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church, which indeed numbered among its Supreme Pontiffs one of their line, the third Felix. Did not the illustrious father of Maximus lead the Christian senators in their attack upon that lingering shame, the heathen Lupercalia, since so happily supplanted by the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Mary? He, dying-- added Leander, with an ecstatic smile--made over to the Apostolic See an estate in Sicily which yielded every year two rich harvests to the widows, the orphans, the sick, and the destitute of Rome.
'Deacon,' broke from the hot lips of Maximus, who struggled to raise himself, 'if I do the like, will you swear to me to use your influence, your power, for the protection of my daughter?'
It was the voice of nature in its struggle with the universal doom; reason had little part in the hope with which those fading eyes fixed themselves upon the countenance of the self-possessed churchman.
'Heaven forbid,' was Leander's reply, 'that I should bind myself in such terms to perform an office of friendship, which under any circumstances would be my anxious care.'
'Even,' asked Maximus, 'if she persist in her heresy?'
'Even so, my dear lord, remembering from whom she springs. But,' he added, in a soothing voice, 'let me put your mind at rest. Trust me, the lady Aurelia will not long cling to her error. In poverty, in humiliation, she might be obstinate; but as the possessor of wealth--restored to her due rank--oh, my gracious lord, be assured that her conversion will soon follow.'
The same thought had occurred to Maximus. He sighed in profound relief, and regarded the deacon gratefully.
'In that hope I rest. Give me your promise to befriend her, and ask of me what you will.'
Save for the hours she passed at her father's side, Aurelia kept a strict retirement, guarded by the three female slaves whom Petronilla had reluctantly assigned to her. Of them she required no intimate service, having her own attendants, an elderly woman, the nurse of her childhood, who through all changes of fortune had never quitted her, and a younger, half-Goth, half-Italian, who discharged humbler duties. She occupied a small dwelling apart from the main structure of the villa, but connected with it by a portico: this was called the House of Proba, it having been constructed a hundred years ago for the lady Faltonia Proba, who wrote verses, and perhaps on that account desired a special privacy. Though much neglected, the building had beauty of form, and was full of fine work in mosaic. Here, in a little peristyle, where shrubs and creepers had come to wild growth, the sore-hearted lady sat brooding or paced backwards and forwards, her eyes ever on the ground. When yet a maiden she had several times spent summer at Surrentum; her memory revived that early day which seemed so long ago; she lived again with her brothers and sisters, all dead, with her mother whom griefs had aged so soon. Then came a loveless marriage, which soon involved her in the public troubles of the time; for her husband, whose estates lay in Tuscany, was robbed of all by Theodahad, and having vainly sought redress from the young King Athalaric, decided to leave Italy for Byzantium, to which end Aurelia sold a property in Campania, her dower. Before they could set forth upon their journey, her husband caught the plague and died. In second wedlock she would have known contentment but for the alienation of her kin and the scornful hostility of all her class. When widowhood again befell her she was saved from want by a small treasure of money which remained hidden in the dwelling at Cumae when the Gothic warrior, her lord, escaped from Belisarius. As this store diminished, Aurelia had looked forward with dread, for she hoped nothing from her father. And now that such fears seemed to be over, her long tortured pride clamoured for solace. It was not enough to regain her father's love and enjoy an inheritance; she wished to see her enemies at her feet, and to trample upon them--her enemies being not only Petronilla and certain other kinsfolk but all the nobility of Rome, nay, all the orthodox of the Christian church. Pacing, pacing alone, she brooded vast schemes of vengeance.
When it was announced to her that the Roman deacon besought an interview, she at first refused to receive him. Thereupon Leander sent her a few lines in writing, most ceremoniously worded, in which he declared that his purposes were those of a disinterested friend, that no word such as could pain or offend her would pass his lips, and that he had it in his power to communicate something which would greatly benefit her. Aurelia reflected disdainfully, but at length consented to the churchman's approach. Leander's bearing as he entered her presence was as elaborately courteous as the phrasing of his letter.
'Noble lady,' he began, standing with bowed head, 'let not your eyes take note of my garb. See in me only a devoted servant of your illustrious house. His Magnificence, your father, assured of the sincerity wherewith I place at his command such powers and opportunities as I owe to heaven's grace, has deigned to confide in me regarding the disposition of his worldly affairs whereto he is prompted by languishing health.'
He paused a moment, but Aurelia had no word of reply to this exordium. Seeing her keep the same haughty posture in her chair, with eyes scornfully averted as if she scarce listened, Leander proceeded to disclose his mind in less ornate terms By subtle grades of confidential speech, beginning with a declaration of the sympathy moved in him by the parent's love, the daughter's distress, he came with lowering voice, with insinuating tone, with blandly tolerant countenance, to the kernel of his discourse; it contained a suggestion which might--he only said _might_--aid her amid the manifold perplexities of her position. By this time Aurelia was more attentive; the churchman almost affectionate in his suavity, grew still more direct; and at length, in a voice which only reached the ear of the listener, he spoke thus:
'I understand why you stepped aside from the way of truth; I perceive the obstacles hindering your return. I know the tender impulses which urge you to soothe your father's last hours, and, no less, the motives, natural to a woman of your beauty, of your birth, which are at strife with that tenderness and threaten to overcome it. Could you discover a means of yielding to your filial affection, and at the same time safeguarding your noble pride, would you not gladly use it? Such a means I can point out to you.'
He became silent, watching Aurelia. She, won by the perspicacity which read her heart, had put aside all arrogance, and wore a look of grave intentness.
'Let me know it,' she murmured.
'It is this. Return to the true belief, but guard awhile the secret of your conversion. That it shall not be disclosed until you wish, I can give you firm assurance--if need be, on solemn oath. You will privately make known to your father that he has prevailed, thereby you put his flesh and spirit at rest,--he will die blessing you, and enriching you to the full extent of his desire. You will then also set your signature to a paper, which I shall write, making confession of the orthodox faith, and undertaking to be duly reconciled with the church, by the imposition of hands, at some convenient season. That is all that will be asked of you for the present. The lady Petronilla'--he all but smiled in uttering the name--'shall not even suspect what has happened.'
'Will this villa be mine?' asked the listener after brief reflection.
'This villa shall be yours.'
An exultant gleam shone in Aurelia's eyes.
'Deacon,' she said sternly, 'your promise is not enough. Swear to me that no one living, save my father and you, shall know.'
From his bosom Leander drew forth a little golden cross.
'This,' he said reverently, 'contains dust of iron from the bars on which the blessed Laurentius suffered martyrdom.'
'Swear also,' demanded Aurelia, 'by the Holy Pancratius.' In the name of both saints Leander took his oath of secrecy. Petronilla was of course aware that the deacon had been admitted to audience by her niece. When he descended, she awaited him at the end of the portico, and her look questioned him.
'Stubborn, stubborn!' murmured Leander, shaking his head, and passed on as though in troubled thought.
Later in the day, when she had seen her father, Aurelia made known to her cousin Basil, who had requested an interview, that he might come. His cousin received him smilingly, almost affectionately.
Marcian having this morning taken his leave, called away by some unexplained business to Neapolis, Basil had been on the point of taking Decius into his amorous confidence, when this summons rejoiced him.
'Is the letter written?' were Basil's first words.
'It is here. Can you despatch it at once?'
'I will take it myself,' he answered promptly.
Aurelia shook her head.
'You must not. My father's life is fast failing. No one can say which hour may be his last. If he asked for you, and you were absent--'
'Felix shall go,' said Basil. 'The wind is favourable. He may have to ride back to-morrow, but we can trust him to make all speed.'
'He took the letter, which was superscribed, 'To the most noble lady Veranilda.'
'Dear cousin, you have spoken of me?' he asked with a wistful look.
'I have said, good cousin,' Aurelia answered pleasantly, 'that you wished to be spoken of.'
'What more should I say? Your Amiability is too hasty. Remember that you have scarce seen her.'
'Scarce seen Veranilda!' exclaimed Basil. 'Why, it seems to me as though I had known her for years! Have we not talked together?'
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