Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter VIII. The Snare
Meanwhile all was made ready for the sailing of the ship. Coffined in lead, the body of Maximus awaited only a return of fine weather for its conveyance to the vessel. When at length calm fell upon the sea, and after a still night of gentle rain the day broke radiantly, all Surrentum was in movement between church and harbour. Mass having been said, the bishop himself led the procession down the hollow way and through the chasm in the cliffs seaward, whilst psalms were chanted and incense burnt. Carried in her litter, Petronilla followed the bier; beside her walked Basil and Decius. Only by conscious effort could these two subdue their visages to a becoming sadness; for Basil thought of his marriage, Decius of Rome and his library. Nor did Petronilla wear an aspect of very profound gloom; at moments she forgot herself, and a singular animation appeared on her proud features; it was as though some exultancy took hold of her mind.
That Aurelia held apart, that the daughter gave no testimony of reverence for a father's remains, caused such murmuring in the crowd of Surrentines: her heresy seemed to be made more notorious, more abominable, by this neglect. At Surrentum, Arianism had never been known; no Goth had ever dwelt here; and since Aurelia's arrival public opinion had had time to gather force against her. It was believed that she had driven forth with insults the most noble Petronilla, that exemplar of charity and of a saintly life. Worse still was the rumour, now generally believed, that the Senator's daughter had obtained her inheritance by wicked hypocrisy, by a false show of return to the true faith. Being herself so evil, it was not to be wondered that she corrupted those who fell under her influence; the young lord Basil, for instance, who, incredible as it sounded, was said to be on the point of espousing a Gothic damsel, a mysterious attendant upon Aurelia, of whom strange stories were rife. Talk of these things made no little agitation in the town when ceremonies were over and the coffin had been embarked. The generality threw up their hands, and cried shame, and asked why the bishop did not take some action in so grave a scandal. But here and there folk whispered together in a different tone, with winkings and lips compressed, and nods significant of menace. Patience! Wait a day or two, and they would see what they would see. Heaven was not regardless of iniquity.
Scarce had the ship weighed anchor, to be wafted across the bay by a gentle wind, when Petronilla started on her land journey for Rome. The great chariot, the baggage, the servants riding, made fresh commotion in Surrentum; many accompanied the great lady along the winding road until they were weary and their curiosity satisfied. To this obsequious escort Petronilla uttered certain words which before evening were repeated throughout the town. 'Let us forgive our enemies,' she said, with that air of hers, at once so grand and so devout--'let us forgive our enemies, but let us omit no means, however rigorous, of saving their souls'; and of those who reported the saying, some winked and nodded more significantly than ever.
Just before sunset on this same day there was trampling of hoofs along the road ascending to the villa, as two horsemen, with a dozen followers, some on horses, some on mules, rode up. Summoned to the atrium, Basil greeted the return of Marcian, and looked with curiosity at the man standing beside him, who could be no other than Venantius. A tall and comely man, wearing a casque and a light breastplate, his years not more than thirty, rather slim, yet evidently muscular and vigorous, he had a look of good-humoured determination, and the tones in which he replied to Basil's welcome were those of a born commander. In contrast with his host's elaborate courtesy, the manners of Venantius might have been judged a trifle barbarous, but this bluntness was no result of defective breeding; had he chosen, he could have exchanged lofty titles and superlatives of compliment with any expert in such fashionable extravagances, but he chose a plainer speech, in keeping with his martial aspect. First of all he excused himself for having arrived with so many followers.
'But our good Marcian,' he added, clapping a hand on his companion's shoulder, 'had a story to tell me of a fair lady and fairer maiden--though not long to bear the name, she--who may belike need protection as well as honourable attendance; whereas you, noble Basil, have thought little of the use of arms, and probably keep no very warlike retinue at command. So I mounted half a dozen bowmen, who will ride and shoot with any Hun, and as many stout fellows who can wield lance or throw javelin, and here they are at your gates. Have no fear for the girls within doors; my men are both sober and chaste by prudence, if not by nature. There was a time when I had to make an example here and there'--he scowled a smile--'but now they know me.'
Basil replied as became him, not without some slight imitation of his guest's bluff manliness. Admiring, as he did, above all things, that which savoured of heroism, he was strongly impressed by Venantius, whose like, among natives of Rome, he had not yet beheld, who shone before him, indeed, in a nobler light than any man he had seen since the days when he worshipped Belisarius. Arrangements were speedily made for the entertainment of the little armed troop, and as dusk gathered the host and his two guests sat down to supper. Whilst the meal was being made ready, Basil had found opportunity of speech with Aurelia, who heard with great satisfaction of the coming of Venantius, and promised to receive him early on the morrow.
'The lady Aurelia's name is not unknown to me,' said Venantius, when Basil spoke of her at table. He would have added a remark, but paused with a look at the attendant slaves. 'Her illustrious father,' he went on, 'I spoke with when I was young. But for the illness of Maximus I should have ventured hither during this year gone by, notwithstanding some difference in our view of things; or rather, to make sure whether there really was as much difference as I supposed.'
'Perchance you would have found that there was not,' said Basil. 'Certainly not towards the end.'
'May his soul repose! He had the bearing which suited with his noble name--a true Anicius to look upon. If Rome have need in these times of another breed of citizens--and who can gainsay that?-- she will not forget such men as he, who lived with dignity when they could do no more. You, my dear lord'--he turned towards Basil-- 'Anicius though you are, see another way before you, what?'
They talked far into the night. When he spoke of the Imperial conquerors--'Greeklings' he called them--Venantius gave vent to his wrath and scorn. The Goths were right when they asked what had ever come out of Greece save mimes and pirates; land-thieves they might have added, for what else were the generals of Justinian with their pillaging hordes? They dared to speak of the Goths as barbarians--these Herules, Isaurians, Huns, Armenians, and Teutons!--of the Goths, whose pride it had so long been to defend Roman civilisation, and even to restore the Roman edifices. What commander among them could compare with Totila, brave, just, generous?
'By the Holy Mother!' he cried, with a great gesture, 'if I were not wedded to a wife I love, who has borne me already three boys as healthy as wolf cubs, I would follow your example, O Basil, and take to myself a blue-eyed daughter of that noble race. They are heretics, why yes, but as far as I can make out they pray much as I do, and by heaven's grace may yet be brought to hold the truth as to the Three-in-One. When they had the power, did they meddle with our worship? Let every man believe as he list, say I, so that he believe sincerely, and trust God against the devil.'
In the stillness of their secluded abode, Aurelia and Veranilda went to rest earlier than usual this evening, for they were to arise before the dawn. This afternoon they had been visited by the black monk, who announced the return of Sisinnius, and invited them to the promised mass on the morrow; and such was their agitation in the foretaste of this religious ecstasy, as well as in the hope of having their future revealed to them, that neither slept much during the night. Not long after the crowing of the first cock, when all was silent and dark, Aurelia stepped, with a lamp in her hand, into the maiden's chamber.
'Is it the hour?' whispered Veranilda, raising herself.
'Not yet. I have had a troubled dream. I dreamt that this night the holy Sisinnius had fought with the demon, and had been worsted. O Veranilda!'--the speaker's voice trembled--'what may this mean?'
'Dearest lady,' answered the other reassuringly, 'may it not be a temptation of the demon himself; who at times is permitted to tempt even the holiest?'
'And you, sweet? You have not dreamt?'
'Only of Basil,' answered Veranilda, with a smile that asked pardon for her happiness.
They talked over the disquieting vision, whilst the little lamp-flame, wavering in breaths of air, cast strange shadows about the room. On the walls were faded frescoes, one of which represented the poetess Proba on her knees before St. Agnes. Impelled by her fears, Aurelia of a sudden knelt before this picture, and prayed silently to the virgin martyr. Then Veranilda rose from the couch, and knelt beside her. Having solaced their souls, they kissed each other tenderly.
'You are not afraid,' whispered Veranilda, 'that Basil may be in the garden when we go forth?'
'Basil? Ah, little rogue, have you betrayed yourself?'
'Of a truth, dearest lady, he has been there more than once, but not, oh not so early!'
'Nay, I hope not,' said Aurelia. 'It were scarce maidenly--'
'Never, never before the east had broken for the dayspring! Never, I swear to you, O my heart's friend!'
'Then there is small fear of his interrupting us this morning; all the more that he must have sat late with his friends, talking of many things. I am glad of the coming of this brave Venantius; it puts an end to every peril.'
They conversed on this encouraging theme until Aurelia's ear caught the sound of a footfall in the gallery. She stepped forth and encountered a female slave, who told her that there wanted two hours to dawn; it was time, then, to set forth and a few minutes saw them ready. In the garden they were met by the watchman, who carried a lantern. He, having merely been ordered to stand in readiness at this hour and being ignorant of his mistress's intention, showed astonishment when he saw Aurelia and her companion bent on going out. He took it for granted that he was to accompany them. But at this moment there appeared in the rays of the lantern a black figure, which had entered by the breach in the wall. Aurelia whispered a few words to her watchman, whose religion was the same as hers, and at once he dropped to his knees.
'Peace be with you, good brother,' said the monk, in his feeble voice, as he drew a lantern from beneath his cloak. You may not accompany us; but have no fear. The way is short.'
Forthwith he turned, and Aurelia, holding Veranilda's hand, followed where he lighted the way. For a few minutes they pursued a level path, then, passing between myrtles, began to descend the seaward slope. The ground was rough, but the monk, going before, marked the places for their footing. A few minutes thus, and they reached trees, black against a sky sown with stars and overshimmered by a wasted moon. Veranilda, who was trembling, clung to her companion's arm.
'How much further?' asked Aurelia, striving to make her voice firm. 'This is not the way by which I came before.'
'Scarce fifty steps. See you not the light yonder?'
Among the trees was perceptible a faint shining. Hand tight clasped in hand, the two moved forward over thick herbage, and still descended. They drew near to the light, and saw that it issued from a little cave. Within stood a man, bent as if with age and infirmities, his face half-hidden under a cowl. When the visitors were near, he stretched forth his arms, murmuring words of welcome, and the two knelt devoutly before him.
There was a moment of silence, then the cowled man again spoke, in a voice firmer and less senile.
'My daughters, you have come hither through the gloom of night and over rough places, led by a faithful guide, whom you followed without doubt or fear. You will have your reward. The darkness, the stones that made your feet to stumble, what are these but symbols of your spiritual state? In your blindness, you sought one blind as yourselves, to follow whom was to walk in darkness eternal. But a beneficent Power has watched over you, guiding your steps in the better way, whereof you recked not.'
Aurelia and Veranilda had raised their heads, and were gazing at him, in fearful astonishment.
'Be not troubled,' he went on, taking a step forward and speaking in a voice strong and clear. 'Though unworthy, I am a priest of the faith in which you, Aurelia, were baptized. In my hands you will suffer no harm, no indignity. Be still, be silent. Behind you stand those who will not permit you to flee, but who will conduct you hence as if they were your own attendants if you do but follow me, as you needs must, without cry or resistance.'
Aurelia turned and saw a number of figures whom the dim light showed to be men with weapons. A moan of anguish escaped her lips. Clinging to her in terrified silence, Veranilda seemed about to sink to the ground.
'Our way,' pursued the priest, who was now revealed as neither old nor infirm, 'is down to the harbour. Not far from here a litter awaits you; summon your strength for the short effort over rugged ground. Speak words of comfort to this maiden; she also will ere long walk in the light, and will be grateful to those who rescued her from the path of destruction. Think not to escape us when we pass through the city; it were vain to cry aloud; not a man in Surrentum would raise his hand to release you, knowing, as all do, that we confine your body only to free your soul from the bonds of the Enemy.'
'Whither are you taking us?' asked Aurelia, suddenly commanding herself, and speaking with cold scorn.
'That you will know before the evening. Enough for the present that you will travel without fatigue and without danger. Follow now whither I lead.'
He moved forward, and the armed men, half a dozen in number, among whom stood the black monk, closed about the prisoners. Seeing the futility of any resistance, Aurelia whispered to her companion such words of encouragement as she could find, and supported her with her arms. But Veranilda had overcome the first terror which made her droop.
'Basil will find and release us,' she whispered back. 'While he has life, Basil will not forsake us.'
And with unfaltering steps she moved onward, holding Aurelia's hand.
Their path, illumined by lanterns, the guards presently issued from the wood, and came to the place where the litter was waiting. Hence the captives were borne rapidly towards the haven. As they entered the city gates, Aurelia raised the curtain which concealed her, and looked out at the men on watch; words exchanged between them and her conductors only confirmed what the priest had said, and made her understand that she was powerless amid enemies.
'Are we not to have a look at the Gothic beauty?' cried one fellow, when the litter was passing.
'Peace!' answered the priest sternly; and nothing more was said.
Through the streets they were followed by a few persons. These, calling to each other, collected at length a small crowd, which hung about the litter when it reached the place of embarkation. Here torches were burning; their red glare fell upon angry or mocking faces, and every moment the crowd increased. With utmost speed the prisoners were passed into a little boat, then rowed to a vessel lying at the harbour mouth. As the ship hoisted sail, dawn began to glimmer over the flank of Vesuvius.