He held the door ajar, and pushed the girl through, and closed it, but in the lock there was no key. Hito sneered.
"Clever lad! 'Go to your room and lock yourself in!' Hast thought what will happen when she must come out? 'See what our lord has to say to such doings!' Hast thought that what he will say will be through me? What else didst tell the girl? Answer, son of an ill-famed mother, or the rack shall question for me!"
Nicanor said nothing. His ears strained for approaching footsteps, but the walls were thick, and many had cried for help before and none had heard them. He had no plan; he had given the girl what chance he could, and it was all that he could do. If she could not help herself—well, there would be one more to cross the threshold of fate. His only thought was to give her what time he could. Let her once get away from the house, and over the frozen ground it would be hard to find her trail until morning.
Hito took it in his head to make a dash. He started for the door, shouting at the top of his lungs for help. Nicanor barred his passage, silent and inexorable. He did not raise hand against Hito, but stood like a rock against the fat one's futile pummellings. For to strike a superior meant, for a slave, instant and lawful death. Hito would none the less maintain that he had been struck, but Nicanor could not help that. So that Hito battered until his fists were sore; and Nicanor stood and took it silently, with set jaws and eyes gleaming like a wolf's in his dark face. He could not hope to keep Hito there much longer. The latter, wearied at length and puffing, sat on the edge of that grim bridal bed and cursed Nicanor by all the evil gods. After this, when his invention gave out, he fell silent and sat and stared at the tall figure that guarded the door, with his little eyes half closed. But quite suddenly those eyes flew wide with astonishment. For the figure against the door had begun to sway from side to side, gently and rhythmically, with a low mutter of incoherent words. Hito looked again, somewhat startled. The slave's face was set and blank; his eyes stared straight ahead and were dull and without lustre.
"The gods save us!" Hito muttered, watching uneasily. "Hath the man a fit?"
"See them coming!" said Nicanor. His finger pointed here and there, and in spite of himself, Hito's eyes followed it. "Bright maidens, flower-crowned, robed in gauze. Ah, flee not, sweet ones!" He stretched his hands imploringly. "Whence come ye, from the mist? See the mist, how it rises, full of dreams which are to come to men. Are ye dreams, ye radiant ones? No, for ye do not vanish. Ha! I have thee, lovely nymph! and thou shalt find my arms as strong to hold as the gods' from whom thou camest. Unveil thyself, sweet, and let me see thy face. It should be fair, with so fair a form. So—thou thinkest to escape and fly from me?"
He sprang forward, hands outstretched, almost upon Hito, who turned with a yelp of alarm, and dodged. Nicanor started back as one in sudden surprise.
"Ha, Julia, sweet friend!" he cried. "Who sent thee here to me, with thy scarf of gold and pearl, thy raven locks and thy dewy lips, with bells upon thine ankles, and a tambour in thy hand? See, our lord cometh! Let us dance for him that perhaps we may find favor in his sight."
Standing in front of Hito he began to dance, his hands hanging limp at his sides, his face utterly without expression. Hito gasped.
"What hath come to thee?" he quavered. "Fool—come to thy senses before thou art flogged back to them."
"Dance with me, sweet maiden!" said Nicanor; and suddenly caught Hito's fat and helpless hands in his lean brown ones and danced down the length of the room with him. Perforce, since he could not struggle free, Hito ran alongside, dragging back unwillingly, his face gray with fright. At the end of the room Nicanor turned and danced back again, dragging his captive.
"Dance, fair Julia, dance!" he cried; and in his gyrations brought without warning his nail-spiked sandal down on Hito's foot. Hito bellowed and danced upon one foot with pain, and once dancing, found that he could not stop.
"Let me go!" he panted, furious. "Slave—thou madman—let me go, I say! I do not wish to dance—I will not dance!"
"Not when our lord commands it?" cried Nicanor, breathing hard himself. "Why, then, I do not wish to dance either. But since he saith 'Dance,' dance I must, and so must thou, sweet girl!"
"I am no girl!" shrieked Hito, haled off down the room again. "I am Hito, and I command that you stop!"
"Now why give me lies like that?" said Nicanor. "Have I not eyes which have long hungered for thy beauty? Do I not know thee, Julia the dancing girl?"
"Thou art mad in very truth! Good Nicanor—sweet Nicanor—let me go, and I'll swear to keep between us this tale of thy doings!"
Nicanor answered nothing. Always his face was blank, but his grip on Hito's wrists was iron. Up and down the room he went, leaping, dancing; and up and down went Hito after him, struggling, sobbing for breath, his unwieldy bulk trembling with fright and weariness. When his steps slackened, through sheer inability to keep up, Nicanor, with a bound forward, dragged him after, so that, to save himself from falling on his face, he bounded also, on his fat legs, with explosive grunts of breathlessness.
Without warning Nicanor increased his speed and danced faster. He also was panting hard, the strain of towing two hundred odd pounds of unwilling flesh being great. His arms and shoulders shone with sweat; on his forehead his hair was plastered and damp.
"Julia, Julia," he cried, "I pray you stop! I can dance no more. Thou art trained to this work, but I—I faint with weariness. Though our lord flay me, I can dance no more!"—and danced the faster.
"Stop! I stop!" gasped Hito, purple in the face. "Deae matres! Am I not trying to stop? Stop thyself, or I die! I am exhausted—I have no breath—have a little pity—Oh, nay, nay, I did not mean it! It is as thou sayest, of course! I—was wrong—to thwart thee! I will do whatever thou sayest, if thou wilt let me go! I—I do not think our lord—likes to see—such rapid motion. It maketh his head to swim. I, Julia, pray thee, not—quite—so fast!"
He lurched and nearly fell, and Nicanor jerked him up again. There was the noise of a door being opened. Nicanor knew it must be the door leading to the passage, since the other was locked. He dropped Hito, who crumpled into an abject heap upon the floor, past speech or motion, and went on dancing by himself. From the tail of his eye he saw Wardo the Saxon and Quartus enter and stand gaping, dumb with amazement. Hito shook his fist at them from the floor and stuttered. When breath enough had entered into him, he screamed at them.
"Bind me this madman! He hath a devil in him. Hold him, I say, until I can speak!"
"Why, he's mad!" said Wardo, staring in awe at Nicanor, who, expressionless, danced invincibly.
"Thou sayest!" Quartus agreed, and stared also. "What hath seized him? Here, lad, what means all this? Stop thy prancing and say what thou hast done to our lord Hito, here."
But Nicanor answered nothing, and danced.
"Chain him!" wheezed Hito. "Stop him, or I shall go mad, also, with looking at him! I'll have him strung by the thumbs for this!"
And so it had been done, instantly, madness or no madness, since Hito's word was law, and Hito was very wrathful, but that interruption came from a quarter least expected. A tall figure blocked the open doorway, and a deep voice said:
"What is the meaning of all this?"
Every slave knew it for the voice of their lord's guest, and every slave wheeled and crossed his arms before his face, and wondered what their lord's guest should be doing there,—every slave except Nicanor, who still danced doggedly. It would have needed a quick eye to see that his step had faltered, if never so slightly.
"This fellow hath a devil, lord!" said Hito, with an effort at coherency. "Me he did force to dance until I am no better than dead. He called me Julia and made me to dance with him so that my life fainted in me. He is mad—most mad—and I will have him strung—"
Marius looked at Nicanor, and in his face was recognition and a merciless triumph. He broke Hito's speech midway.
"Who is this fellow?"
"Lord, he is called Nicanor," said Hito. "And he is mad—"
Again Marius's face changed, back to its former haughty calm, in which was mingled a certain satisfaction.
"So—Nicanor, is it? I have seen men seized this way before." He spoke to Hito, but his eyes were on Nicanor. "Most commonly it is the effect of over-severe discipline, but it may be that there are other causes. Then if he is mad, friend Hito, it might be better not to slay him lest the gods take vengeance for him upon you. Were it not best to take him to the dungeons? So, you may see how long this madness of his will last; and when it is past will be the time to punish." His tone assumed sudden authority. "Look to it that you harm him in no manner, but hold him fast where you may deliver him at your lord's word. It will be your life for his life—remember that."
He gathered his cloak about him and strode away, and the three looked after him with wonder in their faces. Hito was first to voice it.
"Our lives for his life, is it?" he grunted. "So, master slave, you would be important, it seems. What have you done now, that our lord's favorite should give such orders for you? You'll not cheat me for long—promise you that! A little while and he'll forget you; so my turn will come. Quartus, put the chains upon him and take him to the cells."
"Please you, we are told to harm him in no manner," Wardo ventured. Nicanor had done many a good turn to the fair-haired Saxon, as one comrade to another, and Wardo was not one to forget it. "Were he in chains, he would soon fret himself into worse raving, and likely do himself harm."
"Bring him without, then!" said Hito. The two seized Nicanor, and Wardo winked at him behind Hito's back, as the latter got painfully to his feet. Nicanor submitted, sullenly. He, who had trusted to no man save himself, was forced to pin what faith he might to the hint of succor that lay in Wardo's wink. And this was but a frail straw to trust.
They took him along a side passage behind the storerooms, down damp and slippery steps to the depths of the cellars. Here were the dungeons, half of masonry, half of living rock, whose walls glistened with slime where the torchlight fell upon them. They thrust him into the smallest of the cells, and left him.
The light of their torch was shut out with the slamming of the iron door; and darkness, dense and tangible, fell upon him in a reeking pall.
Nicanor spoke aloud, with a laugh that jarred on the heavy stillness.
"When friend Hito gains wind enough after his gambollings to remember that lean lady of his, she should be far enough away to snap her fingers at him. So, the rat is trapped at last. Now to see whether he can fight or no; for if he cannot, he'll have no chance to try again."
Then silence fell; and other rats, boldened by the darkness, began to come forth to peer at the intruder in their midst.
THE LORD'S DAUGHTER AND THE ONE WHO WENT IN CHAINS
THE LORD'S DAUGHTER AND THE ONE WHO WENT IN CHAINS
Marius rejoined Eudemius in his library.
"I have given command to have the slave Nicanor sent to the cells," he said. "It was he, as I have just found, of whom the Lady Varia spoke in the early evening. When we left the torture chamber, it is now two hours ago, I saw him in the passage outside, with another, a woman, I think. He put out the lamp in the passage, but I saw him first. It is as well to catch our bird before he flies, as without doubt he will now try to do, finding himself discovered, and keep him safely nested until we want him. He is a surly brute, but I know a way to get what we want out of him."
"And that is?" said Eudemius.
"Salt food and no water," said Marius curtly. "I have tried it before, in camp. We will let him recover from this so-called madness, first. But you said you would speak with me. I am at your command."
Eudemius shook his head.
"Not to-night," he said. "I am over tired, and it grows late. To-morrow, perhaps. Did the Africans tell me that the old man Marcus is dead?"
"They did," Marius answered, somewhat surprised at the question. "Undoubtedly he was mad, for never did I see such actions in a sane man."
"And you believe that the gods will take vengeance on me for having brought to pass the death of such a haunted one?" Eudemius asked unexpectedly.
"I did not say that," he answered. "Maybe they will, maybe not. If you believe that they will, it is probable that they will do so."
Eudemius laughed. As quickly he became grave once more.
"I had not meant to kill him! I was fond of him—I was even going to give him gold and have put upon him the pileus of a freedman, for he hath served me well. He had belonged to Constantia, my wife. Perhaps it was I who was mad to-night. Sometimes I have thought—I must ask Claudius if there is prospect of that—" He broke off. "Pardon! I forgot, and thought aloud. To-morrow I shall be myself, but to-night I am shaken. If you will excuse me, I shall leave you. The house is at your service, if you do not choose to retire yet. Summon Mycon—he shall fill Marcus's place—and give what commands you will."
"I think that I shall follow your example," Marius said, and stifled a yawn, "if you will tell me how to reach my rooms from here through these labyrinthine passages of yours. This part of the house I do not know well."
Eudemius looked at him in silence a moment, so that Marius thought he had not heard his question. He was about to repeat it, when Eudemius said:
"From this door go to your left, until you come to the gallery which runs along the northern, not the southern, end of the large court. Go down this to your right, and you will reach your own apartments. Vale!"
Marius took his leave, wishing his host good rest. He strolled through halls on which looked numberless rooms, furnished richly, warm and silent, waiting for the guests who never came. Not a servant was in sight; the silence of midnight wrapped the place in slumber. Lamps, swinging from tall standards or from the ceilings, shed a mellow light around; his feet pressed rich woven rugs which hid the mosaic pavements beneath. Around him was a golden perfumed stillness. He went more slowly, steeping his senses in the aroma of luxury.
"How a man might welcome his friends to such a house as this!" he muttered. "I can see them here around me—Fabian, Julius, Volux, all the rest. Ye gods, how the walls would echo! Now it all lies fallow, its wealth unknown, its treasures unseen. It should be used—ay, used to the very top notch of its value. Where is the use of paintings, marbles, rugs, halls, gardens, wealth such as this, with none to enjoy them all, save a dying man and a fair-faced fool?" His thin lips tightened. The seed Eudemius had planted was springing to lusty growth. "And they are mine, all mine, for the taking. By the soul of my mother, I will take them! I shall give feasts here such as Lucullus might have envied; I can win what legion and what station I will; whatever fields Rome hath left unconquered, I shall conquer for her. From the field I can reach the forum, with a name which without wealth I could never gain. The times are changing; it is time that men changed with them."
The words died upon his lips. He had reached a glass door, leading into the small room formed by the angle of the north and east galleries which flanked the court. This room, screened like the gallery, by glass walls from the outer air, was filled with plants, answering in some sort to a conservatory. Such rooms, used for different purposes and varied as to furnishing, were at all the angles of the galleries. Marius, looking through the half-open door, thought that the place seemed unfamiliar, and began to fear he had taken the wrong way. Yet he had followed closely the directions of Eudemius. He was about to turn back when his eye fell on some one asleep close by the window which overlooked the court.
"My lady herself, in very fact. This will be the second time I have waked her. Without doubt, Fate hath willed it so. What may she be doing here at this hour, without her women? Watched to see some one enter the court, perhaps, and dropped asleep. To see whom? Did she know, by chance, that I must pass this way from her father's rooms?"
He opened the door softly and entered. But the slight noise aroused Varia. She sat up, rubbing her eyes.
"Is it not late for such solitary communing, sweet friend?" Marius asked, approaching. He saw that she was in a plain robe of sheerest white, ungirdled; that her hair fell loose, undecked with jewels, that her feet were bare. "Perhaps you wait for some one?"
She sat on the edge of the couch, her hands clasped in her lap, betraying no smallest consciousness of the unconventionality of her appearance. Her white feet against the deep crimson of the rug held his eyes.
"Oh, no!" she said sweetly. "Besides, if I did, should I tell you?"
He found himself again in the attitude of treating her as a child; felt again his baffled perplexity at her glance, veiled and sidelong, which was not a child's glance.
He bent toward her. The time had come to crown his schemes of high ambition, and the gods had thrown opportunity in his way.
"Was it for me you waited?" he asked boldly. He was prepared for indignation, repulsion, anything except what followed. She dropped her eyes, leaning a trifle away from him.
"And—if it were?" she murmured. He stared an instant, and seized his chance.
"I should thank the gods and you, sweet one, and do my best to show appreciation," he said; and sat down on the couch beside her.
"But it was not!" she cried hastily, and moved farther away. In spite of himself Marius's lips twitched to a smile. As she retreated, he advanced.
"No? But it was I who came!" he said, his keen eyes on her. But her look did not falter. "You waited because the gods willed that I should come to you," he said, speaking rapidly, since she showed signs of nervousness. "And I have come, to plead my love, and to ask yours in return. Once before were we interrupted when I tried to speak; now the chance is mine at last. You shall anoint my door with wolf's fat and rule at my hearth as wife. Your father wishes it—he would be glad to see our love blossom into flower. Say, wilt thou love me, sweet?"
But Varia sprang to her feet, clasping her hands over her ears.
"Love—love!" she cried fretfully. "Nay, I have had enough of love!"
Marius laughed aloud.
"So, thou strange beauty? Maybe, but I have not. And I think there is still something left for thee to learn. Dost remember a game I was to teach thee once—a game which two can play?"
She interrupted him, standing poised as though for flight, her head on one side, a smile touching her crimson lips, her veiled eyes glancing sidewise into his.
"Nay—I remember?" she said with a rippling laugh. "Why now, how should I remember, my lord? Am I not a fool?"
His glance was somewhat taken aback.
"Fool or not, I love thee, pretty witch, and thou shalt be my wife."
She shook her head, and the laughter died from her face, leaving it startled.
"Thy wife? Wife to thee? Oh, no! I cannot be that!"
"Oh, yes! Thou canst and must and shalt be that! I'll not let thee go so lightly!" He advanced upon her, but she stretched out a white naked arm to full length, a finger pointing at him, and he stopped. Just why, he did not pause to think.
"Nay, my lord!" she said, and her voice took on the haunting tones which had so perplexed her father. "That I am not as other girls I know right well. Why, then, should my lord desire me for wife? Thou dost not love me. Were I thy wife, I must love thee, and I do not wish to love thee. I could say,—what are the words?—always and ever they are ringing in my heart,—'Where thou art, Caius, there am I, Caia,' with my lips as well as with my heart, but not to thee—oh, not to thee!" She flung out her arms with a gesture of sudden wild abandonment, and clasped them over her eyes. Her voice broke in a storm of tears. "Now—woe is me!—all I can say is 'Where art thou, Caius?' I have waited so long—so long!"
"But he is here at last," said Marius, and took her hand.
She wept softly, with hanging head, making no effort to get away.
"I will pray my lord father that he force me not to become wife to thee!"
"Thy lord father gives command that thou shalt become wife to Marius since he desires thee, and to no other man!" said Eudemius's voice behind them. Marius wheeled, as Varia gave a startled cry and wrenched her hand free. Eudemius came into the room, his face changed as no living soul had seen it changed until then.
"I feared that thou hadst not taken the right way back," he said to Marius, and there was a shade of significance in his tone. "Therefore—I came to see."
"Father, say I need not be wife to him!" cried Varia, bold in her terror.
"Why not?" Eudemius asked harshly. "What reason lies behind thy refusal?"
"I do not know!" she stammered. "I know only that I would not wed with him. I love him not—"
"Love! what hath love to do with it? And what know you of love, little fool?" said Eudemius, with impatience.
Varia started forward, catching desperately at the straw.
"Thou hast said it!" she cried stormily. "I am fool—fool—fool—fit wife for no man! Who wants to wed a fool?"
"Be silent! I'll teach thee—" Eudemius exclaimed, but Marius interposed.
"Pray thee—father—leave the taming of this wild bird to me!" he said, and emphasized the word, and watched. He had judged subtly. Eudemius turned to him, his hands out, his stern face broken up and working. He patted Marius's shoulders with shaking hands, and leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead.
"My son—oh, my son, my son!" he cried.
But Varia, unnoticed of either, cast herself upon the couch and wept, her face hidden in its silken cushions.
Livinius came from his sickroom and joined them in a week, and was told the news. From his face it was apparent that he was pleased, and that in spite of all his words, the match would be very well to his liking. But when he got Marius alone, which was difficult, since Eudemius would scarce let his prospective son-in-law out of his sight, he spoke to him with all seriousness.
"It will be a great thing for thee, my son; thou canst carve out for thyself what career thou wilt. I am pleased; thou art pleased; Eudemius—why, for Eudemius, he is a changed man utterly."
"Truly, he is," Marius agreed. "Who could dream that behind that iron mask of his there dwelt such affection, such store of human kindness?"
"All for thee, lad," said Livinius. His tone, with all its pride, held a tinge of sadness. "It brings the water to my eyes to watch the new nature struggling in him with the old. He hath pinned all his faith and hope to thee. Be thou worthy of the trust."
"Ay, so I will," said Marius readily. He shook himself with a quick breath. "And the task will be no easy one, father mine. I do not feel myself at all a cuckoo stealing into a nest ready feathered. What I get I shall pay for, in degree, if not in kind. There will be three men's work in handling this estate."
"And the one who is most nearly touched in this?" said Livinius. "She whose poor little hands are weighted with the gold of which she knows nothing, whose child's head is filled with dreams in which thou hast no part?"
"Oh, Varia?" said his son. "I suppose it is no worse for her than for other women. She shall have all that I can give to content her. Father, it is a strange thing about that child. When I am away from her, I will own that her memory doth not linger over long with me. But when I am with her, she bewitches me. I know not what else to call it. Always I am trying to probe her; always I find myself foiled and baffled when I think that I have found the clew to her mystery. If ever she should waken from this state of hers.... At present she is angry, and I have not seen her for two days. That may be, but she forgets that soon it will not be for her to say whether I shall see her or whether not."
His lips tightened; in his dark eyes a yellow spark flashed and died. Livinius glanced at him, smiled, and held his peace.
It was even as Livinius had said. Eudemius was, if not a changed man, at least a changing one. Sombre his face would always be; Fate had bitten too deep for the scars ever to be smoothed away. But with the haunting fear removed that his name and fortune should fall into unworthy hands, he seemed to have shaken off ten years of nightmare trouble. His voice began to lose its bitter harshness; for the first time his slaves no longer trembled at his glance. His attitude toward Marius was curious—also, in view of his nature, touching. On Marius he lavished all the pride and tenderness of an adoring father to his son, and of both there was more than anyone had guessed. He worshipped Marius openly, gloried in him exultingly, and was fiercely and suppressedly jealous of Livinius's prior right. He hung on Marius's every word; shared his sports and hunting; tried to regain a moment of his lost youth that he might be a comrade as well as a father. At times a strange mood took him, when he, Eudemius the proud, became humbly grateful that Marius should be willing to mate with the ill-starred daughter of his house. In general they accepted each other on terms of complete equality. Each was receiving and conferring a favor; there was no debt on either side.
Marius found himself not in the least embarrassed by his superfluity of parents. He adjusted himself to the circumstances with tact and a sympathetic consideration which would scarcely have been expected of him. He managed the two fathers with consummate skill, divided his attentions honorably between them, and played the role of demigod to perfection. When Livinius and Eudemius were together, he was circumspect, careful lest he arouse parental jealousy on either side; but when he and Eudemius were alone, he cast aside restraint and called him "father" to Eudemius's heart's content. More and more the two came to lean on the ready strength of him; since it is the law of life that the old, for all their wisdom and the experience of their years, shall inevitably come to look for support and guidance to the young, who enter the lists unproven in all but strength.
Six months at least must elapse before Marius could lawfully claim what was already his in fullest measure. There were endless settlements to be made, for Eudemius was determined that nothing should be left undone which would assure the maintenance of his name and fortune. Marius's heirs must take the name, even as he himself must do; the gold and lands must be protected so far as human means might devise. Eudemius had lawyers from the famous law-school at Eboracum, and spent long hours in his library, poring over deeds and instruments. There must be an exact accounting of his estates in Britain and in Rome; houses, lands, personal effects, and slaves. Also, since an imperial alliance could have been effected with scarcely greater pomp and circumstance than Eudemius planned, six months was the shortest time in which the festivities could be arranged.
"While I live," said Eudemius, in one of their daily talks together, "I shall retain nominal control as head of the family. When you write Diis manibus over me, every denarius will belong to you and the heirs of your body forever. But should the gods of the shades claim me before you are legally my inheritor, all will revert to our lord the emperor as guardian of the girl, to be parcelled out among his minions, and there will be left nothing. Therefore my haste."
With this, Marius had entire sympathy. He also welcomed the speed with which the business was being put through. If Eudemius had changed, Marius was changing also. For no man can look on power well-nigh as limitless as any man below a sovereign may wield, knowing that power between his own hands for good or ill, and not become either a despot or a chastened man. And there comes a moment in the transition when it is doubtful which role will fit. Marius, in the natural course of events, had reached this stage. He was sobered at the prospect opening before him; withal his ambition was mounting by leaps and bounds. There seemed nothing which he could not do. He thrilled at the contemplation of the position which would be his; for he was human and Roman, and power, and still more power, was as the breath of life to his nostrils. And he thrilled again at the absolute confidence placed in his integrity by Eudemius; for he was honorable, and that his honor should remain untarnished as his sword was the only law to which he owned. But since this would generally serve all other purposes, it sufficed.
Over the marshes twilight was falling. The sun had set; the western sky was tinged with cold pale lemon; further, where the color faded into the dusky dome of night, hung a wan evening star. The land was snow-bound and desolate as far as the eye could see. The marsh-ford was glazed with a thin sheet of ice, through which, by the banks, clumps of black frozen reeds protruded. Through this ice, much broken by wheels, dark shallow water showed. On the other side of Thorney the river flowed sluggish and sullen, ice-bound along its banks. Midstream, making slow way to the island, a round clumsy coracle, such as were used by fishermen, was paddling, the only vessel abroad. In it sat two persons, the boatman and Eldris. She sat huddled forlornly in the coracle's bottom, shivering in her long black cloak.
Two carts creaked from the high-road down to the marsh-ford on the northern side of the island, and labored through, their drivers muffled to the eyes in cloaks with heavy hoods drawn close around their faces. On the island itself men appeared at intervals in the alleys between the houses. There were few camp-fires on the beach, showing that those who had come had nearly all found shelter within the houses. The air was keenly cold and very still, so that sounds carried clearly; but, unaccountably, there were few sounds. At this, the busiest time of the day, Thorney seemed strangely silent.
The coracle grounded gently on the beach, almost at the moment that the carts entered the ford on the opposite side of the island. Eldris stepped ashore, gave a bit of money to the boatman, who spat on it and cursed. She asked faintly:
"Canst tell me, friend, where might be the wine-shop of one Nicodemus?"
But the man, plainly considering that he had given good measure for the wage he had received, was surly.
"Near the end of this street that runs straight back from the beach to the other side," he answered briefly, and heaved his boat of bull's hide and wicker to his back, and went off, waiting for no further questioning. Eldris looked after him in half resentful reproach, and started up the street which cut across the island from ford to ford, walking slowly like one faint and weary from long continued exertion. In all the length of the street she saw no one who might direct her to the wine-shop. It was deserted, save for stray prowling dogs that nosed and shivered among heaps of refuse. Lights showed through chinks from behind closed doors of houses; there was a smell of cooking in the air; at times a low-pitched growl of talk or muffled boisterous laughter reached her.
Dusk was deepening fast and the cold was bitter. Eldris stumbled on toward the end of the street, her eyes searching the houses on either hand. When but three remained between her and the open strip of beach on the marsh side, she paused irresolute. One was a low and vulgar place, its door fast closed, no light to be seen about it. The second was a half burnt ruin, where cattle had been stalled. The third seemed of somewhat better class. It presented a blank wall to the street, broken only by a low and narrow door with a wicket, betraying nothing. Eldris, still hesitating, saw two carts, growing out of the gloom ahead, coming toward her. She heard the thud of the horses' feet on the frozen ground, the creak of wheels and straps, finally the voices of the drivers.
"Surely they will know this Nicodemus," she said, and started forward to hail them, when a word of one carter, shouted back to the other, a few yards to the rear, transfixed her where she stood and sent her shivering with fright as well as cold.
"Quicker, man, or we'll get no bed this night. Hito will have something to say to us for the hours we've been away, I'm thinking."
Swift terror seized on Eldris at the word. That there might be two Hitos in the country she never stopped to think. These were Eudemius's men; if they saw her, they would report to Hito at the house; she would be searched for, overtaken, and suffer the fate of captured runaway slaves. In a panic she fled back to the blank-walled house and beat upon the door.
Instantly it was opened. In her excitement she had time for no surprise at this, no feeling but relief that no time was lost. As the carters drew abreast of the door, she slipped within and slammed it shut.
"Well!" said the one who had opened. "What are you trying to do?"
"Pardon!" Eldris stammered. "There were men passing—"
At her voice the woman looked at her keenly.
"Girl, you are frozen with cold! This is no night for you to be abroad."
"I could not help it!" said Eldris with chattering teeth. Her voice failed her with her strength; before she had time to so much as see the woman's face all things grew dark before her eyes. The woman caught her as she fell.
She awoke to life again with burning pains in her face and head, and found two women bending over her. One held a bowl, from which the other was rubbing Eldris's face with snow. Both were young; both were tawdrily dressed, with many strings of beads and rings on neck and fingers. Eldris, looking at them, raised her head, and asked the first question that came into her head.
"Where am I?"
The woman with the bowl smiled a little. She was a fair-haired creature, with eyes of Saxon blue, with hollow cheeks and scarlet lips.
"Do you not know the house of Chloris?" she asked.
Eldris shook her head. Her eyes asked a question which her lips had not strength to utter. The second woman spoke; a dark-haired beauty, she, with a profile of purest Grecian outline.
"Cease thy chatter, Sada! Canst not see the girl is dead with cold and hunger? Leave me the bowl and go get food and wine."
Sada put down the bowl and ran out of the room.
"Your face was frozen," said the Greek. "It is well that you found help in time."
"You are good," Eldris murmured with stiff lips. She was dropping to sleep again through sheer exhaustion in spite of pain, when Sada returned with a tray which held a bowl, smoking hot, an ampulla of wine, and a cheap brass cup. Between them the women roused Eldris and fed her carefully. As her strength began to return, she looked about her with quickening interest. But the room told her nothing. It was small and bare, furnished with but the bed on which she lay, a copper brazier of charcoal, and a couple of wooden stools. The women, over her head, talked in low voices.
"She will sleep to-night, and to-morrow our mistress will see her," said Sada. "Where didst find her, Eunice?"
"At the door," the Greek answered. "I was stationed there to let in you know who, and heard a knock. So this girl entered, crying out that men were after her, so far as I could understand, and slammed the door before I could say her nay. You told Chloris of her, then?"
Sada nodded and laid a finger on her lips.
"She sleeps," she whispered. "Let us go."
But Eldris opened heavy eyes with effort.
"Pray you tell me where is the wine-shop of Nicodemus!" she murmured, husky with drowsiness. "It is there that I must go and wait—"
The tall Greek Eunice laid a hand on her aching head.
"Sleep now," she said. "To-morrow will be time enough to know."
And Eldris slept, as lost to the world behind the dead blank wall as Nicanor in his dungeon cell.
It seemed to her, in her sleep, that she lay with body dead but soul alive and conscious. She dreamed confusedly, strange formless dreams, in which women dark and fair, Hito, Nicanor, and herself were involved inextricably. She dreamed of stealthy whisperings behind closed doors, of laughing faces which looked down upon her as she lay with body dead and soul conscious. With awakening came remembrance and a thrill of apprehension. She lifted herself on an elbow and saw the Saxon girl Sada sitting on the floor, regarding her steadfastly.
"Have I slept long?" Eldris asked.
"It is evening again," said Sada.
"Then I must go at once!" Eldris exclaimed. She got out of bed, tottering a little, and shivering in the chilly air of the room. "If thanks be any payment for what you have done for me, you have all of mine. They are all I have to give."
Sada answered nothing. She helped Eldris to dress, combed her hair, and brought her food. Then Eldris, in a fever to be at her journey's end and know what was in store for her, said again:
"Pray you tell me where is the wine-shop of Nicodemus"—and thought the other smiled. But Sada, instead of answering, said only:
"Before you go, our mistress would hold speech with you."
"Your mistress? Are you, then, slaves?" Eldris ventured.
A strange look crossed Sada's face.
"Ay," she answered. "Slaves, who shall die in bondage."
She led Eldris from the room across a small and ill-paved court to another door.
"You will find her here," she said, and pushed Eldris gently across the threshold.
The room was lighted by many lamps, some of pottery of the cheapest sort, others of wrought bronze, and was filled with a strange and subtle perfume. There was a confusion of furniture, and the walls were hung with curtains, which gave the place a bizarre and Eastern look. So much Eldris took in with her first step forward. Then she saw a figure seated upon a mattress on the floor, a fat and shapeless figure, bunched in many garments. Atop of the fat figure was a fat face, with thin hair whose natural gray showed through its ruddy dye, with flabby painted cheeks, and heavy-lidded eyes darkened beneath with antimony. A Greek might have called it the face of a Greek, and looked again to make sure; a Roman might have called it the face of a Roman. In it one seemed to catch a hint, mysterious and elusive, of all ages and all nations. Once it had been a fine face; even, in a time long past, it had been touched with beauty. Now it was at once a relic and a monument. The substance was the same, but transmuted into coarser mould. Where had been soft blue tracings were red and angry veins; where had been gracious roundness was gross fleshiness. Only the brow, God-made, the only feature which may be neither made nor marred by human means, remained the same, broad and white, and smooth as marble.
The woman sat perfectly motionless, looking at nothing. On her fat hands, which rested on her knees, were rings set with blazing stones; on every finger a ring, and on every ring a slender chain which led back over the hand to a heavy wristlet of gold in which a great ruby burned. Her garments were held by fibulae of iron and bone, cheaply made; around her neck were many strings of beads, some of carved jet, some of silver, some of colored glass. In her grotesqueness and impassivity she might have posed as a graven goddess of some unholy rite. In the sight of her, also, was something so unexpected that Eldris stopped and stared.
"Will you close that door?" said the woman. Her voice was low-pitched and clear and very sweet, with no hint of coarseness in its modulations. Coming from such a bulk it was surprising—more, it was startling. Eldris obeyed, taken wholly aback. "Now come hither."
The woman's heavy-lidded eyes settled on her as a vulture settles on its prey, devouring her, line by line, feature by feature, until, to her surprise and discomfort, Eldris felt herself flushing as though she had been under the eyes of a man.
"Whence come you?" said the soft voice; so commonplace a question and so casually asked, that Eldris was nearly betrayed into indiscretion. She caught herself and said instead:
"And you are—" The woman looked her over again. "Perhaps a dancer, or maybe a mime, running away because your master misused you?"
"A dancer—yes, that is it," said Eldris, catching at the invention. "And my master misused me, and I ran away. Now I seek the wine-shop—"
The woman laughed, a silvery tinkle of mirth.
"Child, spare your conscience!" she said lightly. "See, let me tell you how it lies with you. Whence come you? From a great house to the southward, where one Hito rules with a rod of fear. What are you? A slave, my dear, and a runaway, with your life, in consequence, forfeit and lying this moment in my hand. Some one helped you to get away, and bade you wait for him at the wine-shop of this master Nicodemus, for whom you clamor. How dare you put me and mine in jeopardy, girl, by thrusting yourself upon us? Know you not the penalty visited on those who harbor fugitive slaves?"
Eldris started back from her, gray and pinched with fear. How did the woman know? Who had told her? Eldris could not guess; knew nothing but that her life indeed lay in the fat jewelled hands resting on the woman's knees.
But the latter's tone changed. Perhaps there was in her something of the feline; the instinct of the cat to gambol with its prey. She laughed again.
"Nay, child!" she said gently. "I did but sport with thee. And I am sorry, poor hunted rabbit. Never fear, my girl—Chloris has yet to turn distress from her door. How do I know these things? Why, that is easily answered, since all night long in sleep your tongue went over this and that—such a babble as was never heard. The tongue by day may lie, but the tongue by night speaks truth. My women who waited on you did piece its fragments, and came with the whole and told me. Now I have this to say: Stay in this house, and you shall be safer than in your father's. When search is made for you, be sure the searchers will come hither, and that is the best thing that could be. You will not be the first girl who has sought shelter with Chloris. And I dare take the risk of keeping you, because I am so very sure that you will not be found. If the house be searched, no one of your description would be found herein—and you yourself might tell the stationarii so without fear. Stay with me, and you shall have food and shelter and protection from the law."
"And I—what wouldst have of me in return?" asked Eldris slowly.
"Naught but what you would give willingly," said Chloris. "Mark you this, girl: Chloris forces no man nor woman to do her bidding. If one wishes to enter here, she may enter; if one wishes to leave, she may leave. I can but repeat what I have said. Come to me and you shall be safe—I'll lay my life on that. If you will not, well, go your way; you shall not be betrayed by me or mine."
"If you would but let me be servant to you!" Eldris begged. "I am friendless and weary, and I dread to face the world again, for there is no rest nor safety for me at all. I would work in scullery or in kitchen, and serve you loyally and gladly; more than this I will not do. Once I fled to escape shame; shall I then seek that from which I fled?"
"So be it, then," said Chloris. "I shall not compel you, for that is not the way of Chloris. You have told so much while no sense was in you that you might now straighten out the tale. I see your doubts; you do not know me, yet you have your opinion. That is right, child; better for one's own peace of mind to trust too little than too much. But you need fear nothing. I, too, was friendless once, and weary once, and found no rest nor safety. That was long and long ago; but sometimes I think of it, even these days. So, if you will, tell your tale; and if you will not, keep it. But remember, I have said that your secret shall not be betrayed by me or mine. Many things I have come to hold lightly, but my promise is not one of them."
"I will tell," said Eldris. It was an impulse, born of she knew not what emotion. So she told, taking a fellow-mortal on trust for sake of the faith that was in her; and again the heavy-lidded eyes fastened on her, never wavering from her face as she told her tale.
"I am slave to the lord Eudemius, him whom men call the Torturer. Hito, who is steward there, hath persecuted me for a year and more, so that I went in dread of him. Six nights ago I escaped from that house through the help of one therein, and was told by him to seek Thorney, and Nicodemus who kept a wine-shop there. But I dared not come here direct lest I be traced at once. I wandered, seeking what food I might, and then I lost my way. For five days did I toil on, but yesterday regained my road. I had strayed wrong many miles, but it may be that this was a good thing, if it would help to throw off those pursuing. For unless I can find hiding, I shall be lost."
"And that one who aided your escape?" said Chloris.
"I do not think it would be just to speak of him," Eldris answered, hesitating. "What I have told concerns myself. There is no need that another should be put in danger through me."
"Is he your lover?"
Under those changeless, boring eyes, dull color crept into Eldris's white face.
"Nay," she answered.
"Do you, then, love him?"
"Nay," said Eldris again. "I think—" she spoke slowly, as though the words were impelled—"I think that no one loves him. Rather is he looked on with fear and hate."
"Then must he rear his head in some fashion above the herd," said Chloris, and laughed at the uncomprehension in Eldris's eyes.
But with the mention of Nicanor, remembrance of his direction returned anew to Eldris, seduced for a moment by sure promise of safety.
"He bade me go to this Nicodemus, and I dare not do otherwise," she said distressfully. "Last night I was searching for the place. If he were to come and find me not there—"
"So, he will be a runaway also?" said Chloris, lightly. And at Eldris's distress—"Fear not, foolish! Should not all slaves stand together? Body of Bacchus! Did they do so, there would shortly be no slaves! But that is as it must be. As for Nicodemus, know you what place his wine-shop is? A drinking den where violent men gather to brawl and gamble. No fit one, truly, for a maid! Rather, stay you here, and when this unloved comrade of yours arrives, why, I'll hear of it, and you shall know."
Eldris hesitated and lost her game. Chloris clapped her hands. Sada entered, with a glance full of curiosity.
"Take the girl to the kitchen," Chloris gave command. "Tell the cooks she will serve as scullery maid and naught else. And hark you, Sada girl! No word of last night's doings, or it will go hard with you. Now go, the two of you."
She waved them away, and they went out and left her sitting there.
"She is strange!" said Eldris, pondering deeply.
"Ay, strange!" Sada echoed. "Us she rules with a rod of iron, and yet—we love her, every one."
"I fear her," said Eldris, trying, after her nature, to analyze the emotions in her. "For she is old and very evil. And I was helpless, and she gave me help; homeless, and she took me in."
The Winter wore away and the great house hummed with preparation for the marriage festivities of Marius and Varia. All the friends of Eudemius and of Livinius and Marius were bidden; rich men and powerful, these, foremost of the circle of feudal lords whose power in Britain had become supreme, and whose allegiance to the Empire was long since merely nominal. Of them were Quintus Fabius, a senator in the curia, or governing body of Londinium; Caius Julius Valens, duumvir—chief magistrate, with rank corresponding in some sort to that of governor—of Isca Silurum, that great city which in the old days the Second Legion, the Augustan, had made famous. Also came the Comes Litoris Saxonici, Marcus Silenus Pomponius, Count of the Saxon Shore, in whose ward were the Eastern Marches and the Fens, of whose ancient power all the responsibilities and few of the prerogatives were left; Maximus Crispis, who owned the largest villa at the fashionable Aquae Solis, and boasted his own private and complete system of mineral baths; and fifty others with names as great as these.
Eudemius threw himself into the arrangements with an energy which made light of all obstacles. And of these there were many, since inevitably the disordered state of the country reacted on private concerns. From all the ends of the earth treasures were brought at his command. Swift-winged vessels, manned by tireless rowers whose one law of life was speed, came laden with rich stuffs and gems from the East; cups and dishes of virgin gold, crusted with uncut jewels; statuettes of Bacchus, the god of feasts, crowned with grapes of purple amethyst and leaves of emerald; of Fortuna, with the horn of Amalthea; of Hymen the torch-bearer, god of marriage; cups of figured and embossed glass, inscribed with sentiments such as "Bibe feliciter!" or "Ex hoc amici bibunt,"—all intended to be bestowed upon the guests as souvenirs during the feasts at which they were to be used. Lustrous silks came from far-away Serica; cloth of gold from Persian looms; glassware, fragile as tinted bubbles, from the great works near Lucrinum; spices and perfumes from Arabia, aloe, myrrh, and spikenard. To all that he owned he added tenfold more. Sometimes his ships were lost at sea; sometimes plundered by bands of pirates at his very doors. Then a messenger would be sent speeding by night and day to the agent from whom that ship had come, to return in a time incredibly short with an identical cargo—if by any means this could be duplicated. In this way he more than once sunk what was in truth a fortune without a denarius of profit in return. He wished to have tigers and lions brought from Africa, that his guests might hunt royal game, and spent many thousand aurei before he discovered that the cold invariably killed those of the animals which had survived the voyage. So he gave up that idea and stocked his parks and forests with wild boar,—the prime favorite for big game hunting,—with wolves, and lordly stags, and the wary, wild bos longifrons, which afforded as good sport as might be wished.
Each day goods arrived, and messengers came with some rare thing brought by hand half across the world; each day bales and boxes were opened in rooms set apart for them; and each day Eudemius called his daughter and put into her careless hands some costly trifle which men had sweated and striven like overworked beasts of burden to lay before her.
When Varia's last month of maidenhood was nearly gone, Eudemius called Hito to him, to give account of what was in his hands. In the house were so many services of gold and silver, so many of Samian ware from Aretium, costly enough for an emperor's table; in the cellars, so many amphorae of Falernian wine and wines from Cyprus, so many ollae of ale and beer. In the servants' quarters were so many slaves of the field and of the household, male and female; so many trained to trades, so many dancing boys, musicians, and dancing girls. There were so many coloni and casarii, who owned Eudemius as patronus and paid house and land rent yearly in money, produce, or service, who belonged to the estate and might not be sold without it. Of the slaves those who had died were accounted for; those who had been resold, or exchanged, or manumitted,—all save two.
"These, lord," said Hito, without a change of face, "are two of whom I had it in mind to speak these many months ago. But when all things were to be prepared, there was no time. This woman, Eldris, did attempt escape; for what reason is not known. I gave command to pursue her. This was done. But when the men found her, she was dead; it is to be thought of cold and hunger. So she was put away. Let not my lord think that his servant was neglectful; we recaptured her, but she was dead. This one, Nicanor, was committed to the dungeons by order of our lord Marius; it is now nearly eight months ago. And for what reason is not known either. He is there still, since no further command hath been received regarding him. He was taken with a madness, and well-nigh killed my lord's slave. I would have put him to the rack, but my lord Marius said nay, that he was to be held until wanted. This was done." Lies and truth mingled on his tongue like oil and honey.
Marius, sitting at Eudemius's elbow, looked up.
"I remember the fellow," he said, searching his memory. "I meant to bring him to thy notice, that thou shouldst deal with him, and as I live, I forgot him. He it was who sought Lady Varia in her garden and was found by Marcus, whom you killed because he would not betray. But it appears, from what I could learn of Varia since then, that the man did no harm—was rather a poor fool telling crazy tales to which she listened as a child. It was a whim of Varia's, nothing more. And Nerissa doth swear that always she was within sight and hearing of the two,—though whether she says this to free her own skirts from blame, I know not,—and that all which was said and done was with her knowledge, for the humoring of her lady. So that the fellow hath done no actual wrong, it would seem."
From the high pinnacle of his power he could afford to be indifferent—and he and Eudemius had weightier matters than a slave's fate to settle.
"Hath he the privilege of trial?" Eudemius asked. "In what degree is he slave?"
"Absolute!" said Hito, promptly. "Neither colonus nor casarius nor the son of such is he, nor even esne, whose trade might win him privileges."
"Then send him to the mines," said Eudemius, with indifference. "If he hath done nothing, he cannot die, but his presumption deserves punishment, and this he shall have,"—and was deep in fresh papers before Hito had left the room.
Hito summoned Wardo, upon whom of late days his favor had unexpectedly descended, and laid on him his commands.
"Friend, there be a dozen and odd slaves marked for punishment, who are to be sent to the mines within the week. And among them is one black brute Nicanor; he goeth first of all. Thus our lord commands. Thou shalt go with them, with two men or three to aid thee, to receive their tally from the superintendent of the mines. Make arrangements so soon as may be, for I would be well rid of them. And if any seek escape by flight or mutiny—well, there is no need to be over easy with them. They will not be missed."
But for one reason and another it was full two weeks before Wardo could get his people together; and by that time the festivities had begun, with the first of the arriving guests.
First to come was Marcus Pomponius, Count of the Saxon Shore, with his wife Gratia, a woman whose beauty was famed throughout the island. He was a stately man, of the type which had made Rome what she would never be again,—mistress of the world. His face was pale, and high-bred, and graven deep with the chisel-lines of thought; his hair was hoary, a silver crown; his eyes, under black contrasting brows, were quick, keen, indomitable, as in his long-dead days of youth.
Eudemius received his guests at the threshold of his house, attired royally, with a torques of gold about his neck and the great signet ring of his house upon his thumb. Gracious and commanding, he made his friends welcome with a courtly ease which no brooding years of solitude could rust. Beside him were Livinius and Marius; and to all who came Eudemius presented Marius as "my son."
So shortly after the first guests came others, alone, or with their wives and daughters, until the great house was crowded full with busy life. The stately halls, warmed, perfumed with exotic plants, resounded with talk grave and gay, with songs and merriment and laughter. Musicians played on lyre and cithara, reed and tambour; there began an endless round of feasting, hunting, games, and sports. From the women's side of the house came floating breaths of perfume, suppressed laughter, a subtle emanation of aristocratic and luxurious femininity. And Varia, the pivotal point on which all hinged, the least considered of all of the household, was given neither peace nor solitude. From day till dark women fluttered around her, examining robes, jewels, head-dresses, shoes, with question and comment. She must try on this and try on that; she must be petted and caressed like a pampered plaything, and all with significant glances of pity and concern.
Varia was very quiet these days. Childlike, she hid from Marius; childlike, sulked when he found her. Childlike, also, she hung in raptures over the gifts which were showered upon her, nor ever dreamed that they were the price with which she was bought. She hung aloof, shyly, from the invasion of her home; in her eyes a child's longing to join the merrymaking, mingled with all its dread of a rebuff.
Marius, for his part, bore his honors easily. That he was popular among the guests went without saying. He hunted with the men and talked of state and war; he parried the agile thrusts of the women with laughing skill; he made persistent love to Varia.
Nerissa, the old nurse who had brought up Varia from her forsaken childhood, going in to her charge to instruct her formally in the duties of wife and mother which lay before her, looked in at the door, smiled to herself, and went away. Half a dozen young beauties had taken possession before her, with chatter and laughter—slender Roman girls, of the haughtiest blood in Britain. Julia danced on the marble floor, in and out among the slender columns, in jewelled sandals of Varia's, her skirts held high; Nigidia and Valencia, between them, examined a peplus of white silk soft enough to be drawn through the hand, and woven with threads of gold. Gratia, named for her mother, and daughter of Count Pomponius of the Saxon Shore, sat on the couch beside Varia, slowly waving a new fan of peacock's feathers set in a handle of chased gold. Paula and Virginia were turning over an ivory casket of trinkets at a table near by. Varia sat with empty hands, watching and listening. For the first time in her darkened life she was knowing the companionship of her own age and kind, very shy, but longing greatly to be friendly, to talk and laugh as did these radiant others.
"Tell us, Varia, what thy lover hath given thee?" Paula called gayly across the room. Julia, ceasing her dancing, put off the sandals, slipped on her own, and came to sit by Varia, on the other side.
"Ay, tell us!" she cried, and slipped an arm around Varia's neck, girlwise. Varia flushed, half with pleasure at the embrace, half with confusion.
"Many things, but I will have none of them," she answered.
"Now but thou art a strange girl!" cried Paula. "Here thou hast a lover, on fire with love for thee, as all the world may see, and thou wilt avail thyself nothing of him. By the girdle of Venus! Had I such a lover pursuing me, I'd lead him such a dance that when I did yield he'd swear there was no goddess in heaven like me, and the beckon of my finger would be his command."
"Thou, Paula!" Gratia scoffed, and shook the peacock fan at her. "Thou who hast more lovers than fingers on thy hands—"
"Ay, but truly none quite like Varia's here. Whom can you name so strong, so masterful, so—well, so all that a girl would have? Varia, I am jealous! Why chose he thee instead of me?"
"That were easy to tell," Nigidia murmured over the end of the peplus she held. But Varia did not hear.
"I would that he had!" she said seriously, so that Gratia hugged her in a gale of laughter. "I do not wish to be pursued, as you say."
"Now did ever woman wish that before!" cried Julia. "Even though we act perforce as though we did not. But I will say, cara, that thou hast succeeded very well with him. For it needs practice to treat a man with icy disdain when all the while thou art secretly longing that he will be bold and dare thy displeasure. When a girl knows how to tell a man that he must not, but he may if he will, her education is complete."
"I do not understand," Varia said slowly, and flushed again. "I am very stupid; but—may, if he will, do what?"
"Nay, never put such fancies in this innocent's head!" cried Gratia, in a protest only half serious. "She will learn soon enough without thy teaching."
Nigidia left the ivory casket and came and sat on a footstool at Varia's feet, looking up at her with black eyes alight with raillery.
"Tell us, cara," she said, "dost love him very much, this so masterful lover of thine?"
"Nay," said Varia, in all seriousness. "I love him not at all."
At once they fluttered around her, exchanging glances.
"Why, how may that be? Tell us of it! How did he woo thee? What did he say and do?"
Varia, laughing because they laughed, considered a moment, her head on one side.
"As thou sayest, he is strong and very masterful," she said. "How did he woo me? Why, as ever a man wooes a maid, I suppose."
"You suppose?" said Nigidia, sweetly, with a glance at the others. "Do you not know? Has none sought you in marriage before?"
Varia shook her head. She knew not how to parry their curiosity; they, seeing this, were the more curious.
"No," she confessed, low-voiced.
They looked at her and at each other with round eyes of wonder in which laughter lurked.
"Thy husband thy first lover!" Nigidia exclaimed, as one incredulous. "Poor little thing! Girls, is this not sad to hear? But then, poor child, how couldst thou help it, shut away in here where thou canst see never a man at all?"
"Oh, I have seen a man!" Varia cried eagerly. "It is not quite so bad with me as that! A man like unto no other man in the world, I think!" Her face flushed, her eyes shone. Again a glance went round. "He, too, is strong and masterful, but tender—ah, so tender!" She clasped her hands; her lips trembled.
"So, it is he whom thou lovest?" said Paula.
Again the old pained bewilderment grew in Varia's eyes.
"I—do not know," she faltered.
"But I do!" said Paula. "See, then, is this how it is with thee?" She glanced at her companions with lowered lids; they drew closer, silent. "Night and day his voice, his eyes, are with thee. His name is a song which thy heart singeth dumbly; when it is spoken it makes thee quiver like a harp on which a certain note is touched. At the very thought of him, of his words, and his caresses, thou dost flush and tremble as though his hands had touched thee. (Girls, see the color burn!) A dear and tender pain is at thy heart; thou livest in dreams, and art possessed by aching unrest which yet is sweet. Is it not even thus with thee?"
"Ay," said Varia, very low. "It is even thus."
"Then thou dost love this man," said Paula. Her tone was final, admitting of no doubt.
Varia, flushed from throat to brow, looked at her with shining eyes.
"Ay, I love him—I know it now! For night and day his voice and eyes are with me, and his name and the words he hath said are a song to me. And night and day I hear him calling me, from far and far away, as so many times he hath called me to the garden. But now—woe is me! I may not come."
"Get married, sweet, to him who loves thee, and then thou mayest have him whom thou dost love," said Nigidia. "If one has courage to do as one wills, and cleverness not to be found out, may not one do as one chooses? I know that Rubria, wife of Maximus Crispus, hath two lovers, and one of them is guest in this house. Who is thy lover, dear? What his name and station?"
Varia hesitated. The impulse which kept her from revealing the truth was dumb and blind, but it was there, and it saved her. She bit her lip.
"I will not tell!" she said in distress.
"We promise not to take him from thee," said Nigidia, and laughed with the rest.
"He sure must be the highest in the land, to win thy love," chimed in Paula, ready to carry on the game. "Perhaps it is Fabian, the friend of Marius, who hath the eyes of a god. Or perhaps it is old Aulus Plautus, of Gobannium. He is a widower these twenty years, and hath no teeth and but one eye—but his jewels sparkle enough for the other."
But Varia's face changed, and her eyes grew dark and hunted.
"Now you do make sport of me!" she cried. "What have I done that ye should bait me thus?" Before any girl could answer she faced them in a mist of quick, angry tears. "I am glad that my father's guests may be thus easily amused!"
They started upon her, in a moment all contrition, ready to embrace her and make amends; but she jumped off the couch and fled from them into her bedchamber and closed the door.
"We are as mean as we can be!" said Gratia, with reproach. "I think it great shame for us that we should not have remembered how it is with her. I am glad I was not first to start it!"
Paula and Nigidia took fire.
"What have we done save what we would do to any bride?" asked Paula. "Who could have thought she would take it so? But she is not so different from the rest of us, perhaps!"
"Perhaps no better!" said Nigidia.
"Then would she have thy teaching to thank for that!" Gratia flashed back. "And it is in my mind that the less she gets of it the better it will be for her."
When Nerissa came again, shortly, it was to find her lady alone and weeping. But this was no new thing of late. Nerissa came prepared to speak solemnly, as was her duty; Varia turned a petulant shoulder to her.
"Why will ye not let me be in peace?" she cried. "I do not wish to wed—I am happy as I am. I will not be meek and obedient, and incline in all things unto my lord husband! I do not wish him for husband! I hate him. And oh, Nerissa, in three days—"
She wept afresh. Nerissa stroked her hair.
"There, then, lady-bird, never take it so! It is right that all maids should wed. The lord Marius will be kind to thee; he will give thee great affection. At least, the gods grant that he may! Thou wilt have jewels such as thou hast never dreamed of, and robes such as thou hast never seen. Thou wilt be a very great lady, little nursling o' mine. Ay me, but it is strange! These arms were the first to cradle thee; these hands dressed thee in the first little clothes of thy babyhood. Such little clothes! Now they deck thee for thy bridal—and perhaps it may not be so long before they have other little clothes to handle. See, child of my heart, wouldst not be glad to have a tiny son of thine own, to love and play with? Wouldst not like to feel a round little head against thy heart, two so tiny hands opening the gates of all happiness before thee? Wouldst not see two baby eyes lulled into sleep by thy drowsy crooning? Say, sweet one, wouldst thou not like this?"
Varia raised her face slowly, starry eyes wide and very sweet with awe, young lips parting in reverent wonder.
"Ay," she breathed, and flushed and trembled. "I should like that. A little son, of all mine own! But I would not have it his son, O Nerissa! I would he might be son of a man such as I have dreamed of; a man brave, and rough, and tender—ay, all these! What should I care that he had no gold—have I found it such a blessing? For he would have more than gold—that which no man could give him, and no man take away. And his son should be like him; and the son of such a man I could love, and be proud that he was mine."
Nerissa smiled, a tender hand on Varia's head.
"Ay, I know, I know! Poor little one, we all have our dreams—even thou—and we all must wake from them. If this son of thine should be as the one who is to be his father, it will be very well. For the lord Marius is an honorable man, and strong."
Varia made a gesture of fierce protest.
"Bah! If he looked at me with those eyes, black and haughty, if his mouth was thin and his nose like an eagle's beak, and his hair stiff, so that I could not run it through my fingers, I should hate him even as I hate his father!"
"Sweet, my baby girl, it would be long or ever thou couldst see haughtiness in the eyes of that baby of thine, or thin lips; and as for the nose—! And I dare swear that when thou first dost look, thou wilt not find any hair at all, much less what is stiff. Come, cheer thee, my very dear! Believe that thy lord father knoweth what is best for thee. Thou art his own; he would never do thee wrong."
"Now am I not so sure of that!" said Varia, and her voice changed and was strange. "Oh, Nerissa, it is not that I would not wed! I, too, would know what joy and fulness a woman's life may hold, and perhaps I am not too much fool to understand. But one cannot teach me from whom I shrink with every breath I draw. These things I cannot understand. When I would think and question, there is something just beyond me, which I cannot grasp,—" she raised a hand, groping,—"something which escapes me, and when I think I have it, lo! it vanishes, and I wander in the dark. Birds I can understand, and trees, and little flowers, and clouds, and sunlight, and rippling brooks; but men and women I cannot understand; they all are strange to me, and I do not at all know why. I fear them; I am restless and unhappy. One only in all the world have I seen who was not strange. Him I could understand; when he spoke, all my heart sang in answer; it was what I longed to say and could not, and I do not at all know why. There was that in him which was in me, and yet I am fool and he is not, and this also I cannot understand. Will it ever be that I shall understand, O Nerissa?"
Nerissa sat on the couch beside her and drew her into her arms.
"Some day, surely, my pet," she soothed. "Think of it no more—never fret thyself with foolish fancies. Now it groweth late and is time to sleep. Thou shalt be my baby once again, for this night is the last I shall have thee all mine own."
She called slave women, and had them pack away the scattered silks and gauzes in the chests from which they had been taken, and make all ready for the night. Thereafter she sent them all away, even the body-slaves and tire-women, and herself waited upon her mistress. She freed Varia's hair from the jewelled pins which held it, combed its dusky length, and braided it in two long braids. She brought water in a great brazen jar, and filled the sunken marble bath in the red-tiled bathroom, and bathed her lady with scented soaps and perfumes. She cradled her in her arms, wrapped in warm rugs, and rocked and crooned old slumber songs as though her charge had been in fact a child again.
The lamps burned low, the room was warm and still. Varia, nestled in the arms that had been to her a mother's arms, stirred drowsily once or twice, and each time Nerissa bent over her, and felt her feet beneath the rugs to see that they were warm, studying with tender care the soft outline of rounded cheek, the long lashes down-dropped to hide the starry eyes, the quiet rise and fall of breath.
"She is but a child! She will forget!" she murmured.
But Varia spoke, in a voice straight from the land of dreams, opening upon her eyes misty with sleep.
"One does not forget!" she said drowsily. "One loses a thing, for a long time, it may be, but some shadow of that thing is always left, even to a fool. Is it not so?"
"Ay, if thou sayest," said Nerissa, as readily as she would have agreed that pigs were butterflies if her lady had willed them so. But Varia was asleep before she spoke.
All through that night Nerissa held her nursling in fond, anxious arms that knew no weariness, brooding over her as a mother with her child.
Just as gray dawn came drifting in at the windows, the feast in the great house broke up, and the guests, most of them half drunken, sought their rooms. And just at dawn word began to pass from station to station, and from town to town, of a city set in flames—fair Anderida in the South, as the crow flies, sixty Roman miles away. But of this, and what it portended, the villa knew nothing.
Many things happened that day which the villa and the world came to know too well. The sun was scarcely an hour high when mounted men rode to the villa, demanding to see its lord. Of these, one was Aurelius Menotus, one of the two duumviri or governors of Anderida; and with him was his son Felix, small and fair of skin, with weak eyes and a loose, stubborn mouth, who wore no sword and whose arm was in a sling. Slaves brought them to Eudemius, and he welcomed them, and they told their tale. Aurelius was a shrunken man, with a baboon face, straggling gray hair, and hands perfect as those of a god. He had ridden hard all night, and was pasty pale with fatigue and trouble; and his staff, mostly old men, were in hardly better plight. Two of the servants with them were wounded; it was told that a third had died on the road. They were cared for and given food and wine, and Eudemius sent for Marius to hear also what they had to tell. No other guests were stirring.
"Two nights ago men came upon us," Aurelius said, in his thin and nervous voice. "They come, men say, from Gaul, driven thence by Attila the Hun, and seek safety among their kinsfolk who are already here. No man can tell how the trouble first began. The first that we in the palace knew, a soldier of the watch came and warned the guard that there was fighting in the lower quarters of the city. For long no one could tell what was the trouble; it was dark, and there was much confusion. I sent out milites stationarii to quell the tumult; these reported that the insurgents, who have given much trouble of late, had joined openly with the barbarians; had overthrown the temple of Jupiter and slain the Flamen Dialis. Two hours before midnight, that night, the public baths were blown up in their own steam, and fire broke out in various parts of the city. The barbarians, inflamed with wine and the example of the insurgents, began to plunder. Thou knowest my forces have been steadily diminished these last three years, and together the barbarians and the insurgents outnumbered the Augustans five to one. My colleague in office, Titus Honius the Abulcian, going out to pacify the people, was slain. I and my companions fled just before daybreak yesterday. Many people have taken to the forest. The city is now a very hell of drunkenness, rapine, fire, and smoke. And this, it seems to me, is but the beginning. Those barbarians who have long been settled here, upon the Eastern Shore, and those who still keep coming, will together outnumber us, insurgents and Augustans both. It is in my mind to propose that we, the lords of the cities, send again to AEtius, proconsul in Gaul, for help, even as we did two years ago."
"I fear that is what it must come to," said Eudemius, thoughtfully. He turned to Marius. "Think you that AEtius can spare us a legion again?"
Marius shrugged his shoulders.
"It is hard to say," he answered. "I think it likely that he will, if he be not himself too hard pressed."
"Marcus Pomponius and Quintus Fabius are here, with many others of the lords," said Eudemius. "We celebrate this day the betrothal feast of my daughter and Marius here,—" he laid a hand on the young tribune's shoulder,—"and in three days the marriage. If you will stay, we may talk of this together."
"I feel scarce in humor for marriage feasts and gaiety," said Aurelius. "My people are dead, my city falling to ashes. But I will stay at least long enough to discuss what plans we may think of for relief. If aught is to be done it should be done quickly."
"Rest now," Eudemius said, "and to-night, if you will, join us at the feasting." He clapped his hands, and when slaves came, ordered that his new guests be taken to rooms and baths prepared for them. They went away, a weary and dejected set of men. Eudemius and Marius paced the gallery together.
"If AEtius cannot send help—" said Eudemius, following his own train of thought.
"Have you arms in the house and slaves who can use them?" said Marius, following his. "Anderida is but sixty miles away, and if these barbarians be, as Aurelius thinks, inflamed with wine and blood, they will not stop to think whether or not they attack those who have attacked them."
Eudemius stopped in his stride.
"You think—that?" he said with worried brows. "It had not occurred to me. There have been uprisings, of course, but for the most part the Saxons have been peaceful. It is the insurgents who have given most trouble. But you are right; no man can foresee what may happen these days. I will call Hito and bid him number the slaves who are capable of bearing arms."
Hito received his orders, and in turn called Wardo, and bade him release all prisoners sentenced to the mines save those suspected of anti-Augustan sympathies. These, it was considered, would be most likely to take sides with the barbarians, as the insurgents had done at Anderida, and it would be as well to get them out of the way. The villa, being some miles off both the Noviomagus road and the Bibracte road, might remain unmolested; the fury of barbarians and insurgents might spend itself on the towns nearer the coast,—Regnum, Portus Magnus, and the like. Still, their lord had decided that they must be prepared for whatever might come to pass, and prepared they must be. Wardo said little during Hito's peroration, smiled once or twice at its commencement, and at its close expressed his willingness to obey. He stated that he knew of but a half dozen of those sentenced to punishment who might be suspected of sympathy with the insurgents, and declared that two men would be quite sufficient to act as guard. He was given full permission to arrange the matter as he chose,—Hito stipulating only that he and his men should return as promptly as possible,—and went off whistling softly between his teeth. That day there was much activity in the armory and in the slaves' quarters; and rumors flew darkly, and men believed all that they were told.
Toward evening, Aurelius, unable to rest for the burden of apprehension that was on him, begged that the lords might meet in council without delay, that measures should be taken for the relief of the harassed island. Therefore, while slaves were busy in the Hall of Columns, where the betrothal feast was to be held, while Varia, amid stormy tears, was arrayed by her servants for the ceremonies, and the women guests were absorbed in toilet mysteries, those of the men who were governors or who were possessed of greatest power in their own cities, were summoned to the library of their host.
Eudemius spoke first, gravely, with Aurelius, pale and silent, on his right hand, and on his left Marius, thin-lipped and alert, all the soldier in him roused. And Marius, of all the men present, was the youngest.
"Friends," said Eudemius, "I have gathered you here together on a matter of much moment. You all know Aurelius Menotus, governor of Anderida. He hath a tale to tell you, which I doubt not will prove startling. When it is told, we should take counsel together, those of us who are here, without waiting for the lords and governors who for one reason and another are not with us. With some of these we are, as you know, not on good terms. There hath been jealousy and strife, much rivalry and more ill-feeling, between the cities. Now, if we hope to save ourselves, all this must be forgotten. If we never agreed before, we must agree now, for a common foe threatens us, against whom nothing short of our united strength will avail."
He ceased; and Aurelius rose and faced a silent room, standing beside the table, with nervous fingers feeling at a scroll which lay there.
"Friends," he began, and cleared his throat and hesitated, "I am here before ye, a man without a home, a governor without a city. Two nights ago Saxons landed on our coasts, among the marshes, and entered Anderida. The details of the whole I have not yet learned; whether they assaulted first, or were provoked by some real or fancied injury of the citizens. However this may be, they set upon us, and slew us, and were joined by certain of the insurgents, who, it seems, have only awaited a chance to rise in open revolt against the Empire, as represented in us. United, they outnumbered those who were loyal to me by ten to one, and I and mine, being all unprepared, were forced to flee. We fought our way out of the city, and fled with others into the forest, leaving the barbarians and the insurgents in possession. The temple of Jupiter is destroyed and his priests are killed; the statues of the Emperor in the Forum are wantonly shattered. One of the flamens who escaped joined our party as we fled, and said that those who have committed these outrages are not Goths nor Vandals, nor yet Saxons in revolt, but Romans, men of our own blood, who should be of our religion. They it was who destroyed, and incited the barbarians to greater excesses. Now I am come to you to plead for help. We stand on the brink of great danger, and we are in no position to help ourselves. It is to others that we must look. Where are our troops? We have none, or next to none. Daily these barbarians encroach upon us; our seas swarm with pirates, and we cannot resist."
Marcus Pomponius, the Count of the Saxon Shore, raised his head and looked at him.
"You are right, but you have not told all,—not so much as the half of it," he said. His voice was low and deep, and resonant as a trumpet. "You, living here in the South, in Britannia Prima, can have no idea of how things are in Maxima Caesariensis, in Flavia Caesariensis, or on the Eastern Shore. One month ago, Constantine, my son, came from Deva. He says that these provinces are no longer Roman, but Saxon, and that for the most part without force or bloodshed. As for me and those who were before me, year by year we have seen our power weakening, our troops drawn off, cohort by cohort, until our ward of the Eastern Marches is but an empty mockery. It is simply that, as we have retreated, Saxons have advanced, inch by inch, until now they have gained a foothold from which I believe no power that we may bring can dislodge them. They have settled in our towns, mingled with us, married our women, obeyed our laws—but they are here; and they are not of us, but alien, and they will stay. I hold that this, the beginning of the end, began twenty-seven years ago, when Fabian Procinus, the consul, abandoned Eboracum and moved to the southern provinces with his forces. We can all remember that day, I think. What happened? Saxons entered that deserted city and established themselves there. When they became crowded, they moved, not back to their northern fastnesses, but down to other cities and towns of ours. And they are there still. The towns which we destroyed, hoping thus to stay them, they rebuilt. It is true that for the most part they have been peaceable and orderly; but it is also true that when fresh bands have come upon us, these settled ones have sided with them against us. This is where blood is spilled. They may be trying to find peace for themselves, and a land to rest in, but slowly and surely they are either absorbing us or driving us into the sea. This is what we must face to-day."
Two or three nodded, half reluctantly, as though they recognized a fact long known, and held aloof so far as might be. Pomponius glanced from grave face to grave face. His voice dropped a note lower. Not for nothing had he been trained to speak in the Forum before men.
"Friends, the fault of the whole matter lieth with us, in Roman hands. If Romans lose Britain, and if Saxons win it, it will be the fault of none but Romans."
A murmur went through the room, wordless, speaking more plainly than words. Pomponius raised his hand.
"Have patience, I pray you, and hear me! What I shall say is, in a manner, treason against our divinity, our lord Emperor, yet before now truth hath been found in treason. The crux of the whole matter lieth in the fact that we, Romans, lords paramount of Britain, have divided ourselves into two sects—religious, if you will; but when was not religion used for State purposes, or State purposes for religion? You cannot divide the two. We are polytheists, worshipping the ancient gods of our fathers, or we are Augustans, worshipping the divinity of our lord Emperor. And of the two, which is the true faith hath nothing at all to do with the matter. The point lieth in the fact that there are two. Beset as we are by outer dangers, it needs small wit to see that our sole hope is in unity of thought and purpose. This division, for ourselves, was bad enough. It was worse when we found pitted against us two other religions, of two separate peoples here with whom we had to deal. One, the religion of the ancient Gaels, which we found here, and which was druidical and wholly abhorrent in our eyes; the other, the religion of the Goths and Saxons, which, like our own elder faith, was polytheistic.
"You know that Rome's policy hath ever been to absorb, to make bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh what she hath taken for her own. And herein lies her true greatness. But Gaelic or British gods would never unite with Roman gods; it was an alien creed, with no single point in common. Gothic gods would so unite,—mark you that,—for Gothic religion differed from Roman only in the names of its gods and in a coarser fibre which with us had been refined away. What did we, therefore,—we, that is the Romans our fathers,—for the furthering of our purposes and for the glory which was Rome's? We took the Goths unto ourselves and gave them our religion. We taught them that their Hesus was none but Bacchus, their Freya our Venus, their Thor our Jupiter Tonans. But could we do this with the Gaels, who had nothing in common with us, whose meaningless rites could have no part in the beliefs of the commonwealth? No. Did we therefore give them the privileges of citizenship, the right to hold offices of priesthood and State, which we gave to those Goths and Saxons who came among us peaceably? No. We made Saxons our allies against alien gods, and we did wisely. They fought side by side with us, they tilled our lands, and were our equals. And so long as the old faith was among us, all was well. For to my mind, what I shall tell you, and nothing else, is the secret of Rome's power. Armies alone can hold a captive people for no longer than steel is bared, and Rome knew this. But her religion took up the work where her armies had left it. Being eclectic, it embraced all gods,—although this is not to say that every Roman worshipped all of these,—and those peoples whom she conquered were not ravished with violence from their creeds and forced to kneel at unlike altars. Each nation might find a parallel for its gods in Rome's pantheon, and so might be brought without shock into Rome's fold. For, take a man's gods from him, whatsoever they may be that he worships, and give him nothing in return to which he can hold, and at once you take from him all that anchors him to the rationalities of life.