Chapter XX. The Island in the Liris
 

Not yet the 'taciturnus amnis,' which it becomes in the broad, seaward valley far below, the Liris at this point parts into two streams, enclosing a spacious island, and on either side of the island leaps with sound and foam, a river kindred to the mountains which feed its flood. Between the two cataracts, linked to the river banks with great arched bridges, stood Marcian's villa. Never more than a modest country house, during the last fifty years an almost total neglect had made of the greater part an uninhabitable ruin. A score of slaves and peasants looked after what remained of the dwelling and cultivated the land attached to it, garden, oliveyard, vineyard, partly on the island, partly beyond the river in the direction of Arpinum, which historic city, now but sparsely peopled, showed on the hillside a few miles away. Excepting his house in Rome, this was all the property that Marcian possessed. It was dear to him because of the memories of his childhood, and for another reason which sprang out of the depths of his being: on the night after his mother's death (he was then a boy much given to seeing visions) her spirit appeared to him, and foretold that he too should die in this house 'at peace with God.' This phrase, on which he had often brooded, Marcian understood to mean that he should reach old age; and it had long been his settled intention to found in the ruinous villa a little monastery, to which, when his work was over, he could retire to pass the close of life. And now, as he rode down behind the carriage, he was striving to keep his thought fixed on this pious purpose. He resolved that he would not long delay. As soon as Veranilda was safe, he would go on foot, as a pilgrim, to the monastery at Casinum, which were but two or three days' journey, and speak of his intention to the aged and most holy Benedict. Thus fortified, he rode with bright visage down into the valley, and over the bridge, and so to his own gate.

The steward and the housekeeper, who were man and wife, speedily stood before him, and he bade them make ready with all expedition certain chambers long unoccupied, merely saying that a lady would for some days be his guest. Whilst Sagaris guided the horsemen to the stables, and received them hospitably in the servants' quarter, Marcian, using a more formal courtesy than hitherto, conducted his charge into the great hall, and begged her to be seated for a few minutes, until her room was prepared. Seeing that fatigue scarce suffered her to reply, he at once withdrew, leaving her alone with her handmaiden. And yet he had not beheld Veranilda's face.

Himself unable to take repose, he strayed about the purlieus of the villa, in his ears the sound of rushing water, before his eyes a flitting vision which he would not see. He had heard from his steward the latest news of the countryside; it was said in Arpinum that the Gothic forces were at length assembled for the march on Rome; at Aquinum Totila would be welcomed, and what resistance was he likely to meet with all along the Latin Way? When the horsemen had refreshed themselves, Marcian summoned the leader; their services, he said, would no longer be necessary; he bade them depart as early as might be on the morrow, and bear with all speed to their lord the bishop an important letter which he forthwith wrote and gave to the man, together with a generous guerdon. This business despatched, he again wandered hither and thither, incapable of rest, incapable of clear thought, fever in his heart and in his brain.

As the sun sank, fear once more beset him. This house lay open on all sides, its only protection being a couple of dogs, which prowled at large. He thought with dread of the possibility of a brigand attack. But when night had fallen, when all lights except his own were extinguished, when no sound struck against the deep monotone of the cataracts, this emotion yielded before another, which no less harassed his mind. In the hall, in the corridors, in the garden-court, he paced ceaselessly, at times walking in utter darkness, for not yet had the moon risen. When at length its rays fell upon the pillars of the upper gallery where Veranilda slept, he stood looking towards her chamber, and turned away at length with a wild gesture, like that of a demoniac in torment.

The man was torn between spiritual fervour and passions of the flesh. With his aspiration to saintliness blended that love of his friend which was the purest affection he had known in all the years of manhood; yet this very love became, through evil thoughts, an instrument against him, being sullied, poisoned by the basest spirit of jealousy, until it seemed all but to have turned to hate. One moment he felt himself capable of acting nobly, even as he had resolved when at mass in the little mountain church; his bosom glowed with the defiance of every risk; he would guard Veranilda secretly until he could lay her hand in that of Basil. The next, he saw only danger, impossibility, in such a purpose, and was anxious to deliver the beautiful maiden to the king of her own race as soon as might be--lest worse befell. Thus did he strive with himself, thus was he racked and rent under the glowing moon.

At dawn he slept. When he rose the horsemen had long since set forth on their journey home. He inquired which road they had taken. But to this no one had paid heed; he could only learn that they had crossed the river by the westward bridge, and so perhaps had gone back by way of Aletrium, instead of descending the valley to the Latin Way. Even yet Marcian did not feel quite safe from his Greek pursuers. He feared a meeting between them and the Praenestines.

Having bathed (a luxury after waterless Rome), and eaten a morsel of bread with a draught of his own wine, he called his housekeeper, and bade her make known to the lady, his guest, that he begged permission to wait upon her. With but a few minutes' delay Veranilda descended to the room which lay behind the atrium. Marcian, loitering among the ivied plane-trees without, was told of her coming, and at once entered.

She was alone, standing at the back of the room; her hands hanging linked before her, the lower part of the arms white against the folds of a russet-coloured tunic. And Marcian beheld her face.

He took a few rapid steps toward her, checked himself, bowed profoundly, and said in a somewhat abrupt voice:

'Gracious lady, is it by your own wish that you are unattended? Or have my women, by long disuse, so forgotten their duties--'

Veranilda interrupted him.

'I assure you it was my own wish, lord Marcian. We must speak of things which are not for others' hearing.'

In the same unnatural voice, as though he put constraint upon himself for the performance of a disagreeable duty, he begged her to be seated, and Veranilda, not without betraying a slight trouble of surprise, took the chair to which he pointed. But he himself did not sit down. In the middle of the room stood a great bronze candelabrum, many-branched for the suspension of lamps, at its base three figures, Pluto, Neptune, and Proserpine. It was the only work of any value which the villa now contained, and Marcian associated it with the memories of his earliest years. As a little child he had often gazed at those three faces, awed by their noble gravity, and, with a child's diffidence, he had never ventured to ask what beings these were. He fixed his eyes upon them now, to avoid looking at Veranilda. She, timidly glancing at him, said in her soft, low voice, with the simplest sincerity:

'I have not yet found words in which to thank you, lord Marcian.'

'My thanks are due to you, dear lady, for gracing this poor house with your presence.'

His tone was more suavely courteous. For an instant he looked at her, and his lips set themselves in something meant for a smile.

'This is the end of our journey?' she asked.

'For some days--if the place does not displease you.'

'How could I be ill at ease in the house of Basil's friend, and with the promise that Basil will soon come?'

Marcian stared at the face of Proserpine, who seemed to regard him with solemn thoughtfulness.

'Had you any forewarning of your release from the monastery?' he asked of a sudden.

'None. None whatever.'

'You thought you would remain there for long to come?'

'I had not dared to think of that.'

Marcian took a few paces, glanced at the sweet face, the beautiful head with its long golden hair, and came back to his place by the candelabrum, on which he rested a trembling hand.

'Had they spoken of making you a nun?'

A look of dread came upon her countenance, and she whispered, 'Once or twice.'

'You would never have consented?'

'Only if I had known that release was hopeless, or that Basil--'

Her voice failed.

'That Basil--?' echoed Marcian's lips, in an undertone.

'That he was dead.'

'You never feared that he might have forgotten you?'

Again his accents were so hard that Veranilda gazed at him in troubled wonder.

'You never feared that?' he added, with fugitive eyes.

'Had I dreamt of it,' she replied, 'I think I should not live.' Then in a voice of anxious humility, 'Could Basil forget me?'

'Indeed, I should not think it easy,' murmured the other, his eyes cast down. 'And what,' he continued abruptly, 'was said to you when you left the convent? In what words did they take leave of you?'

'With none at all. I was bidden prepare for a journey, and soon after they led me to the gates. I knew nothing, nor did the woman with me.'

'Was the lady Aurelia in the same convent?' Marcian next inquired.

'I never saw her after we had landed from the ship which carried us from Surrentum?'

'You do not know, of course, that Petronilla is dead?'

He told her of that, and of other events such as would interest her, but without uttering the name of Basil. Above all, he spoke of Totila, lauding the victorious king who would soon complete his triumph by the conquest of Rome.

'I had all but forgotten,' were Veranilda's words, when she had listened anxiously. 'I thought only of Basil.'

He turned abruptly from her, seemed to reflect for a moment, and said with formal politeness:

'Permit me now to leave you, lady. This house is yours. I would it offered you worthier accommodation. As soon as I have news, I will again come before you.'

Veranilda rose whilst he was speaking. Her eyes were fixed upon him, wistfully, almost pleadingly, and before he had reached the exit she advanced a step, with lips parted as if to beseech his delay. But he walked too hurriedly, and was gone ere she durst utter a word.

At the same hurried pace, gazing before him and seeing nothing, Marcian left the villa, and walked until he came to the river side. Here was a jutting rock known as the Lover's Leap; story told of a noble maiden, frenzied by unhappy love, who had cast herself into the roaring waterfall. Long he stood on the brink, till his eyes dazzled from the sun-stricken foam. His mind was blasted with shame; he could not hold his head erect. In sorry effort to recover self-respect he reasoned inwardly thus:

'Where Basil may be I know not. If he is still at Asculum many days must pass before a summons from me could bring him hither. He may already be on his way to join the king, as I bade him in my last message. The uncertainty, the danger of this situation, can be met only in one way. On leaving Rome I saw my duty plain before me. A desire to pleasure my friend made me waver, but I was wrong--if Basil is to have Veranilda for his bride he can only receive her from the hands of Totila. Anything else would mean peril to the friend I love, and disrespect, even treachery, to the king I honour. And so it shall be; I will torment myself no more.'

He hastened back into the villa, summoned Sagaris, and bade him be ready in half an hour to set forth on a journey of a day or two. He then wrote a brief letter to the king of the Goths. It was in the Gothic tongue, such Gothic as a few Romans could command for everyday use. Herein he told that Veranilda, intrusted to him by the deacon Leander to be conducted to the king's camp, had arrived in safety at his villa by Arpinum. The country being disturbed, he had thought better to wait here with his charge until he could learn the king's pleasure, which he begged might be made known to him as soon as possible.

'This,' he said, when Sagaris appeared before him equipped for travel, 'you will deliver into the king's own hands. At Aquinum you will be directed to his camp, which cannot be far beyond. Danger there is none between here and there. Make your utmost speed.'

Many were the confidential missions which Sagaris had discharged; yet, looking now into his man's face, the master was troubled by a sudden misgiving. The state of his own mind disposed him to see peril everywhere. At another time he would not have noted so curiously a sort of gleam in the Syrian's eye, a something on the fellow's cunning, sensual lips, which might mean anything or nothing. Did Sagaris divine who the veiled lady was? From the bishop's man he could not have learned it, they themselves, as the bishop had assured Marcian, being totally ignorant in the matter. If he guessed the truth, as was likely enough after all the talk he had heard concerning Veranilda, was it a danger? Had Sagaris any motive for treachery?

'Listen,' continued Marcian, in a tone such as he had never before used with his servant, a tone rather of entreaty than of command. 'Upon the safe and swift delivery of that letter more depends than you can imagine. You will not lack your reward. But not a word to any save the king. Should any one else question you, you will say that you bear only a verbal message, and that you come direct from Rome.'

'My lord shall be obeyed,' answered the slave, 'though I die under torture.'

'Of that,' said Marcian, with a forced laugh, 'you need have no fear. But, hark you!' He hesitated, again searching the man's countenance. 'You might chance to meet some friend of mine who would inquire after me. No matter who it be--were it even the lord Basil--you will answer in the same words, saying that I am still in Rome. You understand me? Were it even lord Basil who asked?'

'It shall be as my lord commands,' replied the slave, his face set in unctuous solemnity.

'Go, then. Lose not a moment.'

Marcian watched him ride away in the blaze of the cloudless sun. The man's head was sheltered with a broad-brimmed hat of the lightest felt, and his horse's with a cluster of vine-leaves. He rode away at a quick trot, the while dust rising in a cloud behind him.

And Marcian lived through the day he knew not how. It was a day of burning sunshine, of heat scarce tolerable even in places the most sheltered. Clad only in a loose tunic, bare-armed, bare-footed, he lay or sauntered wherever shade was dense, as far as possible from the part of the villa consecrated to his guest. Hour after hour crawled by, an eternity of distressful idleness. And, even while wishing for the day's end, he dreaded the coming of the night.

It came; the silent, lonely night, the warm, perfumed night, the season of fierce temptations, of dreadful opportunity. Never had the passionate soul of Marcian been so manifestly lured by the Evil One, never had it fought so desperately in the strength of religious hopes and fears. He knelt, he prayed, his voice breaking upon the stillness with anguish of supplication. Between him and the celestial vision rose that face which he had at length beheld, a face only the more provocative of sensual rage because of its sweet purity, its flawless truth. Then he flung himself upon the stones, bruised his limbs, lay at length exhausted, as if lifeless.

No longer could he strengthen himself by the thought of loyalty in friendship; that he had renounced. Yet he strove to think of Basil, and, in doing so, knew that he still loved him. For Basil he would do anything, suffer anything, lose anything; but when he imaged Basil with Veranilda, at once his love turned to spleen, a sullen madness possessed him, he hated his friend to the death.

By his own order, two watchmen stood below the stairs which led to Veranilda's chamber. Nigh upon midnight he walked in that direction, walked in barefooted stealth, listening for a movement, a voice. Nearer and nearer he approached, till he saw at length the ray of a lantern; but no step, no murmur, told of wakeful guard. Trembling as though with cold, though sweat streamed over his body, he strode forward; there, propped against the wall, sat the two slaves fast asleep. Marcian glanced at the stairs; his face in the dim lantern light was that of a devil. All of a sudden one of the men started, and opened his eyes. Thereupon Marcian caught up a staff that lay beside them, and began to belabour them both with savage blows. Fiercely, frantically, he plied his weapon, until the delinquents, who had fallen to their knees before him, roared for mercy.

'Let me find you sleeping again,' he said in a low voice, 'and your eyes shall be burnt out.'

He stole away into the darkness, and the men whispered to each other that he had gone mad. For Marcian was notably humane with his slaves, never having been known even to inflict a whipping. Perhaps they were even more astonished at this proof that their master seriously guarded the privacy of his guest; last night they had slept for long hours undisturbed, and, on waking, congratulated each other with familiar jests on having done just what was expected of them.

The morn broke dark and stormy. Thunder-clouds purpled before the rising sun, and ere mid-day there fell torrents of rain. Heedless of the sky, Marcian rode forth this morning; rode aimlessly about the hills, for the villa was no longer endurable to him. He talked awhile with a labouring serf, who told him that the plague had broken out in Arpinum, where, during the last week or two, many had died. From his steward he had already heard the same news, but without heeding it; it now alarmed him, and for some hours fear had a wholesome effect upon his thoughts. In the coolness following upon the storm, he enjoyed a long, tranquil sleep. And this day he did not see Veranilda.

A mile or two down the valley was a church, built by Marcian's grandfather, on a spot where he had been saved from great peril; the land attached to it supported two priests and certain acolytes, together with a little colony of serfs. On his ride this morning Marcian had passed within view of the church, and would have gone thither but for his rain drenched clothing. Now, during the second night of temptation, he resolved to visit the priests as soon as it was day and to bring one of them back with him to the villa, to remain as long as Veranilda should be there. Firm in this purpose he rose with the rising sun, called for his horse, and rode to the bridge. There, looking down at the white cataract, stood Veranilda and her attendant.

He alighted. With a timid smile the maiden advanced to meet him.

'Abroad so early?' were his first words, a mere tongue-found phrase.

'I was tempted by the fresh morning. It does not displease you, lord Marcian?'

'Nay, I am glad.'

'It is so long,' continued the gentle voice, 'since I was free to walk under the open sky.'

Marcian forgot that his gaze was fixed upon her, forgot that he was silent, forgot the purpose with which he had ridden forth.

'I hoped I might see you to-day,' she added. 'You have yet no news for me?'

'None.'

The blue eyes drooped sadly.

'To-morrow, perhaps,' she murmured. Then, with an effort to seem cheerful, as if ashamed of her troubled thought, 'I had listened so long to a sound of falling water that I could not resist the desire to see it. How beautiful it is!'

Marcian felt surprise; he himself saw the cataract as an object of beauty, but had seldom heard it so spoken of, and could least of all have expected such words on the lips of a woman, dread seeming to him the more natural impression.

'That on the other side,' he said, pointing across the island, 'is more beautiful still. And there is shade, whilst here the sun grows too hot. But you must not walk so far. My horse has a very even pace. If you would let me lift you to the saddle--'

'Oh, gladly!' she answered, with a little laugh of pleasure.

And it was done. For a moment he held her, for a moment felt the warmth and softness of her flesh; then she sat sideways upon the horse, looking down at Marcian with startled gaiety. He showed her how to hold the reins, and the horse went gently forward.

'It makes me a child again,' she exclaimed. 'I have never ridden since I was a little girl, when my father--'

Her voice died away; her look was averted, and Marcian, remembering the shame that mingled with her memories, began to talk of other things.

By a path that circled the villa, they came to a little wood of ilex, which shadowed the brink of the larger cataract. Marcian had bidden Veranilda's woman follow them, but as they entered the wood, his companion looking eagerly before her, he turned and made a gesture of dismissal, which the servant at once obeyed. In the shadiest spot which offered a view of the plunging river, he asked Veranilda if she would alight.

'Willingly, I would spend an hour here,' she replied. 'The leafage and the water make such a delightful freshness.'

'I have anticipated your thought,' said Marcian. 'The woman is gone to bid them bring seats.'

Veranilda glanced back in surprise and saw that they were alone. She thanked him winsomely, and then, simply as before, accepted his help. Again Marcian held her an instant, her slim, light body trembling when he set her down, as if from a burden which strained his utmost force. She stepped forward to gaze at the fall. He, with an exclamation of alarm, caught her hand and held it.

'You are too rash,' he said in a thick voice. 'The depth, the roar of the waters, will daze you.'

Against his burning palm, her hand was cool as a lily leaf. He did not release it, though he knew that his peril from that maidenly touch was greater far than hers from the gulf before them. Veranilda, accepting his protection with the thoughtlessness of a child, leaned forward, uttering her wonder and her admiration. He, the while, watched her lips, fed his eyes upon her cheek, her neck, the golden ripples of her hair. At length she gently offered to draw her hand away. A frenzy urged him to resist, but madness yielded to cunning, and he released her.

'Of course Basil has been here,' she was saying.

'Never.'

'Never? Oh, the joy of showing him this when he comes! Lord Marcian, you do not think it will be long?'

Her eyes seemed as though they would read in the depth of his; again the look of troubled wonder rose to her countenance.

'It will not be more than a few days?' she added, in a timid undertone, scarce audible upon the water's deeper note.

'I fear it may be longer,' replied Marcian.

He heard his own accents as those of another man. He, his very self, willed the utterance of certain words, kind, hopeful, honest; but something else within him commanded his tongue, and, ere he knew it, he had added:

'You have never thought that Basil might forget you?'

Veranilda quivered as though she had been struck.

'Why do you again ask me that question?' she said gently, but no longer timidly. 'Why do you look at me so? Surely,' her voice sank, 'you could not have let me feel so happy if Basil were dead?'

'He lives.'

'Then why do you look so strangely at me? Ah, he is a prisoner?'

'Not so. No man's liberty is less in danger.'

She clasped her hands before her. 'You make me suffer. I was so light of heart, and now--your eyes, your silence. Oh, speak, lord Marcian!'

'I have hidden the truth so long because I knew not how to utter it. Veranilda, Basil is false to you.'

Her hands fell; her eyes grew wider in wonder. She seemed not to understand what she had heard, and to be troubled by incomprehension rather than by a shock of pain.

'False to me?' she murmured. 'How false?'

'He loves another woman, and for her sake has turned to the Greeks.'

Still Veranilda gazed wonderingly.

'Things have come to pass of which you know nothing,' pursued Marcian, forcing his voice to a subdued evenness, a sad gravity. 'Listen whilst I tell you all. Had you remained but a few days longer at Cumae, you would have been seized by the Greeks and sent to Constantinople; for the Emperor Justinian himself had given this command. You came to Surrentum; you plighted troth with Basil; he would have wedded you, and--not only for safety's sake, but because he wished well to the Goths--would have sought the friendship of Totila. But you were carried away; vainly we searched for you; we feared you had been delivered to the Greeks. In Rome, Basil was tempted by a woman, whom he had loved before ever he saw you, a woman beautiful, but evil hearted, her name Heliodora. She won him back to her; she made him faithless to you and to the cause of the Goths. Little by little, I learnt how far he had gone in treachery. He had discovered where you were, but no longer desired to release you that you might become his wife. To satisfy the jealousy of Heliodora, and at the same time to please the Greek commander in Rome, he plotted to convey you to Constantinople. I having discovered this plot, found a way to defeat it. You escaped but narrowly. When I carried you away from Praeneste, pursuers were close behind us, therefore it was that we travelled through the night. Here you are in safety, for King Totila is close at hand, and will guard you against your enemies.'

Veranilda pressed her hands upon her forehead, and stood mute. As his eyes shifted furtively about her, Marcian caught sight of something black and undulant stirring among stones near her feet; at once he grasped her by the arm, and drew her towards him.

'A viper!' he exclaimed, pointing.

'What of that?' was her reply, with a careless glance. 'I would not stir a step to escape its fangs.'

And, burying her face in her hands, she wept.

These tears, this attitude of bewildered grief, were Marcian's encouragement. He had dreaded the innocence of her eyes lest it should turn to distrust and rejection. Had she refused to believe him, he knew not how he would have persisted in his villainy; for, even in concluding his story, it seemed to him that he must betray himself; so perfidious sounded to him the voice which he could hardly believe his own, and so slinking-knavish did he feel the posture of his body, the movements of his limbs. The distress which should have smitten him to the heart restored his baser courage. Again he spoke with the sad gravity of a sympathetic friend.

'Dearest lady, I cannot bid you be comforted, but I entreat you to pardon me, the hapless revealer of your misfortune. Say only that you forgive me.'

'What is there to forgive?' she answered, checking her all but silent sobs. 'You have told what it behoved you to tell. And it may be'--her look changed of a sudden--'that I am too hasty in embracing sorrow. How can I believe that Basil has done this? Are you not misled by some false suspicion? Has not some enemy slandered him to you? What can you say to make me credit a thing so evil?'

'Alas! It were but too easy for me to lengthen a tale which all but choked me in the telling; I could name others who know, but to you they would be only names. That of Heliodora, had you lived in Rome, were more than enough.'

'You say he loved her before?'

'He did, dear lady, and when her husband was yet living. Now that he is dead--'

'Have you yet told me all?' asked Veranilda, gazing fixedly at him. 'Has he married her?'

'Not yet--I think.'

Again she bowed her head. For a moment her tears fell silently, then she looked up once more fighting against her anguish.

'It cannot be true that he would have given me to the Greeks; that he may have forgotten me, that he may have turned to another love, I can perhaps believe--for what am I that Basil should love me? But to scheme my injury, to deliver me to our enemies--Oh, you are deceived, you are deceived!'

Marcian was silent, with eyes cast down. In the branches, cicadas trilled their monotone. The viper, which had been startled away, again showed its lithe blackness among the stones behind Veranilda, and Marcian, catching sight of it, again touched her arm.

'The snake! Come away from this place.'

Veranilda drew her arm back as if his touch stung her.

'I will go,' she said. 'I must be alone--my thoughts are in such confusion I know not what I say.'

'Say but one word,' he pleaded. 'Having rescued you, I knew not how to provide for your security save under ward of the king. Totila is noble and merciful; all Italy will soon be his, and the Gothic rule be re-established. Assure me that I have done well and wisely.'

'I hope you have,' answered Veranilda, regarding him for an instant. 'But I know nothing; I must bear what befalls. Let me go to my chamber, lord Marcian, and sit alone and think.'

He led her back into the villa, and they parted without another word.