Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XXVII. The King of the Goths
Transported from grief to joy, Basil sprang forward and clasped Felix in his arms.
'God be thanked,' he exclaimed, 'that I see you alive and well! Whence come you? What is your news?'
With his wonted grave simplicity, Felix told that he had long since recovered from the effects of the wound, but had remained at Aesernia, unable to obtain permission to go in search of his master. The Gothic army was now advancing along the Via Latina; Basil's followers were united with the troop under Venantius; and on their arrival at Casinum, Felix succeeded in getting leave to climb to the monastery. He had been assured that his lord had recovered health, and was still sojourning with the holy men; but by whom this news had been brought he could not say. Doubtless Venantius had held communication with the monastery.
'And you are here alone?' asked Basil, fearing still to utter the question which was foremost in his mind.
'Alone of my lord's men. I followed those that came with the king.'
'The king? Totila is here?'
'It was rumoured,' replied Felix, in a reverent voice, 'that he desired to speak of deep matters with the holy Benedict. They are even now conversing.'
Basil fell into a great agitation. Absorbed in his private griefs, and in thoughts of eternity, he had all but forgotten the purpose with which he crossed the Apennines at the summons of Marcian. The name of Totila revived his interest in the progress of the war, but at the same time struck his heart with a chill misgiving. With what eyes would the king regard Marcian's slayer? Was he more likely to pardon the deed if he knew (as assuredly he must) that it was done in jealous love of Veranilda? The words he had not dared to speak leapt to his lips.
'Felix, know you anything of the Gothic lady--of her whom we lost?'
'The lord Venantius brought her to Aesernia,' was the grave reply, 'and she is now among the wives and daughters of the Gothic lords who move with the army.'
Answering other questions, Felix said that he had not seen Veranilda, and that he knew nothing of her save what he had heard from those of Basil's men who had been at the island villa, and, subsequently, from the gossip of the camp. A story had got abroad that Veranilda was the lost princess of the Amal line surviving in Italy, and it was commonly thought among the Goths that their king intended to espouse her--the marriage to be celebrated in Rome, when Rome once more acknowledged the Gothic ruler. This did Felix report unwillingly, and only because his master insisted upon knowing all.
'Very like it is true,' commented Basil, forcing a smile. 'You know, my good Felix, that the Emperor would fain have had her adorn his court; and I would rather see her Queen of Italy. But tell me now, last of all, what talk there has been of me. Or has my name been happily forgotten?'
'My dear lord's followers,' replied Felix, 'have not ceased to speak of him among themselves, and to pray for his safety.'
'That I gladly believe. But I see there is more to tell. Out with it all, good fellow. I have suffered worse things than any that can lie. before me.'
In sad obedience, the servant made known that he and his fellows had been closely questioned, first by Venantius, later, some two or three of them, by the king himself, regarding their master's course of life since he went into Picenum. They had told the truth, happy in that they could do so without fear and without shame.
'And how did the king bear himself to you?' asked Basil eagerly.
'With that nobleness which became him,' was the fervid answer. 'It is said among the Goths that only a lie or an act of cowardice can move Totila to wrath against one who is in his power; and after speaking face to face with him, I well believe it. He questioned me in few words, but not as a tyrant; and when I had replied as best I could, he dismissed me with a smile.'
Basil's head drooped.
'Yes, Totila is noble,' fell softly from him. 'Let be what will be. He is worthier than I.'
A knock sounded again at the door of the cell, and there entered Marcus. His keen and kindly face betrayed perturbation of spirit, and after looking from Basil to the new comer and then at Basil again, he said in a nervous voice:
'The lord abbot bids you repair at once, my brother, to the prior's room.'
'I go,' was the prompt reply.
As they left the room, Marcus caught Basil's arm and whispered:
'It is the King of the Goths who awaits you. But have courage, dear brother; his face is mild. Despite his error, he has borne himself reverently to our holy father.'
'Know you what has passed between them?' asked Basil, also in a whisper.
'That none may know. But when Totila came forth from the tower, he had the face of one who has heard strange things. Who can say what the Almighty purposes by the power of his servant Benedict? Not unguided, surely, did the feet of the misbelieving warrior turn to climb this mount.'
Leaving the poet monk to nurse his hopes, Basil betook himself with rapid steps to the prior's room. At the door stood three armed men; two had the long flaxen hair which proclaimed them Goths, the third was Venantius. A look of friendly recognition was all that passed between Basil and his countryman, who straightway admitted him to the room, announced his name, and retired. Alone--his attitude that of one who muses--sat the Gothic King. He was bareheaded and wore neither armour nor weapon; his apparel a purple tunic, with a loose, gold-broidered belt, and a white mantle purple seamed. Youth shone in his ruddy countenance, and the vigour of perfect manhood graced his frame. The locks that fell to his shoulders had a darker hue than that common in the Gothic race, being a deep burnished chestnut; but upon his lips and chin the hair gleamed like pale gold. Across his forehead, from temple to temple, ran one deep furrow, and this, together with a slight droop of the eyelids, touched his visage with a cast of melancholy, whereby, perhaps, the comely features became more royal.
Upon Basil, who paused at a respectful distance, he fixed a gaze of meditative intentness, and gazed so long in silence that the Roman could not but at length lift his eyes. Meeting the glance with grave good nature, Totila spoke firmly and frankly.
'Lord Basil, they tell me that you crossed Italy to draw your sword in my cause. Is this the truth?'
'It is the truth, O king.'
'How comes it then that you are laden with the death of one who had long proved himself my faithful servant, one who, when you encountered him, was bound on a mission of great moment?'
'He whom I slew,' answered Basil, 'was the man whom of all men I most loved. I thought him false to me, and struck in a moment of madness.'
'Then you have since learnt that you were deceived?'
Basil paused a moment.
'Gracious lord, that I accused him falsely, I no longer doubt, having had time to reflect upon many things, and to repent of my evil haste. But I am still ignorant of the cause which led him to think ill of me, and so to speak and act in a way which could not but make my heart burn against him.'
'Something of this too I have heard,' said the king, his blue eyes resting upon Basil's countenance with a thoughtful interest. 'You believe, then, that your friend was wholly blameless towards you, in intention and in act?'
'Save inasmuch as credited that strange slander, borne I know not upon what lips.'
'May I hear,' asked Totila, 'what this slander charged upon you?'
Basil raised his head, and put all his courage into a brief reply.
'That I sought to betray the lady Veranilda into the hands of the Greeks.'
'And you think,' said the king slowly, meditatively, his eyes still searching Basil's face, 'that your friend could believe you capable of that?'
'How he could, I know not,' came the sad reply. 'Yet I must needs think it was so.'
'Why?' sounded from the king's lips abruptly, and with a change to unexpected sternness. 'What forbids you the more natural thought that this man, this Marcian, was himself your slanderer?'
'Thinking so, O king, I slew him. Thinking so, I defiled my tongue with base suspicion of Veranilda. Being now again in my right mind, I know that my accusation of her was frenzy, and therefore I choose rather to believe that I wronged Marcian than that he could conceive so base a treachery.'
Totila reflected. All but a smile as of satisfaction lurked within his eyes.
'Know you,' he next inquired, 'by what means Marcian obtained charge of the lady Veranilda?'
'Of that I am as ignorant as of how she was first carried into captivity.'
'Yet,' said the king sharply, 'you conversed with her after Marcian's death.'
'Gracious lord,' answered Basil in low tones, 'it were miscalled conversing. With blood upon my hands, I said I scarce knew what, and would not give ear to the words which should have filled me with remorse.'
There was again a brief silence. Totila let his eyes stray for a moment, then spoke again meditatively.
'You sought vainly for this maiden, whilst she was kept in ward. Being your friend, did not Marcian lend his aid to discover her for you?'
'He did so, but fruitlessly. And when at length he found her, his mind to me had changed.'
'Strangely, it must be confessed,' said the king. His eyes were again fixed upon Basil with a look of pleasant interest. 'Some day, perchance, you may learn how that came about; meanwhile, you do well to think good rather than evil. In truth, it would be difficult to do otherwise in this dwelling of piety and peace. Is there imposed upon you some term of penance? I scarce think you have it in mind to turn monk?'
The last words, though not irreverently uttered, marked a change in Totila's demeanour. He seemed to lay aside an unwonted gravity, to become the ruler of men, the warrior, the conqueror. His forehead lost its long wrinkle, as, with eyebrows bent and lips compressed into a rallying half smile, he seemed to challenge all the manhood in him he addressed.
'For that,' Basil replied frankly, 'I lack the calling.'
'Well said. And how tends your inclination as regards the things of this world? Has it changed in aught since you came hither?'
'In nothing, O king,' was the firm response 'I honour the Goth, even as I love my country.'
'Spoken like a man. But I hear that you have passed through a long sickness, and your cheek yet lacks something of its native hue. It might be well if you took your ease yet a little with these good bedesmen.'
'It is true that I have not yet all my strength,' answered Basil. 'Moreover,' he added, lowering his voice, 'I would fain lighten my soul of the sin that burdens it. It may be that, ere long, the holy father will grant me absolution.'
Totila nodded with a grave smile.
'Be it so. When you are sound in flesh and spirit, follow me northward. I shall then have more to say to you.'
The look accompanying these words lent them a significance which put confusion into Basil's mind. He saw the courteous gesture wherewith the king dismissed him; he bowed and withdrew; but when he had left the room he stood as one bewildered, aware of nothing, his eyes turned vacantly upon some one who addressed him. Presently he found himself walking apart with Venantius, who spoke to him of public affairs, apprised him of the course of the war during these past weeks, and uttered the hope that before the end of the year the liberators would enter Rome. It was true that the Emperor had at length charged Belisarius with the task of reconquering Italy, but months must pass before an army could be assembled and transported; by the latest news the great commander was in Illyria, striving to make a force out of fresh-recruited barbarians, and lamenting the avarice of Justinian which grudged him needful supplies. And as he listened to all this, Basil felt a new ardour glow within him. He had ever worshipped the man of heroic virtues; once upon a time it was Belisarius who fired his zeal; now his eyes dazzled with the glory of Totila; he burned to devote a loyal service to this brave and noble king.
Suddenly there sounded a trumpet. Its note broke strangely upon the monastic stillness, and, in a moment, echoed clear from the mountains.
'The king goes forth,' said Venantius. 'I must leave you. Join us speedily yonder.'
He pointed towards Rome. On Basil's lips quivered a word, a question, but before it could be uttered the soldier had stridden away, his casque gleaming in the sun, and his sword clanking beside him.
Again with mind confused, Basil went to his cell, and sat there head on hand, trying to recover the mood, the thoughts, with which he had risen this morning. But everything was changed. He could no longer think of the past; the future called to him, and its voice was like that of the Gothic trumpet, stirring his blood, urging him to activity. At midday some one knocked, and there entered Deodatus.
'Where is Felix?' was Basil's first question.
Felix was gone, but only to the town at the foot of the mountain, where he and two of his fellows would abide until their master left the monastery. With this message Deodatus had been charged by Venantius. He added that Felix had been dismissed, at the abbot's order, during Basil's interview with the king.
'I understand,' said Basil in himself; and during the rest of the day he strove with all the force of his will to recover calm and pious thoughts. In the night that followed he slept little; it was now the image of Veranilda that hovered before him and kept him wakeful, perturbed with a tender longing. God, it might be, would pardon him his offence against the Divine law; but could he look for forgiveness from Veranilda? When he thought of the king's last words he was lured with hope; when he reasoned upon this hope, it turned to a mocking emptiness. And through the next day, and the next again, his struggle still went on. He worked and prayed as usual, and read the Psalms of penitence not once only, but several times in the four-and-twenty hours; that other psalm, to which he had turned for strengthening of the spirit, he no longer dared to open. And all this time he scarce spoke with any one; not that the brethren looked upon him with less kindness, or held him at a distance, but the rebuke of his own conscience kept him mute. He felt that his communion with these holy men was in seeming only, and it shamed him to contrast their quiet service of the Eternal with the turbid worldliness of his own thoughts.
During these days the abbot was not seen. Venturing, at length, when he happened to find himself alone with Marcus, to speak of this, he learnt that the holy father was not in his wonted health; Marcus added that the disorder had resulted from the visit of the king. After Totila's departure, Benedict had passed hours in solitary prayer, until a faintness came upon him, from which he could not yet recover. Basil was turning away sadly, when the monk touched his arm, and said in a troubled voice:
'Many times he has spoken of you, dear brother.'
'Would,' replied Basil, 'that I were worthy of his thoughts.'
'Did he think you unworthy,' said Marcus, 'he would not grieve that you must so soon go from among us.'
'The holy father has said that I must soon leave you?'
Marcus nodded gravely, and walked away.
Another week passed. By stern self-discipline, Basil had fixed his thoughts once more on things spiritual, and the result appeared in a quiet contentment. He waited upon the will of Benedict, which he had come to regard as one with the will of God. And at length the expected summons came. It was on the evening of Saturday, after vespers; the abbot had been present at the office, and, as he went forth from the oratory, he bade Basil follow him. They entered the tower, and Benedict, who walked feebly, sat for some moments silent in his chair, as if he had need of repose before the effort of speaking. Through the window streamed a warm light, illumining the aged face turned thither with eyes which dreamt upon the vanishing day.
'So you are no longer impatient to be gone?' were the abbot's first words, spoken in a voice which had not lost its music, though weakness made it low.
'My father,' answered Basil, 'I have striven with myself and God has helped me.'
He knew that it was needless to say more. The eyes bent upon him read all his thoughts; the confessions, the pleadings, he might have uttered, all lay open before that calm intelligence.'
'It is true, dear son,' said Benedict, 'that you have fought bravely, and your countenance declares that, in some measure, victory has been granted you. That it is not the complete victory of those who put the world for ever beneath their feet, shall not move me to murmur. The Lord of the vineyard biddeth whom He will; not all are called to the same labour; it may be--for in this matter I see but darkly--it may be that the earthly strife to which your heart impels you shall serve the glory of the Highest. As indeed doth every act of man, for how can it be otherwise? But I speak of the thought, the purpose, whereby 'in the end of all things, all must be judged.'
Basil heard these sentences with a deep joy. There was silence, and when the aged voice again spoke, it was in a tone yet more solemn. Benedict had risen.
'Answer me, my son, and speak as in the presence of God, whom I humbly serve. Do you truly repent of the sin whereof you made confession to me?'
Kneeling, Basil declared his penitence. Thereupon, Benedict, looking upwards, opened his lips in prayer.
'Receive, O Lord, our humble supplications, and to me, who above all have need of Thy compassion, graciously give ear. Spare Thou this penitent, that, by Thy mercy, he may escape condemnation in the judgment to come. Let him not know the dread of darkness, nor the pang of fire. Having turned from his way of error into the path of righteousness, be he not again stricken with the wounds of sin, but grant Thou that there abide with him for ever that soul's health which Thy grace hath bestowed and Thy mercy hath established.'
As he listened, Basil's eyes filled with tears, and when bidden to rise he felt as one who has thrown off a burden; rejoicing in his recovered strength of body and soul, he gazed into that venerable face with gratitude too great for words.
'Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.' It was with a parent's tenderness that Benedict now spoke. 'I am old, O Basil, and have but a few more steps to take upon this earth. Looking upon me, you see long promise of life before you. And yet--'
The soft accents were suspended. For a moment Benedict gazed as though into the future; then, with a wave of his hand, passed to another thought.
'To-morrow you will join with us in the Holy Communion. You will pass the day in sober joy among the brethren, not one of whom but shares your gladness and desires your welfare. And at sunrise on the day after, you will go forth from our gates. Whether to return, I know not; be that with the Ruler of All. If again you climb this mount, I shall not be here to bid you welcome. Pray humbly, even as I do, that we may meet in the life eternal.'
After Mass on the morrow, when he had joyfully partaken of the Eucharist, Basil was bidden to the priest's room. This time it was the prior himself who received him, and with an address which indicated the change in the position of the penitent, now become an ordinary guest.
'Lord Basil, your follower, Deodatus, is minded to fulfil the prophecy of his name, and tells me that it would be with your good will. Are you content to deprive yourself of his service, that he may continue to abide with us, and after due preparation, take the vows of our community?'
'Content,' was the reply, 'and more than content. If ever man seemed born for the holy life, it is he. I entreat you, reverend father, to favour his desire.'
'Be it so. I have spoken of this matter with the lord abbot, who has graciously given his consent. Let me now make known to you that, at sunrise to-morrow, your attendants who have been sojourning at Casinum, will await you by the gate of the monastery. I wish you, dear lord, a fair journey. Let your thoughts sometimes turn to us; by us you will ever be remembered.'
Long before the morrow's sunrise, Basil was stirring. By the light of his little lamp, he and Deodatus conversed together, no longer as master and servant, but as loving friends, until the bell called them to matins. The night was chill; under a glistening moon all the valley land was seen to be deep covered with far-spreading mist, whereamid the mount of the monastery and the dark summits round about rose like islands in a still, white sea. When matins and lauds were over, many of the monks embraced and tenderly took leave of the departing guest. The last to do so was Marcus, who led him aside and whispered:
'I see you have again put on your ring, as was right. Let me, I beg of you, once more touch it with my lips.'
Having done so with the utmost reverence, he clasped Basil in his arms, kissed him on either cheek, and said, amid tears:
'Lest we should never meet again, take and keep this; not for its worth, for God knows it has little, but in memory of my love.'
The gift was a little book, a beautifully written copy of all the verses composed by the good Marcus in honour of Benedict and of the Sacred Mount of Casinum.
Holding it against his heart, Basil rode down into the mist.