Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XI. Seeking
They passed beneath the walls of the amphitheatre and by Constantine's triumphal arch. Like all the innumerable fountains of the city, the Meta Sudans stood dry; around the base of the rayed colossus of Apollo, goats were browsing. Thence they went along by the Temple of Venus and Rome, its giant columns yet unshaken, its roof gleaming with gilded bronze; and so under the Arch of Titus, when, with a sharp turn to the left, they began the ascent of the Palatine.
The vast buildings which covered the Imperial hill, though discoloured by the lapse of ages and hung with ivy, had suffered little diminution of their external majesty; time had made them venerable, but had not shattered their walls. For two centuries and a half, they had stood all but desolate, and within that time had thrice been sacked by barbarians, yet something of the riches and art which made their ancient glory was still discoverable in the countless halls and chambers; statues, busts, mural paintings, triumphs of mosaic, pictured hangings, had in many parts escaped the spoiler and survived ruin; whilst everywhere appeared the magnificence of rare stones, the splendours of royal architecture, the beauty of unsurpassed carving. Though owls nested where empresses were wont to sleep, and nettles pierced where the lord of the world feasted his courtiers, this was still the Palace of those who styled themselves Ever August; each echo seemed to repeat an immortal name, and in every gallery seemed to move the shadows of a majestic presence.
Belisarius had not resided here, preferring for his abode the palace of the Pincian. His successor in the military government of Rome chose a habitation on the deserted hill, in that portion of its complex structures which had been raised by Vespasian and his sons. Thither the two visitors were now directing their steps. Having passed a gateway, where Marcian answered with a watchword the challenge of the guard, they ascended a broad flight of stairs, and stood before an entrance flanked with two great pillars of Numidian marble, toned by time to a hue of richest orange. Here stood soldiers, to whom again the password was given. Entering, they beheld a great hall, surrounded by a colonnade of the Corinthian order, whereon had been lavished exquisite carving; in niches behind the columns stood statues in basalt, thrice the size of life, representing Roman emperors, and at the far end was a tribune with a marble throne. This, once the hall of audience, at present served as a sort of antechamber; here and there loitered a little group of citizens, some of whom had been waiting since early morning for speech with the commander; in one corner, soldiers played at dice, in another a notary was writing at a table before which stood two ecclesiastics. Voices and footsteps made a faint, confused reverberation under the immense vault.
Anxiously glancing about him, Basil followed his conductor across the hall and out into a peristyle, its pavement richly tesselated, and the portico, still elaborately adorned with work in metal and in marble, giving proof of still greater magnificence in bygone time; pedestals had lost their statues, and blank spaces on the wall told of precious panelling torn off. Beyond, they came to a curtained doorway, where they were detained for some moments by the sentry; then the curtain was drawn aside, and Basil found himself in the triclinium of the Flavian palace, now used by the Greek general as his public reception room. Its size was not much less than that of the hall of audience; its decoration in the same grandiose style. Enormous pillars of granite supported the roof; statues stood, or had stood, all around; the pavement, composed of serpentine, porphyry, and Numidian marble in many hues, was a superb work of art. But Basil saw only the human figures before him. In a chair covered with furs sat a man of middle age, robust, fair-complexioned, with a keen look in his pale blue eyes and something of the wolfish about his mouth. Bessas had long ago given proof of valour, and enjoyed repute as a general, but since his holding command in Rome, his vices, chief of which was avarice, showed much more prominently than the virtues which had advanced him; he used the Imperial authority chiefly to enrich himself, in this respect, it is true, merely acting in harmony with the Emperor's representative at Ravenna, and with: the other Greek generals scattered about Italy, but exhibiting in his methods a shrewdness and an inhumanity not easily rivalled. Behind his chair stood several subordinates, and on a stool before him sat a noble recently arrived as envoy from Byzantium.
Having been previously instructed as to his behaviour in this redoubtable presence, Basil followed the example of Marcian in approaching with bent head to within a distance of three paces, then dropping to his knees, and bowing so as almost to touch the ground with his forehead. He heard a gruff voice command him to rise.
'So this is the heir of the Senator Maximus,' said Bessas, much as he might have spoken of viewing a horse that interested him. 'What is his name?'
'Basilius, my lord,' replied Marcian, with grave respect.
'And what is he doing? Why does not a limber lad like that serve the Emperor?'
'Your Magnanimity will recollect that the lord Basil had permission to attend Maximus into Campania, whence he is but now returned.'
'Can't he speak for himself?' growled Bessas, turning sharply upon Marcian. 'You have a tongue, lord Basil? Do you only use it among the wenches?'
A subdued laugh sounded behind the commander's chair. The envoy from Byzantium showed more discreet appreciation of the jest. And Basil, his head bowed, would fain have concealed a face burning with angry shame.
'I will do my best,' he replied in a steady voice, 'to answer any question your excellence may put to me.'
'Come, that's better,' said the general, with that affectation of bluff good-nature which always veiled his designs. 'I like the look of you, my good Basil; who knows but we may be friends? By the bye, was there not some special reason for your coming to see me?'
'Your excellence summoned me.'
'Yes, yes, I remember. That affair of the Gothic wench.' Bessas checked himself, glanced at the envoy, and corrected his phrase. 'The Gothic lady, I would say, who has somehow been spirited out of sight. What can you tell us of her, lord Basil? It has been whispered to me that if you cannot lead us to this beauty's hiding-place, nobody can.'
Basil answered in the only way consistent with prudence: he not only denied all knowledge of where Veranilda was to be found, but spoke as though her fate had little or no interest for him, whereas he professed himself greatly troubled by the disappearance of his cousin Aurelia. It seemed that Petronilla did not purpose delivering Veranilda to the Greeks. Perhaps she did not yet understand the import of their inquiry. That it was she who held Veranilda prisoner he had less doubt than ever, and boldly he declared his conviction. But even, whilst speaking, he thought with dread of the possibility of Veranilda's being delivered to Bessas; for who could assure him that this sinister-looking Thracian would respect the mandate received from Byzantium? On the other hand, who could say to what sufferings and perils his beloved was exposed whilst Petronilla's captive? He preferred the risks to follow upon her surrender. Did he but know where she was there would at least be a hope of rescuing her.
'By Christ!' exclaimed Bessas, when he had listened intently to all Basil's replies, 'this is a strange business. I begin to think, excellent lord Basil, that you are as much deceived in your suspicions of the lady Petronilla as she is in her suspicions of you. These two wenches--ladies, I would say--may have reasons of their own for hiding; or somebody of whom you know nothing may have carried them off. How is this Aurelia to look upon? Young and comely, I warrant.'
Basil briefly described his cousin; whereupon the listener gave a shrug.
'We will talk of it again, to-morrow or the day after. Hold yourself in readiness, lord Basil--you hear?--to come when bidden. And, hark you, bring the senator's will, that I may look it over myself. Trust me, I will see that this lady Aurelia suffers no wrong; if necessary, I will myself hold her property in trust. They tell me she is a heretic--that must be inquired into. But take no thought for the matter, my good Basil; trust me, you shall be relieved from all responsibilities. Go in peace!'
Bessas rose, impatient to have done with business. In the little hippodrome, hard by, an entertainment had been prepared for this afternoon: female equestrians were to perform perilous feats; there was to be a fight between a man and a boar; with other trifles, such as served to pass the time till dinner. In the entrance hall waited messengers from Ravenna, who for hours had urgently requested audience; but, partly because he knew that their despatches would be disagreeable, in part because he liked playing at royalty, the commander put them off till to-morrow. Even so did he postpone an inspection of a certain part of the city wall, repeatedly suggested to him by one of his subordinates. Leisure and accumulation of wealth were obscuring the man's soldierly qualities. He gave little heed to the progress of the war, and scoffed at the fear that Totila might ere long march against Rome.
Basil walked in gloomy silence. The interview had inflamed his pride. Mentally he repeated the oath never to acquiesce in this Byzantine tyranny, and he burned for the opportunity of open war against it. When they were at a safe distance from the Palatine, Marcian warned his friend against the Greek's indulgent manner; let him not suppose that Bessas spoke one word sincerely.
'His aim at present, I see, is to put you off your guard; and doubtless he is playing the like game with Petronilla. You will be spied upon, day and night--I myself, you understand, being one of the spies, but only one, unfortunately. This Thracian is not so easy to deal with as the Hun at Cumae. There have been moments when I thought he suspected me. If ever I vanish, Basil--'
He ceased with a significant look.
'Why does Totila delay?' exclaimed Basil, with a passionate gesture.
'He delays not. It is wisdom to conquer Campania before coming hither. Another month will see him before Neapolis.'
'Could I but find Veranilda, make her my own, and put her in safety, I would go straight to the king's camp, and serve him as best I might.'
Marcian looked steadily at the speaker, smiling strangely.
'Why do you look at me so?' cried Basil. 'You doubt me? You distrust my courage?'
'Not for a moment. But why should this depend upon the finding of Veranilda, my best Basil? Having found her, having made her your own, will it be easier than now to take your chance of death or of captivity? When was a Roman wont to let his country's good wait upon his amorous desire?'
They were on the Sacred Way, between the Basilica of Constantine and the Atrium of Vesta. Struck to the heart by his friend's words, words such as Marcian had never yet addressed to him, Basil stood mute and let his eyes wander: he gazed at the Forum, at the temples beyond it, at the Capitol with its desecrated sanctuary of Jupiter towering above. Here, where the citizens once thronged about their business and their pleasure, only a few idlers were in view, a few peasants with carts, and a drove of bullocks just come in from the country.
'You would have me forget her?' he said at length, in a voice distressfully subdued.
'I spoke only as I thought.'
'And your thought condemned me--despised me, Marcian?'
'Not so. Pitied you rather, as one whose noble nature has fallen into trammels. Have you not long known, O Basil, how I think of the thing called love?'
'Because you have never known it!' exclaimed Basil. 'My love is my life. Having lost Veranilda, I have lost myself; without her I can do nothing. Were she dead I could fling myself into the struggle with our enemies, all the fiercer because I should care not whether I lived or died; but to lose her thus, to know that she may be in Rome, longing for me as I for her--to think that we may never hold each other's hands again--oh, it tears my heart, and makes me weak as a child. You cannot understand me; you have never loved!'
'May such knowledge be far from me!' said Marcian, with unwonted vehemence. 'Do you feel no shame in being so subdued to the flesh?'
'Shame? Shame in the thought that I love Veranilda?'
Marcian seemed to make an effort to control a passion that wrought in him; he was paler than of wont, and, instead of the familiar irony, a cold, if not cruel, austerity appeared in his eyes and on his lips. He shunned Basil's astonished gaze.
'Let us not speak of this,' broke from him impatiently. 'You understand me as little as I you. Forgive me, Basil--I have been talking idly--I scarce know what I said. It is sometimes thus with me. Something takes hold upon me, and I speak at random. Come, come, dear friend of my heart, we will find your Veranilda; trust me, we will.'
Three days went by, then Basil was summoned again to the Palatine, where he had an interview with Bessas alone. This time the commander hardly spoke of Veranilda; his talk was of the possessions left by Maximus, whose testament, when he had read it, he said that he would take care of until the lost daughter was discovered; he inquired closely, too, as to Basil's own wealth, and let fall a remark that the Roman nobles would soon be called upon to support the army fighting for their liberties against the barbarians. When next called, let Basil have ready and bring with him an exact statement of the money in his hands, and of the income he expected to derive from his property during the present year. Thereupon he was dismissed with a nod and a smile, which made him quiver in rage for an hour after. This happened in early morning. The day was overcast, and a cold wind blew from the mountains; Basil had never known such misery as fell upon him when he re-entered his gloomy, silent house. On the way home he had passed two funerals--their hurried aspect proving that the dead were victims of the plague, that lues inguinaria which had broken out in Italy two years ago, and with varying intensity continued throughout the land. Throwing himself down upon a couch, he moaned in utter wretchedness, fearful of the pestilence, yet saying to himself that he cared not if it seized upon him. His moans became sobs; he wept for a long time, then lay, half soothed by the burst of hysterical passion, with eyes turned blankly to the ceiling and a hand clenched upon. his breast.
In his solitude he often talked with Felix, and more intimately perhaps than with either Decius or Marcian. This trusty servant held communication with a man in the household of Petronilla, and from him learnt what he could as to the lady's movements; but nothing was as yet discoverable which threw light on the mystery of Aurelia and Veranilda. To-day, however, Felix returned from the other side of the Tiber with what sounded like important news. Petronilla had left home this morning in her carriage, had gone forth from the city by one of the southern gates, and, after an absence of two or three hours, had returned, bringing with her some one, a woman, whom she took into her house and kept there in privacy. He who related this to Felix declared that his mistress had only visited the church of her patron saint on the Via Ardeatina, but who the woman might be that she had brought back with her, he did not pretend to know. This story so excited Basil that he would have hastened forthwith across the Tiber, had not Felix persuaded him that at this late hour nothing could be done. After a sleepless night he set out at sunrise, accompanied by Felix alone. Whether he would be admitted at Petronilla's door was quite uncertain; in any case, it would serve no purpose to go thither with a band of attendants, for the Anician house was sure to be strongly guarded. All he could do was to present himself in the hope of seeing Petronilla, and take his chance of learning something from her when they stood face to face.
On horseback he went down by the Clivus Scauri, followed the road between the Circus Maximus and the Aventine, crossed the river by the Aemilian bridge (the nearer bridge of Probus was falling into ruins), and then turned to the left. This part of the transtiberine district was inhabited by poor folk. Something unusual seemed to have happened among them just now: groups stood about in eager talk, and a little further on, in front of a church, a noisy crowd was assembled, with soldiers among them. Having made inquiry, Felix explained the disturbance to his master. It was due to the rapacity of the Greek commander, who, scorning no gain, however small, was seizing upon the funds of the trade guilds; this morning the common chest of the potters had been pillaged, not without resistance, which resulted in the death of a soldier; the slayer had fled to St. Cecilia's church, and taken sanctuary. Basil's feeling, as he listened, was one of renewed bitterness against the Greeks; but to the potters themselves he gave little thought, such folk and their wrongs appearing of small moment to one of his birth.
Pursuing the road towards the Portuensian Gate, he was soon in sight of the palace where for generations had dwelt the heads of the Anician family. It lay on a gentle slope above the river, at the foot of the Janiculan Hill; around it spread public porticoes, much decayed, and what had once been ornamental gardens, now the pasture of goats. As Basil had expected, he was kept waiting without the doors until the porter had received orders regarding him. Permitted at length to enter, he passed by a number of slaves who stood, as if on guard, in the atrium, and, though seeming to be alone in the room beyond, he heard subdued voices from behind the curtains of the doorways, which told him that he was under observation. All parts of this great house were perfectly familiar to him, and had it been possible to conduct a search, he would soon have ascertained whether she he sought was kept imprisoned here; but, unless he took the place by storm, how could he hope to make any discovery? Whilst he was impatiently reflecting, Petronilla entered. She moved towards him with her wonted dignity of mien, but in the look with which she examined him, as she paused at two paces' distance, it was easy to perceive distrust, and a certain inquietude.
'Your leisure at length permits you to visit me, dear lord Basil,' she began coldly.
'My leisure, indeed,' he replied, 'has not been great since the day on which you left Surrentum. But the more plainly we speak to each other the better. I come now to ask whether you will release Veranilda to me, instead of waiting until you are compelled to release her to the Greeks.'
Before replying, Petronilla clapped her hands, then stood waiting for a moment, and said at length:
'You can now speak without hearers. I did not think you would be so imprudent in your words. Go on: say what you will.'
She seated herself, and looked at Basil with a contemptuous smile. He, surprised by her behaviour, spoke on with angry carelessness.
'I neither cared before, nor do I now, if any of your servants overhear me. No more credit would be given to anything they told of me than is given to what you yourself say I might begin by warning you of the dangers to which you are exposed, but no doubt you have calculated them, and think the price not too much to pay for your revenge. Well, with your revenge I have no wish to interfere. Hold Aurelia prisoner as long as you will, or as long as you can. I speak only of Veranilda, against whom you can feel no enmity. Will you release her to me? It will only be anticipating by a few days her release to Bessas. Veranilda in his hands, trust me, he will care little what becomes of Aurelia.'
'I listen to you,' replied Petronilla, 'because I am curious to learn into what extravagances your ignoble passion drives you. I had been told, but could hardly believe, that you charged me with having seized these women. Now I see that you really are foolish enough to think it.' She threw her head back in a silent laugh of scorn. 'Child--for you are a child in wit though man in years--do you not live at large in Rome, free to come and go as you will?'
'What of that?'
'Am not I also a free woman? Did I not yesterday visit the church of the blessed Petronilla, and might I not, if so I had willed, have escaped instead of returning to the city?'
'What has this to do with the matter?' demanded Basil.
'Child! child!' cried the other, as if with boundless contempt. 'You ask that, knowing why this Veranilda is sought by the Greeks? Were they truly still in search of her, and were you, were I, suspected of keeping her hidden, do you suppose we should be free, and not rather locked as close as any prison in Rome could hold us?'
The listener stood mute. So vehement was Petronilla's speech, and so convincing, thus delivered, seemed her argument, that Basil felt his heart sink. Had she, then, outwitted him? Was he really playing the part of a simpleton, at whom people laughed? He remembered the seeming indifference of Bessas touching Veranilda at the second interview, natural enough if the maiden had already passed into the Greek's hands. Two days ago Marcian had told him that Petronilla must needs be aware of Veranilda's importance, seeing that it was now common knowledge in Roman society. But a thought flashed into his mind, and he lifted up his head again.
'This is not true!' he exclaimed. 'If Bessas had found her, I should have known it.'
'Pray, how? Does your foolish little lordship imagine that Bessas must needs have told you all he has done?'
'Bessas? no,' he answered, his eyes burning with hatred as they searched her face. 'But I have other means of learning the truth. You try vainly to deceive me.'
'As you will, good nephew,' said the lady, as if indulgently. 'Believe as you list, and talk on, for you entertain me.'
'One thing I have to say,' pursued Basil, 'which you will perhaps find less amusing.' He had lost control of himself, and spoke in a low tone of fierce menace, all his body quivering. 'If I learn that Veranilda is in the hands of the Greeks, and that you delivered her to them--by the God above us, your life shall pay for it.'
Petronilla's face hardened till its cruel sternness outdid any expression of hatred possible to Basil's features.
'Keep your ruffian threats for more suitable occasion, such as you will find among your friends the Goths.' She spoke coldly and deliberately. 'If enslavement to a yellow. haired barbarian had not muddled your wits, you would long ago have seen who it was that has played you false.'
Basil stared at her, his passion chilled with surprise and alarm.
'Played me false!' he echoed involuntarily.
'Who is it,' continued Petronilla with slow scorn, 'that you have trusted blindly? To whom have you looked for guidance and protection? Who has fostered your suspicion against me?'
An intolerable pang went through the listener's heart.
'That's but another lie!' he exclaimed furiously. 'O basest of women born!'
A hand was upon his dagger. Petronilla rose and stepped back a little, glancing towards one of the drawn curtains.
'You have threatened my life,' she said in an undertone. 'Remember that it is you who are in my power. If I raise my voice on one word, the next moment you will lie pierced by a score of weapons. Moderate your insults: my temper is not meek.'
Basil thought for a moment with painful intentness.
'Speak plainly,' he said at length. 'You would have me suspect--? I am ashamed to utter the name.'
'Keep it to yourself and muse upon it.'
'You dare bid me think that he, my dearest and most loyal friend, has infamously betrayed me? Now I know indeed that you have lied to me in every word, for this is the last audacity of baseness. You hope to poison my soul against him, and so, whilst guarding yourself, bring more evil upon those you hate. But you have overreached yourself. Only cunning driven desperate could have devised this trick. Listen to me again, before it is too late. Give me Veranilda. I take upon myself all the peril. It shall be made to appear that I have all along kept her in hiding, and that you knew nothing of her. Be advised before the worst comes upon you. I will escape with her to a place of safety that I know of; you will be declared innocent, and no one will care to ask what has become of Aurelia. Think well; you spoke of prisons, but the Greeks have worse than imprisonment for those who incur their wrath. Will Bessas forego revenge when, after much trouble, he has wrested the captive from your hands? Think!'
Petronilla's countenance, fixed as a face in marble, still suggested no thought save one of scorn; but there was a brief silence before she replied.
'I would not have believed,' she said calmly, 'that a man could be so besotted with foolish passions. Listen, you in turn. Where those women are, I know as little as do you yourself. I think, and have good reason for thinking, that the Goth is already on her way to Constantinople, but I have no certainty of it. The one thing I do surely know, is that you are hoodwinked and baffled by the man you trust.'
A groan of rage and anguish broke from Basil. He wrung his bands together.
'You lie! A thousand times you lie! Either Veranilda or Aurelia is in this house. Who was it you brought back with you yesterday when you returned from beyond the walls?'
The listener uttered a short, fierce laugh.
'So that is what brought you here? O fool! Think you I should have no more wisdom than that? Since you must needs pry into my doings yesterday, you shall hear them. I went to the church of the holy Petronilla, to pray there against all the dangers that environ me-- against the wiles of the wicked, the cruelty of violent men, the sickness which is rife about us. And when I rose from before the altar, the servant of God who passes his life there, who is pleased to regard me with kindness, led me apart into the sacristy, where sat a woman who had lost her sight. She had travelled, he told me, from Mediolanum, because of a vision in which she had been bidden to seek the tomb of the daughter of the chief Apostle; and, whilst praying in the church, her darkness had been illumined by a vision of the saint herself, who bade her go into the city, and abide in the house of the first who offered her welcome, and there at length she would surely receive her sight. So I spoke with the woman, who, though in poverty, is of noble blood, and when I had offered to make her welcome, she gladly came with me, and straightway we returned to Rome. And I brought with me oil from the lamp of the saint, wherewith, at the hours of prayer, I cross my forehead, that no evil may befall me. So, you have heard. Believe or not, as you list, O Basil.'
Whether true or not, Basil had no choice but to accept the story. He looked helplessly about him. If by killing this woman he could have obtained liberty to search through every chamber of the great house, his dagger would have leapt at her breast; and that Petronilla well knew; whence the defiant look in her eyes as they watched his slightest movement.
'What is your next question?' she said. 'I am at leisure for a little longer.'
'If Veranilda is in the hands of the Greeks, where is Aurelia?'
'I should be glad to think,' replied the lady, 'that she has withdrawn from the world to expiate her sins.'
'Would you have me believe that Marcian knows that secret also?'
'I respect your innocence,' answered Petronilla, with a smile, 'and will say no more.'
Again Basil stood for a moment voiceless in wrath. Then he threw up an arm, and spoke with terrible vehemence.
'Woman, if you have lied to me, wickedly seeking to put enmity between me and my friend, may the pest smite you, and may you perish unforgiven of man and God!'
Petronilla blanched not. For one instant he glared at her, and was gone.