Chapter XIX. The Prisoner of Praeneste
 

On the morrow of St. Laurentius, at that point of dawn when a man can recognise the face of one who passes, there issued from the Lateran a silent company equipped for travel. In a covered carriage drawn by two horses sat the Pope, beside him a churchman of his household; a second carriage conveyed the deacon Leander and another ecclesiastic; servants and a baggage vehicle brought up the rear. With what speed it could over the ill-paved roads, this procession made for the bank of the Tiber below the Aventine, where, hard by the empty public granaries, a ship lay ready to drop down stream. It was a flight rather than a departure. Having at length made up his mind to obey the Emperor's summons, Vigilius endeavoured to steal away whilst the Romans slept off their day of festival. But he was not suffered to escape thus. Before he had reached the place of embarkation, folk began to run shouting behind his carriage. Ere he could set foot on board the vessel a crowd had gathered. The farewell of the people to their supreme Pontiff was given in a volley of stones and potsherds, whilst the air rang with maledictions.

Notwithstanding his secret hostility, Leander had of late crept into Vigilius' confidence, thus protecting himself against his formidable adversary Pelagius. He was now the Pope's travelling companion as far as Sicily. Had he remained in Rome, the authority of Pelagius would have fallen heavily upon him, and he could scarce have escaped the humiliation of yielding his Gothic captive to Justinian's friend. Apprised only a day before of Vigilius' purpose, he had barely time to plot with Marcian for the conveyance of Veranilda to Totila's camp. This had long been his intention, for, convinced that Totila would rule over Italy, he saw in the favour of the king not only a personal advantage, but the hope of the Western Church in its struggle with Byzantium. Driven at length to act hurriedly, he persuaded himself that he could use no better agent than Marcian, who had so deeply pledged himself to the Gothic cause. Of what had passed between Marcian and Pelagius he of course knew nothing. So, as the ship moved seaward upon tawny Tiber, and day flamed upon the Alban hills, Leander laughed within himself. He enjoyed a plot for its own sake, and a plot, long savoured, which gave him triumph over ecclesiastical rivals, and even over the Emperor Justinian, was well worth the little risk that might ensue When he returned to Rome, it would doubtless be with the victorious Goth--safe, jubilant, and ere long to be seated in the chair of the Apostle.

At the same hour Marcian was riding along the Praenestine Way, the glory of summer sunrise straight before him. The thought most active in his mind had nothing to do with the contest of nations or with the fate of Rome: it was that on the morrow he should behold Veranilda. For a long time he had ceased to think of her; her name came to his lips in connection with artifice and intrigue, but the maiden herself had faded into nothingness, no longer touched his imagination. He wondered at that fantastic jealousy of Basil from which he had suffered. This morning, the caress of the warm air, the scents wafted about him as he rode over the great brown wilderness, revived his bygone mood. Again he mused on that ideal loveliness which he attributed to the unseen Veranilda For nearly a year she had been sought in vain by her lover, by Greek commanders, by powerful churchmen; she had been made the pretext of far-reaching plots and conspiracies; her name had excited passions vehement and perilous, had been the cause of death. Now he was at length to look upon her; nay, she was to pass into his guardianship, and be by him delivered into the hands of the warrior king. Dreaming, dreaming, he rode along the Praenestine Way.

Though the personal dignity of Pelagius and the calm force of his speech had awed and perturbed him, Marcian soon recovered his habitual mind. He had thought and felt too deeply regarding public affairs to be so easily converted from the cause for which he lived. A new treachery was imposed upon him. When, after receiving all his instructions from Leander, he went to see Pelagius, it was in order to secure his own safety and the fulfilment of his secret mission by a seeming betrayal of him he served. He knew that his every movement was watched; he could not hope to leave Rome without being stopped and interrogated. If he desired to carry out Leander's project-- and he desired it the more ardently the longer he reflected--his only course was this. Why did it agitate him more than his treachery hitherto? Why did he shake and perspire when he left Pelagius, after promising to bring Veranilda to Rome? He knew not himself--unless it were due to a fear that he might perform his promise.

This fear it was, perhaps, which had filled his short sleep with dreams now terrible, now luxurious. This fear it was which caught hold of him, at length distinct and intelligible, when, on turning his head towards the city soon after sunrise, he became aware of a group of horsemen following him at a distance of half a mile or so. Thus had it been agreed with Pelagius. The men were to follow him, without approaching, to a certain point of his journey, then would close about him and his attendants, who would be inferior in number, and carry them, with the Gothic maiden, back to Rome. At the sight Marcian drew rein, and for a moment sat in his saddle with bent head, suffering strangely. Sagaris came up to his side, regarded him with anxious eye, and asked whether the heat of the sun's rays incommoded him; whereupon he made a negative sign and rode on.

He tried to laugh. Had he forgotten the subtlety of his plot for deceiving Pelagius? To have made known to the deacon where Veranilda really was, would have been a grave fault in strategy. These armed horsemen imagined that a two days' journey lay before them, whereas the place of Veranildas imprisonment would be reached this evening. The artifice he had elaborated was, to be sure, full of hazard; accident might disconcert everything; the instruments upon whom he reckoned might fail him. But not because of this possibility was his heart so miserably perturbed. It was himself that he dreaded--the failure of his own purpose, the treachery of his own will.

On he rode in the full eye of the August sun. The vast, undulant plain spread around him; its farms, villas, aqueducts no less eloquent of death than the tombs by the wayside its still air and the cloudless azure above speaking to a man's soul as with the voice of eternity. Marcian was very sensible of such solemn influence. More than once, in traversing this region, he had been moved to bow his head in devotion purer than that which commonly inspired his prayers, but to-day he knew not a moment's calm. All within him was turbid, subject to evil thoughts.

A little before noon he made his first halt. Amid the ruins of a spacious villa two or three peasant families had their miserable home, with a vineyard, a patch of tilled soil, and a flock of goats for their sustenance. Here the travellers, sheltered from the fierce sun, ate of the provisions they carried, and lay resting for a couple of hours. Marcian did not speak with the peasants, but he heard the voice of a woman loud in lamentation, and Sagaris told him that it was for the death of a child, who, straying yesterday at nightfall, had been killed by a wolf. Many hours had the mother wept and wailed, only interrupting her grief to vilify and curse the saint to whose protection her little one was confided.

When he resumed his journey, Marcian kept glancing back until he again caught sight of the company of horsemen; they continued to follow him at the same distance. On he rode, the Alban hills at his right hand, and before him, on its mountain side, the town for which he made. The sun was yet far from setting when he reached Praeneste. Its great walls and citadel towering on the height above told of ancient strength, and many a noble building, within the city and without, monuments of glory and luxury, resisted doom. Sulla's Temple of Fortune still looked down upon its columned terraces, but behind the portico was a Christian church, and where once abode the priests of the heathen sanctuary, the Bishop of Praeneste had now his dwelling. Thither did Marcian straightway betake himself. The bishop, a friend and ally of Leander, received him with cordiality, and eagerly read the letter he brought. Asked whether Vigilius had left Rome, Marcian was able to tell something of the Pope's departure, having heard the story just before his own setting forth; whereat the prelate, a man of jovial aspect, laughed unrestrainedly.

'To supper! to supper!' he exclaimed with hospitable note. 'Time enough for our business afterwards.'

But Marcian could not postpone what he had to say. Begging the bishop's patience, he told how all day long he had been followed by certain horsemen from Rome, who assuredly were sent to track him. His servant, he added, was watching for their entrance into the town, and would observe where they lodged. This, the bishop admitted, was a matter of some gravity.

'Your guard is ready,' he said. 'Six stout fellows on good horses. But these pursuers outman you. Let me think, let me think.'

Marcian had but to suggest his scheme. This was, to resume his journey as soon as the townsfolk were all asleep, and travel through the night, for there was a moon all but at the full. He might thus gain so much advance of his pursuers that they would not be able to overtake him before he came to the nearest outpost of the Gothic army. After reflection, the bishop gave his approval to this project, and undertook that all should be ready at the fitting hour. He himself would accompany them to the gate of the town, and see them safely on their way. To make surer, Marcian used another device. When he had learned the quarters of the pursuing horsemen he sent Sagaris privily to speak with their leader, warning him to be ready to ride at daybreak. Such a message had of course nothing unexpected for its recipient, who looked upon Marcian as secretly serving Pelagius. It put his mind at ease and released him from the necessity of keeping a night watch. Sagaris, totally ignorant of his master's mission, and of the plans that had just been formed, imagined himself an intermediary in some plot between Marcian and the leader of the horsemen, and performed the deceitful office in all good faith.

The bishop and his guest sat down to supper in an ancient room, of which the floor was a mosaic representing an Egyptian landscape, with a multitude of figures. Marcian would gladly have asked questions about Veranilda; how long she had been at Praeneste, whether the lady Aurelia was in the same convent, and many other things; but he did not venture to make known how little he had enjoyed of Leander's confidence. His reverend host spoke not at all on this subject, which evidently had no interest for him, but abounded in inquiries as to the state of things ecclesiastical at Rome. The supper was excellent; it pained the good prelate that his guest seemed to have so poor an appetite. He vaunted the quality of everything on the table, and was especially enthusiastic about a wine of the south, very aromatic, which had come to him as a present from his friend the Bishop of Rhegium, together with a certain cheese of Sila, exquisite in thymy savour, whereof he ate with prodigious gusto.

It was about the third hour of the night when Sagaris, to his astonishment, was aroused from a first sleep, and bidden prepare at once for travel. Following his master and the bishop, who were not otherwise attended, he passed through a garden to a postern, where, by dim lantern light, he saw, in the street without, a small covered carriage drawn by four mules, and behind it several men on horseback; his master's horse and his own were also in readiness at the door. He mounted, the carriage moved forward; and by a steep descent which needed extreme caution, the gate of the city was soon reached. Here the bishop, who had walked beside Marcian, spoke a word with two drowsy watchmen sitting by the open gateway, bade his guest an affectionate farewell, and stood watching for a few minutes whilst vehicle and riders moved away in the moonlight.

Finding himself well sped from Praeneste, where his pursuers lay sound asleep, Marcian felt an extravagant joy; he could scarce command himself to speak a few necessary words, in an ordinary tone, to the leader of the guard with which he was provided; to shout, to sing, would have better suited his mood. Why he thrilled with such exultancy he could not have truly said; but a weight seemed to be lifted from his mind, and he told himself that the relief was due to knowing that he had done with treachery, done with double-dealing, done with the shame and the peril of such a life as he had led for years. Never could he return to Rome save with the Gothic King; in beguiling Pelagius, he had thrown in his lot irrevocably with the enemies of the Greeks. Now he would play the part of an honest man; his heart throbbed at the thought.

But all this time his eyes were fixed upon the closed vehicle, behind which he rode; and was it indeed the thought of having gained freedom which made his heart so strangely beat? He pushed his horse as near as possible to the carriage; he rode beside it; he stretched out his hand and touched it. As soon as the nature of the road permitted, he gave an order to make better speed, and his horse began to trot; he thought less of the danger from which he was fleeing than of the place of rest where Veranilda would step down from the carriage, and he would look upon her face.

Under the great white moon, the valley into which they were descending lay revealed in every feature, and the road itself was as well illumined as by daylight. On they sped, as fast as the mules could be driven. Near or far sounded from time to time the howl of a wolf, answered by the fierce bark of dogs in some farm or village; the hooting of owls broke upon the stillness, or the pipe of toads from a marshy hollow. By the wayside would be seen moving stealthily a dark form, which the travellers knew to be a bear, but they met no human being, nor anywhere saw the gleam of a light in human habitation. Coming within view of some temple of the old religion, all crossed themselves and murmured a prayer, for this was the hour when the dethroned demons had power over the bodies and the souls of men.

After a long descent they struck into the Via Latina, still in spite of long neglect almost as good a road as when the legions marched over its wheel-furrowed stones. If the information on which Leander had calculated was correct, some three days' journey by this way would bring them within reach of the Gothic king; but Marcian was now debating with himself at what point he should quit the high road, so as to make certain his escape, in case the Greek horsemen began a chase early on the morrow. To the left lay a mountainous region, with byways and little ancient towns, in old time the country of the Hernici; beyond, a journey of two good days, flowed the river Liris, and there, not far from the town of Arpinum, was Marcian's ancestral villa. Of this he thought, as his horse trotted beside or behind the carriage. It was much out of his way; surely there would be no need to go so far in order to baffle pursuers. Yet still he thought of his villa, islanded in the Liris, and seemed to hear through the night the music of tumbling waters, and said within his heart, 'Could I not there lie safe?'

Safe?--from the Greeks, that is to say, if they persistently searched for him. Safe, until a messenger could reach Totila, and let him know that Veranilda was rescued.

An hour after midnight, one of the mules' traces broke. In the silence of the stoppage, whilst the driver was mending the harness as best he could, Marcian alighted, stepped to the side of the vehicle, laid a hand on the curtain which concealed those within, and spoke in a subdued voice.

'Is all well with you, lady?'

'As well,' came the answer, 'as it can be with one who dreads her unknown fate.'

The soft accents made Marcian tremble. He expected to hear a sweet voice, but this was sweeter far than he could have imagined: its gentleness, its sadness, utterly overcame him, so that he all but wept in his anguish of delight.

'Have no fear,' he whispered eagerly. 'It is freedom that awaits you. I am Marcian--Marcian, the friend of Basil.'

There sounded a low cry of joy; then the two names were repeated, his and that of his friend, and again Marcian quivered.

'You will be no more afraid?' he said, as though laughingly.

'Oh no! The Blessed Virgin be thanked!'

An owl's long hoot wailed through the stillness, seeming to fill with its infinite melancholy the great vault of moonlit heaven. In Marcian it produced a sudden, unaccountable fear. Leaping on to his horse, he cursed the driver for slowness. Another minute, and they were speeding onward.

Marcian watched anxiously the course of the silver orb above them. When it began to descend seaward, the animals were showing signs of weariness; before daybreak he must perforce call a halt. In conversation with the leader of his guard, he told the reason of their hasting on by night (known already to the horseman, a trusted follower of the Bishop of Praeneste), and at length announced his resolve to turn off the Latin Way into the mountains, with the view of gaining the little town Aletrium, whence, he explained, they could cross the hills to the valley of the Liris, and so descend again to the main road. It was the man's business to obey; he let fall a few words, however, concerning the dangers of the track; it was well known that bands of marauders frequented this country, moving onward before the slow advance of the Gothic troops. Marcian reflected, but none the less held to his scheme. The beasts were urged along an upward way, which, just about the setting of the moon, brought them to a poor village with a little church. Marcian set himself to discover the priest, and, when this good man was roused from slumber, spoke in his ear a word which had great effect. With little delay stabling was found, and a place of repose for Marcian's followers; he himself would rest under the priest's roof, whither he conducted Veranilda and a woman servant who sat with her in the carriage. The face which was so troubling his imagination he did not yet see, for Veranilda kept the hood close about her as she passed by candle light up steps to the comfortless and dirty little chamber which was the best she could have.

'Rest in peace,' whispered Marcian as the door closed. 'I guard you.'

For an hour or more he sat talking with his host over a pitcher of wine, found how far he was from Aletrium, and heard with satisfaction that the brigand bands seemed to have gone higher into the mountains. The presbyter asked eagerly for Roman news, and cautiously concerning King Totila, whom it was evident he regarded with no very hostile feeling. As the day broke he stretched himself on his host's bed, there being no other for him, and there dozed for two or three hours, far too agitated to enjoy a sound sleep.

When he arose, he went forth into the already hot sunshine, looked at the poor peasants' cottages, and talked with Sagaris, whose half-smiling face seemed anxious to declare that he knew perfectly well on what business they were engaged. At this hour, in all probability, the horsemen of Pelagius were galloping along the Latin Way, in hope of overtaking the fugitives. It seemed little likely that they would search in this direction, and the chances were that they would turn back when their horses got tired out. Of them, indeed, Marcian thought but carelessly; his hard-set brows betokened another subject of disquiet. Should he, after Aletrium, go down again to the Latin Way, or should he push a few miles further to the valley of the Liris, and to his own villa?

To-day, being the first day of the week, there was a gathering to hear mass. Marcian, though he had that in his mind which little accorded with religious worship, felt himself drawn to the little church, and knelt among the toil-worn folk. Here, as always when he heard the liturgy, his heart melted, his soul was overcome with awe. From earliest childhood he had cherished a peculiar love and reverence for the Eucharistic prayer, which was associated with his noblest feelings, his purest aspirations. As he heard it now, here amid the solitude of the hills, it brought him help such as he needed.

'Vere dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere, Domine sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus.'

When at the end he rose, these words were still resonant within him. He turned to go forth, and there behind, also just risen from her knees, stood a veiled woman, at the sight of whom he thrilled with astonishment. No peasant she; for her attire, though but little adorned, told of refinement, and the grace of her figure, the simple dignity of her attitude, would alone have marked her out among the girls and women who were leaving the church, their eyes all turned upon her and on the female attendant standing respectfully near. Through the veil which covered her face and hung about her shoulders, Marcian could dimly discern lips and eyebrows.

'Lord Marcian, may I speak with you?'

It was the voice of last night, and again it shook him with an ecstasy which had more of dread than of joy.

'You here?' he replied, speaking very low. 'You have heard the mass?'

'I am a Catholic. My religion is that of Basil.'

'God be thanked!' broke from Marcian. And his exclamation meant more than it conveyed to the listener.

'May you tell me whither we are going?' was the next question from the veiled lips.

The church was now empty, but in the doorway appeared faces curiously peering. Marcian looking in that direction seemed for a moment to find no reply; his lips were parted, and his breath came rapidly; then he whispered:

'Not far from here there is a villa. There you shall rest in safety until Basil comes.'

'He is near?'

'Already I have summoned him.'

'O kind Marcian!' uttered the low, sweet voice. 'Oh, true and brave friend!'

In silence they walked together to the priest's house. Marcian had now put off all irresolution. He gave orders to his guard; as soon as the horses had sufficiently rested, they would push on for Aletrium, and there pass the night. The start was made some two hours after noon. Riding once more beside the carriage, Marcian felt his heart light: passions and fears were all forgotten; the sun flaming amid the pale blue sky, the violet shadows of the mountains, the voice of cicadas made rapture to his senses. It was as though Veranilda's beauty, not even yet beheld, rayed something of itself upon all the visible world. Never had a summer's day shone so gloriously for him; never had he so marked the hues of height and hollow, the shape of hills, the winding of a stream. Where an ascent made the pace slow, he alighted, walked by the vehicle, and exchanged a few words with her who sat behind the curtain.

At length Aletrium came in view, a little town in a strong position on the mountain side, its walls and citadel built in old time, long unused for defence, but resisting ages with their cyclopean force. On arriving, they found a scene of disorder, misery and fear. This morning the place had been attacked by a brigand horde, which had ravaged at will: the church was robbed of its sacred vessels, the beasts of burden were driven away, and, worst of all, wives and daughters of the defenceless townsmen had suffered outrage. Marcian, with that air of authority which he well knew how to assume, commanded the attendance of the leading citizens and spoke with them in private. Finding them eager for the arrival of the Goths, to whom they looked rather than to the distant Greeks for protection against ruinous disorder (already they had despatched messengers to Totila entreating his aid), he made known to them that he was travelling to meet the Gothic outposts, and promised to hasten the king's advance. At present, there seemed to be no more danger, the marauders having gone on into the Apennines; so Marcian obtained lodging for Veranilda and for himself in the priest's house. Only when he was alone did he reflect upon the narrowness of his escape from those fierce plunderers, and horror shook him. There remained but half a day's journey to his villa. He was so impatient to arrive there, and to dismiss the horsemen, that though utterly wearied, he lay awake through many hours of darkness, hearing the footsteps of men who patrolled the streets, and listening with anxious ear for any sound of warning.

He rose in the twilight, and again held conference with those of the townsmen who were stoutest in the Gothic cause. To them he announced that he should travel this day as far as Arpinum (whither he was conducting a lady who desired to enter a convent hard by that city), and thence should proceed in search of Totila, for whom, he assured his hearers, he carried letters of summons from the leading churchmen at Rome. This news greatly cheered the unhappy Aletrians, who had been troubled by the thought that the Goths were heretics. If Roman ecclesiastics closed their eyes to this obstacle, the inhabitants of a little mountain town evidently need nurse no scruples in welcoming the conqueror. With acclamations and good wishes, the crowd saw Marcian and his train set forth along the road over the hills; before the sun had shed its first beam into the westward valley, they had lost sight of Aletrium.

Not a word of the perils escaped had been allowed to reach Veranilda's ear; exhausted by her journeying and her emotions, she had slept soundly through the whole night, and this morning, when Marcian told her how near was their destination, she laughed light-heartedly as a child. But not yet had he looked upon her countenance. At Aletrium he might have done so had he willed, but he withheld himself as if from a dread temptation.

Never had he known such tremours of cowardliness as on this ride over the hills. He strained his eyes in every direction, and constantly imagined an enemy where there was none. The brigands, as he found by inquiry of labouring peasants, had not even passed this way. He would not halt, though the heat of the sun grew terrible. At length, when exhaustion threatened men and beasts, they surmounted a ridge, issued from a forest of chestnut-trees, and all at once, but a little way below them, saw the gleam of the river Liris.