Chapter XVII. Leander the Politic
 

For most of his knowledge of private things that happened on the Palatine--and little that went on in the household of Bessas escaped him--Marcian depended upon his servant Sagaris. Exorbitant vanity and vagrant loves made the Syrian rather a dangerous agent; but it was largely owing to these weaknesses that he proved so serviceable. His master had hitherto found him faithful, and no one could have worked more cunningly and persistently when set to play the spy or worm for secrets. Notwithstanding all his efforts, this man failed to discover whether Veranilda had indeed passed into the guardianship of Bessas; good reason in Marcian's view for believing that she was still detained by Leander, and probably in some convent. But a rumour sprang up among those who still took interest in the matter that some one writing from Sicily professed to have seen the Gothic maiden on board a vessel which touched there on its way to the East. This came to the ears of Marcian on the day after his conversation with Heliodora. Whether it were true or not he cared little, but he was disturbed by its having become subject of talk at this moment, for Heliodora could not fail to hear the story.

The death of Muscula set him quivering with expectancy. That it resulted from his plotting he could not be assured. Sagaris, who wore a more than usually self-important air when speaking of the event, had all manner of inconsistent reports on his tongue Not many days passed before Marcian received a letter, worded like an ordinary invitation, summoning him to the house on the Quirinal.

He went at the third hour of the morning, and was this time led upstairs to a long and wide gallery, which at one side looked down upon the garden in the rear of the house, and at the other offered a view over a great part of Rome. Here was an aviary, constructed of fine lattice work in wood, over-trailed with creeping plants, large enough to allow of Heliodora's entering and walking about among the multitude of birds imprisoned. At this amusement Marcian found her. Upon her head perched a little songster; on her shoulder nestled a dove; two fledglings in the palm of her hand opened their beaks for food. Since her last visit a bird had died, and Heliodora's eyes were still moist from the tears she had shed over it.

'You do not love birds,' she said, after gazing fixedly at Marcian a moment through the trellis.

'I never thought,' was the reply, 'whether I loved them or not.'

'I had rather give my love to them than to any of mankind. They repay it better.'

She came forth, carefully closed the wicket behind her, and began to pace in the gallery as though she were alone. Presently she stood to gaze over the city spread before her, and her eyes rested upon the one vast building--so it seemed--which covered the Palatine Hill.

'Marcian!'

He drew near. Without looking at him, her eyes still on the distance, she said in an unimpassioned voice:

'Did you lie to me, or were you yourself deceived?'

'Lady, I know not of what you speak.'

'You know well.' Her dark eyes flashed a glance of rebuke, and turned scornfully away again. 'But it matters nothing. I sent for you to ask what more you have to say.'

Marcian affected surprise and embarrassment.

'It was my hope, gracious lady, that some good news awaited me on your lips. What can I say more than you have already heard from me?'

'Be it so,' was the careless reply. 'I have nothing to tell you except that Veranilda is not there.' She pointed towards the palace. 'And this I have no doubt you know.'

'Believe me, O Heliodora,' he exclaimed earnestly, 'I did not. I was perhaps misled by--'

Her eyes checked him.

'By whom?'

'By one who seemed to speak with honesty and assurance.'

'Let us say, then, that you were misled; whether deceived or not, concerns only yourself. And so, lord Marcian, having done what I can for you, though it be little, I entreat your kind remembrance, and God keep you.'

Her manner had changed to formal courtesy, and, with this dismissal, she moved away again. Marcian stood watching her for a moment, then turned to look at the wide prospect. A minute or two passed; he heard Heliodora's step approaching.

'What keeps you here?' she asked coldly.

'Lady, I am thinking.'

'Of what?'

'Of the day soon to come when Totila will be king in Rome.'

Heliodora's countenance relaxed in a smile.

'Yet you had nothing more to say to me,' she murmured in a significant tone.

'There were much to say, Heliodora, to one whom I knew my friend. I had dared to think you so.'

'What proof of friendship does your Amiability ask?' inquired the lady with a half-mocking, half-earnest look.

As if murmuring to himself, Marcian uttered the name 'Veranilda.'

'They say she is far on the way to Constantinople,' said Heliodora. 'If so, and if Bessas sent her, his craft is greater than I thought. For I have spoken with him, and'--she smiled--'he seems sincere when he denied all knowledge of the maiden.'

Marcian still gazed at the distance. Again he spoke as if unconsciously murmuring his thoughts:

'Totila advances. In Campania but a few towns still await his conquest. The Appian Way is open. Ere summer be past he will stand at the gates of Rome.'

'Rome is not easily taken,' let fall the listener, also speaking as though absently.

'It is more easily surrendered,' was the reply.

'What! You suspect Bessas of treachery?'

'We know him indolent and neglectful of duty. Does he not live here at his ease, getting into his own hands, little by little, all the wealth of the Romans, careless of what befall if only he may glut his avarice? He will hold the city as long as may be, only because the city is his possession. He is obstinate, bull-headed. Yet if one were found who could persuade him that the cause of the Greeks is hopeless--that, by holding out to the end, he will merely lose all, whereas, if he came to terms--'

Marcian was watching Heliodora's face. He paused. Their eyes met for an instant.

'Who can be assured,' asked Heliodora thoughtfully, 'that Totila will triumph? They say the Patricius will come again.'

'Too late. Not even Belisarius can undo the work of Alexandros and these devouring captains. From end to end of Italy, the name of the Greeks is abhorred; that of Totila is held in honour. He will renew the kingdom of Theodoric.'

Marcian saw straight before him the aim of all his intrigue. It was an aim unselfish, patriotic. Though peril of the gravest lay in every word he uttered, not this made him tremble, but the fear lest he had miscalculated, counting too securely on his power to excite this woman's imagination. For as yet her eye did not kindle. It might be that she distrusted herself, having learnt already that Bessas was no easy conquest. Or it might be that he himself was the subject of her distrust.

'What is it to you?' she suddenly asked, with a fierce gaze. 'Can the Goth bring Veranilda back to Italy?'

'I do not believe that she has gone.'

Marcian had knowledge enough of women, and of Heliodora, to harp on a personal desire rather than hint at high motive. But he was impelled by the turmoil of his fears and hopes to excite passions larger than jealousy. Throwing off all restraint, he spoke with hot eloquence of all that might be gained by one who could persuade the Greek commander to open the gates of Rome. Totila was renowned for his generosity, and desired above all things to reconcile, rather than subdue, the Roman people; scarce any reward would seem to him too great for service such as helped this end.

'Bessas lies before you. Ply your spells; make of him your creature; then whisper in his ear such promise of infinite gold as will make his liver melt. For him the baser guerdon; for you, O Heliodora, all the wishes of your noble heart, with power, power, power and glory unspeakable!'

Heliodora pondered. Then, without raising her head, she asked quietly:

'You speak for the King?'

'For the King,' was answered in like tone.

'Come to me again, Marcian, when I have had time for thought.'

With that they parted. On the same day, Sagaris was bidden as before to a meeting after nightfall, and again he conversed with a lady whose face was concealed from him. She began with a gentle reproof, for he had ventured to present himself at her door, and to beg audience. Let him be patient; his hour would come, but it must be when she chose. Many questions did she put to him, all seeming to be prompted by interest in the Gothic maiden of whom Sagaris had heard so much. With the simplicity of inordinate conceit, he assured her that here she had no ground for jealousy; Veranilda he had never beheld. Softly she corrected his error; her interest in the maiden was a friendly one. Only let him discover for her where Veranilda was concealed. Sagaris was led to avow that in this very search he and his master had been vainly occupied for many a day; it had carried them, he declared in a whisper, even to the camp of King Totila. With this the questioner appeared to be satisfied, and the Syrian was soon dismissed, promises in a caressing voice his sole reward.

When Marcian next held speech with Heliodora--it was after some days--she bore herself more openly. In the course of their talk, he learnt that she had consulted an astrologer, and with results wholly favourable to his design. Not only had this man foretold to her that Totila was destined to reign gloriously over the Italians for many years, but he saw in Heliodora's own fate a mysterious link with that of the triumphant king; her, under the Gothic conquest, great things awaited. 'Do,' was his counsel, 'that which thou hast in mind.' Hearing all this, Marcian's heart leaped with joy. He urged her to pursue their end with all the speed that prudence permitted. For his own part, he would make known to Totila as soon as might be the hope of his friends in Rome.

Again some days passed, and Marcian received one of those messages which at times reached him from the Gothic king. Totila's bidding was contained in a few words: Let Marcian seek speech with the deacon Leander. Surprised, but having full confidence in the messenger, Marcian presently wrote to the deacon in brief terms, saying that he wished to converse with him regarding a certain heretic of whom he had hopes. To this came prompt reply, which did not, however, invite Marcian, as he had expected, to a meeting in private; but merely said that, on the morrow, an hour after sunrise, Leander would be found in a certain public place.

Leander was busied just now in a matter peculiarly con. genial to him, the destruction of an ancient building in order to enrich with its columns and precious marbles a new Christian church. At the hour appointed, Marcian found him in the temple of Minerva Chalcidica, directing workmen as to what they should remove; before him lay certain mouldings in green porphyry (the precious lapis Lacedaemonius), which had been carefully broken from their places, and he was regarding them with the eye of a lover. For the first few minutes of their conversation, Marcian felt mistrust, as the deacon appeared to have no intelligence of any secret purpose in this meeting; but presently, still gossiping of stones, Leander led him out of the temple and walked in the shadowy public place beside the Pantheon.

'That must be purified and consecrated,' he remarked, glancing from the granite columns of Agrippa's porch to the bronze-tiled dome. 'Too long it has been left to the demons.'

Marcian, preoccupied as he was, listened with awe. Since the ravage of the Vandals, no mortal had passed those vast doors, behind which all the gods of heathendom, known now for devils, lurked in retreat.

'I have urged it upon the Holy Father,' Leander added. 'But Vigilius is all absorbed in the dogmatics of Byzantium. A frown of the Empress Theodora is more to him than the glory of the Omnipotent and the weal of Christendom.'

The look which accompanied these words was the first hint to Marcian that he might speak in confidence. He inquired whether the Pope, as was reported, would shortly sail for Constantinople.

'Before another week has passed,' was the reply, 'he will embark. He would fain go forth'--a malicious smile was in the corner of Leander's eye--'without leave-taking of his beloved people but that can scarce be permitted.'

'Ere he return,' said Marcian, 'things of moment may happen.'

Again the deacon smiled. Seeing on the steps of the Pantheon a couple of idlers playing at flash-finger, they turned aside to be out of earshot.

'We are agreed, it seems,' remarked Leander quickly, 'that there is hope of the heretic. You had news of him yesterday? I, also. It may be in my power to render him some service--presently, presently. Meanwhile, what can you tell me of the lost maiden about whom there has been so much talk? Is it true that Bessas has sent her to the East?'

Marcian turned his eyes upon the speaker's face, and regarded him fixedly with a half smile. For a moment the deacon appeared to be unconscious of this; then he met the familiar look, averted his head again, and said in the same tone as before:

'The heretic, I learn, would gladly see her.'

'It would be as well, I think,' was the reply, 'if his wish were gratified.'

'Ah? But how would that please a friend of yours, dear lord?' asked Leander, with unaffected interest.

Marcian's answer was in a tone of entire sincerity, very unlike that he had used when speaking on this subject with Heliodora.

'It might please him well or ill. The King'--he lowered his voice a little--'would see with gladness this beautiful maiden of his own people, sprung too from the royal blood, and would look with favour upon those who delivered her in safety to him. Should he make her his queen, and I believe she is worthy of that, the greater his gratitude to those who prevented her marriage with a Roman. If, on the other hand, he found that she could not forget her first lover, Totila is large-hearted enough to yield her up in all honour, and politic enough to see advantage in her union with the heir of the Anician house. Between these things, Basil must take his chance. Had he carried off his love, he would have wedded her in disregard of every danger; and so long as it was only the Greeks that sought her, I should have done my best to aid and to protect him. It is different now. Basil I hold dearer than any friend; his place is in my very heart, and his happiness is dearer to me than my own; but I cannot help him to frustrate a desire of Totila. The King is noble; to serve him is to promote the w_ of Italy, for which he fights, and in which name he will conquer.'

The deacon had paused in his walk. He looked thoughtfully about him. At this moment there came along the street an ox-drawn wagon, on which lay the marble statue of a deity; Leander stepped up to it, examined the marble, spoke with the men who were conveying it, and returned to Marcian with a shake of the head.

'It pains me to see such carven beauty burnt to lime. And yet how many thousands of her worshippers are now burning in Gehenna. Lord Marcian,' he resumed, 'you have spoken earnestly and well, and have given me good proof of your sincerity. I think with you, and willingly would work with you.'

'Reverend, does no opportunity present itself?'

'In this moment, none that I can see,' was the suave answer.

'Yet I perceive that you have made some offer of service to the King.'

'It is true; and perchance you shall hear more of it. Be not impatient; great things are not hastily achieved.'

With sundry other such remarks, so uttered that their triteness seemed to become the maturity of wisdom, Leander brought the colloquy to an end. It was his principle to trust no man unless he were assured of a motive strong enough to make him trustworthy, and that motive he had not yet discovered in Marcian. Nor, indeed, was he entirely sure of himself; for though he had gone so far as to communicate with the Gothic king, it was only in view of possibilities whose issue he still awaited. If the Pope set forth for Constantinople, he would leave as representative in Rome the deacon Pelagius, and from this brother cleric Leander had already received certain glances, which were not to be misunderstood. The moment might shortly come when he would need a friend more powerful than any he had within the city.

But Vigilius lingered, and Leander, save in his influence with the irresolute Pontiff, postponed the step he had in view.