Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter V. Basil and Veranilda
At the appointed hour next morning, when yet no ray of sunshine had touched the gloomy little street, though a limpid sky shone over it, Basil stood at Aurelia's door. The grey-headed porter silently admitted him, and he passed by a narrow corridor into a hall lighted as usual from above, paved with red tiles, here and there trodden away, the walls coloured a dusky yellow, and showing an imaginary line of pillars painted in blue. A tripod table, a couch, and a few chairs were the only furniture. When the visitor had waited for a few moments a curtain concealing the entrance to the inner part of the house moved aside, and Aurelia's voice bade her cousin come forward. He entered a smaller room opening upon a diminutive court where a few shrubs grew; around the walls hung old and faded tapestry; the floor was of crude mosaic; the furniture resembled that of the atrium, with the addition of a brasier.
'I have been anxious for your coming,' were Aurelia's first words. 'Do you think they will let us depart without hindrance? Yesterday I saw the owner of this house to transact my business with him. It is Venustus, a curial, a man who has always been well disposed to me. He said that he must perforce make known to the governor my intention of leaving the city, and hoped no obstacle would be put in our way. This morning, before sunrise, a messenger from the citadel came and put questions to the porter.'
Basil knitted his brows.
'Venustus? It is with Venustus that Marcian lodges. Yes, Marcian is here; I know not on what business. It would have been wiser,' he added, 'to have said nothing, to have gone away as before. When shall you be ready?'
'I am ready now. Why delay? What matter though we reach Surrentum by night? The moon rises early.'
'What reply was given to the messenger from the citadel?'
'He learned, perforce, that we were preparing for a journey.'
A moment's reflection and Basil decided to risk immediate departure; delay and uncertainty were at all times hateful to him, and at the present juncture intolerable. At once he quitted the house (not having ventured to speak the name of Veranilda), and in an hour's time the covered carriage from Puteoli, and another vehicle, were in waiting. The baggage was brought out; then, as Basil stood in the hall, he saw Aurelia come forward, accompanied by a slight female figure, whose grace could not be disguised by the long hooded cloak which wrapped it from head to foot, allowing not a glimpse of face. The young man trembled, and followed. He saw the ladies step into the carriage, and was himself about to mount his horse, when a military officer, attended by three soldiers, stepped towards him, and, without phrase of courtesy, demanded his name. Pallid, shaken with all manner of emotions, Basil replied to this and several other inquiries, the result being that the two vehicles were ordered to be driven to the citadel, and he to go thither under guard.
At the entrance to the citadel the carriage drew up and remained there under guard. Basil was led in, and presently stood before the military governor of Cumae; this was a Hun named Chorsoman, formerly one of Belisarius's bodyguard. He spoke Latin barbarously; none the less was his language direct and perspicuous. The Roman lady wished to quit Cumae, where she had lived for some years; she purposed, moreover, to take away with her a maiden of Gothic race, who, though not treated as a captive, had been under observation since she was sent to dwell here by Belisarius. This could not pass as a matter of small moment. Plainly, permission to depart must be sought of the authorities, and such permission, under the circumstances, could only be granted in return for substantial payment--a payment in proportion t6 the lady's rank. It was known that the senator Maximus had died, and report said that his daughter inherited great wealth. The price of her passport would be one thousand gold pieces.
Basil knew that Aurelia had not, in the coffer she was taking away, a quarter of this sum of money. He foresaw endless delay, infinite peril to his hopes. Schooling a hot tongue to submissive utterance, he asked that Aurelia might be consulted.
'Speak with her yourself,' said the Hun, 'and bring her answer.'
So Basil went forth, and, under the eyes of the guard, held converse with his cousin. Aurelia was willing to give all the treasure she carried with her--money, a few ornaments of gold and silver, two or three vessels of precious metal--everything for immediate liberty; all together she thought it might be the equivalent of half the sum demanded. The rest she would swear to pay. This being reported to Chorsoman, his hideous, ashen-grey countenance assumed a fierce expression; he commanded that all the baggage on the vehicles should be brought and opened before him; this was done. Whilst Basil, boiling with secret rage, saw his cousin's possessions turned out on to the floor a thought flashed into his mind.
'I ought to inform your Sublimity,' he said, with all the indifference he could assume, 'that the lady Aurelia despatched two days ago a courier to Rome apprising the noble commandant Bessas of her father's death, and of her intention to arrive in the city as soon as possible, and to put her means at his disposal for the defence of Rome against King Totila.'
'Is not this lady the widow of a Goth and a heretic?'
'The widow of a Goth, yes, but no longer a heretic,' answered Basil boldly, half believing what he said.
He saw that he had spoken to some purpose. The Hun blinked his little eyes, gazed greedily at the money, and was about to speak when a soldier announced that a Roman named Marcian desired immediate audience, therewith handing to the governor a piece of metal which looked like a large coin. Chorsoman had no sooner glanced at this than he bade admit the Roman; but immediately changing his mind, he went out into another room. On his return, after a quarter of an hour, he gruffly announced that the travellers were free to depart.
'We humbly thank your Clemency,' said Basil, his heart leaping in joy. 'Does your Greatness permit me to order these trifles to be removed?'
'Except the money,' replied Chorsoman, growling next moment, 'and the vessels'; then snarling with a savage glance about him, 'and the jewels.'
Not till the gates of Cumae were behind them, and they had entered the cavern in the hill, did Basil venture to recount what had happened. He alighted from his horse, and walking through the gloom beside the carriage he briefly narrated all in a whisper to Aurelia--all except his own ingenious device for balking the Hun's cupidity. What means Marcian had employed for their release he could but vaguely conjecture; that would be learned a few days hence when his friend came again to Surrentum. Aurelia's companion in the carriage, still hooded and cloaked, neither moved nor uttered a word.
At a distance of some twenty yards from the end of the tunnel, Felix, riding in advance, checked his horse and shouted. There on the ground lay a dead man, a countryman, who it was easy to see had been stabbed to death, and perhaps not more than an hour ago. Quarrel or robbery, who could say? An incident not so uncommon as greatly to perturb the travellers; they passed on and came to Puteoli. Here the waiting boatmen were soon found; the party embarked; the vessel oared away in a dead calm.
The long voyage was tedious to Basil only because Veranilda remained unseen in the cabin; the thought of bearing her off; as though she were already his own, was an exultation, a rapture. When he reflected on the indignities he had suffered in the citadel rage burned his throat, and Aurelia, all bitterness at the loss of her treasure, found words to increase this wrath. A Hun! A Scythian savage! A descendant perchance of the fearful Attila! He to represent the Roman Empire! Fit instrument, forsooth, of such an Emperor as Justinian, whose boundless avarice, whose shameful subjection to the base-born Theodora, were known to every one. To this had Rome fallen; and not one of her sons who dared to rise against so foul a servitude!
'Have patience, cousin,' Basil whispered, bidding her with a glance beware of the nearest boatman. 'There are some who will not grieve if Totila--'
'No more than that? To stand, and look on, and play the courtier to whichever may triumph!'
Basil muttered with himself. He wished he had been bred a soldier instead of growing to manhood in an age when the nobles of Rome were held to inglorious peace, their sole career that of the jurist And Aurelia, brooding, saw him involved beyond recall in her schemes of vengeance.
The purple evening fell about them, an afterglow of sunset trembling upon the violet sea. Above the heights of Capreae a star began to glimmer; and lo, yonder from behind the mountains rose the great orb of the moon. They were in the harbour at last, but had to wait on board until a messenger could go to the village and a conveyance arrive. The litter came, with a horse for Basil; Felix, together with Aurelia's grey-headed porter and a female slave--these two the only servants that had remained in the house at Cumae-- followed on foot, and the baggage was carried up on men's shoulders.
'Decius!' cried Basil, in a passionate undertone, when he encountered his kinsman in the vestibule. 'Decius! we are here-- and one with us whom you know not. Hush! Stifle your curiosity till to-morrow. Let them pass.'
So had the day gone by, and not once had he looked upon the face of Veranilda.
He saw her early on the morrow. Aurelia, though the whole villa was now at her command, chose still to inhabit the house of Proba; and thither, when the day was yet young, she summoned Basil. The room in which she sat was hung with pictured tapestry, representing Christ and the Apostles; crude work, but such as had pleased Faltonia Proba, whose pious muse inspired her to utter the Gospel in a Virgilian canto. And at Aurelia's side, bending over a piece of delicate needlework, sat the Gothic maiden, clad in white, her flaxen hair, loosely held with silk, falling behind her shoulders, shadowing her forehead, and half hiding the little ears. At Basil's entrance she did not look up; at the first sound of his voice she bent her head yet lower, and only when he directly addressed her, asking, with all the gentleness his lips could command, whether the journey had left much fatigue, did she show for a moment her watchet eyes, answering few words with rare sweetness.
'Be seated, dear my lord,' said his cousin, in the soft, womanly voice once her habitual utterance. 'There has been so little opportunity of free conversation, that we have almost, one might say, to make each other's acquaintance yet. But I hope we may now enjoy a little leisure, and live as becomes good kinsfolk.'
Basil made such suitable answer as his agitation allowed.
'And the noble Decius,' pursued Aurelia, 'will, I trust, bestow at times a little of his leisure upon us. Perhaps this afternoon you could persuade him to forget his books for half an hour? But let us speak, to begin with, of sad things which must needs occupy us. Is it possible, yet, to know when the ship will sail for Rome?'
Aurelia meant, of course, the vessel which would convey her father's corpse, and the words cast gloom upon Basil, who had all but forgotten the duty that lay before him. He answered that a week at least must pass before the sailing, and, as he spoke, kept his eyes upon Veranilda, whose countenance--or so it seemed to him--had become graver, perhaps a little sad.
'Is it your purpose to stay long in Rome?' was Aurelia's next question, toned with rather excessive simplicity.
'To stay long?' exclaimed Basil. 'How can you think it? Perchance I shall not even enter the city. At Portus, I may resign my duty into other hands, and so straightway return.'
There was a conflict in Aurelia's mind. Reverence for her father approved the thought of his remains being transported under the guardianship of Basil; none the less did she dread this journey, and feel tempted to hinder it. She rose from her chair.
'Let us walk into the sunshine,' she said. 'The morning is chilly.' And, as she passed out into the court, hand in hand with Veranilda, 'O, the pleasure of these large spaces, this free air, after the straight house at Cumae! Do you not breathe more lightly, sweetest? Come into Proba's garden, and I will show you where I sat with my broidery when I was no older than you.'
The garden was approached by a vaulted passage. A garden long reconquered by nature; for the paths were lost in herbage, the seats were overgrown with creeping plants, and the fountain had crumbled into ruin. A high wall formerly enclosed it, but, in a shock of earthquake some years ago, part of this had fallen, leaving a gap which framed a lovely picture of the inland hills. Basil pulled away the trailing leafage from a marble hemicycle, and, having spread his cloak upon it, begged tremorously that Veranilda would rest.
'That wall shall be rebuilt,' said Aurelia, and, as if to inspect the ruin, wandered away. When she was distant not many paces, Basil bent to his seated companion, and breathed in a passionate undertone:
'My letter reached your hands, O fairest?'
'I received it--I read it.'
As she spoke, Veranilda's cheeks flushed as if in shame.
'Will you reply, were it but one word?'
Her head drooped lower. Basil seated himself at her side.
'One word, O Veranilda! I worship you--my soul longs for you-- say only that you will be mine, my beloved lady, my wife!'
Her blue eyes glistened with moisture as for an instant they met the dark glow in his.
'Do you know who I am?' she whispered.
'You are Veranilda! You are beauty and sweetness and divine purity--'
He sought her hand, but at this moment Aurelia turned towards them, and the maiden, quivering, stood up.
'Perhaps the sun is too powerful,' said Aurelia, with her tenderest smile. 'My lily has lived so long in the shade.'
They lingered a little on the shadowed side, Aurelia reviving memories of her early life, then passed again under the vaulted arch. Basil, whose eyes scarcely moved from Veranilda's face, could not bring himself to address her in common words, and dreaded that she would soon vanish. So indeed it befell. With a murmur of apology to her friend, and a timid movement of indescribable grace in Basil's direction, she escaped, like a fugitive wild thing, into solitude.
'Why has she gone?' exclaimed the lover, all impatience. 'I must follow her--I cannot live away from her! Let me find her again.'
His cousin checked him.
'I have to speak to you, Basil. Come where we can be private.'
They entered the room where they had sat before, and Aurelia, taking up the needlework left by Veranilda, showed it to her companion with admiration.
'She is wondrous at this art. In a contest with Minerva, would she not have fared better than Arachne? This mourning garment which I wear is of her making, and look at the delicate work; it was wrought four years ago, when I heard of my brother's death--wrought in a few days. She was then but thirteen. In all that it beseems a woman to know, she is no less skilled. Yonder lies her cithern; she learnt to touch it, I scarce know how, out of mere desire to soothe my melancholy, and I suspect--though she will not avow it--that the music she plays is often her own. In sickness she has tended me with skill as rare as her gentleness; her touch on the hot forehead is like that of a flower plucked before sunrise. Hearing me speak thus of her, what think you, O Basil, must be my trust in the man to whom I would give her for wife?'
'Can you doubt my love, O Aurelia?' cried the listener, clasping his hands before him.
'Your love? No. But your prudence, is that as little beyond doubt?'
'I have thought long and well,' said Basil.
Aurelia regarded him steadily.
'You spoke with her in the garden just now. Did she reply?'
'But few words. She asked me if I knew her origin, and blushed as she spoke.'
'It is her wish that I should tell you; and I will.'
Scarce had Aurelia begun her narrative, when Basil perceived that his own conjecture, and that of Marcian, had hit the truth. Veranilda was a great-grandchild of Amalafrida, the sister of King Theodoric, being born of the daughter of King Theodahad; and her father was that Ebrimut, whose treachery at the beginning of the great war delivered Rhegium into the hands of the Greeks. Her mother, Theodenantha, a woman of noble spirit, scorned the unworthy Goth, and besought the conqueror to let her remain in Italy, even as a slave, rather than share with such a husband the honours of the Byzantine court. She won this grace from Belisarius, and was permitted to keep with her the little maiden, just growing out of childhood. But shame and grief had broken her heart; after a few months of imprisonment at Cumae she died. And Veranilda passed into the care of the daughter of Maximus.
'For I too was a captive,' said Aurelia, 'and of the same religion as the orphan child. By happy hazard I had become a friend of her mother, in those days of sorrow; and with careless scorn our conquerors permitted me to take Veranilda into my house. As the years went by, she was all but forgotten; there came a new governor--this thievish Hun--who paid no heed to us. I looked forward to a day when we might quit Cumae and live in freedom where we would. Then something unforeseen befell. Half a year ago, just when the air of spring began to breathe into that dark, chill house, a distant kinsman of ours, who has long dwelt in Byzantium--do you know Olybrius, the son of Probinus?'
'I have heard his name.'
'He came to me, as if from my father; but I soon discovered that he had another mission, his main purpose being to seek for Veranilda. By whom sent, I could not learn; but he told me that Ebrimut was dead, and that his son, Veranilda's only brother, was winning glory in the war with the Persians. For many days I lived in fear lest my pearl should be torn from me. Olybrius it was, no doubt, who bade the Hun keep watch upon us, and it can only have been by chance that I was allowed to go forth unmolested when you led me hither the first time. He returned to Byzantium, and I have heard no more. But a suspicion haunts my mind. What if Marcian were also watching Veranilda?'
'Marcian!' cried the listener incredulously. 'You do not know him. He is the staunchest and frankest of friends. He knows of my love; we have talked from heart to heart.'
'Yet it was at his intercession that the Hun allowed us to go; why, you cannot guess. What if he have power and motives which threaten Veranilda's peace?'
Basil exclaimed against this as the baseless fear of a woman. Had there been a previous command from some high source touching the Gothic maiden, Chorsoman would never have dared to sell her freedom. As to Marcian's power, that was derived from the authorities at Rome, and granted him for other ends; if he used it to release Veranilda, he acted merely out of love to his friend, as would soon be seen.
'I will hope so,' murmured Aurelia. 'Now you have heard what she herself desired that I should tell you, for she could not meet your look until you knew it. Her father's treachery is Veranilda's shame; she saw her noble mother die for it, and it has made her mourning keener than a common sorrow. I think she would never have dared to wed a Goth; all true Goths, she believes in her heart, must despise her. It is her dread lest you, learning who she is, should find your love chilled.'
'Call her,' cried Basil, starting to his feet. 'Or let me go to her. She shall not suffer that fear for another moment. Veranilda! Veranilda!'
His companion retained and quieted him. He should see Veranilda ere long. But there was yet something to be spoken of.
'Have you forgotten that she is not of your faith?'
'Do I love her, adore her, the less?' exclaimed Basil. 'Does she shrink from me on that account?'
'I know,' pursued his cousin, 'what the Apostle of the Gentiles has said: "For the husband who believes not is sanctified by the wife, and the wife who believes not is sanctified by the husband." None the less, Veranilda is under the menace of the Roman law; and you, if it be known that you have wedded her, will be in peril from all who serve the Emperor--at least in dark suspicion; and will be slightly esteemed by all of our house.'
The lover paced about, and all at once, with a wild gesture, uttered his inmost thought.
'What if I care naught for those of our house? And what if the Emperor of the East is of as little account to me? My country is not Byzantium, but Rome.'
Aurelia hushed his voice, but her eyes shone with stern gladness as she stood before him, and took him by the hand, and spoke what he alone could hear.
'Then unite yourself in faith with those who would make Rome free. Be one in religion with the brave Goths--with Veranilda.'
He cast down his eyes and drew a deep breath.
'I scarce know what that religion is, O Aurelia,' came from him stammeringly. 'I am no theologian; I never cared to puzzle my head about the mysteries which men much wiser than I declare to pass all human understanding. Ask Decius if he can defend the faith of Athanasius against that of the Arians; he will smile, and shake his head in that droll way he has. I believe,' he added after a brief hesitancy, 'in Christ and in the Saints. Does not Veranilda also?'
The temptress drew back a little, seated herself; yielded to troublous thought. It was long since she had joined in the worship of a congregation, for at Cumae there was no Arian church. Once only since her captivity had she received spiritual comfort from an Arian priest, who came to that city in disguise. What her religion truly was she could not have declared, for the memories of early life were sometimes as strong in her as rancour against the faith of her enemies. Basil's simple and honest utterance touched her conscience. She put an end to the conversation, promising to renew it before long; whilst Basil, for his part, went away to brood, then to hold converse with Decius.
Through all but the whole of Theodoric's reign, Italy had enjoyed a large toleration in religion: Catholics, Arians, and even Jews observed their worship under the protection of the wise king. Only in the last few years of his life did he commit certain acts of harshness against his Catholic subjects, due to the wrath that was moved in him by a general persecution of the Arians proclaimed at Byzantium. His Gothic successors adhered to Theodoric's better principle, and only after the subjugation of the land by Belisarius had Arianism in Italy been formally condemned. Of course it was protected by the warring Goths: Totila's victories had now once more extended religious tolerance over a great part of the country; the Arian priesthood re-entered their churches; and even in Rome the Greek garrison grew careless of the reviving heresy. Of these things did Decius speak, when the distressed lover sought his counsel. No one more liberal than Decius; but he bore a name which he could not forget, and in his eyes the Goth was a barbarian, the Gothic woman hardly above the level of a slave. That Basil should take a Gothic wife, even one born of a royal line, seemed to him an indignity. Withheld by the gentleness of his temper from saying all he thought, he spoke only of the difficulties which would result from such a marriage, and when, in reply, Basil disclosed his mind, though less vehemently than to Aurelia, Decius fell into meditation. He, too, had often reflected with bitterness on the results of that restoration of Rome to the Empire which throughout the Gothic dominion most of the Roman nobles had never ceased to desire; all but was he persuaded to approve the statesmanship of Cassiodorus. Nevertheless, he could not, without shrinking, see a kinsman pass over to the side of Totila.
'I must think,' he murmured. 'I must think.'
He had not yet seen Veranilda. When, in the afternoon, Basil led him into the ladies' presence, and his eyes fell upon that white-robed loveliness, censure grew faint in him. Though a Decius, he was a man of the sixth century after Christ; his mind conceived an ideal of human excellence which would have been unintelligible to the Decii of old; in his heart meekness and chastity had more reverence than perhaps he imagined. He glanced at Basil; he understood. Though the future still troubled him, opposition to the lover's will must, he knew, be idle.
Several hours before, Basil had scratched on a waxed tablet a few emphatic lines, which his cousin allowed to be transmitted to Veranilda. They assured her that what he had learned could only-- if that were possible--increase his love, and entreated her to grant him were it but a moment's speech after the formal visit, later in the day. The smile with which she now met him seemed at once gratitude and promise; she was calmer, and less timid. Though she took little part in the conversation, her words fell very sweetly after the men's speech and the self-confident tones of Aurelia; her language was that of an Italian lady, but in the accent could be marked a slight foreignness, which to Basil's ear had the charm of rarest music, and even to Decius sounded not unpleasing. Under the circumstances, talk, confined to indifferent subjects, could not last very long; as soon as it began to flag, Decius found an excuse for begging permission to retire. As though wishing for a word with him in confidence, Aurelia at the same time passed out of the room into the colonnade. Basil and Veranilda were left alone.