They skirted around Londinium by a street lined widely with tombs, and struck a road leading south and slightly west, which the men, talking among themselves, named the Noviomagus road. Ten miles, and they reached the station known by that name, and here took horse, with Nicanor mounted behind a guard. The road led through the neck of the great forest of Anderida, and came out again into the open, and they followed it until three hours after noon. Then they turned aside into a narrower branch road, and so rode easily for another hour until they entered a grove of ilex trees. To the farther end of this they came abruptly, and saw before them open country, a broad and gentle slope of hill; and on its summit a great stately house, white-walled, with outbuildings in the copse around it. In the centre of the blank wall of the front of the house which confronted them, was a gateway, with gates of bronze, and a porter's lodge. Here the porter, looking through his wicket, asked their business, and, being told, directed them around to the rear. So they entered at another smaller gate, and were in a court, open to the sky and surrounded on all sides by buildings, where slaves were working. This, Nicanor learned from the soldiers' talk, was in the quarters of the slaves.
And here the centurion found the overseer, and talked with him long and earnestly. The overseer paid over the reward, and the centurion, as Nicanor saw without at all understanding the transaction, returned certain broad pieces, which the steward hid away upon himself with a furtive glance around. The soldier then departed with his men, his tongue in his cheek; and the overseer came to where Nicanor stood in chains, and looked at him. He was a very fat man, with little eyes sunk in unwholesome flesh, and was far haughtier than the great lord Eudemius himself. When he saw Nicanor's face, he began unexpectedly to curse and bluster, and said:
"How now, fellow! Is this a trick thou and thy mates have played upon me, to obtain my master's gold? Thou art not he who escaped three days ago."
But light had broken upon Nicanor, and he answered:
"So I told them, and so thou couldst have seen if thou hadst looked before thou didst pay—and receive back—thy master's gold. If this be thy practice, sure thy lord must be the poorer for thy loyal service!"
But the overseer was talking very fast, without paying heed at all.
"By my head, but this is a scurvy trick to play a man! But now thou art here, here shalt thou stay in that other's place; for it would go hard with me were my lord to learn that reward had been paid for nothing—and a slave is a slave to him."
Nicanor turned on him in a blaze of wrath, and the fat overseer, wary of the lean strength of him, called his men.
"Take him to the armorer's and have put upon him the collar. And on pain of punishment let no man say he is not the one who went away."
So they put upon him the brazen collar of slaveship, with the name of Eudemius engraved thereon; and set him to work among the household slaves. And he, being alone, was helpless, and could do no more than bide his time as best he might.
But at first, when his bonds galled, he stormed, raging in fury at his impotence and the high-handedness of those who had betrayed him to his servitude. Finding that this brought him but blows and curses, and was of no manner of good, he calmed down and simmered inwardly. Then—and herein he surprised himself—he began to take an interest in this new life into which he had been cast. He had abiding faith in himself, and this is a thing of which every man has need; he was undergoing a new experience, which at the outset was interesting. When he became tired of it—well, he would then find means of escape. The work was not over hard, since there were many hands to lighten it; he was brought into contact with a magnificence of which he had never dreamed. As always, he kept his eyes and ears open; with his strange, sure prescience that all he could see and hear and know would be useful to him, somehow, somewhen, he set out to learn all he could of the life of the great mansion and of those who dwelt therein.
So he found out many things; and one day he found Varia, the great lord's daughter.
The house was so vast that one might lose himself with ease among its many halls and courts and passages if he did not know its plan. Nicanor, sent one day on an errand to the kitchens, reached them in safety; and then took the wrong way back, and found himself wandering in a part of the house new to him. This did not trouble him, for by then he was well known among the household servants, and was sure of soon meeting some one who would set him right. So, quite without thought, he pushed open a door at random, and then abruptly lost all his wits through sheer amazement and delight.
For he was in a garden, beautiful to his eyes beyond all words, with broad terraces and gleaming marble steps where peacocks strutted; with at one end a fountain banked in a tangle of roses, where sprays of water fell with silvery splash and tinkle; with marble seats and statues gleaming from the cool gloom of trees. Around the garden were high walls, vine-hung, with the surrounding buildings of the villa for a broken background. An untamed profusion of green life rioted here; pale flowers of night, whose fragrance hung heavy on the air, swam in a sea-green dusk; ivy clung and clambered along the crannies of gray walls; roses sprawled in a red torrent of perfume over the yellowing images of old gods and heroes. In one corner a placid lake gazed still-eyed at the sky, with white swans floating on its mirrored black and silver. Nicanor drew breath with a quick pleasure which was almost pain; here one might think great thoughts and dream great dreams. For it was as a bit of that Forgotten Land of dreams, through which all men have journeyed, though the road to it is lost, with a glamour of mystery and a charm upon it which held him spellbound.
Out of the velvet shadow into the still evening light, one came toward him, in silence, with dark hair hanging in heavy braids on either side of her pale face, with dusky eyes and scarlet lips and jewels that glimmered in the folds of her perfumed robes. He bowed before her, keeping his eyes upon her face; for though he was a slave, he was first a man, and next a poet, which means a lover of all things beautiful, and he had never seen a woman like her in all his life before.
"Who art thou?" she said. And though she was a great lady and the daughter of that noble house, she was yet a girl, and scarce beyond her childhood, and she drooped her head before his glance.
"Nicanor, thy slave," he answered, but his voice was not a slave's voice.
"Why art thou here?" she asked him. "This is mine own place, where none but I and my women come."
"I crave thy pardon, lady," he said; and told her how he came. In turn, her eyes rested on his face; and he, meeting them, felt his pulses leap to a sudden shock which sent the blood back pounding to his heart. For they were wandering eyes, awake and seeing, yet which slept, with no light of reason in them. So then he understood why the name of their lady was spoken throughout the household in hushed tones as of one dead; why she was so closely hidden from the eyes of the world. And she was the Lady Varia,—the lord Eudemius's only child,—the last of his great house, fair, futile flower.
"Nicanor," she repeated, with a pretty halting on the word. Her voice was low and dreaming, more tender than a dove's. "Where have I heard that name? Why, Nerissa hath told me thou art he who telleth tales to the men and maids at evening. See, it is evening now. Wilt not tell me too a tale? I should like it, for sometimes I am very lonely."
She was far above him as the stars; but she was a woman, and he a man—and the first tale was told within a garden. She held out a hand to him, and he took it and touched it to his forehead, and it fluttered in his and then lay still. She led him to a bench by the sleeping lake, a child whose will might not be thwarted, and bade him tell her tales such as he told her men and maidens. This the sure instinct of his art taught him he might not do, since those tales which held them thralled were not for such as she. But he locked his hands about his knee, and thought an instant, his head flung back and his eyes intent and eager, with an odd shining deep within them.
So his tale began, in the deep-voiced chant which had rung out by moor and camp-fire, hushed now, that the peace of the evening's stillness might not be broken. She sat quite still beside him, her hands clasped childlike in her lap, listening with parted lips. The dusk deepened, and the golden moon hung over the surrounding wall and flooded the garden in wan hoary light. The pool lay a lake of silver in a black fringe of trees. The night flowers breathed forth drowsy perfume, making heavy the summer air. Nicanor's voice rolled on, endlessly through the scented darkness....
Until Nerissa, the old nurse, came upon them suddenly, clamoring for her charge. Varia sprang to her and kissed her, with fond coaxing arms about her, so that she relented, since her lady's will was law. She dismissed Nicanor, and he crossed his arms before his face, and went away from Paradise.
Varia hid her face on her nurse's shoulder—poor groping soul that found its happiness in things so small—and said:
"He hath told me tales, Nerissa, so strange and wonderful that never was aught like them in all the world. I will have him to come again, for I am so happy—so happy! And thou shalt not tell, for then he could not come, and he is not to suffer for it. Promise, Nerissa, dear Nerissa—it is but a little thing!"
And Nicanor—ah, Nicanor! That night there opened to him a new world,—a world of beauty and of sweetness and of pain. He, a son of the soil, knowing his roughness, his uncouthness, his bondage, never giving them a thought till then, had led her by the hand, a daughter of the stars, for a little space, the barriers down between them. One bit of common ground they had; beyond it, distance immeasurable and impassable.
* * * * *
That night Nicanor was once more seeking, always seeking, for something vague and left unnamed; past the river-ford of Thorney, where ever that night-long search began; and so through all the world to where a garden lay in moonlight. Here also he would have sought, for he knew that what he strove to find was waiting. But a web of moonlight held him back from entering; and from the outer darkness an old man's voice came to him, clear as a deep-toned bell, which said:
"The price of heart's blood and heart's desire is pain, and for what thou gainest, thou must pay the price."
In the garden was a little narrow door, vine-hung, which led to the outer world. No one ever used this door; for long years it had stood locked, and the key to it was lost,—so long lost that no one ever thought to look and see that the lock was clean and newly oiled that it might turn without noise; and the vines which half hid it on the inner side could tell no tales.
Marcus, oldest of all the many household slaves, white-headed and shrunken, and bent with the toil of years, squatted by the fire in the court of the slaves' quarters, cleaning a copper pot with a swab of twigs soaked in oil to pliancy. Within the house a feast was in progress, so that all the slaves were there on service, and Marcus had the fire to himself. He crooned softly as he scrubbed; and the flames struck gleams of light from the collar of brass about his neck and the round shining sides of the kettle, as it turned and twisted in his hands.
Presently Nicanor came into the circle of firelight, staggering under the weight of a great cask upon his back, with sweat-matted hair that streaked his face, and straining muscles. Out of the zone of light he passed, with only the panting of labored breath and the pad of naked feet; and the darkness swallowed him. Following came another, also laden; and another, with a squat stone jar upon his shoulder; and yet another, each giving out every ounce of power within him, straining like a beast of burden beneath the yoke, that those in the great house might be served perfectly and without fault. They passed; and from the kitchens came a rattle of crockery, a hiss of burning fat, the shrill voices of cooks and scullery women.
Marcus flung his mop into the fire, got himself to his feet, and went after them, kettle in hand. The fire, left to itself, cast wavering gleams upon the dark walls about the court, the bare trodden ground, the covered well in its centre.
Marcus, seeking Nerissa to give the kettle to her, came to the garden, and stood in the entrance and looked across it. Further than this even he dared not venture, since all the space within was sacred to the lord's daughter and her women. Opposite him, across the open lawn, were the wide steps, white in the moonlight, leading to the tessellated walk above. Beyond this, light shone softly from Lady Varia's chamber, half screened by the tall slender columns of the gallery. The two windows, reaching to the floor and giving upon the terrace, were open to the warm air; in the room the lights were low. Marcus saw suddenly the Lady Varia herself enter the room alone, walking slowly, like one unwilling or tired. Then he would have gone, lest he be reprimanded; but even as he turned, the vines along the farther wall rustled, though no wind stirred. So that Marcus, faithful old watch-dog, drew back in the shadows and waited, thinking no danger, yet bound to see that all was well.
This was what he saw: Lady Varia moving within the low-lighted room, pausing before her dressing-table near the tall silver lamp, to remove the weight of jewels which loaded her, aimless, and with slow uncertain steps like a child too weary to know rightly what it does. And from the darkness by the wall a figure coming with swift silent strides across the turf to the marble steps, black as a shadow in the moonlight, lean and lithe and with an untamed shock of hair. The figure stood upon the lowest step and called softly,—a tender, wordless call which drifted low across the night and scarcely reached to Marcus's ears. Marcus felt for the knife-hilt at his belt. But the Lady Varia, within the lighted room, heard the call, and stepped across the threshold with head raised and hands hanging at her sides like any sleep-walker, and crossed the pavement where the moonlight lay in silver, and came down the steps, slowly, yet hesitating never at all. Marcus, watching in wonder and fright and awe, saw the black figure lift her hand and kiss it; saw the two walk hand in hand across the garden into the dusky jungle of tall shrubbery. So that Marcus was in two minds,—whether to give the alarm at once, and have the intruder captured, or whether to go up quietly himself and find out what was going on.
In the end he crept along through the shadow beneath the walls; and presently, as he came, heard a voice speaking softly, yet with passion. The words were plainly audible, and Marcus heard, and crept closer yet and listened,—listened to words such as in all his stunted life he had never heard before; words which stirred forgotten memories of other things once known, once loved and lost, which he understood in part, and felt more than he understood. He crouched in the shelter of a wide-leaved plant, seeing only the outline of a black figure on the stone bench, and a white one half lost in the darkness beside it. The spell of the voice wrapped him round, deep-toned, vibrant, yet hushed into accord with the stillness of the night. Bent on capture, he found himself all at once held captive, his mind swayed as grass in the wind to the sweep of that other's fancy. But abruptly the voice ceased, and the stillness settled deeper. Marcus heard a rustle of soft garments upon the bench; a low voice saying:
"More—more! Cease not, I pray thee, friend!"
And that other voice, answering:
"Nay, lady; what use? Something is wanting—the words will not come. I know not why, whether it be in me, or whether—"
"Nay, but I'll have one more. Once thou didst begin to tell of a youth who was poor and lowly, who lived in the country of the north—"
"Does she, then, remember that?" Marcus muttered, "she, whose mind is water, where an image fades with the changing light? Eh, thou black-headed slaveling, what miracle hast thou wrought?"
"Wouldst have that tale?" Nicanor asked. "Ay, lady, once I did begin, and dared not finish. Dare I now? My faith! the trouble will not be for lack of words in this! So then; it was even as thou hast said. The youth lived in the gray northlands, up by the Great Wall, where gray hills roll over all the earth and gray skies look down upon them. He tended sheep upon these hills for his father's lord, and lived upon black porridge and sour bread, and went clad in a sheepskin. And because he had never known that life held other things than these, it was all to him as it should have been. But there came a time when this youth went out into the world. He left his flocks and herds, with his lord's permission, and went down the long road to the south, past great cities where men lived in luxury and ease and other men toiled and sweated that this might be. He saw many strange faces, heard the babble of many tongues; and it seemed to him that each face was seeking for a thing which had no name, and each tongue was calling for what might not be found. And after a while the youth knew that he too was seeking what he could not find, and he wondered if it might be that same thing for which those stranger faces hungered. In the end, he came to a fair house, and dwelt there, among those ones who sat in luxury and ease and those others who toiled for them. And in this house was a certain place, of which was said: 'This spot is holy ground. Here none may enter rashly.' But the youth was rash, and entered."
His voice faltered. On the seat beside him the Lady Varia leaned forward.
"And then?—" she said softly.
"And there he found what he had been seeking," said Nicanor, very low. "What every soul upon this earth has a right to search for, but not every soul has a right to take. The name of this thing, O lady of mine, was Happiness; and some there be who call it also Love, and others there be who know that it is Pain. For in the garden dwelt one fair and pure and holy,—a daughter of the great ones of the earth. And because she was fair he loved her; and because she was great he might not woo her; and because she was pure he would not stain her. For she had taught him to love as a woman may teach a man."
"He loved her?" Lady Varia said. Her voice was low and dreaming under the spell of his.
"Ay, lady of mine, he loved her!" Nicanor said; and in place of the vibrant tenderness of his voice was a swift fierce triumph. "He loved her, and nothing could do away with that." Once more his tones were hushed.
"On earth, between man and woman, are two kinds of love, my lady,—one which a man may teach a woman, which is quick desire and the bitter sweetness of passion, the meaning of a kiss, the thrill of a caress: and this, when all is said and done, is of earth, and of the flesh; and one which a woman may teach a man: and this is reverence, and tenderness, and holiness, and of the spirit. And she taught the youth this kind of love, my lady; taught him to revere and honor what in other women he had ever held lightly; taught him that because she was weak she was so strong that nothing he might do could prevail against her. And so—he went away."
"And she?" said the dreaming voice. "Did she love him?"
There fell a pause. In the bushes, close at hand, one strained his ears to listen, a naked knife gleaming in his hand.
"Ay," Nicanor answered slowly. He turned to her, not touching her, yet so close that he felt her breath on his sleeveless arm. "She loved him. And she did not know it."
"Not know it?" Varia said. She turned her face toward him, and the moonlight fell full on the warm whiteness of her throat. "I think she should have known. And then, she being great, and he so lowly, I think she should have told him that she knew."
"If—if you were she," said Nicanor, and his voice shook, "would you have told him?"
"Oh, I should have told him!" Varia said, and her voice was low and strained. "I should have said—'I want you to love me! I want you to love me and stay with me always—'"
Nicanor bowed his face forward on his hands. Lady Varia, leaning forward, put her hand upon his shoulder.
"Were I that woman, I should have wanted to love him if he had been like that," she said, tremulously, yet very sweetly.
Nicanor straightened up and caught both her hands.
"Ah, no, my lady, you would not!" he said hoarsely. "You would have driven him from you and been angered beyond forgiveness. You would have hated and despised him, because—oh, don't you understand, it is the only thing you could have done! If she had said that—how could—how could he have left her?"
"But why did he leave her?" Varia asked. "Could he not have stayed always in the garden?"
Nicanor mastered himself with an effort.
"No," he said thickly. "Because he was only a man—and some day—it would be more than he could endure. If he saw that in her sweet innocence she did not realize the temptation she held out to him, he might—he might have done that which always after he must regret."
He raised her face with one hand and looked at her. Her eyes were closed, her red mouth quivered. He hesitated, his breath coming hard; then he bent his head and kissed her. As he took her in his arms, she shivered, crying softly:
"I am afraid! Oh, what is this that you would do!"
But when he loosened his hold she clung to him, murmuring:
"Nay, I am not afraid! I love your kisses. Oh, you must not go as did that youth—always you must stay within this garden—"
Then Marcus crept from his shelter and stood before them, silent, his knife gleaming in his hand. Nicanor, lifting his head, saw him suddenly, and started, for this meant death by tortures no man might name. He sprang to his feet and thrust Lady Varia behind him in the same motion, so that in the darkness his body hid her as she crouched upon the bench. Marcus snarled, like an aroused watch-dog, and said:
"Thou more than fool! Dost know what this night's work will bring thee?"
Nicanor, his heart pounding hard, his hands clenched, answered nothing, glancing about him to see if the old man might be alone. But the garden lay silent. Then he sprang, as a wolf springs, straight for the old slave's throat, and felled him. Lady Varia screamed,—a quick, shrill sound which stabbed the night stillness like a knife, and cried:
"Oh, kill him not—kill him not! I pray thee, kill him not!"
"Hush thee, dear lady, or the house will be upon us!" Nicanor exclaimed, his words rushing through locked teeth. "Get quickly to thy chamber and leave all things to me."
She sped away over the turf, panting with fear and excitement, and flitted up the steps and across the marble walk and into her room, and closed the window. Nicanor, kneeling on the slave's chest, gagging him with a wad torn from his own garment, heard the doors shut with a gasp of relief. He tied the old man's arms tightly with his girdle, trussing him as he had trussed the carcasses of sheep to be loaded upon mules. Then, having him bound and helpless, he rose and stood over him, whetting his knife on his hand, with senses keyed to hear footsteps in every stir of leaf and sigh of wind. But the garden lay always silent under the moon's cold eye. He spoke to his captive, in a voice which grated just above a whisper.
"I'll not kill thee now, since she begged thy life, old man. But while thou'rt above the ground there's no more peace for me. Now what to do with thee?"
He stood over his prisoner, motionless in meditation, muttering his thoughts aloud.
"There's no place within the house to keep thee safe. And if that clacking tongue of thine betrays us, it needs not much to fancy what will happen then. This is what comes to pass when one serves a brutal master, old man; one must e'en be a brute one's self. I cannot kill thee; they'd miss thee and start a search—besides, my lady said me nay. Ha, that makes thee squirm? Ay, she'd be mine for the lifting of my finger—even I, Nicanor, thy master's slave, have but to say to her, thy master's daughter, 'Go thither!' and she goes, and 'Come!' and she comes to me as I will. Hearest thou that, old man? Her lips have been defiled by a slave's kisses; she hath lain unresisting in a slave's arms, to the unending shame of her proud lord father. And why do I tell thee this, old man? To see thee writhe, thou also, at that shame; to have thee know the whole, and never profit by thy knowledge. Again I say, I cannot kill thee, but none the less I'll stop that tell-tale mouth of thine. Look you, it's the choice between my life and thy eager tongue which even now yearns to blab the tale of my sin and her disgrace. Therefore—"
He knelt above his captive, who glared at him with bloodshot eyes that glittered in the moonlight. He tested the keenness of his blade, shook back his shaggy hair, and with a sudden twist removed the gag from the old man's jaws, choking back, at the same moment, with pitiless hands, the cry which rose to his lips. Then he bent over, so that the bulk of him hid from the moonlight his victim and his work. There was a single glint of steel, a convulsion of the thin figure on the ground; a faint click, and a choked and gurgling cry, instantly suppressed. Then Nicanor cleaned his blade by driving it thrice deep into the soft ground, and stood up; and Marcus rolled over and over in agony at his feet, with inarticulate animal cries which scarcely rose above the silence of the night. Nicanor unloosed his bonds and touched him with his foot.
"Hereafter thou'lt hold thy peace, old man! Neither good nor ill wilt thou ever prate of mortal more, for I've drawn thy sting. Once thou wert kind to me; twice, in return, did I steal for thee, and once took a beating from thy shoulders. But thou wert more loyal to thy master than thou wert friend to me—and in a matter such as this, I take no chances. As I have served thee, so will I serve any man who crosses me. Now go. Wash thy mouth with cold water and chew pounded leaves of betel. It will stop the blood."
He left the garden with noiseless strides, a black shadow in the moonlight. Marcus got himself slowly to his feet, moaning like an animal in pain. He shook his fist at the vanishing figure, with uncouth and terrible sounds which had once been speech, but even then were none the less a curse. So, shuddering and crying, he crept from the sleeping garden, where all was still and peaceful, and where pain and sorrow should have had no place.
* * * * *
And never again was that garden so peaceful and so still, for Life had entered it, by the little narrow door, bringing with it what Life must bring.
Nicodemus, the freedman, one-eyed, short, immensely broad, beetle-browed, and grizzled, stood in the door of his wine-shop and watched the crowding press of travellers at the marsh-ford, fore-runners of the throng which nightly descended upon Thorney. Behind him, in the dim recesses of the smoky shop, his wife, Myleia, hawk-nosed and slatternly, prepared food for the strangers who would soon be upon them clamoring for bed and board. It was early evening, with a faint twilight haze still tinged with pink and primrose; but already lights were twinkling here and there among the clustered houses, and fires had been started on the beach.
There was no more excitement at the ford than was usual at that hour; the noise was no greater, the confusion no more profound; yet Nicodemus watched it all intently, as though he had not seen it every night before. His one eye, small and hotly blue beneath its bushy brow, glinted over the bustling scene; watched a dozen men flogging a horse that had slipped in mid-stream and fallen with its pack, blocking a long file of animals and carts behind it; followed three half-drunken soldiers lurching through the shallow water, using their pikes as staves; lingered over a bloody battle between two carters whose wheels had locked; and suddenly sobered into gravity at sight of a figure striding through the ford, in worn leathern jerkin and brazen cap, with a ponderous leaf-shaped sword swinging at its side. At sight of this one, Nicodemus turned and went within.
The shop, lighted dimly by an evil-smelling lamp, showed small and low-ceiled. Jars of cheap wine and casks of ale and beer, with an array of drinking-cups of all shapes and sizes, stood on shelves along the wall at one side. A trestled board, much scarred and hacked, ran down the centre of the room, flanked by rows of stone stools. Built around two sides of the room was a series of rude bunks. Over the edge of one of these a head of rough and matted black hair was visible. An odor of stale liquor, scorched meat, and pungent wood-smoke hung heavy in the air. Myleia entered, from the kitchen beyond, with a tray of half-cooked beef. Nicodemus went to the bunk and shook the occupant ungently.
"Valerius is here!" he said. His voice, like himself, was rough and brusque, rumbling hollow from the depths of his cavernous chest. The figure in the bunk stirred and muttered. Nicodemus turned his head.
"He'll not sleep this off for another six hours," he growled. "Wife, some water."
The hawk-nosed woman came to his side with a jug of water. As she gave it to him, she put one hand, gnarled, distorted by work, hairy as a man's, on his broad shoulder, and he put his own hand up over it. They stood silent, looking down at the black head buried in the dingy blankets. The lamplight fell soddenly on their faces, throwing them into relief against the murky gloom of the room. Nicodemus grunted, and without warning emptied the water over the black head. Myleia laughed huskily. The remedy was partially effectual. The head rose dripping from the blankets, with dazed and drunken eyes.
"Pull thyself together, Nicanor, lad!" Nicodemus said sharply. "Valerius is coming for thee. Thou hast overstayed thy leave; he is to take thee back to the house of thy lord. Dost understand?"
Nicanor, answering nothing, sat upright with an effort, pressing his hands to his head, his body swaying slightly from the hips. Nicodemus put a hand on his shoulder.
"Come!" he urged.
Nicanor looked at him, blinking stupidly. Still he did not speak, but moistened his lips with a swollen tongue. He began to sink slowly back into the blankets, supine and inert. Nicodemus sat on the edge of the bunk and passed a long gorilla arm about his shoulders. He motioned to his wife, who stood watching, arms akimbo, her face expressive of lively sympathy. She went to the shelves where stood the jars of liquor, returning with a brimming horn cup. Nicodemus took this, tilted back the heavy head at his shoulder, and started to pour its contents down Nicanor's throat. Nicanor choked, gasped, and swallowed automatically.
A black figure blocked out the twilight in the door.
"Peace be with ye, friends! What's all this?" said a hearty voice. Valerius entered; saw the face of the patient, and stopped short.
"Nicanor!" he exclaimed. "Why, I'm come for him. He should have been back last night. Hito—prince of overseers—hath a black mark against him. Drunk again?"
Nicodemus nodded casually. "Bide a bit, friend, and I'll have him in shape. He's awake now."
Nicanor, slowly recovering his sodden wits, looked at Valerius, recognizingly, opened his mouth to speak, found the exertion too great, and shut it again. He let his head sink back against Nicodemus. Presently, with his eyes closed, he said thickly:
"You, Valerius? What now?"
"I want you, my friend," said Valerius, promptly. "It would seem you forget the trifling fact that Hito commanded your return last night. While you wear the collar, you'll have to heed the word of him who holds the chain—mark you that. You're in for a flogging as it is—best not let your case get to higher quarters." He turned to Nicodemus. "Can we get him started, think you?"
Nicodemus let the shaggy head drop back into the bunk, and rose.
"Let him bide an hour and he'll be ready for you," he suggested. "Which is to say that he'll be able to walk, with help. Sit you down, comrade—the night's young yet."
He beckoned Valerius with him to the table, with a nod at Myleia. She brought cups and an ampulla of wine—not from among those upon the shelves. Valerius, with a grunt of satisfaction, pushed his sword out of his way and sat down. But voices at the door, a shout, a pounding of horses' hoofs, recalled Nicodemus to his duties as host. He signed to Valerius to help himself, and hurried to the door.
The twilight had deepened into dusk, through which the fires at the ford glowed redly. The air, sharp with the evening chill, was vibrant with sounds of preparation for the night. Outside the wine-shop door a group was gathered,—three men mounted, three others afoot. One of the latter, a slave, was calling lustily for admittance, beating with his staff upon the door.
"Here, lords, here!" cried Nicodemus in alarm. "What may the lords be pleased to want?"
"Food and drink and a place to sleep if you have it," said one on horseback. His voice was full and resonant and very deep; the tones of one used to command men. Another added querulously:
"This place is crowded to the doors. Every public-house—Say quick if you can take us in, for a cloud of vermin is swarming at our heels, ready to snap the food from our very jaws."
Nicodemus's eye, long used to sizing up the purses of would-be customers, lighted to quick and eager greed.
"All I have is at your lordships' service. You say truly; Thorney is crowded, so that many will sleep on the naked ground to-night."
There came a group of weary carters along the street, smelling loudly of drink and of the stables, clamoring at every crowded house for bed and board. Nicodemus saw the disgusted scorn with which the lord who had last spoken regarded these; saw the other two on horseback turn away as though contaminated by the very atmosphere of their presence,—an atmosphere none too sweet, in truth,—and promptly took his cue.
"Nay, friend," said he to the foremost carter, as they clustered close around, hopeful at last of shelter. "You're too late—I'm full. Best go to the Black Cock—a step further down the street. There you'll find all you ask for."
"The Black Cock be full also," the man protested sulkily. "You have room to spare! See then, friend, we'll pay 'ee well."
But Nicodemus, fearful lest his golden geese should fly, turned on him fiercely.
"Get ye gone! I've no time to dicker over coppers. I'm full, I tell you, and that's all there is to it.—This way, lords."
He led his guests into the house, shouting for Myleia to come and put up the horses. Two wore the dress of private citizens of wealth; the equipment of the third and youngest proclaimed him a military tribune. The face of this one, the most noticeable of the trio—a man of some seven-and-thirty years—was pale and aristocratic, with high nose, thick and level brows, a thin-lipped mouth at once refined and sensual. And the eyes were the eyes of a son of Rome the Mighty, dark, keen, dominant, impatient of restraint. Behind them one might read what the man himself stood for; the epitome of centuries of culture, of severest physical training and the restraint of the discipline of the mightiest machine the world had ever seen; and, at the same time, of equal centuries of indulgence and luxury and vice—a curious mingling of ascetic and sybarite. Of the other two, one bore a marked resemblance to the soldier, with the pride and passion of the younger face tempered by years to a mellower dignity. He was richly dressed, and on his thumb was a large and heavily chased signet ring. The third man, who at first spoke little, keeping his eyes cast down, was small and shrivelled, with a scholar's face and a distinct cast in the right eye.
These three sat at the table, whence Valerius had hurriedly removed himself and his wine, and were served obsequiously by Nicodemus and his wife with the best the house afforded. For a while they ate and drank in silence. Then the tongue of the small old man, loosened by the wine, began to wag. He spoke abruptly, in a voice husky and somewhat over-precise.
"I had not looked to see thee here, friend Marius. Thy father made no mention of thy coming."
"He knew nothing of it," the young tribune answered shortly. "There was no time to send word from Gaul—where I have been stationed these last two years—that I had been ordered into Britain. And when I arrived, he was travelling, and my letter did not reach him."
"He came with his legion, which is that one sent hither by the proconsul AEtius of Gaul, at the request of the governors of the cities to drive out the barbarians from Britannia Secunda. And that was nine months ago," his father explained.
"So; I see. It was gallant work of gallant men," said the old man with effusion. The soldier shrugged his broad shoulders in an indifference half contemptuous. "And thou hast remained in Britain since thy comrades sailed back to Gaul?"
"The commander left certain men to guard against further outbreak," the father of Marius explained, patiently. "And my son is of that number. But the trouble seems thoroughly subdued, and they have been ordered to return to Gaul."
"I have applied for leave by the physicians' orders, having been wounded during the affair," said Marius. "Myself I know that I am fit for service, but I am constrained—" Again he shrugged. "A campaign hath been started in Gaul against the Huns who threaten us, and you may guess if I like the prospect of missing it. Until my leave is granted, I am here to make arrangements for a vessel for my cohort. After, I shall remain for some weeks; it is long since my father and I have been together."
"And those weeks, I doubt not, you will spend together at the house of Eudemius," the old man persisted, and received a curt grunt of assent. Undeterred by lack of enthusiasm of his hearers, he settled to the discussion of a new subject.
"It is years since I have seen him, but men say that he is greatly changed, since the physicians have failed to mend his daughter's misfortune."
The soldier, staring moodily into his horn cup, made no sign of having heard. His father poured himself more wine, and nodded. The old man added, with a chuckle and a senile attempt at jocularity:
"Marius, boy, thou shouldst but see her! Not a goddess of Rome herself could equal her. Eh, but she's the morsel for thy lips, she and her fat lands and the gold of her father's coffers. And it were high time thou shouldst think of marriage."
"I care nothing for damaged goods," Marius interrupted. "And as for marriage, that may well wait awhile."
"But since thou art to visit the father, it is but meet that thou shouldst become enamoured of the daughter, for the time at least. What else could be expected of thee?" quavered he of the cast. He poured himself another cup of wine; his hand, none too steady, shook, and the liquor spilled. Hereat he wept, dolefully, and forgot his discourse on the duty of guests to their hosts' daughters. Unheeding him, the others talked quietly, in low tones. But he, bound to hold the centre of the stage, remembered suddenly what he wished to say, and began again.
"My boy, thou couldst have her for the taking!"
Marius, his speech with his father interrupted, eyed him with a sort of grim patience, waiting until he chose to cease.
"A fit morsel for thy lips," the garrulous one repeated. "I speak of what mine eyes have seen. What if the mind be wanting, so long as the face is fair? Many a man hath found too much mind a sorry investment in a wife. And she's fair enough! By Venus, yes! Eyes like clouded stars, midnight tresses, a bosom whiter than milk—"
Marius laughed scornfully.
"Maybe so! But so have a thousand others, with sense thrown in. Why so keen to set me after her? Let the poor fool be. I tell you I'll have no damaged goods. If I marry at all, by the veil of Isis, the price I must needs pay will be high enough to warrant me in asking the best in return."
Nicanor, hearing the murmur of voices, raised his head slowly and looked over the edge of the bunk. He saw Valerius in his corner, sound asleep, and wondered what he wanted there. The old man sat with his back to him, but the face of the soldier was in plain sight. At him Nicanor stared, stolidly, without interest, and let himself drop back into the blankets. But the remedy of Nicodemus was beginning to have effect. By degrees his head became clearer; objects in the room no longer jumped startlingly when he set his glance upon them; his thoughts became more connected. There had been a scene in a garden—her garden. Marcus had come; had discovered him with her. His heart stood still. What had happened then? Had he killed the old man? He recalled the truth with a gasp of relief which yet was mingled with apprehension. But afterwards? There came to him, slowly, a memory, vague and confused, of a weary wandering through endless night, torn by temptation and desire, raging with defiance of the consequences of his rashness, consumed by fever that ran through his veins like fire and dried the very heart within him. What had become of Varia? Of Marcus? How much had been found out? Sudden blind fury at his impotence in the face of supreme and arrogant power possessed him. The brazen collar about his throat burned like a band of fire. He raised his hands to it, and let them drop. What could he do—a slave? After all, what did it matter? Nothing mattered then, save Varia. He lay devising ways and means of seeing her again, since this he was bound to do, though gods and men might say him nay. The voices at the table droned on, as from a great distance, and Nicanor lay and listened. They spoke of some woman. No name was mentioned, but the description of her, as it fell from the old man's maudlin lips, sent his heart pounding. So might be described another woman, who for him held life and death and all that lay between. The voice of Valerius at his ear made him start.
"Awake, lad? Art better? So, then; it's time to start."
Nicanor got out of the bunk. Once on his legs, he discovered that he was by no means steady. The three at the table ceased talking as he rose, more from prudence than curiosity, it seemed. The soldier glanced at him, with keen eyes, indifferent at first, lighting to faint professional interest, that noted every point of bearing and physique; the lean flanks, swelling upward to muscular torso and the shoulders of a chariot-racer; the knotted muscle of forearm and back; finally rested on the broad collar circling the brown massive throat.
"That fellow would look well in the ranks," he observed casually. His father glanced at Nicanor as one might at a dog whose good points were under discussion, and nodded. Marius added, continuing what had gone before:
"You can't kill a man with hard work if you know how to handle him. I tell Fabian that these brushes with barbarians at least serve the purpose of keeping the men in condition."
His father sighed.
"Always thou wert a hard taskmaster, Marius," he said gently. "It may be that thou drivest the men farther than thou knowest. Men are not brute beasts, that they must be goaded even to the breaking-point."
"Most men are, my father," Marius returned. "Most men will do what they are made to do, no more. As for driving them to breaking-point, I think you need not fear for that. Men need a lot of killing."
He fell into silence, staring into the amber depths of his cup of wine. His father glanced at him, sighed once more, and turned away. Nicodemus and Myleia hurried in to prepare fresh beds for their lordly guests. Valerius and Nicanor went out into the night.
The keen air struck Nicanor like a dash of cold water. He drew a deep and grateful breath of it, and felt revived.
"How long have I been from the house?" he asked, with intent to fill in the blank spaces of his memory.
"It is the second night," Valerius answered. "When you asked Hito for leave, he gave command that you return last night."
"When I asked Hito—" Nicanor repeated. He had no recollection of having asked the overseer for anything.
"You did not come, so, being angry, he directed me to search for you and bring you back for a flogging. What more was in store, he did not say."
Nicanor shot a glance of swift suspicion at him through the darkness.
"What more should there be?" he demanded.
"Why, how can I tell?" Valerius parried. "Imprisonment, maybe, for a day or so.... Though, in truth, as the offence is repeated by some one or other every day, he can have no excuse for—"
"Well?" Nicanor said impatiently, as Valerius paused.
"Treating you as he would like to do," the latter added soberly. "Hito hates you, my friend."
Nicanor shrugged his shoulders. This tale of an overseer's feelings was not what he had feared.
"Oh, that!" he exclaimed, and snapped his fingers. "If that were all I had to think about.... Valerius, tell me this. Each time I have seen you I have wished to ask. How comes it that you are in the service of the Torturer?"
"I got tired of the church," Valerius answered simply. "The good fathers were very good, but me they singled out as the black sheep of all the fold, and it was more than could be endured. 'What religion have you?' says Father Ambrose. 'None at all,' says I, 'and want none.' So he nearly wept, and told the others, and they agreed that I was fit food for the fires of hell. So they gave me their blessing, and told me Holy Church was better off without me, and there were no more sandals to be repaired. Then I fell in with Hito, and he took me into the service of our lord. How hath it been with you?"
Nicanor told of the manner of his capture, and Valerius laughed.
"Clever!" he chuckled. "But tell me truth, lad. Is not this a long sight better than the work-room of that fish-faced brother Tobias? Are we not hand in glove with the great ones of the earth? Do we not know them, in all their parts, far better than those of their own world could ever do, since we serve them?"
"Ay," said Nicanor. "That is so. And yet, after all—when I was in the workshop, if the bone cut straight, and if there was what I liked for supper, I was happy, and wanted nothing more. Now—"
"Now," said Valerius, dropping into his old familiar tone, with an arm thrust through Nicanor's—"now thou hast found that there are many other things in life which a man may want. Is it not so?"
"Ay," Nicanor said again. "That is so also."
In the slaves' quarters, next morning, Nicanor took his flogging without a change of face, while Hito, the fat overseer, looked on and grinned in evil glee. But Nicanor had so much worse than flogging hanging over him that he scarcely felt the blows, and merely grinned back at Hito, with insolent bravado, until the latter was cursing with rage. Then, being set to grind sand for the floors of the kitchens, he made an opportunity to seek out Marcus. But Marcus was nowhere to be found. Nicanor questioned, cautiously; no one had seen him. Apparently, no one cared what had become of him. He might have been rotting in sewer or drain-hole for all his fellow-slaves seemed concerned. To save his life Nicanor could not have told just why he wished to find the old man, since the farther he and Marcus were apart, the better it would be for both.
Foiled in his search, he went back to work again. Many times before his labor was ended, he passed the closed door of the garden where Varia dwelt; and each time his heart beat hard and his face flushed and his brown hands trembled. To know her so near, and not to see her; to be conscious of her in every throbbing pulse, and not to seek her; not to know whether she was safe and unharmed, or whether blame for his rashness had fallen, through her father's wrath, on her—
"Last night I could have gone to her had I not chosen to make myself a drunken swine," he said, and caught himself up in fear lest he had spoken the words aloud. "Did she look for me—wait for me?—for I'll warrant she has not forgotten. But to-night—to-night—"
He caught his breath, his eyes lighting.
"I'll make her confess she loves me! I'll have the words from her own lips—words, ay, and kisses also! Ah, lord, noble lord, mighty lord! what wouldst say to know that for the lifting of a slave's finger thou standest to lose what all thy gold could never buy thee back?" His passion died before it had fairly gathered force. He stood an instant, motionless and shaken, drew a hand across his eyes, and returned to his labor.
All that day Hito worked him mercilessly, in a mean and entirely comprehensible spirit of revenge, until, being not fully recovered from his drinking-bout, his brain was reeling and he could scarcely keep his legs. At sunset he took his share of the rations dealt out nightly to the slaves, but although he was faint from emptiness the sight of the food turned him sick. He went to the cell where he, with others, slept, and dropped like a log, exhausted in mind and body. Here he lay until Hito's whistle summoned the household slaves for emergency service. Not to obey meant punishment, but in his present state Nicanor cared little for that. He lay listening to the sound of hasty feet and voices as slaves passed to and fro across the courtyard to the house, expecting momently to be called to account for his delinquency. But no one came to him, and by and by he slept.
Waking, he found the world dark and peopled with restless, moving shadows. There was still much hurrying here and there, and from the kitchens came strident sounds of nervous activity. Thither Nicanor started, across the unlighted court, stopping on the way for a cup of water at the well. As he put down the dipper and turned to go, he ran into some one bound in the same direction, who staggered under the shock with an exclamation, and dropped a dish, which crashed into fragments on the ground. At the same instant Nicanor caught her by the shoulder and steadied her; in the darkness he could not see her face.
"It is broken!" she exclaimed. "I must go quickly and get another."
"It was my fault," said Nicanor. "I will go."
"There is no need," the woman answered.
She started back, Nicanor keeping perversely beside her.
"What is happening?" he wished to know. "Is there a feast made in the house to-night?" He could feel that she was looking at him in surprise.
"You do not know? Two strangers came to-day, with news of importance, men say, for our lord. There be strange things told: they urge that our lord will go back with them to Rome. The old man was indisposed when he arrived; his servant tells that he is not over strong."
She hurried off, and Nicanor stood still, repeating stupidly her words.
"Our lord will go back with them to Rome. Then she will go with him. But that is not possible. His home is here—why should he leave it?" At once he was filled with feverish anxiety to find out what truth there might be in the gossip.
He invented an errand which would take him within the house, to see if by chance Lady Varia might be among the feasters. Since she was kept in strictest seclusion by Eudemius, he was quite sure of not finding her, but his mood of perversity still held. On the way he met a Saxon slave, Wardo, a fair-haired, blue-eyed fellow, hurrying toward the atrium with a pierced copper bowl packed with snow for cooling wines. Him Nicanor stopped with a question.
"Hast seen these strangers, Wardo? Whence come they, and who have been bidden to meet them?"
"They and our lord sup alone," Wardo answered. He shifted his bowl from hand to hand, and blew on his fingers as though it burned instead of freezing him. "The dancing girls have been commanded, and wine is to be brought. Much hath been brought already. And Nicanor, hark 'ee! Egon, who pours the wines, saith that the talk is strange talk for feasting. They urge that our lord go back with them to Rome—wherefore, think you? They speak of Rome, and Londinium, and the legions from Gaul, and of losses of ships and money, until one's head rings. What might it be about? Think you that we go to Rome? I should like to go to Rome, if it be anything like Londinium—"
"We go to Rome?" Nicanor repeated. "Say rather that we should be left here to die like chained rats that the trainer hath forgotten."
He went off; and watched his chance and slipped away outside, and stopped before the little garden door. He put his hand upon it, drew back, and glanced over his shoulder as though for possible pursuit. His face held a curious mixture of doubt and boldness, hesitancy and desire. Only a moment he paused; then opened the door with a silent key, slipped inside so that the vines scarcely rustled, and closed it without noise.
No one was in the garden. His eagerness took fire at the delay; lithe and silent as a mountain cat he crossed the open space of lawn, mounted the steps of the terrace, and gained the windows, whence came no light from the tall silver lamps within. And here he discovered that the windows were closed. With all his boldness he dared venture no further. Baffled, yet keener set in his determination for being thwarted, he drew back into the shadows and waited.
From where he stood by the marble bench no sound came to him save the chirring of insects in the grass, the squeak of a bat or twitter of a sleepy bird. One might never have thought the place to be in the heart of a house whose inmates numbered five hundred souls and more, so still it was, so seemingly remote from all human noise and tumult. The combined effects of the silence and the perfume of the many night-blooming plants made him drowsy; also his head was light from want of food. Every clump of bushes seemed suspicious; he began at last to hear footsteps in every sough of wind and creak of branch. But he set his teeth grimly, bound not to be beaten, fighting hard against sleep and overwhelming weariness. Yet what it meant for him should he, in spite of himself, fall asleep and be discovered there by Lady Varia's women, none knew better than he.
"She will come! She must come!" he muttered, and kept himself awake with that.
And she did come. After untold hours of waiting, during which he alternately dozed and started into uneasy watchfulness through sheer force of will, she came to him out of the scented darkness, walking slowly, with hands hanging straight at her sides, a slim figure dimly white. So suddenly did she appear that at first he did not move, believing himself still drowsing. But she stopped before him; and at once the world fell away from him, leaving him thought and memory of nothing but that she had come to him at his call and that they were alone together.
"I am here," she said, very low. "Didst call me, or did I dream it? And why?"
"Because I wanted thee!" he answered, and caught her hands and kissed them. His own hands shook as he drew her down upon the bench beside him; he dared not trust his voice to utter what was on his tongue. She sat beside him, leaving her hands in one of his, and he slipped his arm about her, unrebuked. In the darkness he could not tell whether or not her eyes were on him. Presently she spoke.
"Hast thou not a tale to tell to-night? Last night thou didst not come, and I was lonely. All the night I did not sleep. Now I am tired—so tired...."
Her voice drifted into silence. She yawned, quite openly, like a sleepy child, and leaned her head slowly back against his arm. Nicanor quivered from head to foot, and tightened his clasp about her. It was these innocent tricks of hers, these child ways, wholly trusting, without thought of guile, that made him mad for her, tempted him almost beyond endurance, and yet, in their very innocence, made themselves her strongest shield. She knew nothing, with that child's soul of hers, of the passion which shook him at her touch, which sent his hands hot when her fingers fluttered into his, and set his heart pounding in heavy throbs when, as now, she leaned her cheek above it. How should she know? Her mind was a child's mind, unawakened, even though her body was a woman's body, fragrant cup of the mystic wine of life, abounding in sweet allurements of which she knew not the smallest meaning.
"I would have another tale!" she said at length, imperiously, and raised her head to look at him in grieved surprise that her command should be so slighted. But Nicanor drew her back to him, lifting both her cool palms to his burning face.
"Ah, lady mine!" he said, "the only tale I have to tell thee, I may not utter. None other have I to-night; my heart is big with it, my brain reels with it, but my lips must e'en be dumb. And yet—I know that thou wouldst listen; that what I might say would echo in thy heart forever and a day. Then why should I not say it? Why, if the thorns be not strong enough to guard, should I not pluck the rose?"
He gathered her more closely into his arms, drinking the perfume of her hair, the warmth of her, into every fibre of his being. She lay quiet, her head thrown back against his shoulder, great eyes wide open in the darkness, resting easily as a bird in its nest against his strength.
"Because the rose is too fair and fragrant for common hands to pluck." Nicanor's voice grew to a hushed intensity, as though he argued with himself a point gone over many times before, yet never wholly gained—what higher manhood there was in him contending with temptation innocently offered, striving against lawless passion and desire. "Now it is but a half-blown bud, this rose, knowing nothing of the perils which beset all roses in all gardens, lady mine, hiding the golden heart of it in shy, half-open leaves. Some day a high-born stranger will enter the garden, and the gardener will point to this his rose, and say: 'Look you, friend, at the fair flower I have nurtured here. I have tended it well, kept from it frost and blasting heat, watered it, let the sun to shine upon it. Now it is ready for the plucking—take you it.' Then the stranger will pluck the rose, and will watch it unfold, petal by petal, until all the beauty of it is laid bare. And gardener nor stranger will ever know that one was in the garden there before them, with his hand upon the rose's stem and his breath upon the rose's heart."
Varia stirred and brushed a hand across his lips.
"But that is not a tale!" she said plaintively. "Or if it be a tale, it is a sad one. The poor rose! It may be that it wished to stay within the garden, and not be plucked to fade away and die. I had not thought of that before! Never will I pluck a rose again; I will let it live where the gardener plants it. I thought it pretty to pluck them and smell them, and watch the leaves all fall; I did not know I killed them! Sometimes I think that people do not know when they kill roses. Now tell another tale, I pray thee! Tell that tale of when thou and I lived long and long ago, and of how we met in that other world which is gone. That tale I love the best of all."
"Of how we met—" Nicanor repeated absently. Again his mood had changed, as always in her presence. When away from her, with but the memory of her face, her innocent wiles, her passiveness under his caresses, passion had its way with him, blinding him, rendering him desperate, careless of consequences. But when with her, that very innocence of hers wrought its own spell upon him, taming and stilling him with an awe which he but half understood. Curiously, this chastened mood left him invariably sullen and surly, after the manner of a beast which sulks at having missed its kill.
"Of how we met?" he said again. "So then. Once thou and I lived very long ago. Ages and ages ago it was, when the world was young, and only the moon and the stars were old. None walked upon the earth save we two, and the world and its beauty was for us alone. Dusky forests covered all the land, where strange birds sang and great flowers grew. Wild beasts roamed these forests with us, but we walked among them unafraid, for they knew not that they could harm us. Beneath the sunken light of old scarred moons we wandered hand in hand; and day by day I told that tale to thee I dare not tell thee now, and there was none to hinder me.
"Canst dream of a world all happiness, my lady, a world without shadow of sorrow or cloud of care, with nothing but happy sunshine and the songs of birds? That world was our world. And in it we were free, we two, free to wander where we would, free as the winds that called us. Who may know freedom as do those who walk in chains? We knew not then the measure of this our freedom, for we had known no thraldom of flesh nor spirit. Therefore the high gods decreed that we should be brought to know the greatness of their gift, by losing it; that in our lives to come we should be bound, and bound remain until we knew what we had lost. Thy bonds sit upon thee lightly, yet in thine eyes I read that they are there. And I—I am learning fast what freedom means. In the shade of great trees which upheld the very floor of heaven we rested, thou and I, and saw the wide earth smiling in warm golden noons. It was then thy hands first learned to cling to mine"—he raised her hands and kissed them—"it was then thy head first leaned above my heart—ay, even so long since, in the beginning of the world. Down all the after ages it hath been the same; somewhere, somehow, we met; and each time of our meeting there came to us a memory of dear dead days long gone, forgotten until a breath from dim gardens where we wandered blew to us from the past. Oh, but those days were long, each one a jewel of flame and azure, strung on the golden chain of Time; and the nights were long, and warm, and clear, and perfumed as thy hair. Our food was fruit and the nuts I gathered; our wine the waters of clear brooks which thou drankest from my hands. Ferns, deep and fragrant, made our couch."
He stopped abruptly.
"As my soul liveth, I can tell no more!" he said, and his voice was shaken. "Sweet lady o' mine, urge me not, for thine own sake! Thou dost not understand—how shouldst thou? Any tale I'll tell thee—any tale save a tale of thee and me."
"That is the tale which I will have," said Varia, drowsily.
Nicanor smothered an exclamation.
"Child, canst not see that my hands tremble, that I burn with fever, and am scarce master of myself?" His tone quickly changed and softened. "There, then, I will not frighten thee! Only ask me not to try my strength beyond its limit with that tale I taught thee to love and long for—"
"Then I shall go," said Varia, with no smallest understanding of his cry, and rose from the bench. But Nicanor was quicker than she. He caught her hand and turned her half around to face him.
"Nay, I'll not let thee go!" he said unevenly. "The hour is mine, and the night is mine—and I cannot let thee go!"
She sat down once more upon the bench, passively submissive as a child to its elders' will. Nicanor dropped on one knee on the grass beside her, his arms across her lap, his hands prisoning one of hers. His deep voice lowered to a note of lingering tenderness that thrilled like the strings of a harp gently touched.
"Oh, light of all the world to me!" he said softly. "If I but dared tell thee of the thoughts that are mine, and the madness that is mine, and the punishment for them that is mine also! Wouldst understand? Ay, truly, I think so! For I'd tell it so that the deaf trees, that whisper always and hear not—ay, and the very winds of heaven, could not help but know the meaning of my words."
She put her free hand to his face, upturned to hers, and stroked it.
"Thou poor one!" she said with gentle pity. "Is it that thou art ill to-night? Thy face burns hot, like fire. Is all well with thee?"
Nicanor suddenly bowed his head forward on her knees.
"Nay," he answered huskily. "It is not well."
She sat a moment, her hand resting idle on his rough black head.
"I am sorry!" she said then, simply. "Is there—is there aught that I could do? When my lord father is ill, he will have me sometimes to stroke his head, to ease the pain. Wilt thou that I should stroke thy head also?—Nay, do not move! See, I will touch it so, and so, and soon thou shalt be cured."
She bent over him, as he leaned against her, her soft hands slowly stroking his forehead with touch as light as the brushing of a rose-leaf. Nicanor stood it as long as he could. Then he crushed her hands in his, and kissed them passionately, many times, and rose to his feet.
"Dear little hands, that would cure all the pain and sorrow of the world an they might! They have healed me, sweet, and made me sane—ay, and wounded deeper than they healed! Go now, quickly, dear heart, while I have courage and will to say it."
"But—" she began, hesitating. He interrupted, fiercely.
"Go, child, go! Or I'll not give thee the chance again!"
"But thy head—" she persisted.
"It is cured," he answered. As she turned away, surprised at his sudden brusqueness, he took a step beside her.
"Hast heard that thy lord father will leave Britain for Rome?" he asked abruptly.
"Leave Britain? But it is not so!" she exclaimed. "Why should he do that? He would not leave without me, and I—I will not go. I will stay here; I will not go to Rome! And thou,—" she came closer to him,—"wilt thou come to-morrow and tell me tales? Last night I waited for thee, and when thou didst not come I was lonely. Do not let me be lonely again, I pray thee!"
Nicanor looked at her for a time.
"Ay," he said finally, in a hushed voice. "I will come."
She turned from him and started across the grass. He watched her, and his hands slowly clenched. She looked back once over her shoulder, her face glimmering white in the starlit darkness. It was enough. In a stride he was after her; in a heart-beat she was in his arms, her face hidden against his breast.
"I love thee—I love thee!" he whispered hoarsely. "Heart of mine, that is the tale I dared not tell! A tale of three words, three little words, which yet is longer than any tale that ever was said or sung. Dost understand, dear heart, what that must mean to thee and me?"
She drew herself away from him with her hands against his breast.
"You love me," she repeated, not questioningly, but as one making statement of a fact. "Ay, I understand that. Why should I not?" Her voice grew tenderly solemn. "'Where thou art, Caius, there am I, Caia; and thy people shall be my people' ... that is when one loves."
Nicanor cut her short with an exclamation.
"Ay, that is when happy other men and women love!" he said bitterly. "But not for such as thou and I. For us, beloved, it means that where thou art, there I may not be; that all men, all circumstance, would strive to part us, since the world will have it that high blood may not mate with lowly."
"But why?" she asked. Her voice was wondering. "If two people love, is not that enough?"
"'If two people love,'" Nicanor repeated. He drew her back into his arms and turned her face upward to the stars and to his eyes. "Beloved, I have said I love thee with a love that must last through life and death and all that lies beyond. So, since I am what I must be, I have placed my life within thy hands for good or ill. Thou sayest 'If two people love.' Dost thou then love me?"
She raised her head and looked full at him.
"Ay, surely I love thee," she answered. "Thou hast told me tales so strange and wonderful that none were ever like them in the world before. And thou hast been kind to me, nor ever scolded, nor called me fool, as does my lord father when I have displeased him. Does not one always love those who are kind to one? It is the least that one can do, I think. And yet ... I do not know. What is this love thou hast?"
"The most terrible thing in the world, and the sweetest," Nicanor answered, his eyes on hers. "It is a chain that binds life to life, and the links of the chain are drops of heart's blood. It is pain from which one would not seek relief. Men have called it a flower, beloved, but it is no flower, for flowers wither in a little space, and die, and love hath eternal life. Ay, for it is eternal; and death, to it, is but a moment in the dark."
Varia caught her breath with a smothered sob.
"Ah, but I do love thee when thou talkest so!" she whispered. "Often I cannot understand thy words, but I can feel them, here,—" she clasped her hands above her heart,—"and sometimes they make me glad, and sometimes sorry, and sometimes they frighten me, and I do not at all know why. But always I long to hear more. They make me to want things I have not got, to know things I do not know, for I am very foolish. Oh, thou wizard of the silver tongue!" She raised both hands to his temples, and he could feel that her fingers shook. "Play not with me for the sake of thy sport, I pray thee! Ay, I am very foolish,—I know it,—for I may not understand how such things be; but thy speech leads me as a nurse leads her child by the hand, and I am afraid, because I cannot understand whither thou wouldst have me go."
"Play with thee! Beloved, it is no play to me," Nicanor answered. "I'd give thee all my life and soul, as I've given thee my heart, could I but keep from thee a moment's fear or sorrow." He bent his head and kissed her snowy eyelids. "Whatever God or gods there be that men may pray to, may they have thee, lady mine, in their holy keeping. Whoever they may be, I give thanks that this night they guarded thee—or was it the veil of thine own white innocence around thee?—for this night hath a beast been held at bay."
He let her go, and stood watching hungrily as she slipped away from him across the grass. Over the surrounding walls of the villa a faint gray mist came stealing. The song of the insects had died, and the world hung silent, awaiting the mystery of the day. The trees and bushes of the garden massed themselves into denser shadow against the tinge of ghostly light. From somewhere, far away, a cock crew, and another answered.
Nicanor listened until the faint click of a closing window reached him. Suddenly he buried his face in his hands and stood an instant motionless, a dark and sombre figure in the gray loneliness of dawn. Before the light had gathered strength for him to be more than a moving blot among the shadows, he pulled himself together with a quick shake of his shoulders, and vanished amid the tangle of vines and shrubbery that hid the little garden door.
PAWNS AND PLAYERS
PAWNS AND PLAYERS
The lord Eudemius, covered with tawny leopard skins, lay stretched on a couch of carven ebony in the library of the villa, of which the windows overlooked the great central courtyard. He was a tall man, spare, with black, sombre eyes, a high nose, and a wiry black beard, close clipped. His hands, long and white and nervous, held a scroll which he kept slowly unwinding and letting roll together again. His face was remarkable for nothing save its complete impassivity; devoid of all expression, it was merely a mask behind which the man kept locked his real self and thoughts. A dish of fruit stood on a stand at his elbow. With him in the room sat Livinius, the father of Marius, making notes with a stylus on a tablet of ivory coated with wax. The face of Livinius was grave, yet eager. He began to speak presently, as though continuing a conversation which had gone before.
"Rome has often needed gold, and has wrung it from the people mercilessly; but I tell you, Eudemius, that her need was never greater than in this hour. Ay, and not gold alone she must have, but brains to plan for her, hands to work for her, blood to be spilled for her. You, yourself, friend, have been soldier, senator, statesman. You know, as I know, and as every Roman in his soul must know, that the core of the trouble lies in the fact that she hath gathered in more than her two hands could hold. I would not see her other than she is,—mistress of the world; but I would first see her in a position to maintain that title in the face of all challenge. And she is not in such position. Outwardly, she hath all show of might, of force invincible and impregnable. But behind this, what is there? The weakness of dissension, where there should be solidarity; division of interests, where nothing can save but union; rottenness, where there should be wholesomeness and vigor. This is not treason I speak, but truth. We have served her in field and forum, you and I; we have offered our blood on her altars; we shall both carry the marks of her service until we die. And she hath paid us well. Now I am worn out, useless, and cast aside; she has taken all she would from me, even my son. But you, old friend, have still what she needs to offer. She needs gold; but more than that, she needs one, powerful as you are powerful, to come forward and point to more timid ones the way. When she enters her own once more, she will repay your loan with interest, for that hath ever been Rome's way. I tell you, Rome in these days is like a sinking ship, from which the rats scurry in swarms, to stand aside and wait to see if there be prospect of a safe return. Here, overseas, you get but an echo of the truth. Every day the call goes out for more troops, and more."
Eudemius nodded thoughtfully.
"So the Third Legion is to be recalled from Gaul to Rome. It is what may be expected, but I had not thought so soon. Their plans have been kept well secret. AEtius will soon not have men enough for himself, not to speak of sending over men to our assistance. I suppose your son goes with them? It must be all of ten years since I saw him last."
"He hath changed," the father answered quietly. "Yes, he goes, and I go with him. Come thou with us, friend! What has Rome done to thee that thou shouldst not answer to her need? Now, if ever, is the time when her sons must rally to her, for with all her faults—and she hath many—she is still the mother of them all. I know well that it was within her walls that thy trouble fell upon thee; but was she to blame for that?"
Eudemius's dark face never changed from its graven inscrutability, but his thin hands clutched the scroll tighter and let it fall. Livinius eyed him tenderly.
"Is not the old wound healing, even yet?" he asked with great gentleness. For a moment silence fell. Then Eudemius, stooping from the couch to pick up the fallen roll, said in his hard and even voice, as though he discussed matters of small moment and everyday concern:
"Healing? Nay, how should it heal when each day fresh salt is rubbed into it? Take a look at it now, if you will, for hereafter we'll let it bide and rankle as it must. Tell me; have not your eyes seen changes, mental as well as physical, concerning which your lips have not questioned?"
"Changes? in you?" said Livinius, dropping into the other's more distant tone. "Ay, that is true, and my heart aches to see them. That is another reason why I urge your return to Rome. New scenes, new faces—your life is broken, yet a broken pitcher may be mended."
"True," Eudemius admitted evenly. "But who expects it to hold water again? Is it not rather placed upon the shelf and forgotten—if, indeed, it be not flung upon the rubbish-heap?"
"But think of this—" Livinius persisted. Eudemius broke in.
"Ay, I have thought of this and that, and this is all it comes to!" he said harshly. "That when I am gone, my name, blazoned in the annals of Rome before great Caesar was, must dwindle out to nothing with a weak girl. It came to me great, unstained, heavy with memories of soldiers, heroes, statesmen, who had borne it worthily and left it clean for their sons and their sons' sons. I made it the name of wealth as well as of greatness; I thought to hand it down to my sons and my sons' sons, as the fires of Vesta are handed down from one generation to the next. A son I prayed for—what any sodden carter is judged worthy to beget; a male child to uprear in the traditions of his house, to add, an he might, his share to the glory of it. A son to serve Rome as his fathers served. And what was born to me? A puling fool, not worthy even to breed her kind into the world. Were she blessed with wit, she might mate with one worthy of her blood and keep her name thus from complete extinction. As it is—what man would have her to bear him mindless brats? Who would become sire to a race of idiots?"
Livinius scratched the wax of his tablet absently, and rubbed his finger over the mark.
"I have wondered often why you never married again," he remarked, tentatively. "It is fifteen years since Constantia's death; surely in that time you might have found a woman to become the mother of your sons."
"True, I might," Eudemius admitted, coolly. "But those fifteen years ago, through mine own folly and hatred of life after that double blow of her death and knowledge of the girl's condition,—for it was a blow, Livinius, since I was not then the wooden image of to-day,—there fell on me the judgment of the gods for such rebellion as mine." He turned his sombre eyes full on Livinius. "Would you believe, to see me as I sit here, that mine is a body racked by the tortures of the damned, drained of the very sap of life by disease that eats into every nerve and leaves it raw and quivering, yet that only numbs when its fury is spent, and will not kill? That time after time, when its throes are on me, I have turned craven and begged Claudius for a potion to end it all?" He laughed shortly, with no sound of merriment. "I marry again—a rotten hulk fit only for carrion!"
Livinius listened, shocked.
"Oh, my dear!" he exclaimed in honest sympathy, "is it indeed thus with thee? And I had thought of thee entering the harbor of thy rest, wealthy, honored, reconciled, perhaps, to what the gods in their wisdom had ordained for thee, to end thy days in quiet and content. For fifteen years, thou sayest. Man, how hast thou lived to tell it?"
Eudemius smiled, a smile which began at his lips and ended there, leaving his bitter eyes unlightened.
"Ay, fifteen years—and yet not so bad as that!" he said shortly. "Or it would have been well over with me by now. But I have known from the first what lay ahead. I won it from Claudius,—poor fool, how he trembled to tell me!—knew that each attack must be more severe than the one before; that each day the disease would stride forward a slow inch, no more, and no human skill might advance it or hold it back." His harsh voice sank a note lower. "At such times, when that grip closes upon me, I know not what I do. Rather, I know, yet am powerless to act otherwise. I tell thee, Livinius, I have had slaves flogged, ay, tortured, before my eyes, to see if by chance I might find suffering greater than mine own. And if they died, I have had tortured those who let them die, for it is not death I want, but what I have found to be worse than death. Judge then if I were not better out of the world! Yet the only way of release open to me I will not take, since I have not yet lost courage enough to brand myself a coward. I have told Claudius, on pain of death for disobedience, that no matter how I cry to him for peace, he shall pay no heed. Strange, is it not, that in this house the only happy thing is the cause of all the sorrow that hath entered it? And yet—perhaps it is not so strange. She is but the cause; on others fall the effects, ... and in their wisdom the gods have ordered that only effects shall count in their scheme of things."
He put a hand over Livinius's hand, held it a moment, and let it go. For the first time he fell into the intimacy of the other's speech.
"Thank thee, old friend, for thy sympathy. It is not often that the gall of my bitterness overflows, for I have learned the wisdom of the Stoic at first hand. But I can claim scant sympathy here,—and would not if I could,—where men call me the Torturer behind my back and cringe like curs before my face. I am hard and cruel and calloused to the bone; yet were I not thus, in the name of the high gods, what should I be? A thing lower than man, who can be lower than the beasts; from which gods and men—ay, and beasts themselves—would turn in loathing. Thou art my childhood's friend; thy sympathy hath been sweet to me, and I've bared my heart to thee. I have said: 'The world runs thus and so with me; were it in my power, I'd have it otherhow. As it is, no good will come of its discussion, so let there be an end to it, now and for all time.'"
A quick step sounded on the marble floor; the curtains at the entrance parted, and Marius came in. He went clad in spotless white, which oddly accentuated his bulk and made his swarthiness darker by contrast. He stopped short at sight of the two apparently in earnest conversation.
"Pardon!" he said easily. "I was told that I should find my father here, but I intrude."
"Not at all!" Eudemius answered. "We had finished our talk, and it was over time we were brought back from the memory of other days."
Livinius smiled at his son as the latter sat down on the wide low ledge of the window, and his genial eyes were full of pride. Eudemius caught the look, and his own eyes darkened, even though the mask of his face never changed. This indeed was a son of whom one might be proud—a son such as he himself should have had but for the mockery of the gods; a son strong of mind and body, able to hold his own against all men, to assume the burdens that one by one slipped from his father's shoulders. There was hint of dissipation in the clear-cut face; there was more than a trace of headstrong will, which might easily enough turn to sheer brutality against whoever crossed it. There was hardness, and small tenderness, in the firm jaw and the black keen eyes; but what Roman father could not condone such things as these? For to Roman eyes, all this went to spell strength; and Romans worshipped strength as Athenians worshipped beauty. And Marius was strong, so that Eudemius, who was strong also, with the most unbreakable strength of all, and could appreciate mere physical vigor the more since his own had gone from him, looked at him and envied the father of him with bitterness.
"To-day I go on to Londinium," Marius said, gazing out into the sun-flecked courtyard. "Will you wait here, father, for me? To-morrow I shall return, or next day at most—the business will not take long." He turned to Eudemius with an explanation. "There is trouble about one of the transports which are assigned to my cohort for our return to Gaul. She has been discovered unseaworthy and in need of repairs, and may not be able to start with the rest of the fleet. This is doubly inconvenient, as there is small prospect of securing a vessel to take her place, and our orders are to sail for Gaul with as little delay as possible. So much misunderstanding and confusion has resulted, that I have been sent to report personally what are the chances for a start."
"That is too bad," Eudemius said. He was looking at Marius at the moment, and Marius was looking beyond him into the court. Eudemius saw that all at once his face changed slightly, and his eyes awoke to a faint, curious interest. Eudemius knew that nothing in his words could have aroused this, and waited. Then he understood that Marius was watching some one outside in the courtyard; some one whose approach he could gauge by following the man's glance. The some one came to the door that opened on the court, and stopped there, and Eudemius glanced aside and saw Varia on the threshold. At the same instant Marius rose.
She wore robes that flowed and yet were clinging, of faintest green, like the young shining leaves of springtime; and her skin glowed and her lips were crimson, and her hair was loose and tumbled. She held a ball in her hands, and stood in the doorway, hesitating, like a child who does not know whether or not it will be welcomed, and yet would like to enter and find out what was going on. In her pose there was a quaint and tender dignity, in odd contrast with her rumpled hair and the childish plaything in her hands. Eudemius looked at her; and for a single instant the veil of prejudice was lifted from his eyes, and he saw that, in spite of all, this child of his was fair,—as fair as the dear dead woman who had given her to him and lived to know what she had done. For that instant hope rose in him; he shot a glance at Marius and read the dawning admiration in his eyes; perhaps, after all, in some not too distant time, there might be—Then he realized the futility of such hopes, that had wakened and died so many times before. Marius did not know the truth. When he did know—He saw that Varia did not look at either of the others, but straight at him, and he spoke to her.
"Come hither, child!"
She came, docile, and stood near the foot of his couch. With her there seemed to enter a breath of pure fragrance, as of wind blowing softly among unspoiled, wild flowers of the country-side, of all things young and innocent and holy. Livinius's face softened as he looked at her. She waited, watching her father, expecting nothing. Always he had given her nothing to expect, neither unkindness nor affection. Eudemius looked at Livinius; from him to Marius, where he stood in the window, silent, dominant even in his silence.
"And this is mine!" he said, with a motion of his hand toward Varia. Livinius, alone understanding all that his words and tone implied, gave him a glance of mute reproach. He took Varia's hand, as she stood near him, and patted it.
"I am glad to know thee, dear child," he said gently. "Thy father I have known these many years, but thou wert a little baby when I saw thee last. Perhaps he has not told thee that I am a friend of his, and this is my son."
And Varia, for the first time, looked into Marius's face, and smiled, saying nothing at all. She sat on the edge of the couch, the ball in her lap.
"Where have you been, child?" Eudemius asked.
"In the garden, playing ball. I am going to play again," she answered, and never thought to wonder why he frowned.
But Marius came over to the couch.
"Will you let me play also?" he asked, with a faint note of amusement in his voice. "Perhaps I can show you a game you do not know, which soldiers play in camp. When they have no ball, like yours, they take a lump of bread, that is round, and very hard, and will keep for months without spoiling, and they play with that."
Varia jumped up.
"I should like that!" she said eagerly. "I cannot show you any game, for I know none that are interesting; but I can learn yours!"
The two went out into the courtyard, side by side. Livinius said, in his gentle voice:
"She is a dear child."
And Eudemius answered:
"She is a bad bargain dearly bought," and turned his face away from the window.
Varia wearied of the new game shortly, and sat down beside the fountain to rest, with a frank intimation that her companion might go back to the house. This he showed no intention of doing, but threw himself on the grass beside her, and set himself the task of making her talk. He studied her curiously; he had seen much of many women in many lands, but none who were quite like her. Her utter simplicity was baffling; artificial himself, brought up in a civilization which was artificial, he could not get it out of his mind that it was not a pose. Very soon he got her mental calibre; with it got also certain surprises. She was all-innocent; yet, at times, when she sat with hands clasping her knees and looked past him, without speech or motion, as regardless of him as though he had not been there, he caught a hint in her eyes of something he could not read. It was as though she struggled to recall a memory of something gone by,—something sweet yet unholy which she did not understand, would not ask about, and could not forget. And, at other times, in the midst of her childish prattle, she would say what would make him glance at her strangely, in a voice like hers, yet whose subtle intonations were not like hers. Also, he had not found many women who were at times as honestly regardless of him as though he had not been there. With all her contrarieties he found her merry, full of a primitive joy of life, touched only at moments with a haunting mystery which to his mind but added to her charm. Her laughter bubbled over as water from a spring; she was careless, thought-free, light-hearted. For it is only those who remember nothing that regret nothing; and Varia had neither remembrance nor what it brings.