Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter IV. To Cumae
The Bishop of Surrentum, an elderly man and infirm, had for the past fortnight been unable to leave his house, but day by day he received news of what passed at the villa of Maximus, and held with the presbyter, Andreas, many colloquies on that weighty topic, the senator's testament. As it happened, neither bishop nor presbyter had much aptitude for worldly affairs; they were honest, simple-minded clerics, occupied with visions and marvels and the saving details of dogma; exultant whenever a piece of good fortune befell their church, but modest in urging a claim at the bedside of the sick. Being the son of a freedman who had served in the Anician house, the bishop could not approach Maximus without excessive reverence; before Petronilla he was even more unduly awed.
On Sunday morning the good prelate lay wakeful at the hour of matins, and with quavering voice chanted to himself the psalm of the office from which his weakness held him apart. Presently the door opened, and in the dim lamp-light appeared the presbyter Andreas, stepping softly. He made known that an urgent message had just summoned him to the villa; Maximus was near his end.
'I, too, will come,' exclaimed the bishop, rising in his bed and ringing loudly a little hand-bell.
'Venerable father! your health--'
'Hasten, hasten, Andreas! I follow.'
In less than an hour he descended from his litter, and, resting on the arms of two servants, was conducted to the chamber of the dying man. Andreas had just administered the last rites; whether the fixed eyes still saw was doubtful. At a murmur of 'the bishop' those by the doorway reverently drew aside. On one side of the bed were Aurelia and the deacon; on the other, Petronilla and Basil and Decius. Though kneeling, the senator's daughter held herself proudly. Though tears were on her face, she hardly disguised an air of triumph. Nor was the head of Petronilla bent; her countenance looked hard and cold as marble. Leander, a model of decorum, stepped with grave greeting towards the prelate, and whispered a word or two. In the stillness that followed there quivered a deep breath. Flavius Anicius Maximus had lived his life.
When the bishop, supported by Leander and Andreas, rose from prayer, he was led by the obsequious clerics to a hall illumined by several lamps, where two brasiers gave forth a grateful glow in the chill of the autumn morning. Round about the walls, in niches, stood busts carved or cast of the ancestors of him who lay dead. Here, whilst voices of lamentation sounded from without, Leander made known to the prelate and the presbyter the terms of the will. Basil was instituted 'heir'; that is to say, he became the legal representative of the dead man, and was charged with the distribution of those parts of the estate bequeathed to others. First of the legatees stood Aurelia. The listeners learnt with astonishment that the obstinate heretic was treated as though her father had had no cause of complaint against her; she was now mistress of the Surrentine estate, as well as of the great house in Rome, and of other property. A lamentable thing, the deacon admitted suavely; but, for his part, he was not without hope, and he fixed his eyes with a peculiar intensity on the troubled bishop.
Petronilla drew near. The will was already known to her in every detail, and she harboured a keen suspicion of the secret which lay behind it. Leander, she could not doubt, was behaving to her with duplicity, and this grieved her to the heart. It was to the bishop that she now addressed herself.
'Holy father, I am your suppliant. Not even for a day will I remain under this roof, even if--which is doubtful--I should be suffered to do so. I put myself under the protection of your Holiness, until such time as I can set forth on my sad journey to Rome. At Surrentum I must abide until the corpse of my brother can be conveyed to its final resting place--as I promised him.'
Much agitated, the prelate made answer that a fitting residence should be prepared for her before noon, and the presbyter Andreas added that he would instantly betake himself to the city on that business. Petronilla thanked him with the loftiest humility. For any lack of respect, or for common courtesy, to which they might be exposed ere they quitted the villa, she besought their Sanctities not to hold her responsible, she herself being now an unwilling intruder at this hearth, and liable at any moment to insult. Uttering which words in a resonant voice, she turned her eyes to where, a few yards away, stood Aurelia, with Basil and Decius behind her.
'Reverend bishop,' spoke a voice not less steady and sonorous than that of the elder lady, 'should you suffer any discourtesy in my house, it will come not from me, but from her who suggests its possibility, and whose mind is bent upon such things. Indeed, she has already scanted the respect she owes you in uttering these words. As for herself, remain she here for an hour or for a month, she is in no danger of insult--unless she deem it an insult to have her base falsehood flung back at her, and the enmity in her fierce eyes answered with the scorn it merits.'
Petronilla trembled with wrath.
'Falsehood!' she echoed, on a high, mocking note. 'A charge of falsehood upon her lips! Your Holiness will ere long, I do not doubt, be enlightened as to that woman's principles in the matter of truth and falsehood. Meanwhile, we shall consult our souls' welfare, as well as our dignity, in holding as little intercourse as may be with one who has renounced the faith in Christ.'
Aurelia bent her eyes upon the deacon, who met the look with austere fixedness. There was dead silence for a moment, then she turned to the young men behind her.
'My noble cousins, I desired your company because I foresaw this woman's violence, and knew not to what length it might carry her. She pretends to fear my tongue; for my part, I would not lightly trust myself within reach of her hands, of which I learnt the weight when I was a little child. Lord Decius, attend, I beg you, these reverend men whilst they honour my house and on their way homeward. My cousin Basil, I must needs ask you to be my guard, until I can command service here. Follow me, I pray.'
With another piercing glance at Leander she withdrew from the assembly.
It was a morning of wind and cloud; the day broke sadly. When the first gleam of yellow sunlight flitted over Surrentum towards the cliffs of Capreae, silence had fallen upon the villa. Wearied by their night of watching, the inhabitants slept, or at least reposed in privacy. But this quiet was of short duration. When the customary bell had given notice of the third hour, Aurelia called together the servants of the house--only those who belonged to Petronilla failing to answer her summons--and announced to them her new authority. At the same time the steward of the estate read out a list of those slaves who, under the will of Maximus, could claim their emancipation. The gathering having dispersed, there appeared an attendant of the deacon Leander; his reverend master would wait upon the lady Aurelia, as soon as her leisure permitted, for the purpose of taking leave. Forthwith the deacon was admitted. Alone in the great hall, Aurelia sat beside a brasier, at which she warmed her hands; she scarcely deigned to glance at the ecclesiastic.
'You pursue your journey, reverend?' were her first words.
'As far as Neapolis, gracious lady,' came the suave reply. 'There or in the neighbourhood I shall remain at least ten days. Should you desire to communicate with me--'
'I think I can save that trouble,' interrupted Aurelia, with quivering lips. 'All I have to say to your Sanctity, I will say at once. It is, that you have enlightened me as to the value of solemn oaths on the lips of the Roman clergy.'
'Your meaning, dear madam?' asked Leander, with a look of bland disdain.
'You have the face to ask it, deacon, after Petronilla's words this morning?'
'I feared they might mislead you. The lady Petronilla knows nothing of what has passed between us. She spoke in anger, and hazarded an accusation--as angry ladies are wont.'
'Of course you say so,' returned Aurelia. 'I will believe you if you give me back the paper I signed, and trust to my word for the fulfilment of what I promised.'
Leander smiled, almost as if he had heard some happy intelligence.
'You ask,' he said, 'for a trust you yourself refuse.'
'Then go your way, perjurer!' exclaimed Aurelia, her cheeks aflame with passion. 'I know henceforth on whom to rely.'
For a moment Leander stood as if reflecting on these last words; then he bowed, and with placid dignity retired.
Meanwhile Basil and Decius were conversing with Petronilla. Neither of them had ever stood on terms of more than courteous forbearance with this authoritative lady; at present they maintained their usual demeanour, and did not think it needful to apologise for friendly relations with Aurelia. The only subject on which Petronilla deigned to hold colloquy with them was that of her brother's burial at Rome. Should the transport be by land or by sea? This evening the corpse would be conveyed to the cathedral of Surrentum, where due rites would be performed early on the morrow; there it would remain in temporary interment until a coffin of lead could be prepared, and arrangements completed for the removal. Was the year too advanced, questioned Petronilla, to allow of the sea voyage? On the other hand, would the land journey be safe, having regard to the advance of the Gothic army? Basil pronounced for the sea, and undertook to seek for a vessel. Was he willing, asked Petronilla, to accompany the body to Rome? This question gave Basil pause; he reflected uneasily; he hesitated. Yet who could discharge this duty, if he did not? Suddenly ashamed of his hesitation, the true reason of which could not be avowed, he declared that he would make the voyage.
Hereupon entered the deacon, who, the matter being put before him, approved these arrangements. He himself would doubtless be in Rome before the arrival of the remains of Maximus, and all the details of the burial there might be left to him. So Petronilla thanked and dismissed the young men, on whose retirement she turned eagerly to Leander.
'Forgive me!' broke from her lips. 'I know how deeply I have offended your Sanctity. It was my fear that you would go away without a word. My haste, my vehemence, merited even that punishment.'
'Calm yourself, noble lady,' returned the deacon. 'I was indeed grieved, but I know your provocation. We may speak on this subject again; but not here. For the present, I take my leave of you, all being ready for my departure. As you are quitting this house at once, you need no counsel as to immediate difficulties; I will only say, in all things be prudent, be self-controlled; before long, you may see reason for the discreet silence which I urge upon you.'
'When do you set forth to Rome?' asked Petronilla. 'If it might be my privilege to journey in your company--?'
'The day is uncertain,' replied Leander; 'but if it be possible for us to travel together, trust me to beg for the honour. You shall hear of my projects in a week's time from Neapolis.'
Petronilla fell to her knees, and again besought his forgiveness with his benediction. The deacon magnanimously granted both, and whilst bending over the devout lady, whispered one word:
An hour after mid-day, Petronilla quitted the villa. Her great travelling chariot, drawn by four mules, wherein she and her most precious possessions were conveyed, descended at a stately pace the winding road to Surrentum. Before it rode Basil; behind came a laden wagon, two light vehicles carrying female slaves, and mounted men-servants, armed as though for a long and perilous journey. Since the encounter before sunrise, there had been no meeting between the hostile ladies. Aurelia signified her scorn by paying no heed to her aunt's departure.
Alone in her dominion, the inheritress entered the death-chamber, and there passed an hour upon her knees. Whilst she was thus secluded, a pealing storm traversed the sky. When Aurelia came forth again, her face was wan, tearstained. She summoned her nurse, and held much talk with her as to the significance of thunder whilst a corpse lay in the house. The good woman, though she durst not utter all her thoughts, babbled concern, and used the occasion to beseech Aurelia--as she had often done since the death of her Gothic lord--to be reconciled with the true church.
'True church!' exclaimed Aurelia, with sudden passion. 'How do you know which is the true church? Have not emperors, have not bishops and numberless holy men lived and died in the faith I confess--?'
She checked herself; grew silent, brooded. Meanwhile, the old nurse talked on, and presently began to relate how a handmaid of Petronilla, in going with her this morning, professed to know on the surest evidence that Aurelia, by her father's deathbed, had renounced Arianism. The sullen countenance of her mistress flashed again into wrath.
'Did I not forbid you,' cried Aurelia, 'to converse with those women? And you dare repeat to me their loose-lipped chatter. I am too familiar with you; go and talk with your kind; go!'
Mutteringly the woman went apart. The mistress, alone, fell into a long weeping. When she had sobbed herself into quiet once more, she sought a volume of the Gospels, inserted her forefinger between the pages at random, and anxiously regarded the passage thus chosen.
'While ye have the light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light.'
She brooded, but in the end seemed to find solace.
Basil was absent all day. On his return, just before sunset, Aurelia met him in the atrium, heard the report of what he had done, and at length asked whether, on the day after to-morrow, he could go to Cumae.
'To Cumae?' exclaimed Basil. 'Ay, that I can! You are returning thither?'
'For a day only. I go to seek that which no one but myself can find.'
The listener had no difficulty in understanding this; it meant, of course, treasure concealed in the house Aurelia had long inhabited.
'We must both go and return by sea,' said Aurelia, 'even though it cause us delay. I have no mind to pass through Neapolis.'
'Be it so. The sky will be calm when this storm has passed Shall you return,' said Basil, 'alone?'
'Alone? Do you purpose to forsake me?'
'Think better of my manners, cousin--and more shrewdly of my meaning.'
'You mean fairly, I trust?' she returned, looking him steadily in the face.
'Nay,' cried the young man vehemently, 'if I have any thought other than honest, may I perish before I ever again behold her!'
Aurelia's gaze softened.
'It is well,' she said; 'we will speak again to-morrow.'
That night Petronilla kept vigil in the church of Surrentum, Basil and Decius relieving her an hour before dawn. At the funeral service, which began soon after sunrise, the greater part of the townsfolk attended. All were eager to see whether the daughter of Maximus would be present, for many rumours were rife touching Aurelia, some declaring that she had returned to the true faith, some that she remained obstinate in heresy. Her failure to appear did not set the debate at rest. A servant of Petronilla whispered it about that only by a false pretence of conversion had Aurelia made sure her inheritance; and at the mere thought of such wickedness the hearers shuddered, foretelling a dread retribution. The clergy were mute on the subject, even with the most favoured of their flock. Meanwhile the piety and austerity of Petronilla made a safe topic of talk, and a long procession reverently escorted her to her temporary abode near the bishop's house.
To-day the clouds spent themselves in rain; before nightfall the heavens began to clear. The island peak of Inarime stood purple against a crimson sunset. After supper, Aurelia and Basil held conference. The wind would not be favourable for their voyage; none the less, they decided to start at the earliest possible hour. Dawn was but just streaking the sky, when they rode down the dark gorge which led to the shore, Basil attended by Felix, the lady by one maid. The bark awaited them, swaying gently against the harbour-side. Aurelia descended to the little cabin curtained off below a half-deck, and--sails as yet being useless--four great oars urged the craft on its way.
What little wind there was breathed from the north For an hour they made but slow progress, but when the first rays of sun gleamed above the mountains, the breeze shifted westward; sails were presently hoisted, and the rippling water hissed before the prow. Soon a golden day shone upon sea and land. Aurelia came forth on to the deck, and sat gazing towards Neapolis.
'You know that the deacon is yonder,' she said in a low voice to Basil, this the first mention of Leander that had fallen from her lips in speaking with him.
'Is he?' returned the other carelessly. 'Yes, I remember.'
But Basil's eyes were turned to the long promontory of Misenum. He was wondering anxiously how his letter had affected Veranilda, and whether, when she heard of it, Aurelia would be angered.
'Where is your friend Marcian?' were her next words.
Basil replied that he, too, was sojourning at Neapolis; and, when Aurelia inquired what business held him there, her cousin answered truly that he did not know.
'Do you trust him?' asked the lady, after a thoughtful pause.
'Marcian? As I trust myself!'
One of the boatmen coming within earshot, their conversation ceased.
The hour before noon saw them drawing near to land. They left on the right the little island of Nesis, and drew towards Puteoli. On the left lay Baiae, all but forsaken, its ancient temples and villas stretching along the shore from the Lucrine lake to the harbour shadowed by Cape Misenum; desolate magnificence, marble overgrown with ivy, gardens where the rose grew wild, and terraces crumbling into the sea. Basil and Aurelia looked upon these things with an eye made careless by familiarity; all their lives ruin had lain about them, deserted sanctuaries of a bygone creed, unpeopled homes of a vanished greatness.
As the boat advanced into the bay, it lost the wind, and rowing again became needful. Thus they entered the harbour of Puteoli, where the travellers disembarked.
Hard by the port was a tavern, which, owing to its position midway between Neapolis and Cumae, still retained something of its character as a mansio of the posting service; but the vehicles and quadrupeds of which it boasted were no longer held in strict reserve for state officials and persons privileged. Gladly the innkeeper put at Basil's disposal his one covered carriage, a trifle cleaner inside than it was without, and a couple of saddle horses, declared to be Sicilian, but advanced in age. Thus, with slight delay, the party pursued their journey, Basil and his man riding before the carriage. The road ran coastwise as far as the Julian haven, once thronged with the shipping of the Roman world, now all but abandoned to a few fishermen; there it turned inland, skirted the Lucrine water, and presently reached the shore of Lake Avernus, where was the entrance to the long tunnel piercing the hill between the lake and Cumae. On an ill-kept way, under a low vault of rock dripping moisture, the carriage with difficulty tossed and rumbled through the gloom. Basil impatiently trotted on, and, as he issued into sunlight, there before him stood the walls of the ancient city, round about that little hill by the sea which, in an age remote, had been chosen for their abode by the first Hellenes tempted to the land of Italy. High above rose the acropolis, a frowning stronghold. Through Basil's mind passed the thought that ere long Cumae might again belong to the Goths, and this caused him no uneasiness; half, perchance, he hoped it.
A guard at the city gate inspected the carriage, and let it pass on. In a few minutes, guided by Basil, it drew up before a house in a narrow, climbing street, a small house, brick fronted, with stucco pilasters painted red at the door, and two windows, closed with wooden shutters, in the upper storey. On one side of the entrance stood a shop for the sale of earthenware; on the other, a vintner's with a projecting marble table, the jars of wine thereon exhibited being attached by chains to rings in the wall. Odours of cookery, and of worse things, oppressed the air, and down the street ran a noisome gutter. When Basil's servant had knocked, a little wicket slipped aside for observation; then, after a grinding of heavy locks and bars, the double doors were opened, and a grey-headed slave stepped forward to receive his mistress. Basil had jumped down from his horse, and would fain have entered, but, by an arrangement already made, this was forbidden. Saying that she would expect him at the second hour on the morrow, Aurelia disappeared. Her cousin after a longing look at the blind and mute house, rode away to another quarter of the city, near the harbour, where was an inn at which he had lodged during his previous visit. In a poor and dirty room, he made shift to dine on such food as could be offered him; then lay down on the truckle bed, and slept for an hour or two.
A knock at the door awoke him. It was Felix, who brought the news that Marcian was at Cumae.
'You have seen him?' cried Basil, astonished and eager.
'His servant Sagaris,' Felix replied. 'I met him but now in the forum, and learnt that his lord lodges at the house of the curial Venustus; hard by the Temple of Diana.'
'Go thither at once, and beg him, if his leisure serve, to come to me. I would go myself; but, if he have seen Sagaris, he may be already on the way here.'
And so it proved, for in a very few minutes Marcian himself entered the room.
'Your uncle is dead,' were his first words. 'I heard it in Neapolis yesterday. What brings you here?'
'Nay, best Marcian,' returned the other, with hands on his friend's shoulders, and peering him in the face, 'let me once again put that question to you.'
'I cannot answer it, yet,' said Marcian gravely. 'Your business is more easily guessed.'
'But must not be talked of here,' interrupted Basil, glancing at the door. 'Let us find some more suitable place.'
They descended the dark, foul stairs, and went out together. Before the house stood the two serving-men, who, as their masters walked away, followed at a respectful distance. When safe from being overheard, Basil recounted to his friend the course of events at the Surrentine villa since Marcian's departure, made known his suspicion that Aurelia had secretly returned to the Catholic faith. He then told of to day's journey and its purpose, his hearer wearing a look of grave attention.
'Can it be,' asked Marcian, 'that you think of wedding this Gothic beauty?'
'Assuredly,' answered Basil, with a laugh, 'I have thought of it.'
'And it looks as though Aurelia favoured your desire.'
'It has indeed something of that appearance.'
'Pray you now, dear lord,' said Marcian, 'be sober awhile. Have you reflected that, with such a wife, you would not dare return to Rome?'
Basil had not regarded that aspect of the matter, but his friend's reasoning soon brought him to perceive the danger he would lightly have incurred. Dangers, not merely those that resulted from the war; could he suppose, asked Marcian, that Heliodora would meekly endure his disdain, and that the life of Veranilda would be safe in such a rival's proximity? Hereat, Basil gnashed his teeth and handled his dagger. Why return to Rome at all? he cried impatiently. He had no mind to go through the torments of a long siege such as again threatened. Why should he not live on in Campania--
'And tend your sheep or your goats?' interrupted Marcian, with his familiar note of sad irony. 'And pipe sub tegmine fagi to your blue-eyed Amaryllis? Why not, indeed? But what if; on learning the death of Maximus, the Thracian who rules yonder see fit to command your instant return, and to exact from you an account of what you have inherited? Bessas loses no time--suspecting--perhaps-- that his tenure of a fruitful office may not be long.'
'And if the suspicion be just?' said Basil, gazing hard at his friend.
'Well, if it be?' said the other, returning the look.
'Should we not do well to hold far from Rome, looking to King Totila, whom men praise, as a deliverer of our land from hateful tyranny?'
Marcian laid a hand on his friend's shoulder.
'O, brave Basil!' he murmured, with a smile. 'O, nobly confident in those you love! Never did man so merit love in return.--Do as you will. In a few days I shall again visit you at Surrentum, and perchance bring news that may give us matter for talk.'
From a portico hard by there approached a beggar, a filthy and hideous cripple, who, with whining prayer, besought alms. Marcian from his wallet took a copper coin, and, having glanced at it, drew Basil's attention.
'Look,' said he, smiling oddly, 'at the image and the superscription.'
It was a coin of Vitiges, showing a helmeted bust of the goddess of the city, with legend 'Invicta Roma.'
'Invicta Roma,' muttered Basil sadly, with head bent.
Meanwhile, out of earshot of their masters, the two servants conversed with not less intimacy. At a glance these men were seen to be of different races. Felix, aged some five and thirty, could boast of free birth; he was the son of a curial--that is to say, municipal councillor--of Arpinum, who had been brought to ruin, like so many of his class in this age, by fiscal burdens, the curiales being responsible for the taxes payable by their colleagues, as well as for the dues on any estate in their district which might be abandoned, and, in brief, for whatsoever deficiencies of local revenue. Gravity and sincerity appeared in his countenance; he seldom smiled, spoke in a subdued voice, and often kept his eyes on the ground; but his service was performed with rare conscientiousness, and he had often given proof of affection for his master. Sagaris, a Syrian slave, less than thirty years old, had a comely visage which ever seemed to shine with contentment, and often twinkled with a sort of roguish mirth. Tall and of graceful bearing, the man's every movement betrayed personal vanity; his speech had the note of facile obsequiousness; he talked whenever occasion offered, and was fond of airing his views on political and other high matters. Therewithal, he was the most superstitious of mortals; wore amulets, phylacteries, charms of all sorts, and secretly prayed to many strange gods. When he had nothing else to do, and could find a genial companion, his delight was to play by the hour at micare digitis; but, in spite of his master's good opinion, not to Sagaris would have applied the proverb that you might play that game with him in the dark.
'Take my word for it,' he whispered to Felix, with his most important air, 'we shall see strange things ere long. Last night I counted seven shooting stars.'
'What does that argue?' asked the other soberly.
'More than I care to put into Latin. At Capua, three days ago, a woman gave birth to a serpent, a winged dragon, which flew away towards Rome. I talked at Neapolis with a man who saw it.'
'Strange, indeed,' murmured Felix, with raised eyebrows. 'I have often heard of such portents, but never had the luck to behold one of them. Yet,' he added gravely, 'I have received a sign. When my father died, I was far away from him, and at that very hour, as I prayed in the church of Holy Clement at Rome, I heard a voice that said in my ear, Vale! three times.'
'Oh, I have had signs far more wonderful than that,' exclaimed the Syrian. 'I was at sea, between Alexandria and Berytus--for you must know that in my boyhood I passed three years at Berytus, and there obtained that knowledge of law which you may have remarked in talking with me--well, I was at sea--'
'Peace!' interposed Felix. 'We are summoned.'
Sagaris sighed, and became the obsequious attendant.