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- Veranilda - 3/67 -
'So I believed,' said Decius, 'though I have thought but little of the matter.'
'I too, trust me,' let fall Basil, with careful carelessness; no actor he. 'And the vile Theodahad--what descendants did he leave?'
'He was a scholar,' said the other musingly, 'deep read in Plato.'
'None the less a glutton and a murderer and a coward, who did well to give his throat to the butcher as he ran away from his enemies. Children he had, I think--but--'
Basil broke off on a wandering thought. He stood still, knitted his brows, and sniffed the air. At this moment there appeared in the alley a serving man, a young and active fellow of very honest visage, who stood at some yards' distance until Basil observed him.
'What is it, Felix?' inquired his master.
The attendant stepped forward, and made known that the lord Marcian had even now ridden up to the villa, with two followers, and desired to wait upon Basil. This news brought a joyful light to the eyes of the young noble; he hastened to welcome his friend, the dearest he had. Marcian, a year or two his elder, was less favoured by nature in face and form: tall and vigorous enough of carriage, he showed more bone and sinew than flesh; and his face might have been that of a man worn by much fasting, so deep sunk were the eyes, so jutting the cheek-bones, and so sharp the chin; its cast, too, was that of a fixed and native melancholy. But when he smiled, these features became much more pleasing, and revealed a kindliness of temper such as might win the love of one who knew him well. His dress was plain, and the dust of Campanian roads lay somewhat thick upon him.
'By Bacchus!' cried his friend, as they embraced each other, 'fortune is good to me to-day. Could I have had but one wish granted, it would have been to see Marcian. I thought you still in Rome. What makes you travel? Not in these days solely to visit a friend, I warrant. By Peter and Paul and as many more saints as you can remember, I am glad to hold your hand! What news do you bring?'
'Little enough,' answered Marcian, with a shrug of the shoulders. The natural tune of his voice harmonised with his visage, and he spoke as one who feels a scornful impatience with the affairs of men. 'At Rome, they wrangle about goats' wool, as is their wont. Anything else? Why, yes; the freedman Chrysanthus glories in an ex-consulate. It cost him the trifle of thirty pounds of gold.'
Basil laughed contemptuously, half angrily.
'We must look to our honours,' he exclaimed. 'If Chrysanthus be ex-consul, can you and I be satisfied with less than ex-Praetorian-Prefect? What will be the price, think you? Has Bessas hung out a tariff yet in the Forum?'
'He knows better than to fix a maximum, as long as a wealthy fool remains in the city--though that won't be much longer, I take it.'
'Why come you hither, dear my lord?' urged Basil, with more seriousness.
Regarding him with a grave eye, his friend replied in an undertone:
'To spy upon you.'
'Ha!--In very truth?'
'You could wish me a more honourable office,' Marcian went on, smiling sadly. 'Yet, if you think of it, in these days, it is some honour to be a traitor to both sides. There has been talk of you in Rome. Nay, who knows how or why l They have nothing to do but talk, and these victories of the Goth have set up such a Greek cackle as was never heard since Helen ran away to Troy,--and, talking of Greek, I bear a letter for you from Heliodora.'
Basil, who had been listening gravely, started at this name and uttered an idle laugh. From a wallet hanging at his girdle, Marcian drew forth the missive.
'That may wait,' said Basil, glancing indifferently at the folded and sealed paper before he hid it away. 'Having said so much, you must tell me more. Put off that sardonic mask--I know very well what hides beneath it--and look me in the eye. You have surprised some danger?'
'I heard you spoken of--by one who seldom opens his lips but to ill purpose. It was not difficult for me to wade through the shallows of the man's mind, and for my friend's sake to win his base confidence. Needing a spy, and being himself a born traitor, he readily believed me at his beck; in truth he had long marked me, so I found, for a cankered soul who waited but the occasion to advance by infamy. I held the creature in my hand; I turned him over and over, and he, the while, thinking me his greedy slave. And so, usurping the place of some other who would have ambushed you in real enmity, I came hither on his errand.'
'Marcian,' said the listener, 'I could make a guess at that man's name.'
'Nay, I doubt if you could, and indeed it matters nothing. Enough that I may do you some little service.'
'For which,' replied Basil, 'I cannot pay you, since all my love is already yours. And she--Heliodora,' he added, with a careless gesture, 'knows of your mission?'
'Of my mission, no; but of my proposed journey. Though indeed she may know more than I suppose. Who shall say what reaches the ear of Heliodora--?'
'You have not heard perhaps that her husband is dead?'
'The Prefect dead?' exclaimed Basil.
'Three weeks ago.--Rather suddenly--after supper. An indigestion, no doubt.'
Marcian spoke with peculiar dryness, averting his eyes from the listener. Upon Basil's face came a deep flush; he took out the folded paper again, and held it at arm's length.
'You mean--? You think--?' he stammered.
'About women I think not at all,' said the other, 'as you well know. There is talk, talk--what care I?'
Basil tore the letter open. It contained a lock of raven-black hair, tied with gold thread, and on the paper was written, in Greek, 'I am free.' Again his cheek flushed; he crushed paper and hair together in his hand.
'Let us never again speak of her,' he exclaimed, moving away from the spot. 'Before I left Rome, I told you that I would gladly see her no more, and you smiled dubiously. Believe me now. I abhor the thought of her. If she ask you for my reply, repeat those words.'
'Nay, dear my lord, in that I will beg to be excused,' replied Marcian with his melancholy smile.
They were walking silently, side by side, when the servant Felix again presented himself before them. Maximus, having heard of the arrival of Marcian from Rome, requested that he and Basil would grant him a moment of their leisure. At once the young men turned to obey this summons. On the way, Basil communicated to his friend in a whisper the event of the day. A couple of hours having passed since Aurelia's coming, the Senator had in some degree recovered from his agitation; he lay now in a room which opened upon the central court of the villa, a room adorned with rich marbles and with wall-paintings which were fading under the hand of time. Deathly pale, scarce able to raise his head from the cushion of the couch, he none the less showed a countenance bright with joyous emotion. His quivering voice strove to welcome the visitor cheerily.
'What news from the city, dear lord Marcian? How are all our friends? Do they begin to forget us?'
'Not so, Illustrious,' answered the young man, with head bent. 'You are much desired in the Senate, where grave counsel is just now greatly in demand.'
'The Senate, the Senate,' murmured Maximus, as if reminded of something he had long forgotten. 'They must needs lack my voice, I fear. What do men say of the Gothic king?'
Marcian threw a glance at Basil, then towards the curtained portals of the room; lastly, his eyes turned upon the sick man, whom he regarded steadily.
'They say much--or little,' fell from his lips.
'I understand you,' replied the Senator, with a friendly movement of the head. 'Here we may speak freely. Does Totila draw near to Rome?'
'He is still in Tuscany, and rumours come from his army that he will pass into Samnium. All the strongholds of Umbria are his; all the conquests of Belisarius from Ariminum to Spoletium.'
'Where are the Roman captains?'
'Each in his city of the far north, holding the plunder he has got, and looking for the chance of more. In Rome--'
Marcian paused significantly, and the Senator took up his words.
'In Rome rules Bessas.'
'The Thracian,' remarked Basil bitterly.
'And in Ravenna,' added the sick man, 'Alexandros--the coin-clipper.'
The eyes of Basil and of Marcian encountered. Between them came no shadow of distrust, the smile they exchanged told of loyal affection.
'This Totila,' pursued Marcian, 'seems to be not only a brave and capable commander, but a shrewd politician. Everywhere he spares the people; he takes nothing by force; his soldiers buy at market; he protects the farmer against the taxing Greek. As a result, his army grows; where he passes, he leaves a good report, and before him goes
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