Veranilda by George Gissing
On a winter's day, at the hour of sundown, Heliodora sat in her great house on the Quirinal, musing sullenly. Beside her a brazier of charcoal glowed in the dusk, casting a warm glimmer upon the sculptured forms which were her only companions; she was wrapped in a scarlet cloak, with a hood which shadowed her face. All day the sun had shone brilliantly, but it glistened afar on snowy summits, and scarce softened the mountain wind which blew through the streets of Rome.
To divert a hungry populace, now six months besieged, Bessas was offering entertainments such as suited the Saturnalian season. To-day he had invited Rome to the Circus Maximus, where, because no spectacle could be provided imposing enough to fill the whole vast space, half a dozen shows were presented simultaneously; the spectators grouped here and there, in number not a fiftieth part of that assembly which thundered at the chariots in olden time. Here they sat along the crumbling, grass-grown, and, as their nature was, gladly forgot their country's ruin, their own sufferings, and the doom which menaced them. Equestrians, contortionists, mimes, singers, were readily found in the city, where a brave or an honest man had become rare indeed. What a performance lacked in art, he supplied by shamelessness; and nowhere was laughter so hearty, or the crowd so dense, as in that part of the circus where comic singers and dancers vied with the grossest traditions of the pagan theatre.
Heliodora could not miss such an opportunity of enjoyment and of display. She sat amid her like, the feline ladies and the young nobles, half brute, half fop, who though already most of them fasted without the merit of piety, still prided themselves on being the flower of Roman fashion. During one of the pauses of the festival, when places were changed, and limbs stretched, some one whispered to her that she was invited to step towards that place of honour where sat the Emperor's representative. An invitation of Bessas could not lightly be declined, nor had Heliodora any reluctance to obey such a summons. More than a year had gone by since her vain attempt, on Marcian's suggestion, to enslave the avaricious Thracian, and, since then, the hapless Muscula had had more than one successor. Roman gossip, always busy with the fair Greek, told many a strange story to account for her rigour towards the master of Rome, who was well known to have made advances to her. So when to-day they were seen sitting side by side, conversing vivaciously, curiosity went on tiptoe. The entertainment over, Heliodora was carried home in her litter, no friend accompanying her. Few nowadays were the persons in Rome who bade guests to their table; even the richest had no great superfluity of viands. After sunset, the city became a dark and silent desert, save when watch-fires glared and soldiers guarded the walls.
As was the case with all Romans who not long ago had commanded a multitude of slaves and freedmen, Heliodora's household was much reduced. Even before the siege began, many of the serving class stole away to the Goths, who always received them with a welcome; and since the closing of the gates this desertion had been of daily occurrence, the fugitives having little difficulty in making their escape from so vast a city so sparsely populated. No longer did the child from far-off Anglia ride about on his mistress's errands; a female slave, punished for boxing his ears, had stifled him as he slept, and fled that night with five or six others who were tired of the lady's caprices and feared her cruelty. Her aviary was empty. Having wearied of that whim, she had let the birds loose; a generosity she regretted now that toothsome morsels were rare. In her strong box there remained little money, and the estate she owned in a distant part of Italy might as well have been sunk in the sea for all the profit it could yield her. True, she had objects of value, such as were daily accepted by Bessas in exchange for corn and pork; but, if it came to that extremity, could not better use be made of the tough-skinned commander? Heliodora had no mind to support herself on bread and pork whilst food more appetising might still be got.
It was all but dark. She rang a hand-bell and was answered by a maidservant.
'Has Sagaris returned yet?' she asked impatiently.
'Lady, not yet.'
Heliodora kept silence for a moment, then bade the girl bring her a lamp. A very small lamp was set upon the table, and as she glanced at its poor flame, Heliodora remembered that the store of oil was nearly at an end.
Again she had sat alone for nearly half an hour, scarcely stirring, so intent was she on the subject of her thoughts, when a light footfall sounded without, and the curtain at the door was raised. She turned and saw a dark countenance, which smiled upon her coldly.
'Where have you been?' broke angrily from her lips.
'Hither and thither,' was the softly insolent reply, as Sagaris let the curtain fall behind him and stepped forward to the brazier, over which he held out his hands to warm them.
By his apparel, he might have been mistaken for a noble.
Nominally he had for a year held the office of steward to Heliodora. That his functions were not, as a matter of fact, all comprised under that name was well known to all in the house, and to some beyond its walls.
'Were you at the Circus?' she next inquired, using the large hood to avoid his gaze without seeming to do so.
'I was there, gracious lady. Not, of course, in such an exalted place as that in which I saw you.'
'I did not choose that place,' said Heliodora, her voice almost conciliatory. 'Being sent for, I could not refuse to go.'
Sagaris set a stool near to his mistress, seated himself, and looked up into her face. She, for an instant, bore it impatiently, but of a sudden her countenance changed, and she met the gaze with a half-mocking smile.
'Is this one of your jealous days?' she asked, with what was meant for playfulness, though the shining of her eyes and teeth in the lamplight gave the words rather an effect of menace.
'Perhaps it is,' answered the Syrian. 'What did Bessas say to you?'
'Many things. He ended by asking me to sup at the palace. You will own that the invitation was tempting.'
Sagaris glared fiercely at her, and drew upon himself a look no less fierce.
'Fool!' she exclaimed, once more speaking in a natural voice. 'How shall we live a month hence? Have you a mind to steal away to the Goths? If you do so, you can't expect me to starve here alone. Thick-willed slave! Can you see no further than the invitation to sup with that thievish brute?--which I should have accepted, had I not foreseen the necessity of explaining to your dulness all that might follow upon it.'
Esteeming himself the shrewdest of mankind, Sagaris deeply resented these insults, not for the first time thrown at him by the woman whom he regarded with an Oriental passion and contempt.
'Of course I know what you mean,' he replied disdainfully. 'I know, too, that you will be no match for the Thracian robber.'
Heliodora caught his arm.
'What if I can make him believe that Belisarius has the Emperor's command to send him in chains to Constantinople! Would he not rather come to terms with Totila, who, as I know well, long ago offered to let him carry off half his plunder?'
'You know that? How?'
'Clod-pate I Have you forgotten your master whom Basil slew? Did I not worm out of him, love-sick simpleton that he was, all the secrets of his traffic with Greeks and Goths?'
Again they glanced at each other like wild creatures before the leap.
'Choose,' said Heliodora. 'Leave me free to make your fortune, for Totila is generous to those who serve him well; or stay here and spy upon me till your belly pinches, and the great opportunity of your life is lost.'
There was a silence. The Syrian's features showed how his mind was rocking this way and that.
'You have not cunning for this,' he snarled. 'The Thracian will use you and laugh at you. And when you think to come back to me. . . .'
He touched the dagger at his waist.
In that moment there came confused sounds from without the room. Suddenly the curtain was pulled aside, and there appeared the face of a frightened woman, who exclaimed: 'Soldiers, lady, soldiers are in the house!'
Heliodora started up. Sagaris, whose hand was still on the dagger's hilt, grasped her by the mantle, his look and attitude so like that of a man about to strike that she sprang away from him with a loud cry. Again the curtain was raised, and there entered hurriedly several armed men. Their leader looked with a meaning grin at the lady and her companion, who now stood apart from each other.
'Pardon our hasty entrance, fair Heliodora,' he said in Greek. 'The commander has need of you--on pressing business.'
'The commander must wait my leisure,' she replied with a note of indignation over-emphasised.
'Nay, that he cannot,' returned the officer, leering at Sagaris. 'He is even now at supper, and will take it ill if you be not there when he rises from table. A litter waits.'
Not without much show of wrath did Heliodora yield. As she left the room, her eyes turned to Sagaris, who had shrunk into a corner, coward fear and furious passion distorting his face. The lady having been borne away, a few soldiers remained in the house, where they passed the night. On the morrow Bessas himself paid a visit to that famous museum of sculpture, and after an inspection, which left no possible hiding-place unsearched, sent away to the Palatine everything that seemed to him worth laying hands upon.
Meanwhile the domestics had all been held under guard. Sagaris, who heard his relations with Heliodora jested over by the slaves and soldiers, passed a night of terror, and when he knew of the commander's arrival, scarce had strength to stand. To his surprise, nothing ill befell him. During the pillage of the house he was disregarded, and when Bessas had gone he only had to bear the scoffs of his fellow-slaves. These unfortunates lived together as long as the scant provisions lasted, then scattered in search of sustenance. The great house on the Quirinal stood silent, left to its denizens of marble and of bronze.
Sagaris, who suspected himself to have been tricked by Heliodora in the matter of her removal to the Palatine, and had not the least faith in her power to beguile Bessas, swore by all the saints that the day of his revenge should come; but for the present he had to think of how to keep himself alive. Money he had none; it was idle to hope of attaching himself to another household, and unless he escaped to the Goths, there was no resource but to beg from one or other of those few persons who, out of compassion and for their souls' sake, gave alms to the indigent. Wandering in a venomous humour, he chanced to approach the Via Lata, and out of curiosity turned to the house of Marcian. Not knowing whether it was still inhabited, he knocked at the door, and was surprised to hear a dog's bark, for nearly all the dogs in Rome had already been killed and eaten. The wicket opened, and a voice spoke which he well remembered.
'You alive still, old Stephanus? Who feeds you? Open and teach me the art of living on nothing.'
He who opened looked indeed the image of Famine--a fleshless, tottering creature, with scarce strength left to turn the key in the door. His only companions in the house were his daughter and the dog. Till not long ago there had been also the daughter's child, whom she had borne to Marcian, but this boy was dead.
'I'm glad to see you,' said Stephanus mysteriously, drawing his visitor into the atrium, and speaking as if the house were full of people who might overhear him. 'Your coming to-day is a strange thing. Have you, perchance, had a dream?'
'What dream should I have had?' answered Sagaris, his superstition at once stirring.
The old man related that last night, for the third time, he had dreamt that a treasure lay buried in this house. Where he could not say, but in his dream he seemed to descend stairs, and to reach a door which, when he opened it, showed him a pile of gold, shining in so brilliant a light that he fell back blinded, whereupon the door closed in his face. To this the Syrian listened very curiously. Cellars there were below the house, as he well knew, and hidden treasure was no uncommon thing in Rome. Having bidden Stephanus light a torch, he went exploring, but though they searched long, they could find no trace of a door long unopened, or of a walled-up entrance.
'You should have more wit in your dreaming, old scarecrow,' said Sagaris. 'If I had had a dream such as that a second time, not to speak of a third, do you think I should not have learnt the way. But you were always a clod-pate.'
Thus did he revenge himself for the contumely he had suffered from Heliodora. As he spoke they were joined by the old man's daughter, who, after begging at many houses, returned with a pocketful of lentils. The girl had been pretty, but was now emaciated and fever-burnt; she looked with ill-will at Sagaris, whom she believed, as did others of his acquaintance, to have murdered Marcian, and to have invented the story of his death at the hands of Basil. Well understanding this, Sagaris amused himself with jesting on the loss of her beauty; why did she not go to the Palatine, where handsome women were always welcome? Having driven her away with his brutality, he advised Stephanus to keep silent about the treasure, and promised to come again ere long.
He now turned his steps to the other side of Tiber, and, after passing through poor streets, where some show of industries was still kept up by a few craftsmen, though for the most part folk sat or lay about in sullen idleness, came to those grinding-mills on the slope of the Janiculum which were driven by Trajan's aqueduct. Day and night the wheels made their clapping noise, seeming to clamour for the corn which did not come. At the door of one of the mills, a spot warmed by the noonday sun, sat a middle-aged man, wretchedly garbed, who with a burnt stick was drawing what seemed to be diagrams on the stone beside him. At the sound of a footstep, rare in that place, he hastily smeared out his designs, and looking up showed a visage which bore a racial resemblance to that of Sagaris. Recognising the visitor, he smiled, pointed to the ground in invitation, and when Sagaris had placed himself near by, began talking in the tongue of their own Eastern land. This man, who called himself Apollonius, had for some years enjoyed reputation in Rome as an astrologer, thereby gaining much money; and even in these dark days he found people who were willing to pay him, either in coin or food, for his counsel and prophecies. Fearful of drawing attention upon himself, as one who had wealth in store, he had come to live like a beggar in this out-of-the-way place, where his money was securely buried, and with it a provision of corn, peas, and lentils which would keep him alive for a long time. Apollonius was the only man living whom Sagaris, out of reverence and awe, would have hesitated to rob, and the only man to whom he did not lie. For beside being learned in the stars, an interpreter of dreams, a prophet of human fate, Apollonius spoke to those he could trust of a religion, of sacred mysteries, much older, he said, and vastly more efficacious for the soul's weal than the faith in Christ. To this religion Sagaris also inclined, for it was associated with memories of his childhood in the East; if he saw the rising of the sun, and was unobserved, he bowed himself before it, with various other observances of which he had forgotten the meaning.
His purpose in coming hither was to speak of Stephanus's dream. The astrologer listened very attentively, and, after long brooding, consented to use his art for the investigation of the matter.