Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XXVI. Vivas in Deo
The telling of his story was to Basil like waking from a state of imperfect consciousness in which dream and reality had indistinguishably mingled. Since the fight with the brigands he had never been himself; the fever in his blood made him incapable of wonted thought or action; restored to health, he looked back upon those days with such an alien sense that he could scarce believe he had done the things he related. Only now did their move in him a natural horror when he thought of the death of Marcian, a natural distress when he remembered his bearing to Veranilda. Only now could he see in the light of reason all that had happened between his talk with Sagaris at Aesernia and his riding away with Venantius from the villa on the island. As he unfolded the story, he marvelled at himself, and was overcome with woe.
There needed not the words of the holy abbot to show him how blindly he had acted. He could see now that, however it might appear, the guilt of Marcian was quite unproved. The Syrian slave might have lied, or else have uttered a mistaken suspicion. It might be true that Marcian had been misled by some calumniator into thinking evil of his friend. And had he not heard the declaration of Veranilda, that she had suffered no wrong at his hands? Basil saw the face of his beloved. Only a man possessed by the Evil Spirit could have answered her as he had done. Was not the fact that Marcian had brought Veranilda to his villa in order to give her into the hands of Totila sufficient proof that he had neither wronged her nor meditated wrong? Ay, but Basil reminded himself that he had accused Veranilda of amorous complicity with Marcian. And at this recollection his brain whirled.
Even were it permitted him ever to behold her again, how could he stand before her? Must she not abhor him, as one whose baseness surpassed all she had thought possible in the vilest slave? Jealousy was pardonable; in its rage, a man might slay and be forgiven. But for the reproach with which he had smitten her--her, pure and innocent--there could be no forgiveness. It was an act of infamy, branding him for ever.
Thoughts such as these intermingled with his reading of the Psalms of penitence. Ever and again grief overwhelmed him, and he wept bitterly. At the hour of the evening meal, he would willingly have remained in his cell, to fast and mourn alone; but this, he felt, would have been to shirk part of his penance; for, though the brothers knew not of his sin, he could not meet their eyes for shame, and such humiliation must needs be salutary. This evening other guests sat at the abbot's table, and he shrank from their notice, for though they were but men of humble estate, pilgrims from Lucania, he felt debased before them. The reading, to which all listened during their meal, was selected from that new volume of Cassiodorus so esteemed by the abbot; it closed with a prayer in which Basil found the very utterance his soul needed.
'O Lord, our Teacher and Guide, our Advocate and Judge, Thou the Bestower and the Admonitor, terrible and clement, Rebuker and Consoler, who givest sight to the blind, who makest possible to the weak that which Thou commandest, who art so good that Thou desirest to be for ever petitioned, so merciful that Thou sufferest no one to despair; grant us that which we ask with Thy approval, and yet more that which in our ignorance we fail to beseech. How weak we are, Thou indeed knowest; by what a foe we are beset, Thou art aware. In the unequal contest, in our mortal infirmity, we turn to Thee, for it is the glory of Thy Majesty when the meek sheep overcomes the roaring lion, when the Evil Spirit is repulsed by feeble flesh. Grant that our enemy, who rejoices in our offending, may be saddened by the sight of human happiness. Amen.'
He rose, for the first time, to attend the midnight office, Deodatus, who was punctual as a monk at all the hours, awaking him from sleep. But Marcus whispered an admonishing word.
'I praise your zeal, good brother; nevertheless, as your physician, I cannot suffer your night's rest to be broken. Descend for lauds, if you will, but not earlier.'
Basil bowed in obedience. Lauds again saw him at prayer. Hitherto, when they were together in the oratory, it had been the habit of Deodatus to kneel behind his master; this morning Basil placed himself by his servant's side. They walked away together in the pearly light of dawn, and Basil led the way to a sequestered spot, whence there was a view over the broad valley of the Liris. Several times of late he had come here, to gaze across the mountainous landscape, wondering where Veranilda might be. Turning to his companion, he laid a hand on the man's shoulder, and addressed him in a voice of much gentleness.
'Did you leave nothing behind you, Deodatus, which would make the thought of never returning to your home a sorrow?'
'Nothing, my dear lord,' was the reply. 'In my lifetime I have seen much grief and little solace. All I loved are dead.'
'But you are young. Could you without a pang say farewell to the world?'
Deodatus answered timidly:
'Here is peace.'
Continuing to question, Basil learnt that for this man the life of the world was a weariness and a dread. Hardships of many kinds had oppressed him from childhood; his was a meek soul, which had no place amid the rudeness and violence of the times; from the first hour, the cloistered life had cast a spell upon him.
'Here is peace,' he repeated. 'Here one can forget everything but to worship God. Could I remain here, I were the happiest of men.'
And Basil mused, understanding, approving, yet unable to utter the same words for himself. His eyes strayed towards the far valley, shimmering in earliest daylight. He, too, had he not suffered dread things whilst living in the world? And could he expect that life in the future would be more kindly to him? None the less did his heart yearn for that valley of human tribulation. He struggled to subdue it.
'Deodatus, pray for me, that I may have strength to do that which I see to be the best.'
It was no forced humility. Very beautiful in Basil's eyes showed the piety and calm which here surrounded him, and his reverence for the founder of this house of peace fell little short of that with which he regarded the Saints in heaven. Never before--unless it were at certain moments when conversing with the Lady Silvia--had he felt the loveliness of a life in which religion was supreme; and never, assuredly, had there stirred within him a spirit so devout. He longed to attain unto righteousness, that entire purity of will, which, it now seemed to him, could be enjoyed only in monastic seclusion. All his life he had heard praise of those who renounced the world; but their merit had been to him a far-off, uncomprehended thing, without relation to himself. Now he understood. A man, a sinner, it behoved him before all else to chasten his soul that he might be pleasing unto God; and behold the way! For one who had sinned so grievously, it might well be that there was no other path of salvation.
This morning he went forth with the monks to labour. Brother Marcus conducted him to a plot of garden ground where there was light work to be done, and there left him. Willingly did Basil set about this task, which broke the monotony of the day, and, more than that, was in itself agreeable to him. He had always found pleasure in the rustic life, and of late, at his Asculan villa, had often wished he could abide in quiet for the rest of his days amid the fields and the vineyards. Working in the mellow sunlight, above him the soft blue sky of early autumn, and all around the silence of mountain and of forest, he felt his health renew itself. When the first drops of sweat stood upon his forehead he wiped them away with earthy fingers, and the mere action--he knew not why--gave him pleasure.
But of a sudden he became aware that he had lost something. From the little finger of his left hand had slipped his signet ring. It must have fallen since he began working, and anxiously he searched for it about the ground. Whilst he was thus occupied, Marcus came towards him, carrying a great basket of vegetables. Not without diffidence, Basil told what had happened.
'You will rebuke me, holy brother, for heeding such a loss. But the ring is very old; it has been worn by many of my ancestors, to them it came, and from one who suffered martyrdom in the times of Diocletian.'
'Then, indeed, I did well,' replied Marcus, 'to leave it on your finger during your sickness. I looked at it and saw that it was a Christian seal. Had it been one of those which are yet seen too often, with the stamp of a daemon, I should have plucked it off, and perhaps have destroyed it. The ring of a blessed martyr I Let us seek, let us seek! But, brother Basil,' he added gravely, 'has there passed through your heart no evil thought? I like not this falling of the ring.'
Basil held up his wasted hand with a smile.
'True, true; you have lost flesh. Be thankful for it, dear brother; so much the easier you combat with him whose ally is this body of death. True, the ring may have fallen simply because your finger was so thin. But be warned, O Basil, against that habit of mind which interprets in an earthly sense things of divine meaning.'
'I had indeed let my thoughts dwell upon worldliness,' Basil admitted.
The monk smiled a satisfied reproof.
'Even so, even so! And look you! In the moment of your avowal my hand falls upon the ring.'
Rejoicing together, they inspected it. In the gold was set an onyx, graven with the monogram of Christ, a wreath, and the motto, 'Vivas in Deo.' Marcus knelt, and pressed the seal to his forehead, murmuring ecstatically:
'The ring of a blessed martyr!'
'I am all unworthy to wear it,' said Basil, sincerely hesitating to replace it on his finger. 'Indeed, I will not do so until I have spoken with the holy father.'
This resolve Marcus commended, and, with a kindly word, he went his way. Basil worked on. To discipline his thoughts he kept murmuring, 'Vivas in Deo,' and reflecting upon the significance of the words; for, often as he had seen them, he had never till now mused upon their meaning. What was the life in God I Did it mean that of the world to come? Ay, but how attain unto eternal blessedness save by striving to anticipate on earth that perfection of hereafter? And so was he brought again to the conclusion that, would he assure life eternal, he must renounce all that lured him in mortality.
The brothers returning from the field at the third hour signalled to him that for to-day he had worked enough. One of them, in passing, gave him a smile, and said good-naturedly:
'Thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.'
Weary, but with the sense of healthful fatigue, Basil rested for an hour on his bed. He then took the Psalter and opened it at hazard, and the first words his eyes fell upon were:
'Thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.'
'A happy omen,' he thought. But stay; what was this that followed?
'Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house; thy children like olive plants round about thy table.
'Behold, thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord.'
The blood rushed into his cheeks. He sat staring at the open page as though in astonishment. He read and re-read the short psalm of which these verses were part, and if a voice had spoken it to him from above he could scarce have felt more moved by the message. Basil had never been studious of the Scriptures, and, if ever he had known that they contained such matter as this, it had quite faded from his memory. He thought of the Holy Book as hostile to every form of earthly happiness, its promises only for those who lived to mortify their natural desires. Yet here was the very word of God encouraging him in his heart's hope. Were not men wont to use the Bible as their oracle, opening the pages at hazard, even as he had done?
It was long before he could subdue his emotions so as to turn to the reading imposed upon him. He brought himself at length into the fitting mind by remembering that this wondrous promise was not for a sinner, a murderer; and that only could he hope to merit such blessing if he had truly repented, and won forgiveness. Stricken down by this reflection he grew once more humble and sad.
In the afternoon, as he was pacing alone in a little portico near the abbot's tower, the prior approached him. This reverend man had hitherto paid little or no attention to Basil. He walked ever with eyes cast down as if in deep musing, yet it was well known that he observed keenly, and that his duties to the community were discharged with admirable zeal and competence. In the world he would have been a great administrator. In the monastery he seemed to find ample scope for his powers, and never varied from the character of a man who set piety and learning above all else. Drawing nigh to Basil he greeted him gently, and asked whether it would give him pleasure to see the copyists at work. Basil gladly accepted this invitation, and was conducted to a long, well-lit room, where, at great desks, sat some five or six of the brothers, each bent over a parchment which would some day form portion of a volume, writing with slow care, with the zeal of devotees and with the joy of artists. Not a whisper broke upon the silence in which the pen-strokes alone were audible. Stepping softly, the prior led his companion from desk to desk, drawing attention, without a word, to the nature of the book which in each case was being copied. It surprised Basil to see that the monks busied themselves in reproducing not only religious works but also the writings of authors who had lived in pagan times, and of this he spoke when the prior had led him forth again.
'Have you then been taught,' asked the prior, 'that it is sinful to read Virgil and Statius, Livy and Cicero?'
'Not so, reverend father,' he replied modestly, his eyes falling before the good-humoured gaze. 'But I was so ill instructed as to think that to those who had withdrawn from the world it might not be permitted.'
'Father Hieronymus had no such misgiving,' said the prior, 'for he himself, at Bethlehem, taught children to read the ancient poets; not unmindful that the blessed Paul himself, in those writings which are the food of our spirit, takes occasion to cite from more than one poet who knew not Christ. If you would urge the impurity and idolatry which deface so many pages of the ancients, let me answer you in full with a brief passage of the holy Augustine. "For," says he, "as the Egyptians had not only idols to be detested by Israelites, but also precious ornaments of gold and silver, to be carried off by them in flight, so the science of the Gentiles is not only composed of superstitions to be abhorred, but of liberal arts to be used in the service of truth."'
They walked a short distance without further speech, then the prior stopped.
'Many there are,' he said, with a gesture indicating the world below, 'who think that we flee the common life only for our souls' salvation. So, indeed, it has been in former times, and God forbid that we should speak otherwise than with reverence of those who abandoned all and betook themselves to the desert that they might live in purity and holiness. But to us, by the grace bestowed upon our holy father, has another guidance been shown. Know, my son, that, in an evil time, we seek humbly to keep clear, not for ourselves only, but for all men, the paths of righteousness and of understanding. With heaven's blessing we strive to preserve what else might utterly perish, to become not only guardians of God's law but of man's learning.'
Therewith did the prior take his leave, and Basil pondered much on what he had heard. It was a new light to him, for, as his instructor suspected, he shared the common view of coenobite aims, and still but imperfectly understood the law of Benedict. All at once the life of this cloister appeared before him in a wider and nobler aspect. In the silent monks bent over their desks he saw much more than piety and learning. They rose to a dignity surpassing that of consul or praefect. With their pens they warred against the powers of darkness, a grander conflict than any in which men drew sword. He wished he could talk of this with his cousin Decius, for Decius knew so much more than he, and could look so much deeper into the sense of things.
Days passed. Not yet did he receive a summons to the abbot's tower. Rapidly recovering strength, he worked long in the fields, and scrupulously performed his penitential exercises. Only, when he had finished his daily reading of the appointed psalms, he turned to that which begins: 'Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord, that walketh in His ways.' How could he err in dwelling upon the word of God? One day, as he closed the book, his heart was so full of a strange, half-hopeful, half-fearful longing, that it overflowed in tears; and amid his weeping came a memory of Marcian, a tender memory of the days of their friendship: for the first time he bewailed the dead man as one whom he had dearly loved.
Then there sounded a knock at the door of his cell. Commanding himself, and turning away so as to hide his face, he bade enter.
And, looking up, he beheld his servant Felix.