Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter X. The Anicians
Not many days after, in a still noontide of mellow autumn, Basil and Marcian drew towards Rome. They rode along the Via Appia, between the tombs of ancient men; all about them, undulant to the far horizon, a brown wilderness dotted with ruins. Ruins of villas, of farms, of temples, with here and there a church or a monastery that told of the newer time. Olives in scant patches, a lost vineyard, a speck of tilled soil, proved that men still laboured amid this vast and awful silence, but rarely was a human figure visible. As they approached the city, marshy ground and stagnant pools lay on either hand, causing them to glance sadly at those great aqueducts, which for ages had brought water into Rome from the hills and now stood idle, cleft by the Goths during the siege four years ago.
They rode in silence, tired with their journey, occupied with heavy or anxious thoughts. Basil, impatient to arrive, was generally a little ahead. Their attendants numbered half a dozen men, among them Felix and Sagaris, and two mules laden with packs came in the rear. Earthworks and rough buildings of military purpose, again recalling the twelve months' blockade, presently appeared; churches and oratories told them they were passing the sacred ground of the catacombs; then they crossed the little Almo, rode at a trot along a hollow way, and saw before them the Appian Gate. Only a couple of soldiers were on guard; these took a careless view of the travellers, and let them pass without speaking.
Marcian rode up to his friend's side, and spoke softly.
'You have promised to be advised by me.'
Basil answered only with a dull nod.
'I will see her to-day,' continued the other, 'and will bring you the news before I sleep.'
No more words passed between them. On their left hand they saw the Thermae of Caracalla, their external magnificence scarce touched by decay, but waterless, desolate; in front rose the Caelian, covered with edifices, many in ruin, and with neglected or altogether wild gardens; the road along which they went was almost as silent as that without the walls. Arrived at a certain point, the two looked at each other and waved a hand; then Marcian, with Sagaris and one other servant, pushed forward, whilst Basil, followed by the rest of the train, took an ascending road to the right.
The house in which he was born, and where he alone now ruled, stood on the summit of the Caelian. Before it stood the ruined temple of Claudius, overlooking the Flavian Amphitheatre; behind it ranged the great arches of the Neronian aqueduct; hard by were the round church of St. Stephen and a monastery dedicated to St. Erasmus. By a narrow, grass-grown road, between walls overhung with ivy, Basil ascended the hill; but for the occasional bark of a dog, nothing showed that these buildings of old time were inhabited; and when he drew rein before his own portico, the cessation of the sound of hoofs made a stillness like that among the Appian sepulchres. Eyeless, hoary, with vegetation rooted here and there, the front of the house gave no welcome. Having knocked, Basil had to wait for some moments before there came a sign of opening. With drooped head, he seemed to watch the lizards playing in the sunshine upon a marble column.
A wicket opened, and at once there sounded from within an exclamation of joyful surprise. After much clanking, the door yielded, and an elderly servant, the freedman Eugenius, offered greeting to his lord. Basil's first question was whether Decius had been there; he learnt that his kinsman was now in the house, having come yesterday to reside here from the Anician palace beyond the Tiber.
'Tell him at once that I am here. Stay; I dare say he is in the library. I will go to him.'
He passed through the atrium, adorned with ancestral busts and with the consular fasces which for centuries had signified nothing, through a room hung with tapestry and floored with fine mosaic, through the central court, where the fountain was dry, and by a colonnade reached the secluded room which was called library, though few books remained out of the large collection once guarded here. In a sunny embrasure, a codex open on his knees, sat the pale student; seeing Basil, he started up in great surprise, and, when they had embraced, regarded him anxiously.
'How is this? What has happened? Some calamity, I see.'
'Seek some word, O Decius, to utter more than that. I have suffered worse than many deaths.'
'My best, my dearest Basil!' murmured the other tenderly. 'You have lost her?'
'Lost her? yes; but not as you mean it. Is Petronilla in Rome?'
'She arrived the day before yesterday, two hours after sunset.'
'And you have seen her, talked with her?'
'I was at the house yonder when she came.'
'And she behaved ill to you?' asked Basil.
'Far from that, Petronilla overwhelmed me with affection and courtesy. I knew not,' proceeded Decius smiling, 'how I had all at once merited such attention. I came away merely because this situation better suits my health. Down by the river I have never been at ease. But let me hear what has befallen you.'
Basil told his story, beginning with the explanation of Veranilda's importance in the eyes of the Greek commander. After learning from the Hun that nothing was known of the lost ladies at Cumae, he had impatiently lingered for three days in the castle of Venantius, on the chance that Marcian might be able to test the truth of Chorsoman's report; but his friend made no discovery, and in despair he set out for Rome. To all this Decius listened with wonder and with sympathy. He had no difficulty in crediting Petronilla with such a plot, but thought she could scarce have executed it without the help of some one in authority. Such a person, he added cautiously, as a deacon of the Roman Church. Hereupon Basil exclaimed that he and Marcian had had the same suspicion.
'I will find her,' he cried, 'if it cost me my life! And I will be revenged upon those who have robbed me of her. She may at this moment be in Rome. The ship that carried. her off was large enough, they say, to make the voyage, and winds have been favourable. My good Decius, I am so overcome with misery that I forget even to ask how you sped on the sea.'
'A smooth and rapid voyage. I had only time to reperuse with care the Silvae of Statius--his Epicedion being appropriate to my mood. Arrived at Portus, I sent a post to those who awaited the ship's coming, and the remains of Maximus were brought with all due honour to their resting place.'
'Was the deacon Leander here to receive you?' asked Basil.
'I learnt that he had not yet been heard of.'
They exchanged a significant look, and Basil remarked that he would soon discover the deacon's movements since his leaving Surrentum. Marcian was even now on his way to visit Petronilla, and would come with news this evening.
'If I could know,' he cried, 'whether she has been delivered to the Greeks, or is kept imprisoned by that Megaera! It may be that Petronilla is ignorant of what I have told you; yet, if so, I fear she will soon learn it, for Chorsoman will write--if the barbarian can write--to Bessas, and cannot but mention her. There are prisons in Rome for those who offend the tyrant of Byzantium.'
'It troubles me to hear you say that,' said Decius, with an anxious glance.
'I, too, may be in peril, you think,' replied his kinsman gloomily. 'True, all the more that I am known to have just inherited. Bessas takes a peculiar interest in such people. Be that as it will. Let us turn for a moment to other things.'
They spoke of the duties that had to be discharged by Basil as his uncle's heir. On the morrow he must assemble such of his kinsfolk as were in Rome, and exhibit to them the testament. Aurelia's part in it would of course excite discussion, perhaps serious objection; whereas her disappearance would probably be regarded as a matter of small moment, and Petronilla, even if suspected, could count on sympathy. When he left the library, Basil found all the members of his household, from the old nurse Aguella, whose privilege it was to treat him with motherly affection, to the men who groomed his horse, assembled outside to give him welcome. His character and bearing were such as earn the good-will of dependents; though proud and impatient, he never behaved harshly, and a service well rendered often had its recognition. Among the young men of his rank, he was notable for temperance in pleasures; his slaves regarded him as above common temptations of the flesh, and, though this might be a loss to them in one way, they boasted of it when talking to the slaves of masters less exceptional. Having learnt from Felix that their lord was heir of Maximus, the servants received him with even more than wonted respect. One of them was the steward of his estate in Picenum, who had arrived at Rome a few days ago; with him Basil had private talk, received money which the man had brought, heard of the multitudinous swine in his oak forest, and of the yield of his fruit trees. That strip of the Adriatic coast south of Ancona had always been famous for its pears and apples, and choice examples of the fruit lay on Basil's table to-day. When he had supped, he anxiously awaited the coming of Marcian. It was two hours after nightfall before his friend appeared, having come in a litter, with torch-bearing attendants, from the Palatine, where he had supped with Bessas, the Greek commander.
The news he brought was disquieting. Bessas had just received despatches from Cumae, which acquainted him with the story of Veranilda's disappearance, so far as it was known to Chorsoman; he wore a heavy brow about the business, swore that the Gothic damsel should be found, if it cost the skins of all who had had anything to do with her.
'I partly soothed the brute,' concluded Marcian, 'by telling him that Petronilla was within such easy reach. Her he will summon to-morrow.'
'You promised to see her,' said Basil impatiently.
'Do I often break my promises? I saw her before going even to my own house, with the dust of the journey still upon me.'
'Ever kind Marcian?'
'Why so hasty to think me less than kind?' returned the other, with his smile of sad irony. 'I saw her, though with difficulty. She kept me waiting like an importunate poor kinsman, and when I was received, she sat like the Empress giving audience. I did not touch the earth with my forehead; nay, I stood looking at her with a look she did not easily bear. That she is guilty, I am sure; I read triumph in her eyes as soon as I spoke of Aurelia. That she would deny all knowledge of the affair was only to be expected. Moreover, she has taken possession of the great house yonder, and declares that Aurelia, as a heretic, can claim nothing under her father's will. You, of course, the heir, can expel her, if you think it worth the trouble. But let us see the result of her conversation with Bessas. She smiled disdainfully when I mentioned his name, and tried to continue smiling when I carelessly explained the interest he had in finding Veranilda; but she was frightened, I heard it in her hoarse voice when she began to speak evil of Veranilda.'
'What!' cried Basil. 'Evil of Veranilda!'
'Such as naturally comes to the tongue of an angry woman.'
The lover raged, Marcian listening with a sad, half-absent look. Their talk continued for a long time, arid, because of the lateness of the hour, Marcian stayed to sleep in his friend's house. Before sunrise on the morrow, Basil sent forth his invitations to all of the Anician blood in Rome. The first to respond was Gordianus, whose dwelling on the Clivus Scauri stood but a few minutes' walk away. Though but a little older than Basil, Gordian had been for several years a husband and a father; he was in much esteem for his worldly qualities, and more highly regarded for the fervour of his religious faith. A tall, handsome, dignified man, he looked straight before him with frank eyes, and his lips told of spirit tempered by kindliness. Between him and his relative no great intimacy existed, for their modes of life and of thought were too dissimilar, but each saw the good in the other, and was attracted by it. Not long ago Gordian had conceived the project of giving his young sister Aemiliana as wife to Basil. Maximus favoured this design, but his nephew showed no eagerness to carry it out, and Roman gossip presently found a reason for that. Among the leaders of fashion and of pleasure--for fashion and pleasure did not fail to revive in Rome soon after the horrors of the siege--shone a lady named Heliodora, the Greek wife of a little-respected senator, who, favoured by Bessas, rose to the position of City Prefect. With Heliodora's character rumour made very free; the captives of her beauty were said to be numerous, and one of the names mentioned by those who loved such scandal was that of the young Basil. Gordian, finding that there was some ground for this suspicion, spoke no more of the suggested marriage, and it was at his instance that Maximus, ill in Campania, summoned Basil away from the city. Reports from Surrentum gave reason to hope that this measure had succeeded. But to-day, as he entered Basil's house, Gordian's face wore a troubled look, and there was no warmth in his response to the greeting which met him.
'You have sent for me, my dear lord,' he began with grave and distant courtesy, 'to speak of the matter of your inheritance. Forgive me if I first of all ask you a question--of more intimate concern. Is it true that you have taken a wife?'
Basil, in whom fatigue and misery had left little patience, began quivering in every nerve, and made blunt answer:
'It is not true, arid she who told you contrived the lie.'
'You speak of the lady Petronilla,' pursued Gordian gently. 'Can I think that she has wilfully deceived me?'
'Think it not, my lord Gordian,' returned the other; 'if Petronilla told you I was married, she lied.'
'That is strange indeed. Listen, I pray you, to the story heard in Rome since Petronilla returned. It is right that you should hear it just as it comes from her own lips.'
Thereupon Gordian repeated a narrative which would have been substantially true had it not crowned Basil's love with marriage. The listener, shaken with violent passion, could scarce wait till the end.
'And now hear me,' he cried. 'If I were prudent, I also should lie, for the truth may be dangerous. But you shall know it, O Gordian, and if you choose to harm me--'
The other raised a hand, and so full of dignity was this gesture, so solemn the look which accompanied it, that Basil's vehemence felt itself rebuked; he grew silent and listened.
'Basil, check your tongue, which I see will be your greatest peril. Do not confide in me, for I know not whether I can respect your confidence. Let us speak of other things.'
The younger man stood for a moment in hesitancy, his cheeks aflame, his eyes fiercely gleaming.
'As you will,' he exclaimed, mastering himself. 'When the others are here, you will learn all that it concerns you to know. Remember, Gordian, that I would have opened my heart to you, for, whatever I said, I know well that you are no betrayer. As for that woman--'
He was interrupted by the arrival of several persons, old and young, who appeared in answer to his summons. Having received them with colder courtesy than was natural to him, Basil produced the testament of Maximus, and submitted it to his kinsmen's inspection. The tablets passed from hand to hand; the signatures and seals of the seven witnesses were examined, the contents read and discussed. Meanwhile guests continued to arrive, until a considerable gathering, which included several ladies, had assembled in the great hall. Here was represented all that deemed itself best and most illustrious in the society of Rome. More came than were expressly invited; for, beyond the legitimate interest of the occasion, curiosity had been aroused by the gossip of Petronilla, and some whose connection with the Anician house was of the very slightest, hastened to present themselves at Basil's door. Hither came men whose names recalled the glories of the Republic; others who were addressed by appellations which told of Greek dominion; alike they claimed the dignity of Roman optimates, and deemed themselves ornaments of an empire which would endure as long as the world. Several ranked as senators; two or three were ex-consuls; ten years ago the last consul of Rome had laid down his shadowy honours; one had held the office of Praetorian Prefect when Theodoric was king; yet, from the political point of view, all were now as powerless as their own slaves. Wealth a few of them still possessed, but with no security; a rapacious Byzantine official, the accident of war, might at any moment strip them of all they had. For the most part they had already sunk to poverty, if not to indigence; among these aristocratic faces were more than one which bore the mark of privation. Those who had little means or none lived as parasites of more fortunate relatives; though beggars, they housed in palaces-- palaces, it is true, which had often no more comfort within their marble walls than the insulae where the ignoble laid their heads.
When all had perused the will, Basil rose up and addressed them. He began by a seemingly careless allusion to the tattle about himself, which, as it appeared, had been started in Rome by some one who wished him ill. The serious matter of which he had to speak regarded the daughter of Maximus. No one here, of course, would be inclined to take up the defence of Aurelia, whose history was known to all, he would merely make known to them that after having abjured her religious errors, and when living quietly in the Surrentine villa, she had been treacherously seized and carried off he knew not whither. It was not difficult to surmise by whom this plot had been laid, but he would leave that point for his hearers' discussion. Him it chiefly concerned to make known the strange facts so far as he knew them; and this he proceeded to do. Basil concluded with sarcastic reference to the possibility that he, as heir, might be openly or secretly suspected of having laid hands upon Aurelia; that point also he left to be debated by such as thought it worth while.
Only some two or three of those who listened had any personal interest in the will, and few cared at all for the fate of Aurelia; but the lady at whom Basil's innuendo pointed enjoyed no great favour, and her absence from this family gathering made it possible to discuss with all freedom the likelihood of her culpability. At Basil himself no suspicion glanced, but the rumour of his marriage with a Goth had excited much curiosity, hardly appeased by a whisper that Gordian declared the story false. Having spoken all he thought fit to say, Basil was going apart with the persons to whom legacies had been left, he, as heir, being charged with the execution of the will, when Gordian approached him, and begged for a word in private.
'I would not have you think me unkind, dear Basil,' he said, in a gentle voice. 'It was neither the place nor the moment to hear secrets from you, and I am glad now that I refused to listen; but be assured that I put faith in what you have declared to us.'
'It is well, dear Gordian,' replied Basil frankly.
'One word I will add,' continued the other. 'If you are troubled about things of the world, if you lack counsel such as you think a friend might give, delay not in coming to me. I should not speak thus confidently did I speak of myself alone; but there is one ever at my side, who with her wisdom--sometimes I think it divinely bestowed--supplies the weakness of my own understanding. Guided by her, I cannot counsel you amiss.'
They parted with an embrace, and Basil turned to the business of the moment. This occupied him until nearly mid-day. As he took leave of the last of his guests, there entered Marcian; his coming surprised Basil, for they had parted at early morning not to meet again before the morrow.
'I bring you an invitation,' said Marcian, in a careless tone, which was not quite natural. 'It is to the Palatine, after dinner.'
'To the Palatine? I am summoned by Bessas?'
'In a friendly way. Have no anxiety. Petronilla has been examined this morning, and, from what I can gather, she seems to have betrayed herself. Bessas wore the smile which means that he has over-reached somebody.'
'Then we shall find her,' exclaimed Basil.
'They will find her, I doubt not,' was the reply.
The meal being ready, they sat down to eat together, but their appetite was small. Decius, who had wearied himself this morning in finding discreet answers to the questions with which he was privately assailed by his kinsfolk, did not come to table. Having dined, Basil and his friend set forth on foot, half a dozen servants walking behind them. Midway in the descent of the Caelian, they were met by an odd procession: a beautiful boy of some twelve years old, clad in yellow, riding upon a small white ass with rich housings, and behind him three slaves, dark-visaged men of the East, on mules of great size, caparisoned with yellow cloth, to which hung innumerable tinkling bells. At sight of Basil, the child drew rein; jumped down, and ran forward with smiling demonstrations of respect.
'What is it, Laetus?' asked Basil, with no welcome upon his sombre countenance. 'I cannot talk with you now.'
The boy, who had been sold into slavery from the far island of the Angles, did but smatter the Roman tongue. With a few words to signify that his message was important, he delivered a letter, and Basil, turning aside impatiently, broke the seal. Upon the blank side of a slip of papyrus cut from some old manuscript were written lines which seemed to be in Greek, and proved to be Latin in Greek characters, a foppery beginning to be used by the modish at Rome.
'Heliodora to Basil. You are bidden to supper. Come if you will. If you come not, I care not.'
'Say that I gave you no reply,' were Basil's blunt words, as he walked on past the ass and the mules.