Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter VII. Heresy
The Roman Empire, by confining privileges and honours to the senatorial order, created a noble caste, and this caste, as Imperial authority declined, became a power independent of the state, and a menace to its existence. In Italy, by the end of the fifth century, the great system of citizenship, with its principle of infinite devotion to the good of the commonwealth, was all but forgotten. In matters of justice and of finance the nobles were beginning to live by their own law, which was that of the right of the strongest. Having ceased to hold office and perform public services in the municipia, they became, in fact, rulers of the towns situated on or near their great estates. Theodoric, striving to uphold the ancient civility, made strenuous efforts to combat this aristocratic predominance; yet on some points he was obliged to yield to the tendency of the times, as when he forbade the freedmen, serfs, and slaves on any estate to plead against their lord, and so delivered the mass of the rural inhabitants of Italy to private jurisdiction. The Gothic war of course hastened the downfall of political and social order. The manners of the nobles grew violent in lawlessness; men calling themselves senators, but having in fact renounced that rank by permanent absence from Rome, and others who merely belonged to senatorial houses, turned to fortifying their villas, and to building castles on heights, whilst they gathered about them a body of retainers, armed for defence or for aggression.
Such a personage was Venantius, son of a senator of the same name, who, under Theodoric, had attained the dignity of Patrician and what other titular glories the time afforded. Venantius, the younger, coming into possession of an estate between Neapolis and Salernum, here took up his abode after the siege of Rome, and lived as seemed good to him, lord over the little town of Nuceria, and of a considerable tract of country, with a villa converted into a stronghold up on the mountain side. Having suffered wrongs at the hands of the Imperial conquerors--property of his in Rome had been seized--he heard with satisfaction of the rise of Totila, and, as soon as the king's progress southward justified such a step, entered into friendly communication with the Goth, whom he invited to come with all speed into Campania, where Salernum, Neapolis, Cumae, would readily fall into his hands. Marcian, on his double mission of spy in the Greek service and friend of the Goths, had naturally sought out Venantius; and the description he gave to Basil of the fortress above Nuceria filled the listener with enthusiasm.
'I would I could live in the same way,' Basil exclaimed. 'And why not? My own villa in Picenum might be strengthened with walls and towers. We have stone enough, and no lack of men to build.'
Yet as he spoke a misgiving betrayed itself on his countenance. Consciously or not, he had always had before him a life at Rome, the life which became a Roman, as distinguished from a barbarian. But the need to seek security for Veranilda again became vivid to his mind. At Rome, clearly, he could not live with his wife until the Goths had reconquered the city, which was not likely to happen soon. His means were represented chiefly by the Arpinum estate, which he had inherited from his father; in Rome he had nothing but his mansion on the Caelian. The treasure at his command, a considerable sum, he had brought away in a strong box, and it was now more than doubled in value by what fell to him under the will of Maximus-- money to be paid out of the great coffer which the senator had conveyed hither. As they talked, Marcian urged upon him a close friendship with Venantius, in whose castle he would be welcomed. Here at Surrentum he could not long rest in safety, for Chorsoman might at any time have his suspicions awakened by learning the delay of Veranilda's journey to Rome, and the news of her marriage could not be prevented from spreading.
So Basil lay through an anxious hour or two before sleep fell upon him to-night. He resolved to change the habits of his life, to shake off indolence and the love of ease, to fortify himself with vigorous exercises, and become ready for warfare. It was all very well for an invalid, like Decius, to nurse a tranquil existence, unheeding the temper of the times. A strong and healthy man had no right to lurk away from the streaming flood of things; it behoved him to take his part in strife and tumult, to aid in re-establishing a civic state. This determination firmly grasped, he turned to think of the hoped-for meeting with Veranilda in the morning, and gentler emotions lulled him into dreams.
At dawn he bestirred himself. The gallery outside his chamber was lighted with a hanging lamp, and at a little distance sounded the footstep of the watchman, who told him that the morning was fair, and, at his bidding, opened a door which admitted to the open terrace overlooking the sea. Having stepped forth, Basil stood for a moment sniffing the cool air with its scent from the vineyards, and looking at the yellow rift in the eastern sky; then he followed a path which skirted the villa's outward wall and led towards the dwelling of Aurelia. Presently he reached the ruined wall of the little garden, and here a voice challenged him, that of a servant on watch until sunrise.
'It is well,' he replied. 'I will relieve you for this last half hour; go to your rest.'
But the slave hesitated. He had strictest orders, and feared to disobey them even at this bidding.
'You are an honest fellow,' said Basil, 'and the lady Aurelia shall know of your steadfastness. But get you gone; there is no danger whilst I am here.'
Impatiently he watched the man retire, then stood just within the gap of the wall, and waited with as much fear as hope. It might be that Veranilda would not venture forth without speaking to Aurelia, who might forbid the meeting; or, if she tried to steal out, she might be detected and hindered; perhaps she would fear to pass under the eyes of a watchman or other servant who might be in her way. He stamped nervously, and turned to look for a moment in the outward direction. This little villa stood on the edge of a declivity falling towards the sea; a thicket of myrtles grew below. At the distance of half a mile along the coast, beyond a hollow wooded with ilex, rose a temple, which time and the hand of man had yet spared; its whiteness glimmered against a sky whose cloudless dusk was warming with a reflection of the daybreak. An influence in the scene before him, something he neither understood nor tried to understand, held him gazing longer than he supposed, and with a start he heard his name spoken by the beloved voice. Close to him stood Veranilda. She was cloaked and hooded, so that he could hardly see her face; but her white hands were held out for his.
Heart to heart, mouth to mouth, they whispered. To be more private, Basil drew her without the garden. Veranilda's eyes fixed themselves upon the spreading glory of the east; and it moved her to utterance.
'When I was a child,' she said, 'at Ravenna, I gazed once at the sunrise, and behold, in the rays which shot upwards stood an angel, a great, beautiful angel, with wings of blue, and a garment which shone like gold, and on his head was a wreath of I know not what flowers. I ran to tell my mother, but when she came, alas! the angel had vanished. No one could tell me certainly what the vision meant. Often I have looked and hoped to see the angel again, but he has never come.'
Basil listened without a doubt, and murmured soft words. Then he asked whether Aurelia knew of this meeting; but Veranilda shook her head.
'I durst not speak. I so feared to disappoint you. This night I have hardly slept, lest I should miss the moment. Should I not return very soon, O Basil?'
'You shall; though your going will make the sky black as when Auster blows. But it is not for long. A few days--'
He broke off with the little laugh of a triumphing lover.
'A few days?' responded Veranilda, timidly questioning.
'We wait only until that dark ship has sailed for Rome.' 'Does Aurelia know that you purpose it so soon?' asked Veranilda.
'Why? Has she seemed to you to wish otherwise?'
'She has never spoken of it.--And afterwards? Shall we remain here, Basil?'
'For no long time. Here I am but a guest. We must dwell where I am lord and you lady of all about us.'
He told her of his possessions, of the great house in Rome with the villa at Arpinum. Then he asked her, playfully, but with a serious purpose in his mind, which of the two she would prefer for an abode.
'I have no choice but yours,' she replied. 'Where it seems good to my dear lord to dwell, there shall I be at rest.'
'We must be safe against our enemies,' said Basil, with graver countenance.
'Has not Aurelia talked to you of the war? You know that the Gothic king is conquering all before him, coming from the north?'
Veranilda looked into her lover's face with a tender anxiety.
'And you fear him, O Basil? It is he that is our enemy?'
'Not so, sweetest. No foe of mine is he who wears the crown of Theodoric. They whom I fear and abhor are the slaves of Justinian, the robber captains who rule at Ravenna and in Rome.'
As she heard him, Veranilda trembled with joy. She caught his hand, and bent over it, and kissed it.
'Had I been the enemy of Totila,' said Basil, 'could you still have loved me as a wife should love?'
'I had not asked myself,' she answered, 'for it was needless. When I look on you, I think neither of Roman nor of Goth.'
Basil spoke of his hope that Rome might be restored to the same freedom it had enjoyed under the great king. Then they would dwell together in the sacred city. That, too, was Veranilda's desire; for on her ear the name of Rome fell with a magic sound; all her life she had heard it spoken reverentially, with awe, yet the city itself she had never seen. Rome, she knew, was vast; there, it seemed to her, she would live unobserved, unthought of save by him she loved. Seclusion from all strangers, from all who, learning her origin, would regard her slightingly, was what her soul desired.
Day had broken; behind the mountains there was light of the sun. Once more they held each other heart to heart, and Veranilda hastened through the garden to regain her chamber. Basil stood for some minutes lost in a delicious dream; the rising day made his face beautiful, his eyes gleamed with an unutterable rapture. At length he sighed and awoke and looked about him. At no great distance, as though just issued from the ilex wood, moved a man's figure. It approached very slowly, and Basil watched until he saw that the man was bent as if with age, and had black garments such as were worn by wandering mendicant monks. Carelessly he turned, and went his way back to the villa.
An hour later, Aurelia learnt that a 'holy man,' a pilgrim much travel worn, was begging to be admitted to her. She refused to see him. Still he urged his entreaty, declaring that he had a precious gift for her acceptance, and an important message for her ear. At length he was allowed to enter the atrium, and Aurelia saw before her a man in black monkish habit, his body bent and tremulous, but evidently not with age, for his aspect otherwise was that of middle life. What, she asked briefly and coldly, was his business with her? Thereupon the monk drew from his bosom a small wrappage of tissues, which when unfolded disclosed a scrap of something hairy.
'This, noble lady,' said the monk, in a voice reverently subdued, 'is from the camel-hair garment of Holy John the Baptist. I had it of a hermit in the Egyptian desert, who not many days after I quitted him was for his sanctity borne up to heaven by angels, and knew not death.'
Aurelia viewed the relic with emotion.
'Why,' she asked, 'do you offer it to me?'
The monk drew a step nearer and whispered:
'Because I know that you, like him from whom I received it, are of the true faith.'
Aurelia observed him closely. His robe was ragged and filthy; his bare feet were thick with the dust of the road; his visage, much begrimed, wore an expression of habitual suffering, and sighs as of pain frequently broke from him. The hand by which he supported himself on a staff trembled as with weakness.
'You are not a presbyter?' she said in an undertone, after a glance at his untonsured head.
'I am unworthy of the meanest order in the Church. In pilgrimings and fastings I do penance for a sin of youth. You see how wasted is my flesh.'
'What, then,' asked Aurelia, 'was the message you said you bore for me?'
'This. Though I myself have no power to perform the sacraments of our faith, I tend upon one who has. He lies not far from here, like myself sick and weary, and, because of a vow, may not come within the precincts of any dwelling. In Macedonia, oppressed by our persecutors, he was long imprisoned, and so sorely tormented that, in a moment when the Evil One prevailed over his flesh, he denied the truth. This sin gave him liberty, but scarce had he come forth when a torment of the soul, far worse than that of his body, fell upon him. He was delivered over to the Demon, and, being yet alive, saw about him the fires of Gehenna. Thus, for a season, did he suffer things unspeakable, wandering in desert places, ahungered, athirst, faint unto death, yet not permitted to die. One night of storm, he crept for shelter into the ruins of a heathen temple. Of a sudden, a dreadful light shone about him, and he beheld the Demon in the guise of that false god, who fell upon him and seemed like to slay him. But Sisinnius--so is the holy man named--strove in prayer and in conjuration, yea, strove hours until the crowing of the cock, and thus sank into slumber. And while he slept, an angel of the Most High appeared before him, and spoke words which I know not. Since then, Sisinnius wanders from land to land, seeking out the temples of the heathen which have not been purified, and passing the night in strife with the Powers of Darkness, wherein he is ever victorious.'
With intent look did Aurelia listen to this narrative. At its close, she asked eagerly:
'This man of God has sent you to me?'
'Moved by a vision--for in the sleep which follows upon his struggle it is often granted him to see beyond this world. He bids you resist temptation, and be of good courage.'
'Know you what this bidding means?' inquired the awed woman, gazing into the monk's eyes till they fell.
'I know nothing. I am but a follower of the holy Sisinnius--an unworthy follower.'
'May I not speak with him?'
The monk had a troubled look.
'I have told you, lady, that he must not, by reason of his vow, enter a human dwelling.'
'But may I not go to him?' she urged. 'May I not seek him in his solitude, guided by you?'
To this, said the monk, he could give no reply until he had spoken with Sisinnius. He promised to do so, and to return, though he knew not at what hour, nor even whether it would be this day. And, after demanding many assurances that he would come again as speedily as might be, Aurelia allowed the messenger to depart.
Meanwhile Basil and Marcian have spent an hour in talk, the result of which was a decision that Marcian should again repair to the stronghold of Venantius, and persuade him to come over t6 Surrentum. When his friend had ridden forth Basil sought conversation with Aurelia, whom he found in a mood unlike any she had yet shown to him, a mood of dreamy trouble, some suppressed emotion appearing in her look and in her speech. He began by telling her of Venantius, but this seemed to interest her less than he had expected.
'Cousin,' he resumed, 'I have a double thought in desiring that Venantius should come hither. It is not only that I may talk with him of the war, and learn his hopes, but that I may secure a safe retreat for Veranilda when she is my wife, and for you, dear cousin, if you desire it.'
He spoke as strongly as he could without revealing the secret danger, of the risks to which they would all be exposed when rumours of his marriage reached the governor of Cumae, or the Greeks in Neapolis. Until the Goths reached Campania, a Roman here who fell under suspicion of favouring them must be prepared either to flee or to defend himself. Defence of this villa was impossible even against the smallest body of soldiers, but within the walls, raised and fortified by Venantius, a long siege might be safely sustained.
'It is true,' said Aurelia at length, as if rousing herself from her abstraction, 'that we must think of safety. But you are not yet wedded.'
'A few days hence I shall be.'
'Have you forgotten,' she resumed, meeting his resolute smile, 'what still divides you from Veranilda?'
'You mean the difference of religion. Tell me, did that stand in the way of your marriage with a Goth?'
She cast down her eyes and was silent.
'Was your marriage,' Basil went on, 'blessed by a Catholic or by an Arian presbyter?'
'By neither,' replied Aurelia gently.
'Then why may it not be so with me and Veranilda? And so it shall be, lady cousin,' he added cheerily. 'Our good Decius will be gone; we await the sailing of the ship; but you and Marcian, and perhaps Venantius, will be our witnesses.'
For the validity of Christian wedlock no religious rite was necessary: the sufficient, the one indispensable, condition was mutual consent. The Church favoured a union which had been sanctified by the oblation and the blessing, but no ecclesiastical law imposed this ceremony. As in the days of the old religion, a man wedded his bride by putting the ring upon her finger and delivering her dowry in a written document, before chosen witnesses. Aurelia knew that even as this marriage had satisfied her, so would it suffice to Veranilda, whom a rapturous love made careless of doctrinal differences: She perceived, moreover, that Basil was in no mood for religious discussion; there was little hope that he would consent to postpone his marriage on such an account; yet to convert Basil to 'heresy' was a fine revenge she would not willingly forego, her own bias to Arianism being stronger than ever since the wrong she believed herself to have suffered at the hands of the deacon, and the insult cast at her by her long-hated aunt. After years of bitterness, her triumph seemed assured. It was much to have inherited from her father, to have expelled Petronilla; but the marriage of Basil with a Goth, his renunciation of Catholicism, and with it the Imperial cause, were greater things, and together with their attainment she foredreamt the greatest of all, Totila's complete conquest of Italy. She saw herself mistress in the Anician palace at Rome, commanding vast wealth, her enemies mute, powerless, submissive before her. Then, if it seemed good to her, she would again wed, and her excited imagination deigned to think of no spouse save him whose alliance would make her royal.
Providential was the coming of the holy Sisinnius. Beyond doubt he had the gift of prophecy. From him she would not only receive the consolations of religion, but might learn what awaited her. Very slowly passed the hours until the reappearance of the black monk. He came when day was declining, and joyfully she learnt that Sisinnius permitted her to visit him; it must be on the morrow at the second hour, the place a spot in the ilex wood, not far away, whither the monk would guide her. But she must come alone; were she accompanied, even at a distance, by any attendant, Sisinnius would refuse to see her. To all the conditions Aurelia readily consented, and bade the monk meet her at the appointed hour by the breach in her garden wall.
On the morrow there was no glory of sunrise; clouds hung heavy, and a sobbing wind shook the dry leaves of the vine. But at the second hour, after pretence of idling about the garden, Aurelia saw approach the black, bowed figure, with a gesture bade him go before, and followed. She was absent not long enough to excite the remark of her household. In going forth she had been pale with agitation; at her return she had a fire in her cheeks, a lustre in her eyes, which told of hopes abundantly fulfilled. At once she sought Veranilda, to whom she had not yet spoken of the monk's visit. At this juncture the coming even of an ordinary priest of the Arian faith would have been more than welcome to them, living as they perforce did without office or sacrament; but Sisinnius, declared Aurelia, was a veritable man of God, one who had visions and saw into the future, one whom merely to behold was a sacred privilege. She had begged his permission to visit him again, with Veranilda, and he had consented; but a few days must pass before that, as the holy man was called away she knew not whither. When he summoned them they must go forth in early morning, to a certain cave near at hand, where Sisinnius would say mass and administer to them the communion. Hearing such news, Veranilda gladdened.
'Will the holy man reveal our fate to us?' she asked, with a child's simplicity.
'To me he has already uttered a prophetic word,' answered Aurelia, 'but I may not repeat it, no, not even to you. Enough that it has filled my soul with wonder and joy.'
'May that joy also be mine!' said Veranilda, pressing her hands together.
This afternoon, when Basil sat with her and Aurelia, she took her cithern, and in a low voice sang songs she had heard her mother sing, in the days before shame and sorrow fell upon Theodenantha. There were old ballads of the Goths, oftener stern than tender, but to the listeners, ignorant of her tongue, Veranilda's singing made them sweet as lover's praise. One little song was Greek; it was all she knew of that language, and the sole inheritance that had come to her from her Greek-loving grandparent, the King Theodahad.
Auster was blowing; great lurid clouds rolled above the dark green waters, and at evening rain began to fall. Through the next day, and the day after that, the sky still lowered; there was thunder of waves upon the shore; at times a mist swept down from the mountains, which enveloped all in gloom. To Basil and Veranilda it mattered nothing. Where they sat together there was sunshine, and before them gleamed an eternity of cloudless azure.