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- Veranilda - 30/67 -
and populace alike lived without the bath, grew accustomed to more or less uncleanliness, and in a certain quarter suffered worse than inconvenience from the lack of good water.
Formerly a young Roman of Basil's rank, occupied or not by any serious pursuit, would have spent several hours of the day at one or other of the Thermae still in use; if inclined to display, he would have gone thither with a train of domestic attendants, and probably of parasites; were the season hot, here he found coolness; were it cold, here he warmed himself. Society never failed; opportunity for clandestine meetings could always be found; all the business and the pleasure of a day were regulated with reference to this immemorial habit. Now, to enter the Thermae was to hear one's footsteps resound in a marble wilderness; to have statues for companions and a sense of ruin for one's solace. Basil, who thought more than the average Roman about these changes, and who could not often amuse himself with such spectacles as the theatres or the circus offered, grew something of a solitary in his habits, and was supposed by those who did not know him intimately, to pass most of his time in religious meditation, the preface, perhaps, to retirement from the world. Indolence bringing its wonted temptations, he fell into acquaintance with Heliodora, a Neapolitan Greek of uncertain origin, whose husband that year held the office of City Prefect. Acquaintance with Heliodora was, in his case, sure to be a dangerous thing, and might well prove fatal, for many and fierce were the jealousies excited by that brilliant lady, whose husband alone regarded with equanimity her amorous adventures. Happily, Basil did not take the matter very much to heart; he scarce pretended to himself that he cared whether Heliodora was his for a day only or for a month; and he had already turned his thoughts to the sweetness of Aemiliana, that young sister of Gordian, whom, if he chose, he might make his wife.
Now again had sluggishness taken possession of him, and with it came those promptings of the flesh which, but a few months ago, he easily subdued, but which the lapse of time had once more made perilous. To any who should have ventured to taunt him with forgetfulness of Veranilda, he would have fiercely given the lie; and with reason, for Veranilda's image was as vivid to him as on the day when he lost her, and she alone of women had the power to excite his deepest and tenderest emotions. Nevertheless, he had more than once of late visited Heliodora, and though these visits were in appearance only such as he might have paid to any lady of his acquaintance, Basil knew very well whither they tended. As yet Heliodora affected a total forgetfulness of the past; she talked of Veranilda, and confessed that her efforts to make any discovery regarding the captive were still fruitless, though she by no means gave up hope; therewithal, she treated Basil only half seriously, with good-naturedly mocking smiles, as a mere boy, a disdain to her mature womanhood. Of this was he thinking as he tossed on the couch in the library; he had thought of it too much since leaving Heliodora yesterday afternoon. It began to nettle him that his grief should be for her merely an amusement. Never having seen the Gothic maiden, whose beauty outshone hers as sunrise outdoes the lighting of a candle, this wanton Greek was capable of despising him in good earnest, and Basil had never been of those who sit easy under scorn. He felt something chafe and grow hot within him, and recalled the days when he, and not Heliodora, had indulged contempt--to his mind a much more natural posture of affairs, The animal that is in every man had begun to stir; it urged him to master and crush and tame this woman, whom, indeed, he held rather in hate than in any semblance of love. Her beauty, her sensuality, had power over him still; he resented such danger of subjection, and encouraged himself in a barbarism of mood, which permitted him to think that even in yielding he might find the way of his revenge.
There had been a long silence since his reply to the hint offered by Decius. The student spoke again.
'Basil, leave Rome.'
'It is forbidden,' answered the other dully, his face averted.
'Many things are forbidden which none the less are done. Did you learn that Veranilda awaited you at Asculum, how long would it be before you set forth?'
'Not one hour, good Decius.'
'Even. so. You would pass the gates disguised as a peasant or as a woman--no matter how. Will you do less to save all that makes life dear to an honourable man? Be gone, be gone, I entreat you.'
'To Picenum, which is not yet subject to the Goths. There gather your capable men and arm them, and send to the King Totila, offering to serve him where he will, and how he will. You know,' pursued Decius earnestly, 'that I speak this something against my conscience, but, alas! we can only choose between evils, and I think Totila is less of a tyrant than Justinian. You will not go to Constantinople, nor would I bid you, for there, assuredly, is nothing to be done worthy of a man; but you must act, or you perish. For me, a weakling and a dreamer, there is solace in the _vita umbratilis_; to you, it is naught. Arise, then, O Basil, ere it be too late.'
The listener rose from his recumbent attitude; he was stirred by this unwonted vigour in Decius, but not yet did resolve appear on his countenance.
'Did I but know,' he murmured, 'that Veranilda is not in Rome!'
Innumerable times had he said it; the thought alone held him inert. Impossible to discover, spite of all his efforts, whether Veranilda had been delivered to the Greeks, or still lay captive in some place known to the deacon Leander. From the behaviour of Bessas nothing could be certainly deduced: it was now a long time since he had sent for Basil, and Marcian, though believing that the commander's search was still futile, had no more certainty than his friend. Soon after Petronilla's death, the Anician mansion had been thoroughly pillaged and everything of value removed to the Palatine. Bessas condescended to justify this proceeding: having learnt, he said, that the question of Aurelia's orthodoxy lay in doubt, some declaring that she was a heretic, some that she had returned to orthodoxy before her father's death, he took charge of the property which might be hers until she appeared to claim it, when, having the testament of Maximus in his hand, he would see that justice was done. With Leander, Basil had succeeded in obtaining an interview, which was altogether fruitless. The deacon would answer no question, and contented himself with warning his visitor of the dangers incurred by one who openly sought to defeat the will of the Emperor.
'Is it farewell?' asked Decius, stepping towards his kinsman, who seemed about to leave the room.
'I will think.'
'Go speak with Gordian. He says that he can obtain you permission to leave the city.'
'I doubt it,' replied Basil. 'But I will see him--ere long.'
Decius went forth for his morning's exercise, which sometimes took the form of a gentle game of ball, but was generally a ramble on foot and unaccompanied, for he never felt at ease when an attendant followed him. His habits were solitary; ever absorbed in thought, or lost in dreams, he avoided the ways where he would be likely to encounter an acquaintance, and strayed among ruins in deserted gardens, such as were easily found in the remoter parts of the Caelian. To-day, tempted on by the delicious air, and the bright but not ardent sunshine, he wandered by such unfrequented paths till a sound of voices broke upon his meditation, and he found himself in view of the Lateran. Numbers of poor people were streaming away from the open space by the Pope's palace, loud in angry talk, its purpose intelligible enough to any one who caught a few words. Decius heard maledictions upon the Holy Father, mingled with curses no less hearty upon the Greeks who held Rome.
'It was not thus,' cried an old man, 'in the time of King Theodoric, heretic though he might be. We had our bread and our hog's flesh, prime quality both, and plenty for all.'
'Ay,' cried a woman, 'and our oil too. Since these Greek dogs came, not a drop of oil has there been in my cruse. Heretics, forsooth! What better is the Holy Father who lets Christians die of hunger while he eats and drinks his fill?'
'Evil go with thee, O Vigilius! The pest seize thee, O Vigilius! May'st thou perish eternally, O Vigilius!' shrilled and shouted all manner of voices, while fists were shaken towards the pontifical abode.
Decius hastened away. The sight of suffering was painful to him, and the cries of the vulgar offended his ear; he felt indignant that these people should not be fed, as Rome for so many ages had fed her multitude, but above all, he dreaded uproar, confusion, violence. His hurried pace did not relax until he was lost again amid a wilderness of ruins, where browsing goats and darting lizards were the only life.
Later in the day, when he sat alone in the peristyle, a visitor was introduced, whom he rose to welcome cordially and respectfully. This was a man of some threescore years, vigorous in frame, with dry, wrinkled visage and a thin, grey beard that fell to his girdle. As he approached, Decius saw that he was bleeding from a wound on the head and that his cloak was torn.
'What means this, dear master?' he exclaimed. 'What has befallen you?'
'Nothing worth your notice, gentle Decius,' the philosopher replied, calmly and gravely. 'Let us rather examine this rare treatise of Plotinus, which by good fortune I yesterday discovered among rubbish thrown aside.'
'Nay,' insisted Decius, 'but your wound must be washed and dressed; it may else prove dangerous. I fear this was no accident?'
'If you must know,' answered the other with good-natured peevishness, 'I am accused of magic. The honest folk who are my neighbours, prompted, I think it likely, by a certain senator who takes it ill that his son is my disciple, have shown me of late more attention than I care for, and to-day as I came forth, they pursued me with cries of "Sorcerer!" and the like, whereupon followed sticks and stones, and other such popular arguments. It is no matter. Plotinus begins--'
Simplicius was one of the last philosophers who taught in Athens, one of the seven who were driven forth when Justinian, in his zeal for Christianity, closed the schools. Guided by a rumour that
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