Chapter XII. Heliodora
 

Marcian's abode was in the Via Lata, the thoroughfare which ran straight and broad, directly northwards, from the Capitoline Hill to the Flaminian Gate. Hard by were the headquarters of the city watch, a vast building, now tenanted by a few functionaries whose authority had fallen into contempt; and that long colonnade of Hadrian, called the Septa, where merchants once exposed their jewels and fabrics to the crowd of sauntering wealthy, and where nowadays a few vendors of slaves did their business amid the crumbling columns. Surrounded by these monuments of antiquity, the few private residences still inhabited had a dreary, if not a mean, aspect. Some of them--and Marcian's dwelling was one--had been built in latter times with material taken from temple or portico or palace in ruins; thus they combined richness of detail with insignificant or clumsy architecture. An earthquake of a few years ago, followed by a great inundation of the Tiber, had wrought disaster among these modern structures. A pillar of Marcian's porch, broken into three pieces, had ever since been lying before the house, and a marble frieze, superb carving of the Antonine age, which ran across the facade, showed gaps where pieces had been shattered away.

His family, active in public services under Theodoric, had suffered great losses in the early years of the war; and Marcian, who, as a very young man, held a post under the Praetorian Prefect at Ravenna, found himself reduced to narrow circumstances. After the fall of Ravenna, he came to Rome (accompanied on the journey by Basil, with whom his intimacy then began), and ere long, necessity driving him to expedients for which he had no natural inclination, he entered upon that life of double treachery which he had avowed to his friend. As the world went, Marcian was an honest man: he kept before him an ideal of personal rectitude; he believed himself, and hitherto with reason, incapable of falsity to those who trusted him in the relations of private life. Moreover, he had a sense of religion, which at times, taking the form of an overpowering sense of sin, plunged him into gloom. Though burdened in conscience with no crime, he was subject in a notable degree to that malady of his world, the disposition to regard all human kind, and himself especially, as impure, depraved. Often at the mercy of his passions, he refrained from marriage chiefly on this very account, the married state seeming to him a mere compromise with the evil of the flesh; but in his house were two children, born to him by a slave now dead, and these he would already have sent into a monastery, but that human affection struggled against what he deemed duty. The man lived in dread of eternal judgment; he could not look at a setting sun without having his thought turned to the fires of hell, and a night of wakefulness, common enough in his imperfect health, shook him with horrors unutterable. Being of such mind and temper, it was strange that he had not long ago joined the multitude of those who day by day fled from worldly life into ascetic seclusion; what withheld him was a spark of the ancestral spirit, some drops of the old Roman blood, prompting his human nature to assert and justify itself. Hence the sympathy between him and Basil, both being capable of patriotism, and feeling a desire in the depths of their hearts to live as they would have lived had they been born in an earlier time. But whereas Basil nursed this disposition, regarding it as altogether laudable, Marcian could only see in it an outcome of original sin, and after every indulgence of such mundane thoughts did penance as for something worse than weakness. His father had died in an anguish of compunction for a life stained with sensuality; his mother had killed herself by excessive rigours of penitence; these examples were ever before his mind. Yet he seldom spoke, save to spiritual counsellors, of this haunting trouble, and only the bitterness of envy, an envy entirely human, had drawn from him the words which so astonished Basil in their last conversation. Indeed, the loves of Basil and Veranilda made a tumult in his soul; at times it seemed to him that he hated his friend, so intolerable was the jealousy that racked him. Veranilda he had never seen, but the lover's rapture had created in his imagination a face and form of matchless beauty which he could not cease from worshipping. He took this for a persecution of the fiend, and strove against it by all methods known to him. About his body he wore things that tortured; he fasted to the point of exhaustion; he slept--if sleep came to him--on a bare stone floor; some hours of each day he spent in visiting churches, where he prayed ardently.

Basil, when he had rushed forth from the Anicianum, rode straightway to the Via Lata, and presented himself at Marcian's door. The porter said that his master had been absent since dawn, but Basil none the less entered, and, in the room where he and his friend were wont to talk, threw himself upon a couch to wait. He lay sunk in the most sombre thoughts, until at the door appeared Sagaris, who with the wonted suave servility, begged permission to speak to him.

'Speak on,' said Basil gloomily, fixing his eyes upon the oriental visage, so little reassuring to one harassed by suspicions.

'It is regarding my dear lord, Illustrious, that I would say a humble word, if your nobility will bear with me.'

'What can that be?'

'I am guilty, I know, of much presumption, but I entreat your nobility's patience, for in truth it is only my love and my fears that embolden me to speak. What I would make known to you, Illustrious, is that for more than two whole days my dear lord has not broken bread. Since our return to Rome he has fasted all but continuously, at the same time inflicting upon himself many other penances of the severest kind. For this, I well know, he will have his reward in the eternal life; but when I note his aspect, I am overcome with fear lest we should lose him too soon. This morning, when I was helping him to dress, he sank down, and lay for a time as one dead. My lord would rebuke me severely if he knew that I had ventured to speak of these things; but with you, Illustrious, I feel that I am in no danger. You will understand me, and pardon me.'

Basil had raised himself to a sitting position. Supporting himself on one hand, he stared straight before him, and only spoke when a movement on the part of the servant betrayed impatience.

'This has gone on, you say, since your return to Rome? Was it your lord's habit to do such penance on his travels?'

'Never in this extreme, though I have always marvelled at his piety.'

Again Basil kept a long silence.

'You have done well to tell me,' he said at length; then, with a wave of the hand, dismissed the Syrian.

It was nearly mid-day when Marcian returned. At the sight of Basil his pale, weary countenance assumed a troubled smile. He embraced his friend, kissing him affectionately on both cheeks, and sat down by him with a sigh of fatigue.

'What makes you so wan?' asked Basil, peering into his eyes.

'I sleep ill.'

'Why so? Is it pain or thought that keeps you wakeful?'

'Both, perhaps,' answered Marcian. He paused, reflected gloomily, and went on in a subdued voice. 'Do you think often, Basil, of the eternal fire?'

'Not often. Sometimes, of course.'

'Last night I had a dream, which assuredly was a temptation of the evil one. My father stood before me, and said, "Fear not, Marcian, for there is no Gehenna. It is but the vision of man's tormented conscience." And I awoke with a great joy. But at once the truth came upon me; and until dawn I prayed for strength to resist that perilous solace. This morning I have talked long with a holy man, opening my heart to him, that he might finally resolve my doubts. I said to him: "Slaves who have committed a fault are punished that they may amend. To what purpose is the punishment of the wicked after death, since there can be no amendment?" and he replied: "My son, the wicked are punished in Gehenna that the just may feel gratitude to the divine grace which has preserved them from such a doom." "But," I objected, "ought not the just to pray for their enemies in such evil case?" His answer was prompt: "The time for prayer is past. The blessed concur in the judgment of God!"'

Basil listened with bent head.

'Maximus,' he said presently, 'often doubted of eternal torment; and my cousin Decius has more than once confessed to me that he believes it not at all, being strengthened therein by his friend the philosopher Simplicius. I, O Marcian, would fain think it a dream-- yet there are evil doings in this world which make me fear that it may be true.'

'You have seen Bessas again?'

'Yes. And I have seen Petronilla.'

His eyes on the listener, Basil recounted his conversation of this morning, all save that part of it which related to Marcian. He could detect no sign of guilty uneasiness in his friend's face, but saw that Marcian grew very thoughtful.

'Is not this a shamelessness in falsehood which passes belief?' were his last words.

'If indeed it be falsehood,' replied Marcian, meeting the other's eyes. 'I will confess that, this day or two, I have suspected Bessas of knowing more than he pretends.'

'What?' Basil exclaimed. 'You think Veranilda is really in his power?'

Marcian answered with a return to the old irony.

'I would not venture to set bounds to the hypocrisy and the mendacity and the pertinacity of woman, but, after another conversation with Petronilla, I am shaken in my belief that she still holds her prisoners. She may, in truth, have surrendered them. What makes me inclined to think it, is the fierceness with which she now turns on me, accusing me of the whole plot from the first. That, look you, would be sweet revenge to a woman defeated. Why,' he added, with a piercing but kindly look, 'do you hide from me that she sought to persuade you of my treachery? Is it, O Basil, because you feared lest she spoke the truth?'

Flushing under that honest gaze, Basil sprang up and seized his friend's hand. Tears came into his eyes as he avowed the truth and entreated pardon.

'It was only because misery has made me all but mad. Nay, I knew that she lied, but I could not rest till I had the assurance of it from your own lips. You think, then, dearest Marcian, that Veranilda is lost to me for ever? You believe it is true that she is already on the way to Constantinople?'

Marcian hoped it with all his heart, for with the disappearance of Veranilda this strange, evil jealousy of his would fade away; and he had many reasons for thinking that the loss of his Gothic love would be the best thing that could happen to Basil. At the same time, he felt his friend's suffering, and could not bring himself to inflict another wound.

'If so,' he replied, 'the Greek has less confidence in me than I thought, and I must take it as a warning. It may be. On the other hand, there is the possibility that Petronilla's effrontery outwits us all. Of course she has done her best to ruin both of us, and perhaps is still trying to persuade Bessas that you keep Veranilda in hiding, whilst I act as your accomplice. If this be the case, we shall both of us know the smell of a prison before long, and perchance the taste of torture. What say you? Shall we wait for that chance, or speed away into Campania, and march with the king against Neapolis?'

Though he smiled, there was no mistaking Marcian's earnestness. For the moment he had shaken off his visions of Tartarus, and was his saner self once more.

'If I knew that she has gone!' cried Basil wretchedly. 'If I knew!'

'So you take your chance?'

'Listen! You speak of prison, of torture. Marcian, can you not help, me to capture that woman, and to get from her the truth?'

Basil's face grew terrible as he spoke. He quivered, his teeth ground together.

'I, too, have thought of it,' replied the other coldly. 'But it is difficult and dangerous.'

They talked yet awhile, until Marcian, who looked cadaverous, declared his need of food, and they went to the mid-day meal.

A few days went by. Basil was occupied with the business of his inheritance. He had messengers to despatch to estates in Lucania and Apulia. Then came news that a possession of Maximus' in the south had been invaded and seized by a neighbour; for which outrage there was little hope of legal remedy in the present state of affairs; only by the strong hand could Basil vindicate his right. Trouble was caused him by a dispute with one of the legatees, a poor kinsman who put an unexpected interpretation upon the item of the will which concerned him. Another poor kinsman, to whom Maximus had bequeathed a share in certain property in Rome, wished to raise money on this security. Basil himself could not lend the desired sum, for, though lord of great estates, he found himself after Chorsoman's pillage of the strong room at Surrentum, scarcely able to meet immediate claims upon him under the will; but he consented to accompany his relative to a certain moneychanger, of whom perchance a loan might be obtained. This man of business, an Alexandrian, had his office on the Capitoline Hill, in that open space between the Capitol and the Arx, where merchants were still found; he sat in a shadowed corner of a portico, before him a little table on which coins were displayed, and at his back a small dark shop, whence came a confused odour of stuffs and spices. Long and difficult were the negotiations. To Basil's surprise, the Alexandrian, though treating him with the utmost respect, evidently gave little weight to his guarantee in money matters; as to property in Rome, he seemed to regard it as the most insubstantial of securities. Only on gems and precious metals would he consent to lend a sum of any importance.

Whilst this debate was in progress, a litter, gaudy and luxurious, borne by eight slaves clad in yellow, with others like them before and behind, came to a stop close by, and from it alighted a lady whose gorgeous costume matched the brilliance of her vehicle and retinue. She was young and beautiful, with dark, oriental features, and a bearing which aimed at supremity of arrogance. Having stepped down, she stood at the edge of the portico, languidly gazing this way and that, with the plain intention of exhibiting herself to the loiterers whom her appearance drew together; at every slightest movement, the clink of metal sounded from her neck, her arms, her ankles; stones glistened on her brow and on her hands; about her she shed a perfume like that wafted from the Arabian shore.

The Greek merchant, as soon as he was aware of her arrival, ran forward and stood obsequiously before her, until she deigned to notice him.

'I would speak with you. See that we are private.'

'Noble lady,' he replied, 'the lord Basilius, heir of the Senator Maximus, is within. I will straightway beg him to defer his business.'

The lady turned and gazed into the dusky shop.

'He is not alone, I see.'

'A kinsman is with him, noble lady.'

'Then bid the kinsman go his way, and keep apart, you, until you are summoned. I will speak for a moment with the lord Basilius.'

The Alexandrian, masking a smile, drew near to Basil, and whispered that the lady Heliodora demanded to see him alone. A gesture of annoyance was the first reply, but, after an instant's reflection, Basil begged his kinsman to withdraw. Heliodora then entered the shop, which was nothing more than an open recess, with a stone counter half across the entrance, and behind it a couple of wooden stools. Upon one of these the lady seated herself, and Basil, who had greeted her only with a movement of the head, stood waiting.

'So you will not sup with me?' began Heliodora, in a voice of bantering indifference. 'You will not come to see me? You will not write to me? It is well. I care less than the clipping of a finger-nail.'

'So I would have it,' Basil replied coldly.

'Good. Then we are both satisfied. This is much better than making pretence of what we don't feel, and playing a comedy with our two selves for spectators. You amused me for a while; that is over; now you amuse me in another way. Turn a little towards the light. Let me have a look at your pretty face, Basilidion.'

She spoke with a Greek accent, mingling now and then with the Roman speech a Greek word or exclamation, and her voice, sonorous rather than melodious, one moment seemed about to strike the note of anger, at another seemed softening to tenderness.

'With your leave,' said Basil, 'I will be gone. I have matters of some importance to attend to.'

'With your leave,' echoed Heliodora, 'I will detain you yet a little. For you, Basilidion, there is only one matter of importance, and it may be that I can serve you better therein than any you esteem your graver friends. There, now, I see your face. Holy Mary I how wan and worn it is. From my heart I pity you, Basilidion. Come now, tell me the story. I have heard fifty versions, some credible, some plain fable. Confide in me; who knows but I may help you.'

'Scoff as you will,' was his answer. 'It is your privilege. But in truth, lady, I have little time to waste.'

'And in truth, lord, your courtesy has suffered since you began to peck and pine for this little Hun.'

'Hun?'

'Oh, I cry pardon! Goth, I should have said. Indeed, there are degrees of barbarism--but, as you will. I say again, I care not the clipping of my smallest nail.' She held her hand towards him; very white it was, and soft and shapely, but burdened with too many rings. 'Tell me all, and I will help you. Tell me nothing, and have nothing for your pains.'

'Help me?' exclaimed Basil, in scornful impatience. 'Am I such a fool as to think you would wish to help me, even if you could?'

'Listen to me, Basil.' She spoke in a deep note which was half friendliness, half menace. 'I am not wont to have my requests refused. Leave me thus, and you have one more enemy--an enemy more to be dreaded than all the rest. Already I know something of this story, and I can know the whole of it as soon as I will; but what I want now is to hear the truth about your part in it. You have lost your little Goth; of that I need no assurance. But tell me how it came about.'

Basil stood with bent head. In the portico, at a little distance, there began to sound the notes of a flute played by some itinerant musician.

'You dare refuse me?' said Heliodora, after waiting a moment. 'You are a bolder man than I thought.'

'Ask what you wish to know,' broke from the other. 'Recount to you I will not. Put questions, and I will reply if I think fit.'

'Good.'

Heliodora smiled, with a movement which made all her trappings of precious metal jingle as though triumphantly. And she began to question, tracking out all Basil's relations with Veranilda from their first meeting at Cumae to the day of the maiden's disappearance. His answers, forced from him partly by vague fear, partly by as vague a hope, were the briefest possible, but in every case he told the truth.

'It is well,' said Heliodora, when the interrogation was over. 'Poor, poor Basilidion! How ill he has been used! And not even a kiss from the little Goth. Or am I mistaken? Perhaps--'

'Be silent!' exclaimed Basil harshly.

'Oh, I will not pry into chaste secrets. For the present, enough. Go your ways, Basil, and take courage. I keep faith, as you know; and that I am disposed to be your friend is not your standing here, alive and well, a sufficient proof?'

She had risen, and, as she uttered these words, her eyes gleamed large in the dusk.

'When you wish to see me,' she added, 'come to my house. To you it is always open. I may perchance send you a message. If so, pay heed to it.'

Basil was turning away.

'What! Not even the formal courtesy? Your manners have indeed declined, my poor Basil.'

With an abrupt, awkward movement, he took her half offered hand, and touched the rings with his lips; then hastened away.

On the edge of the cluster of idlers who were listening to the flute player stood his needy kinsman. Basil spoke with him for a moment, postponed their business, and, with a sign to the two slaves in attendance, walked on. By the Clivus Argentarius he descended to the Forum. In front of the Curia stood the state' carriage of the City Prefect, for the Senate had been called together this morning to hear read some decree newly arrived from Byzantium; and as Basil drew near he saw the Prefect, with senators about him, come forth and descend the steps. These dignitaries, who wore with but ill grace the ancient toga, were evidently little pleased by what they had heard; they talked under their breath together, many of them, no doubt, recalling sadly the honour they were wont to receive from King Theodoric. As their president drove away, Basil, gazing idly after the carpentum, felt himself touched on the arm; he looked round and saw Decius, whose panting breath declared his haste, whilst his countenance was eloquent of ill.

'I come from the Anicianum,' Decius whispered, 'and bring terrible news. Petronilla lies dying of the pest.'

Dazed as if under a violent blow, Basil stretched out his hand. It touched the wall of the little temple of Janus, in the shadow of which they were standing.

'The pest?' he echoed faintly.

'She was seized in the night. Some one in the house--some woman, they tell me, whom she brought with her a few days ago, I know not whence--is just dead. I have sped hither in search of any one with whom I could speak of it; God be thanked that I have met you! I went to fetch away books, as you know.'

'I must go there,' said Basil, gazing about him to find his slaves. 'I must go straightway.'

'Why? The danger is great.'

'It may be'--this was spoken into Decius' ear--'that Veranilda is imprisoned there. I have proof now, awful proof, that Petronilla lied to me. I must enter, and seek.'

Hard by were litters for public hire. Bidding his slaves follow, Basil had himself carried, fast as bearers could run, towards the Anicianum. Not even fear of the pestilence could withhold him. His curse upon Petronilla had been heard; the Almighty God had smitten her; would not the same Power protect him? He prayed mentally, beseeching the intercession of the Virgin, of the saints. He made a vow that, did he recover Veranilda, he would not rest until he had won her conversion to the Catholic faith.

Without the Anicianum, nothing indicated disturbance, but as soon as he had knocked at the door it was thrown wide open, and he saw, gathered in the vestibule, a crowd of dismayed servants. Two or three of them, whom he knew well, hurried forward, eager to speak. He learnt that physicians were with the sick lady, and that the presbyter of St. Cecilia, for whom she had sent in the early morning, remained by her side. No member of the family (save Decius) had yet come, though messages had been despatched to several. Unopposed, Basil entered the atrium, and there spoke with Petronilla's confidential freedman.

'Leo, your mistress is dying. Speak the truth to me, and you shall be rewarded; refuse to answer, or lie to me, and I swear by the Cross that you shall suffer. Who was the woman that died here yesterday?'

The freedman answered without hesitation, telling the same story Basil had already heard from Petronilla.

'Good. She has been buried?'

'She was carried out before dawn.'

'Tell me now, upon your salvation, is any one kept prisoner here?'

Leo, an elderly man, his eyes red with tears and his hands tremulous, gazed meaningly at the questioner.

'No one; no one,' he answered under his breath. 'I swear it to you, O lord Basil.'

'Come with me through the house.'

'But Leo, moving nearer, begged that he might be heard and believed. He understood the meaning of these inquiries, for he had been with his mistress at Surrentum. They whom Basil sought were not here; all search would be useless; in proof of this Leo offered the evidence of his wife, who could reveal something of moment which she had learnt only a few hours ago. The woman was called, and Basil spoke apart with her; he learnt that Petronilla, as soon as her pains began, sent a messenger to the deacon Leander, entreating him to come; but Leander had only yesterday set out on a journey, and would not be back for a week or more. Hearing this, the stricken lady fell into an anguish of mind worse even than that of the body; she uttered words signifying repentance for some ill-doing, and, after a while, said to those who were beside her--a physician and the speaker--that, if she died, they were to make known to Bessas that the deacon Leander, he and he alone, could tell all. Having said this, Petronilla became for a time calmer; but her sufferings increased, and suddenly she bade summon the presbyter of St. Cecilia's church. With him she spoke alone, and for a long time. Since, she had uttered no word touching worldly matters; the woman believed that she was now unconscious.

'And you swear to me,' said Basil, who quivered as he listened, 'that this is the truth and all you know?'

Leo's wife swore by everything sacred on earth, and by all the powers of heaven, that she had falsified nothing, concealed nothing. Thereupon Basil turned to go away. In the vestibule, the slaves knelt weeping before him, some with entreaties to be permitted to leave this stricken house, some imploring advice against the plague; men and women alike, all were beside themselves with terror. In this moment there came a knocking at the entrance; the porter ran to open, and admitted Gordian. Basil and he, who had not met since the day of the family gathering, spoke together in the portico. He had come, said Gordian, in the fear that Petronilla had been forsaken by all her household, as sometimes happened to those infected. Had it been so, he would have held it a duty to approach her with what solace he could. As it was, physician and priest and servants being here, he durst not risk harm to his own family; but he would hold himself in readiness, if grave occasion summoned him. So Gordian remounted his horse, and rode back home.

Basil lingered. He no longer entertained the suspicion that Veranilda might be here, but he thought that, could he speak with Petronilla herself, penitence might prompt her to tell him where the captive lay hidden. It surprised him not at all to hear Leander's name as that of her confidant in the matter, though hitherto his thought had not turned in that direction. Leander signified the Church, and what hope was there that he could gain his end against such an opponent?--more formidable than Bessas, more powerful, perhaps, than Justinian. Were Veranilda imprisoned in some monastery, he might abandon hope of beholding her again on this side of the grave.

Yet it was something to know that she had not passed into the hands of the Greeks; that she was not journeying to the Byzantine court, there to be wedded against her will. Cheered by this, he felt an impulse of daring; he would see Petronilla.

'Leo! Lead me to the chamber.'

The freedman besought him not to be so rash, but Basil was possessed with furious resolve. He drove the servant before him, through the atrium, into a long corridor. Suddenly the silence was broken by a shriek of agony, so terrible that Basil felt his blood chilled to the very heart. This cry came again, echoing fearfully through the halls and galleries of this palace of marble. The servants had fled; Basil dropped to his knees, crossed himself, prayed, the sweat standing upon his forehead. A footstep approached him; he rose, and saw the physician who had been with Maximus at Surrentum.

'Does she still live?' he asked.

'If life it can be called. What do you here, lord Basil?'

'Can she hear and speak?'

'I understand you,' replied the physician. 'But it is useless. She has confessed to the priest, and will utter no word more. Look to yourself; the air you breathe is deadly.'

And Basil, weak as a child, suffered himself to be led away.