Chapter XXVIII. At Hadrian's Villa
 

Rome waited. It was not long to the setting of the Pleiades, and there could be no hope that the new army from the East would enter Italy this year. Belisarius lay on the other side of Hadria; in Italy the Imperial commanders scarce moved from the walls where each had found safety. Already suffering dearth (for Totila now had ships upon the Tyrrhene Sea, hindering the corn vessels that made for Portus), such of her citizens as had hope elsewhere and could escape, making haste to flee, watching the slow advance of the Gothic conqueror, and fearful of the leaguer which must presently begin, Rome waited.

One morning the attention of those who went about the streets was caught by certain written papers which had been fixed during the night on the entrance of public buildings and at other such conspicuous points; they bore a proclamation of the King of the Goths. Reminding the Roman people that nearly the whole of Italy was now his, and urging them to avoid the useless sufferings of a siege, Totila made promise that, were the city surrendered to him, neither hurt nor loss should befall one of the inhabitants; and that under his rule Rome should have the same liberty, the same honour, as in the time of the glorious Theodoric. Before these papers had been torn down, their purport became universally known; everywhere men whispered together; but those who would have welcomed the coming of Totila could not act upon their wish, and the Greeks were confident of relief long ere the city could be taken by storm or brought to extremities. Bessas well knew the numbers of Totila's army; he himself commanded a garrison of three thousand men, and not much larger than this was the force with which, after leaving soldiers to maintain his conquest throughout the land, the king now drew towards Rome. At the proclamation Bessas laughed, for he saw in it a device dictated by weakness.

And now, in these days of late autumn, the Gothic army lay all but in sight. Watchers from the walls pointed eastward, to where on its height, encircled by the foaming Anio, stood the little town of Tibur; this, a stronghold overlooking the Ager Romanus, Totila had turned aside to besiege. The place must soon yield to him. How long before his horsemen came riding along the Tiburtine Way?

Close by Tibur, on a gently rising slope, sheltered by mountains alike from northern winds and from the unwholesome breathing of the south, stood the vast pleasure-house built by the Emperor Hadrian, with its presentment in little of the scenes and architecture which had most impressed him in his travels throughout the Roman world. The lapse of four hundred years had restored to nature his artificial landscape: the Vale of Tempe had forgotten its name; Peneus and Alpheus flowed unnoticed through tracts of wood or wilderness; but upon the multitude of edifices, the dwellings, theatres, hippodromes, galleries, lecture halls, no destroyer's hand had yet fallen. They abounded in things beautiful, in carving and mosaic, in wall-painting and tapestries, in statues which had been the glory of Greece, and in marble portraiture which was the boast of Rome. Here, amid the decay of ancient splendour and the luxuriance of the triumphing earth, King Totila made his momentary abode; with him, in Hadrian's palace, housed the Gothic warrior-nobles, and a number of ladies, their wives and relatives, who made, as it were, a wandering court. Honour, pride, and cheerful courage were the notable characteristics of these Gothic women. What graces they had they owed to nature, not to any cultivation of the mind. Their health Buffered in a nomadic life from the ills of the country, the dangers of the climate, and the children by whom a few were accompanied, showed a degeneracy of blood which threatened the race with extinction.

Foremost in rank among them was Athalfrida, sister to the king, and wife of a brawny lord named Osuin. Though not yet five and twenty years old, Athalfrida had borne seven children, of whom five died in babyhood. A creature of magnificent form, and in earlier life of superb vigour, her paling cheek told of decline that had begun; nevertheless her spirits were undaunted; and her voice, in gay talk, in song or in laughter, sounded constantly about the halls and wild gardens. Merry by choice, she had in her a vein of tenderness which now and then (possibly due to failing health) became excessive, causing her to shed abundant tears with little or no cause, and to be over lavish of endearments with those she loved or merely liked. Athalfrida worshipped her husband; in her brother saw the ideal hero. She was ardent in racial feeling, thought nothing good but what was Gothic, and hated the Italians for their lack of gratitude to the people of Theodoric.

To her the king had intrusted Veranilda. Knowing her origin and history, Athalfrida, in the beginning, could not but look coldly upon her charge. The daughter of a Gothic renegade, the betrothed of a Roman noble, and finally an apostate from the creed of her race-how could such an one expect more than the barest civility from Totila's sister? Yet in a little time it had come to pass that Athalfrida felt her heart soften to the sad and beautiful maiden, who never spoke but gently, who had compassion for all suffering, and willing aid for any one she could serve, whom little children loved as soon as they looked into her eyes, and heard her voice. Though a daughter of the abhorred Ebrimut, Veranilda was of Amal blood, and, despite what seemed her weakness and her errors, it soon appeared that she cherished fervidly the glory of the Gothic name. This contradiction puzzled the wife of Osuin, whose thoughts could follow only the plainest track. She suspected that her charge must be the victim of some enchantment, of some evil spell; and in their talk she questioned her with infinite curiosity concerning her acquaintance with Basil, her life in the convent at Praeneste, her release and the journey with Marcian. Veranilda spoke as one who has nothing to conceal; only, when pressed for the story of that last day at the island villa, she turned away her face, and entreated the questioner's forbearance. All else she told with a sad simplicity. Her religious conversion was the result of teaching she had received from the abbess, a Roman lady of great learning, who spoke of things till then unknown to her, and made so manifest the truth of the Catholic creed that her reason was constrained to accept it. Obeying the king's command, Athalfrida refrained from argument and condemnation, and, as Veranilda herself, when once she had told her story, never again returned to it, the subject was almost forgotten. They lived together on terms as friendly as might be between persons so different. The other ladies, their curiosity once satisfied, scarce paid any heed to her at all; and Veranilda was never more content than when left quite alone, to ply her needle and commune with her thoughts.

Against all expectation, the gates of Tibur remained obstinately closed; three weeks went by, and those who came on to the walls to parley had only words of scorn for the Gothic king, whom they bade beware of the Greek force which would shortly march to their succour. Only a small guard of Isaurians held the town, but it was abundantly provisioned, and strong enough to defy attack for an indefinite time. The Goths had no skill in taking fortresses by assault; when walls held firm against them, they seldom overcame except by blockade; and this it was which, despite his conquest of the greater part of Italy, made Totila thus slow and cautious in his approach to Rome. He remembered that Vitiges, who laid siege to the city with a hundred thousand men, had retreated at last with his troops diminished by more than half, so worn and dispirited that they scarce struck another blow against Belisarius. The Greek commander, Totila well knew, would not sally forth and risk an engagement: to storm the battlements would be an idle, if not a fatal, attempt; and how, with so small an army, could he encompass so vast a wall? To guard the entrance to the river with his ships, and to isolate Rome from every inland district of Italy, seemed to the Gothic king the only sure way of preparing his final triumph. But time pressed; however beset with difficulties, Belisarius would not linger for ever beyond Hadria. The resistance of Tibur excited Totila's impatience, and at length stirred his wrath. Osuin heard a terrible threat fall from his lips, and the same evening whispered it to Athalfrida.

'He will do well,' answered his wife, with brows knit.

On the morrow, Athalfrida and Veranilda sat together in the gardens, or what once had been the gardens, of Hadrian's palace, and looked forth over the vast brown landscape, with that gleam upon its limit, that something pale between earth and air, which was the Tyrrhene Sea. Over the sky hung thin grey clouds, broken with strips of hazy blue, and softly suffused with warmth from the invisible sun.

'O that this weary war would end!' exclaimed the elder lady in the language of the Goths. 'I am sick of wandering, sick of this south, where winter is the same as summer, sick of the name of Rome. I would I were back in Mediolanum. There, when you look from the walls, you see the great white mountains, and a wind blows from them, cold, keen; a wind that sets you running and leaping, and makes you hungry. Here I have no gust for food, and indeed there is none worth eating.'

As she spoke, she raised her hand to the branch of an arbutus just above her head, plucked one of the strawberry-like fruits, bit into it with her white teeth, and threw the half away contemptuously.

'You!' She turned to her companion abruptly. 'Where would you like to live when the war is over?'

Veranilda's eyes rested upon something in the far distance, but less far than the shining horizon.

'Surely not there!' pursued the other, watching her. 'I was but once in Rome, and I had not been there a week when I fell sick of fever. King Theodoric knew better than to make his dwelling at Rome, and Totila will never live there. The houses are so big and so close together they scarce leave air to breathe; so old, too, they look as if they would tumble upon your head. I have small liking for Ravenna, where there is hardly dry land to walk upon, and you can't sleep for the frogs. Verona is better. But, best of all, Mediolanum. There, if he will listen to me, my brother shall have his palace and his court--as they say some of the emperors did, I know not how long ago.'

Still gazing at the far distance, Veranilda murmured:

'I never saw the city nearer than this.'

'I would no one might ever look upon it again!' cried Athalfrida, her blue eyes dark with anger and her cheeks hot. 'I would that the pestilence, which haunts its streets, might make it desolate, and that the muddy river, which ever and again turns it into a swamp, would hide its highest palace under an eternal flood.'

Veranilda averted her face and kept silence. Thereupon the other seemed to repent of having spoken so vehemently.

'Well, that's how I feel sometimes,' she said, in a voice suddenly gentle. 'But I forgot--or I wouldn't have said it.'

'I well understand, dear lady,' replied her companion. 'Rome has never been loyal to the Goths. And yet some Romans have.'

'How many? To be sure, you know one, and in your thought he stands for a multitude. Come, you must not be angry with me, child. Nay, vexed, then. Nay then, hurt and sad. I am not myself to-day. I dreamt last night of the snowy mountains, and this warmth oppresses me. In truth, I often fear I shall fall sick. Feel my hand, how hot it is. Where are the children? Let us walk.'

Not far away she discovered three little boys, two of them her own, who were playing at battles and sieges upon stairs which descended from this terrace to the hippodrome below. After watching them awhile, with laughter and applause, she threw an arm round Veranilda's waist, and drew her on to a curved portico where, in a niche, stood a statue of Antinous.

'Is that one of their gods, or an emperor?' asked Athalfrida. 'I have seen his face again and again since we came here.'

'Indeed, I know not,' answered her companion. 'But surely he is too beautiful for a man.'

'Beautiful? Never say that, child; for if it be as you think, it is the beauty of a devil, and has led who knows how many into the eternal fire. Had I a hammer here, I would splinter the evil face. I would not have my boys look at it and think it beautiful.'

A heavy footstep sounded on the terrace. Turning, they saw Osuin, an armed giant, with flowing locks, and thick, tawny beard.

'Wife, a word with you,' he shouted, beckoning from some twenty paces away.

They talked together; then the lady returned, a troubled smile on her face, and said softly to Veranilda:

'Some one wishes to speak with you--some one who comes with the king's good-will.'

Veranilda looked towards Osuin.

'You cannot mean--?' she faltered.

'No other,' replied Athalfrida, nodding gaily. 'Are you at leisure? Some other day, perhaps? I will say you would be private--that you cannot now give audience.'

This pleasantry brought only the faintest smile to the listener's face.

'Is it hither that he would come?' she asked, again looking anxiously towards the ruddy giant, who stamped with a beginning of impatience.

'If so it please you, little one,' answered Athalfrida, changing all at once to her softest mood. 'The king leaves all to my discretion, and I ask nothing better than to do you kindness. Shall it be here, or within?'

Veranilda whispered 'Here'; whereupon Osuin received a sign, and stalked off. A few minutes passed, and Athalfrida, who, after caresses and tender words, had drawn apart, as if to watch her children playing, beheld the expected visitor. Her curiosity was not indiscreet; she would have glimpsed the graceful figure, the comely visage, and then have turned away; but at this moment the new comer paused, looked about him in hesitation, and at length advanced towards her. She had every excuse for looking him straight in the face, and it needed not the pleasant note of his speech to dispose her kindly towards him.

'Gracious lady, I seek the lady Veranilda, and was bidden come hither along the terrace.'

Totila's sister had but little of the Latin tongue; now, for perhaps the first time in her life, she regretted this deficiency. Smiling, she pointed to a group of cypresses which hid part of the portico, and her questioner, with a courtly bow, went on. He wore the ordinary dress of a Roman noble, and had not even a dagger at his waist. As soon as he had passed the cypresses, he saw, within the shadow of the portico, the figure his eyes had sought; then he stood still, and spoke with manly submissiveness.

'It is much that you suffer me to come into your presence, for of all men, O Veranilda, I am least worthy to do so.'

'How shall I answer you?' she replied, with a sad, simple dignity. 'I know not of what unworthiness you accuse yourself. That you are most unhappy, I know too well.'

She dared not raise her eyes to him; but in the moment of his appearance before her, it had gladdened her to see him attired as when she first knew him. Had he worn the soldierly garb in which he presented himself at Marcian's villa, the revival of a dread memory would have pierced her heart. Even as in outward man he was the Basil she had loved, so did his voice recall that brighter day.

'Unhappy most of all,' he continued, 'in what I least dare speak of. I have no ground to plead for pardon. What I did, and still more what I uttered, judge it at the worst. I should but add to my baseness if I urged excuses.'

'Let us not remember that, I entreat you,' said Veranilda. 'But tell me, if you will, what has befallen you since?'

'You know nothing of me since then?'

'Nothing.'

'And I nothing of you, save that you were with the Gothic army, and honourably entertained. The king himself spoke to me of you, when, after long sickness, I came to his camp. He asked if it was my wish to see you; but I could not yet dare to stand before your face, and so I answered him. "It is well," said Totila. "Prove yourself in some service to the Goths and to your country, then I will speak with you again." And straightway he charged me with a duty which I the more gladly undertook because it had some taste of danger. He bade me enter Rome, and spread through the city a proclamation to the Roman people--'

'It was you who did that?' interrupted the listener. 'We heard of its being done, but not by what hand.'

'With a servant whom I can trust, disguised, he and I, as peasants bringing food to market, I entered Rome, and remained for two days within the gates; then returned to Totila. He next sent me to learn the strength of the Greek garrisons in Spoletium and Assisium, and how those cities were provisioned; this task also, by good hap, I discharged so as to win some praise. Then the king again spoke to me of you. And as, before, I had not dared to approach you, so now I did not dare to wait longer before making known to you my shame and my repentance.'

'Of what sickness did you speak just now?' asked Veranilda, after a silence.

He narrated to her his sojourn at the monastery, told of the penance he had done, of the absolution granted him by Benedict; whereupon a light came into Veranilda's eyes.

'There lives,' she exclaimed, 'no holier man!'

'None holier lived,' was Basil's grave answer. 'Returning from Assisium, I met a wandering anchorite, who told me of Benedict's death.'

'Alas!'

'But is he reverenced by those of your creed?' asked Basil in surprise.

'Of my creed? My faith is that of the Catholic Church.'

For the first time their eyes met. Basil drew a step nearer; his face shone with joy, which for a moment held him mute.

'It was in the convent,' added Veranilda, 'that I learnt the truth. They whom I called my enemies wrought this good to me.'

Basil besought her to tell him how she had been carried away from Surrentum, and all that had befallen her whilst she was a prisoner; he declared his ignorance of everything between their last meeting in the Anician villa and the dreadful day which next brought them face to face. As he said this, it seemed to him that Veranilda's countenance betrayed surprise.

'I forget,' he added, his head again falling, 'that your mind has been filled with doubt of me. How can I convince you that I speak truly? O Veranilda!' he exclaimed passionately, 'can you look at me, can you hear me speak, and still believe that I was ever capable of betraying you?'

'That I never believed,' she answered in a subdued voice.

'Yet I saw in your eyes some doubt, some hesitation.'

'Then it was despite myself. The thought that you planned evil against me I have ever cast out and abhorred. Why it was said of you, alas, I know not.'

'What proof was given?' asked Basil, gazing fixedly at her.

'None.'

Her accent did not satisfy him; it seemed to falter.

'Was nothing said,' he urged, 'to make credible so black an untruth?'

Veranilda stood motionless and silent.

'Speak, I beseech you!' cried Basil, his hands clasped upon his breast. 'Something there is which shadows your faith in my sincerity. God knows, I have no right to question you thus--I, who let my heart be poisoned against you by a breath, a nothing. Rebuke me as you will; call me by the name I merit; utter all the disdain you must needs feel for a man so weak and false--'

His speech was checked upon that word. Veranilda had arrested him with a sudden look, a look of pain, of fear.

'False?' fell from her lips.

'Can you forget it, O Veranilda? Would that I could!'

'In your anger,' she said, 'as when perchance you were already distraught with fever, you spoke I know not what. Therein you were not false to me.'

'False to myself; I should have said. To you, never, never! False to my faith in you, false to my own heart which knew you faithful; but false as men are called who--'

Again his voice sank. A memory flashed across him, troubling his brow.

'What else were you told?' he asked abruptly. 'Can it be a woman's name was spoken? You are silent. Will you not say that this thought, also, you abhorred and rejected?'

The simple honesty of Veranilda's nature would not allow her to disguise what she thought. Urging question after question, with ardour irresistible, Basil learnt all she had been told by Marcian concerning Heliodora, and, having learnt it, confessed the whole truth in utter frankness, in the plain, blunt words dictated by his loathing of the Greek woman with whom he had once played at love. And, as she listened, Veranilda's heart grew light; for the time before her meeting with Basil seemed very far away, and the tremulous passion in his voice assured her of all she cared to know, that his troth pledged to her had never suffered wrong. Basil spoke on and on, told of his misery in Rome whilst vainly seeking her; how he was baffled and misled; how at length, in despair, he left the city and went to his estate by Asculum. Then of the message received from Marcian, and how eagerly he set forth to cross the Apennines, resolved that, if he could not find Veranilda, at least he would join himself with her people and fight for their king; of his encounter with the marauding troop, his arrival, worn and fevered, at Aesernia, his meeting with Sagaris, their interview, and what followed upon it.

'To this hour I know not whether the man told me what he believed, or coldly lied to me. He has the face of a villain and may well have behaved as one--who knows with what end in view? Could I but lay hands upon him, I would have the truth out of his tongue by torture. He is in Rome. I saw him come forth from Marcian's house, when I was there on the king's service; but, of course, I could not speak with him.'

Veranilda had seated herself within the portico. Basil stood before her, ever and again meeting her eyes as she looked up.

'Just as little,' he resumed after a pause of troubled thought, 'can I know whether Marcian believed me a traitor, or himself had a traitorous mind. The more I think, the less do I understand him. I hope, I hope with all my heart, that he was innocent, and daily I pray for his eternal welfare.'

'That is well done, O Basil,' said the listener, for the first time uttering his name. 'My prayers, too, he shall have. That he was so willing to credit ill of you, I marvel; and therein he proved himself no staunch friend. But of all else, he was guiltless.'

'So shall he ever live in my memory,' said Basil. 'Of him I always found it easier to believe good than evil, for many were the proofs he had given me of his affection. Had it been otherwise, I should long before have doubted him; for, when I was seeking you in Rome, more than once did a finger point to Marcian, as to one who knew more than he would say. I heard the accusation with scorn, knowing well that they who breathed it desired to confound me.'

This turned his thoughts again to the beginning of their sorrows; and again he gently asked of Veranilda that she would relate that part of her story which remained unknown to him. She, no longer saddened by the past, looked frankly up into his face, and smiled as she began. Now first did Basil hear of the anchoret Sisinnius, and how Aurelia was beguiled into the wood, where capture awaited her. Of the embarkment at Surrentum, Veranilda had only a confused recollection: fear and distress re-awoke in her as she tried to describe the setting forth to sea, and the voyage that followed. Sisinnius and his monkish follower were in the ship, but held no speech with their captives. After a day or two of sailing, they landed at nightfall, but in what place she had never learnt. Still conducted by the anchorets, they were taken to pass the night in a large house, where they had good entertainment, but saw only the female slaves who waited upon them. The next day began a journey by road; and thus, after more than one weary day, they arrived at the house of religious women which was to be Veranilda's home for nearly a twelvemonth.

'I knew not where I was, and no one would answer me that question, though otherwise I had gentle and kindly usage. Aurelia I saw no more; we had not even taken leave of each other, for we did not dream on entering the house that we were to be parted. Whether she remained under that roof I never learnt. During our journey, she suffered much, often weeping bitterly, often all but distraught with anger and despair. Before leaving the ship we were told that, if either of us tried to escape, we should be fettered, and only the fear of that indignity kept Aurelia still. Her face, as I remember its last look, was dreadful, so white and anguished. I have often feared that, if she were long kept prisoner, she would lose her senses.'

Basil having heard the story to an end without speaking, made known the thoughts it stirred in him. They talked of Petronilla and of the deacon Leander, and sought explanations of Veranilda's release. And, as thus they conversed, they forgot all that had come between them; their constraint insensibly passed away; till at length Basil was sitting by Veranilda's side, and holding her hand, and their eyes met in a long gaze of love and trust and hope.

'Can you forgive?' murmured Basil, upon whom, in the fulness of his joy, came the memory of what he deemed his least pardonable sin.

'How can I talk of forgiveness,' she returned, 'when not yours was the blame, but mine? For I believed--or all but believed--that you had forgotten me.'

'Beloved, I was guilty of worse than faithlessness. I dread to think, and still more to speak, of it; yet if I am silent, I spare myself; and seem, perhaps, to make light of baseness for which there are no words of fitting scorn. That too, be assured, O Veranilda, I confessed to the holy Benedict.'

Her bowed head and flushing cheek told him that she understood.

'Basil,' she whispered, 'it was not you, not you.'

'Gladly would I give myself that comfort. When I think, indeed, that this hand was raised to take my friend's life, I shake with horror and say, "Not I did that!" Even so would I refuse to charge my very self with those words that my lips uttered. But to you they were spoken; you heard them; you fled before them--'

'Basil! Basil!'

She had hidden her face with her hands. Basil threw himself upon his knees beside her.

'Though I spoke in madness, can you ever forget? God Himself, I know, will sooner blot out my sin of murder than this wound I inflicted upon your pure and gentle heart!'

Veranilda caught his hand and pressed her lips upon it, whilst her tears fell softly.

'Listen, dearest Basil,' she said. 'To think that I guard this in my memory against you would be to do me wrong. Remember how first I spoke to you about it, when we first knew that we loved each other. Did I not tell you that this was a thing which could never be quite forgotten? Did I not know that, if ever I sinned, or seemed to sin, this would be the first rebuke upon the lips of those I angered? Believing me faithless--nay, not you, beloved, but your fevered brain--how could you but think that thought? And, even had you not spoken it, must I not have read it in your face? Never ask me to forgive what you could not help. Rather, O Basil, will I entreat you, even as I did before, to bear with the shame inseparable from my being. If it lessen not your love, have I not cause enough for thankfulness?'

Hearing such words as these, in the sweetest, tenderest voice that ever caressed a lover's senses, Basil knew not how to word all that was in his heart. Passion spoke for him, and not in vain; for in a few moments Veranilda's tears were dry, or lingered only to glisten amid the happy light which beamed from her eyes. Side by side, forgetful of all but their recovered peace, they talked sweet nothings, until there sounded from far a woman's voice, calling the name of Veranilda.

'That is Athalfrida,' she said, starting up. 'I must not delay.'

One whisper, one kiss, and she was gone. When Basil, after brief despondency came forth on to the open terrace, he saw her at a distance, standing with Athalfrida and Osuin. Their looks invited him to approach, and, when he was near, Veranilda stepped towards him.

'It will not be long,' she said calmly, 'before we again meet. The lord Osuin promises, and he speaks for the king.'

Basil bowed in silence. The great-limbed warrior and his fair wife had their eyes upon him, and were smiling good-naturedly. Then Osuin spoke in thick-throated Latin.

'Shall we be gone, lord Basil?'

From the end of the terrace, Basil looked back. Athalfrida stood with her arm about the maiden's waist; both gazed towards him, and Veranilda waved her hand.