Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XIV. Silvia's Dream
It was the Paschal season, and Basil, careless at most times of religious observances, did not neglect this supreme solemnity of his faith. On Passion Day he fasted and received the Eucharist, Decius doing the like, though with a half-smiling dreaminess which contrasted with the other's troubled devotion. Since the death of Petronilla, Basil had known moments of awe-stricken wonder or of gloomy fear such as never before had visited him; for he entertained no doubt that his imprecation had brought upon Petronilla her dreadful doom, and this was a thought which had power to break his rest. Neither to Marcian nor to Decius did he speak of it in plain terms, merely hinting his belief that the cruel and treacherous woman had provoked divine anger.
But the inclination to piety which resulted from such brooding was in some measure counteracted by his hostile feeling towards all the Church. Petronilla might have conceived the thought of imprisoning Aurelia and Veranilda, but only with the aid of an influential cleric such as Leander could she have carried it out so successfully. The Church it was that held Veranilda captive; unless, indeed, it had handed her over to the Greeks. This conviction made his heart burn with wrath, which he could scarce subdue even whilst worshipping the crucified Christ. His victim's heresy would of course be Leander's excuse for what he had done; the daughter of Maximus and the Gothic maiden were held in restraint for their souls' good. Not long after Petronilla's death Basil had been driven by his distress of mind to visit Gordian and Silvia, and to speak with them of this suspicion. He saw that, for all their human kindness, they were disposed rather, to approve than condemn the deacon's supposed action, and he had gone forth from them in scarce concealed bitterness.
Now, in the festival days of Easter, his thoughts again turned to that house on the Clivus Scauri, so near to his own dwelling, yet so remote from the world of turbid passions in which his lot was cast. The household of Gordian seemed untouched by common cares; though thoroughly human its domestic life, it had something of the calm, the silence, of a monastery. None entered save those whom husband and wife held in affection or in respect; idle gaiety was unknown beneath their roof, and worldly ambition had no part in their counsels. Because of the reverence these things inspired in him, and because of his longing to speak with a pure-hearted woman who held him in kindness, Basil again presented himself at his kinsman's door. He was led directly to an inner room, where sat Silvia.
The severe fasts of Lent had left their mark upon the young face, yet it was fresh and smooth in its delicate pallor, and almost maidenly in its gentle smile. Silvia had blue eyes, and hair of the chestnut hue; a simple, white fillet lay above her forehead; her robe was of pale russet, adorned with the usual purple stripes and edged with embroidery; on each hand she wore but one ring. When the visitor entered, she was nursing her child, a boy of four years old, named Gregorius, but at once she put him to sit upon a little stool beside her.
'Welcome, dear cousin Basil,' was her greeting. 'We hoped this time of gladness would turn your thoughts to us. My husband has been called forth; but you will await his return?'
'It was you, lady cousin, whom I wished to see,' Basil replied. As he spoke, he touched the curly head of the boy, who looked up at him with large, grave eyes. 'Why is he so pale?'
'He has had a sickness,' answered the mother, in a low, tender voice. 'Not many days ago, one might have feared he would be taken from us. Our prayers prevailed, thanks to the intercession of the holy Cosma and Damian, and of the blessed Theodore. When he seemed to be dying, I bore him to the church in the Velabrum, and laid him before the altar; and scarcely had I finished my prayer, when a light seemed to shine upon his face, and he knew me again, and smiled at me.'
Listening, the child took his mother's hand, and pressed it against his wan little cheek. Then Silvia rang a bell that was beside her, and a woman came to take the child away, he, as he walked in silence from the room, looking back and smiling wistfully.
'I know not,' pursued Silvia, when they were alone, 'how we dare to pray for any young life in times so dark as ours. But that we are selfish in our human love, we should rather thank the Omnipotent when it pleases Him to call one of these little ones, whom Christ blessed, from a world against which His wrath is so manifestly kindled. And yet,' she added, 'it must be right that we should entreat for a life in danger; who can know to what it may be destined?--what service it may render to God and man? One night when I watched by Gregorius, weariness overcame me, and in a short slumber I dreamt. That dream I shall never forget. It kept me in heart and hope through the worst.'
'May I hear your dream?' asked Basil.
'Nay,' was the gentle reply, with a smile and a shake of the head, 'to you it would seem but foolishness. Let us speak of other things, and first of yourself. You, too, are pale, good cousin. What have you to tell me? What has come to pass since I saw you?'
With difficulty Basil found words to utter the thought which had led him hither. He came to it by a roundabout way, and Silvia presently understood: he was indirectly begging her to use her influence with eminent churchmen at Rome, to discover whether Veranilda was yet detained in Italy, or had been sent to the East. At their previous interview he had kept up the pretence of being chiefly interested in the fate of Aurelia, barely mentioning the Gothic maiden; but that was in the presence of Gordian. Now he spoke not of Aurelia at all, and so dwelt on Veranilda's name that his implied confession could not be misunderstood. And Silvia listened with head bent, interested, secretly moved, at heart troubled.
'What you ask,' she began, after a short silence, 'is not easy. If I make inquiries of such of the clergy as I know, I must needs tell them why I am doing so; and would they, in that case, think it well to answer me?'
'You know the deacon Leander,' urged Basil. 'Can you not plead for me with him, O Silvia?'
'Plead for you? Remember that it is impossible for me to assume that the holy deacon knows anything of this matter. And, were that difficulty removed, dare I plead for your union with one who is not of our faith--one, moreover, whom you cannot wed without putting yourself in grave peril?'
'Listen, gentle cousin!' exclaimed Basil eagerly. 'It may be that Veranilda has already renounced the heresy of Anus. If not, she would assuredly do so at my persuasion. So, that objection you may dismiss. As for the danger to which our marriage might expose us, our love would dare that--ay, and things much worse.'
'You speak so confidently of the Gothic maiden?' said Silvia, with a look half-timid, half-amused. 'Was there, then, a veritable plighting of troth between you?'
'There was, dear cousin. From you I will conceal nothing, for you are good, you are compassionate.'
And whilst he poured forth the story of his love, not without tears, Silvia gave sympathetic attention. The lady Petronilla had never been one of her intimates, nor was the deacon Leander among those ecclesiastics whom she most reverenced. When Basil had told all, her reply was ready. All she could do would be to endeavour to learn whether Veranilda remained in the charge of Petronilla's confederate, or had been given up to the Greeks. From conversation she had heard, Silvia inclined to this belief, that Bessas and his subordinates were still vainly seeking.
'I can make you no promise, good Basil; but I will take counsel with my husband (whom you can trust as you trust me), and see if indeed anything may be learnt.'
The lover kissed her hands in ardent gratitude. Whilst they were still talking confidentially, another visitor was announced, the deacon Pelagius. Basil begged permission to withdraw before the cleric entered; he was in no mood for conversation with deacons; and Silvia pointed smilingly to the door by which he could retreat.
The hour was still early. Basil passed a day of hopefulness, and his mood became exultant when, about sunset, a letter was brought to him from Silvia.
'To-morrow morning, at the third hour,' she wrote, 'certain of our kinsfolk and friends will assemble in this house to hear the reverend man Arator read his poem on the Acts of the Holy Apostles. This is an honour done to us, for only two or three persons have as yet heard portions of the poem, which will soon be read publicly in the church of the Holy Petrus ad Vincula. Let me welcome your Amiability among my guests. After the reading, I shall beg you to be acquainted with one who may perchance serve you.'
Scarcely had Basil read this, when another missive was put into his hands. It was from Heliodora, and written, as usual, in Greek characters.
'To-morrow, after the ninth hour, you are bidden hither. Come if you choose. If you do not, I shall have forgotten something I have learnt.'
To this he paid little heed; it might have significance, it might have none. If the morning sustained his hope, he would be able to resist the temptation of the afternoon. So he cherished Silvia's letter, and flung Heliodora's contemptuously aside.
Reaching Gordian's house next morning a little before the appointed hour, he found the members of the family and one or two guests assembled in a circular room, with a dome pierced to admit light: marble seats, covered with cushions, rose amphitheatre-wise on one half of the circle, and opposite was a chair for the reader. In this hall Sidonius Apollinaris had declaimed his panegyric on the Emperor Avitus; here the noble Boethius had been heard, and, in earlier days, the poet Claudian. Beside Silvia stood her husband's two sisters, Tarsilla and Aemiliana, both of whom, it had begun to be rumoured, though still in the flower of their youth, desired to enter the monastic life. At the younger, who was beautiful, Basil glanced diffidently, remembering that she might have been his wife; but Aemiliana knew nothing of the thought her brother had entertained, and her eyes were calm as those of a little child. When other guests appeared, Basil drew aside, for most of the persons who entered were strangers to him. Ecclesiastics grew numerous; among them might be distinguished a tall, meagre, bald-headed man, the sub-deacon Arator, who held in his hand the manuscript from which he was to read. Among the latest to arrive was a lady, stricken in years and bowed with much grief, upon whom all eyes were respectfully bent as Gordian conducted her to a place of honour. This was Rusticiana, the daughter of Symmachus, the widow of Boethius. When Basil looked at her, and thought of the anguish through which her life had passed in that gloomy evening of the reign of Theodoric, he felt himself for a moment at one with those who rejected and scorned the Gothic dominion. A great unhappiness flooded his heart and mind; he forgot what was passing about him, and only returned to himself when there sounded the voice of the reader.
Arator's poetic version of the Acts of the Apostles was written in hexameters; whether good or ill, Basil felt unable to decide, and he wished Decius had been here to whisper a critical comment. In any case he would have found the reading wearisome; that monotonous, indistinct voice soon irritated him, and at length made him drowsy. But admiration frequently broke out from the audience, and at the end applause became enthusiasm. Unspeakably glad that the ceremony was over, Basil mingled with the moving crowd, and drew towards Silvia. At length their eyes met; the lady thereupon spoke a word to a cleric who was standing by her, and in the next moment summoned Basil with a movement of the head. There was a brief formality, then Basil found himself led aside by the deacon Pelagius, who spoke to him in a grave, kind voice very pleasant to the ear, with the courtesy of a finished man of the world, and at the same time with a firmness of note, a directness of purpose, which did not fail to impress the listener.
Aged about five-and-thirty, bearing upon his countenance the signature of noble birth, Pelagius was at this moment the most accomplished diplomat that the Church of Rome possessed. He had spent some years at Byzantium, as papal emissary; had engaged the confidence of Justinian; and, on his return, had brought an Imperial invitation to Vigilius, who was requested to set forth for the East as soon as possible. Pope Vigilius had the misfortune to differ on certain dogmatic questions with that pious and acute theologian the Empress Theodora; being a man of little energy or courage, he durst not defy Byzantium, as he gladly would have done, nor yet knew how to deal subtly for his own ends with the Eastern despots; he lingered his departure, and in the meantime earned hatred at Rome because of his inability to feed the populace. It was already decided that, during his absence, the Holy Father should be represented by Pelagius, an arrangement very agreeable to that party in the Church which upheld Imperial supremacy, but less so to those ecclesiastics--a majority--who desired the independence of Rome in religious matters, and the recognition of Peter's successor as Patriarch of Christendom. In speaking to such a personage as this on Basil's behalf, Silvia had not reflected that the friend of Justinian was little likely to take the part of one who desired to frustrate an Imperial command; she thought only of his great influence, and of the fact that he looked with no favour on the deacon Leander, an anti-imperialist. What was again unfortunate for Basil, Pelagius had heard, before leaving Byzantium, of the Emperor's wish to discover Veranilda, and had already made inquiries on this subject in Rome. He was glad, then, to speak with this young noble, whose mind he found it very easy to read, and whom, without the least harshness, he resolved to deter from his pursuit of a Gothic bride.
The colloquy was not long. Buoyed by his ardour, Basil interpreted the first words of courteous preamble in the most hopeful sense. What followed gave him pause; he saw a shadow of obstacle arise. Another moment, and the obstacle had become very real; it grew to vastness, to insuperability He stood, as it were, looking into the very eyes of the Serene Majesty of Byzantium. Not that the speaker used a tone of peremptory discouragement. Granting the indispensable condition that Veranilda became a Catholic, it was not an impossible thing, said Pelagius, that Basil should obtain her as a wife; but it could only be by the grace of the Emperor. Veranilda had been summoned to Byzantium. If Basil chose to follow her thither, and sue for her before the throne, why, this was open to him, as to any other Roman of noble birth. It would have been idle indeed to seek to learn from Pelagius whether Veranilda had already left Italy, his tone was that of omniscience, but his brow altogether forbade interrogation. Basil, in despair, ventured one inquiry. If he desired to go to Byzantium, could he obtain leave of departure from the Greek commandant, under whose ban he lay? The reply was unhesitating; at any moment, permission could be granted. Therewith the conversation came to an end, and Basil, hating the face of man, stole away into solitude.
Entering his own house, he learnt that Marcian was within. For a month they had not seen each other, Marcian having been absent on missions of the wonted double tenor; they met affectionately as ever, then Basil flung himself down, like one crushed by sudden calamity.
'What now?' asked his friend, with a rallying rather than a sympathetic air.
'No matter,' Basil replied. 'You are weary of my troubles, and I can no longer talk of them.'
'What troubles? The old story still? I thought you had found solace?'
Basil looked an indignant wonder. His friend, sitting on the couch beside him, continued in the same half-bantering tone:
'When were you last at the house of a certain disconsolate widow, on the Quirinal?'
'What mean you?' cried the other, starting up, with sudden fury in his eyes. 'Are you vowed with my enemies to drive me mad?'
'Not I, dear Basil; but hear the truth. Only late last night I entered the gates of Rome, and since I rose this morning three several persons have spoken your name to me together with that of Heliodora.'
'They are black and villainous liars! And you, Marcian, so ready to believe them? Tell me their names, their names!'
'Peace! One would think you mad indeed. You know the son of Opilio, young Vivian?'
'I know him!' answered Basil scornfully, 'as I know the lousy beggar who sits before St. Clement's Church, or the African who tumbles in Trajan's forum.'
'Even so. This same spark of fashion stops me in the Vicus Longus. "You are the friend of Basil," quoth he. "Give him this warning. If ever I chance to find him near the portico of Heliodora, I will drive my dagger into his heart," and on he struts, leaving me so amazed that I forgot even to fetch the cub a box o' the ear. But I had not long to wait for an explanation of his insolence. Whom should I next meet but the solemn-visaged Opilio. "So your friend Basil," he began, "has forgotten his Gothic love?" We talked, and I learnt from him that you were the hot rival of Vivian for Heliodora's favour. Nay, I do but repeat what you ought to hear. Can such gossip begin without cause? Tell me now, how often have you been yonder since I left Rome?'
Basil could scarce contain himself. He had visited Heliodora, yes, but merely because he would neglect no chance of learning where Veranilda was imprisoned; it was not impossible that through this woman such a secret might be discovered. He the rival of that debauched boy! He the lover of Heliodora! Had he sunk so low in the esteem of his best friend? Why, then, it was time indeed to be gone: befall him what might, he could not be unhappier in Constantinople than here in Rome.
At these words, Marcian checked him with a surprised inquiry. What had turned his thoughts to Constantinople? Basil related the events of yesterday and of this morning.
'What other counsel could you have expected from Pelagius?' said Marcian, after listening attentively. 'But on one point I can reassure you. Veranilda has not yet fallen into the hands of the Greeks.'
'How do you know that?' exclaimed Basil eagerly.
'Enough that I do know it. Whilst you have been idling here-- forgive me, good Basil--I have travelled far and conversed with many men. And I have something else to tell you, which will perchance fall less agreeably upon your ear. The fame of Veranilda promises to go forth over all lands. King Totila himself has heard of her, and would fain behold this ornament of his race.'
'When Cumae was besieged by the Goths three months ago, Chorsoman-- whom you have not forgotten--made terms with Totila, and was allowed to keep some portion of the plunder he had amassed. Thinking to do the king a pleasure, he told him of Veranilda, of the commands regarding her which had come from the East, and of her vanishing no one knew whither. And of these things, O Basil, did Totila himself, with his royal mouth, speak unto me not many days gone by.'
'I see not how that concerns me,' said Basil wearily.
'True, it may not. Yet, if I were wooing a wife, I had rather seek her at the hands of Totila than at those of Justinian. To be sure, I did not speak of you to the king; that would have been less than discreet. But Totila will ere long be lord of all Italy, and who knows but the deacon Leander, no friend of Constantinople, might see his interest and his satisfaction in yielding Veranilda rather to the Goth than to the Greek?'
Basil started. Such a thought had never entered his mind, yet he saw probability in the suggestion.
'You assure me,' he said, 'that she has not yet been surrendered. I find that hard to believe. Knowing in whose power she is, how comes it that Bessas does not seize the insolent Leander, and force the truth from him? Were I the commander, would I be baffled for an hour by that sleek deacon?'
'Were you commander, O best Basil,' replied Marcian, smiling, 'you would see things in another light. Bessas does not lay hands upon the deacon because it is much more to his profit to have the clergy of Rome for his friends than for his enemies. Whether Veranilda be discovered or not, he cares little; I began to suspect that when I saw that you came off so easily from your dealings with him. 'Tis a long road to Constantinople, and the Thracian well knows that he may perchance never travel it again. His one care is to heap up treasure for to-day; the morrow may look after itself. But let us return to the point from which we started. Do you think in earnest of voyaging to the Bosporus?'
'I should only choose a hazard so desperate were it the sole chance that remained of recovering Veranilda.'
'Wait, then, yet awhile. But take my counsel, and do not wait in Rome.'
To this advice Basil gave willing ear. Since he had heard from Pelagius that he was free to quit the city, he was all but resolved to be gone. One thought alone detained him; he still imagined that Heliodora might have means such as she professed of aiding him in his search, and that, no matter how, he might subdue her will to his own. She, of course, aimed only at enslaving him, and he knew her capable of any wickedness in the pursuit of her ends; for this very reason was he tempted into the conflict with her, a conflict in which his passions would have no small part, and whether for or against him could not be foreseen. Once more he would visit Heliodora; if fruitlessly, then for the last time.
But of this decision he did not speak to Marcian.