The Star by Maurice Baring
He had long ago retired from public life, and in his Tuscan villa, where he now lived quite alone, seldom seeing his friends, he never regretted the strenuous days of his activity. He had done his work well; he had been more than a competent public servant; as Pro-Consul he proved a pillar of strength to the State, a man whose name at one time was on men's lips as having left plenty where he had found dearth, and order and justice where corruption, oppression, and anarchy, had once run riot. His retirement had been somewhat of a surprise to his friends, for although he was ripe in years, his mental powers were undiminished and his body was active and vigorous. But his withdrawal from public life was due not so much to fatigue or to a longing for leisure as to a lack of sympathy, which he felt to be growing stronger and stronger as the years went by, with the manners and customs, the mode of thought, and the manner of living of the new world and the new generation which was growing up around him. Nurtured as he had been in the old school and the strong traditions which taught an austere simplicity of life, a contempt for luxury and show, he was bewildered and saddened by the rapid growth of riches, the shameless worship of wealth, the unrestrained passion for amusement at all costs, the thirst for new sensations, and the ostentatious airs of the youth of the day, who seemed to be born disillusioned and whose palates were jaded before they knew the taste of food. He found much to console him in literature, not only in the literature of the past but in the literature of his day, but here again he was beset with misgivings and haunted by forebodings. He felt that the State had reached its zenith both in material prosperity and intellectual achievement, and that all the future held in reserve was decline and decay. This thought was ever present with him; in the vast extension of empire he foresaw the inevitable disintegration, and he wondered in a melancholy fashion what would be the fate of mankind when the Empire, dismembered and rotten, should become the prey of the Barbarians.
It was in the winter of the second year after his retirement that his melancholy increased to a pitch of almost intolerable heaviness. That winter was an extraordinarily mild one, and even during the coldest month he strolled every evening after he had supped on the terrace walk which was before the portico. He was strolling one night on the terrace pondering on the fate of mankind, and more especially on the life--if there was such a thing--beyond the grave. He was not a superstitious man, but, saturated with tradition, he was a scrupulous observer of religious feast, custom, and ritual. He had lately been disturbed by what he considered to be an ill-favoured omen. One night--it was twelve nights ago he reckoned--the statues of Pan and Apollo, standing in his dining-room, which was at the end of the portico, had fallen to the ground without any apparent cause and had been shattered into fragments. And it had seemed to him that the crash of this accident was immediately followed by a low and prolonged wail, which appeared to come from nowhere in particular and yet to fill the world; the noise of the moan had seemed to be quite close to him, and as it died away its echo had seemed to be miles and miles distant. He thought it had been a hallucination, but that same night a still stranger thing happened. After the accident, which had wakened the whole household, he had been unable to go to sleep again and he had gone from his sleeping chamber into an adjoining room, and, lighting a lamp, had taken down and read out of the "Iliad" of Homer. After he had been reading for about half an hour he heard a voice calling him very distinctly by his name, but as soon as the sound had ceased he was not quite certain whether he had heard it or not. At that moment one of his slaves, who had been born in the East, entered the room and asked him what he required, saying that he had heard his master calling loudly. What these signs and portents signified he had no idea; perhaps, he mused, they mean my own death, which is of no consequence; or perhaps--which may the Fates forfend--some disaster to an absent friend or even to the State. But so far--and twelve days had passed since he had seen these strange manifestations--he had received no news which confirmed his fears.
As he was thus musing he looked up at the sky, and he noticed the presence of a new and unfamiliar star, which he had never seen before. He was a close observer of the heavens and learned in astronomy, and he felt quite certain that he had never seen this star before. It was a star of peculiar radiance, large and white--almost blue in its whiteness--it shone in the East, and seemed to put all the other stars to shame by its overwhelming radiance and purity. While he was thus gazing at the star it seemed to him as though a great darkness had come upon the world. He heard a low muttering sound as of a distant earthquake, and this was quickly followed by the tramping of innumerable armies. He knew that the end had come. It is the Barbarians, he thought, who have already conquered the world. Rome has fallen never to rise again; Rome has shared the fate of Troy and Carthage, of Babylon, and Memphis; Rome is a name in an old wife's tale; and little savage children shall be given our holy trophies for playthings, and shall use our ruined temples and our overthrown palaces as their playground. And so sharp was the vividness of his vision that he wondered what would happen to his villa, and whether or no the Barbarians would destroy the image of Ceres on the terrace, which he especially cherished, not for its beauty but because it had belonged to his father and to his grandfather before him.
An eternity seemed to pass, and the tramp, tramp, tramp of the armies of those untrained hordes which were coming from the North and overrunning the world seemed to get nearer and nearer. He wondered what they would do with him; he had no place for fear in his heart, but he remembered that on the portico in the morning his freedman's child had been playing with the pieces of a broken jar, a copper coin, and a dog made of terra-cotta. He remembered the child's brown eyes and curly hair, its smile, its laughter, and lisping talk--it was a piece of earth and sun--and he thought of the spears of the Barbarians, and then shifted his thoughts because they sickened him.
Then, just when he thought the heavy footsteps had reached the approach of his villa, the vision changed. The noise of tramping ceased, and through the thick darkness there pierced the radiance of the star: the strange star he had seen that night. The world seemed to awake from a dark slumber. The ruins rose from the dust and took once more a stately shape, even lordlier than before. Rome had risen from the dead, and once more she dominated the world like a starry diadem. Before him he seemed to see the pillars and the portals of a huge temple, more splendid and gorgeous than the Temples of Caesar. The gates were wide open, and from within came a blare of trumpets. He saw a kneeling multitude; and soldiers with shining breastplates, far taller than the legionaries of Caesar, were keeping a way through the dense crowd, while the figure of an aged man--was it the Pontifex Maximus, he wondered?--was borne aloft in a chair over their heads.
Then once more the vision changed. At least the temple seemed to grow wider, higher, and lighter; the crowd vanished; it seemed to him as though a long corridor of light was opening on some ultimate and mysterious doorway. At last this doorway was opened, and he saw distinctly before him a dark and low manger where oxen and asses were stalled. It was littered with straw. He could hear the peaceful beasts munching their food.
In the corner lay a woman, and in her arms was a child and his face shone like the sun and lit up the whole place, in which there were neither torches nor lamps. The door of the manger was ajar, and through it he saw the sky and the strange star still shining brightly. He heard a voice, the same voice which he had heard twelve nights before; but the voice was not calling him, it was singing a song, and the song was as it were a part of a larger music, a symphony of clear voices, more joyous and different from anything he had ever heard.
The vision vanished altogether; he was standing once more under the portico amongst the surroundings which were familiar to him. The strange star was still shining in the sky. He went back through the folding-doors of the piazza into the dining-room. His gloom and his perplexity had been lifted from him; he felt quite happy; he could not have explained why. He called his slave and told him to get plenty of provisions on the morrow, for he expected friends to dinner. He added that he wanted nothing further and that the slaves could go to bed.