper went among them. For their part, said one and all, they would rest under the open sky. Basil understood.
'What! you are afraid? Fools, do as you will. These walls shall shelter me though all the devils in hell were my bedfellows.'
What had come to him? asked his followers. Never had Basil been known to speak thus. Spite of their horror of a forsaken temple, two or three entered, and respectfully made offer of such food as they had with them. Basil accepted a piece of bread, bade them see to his horse, and crept into a corner of the building. He desired to be alone and to think; for it seemed to him that he had not yet been able to reflect upon the story told by Sagaris. What was it that lurked there at the back of his mind? A memory, a suggestion of some sort, which would have helped him to understand could he but grasp it. As he munched his bread he tried desperately to think, to remember; but all within him was a passionate misery, capable only of groans and curses. An intolerable weariness possessed his limbs. After sitting for a while with his back against the wall, he could not longer hold himself in this position, but sank down and lay at full length; and even so he ached, ached, from head to foot.
Perhaps an hour had passed, and it was now quite dark within the temple, when two of the men appeared with blazing torches, for they, by means of flint and iron, had lit a fire in a hollow hard by, and meant to keep it up through the night as a protection against wolves. They brought Basil a draught of water in a leather bottle, from a little stream they had found; and he drank gratefully, but without a word. The torchlight showed bare walls and a shattered roof. Having searched all round and discovered neither reptile nor beast, the men made a bed of leaves and bracken, with a folded cloak for a pillow, and invited their master to lie upon it. Basil did so, turned his face away, and bade them leave him alone.
What was that memory at the back of his mind? In the effort to draw it forth he ground his teeth together, dug his nails into his hands. At moments he forgot why he was wretched, and, starting up, strained his eyes into the darkness, until he saw the face of Sagaris and heard him speaking.
For a while he slept; but dreadful dreams soon awoke him, and, remembering where he was, he shook with horror. Low sounds fell upon his ear, movements, he thought, in the black night. He would have shouted to his men, but shame kept him mute. He crossed himself and prayed to the Virgin; then, raising his eyes, he saw through the broken roof a space of sky in which a star shone brilliantly. It brought him comfort; but the next moment he remembered Sagaris, and mental anguish blended with his fears of the invisible.
Again sleep overcame him. He dreamt that an evil spirit, with a face he knew but could not name, was pursuing him over trackless mountains. He fled like the wind; but the spirit was close behind him, and wherever he turned his head, he saw the familiar face grinning a devilish mockery. A precipice lay before him. He leapt wildly, and knew at once that he had leapt into fire, into hell. But the red gleam was that of a torch, and before him, as he opened his eyes, stood one of his faithful attendants who had come to see if all was well with him. He asked for water, and the man fetched him a draught. It was yet long till dawn.
Now he could not lie still, for fever burned him. Though awake, he saw visions, and once sent forth what seemed to him a yell of terror; but in truth it was only a moan, and no one heard. He relived through the fight with the marauders; sickened with dread at the gleam of weapons; flamed into fury, and shouted with savage exultation as he felt his sword cut the neck of an enemy. He was trying to think of Veranilda, but all through the night her image eluded him, and her name left him cold. He was capable only of hatred. At daybreak he slept heavily; the men, approaching him and looking at his haggard face, thought better to let him rest, and only after sunrise did he awake. He was angry that they had not aroused him sooner, got speedily to horse, and rode off almost at the same speed as yesterday. Now, at all events, he drew near to his goal; for a ride of an hour or two he needed not to spare his beast; sternly he called to his men to follow him close.
And all at once, as though his brain were restored by the freshness of the morning, he grasped the thought which had eluded him. Marcian's treachery was no new thing: twice he had been warned against his seeming friend, by Petronilla and by Bessas, and in his folly he had scorned the accusation which time had now so bitterly justified. Forgotten, utterly forgotten, until this moment; yet how blinded he must have been by his faith in Marcian's loyalty not to have reflected upon many circumstances prompting suspicion. Marcian had perhaps been false to him from the very day of Veranilda's disappearance, and how far did his perfidy extend? Had he merely known where she was concealed, or had he seen her, spoken with her, wooed her all along? He had won her; so much was plain; and he could scarce have done so during the brief journey to his villa. 0 villainous Marcian! 0 fickle, wanton Veranilda!
So distinct before his fiery imagination shone the image of those two laughing together, walking alone (as Sagaris had reported), that all reasoning, such as a calmer man might have entertained, was utterly forbidden. Not a doubt crossed his mind. And in his heart was no desire but of vengeance.
At length he drew near to Arpinum. Avoiding the town, he questioned a peasant at work in the fields, and learnt his way to the island. Just as he came within view of the eastward waterfall, a girl was crossing the bridge, away from the villa. Basil drew rein, bidding his men do likewise, and let the girl, who had a bundle on her head, draw near. At sight of the horsemen, of whom she was not aware till close by them, the maid uttered a cry of alarm, and would have run back but Basil intercepted her, jumped from his horse, and bade her have no fear, as he only wished to ask a harmless question. Easily he learnt that Marcian was at the villa, that he had arrived a few days ago, and that with him had come a lady.
'What is that lady's name?' he inquired.
The girl did not know. Only one or two of the slaves, she said, had seen her; she was said to be beautiful, with long yellow hair.
'She never goes out?' asked Basil.
The reply was that, only this morning, she had walked in the wood -- the wood just across the bridge -- with Marcian.
Basil sprang on to his horse, beckoned his troop, and rode forward.
When Marcian parted from Veranilda in the peristyle, and watched her as she ascended to her chamber, he knew that sombre exultation which follows upon triumph in evil. Hesitancies were now at end; no longer could he be distracted between two desires. In his eye, as it pursued the beauty for which he had damned himself, glowed the fire of an unholy joy. Not without inner detriment had Marcian accustomed himself for years to wear a double face; though his purpose had been pure, the habit of assiduous perfidy, of elaborate falsehood, could not leave his soul untainted. A traitor now for his own ends, he found himself moving in no unfamiliar element, and, the irrevocable words once uttered, he thrilled with defiance of rebuke. All the persistency of the man centred itself upon the achievement of this crime, to him a crime no longer from the instant that he had irreversibly willed it.
On fire to his finger-tips, he could yet reason with the coldest clarity of thought. Having betrayed his friend thus far, he must needs betray him to the extremity of traitorhood; must stand face to face with him in the presence of the noble Totila, and accuse him even as he had done to Veranilda. Only thus, as things had come about, could he assure himself against the fear that Totila, in generosity, or policy, or both, might give the Amal-descended maid to Basil. To defeat Basil's love was his prime end, jealousy being more instant with him than fleshly impulse. Yet so strong had this second motive now become, that he all but regretted his message to the king: to hold Veranilda in his power, to gratify his passion sooner or later, by this means or by that, he would perhaps have risked all the danger to which such audacity exposed him. But Marcian was not lust-bitten quite to madness. For the present, enough to ruin the hopes of Basil. This done, the field for his own attempt lay open. By skilful use of his advantages, he might bring it to pass that Totila would grant him a supreme reward -- the hand of Veranilda.
Unless, indeed, the young king, young and warm-blooded however noble of mind, should himself look upon Veranilda with a lover's eyes. It was not the first time that Marcian had thought of this. It made him wince. But he reminded himself that herein lay another safeguard against the happiness of Basil, and so was able to disregard the fear.
He would let his victim repose during the heat of the day, and then, towards evening, would summon her to another interview. Not much longer could he hope to be with her in privacy; to-morrow, or the next day at latest, emissaries of the Gothic king would come in response to his letter. But this evening he should speak with her, gaze upon her, for a long, long hour. She was gentle, meek, pious; in everything the exquisite antithesis of such a woman as Heliodora. Out of very humility she allowed herself to believe that Basil had ceased to love her. How persuade her, against the pure loyalty of her heart, that he had even plotted her surrender to an unknown fate? What proof of that could he devise? Did he succeed in overcoming her doubts, would he not have gone far towards winning her gratitude?
She would shed tears again; it gave him a nameless pleasure to see Veranilda weep.
Thinking thus, he strayed aimlessly and unconsciously in courts and corridors. Night would come again, and could he trust himself through the long, still night after long speech with Veranilda? A blacker thought than any he had yet nurtured began to stir in his mind, raising its head like the viper of an hour ago. Were she but his -- his irredeemably? He tried to see beyond that, but his vision blurred.
Her nature was gentle, timid; the kind of nature, he thought, which subdues itself to the irreparable. So soft, so sweet, so utterly woman, might she not, thinking herself abandoned by Basil, yield heart and soul to a man whom she saw helpless to resist a passionate love of her? Or, if this hope deceived him, was there no artifice with which to cover his ill-doing, no piece of guile subtle enough to cloak such daring infamy?
He was in the atrium, standing on the spot where first he had talked with her. As then, he gazed at the bronze group of the candelabrum; his eyes were fixed on those of Proserpine.
A slave entered and announced to him a visit from one of the priests whom he was going to see when the meeting at the bridge changed his purpose. The name startled him. Was this man sent by God? He bade introduce the visitor, and in a moment there entered a white-bearded, shoulder-bowed ecclesiastic, perspiring from the sunshine, who greeted him with pleasant cordiality. This priest it was -- he bore the name Gaudiosus -- who had baptized Marcian, and had given him in childhood religious teaching; a good, but timid man, at all times readier to praise than to reprove, a well-meaning utterer of smooth things, closing his eyes to evil, which confused rather than offended him. From the same newsbearer, who told him of Marcian's arrival at the villa, Gaudiosus had heard of a mysterious lady; but it was far from his thought to meddle with the morals of one whose noble birth and hereditary position of patron inspired him with respect; he came only to gossip about the affairs of the time. They sat down together, Marcian glad of the distraction. But scarce had they been talking for five minutes, when again the servant presented himself.
'What now?' asked his master impatiently.
'My lord, at the gate is the lord Basil.'
Marcian started up.
'Basil? How equipped and attended?'
'Armed, on horseback, and with a number of armed horsemen.'
'Withdraw, and wait outside till I call you.'
Marcian turned to the presbyter. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes strangely bright.
'Here,' he said, in low, hurried tones, 'comes an evil man, a deep-dyed traitor, with the aspect of friendliest integrity. I am glad you are with me. I have no leisure now to tell you the story; you shall hear it afterwards. What I ask of you, reverend father, is to bear me out in all I say, to corroborate, if asked to do so, all I state to him. You may rely upon the truth of every word I shall utter; and may be assured that, in doing this, you serve only the cause of good. Let it not surprise you that I receive the man with open arms. He was my dear friend; I have only of late discovered his infamy, and for the gravest reasons, which you shall learn, I am obliged to mask my knowledge. Beloved father, you will give me your countenance?'
'I will, I will,' replied Gaudiosus nervously. 'You would not deceive me, I well know, dear son.'
Marcian summoned the waiting servant, and ordered that the traveller should be straightway admitted. A few minutes passed in absolute silence, then, as the two stood gazing towards the entrance, they saw the gleam of a casque and of a breastplate, and before them stood Basil. His arms extended, Marcian stepped forward.
'So soon, 0 brave Basil!' he exclaimed. 'What speed you must have made! How long is it since my letter reached you?'
There passed the semblance of an embrace between them. Basil was death pale; he spoke in hollow tones, as though his tongue were parched, and looked with bloodshot eyes from Marcian to the ecclesiastic.
'I am travel-worn. Your hospitality must restore me.'
'That it shall,' replied Marcian. 'Or, better still,' he added, 'the hospitality of my father Gaudiosus.' He touched the priest's arm, as if affectionately. 'For here there is little solace; barely one chamber habitable. You have often heard me describe, 0 Basil, my poor, ruinous island villa, and now at length you behold it. I did not think you would pass this way, or I would have prepared for your fitting reception. By the greatest chance you find me here; and to-morrow I must be gone. But scarce two thousand paces from here is the dwelling of this reverend man, who will entertain you fittingly, and give you the care you need; for it seems to me, dear Basil, that you are more than wearied.'
The listener nodded, and let himself drop upon a seat near to where Marcian was standing.
'What have you to tell me?' he asked under his breath.
'Nothing good, alas!' was the murmured reply.
'Shall we speak in private?'
'Nay, it is needless. All my secrets lie open to Gaudiosus.'
Again Basil cast a glance at the presbyter, who had seated himself and appeared to be absorbed in thought.
'Do you mean,' he asked, 'that something new has befallen?'
His eyes were upon Marcian, and Marcian's upon those of Proserpine.
'Yes, something new. The deacon of whom you know has left Rome, accompanying the Pope on his journey eastward. And with him he has taken ----'
A name was shaped upon the speaker's lips, but whether of purpose, or because his voice failed him, it found no utterance.
As Basil spoke, his eye was caught by the movement of a curtain at the back of the room. The curtain was pushed aside, and there appeared the figure of a maiden, pale, beautiful. Marcian did not see her, nor yet did the priest.
'Veranilda?' repeated Basil, in the same questioning tone. He leaned forward, his hand upon his wrist.
'She -- alas!' was Marcian's reply.
'Liar! traitor! devil!'
At each word, Basil's dagger drank blood up to the hilt. With his furious voice blended a yell of terror, of agony, a faint cry of horror from Gaudiosus, and a woman's scream. Then came silence.
The priest dropped to his knees by Marcian's prostrate form. Basil, the stained weapon in his crimson hand, stared at Veranilda, who also had fallen.
'Man! What hast thou done?' gasped Gaudiosus.
The trembling, senile tones wakened Basil as if from a trance. He thrust his dagger into its sheath, stepped to the back of the room, and bent over the white loveliness that lay still.
'Is it death?' he murmured.
'Death! death!' answered the priest, who had just heard Marcian's last sob.
'I speak not of that perjured wretch,' said Basil. 'Come hither.'
Gaudiosus obeyed, and looked with wonder at the unconscious face.
'Who is this?' he asked.
'No matter who. Does she live?'
Basil had knelt, and taken one of the little hands in both his own, staining it with the blood of Marcian.
'I can feel no throb of life,' he said, speaking coldly, mechanically.
The priest bent, and put his cheek to her lips.
'She lives. This is but a swoon. Help me to bear her to the couch.'
But Basil took the slender body in his arms, and carried it like that of a child. When he had laid it down, he looked at Gaudiosus sternly.
'Have you authority in this house?'
'Some little, perhaps. I know not. What is your will?'
Utterly confounded, his eyes dropping moisture, his limbs shaken as if with palsy, the priest babbled his reply.
'Use any power you have,' continued Basil, 'to prevent more bloodshed. Outside the gates are men of mine. Bid the porter admit them to the outer court. Then call thither two servants, and let them bear away that -- whither you will. After, you shall hear more.'
Like an obedient slave, Gaudiosus sped on his errand. Basil the while stood gazing at Veranilda; but he did not go very near to her, and his look had nothing of tenderness. He saw the priest return, followed by two men, heard him whisper to them, saw them take up and carry away their master's corpse; all this as if it did not regard him. Again he turned his gaze upon Veranilda. It seemed to him that her lips, her eyelids moved. He bent forward, heard a sigh. Then the blue eyes opened, but as yet saw nothing.
Gaudiosus reappeared, and Basil beckoned him.
'You do not know her?' he asked in a low voice.
'I never looked upon her face till now,' was the reply.
At the sound of their voices Veranilda stirred, tried to rouse herself, uttered a sound of distress.
'Speak to her,' said Basil.
Gaudiosus approached the couch, and spoke soothing words.
'What dreadful thought is this?' said Veranilda. 'What have I seen?'
The priest whispered an adjuration to prayer. But she, raising her head, cast terrified glances about the hall. Basil had moved further away, and she did not seem to be aware of his presence.
'How long is it,' he asked, with his eyes upon Gaudiosus, 'since Marcian came from Rome?'
'This is the fourth day. So I have been told. I myself saw him for the first time not an hour -- nay, not half an hour ago.'
'You knew not that he brought her with him?'
Basil, without looking in that direction, signalled with his head towards Veranilda.
'I had heard of some companion unnamed.'
'He had not spoken of her to you?'
'Not a word.'
On the tesselated floor where Marcian had fallen was a pool of blood. Basil only now perceived it, and all at once a violent shudder went over him.
'Man of God!' he exclaimed in a voice of sudden passion, terribly resonant after the dull, hard accents of his questioning. 'You look upon me with abhorrence, and, perhaps, with fear. Hearken to my vindication. He whom I have slain was the man I held in dearest friendship. I believed him true to the heart's core. Yesterday -- was it but yesterday? -- O blessed Christ! -- it seems to me so long ago -- I learned that his heart was foul with treachery. Long, long, he has lied to me, pretending to seek with me for one I had lost, my plighted love. In secret he robbed me of her. Heard you not his answer when, to catch the lie on his very lips, I asked what news he could give me of her. I knew that she was here; his own servant had secretly avowed the truth to me. And you heard him say that she was gone on far travel. Therefore it was that he would not harbour me in his house -- me, his friend. In the name of the Crucified, did I not well to lay him low?'
Somewhat recovered from the emotions which had enfeebled him, Gaudiosus held up his head, and made solemn answer.
'Not yours was it to take vengeance. The God to whom you appeal has said: "Thou shalt do no murder."'
'Consider his crime,' returned the other. 'In the moment when he swore falsely I lifted up my eyes, and behold, she herself stood before me. She whom I loved, who had pledged herself to me, who long ago would have been my wife but for the enemy who came between us -- she, hidden here with him, become a wanton in his embraces ----'
A low cry of anguish interrupted him. He turned. Veranilda had risen and drawn near.
'Basil! You know not what you say.'
'Nor what I could say,' he replied, his eyes blazing with scorn. 'You, who were truth itself have you so well learned to lie? Talk on. Tell me that he held you here perforce, and that you passed the days and the nights in weeping. Have I not heard of your smiles and your contentment? Whither did you stray this morning? Did you go into the wood to say your orisons?'
Veranilda turned to the priest.
'Servant of God I Hear me, unhappy that I am!'
With a gesture of entreaty she flung out her hands, and, in doing so, saw that one of them was red. Her woebegone look changed to terror.
'What is this? His blood is upon me -- on my hand, my garment. When did I touch him? Holy father, whither has he gone? Does he live? Oh, tell me if he lives!'
'Come hence with me,' said Gaudiosus. 'Come where I may hear you utter the truth before God.'
But Veranilda was as one distraught. She threw herself on to her knees.
'Tell me he lives. He is but sorely hurt? He can speak? Whither have they carried him?'
Confirmed in his damning thought by every syllable she uttered, Basil strode away.
'Lead her where you will,' he shouted. 'I stay under this abhorred roof only till my men have eaten and taken rest.'
Without knowing it, he had stepped into the pool of blood, and a red track was left behind him as he went forth from the hall.
Resting at length from desire and intrigue, Marcian lay cold upon the bed where he had passed his haunted nights. About his corpse were gathered all the servants of the house; men, with anger on their brows, muttering together, and women wailing low because of fear. The girl who had met the horsemen by the bridge told her story, whence it became evident that Marcian's death was the result of private quarrel; but some of the slaves declared that this armed company came in advance of the Gothic host; and presently the loss of their master was all but forgotten in anxiety as to their own fate at the hands of the Emperor.
This talk was interrupted by the approach of Basil's men, who came to seek a meal for themselves and forage for their horses. Having no choice but to obey, the servants went about the work required of them. A quiet fell upon the house. The strangers talked little, and, when they spoke, subdued their voices. In still chambers and corridors was heard now and then a sound of weeping.
Basil, though he had given orders for departure as soon as the meal was done, knew not whither his journey should be directed. A paralysis of thought and will kept him pacing alone in the courtyard; food he could not touch; of repose he was incapable; and though he constantly lifted up his bloodstained hand, to gaze at it as if in bewildered horror, he did not even think of washing the blood away. At moments he lost consciousness of what he had done, his mind straying to things remote; then the present came back upon him with a shock, seeming, however, to strike on numbed senses, so that he had to say to himself, 'I have slain Marcian,' before he could fully understand his suffering.
Veranilda was now scarce present to his mind at all. Something vaguely outlined hovered in the background; something he durst not look at or think about; the sole thing in the world that had reality for him was the image of Marcian -- stabbed, shrieking, falling, dead. Every minute was the fearful scene re-enacted. More than once he checked himself in his walk, seeming to be about to step on Marcian's body.
At length, seeing a shadow draw near, he raised his eyes and beheld Gaudiosus. He tried to speak, but found that his tongue clave to the roof of his mouth. Automatically he crossed himself, then caught the priest's hand, and knelt and kissed it.
'Rise, my son,' said Gaudiosus, 'for I would talk with you.'
On one side of the courtyard was a portico with seats, and thither the old man led.
'Unless,' he began gravely, 'unless the author of all falsehood -- who is so powerful over women -- has entered into this maiden to baffle and mislead me utterly, I feel assured that she is chaste; not merely unsullied in the flesh, but as pure of heart as her fallen nature may permit a woman to be.'
Basil gazed at him darkly.
'My father, how can you believe it? Did you not hear her lament because the man was dead? It is indeed the devil that beguiles you.'
Gaudiosus bent his head, and pondered anxiously.
'Tell me,' he said at length, 'all her story, that I may compare it with what I have heard from her own lips.'
Slowly at first, and confusedly, with hesitations, repetitions, long pauses, Basil recited the history of Veranilda, so far as he knew it. The priest listened and nodded, and when silence came, continued the narrative. If Veranilda spoke truth she had never seen Marcian until he took her from the convent at Praeneste. Moreover, Marcian had never uttered to her a word of love; in his house she had lived as chastely as among the holy sisters.
'What did she here, then?' asked Basil bitterly. 'Why did he bring her here? You know, 0 father, that it was not in fulfilment of his promise to me, for you heard his shameless lie when I questioned him.'
'He told her,' replied the priest, 'that she sojourned here only until he could put her under the protection of the Gothic King.'
'Of Totila?' cried Basil. 'Nay, for all I know, he may have thought of that -- his passion being appeased.'
Even as he spoke be remembered Sagaris and the letter written in Gothic. Some motive of interest might, indeed, have prompted Marcian to this step. None the less was he Veranilda's lover. Would he otherwise have kept her here with him, alone, and not rather have continued the journey, with all speed, till he reached Totila's camp?
'When I left her,' pursued Gaudiosus, whose confidence in his own judgment was already shaken by the young man's vehemence, 'I spoke in private with certain of the bondswomen, who declared to me that they could avouch the maiden's innocence since her coming hither -- until to-day's sunrise.'
Basil laughed with scorn.
'Until to-day's sunrise? And pray, good father, what befell her at that moment? What whisper the Argus-eyed bondswomen?'
'They tell me,' replied the priest, 'that she went forth and met Marcian, and walked with him in a wood, her own woman having been sent back to the villa. This troubled me; but her voice, her countenance ----'
'Helped by the devil,' broke in Basil. 'Reverend man, do not seek to deceive yourself, or to solace me with a vain hope. I pray you, did Marcian, when you came to visit him, speak of a lady whose virtue he was sworn to guard? Plainly, not a word fell from him. Yet assuredly he would have spoken had things been as you pretend.'
Gaudiosus, bent double, a hand propping his white-bearded chin, mused for a little with sadded air.
'Lord Basil,' he resumed at length, 'somewhat more have I to say to you. I live far from the world, and hear little of its rumour. Until this day your name was unknown to me, and of good concerning you I have to this hour heard nothing save from your own lips. May I credit this report you make of yourself? Or should I rather believe what Marcian, in brief words, declared to me when he heard that you were at his gate?'
The speaker paused, as if to collect courage.
'He spoke ill of me?' asked Basil.
'He spoke much ill. He accused you of disloyalty in friendship, saying that he had but newly learnt how you had deceived him. More than this he had not time to tell.'
Basil looked into the old man's rheumy eyes.
'You do well to utter this, good father. Tell me one thing more. Yonder maiden, does she breathe the same charge against me?'
'Not so,' replied Gaudiosus. 'Of you she said no evil.'
'Yet I scarce think' -- he smiled coldly -- 'that she made profession of love for me?'
'My son, her speech was maidenly. She spoke of herself as erstwhile your betrothed; no more than that.'
As he uttered these words, the priest rose. He had an uneasy look, as if he feared that infirmity of will and fondness for gossip had betrayed him into some neglect of spiritual obligation.
'It is better,' he said, 'that we should converse no more. I know not what your purposes may be, nor do they concern me I remain here to pray by the dead, and I shall despatch a messenger to my brother presbyter, that we may prepare for the burial. Remember,' he raised his head, and his voice struck a deeper note, 'that the guilt of blood is upon you, and that no plea of earthly passion will avail before the Almighty Judge. Behold your hand -- even so, but far more deeply have you stained your soul.'
Basil scarce heard. Numbness had crept over him again; he stared at the doorway by which the priest re-entered the house, and only after some minutes recalled enough of the old man's last words to look upon his defiled hand. Then he called aloud, summoning any slave who might hear him, and when the doorkeeper came timidly from a recess where he had been skulking, bade him bring water. Having cleansed himself, he walked by an outer way to the rear of the villa; for he durst not pass through the atrium.
Here his men were busy over their meal, sitting or sprawling in a shadowed place, the slaves waiting upon them. With a reminder that they must hold themselves ready to ride at any moment, he passed on through a large, wild garden, and at length, where a grove of box-trees surrounded the ruins of a little summer-house, cast himself to the ground.
His breast heaved, his eyes swelled and smarted, but he could not shed tears. Face downwards, like a man who bites the earth in his last agony, he lay quivering. So did an hour or more pass by.
He was roused by the voices of his men, who were searching and calling for him. With an effort, he rose to his feet, and stepped out into the sunshine, when he learnt that a troop of soldiers had just ridden up to the villa, and that their captain, who had already entered, was asking for him by name. Careless what might await him, Basil followed the men as far as the inner court, and there stood Venantius.
'I surprise you,' cried out the genial voice with a cheery laugh. You had five hours start of me. Pray, dear lord, when did you get here?'
Basil could make no reply, and the other, closely observing his strange countenance, went on to explain that, scarcely started from Aesernia on his way to the king, Marcian's messenger had met with Totila himself, who was nearer than had been thought. After reading the letter, Totila had come on rapidly to Aesernia, and had forthwith despatched Venantius to the villa by Arpinum.
'You guess my mission, lord Basil,' he pursued, with bluff good-humour. 'Dullard that I was, the talk of a fair lady travelling in Marcian's charge never brought to my mind that old story of Surrentum. Here is our royal Totila all eagerness to see this maiden -- if maiden still she be. What say you on that point, dear lord? Nay, look not so fiercely at me. I am not here to call any one to account, but only to see that the Gothic beauty comes safe to Aesernia as soon as may be.'
'You will find her within,' muttered Basil.
'And Marcian? I might have thought I came inopportunely to this dwelling, but that he himself wrote to the king that the lady was here.'
'You are assured of that?' Basil asked, under his breath.
'I have Totila's word for it, at all events. But you seem indisposed for talk, lord Basil, and my business is with Marcian. The slaves all look scared, and can't or won't answer a plain question. I have no time to waste. Tell me, I pray you, where the lord of the villa may be found.'
Basil summoned one of his followers.
'Conduct the lord Venantius to Marcian's chamber.'
It was done. Basil remained standing in the same spot, his eyes cast down, till a quick step announced the captain's return. Venantius came close up to him, and spoke in a grave but not unfriendly voice:
'The priest has told me what he saw, but will not say more. I ask you nothing, lord Basil. You will make your defence to the king.'
'Be it so.'
'My men must rest for an hour,' continued Venantius. 'We shall ride this afternoon as far as Aquinum, and there pass the night. I go now to speak with Veranilda.'
'As you will.'
Basil withdrew into the portico, sat down, and covered his face with his hands. Fever consumed him, and a dreadful melancholy weighed upon his spirit. At a respectful distance from him, his followers had assembled, ready for departure. The soldiers who had come with Venantius, a score in number, were eating and drinking outside the gates. Within, all was quiet. Half an hour elapsed, and Venantius again came forward. Seeing Basil in the shadow of the portico, he went and sat beside him, and began to speak with rough but well-meaning solace. Why this heaviness? If he surmised aright, Basil had but avenged himself as any man would have done. For his own part, he had never thought enough of any woman to kill a man on her account; but such little troubles were of everyday occurrence, and must not be taken too much to heart. He had seen this Gothic damsel of whom there had been so much rumour, and, by Diana I (if the oath were not inappropriate) her face deserved all that was said of it. His rival being out of the way, why should not Basil pluck up cheer? Totila would not deal harshly in such a matter as this, and more likely than not he would be disposed to give the maiden to a Roman of noble race, his great desire being to win all Romans by generosity.
'Yonder priest tells me,' he added, 'that you were over hasty; that you struck on a mere suspicion. And methinks he may be right. By the Holy Cross, I could well believe this maiden a maiden in very deed. I never looked upon a purer brow, an eye that spoke more innocently. Hark ye, my good Basil, I am told that you have not spoken with her. If you would fain do so before we set forth, I will be no hinderer. Go, if you will, into yonder room' -- he pointed to a door near by -- 'and when she descends (I have but to call), you shall see her undisturbed.'
For a moment Basil sat motionless; then, without a word, he rose and went whither Venantius directed him. But a few minutes passed before he saw Veranilda enter. She was clad for travel, a veil over her face; this, and the shadow in which Basil stood, made her at first unaware of his presence, for Venantius had only requested her to enter this room until the carriage was ready. Standing with bowed head, she sobbed.
'Why do you weep?' demanded an abrupt voice, which made her draw back trembling.
Basil moved a little towards her.
'You weep for him?' he added in the same pitiless tone.
'For him, for you, and for myself, alas! alas!'
The subdued anguish of her voice did not touch Basil. He burned with hatred of her and of the dead man.
'Shed no tears for me. I am cured of a long folly. And for you consolation will not be slow in coming. Who knows but you may throw your spell upon Totila himself.'
'You know not what you say,' replied Veranilda; not, as when she used the words before, in accents quivering from a stricken heart, but with sorrowful dignity and self-command. 'Is it Basil who speaks thus? Were it only the wrong done me that I had to bear, I could keep silence, waiting until God restored your justice and your gentleness. But, though in nothing blameworthy, I am the cause of what has come about; for had I not entered that room when I did, you would not have struck the fatal blow. Listen then, 0 Basil, whilst I make known to you what happened before you came.'
She paused to control herself.
'I must go back to the night when I left the convent. No one had told me I was to go away. In the middle of the night I was aroused and led forth, with me the woman who served me. We had travelled an hour or two, perhaps, when some one standing by the carriage spoke to me, some one who said he was Marcian the friend of Basil, and bade me have no fears, for Basil awaited me at the end of the journey. The next day he spoke to me again, this time face to face, but only a few words. We came to this villa. You have been told, by I know not whom, that I was light of heart. It is true, for I believed what Marcian had said to me, and nothing had befallen to disturb my gladness. I lived with my serving woman privately, in quiet and hope. This morning, yielding, alas! to a wish which I thought harmless, I went forth with my attendant to the waterfall. As I stood gazing at it, the lord Marcian came forth on horseback. He alighted to speak with me, and presently asked if I would go to see another fall of the river, across the island. I consented. As we went, he dismissed my servant, and I did not know what he had done (thinking she still followed), until, when we were in a wood at the water's edge, I could no longer see the woman, and Marcian told me he had bidden her go to fetch seats for us. Then he began to speak, and what he said, how shall I tell you?'
There was another brief silence. Basil did not stir; his eyes were bent sternly upon the veiled visage.
'Was it evil in his heart that shaped such words? Or had he been deceived by some other? He said that Basil had forgotten me; that Basil loved, and would soon wed, a lady in Rome. More than that, he said that Basil was plotting to get me into his power, his purpose being to deliver me to the Greeks, who would take me to Constantinople. But Marcian, so he declared, had rescued me in time, and I was to be guarded by the King of the Goths.'
The listener moved, raising his arm and letting it fall again. But he breathed no word.
'This did he tell me,' she added. 'I went back to the villa to my chamber. I sat thinking, I know not how long; I know not how long. Then, unable to remain any longer alone, driven by my dreadful doubt, I came forth to seek Marcian. I descended the stairs to the atrium. You saw me -- alas! alas!'
Basil drew nearer to her.
'He had spoken no word of love?'
'No word. I had no fear of that.'
'Why, then, did he frame these lies, these hellish lies?'
'Alas!' cried Veranilda, clasping her hands above her head. 'Did he still live, the truth might be discovered. His first words to me, in the night when he stood beside the carriage, sounded so kind and true; he named himself the friend of Basil, said that Basil awaited me at the journey's end. How could he speak so, if he indeed then thought you what he afterwards said? Oh, were he alive, to stand face to face with me again!'
'It is not enough,' asked Basil harshly, 'that I tell you he lied?'
She did not on the instant reply, and he, possessed with unreasoning bitterness, talked wildly on.
'No! You believed him, and believe him still. I can well fancy that he spoke honestly at first; but when he had looked into your face, when he had talked with you, something tempted him to villainy. Go! Your tears and your lamentations betray you. It is not of me that you think, but of him, him, only him! "Oh, were he alive!" Ay, keep your face bidden; you know too well it could not bear my eyes upon it.'
Veranilda threw back the long veil, and stood looking at him.
'Eyes red with weeping,' he exclaimed, 'and for whom? If you were true to me, would you not rejoice that I had slain my enemy? You say you were joyful in the thought of seeing me again? You see me -- and with what countenance?'
'I see not Basil,' she murmured, her hands upon her breast.
'You see a false lover, an ignoble traitor -- the Basil shown you by Marcian. What would it avail me to speak in my own defence? His voice is in your ears, its lightest tone outweighing my most solemn oath. "Oh, that he were alive!" That is all you find to say to me.'
'I know you not,' sobbed Veranilda. 'Alas, I know you not!'
'Nor I you. I dreamt of a Veranilda who loved so purely and so constantly that not a thousand slanderers could have touched her heart with a shadow of mistrust. But who are you -- you whom the first gross lie of a man lusting for your beauty utterly estranges from your faith? Who are you -- who wail for the liar's death, and shrink in horror from the hand that slew him? I ever heard that the daughters of the Goths were chaste and true and fearless. So they may be -- all but one, whose birth marked her for faithlessness.'
As though smitten by a brutal blow, Veranilda bowed her head, shuddering. Once more she looked at Basil, for an instant, with wide eyes of fear; then hid herself beneath the veil, and was gone.
Basil rode with his own man apart from Venantius and the soldiers who guarded the conveyance in which sat Veranilda. Venantius, for his part, would fain have lightened the way with friendly talk, but finding Basil irresponsive, he left him to his gloomy meditations. And so they came to Aquinum, where they passed the night.
By way of precaution, the captain set a guard before the house in which his fellow-traveller slept, and at daybreak, as soon as he had risen, one of the soldiers thus employed reported to him that the young Roman had fallen into such distemper that it seemed doubtful whether he could continue the journey; a servant who had slept at Basil's door declared that all through the night his master had talked wildly, like one fever-frenzied. Venantius visited the sick man, and found him risen, but plainly in poor case for travel.
'Why, you will never mount your horse,' he opined, after touching Basil's hand, and finding it on fire. 'This is what comes of a queasy conscience. Take heart, man! Are you the first that stuck a false friend between the ribs, or the first to have your love kissed against her will? That it was against her will, I take upon myself to swear. You are too fretful, my good lord. Come, now! What are we to do with you?'
'I can ride on,' answered Basil. 'Pay no heed to me, and leave me in peace, I pray you.'
He was helped to horseback, and the cavalcade went forth again along the Latin Way. This morning, no beam of sunrise shone above the mountains; the heavens were sullen, and a hot wind blew from the south. Even Venantius, though he hummed a song to himself, felt the sombre influence of the air, and kept glancing uneasily backwards at the death-pale man, who rode with head upon his breast. Scarcely had they ridden for an hour at foot-pace, when a shout caught the captain's ear; he turned, just in time to see Basil dropping to the ground.
'God's thunder!' he growled. 'I have been expecting this. Well if he dies, it may save the king some trouble.'
He jumped down, and went to Basil's side. At first the sufferer could not speak, but when water had been given him, he gazed at Venantius with a strange smile, and, pointing before him, said faintly:
'Is not yonder Casinum?'
'It is. We will bear you thither for harbourage. Courage, friend!'
'Above, on the mountain,' continued Basil painfully, 'dwells my kinsman Benedict, with his holy men. Could I but reach the monastery!'
'Why, perchance you may,' replied the captain. 'And in truth you would be better cared for there.'
'Help me, good Venantius!' panted Basil, with eyes of entreaty. 'Let me die in the monastery.'
In those days of pestilence, every fever-stricken person was an object of dread to all but the most loving or the most courageous. The stalwart Venantius thought for a moment of carrying Basil before him on his horse, but prudence overcame this humane impulse. Into the carriage, for the same reason (had there been no other), he could not be put; but there was a vacant place beside the driver, and here, supported with cords, he managed to keep his seat until they arrived at Casinum.
Owing to its position on the highroad, trodden by so many barbaric armies, this city had suffered repeated devastation. Its great buildings stood desolate, or had fallen to utter ruin, and the country around, once famous for its fertility, showed but a few poor farms. What inhabitants remained dwelt at the foot of the great hill on whose summit rose the citadel, still united with the town by two great walls. After passing between the tombs on the Latin Way, memorials of citizens long dead, the travellers entered by an unprotected gateway, and here Venantius called a halt. Wishing to make no longer pause than was needful to put the sick man in safety, he despatched a few soldiers through the silent town to seek for means of conveying Basil up to the monastery on the height. By good luck these emissaries came upon a couple of monks, who lost no time in arranging for the conveyance of the sufferer. A light cart drawn by two mules speedily appeared, and on this Basil was laid. One only of his men did Venantius allow to accompany him, the others were bidden ride on with the captain's own soldiers to Aesernia.
'There you will find us all when you are on your legs again,' said Venantius, 'unless by that time we have marched Romewards, in which case you shall have a message. Trust me to look after all you left there; I answer for its safety and for that of your good fellows. Keep up heart, and God make you sound.'
Basil, couched on a bed of dry leaves, raised himself so as to watch the troop as it rode forth again from the ruined gate. Whether she who sat hidden within the carriage had heard of his evil plight he knew not, and could not have brought himself to ask. The last of his own horsemen (some of whom had taken leave of him with tears) having vanished from sight, he fell back, and for a while knew nothing but the burning torment in his brain.
The ascent of the mountain began. It was a rough, narrow road, winding through a thick forest of oak and beech trees, here and there so steep as to try the firm footing of the mules, and in places dangerous because of broken ground on the edge of precipitous declivities. The cart was driven by its owner, a peasant of Casinum, who at times sat sideways on one of the beasts, at times walked by them; behind came the two religious men, cowled, bare-footed; and last Basil's attendant on horseback.
From Venantius the monks had learned who their charge was. His noble origin, and still more the fact of his kindred with their beloved Abbot Benedict, inspired in them a special interest. They spoke of him in whispers together, compassionated his sufferings, remarked on the comeliness of his features, and assured each other that they detected in him no symptom of the plague. It being now the third hour, they ceased from worldly talk and together recited their office, whereto the peasant and the horseman gave pious ear.
Basil lay with closed eyes, but at a certain moment he seemed to become aware of what was passing, crossed himself, and then folded his hands upon his breast in the attitude of prayer. Having observed this, one of the monks, his orisons finished, went up to the cart and spoke comfortable words. He was a man in the prime of life, with cheek as fresh as a maid's, and a step that seemed incapable of weariness; his voice sounded a note of gentle kindness which caused the sufferer to smile at him in gratitude.
'This tree,' he said presently, pointing to a noble beech, its bole engraven with a cross, 'marks the middle point of the ascent. A weary climb for the weak, but not without profit to him who thinks as he walks -- for, as our dear brother Marcus has said, in those verses we are never tired of repeating: --
'Thanks be to God for the precious gifts of our brother Marcus!'
Basil endeavoured to utter a few words, but he was now so feeble that he could scarce make his voice heard above the creak of the wheels. Again he closed his eyes, and his companions pursued their way in silence. When at length they issued from the forest they overlooked a vast landscape of hill and valley, with heads of greater mountains high above them. Here rose the walls of the citadel, within which Benedict had built his monastery. For some distance around these ancient ramparts the ground was tilled, and flourishing with various crops. At the closed gateway of the old Arx, flanked by a tower, the monks rang, and were at once admitted into the courtyard, where, in a few moments, the prior and all his brethren came forward to greet the strangers. Because of Basil's condition the ceremony usual on such arrivals was in his case curtailed: the prior uttered a brief prayer, gave the kiss of peace, and ordered forthwith the removal of the sick man to a guest-chamber, where he was laid in bed and ministered to by the brother Marcus, whose gifts as a healer were not less notable than his skill in poesy. The horseman, meanwhile, as custom was with all visitors, had been led to the oratory to hear a passage of Holy Scripture; after which the prior poured water upon his hands, and certain of the monks washed his feet.
Before sunset Basil lost consciousness of present things; and many days went by before he again spoke as a sane man. When at length the fever declined, and his head turned upon the pillow in search of a human countenance, he saw standing beside him a venerable figure in the monastic garb, whose visage, though wrinkled with age and thought, had such noble vividness in its look, and wore a smile so like that of youth in its half-playful sweetness, that Basil could but gaze wonderingly, awestruck at once, and charmed by this unexpected apparition.
'My son,' sounded in a voice grave and tender, 'be your first syllables uttered to Him by whose omnipotent will you are restored to the life of this world.'
With the obedience of a child he clasped his thin hands, and murmured the prayer of childhood. Then the gracious figure bent over him. He felt the touch of lips upon his forehead, and in the same moment fell asleep.
It was night when he again woke. A little lamp revealed bare walls of stone, a low, timbered ceiling, a floor of red tiles. Basil's eyes, as soon as they were open, looked for the venerable figure which he remembered. Finding no one, he thought the memory was but of a dream. Feeling wonderfully at ease in body and calm in mind, he lay musing on that vision of the noble countenance, doubting after all whether a dream could have left so distinct an impression, when all at once there fell upon his ear a far sound of chanting, a harmony so sweetly solemn that it melted his heart and filled his eyes with tears. Not long after, when all was silent again, he heard the sound of soft footsteps without, and in the same moment the door of his cell opened. The face which looked in seemed not quite unknown to him, though he could not recall where he had seen it.
'You have slept long, dear brother,' said Marcus, with a happy smile. 'Is all well with you?'
'Well, God he thanked,' was the clear but faint reply.
The poet-physician, a small, nervous, bright-eyed man of some forty years, sat down on a stool by the bedside and began talking cheerfully. He had just come from matins, and was this morning excused from lauds because it behoved him to gather certain herbs, to be used medicinally in the case of a brother who had fallen sick yesterday. Touching a little gold locket which Basil wore round his neck on a gold thread he asked what this contained, and being told that it was a morsel of the Crown of Thorns, he nodded with satisfaction.
'We questioned whether to leave it on you or not, for we could not open it, and there was a fear lest it might contain something' -- he smiled and shook his bead and sighed -- 'much less sacred. The lord abbot, doubtless' -- here his voice sank -- 'after a vision, though of this he spoke not, decided that it should be left. There was no harm, for all that' -- his eyes twinked merrily -- 'in tying this upon the place where you suffered so grievously.'
From amid Basil's long hair he detached what looked like a tiny skein of hemp, which, with an air singularly blended of shrewdness and reverence, he declared to be a portion of a garb of penitence worn by the Holy Martin, to whom the oratory here was dedicated. Presently Basil found strength to ask whether the abbot had been beside him.
'Many times,' was the answer. 'The last, no longer ago than yestereve, ere he went to compline. You would have seen him on the day of your arrival, ere yet you became distraught, but that a heaviness lay upon him because of the loss of a precious manuscript on its way hither from Rome -- a manuscript which had been procured for him after much searching, only to be lost by the folly of one to whom it was intrusted; if, indeed, it was not rather whisked away by the Evil One, who, powerless for graver ill against our holy father, at times seeks to discomfort him by small practice of spite. Sorrow for this loss brought on a distemper to which his age is subject.'
Reminded all at once that he had no time to lose, Marcus threw open the shutter, extinguished the lamp, and slipped away, leaving his patient with eyes turned to the pale glimmer of dawn at the tiny window. Now only did there stir in Basil clear recollection of the events which had preceded his coming hither. Marcus's sly word in regard to the locket had awakened his mind, and in a few moments he thought connectedly. But without emotion, unless it were a vague, tender sadness. All seemed to have happened so long ago. It was like a story he had heard in days gone by. He thought of it until his brain began to weary, then again came sleep.
A day or two passed. He had begun to eat with keen appetite, and his strength increased hour by hour. On a Sunday, after the office of the third hour, Marcus cheerily gave him permission to rise. This prompted Basil to inquire whether his man, who had come with him, was still in the monastery. Marcus, with eyes averted, gave a nod. Might he speak with him, Basil asked. Presently, presently, was the answer. Marcus himself aided the convalescent to dress; then having seated him in a great chair of rude wickerwork, used only on occasions such as this, left him to bask in a beam of sunshine. Before long, his meal was brought him, and with it a book, bound in polished wood and metal, which he found to be a Psalter. Herein, when he had eaten, he read for an hour or so, not, however, without much wandering of the thoughts. He had fallen into reverie, when his door opened, and there appeared before him the Abbot Benedict.
Basil started up, stood for a moment in agitation, then sank upon his knees, with head reverently bowed.
'Rise, rise, my son,' spoke the voice which had so moved him in his vision of a week ago, a voice subdued by years, but perfectly steady and distinct. 'Our good brother Marcus assures me that I may talk with you a little while without fear of overtasking your strength -- nay, sit where you were, I pray you. Thanks be to God, I need not support for my back.'
So saying, the abbot seated himself on the stool, and gazed at Basil with a smile of infinite benevolence.
'Your face,' he continued, 'speaks to me of a time very far away. I see in it the presentment of your father's father, with whom, when he was much of your age, I often talked. His mother had a villa at Nursia, the home of my youth. Once he turned aside from a journey to visit me when I dwelt at Sublaqueum.'
The reminiscence checked his tongue he kept silence for a moment, musing gravely.
'But these are old stories, my Basil, and you are young. Tell me somewhat of your parents, and of your own life. Did not your good father pass away whilst at Constantinople?'
Thus, with perfect simplicity, with kindliest interest in things human, did Benedict draw the young man into converse. He put no question that touched on the inner life, and Basil uttered not a word concerning his late distress, but they touched for a moment upon public affairs, and Basil learnt, without show of special interest, that Totila still lingered in Campania.
'Your follower, Deodatus,' said the abbot presently, 'begs each day for permission to see you. The good fellow has not lived in idleness; he is a brave worker in wood, and by chance we much needed one of his craft. Not many things of this world give me more pleasure than to watch a cunning craftsman as he smooths timber, and fits the pieces together, and makes of them something that shall serve the needs of men. Is it not, in some sort, to imitate the great Artificer? Would, 0 Basil, that our country had more makers and fewer who live but to destroy.'
'Would it were so, indeed!' sighed Basil, in a low, fervent voice.
'But the end is not yet,' pursued Benedict, his eyes gazing straight before him, as if they beheld the future. 'Men shall pray for peace, but it will not be granted them, so great are the iniquities of the world which utters the name of Christ, yet knows Him not.'
He paused with troubled brow. Then, as if reminding himself that his hearer had need of more encouraging words, he said cheerfully:
'To-morrow, perchance, you will have strength to leave your room. Deodatus shall come to you in the morning. When you can walk so far, I will pray you to visit me in my tower. You knew not that I inhabit a tower? Even as the watchman who keeps guard over a city. And,' he added more gravely, as if to himself rather than to the listener, 'God grant that my watch be found faithful.'
Thereupon the abbot rose, and gently took his leave; and Basil, through all the rest of the day, thought of him and of every word he had uttered.
Not long after sunrise on the morrow, Deodatus was allowed to enter. This man, whose age was something more than thirty, was the son of a serf on Basil's land, and being of very peaceful disposition, had with some reluctance answered the summons to arm himself and follow his lord to the wars. Life in the monastery thoroughly suited his temper; when Basil encouraged him to talk, he gave a delighted account of the way in which his days were spent; spoke with simple joy of the many religious services he attended, and had no words in which to express his devotion to the abbot.
'Why, Deodatus,' exclaimed his master, smiling, 'you lack but the cowl to be a very monk.'
'My duty is to my lord,' answered the man, bending his head.
'Tell me now whether any news has reached you, in all this time, of those from whom my sickness parted us.'
But Deodatus had heard nothing of his fellows, and nothing of Venantius.
'It may be,' said Basil, 'that I shall send you to tell them how I fare, and to bring back tidings. Your horse is at hand?'
As he spoke he detected a sadness on the man's countenance. Without more words, he dismissed him.
That day he sat in the open air, in a gallery whence he could survey a great part of the monastic buildings, and much of the mountain summit on its western side. For an hour he had the companionship of Marcus, who, pointing to this spot and to that, instructed Basil in the history of what he saw, now and then reciting his own verses on the subject. He told how Benedict, seeking with a little company of pious followers for a retreat from the evil of the world, came to ruined Casinum, and found its few wretched inhabitants fallen away from Christ, worshipping the old gods in groves and high places. Here, on the mountain top, stood temples of Jupiter, of Apollo, and of Venus. The house of Apollo he purified for Christian service, and set under the invocation of the Holy Martin. The other temples he laid low, and having cut down the grove sacred to Apollo, on that spot he raised an oratory in the name of the Baptist. Not without much spiritual strife was all this achieved; for -- the good Marcus subdued his voice -- Satan himself more than once overthrew what the monks had built, and, together with the demons whom Benedict had driven forth, often assailed the holy band with terrors and torments. Had not the narrator, who gently boasted a part in these beginnings, been once all but killed by a falling column, which indeed must have crushed him, but that he stretched out a hand in which, by happy chance, he was holding a hammer, and this -- for a hammer is cruciform -- touching the great pillar, turned its fall in another direction. Where stood the temple of Venus was now a vineyard, yielding excellent wine.
'Whereof, surely, you must not drink?' interposed Basil, with a smile.
'Therein, good brother,' replied Marcus, 'you show but little knowledge of our dear lord abbot. He indeed abstains from wine, for such has been the habit of his life, but to us he permits it, for the stomach's sake; being of opinion that labour is a form of worship, and well understanding that labour, whether of body or of mind, can only be performed by one in health. This very day you shall taste of our vintage, which I have hitherto withheld from you, lest it should overheat your languid blood.'
Many other questions did Basil ask concerning the rule of the monastery. He learned that the day was equitably portioned out (worship apart) between manual and mental work. During summer, the cooler hours of morning and afternoon were spent in the field, and the middle of the day in study; winter saw this order reversed. On Sunday the monks laboured not with their hands, and thought only of the Word of God. The hours of the divine office suffered, of course, no change all the year round: their number in the daytime was dictated by that verse of the Psalmist: 'Septies in die laudem dixi tibi'; therefore did the community assemble at lauds, at prime, at the third hour, at mid-day, at the ninth hour, at vespers, and at compline. They arose, moreover, for prayer at midnight, and for matins before dawn. On all this the hearer mused when he was left alone, and with his musing blended a sense of peace such as had never before entered into his heart.
He had returned to his chamber, and was reposing on the bed, when there entered one of the two monks by whom he was conveyed up the mountain. With happy face, this visitor presented to him a new volume, which, he declared with modest pride, was from beginning to end the work of his own hand.
'But an hour ago I finished the binding,' he added, stroking the calf-skin affectionately. 'And when I laid it before the venerable father, who is always indulgent to those who do their best, he was pleased to speak kind things. "Take it to our noble guest," he said, "that he may see how we use the hours God grants us. And it may be that he would like to read therein."'
The book was a beautiful copy of Augustine's De Civitate Dei. Basil did indeed peruse a page or two, but again his thoughts began to wander. He turned the leaves, looking with pleasure at the fine initial letters in red ink. They reminded him of his cousin Decius, whom a noble manuscript would transport with joy. And thought of Decius took him back to Surrentum. He fell into a dream.
On the morrow, at noon, he was well enough to descend to the refectory, where he had a seat at the abbot's table. His meal consisted of a roast pigeon, a plate of vegetables, honey and grapes, with bread which seemed to him better than he had ever tasted, and wine whereof his still weak head bade him partake very modestly. The abbot's dinner, he saw, was much simpler: a bowl of milk, a slice of bread, and a couple of figs. After the kindly greeting with which he was received, there was no conversation, for a monk read aloud during the repast. Basil surveyed with interest the assembly before him. Most of the faces glowed with health, and on all was manifest a simple contentment such as he had hitherto seen only in the eyes of children. Representatives were here of every social rank, but the majority belonged to honourable families: high intelligence marked many countenances, but not one showed the shadow of anxious or weary thought.
These are men, said Basil to himself, who either have never known the burden of life, or have utterly cast it off; they live without a care, without a passion. And then there suddenly flashed upon his mind what seemed an all-sufficient explanation of this calm, this happiness. Here entered no woman. Woman's existence was forgotten, alike by young and old; or, if not forgotten, had lost all its earthly taint, as in the holy affection (of which Marcus had spoken to him) cherished by the abbot for his pious sister Scholastica. Here, he clearly saw, was the supreme triumph of the religious life. But, instead of quieting, the thought disturbed him. He went away thinking thoughts which he would fain have kept at a distance.
The ninth hour found him in the oratory, and later he attended vespers, at which office the monks sang an evening hymn of the holy Ambrosius: --
The long sweet notes lingered in Basil's mind when he lay down to rest. And, as he crossed himself before sleeping, the only prayer he breathed was: 'Infunde lumen cordi meo.'
On the morrow he rose earlier, talking the while with his servant Deodatus. This good fellow continued to exhibit so deep an affection for the life of the monastery that Basil was at length moved to ask him whether, if he had the choice, he would veritably become a monk. Deodatus looked at his master with eyes of pathetic earnestness, tried in vain to speak, and burst into tears. Instructed by a vocation so manifest, Basil began to read more clearly in his own heart, where, in spite of the sorrows he had borne and of the troublous uncertainties that lay before him, he found no such readiness to quit the world. He could approve the wisdom of those who renounced the flesh, to be rewarded with tranquillity on earth and eternal happiness hereafter; but his will did not ally itself with his intellect. Moreover, was it certain, he asked himself, that all who embraced the religious life were so rewarded? In turning the pages of Augustine's work, he had come upon a passage which arrested his eye and perturbed his thought, a passage which seemed clearly to intimate that the soul's eternal destiny had from the beginning of things been decided by God, some men being created for bliss, more for damnation. Basil did not dwell profoundly on this doubt; his nature inclined not at all to theological scrutiny, nor to spiritual brooding; but it helped to revive in him the energies which sickness had abated, and to throw him back on that simple faith, that Christianity of everyday, in which he had grown up.
Going forth in the mellow sunshine, he turned his steps to a garden of vegetables where he saw monks at work. They gave him gentle greeting, and one, he who had brought the volume yesterday, announced that the abbot invited Basil to visit him after the office of the third hour. Thereupon all worked in silence, he watching them.
When the time came, he was conducted to the abbot's dwelling, which was the tower beside the ancient gateway of the Arx. It contained but two rooms, one above the other; below, the founder of the monastery studied and transacted business; in the upper chamber he prayed and slept. When, in reply to his knock at the study door, the voice, now familiar, but for that no less impressive, bade him come forward, Basil felt his heart beat quickly; and when he stood alone in that venerable presence, all his new-born self-confidence fell away from him. Beholding the aged man seated at a table on which lay books, amid perfect stillness, in the light from a large window; before him a golden cross, and, on either side of it, a bowl of sweet-scented flowers; he seemed only now to remember that this was that Benedict whose fame had gone forth into many lands, whose holiness already numbered him with the blessed saints rather than with mortal men, of whom were recounted things miraculous. Looking upon that face, which time touched only to enhance its calm, only to make yet purer its sweet humanity, he felt himself an idle and wanton child, and his entrance hither a profanation.
'Come and sit by me, son Basil,' said the abbot. 'I am at leisure, and shall be glad to hear you speak of many things. Tell me first, do you love reading?'
Basil answered with simple truth, that of late years he had scarce read at all, his inclination being rather to the active life.
'So I should have surmised. But chancing to look from my upper window not long after sunrise, I saw you walking with a book in your hand. What was it?'
Basil murmured that it was the Book of Psalms.
'Look, then,' said Benedict, 'at what lies before me. Here is a commentary on that book, written by the learned and pious Cassiodorus; written in the religious house which he himself has founded, upon the shore of "ship-wrecking Scylaceum," as saith Virgilius. Not a week ago it came into my hands, a precious gift from the writer, and I have read much in it. On the last of his many journeys, travelling from Ravenna to the south, he climbed hither, and sojourned with us for certain days, and great was my solace in the communing we had together. Perchance you knew him in the world?'
Gladly Basil recounted his memories of the great counsellor. And the abbot listened with an attentive smile.
'I marvel not that you loved him. Reading in these pages, I am delighted by the graces of his mind, and taught by the sanctity of his spirit. At the very beginning, how sweetly does his voice sound. Listen. "Trusting in the Lord's command, I knock at the doors of the heavenly mystery, that He may open to my understanding His flowery abodes, and that, permitted to enter the celestial garden, I may pluck spiritual fruit without the sin of the first man. Verily this book shines like a lamp; it is the salve of a wounded spirit, sweet as honey to the inner man. So much hath it of beauty for the senses, such healing in its balmy words, that to it may be applied the words of Solomon: 'A closed garden, and a fountain sealed, a paradise abounding in all fruits.' For if Paradise be deemed desirable because it is watered by the delightful flow of four rivers, how much more blessed is the mind which is refreshed by the founts of one hundred and fifty psalms!"'
Basil scarce heeded the sense of the passage read to him. He could hear only the soft music of the aged voice, which lulled him into a calm full of faith and trust.
'Is not this better,' asked Benedict gently, whilst his eyes searched the young man's countenance, 'than to live for the service of kings, and to utter worldly counsel?'
'Better far, I cannot doubt,' Basil replied with humility.
'Utter the rest of your thought,' said the abbot, smiling. 'You cannot doubt -- and yet? Utter your mind to me, dear son.'
'My father, I obey you, desiring indeed with all my soul to seek your guidance. My heart has been too much in this world, and for one thought given to things eternal, I have bestowed a hundred upon my own sorrows, and on those of Italy.'
His voice faltered, his head drooped.
'I say not,' murmured the listener, 'that you do wrong to love your country.'
'Holy father, I were a hypocrite if I spoke of my country first of all. For all but a year gone by, another love has possessed me. Forgive me that I dare to speak such a word before you.'
The abbot turned his eyes to the window. Upon the sill had settled two doves, which seemed to regard him curiously. He made a soft gesture with his hand, and the birds flew away.
'Speak on,' he said after brief reflection, and with the same indulgence. 'He who tells all speaks not to man but to God.'
And Basil told all; told it with humble simplicity, with entire truthfulness, recounting his history from the day when he first beheld Veranilda to the dreadful hour when Marcian's blood stained his hands. He began in calm, but the revival of emotions which had slept during his sickness and his convalescence soon troubled him profoundly. Not only did the dormant feelings wake up again, but things which he had forgotten rushed into his memory. So, when he came to the last interview with Veranilda, he remembered, for the first time since that day, what he had said to her, and the recollection dismayed him. He burst into tears, overwhelmed at once with misery and shame.
'It may be,' he sobbed, 'that she was innocent. Suffering had driven me mad, and I uttered words such as never should have passed my lips. If she is guiltless, there lives no baser man than I. For I reproached her -- my father, how you will scorn me! -- I cast at her in reproach her father's treachery.'
The abbot's brow rested upon his hand. It was thus he had listened, unmoving, throughout the story; nor did he now stir, until Basil, having ceased alike from speaking and from tears, had sat for a little while in stillness and reflection. Then at length he turned his eyes upon the young man, and spoke with sad gravity.
'Even so, even so. You gave your heart to a woman, and worshipped at her feet, and behold there has come upon you the guilt of blood. Not, you would protest, through your own fault; your friend was false to you, and in just wrath you slew him. Who made you, 0 Basil, his judge and his executioner?'
'Father, I seek not to excuse my sin.'
'It is well. And what penance will you lay upon yourself?'
Utterly subdued by awe, oblivious of his own will in the presence of one so much more powerful, Basil murmured that whatever penance the man of God saw fit to impose that would he perform.
'Nay,' said Benedict gently, 'that is too like presumption. Say rather, you would endeavour to perform it. I will believe that if I bade you fast long, or repeat many prayers, you would punctually obey me. But what if I demanded of you that against which not only your flesh, but all the motive of your life, rebelled? It were not too much; yet dare you promise to achieve it?'
Basil looked up fearfully, and answered with tremulous lips:
'Not in my own strength; but perchance with the help of God.'
A grave smile passed over Benedict's countenance.
'It is well, my son; again, it is well. Come now, and let us reason of this your sin. You avow to me that God and His commands have ever been little in your mind, whereas you have thought much of this world and its governance. I might ask you how it is possible to reflect on the weal and woe of human kind without taking count of Him who made the world and rules it; but let me approach you with a narrower inquiry. You tell me that you love your country, and desire its peace. How comes it, then, that you are numbered with the violent, the lawless, with those who renounce their citizenship and dishonour the State? Could not all your worldly meditations preserve you from so gross an incoherence of thought and action?'
'Indeed, it should have done.'
'And would, perchance, had not your spleen overcome your reason. Why, that is the case, 0 Basil, of all but every man who this day calls himself a Roman citizen. Therefore is it that Italy lies under the wrath of the Most High. Therefore is it that Rome has fallen, and that the breath of pestilence, the sword of the destroyer, yea, earthquake and flood and famine, desolate the land. Yet you here find little time, my son, to meditate the laws of God, being so busied for the welfare of men. Methinks your story has aimed a little wide.'
Basil bent low before this gentle irony, which softened his heart. The abbot mused a moment, gazing upon the golden cross.
'In the days of old,' he continued, 'Romans knew how to subdue their own desires to the good of their country. He who, in self-seeking, wronged the State, was cast forth from its bosom. Therefore was it that Rome grew mighty, the Omnipotent fostering her for ends which the fulness of time should disclose. Such virtue had our ancestors, even though they worshipped darkly at the altars of daemons. But from that pride they fell, for their hearts were hardened; and, at length, when heathendom had wellnigh destroyed the principle whereby they waxed, God revealed Himself unto His chosen, that ancient virtue and new faith might restore the world. To turn your thought upon these things, I sent you the book written long ago by the holy father Augustine, concerning the Divine State. Have you read in it?'
'Some little,' answered Basil, 'but with wandering mind.'
'Therein you will discover, largely expounded, these reasonings I do but touch upon. I would have you trace God's working in the past, and, by musing upon what now is, ripen yourself in that citizenship whereon you have prided yourself, though you neither understood its true meaning nor had the strength to perform its duties. Losing sight of the Heavenly City for that which is on earth, not even in your earthly service were you worthy of the name of Roman; and, inasmuch as you wronged the earthly Rome, even so did you sin against that Eternal State of the Supreme Lord whereof by baptism you were made a citizen. By such as you, 0 Basil, is the anger of our God prolonged, and lest you should think that, amid a long and bloody war, amid the trampling of armies, the fall of cities, one death more is of no account, I say to you that, in the eyes of the All-seeing, this deed of yours may be of heavier moment than the slaughter of a battlefield. From your own lips it is manifest that you had not even sound assurance of the guilt you professed to punish. It may be that the man had not wronged you as you supposed. A little patience, a little of the calm which becomes a reasoning soul, and you might not only have saved yourself from crime, but have resolved what must now ever be a doubt to your harassed thoughts.'
'Such words did Veranilda herself speak,' exclaimed Basil. 'And I, in my frenzy, thought them only a lamentation for the death of her lover.'
'Call it frenzy; but remember, 0 my son, that no less a frenzy was every act of your life, and every thought, which led you on the path to that ultimate sin. Frenzy it is to live only for the flesh; frenzy, to imagine that any good can come of aught you purpose without beseeching the divine guidance.'
Much else did the abbot utter in this vein of holy admonition. And Basil would have listened with the acquiescence of a perfect faith, but that there stirred within. him the memory of what he had read in Augustine's pages, darkening his spirit. At length he found courage to speak of this, and asked in trembling tones:
'Am I one of those born to sin and to condemnation? Am I of those unhappy beings who strive in vain against a doom predetermined by the Almighty?'
Benedict's countenance fell; not as if in admission of a dread possibility, but rather as in painful surprise.
'You ask me,' he answered solemnly, after a pause, 'what no man should ask even when he communes with his own soul in the stillness of night. The Gospel is preached to all; nowhere in the word of God are any forbidden to hear it, or, hearing, to accept its solace. Think not upon that dark mystery, which even to the understandings God has most enlightened shows but as a formless dread. The sinner shall not brood upon his sin, save to abhor it. Shall he who repents darken repentance with a questioning of God's mercy? Then indeed were there no such thing as turning from wrong to righteousness.'
'When I sent you that book,' he resumed, after observing the relief that came to Basil's face, 'I had in mind only its salutary teaching for such as live too much in man's world, and especially for those who, priding themselves upon the name of Roman, are little given to reflection upon all the evil Rome has wrought. Had I known what lay upon your conscience, I should have withheld from you everything but Holy Writ.'
'My man, Deodatus, had not spoken?' asked Basil.
'Concerning you, not a word. I did not permit him to be questioned, and his talk has been only of his own sins.'
Basil wondered at this discretion in a simple rustic; yet, on a second thought, found it consistent with the character of Deodatus, as lately revealed to him.
'He has been long your faithful attendant?' inquired the abbot.
'Not so. Only by chance was he chosen from my horsemen to accompany me hither. My own servant, Felix, being wounded, lay behind at Aesernia.'
'If he be as honest and God-fearing as this man,' said Benedict, 'whose name, indeed, seems well to become him, then are you fortunate in those who tend upon you. But of this and other such things we will converse hereafter. Listen now, son Basil, to my bidding. You have abstained from the Table of the Lord, and it is well. Today, and every day until I again summon you, you will read aloud in privacy the Seven Penitential Psalms, slowly and with meditation; and may they grave themselves in your heart, to remain there, a purification and a hope, whilst you live.'
Basil bowed his head, and whispered obedience.
'Moreover, so far as your strength will suffer it, you shall go daily into the garden or the field, and there work with the brethren. Alike for soul and for body it is good to labour under God's sky, and above all to till God's earth and make it fruitful. For though upon Adam, in whom we all died, was laid as a punishment that he should eat only that which he had planted in the sweat of his brow, yet mark, 0 Basil, that the Creator inflicts no earthly punishment which does not in the end bear fruit of healing and of gladness. What perfume is so sweet as that of the new-turned soil? And what so profitable to health? When the Romans of old time began to fall from virtue -- such virtue as was permitted to those who knew not God -- the first sign of their evil state was the forgotten plough. And never again can Italy be blessed -- if it he the will of the Almighty that peace be granted her -- until valley and mountain side and many-watered plain are rich with her children's labour. I do not bid you live in silence, for silence is not always a good counsellor; but refrain from merely idle speech, and strive, 0 Basil, strive with all the force that is in you, that your thoughts be turned upward. Go now, my son. It shall not be long before I again call you to my tower.'
So, with a look of kindness which did not soften to a smile, Benedict dismissed his penitent. When the door had closed, he sat for a few minutes with head bent, then roused himself, glanced at the clepsydra which stood in a corner of the room, and turned a page or two of the volume lying before him. Presently his attention was caught by the sound of fluttering wings; on the window sill had again alighted the two doves, and again they seemed to regard him curiously. The aged face brightened with tenderness.
'Welcome,' he murmured, 'ye whose love is innocent.'
From a little bag that lay on the table he drew grains, and scattered them on the floor. The doves flew down and ate, and, as he watched them, Benedict seemed to forget all the sorrows of the world.
The telling of his story was to Basil like waking from a state of imperfect consciousness in which dream and reality had indistinguishably mingled. Since the fight with the brigands he had never been himself; the fever in his blood made him incapable of wonted thought or action; restored to health, he looked back upon those days with such an alien sense that he could scarce believe he had done the things he related. Only now did their move in him a natural horror when he thought of the death of Marcian, a natural distress when he remembered his bearing to Veranilda. Only now could he see in the light of reason all that had happened between his talk with Sagaris at Aesernia and his riding away with Venantius from the villa on the island. As he unfolded the story, he marvelled at himself, and was overcome with woe.
There needed not the words of the holy abbot to show him how blindly he had acted. He could see now that, however it might appear, the guilt of Marcian was quite unproved. The Syrian slave might have lied, or else have uttered a mistaken suspicion. It might be true that Marcian had been misled by some calumniator into thinking evil of his friend. And had he not heard the declaration of Veranilda, that she had suffered no wrong at his hands? Basil saw the face of his beloved. Only a man possessed by the Evil Spirit could have answered her as he had done. Was not the fact that Marcian had brought Veranilda to his villa in order to give her into the hands of Totila sufficient proof that he had neither wronged her nor meditated wrong? Ay, but Basil reminded himself that he had accused Veranilda of amorous complicity with Marcian. And at this recollection his brain whirled.
Even were it permitted him ever to behold her again, how could he stand before her? Must she not abhor him, as one whose baseness surpassed all she had thought possible in the vilest slave? Jealousy was pardonable; in its rage, a man might slay and be forgiven. But for the reproach with which he had smitten her -- her, pure and innocent -- there could be no forgiveness. It was an act of infamy, branding him for ever.
Thoughts such as these intermingled with his reading of the Psalms of penitence. Ever and again grief overwhelmed him, and he wept bitterly. At the hour of the evening meal, he would willingly have remained in his cell, to fast and mourn alone; but this, he felt, would have been to shirk part of his penance; for, though the brothers knew not of his sin, he could not meet their eyes for shame, and such humiliation must needs be salutary. This evening other guests sat at the abbot's table, and he shrank from their notice, for though they were but men of humble estate, pilgrims from Lucania, he felt debased before them. The reading, to which all listened during their meal, was selected from that new volume of Cassiodorus so esteemed by the abbot; it closed with a prayer in which Basil found the very utterance his soul needed.
'0 Lord, our Teacher and Guide, our Advocate and Judge, Thou the Bestower and the Admonitor, terrible and clement, Rebuker and Consoler, who givest sight to the blind, who makest possible to the weak that which Thou commandest, who art so good that Thou desirest to be for ever petitioned, so merciful that Thou sufferest no one to despair; grant us that which we ask with Thy approval, and yet more that which in our ignorance we fail to beseech. How weak we are, Thou indeed knowest; by what a foe we are beset, Thou art aware. In the unequal contest, in our mortal infirmity, we turn to Thee, for it is the glory of Thy Majesty when the meek sheep overcomes the roaring lion, when the Evil Spirit is repulsed by feeble flesh. Grant that our enemy, who rejoices in our offending, may be saddened by the sight of human happiness. Amen.'
He rose, for the first time, to attend the midnight office, Deodatus, who was punctual as a monk at all the hours, awaking him from sleep. But Marcus whispered an admonishing word.
'I praise your zeal, good brother; nevertheless, as your physician, I cannot suffer your night's rest to be broken. Descend for lauds, if you will, but not earlier.'
Basil bowed in obedience. Lauds again saw him at prayer. Hitherto, when they were together in the oratory, it had been the habit of Deodatus to kneel behind his master; this morning Basil placed himself by his servant's side. They walked away together in the pearly light of dawn, and Basil led the way to a sequestered spot, whence there was a view over the broad valley of the Liris. Several times of late he had come here, to gaze across the mountainous landscape, wondering where Veranilda might be. Turning to his companion, he laid a hand on the man's shoulder, and addressed him in a voice of much gentleness.
'Did you leave nothing behind you, Deodatus, which would make the thought of never returning to your home a sorrow?'
'Nothing, my dear lord,' was the reply. 'In my lifetime I have seen much grief and little solace. All I loved are dead.'
'But you are young. Could you without a pang say farewell to the world?'
Deodatus answered timidly:
'Here is peace.'
Continuing to question, Basil learnt that for this man the life of the world was a weariness and a dread. Hardships of many kinds had oppressed him from childhood; his was a meek soul, which had no place amid the rudeness and violence of the times; from the first hour, the cloistered life had cast a spell upon him.
'Here is peace,' he repeated. 'Here one can forget everything but to worship God. Could I remain here, I were the happiest of men.'
And Basil mused, understanding, approving, yet unable to utter the same words for himself. His eyes strayed towards the far valley, shimmering in earliest daylight. He, too, had he not suffered dread things whilst living in the world? And could he expect that life in the future would be more kindly to him? None the less did his heart yearn for that valley of human tribulation. He struggled to subdue it.
'Deodatus, pray for me, that I may have strength to do that which I see to be the best.'
It was no forced humility. Very beautiful in Basil's eyes showed the piety and calm which here surrounded him, and his reverence for the founder of this house of peace fell little short of that with which he regarded the Saints in heaven. Never before -- unless it were at certain moments when conversing with the Lady Silvia -- had he felt the loveliness of a life in which religion was supreme; and never, assuredly, had there stirred within him a spirit so devout. He longed to attain unto righteousness, that entire purity of will, which, it now seemed to him, could be enjoyed only in monastic seclusion. All his life he had heard praise of those who renounced the world; but their merit had been to him a far-off, uncomprehended thing, without relation to himself. Now he understood. A man, a sinner, it behoved him before all else to chasten his soul that he might be pleasing unto God; and behold the way! For one who had sinned so grievously, it might well be that there was no other path of salvation.
This morning he went forth with the monks to labour. Brother Marcus conducted him to a plot of garden ground where there was light work to be done, and there left him. Willingly did Basil set about this task, which broke the monotony of the day, and, more than that, was in itself agreeable to him. He had always found pleasure in the rustic life, and of late, at his Asculan villa, had often wished he could abide in quiet for the rest of his days amid the fields and the vineyards. Working in the mellow sunlight, above him the soft blue sky of early autumn, and all around the silence of mountain and of forest, he felt his health renew itself. When the first drops of sweat stood upon his forehead he wiped them away with earthy fingers, and the mere action -- he knew not why -- gave him pleasure.
But of a sudden he became aware that he had lost something. From the little finger of his left hand had slipped his signet ring. It must have fallen since he began working, and anxiously he searched for it about the ground. Whilst he was thus occupied, Marcus came towards him, carrying a great basket of vegetables. Not without diffidence, Basil told what had happened.
'You will rebuke me, holy brother, for heeding such a loss. But the ring is very old; it has been worn by many of my ancestors, to them it came, and from one who suffered martyrdom in the times of Diocletian.'
'Then, indeed, I did well,' replied Marcus, 'to leave it on your finger during your sickness. I looked at it and saw that it was a Christian seal. Had it been one of those which are yet seen too often, with the stamp of a daemon, I should have plucked it off, and perhaps have destroyed it. The ring of a blessed martyr I Let us seek, let us seek! But, brother Basil,' he added gravely, 'has there passed through your heart no evil thought? I like not this falling of the ring.'
Basil held up his wasted hand with a smile.
'True, true; you have lost flesh. Be thankful for it, dear brother; so much the easier you combat with him whose ally is this body of death. True, the ring may have fallen simply because your finger was so thin. But be warned, 0 Basil, against that habit of mind which interprets in an earthly sense things of divine meaning.'
'I had indeed let my thoughts dwell upon worldliness,' Basil admitted.
The monk smiled a satisfied reproof.
'Even so, even so! And look you! In the moment of your avowal my hand falls upon the ring.'
Rejoicing together, they inspected it. In the gold was set an onyx, graven with the monogram of Christ, a wreath, and the motto, 'Vivas in Deo.' Marcus knelt, and pressed the seal to his forehead, murmuring ecstatically:
'The ring of a blessed martyr!'
'I am all unworthy to wear it,' said Basil, sincerely hesitating to replace it on his finger. 'Indeed, I will not do so until I have spoken with the holy father.'
This resolve Marcus commended, and, with a kindly word, he went his way. Basil worked on. To discipline his thoughts he kept murmuring, 'Vivas in Deo,' and reflecting upon the significance of the words; for, often as he had seen them, he had never till now mused upon their meaning. What was the life in God I Did it mean that of the world to come? Ay, but how attain unto eternal blessedness save by striving to anticipate on earth that perfection of hereafter? And so was he brought again to the conclusion that, would he assure life eternal, he must renounce all that lured him in mortality.
The brothers returning from the field at the third hour signalled to him that for to-day he had worked enough. One of them, in passing, gave him a smile, and said good-naturedly:
'Thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.'
Weary, but with the sense of healthful fatigue, Basil rested for an hour on his bed. He then took the Psalter and opened it at hazard, and the first words his eyes fell upon were:
'Thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.'
'A happy omen,' he thought. But stay; what was this that followed?
'Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house; thy children like olive plants round about thy table.
'Behold, thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord.'
The blood rushed into his cheeks. He sat staring at the open page as though in astonishment. He read and re-read the short psalm of which these verses were part, and if a voice had spoken it to him from above he could scarce have felt more moved by the message. Basil had never been studious of the Scriptures, and, if ever he had known that they contained such matter as this, it had quite faded from his memory. He thought of the Holy Book as hostile to every form of earthly happiness, its promises only for those who lived to mortify their natural desires. Yet here was the very word of God encouraging him in his heart's hope. Were not men wont to use the Bible as their oracle, opening the pages at hazard, even as he had done?
It was long before he could subdue his emotions so as to turn to the reading imposed upon him. He brought himself at length into the fitting mind by remembering that this wondrous promise was not for a sinner, a murderer; and that only could he hope to merit such blessing if he had truly repented, and won forgiveness. Stricken down by this reflection he grew once more humble and sad.
In the afternoon, as he was pacing alone in a little portico near the abbot's tower, the prior approached him. This reverend man had hitherto paid little or no attention to Basil. He walked ever with eyes cast down as if in deep musing, yet it was well known that he observed keenly, and that his duties to the community were discharged with admirable zeal and competence. In the world he would have been a great administrator. In the monastery he seemed to find ample scope for his powers, and never varied from the character of a man who set piety and learning above all else. Drawing nigh to Basil he greeted him gently, and asked whether it would give him pleasure to see the copyists at work. Basil gladly accepted this invitation, and was conducted to a long, well-lit room, where, at great desks, sat some five or six of the brothers, each bent over a parchment which would some day form portion of a volume, writing with slow care, with the zeal of devotees and with the joy of artists. Not a whisper broke upon the silence in which the pen-strokes alone were audible. Stepping softly, the prior led his companion from desk to desk, drawing attention, without a word, to the nature of the book which in each case was being copied. It surprised Basil to see that the monks busied themselves in reproducing not only religious works but also the writings of authors who had lived in pagan times, and of this he spoke when the prior had led him forth again.
'Have you then been taught,' asked the prior, 'that it is sinful to read Virgil and Statius, Livy and Cicero?'
'Not so, reverend father,' he replied modestly, his eyes falling before the good-humoured gaze. 'But I was so ill instructed as to think that to those who had withdrawn from the world it might not be permitted.'
'Father Hieronymus had no such misgiving,' said the prior, 'for he himself, at Bethlehem, taught children to read the ancient poets; not unmindful that the blessed Paul himself, in those writings which are the food of our spirit, takes occasion to cite from more than one poet who knew not Christ. If you would urge the impurity and idolatry which deface so many pages of the ancients, let me answer you in full with a brief passage of the holy Augustine. "For," says he, "as the Egyptians had not only idols to be detested by Israelites, but also precious ornaments of gold and silver, to be carried off by them in flight, so the science of the Gentiles is not only composed of superstitions to be abhorred, but of liberal arts to be used in the service of truth."'
They walked a short distance without further speech, then the prior stopped.
'Many there are,' he said, with a gesture indicating the world below, 'who think that we flee the common life only for our souls' salvation. So, indeed, it has been in former times, and God forbid that we should speak otherwise than with reverence of those who abandoned all and betook themselves to the desert that they might live in purity and holiness. But to us, by the grace bestowed upon our holy father, has another guidance been shown. Know, my son, that, in an evil time, we seek humbly to keep clear, not for ourselves only, but for all men, the paths of righteousness and of understanding. With heaven's blessing we strive to preserve what else might utterly perish, to become not only guardians of God's law but of man's learning.'
Therewith did the prior take his leave, and Basil pondered much on what he had heard. It was a new light to him, for, as his instructor suspected, he shared the common view of coenobite aims, and still but imperfectly understood the law of Benedict. All at once the life of this cloister appeared before him in a wider and nobler aspect. In the silent monks bent over their desks he saw much more than piety and learning. They rose to a dignity surpassing that of consul or praefect. With their pens they warred against the powers of darkness, a grander conflict than any in which men drew sword. He wished he could talk of this with his cousin Decius, for Decius knew so much more than he, and could look so much deeper into the sense of things.
Days passed. Not yet did he receive a summons to the abbot's tower. Rapidly recovering strength, he worked long in the fields, and scrupulously performed his penitential exercises. Only, when he had finished his daily reading of the appointed psalms, he turned to that which begins: 'Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord, that walketh in His ways.' How could he err in dwelling upon the word of God? One day, as he closed the book, his heart was so full of a strange, half-hopeful, half-fearful longing, that it overflowed in tears; and amid his weeping came a memory of Marcian, a tender memory of the days of their friendship: for the first time he bewailed the dead man as one whom he had dearly loved.
Then there sounded a knock at the door of his cell. Commanding himself, and turning away so as to hide his face, he bade enter.
And, looking up, he beheld his servant Felix.
Transported from grief to joy, Basil sprang forward and clasped Felix in his arms.
'God be thanked,' he exclaimed, 'that I see you alive and well! Whence come you? What is your news?'
With his wonted grave simplicity, Felix told that he had long since recovered from the effects of the wound, but had remained at Aesernia, unable to obtain permission to go in search of his master. The Gothic army was now advancing along the Via Latina; Basil's followers were united with the troop under Venantius; and on their arrival at Casinum, Felix succeeded in getting leave to climb to the monastery. He had been assured that his lord had recovered health, and was still sojourning with the holy men; but by whom this news had been brought he could not say. Doubtless Venantius had held communication with the monastery.
'And you are here alone?' asked Basil, fearing still to utter the question which was foremost in his mind.
'Alone of my lord's men. I followed those that came with the king.'
'The king? Totila is here?'
'It was rumoured,' replied Felix, in a reverent voice, 'that he desired to speak of deep matters with the holy Benedict. They are even now conversing.'
Basil fell into a great agitation. Absorbed in his private griefs, and in thoughts of eternity, he had all but forgotten the purpose with which he crossed the Apennines at the summons of Marcian. The name of Totila revived his interest in the progress of the war, but at the same time struck his heart with a chill misgiving. With what eyes would the king regard Marcian's slayer? Was he more likely to pardon the deed if he knew (as assuredly he must) that it was done in jealous love of Veranilda? The words he had not dared to speak leapt to his lips.
'Felix, know you anything of the Gothic lady -- of her whom we lost?'
'The lord Venantius brought her to Aesernia,' was the grave reply, 'and she is now among the wives and daughters of the Gothic lords who move with the army.'
Answering other questions, Felix said that he had not seen Veranilda, and that he knew nothing of her save what he had heard from those of Basil's men who had been at the island villa, and, subsequently, from the gossip of the camp. A story had got abroad that Veranilda was the lost princess of the Amal line surviving in Italy, and it was commonly thought among the Goths that their king intended to espouse her -- the marriage to be celebrated in Rome, when Rome once more acknowledged the Gothic ruler. This did Felix report unwillingly, and only because his master insisted upon knowing all.
'Very like it is true,' commented Basil, forcing a smile. 'You know, my good Felix, that the Emperor would fain have had her adorn his court; and I would rather see her Queen of Italy. But tell me now, last of all, what talk there has been of me. Or has my name been happily forgotten?'
'My dear lord's followers,' replied Felix, 'have not ceased to speak of him among themselves, and to pray for his safety.'
'That I gladly believe. But I see there is more to tell. Out with it all, good fellow. I have suffered worse things than any that can lie. before me.'
In sad obedience, the servant made known that he and his fellows had been closely questioned, first by Venantius, later, some two or three of them, by the king himself, regarding their master's course of life since he went into Picenum. They had told the truth, happy in that they could do so without fear and without shame.
'And how did the king bear himself to you?' asked Basil eagerly.
'With that nobleness which became him,' was the fervid answer. 'It is said among the Goths that only a lie or an act of cowardice can move Totila to wrath against one who is in his power; and after speaking face to face with him, I well believe it. He questioned me in few words, but not as a tyrant; and when I had replied as best I could, he dismissed me with a smile.'
Basil's head drooped.
'Yes, Totila is noble,' fell softly from him. 'Let be what will be. He is worthier than I.'
A knock sounded again at the door of the cell, and there entered Marcus. His keen and kindly face betrayed perturbation of spirit, and after looking from Basil to the new comer and then at Basil again, he said in a nervous voice:
'The lord abbot bids you repair at once, my brother, to the prior's room.'
'I go,' was the prompt reply.
As they left the room, Marcus caught Basil's arm and whispered:
'It is the King of the Goths who awaits you. But have courage, dear brother; his face is mild. Despite his error, he has borne himself reverently to our holy father.'
'Know you what has passed between them?' asked Basil, also in a whisper.
'That none may know. But when Totila came forth from the tower, he had the face of one who has heard strange things. Who can say what the Almighty purposes by the power of his servant Benedict? Not unguided, surely, did the feet of the misbelieving warrior turn to climb this mount.'
Leaving the poet monk to nurse his hopes, Basil betook himself with rapid steps to the prior's room. At the door stood three armed men; two had the long flaxen hair which proclaimed them Goths, the third was Venantius. A look of friendly recognition was all that passed between Basil and his countryman, who straightway admitted him to the room, announced his name, and retired. Alone -- his attitude that of one who muses -- sat the Gothic King. He was bareheaded and wore neither armour nor weapon; his apparel a purple tunic, with a loose, gold-broidered belt, and a white mantle purple seamed. Youth shone in his ruddy countenance, and the vigour of perfect manhood graced his frame. The locks that fell to his shoulders had a darker hue than that common in the Gothic race, being a deep burnished chestnut; but upon his lips and chin the hair gleamed like pale gold. Across his forehead, from temple to temple, ran one deep furrow, and this, together with a slight droop of the eyelids, touched his visage with a cast 9f melancholy, whereby, perhaps, the comely features became more royal.
Upon Basil, who paused at a respectful distance, he fixed a gaze of meditative intentness, and gazed so long in silence that the Roman could not but at length lift his eyes. Meeting the glance with grave good nature, Totila spoke firmly and frankly.
'Lord Basil, they tell me that you crossed Italy to draw your sword in my cause. Is this the truth?'
'It is the truth, 0 king.'
'How comes it then that you are laden with the death of one who had long proved himself my faithful servant, one who, when you encountered him, was bound on a mission of great moment?'
'He whom I slew,' answered Basil, 'was the man whom of all men I most loved. I thought him false to me, and struck in a moment of madness.'
'Then you have since learnt that you were deceived?'
Basil paused a moment.
'Gracious lord, that I accused him falsely, I no longer doubt, having had time to reflect upon many things, and to repent of my evil haste. But I am still ignorant of the cause which led him to think ill of me, and so to speak and act in a way which could not but make my heart burn against him.'
'Something of this too I have heard,' said the king, his blue eyes resting upon Basil's countenance with a thoughtful interest. 'You believe, then, that your friend was wholly blameless towards you, in intention and in act?'
'Save inasmuch as credited that strange slander, borne I know not upon what lips.'
'May I hear,' asked Totila, 'what this slander charged upon you?'
Basil raised his head, and put all his courage into a brief reply.
'That I sought to betray the lady Veranilda into the hands of the Greeks.'
'And you think,' said the king slowly, meditatively, his eyes still searching Basil's face, 'that your friend could believe you capable of that?'
'How he could, I know not,' came the sad reply. 'Yet I must needs think it was so.'
'Why?' sounded from the king's lips abruptly, and with a change to unexpected sternness. 'What forbids you the more natural thought that this man, this Marcian, was himself your slanderer?'
'Thinking so, 0 king, I slew him. Thinking so, I defiled my tongue with base suspicion of Veranilda. Being now again in my right mind, I know that my accusation of her was frenzy, and therefore I choose rather to believe that I wronged Marcian than that he could conceive so base a treachery.'
Totila reflected. All but a smile as of satisfaction lurked within his eyes.
'Know you,' he next inquired, 'by what means Marcian obtained charge of the lady Veranilda?'
'Of that I am as ignorant as of how she was first carried into captivity.'
'Yet,' said the king sharply, 'you conversed with her after Marcian's death.'
'Gracious lord,' answered Basil in low tones, 'it were miscalled conversing. With blood upon my hands, I said I scarce knew what, and would not give ear to the words which should have filled me with remorse.'
There was again a brief silence. Totila let his eyes stray for a moment, then spoke again meditatively.
'You sought vainly for this maiden, whilst she was kept in ward. Being your friend, did not Marcian lend his aid to discover her for you?'
'He did so, but fruitlessly. And when at length he found her, his mind to me had changed.'
'Strangely, it must be confessed,' said the king. His eyes were again fixed upon Basil with a look of pleasant interest. 'Some day, perchance, you may learn how that came about; meanwhile, you do well to think good rather than evil. In truth, it would be difficult to do otherwise in this dwelling of piety and peace. Is there imposed upon you some term of penance? I scarce think you have it in mind to turn monk?'
The last words, though not irreverently uttered, marked a change in Totila's demeanour. He seemed to lay aside an unwonted gravity, to become the ruler of men, the warrior, the conqueror. His forehead lost its long wrinkle, as, with eyebrows bent and lips compressed into a rallying half smile, he seemed to challenge all the manhood in him he addressed.
'For that,' Basil replied frankly, 'I lack the calling.'
'Well said. And how tends your inclination as regards the things of this world? Has it changed in aught since you came hither?'
'In nothing, 0 king,' was the firm response 'I honour the Goth, even as I love my country.'
'Spoken like a man. But I hear that you have passed through a long sickness, and your cheek yet lacks something of its native hue. It might be well if you took your ease yet a little with these good bedesmen.'
'It is true that I have not yet all my strength,' answered Basil. 'Moreover,' he added, lowering his voice, 'I would fain lighten my soul of the sin that burdens it. It may be that, ere long, the holy father will grant me absolution.'
Totila nodded with a grave smile.
'Be it so. When you are sound in flesh and spirit, follow me northward. I shall then have more to say to you.'
The look accompanying these words lent them a significance which put confusion into Basil's mind. He saw the courteous gesture wherewith the king dismissed him; he bowed and withdrew; but when he had left the room he stood as one bewildered, aware of nothing, his eyes turned vacantly upon some one who addressed him. Presently he found himself walking apart with Venantius, who spoke to him of public affairs, apprised him of the course of the war during these past weeks, and uttered the hope that before the end of the year the liberators would enter Rome. It was true that the Emperor had at length charged Belisarius with the task of reconquering Italy, but months must pass before an army could be assembled and transported; by the latest news the great commander was in Illyria, striving to make a force out of fresh-recruited barbarians, and lamenting the avarice of Justinian which grudged him needful supplies. And as he listened to all this, Basil felt a new ardour glow within him. He had ever worshipped the man of heroic virtues; once upon a time it was Belisarius who fired his zeal; now his eyes dazzled with the glory of Totila; he burned to devote a loyal service to this brave and noble king.
Suddenly there sounded a trumpet. Its note broke strangely upon the monastic stillness, and, in a moment, echoed clear from the mountains.
'The king goes forth,' said Venantius. 'I must leave you. Join us speedily yonder.'
He pointed towards Rome. On Basil's lips quivered a word, a question, but before it could be uttered the soldier had stridden away, his casque gleaming in the sun, and his sword clanking beside him.
Again with mind confused, Basil went to his cell, and sat there head on hand, trying to recover the mood, the thoughts, with which he had risen this morning. But everything was changed. He could no longer think of the past; the future called to him, and its voice was like that of the Gothic trumpet, stirring his blood, urging him to activity. At midday some one knocked, and there entered Deodatus.
'Where is Felix?' was Basil's first question.
Felix was gone, but only to the town at the foot of the mountain, where he and two of his fellows would abide until their master left the monastery. With this message Deodatus had been charged by Venantius. He added that Felix had been dismissed, at the abbot's order, during Basil's interview with the king.
'I understand,' said Basil in himself; and during the rest of the day he strove with all the force of his will to recover calm and pious thoughts. In the night that followed he slept little; it was now the image of Veranilda that hovered before him and kept him wakeful, perturbed with a tender longing. God, it might be, would pardon him his offence against the Divine law; but could he look for forgiveness from Veranilda? When he thought of the king's last words he was lured with hope; when he reasoned upon this hope, it turned to a mocking emptiness. And through the next day, and the next again, his struggle still went on. He worked and prayed as usual, and read the Psalms of penitence not once only, but several times in the four-and-twenty hours; that other psalm, to which he had turned for strengthening of the spirit, he no longer dared to open. And all this time he scarce spoke with any one; not that the brethren looked upon him with less kindness, or held him at a distance, but the rebuke of his own conscience kept him mute. He felt that his communion with these holy men was in seeming only, and it shamed him to contrast their quiet service of the Eternal with the turbid worldliness of his own thoughts.
During these days the abbot was not seen. Venturing, at length, when he happened to find himself alone with Marcus, to speak of this, he learnt that the holy father was not in his wonted health; Marcus added that the disorder had resulted from the visit of the king. After Totila's departure, Benedict had passed hours in solitary prayer, until a faintness came upon him, from which he could not yet recover. Basil was turning away sadly, when the monk touched his arm, and said in a troubled voice:
'Many times he has spoken of you, dear brother.'
'Would,' replied Basil, 'that I were worthy of his thoughts.'
'Did he think you unworthy,' said Marcus, 'he would not grieve that you must so soon go from among us.'
'The holy father has said that I must soon leave you?'
Marcus nodded gravely, and walked away.
Another week passed. By stern self-discipline, Basil had fixed his thoughts once more on things spiritual, and the result appeared in a quiet contentment. He waited upon the will of Benedict, which he had come to regard as one with the will of God. And at length the expected summons came. It was on the evening of Saturday, after vespers; the abbot had been present at the office, and, as he went forth from the oratory, he bade Basil follow him. They entered the tower, and Benedict, who walked feebly, sat for some moments silent in his chair, as if he had need of repose before the effort of speaking. Through the window streamed a warm light, illumining the aged face turned thither with eyes which dreamt upon the vanishing day.
'So you are no longer impatient to be gone?' were the abbot's first words, spoken in a voice which had not lost its music, though weakness made it low.
'My father,' answered Basil, 'I have striven with myself and God has helped me.'
He knew that it was needless to say more. The eyes bent upon him read all his thoughts; the confessions, the pleadings, he might have uttered, all lay open before that calm intelligence.'
'It is true, dear son,' said Benedict, 'that you have fought bravely, and your countenance declares that, in some measure, victory has been granted you. That it is not the complete victory of those who put the world for ever beneath their feet, shall not move me to murmur. The Lord of the vineyard biddeth whom He will; not all are called to the same labour; it may be -- for in this matter I see but darkly -- it may be that the earthly strife to which your heart impels you shall serve the glory of the Highest. As indeed doth every act of man, for how can it be otherwise? But I speak of the thought, the purpose, whereby 'in the end of all things, all must be judged.'
Basil heard these sentences with a deep joy. There was silence, and when the aged voice again spoke, it was in a tone yet more solemn. Benedict had risen.
'Answer me, my son, and speak as in the presence of God, whom I humbly serve. Do you truly repent of the sin whereof you made confession to me?'
Kneeling, Basil declared his penitence. Thereupon, Benedict, looking upwards, opened his lips in prayer.
'Receive, 0 Lord, our humble supplications, and to me, who above all have need of Thy compassion, graciously give ear. Spare Thou this penitent, that, by Thy mercy, he may escape condemnation in the judgment to come. Let him not know the dread of darkness, nor the pang of fire. Having turned from his way of error into the path of righteousness, be he not again stricken with the wounds of sin, but grant Thou that there abide with him for ever that soul's health which Thy grace hath bestowed and Thy mercy hath established.'
As he listened, Basil's eyes filled with tears, and when bidden to rise he felt as one who has thrown off a burden; rejoicing in his recovered strength of body and soul, he gazed into that venerable face with gratitude too great for words.
'Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.' It was with a parent's tenderness that Benedict now spoke. 'I am old, 0 Basil, and have but a few more steps to take upon this earth. Looking upon me, you see long promise of life before you. And yet ----'
The soft accents were suspended. For a moment Benedict gazed as though into the future; then, with a wave of his hand, passed to another thought.
'To-morrow you will join with us in the Holy Communion. You will pass the day in sober joy among the brethren, not one of whom but shares your gladness and desires your welfare. And at sunrise on the day after, you will go forth from our gates. Whether to return, I know not; be that with the Ruler of All. If again you climb this mount, I shall not be here to bid you welcome. Pray humbly, even as I do, that we may meet in the life eternal.'
After Mass on the morrow, when he had joyfully partaken of the Eucharist, Basil was bidden to the priest's room. This time it was the prior himself who received him, and with an address which indicated the change in the position of the penitent, now become an ordinary guest.
'Lord Basil, your follower, Deodatus, is minded to fulfil the prophecy of his name, and tells me that it would be with your good will. Are you content to deprive yourself of his service, that he may continue to abide with us, and after due preparation, take the vows of our community?'
'Content,' was the reply, 'and more than content. If ever man seemed born for the holy life, it is he. I entreat you, reverend father, to favour his desire.'
'Be it so. I have spoken of this matter with the lord abbot, who has graciously given his consent. Let me now make known to you that, at sunrise to-morrow, your attendants who have been sojourning at Casinum, will await you by the gate of the monastery. I wish you, dear lord, a fair journey. Let your thoughts sometimes turn to us; by us you will ever be remembered.'
Long before the morrow's sunrise, Basil was stirring. By the light of his little lamp, he and Deodatus conversed together, no longer as master and servant, but as loving friends, until the bell called them to matins. The night was chill; under a glistening moon all the valley land was seen to be deep covered with far-spreading mist, whereamid the mount of the monastery and the dark summits round about rose like islands in a still, white sea. When matins and lauds were over, many of the monks embraced and tenderly took leave of the departing guest. The last to do so was Marcus, who led him aside and whispered:
'I see you have again put on your ring, as was right. Let me, I beg of you, once more touch it with my lips.'
Having done so with the utmost reverence, he clasped Basil in his arms, kissed him on either cheek, and said, amid tears:
'Lest we should never meet again, take and keep this; not for its worth, for God knows it has little, but in memory of my love.'
The gift was a little book, a beautifully written copy of all the verses composed by the good Marcus in honour of Benedict and of the Sacred Mount of Casinum.
Holding it against his heart, Basil rode down into the mist.
Rome waited. It was not long to the setting of the Pleiades, and there could be no hope that the new army from the East would enter Italy this year. Belisarius lay on the other side of Hadria; in Italy the Imperial commanders scarce moved from the walls where each had found safety. Already suffering dearth (for Totila now had ships upon the Tyrrhene Sea, hindering the corn vessels that made for Portus), such of her citizens as had hope elsewhere and could escape, making haste to flee, watching the slow advance of the Gothic conqueror, and fearful of the leaguer which must presently begin, Rome waited.
One morning the attention of those who went about the streets was caught by certain written papers which had been fixed during the night on the entrance of public buildings and at other such conspicuous points; they bore a proclamation of the King of the Goths. Reminding the Roman people that nearly the whole of Italy was now his, and urging them to avoid the useless sufferings of a siege, Totila made promise that, were the city surrendered to him, neither hurt nor loss should befall one of the inhabitants; and that under his rule Rome should have the same liberty, the same honour, as in the time of the glorious Theodoric. Before these papers had been torn down, their purport became universally known; everywhere men whispered together; but those who would have welcomed the coming of Totila could not act upon their wish, and the Greeks were confident of relief long ere the city could be taken by storm or brought to extremities. Bessas well knew the numbers of Totila's army; he himself commanded a garrison of three thousand men, and not much larger than this was the force with which, after leaving soldiers to maintain his conquest throughout the land, the king now drew towards Rome. At the proclamation Bessas laughed, for he saw in it a device dictated by weakness.
And now, in these days of late autumn, the Gothic army lay all but in sight. Watchers from the walls pointed eastward, to where on its height, encircled by the foaming Anio, stood the little town of Tibur; this, a stronghold overlooking the Ager Romanus, Totila had turned aside to besiege. The place must soon yield to him. How long before his horsemen came riding along the Tiburtine Way?
Close by Tibur, on a gently rising slope, sheltered by mountains alike from northern winds and from the unwholesome breathing of the south, stood the vast pleasure-house built by the Emperor Hadrian, with its presentment in little of the scenes and architecture which had most impressed him in his travels throughout the Roman world. The lapse of four hundred years had restored to nature his artificial landscape: the Vale of Tempe had forgotten its name; Peneus and Alpheus flowed unnoticed through tracts of wood or wilderness; but upon the multitude of edifices, the dwellings, theatres, hippodromes, galleries, lecture halls, no destroyer's hand had yet fallen. They abounded in things beautiful, in carving and mosaic, in wall-painting and tapestries, in statues which had been the glory of Greece, and in marble portraiture which was the boast of Rome. Here, amid the decay of ancient splendour and the luxuriance of the triumphing earth, King Totila made his momentary abode; with him, in Hadrian's palace, housed the Gothic warrior-nobles, and a number of ladies, their wives and relatives, who made, as it were, a wandering court. Honour, pride, and cheerful courage were the notable characteristics of these Gothic women. What graces they had they owed to nature, not to any cultivation of the mind. Their health Buffered in a nomadic life from the ills of the country, the dangers of the climate, and the children by whom a few were accompanied, showed a degeneracy of blood which threatened the race with extinction.
Foremost in rank among them was Athalfrida, sister to the king, and wife of a brawny lord named Osuin. Though not yet five and twenty years old, Athalfrida had borne seven children, of whom five died in babyhood. A creature of magnificent form, and in earlier life of superb vigour, her paling cheek told of decline that had begun; nevertheless her spirits were undaunted; and her voice, in gay talk, in song or in laughter, sounded constantly about the halls and wild gardens. Merry by choice, she had in her a vein of tenderness which now and then (possibly due to failing health) became excessive, causing her to shed abundant tears with little or no cause, and to be over lavish of endearments with those she loved or merely liked. Athalfrida worshipped her husband; in her brother saw the ideal hero. She was ardent in racial feeling, thought nothing good but what was Gothic, and hated the Italians for their lack of gratitude to the people of Theodoric.
To her the king had intrusted Veranilda. Knowing her origin and history, Athalfrida, in the beginning, could not but look coldly upon her charge. The daughter of a Gothic renegade, the betrothed of a Roman noble, and finally an apostate from the creed of her race-how could such an one expect more than the barest civility from Totila's sister? Yet in a little time it had come to pass that Athalfrida felt her heart soften to the sad and beautiful maiden, who never spoke but gently, who had compassion for all suffering, and willing aid for any one she could serve, whom little children loved as soon as they looked into her eyes, and heard her voice. Though a daughter of the abhorred Ebrimut, Veranilda was of Amal blood, and, despite what seemed her weakness and her errors, it soon appeared that she cherished fervidly the glory of the Gothic name. This contradiction puzzled the wife of Osuin, whose thoughts could follow only the plainest track. She suspected that her charge must be the victim of some enchantment, of some evil spell; and in their talk she questioned her with infinite curiosity concerning her acquaintance with Basil, her life in the convent at Praeneste, her release and the journey with Marcian. Veranilda spoke as one who has nothing to conceal; only, when pressed for the story of that last day at the island villa, she turned away her face, and entreated the questioner's forbearance. All else she told with a sad simplicity. Her religious conversion was the result of teaching she had received from the abbess, a Roman lady of great learning, who spoke of things till then unknown to her, and made so manifest the truth of the Catholic creed that her reason was constrained to accept it. Obeying the king's command, Athalfrida refrained from argument and condemnation, and, as Veranilda herself, when once she had told her story, never again returned to it, the subject was almost forgotten. They lived together on terms as friendly as might be between persons so different. The other ladies, their curiosity once satisfied, scarce paid any heed to her at all; and Veranilda was never more content than when left quite alone, to ply her needle and commune with her thoughts.
Against all expectation, the gates of Tibur remained obstinately closed; three weeks went by, and those who came on to the walls to parley had only words of scorn for the Gothic king, whom they bade beware of the Greek force which would shortly march to their succour. Only a small guard of Isaurians held the town, but it was abundantly provisioned, and strong enough to defy attack for an indefinite time. The Goths had no skill in taking fortresses by assault; when walls held firm against them, they seldom overcame except by blockade; and this it was which, despite his conquest of the greater part of Italy, made Totila thus slow and cautious in his approach to Rome. He remembered that Vitiges, who laid siege to the city with a hundred thousand men, had retreated at last with his troops diminished by more than half, so worn and dispirited that they scarce struck another blow against Belisarius. The Greek commander, Totila well knew, would not sally forth and risk an engagement: to storm the battlements would be an idle, if not a fatal, attempt; and how, with so small an army, could he encompass so vast a wall? To guard the entrance to the river with his ships, and to isolate Rome from every inland district of Italy, seemed to the Gothic king the only sure way of preparing his final triumph. But time pressed; however beset with difficulties, Belisarius would not linger for ever beyond Hadria. The resistance of Tibur excited Totila's impatience, and at length stirred his wrath. Osuin heard a terrible threat fall from his lips, and the same evening whispered it to Athalfrida.
'He will do well,' answered his wife, with brows knit.
On the morrow, Athalfrida and Veranilda sat together in the gardens, or what once had been the gardens, of Hadrian's palace, and looked forth over the vast brown landscape, with that gleam upon its limit, that something pale between earth and air, which was the Tyrrhene Sea. Over the sky hung thin grey clouds, broken with strips of hazy blue, and softly suffused with warmth from the invisible sun.
'0 that this weary war would end!' exclaimed the elder lady in the language of the Goths. 'I am sick of wandering, sick of this south, where winter is the same as summer, sick of the name of Rome. I would I were back in Mediolanum. There, when you look from the walls, you see the great white mountains, and a wind blows from them, cold, keen; a wind that sets you running and leaping, and makes you hungry. Here I have no gust for food, and indeed there is none worth eating.'
As she spoke, she raised her hand to the branch of an arbutus just above her head, plucked one of the strawberry-like fruits, bit into it with her white teeth, and threw the half away contemptuously.
'You!' She turned to her companion abruptly. 'Where would you like to live when the war is over?'
Veranilda's eyes rested upon something in the far distance, but less far than the shining horizon.
'Surely not there!' pursued the other, watching her. 'I was but once in Rome, and I had not been there a week when I fell sick of fever. King Theodoric knew better than to make his dwelling at Rome, and Totila will never live there. The houses are so big and so close together they scarce leave air to breathe; so old, too, they look as if they would tumble upon your head. I have small liking for Ravenna, where there is hardly dry land to walk upon, and you can't sleep for the frogs. Verona is better. But, best of all, Mediolanum. There, if he will listen to me, my brother shall have his palace and his court -- as they say some of the emperors did, I know not how long ago.'
Still gazing at the far distance, Veranilda murmured:
'I never saw the city nearer than this.'
'I would no one might ever look upon it again!' cried Athalfrida, her blue eyes dark with anger and her cheeks hot. 'I would that the pestilence, which haunts its streets, might make it desolate, and that the muddy river, which ever and again turns it into a swamp, would hide its highest palace under an eternal flood.'
Veranilda averted her face and kept silence. Thereupon the other seemed to repent of having spoken so vehemently.
'Well, that's how I feel sometimes,' she said, in a voice suddenly gentle. 'But I forgot -- or I wouldn't have said it.'
'I well understand, dear lady,' replied her companion. 'Rome has never been loyal to the Goths. And yet some Romans have.'
'How many? To be sure, you know one, and in your thought he stands for a multitude. Come, you must not be angry with me, child. Nay, vexed, then. Nay then, hurt and sad. I am not myself to-day. I dreamt last night of the snowy mountains, and this warmth oppresses me. In truth, I often fear I shall fall sick. Feel my hand, how hot it is. Where are the children? Let us walk.'
Not far away she discovered three little boys, two of them her own, who were playing at battles and sieges upon stairs which descended from this terrace to the hippodrome below. After watching them awhile, with laughter and applause, she threw an arm round Veranilda's waist, and drew her on to a curved portico where, in a niche, stood a statue of Antinous.
'Is that one of their gods, or an emperor?' asked Athalfrida. 'I have seen his face again and again since we came here.'
'Indeed, I know not,' answered her companion. 'But surely he is too beautiful for a man.'
'Beautiful? Never say that, child; for if it be as you think, it is the beauty of a devil, and has led who knows how many into the eternal fire. Had I a hammer here, I would splinter the evil face. I would not have my boys look at it and think it beautiful.'
A heavy footstep sounded on the terrace. Turning, they saw Osuin, an armed giant, with flowing locks, and thick, tawny beard.
'Wife, a word with you,' he shouted, beckoning from some twenty paces away.
They talked together; then the lady returned, a troubled smile on her face, and said softly to Veranilda:
'Some one wishes to speak with you -- some one who comes with the king's good-will.'
Veranilda looked towards Osuin.
'You cannot mean ----?' she faltered.
'No other,' replied Athalfrida, nodding gaily. 'Are you at leisure? Some other day, perhaps? I will say you would be private -- that you cannot now give audience.'
This pleasantry brought only the faintest smile to the listener's face.
'Is it hither that he would come?' she asked, again looking anxiously towards the ruddy giant, who stamped with a beginning of impatience.
'If so it please you, little one,' answered Athalfrida, changing all at once to her softest mood. 'The king leaves all to my discretion, and I ask nothing better than to do you kindness. Shall it be here, or within?'
Veranilda whispered 'Here'; whereupon Osuin received a sign, and stalked off. A few minutes passed, and Athalfrida, who, after caresses and tender words, had drawn apart, as if to watch her children playing, beheld the expected visitor. Her curiosity was not indiscreet; she would have glimpsed the graceful figure, the comely visage, and then have turned away; but at this moment the new comer paused, looked about him in hesitation, and at length advanced towards her. She had every excuse for looking him straight in the face, and it needed not the pleasant note of his speech to dispose her kindly towards him.
'Gracious lady, I seek the lady Veranilda, and was bidden come hither along the terrace.'
Totila's sister had but little of the Latin tongue; now, for perhaps the first time in her life, she regretted this deficiency. Smiling, she pointed to a group of cypresses which hid part of the portico, and her questioner, with a courtly bow, went on. He wore the ordinary dress of a Roman noble, and had not even a dagger at his waist. As soon as he had passed the cypresses, he saw, within the shadow of the portico, the figure his eyes had sought; then he stood still, and spoke with manly submissiveness.
'It is much that you suffer me to come into your presence, for of all men, 0 Veranilda, I am least worthy to do so.'
'How shall I answer you?' she replied, with a sad, simple dignity. 'I know not of what unworthiness you accuse yourself. That you are most unhappy, I know too well.'
She dared not raise her eyes to him; but in the moment of his appearance before her, it had gladdened her to see him attired as when she first knew him. Had he worn the soldierly garb in which he presented himself at Marcian's villa, the revival of a dread memory would have pierced her heart. Even as in outward man he was the Basil she had loved, so did his voice recall that brighter day.
'Unhappy most of all,' he continued, 'in what I least dare speak of. I have no ground to plead for pardon. What I did, and still more what I uttered, judge it at the worst. I should but add to my baseness if I urged excuses.'
'Let us not remember that, I entreat you,' said Veranilda. 'But tell me, if you will, what has befallen you since?'
'You know nothing of me since then?'
'And I nothing of you, save that you were with the Gothic army, and honourably entertained. The king himself spoke to me of you, when, after long sickness, I came to his camp. He asked if it was my wish to see you; but I could not yet dare to stand before your face, and so I answered him. "It is well," said Totila. "Prove yourself in some service to the Goths and to your country, then I will speak with you again. And straightway he charged me with a duty which I the more gladly undertook because it had some taste of danger. He bade me enter Rome, and spread through the city a proclamation to the Roman people ----'
'It was you who did that?' interrupted the listener. 'We heard of its being done, but not by what hand.'
'With a servant whom I can trust, disguised, he and I, as peasants bringing food to market, I entered Rome, and remained for two days within the gates; then returned to Totila. He next sent me to learn the strength of the Greek garrisons in Spoletium and Assisium, and how those cities were provisioned; this task also, by good hap, I discharged so as to win some praise. Then the king again spoke to me of you. And as, before, I had not dared to approach you, so now I did not dare to wait longer before making known to you my shame and my repentance.'
'Of what sickness did you speak just now?' asked Veranilda, after a silence.
He narrated to her his sojourn at the monastery, told of the penance he had done, of the absolution granted him by Benedict; whereupon a light came into Veranilda's eyes.
'There lives,' she exclaimed, 'no holier man!'
'None holier lived,' was Basil's grave answer. 'Returning from Assisium, I met a wandering anchorite, who told me of Benedict's death.'
'But is he reverenced by those of your creed?' asked Basil in surprise.
'Of my creed? My faith is that of the Catholic Church.'
For the first time their eyes met. Basil drew a step nearer; his face shone with joy, which for a moment held him mute.
'It was in the convent,' added Veranilda, 'that I learnt the truth. They whom I called my enemies wrought this good to me.'
Basil besought her to tell him how she had been carried away from Surrentum, and all that had befallen her whilst she was a prisoner; he declared his ignorance of everything between their last meeting in the Anician villa and the dreadful day which next brought them face to face. As he said this, it seemed to him that Veranilda's countenance betrayed surprise.
'I forget,' he added, his head again falling, 'that your mind has been filled with doubt of me. How can I convince you that I speak truly? 0 Veranilda!' he exclaimed passionately, 'can you look at me, can you hear me speak, and still believe that I was ever capable of betraying you?'
'That I never believed,' she answered in a subdued voice.
'Yet I saw in your eyes some doubt, some hesitation.'
'Then it was despite myself. The thought that you planned evil against me I have ever cast out and abhorred. Why it was said of you, alas, I know not.'
'What proof was given?' asked Basil, gazing fixedly at her.
Her accent did not satisfy him; it seemed to falter.
'Was nothing said,' he urged, 'to make credible so black an untruth?'
Veranilda stood motionless and silent.
'Speak, I beseech you!' cried Basil, his hands clasped upon his breast. 'Something there is which shadows your faith in my sincerity. God knows, I have no right to question you thus -- I, who let my heart be poisoned against you by a breath, a nothing. Rebuke me as you will; call me by the name I merit; utter all the disdain you must needs feel for a man so weak and false ----'
His speech was checked upon that word. Veranilda had arrested him with a sudden look, a look of pain, of fear.
'False?' fell from her lips.
'Can you forget it, 0 Veranilda? Would that I could!'
'In your anger,' she said, 'as when perchance you were already distraught with fever, you spoke I know not what. Therein you were not false to me.'
'False to myself; I should have said. To you, never, never! False to my faith in you, false to my own heart which knew you faithful; but false as men are called who ----'
Again his voice sank. A memory flashed across him, troubling his brow.
'What else were you told?' he asked abruptly. 'Can it be a woman's name was spoken? You are silent. Will you not say that this thought, also, you abhorred and rejected?'
The simple honesty of Veranilda's nature would not allow her to disguise what she thought. Urging question after question, with ardour irresistible, Basil learnt all she had been told by Marcian concerning Heliodora, and, having learnt it, confessed the whole truth in utter frankness, in the plain, blunt words dictated by his loathing of the Greek woman with whom he had once played at love. And, as she listened, Veranilda's heart grew light; for the time before her meeting with Basil seemed very far away, and the tremulous passion in his voice assured her of all she cared to know, that his troth pledged to her had never suffered wrong. Basil spoke on and on, told of his misery in Rome whilst vainly seeking her; how he was baffled and misled; how at length, in despair, he left the city and went to his estate by Asculum. Then of the message received from Marcian, and how eagerly he set forth to cross the Apennines, resolved that, if he could not find Veranilda, at least he would join himself with her people and fight for their king; of his encounter with the marauding troop, his arrival, worn and fevered, at Aesernia, his meeting with Sagaris, their interview, and what followed upon it.
'To this hour I know not whether the man told me what he believed, or coldly lied to me. He has the face of a villain and may well have behaved as one -- who knows with what end in view? Could I but lay hands upon him, I would have the truth out of his tongue by torture. He is in Rome. I saw him come forth from Marcian's house, when I was there on the king's service; but, of course, I could not speak with him.'
Veranilda had seated herself within the portico. Basil stood before her, ever and again meeting her eyes as she looked up.
'Just as little,' he resumed after a pause of troubled thought, 'can I know whether Marcian believed me a traitor, or himself had a traitorous mind. The more I think,. the less do I understand him. I hope, I hope with all my heart, that he was innocent, and daily I pray for his eternal welfare.'
'That is well done, 0 Basil,' said the listener, for the first time uttering his name. 'My prayers, too, he shall have. That he was so willing to credit ill of you, I marvel; and therein he proved himself no staunch friend. But of all else, he was guiltless.'
'So shall he ever live in my memory,' said Basil. 'Of him I always found it easier to believe good than evil, for many were the proofs he had given me of his affection. Had it been otherwise, I should long before have doubted him; for, when I was seeking you in Rome, more than once did a finger point to Marcian, as to one who knew more than he would say. I heard the accusation with scorn, knowing well that they who breathed it desired to confound me.'
This turned his thoughts again to the beginning of their sorrows; and again he gently asked of Veranilda that she would relate that part of her story which remained unknown to him. She, no longer saddened by the past, looked frankly up into his face, and smiled as she began. Now first did Basil hear of the anchoret Sisinnius, and how Aurelia was beguiled into the wood, where capture awaited her. Of the embarkment at Surrentum, Veranilda had only a confused recollection: fear and distress re-awoke in her as she tried to describe the setting forth to sea, and the voyage that followed. Sisinnius and his monkish follower were in the ship, but held no speech with their captives. After a day or two of sailing, they landed at nightfall, but in what place she had never learnt. Still conducted by the anchorets, they were taken to pass the night in a large house, where they had good entertainment, but saw only the female slaves who waited upon them. The next day began a journey by road; and thus, after more than one weary day, they arrived at the house of religious women which was to be Veranilda's home for nearly a twelvemonth.
'I knew not where I was, and no one would answer me that question, though otherwise I had gentle and kindly usage. Aurelia I saw no more; we had not even taken leave of each other, for we did not dream on entering the house that we were to be parted. Whether she remained under that roof I never learnt. During our journey, she suffered much, often weeping bitterly, often all but distraught with anger and despair. Before leaving the ship we were told that, if either of us tried to escape, we should be fettered, and only the fear of that indignity kept Aurelia still. Her face, as I remember its last look, was dreadful, so white and anguished. I have often feared that, if she were long kept prisoner, she would lose her senses.'
Basil having heard the story to an end without speaking, made known the thoughts it stirred in him. They talked of Petronilla and of the deacon Leander, and sought explanations of Veranilda's release. And, as thus they conversed, they forgot all that had come between them; their constraint insensibly passed away; till at length Basil was sitting by Veranilda's side, and holding her hand, and their eyes met in a long gaze of love and trust and hope.
'Can you forgive?' murmured Basil, upon whom, in the fulness of his joy, came the memory of what he deemed his least pardonable sin.
'How can I talk of forgiveness,' she returned, 'when not yours was the blame, but mine? For I believed -- or all but believed -- that you had forgotten me.'
'Beloved, I was guilty of worse than faithlessness. I dread to think, and still more to speak, of it; yet if I am silent, I spare myself; and seem, perhaps, to make light of baseness for which there are no words of fitting scorn. That too, be assured, 0 Veranilda, I confessed to the holy Benedict.'
Her bowed head and flushing cheek told him that she understood.
'Basil,' she whispered, 'it was not you, not you.'
'Gladly would I give myself that comfort. When I think, indeed, that this hand was raised to take my friend's life, I shake with horror and say, "Not I did that!" Even so would I refuse to charge my very self with those words that my lips uttered. But to you they were spoken; you heard them; you fled before them ----'
She had hidden her face with her hands. Basil threw himself upon his knees beside her.
'Though I spoke in madness, can you ever forget? God Himself, I know, will sooner blot out my sin of murder than this wound I inflicted upon your pure and gentle heart!'
Veranilda caught his hand and pressed her lips upon it, whilst her tears fell softly.
'Listen, dearest Basil,' she said. 'To think that I guard this in my memory against you would be to do me wrong. Remember how first I spoke to you about it, when we first knew that we loved each other. Did I not tell you that this was a thing which could never be quite forgotten? Did I not know that, if ever I sinned, or seemed to sin, this would be the first rebuke upon the lips of those I angered? Believing me faithless -- nay, not you, beloved, but your fevered brain -- how could you but think that thought? And, even had you not spoken it, must I not have read it in your face? Never ask me to forgive what you could not help. Rather, 0 Basil, will I entreat you, even as I did before, to bear with the shame inseparable from my being. If it lessen not your love, have I not cause enough for thankfulness?'
Hearing such words as these, in the sweetest, tenderest voice that ever caressed a lover's senses, Basil knew not how to word all that was in his heart. Passion spoke for him, and not in vain; for in a few moments Veranilda's tears were dry, or lingered only to glisten amid the happy light which beamed from her eyes. Side by side, forgetful of all but their recovered peace, they talked sweet nothings, until there sounded from far a woman's voice, calling the name of Veranilda.
'That is Athalfrida,' she said, starting up. 'I must not delay.'
One whisper, one kiss, and she was gone. When Basil, after brief despondency came forth on to the open terrace, he saw her at a distance, standing with Athalfrida and Osuin. Their looks invited him to approach, and, when he was near, Veranilda stepped towards him.
'It will not be long,' she said calmly, 'before we again meet. The lord Osuin promises, and he speaks for the king.'
Basil bowed in silence. The great-limbed warrior and his fair wife had their eyes upon him, and were smiling good-naturedly. Then Osuin spoke in thick-throated Latin.
'Shall we be gone, lord Basil?'
From the end of the terrace, Basil looked back. Athalfrida stood with her arm about the maiden's waist; both gazed towards him, and Veranilda waved her hand.
A few days later the guards at the Tiburtine Gate of Rome were hailed, before dawn, by a number of Greek soldiers in the disarray of flight. It was a portion of the garrison of Tibur: the town had been betrayed at sunset, by certain of its inhabitants who watched at one of the gates. The soldiers fought their way through and most of them escaped, and had fled hither through the darkness. Before the end of the day came news more terrible. A peasant from a neighbouring farm declared that all the people of Tibur, men, women, and children, had perished under the Gothic sword, not even ministers of religion having found mercy. And very soon this report, at first doubted, was fully confirmed. The event excited no less astonishment than horror, contrasting as it did with Totila's humanity throughout the war. Some offered as explanation the fact that many Goths lived at Tibur, whose indifference or hostility had angered the king; others surmised that this was Totila's warning after the failure of his proclamation to the Romans. Whatever the meaning of such unwonted severity, its effect upon the Romans was unfavourable to the Gothic cause. Just about this time there happened to arrive two captains, sent by Belisarius with a small troop for the reinforcement of Bessas. The addition to the strength of the garrison was inconsiderable, but it served to put the city in heart once more. The Patricius himself would not be long in coming, and when did the name of Belisarius sound anything but victory?
This confidence increased when Totila, instead of marching upon Rome, as all had expected, turned in the opposite direction, and led his forces across the Apennines. The gates were thrown open; the citizens resumed their ordinary life, saying to each other that all fear of a siege was at an end; and when certain ships from Sicily, having by good luck escaped the Gothic galleys, landed a good supply of corn, there was great exultation. True, only a scanty measure of this food reached the populace, and that chiefly by the good offices of the archdeacon Pelagius, now become as dear to the people as Pope Vigilius was hateful; the granaries were held by Bessas, who first of all fed his soldiers, and then sold at a great price. As winter went on, the Romans suffered much. And with the spring came disquieting news of Totila's successes northwards: the towns of Picenum had yielded to him; he was moving once more in this direction; he captured Spoletium, Assisium, and still came on.
Belisarius, meanwhile, had crossed to Italy, and was encamped at Ravenna. Why, asked the Romans, impatiently, anxiously, did he not march to meet the Gothic king? But the better informed knew that his army was miserably insufficient; they heard of his ceaseless appeals to Byzantium, of his all but despair in finding himself without money, without men, in the land which but a few years ago had seen his glory. Would the Emperor take no thought for Italy, for Rome? Bessas, with granaries well stored, and his palace heaped with Roman riches, shrugged when the nobles spoke disrespectfully of Justinian; his only loyalty was to himself.
At high summertide, the Gothic camp was pitched before Rome, and the siege anticipated for so many months had at length begun. For whatever reason, Totila had never attempted to possess himself of Portus, which guarded the mouth of the river Tiber on the north bank and alone made possible the provisioning of the city. Fearing that this stronghold would now be attacked, Bessas despatched a body of soldiers to strengthen its garrison; but they fell into a Gothic ambush, and were cut to pieces. Opposite Portus, and separated from it by a desert island, on either side of which Tiber flowed to the sea, lay the ancient town of Ostia, once the port of the world's traffic, now ruinous and scarce inhabited. Here Totila established an outpost; but he did not otherwise threaten the harbour on the other side. His purpose evidently was to avoid all conflict which would risk a reduction of the Gothic army, and by patient blockade to starve the Romans into surrender.
He could not surround the city, with its circuit of twelve miles; he could not keep ceaseless watch upon the sixteen gates and the numerous posterns. King Vitiges, in his attempt to do so, had suffered terrible losses. It was inevitable that folk should pass in and out of Rome. But from inland no supplies could be expected by the besieged, and any ship sailing up to Portus would have little chance of landing its cargo safely. Before long, indeed, this was put to proof. The Pope, whose indecision still kept him lingering in Sicily, nearly a twelvemonth after his departure from Rome for Constantinople, freighted a vessel with corn for the relief of the city, and its voyage was uninterrupted as far as the Tiber's mouth. There it became an object of interest, not only to the Greeks on the walls of Portus, but to the Gothic soldiers at. Ostia, who forthwith crossed in little boats, and lay awaiting the ship at the entrance to the haven. Observant of this stratagem, the garrison, by all manner of signalling, tried to warn the sailors of the danger awaiting them; but their signals were misunderstood, being taken for gestures of eager welcome; and the ship came on. With that lack of courage which characterised them, the Greeks did nothing more than wave arms and shout: under their very eyes, the corn-ship was boarded by the Goths, and taken into Ostia.
Of courage, indeed, as of all other soldierly virtues, little enough was exhibited, at this stage of the war, on either side. The Imperial troops scattered about Italy, ill-paid, and often starving mercenaries from a score of Oriental countries, saw no one ready to lead them to battle, and the one Byzantine general capable of commanding called vainly for an army. Wearied by marchings and counter-marchings, the Gothic warriors were more disposed to rest awhile after their easy conquests than to make a vigorous effort for the capture of Rome. Totila himself, heroic redeemer of his nation, turned anxious glances towards Ravenna, hoping, rather than resolving, to hold his state upon the Palatine before Belisarius could advance against him. He felt the fatigue of those about him, and it was doubtless under the stress of such a situation, bearing himself the whole burden of the war, that he had ordered, or permitted, barbarous revenge upon the city of Tibur. For this reason he would not, even now, centre all his attention upon the great siege; he knew what a long, dispiriting business it was likely to be, and feared to fall into that comparative idleness. Soon after the incident of the Sicilian corn-ship, he was once more commanding in the north, where a few cities yet held out against him. Dreadful stories were told concerning the siege of Placentia, whose inhabitants were said to have eaten the bodies of their dead ere they yielded to the Goth. So stern a spirit of resistance was found only in places where religious zeal and national sentiment both existed in their utmost vigour, and Totila well knew that, of these two forces ever threatening to make his conquests vain, it was from religion that he had most to fear. In vain was the history of Gothic tolerance known throughout Italy; it created no corresponding virtue in the bosom of Catholicism; the barbaric origin of the Goths might be forgotten or forgiven, their heresy -- never.
Totila, whose qualities of heart and mind would have made him, could he but have ruled in peace, a worthy successor of the great Theodoric, had reflected much on this question of the hostile creeds; he had talked of it with ministers of his own faith and with those of the orthodox church; and it was on this account that he had sought an interview with the far-famed monk of Casinum. Understanding the futility of any hope that the Italians might be won to Arianism, and having sufficient largeness of intellect to perceive how idle was a debate concerning the 'substance' of the Father and of the Son, Totila must at times have felt willing enough to renounce the heretical name, and so win favour of the Italians, the greater part of whom would assuredly have preferred his rule to that of the Emperor Justinian. But he knew the religious obstinacy of his own people; to imagine their following him in a conversion to Catholicism was but to dream. Pondering thus, he naturally regarded with indulgence the beautiful and gentle Gothic maiden delivered into his power. by a scheming Roman ecclesiastic. After his conversations with Veranilda, he had a pensive air; and certain persons who observed him remarked on it to each other, whence arose the rumour that Totila purposed taking to wife this last descendant of the Amals. Whatever his temptations, he quickly overcame them. If ever he thought of marriage, policy and ambition turned his mind towards the royal Franks; but the time for that had not yet come. Meanwhile, having spoken with the young Roman whom Veranilda loved, he saw in Basil a useful instrument, and resolved, if his loyalty to the Goths bore every test, to reward him with Veranilda's hand. The marriage would be of good example, and might, if the Gothic arms remained triumphant, lead to other such.
After the meeting at Hadrian's villa which he granted to the lovers, Totila summoned Basil to his presence. Regarding him with a good-natured smile, he said pleasantly:
'Your face has a less doleful cast than when I first saw it.'
'That,' answered Basil, 'is due in no small degree to the gracious favour of my king.'
'Continue to merit my esteem, lord Basil, and proof of my good-will shall not be wanting. But the time for repose and solace is not yet. To-morrow you will go with Venantius to Capua, and thence, it may be, into Apulia.'
Basil bowed in silence. He had hoped that the siege of Rome was now to be undertaken, and that this would ensure his remaining near to Veranilda. But the loyalty he professed to Totila was no less in his heart than on his lips, and after a moment's struggle he looked up with calm countenance.
'Have you aught to ask of me?' added Totila, after observing his face.
'This only, 0 king: that if occasion offer, I may send written news of myself to her I love.'
'That is a little thing,' was the answer, 'and I grant it willingly.'
Totila paused a moment; then, his blue eyes shining with a vehement thought, added gravely:
'When we speak together within the walls of Rome, ask more, and it shall not be refused.'
So Basil rode southward, and happily was far away when Tibur opened its gates to the Goth. For more than half a year he and Venantius were busy in maintaining the Gothic rule throughout Lucania and Apulia, where certain Roman nobles endeavoured to raise an army of the peasantry in aid of the Greek invasion constantly expected upon the Adriatic shore. When at length he was recalled, the siege of Rome had begun. The Gothic ladies now resided at Tibur, where a garrison was established; there Basil and Veranilda again met, and again only for an hour. But their hopes were high, and scarce could they repine at the necessity of parting so soon. Already in a letter, Basil had spoken of the king's promise; he now repeated it, whilst Veranilda flushed with happiness.
'And you remain before Rome?' she asked.
'Alas, no! I am sent to Ravenna, to spy out the strength of Belisarius.'
But Rome was besieged, and so hateful had Bessas made himself to the Roman people that it could not be long ere some plot among them delivered the city.
'Then,' cried Basil exultantly, 'I shall ask my reward.'
On a winter's day, at the hour of sundown, Heliodora sat in her great house on the Quirinal, musing sullenly. Beside her a brazier of charcoal glowed in the dusk, casting a warm glimmer upon the sculptured forms which were her only companions; she was wrapped in a scarlet cloak, with a hood which shadowed her face. All day the sun had shone brilliantly, but it glistened afar on snowy summits, and scarce softened the mountain wind which blew through the streets of Rome.
To divert a hungry populace, now six months besieged, Bessas was offering entertainments such as suited the Saturnalian season. To-day he had invited Rome to the Circus Maximus, where, because no spectacle could be provided imposing enough to fill the whole vast space, half a dozen shows were presented simultaneously; the spectators grouped here and there, in number not a fiftieth part of that assembly which thundered at the chariots in olden time. Here they sat along the crumbling, grass-grown, and, as their nature was, gladly forgot their country's ruin, their own sufferings, and the doom which menaced them. Equestrians, contortionists, mimes, singers, were readily found in the city, where a brave or an honest man had become rare indeed. What a performance lacked in art, he supplied by shamelessness; and nowhere was laughter so hearty, or the crowd so dense, as in that part of the circus where comic singers and dancers vied with the grossest traditions of the pagan theatre.
Heliodora could not miss such an opportunity of enjoyment and of display. She sat amid her like, the feline ladies and the young nobles, half brute, half fop, who though already most of them fasted without the merit of piety, still prided themselves on being the flower of Roman fashion. During one of the pauses of the festival, when places were changed, and limbs stretched, some one whispered to her that she was invited to step towards that place of honour where sat the Emperor's representative. An invitation of Bessas could not lightly be declined, nor had Heliodora any reluctance to obey such a summons. More than a year had gone by since her vain attempt, on Marcian's suggestion, to enslave the avaricious Thracian, and, since then, the hapless Muscula had had more than one successor. Roman gossip, always busy with the fair Greek, told many a strange story to account for her rigour towards the master of Rome, who was well known to have made advances to her. So when to-day they were seen sitting side by side, conversing vivaciously, curiosity went on tiptoe. The entertainment over, Heliodora was carried home in her litter, no friend accompanying her. Few nowadays were the persons in Rome who bade guests to their table; even the richest had no great superfluity of viands. After sunset, the city became a dark and silent desert, save when watch-fires glared and soldiers guarded the walls.
As was the case with all Romans who not long ago had commanded a multitude of slaves and freedmen, Heliodora's household was much reduced. Even before the siege began, many of the serving class stole away to the Goths, who always received them with a welcome; and since the closing of the gates this desertion had been of daily occurrence, the fugitives having little difficulty in making their escape from so vast a city so sparsely populated. No longer did the child from far-off Anglia ride about on his mistress's errands; a female slave, punished for boxing his ears, had stifled him as he slept, and fled that night with five or six others who were tired of the lady's caprices and feared her cruelty. Her aviary was empty. Having wearied of that whim, she had let the birds loose; a generosity she regretted now that toothsome morsels were rare. In her strong box there remained little money, and the estate she owned in a distant part of Italy might as well have been sunk in the sea for all the profit it could yield her. True, she had objects of value, such as were daily accepted by Bessas in exchange for corn and pork; but, if it came to that extremity, could not better use be made of the tough-skinned commander? Heliodora had no mind to support herself on bread and pork whilst food more appetising might still be got.
It was all but dark. She rang a hand-bell and was answered by a maidservant.
'Has Sagaris returned yet?' she asked impatiently.
'Lady, not yet.'
Heliodora kept silence for a moment, then bade the girl bring her a lamp. A very small lamp was set upon the table, and as she glanced at its poor flame, Heliodora remembered that the store of oil was nearly at an end.
Again she had sat alone for nearly half an hour, scarcely stirring, so intent was she on the subject of her thoughts, when a light footfall sounded without, and the curtain at the door was raised. She turned and saw a dark countenance, which smiled upon her coldly.
'Where have you been?' broke angrily from her lips.
'Hither and thither,' was the softly insolent reply, as Sagaris let the curtain fall behind him and stepped forward to the brazier, over which he held out his hands to warm them.
By his apparel, he might have been mistaken for a noble.
Nominally he had for a year held the office of steward to Heliodora. That his functions were not, as a matter of fact, all comprised under that name was well known to all in the house, and to some beyond its walls.
'Were you at the Circus?' she next inquired, using the large hood to avoid his gaze without seeming to do so.
'I was there, gracious lady. Not, of course, in such an exalted place as that in which I saw you.'
'I did not choose that place,' said Heliodora, her voice almost conciliatory. 'Being sent for, I could not refuse to go.'
Sagaris set a stool near to his mistress, seated himself, and looked up into her face. She, for an instant, bore it impatiently, but of a sudden her countenance changed, and she met the gaze with a half-mocking smile.
'Is this one of your jealous days?' she asked, with what was meant for playfulness, though the shining of her eyes and teeth in the lamplight gave the words rather an effect of menace.
'Perhaps it is,' answered the Syrian. 'What did Bessas say to you?'
'Many things. He ended by asking me to sup at the palace. You will own that the invitation was tempting.'
Sagaris glared fiercely at her, and drew upon himself a look no less fierce.
'Fool!' she exclaimed, once more speaking in a natural voice. 'How shall we live a month hence? Have you a mind to steal away to the Goths? If you do so, you can't expect me to starve here alone. Thick-willed slave! Can you see no further than the invitation to sup with that thievish brute? -- which I should have accepted, had I not foreseen the necessity of explaining to your dulness all that might follow upon it.'
Esteeming himself the shrewdest of mankind, Sagaris deeply resented these insults, not for the first time thrown at him by the woman whom he regarded with an Oriental passion and contempt.
'Of course I know what you mean,' he replied disdainfully. 'I know, too, that you will be no match for the Thracian robber.'
Heliodora caught his arm.
'What if I can make him believe that Belisarius has the Emperor's command to send him in chains to Constantinople! Would he not rather come to terms with Totila, who, as I know well, long ago offered to let him carry off half his plunder?'
'You know that? How?'
'Clod-pate I Have you forgotten your master whom Basil slew? Did I not worm out of him, love-sick simpleton that he was, all the secrets of his traffic with Greeks and Goths?'
Again they glanced at each other like wild creatures before the leap.
'Choose,' said Heliodora. 'Leave me free to make your fortune, for Totila is generous to those who serve him well; or stay here and spy upon me till your belly pinches, and the great opportunity of your life is lost.'
There was a silence. The Syrian's features showed how his mind was rocking this way and that.
'You have not cunning for this,' he snarled. 'The Thracian will use you and laugh at you. And when you think to come back to me. . . .'
He touched the dagger at his waist.
In that moment there came confused sounds from without the room. Suddenly the curtain was pulled aside, and there appeared the face of a frightened woman, who exclaimed: 'Soldiers, lady, soldiers are in the house!'
Heliodora started up. Sagaris, whose hand was still on the dagger's hilt, grasped her by the mantle, his look and attitude so like that of a man about to strike that she sprang away from him with a loud cry. Again the curtain was raised, and there entered hurriedly several armed men. Their leader looked with a meaning grin at the lady and her companion, who now stood apart from each other.
'Pardon our hasty entrance, fair Heliodora,' he said in Greek. 'The commander has need of you -- on pressing business.'
'The commander must wait my leisure,' she replied with a note of indignation over-emphasised.
'Nay, that he cannot,' returned the officer, leering at Sagaris. 'He is even now at supper, and will take it ill if you be not there when he rises from table. A litter waits.'
Not without much show of wrath did Heliodora yield. As she left the room, her eyes turned to Sagaris, who had shrunk into a corner, coward fear and furious passion distorting his face. The lady having been borne away, a few soldiers remained in the house, where they passed the night. On the morrow Bessas himself paid a visit to that famous museum of sculpture, and after an inspection, which left no possible hiding-place unsearched, sent away to the Palatine everything that seemed to him worth laying hands upon.
Meanwhile the domestics had all been held under guard. Sagaris, who heard his relations with Heliodora jested over by the slaves and soldiers, passed a night of terror, and when he knew of the commander's arrival, scarce had strength to stand. To his surprise, nothing ill befell him. During the pillage of the house he was disregarded, and when Bessas had gone he only had to bear the scoffs of his fellow-slaves. These unfortunates lived together as long as the scant provisions lasted, then scattered in search of sustenance. The great house on the Quirinal stood silent, left to its denizens of marble and of bronze.
Sagaris, who suspected himself to have been tricked by Heliodora in the matter of her removal to the Palatine, and had not the least faith in her power to beguile Bessas, swore by all the saints that the day of his revenge should come; but for the present he had to think of how to keep himself alive. Money he had none; it was idle to hope of attaching himself to another household, and unless he escaped to the Goths, there was no resource but to beg from one or other of those few persons who, out of compassion and for their souls' sake, gave alms to the indigent. Wandering in a venomous humour, he chanced to approach the Via Lata, and out of curiosity turned to the house of Marcian. Not knowing whether it was still inhabited, he knocked at the door, and was surprised to hear a dog's bark, for nearly all the dogs in Rome had already been killed and eaten. The wicket opened, and a voice spoke which he well remembered.
'You alive still, old Stephanus? Who feeds you? Open and teach me the art of living on nothing.'
He who opened looked indeed the image of Famine -- a fleshless, tottering creature, with scarce strength left to turn the key in the door. His only companions in the house were his daughter and the dog. Till not long ago there had been also the daughter's child, whom she had borne to Marcian, but this boy was dead.
'I'm glad to see you,' said Stephanus mysteriously, drawing his visitor into the atrium, and speaking as if the house were full of people who might overhear him. 'Your coming to-day is a strange thing. Have you, perchance, had a dream?'
'What dream should I have had?' answered Sagaris, his superstition at once stirring.
The old man related that last night, for the third time, he had dreamt that a treasure lay buried in this house. Where he could not say, but in his dream he seemed to descend stairs, and to reach a door which, when he opened it, showed him a pile of gold, shining in so brilliant a light that he fell back blinded, whereupon the door closed in his face. To this the Syrian listened very curiously. Cellars there were below the house, as he well knew, and hidden treasure was no uncommon thing in Rome. Having bidden Stephanus light a torch, he went exploring, but though they searched long, they could find no trace of a door long unopened, or of a walled-up entrance.
'You should have more wit in your dreaming, old scarecrow,' said Sagaris. 'If I had had a dream such as that a second time, not to speak of a third, do you think I should not have learnt the way. But you were always a clod-pate.'
Thus did he revenge himself for the contumely he had suffered from Heliodora. As he spoke they were joined by the old man's daughter, who, after begging at many houses, returned with a pocketful of lentils. The girl had been pretty, but was now emaciated and fever-burnt; she looked with ill-will at Sagaris, whom she believed, as did others of his acquaintance, to have murdered Marcian, and to have invented the story of his death at the hands of Basil. Well understanding this, Sagaris amused himself with jesting on the loss of her beauty; why did she not go to the Palatine, where handsome women were always welcome? Having driven her away with his brutality, he advised Stephanus to keep silent about the treasure, and promised to come again ere long.
He now turned his steps to the other side of Tiber, and, after passing through poor streets, where some show of industries was still kept up by a few craftsmen, though for the most part folk sat or lay about in sullen idleness, came to those grinding-mills on the slope of the Janiculum which were driven by Trajan's aqueduct. Day and night the wheels made their clapping noise, seeming to clamour for the corn which did not come. At the door of one of the mills, a spot warmed by the noonday sun, sat a middle-aged man, wretchedly garbed, who with a burnt stick was drawing what seemed to be diagrams on the stone beside him. At the sound of a footstep, rare in that place, he hastily smeared out his designs, and looking up showed a visage which bore a racial resemblance to that of Sagaris. Recognising the visitor, he smiled, pointed to the ground in invitation, and when Sagaris had placed himself near by, began talking in the tongue of their own Eastern land. This man, who called himself Apollonius, had for some years enjoyed reputation in Rome as an astrologer, thereby gaining much money; and even in these dark days he found people who were willing to pay him, either in coin or food, for his counsel and prophecies. Fearful of drawing attention upon himself, as one who had wealth in store, he had come to live like a beggar in this out-of-the-way place, where his money was securely buried, and with it a provision of corn, peas, and lentils which would keep him alive for a long time. Apollonius was the only man living whom Sagaris, out of reverence and awe, would have hesitated to rob, and the only man to whom he did not lie. For beside being learned in the stars, an interpreter of dreams, a prophet of human fate, Apollonius spoke to those he could trust of a religion, of sacred mysteries, much older, he said, and vastly more efficacious for the soul's weal than the faith in Christ. To this religion Sagaris also inclined, for it was associated with memories of his childhood in the East; if he saw the rising of the sun, and was unobserved, he bowed himself before it, with various other observances of which he had forgotten the meaning.
His purpose in coming hither was to speak of Stephanus's dream. The astrologer listened very attentively, and, after long brooding, consented to use his art for the investigation of the matter.