Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XXV. The Abbot's Tower
On the morrow he rose earlier, talking the while with his servant Deodatus. This good fellow continued to exhibit so deep an affection for the life of the monastery that Basil was at length moved to ask him whether, if he had the choice, he would veritably become a monk. Deodatus looked at his master with eyes of pathetic earnestness, tried in vain to speak, and burst into tears. Instructed by a vocation so manifest, Basil began to read more clearly in his own heart, where, in spite of the sorrows he had borne and of the troublous uncertainties that lay before him, he found no such readiness to quit the world. He could approve the wisdom of those who renounced the flesh, to be rewarded with tranquillity on earth and eternal happiness hereafter; but his will did not ally itself with his intellect. Moreover, was it certain, he asked himself, that all who embraced the religious life were so rewarded? In turning the pages of Augustine's work, he had come upon a passage which arrested his eye and perturbed his thought, a passage which seemed clearly to intimate that the soul's eternal destiny had from the beginning of things been decided by God, some men being created for bliss, more for damnation. Basil did not dwell profoundly on this doubt; his nature inclined not at all to theological scrutiny, nor to spiritual brooding; but it helped to revive in him the energies which sickness had abated, and to throw him back on that simple faith, that Christianity of everyday, in which he had grown up.
Going forth in the mellow sunshine, he turned his steps to a garden of vegetables where he saw monks at work. They gave him gentle greeting, and one, he who had brought the volume yesterday, announced that the abbot invited Basil to visit him after the office of the third hour. Thereupon all worked in silence, he watching them.
When the time came, he was conducted to the abbot's dwelling, which was the tower beside the ancient gateway of the Arx. It contained but two rooms, one above the other; below, the founder of the monastery studied and transacted business; in the upper chamber he prayed and slept. When, in reply to his knock at the study door, the voice, now familiar, but for that no less impressive, bade him come forward, Basil felt his heart beat quickly; and when he stood alone in that venerable presence, all his new-born self-confidence fell away from him. Beholding the aged man seated at a table on which lay books, amid perfect stillness, in the light from a large window; before him a golden cross, and, on either side of it, a bowl of sweet-scented flowers; he seemed only now to remember that this was that Benedict whose fame had gone forth into many lands, whose holiness already numbered him with the blessed saints rather than with mortal men, of whom were recounted things miraculous. Looking upon that face, which time touched only to enhance its calm, only to make yet purer its sweet humanity, he felt himself an idle and wanton child, and his entrance hither a profanation.
'Come and sit by me, son Basil,' said the abbot. 'I am at leisure, and shall be glad to hear you speak of many things. Tell me first, do you love reading?'
Basil answered with simple truth, that of late years he had scarce read at all, his inclination being rather to the active life.
'So I should have surmised. But chancing to look from my upper window not long after sunrise, I saw you walking with a book in your hand. What was it?'
Basil murmured that it was the Book of Psalms.
'Look, then,' said Benedict, 'at what lies before me. Here is a commentary on that book, written by the learned and pious Cassiodorus; written in the religious house which he himself has founded, upon the shore of "ship-wrecking Scylaceum," as saith Virgilius. Not a week ago it came into my hands, a precious gift from the writer, and I have read much in it. On the last of his many journeys, travelling from Ravenna to the south, he climbed hither, and sojourned with us for certain days, and great was my solace in the communing we had together. Perchance you knew him in the world?'
Gladly Basil recounted his memories of the great counsellor. And the abbot listened with an attentive smile.
'I marvel not that you loved him. Reading in these pages, I am delighted by the graces of his mind, and taught by the sanctity of his spirit. At the very beginning, how sweetly does his voice sound. Listen. "Trusting in the Lord's command, I knock at the doors of the heavenly mystery, that He may open to my understanding His flowery abodes, and that, permitted to enter the celestial garden, I may pluck spiritual fruit without the sin of the first man. Verily this book shines like a lamp; it is the salve of a wounded spirit, sweet as honey to the inner man. So much hath it of beauty for the senses, such healing in its balmy words, that to it may be applied the words of Solomon: 'A closed garden, and a fountain sealed, a paradise abounding in all fruits.' For if Paradise be deemed desirable because it is watered by the delightful flow of four rivers, how much more blessed is the mind which is refreshed by the founts of one hundred and fifty psalms!"'
Basil scarce heeded the sense of the passage read to him. He could hear only the soft music of the aged voice, which lulled him into a calm full of faith and trust.
'Is not this better,' asked Benedict gently, whilst his eyes searched the young man's countenance, 'than to live for the service of kings, and to utter worldly counsel?'
'Better far, I cannot doubt,' Basil replied with humility.
'Utter the rest of your thought,' said the abbot, smiling. 'You cannot doubt--and yet? Utter your mind to me, dear son.'
'My father, I obey you, desiring indeed with all my soul to seek your guidance. My heart has been too much in this world, and for one thought given to things eternal, I have bestowed a hundred upon my own sorrows, and on those of Italy.'
His voice faltered, his head drooped.
'I say not,' murmured the listener, 'that you do wrong to love your country.'
'Holy father, I were a hypocrite if I spoke of my country first of all. For all but a year gone by, another love has possessed me. Forgive me that I dare to speak such a word before you.'
The abbot turned his eyes to the window. Upon the sill had settled two doves, which seemed to regard him curiously. He made a soft gesture with his hand, and the birds flew away.
'Speak on,' he said after brief reflection, and with the same indulgence. 'He who tells all speaks not to man but to God.'
And Basil told all; told it with humble simplicity, with entire truthfulness, recounting his history from the day when he first beheld Veranilda to the dreadful hour when Marcian's blood stained his hands. He began in calm, but the revival of emotions which had slept during his sickness and his convalescence soon troubled him profoundly. Not only did the dormant feelings wake up again, but things which he had forgotten rushed into his memory. So, when he came to the last interview with Veranilda, he remembered, for the first time since that day, what he had said to her, and the recollection dismayed him. He burst into tears, overwhelmed at once with misery and shame.
'It may be,' he sobbed, 'that she was innocent. Suffering had driven me mad, and I uttered words such as never should have passed my lips. If she is guiltless, there lives no baser man than I. For I reproached her--my father, how you will scorn me!--I cast at her in reproach her father's treachery.'
The abbot's brow rested upon his hand. It was thus he had listened, unmoving, throughout the story; nor did he now stir, until Basil, having ceased alike from speaking and from tears, had sat for a little while in stillness and reflection. Then at length he turned his eyes upon the young man, and spoke with sad gravity.
'Even so, even so. You gave your heart to a woman, and worshipped at her feet, and behold there has come upon you the guilt of blood. Not, you would protest, through your own fault; your friend was false to you, and in just wrath you slew him. Who made you, O Basil, his judge and his executioner?'
'Father, I seek not to excuse my sin.'
'It is well. And what penance will you lay upon yourself?'
Utterly subdued by awe, oblivious of his own will in the presence of one so much more powerful, Basil murmured that whatever penance the man of God saw fit to impose that would he perform.
'Nay,' said Benedict gently, 'that is too like presumption. Say rather, you would endeavour to perform it. I will believe that if I bade you fast long, or repeat many prayers, you would punctually obey me. But what if I demanded of you that against which not only your flesh, but all the motive of your life, rebelled? It were not too much; yet dare you promise to achieve it?'
Basil looked up fearfully, and answered with tremulous lips:
'Not in my own strength; but perchance with the help of God.'
A grave smile passed over Benedict's countenance.
'It is well, my son; again, it is well. Come now, and let us reason of this your sin. You avow to me that God and His commands have ever been little in your mind, whereas you have thought much of this world and its governance. I might ask you how it is possible to reflect on the weal and woe of human kind without taking count of Him who made the world and rules it; but let me approach you with a narrower inquiry. You tell me that you love your country, and desire its peace. How comes it, then, that you are numbered with the violent, the lawless, with those who renounce their citizenship and dishonour the State? Could not all your worldly meditations preserve you from so gross an incoherence of thought and action?'
'Indeed, it should have done.'
'And would, perchance, had not your spleen overcome your reason. Why, that is the case, O Basil, of all but every man who this day calls himself a Roman citizen. Therefore is it that Italy lies under the wrath of the Most High. Therefore is it that Rome has fallen, and that the breath of pestilence, the sword of the destroyer, yea, earthquake and flood and famine, desolate the land. Yet you here find little time, my son, to meditate the laws of God, being so busied for the welfare of men. Methinks your story has aimed a little wide.'
Basil bent low before this gentle irony, which softened his heart. The abbot mused a moment, gazing upon the golden cross.
'In the days of old,' he continued, 'Romans knew how to subdue their own desires to the good of their country. He who, in self-seeking, wronged the State, was cast forth from its bosom. Therefore was it that Rome grew mighty, the Omnipotent fostering her for ends which the fulness of time should disclose. Such virtue had our ancestors, even though they worshipped darkly at the altars of daemons. But from that pride they fell, for their hearts were hardened; and, at length, when heathendom had wellnigh destroyed the principle whereby they waxed, God revealed Himself unto His chosen, that ancient virtue and new faith might restore the world. To turn your thought upon these things, I sent you the book written long ago by the holy father Augustine, concerning the Divine State. Have you read in it?'
'Some little,' answered Basil, 'but with wandering mind.'
'Therein you will discover, largely expounded, these reasonings I do but touch upon. I would have you trace God's working in the past, and, by musing upon what now is, ripen yourself in that citizenship whereon you have prided yourself, though you neither understood its true meaning nor had the strength to perform its duties. Losing sight of the Heavenly City for that which is on earth, not even in your earthly service were you worthy of the name of Roman; and, inasmuch as you wronged the earthly Rome, even so did you sin against that Eternal State of the Supreme Lord whereof by baptism you were made a citizen. By such as you, O Basil, is the anger of our God prolonged, and lest you should think that, amid a long and bloody war, amid the trampling of armies, the fall of cities, one death more is of no account, I say to you that, in the eyes of the All-seeing, this deed of yours may be of heavier moment than the slaughter of a battlefield. From your own lips it is manifest that you had not even sound assurance of the guilt you professed to punish. It may be that the man had not wronged you as you supposed. A little patience, a little of the calm which becomes a reasoning soul, and you might not only have saved yourself from crime, but have resolved what must now ever be a doubt to your harassed thoughts.'
'Such words did Veranilda herself speak,' exclaimed Basil. 'And I, in my frenzy, thought them only a lamentation for the death of her lover.'
'Call it frenzy; but remember, O my son, that no less a frenzy was every act of your life, and every thought, which led you on the path to that ultimate sin. Frenzy it is to live only for the flesh; frenzy, to imagine that any good can come of aught you purpose without beseeching the divine guidance.'
Much else did the abbot utter in this vein of holy admonition. And Basil would have listened with the acquiescence of a perfect faith, but that there stirred within. him the memory of what he had read in Augustine's pages, darkening his spirit. At length he found courage to speak of this, and asked in trembling tones:
'Am I one of those born to sin and to condemnation? Am I of those unhappy beings who strive in vain against a doom predetermined by the Almighty?'
Benedict's countenance fell; not as if in admission of a dread possibility, but rather as in painful surprise.
'You ask me,' he answered solemnly, after a pause, 'what no man should ask even when he communes with his own soul in the stillness of night. The Gospel is preached to all; nowhere in the word of God are any forbidden to hear it, or, hearing, to accept its solace. Think not upon that dark mystery, which even to the understandings God has most enlightened shows but as a formless dread. The sinner shall not brood upon his sin, save to abhor it. Shall he who repents darken repentance with a questioning of God's mercy? Then indeed were there no such thing as turning from wrong to righteousness.'
'When I sent you that book,' he resumed, after observing the relief that came to Basil's face, 'I had in mind only its salutary teaching for such as live too much in man's world, and especially for those who, priding themselves upon the name of Roman, are little given to reflection upon all the evil Rome has wrought. Had I known what lay upon your conscience, I should have withheld from you everything but Holy Writ.'
'My man, Deodatus, had not spoken?' asked Basil.
'Concerning you, not a word. I did not permit him to be questioned, and his talk has been only of his own sins.'
Basil wondered at this discretion in a simple rustic; yet, on a second thought, found it consistent with the character of Deodatus, as lately revealed to him.
'He has been long your faithful attendant?' inquired the abbot.
'Not so. Only by chance was he chosen from my horsemen to accompany me hither. My own servant, Felix, being wounded, lay behind at Aesernia.'
'If he be as honest and God-fearing as this man,' said Benedict, 'whose name, indeed, seems well to become him, then are you fortunate in those who tend upon you. But of this and other such things we will converse hereafter. Listen now, son Basil, to my bidding. You have abstained from the Table of the Lord, and it is well. Today, and every day until I again summon you, you will read aloud in privacy the Seven Penitential Psalms, slowly and with meditation; and may they grave themselves in your heart, to remain there, a purification and a hope, whilst you live.'
Basil bowed his head, and whispered obedience.
'Moreover, so far as your strength will suffer it, you shall go daily into the garden or the field, and there work with the brethren. Alike for soul and for body it is good to labour under God's sky, and above all to till God's earth and make it fruitful. For though upon Adam, in whom we all died, was laid as a punishment that he should eat only that which he had planted in the sweat of his brow, yet mark, O Basil, that the Creator inflicts no earthly punishment which does not in the end bear fruit of healing and of gladness. What perfume is so sweet as that of the new-turned soil? And what so profitable to health? When the Romans of old time began to fall from virtue--such virtue as was permitted to those who knew not God--the first sign of their evil state was the forgotten plough. And never again can Italy be blessed--if it he the will of the Almighty that peace be granted her--until valley and mountain side and many-watered plain are rich with her children's labour. I do not bid you live in silence, for silence is not always a good counsellor; but refrain from merely idle speech, and strive, O Basil, strive with all the force that is in you, that your thoughts be turned upward. Go now, my son. It shall not be long before I again call you to my tower.'
So, with a look of kindness which did not soften to a smile, Benedict dismissed his penitent. When the door had closed, he sat for a few minutes with head bent, then roused himself, glanced at the clepsydra which stood in a corner of the room, and turned a page or two of the volume lying before him. Presently his attention was caught by the sound of fluttering wings; on the window sill had again alighted the two doves, and again they seemed to regard him curiously. The aged face brightened with tenderness.
'Welcome,' he murmured, 'ye whose love is innocent.'
From a little bag that lay on the table he drew grains, and scattered them on the floor. The doves flew down and ate, and, as he watched them, Benedict seemed to forget all the sorrows of the world.