Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter III. The Deacon Leander
The deacon Leander was some forty years of age, stoutish, a trifle asthmatic, with a long visage expressive of much shrewdness, and bushy eyebrows, which lent themselves at will to a look of genial condescension, of pious austerity, or of stern command. His dark hair and reddish beard were carefully trimmed; so were the nails of his shapely, delicate hands. His voice, now subject to huskiness, had until a few years ago been remarkably powerful and melodious; no deacon in Rome was wont to excite more admiration by his chanting of the Gradual; but that glory had passed away, and at the present time Leander's spiritual activity was less prominent than his services as a most capable steward of the patrimony of St. Peter. He travelled much, had an extensive correspondence, and was probably rather respected than reverenced by most lay folk with whom he came in contact.
But in the eyes of the lady Petronilla, Leander was an ideal churchman. No one treated her judgment with so much respect; no one confided to her curious ear so many confidential matters, ranging from the secret scandals of aristocratic Rome to high debates of ecclesiastical polity--or what Petronilla regarded as such. Their closer acquaintance began with the lady's presentation of certain columns of tawny Numidian marble, from a ruined temple she had inherited, to the deacon's basilica, St. Laurentius; and many were the donations which Leander had since accepted from her on behalf of the Church. In return, he had once or twice rejoiced her with the gift of a precious relic, such as came into the hands of few below royal rank; thus had Petronilla obtained the filings of the chain of St. Peter, which, enclosed in a golden key, hung upon her bosom. Some day, as the deacon well knew, this pious virgin would beg him to relieve her of all her earthly possessions, and enter into some holy retreat; but she awaited the death of her brother, by whose will she would doubtless benefit more or less substantially.
If in view of the illness of Maximus, Petronilla had regarded the deacon's visit as providential, the event of yesterday moved her to a more agitated thankfulness for the conference she was about to enjoy. After a night made sleepless by dread and wrath, she rose at daybreak and passed in a fever of impatience the time which elapsed before her reverend guest issued from his chamber. This being the fourth day of the week, Petronilla held rigid fast until the hour of nones; and of course no refreshment was offered to the churchman, who, with that smiling placidity, that graceful self-possession, which ever distinguished him in such society, at length entered the inner hall, and suavely, almost tenderly, greeted his noble hostess. Brimming over as she was with anxiety and indignation, Petronilla allowed nothing of this to appear in her reception of the revered friend. To his inquiries touching the health of the Senator, she replied with significant gravity that Maximus had suffered during the night, and was this morning, by the physician's report, much weaker; she added not a word on the momentous subject presently to be broached. Then Leander, after viewing with many compliments a piece of rich embroidery which occupied the lady's leisure, and or its completion would of course be put at his disposal, took a seat, set the tips of his fingers together, and began to chat pleasantly of his journey. Many were the pious offerings which had fallen to him upon his way: that of the Sicilian lady who gave her little all to be used to maintain the lamps in the basilica of the Chief Apostle; that of the merchant encountered on shipboard, who gave ten pounds of gold to purchase the freedom of slaves; that of the wealthy curial in Lucania, healed of disease by miracle on the feast of St. Cyprian, who bestowed upon the church in gratitude many acres of olive-bearing land, and promised an annual shipload of prime hogs to feed St. Peter's poor. By smooth transition he passed to higher themes: with absent eyes turned to the laurel-planted court on to which the hall opened, he spoke as if scarcely aware of a listener, of troubles at Rome occasioned by imprudences, indiscretions--what should he say--of the Holy Father. As Petronilla bent forward, all tremulous curiosity, he lowered his voice, grew frankly confidential. The Pope had been summoned to Byzantium, to discuss certain points of doctrine with the Emperor; his departure was delayed, but no doubt in his weakness he would obey. Verily, the lack of courage--not to use severer terms--so painfully evident in Pope Vigilius, was a grave menace to the Church--the Catholic Church, which, rightly claiming to rule Christendom, should hold no terms with the arrogance of Justinian. Could it be wondered that the Holy Father was disliked--not to say hated--by the people of Rome? By his ill management the papal granaries had of late been so ill stored that the poor had suffered famine, the Greeks having put an end to that gratuitous distribution of food to which the Roman populace had from of old been accustomed. On this account, chiefly, had Leander journeyed to Sicily, to look after the supplies of corn, and seek out those who were to blame for the recent negligence. His bushy eyebrows gave a hint of their sterner possibilities as he spoke of the measures he had taken, the reproofs and threats he had distributed.
'May I live,' breathed Petronilla, with modest emphasis, 'to see a great, a noble, a puissant Pontiff in the Apostolic Chair!'
Whereat the deacon smiled, well understanding whither the lady looked for her ideal Pope. She went on to speak of the part Vigilius had played in the deposition and miserable death of his predecessor Silverius, and that, as was too well known, at the bidding of haughty, unscrupulous women, the Empress Theodora and her friend Antonina, wife of Belisarius. Verily, the time had come for a great reform at the Lateran; the time had come, and perhaps the divine instrument was not far to seek. Whereupon Petronilla murmured ardently, and the deacon again smiled.
There was a pause. Having permitted Leander to muse a little, his hostess turned the conversation to the troublous topic of her thoughts; and began by saying how her brother would esteem the privilege of counsel and solace from one so qualified to impart them. But alas she must make known a distressful occurrence, whereby the office of a spiritual adviser by the bedside of Maximus must needs be complicated and made painful; and therewith Petronilla related the events of yesterday. As he listened, the deacon knitted his brows, but in thought rather than in affliction; and when the speaker was silent, he still mused awhile.
'Gracious madam,' he began at length solemnly, 'you of course hold no intercourse with this lady?'
'None! I have shrunk ever from the sight of her.'
'Such abhorrence of error witnesses to the purity and the illumination of your soul: I could have expected nothing less from Petronilla. You know not whether the misguided woman shows any disposition to return to the true faith?'
'I fear not,' replied Petronilla, looking rather as if the fear were a hope. 'Her nature is stubborn: she has the pride of the fallen angels.'
'And her father, I am afraid, has no longer the strength to treat her sin with due severity?'
'Earthly affection has subdued him,' replied the lady, shaking her head. 'Who knows,' she added, 'how far his weakness may lead my poor brother?'
She glanced about the hall, and Leander perfectly understood what was in her mind.
'Be not over anxious,' he replied soothingly. 'Leave this in my hands. Should it be necessary, I can dispose of some days before pursuing my journey. Take comfort, noble and pious lady! The truth will prevail.'
The deacon's first step was to obtain a private interview with the physician. He then made known his desire to wait upon Maximus, and with no great delay was admitted. Tactfully, sagaciously, he drew the sufferer to confide in him, to see in him, not so much a spiritual admonisher as a counsellor and a support in worldly difficulties. Leander was already well aware that the Senator had small religious zeal, but belonged to the class of men, numerous at this time, who, whilst professing the Christian and the orthodox faith, were in truth philosophers rather than devotees, and regarded dogmatic questions with a calm not easily distinguished from indifference. Maximus had scarcely spoken of his daughter, when the deacon understood it was Aurelia's temporal, much more than her eternal, interests which disturbed the peace of the dying man. Under Roman law, bequests to a heretic were null and void; though this enactment had for the most part been set aside in Italy under Gothic rule, it might be that the Imperial code would henceforth prevail. Maximus desired to bestow upon his daughter a great part of his possessions. Petronilla, having sufficient means of her own, might well be content with a moderate bequest; Basil, the relative next of kin, had a worthy claim upon his uncle's generous treatment, and Decius, who needed but little, must have that little assured. The father had hoped that his entreaties, together with a prospect of substantial reward, would prevail against Aurelia's pride-rooted heresy, but as yet he pleaded and tempted in vain. Could the deacon help him?
Leander seemed to meditate profoundly. The subject of his thought was what seemed to him a glaring omission in this testament of Maximus. He breathed an intimate inquiry: Was the sick man at peace with his own soul? Had he sought strength and solace from the reverend presbyter of Surrentum, his spiritual father in this district? Maximus replied that he had neglected no ordinary means of grace. Whilst speaking, he met the deacon's eye; its significance was not to be mistaken.
'I should have mentioned,' he said, averting his look, 'that the presbyter Andreas and his poor will not be forgotten. Moreover, many of my slaves will receive their freedom.'
Leander murmured approvingly. Again he reflected, and again he ventured an inquiry: Maximus would desire, no doubt, to rest with his glorious ancestors in the mortuary chapel known as the Temple of Probus, by St. Peter's? And seeing the emotion this excited in his listener he went on to speak at large of the Anician house--first among the great families of Rome to embrace Christianity, and distinguished, generation after generation, by their support of the church, which indeed numbered among its Supreme Pontiffs one of their line, the third Felix. Did not the illustrious father of Maximus lead the Christian senators in their attack upon that lingering shame, the heathen Lupercalia, since so happily supplanted by the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Mary? He, dying-- added Leander, with an ecstatic smile--made over to the Apostolic See an estate in Sicily which yielded every year two rich harvests to the widows, the orphans, the sick, and the destitute of Rome.
'Deacon,' broke from the hot lips of Maximus, who struggled to raise himself, 'if I do the like, will you swear to me to use your influence, your power, for the protection of my daughter?'
It was the voice of nature in its struggle with the universal doom; reason had little part in the hope with which those fading eyes fixed themselves upon the countenance of the self-possessed churchman.
'Heaven forbid,' was Leander's reply, 'that I should bind myself in such terms to perform an office of friendship, which under any circumstances would be my anxious care.'
'Even,' asked Maximus, 'if she persist in her heresy?'
'Even so, my dear lord, remembering from whom she springs. But,' he added, in a soothing voice, 'let me put your mind at rest. Trust me, the lady Aurelia will not long cling to her error. In poverty, in humiliation, she might be obstinate; but as the possessor of wealth--restored to her due rank--oh, my gracious lord, be assured that her conversion will soon follow.'
The same thought had occurred to Maximus. He sighed in profound relief, and regarded the deacon gratefully.
'In that hope I rest. Give me your promise to befriend her, and ask of me what you will.'
Save for the hours she passed at her father's side, Aurelia kept a strict retirement, guarded by the three female slaves whom Petronilla had reluctantly assigned to her. Of them she required no intimate service, having her own attendants, an elderly woman, the nurse of her childhood, who through all changes of fortune had never quitted her, and a younger, half-Goth, half-Italian, who discharged humbler duties. She occupied a small dwelling apart from the main structure of the villa, but connected with it by a portico: this was called the House of Proba, it having been constructed a hundred years ago for the lady Faltonia Proba, who wrote verses, and perhaps on that account desired a special privacy. Though much neglected, the building had beauty of form, and was full of fine work in mosaic. Here, in a little peristyle, where shrubs and creepers had come to wild growth, the sore-hearted lady sat brooding or paced backwards and forwards, her eyes ever on the ground. When yet a maiden she had several times spent summer at Surrentum; her memory revived that early day which seemed so long ago; she lived again with her brothers and sisters, all dead, with her mother whom griefs had aged so soon. Then came a loveless marriage, which soon involved her in the public troubles of the time; for her husband, whose estates lay in Tuscany, was robbed of all by Theodahad, and having vainly sought redress from the young King Athalaric, decided to leave Italy for Byzantium, to which end Aurelia sold a property in Campania, her dower. Before they could set forth upon their journey, her husband caught the plague and died. In second wedlock she would have known contentment but for the alienation of her kin and the scornful hostility of all her class. When widowhood again befell her she was saved from want by a small treasure of money which remained hidden in the dwelling at Cumae when the Gothic warrior, her lord, escaped from Belisarius. As this store diminished, Aurelia had looked forward with dread, for she hoped nothing from her father. And now that such fears seemed to be over, her long tortured pride clamoured for solace. It was not enough to regain her father's love and enjoy an inheritance; she wished to see her enemies at her feet, and to trample upon them--her enemies being not only Petronilla and certain other kinsfolk but all the nobility of Rome, nay, all the orthodox of the Christian church. Pacing, pacing alone, she brooded vast schemes of vengeance.
When it was announced to her that the Roman deacon besought an interview, she at first refused to receive him. Thereupon Leander sent her a few lines in writing, most ceremoniously worded, in which he declared that his purposes were those of a disinterested friend, that no word such as could pain or offend her would pass his lips, and that he had it in his power to communicate something which would greatly benefit her. Aurelia reflected disdainfully, but at length consented to the churchman's approach. Leander's bearing as he entered her presence was as elaborately courteous as the phrasing of his letter.
'Noble lady,' he began, standing with bowed head, 'let not your eyes take note of my garb. See in me only a devoted servant of your illustrious house. His Magnificence, your father, assured of the sincerity wherewith I place at his command such powers and opportunities as I owe to heaven's grace, has deigned to confide in me regarding the disposition of his worldly affairs whereto he is prompted by languishing health.'
He paused a moment, but Aurelia had no word of reply to this exordium. Seeing her keep the same haughty posture in her chair, with eyes scornfully averted as if she scarce listened, Leander proceeded to disclose his mind in less ornate terms By subtle grades of confidential speech, beginning with a declaration of the sympathy moved in him by the parent's love, the daughter's distress, he came with lowering voice, with insinuating tone, with blandly tolerant countenance, to the kernel of his discourse; it contained a suggestion which might--he only said might--aid her amid the manifold perplexities of her position. By this time Aurelia was more attentive; the churchman almost affectionate in his suavity, grew still more direct; and at length, in a voice which only reached the ear of the listener, he spoke thus:
'I understand why you stepped aside from the way of truth; I perceive the obstacles hindering your return. I know the tender impulses which urge you to soothe your father's last hours, and, no less, the motives, natural to a woman of your beauty, of your birth, which are at strife with that tenderness and threaten to overcome it. Could you discover a means of yielding to your filial affection, and at the same time safeguarding your noble pride, would you not gladly use it? Such a means I can point out to you.'
He became silent, watching Aurelia. She, won by the perspicacity which read her heart, had put aside all arrogance, and wore a look of grave intentness.
'Let me know it,' she murmured.
'It is this. Return to the true belief, but guard awhile the secret of your conversion. That it shall not be disclosed until you wish, I can give you firm assurance--if need be, on solemn oath. You will privately make known to your father that he has prevailed, thereby you put his flesh and spirit at rest,--he will die blessing you, and enriching you to the full extent of his desire. You will then also set your signature to a paper, which I shall write, making confession of the orthodox faith, and undertaking to be duly reconciled with the church, by the imposition of hands, at some convenient season. That is all that will be asked of you for the present. The lady Petronilla'--he all but smiled in uttering the name--'shall not even suspect what has happened.'
'Will this villa be mine?' asked the listener after brief reflection.
'This villa shall be yours.'
An exultant gleam shone in Aurelia's eyes.
'Deacon,' she said sternly, 'your promise is not enough. Swear to me that no one living, save my father and you, shall know.'
From his bosom Leander drew forth a little golden cross.
'This,' he said reverently, 'contains dust of iron from the bars on which the blessed Laurentius suffered martyrdom.'
'Swear also,' demanded Aurelia, 'by the Holy Pancratius.' In the name of both saints Leander took his oath of secrecy. Petronilla was of course aware that the deacon had been admitted to audience by her niece. When he descended, she awaited him at the end of the portico, and her look questioned him.
'Stubborn, stubborn!' murmured Leander, shaking his head, and passed on as though in troubled thought.
Later in the day, when she had seen her father, Aurelia made known to her cousin Basil, who had requested an interview, that he might come. His cousin received him smilingly, almost affectionately.
Marcian having this morning taken his leave, called away by some unexplained business to Neapolis, Basil had been on the point of taking Decius into his amorous confidence, when this summons rejoiced him.
'Is the letter written?' were Basil's first words.
'It is here. Can you despatch it at once?'
'I will take it myself,' he answered promptly.
Aurelia shook her head.
'You must not. My father's life is fast failing. No one can say which hour may be his last. If he asked for you, and you were absent--'
'Felix shall go,' said Basil. 'The wind is favourable. He may have to ride back to-morrow, but we can trust him to make all speed.'
'He took the letter, which was superscribed, 'To the most noble lady Veranilda.'
'Dear cousin, you have spoken of me?' he asked with a wistful look.
'I have said, good cousin,' Aurelia answered pleasantly, 'that you wished to be spoken of.'
'What more should I say? Your Amiability is too hasty. Remember that you have scarce seen her.'
'Scarce seen Veranilda!' exclaimed Basil. 'Why, it seems to me as though I had known her for years! Have we not talked together?'
'Once. The first time does not count; you exchanged hardly a dozen words. When,' added Aurelia, smiling, 'were you so dashed in a maid's presence?'
'Nay, never! I am not accused of too much modesty; but when I entered and looked on Veranilda--oh, it was the strangest moment of my life! Noble cousin,' he added pleadingly, 'honoured Aurelia, do but tell me what is her parentage?'
'How does that concern your Excellence? I have told you all that it imports you to know--at all events for the present. Cousin Basil, you delay the letter; I should wish her to have it before nightfall, for she thinks anxiously of me.'
'I go. When may I again speak with you?'
'You shall hear when I am at leisure.'
Basil despatched his servant to Cumae not with one letter only, but with two. Greatly daring, he had himself written to Veranilda; in brief terms, but every word tremulous with his passion. And for half an hour he stood watching the sail which wafted his messenger over the gulf, ruffled to-day by a south-west wind, driver of clouds. Little thought had he to give to the dying Maximus, but at the ninth hour he turned his steps to the oratory, once a temple of Isis, and heard the office, and breathed a prayer for his kindly relative. Which duty discharged, he prayed more fervently, to whatever saint or deity has ear for such petitions, that he might be loved by the Gothic maid.
This evening Maximus seemed to suffer less. He lay with closed eyes, a look of calm on his worn countenance. Beside him sat Decius, reading in low tones from that treatise on the Consolation of Philosophy, which Boethius wrote in prison, a hook wherein Maximus sought comfort, this last year or two more often than in the Evangel, or the Lives of Saints. Decius himself would have chosen a philosopher of older time, but in the words of his own kinsman, Maximus found an appeal more intimate, a closer sympathy, than in ancient teaching. He loved especially the passages of verse; and when the reader came to those lines--
'O felix hominum genus, Si vestros animos amor Quo coelum regitur, regat,'
he raised his hand, smiling with peculiar sweetness.
'Pause there, O Decius,' he said, in a weak but clear voice; 'let me muse awhile.' And he murmured the verses to himself.