Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XXIV. The Mount of the Monk
Basil rode with his own man apart from Venantius and the soldiers who guarded the conveyance in which sat Veranilda. Venantius, for his part, would fain have lightened the way with friendly talk, but finding Basil irresponsive, he left him to his gloomy meditations. And so they came to Aquinum, where they passed the night.
By way of precaution, the captain set a guard before the house in which his fellow-traveller slept, and at daybreak, as soon as he had risen, one of the soldiers thus employed reported to him that the young Roman had fallen into such distemper that it seemed doubtful whether he could continue the journey; a servant who had slept at Basil's door declared that all through the night his master had talked wildly, like one fever-frenzied. Venantius visited the sick man, and found him risen, but plainly in poor case for travel.
'Why, you will never mount your horse,' he opined, after touching Basil's hand, and finding it on fire. 'This is what comes of a queasy conscience. Take heart, man! Are you the first that stuck a false friend between the ribs, or the first to have your love kissed against her will? That it was against her will, I take upon myself to swear. You are too fretful, my good lord. Come, now! What are we to do with you?'
'I can ride on,' answered Basil. 'Pay no heed to me, and leave me in peace, I pray you.'
He was helped to horseback, and the cavalcade went forth again along the Latin Way. This morning, no beam of sunrise shone above the mountains; the heavens were sullen, and a hot wind blew from the south. Even Venantius, though he hummed a song to himself, felt the sombre influence of the air, and kept glancing uneasily backwards at the death-pale man, who rode with head upon his breast. Scarcely had they ridden for an hour at foot-pace, when a shout caught the captain's ear; he turned, just in time to see Basil dropping to the ground.
'God's thunder!' he growled. 'I have been expecting this. Well if he dies, it may save the king some trouble.'
He jumped down, and went to Basil's side. At first the sufferer could not speak, but when water had been given him, he gazed at Venantius with a strange smile, and, pointing before him, said faintly:
'Is not yonder Casinum?'
'It is. We will bear you thither for harbourage. Courage, friend!'
'Above, on the mountain,' continued Basil painfully, 'dwells my kinsman Benedict, with his holy men. Could I but reach the monastery!'
'Why, perchance you may,' replied the captain. 'And in truth you would be better cared for there.'
'Help me, good Venantius!' panted Basil, with eyes of entreaty. 'Let me die in the monastery.'
In those days of pestilence, every fever-stricken person was an object of dread to all but the most loving or the most courageous. The stalwart Venantius thought for a moment of carrying Basil before him on his horse, but prudence overcame this humane impulse. Into the carriage, for the same reason (had there been no other), he could not be put; but there was a vacant place beside the driver, and here, supported with cords, he managed to keep his seat until they arrived at Casinum.
Owing to its position on the highroad, trodden by so many barbaric armies, this city had suffered repeated devastation. Its great buildings stood desolate, or had fallen to utter ruin, and the country around, once famous for its fertility, showed but a few poor farms. What inhabitants remained dwelt at the foot of the great hill on whose summit rose the citadel, still united with the town by two great walls. After passing between the tombs on the Latin Way, memorials of citizens long dead, the travellers entered by an unprotected gateway, and here Venantius called a halt. Wishing to make no longer pause than was needful to put the sick man in safety, he despatched a few soldiers through the silent town to seek for means of conveying Basil up to the monastery on the height. By good luck these emissaries came upon a couple of monks, who lost no time in arranging for the conveyance of the sufferer. A light cart drawn by two mules speedily appeared, and on this Basil was laid. One only of his men did Venantius allow to accompany him, the others were bidden ride on with the captain's own soldiers to Aesernia.
'There you will find us all when you are on your legs again,' said Venantius, 'unless by that time we have marched Romewards, in which case you shall have a message. Trust me to look after all you left there; I answer for its safety and for that of your good fellows. Keep up heart, and God make you sound.'
Basil, couched on a bed of dry leaves, raised himself so as to watch the troop as it rode forth again from the ruined gate. Whether she who sat hidden within the carriage had heard of his evil plight he knew not, and could not have brought himself to ask. The last of his own horsemen (some of whom had taken leave of him with tears) having vanished from sight, he fell back, and for a while knew nothing but the burning torment in his brain.
The ascent of the mountain began. It was a rough, narrow road, winding through a thick forest of oak and beech trees, here and there so steep as to try the firm footing of the mules, and in places dangerous because of broken ground on the edge of precipitous declivities. The cart was driven by its owner, a peasant of Casinum, who at times sat sideways on one of the beasts, at times walked by them; behind came the two religious men, cowled, bare-footed; and last Basil's attendant on horseback.
From Venantius the monks had learned who their charge was. His noble origin, and still more the fact of his kindred with their beloved Abbot Benedict, inspired in them a special interest. They spoke of him in whispers together, compassionated his sufferings, remarked on the comeliness of his features, and assured each other that they detected in him no symptom of the plague. It being now the third hour, they ceased from worldly talk and together recited their office, whereto the peasant and the horseman gave pious ear.
Basil lay with closed eyes, but at a certain moment he seemed to become aware of what was passing, crossed himself, and then folded his hands upon his breast in the attitude of prayer. Having observed this, one of the monks, his orisons finished, went up to the cart and spoke comfortable words. He was a man in the prime of life, with cheek as fresh as a maid's, and a step that seemed incapable of weariness; his voice sounded a note of gentle kindness which caused the sufferer to smile at him in gratitude.
'This tree,' he said presently, pointing to a noble beech, its bole engraven with a cross, 'marks the middle point of the ascent. A weary climb for the weak, but not without profit to him who thinks as he walks--for, as our dear brother Marcus has said, in those verses we are never tired of repeating:--
"Semper difficili quaeruntur summa labore, Arctam semper habet vita beata viam."'
The other monk, an older man, who walked less vigorously, echoed the couplet with slow emphasis, as if savouring every word. Then both together, bowing their cowled heads, exclaimed fervently:
'Thanks be to God for the precious gifts of our brother Marcus!'
Basil endeavoured to utter a few words, but he was now so feeble that he could scarce make his voice heard above the creak of the wheels. Again he closed his eyes, and his companions pursued their way in silence. When at length they issued from the forest they overlooked a vast landscape of hill and valley, with heads of greater mountains high above them. Here rose the walls of the citadel, within which Benedict had built his monastery. For some distance around these ancient ramparts the ground was tilled, and flourishing with various crops. At the closed gateway of the old Arx, flanked by a tower, the monks rang, and were at once admitted into the courtyard, where, in a few moments, the prior and all his brethren came forward to greet the strangers. Because of Basil's condition the ceremony usual on such arrivals was in his case curtailed: the prior uttered a brief prayer, gave the kiss of peace, and ordered forthwith the removal of the sick man to a guest-chamber, where he was laid in bed and ministered to by the brother Marcus, whose gifts as a healer were not less notable than his skill in poesy. The horseman, meanwhile, as custom was with all visitors, had been led to the oratory to hear a passage of Holy Scripture; after which the prior poured water upon his hands, and certain of the monks washed his feet.
Before sunset Basil lost consciousness of present things; and many days went by before he again spoke as a sane man. When at length the fever declined, and his head turned upon the pillow in search of a human countenance, he saw standing beside him a venerable figure in the monastic garb, whose visage, though wrinkled with age and thought, had such noble vividness in its look, and wore a smile so like that of youth in its half-playful sweetness, that Basil could but gaze wonderingly, awestruck at once, and charmed by this unexpected apparition.
'My son,' sounded in a voice grave and tender, 'be your first syllables uttered to Him by whose omnipotent will you are restored to the life of this world.'
With the obedience of a child he clasped his thin hands, and murmured the prayer of childhood. Then the gracious figure bent over him. He felt the touch of lips upon his forehead, and in the same moment fell asleep.
It was night when he again woke. A little lamp revealed bare walls of stone, a low, timbered ceiling, a floor of red tiles. Basil's eyes, as soon as they were open, looked for the venerable figure which he remembered. Finding no one, he thought the memory was but of a dream. Feeling wonderfully at ease in body and calm in mind, he lay musing on that vision of the noble countenance, doubting after all whether a dream could have left so distinct an impression, when all at once there fell upon his ear a far sound of chanting, a harmony so sweetly solemn that it melted his heart and filled his eyes with tears. Not long after, when all was silent again, he heard the sound of soft footsteps without, and in the same moment the door of his cell opened. The face which looked in seemed not quite unknown to him, though he could not recall where he had seen it.
'You have slept long, dear brother,' said Marcus, with a happy smile. 'Is all well with you?'
'Well, God he thanked,' was the clear but faint reply.
The poet-physician, a small, nervous, bright-eyed man of some forty years, sat down on a stool by the bedside and began talking cheerfully. He had just come from matins, and was this morning excused from lauds because it behoved him to gather certain herbs, to be used medicinally in the case of a brother who had fallen sick yesterday. Touching a little gold locket which Basil wore round his neck on a gold thread he asked what this contained, and being told that it was a morsel of the Crown of Thorns, he nodded with satisfaction.
'We questioned whether to leave it on you or not, for we could not open it, and there was a fear lest it might contain something'--he smiled and shook his bead and sighed--'much less sacred. The lord abbot, doubtless'--here his voice sank--'after a vision, though of this he spoke not, decided that it should be left. There was no harm, for all that'--his eyes twinked merrily--'in tying this upon the place where you suffered so grievously.'
From amid Basil's long hair he detached what looked like a tiny skein of hemp, which, with an air singularly blended of shrewdness and reverence, he declared to be a portion of a garb of penitence worn by the Holy Martin, to whom the oratory here was dedicated. Presently Basil found strength to ask whether the abbot had been beside him.
'Many times,' was the answer. 'The last, no longer ago than yestereve, ere he went to compline. You would have seen him on the day of your arrival, ere yet you became distraught, but that a heaviness lay upon him because of the loss of a precious manuscript on its way hither from Rome--a manuscript which had been procured for him after much searching, only to be lost by the folly of one to whom it was intrusted; if, indeed, it was not rather whisked away by the Evil One, who, powerless for graver ill against our holy father, at times seeks to discomfort him by small practice of spite. Sorrow for this loss brought on a distemper to which his age is subject.'
Reminded all at once that he had no time to lose, Marcus threw open the shutter, extinguished the lamp, and slipped away, leaving his patient with eyes turned to the pale glimmer of dawn at the tiny window. Now only did there stir in Basil clear recollection of the events which had preceded his coming hither. Marcus's sly word in regard to the locket had awakened his mind, and in a few moments he thought connectedly. But without emotion, unless it were a vague, tender sadness. All seemed to have happened so long ago. It was like a story he had heard in days gone by. He thought of it until his brain began to weary, then again came sleep.
A day or two passed. He had begun to eat with keen appetite, and his strength increased hour by hour. On a Sunday, after the office of the third hour, Marcus cheerily gave him permission to rise. This prompted Basil to inquire whether his man, who had come with him, was still in the monastery. Marcus, with eyes averted, gave a nod. Might he speak with him, Basil asked. Presently, presently, was the answer. Marcus himself aided the convalescent to dress; then having seated him in a great chair of rude wickerwork, used only on occasions such as this, left him to bask in a beam of sunshine. Before long, his meal was brought him, and with it a book, bound in polished wood and metal, which he found to be a Psalter. Herein, when he had eaten, he read for an hour or so, not, however, without much wandering of the thoughts. He had fallen into reverie, when his door opened, and there appeared before him the Abbot Benedict.
Basil started up, stood for a moment in agitation, then sank upon his knees, with head reverently bowed.
'Rise, rise, my son,' spoke the voice which had so moved him in his vision of a week ago, a voice subdued by years, but perfectly steady and distinct. 'Our good brother Marcus assures me that I may talk with you a little while without fear of overtasking your strength-- nay, sit where you were, I pray you. Thanks be to God, I need not support for my back.'
So saying, the abbot seated himself on the stool, and gazed at Basil with a smile of infinite benevolence.
'Your face,' he continued, 'speaks to me of a time very far away. I see in it the presentment of your father's father, with whom, when he was much of your age, I often talked. His mother had a villa at Nursia, the home of my youth. Once he turned aside from a journey to visit me when I dwelt at Sublaqueum.'
The reminiscence checked his tongue he kept silence for a moment, musing gravely.
'But these are old stories, my Basil, and you are young. Tell me somewhat of your parents, and of your own life. Did not your good father pass away whilst at Constantinople?'
Thus, with perfect simplicity, with kindliest interest in things human, did Benedict draw the young man into converse. He put no question that touched on the inner life, and Basil uttered not a word concerning his late distress, but they touched for a moment upon public affairs, and Basil learnt, without show of special interest, that Totila still lingered in Campania.
'Your follower, Deodatus,' said the abbot presently, 'begs each day for permission to see you. The good fellow has not lived in idleness; he is a brave worker in wood, and by chance we much needed one of his craft. Not many things of this world give me more pleasure than to watch a cunning craftsman as he smooths timber, and fits the pieces together, and makes of them something that shall serve the needs of men. Is it not, in some sort, to imitate the great Artificer? Would, O Basil, that our country had more makers and fewer who live but to destroy.'
'Would it were so, indeed!' sighed Basil, in a low, fervent voice.
'But the end is not yet,' pursued Benedict, his eyes gazing straight before him, as if they beheld the future. 'Men shall pray for peace, but it will not be granted them, so great are the iniquities of the world which utters the name of Christ, yet knows Him not.'
He paused with troubled brow. Then, as if reminding himself that his hearer had need of more encouraging words, he said cheerfully:
'To-morrow, perchance, you will have strength to leave your room. Deodatus shall come to you in the morning. When you can walk so far, I will pray you to visit me in my tower. You knew not that I inhabit a tower? Even as the watchman who keeps guard over a city. And,' he added more gravely, as if to himself rather than to the listener, 'God grant that my watch be found faithful.'
Thereupon the abbot rose, and gently took his leave; and Basil, through all the rest of the day, thought of him and of every word he had uttered.
Not long after sunrise on the morrow, Deodatus was allowed to enter. This man, whose age was something more than thirty, was the son of a serf on Basil's land, and being of very peaceful disposition, had with some reluctance answered the summons to arm himself and follow his lord to the wars. Life in the monastery thoroughly suited his temper; when Basil encouraged him to talk, he gave a delighted account of the way in which his days were spent; spoke with simple joy of the many religious services he attended, and had no words in which to express his devotion to the abbot.
'Why, Deodatus,' exclaimed his master, smiling, 'you lack but the cowl to be a very monk.'
'My duty is to my lord,' answered the man, bending his head.
'Tell me now whether any news has reached you, in all this time, of those from whom my sickness parted us.'
But Deodatus had heard nothing of his fellows, and nothing of Venantius.
'It may be,' said Basil, 'that I shall send you to tell them how I fare, and to bring back tidings. Your horse is at hand?'
As he spoke he detected a sadness on the man's countenance. Without more words, he dismissed him.
That day he sat in the open air, in a gallery whence he could survey a great part of the monastic buildings, and much of the mountain summit on its western side. For an hour he had the companionship of Marcus, who, pointing to this spot and to that, instructed Basil in the history of what he saw, now and then reciting his own verses on the subject. He told how Benedict, seeking with a little company of pious followers for a retreat from the evil of the world, came to ruined Casinum, and found its few wretched inhabitants fallen away from Christ, worshipping the old gods in groves and high places. Here, on the mountain top, stood temples of Jupiter, of Apollo, and of Venus. The house of Apollo he purified for Christian service, and set under the invocation of the Holy Martin. The other temples he laid low, and having cut down the grove sacred to Apollo, on that spot he raised an oratory in the name of the Baptist. Not without much spiritual strife was all this achieved; for--the good Marcus subdued his voice--Satan himself more than once overthrew what the monks had built, and, together with the demons whom Benedict had driven forth, often assailed the holy band with terrors and torments. Had not the narrator, who gently boasted a part in these beginnings, been once all but killed by a falling column, which indeed must have crushed him, but that he stretched out a hand in which, by happy chance, he was holding a hammer, and this--for a hammer is cruciform--touching the great pillar, turned its fall in another direction. Where stood the temple of Venus was now a vineyard, yielding excellent wine.
'Whereof, surely, you must not drink?' interposed Basil, with a smile.
'Therein, good brother,' replied Marcus, 'you show but little knowledge of our dear lord abbot. He indeed abstains from wine, for such has been the habit of his life, but to us he permits it, for the stomach's sake; being of opinion that labour is a form of worship, and well understanding that labour, whether of body or of mind, can only be performed by one in health. This very day you shall taste of our vintage, which I have hitherto withheld from you, lest it should overheat your languid blood.'
Many other questions did Basil ask concerning the rule of the monastery. He learned that the day was equitably portioned out (worship apart) between manual and mental work. During summer, the cooler hours of morning and afternoon were spent in the field, and the middle of the day in study; winter saw this order reversed. On Sunday the monks laboured not with their hands, and thought only of the Word of God. The hours of the divine office suffered, of course, no change all the year round: their number in the daytime was dictated by that verse of the Psalmist: 'Septies in die laudem dixi tibi'; therefore did the community assemble at lauds, at prime, at the third hour, at mid-day, at the ninth hour, at vespers, and at compline. They arose, moreover, for prayer at midnight, and for matins before dawn. On all this the hearer mused when he was left alone, and with his musing blended a sense of peace such as had never before entered into his heart.
He had returned to his chamber, and was reposing on the bed, when there entered one of the two monks by whom he was conveyed up the mountain. With happy face, this visitor presented to him a new volume, which, he declared with modest pride, was from beginning to end the work of his own hand.
'But an hour ago I finished the binding,' he added, stroking the calf-skin affectionately. 'And when I laid it before the venerable father, who is always indulgent to those who do their best, he was pleased to speak kind things. "Take it to our noble guest," he said, "that he may see how we use the hours God grants us. And it may be that he would like to read therein."'
The book was a beautiful copy of Augustine's De Civitate Dei. Basil did indeed peruse a page or two, but again his thoughts began to wander. He turned the leaves, looking with pleasure at the fine initial letters in red ink. They reminded him of his cousin Decius, whom a noble manuscript would transport with joy. And thought of Decius took him back to Surrentum. He fell into a dream.
On the morrow, at noon, he was well enough to descend to the refectory, where he had a seat at the abbot's table. His meal consisted of a roast pigeon, a plate of vegetables, honey and grapes, with bread which seemed to him better than he had ever tasted, and wine whereof his still weak head bade him partake very modestly. The abbot's dinner, he saw, was much simpler: a bowl of milk, a slice of bread, and a couple of figs. After the kindly greeting with which he was received, there was no conversation, for a monk read aloud during the repast. Basil surveyed with interest the assembly before him. Most of the faces glowed with health, and on all was manifest a simple contentment such as he had hitherto seen only in the eyes of children. Representatives were here of every social rank, but the majority belonged to honourable families: high intelligence marked many countenances, but not one showed the shadow of anxious or weary thought.
These are men, said Basil to himself, who either have never known the burden of life, or have utterly cast it off; they live without a care, without a passion. And then there suddenly flashed upon his mind what seemed an all-sufficient explanation of this calm, this happiness. Here entered no woman. Woman's existence was forgotten, alike by young and old; or, if not forgotten, had lost all its earthly taint, as in the holy affection (of which Marcus had spoken to him) cherished by the abbot for his pious sister Scholastica. Here, he clearly saw, was the supreme triumph of the religious life. But, instead of quieting, the thought disturbed him. He went away thinking thoughts which he would fain have kept at a distance.
The ninth hour found him in the oratory, and later he attended vespers, at which office the monks sang an evening hymn of the holy Ambrosius:--
'O lux, beata Trinitas, et principalis Uuitas, Jam sol recedit igneus; infunde lumen cordibus.
Te mane laudum carmine, te deprecemur vesperi, Te nostra supplex gloria per cuncta laudet saecula.'
The long sweet notes lingered in Basil's mind when he lay down to rest. And, as he crossed himself before sleeping, the only prayer he breathed was: 'Infunde lumen cordi meo.'