Chapter VI. The Emperor's Command
 

His voice made tremulous music, inaudible a few paces away; his breath was on her cheek; his eyes, as she gazed into them, seemed to envelop her in their glow.

'My fairest! Let me but touch your hand. Lay it for a moment in mine--a pledge for ever!'

'You do not fear to love me, O lord of my life?'

The whisper made him faint with joy.

'What has fear to do with love, O thou with heaven in thine eyes! what room is there for fear in the heart where thy beauty dwells? Speak again, speak again, my beloved, and bless me above all men that live!'

'Basil! Basil! Utter my name once more. I never knew how sweet it could sound.'

'Nor I, how soft could be the sound of mine. Forgive me, O Veranilda, that out of my love pain has come to you. You will not ever be sad again? You will not think ever again of those bygone sorrows?'

She bent her head low.

'Can you believe in my truth, O Basil? Can you forget?'

'All save the nobleness of her who bore you, sweet and fair one.'

'Let that be ever in your thought,' said Veranilda, with a radiant look. 'She sees me now; and my hope, your strength and goodness, bring new joy to her in the life eternal.'

'Say the word I wait for--whisper low--the word of all words.'

'Out of my soul, O Basil, I love you!'

As the sound trembled into silence, his lips touched hers. In the golden shadow of her hair, the lily face flushed warm; yet she did not veil her eyes, vouchers of a life's loyalty.

When Aurelia entered the room again, she walked as though absorbed in thought.

'Decius tells me he must soon go to Rome,' were her words, in drawing near to the lovers.

Basil had heard of no such purpose. His kinsman, under the will of Maximus, enjoyed a share in the annual revenue of this Surrentine estate; moreover, he became the possessor of many books, which lay in the Anician mansion of Rome, and it was his impatience. thought Aurelia, to lay hands upon so precious a legacy, which might at any time be put in danger by the events of the war, that prompted him to set forth.

'Might he not perform the duty you have undertaken?' she added in a lower voice, as she met Basil's look.

Veranilda did not speak, but an anxious hope dawned in her face. And Basil saw it.

'Have you spoken of it, cousin?' he asked.

'The thought has but just come to me.'

'Decius is not in good health. Thus late in the year, to travel by sea--Yet the weather may be fair, the sea still; and then it would be easier for him than the journey by land.'

Basil spoke in a halting tone. He could not without a certain shame think of revoking his promise to Petronilla, a very distinct promise, in which natural obligation had part. Yet the thought of the journey, of an absence from Veranilda, not without peril of many kinds, grew terrible to him. He looked at Veranilda again, and smiled encouragement.

The lady Petronilla had been wont to dine and sup in dignified publicity, seated on the sigma, in the room which had seen so many festivals, together with her male relatives and any guest who might be at the villa; in her presence, no man permitted himself the recumbent attitude, which indeed had been unusual save among the effeminate. But Aurelia and her companion took their meals apart. This evening, Basil and Decius supped almost in silence, each busy with his reflections. They lingered over the wine, their attendants having left them, until Decius, as if rousing himself from a dream, asked how long it was likely to be before the ship could sail. Basil answered that the leaden coffin would be ready within a few days (it was being made at Neapolis, out of water-pipes which had served a villa in ruins), and after that there would only be delay through wind and weather.

'Are you greatly bent on going to Rome just now?' was the student's next inquiry, a twinkle in his eyes as he spoke.

'By Bacchus!' answered the other, handling his goblet. 'If I saw my way to avoid it!'

'I guessed as much. The suspicion came to me at a certain moment this morning--a mere grain, which ever since has been growing tanquam favus. I am not wont to consider myself as of much use, but is it not just possible that, in this case, your humble kinsman might serve you?'

'My good, my excellent, my very dear Decius!' broke from the listener. 'But would it not be with risk to your health?'

'I would beg permission not to weigh anchor in a tempest, that's all. The sea in its gentler moods I have never feared, and alcyoneum medicamen, you know, in other words the sea-foam, has always been recommended for freckles.'

He touched his face, which was in deed much freckle-spotted, and Basil, whose spirits rose each moment, gave a good-natured laugh.

'One thing only,' added Decius seriously. 'Inasmuch as this charge is a grave one, I would not undertake it without the consent of the ladies Aurelia and Petronilla. Perchance, in respect for the honoured Maximus, they would feel reluctant to see me take your place.'

'O modest Decius!' exclaimed the other. 'Which, pray, carries the more dignity, your name or mine?--not to speak of your learning and my ignorance. As to Aurelia, I can ease your mind at once. She would not dream of objecting.'

'Then let us, to-morrow, beg audience of the pious lady at Surrentum, and request her permission.'

The proposal made Basil uncomfortable; but a visit of respect to Petronilla was certainly due, and perhaps it would pass without troublesome incident. He nodded assent.

Early on the morrow they carried out their purpose. To the surprise of both, Petronilla received them in her modest abode not ungraciously, though with marked condescension; she gave them to understand that her days, and much of her nights, passed in religious exercises, the names of her kinsfolk not being omitted from her prayers; of the good bishop she spoke almost tenderly, and with a humble pride related that she had been able to ease a persistent headache from which his Sanctity suffered. When Basil found an opportunity of reporting what had passed between him and Decius, the lady's austere smile was for a moment clouded; it looked as though storm might follow. But the smile returned, with perhaps a slightly changed significance. Did Basil think of remaining long at the villa? Ah, he could not say; to be sure, the times were so uncertain. For her own part, she would start on her journey as soon as the coffin was on board the ship. Indeed, she saw no objection to the arrangement her dear nephew proposed; she only trusted that the learned and amiable Decius, so justly esteemed by all, would have a care of his health. Did he still take the infusion of marjoram which she had prescribed for him? A holy man, newly returned from the East, had deigned to visit her only yesterday, and had given her a small phial of water from Rebekah's well; it was of priceless virtue, and one drop of it had last evening restored to health and strength a child that lay at the point of death.

In the afternoon Basil was again permitted to see Veranilda, though not alone. To her and to Aurelia he made known that Decius would willingly undertake the voyage. After lingering for an hour in the vain hope that Aurelia would withdraw, were it but for a moment, he went away and scratched ardent words on his tablet. 'I will be in your garden,' he concluded, 'just at sunrise to-morrow. Try, try to meet me there.'

Scarcely had he despatched a servant with this when Felix announced to him the arrival of Marcian. On fire with eagerness, Basil sped to greet his friend.

'Give me to drink,' were the traveller's first words. 'I have ridden since before dawn, and have a tongue like leather.'

Wine and grapes, with other refreshments, were set forth for him. Marcian took up an earthenware jug full of spring water, and drank deeply. His host then urged the wine, but it was refused; and as Basil knew that one of his friend's peculiarities was a rigorous abstinence at times from all liquor save the pure element, he said no more.

'I have been at Nuceria,' Marcian continued, throwing himself on a seat, 'with Venantius. What a man! He was in the saddle yesterday from sunrise to sunset; drank from sunset to the third hour of the night; rose before light this morning, gay and brisk, and made me ride with him, so that I was all but tired out before I started on the road hither. Venantius declares that he can only talk of serious things on horseback.'

'My uncle regarded him as a Roman turned barbarian,' said Basil.

'Something of that, but such men have their worth and their place.'

'We will talk about him at another time,' Basil interrupted. 'Remember how we parted at Cumae and what happened afterwards. We are private here; you can speak freely. How did you release us from the grip of the Hun?'

'I told you before, good Basil, that I was here to spy upon you; and be sure that I did not undertake that office without exacting a proof of the confidence of our lords at Rome. Something I carry with me which has power over such dogs as Chorsoman.'

'I saw that, best Marcian. But it did not avail to save my cousin Aurelia from robbery.'

'Nothing would, where Chorsoman was sure of a week's--nay, of an hour's--impunity. But did he steal aught belonging to the Gothic maiden?'

'To Veranilda? She has but a bracelet and a ring, and those she was wearing. They came from her mother, a woman of noblest heart, who, when her husband Ebrimut played the traitor, and she was left behind in Italy, would keep nothing but these two trinkets, which once were worn by Amalafrida.'

'You know all that now,' observed Marcian quietly.

'The story of the trinkets only since an hour or two ago. That of Veranilda's parentage I learned from Aurelia, Veranilda refusing to converse with me until I knew.'

'Since when you have conversed, I take it, freely enough.'

'Good my lord,' replied Basil, with a look of some earnestness, 'let us not jest on this matter.'

'I am little disposed to do so, O fiery lover!' said Marcian, with a return of his wonted melancholy. 'For I have that to tell you which makes the matter grave enough. We were right, you see, in our guess of Veranilda's origin; I could wish she had been any one else. Patience, patience! You know that I left you here to go to Neapolis. There I received letters from Rome, one of them from Bessas himself, and, by strange hazard, the subject of it was the daughter of Ebrimut.'

Basil made a gesture of repugnance. 'Nay, call her the daughter of Theodenantha.'

'As you will. In any case the granddaughter of a king, and not likely to be quite forgotten by the royal family of her own race. Another king's grandchild, Matasuntha, lives, as you know, at Byzantium, and enjoys no little esteem at the Emperor's court; it is rumoured, indeed, that her husband Vitiges, having died somewhere in battle, Matasuntha is to wed a nephew of Justinian. This lady, I am told, desires to know the daughter of Ebri--nay, then, of Theodenantha; of whom, it seems, a report has reached her. A command of the Emperor has come to Bessas that the maiden Veranilda, resident at Cumae, be sent to Constantinople with all convenient speed. And upon me, O Basil, lies the charge of seeking her in her dwelling, and of conveying her safely to Rome, where she will be guarded until--'

'Will be guarded!' echoed Basil fiercely. 'Nay, by the holy Peter and Paul, that will she not! You are my friend, Marcian, and I hold you dear, but if you attempt to obey this order--'

Hand on dagger, and eyes glaring, the young noble had sprung to his feet. Marcian did not stir; his head was slightly bent, and a sad smile hovered about his lips.

'O descendant of all the Anicii,' he replied, 'O son of many consuls, remember the ancestral dignity. Time enough to threaten when you detect me in an unfriendly act. Did I play the traitor to you at Cumae? With the Hun this command of Justinian served you in good stead; Veranilda would not otherwise have escaped so easily. Chorsoman, fat-witted as he is, willingly believed that Veranilda and Aurelia, and you yourself, were all in my net--which means the net of Bessas, whom he fears. Do you also believe it, my good Basil?'

For answer Basil embraced his friend, and kissed him on either cheek.

'I know how this has come about,' he said; and thereupon related the story of the visit of Olybrius to Aurelia six months ago. It seemed probable that a report of Veranilda's beauty had reached Matasuntha, who wished to adorn her retinue with so fair a remnant of the Amal race. How, he went on to ask, would Marcian excuse himself at Rome for his failure to perform this office?

'Leave that to my ingenuity,' was the reply. 'Enough for you to dare defiance of the Emperor's will.'

Basil made a scornful gesture, which his friend noted with the same melancholy smile.

'You have no misgiving?' said Marcian. 'Think who it is you brave. Imperator Caesar Flavius Justinianus--Africanus, Gothicus, Germanicus, Vandalicus, and I know not what else--Pius, Felix, Inclytus, Victor ac Triumphator, Semper Augustus--'

The other laid a hand upon his shoulder.

'Marcian, no word of this to Aurelia, I charge you!'

'I have no desire to talk about it, be assured. But it is time that we understood each other. Be plain with me. If you wed Veranilda how do you purpose to secure your safety? Not, I imagine, by prostrating yourself before Bessas. Where will you be safe from pursuit?'

Basil reflected, then asked boldly:

'Has not the King Totila welcomed and honourably entertained Romans who have embraced his cause?'

'Come now,' exclaimed the other, his sad visage lighting up, 'that is to speak like a man! So, we do understand each other. Be it known unto you then, O Basil, that at this moment the Gothic king is aware of your love for Veranilda, and of your purpose to espouse her. You indeed are a stranger to him, even in name; but not so the Anician house; and an Anician, be assured, will meet with no cold reception in the camp of the Goths.'

'You enjoy the confidence of Totila?' asked Basil, wondering, and a little confused.

'Did I not tell you that I claimed the merit of playing traitor to both sides?'

Marcian spoke with a note of bitterness, looking his friend fixedly in the face.

'It is a noble treachery,' said Basil, seizing both his hands. 'I am with you, heart and soul! Tell me more. Where is the king? Will he march upon Rome?'

'Neapolis will see him before Rome does. He comes slowly through Samnium, making sure his conquest on the way. Let me now speak again of Venantius. He would fain know you.'

'He is one of ours?'

'One of those true Romans who abhor the Eastern tyranny and see in the Goth a worthy ally. Will you ride with me to-morrow to Nuceria?'

'I cannot,' replied Basil, 'for I dare not leave Veranilda without protection, after what you have told me.'

'Why, then, Venantius must come hither.'

Whilst the friends were thus conversing a courier rode forth from Surrentum towards Neapolis. He bore a letter whereof the contents were these:--

'To the holy and reverend deacon Leander, Petronilla's humble salutation.

'I am most punctually informed of all that passes at the villa. My nephew goes not to Rome; his place will be taken by Decius. The reason is that which I have already suggested to your Sanctity. Marcian has arrived this afternoon, coming I know not whence, but I shall learn. I suspect things of the darkest moment. Let your Sanctity pursue the project with which heaven has inspired you. You shall receive, if necessary, two missives every day. Humbly I entreat your prayers.'