Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter IX. Chorsoman
Fearful of sleeping till after sunrise, Basil had bidden Felix arouse him this morning; and, as he had much to talk of with Veranilda, he betook himself to the garden very early.
Aurelia's watchman was standing without, gazing anxiously now this way, now that, surprised by his mistress's failure to return; on the appearance of Basil he withdrew, but only to a spot whence he could survey the garden. All impatience, the lover waited, as minute after minute slowly passed. Dawn was broadening to day, but Veranilda came not. An agony of disappointment seized upon him, and he stood at length in the attitude of one sickening with despair. Then a footstep approached, and he saw the slave whose watch he had relieved come forward with so strange a look that Basil could only stare at him.
'My lord,' said the man, 'there is one at the gate of the villa who brings I know not what news for you.'
'One at the gate? News?' echoed Basil, his heart sinking with dread anticipation. 'What mean you, fellow?'
'Most noble, I know nothing,' stammered the frightened slave 'I beseech your greatness to inquire. They say--I know not what--'
Basil sped across the garden and into Aurelia's dwelling. Here he found a group of servants talking excitedly together; at view of him, they fell back as if fear-stricken. From one, Aurelia's old nurse, rose a wail of distress; upon her Basil rushed, grasped her by the arm, and sternly demanded what had happened. Dropping to her knees with a shrill cry, the woman declared that Aurelia had vanished, that some one from the city had seen her carried away before dawn.
'Alone?' asked Basil in a terrible voice.
'Lord, I know not,' wailed the woman, grovelling at his feet.
'Is Veranilda in her chamber?' he asked violently.
'Gone!' replied a faint voice from amid the group of servants.
'Where is this messenger?'
Without waiting for a reply, he sprang forward. In the portico which led to the villa he heard his name shouted, and he knew the voice for Marcian's; another moment and Marcian himself appeared, pale, agitated.
'Why do you seek me?' cried Basil.
'You come from yonder? Have you seen Aurelia? Then it is true.'
Marcian told the news brought up from Surrentum by some person unknown, who, having uttered it in the porter's ear, had at once fled.
'Go call Venantius,' said Basil, when he had heard the brief story, 'and bring him straight to Aurelia's house. They are gone; that slinking slave shall tell me how, or I will tear it out of him with his soul.'
Back he rushed, and found the nurse still crouching on the floor, wailing. He made her lead him to her lady's chamber, and to that of Veranilda, where nothing unusual met their eyes. The watchman was then summoned; he came like one half dead, and smote the ground with his forehead before the young noble, who stood hand on dagger. A fierce interrogatory elicited clear and truthful answers; when Basil learned what Aurelia had whispered to her servant as she went forth, he uttered a groan.
'Marcian! Venantius!' he cried, for at that moment the two entered the atrium. 'I understand it all. Why had I no fear of this?'
That Aurelia had been deceived and inveigled by one professing to be an Arian priest, seemed clear from the watchman's story. For the originator of the plot, Basil had not far to look. This was the vengeance of Petronilla. But whither the two captives would be conveyed, was less easy to conjecture. Perhaps to Cumae. The thought stung Basil to frenzy, for, if Veranilda once fell into the hands of the Greeks, what hope had he of ever seeing her again?
'Did Petronilla know?' he asked of Marcian.
'Who can say?' answered his friend, easily understanding the curtailed question. 'Like enough that she had sent to Cumae to learn all she could; and in that case, she found, you may be sure, ready instruments of her malice. Were it not better,' Marcian added in an aside, 'to tell Venantius what danger threatened Veranilda?'
The warlike Roman, who, aroused on an alarm, had instantly equipped himself with casque and sword, stood listening to what passed, sniffing the air and rolling his eyes about as if he desired nothing better than a conflict. The others now drew him aside into a more private place, and made known to him their reason for fearing that the Gothic maiden had been seized by emissaries from Cumae.
'Had I heard that story before,' said Venantius, all but laughing with angry surprise, 'Veranilda would now be safe in my castle; for, instead of lingering, I should have come straightway, to rescue her and you. Holy Peter and Paul! You sported here, day after day, knowing that the hounds of Justinian had scent of the maid you carried away? You, Basil, might commit such folly, for you were blinded to everything by your love. But, Marcian, how came you to let him loll in his dream of security? Why did you conceal this from me? By Castor! it was unfriendly as it was imprudent. You robbed me of a sweet morsel when you denied me the chance of balking the Greeks in such a matter as this. Nay, the bird is caged at Cumae, be sure.'
Marcian's brows were knit, and his eyes cast down as he listened to this reproof.
'I had not thought of Petronilla,' he murmured. 'But for her, the danger was not pressing. That thick-skulled Hun at Cumae easily let himself be blinded, as I told you.'
'How could I forget,' cried Basil, 'that Petronilla would risk damnation rather than lose her vengeance upon Aurelia But,' he added, with sudden change from gloom to vehemence, 'that woman is not beyond our reach. Only yesterday did she set forth for Rome, and she may have passed the night at Neapolis. A horseman will easily overtake her. Felix!' he shouted. 'Our horses!--she shall pay for this if my hands can get at her throat!'
Felix appeared, but not in answer to his master's summons; he came precipitately, followed by a swarm of frightened slaves, to announce another surprise. Before the villa stood a hostile multitude, folk of Surrentum, who demanded admittance, and, if denied, would enter by force. At this news Venantius hastened to muster his troop of archers and spearmen. Basil and Marcian, having made sure that all entrances were locked and barred, went to the front gate, and through a wicket surveyed the assailants. These seemed to be mainly of the baser class; they had armed themselves with all sorts of rude weapons, which they brandished menacingly, shouting confused maledictions. From the porter Basil learned that those who had first presented themselves at the door had demanded that 'the heretics' should be given up to them; and by listening to the cries, he understood that the wrath of these people was directed against the Arian servants brought hither by Aurelia. Through the wicket he held colloquy with certain leaders of the throng.
'The heretics! Yield to us the accursed heretics!' shouted a burly fellow armed with an ox-goad.
'For what usage?' asked Basil.
'That's as they choose. If they like to come before the bishop and turn Christian--why, a little correction shall suffice. If not, they have only themselves and the devil to blame.'
By this time Venantius and his retainers stood in the forecourt. To him, the routing of such a rabble seemed a task not worth speaking of, but some few would no doubt be slain, and Basil shrank from such extremities.
'Would you give up these trembling wretches?' asked Venantius scornfully, pointing to the four slaves, male and female, Arians either by origin or by conversion to please Aurelia, whom she had brought from Cumae. On their knees they were imploring protection.
'Nay, I will fight for their safety,' Basil answered. 'But if we can frighten off this tag-rag without bloodshed so much the better.'
Venantius consented to make the attempt. On the upper villa was an open gallery looking over the entrance, and fully visible from where the invaders stood. Hither the armed men ascended and stood in line, the bowmen with arrows on string. Their lord, advancing to the parapet, made a signal demanding silence, and spoke in a audible to every ear in the throng.
'Dogs! You came on this errand thinking that the villa was defenceless. See your mistake! Each one of these behind me has more arrows in store than all your number, and never shot bolt from bow without piercing the mark. Off! Away with your foul odours and your yelping throats! And if, when you have turned tail, any cur among you dares to bark back that I, Venantius of Nuceria, am no true Catholic, he shall pay for the lie with an arrow through chine and gizzard!' This threat he confirmed with a terrific oath of indisputable orthodoxy.
The effect was immediate. Back fell the first rank of rioters, pressing against those in the rear; and without another cry, with only a low, terrified growling and snarling, the crowd scattered in flight.
'There again I see Petronilla,' declared Basil, watching the rout with fierce eyes. 'I'll swear that, before starting, she set this game afoot. I must after her, Venantius.'
'Mother of God! if I had your men! But I will make soldiers of my own. Some of the likeliest from our folk here shall follow me; enough to stay that she-wolf's journey till I can choke the truth out of her.'
Venantius, his eyes fixed on the descending road by which the rabble had disappeared, caught sight of something which held him mute for a moment. Then he gave a snort of surprise.
'What's this? There are no Greek soldiers in Surrentum.'
Yet unmistakable soldiers of the Imperial army were approaching. First came into sight a commanding officer; he rode a little in advance of the troop, which soon showed itself to consist of some two score mounted men, armed with bows and swords. And in the rear came the rabble of Surrentines, encouraged to return by this arrival of armed authority.
'That is Chorsoman,' said Marcian, as soon as he could distinguish the captain's feature, 'the commander at Cumae.'
'Then it is not to Cumae that they have carried her!' exclaimed Basil, surmising at once that the Hun was come in pursuit of Veranilda.
'Time enough to think of that,' growled Venantius, as he glared from under black brows at the advancing horsemen. 'What are we to do? To resist is war, and this villa cannot be held for an hour. Yet to yield is most likely to be made prisoners. Marcian!'
Marcian was watching and listening with a look of anxious thought. Appealed to for his counsel, he spoke decidedly.
'Withdraw your men and go down. Resistance is impossible. Chorsoman must enter, but trust me to manage him. I answer for your liberty.'
Venantius led his men down to the inner court. Basil, careless of everything but the thought that Veranilda was being borne far from him, he knew not whither, went to get horses ready, that he might pursue Petronilla as soon as the road was free. Marcian, having spoken with the porter, waited till a thundering at the gate announced Chorsoman's arrival, then had the doors thrown open, and stood with a calm smile to meet the commander.
'Fair greeting to your Magnificence!' he began with courtesy. 'Be welcome to this villa, where, in absence of its mistress, I take upon myself to offer you hospitality.'
Chorsoman had dismounted, and stood with half a dozen of his followers behind him in the portico. At sight of Marcian his face became suspicious.
'By mistress,' he replied gruffly, stepping forward, 'I suppose you mean the daughter of Maximus. Where is she?'
Marcian would have continued the conversation within, but the Hun chose to remain standing in the for-court, the gate wide open. From the Surrentines he had already heard the story of Aurelia's disappearance, which puzzled and angered him, for no one professed to be able to explain what had happened, yet his informants declared that the Roman lady and the Gothic maiden had been carried away without the knowledge of the men who were their protectors. This was now repeated by Marcian, who professed himself overwhelmed by the event.
'You have here one Basilius,' said Chorsoman.
'The same whom your greatness saw on a certain occasion at Cumae.'
'They tell me he was about to wed with Veranilda. What does that mean?'
'An idle rumour,' replied Marcian, 'springing from vulgar gossip, and from the spiteful anger of the lady sister of Maximus, who hoped to inherit what has fallen to her niece. Let your valorous magnificence be assured that there is no truth in it. Can you imagine that I, whose mission is known to you, should have looked on at such an audacity? I think your perspicuity will not require better proof of the powers with which I am intrusted than that I gave you at Cumae?'
Of the profound contempt proclaimed, rather than disguised, by Marcian's extravagant courtesy, Chorsoman had no inkling; but his barbaric mind resented the complexity of things with which it was confronted, and he felt a strong inclination to take this smooth-tongued Latin by the throat, so as to choke the plain truth out of him. Why, he demanded fiercely, had not Aurelia and her companion travelled straight on to Rome, as he had been assured they were to do?
'For a simple reason,' answered Marcian. 'I judged an escort necessary, and only yesterday did I obtain it. This very day should we have set forth.'
'You speak of one Venantius and his followers--he who just now, I am told, threatened to massacre the harmless citizens of Surrentum.'
'I would rather say the most noble Venantius, a senator, but for whose presence this villa would have been sacked by a thievish rabble from below.'
'Let me see him,' said the Hun, his eyes like those of a boar at bay.
'Will it please your Illustrious Magnanimity to eat with us?'
'I will eat when I choose. Fetch here Venantius.'
Marcian despatched the porter, and in a few moments Venantius appeared, behind him his armed men. A hand lightly on his sword, as though he played with the hilt, his head proudly erect, the Roman noble paused at a few paces from the Hun, and regarded him with bold steadfastness.
'You serve the Emperor?' said Chorsoman, somewhat less overbearingly than he had spoken hitherto.
'When occasion offers,' was the dry response.
On the Hun's countenance grew legible the calculation busying his thought. At a glance he had taken the measure of Venantius, and gauged the worth of the men behind him. A smile, which could not mask its cunning, came on to his lips, and all of a sudden he exchanged his truculence for amiability.
'Lord Venantius,' he said, laying an open palm on his own breast, and then motioning with it towards the Roman, 'you and I, two men of valour, can understand each other in few words. I am no talker'-- his narrow eyes glanced at Marcian--'nor are you. Tell me, if you can, what has become of the lady Aurelia and of the Gothic maiden who attended upon her.'
'Lord Chorsoman,' replied Venantius, 'I thought it was you who could have answered that question. The ladies Aurelia and Veranilda have this morning disappeared, and we judged it likely that they had been enticed from the villa to be captured and borne to Cumae.'
'Who should have done that?'
'Emissaries of your own, we supposed.'
The Hun reflected.
'This man of words'--he nodded sideways at Marcian--'spoke of a woman's malice. Explain to me.'
Venantius told what he knew of Petronilla's enmity, and the listener had no difficulty in coming to the conclusion which to Basil had been evident from the first. It was possible moreover, that Cumae might be the place to which the captives had been conveyed, for Chorsoman had left the fortress yesterday to come hither by way of Neapolis, his reason for the expedition being news of Veranilda's approaching marriage, brought to him by a fisherman who said he had been paid by a person unknown. Did Petronilla, he next inquired, know that Veranilda was to be sent to the East? To this Marcian replied with a negative, adding:
'Unless your Illustrious Discretion have seen fit to spread abroad what I imparted to your private ear.'
'My tongue is not so loose as yours,' was the Hun's rejoinder.
Again he reflected, with the result that he decided to send a messenger at once to Cumae. Until news could be brought back he should remain here in the villa. This intention he announced in a tone abundantly significant, his hearers understanding that Aurelia's property was now in hands not accustomed to relax their grasp.
'Lord Venantius,' he added, 'as your escort is no longer needed, you will wish, no doubt, to return forthwith to your own abode. It will not be long before you have the occasion you desire of proving your loyalty to the Emperor. Brave men both, we may presently fight side by side. Let us sit at table together, and then good-speed!'
With a haughty glare Venantius heard this dismissal. A reply surged into his throat, but he swallowed it again, remembering that more than his personal safety was at stake.
'You will pardon me, lord,' he replied, 'if I do not stay to break my fast. I am of impatient humour, and never willingly linger when a journey is before me.'
'As you will,' said Chorsoman, with a slight knitting of his brows. 'You ride alone, I suppose?'
'The lord Basil, who starts for Rome, will give me his company as far as our ways are one.'
Chorsoman gave a glance at the soldiers in his rear, then at Marcian, and smiled grimly.
'I fear you must go without lord Basil. I shall have need of him.'
There was a very short silence; then Marcian spoke, with bland decision.
'Commander, this cannot be. Basil carries letters of urgency to Rome and Ravenna; letters which I would not intrust to any one else. Your Sublimity will see that it is impossible to delay him.'
Teeth hard set, and eyes aflame, the Hun took a step forward. In the same instant, Venantius laid a hand upon his sword, and, at the gesture, his armed men looked to their weapons.
'Where is this Basil?' demanded Chorsoman.
'I will let him know if you wish to speak with him,' replied Marcian.
'You shall be spared the trouble. Lord Venantius, bid your followers retire and get their horses ready, whilst you and I go in search of lord Basil. You will not refuse me your company for a few minutes?'
Cunning had again subdued the Hun's violence, and discretion prevailed with the Roman. Together they passed through the atrium, Chorsoman casting eager glances about him, and to the inner court; but the followers of Venantius, obedient to a silent order, still kept their position in face of the Greek soldiers, and this Chorsoman knew.
'You understand,' said the Hun, when they were alone together, you, a brave and honourable man, how my duty to the Emperor obliges me to act. I, of course, take possession of this villa until Aurelia is discovered. And, however important his mission, I cannot allow Basil to depart without some security--you will understand that.'
The barbarous accent with which these sentences were uttered caused Venantius almost as much disgust as the plundering purpose they avowed.
'What security?' he asked.
Chorsoman named a large sum of money. As he spoke, Basil himself appeared; and with brief preface, the matter under debate was reported to him. He glanced at Venantius but could find no counsel in the dark, stern face. Foreseeing the result of the Hun's visit, Basil had hastened to conceal on his own person a considerable weight of coin, and had intrusted something like the same amount to Felix. In the treasure chamber lay a mass of wealth now belonging to Aurelia, and the mere fact of this being under lock and key by no means secured it against the commander's greed. Marcian came forward, and hearing the talk of ransom, endeavoured to awe the Hun into moderation, but with less success than he had had at Cumae. So he led Basil aside, told him of the messenger sent to Cumae, as well as of the inventions by which Chorsoman had been beguiled, and counselled mere inaction until news came. Marcian then inquired of the commander whether, in case Veranilda were found at Cumae, he would permit her to be sent on to Rome under the escort already provided; but to this Chorsoman vouchsafed no direct reply: he would consider the matter.
Negotiations had reached this point when new visitors arrived, the Bishop of Surrentum and presbyter Joannes. Though suffering much, the good bishop had risen from bed as soon as the exciting events of this morning had reached his ear His innocence of complicity in the plot against Aurelia and Veranilda, no one who saw him could doubt; with astonishment he had heard of the priests and their armed attendants, and with indignation of the citizens' tumultuous behaviour. What right or reason had folk to proclaim that Aurelia was still a heretic, and that she should not have been allowed to inherit property? Who, he asked severely, could read her heart? And when inquiry made it too certain that all this angry feeling had originated with Petronilla, the prelate shook his head sadly, thinking more than he cared to say. Arrived at the villa, he first of all learnt all he could as to the position of things (declaring total ignorance when the Hun sought to examine him as to the relations of Basil and Veranilda), then made earnest inquiry whether there really were slaves here who professed Arianism. The four were summoned; overcome with dread, they prostrated them selves, and entreated the bishop to make them Catholics Having heard from them that they all had been baptized (the Roman Church held the baptism of Arians valid), he sent them apart for summary instruction by Joannes, and afterwards laid his reconciling hands upon them. Thus had the Church gained four members, and the good folk of Surrentum lost a heretic-baiting.
With the proceedings of the Imperial commander the worthy cleric could not interfere. He spoke privately with Basil, and betrayed, in a gentle severity of mien, his suspicion of the young noble's state of mind, but of this not a word fell from him; his concern seemed to be solely with the lady Aurelia, regarding whom he would set every possible inquiry on foot. He advised Basil not to leave the neighbourhood for a day or two, and to communicate with him before he went far. Gratefully Basil kissed the old man's hand. They never met again. A week later the bishop was dead.
After all, Venantius sat at table with Chorsoman. Fuming, he waited till the next morning, when, if the news could be believed, it became certain that Aurelia and her companion were not at Cumae. Basil, having no choice, then paid for ransom nearly all the money he had secreted, and rode away with Venantius, purposing to remain at Nuceria until joined by Marcian. Three days later Marcian appeared at the castle He brought no intelligence of the lost ladies. As for their abode, it had been thoroughly pillaged; the treasure chamber was discovered and broken open; not a coin, not a vessel or ornament which had its price, not a piece of silk, had escaped the clutches of the Hun.
Chorsoman's departure was followed by an invasion of the Surrentines, who robbed more grossly. A fire broke out in the house of Proba, and much of that building was destroyed. In the once magnificent villa there lurked but a few slaves, who knew not whether their owner lived.