Chapter XVI. Whispers
 

The greater part of southern Italy was once more held by the Goths. Whilst the long blockade of Neapolis went on, Totila found time to subdue all that lay between that city and the Ionian Sea, meeting, indeed, with little resistance among the country-folk, or from the inhabitants of the mostly unwalled towns. The Imperial forces which should have been arrayed against him had wintered in various cities of the north, where their leaders found all they at present cared for, repose and plunder; their pay long in arrear, and hardly to be hoped for, the Greek soldiers grew insubordinate, lived as they would or could, and with the coming of spring deserted in numbers to the victorious enemy. Appeals to Byzantium for reinforcements had as yet resulted only in the sending of a small, ill-equipped fleet, which, after much delay in Sicilian ports, sailed for Neapolis, only to be surprised by a storm, and utterly wrecked on the shores of the great bay. Not long after the news of this disaster, it was reported in Rome that Neapolis, hopeless of relief, had opened her gates, and presently the report had strange confirmation. There arrived by the Appian Way officers of the garrison which had surrendered; not as harassed fugitives, but travelling with all convenience and security, the Gothic king himself having expedited their journey and sent guides with them lest they should miss the road. Nor was this the most wonderful of the things they had to relate. For they told of humanity on the part of the barbarian conqueror such as had no parallel in any story of warfare known to Greek or Roman; how the Neapolitans being so famine-stricken that they could scarce stand on their legs, King Totila would not at once send plentiful stores into the town, lest the sufferers should die of surfeit, but ministered to their needs even as a friendly physician would have done, giving them at first little food, and more as their strength revived. To be sure, there were partisans of the Empire in Rome who scoffed at those who narrated, and those who believed, a story so incredible. On the Palatine, it was at first received with roars of laughter, in which the lady Muscula's shrill voice had its part. When confirmation had put the thing beyond dispute, Bessas and his supporters made a standing joke of it; if any one fell sick their word was: 'Send for the learned Totila'; and when there was talk of a siege of Rome, they declared that their greatest fear, should the city fall, was of being dieted and physicked by the victor.

Romans there were, however, who heard all this in another spirit. The ill-fed populace had long ago become ready for any change which might benefit their stomachs, and the name of Totila was to them significant of all they lacked under the Greeks. 'Let the Goth come quickly!' passed from mouth to mouth wherever the vulgar durst speak what they thought. Among the nobles, prejudice of race and religion and immemorial pride ensured predominance to the Imperialists, but even here a Gothic party existed, and imprudent utterances had brought certain senators into suspicion. The most active friend of Totila, however, was one whom Bessas never thought of suspecting, having, as he thought, such evidence of the man's devotion to the Greek cause. Marcian had played his double part with extraordinary skill and with boldness which dared every risk. He was now exerting himself in manifold ways, subtly, persistently, for the supreme achievement of his intrigue, the delivery of Rome from Byzantine tyranny.

Among the many persons whom he made to serve his ends without admitting them to his confidence was Galla, the wife of a noble whom Amalasuntha had employed in her secret communications with Byzantium, and who was now one of the intimates of Bessas. A light woman, living as she pleased because of her husband's indifference, Galla knew and cared nothing about affairs of state, and on that account was the more useful to Marcian. She believed him in love with her, and he encouraged the belief; flattering her with pretence at timidity, as though he would fain have spoken but durst not. Regarding him as her slave, Galla amused herself by sometimes coming to his house, where, as if in the pride of chastity, she received his devotion, and meanwhile told him things he was glad to know. And thus it happened on that day of the quarrel between Heliodora and Muscula, wherein Galla unexpectedly found herself involved. Bubbling over with wrath against Heliodora, she at once sought out Marcian, acquainted him with all that had happened, and made evident her desire to be in some way avenged. Marcian saw in this trivial affair the opportunity for a scheme of the gravest import; difficult, perilous, perhaps impracticable, but so tempting in its possibilities that he soon resolved to hazard everything on the chance of success. Basil's departure from Rome, which he had desired for other reasons, fell pat for the device now shaping itself in his mind. A day or two after, early in the morning, he went to Heliodora's house, and sent in a message begging private speech with the lady. As he had expected, he was received forthwith, Heliodora being aware of his friendship with Basil. Between her and Marcian the acquaintance was but slight; he had hitherto regarded her as unserviceable, because too dangerous. It was because of her dangerous qualities that he now sought her, and his courage grew as the conversation became intimate.

He began with a confession. Head hanging, visage gloomy, in slow, indirect, abashed language, he let it be understood that though truly Basil's friend, he had all along been secretly doing his utmost to frustrate the lover's search for the Gothic maiden Veranilda, and, as part of this purpose, had striven to turn Basil's thoughts to Heliodora. That he had had no better success grieved him to the heart. All who wished Basil well, desired that he should marry a lady of his own rank, his own religion, and could he but have won a wife such as Heliodora!

'Alas!' sighed Marcian, 'it was too much to hope. How could you be other than cold to him? Had you deigned, thrice gracious lady, to set your beauty, your gifts, in contest with his memory of that other!'

In every man that approached her, Heliodora suspected a selfish aim, but it was seldom that she talked with one whose subtlety seemed the equal of her own. The little she knew of Marcian had predisposed her to regard him as a cold and melancholy nature, quite uninteresting; she eyed him now with her keenest scrutiny, puzzled by his story, vainly seeking its significance.

'Your friend complained to you of my coldness?' she said distantly.

'He scarce spoke of you. I knew too well with what hope he came here. When he found it vain, he turned away in bitterness.'

This sounded like truth to one who knew Basil. After a moment's reflection, Heliodora made another inquiry, and in a tone of less indifference.

'Why, lord Marcian, do you come to tell me this? Basil has quitted Rome. You can scarce ask me to pursue him.'

'Lady,' was the sad reply, 'I will not even yet abandon hope. But this is not the moment to plead his cause with you, and indeed I came with a thought more selfish.'

Ready to believe whatever might be uttered with such preface, Heliodora smiled and bade the speaker continue. Again Marcian's head drooped; again his words became hesitant, vague. But their purpose at length grew unmistakable; unhappy that he was, he himself loved Veranilda, and the vehemence of his passion overcame his loyalty in friendship; never whilst he lived should Basil wed the Gothic maiden. This revelation astonished Heliodora; she inquired when and how Marcian had become enamoured, and heard in reply a detailed narrative, part truth, part false, of the events at Surrentum, known to her as yet only in outline and without any mention of Marcian's part in them. Upon her surprise followed malicious joy. Was there no means, she asked, of discovering Veranilda? And the other in a low voice made answer that he knew where she was--knew but too well.

'I shall not ask you to tell me the secret,' said Heliodora, with a smile.

'Gracious lady,' pursued Marcian, 'it is for the purpose of revealing it to you that I am here. Veranilda is in the palace, held in guard by Bessas till she can have escort to Constantinople.'

'Ha! You are sure of that?'

'I have it on testimony that cannot be doubted.'

'Why then,' exclaimed Heliodora, all but betraying her exultation in the thought, 'there is little chance that Basil's love will prosper.'

'Little chance, dear lady, I hope and believe, but I have confessed to you that I speak as a self-seeker and a faithless friend. It is not enough that Basil may not wed her; I would fain have her for myself.'

The listener laughed. She began to think this man something of a simpleton.

'Why, my excellent Marcian, I will give you all my sympathy and wish you good fortune. But that any one may do. What more do you expect of me?'

Marcian looked towards the open doorway. They were seated in a luxurious little room, lighted from the peristyle, its adornments in sculpture a sleeping Hermaphrodite and a drunken satyr; on the wall were certain marble low-reliefs, that behind Heliodora representing Hylas drawn down by the Naiads.

'Speak without fear,' she reassured him. 'In this house, believe me, no one dare play the eavesdropper.'

'I have to speak,' said Marcian, bending forward, 'of things perilous--a life hanging on every word. Only to one of whose magnanimity I felt assured should I venture to disclose my thought. You have heard,' he proceeded after a pause, 'and, yet I am perchance wrong in supposing that such idle talk could reach your ears, let me make known to you then, that with Bessas in the palace dwells a fair woman (or so they say, for I have not seen her) named Muscula. She is said to have much power with the commander.'

The listener's countenance had darkened. Regarding Marcian with haughty coldness, she asked him how this could concern her. He, in appearance dismayed, falteringly entreated her pardon.

'Be not angered, O noble Heliodora! I did not presume to think that you yourself had any acquaintance with this woman. I wished to make known to you things that I have heard of her--things which I doubt not are true. But, as it is only in my own interest that I speak, I will say no more until I have your permission.'

This having been disdainfully granted, Marcian proceeded with seeming timid boldness, marking in his listener's eyes the eager interest with which she followed him. Though every detail of the story was of his own invention, its plausibility had power upon one whose passions inclined her to believe it. He told then that Muscula, bribed by Basil, was secretly endeavouring to procure the release of Veranilda, which should be made to appear an escape of Basil's contriving. The lover's visits to Heliodora, he said, and his supposed ignorance as to where Veranilda was detained, were part of the plot. Already Muscula had so far wrought upon Bessas that success seemed within view, and Basil's departure from Rome was only a pretence; he waited near at hand, ready to carry off his beloved.

'How come you to know all this?' Heliodora asked bluntly at the first pause.

'That also I will tell you,' answered Marcian. 'It is through some one whom Muscula holds of more account than Bessas, and with whom she schemes against him.'

'By the Holy' Mother!' exclaimed Heliodora, 'that is yourself.'

Marcian shook his head.

'Not so, gracious lady.'

'Nay, why should you scruple to confess it? You love Veranilda, and do you think I could not pardon an intrigue which lay on your way to her?'

'Nevertheless it is not I,' persisted the other gravely.

'Be it so,' said Heliodora. 'And in all this, my good Marcian, what part have I? How does it regard me? What do you seek of me?'

Once more the man seemed overcome with confusion.

'Indeed I scarce know,' he murmured. 'I hardly dare to think what was in my mind when I sought you. I came to you, O Heliodora, as to one before whom men bow, one whose beauty is resistless, whose wish is a command. What gave me courage was a word that fell from Bessas himself when I sat at table with him yesterday. "Wore I the purple," he said, "Heliodora should be my Empress."'

'Bessas said that?'

'He did--and in the presence of Muscula, who heard it, I am bound to say, with a sour visage.'

Heliodora threw back her head and laughed. 'I think he has scarce seen me thrice,' fell from her musingly. 'Tell him from me,' she added, 'that it is indiscreet to talk of wearing the purple before those who may report his words.'

There was a silence. Marcian appeared to brood, and Heliodora did her best to read his face. If, she asked herself; he had told her falsehoods, to what end had he contrived them? Nothing that she could conjecture was for a moment satisfying. If he told the truth, what an opportunity were here for revenge on Muscula, and for the frustration of Basil's desire.

How that revenge was to be wrought, or, putting it the other way, how Marcian was to be helped, she saw as yet only in glimpses of ruthless purpose. Of Bessas she did not think as of a man easy to subdue or to cajole; his soldierly rudeness, the common gossip of his inconstancy in love, and his well-known avarice, were not things likely to touch her imagination, nor had she ever desired to number him in the circle of her admirers. That it might be in her power to do what Marcian besought, she was very willing to persuade herself, but the undertaking had such colour of danger that she wished for more assurance of the truth of what she had heard.

'It seems to me,' she said at length, 'that the hour is of the latest. What if Veranilda escape this very day?'

'Some days must of necessity pass,' answered Marcian. 'The plot is not so far advanced.'

He rose hurriedly as if distracted by painful thoughts.

'Noble lady, forgive me for thus urging you with my foolish sorrows. You see how nearly I am distraught. If by any means you could aid me, were it only so far as to withhold her I love from the arms of Basil--'

So deep was Heliodora sunk in her thoughts that she allowed Marcian to leave her without another word. He, having carried his machination thus far, could only await the issue, counting securely on Heliodora's passions and her ruthlessness. He had but taken the first step towards the end for which he schemed; were this successful, with the result that Heliodora used her charms upon the Greek commander, and, as might well happen, obtained power over him, he could then proceed to the next stage of his plot, which had a scope far beyond the loves of Basil and Veranilda. That the Gothic maiden was really in the hands of Bessas he did not believe; moreover, time had soothed his jealousy of Basil, and, had he been able to further his friend's desire, he would now willingly have done so; but he scrupled not to incur all manner of risks, for himself and others, in pursuit of a great design. Marcian's convulsive piety, like the religion of most men in his day, regarded only the salvation of his soul from eternal torment, nor did he ever dream that this would be imperilled by the treacheries in which his life was now inured.

Only a few hours after his departure, Heliodora, by means familiar to her, had learnt that Marcian's confidential servant was a man named Sagaris, a conceited and talkative fellow, given to boasting of his light loves. Before sunset, Sagaris had received a mysterious message, bidding him repair that night to a certain place of public resort upon the Quirinal. He did so, was met by the same messenger, and bidden wait under a portico. Before long there approached through the darkness a muffled figure, followed by two attendants with lanterns; the Syrian heard his name whispered; a light touch drew him further away from the lantern-bearing slaves, and a woman's voice, low, caressing, began to utter endearments and reproaches. Not to-night, it said, should he know who she was; she could speak a name which would make his heart beat; but he should not hear it until he had abandoned the unworthy woman whose arts had won him. 'What woman?' asked Sagaris in astonishment. And the answer was whispered, 'Muscula.'

Now Muscula's name and position were well known to the Syrian. The reproach of the mysterious fair one made him swell with pride; he affected inability to deny the charge, and in the next breath declared that Muscula was but his sport, that in truth he cared nothing for her, he did but love her as he had loved women numberless, not only in Rome, but in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople. The muffled lady gave a deep sigh. Ah! and so it would be with her, were she weak enough to yield to her passion. Sagaris began to protest, to vow.

'It is vain,' replied the amorous voice. 'Only in one way can you convince me and win me.'

'Oh, how?'

'Let me hear that Muscula is dead.'

Sagaris stood mute. A hand touched his shoulder, his hair; perfumes loaded the air about him.

'Tell me your name and it shall be done.'

The warm mouth breathed against his cheek and a name was murmured.

The second day after this saw an event in the Palatine which was matter of talk for some two days more, and then passed into oblivion. Rumour said that Muscula had been detected plotting against the life of Bessas, that she had been. examined under torture, found guilty, and executed. Certain gossips pretended that there was no plot at all, but that Bessas, weary of his mistress, had chosen this way of getting rid of her. Be that as it might, Muscula was dead.