Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XVIII. Pelagius
Rome waited. It had been thought that the fall of Neapolis would be followed by Totila's swift march along the Appian Way; but three months had passed, and the Gothic king was but little nearer to the city. He seemed resolved to leave nothing behind him that had not yielded to his arms; slowly and surely his rule was being established over all the South. Through the heats of summer, with pestilence still lurking in her palaces and her dens, no fountain plashing where the sun blazed on Forum and on street, Rome waited.
In June Bessas was joined by another of the Greek commanders, Joannes, famed for his ferocity, and nicknamed the Devourer. A show of activity in the garrison resulted from this arrival; soldiers were set to work upon parts of the city wall which needed strengthening; the Romans began to make ready for a siege; and some, remembering the horrors of a few years ago, took to flight. There was much talk of a conspiracy to open the gates to Totila; one or two senators were imprisoned, and a few Arian priests who still dwelt in Rome were sentenced to banishment. But when, after a few weeks, Joannes and his troop marched northward, commotion ceased; Bessas fell back into the life of indolent rapacity, work on the walls was soon neglected, and Rome found that she had still only to wait.
About this time Marcian fell sick. He had suffered much from disappointment of high hopes, neither Heliodora nor Leander aiding his schemes as he expected. The constant danger in which he lived tried his fortitude to the utmost, and at length he began to burn with fever. Agonies came upon him, for even the slightest disorder in these plague-stricken times filled men with fear. And whilst he lay thus wretched, his servants scarce daring to attend upon him-- Sagaris refused to enter his chamber, and held himself ready for flight (with all he could lay hands on) as soon as the physician should have uttered the fatal word--whilst his brain was confused and his soul shaken with even worse than the wonted terrors, there came to visit him the deacon Pelagius. That the visit happened at this moment was mere chance, but Pelagius, hearing of Marcian's condition, felt that he could not have come more opportunely. A courageous man, strong in body as in mind, he was not to be alarmed by mere talk of the pest; bidding the porter conduct him, he came to Marcian's bedside, and there sat for half an hour. When he went away, his handsome countenance wore a smile of thoughtful satisfaction.
As though this conversation had relieved him, the sick man at once began to mend. But with his recovery came another torment. Lying in fear of death and hell, he had opened his soul to Pelagius, and had revealed secrets upon which depended all he cared for in this world. Not only he himself was ruined, but the lives of those he had betrayed were in jeopardy. That suspicion was busy with him he knew; the keen-sighted deacon had once already held long talk with him, whereupon followed troublesome interrogation by Bessas, who had since regarded him with somewhat a sullen eye. How would Pelagius use the knowledge he had gained? Even when quite recovered from the fever, Marcian did not venture to go forth, lest an enemy should be waiting for him without. In his weak, dejected and humbled state he thought of the peace of a monastery, and passed most of his time in prayer.
But when a few days had passed without event, and increasing strength enabled him to think less brain-sickly, he began to ask whether he himself had not peradventure been betrayed It was a long time since he had seen Heliodora, who appeared to be making no effort for the conquest of the Greek commander; had she merely failed, and lost courage, or did the change in her mean treachery? To trust Heliodora was to take a fool's risk; even a little wound to her vanity might suffice to turn her against him. At their last meeting she had sat with furrowed brows, brooding as if over some wrong, and when he urged her for an explanation of her mood, she was first petulant, then fiery, so that he took umbrage and left her. Happily she knew none of his graver secrets, much though she had tried to discover them. Were she traitorous, she could betray him alone.
But he, in the wreck of his manhood, had uttered many names besides hers--that of Basil, from whom he had recently heard news, that of the politic Leander, those of several nobles engaged in the Gothic cause. Scarcely could he believe that he had been guilty of such baseness; he would fain have persuaded himself that it was but a memory of delirium. He cursed the subtlety of Pelagius, which had led him on till everything was uttered. Pelagius, the bosom friend of Justinian, would know how to deal with plotters against the Empire. Why had he not already struck? What cunning held his hand?
Unable at length to sit in idleness, he tried to ease his conscience by sending a warning to Basil, using for this purpose the trustworthy slave who, in many disguises, was wont to travel with his secret messages. This man wore false hair so well fixed upon his head that it could not attract attention; the letter he had to deliver was laid beneath an artificial scalp.
'Be on your guard,' thus Marcian wrote. 'Some one has made known to the Greeks that you are arming men, and for what purpose. Delay no longer than you must in joining the King. In him is your only hope, if hope there still can be. I, too, shall soon be in the camp.'
These last words were for his friend's encouragement. As soon as the letter had been despatched, he went forth about Rome in his usual way, spoke with many persons, and returned home unscathed. Plainly, then, he was to be left at liberty yet awhile; Pelagius had purposes to serve. Next day, he betook himself to the Palatine; Bessas received him with bluff friendliness, joked about his escape from death (for every one believed that he had had the plague), and showed no sign of the mistrust which had marked their last meeting. In gossip with certain Romans who were wont to hang about the commander, flattering and fawning upon him for their base advantage, he learnt that no one had yet succeeded to the place left vacant by the hapless Muscula; only in casual amours, generally of the ignoblest, did Bessas bestow his affections. Of Heliodora there was no talk.
Another day he passed in sauntering; nothing that he could perceive in those with whom he talked gave hint of menace to his safety. Then, early the next morning, he turned his steps to the Quirinal. As usual, he was straightway admitted to Heliodora's house, but had to wait awhile until the lady could receive him. Gloomily thoughtful, standing with eyes fixed upon those of the great bust of Berenice, he was startled by a sudden cry from within the house, the hoarse yell of a man in agony; it was repeated, and became a long shriek, rising and falling in terrible undulation. He had stepped forward to seek an explanation, when Heliodora's eunuch smilingly came to meet him.
'What is that?' asked Marcian, his nerves a-quiver.
'The noble lady has ordered a slave to be punished,' was the cheerful reply.
'What is his fault?'
'Illustrious, I know not,' answered the eunuch more gravely.
The fearful sounds still continuing, Marcian turned as though to hurry away; but the eunuch, following, implored him not to go, for his departure would but increase Heliodora's wrath. So for a few more minutes he endured the horror of that unbroken yell. When it ceased, he could hear his heart beating.
Summoned at length to the lady's presence, he found her lying in the chamber of the Hermaphrodite. A strange odour floated in the air, overcoming that of wonted perfumes.
Faint with a sudden nausea, Marcian performed no courtesy, but stood regarding the living woman much as he had gazed at the face in marble, absent and sombre-browed.
'What now?' were Heliodora's first words, her smile fading in displeasure.
'Must we needs converse in your torture-chamber?' asked Marcian.
'Are your senses more delicate than mine?'
'It seems so. I could wish I had chosen another hour for visiting you.'
'It was well chosen,' said Heliodora, regarding him fixedly. 'This slave I have chastised, shall I tell you of what he was guilty? He has a blabbing tongue.'
'I see not how that concerns me,' was his cold reply, as he met her look with steady indifference.
From her lounging attitude Heliodora changed suddenly to one in which, whilst seated, she bent forward as though about to spring at him.
'How comes it that Bessas knows every word that has passed between us?' broke fiercely from her lips.
In an instant Marcian commanded himself, shrugged his shoulders, and laughed.
'That is a question,' he said, 'to put to your astrologer, your oneirocritic, your genethliac. I profess not to read mysteries.'
'Liar!' she shot out. 'How could he have had it but from your own lips?'
Marcian betook himself to his utmost dissimulation, and the talk of the next few minutes--on his part, deliberately provocative; on hers, recklessly vehement--instructed him in much that he had desired to learn. It was made clear to him that a long combat of wills and desires had been in progress between the crafty courtesan and the half wily and the half brutal soldier, with a baffling of Heliodora's devices which would never have come to his knowledge but for this outbreak of rage. How far the woman had gone in her lures, whether she had played her last stake, he could not even now determine; but he suspected that only such supreme defeat could account for the fury in which he beheld her. Bessas, having (as was evident) heard the secret from Pelagius, might perchance have played the part of a lover vanquished by his passions, and then, after winning his end by pretence of treachery to the Emperor, had broken into scoffing revelation. That were a triumph after the Thracian's heart. Having read thus far in the past, Marcian had to turn anxious thought upon the future, for his position of seeming security could not long continue. He bent himself to allay the wrath he had excited. Falling of a sudden into a show of profound distress, he kept silence for a little, then murmured bitterly:
'I see what has happened. When the fever was upon me, my mind wandered, and I talked.'
So convincing was the face, the tone, so plausible the explanation, that Heliodora drew slowly back, her fury all but quenched. She questioned him as to the likely betrayer, and the name of Sagaris having been mentioned, used the opportunity to learn what she could concerning the man.
'I cannot promise to give him up to you to be tortured,' said Marcian, with his characteristic smile of irony.
'That I do not ask. But,' she added significantly, 'will you send him here, and let me use gentler ways of discovering what I can?'
And when Marcian went away, he reflected that all was not yet lost. For Heliodora still had faith in the prophecy of her astrologer; she was more resolute than ever in her resolve to triumph over Bessas; she could gain nothing to this end by helping her confederate's ruin. Before parting, they had agreed that Marcian would do well to affect ignorance of the discovery Bessas had made; time and events must instruct them as to the projects of their enemies, and guide their own course.
That same day, he despatched the Syrian with a letter to Heliodora, and on the man's return spoke with him as if carelessly of his commission. He remarked that the face of Sagaris shone as though exultantly, but no indiscreet word dropped from the vaunter's lips. A useful fellow, murmured Marcian within himself, and smiled contempt.
Another day or two of indecision, then in obedience to an impulse he could no longer resist, he sought speech with the deacon Pelagius. Not without trouble was this obtained, for Pelagius was at all times busy, always beset by suitors of every degree, the Romans holding him in high reverence, and making their appeals to him rather than to the Pope, for whom few had a good word. When at last Marcian was admitted to the deacon's presence, he found himself disconcerted by the long, silent scrutiny of eyes deep read in the souls of men. No word would reach his lips.
'I have been expecting you,' said the deacon at length, gravely, but without severity. 'You have made no haste to come.'
'Most reverend,' replied Marcian, in a tone of the deepest reproach, 'I knew not certainly whether I had indeed made confession to you, or if it was but a dream of fever.'
Pelagius smiled. He was standing by a table, and his hand lay upon an open volume.
'You are of noble blood, lord Marcian,' he continued, 'and the greatness of your ancestors is not unknown to you. Tell me by what motive you have been induced to play the traitor against Rome. I cannot think it was for the gain that perishes. Rather would I suppose you misled by the opinion of Cassiodorus, whose politics were as unsound as his theology. I read here, in his treatise De Anima, that there is neither bliss nor torment for the soul before the great Day of Judgment--a flagrant heresy, in utter contradiction of the Scriptures, and long ago refuted by the holy Augustine. Can you trust in worldly matters one who is so blinded to the clearest truths of eternity?'
'I confess,' murmured the listener, 'that I thought him justified in his support of the Gothic kingdom.'
'You are content, then, you whose ancestors have sat in the Senate, to be ruled by barbarians? You, a Catholic, revolt not against the dominions of Arians? And so little is your foresight, your speculation, that you dream of permanent conquest of Italy by this leader of a barbaric horde? I tell you, lord Marcian, that ere another twelvemonth has passed, the Goths will be defeated, scattered, lost. The Emperor is preparing a great army, and before the end of summer Belisarius will again land on our shores. Think you Totila can stand against him? Be warned; consider with yourself. Because your confession had indeed something of sickness in it, I have forborne to use it against you as another might have done. But not with impunity can you resume your traitorous practices; of that be assured.'
He paused, looking sternly into Marcian's face.
'I have no leisure to debate with you, to confute your errors. One thing only will I add, before dismissing you to ponder what I have uttered. It is in your power to prove your return to reason and the dignity of a Roman; I need not say how; the occasion will surely ere long present itself, and leave you in no doubt as to my meaning. Remember, then, how I have dealt with you; remember, also, that no such indulgence will be granted to a renewal of your crime against Rome, your sin against God.'
Marcian dropped to his knees; there was a moment of silence; then he arose and went forth.
A week passed, and there came the festival of St. Laurentius. All Rome streamed out to the basilica beyond the Tiburtine Gate, and among those who prayed most fervently at the shrine was Marcian. He besought guidance in an anguish of doubt. Not long ago, in the early days of summer, carnal temptation had once more overcome him, and the sufferings, the perils, of this last month he attributed to that lapse from purity. His illness was perhaps caused by excess of rigour in penitence. To-day he prayed with many tears that the Roman martyr would enlighten him, and make him understand his duty to Rome.
As he was leaving the church, a hand touched him; he turned, and beheld the deacon Leander, who led him apart.
'It is well that I have met you,' said the cleric, with less than his usual bland deliberation. 'A messenger is at your house to bid you come to me this evening. Can you leave Rome to-morrow?'
'On what mission?'
Leander pursed his lips for a moment, rolled his eyes hither and thither, and said with a cautious smile:
'That for which you have been waiting.'
With difficulty Marcian dissembled his agitation. Was this the saint's reply to his prayer? Or was it a temptation of the Evil Power, which it behoved him to resist?
'I am ready,' he said, off-hand.
'You will be alone for the first day's journey, and in the evening you will be met by such attendants as safety demands. Do you willingly undertake the charge? Or is there some new danger which you had not foreseen?'
'There is none,' replied Marcian, 'and I undertake the charge right willingly.'
'Come to me, then, at sunset. The travel is planned in every detail, and the letters ready. What follower goes with you?'
'The same as always--Sagaris.'
'Confide nothing to him until you are far from Rome. Better if you need not even then.'
Leander broke off the conference, and walked away at a step quicker than his wont. But Marcian, after lingering awhile in troubled thought, returned to the martyr's grave. Long he remained upon his knees, the conflict within him so violent that he could scarce find coherent words of prayer. Meanwhile the August sky had clouded, and thunder was beginning to roll. As he went forth again, a flash of lightning dazzled him. He saw that it was on the left hand, and took courage to follow the purpose that had shaped in his thoughts.
That evening, after an hour's close colloquy with Leander, he betook himself by circuitous way to the dwelling of Pelagius, and with him again held long talk. Then went home, through the dark, still streets, to such slumber as his conscience might permit.