Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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Dear Lady Glenconner,
You have accepted the dedication of this book, which you have never read, because you read Hurdcott and liked it, I hope you will like Faustula too, and not only Faustula the book, but Faustula the heroine of it. There was a special reason why Hurdcott should appeal to you: it was in a sense a Wiltshire book, though only in one sense. The chief personages were not really Wiltshire folk; they only met here on the plain, but the air they breathed was that of the downs we love, and of the river valleys that lie among them. A real Wiltshire book I durst not have attempted, being only an adoptive son here. Faustula is not even an English book, and the story is of a time so remote that to many it must be less interesting than one dealing with a corner of our own land, in the beginning of the century wherein all of us were born who are no longer lucky enough to be still children, No writer can guess before-hand whether his work will be approved or no; nor, while he is writing, does he ever try to guess. He is taken up with the new children he is begetting between brain and pen, and has no room in his mind for conjecture as to how others may like or mislike them. If he suffered the many-headed shadow of the public to come between them and him, even to himself they could never be real and living.
But when his work is done, and these children of his are fixed in all the reality that, for himself at least, is theirs, he must begin to hope that the love he has for them others may share with him. I hope you will like Faustula, not the mere story in which I have tried to set her forth, but the human creature, the daughter of Faustulus. Her other father loves her as well as he loves Consuelo, better than he loves Marotz. To him it makes no difference that he chose she should be born more than fifteen hundred years ago. To him there is no archaic chill about her; all the centuries between are for him only a white bridge, far beneath which all the world's change lies dwindled, upon which she stands with a lonely cry for pity and sympathy. If no one else can answer it with love, he must. Her wrongs are bitter to him. May they appeal to you also. If you find her worthy of the generous admiration you gave to Consuelo, I do not doubt that others also will receive into their hearts the desolate Roman girl for whom Clotho wove the thread so harshly knotted that God, not Atropos, bent down to cut.
The Manor House,
11th July, 1912.
The October sun was within half an hour of its setting when Faustulus came out of the Decian Baths, on the Aventine, and began his leisurely saunter homewards.
He walked for two reasons—not that he was a man to bore himself with reasons for doing things: he was careful never even to bore other people. First and chiefly he had a horror of becoming fat; his father, he remembered, grew stout, almost suddenly, when not much older than he was now; and the elder Faustulus had till then been remarkable for a figure that was particularly slim, graceful and aristocratic: when he ran to flesh all his distinction of appearance had been lost.
Even now the younger Faustulus was not, he confessed unwillingly, really slim, though he was sure few of his contemporaries were more distinguished-looking: and he saw no use at all in being aristocratic unless one looked it. It was all very well to claim descent from the shepherd who foster-fathered Romulus: and his sister Sabina thought almost more of it than of the wealth her husband had left her; but Faustulus himself did not care much for pedigrees; what he liked was the subtle aroma high birth hangs about its owner when people are forced to remember and acknowledge its presence. "If one looks like a plebeian one might as well be one," he thought. Besides Faustulus hated the idea of becoming fat because he shrank with disgust from the idea of becoming middle-aged. To be middle-aged was worse than being plebeian, because it was more personal, and because, alas, it was inevitable. One naturally struggles harder against the inevitable than against what one can actually avoid by struggling.
"A stupid man who lets himself get stout is middle-aged at five-and-thirty," Faustulus said to himself: he had stood still for a few moments on the steps of the baths, and was absent-mindedly glancing across towards the Christian church of St. Prisca. "But if one's figure at five-and-thirty is practically what it was at five-and-twenty—" He did not complete the argument. One only finishes up arguments with dull persons, and Faustulus was perfectly aware that he was not dull.
It was rather his custom of late to allude to himself, in these intimate conversations, as being thirty-five: ten or eleven months ago he had ignored the circumstance; but, as he would be thirty-six in a week or so, he did it pretty often now—while he could.
His other reason for walking was that he was a gossip, and one can pick up unconsidered trifles of news on foot which would escape one otherwise. And Faustulus liked looking about him: he had a whimsical, observing eye which provided him with more things to talk about than anybody else's report could do. The streets never became stale to him, but always offered something new to catch his indolently alert attention.
And Faustulus was perfectly good-natured, as so many people are who never put themselves out for anybody, and he knew that on his way home he should hear something, or see something, that it would amuse poor Accia to be told about. He had the knack of making a funny little story out of the merest nothing.
"Poor Accia," he thought, coming down the steps, "what a nuisance it must be to have babies. I remember, when I was growing up, and my father used to prose so much about the duty, in those of high birth, of doing something in the world (especially in these beastly times of new ideas) that I wished I had been a girl instead of Sabina—who would have made an excellent soldier—girls have so little trouble. Then I recollected the baby-business, and was less disposed to quarrel with those officious old maids the Fates. And Accia hates the whole thing as much as I should. She likes going about and doing everything: and one's place gets filled if one drops out of it even for two or three months; especially at Accia's age. One's age is what people say it is, and one can only make them think it always the same by always doing the same things... I thought Accia seemed out of sorts when I left her: that was why I hurried off—it would not have done to let her see I noticed it; low-spirits assert themselves the more they are officially recognized. I knew I should hear something to amuse her. The report of the victory of Constans and Constantine's death will take her out of herself—she loves to hear about Emperors: what a pity, for her sake, there's no Court here now."
All the same Faustulus did not hurry home to tell her. There were things to see on the way. It was the 19th of October and he met groups of soldiers, and civilians too, making their way to the now rather shabby laurel-grove where the Arimlustrium was still kept up by the people. It was all very well for the Emperors to be Christian and to frown at pagan festivals, but Rome was not Christian yet, and people will dance whatever religion the Court may prefer. So there were plenty of idle folk ready to find their way to the burial-place of King Tatius and celebrate him by martial dances. Faustulus half thought he would go himself, but changed his mind and walked leisurely on. He noted the house where Livius Andronicus, the playwriter, had lived a hundred and thirty years or so before, and idly wondered whether another house was really that in which Ovid's friend, the poet Gallus, had lived.
"Totis, Galle, jubes tibi me servire diebus.
Et per Aventinum ter quater ire tuum,"
A mere cottage, in a scrap of vineyard, was, he knew, said to be that in which the other poet Ennius had turned his lay with none to listen but his single slave.
At the top of the hill where the Clivus Publicius began he paused a moment to admire the view of Hadrian's mausoleum in the yellow distance, and to picture to himself Caius Gracchus and Marcus Flaccus hurrying up, with Death in close pursuit, to sanctuary in the Temple of Diana close by.
Then he sauntered easily down the sloping road, not hurrying, for he never hurried.
His own house was close under the Palatine, and near the Temple of Romulus, into which he saw a girl, whose figure seemed familiar (but he did not notice particularly, and her back was to him), hastening with a child pressed to her bosom. No doubt the baby was sick, and the mother was taking it to touch the bronze she-wolf, and get it cured.
He smiled indulgently, for after all the wolf would do the child as much good as the doctor, probably, and cost less. He often smiled, too, to think how devoutly his sister Sabina believed that their house stood on what had been the herding-ground, perhaps the very fold, of Faustulus the shepherd. Personally he was sure the site had been given by Nero to a Faustulus whose tastes had been about as pastoral as those of the Emperor, an ancestor who had been fortunate in attracting the Imperial favour only a few months before Nero's death, so that he had contrived to keep both it and his house.
Faustulus entered unobserved; there were no slaves about the door, and he was quite indifferent to their absence: he was not a man who cared for the fuss of respect, and liked well enough to slip in and out without parade. Sometimes he would do so deliberately—to go about the town alone, when his household, perhaps, supposed him to be at home, gave a sort of fillip to his wanderings, lent a mild sense of incognito to his unattended state that made every such small stroll a kind of adventure in miniature.
"You always see so much," Accia would remark admiringly—if she happened to be in a good humour.
"Because I do not always trail about with a lot of slaves and toadies to tell everyone who's coming," he would reply, quite pleased with her compliment and with himself.
Of course such solitary rambles were not always particularly dignified: nor did he trouble Accia to hear of all he saw, or of all the queer nooks and corners of the city into which they led him.
He passed through the porthyra, with a cella on each side, one for the chained porter and the other for the chained dog: the chains were there still (as one may see in London now outside great houses the extinguishers for the link-boys' torches) but Faustulus did not keep a street-door dog, and that cella was empty; and the porter opposite was held by no harder chain than that of sleep.
The sun was set now, but there was a rosy glow that filled the atrium with a pretty flush that Faustulus paused a moment to enjoy. He had a great deal of appreciation and was determined never to lose the pleasures it brought him. Not to lose a pleasure was his philosophy of life.
"And so many pleasures cost nothing," he told himself, "neither money, nor health, nor trouble. Lots of mine are common property, and yet I have them to myself."
The water fell into the tank in the middle of the atrium with a soft, purring trickle, for the fountain was not large nor high, and it played, as it were, lazily, not with a loud, booming spurt.
The little statues of the gods, set up on low pillars, were old but only of tolerable artistic merit, and insignificant in size. Of course Faustulus had not set them there: they were probably about as old as the house which Nero's favourite had built in the year after the great fire.
Faustulus regarded them with careless criticism untempered by devotion.
"They are much too small!" he thought: "they look, in this pink light, like dolls. Images of gods at all events should be of heroic size. There's nothing impressive in a manikin Jupiter. One small image of a god, in some inner private room, may be tolerable. But a dozen of them, each no bigger than a monkey, in an atrium of this size—I should like to bundle them all away, but Sabina would think it impiety and the busy-bodies would say I was turning Christian. One large good copy of the Wolf (with our foster-uncles) would be tolerable, and I know where there is one, in a builder's yard of the Suburra. Well, Flavia; no one to play with?"
A little girl, perhaps five years old, was peeping at him round one of the pillars, with a shy finger thrust into her mouth, and the other plump wee hand slowly moving up and down the base of the column. She was enough like himself to show that she was his daughter, though she was dark, like Accia, while Faustulus was of fair complexion with dark grey eyes and bronze-brown hair.
"Ah, Flavia! You won't be pet rabbit much longer," he observed with a monitory shake of the head. "Your mother only cares for the last. Why can't you go on being the last? After so well-considered a pause why should your mother begin again?"
Flavia continued to smooth the pillar, and to stare: but affected no interest in the conversation.
The small child drew out the finger from her mouth and pointed towards an inner room.
The sunset-glow had faded now, and the hasty twilight was already filling with dark shadow the spaces between the pillars, behind which were the various rooms of the great house. There was a sort of wintriness in the chill grey that fell so swiftly.
"I wish they would light the lamps," thought Faustulus: he disliked sombre half-lights and loved warmth and brightness.
Out of the shadow a lady came, rather hurriedly, and said at once:
"Faustulus, where have you been?"
She was tall like her brother, but a year or so older, and in her case there was no threat of fatness: if she grew old she would become lean and bony. Her dress was somewhat old-fashioned and made her appear older than she was, while Faustulus affected the extreme of youthful fashion.
"Where have you been?" she asked. "We have been sending everywhere for you."
"Not quite everywhere. Had you sent to the Decian Baths you would have found me."
"We sent to the Baths of Diocletian—"
"I was there yesterday—What is the matter? Poor Accia? Is Flavia's new rival come—or on the point of arrival—Yes? I hope Accia is not very uncomfortable: not suffering much? Not frightened, surely?"
There was too little light for the expression of Sabina's face to be seen, but he felt that her manner was grave—as it mostly was.
As she began to speak she made a slight movement to take Flavia's hand in hers, but the child drew back and slipped away. She did not care for her father's sister. He teased her, but she liked him, for he was a man: Sabina was only a woman, and quite old as Flavia considered.
"Accia is not frightened now," Sabina said with a grave pity in her voice. "She was. The child was born two or three hours ago."
"Ah! A new Tatius or a new Flavia?"
"Faustulus, don't. Can you not see I have been trying to prepare you for bad news? Accia's fears are over: if we could have found you, you might have bade her farewell. But she did not know you were not there."
Faustulus knew very well that he was glad they had not found him, since poor Accia would not even have known he was at her side. He shrank from all painful emotion, from which his soft sensuous temperament was by no means immune: he shrank from the emotion of the present moment which was quite bad enough. He carefully abstained even from telling himself, in so many words, that Accia was dead: his real desire was to go out again and have numbers of living people around him. He was grateful to the slaves who came with lighted lamps and hung them up between the pillars: Sabina, he suspected with irritation, would have forbidden the house to be lighted up, in sign of mourning—as if the fact of mourning was not enough without dismal gratuitous signs of it. But his sister was only a guest and far too well-bred to assume there any functions of authority. She would not even suggest that he should go and see his dead wife: she left it to himself, and was angered rather than surprised to see that he turned away and went to his own luxurious room.
Sabina was almost out of date; a woman who should have lived in the austere days of the Republic, with feelings and prejudices quite out of touch with these times of the Late Empire. She was intensely pagan, out of conservatism, and disliked Christians stoutly, and disliked them more since the change in their position brought about by Constantine's conversion. The late Emperor's change to Christianity and endeavours to suppress the worship of the gods made her cling to them more rigidly.
Her idea of life, and especially of the life of nobles, was adherence to fixed, plain rules of duty and public service: pleasure and dissipation she despised, amusement she suspected.
She had a sisterly, habitual affection for her brother, but it was deep rather than warm, and largely sustained by the fact that he was the head of their ancient family. Personal fondness for him she found different: of almost every characteristic he possessed, and he had a good many, she disapproved silently.
"Sabina does not like me," he assured Accia, who was jealous of everybody who liked her husband. "She only cares for her father's son, Faustulus."
"But that is you," Accia pointed out.
"Oh, no! The Faustulus she feels it her duty to have a regard for is merely the head of the Faustuli, the descendant and representative of that tedious shepherd. I'm not tedious, am I, Accia?"
"No, but she is—I don't want to be a Roman Matron and look like a statue."
"You don't a bit. You don't walk this way."
And Accia laughed herself back into good-humour to see him imitate his sister's majestic gait. "As if she had no feet, only a pedestal," she declared, clapping her plump hands.
Sabina knew well enough that her sister-in-law did not like her, and it troubled her very little: she could dispense as easily with the affection of a perverse kitten. But it had seemed hard to her that the frightened girl (for at thirty Accia really was a girl still, and need not have been at such pains to set up for one) should have only had the sister-in-law she shrank from at her side, as she lay confronted with the chill approach of death, instead of the cheerful, easy, careless, selfish husband whom she really liked in her fashion.
Accia had indulged in quite a number of flirtations which Faustulus knew all about and did not grudge her in the least, entirely refusing to wonder whether they were serious or no. Sabina had heard about them too, up in her castle among the hills by Olibanum, and their notoriety had angered her deeply. Nevertheless she knew, as well as Faustulus himself, that if the vain, silly, pleasure-loving, sensuous wife had anything like sincere affection for anyone it was for her idle, selfish, self-indulgent, utterly conscienceless husband.
Had Faustulus beaten her, quite soundly, and kissed away her noisy tears afterwards, Accia would have liked him, perhaps, all the better: and Sabina, for her part, would have thought the beatings thoroughly wholesome, whether Accia liked him better or not: but such archaic discipline was far too old-fashioned for Faustulus: besides he hated tears and scenes and reconciliations, and had no grudge against faulty conduct which did not interfere with his own. Accia had annoyed him more by dying than by any previous indiscretion; and her life had never been discreet. For their station they were not at all rich, and she had been incurably extravagant—the table in his room was littered now with outrageous bills of hers: but there were plenty of his own, and it was rather the people whose creditors they both were whom he regarded as the common enemy: not that he had any very deep enmity to them either: when you have no present intention of paying your bills your grudge against your creditors need not be rancorous.
Faustulus was more sorry for Accia's death for her sake than for his own: naturally, she had wished to live, and, as she had enjoyed her vacuous, shallow life, it seemed hard she should be deprived of it.
Poor Accia! where was she now? In the Elysian Fields? He half smiled as the trite smug phrase rose to his lips. He did not believe in the Elysian Fields at all. He did not believe in anything, neither in the gods, nor in men, nor in himself. He was no worse than half the gods, and most of the men he knew were about as good as himself: that he was bad he did not feel; it is good men, remembering their faults, who feel themselves bad.
"The Elysian Fields! Fancy Accia in the Elysian Fields! How it would bore her! Of course she is really nowhere..." But that, too, seemed bleak and dismal, till he remembered that it merely meant that she was precisely where she had been about thirty years ago. At all events she was no longer in pain—and Accia never could have borne pain for long: or even uncomfortable, as she had loudly complained of being for some weeks.
That he could himself do very well without her was so obvious that he did not state the fact even in his inmost mind—it was not his way to make obvious statements. For years it had been his daily task to keep her in good humour—that he should have taken the trouble was a proof of his being at any rate good-humoured himself: what had helped him was the sense it gave him of his own tact and skill. To know that you are doing a rather difficult thing constantly and almost easily is a tribute to your powers. Faustulus was an artist with the knowledge of his own achievement: he did not want people to wonder at his patience with a tiresome wife; he merely prevented her as often as possible from being tiresome. Still it had been an effort, and he was too indolent not to feel some relief in the knowledge that no further effort would be called for. He had never in the least disliked Accia: instead of yielding to irritations at her many foibles he had chosen to find in them material for amusement—always conscious of the accomplishment it implied in himself. The fretfulness of a selfish and perverse child entertains some parents, and he had made a child of her, not at all against her will.
That he would miss her much he did not now pretend for a moment: his regret, such as it was, for her death was purely good-natured—on her own account; he had never grudged her her pleasures and would have liked her to go on living since that was her principal pleasure, She had been irritably jealous, though quite careless as to affording him grounds for jealousy; jealous even of her own children when he seemed more amused by them than by her. People called her good-natured, because she was a plump, easy-seeming creature, given to much noisy, rather causeless laughter. Faustulus knew she was not even good-tempered; and she was really stupid though able to make sharp, clumsy gibes at her friends, which she always did with a squealing laugh that made people think her merely kittenish and funny. She was greedy, liking nothing so much as good food. Her plumpness was not due entirely to her easy disposition: if she supped on the sly, with a wealthy or extravagant admirer, it was the supper she went for much more than for the society of her host.
Faustulus ate rather sparingly, though he would eat of the most delicate fare, and had an idea that women should not be seen eating at all; there should be little retired rooms for their repasts into which it would be an indelicacy for a man to enter. Accia, in spite of her rank, had many ways of a peasant, and would even eat audibly, and smack her lips a little when a dainty dish gave satisfaction, but her husband would not remember that now; poor girl, her faults were all at an end; he had never borne heavily on them, why should he recall them now?
And he was too courteous even to let himself remember that, practically, her death might prove a way out of difficulties which he had never chosen to weigh or face. They were in debt, and had been living at double the rate their income could cover; as Accia had been responsible for at least the larger half of this expenditure, but he would not think of that.
He supped, lightly and briefly, alone, there in his own room. He would not go to the triclinium where he would have to sit with Sabina and it would be hard to ignore the solemn event of the day. When he had finished, there came a light knock at the door, and he supposed it was the slaves coming to take away the dishes. He remembered how that door used to be a grievance with Accia, who said he ought to have only a curtain; there was a curtain as well, but it hung inside, for he had been quite aware that his wife could listen at doors.
As no one entered he paused a moment before giving any signal for the person, whoever it was that knocked, to enter; it might be his sister and he wondered idly if the curtain prevented the light from showing under the door. Then the knock was repeated, a very humble, gentle knock, and he rose and went to the door. There was moonlight in the atrium now, and the fountain was silent. "Sabina," he thought with his whimsical smile, "has had it stopped."
By his door stood a slave, a mere girl, with a child pressed to her breast.
"Clodia!" he said, almost in a whisper, and drew back into his room.
"Do not be angry," she said in a low voice of sad humility. For months she had not been there or put herself in his way.
"What is it?" he asked, closing the door noiselessly.
"The child," she whispered, without raising her eyes from his feet. Less than a year ago he had thought those large, deep eyes beautiful. He had quite forgotten them. But, scamp as he was, his nature was not brutal, nor cruel. Because he was simply indifferent to the girl he did not treat her harshly, or order her away with rough authority.
"The child," she murmured, pressing her baby closer to her.
He barely glanced at it. He was thinking for the moment of the child that had cost Accia her trivial life. He almost smiled again as he remembered that he did not even know yet whether it were boy or girl. That the slave should be thinking of her own baby, to-night, when all the house must be occupied with the fateful arrival of the other, did not even occur to him; for, though he laughed at pedigrees, he was aristocratic to his backbone, what there was of it.
"It is dead," Clodia said simply, and pressed her baby closer.
For an instant he still thought she was speaking of Accia's child; and, with easy good-nature, he wished that it might have died instead of, and not as well as, the mother.
"Dead too;" he exclaimed.
"Yes, too," said Clodia, as one who might have said, "Death at all events is for slave and lord alike."
Something in her voice and gesture did make him look more closely at her baby at last; the tiny hands were not pink, but bluish, and they did not close about the mother's fingers.
Had Clodia expected him to care? God knows. She felt that he did not. Had he ever cared for anything? She was ashamed of caring for him still, but she did.
"The child," she said simply, "is free."
"I went," she continued hurriedly, "to the Temple. I laid the child, between the two others, under the wolf. But he was not cured."
She lifted her eyes at last, and said eagerly, in a strange, plain voice without a tear in it: "May I nurse the other one?"
"You would like to?" he asked, wondering to himself at the oddness of a sex that on the whole he disliked.
"It is yours, too, the other one," she thought, but did not say so; she was much prouder than the master who owned her, and ashamed of letting him see how she loved him. She only nodded.
"Very well," he answered easily. It seemed wonderfully convenient. He was really pleased to think she might find some distraction from her merely personal disappointment in so practical a way.
"She wants me already," the girl said quietly, turning to the door, still pressing to her breast the baby that wanted it no longer.
"So it's another girl," he said to himself, carelessly, closing the door, and glad that the interview was over.
"One baby or another it's all the same to a woman," he told himself, smiling at the queerness of things.
Then he sat down and took up a book, unrolling it daintily, for he was fond of books and always treated them respectfully. He remembered how Accia detested them and never let him read in her presence without interruption.
"It is a sign of an empty mind," she would say, sententiously, "when people cannot sit still without a book in their hands. If one has ideas of one's own one does not require other people's at second hand. Poetry too! That's the dullest sort of book. No one writes poetry who has anything to say he could not say in prose. Poets are people who don't know what they have to write about; so they put it in verse hoping it may turn out something."
Faustulus had borne no selfish grudge against Accia for dying except for the abominable necessity it would lay upon him of presiding at her funeral. The funeral ceremonies were now all over, and her ashes had been duly deposited in their urn, in one of the niches of the family columbarium on the Appian Way. Her name was soon forgotten almost as completely as if she had never borne it. There was not much to remember about her: her beauty had never been more than prettiness, and it had barely lasted her time: she had never cared much for anyone, or done anything for anybody; and unwavering selfishness may secure a good deal of attention during life, but does not, in private persons, secure immortality afterwards.
"So you are going home," Faustulus remarked with polite regret to his sister. He always was polite, not only to strangers, but even to his own family. But there was more politeness than regret in his voice.
"Your visit has not been very cheerful," he added. To his ideas a return, in late autumn, to a castle among the Sabine Hills, did not
sound very cheerful either: but he never fell into the stupidity of supposing that his own tastes must be those of other people. Sabina's estates were large and he knew she liked looking after them herself: nothing would have bored him more.
"Yes. I must go home: after a month's absence there will be plenty to do, Faustulus."
"Shall I take Faustula with me?"
He smiled lightly at the name; it seemed rather big for a very small baby—which he had scarcely seen yet; and the endless insistence on that eternal shepherd amused him, too. But the proposal seemed extremely convenient. Convenient things were continually happening to him: because, he told himself, he never ran after them. "There should be," he thought, in parenthesis, "a Goddess Convenience. An old maid (Aunt of Good Fortune perhaps), capricious, always smiling and disobliging her toadies, and toadying those who ignored her."
"It is very kind of you," he replied aloud. "I hope Faustula will amuse you."
His sister's motive was probably not to amuse herself, as he was perfectly aware; but he enjoyed teasing her, which was the only way in which he could get any amusement out of her.
"I have no child of my own: and you have more than you know what to do with."
"Three more," he assented blandly.
"I do not offer to take Flavia: the child does not like me—"
"Oh, Flavia is all right. She is provided for..."
Sabina looked slightly annoyed, as though she thought he might have told her before.
"I received a visit yesterday," he went on, "from a very important personage; no less a dignitary than the Vestal Domitia: you know her visits are ceremonies. She is ten years older than Accia and quite twenty-five times more imposing—poor Accia was never imposing, even her enemies never accused her of it. Domitia is grandiose. She expresses a condescending willingness to take charge of Flavia..."
"But Flavia cannot go and live in the Atrium Vestae?"
"Perhaps that is why Domitia perceives that she would like to have her. It gives a very dignified pretext for retiring on her savings to a house of her own. After thirty years of the Atrium Vestae she may be a little tired of it."
"You don't think she is going to marry!" Sabina exclaimed, evidently scandalized. Of course she knew that a Vestal could retire at forty.
"Probably not: or she would not be so ready to provide herself with a ready-made daughter. She can if she likes, of course, and have a public dowry, too—she might do it for the dowry, for she is tenderly attached to money."
"If I were a Vestal I would not return to the world," Sabina declared with conviction.
"It isn't far. Merely round the corner. If I had been a girl I should have been a Vestal. It would have suited me very well. The life is easy and there is plenty of money. I wonder Numa did not think of having men Vestals as well... Domitia intended to be Vestalis Maxima and was furious when she was passed over: that's another reason for her retiring now she can. She and Flavia will get on very well: they are rather like one another: Accia always said so."
It astounded Sabina to hear how easily he talked of his wife, who had not been dead a week, as if she had been dead a year, or was not dead at all.
"Well then," she observed. "Flavia is off your hands. I will take Tatius for the present, too, if you like. But he must be educated, and he is six already. In a few years he will be too big for me—I could do nothing with a boy of nine or ten up at home: he could get no education or training with me."
"He has a pedagogue already, Maltro, who teaches him much more than he wants to learn."
"No. A slave. I have thought of giving him his freedom: but I know he has money and he may as well buy it. He is clever, and Tatius likes him."
"Very well. He may come, too, and go on teaching the child. But Faustulus?"
"Well?" inquired her brother, who thought the conversation a little prosy and long-winded.
"I am taking the children off your hands; what could you do with them? But I want you to understand—"
"I never can understand anything," her brother protested airily.
"But I must explain..."
"No, don't. Please don't explain. Explanations are precisely what I never understand."
Sabina was annoyed and said her say quickly, being determined he should hear it.
"Then, without explanation; I take the children—"
"No. I give them to you, freely. Or say, lend them—polite people never call loans gifts."
"But," his sister went on ruthlessly, "you are to understand that Tatius returns to you presently—when he is old enough. As for Faustula, should she be betrothed—"
"The first I heard of it," Faustulus interrupted blandly. "How time flies!"
"Should she be marriageable during my life and be betrothed I will give her a dowry such as I had from my father. And if I die first she shall have such dowry laid up for her; that is all. Most of what I have comes from my husband and he has left relations..."
"Not disagreeable I hope? As husband's relations are so apt to be."
"I see little of them. Some are Christians: but not all. If they prove deserving the property that came from their family shall go back to it. Now I have said what I intended you may be as tiresome as you please; and you are enough to provoke the gods."
"They are not difficult to provoke. Their infirmities of temper are notorious."
"Faustulus! Your impiety—"
"Impiety! My dear Sabina, the gods are my very good friends. My conduct is largely based on theirs... I copy Jupiter in almost everything but the thunderbolts. That I do not attempt. In fact since the Neronian fire the laws against incendiarism are so stringent that I doubt if they would be permitted—especially in this neighbourhood, so near to the Circus Maximus, where you will recollect, the fire broke out. Perhaps the Divine Nero fell into the mistake of discharging some among the wooden booths there—it was rather a weakness of his family to imagine themselves gods..."
But Sabina would not listen. It was enough to bring a thunderbolt down on her brother's head. She was, perhaps, more angry than afraid, and turned to leave the room with undisguised displeasure.
"Are you going to denounce me for impiety?" Faustulus asked, cheerfully. "To whom? Remember the Pontifex Maximus is a good way off—and himself a Christian!"
On the day following Sabina left Rome, and, duly attended, began, almost as soon as it was light, her journey home.
Somewhat to her surprise Faustulus had offered, the night before, to ride with her, and he brought with him a dozen or so of his own men, mounted and armed. He proved quite a pleasant fellow-traveller, with interesting little scraps of information to give which certainly beguiled the way. Without knowing very much of anything, he knew a little about almost everything, and he knew exactly how to use it. He could make a scrap of history sound like a scrap of gossip; in fact he only cared for history as it lent itself to such purposes.
As they drew near to the Porta Praenestina people were coming out of the church in the Empress Helena's palace, consecrated some years before by Pope Sylvester in honour of the Holy Cross. Many of them were evidently persons of rank, and some of them had been pagans until quite recently.
Faustulus knew them and greeted them by name with great amiability; he knew it would be wormwood to Sabina, who drew back in her litter, and frowned heavily.
"It is really very kind of them to remember me," he told her. "They are in the fashion. More and more of the best families go to the churches now."
He knew quite well that his sister had frequent tremors lest he, who certainly did not care a farthing for the gods, should go over to the faith that was become Imperial. It amused him.
Of Christianity he knew hardly anything; what he did know repelled him. As to its beliefs he was as indifferent as he was ignorant; but he had an instinctive aversion from a moral code which he knew would be intolerable to himself.
"They use their triumph," he declared, "with great moderation. Less than forty years ago Diocletian was persecuting them, and now they have their turn they do not even bully us. It is nine years since the Divine Constantine (I suppose he is divine now he is dead) ordered all the temples to be closed. They are no more closed than the churches. The Pope has never tried to force it."
"He would not dare," said Sabina angrily.
"Oh, I don't know. Pope Julius would dare pretty much... that's not a bad tomb for a baker, is it? I think he was a good fellow; you see how he was not ashamed of his baking: all the process of the trade shown in the reliefs (except the mixing of chalk with the flour)." A mile and a half outside the gate he pointed out the tomb of the Empress Helena which Sabina glanced at sourly.
"She was not really Augusta at all," she protested; "she was the daughter of a tavern-keeper, and Maximian made Constantius repudiate her when he became Caesar."
She was more willing to admire the Palace of the Gordian Emperors, and quite ready to believe that there were two hundred marble columns in its portico. But what she liked best was the exquisite view of her own Sabine hills behind it: she longed for home: a very few weeks of modern Rome sickened her. When Faustulus said: "This is where Camillus overtook the Gauls laden with the spoils of Rome," she was interested, and believed firmly when he added: "He did not leave a single Gaul alive to carry the news home."
But she was cross when he went on: "Perhaps that was why the Gauls never believed Camillus had routed them at all. You should always leave some of the other side alive to confirm your story."
When he pointed away, over the more and more wild country and said:
"There is Gabii—where our foster-uncles Romulus and Remus were sent to learn Greek and drill," she believed devoutly, though she doubted whether he did.
"Juno had a great temple there," he went on; "you can see it still. I don't care much for her. It was an unfortunate marriage. You should never marry your sister—she's bound to know too much about you. Chelone was quite right not to go to the wedding. And if I had been Jupiter I would have wanted to know a good deal more about Vulcan... smelling flowers is all very well."
As Sabina was, or pretended to be, asleep, he let her alone till they came to the place, seven miles further on, where the ancient pavement was so splendidly preserved, that he insisted on her admiring it. As the place was somewhat wild, however, and Sabina had a watchful eye for robbers, her attention was a little distracted: perhaps she did not perceive that the pavement here was very different from what it had been all along the road. To the right and left steep cliffs rose up sixty or seventy feet into the air, garlanded with trails of ivy and hyssop. The road was getting steeper now as they drew near Praeneste.
"Over there," Faustulus informed his sister pointing to the left, "is Pedum. Never mind the robbers—there aren't any, and, if there were, they would not trouble us with all these armed fellows of mine. Albius Tibullus lived there and had a good estate there (that was why Horace liked him, not, you may be sure, because he was a fellow-poet. Horace always liked people who were well-off).
'Albi, nostrorum sermonum candide judex
Quid nunc te dicam facere in regione Pedana.'"
quoted Faustulus. He never quoted more than a line or so; anything long bored him.
"They are changing the old name now," he went on, "and people are taking to call the old place Gallicanum, in honour of Ovinius Gallicanus, whom you remember as City Prefect in Constantine's time."
It annoyed Sabina to be reminded of Christians holding the highest offices of state: and she took no more interest in the place where Horace's friend had lived.
She fell into a thoughtful silence, and her brother left her to her thoughts, for, though he liked to torment her, he never wanted to bore anyone.
It was very quiet and the wide empty spaces around them full of peace; the late October sunshine was bright and happy, but not hot; and now the air of the mountains came down to meet them with a brisk welcome.
But Sabina was half-troubled: rejoiced to escape from Rome, and certainly not much saddened by the death of a sister-in-law who had disliked her, and whom Faustulus seemed to miss so little, she ought, she felt, to be in better spirits as she drew nearer the home in which all her interests were centred. She was really troubling herself about an apprehension that was perfectly groundless. She knew her brother to be wholly without religion, and for religion she had a traditional respect: any religion would make him more respectable, nevertheless she shrank with horror from the dread that he would become a Christian. As far as her dislike to Christianity was logical at all, it was based on conservatism. Romans should believe as their fathers—who had made Rome the greatest power on earth—believed before them; and Sabina was national before anything and the Church was not national: it was its special claim to be universal, which to her mind was merely international, anti-national; the first Pope had been a Hebrew of low origin, and numbers of his successors had, she heard, been foreigners—Greeks, Asiatics, Africans, Dalmatians; it was intolerable to think of Romans of noble birth professing a religion that did not form a department of the State, but arrogantly claimed to be superior to it; whose head might be, and often was not a Roman at all; a religion which admitted to equal rights barbarians, slaves, and patricians. The great offices of the State religion should be the family inheritance of the great houses, or open only to those who belonged to great houses. For all she knew the Pope might be the son of a slave, as he certainly need not be a Roman. She was not a cruel person, though stern and severe; she did not want the Christian to be persecuted, not put to death at all events, if it were for their tiresome faith alone; but they should not be rebels, and they should conform; if the gods had been good enough for their betters they must be good enough for them. And there had been no persecution within her memory. Diocletian's had come to an end just about the time when she was born: not of a lively imagination she had no great pity for suffering she had never seen.
Of the Pope's faith she knew, if anything, less even than Faustulus; and of the Pope himself she knew nothing at all. That the Popes had been charitable to the poor and oppressed she had been often told, but she was not greatly impressed. No doubt they were crafty fellows who knew how to court mob-popularity; Sabina would not admire gifts when Greeks brought them; and very likely the poor whom the Popes had befriended and petted were a set of discontented idle slaves, or city riffraff. To her own poor, even slaves, up near Olibanum she could be kind and generous, though never indulgent; but then she knew them, and their poverty was under her nose. The indigent whom she did not know were probably worthless creatures and ought not to be encouraged; it only made them poorer and more idle. Besides there was a measure to be observed; Sabina gave freely enough out of superfluities that she could not miss; and rich people ought to do so; it even made their wealth sweeter to themselves. She liked to feel her slaves were warmly clad in winter, and had enough to eat; her own excellent clothing sat the more snugly on her back, and her own well-spread table was the more enjoyable. But the Pope and his Christians gave away what they could not spare; that was wrong: some, she understood, had sold off all they had, lands and palaces, furniture and plate, costly tapestries and rich jewels, and given all the money to the poor at once—that was folly. What would they have left to give another year? Sabina did not admire such wasteful charity at all; it was worse in some ways than callous selfishness and indifference. Selfishness and indifference did not, at all events, ruin noble families and bring them to nothing. Above all it was the duty of the great houses to hand on their greatness; how could that be done if the present heads sold off farms and estates, ancestral palaces and heirlooms, and squandered away the money on a rabble of good-for-nothing idlers? With such doings there would soon be no nobility at all.
Sabina had an idea that once a person of rank and wealth became a member of the Church he was done for. The Pope was his master, and all he had was liable to be swept into the unthrifty coffers of the Church. He himself would be inveigled into becoming a priest, no more considered than the next priest who might be the son of a freedman or a cobbler, and there would be an end of a family that had lasted since Romulus. Scamp as her brother was she could not wish him to become religious at such a price as that; why could not he be religious, moderately religious, in the old way? A quite easy respectability was all she desired for him. In a man of rank nothing more was required. The old religion had turned out good citizens (what nation had ever produced their equal?), good soldiers, great statesmen, all the poets whom Faustulus so much admired, all the Romans, in fact: what could anyone want more? All the religion her brother needed could be found in that of the gods—a religion that had made Roman life orderly and discreet, and had made the Romans the greatest people on earth. The Pope's religion was too much of a good thing, it was too intimate. It interfered in daily life, in family life; there was, she was sure, no privacy in it. Christian priests were meddlesome; they told you what your duty was, which you ought to know for yourself, and must know better than they could tell you, seeing they were apt to be common fellows without any knowledge of the inner lives of nobles; and they were grasping, ready to pounce on the amenities and refinements of your station, and denounce them as extravagances which you should curtail so as to have more to waste on the poor and the churches. Sabina liked a well-endowed national worship independent of such aggressions on your pocket. She could make handsome offerings to temples, people in her rank had always been glad to do so, but they liked to do it of their own accord and at their own convenience; not yielding to a claim, but satisfying their own bountiful instincts. In this also the Christians (egged on by the Pope) were immoderate. She knew of women who had stripped themselves of every jewel, family jewels too, and given them to adorn a church, or a vessel used in the outlandish, superstitious ceremonies of the Christian mysteries. Of course many pagan nobles had squandered family jewels on very reprehensible characters, who had not belonged to their families, but they were young and foolish, or if not young they were old enough to have known better. Sabina did not defend them, young or old; but two wrongs do not make a right, and in any case gems thus alienated had often been brought back—the creatures who got them had sometimes hardly known their value, and had been ready to sell them again for a tithe of their real value. At that moment she had jewels that had belonged for generations to the Faustuli which her father never left her; her brother had not the least idea they were in her possession; he had given them to all sorts of people and she had heard of their whereabouts and had got them back for absurdly small sums. Once in a church they would have been lost irretrievably.
Almost worse than all else she understood that the Pope's Christians confessed their sins to his priests. That was intolerable. Well-conducted people should have nothing to confess; if they had they should keep it to themselves. There was a horrible want of dignity and reticence in raking out your cess-pools for other people to know what was in them. It must destroy all self-respect. Who could stand it? Why even she herself when she was very young—poof! the indelicacy of the idea shocked her.
Faustula was six years old when she first saw her father: by that time he could not positively remember whether he had ever seen her or no: but he gave himself the benefit of the doubt (as he was always ready to do even in the case of other people) and concluded that he had. Sabina, on the other hand, recollected very well that he had not asked to see the baby when he went back to Rome the day after he had politely escorted his sister home.
Very soon afterwards he had written to say he was about to travel, and was starting immediately. He did not come to say good-bye, and he did not mention where he was going, probably because he did not know. The big house in Rome was shut up and Sabina thought that a good thing: she knew her brother was unlikely to go about with a retinue, and he would spend less money than if he stayed at home and lived as he had been living since his marriage. She thought, too, that he would be too much occupied with the change and movement of travel to become a Christian.
Faustula throve in the pure fresh air of the hills, and, from a very delicate baby, she became a healthy vigorous child. Sabina was as good to her as if she had been her own daughter, and as strict. She kept a watchful eye over her food, allowed no one to doctor her but herself, and taught her to demean herself as became her name and high station. Clodia was submissive and silent, the two qualities which Sabina most valued in a woman in her position, and was seldom brought to task: if she spoiled her foster-child she contrived to do it so that the lady did not suspect it: if Faustula loved Clodia better than her aunt it never occurred to Sabina. Clodia was only a slave, and the wealthy, busy lady thought about her very little: she had other things to occupy her active, practical mind.
As for the child she was obedient, docile, and respectful, not given to chatter, not pert, and seemed fully aware of her aunt's importance. Her manner, even as a very small girl, was quiet and dignified, which Sabina liked much better than boisterous affection. Her aunt had never been effusive herself, and had not been given to displays of fondness for her own mother, of whom she had not been accustomed to see much. Even if she had perceived that Faustula showed more tenderness for Clodia than for her aunt she would hardly have been jealous, though she might have thought it undignified: but a shy instinct taught the tiny child to keep the little endearments she showered on her nurse for occasions when they two were alone.
Of her father Faustula scarcely heard. It was very rarely Sabina had anything to tell of him, and Clodia never mentioned his name: by the time she was able to talk to Tatius he had very little to say on the subject. Faustulus had not taken much notice of him. As a very small boy, Tatius had been rather ugly and awkward, with a slight stammer which Faustulus had mimicked, and a heavy manner: he did not appear to inherit any of his father's trivial cleverness, and very rarely laughed. On the whole he had been best pleased when left unnoticed, and Faustulus was ready enough to ignore him since he seemed to like it. Tatius was not, however, stupid. He had plenty of plain intelligence and imbibed certain ideas quite readily: for instance he saw that Sabina regarded him as being of more importance than his sister, and that this was because he was a boy and would be the head of their ancient house. He had no objection, and was willing to learn to be important. Of course he was much older than Faustula, and was nine years of age by the time she was three: even when Faustula was four she did not understand much about the dignity of being descended from the foster-father of Romulus: but Tatius was ten and understood very well. He did not quite so easily remember that Faustula was also descended from the historic shepherd, though he never forgot that Sabina was.
Tatius was early alive to the idea that it behooved him not to let his illustrious name be forgotten: it would be proper that he should distinguish himself: and the army would be the best way. One need not be, he imagined, very learned in bookish matters, to become a noted general. And he gathered from Sabina, while still a small boy, that in other departments of State competition with Christians would be more likely to stand in his way. He disliked the Christians most obediently, as became the future head of the house of Faustulus.
Sabina, who had brought him to her house as a temporary measure, and under protest that he could not stay with her, quite forgot that the time was come for him to go away. She really liked him better than Faustula: and, as his father was abroad, and not easy to communicate with, since he always almost mentioned that he was just about to leave the place from which he wrote, the moment never seemed to arrive for Tatius to go. She did not spoil him any more than his sister, but she saw much more of him: he was older and he had no nurse. As she approved of Faustula on the whole, it did not occur to Sabina that she was not particularly fond of her: the busy practical woman was not given to such considerations. She did her duty by the child and the child seemed dutiful in return: that was what mattered. Nor had she any actual tenderness for the boy to suggest a contrast: she had never been tender to anybody, and Tatius was not aware of the deficiency. He was not tender either, and he felt himself the favourite, which was more to the purpose. From his mother he inherited a jealous disposition—long ago he had been jealous of Flavia whom his father had teased and played with—and he would have been jealous of Faustula had he not perceived that, so far as his aunt was concerned, there was not the least occasion. That Clodia loved his sister passionately and was indifferent to him, he saw, but it did not trouble him: Clodia was only a slave: he merely disliked her. On the rare occasions when Faustula's foster-mother received a rebuke from Sabina it was because Tatius had told tales. Faustula knew this very well.
To his sister the boy was as yet kind enough: he only tried to treat her as his father had treated him: but his attempts to irritate her were rather clumsy. Now and then he would detect in her speech some flaw of Sabine dialect, and would mimic her mistakes.
"D-d-did I really ta-ta-talk like that?" she would reply innocently. She did not stammer in the least herself.
Had he known that Faustula was very much better looking than himself he would have been more jealous. But he knew that he had his father's features and was aware that Faustulus had been esteemed handsome; Sabina even mentioned it. He could not be expected to know that the charm of his father's appearance had been chiefly due to his vivacious air of cleverness and amiability, to his beautiful hair and eyes, and his brilliant colouring. Tatius had a thick, pallid skin, shallowish black eyes like Accia's, and coarse straight hair like a peasant's: his figure was thick and lumpish.
Faustula had not been a pretty baby, which Tatius recollected his aunt remarking with surprise, for she herself, it appeared, had been a lovely infant.
"Our family has always been good-looking," she declared complacently; and Tatius naturally remembered that he belonged to it. "But Faustula is a weazened, queer-looking little thing."
He never forgot this, and, as Sabina made no later pronouncements on the subject, he looked upon it as settled that his sister was a plain child. In reality she outgrew her plainness very early, and became a lovely little girl. She had her father's deep-grey eyes, and curly bronze-brown hair, her features were much better, and her skin, like his, was clear and fair. She had not his liveliness of expression, but her face was clever, and the look of high breeding on which Faustulus piqued himself was more than reproduced in his daughter. If the little girl's expression was graver than her father's it was also nobler, and there was nothing heavy or sombre about it. Faustulus was never more than attractive: his child was destined to be beautiful.
As was said at the beginning of the last chapter Faustula never saw her father till she was six years old.
When he wrote from Rome to say he had returned, and would come out to visit his sister very soon, Sabina was not quite as glad as she would have supposed natural. She had got on for six years very well without seeing him, or often hearing from him, and she had no idea that he was even in Italy. Now it would be proper for Tatius to go away, and she could really have spared his sister much better. The twelve-year-old boy, who was not clever, was precocious in his way, and was interested in the matters which Sabina cared about; Faustula was too little.
Tatius was quite sharp enough to see that wealth and the management of wealth were topics of unfailing import; the greatness of the family of which he had almost grown to think himself already the head, was also a subject for continual meditation and discussion. He knew the family pedigree as well as Sabina herself, and believed as devoutly in the first centuries of it, which Faustulus laughed at, as in its later ramifications. As he and Sabina never talked about the pedigrees of other families, they both forgot that other people might claim to have descents as ancient and more illustrious than their own.
Tatius was not particularly pleased to think of his father's return. He could not be expected to care much for him, and he had practically forgotten his existence; such hazy recollections as the boy still had of his father, who had laughed at him, were not calculated to endear his memory to a lad who thought very comfortably of himself. One need not be specially clever to have wonderfully correct instincts of self-love, and Tatius had an uneasy foreboding that Faustulus would make game of him, and perhaps snub him.
The boy toadied his aunt, and a toady gets on much better without careless, keen-eyed witnesses. Without intending it, too, Sabina had let her nephew perceive that her brother was not all the head of the Faustuli should be. Tatius was sure that he ought to disapprove of his father, and it was tiresome to be seen through and laughed at by people who live in glass houses.
The old state of things had suited Tatius very well, as it had suited his aunt, and they neither of them were really pleased to think it was about to be changed. The boy had lived so long, and on such intimate terms, with the elderly widow that he was an old maid, at twelve, himself. The easy affluent life of the big country-house was altogether to his taste; he felt, quite truly, that he should never be so considerable a person anywhere else, and he felt glad when Sabina remarked that now it would be time for him to begin his regular training for the army.
"Your father has been away a long time," she observed.
"Six years!" Tatius reminded her, as if the long absence was hardly to his parent's credit—as perhaps it was not. Tatius had the justest ideas of other people's duties.
"Yes. Six years. I only supposed he would leave you here a year or two. I explained that then it would be time for you to begin a better education than you could get here."
"You have thought much more about my education than he has."
"I always do think of things. As he was away there was no one else to think about it. I daresay you have learned as much as other boys of your age."
Tatius looked as if he was sure of it; which indeed he was. As he knew very little about other boys of his rank it was not his fault if he was wrong. Perhaps he was not wrong. Maltro was a very clever man, and there had been other teachers as well. If home-bred boys have sometimes homely wits it is not always because they have been badly taught.
Very likely if Tatius had spent among other pagan boys in Rome the years that had been so comfortably passed at Olibanum, he might have known a great many things, the ignorance of which was no loss; even as it was he was not quite so simple as Sabina took for granted; among the slaves of the big household there were lads of his own age and a little older, and for lack of other company he would mix with them sometimes, though less than many boys so placed would have done, for he thought much of his dignity, and detested all manner of games.
When Faustulus arrived his sister could not perceive that he had grown any older; till they actually met it had seemed to her an enormous time since they parted; the moment they were together it seemed as though they had seen one another quite lately.
"You are not in the least changed," she assured him.
"Nor are you," he declared. ("She looks fifty at least," he told himself.)
"Oh, when one becomes middle-aged early in life one does not change any more for a long time. I became middle-aged when I became a widow."
"You are a widow still—"
"Of course! I never intended to be anything else."
"Then you were quite right to hide yourself up here among the mountains. It is very hard to go on being a handsome widow with a good income in Rome."
Sabina did not object to the idea that her isolation alone had kept eager suitors at bay; she was forty-three and had never been young of her age. She smiled benignantly and told him she was glad that he also had remained unmarried. He smiled, too, but not quite so freely as usual, and she instantly had suspicions.
"Will Flavia come and live with you now?" she asked.
"Not at present. Our ex-Vestal Domitia did not marry, you see, and Flavia is more company for her now than at first. Of course you have seen her?"
"Not often. Domitia does not like our life here, and only brought Flavia out to see her brother and sister once or twice. You will find Tatius much improved."
Faustulus looked as if that might be easily-possible.
"He was a dull child and not good-tempered," he observed coolly.
"He is not at all dull now. He is an intelligent boy. Perhaps you mistook his reserve for dullness."
"And he is not a bad-tempered boy. I do not allow those about me to have tempers; but there has been nothing of the sort to correct in Tatius. You shall see him."
Faustulus did not see that there was any hurry; he had got on quite well without seeing his son for six years, and could easily have waited an hour or so longer. But Sabina had certain orders to give, and went off to find her nephew at the same time.
She had hardly left the room by one door before Tatius himself entered it by another. He stood still on seeing his father and waited to be spoken to. He was surprised to think what a young man Faustulus appeared. It would evidently be a good while before he himself would be head of the family.
"So you are Tatius," his father said, walking across the room to him. His movements were always easy and graceful, which his son at once associated, somehow, with his defective character. He himself moved forward, not at all gracefully, and made a rather awkward obeisance. Of course his father called him Tatius, by which name he had always been known, but he reminded himself that he was Titus Tatius Faustulus.
("As thick and lumpy as ever," thought Faustulus; "he walks with his shoulders like a porter.")
"Do you remember me?" he asked.
"You do not find me grown!"
His son thought this silly, and though he laughed, too, his father understood perfectly.
"You are quite right," he remarked cheerfully. "I am not so wise as Sabina. You had much better copy her; you will find it easier than being foolish like me."
It seemed quite obvious to Tatius that his father was foolish; and he did not believe this was the way in which a noble Roman should converse with his son. He stared a little, then remembered that to do so was ill-bred, and looked at a painting of Mercury on the wall and wondered how he could fly straight with a wing only on one heel.
"He never did fly straight, his ways were devious in the extreme," observed Faustulus, pleased to perceive that his son was startled at the care with which he followed his thoughts.
"Yes, I always shall know exactly what you are thinking of. That's another difference between me and Sabina," Faustulus declared sweetly.
Tatius reddened at once. If his father had accused him flatly of toadying his aunt, and told him that his ways of doing so were as transparent as air, he could not have looked more guilty. Faustulus found him quite entertaining.
"Your aunt said I should find you improved," he remarked with his airy smile. "And she was quite right. You are more amusing."
Tatius knew well that he was not really receiving a compliment. He was not a coward at any rate, and he said angrily: "I knew you would laugh at me."
His father was not at all annoyed.
"You are not very glad I have come back," he said, watching the dark flush throbbing in his son's thick skin. Tatius held his tongue.
"There's no reason on earth why you should be glad."
"S-Sabina," the lad began, but his lips were dry and the words he wanted would not come readily.
"She does not mock children."
"I did not know you were more than one child. By the way, where is Faustula?"
"With Clodia, I suppose. Shall I go and fetch her?"
"Yes, if you like."
And the boy went willingly. Outside the room he made a very ugly face, and shook his round head sharply to the right. He was quite determined to hate his father. Faustulus had not the least intention of hating him; he was not specially fond of people in general but he had not many strong dislikes. He was wondering whether the boy would come back with his sister or send her with Clodia.
Clodia did not come, but sent the child with her brother. Sabina returned a moment afterwards.
"I have taken good care of her," she said, "she was a puny, sickly baby. At first I doubted if we should rear her. You see she is quite healthy now."
Faustulus saw that she was much more than healthy. He perceived at once that she had more beauty than either Accia or he had ever had. She was tall of her age, and slim, but not in the least lean or scraggy, like her aunt, whom indeed she did not resemble in any way. Her limbs moved with a delightful natural grace, and her lovely eyes were full of a grave unabashed interest.
"Well, Faustula!" said the father, taking her pretty hands into his own and smiling.
It was not much. But Tatius was jealous at once. His father had smiled at him, too, but there was a great difference.
The little girl's full lips parted in an answering smile and she lifted them to her father's to kiss. Perhaps that was the purest, sweetest kiss Faustulus had ever given or received. He sat down and held her on his knee; she looked round as if for her brother, but the boy drew away, towards his aunt, and indeed his father was not thinking of him.
Tatius knew at last that his sister was beautiful; whereas their father thought him ungainly and ugly. He had never disliked Faustula before: she was only a girl and he had merely ignored her.
Faustulus was devoted to beauty; whether in art or nature, it never escaped him. The loveliness of his child could no more be lost on him than if it had been the loveliness of a flower. That was all.
("You didn't learn your grace and beauty from Sabina," he thought. "Tatius has learned all she had to teach.") Then aloud:
"Accia would have been jealous of her," he said over the child's head to her justly scandalized aunt. "Accia would only keep kittens that were too ugly for me to make much of."
"Faustulus!" expostulated Sabina.
And Tatius at once decided that his mother, whom he had comfortably forgotten ever since her death, had had much to complain of. He took her part fiercely.
Faustulus could not very well go back to Rome on the next day, but he went on the day after that, and Sabina was not sorry though she thought he ought to have stayed longer.
The truth was they could not get on together. She tried too hard. If she had left him more alone he would not have much minded a few days of the quiet country life; but, after so long a separation, she thought it necessary to treat her brother as an important visitor, and gave up almost all her time to him. She sacrificed her usual employments and sat with him in idle state. Conversation was not her strong point, and Faustulus did not care to hear about her thriving property—Tatius, she felt, would have made a better listener. Nor was she much interested in his travels.
By way of giving him company she made him go with her to visit some neighbours who had not long come to live on their Sabine estates.
"They are Christians," she explained apologetically, "but of very good family: one need not see much of them, but it would not look well to treat them uncivilly."
"Who are they?"
"There is a widow, Melania; her husband was Acilius Glabrio—the Acilii have been Christians since Domitian's time, and of course they are of the best blood in Rome. I do not remember to have heard who Melania was; the marriage took place long after my own, when I was no longer in Rome. Acilius Glabrio died less than a year ago, and she has come to live on a large property of his here. She has children who must be quite young."
Faustulus did not much care about the visit, but he accompanied his sister, who went in some state. The two houses were some three miles apart and not within sight of each other. Sabina's castle crowned a spur of the mountain overhanging the little town of Olibanum, which was chiefly occupied by her own slaves; the castle of the Acilii stood much higher among the hills, but was hidden by an intervening ridge. It had also a village near it, whose inhabitants were mostly Christian like their masters.
Between the two places there was a pretty good road, and Faustulus enjoyed its beauties. Sometimes it hung on the hill-side like a terrace, with the deep, wooded valley falling away from it on one side, and bare peak or ridge of barren mountain rising abruptly on the other. As they drew near to Civitellum it mounted steeply.
The house of the Acilii stood on higher ground than the village, on a kind of plateau from which the mountain dropped hundreds of feet into an enormous amphitheatre, miles across, rimmed with high hills; far away on the other side was Sublaqueum, where Nero had made his lakes and his villa.
"In spite of its modern barbarous name," said Faustulus, "there must have been a town here in the days of the Pelasgi," and he made Sabina look at the remains of cyclopean wall, which seemed to grow out of the precipitous rock, and to be a continuation of it.
Sabina did not care much about the Pelasgi; her interest did not go farther back than the Sabines. It was her private belief (shared by Tatius) that the Faustuli were a Sabine family. But she perceived that there was a new church with a cross on it, and saw no signs of a temple: however, the Acilii were Christians, and people's slaves were naturally of the religion of their masters; for that matter it could not greatly signify what slaves thought they believed; they had to hold their tongues.
The road to the House of the Acilii branched off near the gate of the village, which had considered itself a city once: it passed between two fine statues, of heroic size, mounted on plain pedestals without inscriptions.
"Hercules and Mars," said Faustulus; "no doubt they were removed from a closed temple."
Sabina looked irate.
"How dared they close it?" she exclaimed sourly.
"Perhaps there was no one to go to it. If all their people were Christians I suppose the Acilii thought the statues might as well serve as ornaments. In old days, when there would be fear of their being worshipped, I daresay the Acilii would rather have broken them up."
"Of course. It is odd the gods ever stood it."
Sabina ceased to listen, and looked about her instead. The place had not been inhabited, or much visited, by the owners for some time, and had the air of neglect that always follows on the master's prolonged absence. The contrast between all this and the prosperous, well-kept look of her own estate did not escape her. It was the result of a Christian landlord.
She had no fault, however, to find with the manner in which Melania received her visitors. Sabina said that she was perfectly well-bred, and she was quite ready to do justice to the young widow's gentle dignity and grace. Perhaps she liked her all the better because Melania evidently did not set up for a beauty. Her features were good, and extremely refined, and she was a comely young woman; some beauties Sabina had known had not had so good a stock-in-trade: her neat, small figure was well-formed, and she carried herself with the ease and grace of a person at home in the only society Sabina recognized as society at all. But her dress was simple and plain even for a widow, and she wore no jewels; her manners had the same simplicity and plainness, and though exceedingly courteous, there was none of the fashionable determination to be charming at any price.
"It is very kind of you to come and see me," she said. "Of course, I knew you were my neighbour. I have heard of you—you are the pattern landlord; I must learn your secrets. This place has been rather left to itself—as you can see."
"None of your family have lived here since I came to Olibanum."
"No. My father-in-law fancied the keen air of the mountains did not agree with him, and he was City Praefect and had much to do in Rome. He died only last year."
"One can see that this has been a very big place," said Sabina, thinking she was saying something civil, "much finer than my castle of the winds at Olibanum."
"Oh, this was never really a castle. Long ago there used to be a castle here. In the time of the Emperor Nero my husband's ancestor built this huge villa—perhaps because the Emperor had built his villa at Sublaqueum. There was an Acilius Glabrio then, and I daresay he thought too much of doing what the Emperor did."
Sabina was not sure that this was quite the proper way of alluding to the whims of Emperors; but she remembered that it had been Constantine's whim to turn Christian, and that the present Constantine had the same eccentricity, and suspended her judgment.
"You do not live by yourself at Olibanum?" said Melania.
"No. I have with me my brother's son and daughter. He has been absent from Italy for some years."
Faustulus had been taking stock of their hostess. He found her harmless and well-bred, but dowdy.
"I suppose it is part of the Christian religion," he thought, "to dress like your grandmother."
"I am an ill-conducted person," he remarked cheerfully, "who travels to avoid the sense of neglected duties at home."
"There certainly are more duties at home than one can flatter oneself one fulfils," said Melania without much appearance of taking him seriously or being shocked. Sabina knew that her duties were fulfilled and did not see why other people's should be neglected.
"By running away one neglects them all," she observed, oblivious of the fact that she had not been specially delighted by her brother's return.
"One avoids at all events giving bad example," said Faustulus demurely.
"That is a great thing," said Melania, laughing: the brother and sister amused her. Sabina at any rate was not difficult to understand.
"And you," asked that lady, to change the subject, "you do not live here alone either?"
"Oh no! I have my children, two boys and a girl—and my husband's aunt is here, too. Here she comes."
An elderly lady, perhaps sixty years of age, entered the room and the visitors were introduced to her. She was a widow, like Sabina, but did not resemble her in any other particular. Her name was Acilia, and her husband, who had been an officer of high rank, had been martyred under Diocletian. She had evidently been very beautiful and was handsome still; her manner was grave and dignified, perhaps, it seemed, reserved; but it was not severe or sombre. She greeted Sabina and Faustulus with a courtesy that the latter thought a little formal; but his sister did not at all disapprove. She rather liked stiffness in people of rank meeting strangers for the first time; in Rome it might be the modern fashion to treat new acquaintances as if one had known them all one's life; but Sabina did not care for such ways.
"How old are your children?" Sabina inquired presently turning to Melania.
"Perhaps they are not all of the same age," Faustulus suggested before his hostess could answer.
Melania smiled: Acilia had not caught his remark and did not smile, which Sabina counted to her for righteousness.
"My boys are fourteen and twelve years old: they are called Christopher and Fabian. My little girl is only six and her name is Domitilla."
"Ah!" cried Sabina. "My nephew is twelve and my niece is six."
She was quite interested. The coincidence struck her: she turned to Faustulus, who had not so readily remembered the precise ages of his children.
"It is unfortunate," he observed, "that Flavia is a girl and only eleven."
Acilia glanced at him quickly as if she thought him a peculiar person: as indeed he was. But Melania caught his demure eye and could not help smiling again.
"Perhaps," said Sabina, "when you come to see me you will bring your children with you. Tatius and Faustula never see any children of their own rank; it would be a treat for them."
Acilia perceived that Sabina spoke of her brother's children as though they were hers, and that he himself hardly spoke of them at all.
Melania thanked Sabina and said that perhaps she would like to see them now.
"I have not much to show you," she said. "I am like Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, and have no other treasures."
Faustulus was not struck by the originality of this remark: but Sabina liked it. She did not care much for originality in people of position, and, as the allusion was to an illustrious heathen of antiquity, it seemed to her to show a wide-mindedness she had not expected in a noble Christian. At the same time she was struck by its justice. The house was almost a palace, but it was singularly bare. The furniture had been costly but there was not much of it, and nothing seemed to have been added for several generations. Beyond the furniture there was almost nothing: being summer it was natural that there should be no carpets: but there were no statues, no rich hangings, no mirrors of polished silver, none of the accumulations of objects of art usual in the villa of a great noble.
"The children," said Acilia, "are in the garden."
"And the view from the garden is worth seeing at any rate," her niece remarked. "Shall we go and walk there?"
The garden itself was worth seeing, too. It had been magnificent once, and was perhaps more beautiful now than in the days of its newest splendour. The marble balustrades were weather-worn by the frosts and rains of nearly three centuries, the paved alleys had grown uneven in places, the statues had a somewhat forlorn look, but the trees had grown to a beauty they could not have had when they were planted in Nero's days.
As Melania said, the view was glorious: or rather the views, for one could see for miles in several directions. One parapet of the garden was on the verge of the precipice that fell from it hundreds of feet, down into the green depths of the enormous natural amphitheatre that must once have been a bay of the sea. A broad paved terrace ran along the parapet, with a tall and thick hedge of myrtle on the inner side. It was here they found Melania's three children; the little girl was playing at keeping a shop: her brothers and their tutor were the customers.
"Her things are terribly dear," declared Christopher laughing, when their mother had presented them to the visitors. "She wants twelve oyster shells for that broken pot, and nine kisses."
"It is not dear at all," said Faustulus. "It is you who are trying to cheat her. Will you sell it to me, Domitilla, for this—and twelve kisses?"
He offered her a beautiful little ivory box that he had picked up on his travels.
Domitilla looked at it and at him.
"But I meant Christopher to have it, for eighteen kisses and no oyster-shells," she objected, wrinkling up her small nose.
"Well, I will give you eighteen kisses and the box, too," urged Faustulus.
"But it was Christopher's I wanted."
"I will give you my eighteen and the oyster shells, and you may give the broken pot to the Most Excellent Faustulus," laughed the brother.
"And I will give my eighteen and the box," Faustulus promised.
Domitilla looked at the box again, and looked at Faustulus again, and finally looked at her mother.
"I'm not sure," said Melania, "that I approve of all these kisses—as a matter of business."
"Nor I," said Acilia. "But give the Most Excellent Faustulus your broken pot, since he thinks it pretty."
"Oh, but I am too proud to go shopping for nothing," declared Faustulus. And as he saw that Melania was smiling all the while, he bent down and kissed the pretty child and then laid his ivory box on Domitilla's counter.
She accepted his salute with perfect gravity and decorum: and then handed the broken pot to her brother.
"He came first," she explained.
"That's cheating," objected Fabian, "the Most Excellent Faustulus bought it."
Christopher laughed and handed the pot over.
"Well, he has got it now, anyway."
"That ivory box is too pretty for Domitilla," said her mother.
"Oh, you don't think so!" Faustulus declared, smiling straight into her eyes. But Melania shook her head.
"She is a vain puss," she said in a low voice, "you are not to make her vainer."
"Wait till you see my own small Faustula and you will be jealous," he answered.
Sabina did not much approve of all this: and perhaps Acilia did not either. Another person watched it all with quiet, amused eyes: this was Domnio, the boys' tutor, a young priest.
Melania had already introduced him to Faustulus, who had bowed with a slightly careless civility but eyed him closely all the same: Sabina, when the priest was presented to her, bowed with an exaggeration of determined toleration that ought to have extinguished him, and did not seem to look at him at all. He received both salutes with the same well-bred reserve, without saying anything, as he was clearly not expected to speak. He was several years younger than Melania, whose treatment of him slightly puzzled Sabina, for, though after all the difference between their ages could not be great, her manner to him was an odd mixture of the filial and the maternal. At one moment it might seem as if she regarded him and her boys as comrades and contemporaries, at the next as if she were herself his daughter.
As a Christian priest Sabina felt it a duty to disapprove of him, and the duties of disapproval were seldom neglected by her: nor did she welcome the idea that she was expected to behave to him as to a social equal, for that she was sure he was not.
Nevertheless the duty of being well-bred came before everything; and as Acilia and Melania, whose rank was at least equal to her own, betrayed not the slightest consciousness of condescension in their behaviour to Domnio, she did her best to show none herself.
Presently they all turned and walked along the terrace, the three ladies in front, with little Domitilla clinging to her mother's hand: Domnio and his pupils followed, one of the boys hanging to his arm, the other between him and Faustulus, who was immediately behind his sister. She was annoyed at his indiscretion when she heard him again broach the subject of the two statues at the entrance of the villa.
"They are fine," he observed coolly; "were they removed from a temple?"
"No," Domnio answered; "they were dug up. About twenty years ago Acilius Glabrio was trying to find the tank that supplies the conduits for the fountains and they came upon those two statues."
Sabina thought his reply in better breeding than her brother's question: Faustulus ought not to have gone anywhere near subjects in which the difference of religion was involved, and the young priest, while answering without hesitation, did so as briefly as possible, and was careful to say nothing touching on that difference.
But Faustulus, whose own good breeding was quite a surface matter, would not drop a subject which happened to interest him.
"Were they put up in their present position immediately?" he asked.
"No, I think not."
Domnio seemed inclined to say no more, but Faustulus wanted to know all about it.
"What was the alternative?" he inquired. "If they had not been erected where they are, what would have become of them?"
Domnio laughed and said:
"I'm afraid I can't tell you. Twenty years ago I was only six years old, and I was not here."
The ladies meanwhile were talking together in front. Melania now turned round and called upon Faustulus to admire the view towards Sublaqueum. He had to drop the subject of the statues. Presently the others moved on and they were left a little behind.
"Your priest is very discreet," he observed in his tone of whimsical, almost boyish wilfulness.
"You do not admire discretion?" she said smiling.
"Not when it comes between me and my wishes. I wanted to know if there had been any idea of breaking those images up."
"None whatever. My father-in-law was a very good judge of sculpture, and thought the statues fine, as they certainly are antique. The worst that would have happened to them would have been the decision to bury them again where they were found."
"That would have been to avoid the risk of their being worshipped?"
"Yes: but there was no such risk; our people here are all Christians. To break them up would have encouraged another superstition, and that my father-in-law was anxious not to do."
"What was it?"
Melania paused a moment, standing still as she considered.
"I think," she said quietly, "that I ought not to explain it." Then turning to him quickly with her pleasant, frank smile she added: "Why should we talk about the things on which we cannot think alike?"
"You cannot tell how I think," he objected perversely. "Do you imagine I worship those images?"
"I suppose," she answered, "that you reverence them."
"Indeed I do not. I merely admire them. To reverence them one must believe in the myths they embody. Now tell me what the counter-superstition was which Acilius Glabrio did not wish to encourage."
"You are very obstinate," she answered.
"Or you are."
"No: but I dislike saying what I should imagine must be disagreeable to hear: when our simple country-folk, and some of our better educated townsfolk too, ceased to believe in the old gods they rushed into the opposite extreme, and believed that they were devils."
"And you do not?"
"No, because I do not believe in their existence at all."
"Nor do I. So, you see, you and I happen to think alike, and you had no business to feel sure that our belief must be so different that we could not allude to it without quarrelling."
This Melania chose to ignore, and went on with the explanation he had insisted upon and interrupted.
"So, you see, my father-in-law was determined not to break the statues up. At first our people did destroy some images of the gods, but that was only in the days when it seemed that the danger of their being worshipped was still real and considerable: even then they were often buried instead. When the people were more inclined to regard the gods as devils, and as such to attach a superstitious fear to their images, it seemed better to keep them and teach the more ignorant to understand that they were nothing except as works of ancient art, neither good nor bad in themselves. We want it to be understood that the Church has nothing to fear from the helpless statues of gods... now I have been long-winded and prosy, and it serves you right: I did it on purpose."
She ended with a low laugh in which her guest joined quite cheerfully.
"Your punishment was not excessive. What would you have done if Christopher and Fabian had insisted on your telling them something you had not meant to tell?"
"Christopher and Fabian would have known better than to try."
"You are so dreadful?"
"They are so good—I should say so well-behaved."
"Am not I well-behaved?"
"Not to-day. You teased your sister indoors, and now you are preventing my attending to her."
She moved forward as she spoke and joined the other ladies, and the children.
"Christopher and Fabian," she said. "Go in and see if they have made ready refreshments."
"May I go with them?" Faustulus asked, at which Sabina stared with horror. If those were the manners noble Romans picked up in foreign travel they had better stay at home. But her brother walked off with the boys, who regarded him with a chastened curiosity that he enjoyed; next to seeing something odd and new himself it amused him to figure in that capacity for others.
"I thought it better to come away," he explained amiably; "my sister would like to scold me, and your mother has been doing it."
"What for?" Christopher inquired with interest.
"And you are asking questions now, Christopher," his brother pointed out.
"But I don't mind," said Faustulus. "So you are Fabian, and you are twelve years old. An excellent age. It is my own son's; but he does not do it justice."
"How did you know I was twelve?" asked Fabian.
"I know everything. Christopher is fourteen, and Domitilla is six. So is Faustula."
"Six or fourteen?" Fabian demanded; they were not hurrying, and he took Faustulus by the arm and leant upon it in the friendliest manner.
"Fabian!" his brother expostulated.
"What's the matter?"
"Faustulus is grown up."
"Do you mind?" Fabian inquired without letting go their guest's arm.
"Being grown up? It can't be helped. You and Christopher will come to it. Let us waive the subject. It is Faustula who is six. Your mother is to bring you and Domitilla to see her and Tatius."
"Shall you be there?" asked Fabian, who was more interested for the moment in the guest he had at his side than in his children whom he had not seen.
"Who's asking questions now?" suggested Christopher.
"No. I shall be in Rome: I go back tomorrow."
"I'm sorry," Fabian observed decidedly.
"Fabian, that is not polite," his brother pointed out. "You are not to express your opinion as to Faustulus going away."
"I think it very polite indeed," laughed Faustulus.
The refreshments indoors were ready and the steward of the household, an elderly freed-man, was just coming out to say so. Faustulus and the two boys went back to report.
When the little party was assembled in the large, rather bare triclinium, Sabina noticed that, though there were plenty of slaves in the room, the fruits and sweet cakes were not handed by them, but by the boys, who waited on their mother's guests, taking the dishes from the hands of the slaves and carrying them to their elders. She remarked on this to her brother on their way home.
"The lads did it very well," she confessed, "but it seems to me lowering. They were almost as respectful as if they had been slaves themselves: and the slaves did not behave quite like ours."
"They were perfectly respectful."
"Of course. But there was a difference in manner."
"I saw there was."
Sabina could not exactly define it, even to herself. Her own slaves were thoroughly well-treated, well-fed, and well-clothed; they were perfectly happy and contented, she supposed; if not they must be ungrateful creatures, whose fancies mattered to no one. But Melania's slaves had not precisely the air of being slaves at all; it appeared partly in their manner to each other, and partly in their bearing to their young masters. To the latter they were extremely respectful, but with a sort of intimate respect that implied not only affection that was like family affection, but a sense of something in common, and that something so important that it bound them together by a more equal tie than that of possession on one side and being possessed on the other. Sabina, who was not in the least a stupid person, hit this peculiarity off pretty well when she said: "If my slaves were like that I should feel that they belonged to themselves rather than to me."
And towards each other she had noticed that they behaved with a sort of mutual consideration that she somehow disliked: she never permitted quarrels among her own slaves, and expected them to be on good terms among themselves, but she would have thought it out of place if they treated each other like freed-men.
"I like Acilia best of them all," she informed her brother. Of Melania she did not at present approve quite so much as at first.
"And I liked her least," Faustulus declared without hesitation. "I suspect Domnio would be the best worth knowing of the party, and next to him I like Fabian."
"Domnio," observed Sabina, who was quite aware that her brother had praised the priest to annoy her, "certainly set you an example of proper behaviour."
That evening Faustulus amused himself, as he had amused himself the evening before, by playing with his daughter, petting her and making her say pert things. Most of them he put into her mouth, but he repeated them aloud as if she had originated them, and the small child was naughty enough to think it very good fun.
No one had ever made much of her before, much less spoiled her, and the change was undoubtedly pleasant. When her father declared she had just said something at which he laughed gleefully she thought him very witty and agreeable.
It is true she tried to bring Tatius into their delightful conversation, but in that she failed, for Faustulus did not want it, and her brother was firmly resolved not to play second or third fiddle: and the boy perceived that Sabina by no means approved of his father's trivialities. She was nearly as jealous on her nephew's account as he was on his own, and saw no sense in the way Faustulus was teaching his daughter to behave. She had been slightly offended when he told her he must return to Rome so soon, but now she was not particularly sorry: if he stayed long Faustula would be completely spoiled.
"No," he said, in a low voice, which Tatius overheard very well, for that young gentleman had sharp ears, "it is of no use trying to make him join in our talk. We are naughty. He is never naughty: he tries to be as good as Sabina."
"I don't want to be naughty," Faustula whispered.
She was on her father's lap and crumpling up one of his ears with her small plump fingers. Tatius saw that she was whispering, though he could not catch what she said; of course she was laughing at him, too.
"But I want to be naughty," Faustulus declared, "and I can't be naughty all by myself."
Then he told her about Domitilla who was coming to see her, and said that she was pretty, very pretty indeed, but not so pretty as Faustula herself. Poor little Faustula, how could she help liking to hear that she was pretty?
"Domitilla is six years old like you. And Fabian is twelve like Tatius; he's coming, too."
"Is Fabian pretty?"
"Not," said Faustulus demurely, "of course, so beautiful as Tatius: but you will see. There's another brother, Christopher, but I like Fabian best. Christopher thinks me naughty."
When her father told her that Fabian was not so beautiful as her brother the child could see very well that he did not think Tatius nice-looking at all. It all puzzled her a little: she found her father charming, and she saw that Tatius did not like him, and also that Faustulus did not care in the least whether his son disliked him or no. To make things perfect they would have been as friendly as she and her father were, but she could not help enjoying the brief and novel sunshine in which she was basking so pleasantly.
Alas, poor Faustula! she could not understand that her delightful, caressing companion had scarcely more heart than his cross, unattractive son: that he would leave her to-morrow without the least regret, send her funny messages in a letter or two (which Sabina would never deliver) and forget her as easily for the next four years as he had forgotten her for the last six. She thought, perhaps, if little girls of six can think so definitely, that a new golden age was beginning for her, an age of cheerful affectionate intimacy wherein she would have someone to take her part, to be fond of her, and think her pretty and amusing.
I daresay she knew that her father really was naughty, that he made fun of Sabina, and scoffed at her brother; but Faustula had an almost empty heart, the only heart in the family, and Faustulus appealed to it.
Clodia did love her, and she loved Clodia, too: but, tiny child as she was, she knew her nurse was only a slave, and she needed some other love; little Faustula was, after all, a noble Roman lady and could not be content with a slave's affection. Her six years had all been spent in the poisoned air of heathenism, and, though she never thought of it deliberately, Clodia was not a human being in her own sense of it.
It would not have mattered if she had not had that terrible gift of a heart that would be always growing larger, and emptier; that even Clodia's wonderful, patient love could never fill, and must ever be hungry for a sort of love it could not understand, but only feel the want of.
Faustulus had not the least suspicion that such an extraordinary demand was being made upon him: he had never loved anybody, not even himself, and had never expected anybody to love him. He knew familiarly all that the poets had sung about love, but what the heathen poets and he meant by it had nothing to do with the hunger of a child's heart.
He held in his arms the lovely little daughter whose beauty pleased his eyes and flattered his pride; he kissed away her rising tears and was flattered by them, then he set her down, and mounted his fine horse, of which he also was proud, and rode away down the steep road.
"Now, Faustula," said Sabina, and Tatius in his heart thought, "Now, Faustula!"
Sabina was not, of course, in the least unkind to her niece when that niece's injudicious, irresponsible father rode off towards Rome. She had not burdened her widowhood with a small girl to treat her badly. On the contrary her intention had always been to do her duty by her charge, and it was still: only it was no part of her duty to let the little girl become pert and spoiled. For two days Faustulus had done his best to turn his daughter's head: but two days are not much, and Sabina would soon turn that small head back to its proper place.
She was not mean enough to visit on Faustula her father's absurd misbehaviour; Faustula was not punished or even scolded, she was not made to feel herself in disgrace: but she did feel that her happy interlude was over. Her sun went down behind the ridge of hill that rose at the turn of the downward road where Faustulus passed out of sight; and the Castle of Olibanum fell back into its dull shade. And it may be assumed that Sabina never liked Faustula so well after her father's visit as before: she had always preferred Tatius, and as she saw, as clearly as the boy himself, that Faustulus much preferred his daughter, Sabina made up for it by preferring her nephew more than ever.
Tatius himself was mean, and he never forgave his sister for having caught their father's fancy. He could hardly have treated her with more indifference, but the child soon felt that her brother now really disliked her. In time his enmity affected her fate materially: at present it only deepened, more and more, her passionate sense of loneliness.
As it happened, the day of her father's departure brought another event, commonplace in itself, that was also to influence her whole life.
Melania, to mark her sense of Sabina's courtesy, thought it proper to return her visit at once, and come over to Olibanum that afternoon. She brought with her the two boys—without their priestly tutor, to Sabina's great satisfaction—explaining that Acilia never went abroad since her husband's tragic death, and that she had not ventured to take Sabina altogether at her word and bring so small a child as Domitilla this time.
"If you really are so good as to wish it," she said, "I would let her come to play with Faustula: or perhaps you would allow Faustula to come over and play with her."
Meanwhile Sabina sent for Tatius and his sister and bade them take Christopher and Fabian out into the garden.
"Our gardens here," she said, "are not so beautiful as yours; but the children can amuse themselves better out of doors."
The two ladies sat indoors in state: Sabina behaving rather like one of the stricter Empresses, say her namesake Julia Sabina, Hadrian's wife, and Melania taking it all in with an inward gratitude that Faustulus was no longer there to make her want to smile. Sabina felt much more at ease without him and was a good deal more graciously ponderous and ponderously gracious. She, who had never had any child of her own, laid down the law concerning the management of children till she began to feel that, for a mother, Melania had really just ideas on the subject: for the young widow never opposed her paltry experience to Sabina's sage theories. If Tatius and Faustula had not actually suffered from all the diseases their aunt described, it was clear that she would have known exactly how to cure them if they had given her the opportunity.
Then there was the larger question of how to manage a large estate, and here Sabina was more interesting for she knew her subject well. She found Melania so good a listener that she was now disposed to regard her acquaintance as rather an acquisition: to the wise it is delightful to be able to impart instruction, and Sabina thought it would be worth while to take Melania in hand and enrich her with all her own wisdom.
The conversation turned again to the subject of sickness, since a large estate implied many slaves and slaves will fall ill like their betters, and Sabina by an easy transition arrived at her late husband's disorders, which she described with scrupulous particularity, and especially that peculiarly interesting one which resulted in her widowhood: she had been a good wife, without caring much for him, and he had been an excellent husband, almost incomparable as a patient: the nursing of him had evidently been the most interesting part of her career as a married woman. Meanwhile the young people were getting on very well out of doors.
Tatius was not much impressed by the striking fact of his being of the same age as Fabian, and immediately devoted himself to Christopher, who as an elder son was more worthy of his attention. So he led him away and did the honours with considerable satisfaction to himself. Christopher preferred hearing about Sabina's estate and the family of the Faustuli to being cross-questioned, and Tatius was much more interested in his aunt's affairs, which he felt were indeed his own, than in those of the Acilii, so that he soon gave over seeking for information and imparted it pretty freely. In one matter he was wiser than his father, for he carefully eschewed any approach to the subject of religion. That the Christians had an absurd faith he knew quite well, but he knew also that the religion was now encouraged, and was even that of the Emperor, and there was something about Christopher that warned him it would be impossible to allude to it slightingly. Always prudent, he carefully steered the bark of conversation among safe waters where no risks of a snubbing could be feared. Having seldom met any boys of his own class he was quite unaware that the Acilii ranked, in the estimation of those learned in such things, higher than the Faustuli, and he bragged about his family in a way that made Christopher open his eyes rather than his mouth. The boys with whom Tatius had talked were chiefly heathen slaves, and some of his remarks made Christopher rather glad to get back to the glories of the Faustuli.
Fabian and little Faustula got on much better. There was no fear of her dilating on the historic greatness of her family, but her mind was full of one member of it and of Faustulus she talked to a kind and friendly listener. It astounded him to find that he had seen almost as much of her father as she had, that is, that she had never seen him till two days ago; but of those two delicious days the poor child could not talk enough. The fact that Fabian had been in his company yesterday afternoon sufficed to make him a delightful companion. Was it not inevitable that she should compare them? Except her brother they were the only two gentlemen she had even known, and to the six-year-old little girl the big, tall lad of twelve seemed almost grown up. Though two years younger Fabian was of the same height as Christopher, and they were singularly alike, with the same colouring and the same features, but Fabian had a brighter expression, and was much more attractive.
Faustulus had grey-blue eyes, so had Fabian: and both had the same air of distinction, though the boy had a nobler bearing than the man, because his thoughts were nobler. Both were gifted with a peculiar grace of bearing, and Faustula was too young to know that in Fabian it was the natural expression of a rare grace of character, in her father only an acquired habit. Faustulus had petted her because she was pretty, Fabian was kind because he was a strong lad and she was a weak and helpless child. The difference she could not divine, the similarity she could feel.
The boy was as clever as the man, and had far finer intuitions, and he understood very soon that Faustula was a lonely little creature, neglected though well-treated; Sabina to him appeared a wooden, elderly lady, who reminded him of Caryatides he had seen in Rome, though she carried nothing heavier on her head than a rather architectural arrangement of hair. Tatius he had seen, yet only for five minutes, but five minutes were enough to show him that the self-satisfied, conceited boy cared for nobody much except himself, and did not care for his sister at all. As for Faustulus he was half puzzled by him. To himself Faustulus had been charming, and it was plain that his small daughter had found him more charming still; but it was odd that she had only seen him for two days in all her short life, and Fabian's instincts were too shrewd and too just to accept mere pleasantries for something more important. If little Faustula had been left without love it was pretty clear that her father had left her as much alone as anyone else. Her extraordinary gratitude for the wayward kindness of two days was not lost on the boy who had been surrounded with kindness all his life: it seemed to him terribly pathetic, and while it made him angry with Faustulus, it threw a strange halo of pity round his daughter. A Roman lad of twelve is older than a northern boy of the same years, but Fabian was not precocious in such matters, and he was not at all the boy to fall in love at first sight, and when boys of such an age imagine themselves in love it is not with tiny girls of six. Nevertheless he had at once a tender, chivalrous feeling for his childish hostess that was never forgotten, and was destined to give her a peculiar place in his heart. For Fabian had a heart, the first with which Faustula ever came in touch. From that first afternoon, he thought of her always as a helpless, desolate creature whom he must not forget, to whom he must make up, somehow, for the piteous neglect that clung about her: and being of a silent, thoughtful nature, merry as he was, his feeling towards her was hidden within himself, like a sacred emotion of which it would be coarse and vulgar to speak.
When Sabina led her guest out into the garden they found Fabian and Faustula on excellent terms, which caused Sabina to suspect that he must be rather a milk-sop. The fact that her brother had declared him the most interesting member of his family had not particularly prejudiced her in his favour: however, the boy had excellent manners and was neither pert nor over talkative. She noted with approval that he only spoke to her, and to his mother in her presence, when addressed first.
Melania was a gentle, simple creature, quite without stiffness or pomposity, but Sabina had observed yesterday that her sons, in public at all events, treated her like a little queen, with a deference that was none the less marked that it was full of affectionate confidence.
"And where," Sabina asked, "are the others?"
Fabian and her niece were in her eyes the least important of the young people. Like Tatius she had a leaning towards the heads of families.
"They went over there," Fabian answered: "they walked rather too quick for us; so we have been amusing ourselves here on the terrace."
"I suppose," said Sabina, with a rather heavy playfulness, "she has been telling you about her dolls: two of them had fever last week—but big boys don't care for pupae, Faustula."
Faustula perceived that her aunt was in a good humour, and hoped that these visitors would come often.
"Have you been telling Fabian," Sabina went on, "how you wanted to give them decoction of marshmallow?"
Faustula was a little surprised to find her aunt knew anything about her dolls having had fever; Melania thought it showed a sort of kindly interest in the child's small concerns for which she would hardly have given her credit, and promptly took herself to task for having judged rashly. The truth was that Tatius had come to Sabina during the last week saying:
"Isn't Faustula silly? She pretends two of her dolls have ague and wants to give them marshmallow water!"
"Little girls of her age can not be so intelligent as big boys like you," his aunt had replied. "Of course pupae have no mouths."
When Sabina began talking about the dolls, Fabian, who was still holding the little girl by the hand, gave it a small squeeze, as much as to say, "We know what we have been talking about; that does not concern the grown-up people." And Faustula was grateful, for, somehow, she did not want her aunt to know they had been talking almost entirely about her father and his delightful ways.
"I wonder where the others are," Sabina observed presently, and Melania suggested that Fabian and Faustula should go and look for them: so the two widows were left to themselves on the terrace.
The garden was formed by a succession of terraces, on the highest of which the castle stood frowningly. Its back was turned to the Sabine hills, on a spur of which it hung: one side faced towards Rome, the shorter front looked across to the Volscians; away to the left were the Hernicans. Beneath the lowest terrace of the garden the village of Olibanum was huddled close under the rock: it was very old, with a narrow, steep street twisting about among the houses: under them were ancient massive foundations older, perhaps, than Rome itself.
Below the little town there were green patches of vineyard, and olive-brakes that clung to the hillside like a grey cloud. Far down, the steeps sank into a broad valley flowing out between the mountains into the ocean of the campagna like a great estuary.
"It is beautiful," said Melania in a low voice.
Sabina took it as a personal compliment: it was her view, and she felt that admiration of it was a tribute to herself. She had not her brother's passionate delight in everything lovely; nevertheless she was a Roman, and the Romans have never been blind to the beauty of fine scenery, as their choice of sites for their villas is enough to show.
"It is not so grand as your own views," she replied civilly, rather as though the scenery about Melania's villa had been invented by herself.
"They are so different one can not compare them," said Melania truly. "But there is more in your view here. I should think you could see the Tomb of Hadrian from here on certain days."
"So we can. We do not much like to see it—it generally means bad weather."
That evening when her children were with her Melania's eldest son asked her if there had been any Consuls of the family of the Faustuli.
"I do not think so," she answered. "I do not remember any: but you know there were a good many, two every year from the two hundred and forty-fifth year of the city. Why?"
"Because Tatius Faustulus told me such a lot about his family. They are descended from the shepherd who was foster-father of Romulus."
"His name," Melania replied with cheerful non-committal, "was certainly Faustulus."
"But that would not make the Faustuli royal," objected Christopher. "He was only a foster-father."
"In a republic no one is royal. The Emperors themselves are not royal—only the Heads of the Republic. I hope you did not brag of the Consuls in your father's family?"
"No, I did not mention them. But, when he went on cramming the Faustuli down my throat, it was a temptation."
"Temptations are made to be resisted, that's what they're for—I'm sure Faustula did not worry you about her family, Fabian?"
"She did not worry me about anything. She is much nicer than Tatius."
"Tatius did not take much notice of you," observed his mother, with her little bantering smile.
"Take notice of me! He is as old as Christopher and not up to my chin: a pimply—"
"Well, mother, isn't he pimply?"
Melania, unable to deny the fact, pointed out that it was not material.
"Of course he can't help it," Fabian admitted; "at least I'm not sure. We should be pimply, perhaps, if we stuffed like that. Only you wouldn't let us—the Most Excellent Sabine did not seem to notice."
"It would have been better if you had not noticed either... Come, Fabian, I'm ready to agree with you that Faustula is nicer than Tatius: and I'm glad you were kind to her..."
"I couldn't be nice to her," observed Christopher, willing, like the lawyer in the Scripture, to justify himself, "Tatius marched me off."
"Well," said Melania, laughing again, "when they come here it will be Fabian's turn to hear about the Faustuli and you shall look after Faustula."
"H'm," observed Fabian.
"She's only six," remarked Christopher, doubtfully.
"If," declared Fabian, mutinously, "Tatius tells me too much about his old Faustuli I shall fall into temptation and only repent afterwards."
"Fabian!" expostulated his mother.
"Yes, I shall. There's no use in having Consuls and things in one's family if one can't pound them down on Tatiuses."
"Tatiuses isn't grammar," objected Christopher.
"I don't care: if Tatius Faustulizes me—"
"That's worse grammar," Melania suggested.
"Never mind—I'm not going to be Faustulated: if Tatius tries, I'll give him Acilius Glabrio the Tribune—"
"He won't care," cried Christopher, triumphantly. "A Tribune of the plebs won't shut him down."
"Ah, but he became consul, with Pullinus Cornelius Scipio, and conquered Antiochus at Thermopylae. Mother, did you ever hear of a Faustulus who conquered Antiochus at Thermopylae?"
"How could he if it was Acilius Glabrio who did it?"
"Well, then! And I'll give him Acilius the Praetor, and the bribery man—"
Melania laughed aloud.
"And don't forget," she begged, "the Acilius who was accused of extortion—"
"Now, Melania," interposed a quiet voice: her husband's aunt had come into the room and was listening, near the door, with a half-grim amusement, to this conversation. "Now, Melania! Remember Cicero himself defended him."
"Ah!" cried Fabian, gleefully. "Ah! Is it likely Cicero would have defended him if there had been any truth in the charge?"
"I'm not prepared to say," Melania admitted.
"He'll do for Tatius anyway," her younger son protested. "A Proconsul in Sicily, who was great Caesar's lieutenant is good enough for Tatiuses."
"What," inquired Acilia, "is all this about?"
"Fabian," explained his mother, "is suffering from an accession of family pride—"
"And Christopher," pleaded Fabian, "has been suffering from an overdose of the Faustuli."
Christopher described what he had undergone, and Acilia was evidently not without sympathy.
"Of course," she said, "everyone knows that the Faustuli claim descent from the foster-father of Romulus: it may be so: but the family only rose into prominence during the reign of the Emperor Nero: the Faustulus of those days was a favourite of Brazenbeard's."
"That's not much," remarked Fabian, who didn't admire the early Emperors and remembered very well that the Emperor Domitian had forced his ancestor Acilius Glabrio, Consul in A.D. 91, to fight unarmed against Numidian bears in his amphitheatre at Albanum.
"Well," said Melania, with the air of closing the subject, "it was not very pretty of Tatius to talk too much of his family. But at all events he did it on the spur of the moment: it would be still less pretty for either of you boys to try and flatten him, of set purpose, with the glories of the Acilii. Remember, too, he has lived alone with his aunt in a country house, where perhaps there wasn't much to talk about except family affairs and traditions."
When Sabina took her brother to visit Melania, and when Melania returned the visit, neither lady probably imagined that any particular intimacy was to result; and perhaps neither would have much desired it. But circumstances happened to lead them to something like intimacy.
Not many weeks after the beginning of their acquaintance word came to Melania that there was small-pox in the village of Olibanum, and that some of Sabina's house-slaves had taken the disease. To Sabina's great surprise the young widow came over at once to see her, and surprised her much more by proposing that Tatius and Faustula should go back with her to the Villa Acilia.
"They will be much safer out of the way altogether," she said quietly. "I know how big this house is and you would keep them far from the slaves' quarters: still you would feel much easier about them if they were at Civitella."
Sabina was quite taken aback by the kindness of such an offer.
"But your own children," she objected. "Suppose it should turn out that Tatius and Faustula had the infection and took it with them?"
"At first I could keep them apart. We should know in a few days: the western wing of our villa is quite shut off from the rest of the house, and they and I would amuse each other there till we were sure there was no risk. If it turned out that either of them had the infection I could nurse them there without any danger to the others."
"And if you caught it!"
"My nurse would look after me and them, too. Placida is an excellent creature and only cross with us because we are none of us ever ill to give her a chance of curing us."
Sabina still hesitated: but Melania persisted.
"All that is very unlikely," she said simply. "Probably there is no fear of anything of the kind. Tatius and Faustula, you have confessed, are perfectly well now: and after a few days, when all chance of their developing variolae is over, they will have my children to play with. If they stay here you will go on being anxious on their account till after the last case is over."
Sabina knew how true this was. For Tatius she dreaded the disease because she was, in her cool fashion, really fond of him: for Faustula she dreaded it because it would disfigure her for life and materially affect her chances of finding in time a suitable husband. Sabina was quite aware that the child was beautiful and supposed she would grow up so: she had no intention of giving or leaving her a large dowry, and her beauty would constitute her principal chance of making a good marriage.
Originally Sabina had meant to give her niece a pretty good dowry, and to give or leave nothing to Tatius: now, though she really meant to make the boy her heir, she grudged giving so much to his sister as it would be taking the money from him.
"Melania," she said with sincere gratitude, "you are very good. Too good, it seems to me."
"That is nonsense," Melania replied cheerfully.
Something in Sabina's face made her want to laugh: she surmised that no one had ever yet told that important personage that any remark of hers was nonsense.
"I mean," she added, "it is nothing at all. Come, Sabina, let us be good neighbours."
Sabina knew that all the goodness would be on Melania's side, and that did not much please her. To bestow favours was more in her line than to receive them. All the same she was a little touched, and she was also too practical not to feel the extraordinary convenience of the plan.
"You are a good woman, Melania," she said with more feeling than any speech of hers had expressed for years.
She was a good woman herself in her way, only her wealth and self-satisfaction had stiffened her.
She held out her hand and Melania grasped it warmly.
"No, my dear," the younger widow answered with the simple straight-forwardness that was her best charm. "But let me be of some little use when an opportunity jumps up like this. Really we would like to have the children. Come; say Yes."
"Ah, but," Sabina urged, "suppose they did take the infection to your house? Suppose you did catch the horrible disease?"
Melania laughed cheerfully.
"Widows," she said, "don't mind about their looks. If my poor Acilius Glabrio was alive it might be different. Up in heaven he won't despise me for my spots."
"And if you died!" whispered Sabina.
"One must die some day: it wouldn't be a bad way."
What Sabina could not understand was the cheery, almost merry way in which Melania spoke of these solemn things. She was only about forty-two herself and too healthy to be much afraid of death; but the idea of it, when it came up in her mind, was dismal. She constantly thought about her estates, and how she would dispose of them, but, as she supposed she would herself be their owner for so long a period yet that she never tried to calculate it, that did not depress her in the least.
The idea of talking of one's own death, quite comfortably, as a matter perhaps of the near future, struck her as almost wanting in delicacy, if it were not indeed a mere affectation. When other people were actually dead she had no patience with the sort of folly Faustulus had shown when Accia died in refusing to discuss the subject: that was undoubtedly affected and indelicate. There were arrangements to be made, and recognized forms of mourning to be observed; but then other people are other people: and the more one's contemporaries die the more one realizes one's own healthy survival.
Melania's way of speaking of the possibility of her own death rather helped Sabina, who had been almost within measurable distance of falling into sentiment. It saved her. When one is braced by a sense of the inferiority of people one was nearly being compelled to regard as disagreeably superior it is stiffening and restorative.
"I would not think," she declared beginning to yield, "of letting you take Tatius and his sister if there was any real risk."
"There is none whatever."
So Melania did take them: and Sabina was grateful but not too grateful: not sentimentally so. Melania, she thought, was sentimental, a part of her general inferiority as a Christian.
Faustula was delighted to go: her brother was not quite so well pleased. She already loved to be with Fabian, and soon loved to be with his mother. Tatius dutifully preferred his aunt: and very much preferred his own company to that of Christopher. He was rather surprised that Sabina let them go to stay with these Christians, and did not altogether approve of the plan himself: he understood that Christians had odd ways with which it would be disagreeable to have to fall in. Would he be expected to fast, for instance? All the same he did not at all want to catch small-pox and was apt to be always a little nervous about his health. He imagined himself to be somewhat delicate, for he had bilious attacks now and then, which he did not in the least connect with his habitual greediness in eating and fondness for rich dishes.
Faustula and Tatius had to stay about six weeks with Melania and neither of them developed small-pox: in less than a week Melania felt sure they were not going to be attacked, and their isolation, and her own, from the rest of the family came to an end. She had never been away from her children for so long, and Tatius was a good deal astonished by the unbounded satisfaction her sons displayed at having her again with them. Sabina, he felt sure, would agree with him that it was absurd and rather babyish.
He immediately attached himself to Christopher, ignoring Domitilla altogether and Fabian as much as possible. So, for several weeks, Christopher had him very much on his hands. Of course there were lessons to be endured, but Maltro had come too, and Tatius did not join the other boys in theirs. Melania was careful not to suggest that Tatius should share their studies lest it should seem that she was putting him under the influence of her sons' priestly tutor, and Tatius himself showed pretty plainly that he did not want to see more of Domnio than he could help. It annoyed him that Domnio should be so much with them in playtime, and that was one reason why he got Christopher to himself whenever he could.
"Fabian is never happy out of Domnio's sight," he remarked one day.
"We are always happy with him, both of us," Christopher replied quietly.
"Ah, but you don't stick to him like a leech."
Christopher was too courteous to point out that Tatius did not leave him much opportunity for sticking to anybody but himself, and said nothing.
"I suppose Fabian is going to be a priest," Tatius observed, as if that might account for his fondness for Domnio's company.
"Oh, no. We are both going into the army."
This slightly puzzled Tatius, who had an idea that in Christian families one son at least had to be a priest. Faustula and Domitilla were rather shy of each other at first, and looked at one another not so much like two kittens meeting for the first time as like one kitten looking at its own reflection in a mirror. Not that they were much alike, for Domitilla was a soft, round little creature, very young even for her six years, and Faustula was tall for her age and slim, with ideas much beyond it, ideas born of her solitary life.
Whatever ideas Domitilla had were for the public—her public, that is her family; and she was not really shy, though she might seem so to a stranger for the first half-hour. Faustula did not strike Acilia as shy, but rather as being wonderfully self-possessed; but she was in fact far shyer than her new playmate, for she had learned at home to keep her thoughts to herself, and to feel that they would neither be approved nor understood. Even here at Civitella she did not lose her reserve quickly except with Fabian: she soon loved Melania, who was very tender with the motherless child, but she had a true instinct that the kind, motherly lady did not understand her as Fabian did. Melania did in fact think Faustula odd, and too old for her age.
"There is almost too much to understand in her," she confided to Acilia. "One likes a child to be like a child. I'm sure I was not so elderly at six."
"At six you were a baby, my dear," said her aunt.
"And Domitilla is a baby now—I'm glad she is. I should not like her to have such deep silent eyes as Faustula's."
"No, Melania; but Faustula's little life has not been like hers."
"Poor little thing. No. She has had no mother."
"No father either, you might say. She has had no one. Tatius cannot conceal his dislike of her, and hardly tries."
Oddly enough Faustula took to Acilia and liked to be with her. That she should love Melania was inevitable seeing that from her she received such motherly tenderness as she had never known till then: and Melania was still young, of a bright, happy nature that made her seem even merry. The only sorrow of her life that was at once very deep and quite personal had been the loss of her clever, handsome husband, and that was a sacred almost secret thing that she kept like a relic in her heart. Acilia on the other hand was twenty years older even than Sabina, and had lived under the cruel shadow of persecution. Not only had her own beloved husband been a martyr, but many of her kinsfolk, and countless friends had met the same glorious but tragic fate. By nature grave she lived in an atmosphere of solemn memories that cast not a cloud but a certain half unearthly halo about her.
She lived much in the past, and accused herself of it as of a failing, earnestly striving to fulfil the duties of life, but beset always by the sense that the common ways of life seemed trivial and were certainly tedious. Her time was given chiefly to prayer and the offices of religion, but she would not allow herself to let such duties become a mere indulgence of her own deep drawing to them.
It had not occurred to her that little Faustula and she would have much to do with each other. If Melania were busy, and the head of a great household, a mistress of a great estate, must often be very busy, then she would relieve her by taking the care of the children off her hands: and in that way the small visitor might be thrown in her way: but Acilia took it for granted that she would chiefly have to watch the little girls at play, and see they did not quarrel and tease each other.
But one day they quite suddenly became so silent that Acilia presently looked across the room to see why the childish voices had ceased. Faustula immediately came softly to her and said:
"Domitilla has gone to sleep."
Acilia was slightly embarrassed. Faustula stood by her side and seemed disposed to stay here.
"What would you like to do?" Acilia asked doubtfully.
"I should like to stop here."
"Well, what shall we play at?"
"Don't let us play." Faustula paused and Acilia's embarrassment did not decrease.
"I should like to talk, please," the little girl explained, and Acilia assured herself that Melania had been quite right in saying she was odd. But she smiled and said:
She felt this was rather hard and added hurriedly: "I'm afraid I don't know much about games and things. I'm old, you see."
"You don't think about games and things," Faustula replied quite simply.
Acilia very wisely laughed.
"No, I don't. Shall I tell you, then, what I am thinking about at this very moment?" she asked.
"Well, I was thinking you are rather a funny little girl."
"I can't help it."
The child said this with such a gentle little air of apology that Acilia's heart, a very good one, almost overflowed her eyes.
"My dear!" she cried, stooping towards Faustula, and drawing her quickly closer to her. "It is no harm being funny. I daresay I was a queer little creature once. And now, tell me in return what you are always thinking of? I often see you looking at me."
"I think, sometimes," Faustula answered with some hesitation, "that you are not like my aunt Sabina."
As Acilia did not particularly wish to resemble Sabina she was not at all offended, but hardly knew what to say in response.
"Is it any harm?" asked Faustula; "my thinking that?"
"None whatever. We are not bound to be like one another."
Faustula's face so clearly expressed a conviction that Acilia need not regret her unlikeness to Sabina that the old lady had some difficulty in not smiling outright.
"You and she and Melania are all widows, you see," Faustula explained. "Tatius said so. But you are all quite different."
"Quite," Acilia agreed handsomely.
"Is it," Faustula inquired with great diffidence, "because they died of different diseases? Sabina's husband died of podagra; I know Melania's did not. Fabian told me."
The child paused, and her pause clearly conveyed a query. To establish her theory it would be necessary that Acilia's husband should not have fallen a victim to gout or to malaria.
Acilia was undoubtedly justified in saying to herself, "A very queer child!" But the child's queerness did not repel her. Odd and old as her talk was, it was so very young too; she looked, even there, almost in Acilia's arms, so lonely, so isolated: if her talk was queer it was because she had never had anyone to talk to but herself.
"My husband did not die of gout," Acilia explained with a peculiar feeling of doing so in spite of herself.
Faustula looked as if she had been sure of it. But she also looked as if she were plainly asking what he did die of.
"He died," Acilia said in a low voice, "of being a Christian."
It was nearly as odd a remark as any of Faustula's; and Acilia knew it. But, for ever so many reasons, she could not plainly say to this tiny heathen that her husband had been killed by wild beasts in the Roman Amphitheatre.
What was quite plain was that she intended to say no more. But Faustula had no intention of asking any further question. Clodia had told her many things, among the rest how the Christians had been treated.
In a moment Faustula's face and neck, like pure alabaster generally, turned bright crimson.
"We did it!" she gasped.
"You! You, my poor queer baby. You! No. No. No."
The little girl's eyes were wide with horror and shame, and her lips were parted, not trembling, as if she were about to weep, but to emit a choking breath that was like a noiseless sob. Acilia, who was anything but emotional or impulsive, in an instant had drawn her into her arms and held her close, with one hand pressing the lovely little head to her breast. Faustula could feel her heart beating.
Not another word was said then: and Acilia never told even Melania about this, nor did Faustula ever speak about it to Fabian. But the old woman and the small child were thenceforth friends. Acilia often afterwards would be quietly watching Faustula as she played with Domitilla, and sometimes would see her steal a look towards herself; and that look was so strange that it almost hurt her. It meant so plainly that the child had a sense of personal guiltiness.
On one of these occasions Acilia simply could not bear it, and called Faustula to her on some trivial pretext.
"You must not," she said with a kind smile, "let Domitilla have her own way too much."
She had noticed how Faustula, who was only a few months older, always treated Domitilla as if she were much younger and to be humoured, as big girls, if they are specialty kind and gentle, will do with very little ones. Domitilla was not naughty or selfish, but wayward and very willing to be so indulged.
When Acilia made this little remark Faustula only smiled back, and looked up questioningly in her face, as if she knew that it did not represent all that she had meant to say when she called her. But as nothing immediately followed she said:
"I like playing with Domitilla."
"But she always chooses the games and lays down the law as to how they are to be played."
"She knows more about it than I do," Faustula replied simply. "I don't know much about games. At home I had no one to play with."
"It is a change for you to be here. You like it?"
"Of course. But..."
Faustula was gathering together the fimbria of Acilia's dress and pinching it up like the folds in a fan; one of her rare blushes was creeping up her half-averted face. She did not want to speak, and shook her small head slightly.
''Surety everyone is kind to you?" Acilia said, watching her.
''Everyone. Yes. That's it. Why should you be kind to us?"
"We love you," the old woman answered quickly; she nearly added: "Who could help loving you?"
"I should not if I were you."
Then Faustula stopped pinching the fimbria together, let it drop and looked up.
"If I were you I should hate us and all heathens." The word she used was "cultores deorum," but she used it with a bitter emphasis that was not complimentary. "I should hate to see them," she went on, "and I would never speak to them."
She spoke in her usual low tone, but it was by no means gentle now: a light that was fiercely angry burned in her large deep eyes.
Acilia was startled, and the child's words smote her even on the conscience.
Did she, herself, in truth hate the heathens who had butchered her husband? was not the sight of them unwelcome to her, had she not always avoided all intercourse with them so far as the conditions of Roman life allowed her?
She was too sincere a woman to lecture the child at once for her strange and violent speech, feeling thus uncertain of her own guiltlessness in the matter.
"I hate them," Faustula added deliberately. "Clodia told me things; but then it seemed like old stories, things in history—till I came here. Clodia's father belonged to a Christian: a very kind man, and they cut his head off, and all his things were sold—that was how my grandfather bought Clodia and her father. If I were you I should hate Tatius and me: and I don't think we ought to be here. If we had brought variolae we should have done more harm."
Acilia might well be astounded: Faustula had seldom made so long a speech in her life before, and it was full of an angry shame.
"I hope," said Acilia, "you do not talk like that to Fabian."
"To Fabian? No. He doesn't know that I know. We never talk about Christians and cultores deorum."
"I am glad. But, Faustula, you should not talk like that at all; because you should not think like that."
"But I do," and the child looked more determined than Acilia had ever seen her. "We are bad people."
"You are not bad: but it is bad to hate: and it is not right to speak against your own people."
"I will ask my father," Faustula persisted coolly. "He would hate being cruel—he was angry with Tatius for treading on one of the dogs, and said it would serve him right if he got bitten. So it would serve us right if the Christians cut our heads off. I wonder the Emperors do not do it. That would be justice."
Acilia did her best to put it fairly before the child: but it was hard. How could she preach the Christian law of love to a little heathen without doing what a rigid sense of honour made her unable to do? It seemed to her such an easy thing for a woman like herself to overbear in argument a wee baby—and so unfair; and yet not easy at all if she might not speak freely and fully from the stand-point of her own faith, if she must, in a sense, try to ignore that vital difference in their point of view. Outside Christianity there is nothing nobler than justice: Faustula, like all noble children, had a passionate longing for it, and could see no sense in pretending not to desire it everywhere.
Then Acilia, who was honesty itself, hated to preach what she was doubtful whether she practised; and tried to confine her persuasions to the obvious point that Faustula should not speak against her own people or hate them.
"That's not my fault," the child insisted. "If they are my people I can't help it. Besides it makes no difference. If they deserve it they should be punished all the same."
"Not by us. That is God's affair."
"The gods won't trouble themselves. Our people did what they did to please theirs. I told Tatius once what had been done to the Christian who owned Clodia's father, and he said it was all right: that the gods would like it. The gods do queer things—Clodia has told me. And once Tatius got drunk, yes he did: and he looked horrid, but he said he d-d-did it out of compliment to Bacchus."
"Faustula, it is not nice to imitate your brother—"
"My father does."
"And it is not nice to tell tales of him."
"I didn't know it was tales: if he did it to please B-b-b-bacchus."
Faustula looked up with a wicked air of innocence that even Acilia found it hard not to laugh at. On the whole she was not sure that small children are so particularly easy to silence in argument.
Faustula was not old enough to disbelieve in the existence of the gods, like her father; but she had very strong likes and dislikes, and very simple standards of admiration and scorn, and she neither liked the gods nor revered them.
"Your God," she observed calmly, "is more powerful than all the others?"
Acilia, who did not feel free to admit or deny the existence of "the others," was certainly not able to combat Faustula's suggestion.
"If I were Him," the child declared, "I would teach them something.''
At that moment Melania came into the room, and Acilia had seldom been better pleased to see her. She gave Faustula a look which the child understood very well: it meant "I can't say any more, but I don't approve at all of your ideas"; and Faustula smiled unrepentantly and went back to Domitilla.
It will be seen that Faustula by no means inflicted herself on Fabian as her brother inflicted himself on Christopher. As seemed natural to her elders, she was more with Domitilla than with Fabian. Nevertheless she often was with him, and when he and she were alone she had her happiest hours. She adored him as the most perfect of human beings, never teasing him to give her more of his company but profoundly grateful and content when he gave it to her. She liked Christopher very well, but thought very little about him, and perhaps concluded that he could not be so nice as his brother or Tatius would not have stuck to him so closely.
As a matter of fact Tatius did not care much for Christopher, but merely preferred him to anyone else at the Villa Acilia.
After they had been Melania's guests for some weeks another guest arrived whose coming upset Faustula: this was a cousin of Fabian's and Christopher's, called Caecilia, who stayed about ten days. She was a good seven years younger than Melania, but like her a widow, having married very young and lost her husband after a year or two of wedded life.
Caecilia was the most beautiful person Faustula had ever seen, and the most splendid. The little girl at once came to the conclusion that she was not the same sort of Christian as the Acilii Glabriones, but fond of the pleasures and distinctions of this life, rich and determined to enjoy her wealth, complacent of her rank, and calmly aware of her wonderful beauty. Faustula made up her mind too, that Acilia did not admire this kinswoman of Melania's, and that Melania herself, who was always courteous and hospitable, did not particularly enjoy her visit, which it appeared had herself proposed. As for Christopher, his grown-up cousin took slight notice of him: but to Fabian she devoted much of her attention. Apparently she took it for granted that he was to entertain her.
"I don't want," she observed with an easy air of settling all such arrangements for herself, "to interrupt your business, Melania, or Acilia's prayers. Fabian shall look after me."
Fabian seemed extremely willing. He also thought Caecilia the most beautiful person he had ever seen, and hovered about her with a devotion that amused his mother and slightly irritated Acilia. His frank admiration did not at all displease its object, who was perfectly content to afford satisfaction when it could be done without the least effort on her part. She smiled graciously on the boy and let him make himself as useful as possible. At six-and-twenty she probably felt herself old enough to be his grandmother. At least she said so.
"Boys of twelve," she remarked tranquilly to Melania, "always do fall in love with the grandmothers—or someone else's."
Melania laughed and was not much disturbed. Caecilia was only staying a week or so, and Fabian was not likely to break his heart. In a very few years he would be far from her, his mother; he could not always be at her side, and she felt a quiet certainty that he would never out of her sight do anything that it would hurt her to know of. Meanwhile a boy's frank admiration for such a mature and experienced lady as his cousin would do him no harm.
Caecilia was fond of talking and talked very well. She would sit reclining in a splendid way and tell Fabian about all sorts of interesting things, and he would sit near her on the floor listening with absorbed appreciation. If Domitilla and Faustula were playing in a corner the latter would watch them with observant, jealous eyes. There was nothing whatever in Caecilia's talk that Melania would have disapproved. It did not in the least alter its tone or subject if she happened to come into the room, and she would often on such occasions pause to listen herself.
Caecilia's husband had been Pro-Consul in Spain and nothing strange or interesting had escaped her notice: but she was never prosy or long-winded; from one subject she would glance off to another almost too soon. Then she was not vain: proud she undoubtedly was, but vanity implies self-consciousness and Caecilia did not seem self-conscious. Her beauty, her wealth and her rank were all agreeable to her, but she took them all for granted as if it was a matter of course she should be beautiful and rich and noble.
All the same Faustula detested her. If they had been of the same age the little girl could not have been more jealous.
She hated Fabian for admiring her, hated him passionately and loved him passionately all in the same breath. Acilia she became much fonder of because she was sure Acilia did not like this smooth, magnificent person who had come up from Rome to spoil everything.
Christopher was slightly puzzled at this time by receiving more signs of appreciation from his brother's little friend than she had ever shown him before. Fabian noticed it and was glad, for he had been annoyed that Faustula seemed rather blind to Christopher's kindness and good-will.
That Faustula was not quite so good as she had been, Melania and Acilia observed too, but they did not attach any special significance to it; little girls will be cross sometimes, and heathen little girls can no more be expected to be always at their best than Christian little girls. Nor was Faustula cross with them, or with Christopher; it was merely that she now never went near Fabian, and excused herself coldly if he happened to propose himself as her playmate, and was slightly more odd and old in her ways.
Caecilia was rather kind to the little girl, or tried to be; but very little girls were not much in her line; she had no children and frankly declared that she would not have known what to do with them if she had. Faustula would have none of her patronage and showed it almost venomously. Caecilia did not mind and assured herself there was so much trouble saved.
"Our small friend has a temper," she tranquilly informed Melania. "I have met her father in Rome, lately. A pleasant man and cultivated. She does not inherit her bad manner from him."
"He came here one day with Sabina, our neighbour at Olibanum. He is certainly a good-tempered man. But Faustula is not by any means an ill-tempered child—"
"Bilious perhaps: I should give her a dose of aloes and let her know she is to have it. They used to give it me when I was a child, till I perceived that it was apt to follow on an attack of sulks and gave over being bilious."
Melania would not even agree that Faustula was bilious.
"Tatius is," she admitted: "but he eats very little and only plain things—"
Caecilia did not care in the least what anybody ate except herself, and turned the conversation from Faustula to her father.
"They say in Rome he is going to marry again—Tullia, the daughter of Cornelius Tullius: she is very handsome but not rich, and people thought he would look about for money."
Melania did not care much for gossip, but this matter interested her, for she wondered how it would affect Faustula.
"I hope she is a kind woman," she said. "It would make a great difference if Faustula had a really good stepmother."
Caecilia laughed a little.
"Tullia is hardly a woman at all; but a highly fashionable young lady of eighteen. I should think the idea of being a stepmother had not entered into her calculations. Nobody in Rome remembers the existence of your Tatius and Faustula, and the other one lives with her aunt Domitia who was a Vestal."
Melania pondered this news in her mind, and came to the conclusion that Faustula would probably go on living with Sabina.
When Caecilia's visit came to an end nobody minded much except Fabian, who missed her badly at first. Having now more time at his own disposal, he tried to make up for any slight neglect of Faustula that Caecilia's presence had occasioned.
"Come into the garden," he proposed, meeting her in the atrium, "it is quite a long time since you have been there with me."
"No, thank you. I am looking for Domitilla."
"Domitilla is asleep. Come along."
But Faustula would not go, and chose to go in search of Clodia. Fabian stood by the impluvium watching her as she hurried away without looking back. He knew she could have come with him if she had chosen, and he was rather hurt at her brusque refusal. He had never lost the tender chivalrous feeling of pity and affection that had come into his heart on the day of their first meeting, and he could not help knowing that he had always been very kind to her. His conscience did not accuse him of having been less kind during the last ten days; though he had not seen so much of her it had not been his fault, for Caecilia had chosen to take up a great deal of his time, and, if he had been willing enough, it would hardly have been possible to act differently even if he had cared less about it. Caecilia was his mother's guest, and Melania herself was really much occupied with the care and management of her great household, and of the estate: and Acilia was not in his cousin's line. When Caecilia spoke to her it was always with great respect, but rather as if she were addressing an elderly priest who knew nothing about her world.
Then Fabian could not forget that when he had tried to devote himself to Faustula of late, she had almost invariably made some excuse, and that either petulantly or coldly. He was hurt and troubled, but quite unable to account for her altered demeanour.
An hour afterwards he was in the garden alone: leaning over the parapet of the broad terrace where he had first met Faustulus. He also had now heard that Sabina's brother was going to be married again, and wondered whether Faustula knew. He was well aware that she had expected after her father's first visit to see him often, and he guessed that this new marriage would probably keep them apart. All the more it behooved him to make up to her while he could for the neglect of others. Thus he came to reproach himself for his own neglect fairly or unfairly.
"It is mean to measure and weigh all little petty rights and wrongs," the boy told himself. "I have hurt her and she would not think of hurting me."
He raised himself and stood upright, gazing out across the marvellous chasm of beauty that lay beneath, without heeding or seeing it. He was wondering where she was, how he could find her, and beg her pardon without the least hint that anyone but himself was in the wrong.
Then he turned and his eyes fell on the broad white terrace where his shadow lay at his feet. Another shadow, much taller, lay there also, and was so strange that it startled him—that of a tall man pointing: the left hand, with outstretched fingers, was about level with the man's waist, the right was lifted higher, and pointed along the terrace. In the palm of each shadowed hand was a bright spot, as if the sun shone through a hole in it.
Fifty yards away, close to the parapet, a wild olive had grown up where there had been once a crack, and where was now a narrow cleft, in the ancient flagging of the pavement. Just beyond the tree, almost hidden by it, was a beautiful seat of carved marble. Thither the hand, with the shining cleft, was pointing.
Without asking himself why, or why his heart was choking him, Fabian stooped and in an instant had pulled off his sandals; then he ran, swiftly and without a sound, for his bare feet on the marble pavement made none, and he held his loose garments close about him.
On the parapet, behind the wild-olive, stood little Faustula: she could not have climbed up upon it but for the marble seat. Her small body was bent slightly forward, her arms were lifted to the height of her shoulders, the glorious sun made her wonderful hair like copper, gilded here and there, and her white raiment was like snow against the dazzling blue of the sky.
Fabian knew now why his heart was choking him. It was a marvel that the child could so stand without falling from sheer giddiness; from the parapet the precipice leapt down hundreds of feet to the green amphitheatre below. And Fabian knew, somehow, that if she fell it would be by no accident. Even then he could think: "Thank the dear Christ that I flung the sandals off." The smallest sound close behind her and Faustula would have jumped.
There was a sound, but from another part of the garden where some of the slaves were at work, and they sang together.
"Salve! Salve! Christe Noster, Salve! Libera nos! Rex ac Redemptor Noster, Salve! Libera servos catenatos, Dom'ne! Salve Majestatis Rex; O servos caecos libera." The words were pathetic enough in their mouths, but the voices were loud and cheerful, broken into a sort of rude swing or rhythm not by the proper cadence of the syllables themselves, but by the work they accompanied.
Faustula could have heard them just as plainly as Fabian had she chosen to listen, but she heard without heeding; the men were out of sight and not near. The turmoil of her angry little mind was not concerned with slaves, or with their God who had been crucified like a slave, but with her own fierce misery.
It must not be imagined that Fabian stood still listening or watching, or that he cried out till he had flung his strong young arms around the child and held her in them safely: neither did he give her any chance of struggling out of them till he had snatched her off the parapet and set her on the ground. Even as he did this he shuddered to notice that the very stone on which she had been standing was loose and unsteady.
She could not see him yet; but his voice was the voice she knew best and loved best of any in the world.
Of what she had meant to do he never asked her, nor did he reproach her except by those two words: that gasping, horrified crying of her own name. She did not thank him for having saved her, but she never forgot it: neither did she ever forget the expression of his face as she had seen it when he loosened his hold and she was able to turn round and look at him. At first she only saw his feet; and that they were naked. That was why he had been able to come near without her hearing,
"How did you know?" she asked, lifting her eyes slowly to his.
"I was sent."
"Who sent you?" she demanded, with a quick, half-angry suspiciousness.
"Christus Noster Pastor et Salvator," he replied. "Come, I will show you."
Holding her tenderly by one hand he led her back along the terrace where his sandals lay: but there was no shadow there now. But he told her what he had seen.
"So you did not come of yourself," she said grudgingly.
"I was coming; only I did not know where to look for you. I should have gone indoors to find you but for the shadow."
He shuddered again thinking what would have happened if he had gone indoors.
The slaves were singing still loudly and cheerily.
"Salve! Salve! Christe Noster Salve!
Redempti, liberate gratias ac laudes
Agimus tibi ex catenis fractis..."
Then the boy told her how he was coming to find her and beg her pardon for having hurt her, how he did not know—would she tell him?—No, she never told him. Neither did she tell him that it was to hurt him she had suddenly determined to do that from which he had saved her. She could not help following him, though carefully keeping out of sight, when he had gone out into the garden: loving him bitterly, hating him sweetly, longing to be near him, too proud to go to him: to make him feel such misery as her own she had been willing to fling herself out of all reach of him for ever. But she never told him.
She knew him too well to think he would tell anyone, even Melania, of how he had saved her and from what. Had she had the least doubt she would have been too proud to ask him to keep her secret.
"Whom do you love best?" she demanded suddenly. "After Melania and Christopher I mean."
"You, of course." He answered simply, without a moment's doubt or hesitation.
"Then stop begging my pardon."
Presently he led her round the tall hedge of myrtle towards the little group of slaves who had been singing. There were four of them, an old blind gardener, Felix, his sons Donus and Vitalis, and an orphan lad, Sergius: that night Fabian said to his mother:
"Did I ever ask you for a gift?"
"Never, my son. You are not one who is eager to possess things."
"But I want you to give me something—worth a good deal of money. As it is the first time you will not refuse?"
"No, of course. If it is something I can buy. How mysterious we are!"
Fabian laughed a little as she had done, and said:
"It is nothing you would have to buy. But something that belongs to you already."
"Well! I have promised."
"You know the four slaves Felix, Donus, Vitalis and Sergius who work in the gardens. I want you to give them their freedom."
Melania would not say No, having given her word. But she was a little puzzled: none of her slaves were unhappy and discontented. She paused a moment to see if Fabian would explain: but he only waited and offered no explanation: and Melania was one of those rare parents who do not cross-question their children.
"They shall be freed," she said quietly. "But if they wish to go away we must do something for them: it would not be very kind sending them out helpless and un rovided into freedom."
"I do not suppose they will want to go away. If they stay they will be freedmen, that is all."
"Have they said anything to you?"
"Oh, no. If they had I should have told you at once. It is an idea of my own. Does it seem to you unjust?"
"Unjust. No. If they are made free it will be a gift—your gift. One cannot give alike to everyone."
"Your gift though. Not mine."
When the four slaves were given their freedom it was with the ancient usages only modified slightly as became a rite performed in church, for it was done in the chapel of the villa. Faustula begged to see it, but Melania reluctantly refused. Whether Sabina would have objected she was not sure: but she felt bound to do nothing that might be disapproved.
As it turned out Felix and his sons asked to stay where they were and be employed as freedmen. Sergius made a petition.
"When you go to the army," he begged of Fabian, "may I go with you?"
Fabian liked the lad, who was only two or three years older than himself, intelligent and of a merry, cheerful disposition, and promised that if Melania consented it should be so.
"I, too," he said earnestly, "ask something. Will you and the others to whom the Most Illustrious Lady Melania has given freedom pray always for the liberation of someone else?"
Of course Sergius promised, and Felix and his sons promised too.
On the night after this ceremony Melania came into the talbrium where Acilia and the three boys were sitting, and stood smiling in the midst of them. Her face had a strange gravity over which her smile hung like a tender, clear veil.
"I have come," she said, "to say good-bye to you all for a short time: perhaps a few days only: we shall see. It may be, however, for some weeks."
Her tone was so quietly cheerful that Acilia and Melania's sons were not startled, but the idea of her going away, even on a short absence, disturbed them all.
"What is it? Have you to go to Rome?" Acilia asked hastily.
"Let me go with you," Fabian begged. He was always impulsive and eager; then he pulled himself up for he had no right to ask to be taken instead of his brother. He looked quickly at Christopher with a smile of apology and Christopher smiled back: between the two brothers there was never the least jealousy.
"I am going nowhere," Melania explained at once. "It is just this. Clodia has been taken ill. Most wisely she would not go near Faustula the moment she felt unwell and let Domitilla's nurse put both the little girls to bed. She still sleeps in the room she had at first in the other wing. And there I am just now going to see her: if it turns out as I expect I shall stay there: so you will not see me till we know it is all right."
"What do you expect?"
"From what they describe I think she is going to have small-pox."
Nobody argued with her. Acilia had always the utmost confidence in her wisdom, and would not say a word to make the two boys more anxious. It was clear that somebody must nurse Clodia, and Acilia had a calm conviction that in that house the highest duty would be performed by the highest person in it.
"Of course Placida would be eager to nurse her," Melania went on in her quiet, cheerful way; "though she would not feel the same nursing her as if it were one of us. But it was my doing bringing Clodia here, and if there is any risk it is my business."
As Acilia would have felt exactly the same she could not argue the matter. What could Christopher or Fabian say? They could not nurse a young female slave!
"So," said Melania, "here I am to say—good-night. Good-night for a day or two perhaps. We shall soon know. Tatius, I'm afraid it will be good-bye to you: you and Faustula must go back the first thing in the morning. There have been no more cases at Olibanum and it is six weeks since you came. I brought you here to be quite safe and I must send you away to be quite safe. Acilia, will you write to Sabina for me—? And Fabian, say good-bye to Faustula for me. Now I'm going. Good-night, Acilia, bless me please."
She knelt by the old woman's side and they embraced, as they did every night: then Melania embraced her two boys, and blest them.
"Good-bye, Tatius. Tell Sabina how rude I feel in sending you and Faustula off so suddenly. But it is best, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Tatius. "It is best."
He hung back a little as if the fact that his hostess would presently be with the infected Clodia made her dangerous: everyone in the room noticed and understood, and Fabian flushed angrily. Christopher was ashamed for his friend and tried not to look at him.
Melania could not help being amused by the silly cowardice of the selfish boy, but took care not to frighten him further by going near him.
Her own boys went out with her into the peristylium, and knelt again for her blessing. She knelt with them, an arm round each of theirs.
"Poor little Faustula!" she said. With such a brother, and scarcely any father the thought of her loneliness hurt her. "Kiss her for me, both of you," she cried. Then she kissed her sons for themselves, and laughing lightly, always with her incomparable grave cheerfulness, got up and hurried to her duty. They never saw her again—till they saw their father too.
The reader may be told at once, what was never known to Melania's family or to Sabina, how Clodia developed small-pox so many weeks after she, Faustula and Tatius had been received at Civitella, when all fear of infection seemed out of the question.
To explain this the reader must be reminded that Maltro accompanied his pupil, and more must be said about that clever young man than has been necessary till now. At the time of Accia's death he was about twenty-nine, and thirty when he went with his young master to the Villa Acilia.
He was vain of his talents, not without reason, for he was unusually intelligent, quick to acquire knowledge and tenacious of retaining it: but his wits were shallow. Nevertheless had better chances come in his way he might have been even brilliant. He was vainer of his good looks, which were not of any uncommon order: you may see a hundred young men as handsome in any Roman street any day of your life. His eyes were large and bright, perfectly black, but not deep, with the blackness not of a clear, deep water, but of a shallow drop of ink. His chin was sharp and too small, his nose well-shaped, but over thin and aquiline: his skin was smooth and perfectly colourless, without any of that rich olive, shading to brown, so usual in the south. His mouth was finely formed, but too small, and the lips did not accord: for the upper was too full and the lower too thin. Such mouths are also seen by the hundred in any street of Naples or Rome, and their significance is not difficult to divine: they belong to young men who are at once self-indulgent and mean.
At Olibanum there was one person who admired Maltro as much as he admired himself: one of the house-slaves called Didia, a girl some three years younger than Clodia, but very unlike her in every way. She was pretty but by no means beautiful, jealous, cruel and passionate. Maltro was not in love with her, but her obvious admiration for himself flattered him, and he enjoyed flirting with her: the more jealous she showed herself the more he enjoyed it. On the other hand he really was in love with Clodia, as much as such a fellow can be truly in love with anyone: and Clodia's indifference only made him think the more of her.
Clodia was not of the love-making sort. Her sad story had cured her of all that: and her blind devotion to Faustulus had first ceased to be blind and then had slowly ceased itself. The only love left in her was for Faustula, who loved her too, but not half so much as she deserved.
Clodia kept clear of Maltro as much as she would: but she could not always keep clear of him altogether: she never encouraged him, and he knew it, admiring her all the more, but not so discouraged as to leave her alone. Faustulus had been right in supposing that Maltro had some money—how he had got it was his own secret, and Faustulus never troubled himself about other people's secrets. Maltro's father had been a cleverer man than himself, and much more frugal and self-denying: by the time he died he had enough to buy his own freedom, but not enough to buy his son's also: so he waited, but death came before his waiting was over, and he handed his secret hoard over to his son.
Maltro could then have bought his freedom at once, but he too resolved to wait. If he could get his freedom for nothing why waste the money? He was already pedagogue to little Tatius, and, if he succeeded as well as he intended, he thought it likely Faustulus would give him his freedom. Accia's death, and the consequent removal to Olibanum, had not much pleased him: he liked Rome much better, and in Rome he had easier means of increasing his money, for he saw no point in keeping it idle.
It was tiresome, too, that Tatius was so heavy: he worked really hard with him, and taught him as well as anybody could have done: what the masters, in special subjects, who came out from Rome, taught the boy would have borne very little fruit but for Maltro, and the masters knew it quite well. He was always allowed to be in the room while such lessons were being given, and Maltro taught them all over again, when the masters were gone, and so taught himself a great deal that would not otherwise have come in his way. Still Tatius was slow, dull and heavy: not stupid exactly, but thick-witted: and Maltro was irritated that his pupil did him so little credit. When Faustulus returned from his travels, and paid that one short visit to Olibanum, Maltro soon learned that Tatius was no more a favourite with his father now than he had been as a small child: but for Clodia he would probably have made up his mind to buy his freedom, at last. But she held him to Olibanum; and besides Tatius would soon be leaving Olibanum himself, and Maltro thought he might as well wait a little longer and go when he went.
When his charge of Tatius ceased, and it came to the point of offering to buy his own freedom, Faustulus, if he had any decency, would give it him for nothing, or for very little. He would then be able to buy Clodia's freedom as well, and he had an idea that Faustulus would not object to her going.
It will be remembered that the removal of Maltro, Clodia and their charges to the Villa Acilia took place very soon after the visit of Faustulus: when Melania came over to suggest it she had heard that there was small-pox not only in the village, or castellum, of Olibanum, but also that it had broken out among Sabina's house-slaves also. As a matter of fact only one house-slave had taken the disease and that one was Didia. But Didia was one of Sabina's own dressers, serving under an older woman who had come with their mistress from Rome at the time of her marriage: and Sabina, though the girl was isolated at once, had been more anxious than she had shown.
However it had all turned out very well. No one else developed the dreadful variolae, and Didia was at last not only well, but pronounced free from infection. On the actual day when they informed her that there was no more risk Sabina received a letter from her brother telling her of his approaching marriage with Tullia. During the day following Sabina pondered this announcement, on the next she made up her mind to go down to Rome and talk business with him, of which there had not been a word in his short letter. Much as she disliked going there she had occasional business of her own which made such visits necessary, and she had some now: so she would kill two birds with one stone, or rather several birds. First she would attend to her own affairs: then she would inspect Tullia and make up her mind how this marriage would affect Faustula. It might be convenient that she should now return to her father. Finally, Tatius was to be considered, and definite arrangements must now be made as to his future. Faustulus had merely sent whimsical messages to his children without any hint of their practical concern in his news.
As it happened their being now with Melania would make Sabina's short absence all the more easy: they were in good hands and Sabina assured herself, as people do on such occasions, that Melania liked having them: on her return they should come back.
Accordingly, early on the next morning, she set off, and Didia, whose duties were not to begin again till her return, felt that she had a short holiday before her, all the more as Tanaguil, the elderly attendant we have mentioned, went with her mistress.
Didia had not felt it to have been a holiday at all while she was ill: for weeks she had been in mortal terror, first of dying outright, and then of being disfigured. Maltro would not look at her if she recovered with ugly holes in her face.
To Venus she made the most ample promises in case of unblemished recovery without the least doubt as to the connexion of the goddess of beauty with the matter. When she got well, however, Didia compounded. Her promises, she reminded herself, had been made while she was light-headed, and had been strictly conditional: they could hardly be binding to the letter, since after all there were a few spots; one on the side of her nose released her of at least sixty per cent, of her engagements: even those she would hold over till it appeared what Maltro now thought of her.
She sent him a message and he came to see her without the least reluctance. He was tired of being at Civitella and was not in a good temper with Clodia. At first he had rather liked the change to the Villa Acilia—change was always welcome—and he anticipated greater freedom out of reach of Sabina's watchful eye, and perhaps some adventures. But there had been no adventures; and, though Melania did not interfere with him, the staid and well-ordered, somewhat strict, Christian household had soon bored him. At home his position in reference to Tatius gave him a sort of importance that he missed at the Villa Acilia: and, as none of Melania's slaves owed him any money, he could not treat them with the slightly supercilious superiority and patronage that he used towards Sabina's. For many years Maltro had been a money-lender on a prudent scale, and, where there is a large establishment of slaves, borrowers are easy to find: not that he confined his operations to the dependents of his master's sister. What he had chiefly liked at Civitella was the relief from the too constant attendance on Tatius, which at home he often found very oppressive: for he had not the least affection for his charge, and despised while he flattered him.
To slip over to Olibanum and meet Didia would fill up an evening quite agreeably.
Maltro would have obeyed Didia's summons in any case, but he went the more readily that he was angry with Clodia.
In some ways he found it easier to see her alone at the Villa Acilia than it was at home. It would have been quite easy if Clodia had been as willing to meet him as he was anxious to arrange interviews with her. For Clodia had more time to herself, also, Faustula being so much less dependent on her at Civitella than at Olibanum. But Clodia would arrange no meetings, and if Maltro ever saw her alone it was by accident.
She avoided him consciously and he was quite aware of it; but her avoidance only increased his eagerness: and he had brought himself to a decision which it took it for granted must break down all her indifference.
It did not occur to him that she could really dislike him: he thought a great deal of his good looks, and of his education. His manners, he considered, were quite distinguished; and, when she heard the proposal he was going to make, she must be carried away by gratitude.
As it happened he did find an opportunity of speaking to her alone, on the evening before Sabina's departure for Rome. On such occasions Clodia was coolly civil, and she was no more than that now; but, during her six weeks in Melania's house she had been struck by the better bearing of the slaves towards each other, and her manner had become more gentle. This was encouragement enough for Maltro, and he unfolded his plans, more hurriedly than he would have liked, for he was afraid of her slipping away, but quite clearly, because he had arranged what he had to say.
Without attempting any love-making he told Clodia that he had resolved to go to Faustulus soon and ask permission to buy his freedom.
"Or rather," he explained diplomatically, "I shall say that a certain person interested in me would wish to buy my freedom. That would be better than letting Faustulus know I myself have the money."
Clodia listened with patient politeness and put in a word or two of congratulation. Then Maltro went on to express his opinion that Faustulus, considering all he had done for his son, ought to feel bound to offer the freedom for nothing, or very little. Of this Clodia did not feel so sure; Maltro's valuation of his own services would probably be higher than that of his master; but this doubt she kept to herself.
"If he does not," Maltro went on, "he will be very mean. That son of his would be as ignorant as a frog but for me. But in any case I have the money—more money than you suppose."
He paused for another congratulation and received it with complacence. It is delightful to be felicitated on one's wealth by those who have none of their own. Thus oiled his eloquence ran on more glibly, and he told Clodia the good fortune he had in store for herself. Once freed, he would have enough to buy her freedom also, whereupon they would be married.
Clodia heard him out, and even thanked him for so generous an intention, but, in a few plain words, assured him that she could neither leave her beloved little mistress, nor marry him even if she were free.
Her expressions of gratitude were not insincere, but her firm resolve not to join her lot with his was so much more sincere and decided, that Maltro thought nothing of them, and was only angry. He became very angry indeed, and made no attempt to hide it. He no longer pretended to disguise his sense of his own superiority, and told her in brutal phrases how lucky she ought to think herself that such a man as himself should be willing to accept her, as a freedman too, for his free wife. To hurt her more he spoke of her history, and was speaking of it when she left him.
His spiteful annoyance was by no means cooled when he received Didia's message, and as he went over to Olibanum he was thinking much more of Clodia's perverse folly than of Didia. He still wanted Clodia, and was still determined to get her. For outraged vanity flattery is a welcome balsam, and Maltro was sure of it at Didia's hands. She always did flatter him, since he never took the trouble to flatter her. His beauty, his genius, his superior bearing and tone, she never failed to find something to say of them all.
Maltro knew she was a fool, but in this he did not think her foolish, for her sentiments coincided with his own.
This evening she was more open-handed in dealing out her praises than usual: that horrid spot on the side of her nose warned her to be lavish. It was dusk, and Maltro could not see it, but Didia never forgot it for an instant. It made her meek, which served for an appearance of good-temper. Maltro was so uncommonly agreeable that she felt Venus must have a hand in it, and resolved not to retrench her engagements further. She liked the idea of a secret understanding between the divine patroness of beauty and herself.
Maltro found the interview a pleasant break after the monotonous rigidity of the Villa Acilia, and fancied Didia less insipid than he thought. Still he was smarting under the annoyance Clodia had caused him and he was thinking of her all the time. Unfortunately, out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaks, and presently her name dropped from him.
Didia was instantly, though inwardly, furious.
"You see her all the time over there," she said as coolly as she could.
"No. Oh, no. But we are not watched over there as we are here."
This was enough for Didia. When people are not watched they please themselves.
"Could you give her a small parcel?" she asked indifferently.
"How small?" inquired Maltro who had no idea of burdening himself.
"Oh, quite small and light. Some clean linen she wants. If you do not wish to take it, it can be sent on to-morrow."
Maltro was not sure that the parcel would be so very small: light it probably would be. He hesitated: in daylight he would not have been seen carrying a bundle for anything: but it was night now and he thought the parcel might give him a convenient pretext for seeing Clodia again soon. He still wanted to see her—he could not keep away from her.
"Very well," he said carelessly. "If it is not bulky I will take it."
When Clodia received the parcel she was slightly surprised, for she expected no clean linen; but she did not want to stop and talk with Maltro and hurried away with it to the little room she still occupied next to that which had been Faustula's while they were all segregated. It contained one article of linen and also a silk head-scarf which Sabina had given her at the last Lupercalia. For some time she had lost this, and her idea was that Didia had appropriated it and was now making a sort of covert restitution: so she determined to say nothing about it to anybody.
Clodia was quite right in guessing that Didia had stolen the scarf; but she could not guess that during the long, dull and miserable hours of her illness the wretched girl had constantly had it in bed with her and often decked her infected head with it. That night Clodia wore the scarf on her head, as it was a special occasion, when she went to the door of the oratory to watch the ceremony of the emancipation of Melania's four slaves. Then with a sudden fear of being thought vain she had gone back to her room, stuffed the scarf into her bed, and run down again to join the others in their merry-making.
Thus it was that the small-pox came over from Olibanum to the Villa Acilia.
As soon as Melania saw Clodia she felt sure that the poor girl was sickening for the disease, and she had not long to wait before finding she had been right. As tenderly as though the slave had been her own younger sister did Melania nurse her and always with her singular sweet cheerfulness. You might have thought that in all the world there was no one for Melania to think of besides her patient, and that small-pox was a sort of intimate joke between them.
"You must do me credit and get well," she would say with her gentle laugh. "You are my first case. And Placida must be confounded by my success. She is too vain of her nursing."
Clodia thought of Faustula and intended to get well if she could.
"Ah, dear little Faustula," Melania would say. "Yes. That's a better reason still. How can she get on without you?"
Melania was a noble Roman lady, and Clodia a poor shamed slave, but all that was forgotten in the intimate charity of that sick-room. Melania had a heart big enough for all the slaves in the world: the more she loved her own, the sons whom God had given her, the more room there was in her love for those who had come to love them. In that she was really like our Lord, who says: "Other sheep I have who are not of this fold, and must fain bring them in also."
He did not forget to make that sick-room happy. With all the trouble that grew with Melania's quiet, grave certainty that the disease had marked her also down, she was happy. It would all be as He fashioned it.
To those who, in spite of mere verbal profession of faith, have no real belief in any life of ours but this, such happiness as hers is incomprehensible, and such an end as hers mere tragedy. Sorry tag as their own life mostly is, their clutch of it is desperate; when it tears in their hands all is lost. So they will not believe that there are human beings, with hearts as warm to human tenderness as their own, to whom that sharp twist in life's road which we call death is no more than that.
Nobody could have loved her sons better than Melania, or more sweetly prized their love for her. She knew how material to them she had been, but she would not call herself indispensable. That the loss of her visible presence must be a deep sorrow to them she knew also; but she could not think of it as an absence: being with God could not remove her from them, since He is everywhere. Of her own usefulness to them she thought frankly but humbly, knowing that mothers cannot walk beside their sons through life, nor always judge better of men's duties and difficulties than themselves. In a very short time they would go out into the world and would never come back home, to live under her care and by her rule. With God she could be nearer to them and more useful.
Thus feeling it did not seem to her that she was about to lose them either: but rather that in her nearness to them there was coming a greater sacredness, a tie more close because invisible, intangible and no longer subject to earthly hindrances of time and place.
The grief they must suffer hurt her, and she wished she might have borne all the hurt in herself: but even God lets us bear some of our own burdens, and she was too deeply reverent to think of outstripping tenderness like His: too simply wise not to know how far upward some sorrows may lift some of us: too full of trust in her boys' goodness not to feel a proud confidence that their sorrow would be like a sacrament of thorns binding them more closely to the King.
Nor were her last days on earth vexed by any fear lest they should reproach her for having sacrificed herself and them to a farfetched sense of duty to this slave who did not even belong to her. She knew them better: and she knew God too well to reproach herself. She had done what seemed to her right: the mere event could make no difference. She could not be quite certain she had been right, but God does not ask us to know all things like Himself: that we should be thus was the tempter's lying promise.
If there be memories of earth so sacred and so sweet that they live on in heaven, and we, who believe in the Communion of Saints which we profess, know that there are, Melania never forgot the happiness with which Our Lord made golden those days in the sick-room which were her last, and Clodia's last, here below.
That Clodia was dying, Melania understood about the same time she knew herself to have caught the infection.
Almost immediately she saw that the girl was aware of her condition, and, with unspeakable relief and thankfulness, that she was not terrified. It lifted a great load from her own mind.
Presently Clodia spoke out concerning a matter that had lain near her heart since before she fell ill.
"When I die," she said simply, "I shall belong to no one any more. May I be a Christian? It can make no difference to anyone."
Melania's heart was full of tears, but she gave a little laugh as she answered:
"I was too great a coward to speak of it before. I knew you wanted to be a Christian. I have seen it for many days. But I had not the pluck to speak out as long as there seemed a likelihood of getting well."
She was sitting by the girl's side, and almost at once began telling her of the Christian scheme of things, of God and man, and the Man who is God; of His birth and life and death; of His lordship of life and death; of His entrance into human life by the low gate of birth, His passing out of it by the abject gate of a felon's death, "quia ipse voluit" not because it was His master, but because He chose to obey His servant, as He had obeyed Joseph in the Holy House where, of its three inmates, He was least, who was God and Master. Then of the lordly triumph of Easter, when He flung aside the garment of death once it had served its turn, and bade His human life come back to His own body, as He had called it back to the bodies of another three who had been dead.
But most tenderly of all did she dwell on the simplicity and hiddenness of most of the three and thirty years between those two meek gates of God's life on earth, Bethlehem and Calvary.
"He spent thirty of them proving he was Man," she said, "only sparing the last three to prove that He was God. His Godhead proves itself: but to our shy hearts it would seem so hard to grasp that God could be Man. So He proved it slowly, with tender daily deliberation, point by point, baby and child, boy and lad and man, with one set purpose moving on unhurried from windy cradle to hard cross."
Now and then Melania framed into her words a picture: that of the world's first ambassadors to God's meagre court on earth, the Shepherds whose calling was the only one He acknowledged as His own: that of Cana where He first displayed the intimate secret pity which would not let a host be ashamed for bidding more guests than he could meetly entertain: that sunlit one wherein He made his only writing, choosing for His book the earth itself, when He stooped and stooped again to write a woman's pardon: "Neither do I condemn thee." Telling of this Melania had slipped from her low seat, and knelt by Clodia's bed upon the floor, holding the girl close to her.
They were both too deeply intent to think of anything but what Melania was telling. When her voice broke and she could tell no more, Clodia cried aloud almost pushing her from her.
"Ah! my lady! Ah! my dear lady! What have you done?"
"It is no matter. We are going together. He has brought us close to each other for the rest of the little way that leads to His sweet Feet!" Even then her wonderful grave cheerfulness shone out, and she laughed her strange, tender, childlike little laugh as she said: "He will not mind our poor spots. He is used to them. Healing them has always been His business. So we needn't mind each other. We must be each other's mirror and get used to being queer. If I look queer soon you must put up with it."
"Do I look queer?" asked Clodia, half crying and half laughing.
"Yes, rather." And Melania gave over anything like crying and laughed undisguisedly.
Poor Clodia! It was much more than queer she looked, her beauty was all gone: but to Melania it seemed only to have been driven inward. She had never had any beauty herself, as she thought; her husband's admiration she had laughingly accepted as a pretty blindness of love.
All this time the reader may wonder had they no sort of doctor? Their doctor was the young priest Domnio who had as much medical knowledge as anyone had then. Twice every day he came, but Melania never let him come in. The wing in which they were was lower than the main body of the house, and older than it, being in fact the original house on to which the Acilius Glabrio of Nero's time had built his villa: the original entrance was still there, opening to a separate garden surrounded by a high wall. For some years before the conversion of Constantine this wing had been used as a sort of convent, in which had lived the widow of an Acilius Glabrio (grandmother of Melania's husband) with some other holy women who devoted themselves to a life of prayer and penance. Through the garden everything Melania and her patient needed was brought and left at the door, whence she herself took it in. To the door Domnio was allowed to come, and there Melania saw him, making her report, and taking his directions, and thither he brought such medicines as were necessary: she never allowed him to enter, or to come nearer than the lower step. When he brought her Holy Communion she knelt outside on the upper step.
On the day following that on which Clodia had expressed her desire to become a Christian Melania told Domnio of this happy news, and he said:
"Now you must let me come in to baptize her."
"No. I knew you would ask that and I baptized her myself. She was very ill last night; her heart is now very weak, and I saw no sense in waiting. This morning she is better but she gets weaker every day."
It was Melania's day for Holy Communion and she was veiled, the veil hanging down almost to her mouth: so that Domnio could not see anything of her face.
"Should she not receive Extreme Unction?" he asked.
Melania had thought of this and had her answer ready.
"Yes. If you will come back in an hour she shall be ready."
"And I may come in?"
"There is no necessity. She shall be here just inside the door; and, please, only anoint her on the hand, and that with a stylus."
Domnio did not see why Melania should take all the risks herself, and hesitated before promising.
Melania laughed one of her little quiet laughs and said:
"Remember you are to do what I tell you. The Pope said so when he sent you to us. And, besides, her face is very dreadful: you know that in cases of necessity one anointing is enough. I want you to be able to see the boys still."
"Then I will give her Holy Viaticum at the same time."
To this, being a necessity of charity, Melania agreed: then, kneeling for a few moments in silence, she confessed herself and received her own Communion.
When Domnio came back in an hour he found Clodia lying on a bed upon the floor just inside the door; Melania had brought it there herself and carried the girl, well wrapped up in clean white coverings, her head and face veiled, only one hand visible. As Melania was still veiled herself, Clodia did not suspect that there was anything in her own appearance which the womanly, sisterly tenderness of her friend wished to hide.
Domnio obeyed Melania in anointing only the one hand, the palm of which had no spots upon it; but he would use no stylus, applying the holy oil with his thumb as in ordinary cases.
When the time came Melania kneeling by her drew aside enough of Clodia's veil to leave the mouth just accessible, keeping even the chin still covered, and Domnio laid the Host upon the girl's tongue.
For some time the priest knelt by the door reading the prayers. When he was gone Clodia took her last look out into the shining world: it was a glorious day of summer, all blue and gold; up there in the mountains the air was fresh but warm and caressing.
At last Melania lifted her in her arms again and carried her back to her bed. It was a happy day, and Melania thought of it as a sort of holiday, like the days on which her boys had made their first communion. That her own illness gathered strength she felt from hour to hour; but she was sure God would let her live so long as Clodia needed her.
So several days went by, each seeming to both women happier than the last. The Golden Gates were opening, and the radiance of the King's City was shining down.
Once Melania, sitting close to Clodia and holding the girl's hand in hers, asked her gently if she had anyone to forgive.
"No one but myself—I know what I have done to you."
Then Melania told her without the least affectation with her plain simplicity, how she looked at all that. That she was not being snatched from her boys, nor they from her, as we have tried to explain it, though in much nobler, tenderer words.
"When my beloved husband went to God," she said, "I knew he had not gone away: for God is closer to us than our own flesh is close to ourselves. In this life we could not always be together: then I knew we should henceforth be together always. When I am dead shall I not be much nearer to Christopher and Fabian than I am now, though they are only in another part of this house? Presently, if I had lived, the business of this life would have carried them far from me. That can never be now. The first person you must forgive is yourself—and it would be hard for me to think you hard."
"There is no one else," Clodia answered quietly.
They were both silent for a little while, then Melania said:
"Where we are going you must plead for Faustula that she, too, may find what you have found."
"And for her father."
"'Abyssus abyssum invocat,'" thought Melania. "And the fathomless deeps of the Heart of God may stir the shallows of that shallow heart, too."
She told Clodia of the pool that God's angel moved, and of the man sick for eight-and-thirty years of his infirmity, never able to scramble down in time. For no man would help him; till the Man came by whom he had never thought of, but Who had been thinking of him since before the waste of waters ran back from the lovely land.
"What did He write?" Clodia whispered: her mind running back to that other picture.
Melania never answered for Him, but let Him tell her for Himself. She saw that Clodia and He were face to face.
That night Fabian came to his brother's bed and touched him.
"Christopher!" he whispered.
"Yes, dear, I am awake?"
"I have seen something... if it was a dream I cannot remember waking after it. In the old garden within the wall, I saw a shining place, and by it stood a Man resting himself after working. Come and see."
They went together. It was a night of many stars, but moonless: there was no sound but the breathing of the resting world, as of one who sleeps pleasantly. The mountains stood around bulked into one large blackness.
In the old garden there were many flowers, with shut eyes, sleeping like the night. A very pale light, like a scarf of shining mist, hung over a little plot of soft earth quite near the two steps leading up to the door of the old wing which stood open. The mild radiance shone upwards from the ground as if it were a reflection: and when they came near they found there was a light sprinkling of snow, scarce more than a white frost of winter. All the rest of the garden still glowed with the sunlight of the day before.
"It was here I thought I saw Him," Fabian whispered; but there was no one there now.
When the rooms which Melania and Clodia had used were entered, all was found exquisitely clean, but they were empty. A fragrance different from that of any flower of earth clung to them, like a smile to the faces of the blessed dead; but no dead were found there. And no other case appeared at Civitella of the sickness that had healed Clodia and set her free.
In the year 350 occurred the death of the Emperor Constans, who was killed in Spain by Magnentius; an event which did not seem to affect the lot of Faustula, but did ultimately have its bearing on her history, in so far as it paved the way for the accession of Julian as sole Emperor ten years later.
What affected her obviously and at once was that Sabina died in the spring of that same year, 350, rather more than six months before Faustula became ten years old.
Faustula was still living with her aunt at Olibanum, though Tatius was now in the army, and only came thither occasionally.
Sabina had not been favourably impressed by Tullia when she went to inspect her on the eve of her marriage, and that young woman made it quite clear that she had no inclination for the part of a stepmother. She had understood from Faustulus that there was no idea of any of his children coming to live with them: and Tatius; but she only really cared for him as her heir.
Faustula's life became more and more lonely as she grew more and more capable of feeling what her loneliness was. Clodia had tenderly loved her, with an unselfishness that the child understood better as time went on; and Clodia was dead. Melania was dead, too, and the motherly affection that might have grown into Faustula's life but for that death was missing.
Acilia, when Melania's sons entered the army, lived chiefly in Rome, for in Rome the lads were at first, and she wished to keep a home open for them. Now and then Christopher or Fabian, or both, would come out to Olibanum; but they would have come oftener had Sabina's welcome been more cordial. Civil she always was, but not much more. The sight of them reminded her of the great misfortune she had indirectly brought upon them by letting Tatius and his sister go to Civitella. It made her feel that the obligation she was under would never pass.
When Tatius came, Sabina made great preparations; but his visits were seldom very satisfactory. He almost always wanted money, and she disliked parting with it. She was saving all the money she had for him, but she did not enjoy giving it to him during her life. She wanted him to wait and have it all in one great sum when she was dead.
What she did give was taken from the sum she held apart for Faustula's dowry. That money she kept by her, and to hand portions of it to Tatius tried her less than abridging the yearly amounts she had calculated on adding to her capital—his capital.
When she was specially annoyed by any application of his she would tell him this:
"It ought to make you ashamed," she would say sourly: "You are robbing your sister."
But so long as Tatius got what he wanted he did not much trouble himself about Faustula's interest in the matter.
After he had gone back to Rome, Sabina would be less amiable than usual to his sister: the more Faustula's dowry suffered from his ravages the more plainly could Sabina perceive the poor girl's faults: and Faustula was anything but faultless.
When, at last, Sabina died, it was after one of these visits of her nephew's. She had been ill with a malarial cold, and her heart had suffered severely. The mere fact of being ill had upset her, as she had always enjoyed excellent health, and took it for granted she always would. Those around her had illnesses of one kind or another, but they were her inferiors, and her own fine health she supposed to be a part of her general superiority. Melania's death she had always inwardly attributed to an absurd neglect of precautions and a somewhat weak character.
Sabina's most obvious resource when sickness took the liberty of attacking herself was to ignore the fact, and to a great extent she did so.
Tatius particularly annoyed her by hinting, when she scolded and reproached him, that she was not up to the mark.
"Had I known," he observed with what he took for singular tact, "that you were ill I should have waited. I could easily have put off my visit till next month."
"Do you suppose ten sestertia would have been less next month?" cried Sabina fiercely. "Ill! What has my being ill to do with it? I am ill of sestertia. This makes two hundred you have wanted in a year. If I give you this there will be hardly anything left for Faustula."
This did not worry Tatius: but, to do him justice, he thought it nonsense. His aunt was a very rich woman, and, so far as he could remember, he had altogether only reduced Faustula's dowry by three hundred—well say four hundred, sestertia. Sabina could make it up if she chose. If she would not, that was her concern, and he resented having it put on him.
When he went back to Rome, with his money, of course, Sabina was almost savage to Faustula. She was nearly ten years old now, and her quick intelligence had kept pace with her growth. She so thoroughly understood why her aunt was disagreeable that her own anger was against her brother rather than against Sabina. Faustula's temper was not submissive, but she kept it in, and really did her best to soothe the old woman's irritated feelings: for Sabina, not yet fifty, was aging rapidly.
One night, not many days after Tatius had gone away they were together and alone, and Sabina was in a softer mood than Faustula had seen her for years.
"Your brother," she exclaimed suddenly, "will break my heart. Money, money, money, he is always wanting money."
Faustula did not know what to say: she hated the subject; and she did not want to say, what she felt, that Tatius was greedy and selfish.
"You have always been generous to him," she said gently.
"To him! I meant to be generous to you also. But he has drained away nearly all there was for you."
Sabina laid it all on Tatius: she would not accuse herself at all.
Faustula could not understand. Precocious as she was, her precocity did not tend that way. The subject of money she had always heard discussed with aversion, for it seemed always to make people ill-tempered. She knew otherwise nothing about it.
"Please," she begged, blushing quickly, "do not trouble about me."
"That is absurd," Sabina cried impatiently. "There was your dowry. If you have none, who will marry you? A daughter of the Faustuli needs no huge sum: mine was small enough. But I was beautiful and a daughter of the Faustuli. So are you. Still it is not decent to go empty-handed altogether to your husband—"
She spoke quite vehemently, and Faustula saw her press her hand to her heart with a sudden quick gasp as of sharp pain.
"Please—please, do not trouble about my dowry," she entreated earnestly, coming quite close to her aunt. "You should only think of getting well—"
"It must be thought of... you talk foolishly. You are a child... Go and tell Tanaguil to come. But it must be thought of. Tell Tatius—mind, I order you. Tell him I said so. He knows I have given him all your money; he must make it up..."
Even then, even there Faustula swore to herself, that, whatever might happen, in all the years to come, she would never tell Tatius. All the same it was not of him, or of herself, she was thinking as she hurried to find Tanaguil.
When Tanaguil and the child returned together Sabina was dead.
For a few months now Faustula had to live in her father's house, because there was nowhere else: and she understood the reason plainly. During nearly four years, since Faustulus returned from his travels, she had scarcely seen him: once only had he come to Olibanum, bringing his wife with him and staying but one night.
Sabina had been coldly civil to Tullia, and Tullia had been cold without much troubling to be civil to Sabina. Of Faustula she had taken the least possible notice, and Faustulus had seemed to be afraid of noticing his daughter much.
Tullia was much handsomer than Accia had been, and much less amiable: it seemed odd that Faustulus, whose own temper had always been the best part of him, should have married two ill-tempered wives. Accia, however, had only been fractious, like a naughty and spoiled child, often peevish and generally requiring management: but she was amenable to management. Faustulus very soon discovered that there was no managing Tullia; she was not babyish, and indulged in no half-absurd tantrums, but she had a hard, dogged ill-temper of her own that never made her ridiculous but could make her rather alarming. During that very short visit to Olibanum Tullia was determined to show that she regarded Faustula as a member not of her family, but of Sabina's: and she did it very successfully. Without troubling to warn her husband in words that he was not to make much of his little daughter, or seem to remember particularly that she was his daughter, he was warned by her own behaviour. If he could have got Faustula to himself he might have petted her, and laughed with her, as before. Tullia, however, saw to it that they never were alone. He understood quite well: in the first place that his wife was not attracted by his daughter: in the second that Tullia wished it to be clearly understood that the fact of his second marriage was to make no difference in the arrangements with regard to Faustula that had been working before it. Sabina had chosen to take the child, and would have kept her if Faustulus had remained away or remained a widower; let her keep her still.
"Your father," Sabina observed, when he and his wife had gone away, "is supposed to be clever. He has made two uncommonly stupid marriages."
Faustula never saw him again till her aunt's death made it absolutely necessary he should fetch her home. During the interval of nearly four years she could not help coming to understand the meaning of his total neglect of her: and Sabina, by a word now and then, certainly helped her.
In one thing at all events the aunt and niece were agreed and that was their strong and not unjust dislike of Tullia. Their great desire was never to see her again, and till Sabina died, Faustula had hardly supposed she would see her. The autocrat of Olibanum was fully resolved not to invite her there, and it may be presumed that Tullia had no desire to go. If Faustulus ever thought of going alone she took care he should do no such thing.
How unwelcome Faustula was in her father's home no one could know better than herself, and her obvious sense of it made her more unwelcome still.
Tullia had now a baby of her own, an ugly little thing as yet, with a most gratuitous resemblance to his half-brother Tatius. That he was ugly his mother perceived quite plainly, but, as she was very handsome herself, she blamed Faustulus, especially as the child was like his own disagreeable son. All the same Faustula's almost startling beauty was a grievance: if he could have lovely daughters, that were no daughter of Tullia's, why could not he have a handsome son?
When it turned out that there was scarcely any money for Faustula her stepmother was nearly beside herself. Sabina's injustice was unpardonable. Faustulus had never troubled to be just himself, and was never surprised to find other people no better than himself: but he felt the inconvenience of Sabina's backwardness in the matter.
"Tatius," said Tullia angrily, "must make it up. He will be enormously wealthy, and, as Flavia is provided for, he has Faustula to think of."
"He will think," suggested Faustulus, "of himself."
"He must provide for Faustula. It is bad enough we should have her on our hands till she can marry—and she is not ten yet. At least he must furnish a handsome dowry, and let it be known that there will be one."
Her husband knew better.
"It will not," he remarked airily, "occur to him."
"Occur to him! You must put it before him. He is your son."
As Tatius was now very rich his stepmother could readily remember this: that Faustula was her husband's daughter she never reminded him.
"I shall if you don't," she declared with determination.
"Do. It would be more graceful," said Faustulus with a queer smile.
Graceful or no, she was as good as her word and sent for Tatius, who came when it suited him. His stepmother had hitherto treated him as a boor, and he was not the least impressed by her quite different demeanour now. It was part of the advantage of being rich, and he liked it well enough, but he intended to keep his new advantages to himself. So long as he was spending his aunt's money he had been extravagant, now it was his own he meant to look carefully to it.
"Sabina," said Tullia gravely, "has not been very kind to your little sister."
"Oh, I don't think you should say that. For a good many years she has done everything for her."
"She adopted her."
"Oh no, she didn't. When my mother died she had her on a visit—it lasted ten years."
"But she left her no dowry. How can your sister marry without one?"
"Faustula, you see, was not only her niece, but my father's daughter also. Sabina probably remembered that."
"She probably remembered that Faustula is your sister—and she made you her universal heir."
"Her universal heir, yes. That is so. Flavia is also my sister."
"Flavia is provided for. That has nothing to do with it."
"I think it has. If she is provided for, and I am provided for—as I am pretty well—our father has only Faustula to think of."
"Only Faustula! You forget I have a son."
"Not at all. He is your son—quite well I hope? He seemed croupy last time I was here. All your children will be your sons or your daughters; and I am glad to know that you have plenty of money. My poor mother had very little—"
"So I have heard," Tullia interrupted unpleasantly.
"You heard quite right. My father, therefore, must think in the first instance of Faustula."
"How7 can he provide for her? Our expenses are enormous—"
"You must teach him," observed Tatius, who thought it his turn to interrupt, "to manage better. You can if you like. You have the character of being an excellent manager—I'm sure you deserve it."
Tullia ardently longed to box his large ears and it made him enjoy himself very much. He knew they were rich ears and quite safe. He did not specially dislike his stepmother, but he rather disapproved of her existence in that capacity, and was firmly decided on allowing her to make no assault on his money-bags.
As for Faustula she was beautiful as he was ugly. Let someone marry her for her beauty, he would have no difficulty in finding an eligible wife without any. He could not make a will till he was twenty-five: but he could manage his own property and he had not the smallest impatience about making a will—who has?
If Faustula's chance of finding a suitable husband depended on his providing her a dowry she would certainly not marry young. Why should she marry young? It did not concern him. Why should she marry at all? He rather enjoyed the idea of his beautiful sister going a-begging for a husband.
Suddenly quite a brilliant idea occurred to him.
"Perhaps," he remarked carelessly, rising as if he meant to go, "Faustula may never need a dowry."
"How can she marry without one!"
"Every noble Roman girl does not marry," he suggested coldly. "Some become Vestals."
As Tatius walked away from his father's house he smiled complacently: he thought he had not done badly. His stepmother had the name of being clever, but she had not been clever enough for him.
Having nowhere particular to go at that moment, he thought he would stroll round by the Forum Romanum and have a look at the Atrium Vestae.
The House of the Faustuli stood between the Lupercal and the Temple of Romulus, almost under the cliff of the Palatine; turning to his right, down the Vicus Tuscus, Tatius passed into the Forum between the temple of Augustus and the temple of Castor and Pollux: this brought him to the small open space in which was the Lacus Juturnae, a square tank, or small pool, lined with marble, the water of which was used in the temples being regarded as sacred, for it was here the Heavenly Twins watered their horses after the battle of Lake Regillus. Equestrian statues of the demi-gods still stood here; and close by was the circular Temple of Vesta not more than a hundred and fifty years old as Tatius saw it, for it had been rebuilt, after its last burning under Commodus, by the Empress Julia Domna, wife of Septimus Severus.
The actual convent of the Vestals, the Atrium Vestae, adjoined it, and Tatius stood still to have a good look at it. It had suddenly acquired rather a special interest for him.
"Vale!" said a voice almost in his ear, a few moments after he had begun his observations. "How are you?"
Tatius turned quickly, but he knew the voice before turning, and blushed a little. He hardly ever could speak to his father without blushing.
"I am quite well," he answered, however, with much less than his usual awkward diffidence. The glow of his recent successful passages with Tullia was not yet evaporated. He mentioned, in a way that was meant to be airy and unconcerned, like his father's, that he had been to see her.
"She must have been charmed," observed Faustulus sweetly.
"She sent for me. Chiefly, it seemed, to complain of Sabina."
"Of Sabina! I thought her offences had come to an end. But she was rich, and the evil that the rich can do lives after them. However she did no harm to you that way."
Faustulus did not speak with irritation as his wife had done: on the contrary his tone was full of amiable congratulation.
"She did you some little good that way too," Tatius remarked as hardily as he could. But that he knew himself a richer man now than his father, he could not have plucked up heart to make such a hint at all.
"She left back to me the sum she had received as a dowry from my father," said Faustulus, who knew that his son must be aware of it.
"Has Tullia suggested you should reserve the money as a dowry for Faustula? She seems much concerned about Faustula's dowry."
Tatius was fully conscious of his impertinence: he could not, even now, look his father in the face: but he could be insolent; that was one of the pleasures of being rich.
"No. She has not yet made that suggestion," replied Faustulus. "Perhaps you made it to her?"
"No I didn't. It didn't occur to me—I had another idea."
Faustulus smiled amiably. He had found out what he wanted to know. The truth was, he had not thought it necessary to inform his wife of his own legacy. He preferred to keep it as a comfortable private fund to draw on as he chose. It would have been tiresome if Tatius had mentioned it.
"I had another idea," Tatius repeated with a lumpish carelessness.
"You were always full of ideas," his father declared, as though alluding to what everyone knew.
The youth blushed more angrily.
"It's all very well," he said sullenly, "to be full of ideas when you have nothing else in your pocket. I have."
"You mean money? Certainly. It shines out of you; but remember all money is not copper-coloured."
The coppery glow did not die out of the lad's face and neck. He could not trust himself to speak: for he knew well that the more passionately he showed his rage the more his father would enjoy it.
They had not stood quite still, but had moved on a little and were now quite near the entrance of the Vestals' convent.
There was a sort of fuss and movement among the few other counterers and passers-by, and they saw the reason in a moment. One of the Vestals in her litter was approaching from the Via Sacra, surrounded by a small throng of attendants. The door of the Atrium opened and she was carried in.
Both father and son watched her arrival and disappearance with a careless attention that could not amount to curiosity, for the sight was too common. But Tatius took in the details with a certain interest that did not escape Faustulus. Very little ever did escape him.
"Do you know her?" he asked lightly.
"I? No. I could not even see her face. She may be the Vestalis Maxima for all I know."
"She is not the Vestalis Maxima. She had too few attendants, and the poles of her litter were only of carved ivory with gold rings."
"It is a fine thing to be a Vestal," observed Tatius slowly.
"So I told your Aunt Sabina long ago. I told her it would have suited me very well."
"And did she believe you?" the graceless son inquired, with a thickly facetious grin. "I am glad, however," he went on, "that you did not yield to your natural inclinations, or I should not be here."
"So I was thinking," retorted Faustulus imperturbably—"when I mentioned my regret to Sabina."
"As I am here," said Tatius, "and as Faustula is here, why should not she become a Vestal in your place?"
As Faustulus strolled home alone he was thinking of the suggestion his son had so abruptly made.
If anything could have decided him against a suggestion it would have been that it had originated with his son: Tatius hated him bitterly, a fact which he perceived with perfect equanimity. He did not hate him bitterly in return, for bitterness galls the hater, and Faustulus had not the least intention of allowing himself to be galled by anything he so coldly despised. But he disliked him, as strongly as he disliked any of his contemporaries.
Faustulus, however, was not one of those stiff persons who turn from gifts merely because Greeks bring them. He preferred to consider the gifts themselves, on their merits. If they proved useful, what matter whence they came?
Till the moment that Tatius had asked "Why should not Faustula become a Vestal?" the idea had never occurred to his father: but, though it had originated in the dull brain of his son, there might be something in it.
Dowry or no dowry, Faustula could marry nobody for years to come—what years they would be for her, and for him! He knew his wife by this time very well, and it was not hard for a man of his imagination to picture the slow misery the child would endure: and misery which he must himself witness was horribly repugnant to him. Just as Tullia was selfishly ill-natured, so was he selfishly good-natured. He was quite aware that she could even be cruel, and he realized, though not fully, what effect cruelty would have on such a nature as Faustula's. He perceived her capable of hard antagonism, and had also an instinctive perception that for himself there would be neither ease nor peace between the child and her stepmother. It would age him. He felt already that time was robbing him. Tatius could not brave him with rank impertinence if he were himself what he had been.
If Faustula became a Vestal, she would be out of Tullia's reach, and Tullia would have no special animosity towards her: would practically forget her, as she had done these four years past. And Faustula would be provided for; would be, in fact, rich and even important: the Vestals were not what they had been, but their wealth was untouched, and an archaic flavour of importance hung about them still.
For his daughter to become wealthy, without the least trouble or self-sacrifice of his own, would be extremely pleasant: and for her to be out of range of his wife's ill-will would be as pleasant for himself as for her. The prospect of seeing her bullied by Tullia every day for years was intensely painful to him.
It seemed to him, with his quick, imaginative powers, never quicker than when fashioning a future to his taste, that perhaps, very probably, the College of Vestals would be suppressed some day—say in a dozen years or so. If that happened, and as it suited him to believe it would happen, he now almost took it for granted it must happen, the vested interests of the existing Vestals would be compensated, and each of them would receive a very large sum out of the estates of the College, and with it perfect freedom. In such circumstances Faustula, at, say, two-and-twenty, would be wealthy and independent, and would certainly not have out-grown her beauty.
Tullia had also been weighing her stepson's suggestion, and was pondering in her mind how to present it in the most favourable light. Not knowing that her husband and Tatius had met, she did not feel it necessary to attribute the idea to the latter, as she was quite aware how little Faustulus would be inclined to any suggestion of his son's. Faustulus did not explain that he and Tatius had seen each other, and let his wife imagine that he supposed the plan had occurred to her unaided wisdom.
Tullia was rather surprised to find how easily he listened to her arguments, and, thus encouraged, she dilated finely on the advantages of the scheme.
"Of course," he reminded her, "we should have to await a vacancy."
"We may not have to wait long. My father mentioned only yesterday that the Vestalis Maxima is dangerously ill—you know she is a cousin of ours. If anything happens to her—and she was always delicate, too delicate, indeed, to marry—that was why she became a Vestal. It is a wonder she has lasted all these years. If she dies the next senior will take her place and there will be a vacancy."
Tullia was so clearly resolved that her cousin should not recover, that Faustulus could not help remarking demurely:
"She ought not to waste too much time about it. Faustula will be ten in October, and they only admit them between the ages of six and ten."
Tullia evidently felt quite easy about it.
"And now it is only April. Six months! There is not the least chance of the Vestalis Maxima lasting six months. My father seemed to think it a question of days; and you know how cautious he is."
Faustulus remembered their business interview before his second marriage, and did not dispute the admirable caution of Cornelius Tullius.
For one thing he inwardly thanked the gods—the prospect of getting rid of Faustula made his wife quite amiable: she even spoke of her, in reference to Sabina as "Poor Faustula" no longer as an accomplice, but merely as a victim.
"The position," she observed, almost as if she envied it; "the position of a Vestal is very good. No women have a higher rank in the State. My cousin became one."
"So," remarked Faustulus, who had had enough of her cousin, "so did my wife's sister."
"Oh? Domitia? Yes," Tullia remarked less amiably, after a pause of consideration as if she could not immediately remember to whom he alluded, and also with the air of not knowing whether the Vestal College had gained much by having Accia's sister for one of its members.
The Vestalis Maxima justified Tullia's good opinion of her and died with all reasonable promptitude. The senior of the other six Vestals became Maxima in her place, and there was a vacancy, which Faustula duly filled. There was really no difficulty about it. Rich as the Vestals were, and great as was their standing, it had never been too easy to find volunteers. In all the huge Empire six virgins of good, though it might be of plebeian family, could not always be found ready to sacrifice themselves on the chill altar of celibacy: or rather, since the candidates were mere children, Roman fathers were not always forthcoming, prepared to devote an infant daughter to the dazzling isolation of Vesta's shrine. So true was this that, by the ancient law, if a vacancy occurred, and no child was offered, twenty baby girls, between six and ten years old, were chosen, out of whom one was picked by lot, and she had to be a Vestal, whether she liked it, or her father liked it, or not.
Faustula was not consulted, she was merely informed: and a Roman child of her age had no voice against her father's. Her head was duly shaved to intimate that henceforth she was liberated from his control, and her person free of his legal jurisdiction over her: and she was told that she could dispose of her possessions as she chose. Having none, this did not affect her much. She shed some tears over the loss of her beautiful hair, but an ex-Vestal, who attended to her, and was getting bald herself, assured her that it would soon grow again. Those Vestals who at forty did not, like Domitia, choose to return to the world—"round the corner," as Faustulus had put it long ago—remained in the Atrium, and were supposed to wait on the others, but there were plenty of slaves, and their offices were not menial. Some of them acted as a sort of dignified nurse, or pedagoga, to the Vestals who were still children, and the others officiated in capacity of toady or waiting-gentlewoman to the Vestals of maturer years. Faustula's particular attendant was called Plotina, a woman of nearly fifty, who looked as if she had been born at about that age and had never seen her way to get over it.
She was uncommonly ugly and had a harelip, through which her words came in a queer whistle that reminded Faustula of the wind in a keyhole. But she was a good-natured old thing, fond of gossip and of being alive, with no impatience to exchange the faded dignity of a superannuated Vestal for more striking glories in the nether world. She came of a goodish equestrian family, and devoutly admired the patrician splendours of Faustula's descent. Her own father had been a better-hearted man than Faustulus, but an incurable gambler, and poor Plotina had meekly embraced her destiny, mindful of her five sisters and her own hare-lip.
"So you never knew your mother," she exclaimed. "Well, I will be a mother to you here. I daresay she was a beautiful person—indeed, it seems clear she must have been. And I am not. No. I never heard it mentioned that I was so by other Vestals—at the best of times. But I remember how I felt when I came here, though it's forty years ago. And I know how lonely you'll be. I missed my brother; he was just as fond of me as he was of Drusilla and Sulpitia; and my father, too: a very good man, though always in debt. I will try to make you feel less lonely here."
Plotina, so far at least, had done for Faustula none of all those countless acts of care and devotion that Clodia had lavished on her: but in her desolation the child felt more grateful for the old lady's plain kindness than she could ever recollect feeling for all the service of her beautiful slave foster-mother. Clodia had been a first impression, taken for granted, as all such first impressions are: it was as natural to find her always at hand in every need as for the needs to be there.
It was after death had removed her that all poor Clodia had been was realized by her foster-child.
Old Plotina's good nature Faustula had not taken for granted, and she was more sore in spirit now than she had been at Olibanum. She knew very well why it had been decided that she should be a Vestal—because her father's wife wanted her out of the way, and because her father was not man enough to assert himself in her behalf. Their parting had been very cold; for Faustula took no pains to pretend anything, and her large deep eyes held an expression that Faustulus sustained uneasily.
"You will be quite near, just round the corner," he tried to say with smiling cheerfulness. "You will come and see us often."
"Never, if I can help it," she answered without a smile of any sort.
From Tullia she parted with much less of suppressed anger. It would have been hateful to live in her house, and she was glad to get away: neither did her dislike trouble the child: there seemed to her nothing unjust in it, for she disliked her too.
The actual Vestals were seven, including herself and the newly-promoted Vestalis Maxima; there were besides four superannuated Vestals, and with these eleven women her life for years to come was to be passed, so that she considered them all with attention.
The "Maxima" was about thirty-four, and looked older, a dry, leathery person with a thick complexion, relieved by a constellation of warts, one of which was on the side of her nose: rather short, rather stout, with short blunt fingers, and a flattish head, which the infula so closely covered that she looked as if she had no hair: the vittae, hanging from it, seemed to be worn in memory of her departed locks. Her name was Volumina, but she was spoken of in the Atrium simply as "Maxima." She was of a middling equestrian family, and coolly alert against patrician airs on the part of Vestals more aristocratic than herself. She was not clever but shrewd, and soon proved herself a good administrator of the large estates under her care. From first to last Faustula never found her communicative, or sympathetic, but coldly observant, firm in discipline though not tyrannical; holding herself somewhat aloof from all the rest, as if relyingon her position rather than on herself to maintain a superiority which neither birth nor genius would have given her.
Nothing escaped her; and, while she was perfectly indifferent to the inner character of those under her rule, she was lynx-eyed for the preservation of all outward decorum. Nobody denied that she made a good Vestalis Maxima, and nobody cared whether she were alive or dead, nor, apparently, did she want them to care.
Of the other five, Faustula chiefly noted at first that they were all, with one exception, selfish. As they had different characters, it showed itself in different ways, but it was present, she decided, in all. Caria was polite and selfish, Livia was surly and selfish, Marcia was greedy and selfish, Tacita was vain and selfish: only Claudia did not seem to be selfish at all.
The slight resemblance in her name to Clodia's at once made Faustula specially observant of this, the youngest of the Vestals except herself. She was not nearly so beautiful as Clodia, but her face had a singular nobility and distinction, and an expression of reserved sweetness. She was of a very high patrician family, which had not endeared her to the present "Maxima," but Volumina watched in vain for objectionable consciousness of it. Livia, who was also patrician, was continually alluding to her family and great connexions.
When Faustula entered the Atrium, Claudia was not quite one-and-twenty, but her staid air made her seem older, just as her gentle, smooth face, with its clear complexion, would make her appear younger than her age in a dozen years. She was the only one of the Vestals whom Faustula thought in the least beautiful, though Tacita, who was six-or seven-and-twenty, had assumed the post of beauty of the Atrium for about ten years.
Faustula's first impressions of the Vestals as a group were formed during supper on the evening of her first day in the Atrium, though she had been presented to each of them before. The meal surprised her by its length and by the costly manner of its service. The Triclinium was not large, but it was splendidly adorned, and the plates and dishes were of gold and of exquisite workmanship, so were the lamps and so were the wine-goblets; the food was delicate and in abundant variety, and the wines were of the best vintage.
The Vestals' table had returned ends at one of which was Faustula's own place: that opposite was vacant, for it was Claudia's, and she was on duty, in charge of the Sacred Fire.
The Vestalis Maxima had her place in the centre of the long portion of the table, with two Vestals on each side of her. There was a much shorter table opposite, at which the four ex-Vestals ate.
The Vestalis Maxima did not talk much, and evidently did not expect anyone to speak to her unless addressed first. If Livia, who was on her right, chose to ignore this procedure and made a remark intended for her, she either did not notice it, and appeared to suppose it was meant for Caria, who was next to Livia on the other side, or merely nodded without making any reply.
Faustula perceived that this irritated Livia, but that the others did not care. It was evident that Livia was not popular, and that any small snub administered to her rather pleased them. Faustula also noticed that when she had thus addressed Volumina without eliciting any response, the "Maxima" would presently make some remark to Marcia, who had the place on her left, as second senior after Livia.
Marcia was quite content to eat without much conversation; the two meals of the day were its two principal events for her. She was over thirty but looked a good deal younger than either Volumina or Livia. She was plump, and had little gleaming eyes that seemed to grow annually smaller as her smooth cheeks grew rounder. Livia, on the other hand, was meagre and spare, but not because she starved herself, for she ate quite as much as Marcia, but she swallowed her food in a hasty, impatient way, as if she were hiding it, and defying it to make her fat. She had always finished her portion of each dish long before anyone else.
The Vestalis Maxima did not eat with Marcia's affectionate deliberation, nor with Livia's snappy haste, but with an air of reasoned moderation. Moderation was her sheet-anchor: she never did anything too much, or too little, too quick or too slow. Her speech, her gait, her ideas, her temper were all perfectly moderate: she never chattered, or hurried, or gave way to too much intelligence, or too much anger. If she found fault with anyone it was quite coolly, and if she commended anything it was even more coolly.
Even her way of eating illustrates this: she was not greedy, and never ate an ounce more than she could digest with ease; but food is not unimportant, and she gave it a first attention. When she addressed a brief remark to Marcia it was often to commend a particular dish.
"This I find wholesome," she would say, which meant in her decorous mouth that it pleased her palate. All she ate was wholesome to her, for she had an excellent digestion and nothing ever disagreed with her.
Marcia liked such commendations and took them as personal compliments; she was oeconoma, and all the meals were ordered by her with thoughtful care. Just as some women are more flattered by praise of their clothes than by praise of themselves, and more insulted if you hint that such a dress does not suit them than if you were to accuse them of a fault of character, so Marcia was inclined to think the best of anyone who showed appreciation of her dishes, and had but a poor opinion of any who suggested that such a meat was too rich or over-seasoned.
She was too much occupied with her supper to take any notice of Faustula, and Volumina took none because she had said all that was necessary already.
Livia did not say anything either, but she often employed her leisure, after gulping down her food, by looking at her. Her expression seemed to say, "Yes. You too are patrician. But I know all about you." And more than once, after one of these hard, sharp glances, she would say something in a low voice to Caria that Faustula was sure was about herself.
Nearest to Faustula was Tacita, who now and then addressed some small observation to her: she was in the main a good-natured person, and the child's great beauty did not disturb her yet. But conversation was not her strong point, and Faustula was not impressed by the brilliance or sense of her remarks.
"You did not like having your head shaved," she said with a pretty smile.
"Ah! Nor did I—I had beautiful hair. But it will soon grow again. You know it is only shaved once. I daresay yours will grow very soon. Mine took longer; it was so very long."
She smiled again, partly out of good-nature and partly because she had lovely teeth, and because she knew that smiling improves the shape of the mouth.
Her next remark, after a pause, was:
"You find the vittae inconvenient?"
"Yes, the ends of them fall into my plate."
Tacita smiled once more.
"So they do at first; mine did. But I soon learned to manage them. The only thing is to remember them constantly till you are used to them. They are not becoming..."
"I think them hideous."
Tacita lifted her eyebrows as though deprecating such a violent term as applied to anything she wore herself.
"Hideous? Well, that is rather strong. The thing is to accommodate them to one's face. One must think it out. A good appearance requires attention. All important matters do. After all they are a distinction: only Vestals may wear them."
"I should not think anyone else would want to wear them."
"Oh! well. I do not think one should say that."
Tacita was strongly scandalized, and might have squeezed her lips into a little grimace of disapproval, but she never did squeeze her lips, because it is a habit that spoils the mouth and induces wrinkles about it.
"The pallium," she observed, to change the subject, "the pallium is very graceful. But, of course, one does not wear it at meals. And the suffibulum—there is a majesty about the suffibulum. But, of course, one only wears it when sacrificing."
Tacita always said "of course" when there was no obvious and inherent necessity about the matter.
When she stopped talking Faustula looked down the row of four superannuated Vestals at right angles to herself on her left. One of them seemed extraordinarily old, and had a skin like a withered apple: one was not much past forty and would have been Vestalis Maxima instead of Volumina had she been a year or two younger; one had a crooked back, and cowered over the table in a sidelong fashion; the fourth was Plotina, whom Faustula had scarcely spoken to yet.
As Faustula turned her eyes away from them they met Tacita's, who smiled again and said in a low voice:
"Are they not queer! But they are so old. They can't help it."
It did not seem to occur to Tacita that she would also become old; but it occurred sharply to Faustula. Would she also grow like that?
The oldest of the ex-Vestals had a face like a monkey, and talked in a gabbling way that twisted her mouth into all sorts of wry shapes. Plotina's replies, whistling through her harelip, were quite audible and were not less queer. The hunchback had a trick of peeping round herself as if her back were a corner behind which she was watching the company. The youngest of the four had a long nose that ran out, like a dog's, and scarcely any chin.
Almost the only old person of her own class Faustula had ever known yet was Acilia, and the thought of her came now into her mind, by a force rather of contrast than of association. Acilia was dead now nearly a year; Christopher and Fabian were no longer in Rome, so there had been no one for Faustula to take leave of. That did not make her seem less lonely where she was: to turn your back on the world, of your own free-will, because you are content to give it up for God, as the Christian religion does, costs much, but, like all generous renunciations, brings its own consolation: Fauslula knew that she had not given up the world, but had been thrust out of it, because her presence in it was an encumbrance.
Hard, I think, must be the heart that can judge her harshly if she felt bitter, or with an unchildish coldness of observation she scanned her splendid prison and her fellow-captives, and disliked both.
Squeezed as it was into the crowded Forum the Atrium was large for its situation, huge in proportion to its purpose as a dwelling for a handful of women: but to Faustula it seemed cramped enough after the big castle at Olibanum. And she was utterly unused to be shut indoors: of course there was no garden, and, Roman as she was by birth, she had lived all her life in the country among the free and solemn mountains. It seemed to her that there was no air and she almost stifled for the Sabine winds.
As for the Vestals they were well enough: but in their loveless company how could she find a home? Small as the group was it had no real union: there was, she could see clearly, and in this she saw justly too, no bond of any common affection between them. They wore the same dress, and had a common financial interest in the riches of their college; there was no deeper tie.
Faustula knew that all these women had been brought here as children, between six years old and ten; she supposed they had been consulted as little as she had been and to her they seemed merely splendid outcasts, and she imagined that she read it in their bearing and characters. Each stood alone, for herself, in an isolation that numbed and hardened her.
There were a great number of rooms in the Atrium Vestae and each Vestal had at least two for her own use: besides there was the common Tablinum, the Triclinium, the Archivium, the Treasury, the Penus Vestse and Sacred Chamber of the Palladium, baths, kitchens, etc.: the rest of the rooms being occupied by the slaves.
After supper the Vestalis Maxima led the way to the Tablinum, and, as long as she remained, the others stayed too. But she did not remain long, and when she had withdrawn the conversation became rather less dull and perfunctory. It was chiefly gossip, and as the Vestals were not confined to the Atrium, but went out into the city as they chose, they had plenty of news to discuss. Their talk did not interest Faustula and she slipped away, though even moving about made her feel queer in her unaccustomed garments. As long as her hair had been on her head she had never thought of it; now it was shorn off she seemed to feel every several hair scraping against the infula. The zona kept working loose, because it was new and hard, and would slip down; and, tall as she was for her age, her stola was too long and almost tripped her up.
Lifting the gorgeous curtain that hung over the wide doorway of the Tablinum, she crept out noiselessly into the ambulatory, paved with exquisite mosaic, and divided from the courtyard by a row of splendid marble columns. In the courtyard were stiff groups and rows of shrubs in memory of the Sacred Grove of Vesta. It was dark now, though not late, and the moonlight shining down into the peristylium, made them look as if they were of metal.
Faustula wandered out into the courtyard and amused herself by examining the statues of Vestales Maximae of which there seemed, without counting, to be an immense number. Those on one side were in black shadow, on those opposite the moon cast down an unearthly radiance. She liked them better than the living Vestals: cold as their white faces were, they were more human, she thought, and their silence was more dignified. One had an expression of resting fatigue, as if it were less tedious being a statue than a living Vestal. One wore a half-smile, as though, having lifted Death's pale curtain she were saying, "Is that all?"
There was one whose face was really beautiful, but the expression was intensely sad. Little Faustula stood long in front of the statue, till it almost seemed that the full, passionate lips trembled. Then, with a hasty sense of meanness, as if detecting herself in trying to read a dead woman's secrets, she moved on to the next. This was a woman as young-looking as the last, and handsome too, but the lips curved in a scorn that was bitter and resentful, and the brows frowned over the full sightless eyes.
Faustula did not like her, but felt an odd attraction towards her, and stood longer here.
"She hated it!" she whispered to herself. She did not now feel ashamed of herself: she had no compunctious sense of surprising dead secrets: there was no secret, as it seemed to her.
This Vestal's face was noble but spoiled: the lines were all fine and told of a high nature; nothing base or sensual was hinted; but the expression breathed in every curve of lip, and jaw, and chin, was of hard antagonism, an enmity levelled against all mankind and most ruthlessly against herself.
"She hated it!" Faustula repeated to herself; and looked and looked with the more vehement sympathy.
It is hard to gaze fixedly at a statue's face and not at last imagine that one sees some motion in some feature: and to Faustula it appeared that the angry lips curved into a more bitter smile, though the frowning brows never lifted.
"We hate it: HATE it: HATE it," she whispered, laying her own lovely little hand on the Vestal's cold foot.
A very soft footstep in the ambulatory became barely audible, and she moved on quickly to the next pedestal. It was vacant, in the bright moonlight she could see that the inscription was erased. Partly occupied by this, and partly listening to the gentle footsteps, that were drawing nearer, from the western end of the Atrium where was the Penus Vestse, Faustula stood still, her slim figure, tall but childish, plainly visible in the moonlight.
"Ah! little Faustula, it is you," said a gentle voice, and the Vestal Claudia came out into the courtyard from the shadow of the ambulatory.
She was all in white.
"I come," she explained, "from the Temple. I have been on duty. Now I am relieved and I am going to my supper."
But she did not hurry away.
"You are all alone?" she said, in her low, very sweet voice.
"Yes. I am all alone.''
There was something so desolate in the child's simple echo of her own words that the gentle young Vestal felt that they hurt her.
"What are you doing here all by yourself?" she asked drawing nearer.
"Looking at the statues. Why is there none on this pedestal? Why is there no name?
"Because," Claudia answered reluctantly, with a kind of dread, "because for us her name is blotted out."
She evidently wanted to say no more; but from the ambulatory, without the sound of any footfall at all, Volumina appeared, just as Faustula was beginning again.
"What are you two doing here?" she asked, not severely, but with her chill moderate common-sense. "That child ought to be in bed. I told Plotina to attend to her. 'Why'—what?"
"Why is the name of the statue that was once here blotted out?" Faustula asked calmly.
"Because she misbehaved and disgraced it: and, what matters more, disgraced us. Claudia, go and find Plotina and send her here."
Claudia obeyed and Faustula was left alone with the Maxima. They eyed each other oddly; but Faustula was not in the least afraid of her.
"What did she do?" she asked.
"What a Vestal vows not to do. You should not ask so many questions."
"You need not answer them. Was she punished?"
"Certainly, she was punished." Volumina answered this question too, but she was, not unnaturally, exasperated, and perhaps answered for that very reason.
"As all Vestals are who disgrace themselves and us. She was buried alive."
The reply was grim enough in its mere words, and it lost nothing by Volumina's coldly dispassionate use of them. "Now," she seemed to say, "since you insist, you can see what you have to expect."
Faustula was not cowed, however, and she pointed coolly at the next statue.
"Was that one buried alive?" she demanded with a smile that made Volumina want to shake her.
"She looks like it."
"Looks are nothing. I advise you not to guide yourself by them."
"No, I do not." And Faustula smiled again. What she was thinking was that the oldest of the ex-Vestals looked cunning and was probably only half-imbecile; whereas Volumina did not look particularly keen and was probably as sharp as a knife. At that moment the Vestalis Maxima was chiefly wishing that Plotina would be quick.
When Faustula smiled she was seized by a quick misgiving that the young patrician thought lightly of her as of a mere plebeian. This was Volumina's most assailable point.
"You do not speak properly to me," she observed coldly. "There is a lack of deference. I am much older than you."
"Oh yes. I know."
Faustula did not seem sufficiently impressed; she did not envy the Vestalis Maxima her thirty-four years, or feel sure that that lady would be twenty-four years older than herself if she could help it.
"Also I have much power," Volumina added significantly.
"What can you do?"
The Chief of the Vestals almost blushed with irritation.
"I could for instance," she replied, "order you a whipping. What should you think if I said that I should do so?"
"I should think," Faustula answered without a moment's hesitation, "that you would do it."
There was not the least impertinence in her quiet gravity as she said this. It was a perfectly sincere expression of opinion; and that opinion did not displease Volumina.
"In that you are right," she said. "What I say I shall do I do. Here is Plotina. She will attend to you."
After a word or two of direction to Plotina the Vestalis Maxima moved away. She would have liked to order Faustula not to repeat their conversation, but to do so would not have been dignified: this Faustula understood, and what had passed between them she kept to herself.
Plotina enjoyed having some thing young and pretty to make much of, and, in spite of her harelip, she had a motherly heart. Faustula liked her from the first, and was even more grateful for the affection than for her practical care.
During the first ten years of the thirty a Vestal was supposed to be a novice occupied in learning her duties and especially the intricate ritual connected with the service of the goddess. To those who had passed the next ten were entrusted the instruction of the novices. For this purpose Faustula was put in special charge of Livia, but she actually learned more from Claudia, who for a few months after her initiation was a novice herself.
Livia did not like Faustula. Their families, though both patrician, had for a long time been opposed in politics, and were rivals in other ways. Livia belonged to the family of Livius Drusus Calidianus, father of that Livia who was first the wife of Tiberius Claudius Nero and then of the Emperor Augustus. She thought very little of the Faustuli, and did not believe in their ancestral shepherd. All the same a sister of hers, long ago, had been willing to marry Tatius Flavius Faustulus, Faustina's father, and Faustulus had not behaved very well in the matter. At all events he had married Accia instead.
Livia considered his daughter objectionable for many reasons. She advanced no rival pretensions as to family, but, instead of frankly admitting that the Faustuli were comparatively inferior, she showed that she thought the subject tedious. She had a deep observance in her large eyes, and Livia suspected that she laughed at her.
Of that she was weak enough to complain to Volumina.
"That could hardly be," the Vestalis Maxima observed drily. "If there were anything to laugh at it would be different."
"She is obstinate."
"It is a common fault. But not, at her age, incurable. With women advanced in life it is more objectionable."
"I cannot see in her the least respect for the Goddess. In a mere child that is shocking."
"In a mere child it must proceed from mere ignorance. Respect, like disrespect, is contagious. Let her absorb from you a devout veneration for the Goddess, and for those in highest relation to Her."
Livia went away discomfited, and Volumina returned to her interrupted accounts with a satisfied air. It was much more agreeable to her that Faustula's watchful eyes should scan Livia's meagre qualities than that they should be fixed upon herself.
"You see much of your little fellow-novice," she observed afterwards to Claudia. "That is natural. Do you find her stupid?"
"Stupid? Not at all!"
"Capable of learning her duties?"
"Perhaps a little indifferent," Volumina suggested. "Children are not always by temperament devout." (The Vestalis Maxima looked as dry as a nut.) "The thing is to inculcate devotion. By example. The child is not without character. According to our regulations a Vestal should devote ten years to learning her duties; ten years to their perfect practice; and the next ten to instructing novices. Among some I perceive the second ten years are chiefly occupied in an attempt to evade duties and get them performed by others. On that period you will shortly enter: let me advise you to fulfil your functions yourself, to ask no one to take your turn, and rarely consent, if others ask you, to take theirs. I have nothing else to say."
So Claudia withdrew understanding that the Vestalis Maxima relied upon her to make up for any neglect of Livia's in teaching and training Faustula. Under her care Faustula made quite satisfactory progress. If her duties had only interested her, there would have been nothing to complain of. She remembered what she was told, and her quick faculty of observation made it easy for her to do what she had seen done by someone else. But something was always lacking, and Claudia could hardly help knowing what it was.
One night, not very late, but long after it was dark, for it was now winter, Faustula was sitting beside Claudia, while the other took her turn of duty in attendance on the Sacred Fire.
"What would happen," Faustula asked in an odd voice, "if you let it go out?"
"I should be flogged."
This was after Claudia had completed her novitiate, and no other Vestal was with them.
Claudia hesitated, because she was not quite certain.
"According to rule by the Pontifex Maximus..."
"But for a long time the Emperors have been Pontifices Maximi, and now they are Christians."
"Yes, I know. I suppose one of the Flamens would do it."
Faustula's eyes were fixed on the sacred flame that curved up, like the carved flame of a torch on a monument, waving a little from side to side. It shone on her fine face, almost always grave, though often reflecting a sort of flicker of inward amusement. Extremely unlike her father in all essentials of character, a certain whimsical unaccountableness had descended to her from him: so that even those most used to her could never tell what her next humour would be.
"What would it matter," she asked, resting her chin in her hands and leaning forward, "if it did go out?"
"Oh! Faustula! After it has burned for a thousand years!"
"That is nonsense. It has only burned since the Calends of last March. It is blown out every year and lit again. Why should it be worse for it to go out by accident than to be blown out on purpose?"
"Great misfortunes happen to the State when it goes out by negligence."
"I don't see why misfortunes should happen to the whole State when it goes out because some one person is careless: that is not just."
"Perhaps that is why the negligent person is flogged; so that by her punishment the Goddess may be appeased, and the innocent not suffer."
"Her being flogged does not make them more innocent, whether she were flogged or not it was not their fault. It seems to me the gods are not just."
"Faustula, you are wrong to talk like that. How dare we fly in the Divine Faces?"
"You mean that it makes them angry? If they are angry because they overhear people telling the truth, I don't mind."
"Faustula! Faustula! To talk like that here in the very Temple of our Goddess!"
"She is not my goddess, in particular. If she knows anything she knows that I hate being here. If she punishes me for saying the truth, then I don't care for her punishment. If you flog a slave who has done no harm, it is you who are worthy of scorn; the slave has the best of it. For that reason I would never treat one with unjust cruelty. I should not choose that she should be better than myself. If the gods are ladies and gentlemen they must feel that."
"The gods ladies and gentlemen! Oh, Faustula."
"I never said they were. I only said 'if.'"
As she made this remark Faustula looked with a demure simplicity at her friend, who shook her head gravely.
"Really you are wicked," she said.
"Oh, only wicked! I was afraid I was naughty. I don't want to be naughty towards you: as for being wicked towards the goddess, I don't care about her one way or the other—only if she does unjust things I can't help saying they are unjust. She is no more to me than the rest of them. And there are too many of them. Even if one cared about pleasing them it would not be easy: what pleases one annoys another: they do not seem to get on very well together if all we read is true. So I leave them alone."
"But, Faustula, you should not be indifferent to Vesta; you are her priestess."
"Is that my fault?"
This time the words were spoken so bitterly that Claudia would have been shocked had they not also been spoken so sadly.
"Claudia," the novice went on, "you know why I am here: or you can guess why—because my family do not want me. Why did old Plotina become a Vestal?—because she was ugly, and had a harelip, and there was no money for her, so that her father supposed no one would marry her. Tacita is very pretty, but she has a club-foot—that does not matter when it is hidden under a purple stola and she is carried about in a litter. Old Scribonia is half-witted, old Valeria has a hump, old Minucia has a face like a dog—did any of us come here because we cared a rotten nut for Vesta?"
"I did," Claudia answered in a very low voice, turning her sweet and lovely eyes full on Faustula's.
"I often wondered," Faustula said in a much gentler tone, "why you came. I know your father loves you. I remember that day when we met him, as we were coming back from fetching the Sacred Water from Egeria's Spring, and how his face shone with delight the moment he recognized you."
"Yes. No one could love his daughter better than my father; and no one deserves to be loved better than he does. I have no sisters, and no brother, so all his love is mine, for my mother died five years after I came here. I was very happy at home."
If she had meant to say more about that she changed her mind: perhaps because her tender delicacy made her realize that to poor Faustina it might suggest a cruel contrast. But Faustula was not thinking of herself.
"I wish," she said, "you would tell me why you became a Vestal—it was your own idea?"
"Oh yes! My father would never have thought of it; he did not want to consent. I will try and tell you; because I think I ought: but perhaps you will not understand and think what I say sounds arrogant."
"You have always," Faustula observed with a little smile, "given me the impression of a very arrogant person."
For a few moments Claudia sat silent, her eyes fixed on the gently swaying flame. She was thinking less of what she wanted to say than of Faustula; how many varying smiles she had! some so kindly, and some so sweet, clear and sunny as a young child's: some almost weird, almost old, wayward, whimsical, shrewd, half-mocking and half-sad.
Faustula did not hurry her, but sat very still: her head leant forward on one hand; through the outstretched fingers of the other she idly watched the Sacred Fire. On the white walls it cast a wavering light, and the shadows of the two girls wavered a little too.
"Faustula, it is not quite easy to tell you what I want to say. The truth often sounds stupid, because it falls from slow lips..."
Faustula stopped looking through her fingers at the fire and laid that hand gently on Claudia's knee, but she did not turn her head.
"I am not so clever as you are," Claudia went on. "I can only tell the truth. I am not clever at all. And though you are only half my age I often feel almost childish in comparison. You have a genius much higher than mine—indeed I have no genius. Your nature, too, is noble. It is not any small or petty twist in it that makes you seem to scoff, but only a bold passion for justice, that will not consent to injustice anywhere—anywhere! Not even if you think you see it among the very gods. I know that. But it seems to me that this high nature of yours has been twisted somehow: I think I know how. And so—and so, dear Faustula, I think it may be right that I should try and tell you why I am a Vestal."
She laid her right hand on Faustula's left, and gently pressed it.
"I am so afraid," she went on, "of talking as if I had become a Vestal in some better way than the others..."
"Of course you have. Anyone can see that. Only go on, and explain. I want to know."
Claudia shook her head, but did as she was bidden.
"This life of ours," she said, "is so short..."
"Short! Perhaps eighty more years of it! Scribonia is nearly ninety. Short!"
As Faustula said this she drew her hand away and lifted her face from the other. She seemed to point around, and her head turned from side to side as one may see a caged wild creature turn its head behind the bars of its cage.
Claudia found it even harder to go on than it had been to begin. She did not try to say any more at once.
"What have they done!" she cried in her heart. "What have they done who forced her here?"
"Claudia, is it true," Faustula whispered with a terrible fierce eagerness, "that for some things they bury us alive?"
"In the ground? How long does it last? It cannot last many days: I would rather do whatever it is and be buried so, and get it over. I would rather be buried alone, and be dead in a week—I could bear anything for a week—than be buried alive for four-score years. In a week I could not grow imbecile like Scribonia, malignant like Livia; no one in a week could become a mere stomach and mouth like Marcia in a week... Short! This life short! No one would see me die in that live tomb. Here I shall see myself rotting alive till Death himself turns his face away and will not look..."
If this had been cried aloud in a virago's shrill scream it would not have sounded half so dreadful: but Faustula's voice could not be shrill, and was always low and musical. No one could have heard her now at half a dozen paces' distance. And the dry bitterness of her words was unsoftened by any tear.
For many minutes Claudia could not speak, then she asked gently:
"Faustula, did no one ask you if you consented to come here?"
Claudia knew well that no one had consulted the wishes of half the others: but none of the others had a nature like Faustula's.
"Once, long ago," Faustula said presently, "when I was a little thing I was unhappy, and I was going to kill myself. Then someone who loved me came and stopped me; and I was angry with him, and I loved him for stopping me. It seemed to me then that he had pulled me back from a great blackness and, oh the sun was sweet, and the smell of the live earth, and flowers; and his kind arms were sweet that had snatched me back. But this long blackness is worse, for I am alive in it, and then I should have been only dead."
Now it was Claudia who leant her face into her hands, half covering it. Faustula's voice was no longer hard and bitter, but there was a cry in it like a wound. She did not know her own meaning as Claudia knew it: she had never before alluded to anyone who loved her. Claudia had supposed that in all her pitiful short life there had shone not one ray of love.
How could a girl only ten years old understand as Claudia understood for her? Between Vesta and Faustula there had stood, as the elder girl had thought, only the barrier of indifference, the opposition of a nature whose almost fierce sincerity made it hard for her to acquire a vocation to which nothing in her character disposed her. She knew that with the other Vestals their calling of priestess in Vesta's shrine was only a habit and a slow growth of half-mechanical daily practice: but that such a mechanical vocation would be much more difficult for a nature like Faustula's that would feign nothing, ape nothing, take nothing for granted because it happened to be convenient. Faustula would never talk herself into becoming a priestess, never imagine herself devoted to Vesta, because it was the best thing in the circumstances she could imagine.
Claudia shrank when the novice spoke roughly, with a hardy criticism, of the gods: but she had understood that too, and did not condemn it as mere insolent irreverence. It did not seem to her that Faustula's nature lacked reverence, but she divined somehow that the reverence in her lay unawakened, in abeyance, and that meanwhile, till it had perceived an object worthy of itself, it would not profess itself to what failed to compel it. In any case she felt, by a sure instinct, that Faustula had not the character that makes a sincere priestess: and she had already trembled to think how hard it would be for such a nature to play a part that could not be sincere.
Now she saw much more. Between Vesta and Faustula was not only the thick barrier of a natural indifference; there stood a human figure. It only partly comforted her to think that Faustula was but a child of ten: she would not always be a child and it was not safe, with such a character, to count on forgetfulness.
"Was this long ago!" she asked at last.
"Yes. Long ago. When I was only six years old."
Claudia could see how present it all was to Faustula still.
"And he? How old was he?"
"Oh, much older than me. A big boy of twelve. He is in the Army now: far away from Rome, or he would have come to say farewell before I came here. All his family were kind to me; he is Fabian Acilius Glabrio."
"Oh, of course. They are all Christians. They were all good to me."
"Many of them, I know, are very good."
"Yes. Better than our people."
Claudia did not like to hear her say this; it sounded dangerous, and disloyal.
She sighed, and rose to tend the Sacred Fire, without making any comment. Faustula watched her, half thinking of her, and half of what she had herself been saying.
It did not occur to either of them in another ten years Claudia would be Vestalis Maxima, and certainly it did not occur to them that either of them would ever be a Christian.
Opposite a place where the two girls had been sitting, a huge, long and splendid piece of embroidery hung upon the wall. It was not Roman, but Greek, and had been presented to the goddess by a Roman general returning from the east. It concealed the door of the cella and was perhaps intended to ward off draughts from the Sacred Flame. The figures were of life-size, and there were three of them, three girls, grave-faced and solemn. The central figure of the group was seated, and Faustula could see her best of the three. One was hidden by Claudia as she bent over the altar, one was faded, for the embroidery was very old. On that of the seated, central figure, the light from the altar shone and quavered, so that the hands seemed to move. Faustula's eyes fell on her, and she watched her idly at her spinning; she knew that those pictured women were the three Fates. Half inattentively she watched Clotho spinning, spinning the web of human destiny: When Claudia sat down again she could see Atropos too. Clotho was shown intent upon her work, absorbed in it, as if she thought herself alone. Atropos bent over her, with a mirthlessness half scornful, ready, when the humour seized her, to stoop and sever with her scissors the thread that Clotho drew from out her spindle.
This was on a night of winter, with a still cold air, black and bitter. When it was already late Faustulus came out of his house and turned towards the Circus Maximus without much heeding which direction he took. It was not a night to tempt him out, but he could not stay indoors: he wanted to get away from Tullia and her lamentations, for lamentations were always intolerable to him. His youngest child, his son and Tullia's, was dead, and the boy's mother was as noisy in her grief as a peasant. Cold enough in general, and too fashionable, one would have said, for much emotion, the loss of her sickly child had overset all her vapid, smooth artificialism. She had been disgusted that her son was ugly, but she blamed his father for that, and, such as he was, he was the only child she had, or was likely to have. Anything that was her own Tullia was eager to keep, and apt to value tenaciously simply because it was her own.
A horrible suspicion assailed her that the child had died because Faustula had been sent away. Not that she perceived in such a punishment of herself a visitation of Divine Justice which her own callous and cruel injustice had incited, but because she thought some one of the many gods, capricious and vengeful, might have chosen to take Faustula under his or her special protection, and was therefore offended.
Of this suspicion she would say nothing to her husband, but she tormented him by her passionate outcries against her luckless fate. Had he not four children, and only one of them hers? If one should be taken why should it be her one?
He bore it, more patiently than many a better man might have done, for hours; and then escaped at last. To him, personally, the death of this feeble, puling baby was no great sorrow. His one desire was to get away for a time from the spectacle of Tullia's loud grief. To those who persistently live on the surface of their lives, such realities are none the less jarring and repulsive because they are real. He did not in the least accuse his wife of affectation or extravagance in her wailings, but they almost shocked him. She sometimes screamed, literally screamed, like a slave.
He came out of his house almost furtively, as if in dread of being fetched back. Once safely away from it he fell into his usual easy saunter, still, however, walking without any special intention. He wanted to stay out as long as possible, in the hope of finding Tullia gone to bed on his return.
Passing the entrance of the Circus Maximus he kept along the straight road leading to the Aventine, till he came to the point where the Clivus Publicius was crossed by the Vicus Piscinae Publicae, into which he turned, downhill again, so as to pass the other, rounded, end of the vast circus which the Emperor Constantine the Great had restored.
As he walked it was natural that his thoughts should go back to the night of Faustula's birth, when he had come home, down the Clivus Publicius from the Aventine, to find that Accia was dead. He remembered how Sabina told him: and now she also was dead: and how Clodia had come to him in his room, with her dead baby in her arms, to beg that she might nurse Faustula. And Clodia was dead too. He called to mind how he had gone on his travels, and how, when they were over, he had been out to Olibanum and had found Faustula beautiful and fascinating beyond any hopes he had had. He remembered Sabina's taking him to the Villa Acilia at Civitella; he recollected Melania perfectly, her pleasant, cheerful face and friendly voice. Acilia, too, and the two boys, noble and handsome, so unlike his own ungainly, unpleasant son. And now their mother was dead, and Acilia... when he was quite young his own mother had died, and he remembered well how it had filled him with a sort of personal dread and chill, as if his own turn must come the sooner. All these other deaths had no such effect, though now he was more than a quarter of a century older: he only felt that they were gone and he was not: almost as if his survival gave him a more established claim on life...
Leaving the Septizonium on his left, he soon passed the little street or road leading up to the House of Pammachius, the Clivus Scauri, and so under one of the arches of the Claudian Aqueduct towards the Coliseum. Its huge bulk was one great blackness, for the moon was hidden behind clouds that threatened snow.
Passing through the Arch of Constantine, he turned up the hill towards the left, towards that of Titus, but he walked slowly, partly on purpose to let the time slip by, and partly out of his sauntering habit; for a man who seldom walks with any object or purpose is sure to have that habit.
Just beyond the Arch of Titus he stood still a moment or two to make up his mind whether to go down into the Forum by the Via Sacra, or keep to the left and pass between the Atrium Vestae and the Palace of Caligula by the Nova Via. The latter road was narrow and dark, and had not the best reputation at night. Without much attention to that, however, he turned a little to the right and strolled down the incline into the Forum. Someone on a horse was coming up by the road he had just passed, from the direction of the Meta Sudans; he could hear the ringing of the horse's metalled feet upon the pavement, for it was late and quiet, and the air was clear for frost.
Presently, when he came in sight of the Atrium Vestae, he stood still again, and drew his cloak closer, for a sharp wind had crept up and it was colder. There had come a little ragged gap in the clouds, and the moon swam into it, so that things, invisible before, showed out now, white and wan. The tall windowless wall of the Atrium Vestae stood up like a ghost, and, behind it, towered the great bulk of the deserted Imperial palace.
Faustulus stood looking at the Atrium, and listening idly to the sound of the horse's feet. He heard the hollow, echoing noise they made as the rider came through the Arch of Titus. But he was not thinking of the horse or its rider: his thoughts were with Faustula. Was she asleep, or taking her turn of watching with some older Vestal by the Sacred Fire?
The rider was close behind him now, and he half turned to look at him: a very young man, a mere lad, but an officer, riding a fine horse. Faustulus had always liked beautiful horses, and he looked more attentively, while the moon shone full upon his own slightly raised face. The young officer, who was only walking his horse, pulled up and cried out in a pleased voice:
"Faustule! Ah! I see you do not remember me: but I remember you. I am Fabian Acilius Glabrio."
Fabian dismounted at once, and they greeted each other cordially.
"We only met once, and it is nearly five years ago. It is very nice of you to remember me at once," Faustulus exclaimed. He was pleased to think that those years had not altered his appearance. "How oddly things happen," he went on, "only half an hour ago I was thinking of you. But I thought you were far away."
"So I was till two days ago. Now I am quartered here: I have been visiting guards."
"You have become a man!" declared Faustulus, who knew that his friend was at the age when it is a compliment to be supposed older than one is.
"Not quite," laughed Fabian. "Only a big boy. But I shall be a man presently, if you'll be so good as to have a little patience."
"'Patience,' my dear Fabian. Ah, do not be in a hurry. Fools can grow old, but the wisest of us can't grow young again. I wish I were—what is it? Twenty?"
"Twenty! I am barely seventeen, not quite seventeen."
Fabian seemed honestly glad to see him: and Faustulus was pleased, almost grateful. He had reached the age when people, especially young people, regard one's absence or presence with civil indifference.
"Ah! How well I remember the day we met before," he said. "And I liked you best because you liked me best. Christopher was not sure about me. Do you remember?"
Fabian remembered very well; and he knew also that his brother had pretty correct instincts. It was true that he himself had liked Faustulus best: a pleasant manner, an attractive face had always been enough to win his quick friendliness.
His own feeling towards Faustula's father had often puzzled him: as her father he disapproved of him and had been angry with him. Yet he liked him, and chiefly because he was her father: and liked him for himself also, half against his own judgment.
"Of course I remember," Fabian replied cheerfully. "You told us you had been naughty."
"So I had. I always am. Christopher is never naughty."
"No, he isn't."
"But you are sometimes. That was why you took a fancy to me."
They both laughed.
"Oh, but I am improving," Fabian protested. "That was why you did not know me, though I knew you."
"That sounds rather rude," observed Faustulus, not at all offended.
"Yes, it does. I see that now when it is too late. Let us change the subject. How is Faustula?"
In a moment Fabian perceived, but without understanding, a change in his friend's manner. He blushed, and thought that perhaps his inquiry had sounded too familiar.
"I beg your pardon," he said: "but you know we saw a good deal of her. She and Tatius stayed with us, and my dear mother was very fond of her."
"I remember very well," Faustulus replied, recalling that that visit had cost the two boys their mother's life. "That can never be forgotten. Faustula is quite well."
"Now Sabina is dead, she lives with you here in Rome, I suppose."
Fabian was holding his horse by the bridle and smoothing his glossy neck. He was not looking at Faustulus, but every inflection of his voice he noticed.
"She is here in Rome; but she does not live with me. She is in there."
In all his life Faustulus had never found it so hard to say anything as he found the speaking of those few words. It was his turn to blush now, and he turned his face away as he pointed towards the House of the Vestals.
As he asked this, abruptly, without pausing to consider the sharp, inquisitorial tone of his question, Fabian turned hastily to look whither Faustulus was pointing.
The tall blind wall of the Atrium, ghostly in the moonlight, looked like a huge exaggerated tomb.
"In there. In the house of the Vestal Virgins," Faustulus answered in a hoarse whisper.
Fabian could not speak; neither could he bear to look Faustula's father in the face. Faustulus had been ashamed for months, but he had never felt so deadly a sense of shame till then.
"What have I done?" he gasped, but uttering no audible word. What he was thankful for was that Fabian did not look him in the face. Furtively he tried to scan the youth's face as he stood staring at the Atrium Vestas.
Fabian knew Faustula better than anyone else had ever known her: far better than her father. And he loved her far better. That was why he knew. He never for an instant imagined she had become a Vestal by any choice of her own. He remembered, of course, that her father had married again: that was an old story. At the time it had not seemed to make any difference to Faustula one way or the other. But now Sabina was dead—and Fabian could guess the rest.
"She will go mad in there," he thought.
Fabian never saw Faustula as a Vestal till more than four years after that night. As it happened he only stayed in Rome a few weeks. Athanaric and his Goths were giving trouble in Moesia, and both the Acilii were sent on service against them. Fabian could only feel it a relief to be away from Rome, where the thought of Faustula, an unwilling captive as she seemed to him, was perpetually with him, and where he could do nothing for her.
Yet, when he could return he did so at the first possible moment, as though unable to keep away. He got back at the beginning of February and in less than a fortnight he saw her.
One day, less than a week before the Lupercalia, the Vestalis Maxima met Tullia, who complained to her that Faustula never visited the House of the Faustuli.
"It has a bad appearance," she said with an aggrieved air, "as if she did not care to see us."
It seemed to Volumina quite probable that Faustula did not care to see her stepmother, and she saw no special reason why she should.
She did not admire Tullia herself, and thought her a mere epitome of patrician pride and arrogance.
"I do not know," she observed coolly, "that I care for the very young Vestals, in their noviceship, going about in the city much."
"It is not going about to visit her father and his family. And we live so near."
"I will see that she comes," Volumina answered, and immediately turned away as if she had had enough of the subject.
The day before the feast of the Lupercalia began she told Faustula that on her way to the Lupercal, or returning from it, she had better pay a visit at her father's house.
"You will go in state," she remarked with a grim smile. "Your stepmother complains you do not go there, and I would like you to make the visit with all ceremony. Your stepmother is a fine lady, but I choose she should remember that a Vestal is finer than she."
Faustula was amused, and, as she would have to go "in state" to the Lupercal, it would make no difference, if the visit had to be made at all. And she preferred going on a day when there would be many visitors, as she had no desire to meet Tullia alone.
As it happened Fabian was walking from the Forum Boarium towards the Forum Romanum, and overtook Faustulus, who had himself been to the Lupercal, close by the House of the Faustuli. They had not met since that night when Fabian heard from him that Faustula had become a Vestal Virgin.
As Faustulus pressed him to come in rather warmly, he could hardly refuse, and they entered the house together. He was presented to Tullia whom he found pretty much what he expected, a handsome, prosperous woman of the world, with fine eyes that looked as if they could scowl, but were all smiles at present.
"And here," said Faustulus carelessly, "is my daughter—"
Fabian could scarcely help starting. The girl was tall, and held herself proudly, as if a little over-conscious of her rank and of her beauty. She had a certain likeness to her father, but had a less amiable air and her eyes were too keen and hard.
"And here is my daughter Flavia," said Faustulus, with scarcely any pause before her name; but there had been the briefest possible pause; and Flavia had perceived it.
"The wrong daughter," she said with a smile that was too self-possessed.
Faustulus was annoyed because her remark was ill-bred and turned away to speak to another guest.
Fabian bowed low, and Flavia immediately began talking to him. He could not help comparing her with Faustula. She was not beautiful, but handsome, and some people wondered why at nearly twenty years of age she was unmarried, for it was known that she was to inherit the wealth of her aunt and adoptive mother, Domitia. In Rome such things are always accounted for, and it was whispered by the ill-natured that the girl had the Evil Eye. The whispers had been kindly repeated to Domitia who had, on a day when they were quarrelling, twitted Flavia with the report and bade her be careful.
"If anything bad happens to me," she said maliciously, "it will be put down to your Evil Eye."
The report made Flavia furious. She knew well how serious it was; and it also made her morbidly suspicious, so that if anyone talking to her, or even standing near her, happened to put a hand behind his back she instantly jumped to the conclusion that he was "making horns" with the first and fourth fingers, while folding down the second and third into his palm.
As it chanced, Fabian, while she was talking rapidly to him, did lay his right hand behind him on his hip for a moment or two, and Flavia noticed it at once. His expression was rather absent-minded, for he was thinking more of Faustula than of her sister's quick, satirical remarks. A bitterly angry gleam flashed into her fine blue-grey eyes, but she went on speaking without the least break. All the same she never forgot and never forgave.
Just beyond Fabian, on his right, stood a young man, with a good-looking, slightly weak face, who had for some time been showing marked signs of being fascinated by Flavia's charms. He thought her clever, and was sure she was handsome, her birth was equal to his own, and he had no objection to her excellent prospects as Domitia's heiress. At this moment he was waiting to take Fabian's place, and Flavia was quite content to make him wait a little.
The tablinium of the palace of the Faustuli was large, but not large enough for all the company, and this little group of three persons was standing just outside the door. They could see across the atrium to the entrance from the street.
Presently there was a sort of movement and slight fuss among those who were near it, and Flavia's young gentleman craned his long neck forward to look. Tullia was only just within the doorway of the tablinium and could see too. A slave came up to Faustulus and made some announcement to him in a low voice, whereupon he immediately walked quickly across the atrium as though to welcome a guest of distinction.
A litter was carried up the steps leading from the street, and in the entrance were seen lictors in gala dress carrying the fasces.
Flavia's admirer, whose name was Lucilius, was quite excited.
"By greatest Jove—a Vestal!" he exclaimed, making his neck longer than ever.
Faustulus was helping the lady in the litter to alight, and when he had done so they embraced, and he led her forward.
"Oh, it is only my sister," Flavia observed, turning an amused glance towards Tullia to see how that important lady was enjoying it. She and her stepmother were extremely civil to each other, but there was, as people say, no love lost between them. Tullia thought too much of herself, and so did Flavia.
"She ought to go forward and receive her," Flavia observed. "A Vestal takes precedence of every other woman."
Tullia knew that very well: forms and etiquette were her strong point. She moved forward half across the atrium, and in the middle she and Faustula met. Tullia was inwardly annoyed, she had not in the least desired a state visit; but she smiled as hard as she could, and Faustula smiled too. She was extremely gracious and everyone was amused, understanding the whole thing perfectly.
It was still early in the afternoon, and brilliantly light; the small group in the middle of the atrium was very visible.
Tullia and Faustula embraced, and then the girl drew back half a pace, still talking to her stepmother without looking round.
Faustula was now nearly fifteen, and that is equal to seventeen in a northern girl. She was as tall as Flavia, and a hundred times more beautiful. Her dress was now long familiar, and she wore it like a young princess: the imperial purple became her well.
"I must go and greet her too," Flavia said, and went quickly to join the others as they moved forward towards the tablinium. The sisters met just as Faustula stepped from the peristylium into the broad colonnade that ran in front of the rooms, where a beautiful and massive bronze lamp was hung between two of the pillars. Of course it was as yet unlighted.
"Salve, Faustula!" said Flavia, and kissed her lightly, first on one cheek, then on the other.
Faustula smiled again, and was about to return the salute when the heavy lamp fell, striking her on the shoulder before it crashed on to the marble floor.
Several men hurried forward, Lucilius and Fabian among them, and everyone crowded round asking if she were hurt.
"Oh, no. It barely touched me," she answered, though the blow had made her almost stagger into her father's arms, and she had turned very white.
"Are you sure?" Fabian asked, anxiously, too eager for thought or presence of mind; and their eyes met as he spoke.
She knew him instantly, though he was one-and-twenty now, and had been a lad of less than fifteen when they had met last. Her deadly whiteness did not decrease, but she drew herself up and assured her father that she could stand quite well.
"You are so pale; are you sure you do not feel faint?"
"No. I think I was startled more than hurt... Flavia, you must have been startled too. It did not strike you also?"
"No; but I was certainly startled."
Lucilius had disappeared: now he came back carrying a goblet of wine. He ought, undoubtedly, to have noticed that Flavia was nearly as pale as her sister; but he did not, and begged Faustula to drink a little of the wine.
The young Vestal smiled and thanked him, and her father, also thanking him, took the goblet and made her drink a little of the wine.
Flavia watched it all: nothing escaped her—Fabian's anxiety, the sudden zeal Lucilius had shown, an odd expression on the faces of the guests. She knew well they were saying to themselves "The Evil Eye again." She waited in a kind of dry surprise to see whether Lucilius would turn with solicitous inquiring to herself; but he did not, and she was sure that it was not mere inadvertence. Such inadvertence, in a lover, would be bad enough; but she believed that he, too, had heard of her reputation, and was now afraid of her evil eye.
In the year following the meeting between Fabian and Faustula, described in the last chapter, Volumina reached the age of forty, and ceased to be Vestalis Maxima. Livia succeeded her, but being only three years younger, had not a long reign. Marcia had been next in seniority of the Vestals whom Faustula had found in the Atrium on her arrival, but Marcia died within a year of Faustula's coming, so that there was a vacancy and a new novice, and Faustula was only junior of the community for about eight months.
And so, too, when Livia was superseded, Caria took her place: and her rule was still shorter as there was barely a year's difference in their ages. Then Tacita became Vestalis Maxima, and Faustula, only twenty years old, was second senior of the six ordinary Vestals. Of her four juniors the one appointed on Marcia's death was now nineteen. Her name was Lollia, and we shall have to hear more of her. The other three, Enina, who was fourteen, Calpurina who was eleven, and Milvia who was only ten, will not greatly concern us.
This was the status of the Vestals in the summer of the year 360, when Faustula had completed her ten years' novitiate. The heat in Rome was very great and there was much sickness, so that at the end of June, soon after the Vestalia, Tacita decided that the Vestals should take it in turns to leave the city, two at a time, for a fortnight, and recruit themselves at one or other of the country estates belonging to the college. After a month of duty their turns would soon come again, and Tacita intended that this arrangement should continue till October.
During their second absence, which fell in September, Claudia and Faustula were sent to a property of the Vestals on the sea between Ostia and Ardea, near Laurentum, at the place now called Tor Paterno. The choice was somewhat surprising, for the neighbourhood had the reputation of being malarious, not a spot one would seek in the heats of September to recruit health. As it happened neither Claudia nor Faustula knew anything of this, and they were glad to go anywhere together. The Vestalis Maxima explained that the estate had been left too long to itself, and she gave Claudia minute directions as to matters requiring her attention.
Tacita had not grown lovelier in the course of ten years, but she thought more than ever of her beauty. She was not a clever person, though possessed of a sort of silky, monkeyish cunning, and a little speech she made to Claudia in saying good-bye betrayed the double jealousy from which she suffered.
"Well, I hope you will enjoy the change," she said with pretty nods and smiles. "You must take care of your health. You are an important personage now—Vestalis Maxima after me, you know. I regard you as my heir. And you must get back your looks; this terrible summer has told on you. A complexion like yours once lost is never regained, and it seems quite gone. Quite. You have grown too thin—you must get plump again. Slimness in a very young girl is interesting: but if one gets thin at thirty, one is almost sure to become scraggy—and there is no cure for that. So you must put on a little flesh and get back your colour. I shall tell Faustula to see that you follow my advice."
Accordingly, with a perfect volley of smiles and nods, Tacita instructed Faustula to bring Claudia back renewed in youth and beauty.
"She has gone off shockingly," she declared cheerfully. "She has just reached the age when so many women lose their looks for life. And thirty is a bad age for the health too. Anything the matter with the constitution declares itself. Mind I look to you to see that the sea breezes restore poor Claudia—or she may never live to be Vestalis Maxima."
Faustula laughed demurely, and promised that the sea breezes should do all that was required of them.
She was not at all anxious about Claudia who was perfectly well, only a little pale, and fagged by the great heat. As a matter of fact she was quite as beautiful now as she had been ten years before, and wonderfully unchanged. Her gentle, rather plain, nature was not of the sort that Time deals roughly with: and her delicate, flower-like complexion had never been highly coloured. Sea-breezes have themselves been supposed injurious to such complexions as Claudia's.
Partly to avoid the heats of the later day, and partly to get out of the city while its streets were empty, the two Vestals started from the Atrium almost as soon as it was light. Of course on a journey of nearly twenty miles they drove, and each had her own "Currus Arenatus," a sort of chariot of fine wood, beautifully adorned with plates of embossed bronze. Even in Rome itself the Vestals had always had the privilege of driving in these chariots or plaustra, though they were usually carried about the city in litters. They had their own stables, and a retinue of male slaves, who, of course, did not live in the Atrium.
Faustula was delighted to get away into the country and did not much care where they went, though she would have preferred the mountains to the sea. As they passed her father's house, all closed and silent because it was so early, she thought of Fabian, whom she had never seen since that day of the Lupercalia when they had met almost without speaking: and she thought of Flavia, still unmarried, and wondered as she recalled the strange bitterness and anger she had read in her sister's eyes. Where was Fabian now? Would they ever meet again?
Leaving Rome by the Porta Ostiensis they soon came to the little Basilica of St. Paul, built by Constantine the Great over the Cella Memorice which marked the place of the Apostle's burial in the vineyard of Lucina.
It was twenty-four years old now and in another twenty-six would be replaced by a much larger basilica, built by the Emperors Valentinian, Theodosius and Arcadius. A group of Christians was waiting under the trees for the doors to open that they might go in and hear Mass. They were poor folk from the Campagna, but their faces were cheerful. Of course they turned to look at the passing chariots, each with its escort of running slaves: and Faustula watched them, thinking of old days at Civitella and Melania's happy decorous household of slaves who were like her children.
The two chariots were abreast for a few moments and Faustula spoke to Claudia, with a careless glance at her face. Something in its expression struck her and she remembered it long afterwards.
Soon after passing the basilica the Via Laurestina turns off to the left, and they left the Ostian Way with its warehouses and villas, and the road became lonelier, more countrified, and therefore more pleasing to Faustula.
There was a rise in the ground presently, and they went more slowly.
"Tell them," she called out to Claudia who was just in front, "not to drive so quickly when we get on level road again. It is only sixteen miles and the drive is pleasant."
"Yes," Claudia agreed, "and it is hard on the runners when we go so fast."
Thereupon she ordered her charioteer to drive gently when they should have reached the top of the little hill. Faustula had often noticed how thoughtful her friend was for slaves, a thing not usual with the lordly and luxurious Vestals.
"I like this," Faustula said, as the chariots came abreast again. "Don't you? It is much nicer than the Atrium Vestae and the Forum. I can smell the trees; it is the next best smell to that of the hills."
Claudia had seldom seen her so cheerful: she seemed like a child let out of a city school. Their eyes met and Claudia, behind the backs of the two charioteers, formed with her lips the words: "You baby!" but her eyes smiled and it was easy to see how it pleased her that Faustula should be happy.
Poor Faustula! She was deadly sick of Rome, and deadly sick of being a Vestal. It was nothing to her that she had the right to wear Imperial purple, and the right to be borne about with a lictor in front of her litter. The Atrium, cramped in among all the crowded buildings of the Forum, had seemed to her during this stifling summer like a deep box with only half the lid off.
Presently they passed the third milestone and Faustula's charioteer glanced to his left, fumbling with his right hand under his robe.
"What do you see?" she asked.
"There," he answered, "is the place they call Ad Aquas Salvias: where Paul of the Christians was beheaded—" The man, who had a good serene face, paused, and seemed to hesitate.
"Well?" said Faustula. "Go on. What is the story?"
"The story," he replied, "is that on the day when the Apostle of the Christians was slain, a certain noble lady, called Plantilla, stood by the wayside, waiting to behold him for the last time. He had converted her; and, as they hurried him from his prison to his death, and came by, she knelt, weeping sorely, to beg his blessing. Proud of her courage and faith the Apostle blest her, and begged that she would lend him her veil wherewith to blindfold his eyes when he should be beheaded. 'Lend it!' scoffed one of his jailors. 'Give it rather!' 'Nay, but I will render it again,' said the Apostle gently: and Plantilla, full of faith and charity, and woman's pity, took off her veil and gave it to him. Then they bade him come on and brought him yonder—Ad Aquas Salvias—where the church is now. There is still the pillar to which they bound him, and the block of marble whereon he laid his head for the sword. When it was stricken off it fell to the earth, and where it struck is a fountain of warm water that never fails; then it bounded and struck the earth again, and there is a second fountain of tepid water; again it bounded and, where it struck the third time, is a fountain of ice-cold water. His lips at each striking of the earth spoke the name of his God, 'Jesus,' 'Jesus,' 'Jesus.' That is the story."
Faustula listened gravely while he told her all this, without any incredulous smile. She was sure the man was himself a Christian, but she would not ask him. She knew that many Christian slaves had heathen masters, but it seemed strange that a slave of the Vestals should be a Christian.
When he had ended his story she said gently: "Prosit!"
And the man's face lighted with a smile that was like a seal on the secret he had told her.
"God bless you, lady," he said quietly. "Benedicat tibi Christus Noster, Redemptor ac Liberator."
Faustula smiled and he knew she was not offended: perhaps it was the first time a Vestal had been blessed to her face in the name of Christ.
After another hill they came to a bridge, and the way went by the valley called now Vallerano. The smell of trees was in Faustula's nostrils, and the fresh moving breeze touched her cheek like a caress: they were in the forest soon, and bars of light and shadow lay upon the road and on her face. She felt younger than she had felt for long, long years, and a light, almost like that of happiness, shone in her deep and lovely eyes.
"Oh, Claudia," she begged, when they came to another hill, "may I not walk? Do let us walk. It will ease the horses."
Claudia laughed and consented, and they both got down and walked up the hill, bidding the others go on and wait for them at the top.
"Why did you ask leave? You are not a novice now," said Claudia, laughing, when the chariots and their escort had moved on.
"Because I want to be good. I feel good, and it is a new sensation. Part of our holiday. I want to be good all the time as long as we are alone together."
"Afterwards too, I hope."
Faustula made a queer little grimace.
"Oh, afterwards? I'm always good enough for Tacita and the Atrium Vestae... but I'm not always good enough for you."
Claudia sighed, a very small, inaudible sigh. She was always hoping, and against hope, that Faustula might overthrow her loathing of the Atrium Vestae: but she never asked. She supposed it was lack of moral courage, but that lack is sometimes rather like tact and considerate forbearance.
"Let us forget all about the Atrium Vestae for a fortnight!" Faustula proposed irreverently.
Claudia shook her head.
"We can never forget," she observed rather primly, "that we are Vestals."
"No, that is true," Faustula retorted with her naughtiest smile. "But we can try. I shall almost succeed if you'll let me alone."
For a few moments Claudia said no more; but the smell of the pines was in her nostrils too, and she also could see the tangle of shade and sun down the long aisles of the lovely forest.
"There's a butterfly," she cried, quite eagerly. "What colours!"
"I should like to run after him," Faustula declared, "but if I caught him I would not keep him. I would only tell him to fly off and enjoy himself—he hadn't much time."
"You would love to run..." and Claudia turned a smiling face. "I saw that the moment we got down: and what a hypocrite you are; you pretended it was to ease the horses!"
"Of course I'm a hypocrite. I've been learning ten years..." She laughed, and her bitter merriment was like the bars of black and yellow that the sun and shade made as they met and strove together,,
The estate of the Vestals upon which Claudia and Faustula had come to live for two weeks was large, but had not much value except for the timber with which three-fourths of it was covered. The land on which no trees grew, or which had been cleared of trees was lean and marshy and overgrown with asphodel. All day long the peasants seemed labouring to pluck up, or mow down with their sickles, the tall stiff stems covered with starry pinkish-white blossoms—the flowers of death. But death is stronger than us, and the peasants, generation by generation, have bowed their heads to a harder sickle than their own, and the flowers of death bloom on till now, in the swampy fallows by the Latin shore.
Often Faustula sat idle on the edge of the forest and watched the country-folk at their toil. They worked in huge bands, men and women together, and the dress of the women was pretty and graceful, far more so, she thought, than her own. She knew how hard and poverty-stricken were their lives, but they had no air of discontent, and sang and laughed as they plied their unavailing task against death's pale obdurate flower.
Sometimes when a group of girls was near her, she would smile as one or other of them looked up and turned her great black eyes her way: they would smile back and make a courteous reverence, not slavishly, for Latins are never slavish to the high and great, but with a gracious sweetness of respect.
It often occupied her idle fancy to wonder which of them were Christians: for she knew that the Christian faith was spreading, and that among the slaves and the poorest peasants it spread fastest. This fancy of hers was all a part of her clinging to the memory of those old childish days at Civitella, when the difference first struck her between Melania's slaves and Sabina's. There were times when the expression in those keen, observant peasant eyes, as one or other of the labouring girls would return her friendly smile, half hurt her, half angered her. She pitied herself, but, to the proud, pity of others is intolerable; and she knew that not one of those toiling women envied her. They all knew who she was: her exalted rank, her wealth: but, for all her fine food and raiment, she could clearly see they held for her a gentle, courteously-veiled compassion.
In this they were all alike, those with harder eyes and less contented faces whom she chose to think were heathens like herself, and those with a gentler, more serene air whom she made out to be Christians.
One day, a woman working near her had a baby in her arms, and tried to tend it and mind her work at the same time. But the tiny child was fretful, and the mother was distraught between love and toil.
"Is the baby sick?" Faustula asked gently, beckoning to the woman to come to her.
"Ah, yes. The marsh-fever..."
"Can you not stay at home and nurse it?"
"No, no, lady. The father and I must work. And there is no one at home to tend him. It will not be for long. The baby will die soon."
"You have others?"
"None. Only this one. And we were married long before this one came. There will be no more. But I have had it. I am a mother. When it goes I shall be its mother still. God will take it, but He will leave me that. He understands. I am a mother, that is almost like Himself: when His children die He goes on being their Father. And we are poor, poor, poor: as poor as empty oyster-shells: it will be free. There could be no other way."
Faustula knew the woman was a Christian because she spoke of God personally and in the singular number; she was torn with pity for her, and yet it was easy to see that the woman pitied her also.
"Give it me," she said. "I will hold it while you work."
"Ah, but you are too good; and you do not know how."
She would not give it up. Then Faustula gave her money, more money than the woman had ever seen at one time in all her life, and with a thousand thanks and obeisances she went back to her toil in the pitiless sun, clutching her baby to her own breast of a mother.
It was afternoon and the blinding light where the peasants toiled, fretted Faustula, though she herself sat idle in the fragrant shade.
She rose and turned away, strolling, heedlessly, towards the sea.
The house in which she and Claudia were living for those two weeks was seldom occupied except by the steward and his family. One part of it was square and low, and it was there the steward lived. At one end rose a tall tower in which were the big, gaunt rooms now tenanted by the two Vestals. All around was the Silva Laurentina, the forest older than Rome, running right down to the shore and skirting the coast for many miles. Hither came the wanderers from Troy to cut its timber, and Faustula's heedless steps carried her towards the very place upon the shallow shore where Aeneas and his braves landed. From the sea a fresh sweet gale blew in among the trees, and in their netted shadow it was cool and dusky. The smell of the pines was like incense, and among them grew huge ilexes and bay-trees with dark glossy leaves.
Someone advised the Emperor Commodus to come here to inhale the wholesome odours of the wood, and he built a villa deep in the forest; but Commodus was not very dearly loved, and perhaps those who gave the plausible advice remembered the swamps that break its vast monotony, whence ghostly veils of mist creep at dawn, deathly and feverous. Virgil speaks of one of these swamps, and Faustula and Claudia heard for themselves at night the weird, loud croaking of the millions of frogs that populate the marshes, whereof Martial had sung two and a half centuries before either of them were born. Not far from the villa of the Vestals Laurentum was still standing then, but almost empty. It was called "Urbs Vacua" by Lucan, while St. Peter and St. Paul were still alive, three hundred years before Faustula came to stay in the Silva Laurentina.
The frogs were silent as she wandered through the forest towards the shore, but there was the drone of innumerable insects, and the sharp dry rasping of the cicala that is like no other sound, though the "drumming" of a snipe, very high up in the air, always makes me think of it.
Faustula had exclaimed, with bitter outcry, against Claudia long ago, when she had said that life is short. Ten years of her own life had gone by since then, and to-day it seemed to her that all of it was slipping like sand between her fingers and would leave them empty, emptier than Laurentum, for men had lived and loved there once, and even now a few peasant-slaves huddled there, and, perhaps, knew what life and love are.
She came to the edge of the forest where it fringes the low vacant shore, and sat down, her face seaward, under the shade of the last tree. There was not a sail on all the wide water. Under the horizon it was deep sapphire-blue, nearer, there were long blurs of amethyst and opal. Close beneath her was a belt of shingle; beyond, a narrow saffron band of smooth, moist sand.
She watched it all, and was grateful to it for its beauty, most grateful for its emptiness, after the crowded noise of Rome; but she watched unheeding, her thoughts twisted in a vague tangle of memories and irritations. She remembered the cella of the temple and its great broidery over the door, with Clotho ever spinning and Atropos ever bending forth to cut the frail and futile thread.
Why should the Fates weave, and she be subject to their cold and ruthless shears? What did it all mean? What did Life mean, the greatest thing she knew, and that of which she knew least?
When Claudia first set about telling her why she had become a Vestal, Faustula had interrupted her by her petulant outcry; but Claudia had told her years ago it did not help herself; for Claudia believed in Vesta and the gods and she did not. Even for her own sake she would have believed in them, if she could, and worshipped them with a true and not merely ritual worship; but she could not. They were no better than herself, most of them much worse. Her life was dry for lack of anything to reverence.
Along the shore from the direction of Ostia a horseman rode upon the firm soundless sand, not rapidly, but for pastime, and he was close opposite to the place where Faustula sat, before she saw him just a moment after he had seen her.
"Fabian!" she called out, and he turned at once, recognizing her voice instantly. He dismounted and led his horse up to where she was, and tied it to a tree.
"This is the place where Aeneas landed long ago," he said laughingly, when he had greeted her. "I thought you must be Lavinia waiting for him."
"She did not know he was coming, neither did I know you were. What are you doing here riding alone by the sea?"
"My quarter is yonder in Ostia: what are you doing, sitting here all by yourself on the Latin shore?"
She told him; and told him plainly how happy she was to escape, even for two weeks, from Rome and the Atrium Vestae.
"I did not think you were looking particularly happy—I saw you a moment before you called to me."
"No, I was not feeling especially happy just then..."
She paused a moment, and he also hesitated, then he said gently:
"I hope you are happy though, dear Faustula."
She did not answer—could not; and he could only go on: "I think of you constantly... constantly. Almost always. And I can only pray that, somehow, you may be happy."
He hesitated again, for he did not know what it might be wrong to say.
"I mean simply this," he said gently; "that I could not understand you being a Vestal. It did not seem to suit with my idea of you. But it is years since we have met and talked together, and I have told myself, often, how little I may know of what you are now."
"I am just the same."
If she had told him in a thousand words he could not have understood more plainly that there was nothing in her that did "suit with the idea of her being a Vestal." Not all at once, nor all on that occasion, for they met often after this, she told him how she had become one: and why the life of the Atrium choked and stifled her.
"It is all a lie. I care no more for Vesta, than I care for that," she said, picking up a pebble and tossing it over the shingles on to the sand. "If I could believe I cared it would do as well as anything else."
It was hard for him to speak. To speak might be so cruel; and he was full of anger against those who had flung her aside as into a convenient, lawful grave.
"I daresay it sounds wicked," she went on. "You think I ought to care for Vesta and the rest of them, since they are my gods."
"Do you believe in them?"
"How can they be your gods then? If I believed in them I might think it wicked of you to say you do not. But I don't. And, even if I did, I should think them wicked who had forced you to take a vow you hate."
"As to that I do not see that I took any vow. I was brought before the Flamen and he 'administered the vow,' as they told me afterwards. He muttered something and I was ordered to say I assented to it. What he said I could scarcely make out; and I was not quite ten years old—I could not have understood the old queer words even if I had heard them properly. Oh, how hot it has grown. The breeze has dropped..."
"It often does towards evening," Fabian answered not thinking so much of his own words as of what she had been saying.
"This thing makes my head so hot," Faustula complained: and she pushed the closely folded infula back till it dropped on her neck behind, and left her hair free. Her long thick hair, like newly minted bronze, had grown again years and years ago.
Fabian hardly noticed that she did this. His eyes were turned towards the oily creaming sea. But another pair of eyes noted: the narrow, shallow black eyes of one of Tacita's slaves. She was standing half a dozen paces behind them, hidden by a low thicket of genesta brambles and wild oleander.
Faustula did not tell Claudia of her meeting with Fabian. When she got back to the villa Claudia was still out, and when supper-time arrived, and they were together, Claudia began at once to tell of her own occupations. She had been visiting the huts of the slaves in more than one of the hamlets belonging to the estate, and was pained by their poverty and wretchedness.
"Outside, as you have seen for yourself," she said, "they are quaint and rather pretty—like tents; but inside they are utterly miserable; there is only one tiny room for a whole family to live and sleep in. It seems cruel, ghastly, that we should be so rich and they should be so poor."
"I never can see much good our wealth does us," Faustula answered. "They do not look wretched—do you not notice that?"
"Out of doors, when they are well, and all at work together, they do seem happy enough, I agree with you; but, Faustula, I found many of them sick, huddled in straw like sick beasts, shivering with fever. You would think they would be beasts; but they are not. Many of them are Christians, and I met their priest, an old man with a gentle manner, though nearly as poor-looking as the peasants. He walked with me towards home, and that was why I came in so late. He was very kind, and told me it was not wise for me to stay out after the dusk, for then it is easiest to catch the fever. We talked much about the people, and he says they are wonderfully good. 'You mean your own people, I suppose,' I said, but he said quietly, 'Nay, Dom'na Claudia, your folk are good too, many, many of them; most charitable to each other, to my children as well as to yours.' I gave him some money, and he said it was a great deal, though I did not think it much. He said it would help a great many of them."
"I have lots of money," Faustula declared, "and you shall have it to give to your old priest."
"Nay," Claudia laughed, "he is not my priest: but he is a very good man, and I wish we could give him something for himself. He looks as if he never ate anything better than what the peasants eat themselves, and his clothes were almost ragged... But I can't see why the huts should be so wretched and so small: there are trees enough, in conscience, for all to have roomy wooden houses."
For a long time they talked about what was entirely filling Claudia's mind: then suddenly Faustula asked:
"What is that fresh slave of Tacita's doing here? I saw her soon after I came in. She is like a bad wind."
"Dirce? Tacita sent her from Rome with a letter for me full of directions about the estate."
"Well, write the answer to-night and send her back in the morning. Her mouth is crooked, so are her eyes. She seems to be always twisting a smile out of herself, and it won't come. All she can get out is a squint."
"I can't send her back at once. Tacita says the girl has been sick, and thinks it might do her good to stay here a few days."
"I hope she didn't see you and your priest walking together. She would certainly tell our Maxima, and Tacita might not approve."
"I shall tell Tacita myself. Faustula, you are a baby in some things. Just because Dirce squints a little, and her lip cocks up on one side, you make her into a conspirator."
"I do not make her a conspirator. If she is one, it is other people who make her one. But take care! You know very well what the Atrium is—all tale bearing and whispering..."
"Tacita likes a gossip, but she is good-natured..."
"You call me a baby! I'm years older than you, my good Claudia. You think Tacita good-natured because she has dimples, and is always showing her pretty little teeth. I much preferred Volumina. She was wooden, and full of knots, but not bad. Once, when some of them had been carrying tales of me, she told me and said: 'I generally conclude when people bring me tales that they have some little affairs of their own that they want to conceal. All the same, you should be prudent: your tongue is a bad sword in other people's hands. If it strikes you that anyone is a fool don't proclaim the discovery, for it's no great matter—a fool is easily discerned.' Old Plotina warned me against Dirce. 'It's easy to flatter Tacita,' she said, 'but not easy to flatter her as much as she wants. And Dirce gives her as much as her mouth will hold.' Plotina begged me to warn you, too. She knows she is a spy and a liar. And Tacita has the same grudge against us both."
"What grudge?" Claudia asked innocently.
"My poor Claudia, how young you are!" Faustula laughed. "Tacita thinks more of being the beauty of the Atrium Vestae than of being Vestalis Maxima."
Claudia blushed, but Faustula only laughed again. She could not help knowing that she was beautiful, but vanity was not in her, and the fact that she was beautiful was merely a fact, like the fact that she was a patrician. As her beauty and her birth had not been arranged by herself, she took them for granted like her digestion.
What may seem odd was, that, though it was Faustula who warned Claudia against Dirce, and Claudia who seemed to laugh at her cautions, Claudia really put herself somewhat on her guard, and Faustula, after talking about it, soon forgot the matter. There was a touch of scornfulness in her character which made it disagreeable to her to make much, in her own case, of a danger from a mean slave. And, like most people of active imagination and quick, vagrant thought, she was often absent-minded, occupied with her own ideas rather than with petty external circumstances. She was at once observant and inattentive, noticing, like her father, many things that were lost on eyes less alert for beauty and disregarding ugly, dull, unpleasing matters that were only of "practical" significance.
As it happened Dirce only stayed at the villa a week, and, while she was there, Claudia was plainly cautious: but the Greek had heard this and that and had a report to make of her too. Faustula's wanderings did not lead her towards the hamlets, but towards the sea, and Dirce found it easier to track her unobserved than it would have been to follow Claudia in a direction where there were more people who might see her. And Dirce was not physically energetic: it was only half a mile to the shore, and led away from the swamps, of which she had a timid suspicion. The way was all in cool shade, when there was a breeze anywhere it would be met there. Dirce owed a duty to her health which it was pleasant to combine with her business arrangements.
Sometimes on her way to the shore she would see a wild boar, or a group of buffaloes, and she gave them a wide berth, for her idea was that all animals were more or less dangerous.
"Ah, my dears," she would say to herself, peeping towards them, "it's a good arrangement that you can't talk."
Fabian and Faustula sometimes met when Dirce was not there to see: for the slave was not always able to escape, and escape alone, from the Villa: and it must not be supposed that, when she was a witness of their meetings, she was able to hear all, or nearly all, that they said. People do not carry on confidential conversations at the top of their voice, and Dirce could seldom find a hiding-place quite near them. Still, she did, on many occasions, catch scraps and tags of what they said, and the context she invented for herself.
There was nothing in all they said of which either need have been ashamed, but much that would have been dangerous even if fully and truly reported. For Fabian frankly tried to set before the friend of his boyhood the truth of what he himself believed. Though he had met her alone a hundred times he would not have done this but for her own flat avowal that she cared nothing for the gods and had no belief in them.
It was odd how little changed she seemed to him; her voice was like an echo out of the old days at Olibanum and Civitella, and her character had rather grown than altered. To her, too, he seemed the Fabian she had known long ago: the first person who had ever shown a silent desire to help and serve her.
At first he spoke almost reluctantly of his own faith, but it was not possible that he could miss seeing how eagerly she listened: and what else could he give her but what he had himself? Her life was dry and empty, not merely because its outward routine was irksome, but because it was founded on an unreal basis, and she could not be a comfortable hypocrite: nor was she content to find in the universe nothing better than herself. There are shallow natures that feel no need of reverence, and can be satisfied with mere customary shows of it without any inward sentiment, whose religion is no more than conformity to external conventions. But Fabian understood that if Faustula did not worship it was because she could only worship that which compelled her reverence by itself; and not at all because the faculty of worship was absent.
Until she found a god higher than herself she must be godless: and she had not that sort of blindness that sees what does not exist. There are women who, in fact, worship some man, reading into his character perfections that they put there themselves. So there may have been devout heathens who have seen in the gods a goodness that was only reflected from themselves. Faustula could not be a devout heathen, for she could only worship what existed, and lacked this faculty of ascribing out of herself what only existed in herself. If she had tried she would have failed: for, after all, she would have known that the god was of her own making and could be no better than herself. Her god must be, not only not worse than men, but greater than any man.
Meanwhile she was perishing of famine, and her whole nature would have shrivelled and turned away had this incapacity for reverence continued to the end.
Of the minutiae of Christianity Fabian at first said nothing: telling only, as simply as he could, of the God of the Christians of Whom she knew much less than he could have supposed possible. The heathen world and the Christian lay side by side so close in the Roman world of that day that it was astonishing to find how totally ignorant Faustula was of what the Christians worshipped. He discovered, as we sometimes discover now, more than fifteen centuries later, that those who first turn their eyes towards the Church have scarcely any conception of the idea of God. The notion of the gods instead of helping to it was a hindrance.
But if ignorant Faustula was not dull; and, if great spiritual conceptions were new to her experience, they were congenial to her nature. The more sublime were the suggestions the more were they welcome to her. If some of the ideas opened to her transcended human comprehension it was only a reminder of their divinity. Faustula's hunger would never have been satisfied by a god whose idea could be completely expressed in any phrase of language.
Of the true story of Christ, she first heard upon the Latin shore, one golden afternoon, from Fabian's lips. So far as she knew it before it was the tale of a Hebrew provincial who had met a slave's death for fancying himself a King. What Fabian dwelt on most was that no one took His life from Him. "Oblatus est quia ipse voluit." "I lay down my life of myself, no man taketh it from me... for this cause came I into the world." And the final proof of it—that when Death had served his turn, He, the King, gave Death, His servant, signal of dismissal and called back Life, His other servant, that but waited on His summons.
That He had come, unsummoned except by the resistless call of Love, which is Himself, and come simply to suffer, that was what conquered Faustula. That use of absolute omnipotence could have occurred to no mere man. Omnipotence can have no master: omnipotence yielding itself to the obedience of Love—there was, at last, a conception beyond human ingenuity to conceive: for such ideas as these Faustula had been waiting in the faithless anterooms of faith all her life.
Of Bethlehem Fabian spoke not before he spoke of Calvary, but after. And she felt it, as he felt it, the more infinite condescension. Calvary could have stood alone. For the sheer purpose of Redemption the Death of the God-Man needed not the lowly preface of human birth. The first Adam had no childhood, but stood up near the tree of ruin a complete man, the Second Adam came step by step to His tree of reconciliation by all the slow humility of dumb babyhood, childhood, boyhood, and youth. Even redemption was not enough: God and Man must be identified in every phase of human life: so that man could never say "God was never this. This cross I bear alone." To us, who learned the story before its august mystery could strike us fully, it is hard to feel what Faustula felt.
It has been part of ourselves before we know what we ourselves are.
We have been told of God's greatness long before we know our own littleness.
To Faustula the windy stable at Bethlehem, the house at Nazareth, where God was least of the three who made the lowly family, "sub-jectus parentibus ejus," were conceptions so stupendous that she listened breathless, almost aghast.
What could any man do for such a God?
And then Fabian told her of the last unimaginable proof of God's binding Himself in the chains of the love of man. As if Bethlehem the first House of Bread were not enough, where the Godhead was hidden in the brief silence of a baby manhood, the second House of Bread, wherein God and Man alike were to be shrouded in the dumb whiteness of the Eucharist, silent for all time.
"Could any man have invented it?" Fabian asked. "If so say that it is man's imagination: and tell us that we adore a fancy of some man's."
At last Faustula had met her master: the only master such a soul as hers could confess. And in the moment she knew that she was conquered, she knew that she was happy and that she was free.
Twelve days after Claudia and Faustula arrived at the Villa of the Silva Laurentina, the former showed unmistakeable signs of being ill, and by the evening it was evident that she was suffering from a sharp attack of malaria. In the afternoon Faustula had seen Fabian, but had only stayed a few minutes with him, being anxious to return quickly to her friend. He promised to ride back at once to Ostia and send a doctor; and before supper-time the doctor arrived. He said that it was undoubtedly a severe case of marsh-fever, and that the patient would be better in Rome, but that he did not think it would be possible for her to make the journey in her present condition. She and Faustula were supposed to return to the Atrium on the day but one following; but of Claudia's doing so then the doctor saw no possibility.
Faustula wrote and reported matters to the Vestalis Maxima and sent her letter by a mounted messenger who would easily ride the sixteen miles in less than two hours. In the middle of the night he returned with a note from Tacita, saying that Claudia must stay where she was till the doctor thought it safe for her to come, and that Faustula might remain and attend to her. In the morning she would send a clever physician from Rome.
He arrived two hours before noon and found Claudia worse, but comforted Faustula by declaring that he perceived nothing dangerous in the illness.
"For the poor and ill-fed, it is dangerous," he said; "and for those who are ill-housed. But this large villa should be healthy. All the same it was not the place to come to in September. From July to October is the worst season for this fever: and there are marshes too near you. After sunset it must be very hazardous to be out of doors here, and you tell me that the Lady Vestal Claudia often stayed out visiting the peasants till late. You must not do that or you will be ill too."
He was a comfortable, elderly person, and gave Faustula sensible directions as to nursing, which he saw she would carry out.
He went away promising to return on the morrow, and saying that it was well Claudia had not been allowed to attempt to make the journey to Rome as she was. On his second visit he found her neither worse nor better, on his third she was slightly improved.
"In a week if she goes on as well as I think probable, we can take her back to Rome," he said. "It is only a pity the Atrium Vestae is so confined. But it was more a pity she ever came here. In winter it would be very well; but then no one wants to be in the country in winter."
"We were delighted to come here," Faustula told him, "and this place must be thought healthy, or why should the Emperor Commodus have built a villa here?"
"Perhaps the Emperor was not thinking altogether of his health. The Emperors of his sort had all kinds of reasons for liking to be away from the eyes and tongues of the Romans. And perhaps those who recommended this air cared more for the health of the State than the health of its head."
The doctor rubbed his hands and smiled pleasantly, evidently enjoying his own malice.
"I know your family," he told Faustula. "Your sister is my patient when she is ill—which is very seldom. She is not married yet? We expected some years ago she would have married C. Lucilius, but we were mistaken, and afterwards he married his cousin—not nearly so beautiful a girl as your sister."
The doctor paused to give Faustula an opportunity of saying something, but she was not, like him, a gossip, and had nothing to ask or to tell. Of anything that might have been happening in her own family she was quite ignorant, and she did not, at all events, care to learn from this stranger. So he chatted on, smiled, and gave useful practical directions, rubbed his hands and finally went away. At the end of a week he pronounced it safe for Claudia to return to Rome, and the two Vestals went back to the Atrium where Tacita welcomed them effusively.
"I am delighted to see you," she declared, "though I fear you have come before it was prudent. The jolting of the journey has been too much for you, Claudia. You look half-dead. And Faustula, you have worn yourself out with nursing—anyone would say you were thirty: and your eyes! You are all eyes, and they always were too big for your face. Now they are like two pits with black water at the bottom. No wonder you have been anxious—I have been too anxious to sleep. You got all my letters? I wrote every day and made the physician take my letters; also I made him come here and give his report on his return. He thought my fears quite ridiculous—he was inclined to make light of Claudia's illness; but I let him see that I chose to be anxious, and that I could not permit the illness of a Vestal to be regarded as trifling. 'A Vestal, next in succession to myself,' I told him, 'is not a common case. There are not a thousand Vestals.' I told him that."
After Claudia was recovered from the fatigue of her short journey she made her report about the estate at Turris Laurentina, and Tacita promised that something should be done for the better housing of the peasant-slaves.
"It shall be all in your hands," she said, with many nods and smiles. "The doctor says that in winter and spring the sea-air at Turris Laurentina is quite healthy: when the healthy season comes you and Faustula may go back if you like—and you shall see to the carrying out of these improvements yourself: you will like that?"
But public affairs were assuming an interest that soon took off some of Tacita's attention from the inner politics of the Atrium. Things were happening that concerned the Vestals and the whole Roman world as well, and the Vestalis Maxima had gossip to hear that became history afterwards. Within the next few months the course of events changed the position in the Empire of the Vestals themselves, and of the two religious systems that had so long been rivals in it.
From the time that Constantine the Great became sole Emperor, the Christian faith had been rapidly assuming the dominant position, and the worship of the gods had been steadily falling into a state of moribund toleration. Faustulus was not the only person to whom the idea had occurred that the College of Vestals would be suppressed before long. As a matter of fact it was suppressed in about a quarter of a century from this very time, but much was to happen before its extinction.
At this moment things were happening that seemed to portend another exchange of positions between Paganism and Christianity. There were now only two princes of the Imperial House. The Emperor had no son, and his cousin had lately risen into prominence and importance. There were many who foretold his speedy advent to supreme power, and his sympathies were widely known to be adverse to the Church.
Flavius Claudius Julianus, son of Julius Constantius, half-brother of Constantine the Great, was now ruling Gaul with the rank of Caesar, and none who knew him well believed that he would be only Caesar long. Gaul was far from Constantinople, and Julian there felt himself out of reach, if not of the suspicion, of the revenge of his cousin Constantius. He made it his business not merely to rule his province for the Emperor, but to endear himself to the provincials, and to his troops: and this he did with plausible, philosophic mildness. Only a stupid prince lets himself be unpopular and Julian was anything but stupid. He was shrewd and patient, and had the gift, rarer than brilliant speech, of knowing precisely how to hold his tongue. Wise words command themselves to wise ears, and the greater part of those who have to listen are seldom wise.
In a great empire there are likely to be many and great abuses. David's false son knew how to make profit of them in a realm not so great that they need have been very numerous. And Julian was a cleverer man by far than Absolom, and had a more bitter grievance of his own. To the aggrieved the aggrieved draw by a natural magnetism, and your most dangerous rebel is a man who smarts himself. It gives him the sincerity without which he would be innocuous.
Julian, haughty and sad, knew how to seem sad and humble: sorrowful depression of condition in a prince of a proud house is a magnet to the discontented: it puts a sword that looks like loyalty into the hands of those who want to be disloyal—to right him, they cry aloud, is their object, not to gain anything selfish on their own account. He accepts the sword, with much asseveration that for them only would he wield it, since his own grievance is a mere personal matter.
Julian's grievance was of life-long standing, and had been kept alive by events of not distant date. When Constantine died he was a child of six, who had never known the love of a mother. His father was now killed, and his father's brother Dalmatius, his own eldest brother, and the two sons of his uncle. The instigator of these murders was supposed to be Constantius, who spared himself and his brother Gallus only because they were too young and insignificant to be dangerous.
Those who desire excuse for hatred of a religion or of a system can usually find it in the faults of those who belong to it; and Julian's observations were made in the Court of Constantinople where such faults have seldom been conspicuously absent, or else from the gloomy exile of his castle-prison at Macellum. He had probably definitely abandoned Christianity by the time he was twenty. Three years later he was still further embittered, as well as alarmed for his own safety, by the execution of his remaining brother Gallus. After his brothers were dead Constantius had made Gallus Caesar, but had found him guilty of conspiracy and had him beheaded in a. d. 354. Julian's own head was in danger and might have fallen but for the friendly intervention of the Empress. From his prison at Milan he was allowed to go to Athens, and from his studies there was recalled to Milan in November 355 to marry the Emperor's sister, Helena, and receive from him the rank of Caesar and the Province of Gaul.
His position now became important, and the next five years were spent in almost independent military and political work in which he showed himself shrewd and able. He gained the provincials by easing their burdens, and the soldiers by his military success. When, in April 360, the Emperor sent a demand for some of his best troops to serve against the Persians, the reply was the proclamation of Julian as Augustus by those troops themselves.
The report of such news as these gave Tacita plenty to think of, at all events it gave her a great deal to say. She thought it her duty at this time to run about continually, that is, to be carried in her litter first to one great pagan house and thence to another, returning to the Atrium with a singular jumble of news, and pathetic complaints of fatigue.
"I am worn out," she would protest. "Quite worn out. Nothing tires me like going about. I am one of those who would never leave the Atrium if I could help it. But in this crisis it is a duty to be well-informed, an obligation not to be ignored in my position. The Virgo Vestalis Maxima is one of the great personages of the State. Events of the highest importance occur every day, and one must be correctly informed. The Emperor Julian," Tacita was one of the first to give him that title in Rome, "The Emperor Julian has left Gaul—or he was about to leave it when the last courier from the Court set out—"
When she spoke of the Court the Vestals knew that she did not mean Nicomedia, or the camp of Constantius, but Paris, or the camp of the Caesar Julian.
"Constantius has left his war against the Persians to look after itself. He is marching to meet the Emperor, and nobody knows where he is—some say in Cilicia. It does not matter much—he is finished. Our Emperor will crush him like an egg-shell. He is a poor creature: even the Christians know that. They are not at all fond of him. He is cross and sullen, and interferes in their religious quibbles. I understand he favours those who hold that Christ was an Arian, and everyone knows he exiled the pope—that was no harm, but those who take the pope's part are angry with Constantius. The Emperor Julian confesses himself a worshipper of the gods—publicly. At least if he has not done so officially, as some say, he is on the point of it. There is no doubt of his opinion—he has adored the gods in secret for ten years, and princes' secrets are always known. He was annoyed by his father's execution, and knew that he was to be beheaded himself, only the Empress Euselia interfered: it appears she is writing a history of the Christian Church, and thought too many executions in the Imperial family would not sound well. There won't be much more for her to write. This pope will be the last. As soon as the Emperor has crushed Constantius he will restore the worship of the gods: the Christian superstition will be again proclaimed illicita, and the churches will all be destroyed. Claudius Domitius tells me he intends to propose that the Circus of Nero should be restored—you know he pretends to belong to the family of the Twelve Caesars. His idea is to convert all the Vatican into public gardens and have an enormous circus covering all the present site of the fisherman's tomb. I can see he intends to be City Praefect, but my brother says that is all nonsense, and that our own family will be more prominent. I never talk of my family; but we shall see. Anyway the Emperor Julian will be Pontifex Maximus, and we shall be under his immediate protection. I cannot think, really I cannot think, what I have done to deserve at the hands of the gods that I should be Vestalis Maxima at the moment of such a happy restoration of religion."
"Never mind," observed the ex-Maxima Volumina, "you are fatigued; do not tire yourself by trying to find out reasons which must remain a mystery."
"No," Tacita agreed sharply. "It is enough that the gods have willed it so. They are wiser than us."
"Truly. Their wisdom," said Volumina, "is inscrutable."
"Of course... I shall be, officially, the Emperor's daughter, and you..."
"His granddaughter," suggested Faustula.
"Oh well! I don't know. I am not quite old enough to be your mother," Tacita remarked, nodding and smiling.
"These relationships," Volumina reminded her, "are merely official. The Emperor Julian is several years your junior himself."
As the Atrium Vestae was in the crowded Forum, it could have no garden, and the Vestals were not supposed to walk in the city, except to fetch water from the fountain of Egeria by the Porta Capena: but for a long time they had been accustomed to take exercise in a garden and vineyard belonging to them, of which the sacred enclosure of the Camenae, where Egeria's fountain was situated, formed a part. It was outside the old wall of Servius Tullius and the Capua Gate, but within the Porta Appia and the Aurelian wall, by which latter it was bounded at one end.
Thither a Vestal might be carried in her litter, and there she would alight and walk about. Faustula liked the place because it was quiet, and she fancied that there she could smell the wind from the hills.
One day she was strolling alone in the part of the vineyard farthest from the entrance where she had left her bearers, and her lictor, with the other slaves. Tacita had declared that now the Vestals ought to use the privilege of being escorted by a lictor less sparingly than had been latterly the case. Christian wits had been inclined, she had heard, to make fun of the Vestals and their lictors, "but now we shall see who has most to laugh at."
As Faustula sauntered down a long straight walk she passed a gardener stooping over his work. When she had turned the corner into a narrower path she heard footsteps behind, and, looking round, saw that the man had followed her.
Supposing that he might have some petition to make, she stood still and let him overtake her.
"The Lady Vestal Faustula, is it not?" he asked, saluting, as he came up.
"Yes. Do you want me?"
"You do not remember me? I was once a slave of the Lady Melania of the Acilii Glabriones at Civitella. I am now freedman of the Most Illustrious Fabian Acilius Glabrio. My name is Sergius—I was given my freedom while you were staying with the Lady Melania."
"I remember. You chose to remain with the lord Fabian as his attendant."
"Yes. I am his attendant still."
"I thought he was far from Rome—"
"So he is. He was ordered to the north and had to go at once. He was very unhappy because he had no means of communicating with you and he bade me remain behind, and for many weeks I have been trying to find an opportunity of speaking to you without risk. I have this letter from the lord Fabian. When you have read it you may know that you can trust me."
"I know that already," Faustula answered simply. She had been watching the young man's face all the while he spoke. He was almost three years older than Fabian, perhaps thirty, and had a good face, honest and pleasant, though not handsome. His eyes were clear and courageous, grave and reliable.
She took the letter, and the young man fell to work, hoeing about the roots of the vines; she walked on slowly, and began to read. The letter was dated nearly two months back, and Fabian said in it that he knew it might be long before it reached her hands.
"But," he wrote, "I cannot go without writing. It seems that you must think me cruel to go and leave you without anyone to help you. I must go." He then spoke briefly of the great public events that were taking place. "The legion I am ordered to join is at Milan: but it is to go north and perhaps we shall be told to march eastward along the Danube to meet the Emperor. At present I know nothing except that we are to proceed at once to Milan. The man who will give you this, though I know not how, is my freedman Sergius. You may trust him. I leave him in my place. But what he can do I know no more than what I could do myself if I were able to stay. I think you mean to be a Christian: but you have not said so. If you do not, forgive me for saying it. The last day we talked together, on the Latin shore, I thought that I saw in you a resolve to follow Christ: but you had not said so when we were interrupted. I pray you take great care, for that day I came away with the idea that there was a spy upon us. It will all be much harder if Julian should succeed in what he attempts, and he may succeed, for Constantius, they say, has traitors all around him, and there are many not traitors who are indifferent to his fate. Even to the Christians he has been harsh and unjust, but the pagans love him none the better. His nature is dark and mistrustful, and such men are bad served. He has persecuted the Pope, and some Christians say that God will punish him. If Julian should become sole Emperor all the work of Constantine will be undone, so far as Julian can do it: and he has, I hear, great ability. If the laws against us are revived, our position will be full of danger and difficulty. I do not mention this as if I thought it would make you afraid—supposing you really mean to be a Christian: but because it will make it much harder for you: and I cannot see yet what you ought to do—what you can do. For a Vestal to declare herself a Christian would be difficult in any case: but it will be far more so if the Head of the State is no longer a Christian. Six months ago, a year ago, it would not have been an easy matter for a Vestal to walk out of the Atrium and announce herself a Christian. But it will be terribly difficult if the laws should be changed. Were my mother, or Acilia alive, and things were as they were quite lately, you could have gone to them, and claimed the protection of the Emperor and of the law: as it is I cannot advise—because I do not know really what is in your mind. There are ladies of high rank among us to whom I might have spoken about you: but I dare not do so, even if I had opportunity now, before I go, as I do not know that you mean to be a Christian. It would be a great liberty and impertinence for me to do anything like that when I may be wrong. All I can say is this: count on me. At all hazard, and all cost I will serve you when I see how it can be done, or when you tell me. And trust Sergius. Any letter you give him for me I shall get, if he has to walk from Rome to Milan with it."
Of that which is commonly called "love" there was nothing in the letter, as there had been nothing at all that he had said by word of mouth, in their meetings "on the Latin shore." That he loved her truly, he knew, and had known for more than half his life: but he knew also that she was a Vestal, and, so long as she remained one, any word of human love would be an insult. None the less his letter breathed of love greater than any syllables of common speech could put in words, a love tender, thoughtful, unselfish, respectful.
When Faustula turned back she found Sergius still at work.
"I will come here," she told him, "to-morrow with an answer. If not to-morrow on the day after. Shall you be here?"
"Yes. Do you remember the man who drove your chariot on the day you went to the Turris Laurentina? He is my cousin, and a very good man."
"I remember. He is a Christian... He told me about St. Paul."
"Yes. I know. He is a good man; not all our people now can be trusted. But you may trust him. It was through him I got work here in the vineyard. We had to wait: it would not do to risk too much: but at last a slave fell sick and my cousin got me his place. If ever it should happen that the slave Dirce is here, attending on the Vestalis Maxima, on no account speak to me, or notice me. I shall be here to-morrow: if she is here, even if you have your letter, do not try and give it me."
After a little more conversation Faustula continued her walk, and read through her letter again, of which, of course, only a part has been given above. Fabian expressed his hope that Claudia was getting quite well, and said that the old priest with whom she had often talked had made earnest inquiries about her health. "He came," said Fabian, "to my quarter at Ostia and told me how generous she had been in giving him money for his poor. He knew that the doctor who attended her first had been sent by me, and he thought it would not be wise to call at your villa and inquire for the Lady Vestal Claudia, lest it might in any way compromise her. He bade me pray much for her, for he says she is so good that he cannot but hope Our Lord will bless her as I hope He will bless you. But I asked him no questions, and I do not know if they had any conversation together except about the poor people and their dwellings..."
In another passage Fabian spoke of his brother.
"I told you," he said, "that he was quartered at Arretium, but since we have last met I have heard from him, and he had just received orders with his cohort to march to Mediolanum, like ourselves here. No one knows yet what we are to do when we get there: some think we are to try and intercept Julian if he attempts to leave Gaul, others that we are to march to a meeting with the Emperor, who is not yet even in Europe, but must be hastening to Constantinople. At all events Christopher will be as far away as I shall be, and can be, alas, of no use to you."
The meeting, described above, between Faustula and Sergius, happened nearly three months after she had last seen Fabian. She had already heard that the cohort to which he belonged had been ordered to Milan. The conversation, recorded in the previous chapter, in which Tacita had expressed such rosy hopes of the speedy downfall of Christianity took place several months later.
The events of the rest of that year were not such as to depress her hopes. Word of the death of Constantine at Mompsocrene in Cilicia, and of Julian's accession to sole power arrived almost simultaneously with that of the new Emperor's public repudiation of Christianity. Still it was not clearly known what line of policy Julian really meant to follow. On the other hand it was maintained that he had no intention of persecuting the Christians, or even of attempting a violent reversal of Constantine's settlement in religion: but that he would pursue a policy of chill toleration. Even those who held this view, and they seemed the best informed, declared that the whole position of the Church would be altered and depressed. All favour would be for the ancient heathen religion of the State, and its professors. Matters would be so arranged that not only advancement in state or army, but even the continued tenure of office in either, would be made difficult or impossible. And the first proof of this which they pointed out was the alteration of the Imperial Standards. They were now so contrived as to combine in one symbol the emblems of Paganism and of the Imperial dignity, so that those who were called upon to do homage to the latter would perforce be made to venerate the former.
"How clever the Emperor is!" Tacita exclaimed with rapture, when she retailed these news to her Vestals. "He knows what he is about. It is a test, and the Christians are so superstitious and so obstinate they will never submit. In the old days they were merely required to drop one grain of incense on the altars before a Jupiter no bigger than my hand, and they would not. It will be the same now: the whole army must do homage to the standards, and drop incense on the altars before them. The Christians won't do it, and they will all be punished as rebels. I am glad I have no connexions among them. In some families there have been inter-marriages and conversions lately. Our family is quite untainted."
On the other hand there were many, and perhaps the majority, who stoutly affirmed that Julian would not stop at half measures. That he intended nothing less than the triumphant restoration of Paganism; that he would in fact persecute while professing toleration, justifying himself by forcing the Christians into the position of rebels. It would not, they showed, be difficult for so subtle and astute an Emperor to order matters in a fashion that would compel the Christians to appear in the light of recalcitrants against Imperial authority. He was a young man, but just over thirty, and would have a long reign. He need not hurry, but he would bring about the complete change he desired by means that would appear gradual and moderate.
Those who held either opinion were not all Christians or all Pagans. No one, on either side, had full knowledge; and what no one on either side did know, was what precisely Julian believed himself. People of Tacita's sort took it for granted that he was simply a devout worshipper of all the ancient gods: others professed to have knowledge that he cared very little for Jupiter or Venus, Juno or Mars, but that he had picked up at Athens, among the rhetoricians, a hotch-potch of modern Greek philosophy which gave a new interpretation to the old beliefs concerning the gods. Tacita scoffed at this and declared that it was mere gossip.
"There will always be gossip about great people," she said. "It does not matter. If the Emperor has been used to hear Jupiter called Zeus, and Venus called Aphrodite what difference does it make? He is on our side. That is the great thing. He hates the Galilean; everybody knows that."
So far Tacita was right, and it was pretty confidently assumed in Rome that where a law could be twisted against a Christian it might be so twisted with impunity.
That there was not much persecution in Rome during a reign that lasted less than two years is not very surprising: it is rather surprising that there should have been time, for any. A condition of things that has lasted half a century is not easily altered in less than half fifty months; that it was altered is pretty clear proof that those who took active part against the Christians felt secure of the Emperor's approval. That the City Praefect was a pagan, and a hater of the Christians was known to all, and proved by the martyrdom of St. John and St. Paul.
"You see how right I was," Tacita begged the Vestals to remember, "the Christians are just as obdurate and stupid as I said they would be. The brothers John and Paul, who live in that old house on the Clivus Scauri—I know them by sight. They are of good family and I have a cousin whose palace is not far from their ramshackle dwelling—she tells me they were favourites of the princess Constantia, daughter of the unhappy Constantine, and cousin of our present glorious Emperor. Yes: I know what I was going to say. The Emperor, hearing this, was so good as to send them an offer to enter his service. And they had the insolence to refuse—and with a very pert message. 'They did not care,' they said, 'to become servants of one who had derided their master.' That, it seems, was sometime ago, for word has now come that they are to enter the Emperor's household within ten days, and sacrifice to Jupiter, or receive the penalty of death for their flagrant treason. Terentianus, praefect of the Praetorian Cohort, is to carry a little statue of the god to their house, quite privately so as to spare their pride, and call upon them to venerate it. But my cousin, whose palace is not a stone's throw from their house, and knows all about it, assures me that they will be obdurate."
Tacita looked round for applause and as she caught Faustina's eye that Vestal spoke for the rest.
"No doubt your cousin is right."
"Yes. I have no doubt she will be right. My cousin is a very clever woman. We are much alike in mind—but she is years older than me, and was never handsome. She tells me these besotted men are hurriedly giving away all their goods to the poor—instead of making a reasonable will. They are quite infatuated. My cousin, who is a most original woman, says that those whom the gods will destroy they first deprive of sense."
"I have heard that said," Volumina remarked. "One usually has heard those clever, original things before. It is very true, but it hardly goes far enough, for many whom the gods favour have never had much sense to be deprived of."
About eleven days later Tacita was in a position to adduce fuller proof of the obstinate folly of Christians.
"Those men I was telling you all about," she said, "the brothers Paul and John, who inhabit the old ramshackle mansion on the Clivus Scauri near my cousin Julia's palace—it is just as I foretold. When their ten days of grace were over, the Praetorian Praefect Terentianus, went to them with a small statue of Jupiter, and read them the Emperor's mandate again, calling on them to adore the god unless they wished to die for their treason. They would hardly listen but went on praying to their own god—and, when the Praefect had done speaking, had the temerity to say that for the faith of Christ whom they adored as God with mind and mouth they were without doubt ready to undergo death. The Praefect treated them with great consideration, for instead of putting them to the shame of a public execution, they were quietly beheaded in their own house."
"That was wise as well as kind," Volumina observed. "A public execution might have caused a popular tumult."
"Yes. And he had them buried at home too, and let it be rumored that they had merely been exiled."
Some days later still Tacita had more to report on the subject.
"Those wretched Christians," she exclaimed on returning to the Atrium from one of her foraying excursions in quest of news. "What lies they have recourse to! There is a bug-a-boo tale set about them that, since John and Paul were punished for their insolent treason, certain evil spirits have been let loose that have been vexing all sorts of people. Of course they pretend that Terentianus and his family have suffered most: especially a son of the Praefect's; and they have trumped up this preposterous story—that Terentianus led his son, all raving and possessed, to the place where the 'martyrs' lie secretly buried under their house and that there the lad was freed from the demon, whereupon he and the Praefect himself both announced themselves Christians."
Thus, roughly and briefly, we have tried to give some slight hints of the condition of things in Rome at a time when the state of public affairs affected Faustula so greatly. But this is not an historical novel, and none of the personages of our tale played historic parts, or were known to history. Public events only concern us as they produced results in which our characters were entangled.
Faustula could do nothing. At rare and long intervals she heard from Fabian, by means of Sergius, but he could only bid her wait, and tell her how earnestly he would do all in his power to return to Rome whenever duty would allow it. For a long time she had not even had any letter from him, and Sergius himself had received none.
All her life she had been lonely, but during the months that followed her brief intercourse with Fabian at Turris Laurentina her loneliness was more desolate and complete than ever. Of her own family she saw nothing, and to Claudia she could not speak of what was in her mind. Tacita's reign was drawing to its close and Claudia would herself become Vestalis Maxima. Claudia was more silent with Faustula than of old, and did not seem to court occasions of confidential intercourse. And how could Faustula confide in her? Even of a general sympathy for the Christians in their present troubles she durst not speak to one who would, in a few short months, be Head of the College of Vestals.
Faustula was often called upon, more or less directly, by Tacita, to express her satisfaction at those very troubles, and her coldness in the matter was more shrewdly noted than she perceived.
Towards the end of May in the year 362 Tacita became full of a great exhibition of games that was to be held in the Coliseum, and could talk of nothing else. The Vestals were to attend in state, and she hardly knew whether most to deplore the Emperor's absence aloud, or secretly to rejoice in the fact that his absence would add to the dignity of her own position. So far as she could make out the Vestals would have the Imperial Suggestum to themselves.
Long before the day arrived Faustula was sick of hearing about the games. She was not well, a rare thing with her, and a week of bad winds, stifling, heavy and moist, from the south-east had affected her as no wind had ever affected her before. She was pale and languid, worn out with uncertainty and vain dread. Fabian's long silence was easy enough to account for, but no accounting for it eased her anxiety. On the last occasion on which she had gone to the vineyard, in a forlorn hope of gathering news of him from Sergius, Dirce had come suddenly upon them, in attendance, not upon Tacita, but on Lollia, once mentioned long ago as a novice, but now a novice no longer, a special favourite of the Vestalis Maxima.
Lollia had smiled serenely and passed on, but her smile had not been agreeable, and Sergius had been troubled.
"I do not like that one," he said, "and she comes here often now with Dirce, and they walk all about as if searching for someone... it is bad that they saw you talking to me."
On the evening of that day Lollia remarked blandly to Faustula:
"You are right to go and walk in the vineyard. The fresher air will do you good. You are looking ill—Maxima has noticed it. These bad winds are enough to kill us all."
Lollia looked in no immediate danger. She was the sort of person whom no wind affects, without a nerve in her composition.
"You are quite out of sorts," Tacita herself observed a few days later. "When these important games are over we must send you out of Rome for a change. Not to the Latin shore, though. I should be afraid of the physician, for he only approves of it in winter or early spring. You did not fall ill at the time, like our good Claudia, but you have never been the same since. I quite accuse myself of it. I ought not to have let you go there. The neighbourhood was not safe for you. But you must pluck up health and spirits for this great spectacle—it will amuse you; and besides, it would never do for one of us to be absent. Our position is so great it would be remarked—we are so few, and so much in the public eye. If your spirits are depressed you must not give way—we are all of us a sort of public characters. I will send Dirce to you to-night with some cordial-drops
Faustula protested in vain that she needed no cordial-drops: Tacita insisted.
"Oh, yes. I shall send her with them, and shall expect her to report that you have taken them; it cannot be all spirits. Your physical health must be upset too. These are exciting times, and perhaps you have near relatives among the Christians and are feeling anxious about them?"
"I have no relations at all among them," Faustula answered with a dry tongue and parched lips.
"No? I thought you had. There have been so many inter-marriages during the last fifty years—even very respectable families have connections that are rather unfortunate now. I am sure I heard that after your mother's death you lived much with some Christian connections in the Sabina.''
"I have no Christian relations. I lived with my aunt, her name was Sabina, at Olibanum. She disliked the Christians, but she had some Christian neighbours—"
"Ah, yes. Melilla, Melampa, what was it? Oh, yes, Melilla of the Fabii. And they were only neighbours, these Fabii?"
"Melania is the name you mean. She is dead. So is her aunt, Acilia. They were not Fabii but Acilii Glabriones."
"Oh! Ah! Acilii Glabriones," said Tacita, arching her eyebrows nearly up into her infula. "Well, I shall send you the drops. And they are all dead, you say."
She ambled off and Faustula certainly did not want to detain her to explain that the Acilii Glabriones were not all dead.
When Dirce came to her room with Tacita's cordial-drops Faustula was in bed; but Dirce stood over her and presented a small goblet into which she poured them out of a little phial, after first half-filling it with water.
"The Virgo Vestalis Maxima is quite distressed about you," she said with much solicitude. "But she is sure this will do you good."
Faustula merely mumbled something and held out her hand for the tiny goblet.
"Good-night," she said. "I shall go to sleep at once. I was nearly asleep when you came in."
She then took the cratella and at the moment of doing so pushed a slipper off the bed with her foot. Dirce seemed nervous, for she started, and for an instant looked to see what had fallen. In that instant Faustula turned the goblet upside down over a handkerchief she had ready, in the next she had the glass at her lips and made the sound of swallowing.
"It does not taste bad," she said coolly. "I hope it will make me sleep."
"Oh yes. No doubt it will make you sleep."
For the moment Faustula seemed rather less sleepy than before: and did not mumble in the drowsy fashion she had used at first. For in her mouth she had had a small wad of absorbent lint, and now, needing it no longer, she had pressed it back with her tongue between her cheek and her teeth, being careful to choose the side of her face that was turned away from Dirce.
"Shall I take the lamp?" the slave asked politely.
"Yes, I shall go to sleep at once."
"Not perhaps at once, but soon I hope." And with a respectful greeting Dirce glided off.
The next day was that of the great games in the Coliseum.
"I am glad," said Tacita to Faustula when they met, "that you are so much better. This in an important occasion. It is all the result of a good night's sleep. That was my drops."
"Dirce told me they were meant to make me sleep."
"Did she? Well, it is true. And now you feel the benefit."
Tacita did not seem anxious to prolong the conversation. She was less talkative than usual, and could not refrain from staring at Faustula against her will.
Faustula certainly looked less ill that morning, though in fact she had not slept much during the night, but had lain awake wondering what she could do, and what might happen to her if she did nothing. Soon after daybreak she had fallen into a troubled doze, but had started up with a sense of danger and disaster to find Dirce bending over her.
"I am sorry I awoke you," she said meekly. "I tried to make no noise; but I could not help coming up to see if you were sleeping comfortably. Last night you seemed so unwell—I hoped to be able to take a better report to the Maxima when it would be time to go to her."
"Yes, I am better. I was not so ill as you imagined. You need not wait now. Perhaps I shall fall asleep again."
"There is nothing I can do for you?"
"Nothing, thank you. And please thank the Vestalis Maxima for her cordial-drops."
Faustula, though she had slept so little, looked better, because her late dull depression had now yielded to a sort of excited suspense, and she had much more colour than usual. Her eyes shone brightly and her air was more alert. Her restlessness looked like activity, and a new sense of present personal danger made her throw off the haggard listlessness of the last few weeks. Her spirits were not better, they were only quickened by a vague but acute apprehension. She was anything but a coward, and this odd sensation of risk and danger awoke her out of what had been degenerating into a mere lethargy. She suddenly felt that a quick, abrupt decision might soon be called for; that instead of doing nothing she might have in a moment to do something that would need all her force of will and determination.
Throughout that morning she was more keenly observant than she had been for many weeks, and she perceived plainly that she was avoided, whereas hitherto any avoidance had been all on her side. No one spoke to her without necessity, and then with restraint and as briefly as possible.
This continued till it was time for her to go to her room and put on the gala dress necessary for her appearance in the Coliseum. The moment after she had entered it Volumina slipped in, and Faustula was surprised at her coming, for there never had been the least intimacy between them, though there had grown up in the younger woman's mind a sort of consciousness that Volumina rather liked her—as much, perhaps, as it was in her dry nature to like anyone.
They were alone only for a mere moment, and both of them knew that it would be so, for Faustula's slaves would come in immediately to attend upon her. Volumina's manner was very peculiar: it was not by any means affectionate, but it seemed to express a half-reluctant disengaged compassion.
"The Vestalis Maxima," she said almost in a whisper, "sent you certain cordial-drops last night by Dirce?"
Faustula nodded, standing silent opposite to her.
"But you did not take them?"
"It was a pity. It would have been better for you... if she sends you any more medicine, take it."
Whether she had more to say, or no, Faustula could not tell, for two of her slaves entered at that moment, and Volumina went away, with a civil word of satisfaction at finding her so much better.
To the Coliseum the Vestals went in a sort of procession, each litter surrounded by its own group of slaves. But there was, of course, a certain space between the litters, and some naturally had arrived at the amphitheatre a good many minutes before the last had reached it. As it happened Faustula came last.
The Imperial entrance was closed, and had been closed for many years. Constantine had used it last. Close to it was the entrance appropriated to the Vestals, outside which the earlier arrivals waited for the rest.
As Faustula's litter came abreast of the Meta Sudans she heard Flavia's voice greeting her, and the bearers stood still to allow the sisters to speak. Their father was with his elder daughter and some way behind them was another group, moving from the direction of the Palatine towards the amphitheatre. Of course there were hundreds of people hurrying the same way, but Faustula while exchanging greetings with her father and sister noted that group; the central figure was evidently a prisoner, and it was obvious whither he was being led, and for what purpose. Faustula felt this with a sick horror, even while she was replying to Flavia's smiling flatteries.
"It is a fine thing to be a Vestal," she said. "There is no Emperor here, and you will have the Suggestum all to yourselves. If we were criminals on our way to death you would be able to pardon one of us at least—an embarrassing choice though..."
At the moment Flavia said this Faustula noted two things. First that the party in charge of the prisoner had swerved abruptly, and secondly that, if she had not been stopped, her litter and that party would have met. Her ears were full of Flavia's gibing congratulations, full, too, of a singing noise like that of the sea as they say one hears it in a shell.
Her father's face had an expression she had never seen on it, and he hardly lifted it to hers. A miserable belated horror and compassion was written on it, and he looked old and haggard. A name had caught his ears within those few moments since Flavia and he had interrupted Faustina's onward progress. It was only a short interruption.
"I must go on," Faustula declared, "they are all waiting for me."
She held out her hand and Flavia touched it, then Faustulus took it and bent over her.
"Can you go back?" he asked in a stifled whisper.
"The Lady Virgo Vestalis Maxima bids me tell the Lady Virgo Vestalis Faustula that she awaits her," interrupted a lictor, stepping up to the other side of Faustula's litter. And the bearers instantly moved forward.
Faustulus and Flavia followed, making for one of the many entrances appropriated to patricians holding no office in the state. There they found Tullia awaiting them in no good temper. She had used her privilege, as a married woman, of driving, but had sent her husband on to be ready to receive her.
Faustulus knew things concerning which his younger daughter was quite in the dark. Fabian could have told her had he been the sort of man who can tell such things. Flavia, abandoned by Lucilius, because of his fears of her evil eye, had, after her first meeting with Fabian met him often, and not by any accident on her side. What perverse fancy made her admire him she best knew herself, but she did admire him, as she had never admired Lucilius. She had been content to allow Lucilius to admire her, till he gave it up out of a superstitious sense of danger. From the first moment that she had seen Fabian and her sister together she had known well that the young Christian officer loved Faustula; but Faustula was a Vestal; and Flavia had determined that she would make him love her instead. The falling of that lamp on her sister's shoulder had cost her a husband. It would be a sweet revenge to fill his place with a lover whom she could love herself and who loved her sister.
Fabian was the last man on earth to think himself irresistible, and the mere fact that Flavia was like her sister drew him to her, while in another sense it held him from her: but at last he could not help seeing what others had seen long before, and had carefully avoided every chance of meeting Flavia. Of all subjects on earth it was the last of which he could have spoken to Faustula on those occasions when they met beside the Latin shore.
Flavia's love was of the sort that turns readily to hate; and of all men and women alive, she now hated most Fabian and her sister. Among her intimates Tacita was one, and Dirce was her pensioner, as she was Tacita's spy.
Of these two latter facts Faustulus knew nothing. That Flavia had loved Fabian and now hated him he knew very well.
He hardly defended himself against Tullia's sharp complaints. He felt old and very tired. He was not, so far as he understood, tired of the world, but it was tired of him. He was fifty-seven years old, and instead of having grown fat he had become lean and bony; and he was almost bald. His pleasant wit had turned sour and sharp, and young fellows were afraid of it. Old fellows feared it more, but he never affected elderly company, and he knew that he was not welcome among the men, half his age, whose society he would have liked. They stopped laughing when he came among them, and, when he made them laugh, it was not always flattering to note the looks they would exchange. Young men of their sort talk with an indefensible license among themselves, but they have a queer way of expressing their amusement when men who might be their fathers indulge in jests they might make themselves.
Faustulus clung to life but he could not himself say why. It yielded him very little. He knew at last that there was one human being whom he could have loved, and he had sent her from him to a horrible living tomb, because he had not had manhood enough to keep her at his side, and defend her from slight and injustice. To Faustula he was what he had made himself to her, and he understood it with a dull acceptance of unalterable fact.
Twenty years ago he had watched the rising supremacy of Christianity with a half-wistful regret. He had no hatred of it—only a placid indifference mixed with a mild scorn. It was too good for this world—or, if this world got hold of it, it would lose its fine unearthly flavour, and become merely practical and cheap. What he regretted was the old world which it seemed destined to push into the past. For the gods as such he cared nothing; but had a fondness for the old picturesque state of things, that the new would end. The future never appealed to him: let it see to itself. What he liked was the past, with its air of imperishable youth. To some people the word antiquity suggests age, whereas in truth it belongs to the infancy of time. To Faustulus it was the day in which he lived that seemed aged. Without any antagonism against Christianity rooted in hatred of its teaching, such as many of his contemporaries felt, he had against it a grudge because it seemed fated to complete the break up of the old state of things; and he shrank from what was new, almost as though it were vulgar. Besides it made him feel old to belong to what would be soon an obsolete condition of things. Now even that mild dislike was changed because the position of Christianity had changed with an unlooked-for, surprising suddenness. In his selfish, shallow nature there had never been any rancour, and the rancour with which the Christians were now being treated did not please him. They had not troubled him, and the bitterness he felt about him was unwelcome. He smelt blood in the air, and it was a smell that sickened him.
As he took his seat behind his wife, with Flavia on his other hand, he was oppressed by a sense of impending tragedy; and from all tragedy, even that of the stage, he had an instinctive aversion. He came to the Coliseum out of fashion, not because he cared for gladiatorial combats: he disliked them, indeed, not from principle but because they shocked his refinement. Numbers of men immeasurably better than Faustulus would go on attending them here for forty years to come.
When the Vestals took their places on the Imperial Suggestum the amphitheatre seemed already crowded from the podium to the colonnade at the top where the un-classed spectators stood wedged together. Nevertheless many hundred of people continued to arrive and all found places, for it was the boast of Rome that there were seats for 87,000 in the Coliseum.
On the podium were seated the great officials, among whom the City Praefect, Apronianus, had a high place. There, too, were the Flamens, and the members of the Sacred Colleges. From it, on the south side, projected the canopied Pulvinar, with the Emperor's empty throne of gold and ivory, beside which the Vestals had their seats.
Outside, it was a day of glaring sun and fresh breeze, the first cool wind for many days; but here, under the enormous awning was neither breeze nor sun. The velarium curved down to the masts set round the arena, so that all the seats were in shade; but to Faustula it seemed like a lid shutting in the steaming heat of all those close-packed scores of thousands.
One side of the arena was in shade too, but the end opposite the Suggestum was in full blaze of light.
Tacita sat nearest to the Emperor's throne, Claudia next to her; then came Faustula with Lollia on her other hand between her and the other Vestals.
Even if she had had nothing to trouble her, Faustula would have been ill at ease. She was one of those people to whom a crowd is repugnant, and the mere heat and closeness would have stifled her. She knew also that the gladiatorial combats, forbidden by Constantine thirty-seven years ago, were to form part of this spectacle. Constantine's decree had been ignored before; to-day it was to be disobeyed expressly to show that the state of things a Christian Emperor had begun to create was overturned. It would be very rash to conclude that the audience was all heathen, more probably there were numbers of Christians present, but Faustula knew few even by sight, and recognized none. Many of the higher class and better informed kept away, no doubt, because they realized that the spectacle was intended as a demonstration against Christianity; some kept away because of a rumour that had reached them at the last moment.
First came the Pompa with its procession round the arena and then the entertainment consisted of athletic games and races, gymnastic contests which seemed to interest everybody more than they interested Faustula; they were harmless, but she knew nothing about them, and her mind was strained to a suspense that made them almost intolerable.
Then there came a wonderful transformation scene in which the whole arena assumed the appearance of a mimic forest; and presently the little green hillocks opened and wild animals leapt forth from them. There was a hunt, and the great audience became more eager and excited. Still nothing very tragic had occurred. Some hunters had been wounded, it was not easy to see how seriously; some indeed, it was whispered about, had been killed. An immense number of beasts had at all events been slaughtered.
Then there was a pause, breathless and expectant, during which the trees disappeared under ground, and the whole vast arena was sprinkled with sand by hundreds of slaves.
During that interval of waiting Faustula sat silent, wondering whether Claudia and Lollia could hear her heart beating. It seemed to have risen to her throat, and its thud, thud, thud, almost choked her. She could hardly see. All the blood in her body seemed to have rushed to her eyes, though in truth her face was now very pale.
Neither Claudia nor Lollia spoke to her, and with all her soul she thanked God for it. Claudia was listening to Tacita: Lollia was talking to the Vestal on her other side.
"Apronianus is giving the games," Tacita was saying in her tiresome, penetrating voice. "He is so generous. And such a Roman!"
Out of her far away childhood a song rang in Faustula's ears, a song of cheery slaves, singing at their garden-work in the sun; words she had heard without heeding then,
"Salve! Salve! Christe Noster, Salve!
Libera Nos, Rex ac Redemptor; Salve!
Libera Servos catenates, Domine
Salve Majestatis Rex et Liberator!
O servos caecos libera!"
She thought of the sunlit garden at Civitella, of the day when she had tried to cut the tangled knot of her jealous troubles, and Fabian had saved her; of how he had told her Who had sent him, and how she had been jealous even that he had not come of his mere self...
And from the far end of the arena two groups of gladiators came towards her—slowly, yet proudly, with a cold disdain of life that had never been kind to them or friendly. They were all young, vigorous and stalwart; yet death was calling to them, not with the feeble pipe of sickness, the weary moan of tired age. It was not God's voice that called them, but cruel man's, man that must die too. In that huge place she could not see their faces. The faces might be such as their training had made them, brutal, braggart, bestial: she could only see the long straight limbs, the strong manly step, the uncowed bearing.
Death could hardly be more pitiless to them than life had been; and now hand to hand they must meet him. And Faustula in all her short life had seen no one die. At least her suspense and sickening sense of waiting was no longer for herself. She could hardly see. When they had come the whole length of the arena and stood still beneath the Suggestum, she could barely distinguish their faces—and they were all strange to her, all foreign.
Before the Emperor's empty throne they bent and before his effigy and emblems; raised themselves to their last salute, and spoke; not a sound, not a gasp from all the eighty thousand throats but theirs:
"Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant!"
In one group they had stood together to venerate the absent Caesar, now they fell apart into two bands, each under its own Lanistae who had trained them. There were heavily-armed Mirmillones, and light-armed Secutores, and Retiarii with nets, sharp daggers and tridents.
There was a brief, dead-silent pause, and then the clash and scuffle of furious combat, in which silence was slain first. Screams and shouts rang out on every side, soon mixed with the groans and curses of the wounded and the dying, and in the arena hung a thick cloud of dust on which the sun shone as upon a white mist. The faces of the audience were more passionate and furious than those of the fighters, and they hurled down reproaches against those who seemed scarce eager enough to die. The thin disguise of humanity was in tatters and cast aside by fourscore thousand beasts.
God knows that might have served for climax, but a more brutal climax was held in reserve. Before the wolfish cries had died down, the snarling laughter more inhuman than hyaena's, a herald stood out in the arena and made proclamation. The games of the amphitheatre were a religious act, and by a religious act they were to be ended. A criminal against the state, and the most sacred thing in the state, was to atone publicly for his secret treacherous crimes levelled against religion itself; all knew that the welfare of Rome was knit with the inviolable custody of her Palladium, and that custody was the charge of the Sacred Virgins vowed to the service of the goddess Vesta. Their august rank, their unique privilege were the testimony of Rome's sense of the unequalled importance of their trust. Of all criminals none could be abhorred more than one who should impiously dare to attempt the corruption of one of them. And this had been proved against him who presently should see what the anger of the gods was, how Rome could avenge her outraged honour. For the honour of the Vestals was the charge and care of Rome herself. A man, Rome-born, and Rome-bred but unworthy of so great a Mother and so glorious a cradle; a warrior of her armies, disgracing the arms he bore, had first impiously refused to venerate her Imperial Standards, and then had broken prison: and this same man had planned to corrupt a Vestal from her fidelity to hold her from Vesta's Inviolable Shrine to himself. For that offence the penalty was death by flogging, and here he was to die, where all Rome might see the vengeance she still knew how to inflict on such as insulted her Majesty and that of the Goddess in whose charge her Palladium had been kept from age to age.
If Apronianus planned this, he had planned it well. He chose a moment when those who heard were drunk with blood, and mad to drink deeper. None were calm, and few inclined for question. The proclamation was made in the name of a law, and few asked themselves if the proclamation of such a punishment in such a place was itself legal. It was a patriotic moment, and many who cared little enough for Vesta, were burning with a passion for Rome, for whom they had never done anything but shout in their lives.
The religion of the criminal was not even mentioned: what was proclaimed was his treason, though the fact that he had refused to venerate the standards was evidence enough that he was no worshipper of the gods.
Not one in fifty, perhaps, heard the actual words of the herald: but what he said was passed from mouth to mouth—more than what he said, and all knew in a few moments that a man was to be flogged to death for attempting the corruption of a Vestal Virgin. And with these whispers came, no one could tell whence, that of his name, and that of his rank—Acilius Glabrio, a patrician and an officer of the Imperial army.
Faustula heard Lollia whisper it, and almost at the same instant Tacita, not in a whisper, spoke it to Claudia. It seemed to her that she knew it already. Before the group entered at the far end of the arena she knew it would be the same she had seen in the distance, while Flavia and her father had held her talking by the Meta Sudans. They had been too far away then for her to recognize the central figure. She could barely recognize him now. Her eyes were almost blind, a rushing of many winds was in her ears. She did not tremble, for her limbs seemed dead already. With one hand she held each marble arm of her white seat, but her hands were colder and more white. But she knew well the figure and the gait, the shining red-brown hair like her own, the form of the only face she loved, and, ah, she knew the crime. The proof of it she could not know.
Now and only now was it being passed about that the man was a Christian; one who had refused to honour the great gods of Rome and who had aimed at dishonouring one of the greatest of them. They were snaky whispers that reached her own ears, but louder hisses, groans and curses were passing from mouth to mouth.
Long ago, as a little child, she had told Acilia that the heathen, her own people, were bad because of the things they had done to the Christians in days that seemed then altogether past. She had never changed her mind, and now those days were come back, and the same things were being done again.
They stripped him of his accoutrements as an officer, and the executioners with their whips stood ready. She saw him sign himself with the sign of the slave's death his Master had died; she could not hear him tell himself: "The servant cannot be greater than his Master: it is enough that he be as his Master."
A fury of execration burst from thousands of throats at sight of the sign hated always, hated still.
"Let him die!" "Let him die!" came in shriek upon shriek from tongues that spoke the classic language of the poets and philosophers. "Let him die."
Yes. He must die. Not by him must the knot of Faustula's difficulties be cut. By him, somehow, she had trusted to escape and join him in his faith. That could never be now.
It was her faith none the less. Of the martyrs she had heard from him, and how some of them had had no baptism of water, being baptized by Christ in their own blood.
For many hours she had felt some great thing coming upon her, the certainty that she might in a sudden moment be called upon to take a great decision. It was come now. If only, if only... her limbs seemed dead... if only they would obey her: if she could but stand up upon her feet... her body felt dead, but her mind was alive, her heart choked her, and her tongue choked her: and her lips would not move. But they must move, and her poor cold body must serve her this one last turn. Her will was hers. Pressing her hands down upon the lions' heads that made the ends of the arms of her seat, she bade her heart speak for her, "Christe adjuva me... pro hac sola vice: this first time, this last..."
Claudia had not once looked towards her, but she saw her rising in her place, and with one terrified hand tried to hold her back. Poor Claudia! the grave of a confessor might be hers one day, but not the courage of a martyr to-day.
"Faustula! Faustula!" she gasped in an agonized whisper, leaning forward as in a hopeless effort to screen her from Tacita.
"Faustula! for pity—" and she would have held her back. She little knew how easy it should have been, how little power to lift itself there was in that frail, numb body. But there was just enough.
"Oh Christ! Help me for this once," her heart had prayed for her, "for this one time, this first and last."
Abyssus abyssum invocat! To the depths of the heart of the Man this poor girl's heart had cried from its own lonely depths, and when cried ever any heart in vain?
All white Faustula stood upon her chill feet, and saw them all, row upon row, of devilish blood-hungry faces: saw them all, and saw nothing...
"Ab ego Christiana!"
Even those near her could scarcely hear: though they did hear. The Suggestum stood out into the arena, and thousands could see: but none, save the Vestals and their lictors, could hear the words forced out between those colourless, quivering lips. There was another horrible sound to drown them, as the thongs fell upon the body of the last of the Acilii Glabriones, who died a martyr.
"But I, too, am a Christian," Faustula's tongue said for her.
And Tacita laughed.
"Not that way," she said between her pretty teeth. "Claudia, pull her back."
There was no need. Faustula's body was weaker than her spirit, and it had yielded all the obedience it could. She had fallen back before Claudia touched her, before many had turned their eyes to look her way, for there was something else to glue those cruel eyes to the group in the arena. What was done there Faustula by God's kind grace saw not, nor heard.
It was not till the amphitheatre was empty that Faustula left it, and she left it a prisoner. When consciousness crept, painfully, back the other Vestals were all gone, and nearly all the rest of the audience. The bodies of the slain gladiators were being carried out by slaves, and a little group of Christians had already taken away that of Acilius Glabrio.
Faustula was still lying back in her throne-like chair in the attitude in which she had fallen into it when her eyes opened; she felt horribly sick and horribly cold. No one had done anything to revive her: no woman had chafed her hands or supported her senseless body. No woman was near her now; but there were some men, and one of them, as soon as he thought she could understand, told her that she was his prisoner.
She did not ask her crime, and strange to say did not guess. As soon as she could think at all she thought her offence was simply that of having declared herself a Christian. She had not even heard Tacita saying "Not that way..." She supposed they were taking her to prison for her public profession of a faith that was alien from the worship of the gods. She was a Vestal and she had repudiated Vesta for Christ.
It was at night, in the prison itself, that she learned the truth. The crime laid to her charge was that of having broken her vow.
She had expected nothing else but death—had vaguely imagined that it might come there and then in the arena of the Coliseum. Of ignominy and shame she had had no foreboding: for wholly innocent of any fault it had simply never entered into her mind that such a crime would be pretended against her. Now that she was accused, in spite of her innocence, she never doubted that she would be found guilty. She was spared that suspense, for she never cheated herself with any hope. It was well she did not, for there was no hope for her.
On the man whom they had killed had been found at the time of his arrest a letter to herself, not addressed to her by name, but beginning with her name "My own beloved Faustula." In it he told her what his plan was: the only plan he could imagine.
"Now," wrote Fabian, "I know you are a Christian. I did not dare to believe it till you had told me. In all but baptism you are a Christian: and now I may say what I never could say before. For you belong no more to Vesta."
He told her of his love, in few words, but with a passion of tenderness curbed for many years; and then he wrote, "Faustula, I will tell you, if you do not know it, I will tell you—you love me too. You have loved me since you were a little child, and since I was a boy I have loved you. There is only this one way: you have no one but me in all the world. If there were anyone else I would not even now thrust myself upon you. But there is no one else, and there is no other way. I must take you into my charge: you belong no more to Vesta, and you do belong to me." He told her plainly that she must be his wife. And he told her how.
"It will not be hard for you and Claudia to get leave to go to Turris Laurentina again. Tell Sergius if you can manage this—I know we may have to wait. It may be even for weeks. When you do go there I will see you, we will meet as we met before so often on the Latin shore. I will arrange that that old priest shall baptize you and marry us, and there shall be a boat that will take us out to a ship, both boat and ship belong to our people, and in it we can escape to Africa. What will happen later must depend on how public events turn out." All the rest he would tell when they should meet.
But Faustula never read his letter: for those who did read it, it was enough. It was well for her that she never tortured herself with any hope.
At first she could think of little else than of her being safe from the horror of the Coliseum: her prison was like a refuge from that horrible mountain of faces curving down to the shambles of the arena. To have recovered the power of suffering there, alone in the midst of all those cruel eyes—that would have been intolerable. To be alone here, in her cell, with no one to stare upon her, was like an unimagined gift of peace.
How could she have gone from the Coliseum back to the Atrium? That too would have been unbearable.
Youth and hope cling to life, and youth she had. From human hope she had parted in the moments during which she had been striving to enforce obedience in her leaden limbs. Martyrdom she had accepted deliberately when she deliberately declared that she was a Christian. What form death might take she had had no time to wonder.
Would she be a martyr still? Would God accept her as one? She had meant to pay the price; it was not her fault that they would kill her for a crime other than that of being a Christian; and of that crime she was wholly innocent.
Alone in her dark prison she learnt much of Him, with none but Him for teacher. Of His nature Fabian had told her enough; and many months had gone by, since then, during which she had by sure degrees built up a true idea of His nature. Of the details of the faith which she had said, before them all in the Coliseum, was hers, she knew but little; but God Himself she knew. And hour by hour in her cell she grew into a deeper knowledge.
Her trial, or trials, were not public, but took the form of repeated private examinations. They were very tedious, and utterly useless, for their conclusion was foregone from the beginning.
Why they should have troubled to examine her she could not tell, for she knew all along that they meant to kill her. What could it matter to them whether she admitted her guilt or no?
But she never would admit it. And her stubbornness angered them.
"You deny that you consented to marry this man?"
"He never spoke to me of marriage."
"He speaks plainly of marrying you in the letter found upon him when he was arrested."
"I never saw any letter. If there is any such you had it—not I. To me he never spoke of marriage."
"He spoke to you of love."
She understood them to mean, as they did mean, human love and she said firmly:
"That is false. There was a witness—"
"A spy. I can guess. Dirce, the Greek slave."
They supposed her to be urging that a Greek slave could not be a witness against her, a Roman of the highest class and rank. She did not even think of it.
"A witness—your guessing the name is useless and idle. You never saw her."
They meant her to conclude that the witness was a stranger unknown to herself, but she said coldly:
"Of course not. Had I seen her she would not have spied again."
"You admit there was that on which her spying, as you call it, would have been dangerous. In her hearing this lover of yours spoke often of love. Once she heard him say that such love was beyond the imagination even of all those who had written of the loves of the gods. And he added that it was all yours."
"He told me of the love of Christ: and he said that it was such as no man's imagination could invent. He did say that it was for me too: of any love of his own for me he never spoke."
"He told you that he thought of you continually, day and night."
"I remember. Yes. The first time he met me there, by the sea. He spoke of our long absence and bade me not suppose he had forgotten me. He knew me when I was a child, and he had always been good to me. It grieved him that he could in no way help me, and it grieved him that he should have had no means of showing that at least he remembered me, and would serve me if he could. Of course he loved me; but what good can it do, all this talking? You would never understand."
"We understand that the man was your lover, and you knew it, and that you met him many times."
"He was not my lover. I have had no lover. And you know nothing about love. You have killed him, and you are going to kill me: is not that enough? Why do you come here talking?"
"You must not speak so to us. We come here, not 'talking,' but to judge you. If you do not answer our questions we may cause you to be tortured."
"Do I not answer your questions? But you want me to say I have done that which I have not done. If it would save my life, and you know well that it would not save my life, I would not do that."
They asked her many questions, and she answered most of them. Some she would not answer lest they might injure the living.
"Did anyone know of your meeting this man by the seashore?"
"Evidently Dirce did."
"Did any of the Vestals know?"
"There was one with whom you were intimate—the Vestal Claudia—"
"When I was a novice she instructed me. And for many years she was kind to me. For a long time there has been no intimacy between us."
"Because I could not be intimate with any Vestal after I had resolved to be a Christian. To be intimate means to speak of what is in your mind: how could I speak of wishing to be a Christian to a Vestal?"
"You wanted to be a Christian because your lover was a Christian."
"I had no lover."
"You say yourself the man loved you."
"I will say too that I loved him. I love him now—though you have killed him. And he would love me were he alive after you had killed me. But he was not my lover. You know nothing about it."
"Love! Everybody knows about that. What do you take us for?"
"I take you for what you are. And I am quite certain that you know nothing at all about it."
"Do you think it will help you to speak thus insolently?"
"I know well that nothing will help me. It is not so insolent for me, a girl whom you are going to kill, to tell you the truth, as it is for you to come here and try and make me say I have done what you accuse me of."
On another day they reminded her that she had during a former examination plainly spoken of her intention, during many months, of becoming a Christian.
"That is quite true. I have intended it for a long time. In the Coliseum I said I was one."
"Perhaps no one heard you. If you repudiate those words and promise to repudiate Christ—what if we were to beseech the clemency of the Emperor, and he should consent to commute the penalty of death? He might, on our petition, allow it to be supposed that you had been executed in secret, and permit you to be sent into exile—say at Pandataria."
"Then Christ would repudiate me."
"You are determined to die? You know how it will be?"
"I know that you are determined to kill me: and I know how you will do it."
"It is not we who kill you; but the law of Rome. Or rather it is you who kill yourself by your offence against the law of Rome."
"The offence you charge against me I have not committed; but neither had he whom you have killed already."
"You accuse us of unjustly condemning you to death!"
"I accuse you of nothing. It is you who accuse me. Are you not ashamed to come here day by day and accuse me of such a thing? What must you think of your own daughters?"
"I have no daughters, I am childless," said one of them.
"And I have no daughters—only one son," said the other.
"For that I thank God," Faustula said boldly. "I would not be your daughter if that would soften your heart and save my life. My father is, like you, a heathen; and it was he who sent me to be a Vestal. Ask him if he believes this thing of which you accuse me, and you will see. But you durst not ask him."
"You will not even say that you are not a Christian?"
"I do not know if I have the right to call myself a Christian. I have not even been baptized. But, if Christ will let me, I call myself by His august name."
For a very long time Faustula was in prison. After many weary examinations they told her that they found her guilty, and that she must die.
"That I knew always," she answered stoutly. "No, not always. I remember when I knew it first. It was worse then. I was not five years old, and, till then, I had thought that life would go on for ever. I almost wanted to die at once, since it must come; but that was long ago. I got used to it as you are used to it, who are many years older than me."
One of them looked almost spitefully at her for saying this, as though the words were ill-omened. But he lived for a quarter of a century. The other took her sharply up.
"Yes. We are mortal. Death, however, need not bring shame."
"No. That comes with life."
"Your death will be shameful. All Rome, even the Christians, will think shame of one who dies for your offence."
"The Christians of Rome hear lies, and may believe them. The God of the Christians knows all things. From Him you will hear the truth."
He heard it long before Faustula was dead. Many days before they buried her alive his ashes were laid beside his father's upon the Appian Way.
"You know," he bade her remember, "that you will be buried alive.''
"I was buried alive more than a dozen years ago," she told him. "What I have borne since I was less than ten years old I can bear for a week."
She remembered well the time when she had said this before—to Claudia, soon after she had become a novice, that night as they kept watch together in the temple beside the Sacred Fire. It was truer now. She would rather go to her living tomb in the Campus Sceleratus than back to the Atrium Vestae.
She supposed that the execution of her sentence would come speedily, and she asked her examiners when it would be.
"The day is not fixed," they told her. But this very phrase made her think that it was only a question of days.
She only asked one favour, and the refusal of it did not surprise her.
"May a Christian priest come to me?" she asked. "I do not mean to see me alone; the jailor could be present."
"Assuredly no Christian priest will be allowed to see you. It is an insolent request. The scandal of your professing Christianity must be concealed."
Nevertheless it was known among the Christians and a priest had made very earnest efforts to gain admission to her.
"I did not suppose you would grant it. I asked because I thought I ought to ask, since I have never been baptized."
"So that even your own new God will not recognize you when you are dead. Only the baptized belong to him."
"I do belong to Him. In my own blood He will baptize me."
"How can He baptize you? He has been dead more than three hundred years."
"Three hundred years after you are dead He will be alive still."
At last they left her, and she saw them no more. For that she was thankful; their coming had always been as wearisome as it was fruitless. Before they left that last time they explained to her that she now possessed nothing. Her money and jewels were forfeited: she was not even a Roman any more. This made her smile to herself, for she had never given a thought to the money she had left behind in her room. It was all of it saved since she had been a Vestal. She had never had any of her own. There would have been more of it but that Tatius had more than once written to her for loans, which he had never repaid: and her father had sometimes done the same. She had sent him all she had on each of these occasions, blushing as she wrote the few words in which she had told him that he was welcome to it. She did not think he could have asked her had they been in the habit of meeting, and that had been another reason why she scarcely ever went to his house.
It did not even occur to her that if she had had money in her prison her jailors might have treated her better. They knew that she was penniless and could neither bribe nor reward them.
Her judges went away and she supposed that very soon the harshness of her jailors would end, as everything earthly would end. It was very strange to think that in a few days she, who knew so little of Him, would be face to face with Him Who had done so much for her, and for Whom she had done all she could, though it was almost nothing. It seemed to her that it would be as when a blind person dies to open his eyes in heaven and see for the first time.
Once, in the night, she woke from a dread of one of the old days at Civitella—the day on which she had heard that Melania was dead: and the thin fingers pressed under her cheek were wet, for she had wept in her sleep.
With one of them she traced on her brow the sign of man's redemption.
"I cannot baptize myself," she said, "but I can mark myself with the Cross. He will recognize it."
Her tears soon dried. She had never shed any for herself or for her cruel, ghastly fate.
"Ah, Melania," she thought, "the mischief I and mine have brought to you and yours."
As she said this to herself it seemed to her that she heard, close beside her in the darkness, a sweet, almost soundless laugh, that was like the laugh of a flower in the night. It was Melania's. There had never been anything mocking, anything irreverent in Melania's laughing, as there is in the laughter of most of us. It had never expressed any gibe, but only a tender good-will and a serene happy certainty that sorrow itself is no more than the shadow of a great joy.
Faustula lay long awake, and the gracious memory of Melania was like a woman's presence sent to her. It seemed but a few hours since she had last heard her voice, and its echo was dearer to her now than the living tones of the voice had been. But it was strange how unforgotten the least of its gentle cadences was after so many years. As a blind child she could never understand, as she understood at last, the sweetness of Melania's beauty. She was a woman herself now, and she sat up in her chains conning all the loveliness of a face known long ago, and known only now.
Sometimes she almost slept, and dream and thought met in a tender caress. It seemed to her that Melania, in her happy place, had begged of the King licence to leave Heaven's brightness to carry down a gleam of it into the dark of this deep cell of earth. And, as Melania bowed herself in supplication, another girlish figure was bent beside hers.
"Go you," the answer came, "I follow."
And Faustula felt their presence. No hand touched her, and no words of human syllabling were uttered in her ear, but she was conscious of such love and comfort as Melania and Clodia would have brought her.
Her old ingratitude to Clodia had vexed her often; nothing vexed her now. In love is no vexing; that belongs to the petty, the thorns we set ourselves upon the stalk of the divine perfect flower.
None leave heaven. If any come thence to us they bring it with them. Clodia was not there to vaunt unrequited tenderness, but to witness of tenderness beside which hers for her foster-baby would show but gross and selfish.
And yet from heaven itself she came with a petition in her hand, a plea for one who had hurt her worse than he had hurt Faustula. There was no word—the battle of speech dies with death into the great silence that is peace.
Nevertheless Faustula thought of her father and drew him also under the seamless robe of Christ's unreasoned love.
Long ago, when first he had flattered her and spoiled her, she had been ready to adore him and call him perfect. Long, long ago she had seen all his tattered imperfections, and had known that he had cast her off, for very cowardice. Ah, how hard it is for a brave woman to forgive the cowardice of a man!
His poltroonery had made her braver; but it had set a gulf between them across which she could only look with scornful eyes, and would not look at all. He was worse than dead, for he had never existed as she had imagined him.
Fatherless, motherless, brotherless, sisterless, she had stood alone in all the freezing blackness of a life that had never found love or bravery anywhere among those on whom she had any natural claim. She had disinherited her father, as he had disinherited her, with a chill acceptance of ugly, unalterable fact. For years she had never thought of him with bitterness or with scorn, but only because she would not choose to think of him at all.
During her imprisonment she had not in her thoughts reproached him that he had left her alone. She had lost all count of him, and never accused him. It is the living whom we upbraid, and he had been long dead to her.
And now, in silence, Clodia pleaded for him, and her unheard pity and tenderness were heard.
Forgiveness does not depend on the claim of those who cry for it, but on those who hear. Faustulus had done nothing; Faustula's heart did it all, grown pupil of the Heart that God became man to lift from earth to heaven. All human pardon that is real expresses itself not in terms of concession but in those of supplication. The moment we are ready to forgive we ourselves beg for forgiveness; and Faustula now, from her prison, besought pardon of the father but for whom she could never have come to it. She upbraided herself for the cold aloofness she had held from him: that she had in fact, thrown him from her, as he had thrown her from his hearth. This she did without any juggling with false excuses for him: of such she was incapable. It was not a matter of the mind but of the heart. There was no adroit glossing of his faults, but a gentle obliteration of them in the sense of what her own faults had been.
Of course she was less than just to herself. For thirteen years, she accused herself, she had never shown him love. She would not now remember that every sign of such love must have been from her a reproach stronger than any word could have been. Those who forgive generously will see no more the faults they are forgiving. With this entire oblivion of all sense of grudge against her father, this gentle silent plea for his forgiveness of her, there came a great sweetness and peace.
As she thought of him she prayed for him, and begged that he might be comforted. What had fallen on her would fall heavily on him; not merely because it would be a disgrace to his name—of that disgrace she did not accuse herself because she was not guilty—but because of something better, because she was, in truth, dear to him. With the faultless instinct of generosity Faustula was certain that her father was not thinking of any shame her fate would bring to himself, but simply of what that fate was in itself. She thought of him with a pitiful compassion, and with a strange unhesitating certainty that he was thinking entirely of her. She was now much more sorry for him than for herself: and, as it troubled her that she could send him no word of comfort or kindliness, she asked God to be Himself her messenger. She was sure that God had sent the thought of him to her. He must also take the thought of her to him and take it as she meant it...
She had for many hours been sitting up awake in her chains, though it was night still. In her ears was that sound, like the hoarse murmur of the sea heard in a shell; and now it was mixed with a thudding noise, like galloping hoofs. But the sounds were in her ears only. The grave itself could not be more silent than her cell.
When they had told her that the day was not yet fixed on which her sentence would be carried out, she had supposed it to be merely a question of days. But many weeks went by and nothing happened. It seemed as though she was forgotten, "like a dead man out of mind." Sometimes she would awake suddenly in the night, and sit up, asking herself if she were already in her grave. Sometimes she would ask a question of her jailor, and he would answer:
"Time enough. There is no hurry. It is all fixed. It is tedious answering the same question continually. Come, don't be tedious."
It was quite true that her doom had been fixed. The reason for the present delay was this:—Faustulus had very stoutly pressed that the Emperor Julian's pleasure should be taken before execution of the sentence; and some pagan patricians of high rank held this view also. Probably what influenced them was the feeling that such a punishment inflicted on the daughter of one of their own order would injure the prestige of the whole patrician body.
The Christian patricians were on this side too, but their opinion carried less than its proper weight because it was put down to mere indifference as to the honour of the gods. And there were many pagan patricians who urged that the punishment ought to be carried out at once without any reference to Augustus. All the more so as the condemned girl had added to her offence by proclaiming herself a Christian. It was useless to argue against them that the punishment was one of antique barbarity, and had not for a long time been inflicted. That, they said, was merely to say that such crimes had always been very rare—a fact creditable to the Vestals, but not one that made this Vestal's offence less heinous.
It was urged that had the matter occurred a couple of years ago it would have been entirely improbable that the execution would have been permitted by the Emperor: but they only retorted, "He was a Christian and very likely would have cared nothing for a law founded in our ancient respect for the gods: but the Emperor is now himself a servant of the gods."
"Then why not take his pleasure?"
"Because the pretence of wishing to take his pleasure is only an attempt to make him appear less clement—a scheme to let the death of this false Vestal seem to be at his door. It would not be fair to him. No doubt he would wish the law to be enforced, but why should he have the disagreeable duty of saying, 'Let her die'?"
The City Praefect was strong for the immediate execution of the sentence, so were the Flamens and the members of the other sacred colleges. But some senators sided with Faustulus, and at last there was a compromise.
No official appeal to the Emperor would be made, and the sentence would stand for execution, but eighty days would be given to Faustulus, during which he might, if he chose, himself lay the matter before Julian; unless, within that time, he returned with express counter-orders from Augustus, Faustula must suffer.
On that very day Faustulus left Rome for Constantinople, though he could not even know for certain that he would find the Emperor there—some said Julian would at once proceed with the Persian War: others that he would not do so till after the winter. This uncertainty nearly drove Faustulus mad. If Julian should have left Constantinople for the East he could not hope to be in time. At best the time was very short. And poor Faustulus was always short of money. He even asked his wife to lend him some, for he knew well she had a secret hoard; but she refused with a cold anger against which all pleading would be plainly ineffectual. Then he did what was still more repugnant and betook himself to Tatius, but equally in vain. Tatius protested that he had no ready money himself, and assured his father that he had been obliged to borrow for his own needs.
"I would be glad to borrow again," he declared, "but the person who lent me what I needed can do no more for me."
Meanly as Faustulus had always thought of his son he did not guess that it was from Faustula herself that Tatius had borrowed.
As he walked homeward he met Claudia being carried to the Atrium, and the sight of her hurt him afresh. Often and often in recent years he had seen Faustula thus carried in her litter, himself unseen by her. He drew back and almost hid himself behind one of the columns of the Basilica Julia till the Vestal was out of sight. Then he crept out and turned into the Vicus Tuscus, where he fell in with an old acquaintance long since forgotten, who, however, remembered and accosted him.
"Yes," he said, "I am Faustulus: but, pardon me, I do not remember you, and I am pressed by a very urgent matter..."
In old days he had been ever ready to stop and chat with anyone, but to-day he had no heart for it.
"Nay, it is I that should ask your forgiveness. It is natural you should not remember me. We only met once many years ago—I am Domnio, a priest who used to be at Civitella.
Faustulus recalled the meeting well and recollected that he had liked the young priest. He returned his greeting courteously, but still it was evident that he wished to move on, and was in no vein for talk.
"Do, I pray you, forgive my importunity," Domnio begged, "I do not force myself idly upon you. I want to be of use. We who are Christians know what has happened, and I have been following you for the sake of any chance of speaking with you. All of us are concerned in this matter that, perhaps, you think should concern you only..."
Faustulus understood his meaning very well, and suffered him to go on.
"We know that they have given you eighty days in which to seek the Emperor and appeal to his clemency..."
"Yes. And I have lost part of one of them already. I wish to leave Rome at once, to-day, but—"
"Again I pray your forgiveness. But may we help in your good work?"
"How can you help?"
"There is only one way. At Constantinople money goes far in such matters. I do not mean with Augustus himself—but before you can get at him. May we help in that way?"
Faustulus felt sure that this was only the man's delicate manner of getting to the subject of money in such a fashion as might avoid offence, and he was touched as well as grateful.
"Yes," he said, "money is necessary; and I have been going about in search of it."
"We shall be your debtors if you will let us help in this way," Domnio assured him, and then explained that what he had to give was from the Pope himself. It was, Faustulus found, enough to take him to Constantinople and bring him back again. So that sordid difficulty was at an end; and that night he left Rome on horseback, intending to ride to Ancona, whence he hoped to get passage on some ship. As he galloped it seemed to him that he could hear Faustula's voice close in his ear, and its tones were sweet and gentle, gentler than he had ever known them. Her image had constantly during many years risen before the vision of his mind when he had been alone, and its mien was always cold and full of a scornful aloofness. It arose again now, so plainly that he could almost think he really saw it with his eyes, but his daughter's lovely face no longer carried any look of proud reproach. It was as white as the moonlight, but more beautiful than ever, and all it expressed was love and tenderness and peace.
"She forgives me," he told himself. Ah, if he could forgive himself.
He did not, as he might have done, remind himself that for the first time in all his life he was setting about a hard and long task for the sake of someone else. He thought it was only because Faustula must have pardoned his offence against her that his heart felt lighter than it had ever been before.
Faustulus set forth on his long and toilsome journey with only one attendant, and that one he had chosen at the last moment, or rather had accepted almost without choice. An hour or two before he started they had told him that the man Maltro, who had been once his slave, begged earnestly to speak with him, and he had consented to see him.
"Let me go with you," Maltro had besought him. "I know whither you are going and Ishall be more useful to you than any of your slaves, for I can talk Greek as well as I can talk Latin: and on a journey I shall be of use where a common slave would only be in your way."
This was quite true and Faustulus was inclined to consent. He paused a moment to wonder why the man should wish to come. Maltro watched his face and knew well what was passing in his mind.
"For myself I shall see Constantinople," he said, "and how else could I see New Rome? And it would be a great honour to serve your Most Illustrious Excellency in that which you have in hand."
Faustulus yielded; to yield where it saved trouble had always been his habit. He must have some attendant and he did not know how he could find a better. There was no time to seek one out.
He remembered very well how Maltro had bought his own freedom, and how at the time he had felt ashamed of not having given it him: but at the moment he had wanted the money and had taken it. He resolved now that, if he gained what he went to Constantinople to entreat, he would give Maltro back the price of his freedom on their return.
For his part Maltro considered that the money was owing to him. He had always thought that his freedom should have been given him. The price he had paid for it his master had cheated him of. For years he had been cursing the meanness of Faustulus in accepting that money. Maltro had not prospered in his freedom to the extent that he had anticipated. He had been, perhaps, too ambitious of speedy wealth, and had been less prudent in his money-lending than of old. Desirous of quick and large profits he had risked too much, and had experienced many heavy losses. But his present enterprise, he promised himself, would be doubly profitable. There were some in Rome who strongly objected to this appeal of Faustulus to the Emperor's clemency; and they were willing to pay that its failure might be assured. Their money Maltro had already taken, flatly refusing to undertake the task suggested unless he received a full half of his reward in advance. But he was determined to get more than that. From Faustulus he would recover what he had paid, unjustly as he told himself, for his freedom. If he secured that, he might return no more to Rome—that would be as events turned out. He might come back and claim the reward of his success: he might find it safer and more profitable to begin a new career in a new place.
Meanwhile he made himself, as he had promised, useful, and Faustulus felt that he had been wise in accepting the man's services. In every little accident of their journey Maltro showed himself full of energy and resource, and little accidents were continually occurring. Sometimes Faustulus thought he would have been utterly discouraged and cast down but for the cheerful, good-tempered assistance and encouragement of his clever attendant. Even with it every such small mishap wasted time intolerably.
Indolent, easy-going people are always the least patient when they are roused to unwonted action, and Faustulus, at every delay, felt that if Maltro had not been there he would have chafed himself into such a fever of irritation as must almost have deprived him of judgment. But Maltro made every accident seem a mere nothing, and cheerfully made light of every delay, while his sympathy was apparent. It had never once entered his patron's mind that the fellow could have any object in wasting time; if anything went wrong it only gave him additional trouble; and hour by hour Faustulus only grew more convinced that Maltro had deeply at heart the deliverance of Faustula. There was nothing in this to surprise the girl's father, for to him she seemed worthy of all devotion, and he was sure she had always been kinder to the slaves than her brother; besides, he guessed that so shrewd a man would count on a great reward if their voyage should end successfully.
But to Maltro Faustulus gave only the outer surface of his mind. All his inward thought during those last few days of his life, was with Faustula. Everything meant Faustula. Every flower by the wayside flung up the incense of her name in its fragrance: every white cloud hung in heaven was but a reminder of her girlish purity: in every sound of whispering breeze and murmuring brooklet he heard her voice, nor was there any sadness in it, but a serene courage that heartened him too. He came at last to believe that his journey could not be in vain. The further Rome was left behind the less could he bring himself to think that all Rome's malice would prevail so monstrously against her helpless innocence.
In the early morning of the day before that in which they should have reached Ancona they came to a little chapel shut up and deserted. It was hard by the road wayside, and had been built over the grave of a martyr. It stood on a knoll, almost hidden by dark pines; and there were no houses anywhere in sight. It was just as they reached this spot that the last of their accidents happened.
"Your horse, Most Excellent Lord, goes lame," said Maltro; and Faustulus, starting from a long reverie, at once saw that Maltro was right. It proved, on examination, that a big nail was stuck fast in the poor beast's foot, and nothing they could do would dislodge it.
Maltro asked if his master would stay there while he rode on in search of a smith; and, as there seemed no better plan, Faustulus agreed and sat down by the roadside to wait.
It was barely light, and the place was very desolate, but Faustulus, except for his impatience at another delay, was not in a melancholy humour. Faustula herself seemed quite near him, and her voice, almost audible in his ear, bade him be of good heart. It was as though she were promising him that all would be well, and that, in spite of every tiresome accident, his journey would not in the long run fail of its object. His horse was grazing on the sweet herbs that grew by the road, and after a while Faustulus arose, and climbed up the steep bank towards the little chapel. The door was now open and one or two peasants were going in. He followed them unobserved and was about to enter himself when an old man came round the corner of the building, and seeing him, stood still in anxious surprise.
"Never fear me," said Faustulus, with his pleasant smile, going at once to meet him, "I am only a traveller bound on an errand that should be near your heart."
And in a few quiet and simple words he told the old man what it was.
"You are a priest, are you not? Are you going to say Mass?" he asked.
"Yes, I am a priest, and I am going to say Mass. I will offer up the sacrifice for the purpose of your journey. Come in and hear it, my son."
"I will, if you wish it. But I am not a Christian."
"And you are going all the way to Constantinople to beg for the life of your Christian daughter! That is a great act of charity."
"The first of my life," said Faustulus with a simplicity that to the old priest sounded like humility.
"Come in! come in!" he cried, "and hear the holy Mass. Pray to your daughter's God, and He will listen to you. In these new bad days we have to creep here by stealth for the sacrifice, as in the old days of the martyrs. This chapel commemorates one—a young girl like your own. Eh! Eh! How strange God's ways are!"
He moved a step or two nearer the door and Faustulus said:
"I will come. But promise me my daughter."
"Nay, nay! Nevertheless God will give her to you, or give you to her. Tell me now—though it were certain that this journey should end in death for you: there are perils of robbers and perils of shipwreck—would you press on?"
"Yes. What difference would that make?"
"'Majorem caritatem nemo habet,'" cried the old priest again. "Eh! Eh! It is wonderful. Come in, my son. Over the bones of a martyr-maiden the sacrifice shall go up for a maiden ready to be a martyr, and for the father she loves."
"It is true she loves me," said Faustulus, as they entered the little shabby chapel together.
"Of course, of course," murmured the old man, leaving him to go and vest.
When Faustulus came out again and went to look for his horse a girl was sitting near it, a tall slim girl, clad in white, with long red-brown hair.
"It is she," he said to himself, standing above her at the top of the steep bank.
But it was not. She turned upward to him a happy face, younger than Faustula's, and more childlike, and he saw that on the bosom of her raiment was a broad red stain. There was something in the expression of her face that made a crystal dazzle in his eyes—a pitiful surprise, as of a harmless tender creature who had received an unlooked for hurt from one she could not have injured; and yet the girlish look of pain was merged into a more wonderful steady surprise of joy.
"'Merula in Pace,'" he said to himself, quoting the words graven over the door of the little chapel behind him.
When his eyes cleared again she was there no longer; but Maltro, with a man walking quickly beside him, was riding down the hilly road.
It was on that night that Maltro killed him*
Maltro did not go back to Rome. He had got much more money than he expected, and he had more than seventy days in which he could, more prudently, insure his own escape. We have no more concern with him: let him go to his own place.
In Rome they kept their word and waited the eighty days promised to Faustula's father. On the last of them she was told that her time was come. In the afternoon of that day she was taken from her second tomb to her last. She had never hated that second tomb of her prison as she had hated the Atrium Vestae that had been her first.
On the last night of her imprisonment her jailor brought his daughter to stare at her, a wild, savage creature, half lunatic, the only child the man had ever had. During the eighteen years since her birth she had been the misery of his life, with her outrageous furies of fierce passion in which she would strive to hurt herself and all who durst come near her.
"There!" he cried, half dragging the girl into the cell and holding up his lamp over Faustula's head. "Now are you content? Why couldn't you wait till to-morrow and then you'd see her without making me break orders?"
"She doesn't look..." stammered the girl, whose speech was thick and uncouth like that of one born dumb who had somehow been taught to speak.
"Look what? How many looks do you want? She's naught to look at. Let one look suffice then. Come away now!"
"No. No. No! Let me look."
And the girl shook herself out of her father's grasp and stood peering at Faustula, nibbling at her fingers as she stared, and frowning heavily.
"If she's so wicked why doesn't it show?" she demanded of no one in particular, certainly not of her father, for she paid no heed to him at all.
"If she is wicked that's enough," he muttered crossly; "never mind looks. You can't have everything."
Faustula asked him gently:
"What's the matter with her?"
The jailor, behind the girl's back, touched his forehead.
"That's a lie," shrieked the wretched girl. turning fiercely on him, as if she would hear him. The fellow knew her strength well, and started back against the wall.
"What is your name?" asked Faustula, touching her with one of her chained hands.
"Nigra," the girl answered promptly, turning at once at the sound of Faustula's quiet voice. She was certainly black enough: hair and eyes were black as night, and there was a more unearthly blackness in her tortured expression.
"They call me Nigra," she whimpered spitefully.
"Nay. 'Tis only a nickname—I never call her so," said her father.
Faustula saw that the man loved her; and she forgave him everything because of it.
"We are both in chains," she said in a quick low voice; "the Lord Christ will break mine soon. I ask him to break hers."
She sat down again upon her foul pallet, and drew the girl to her.
"Mind!" cried the jailor. "She's as strong as death."
Dura sicut mors dilectio an old voice had said. Faustula had said. Faustula had never heard the words, but she knew the thing. In all her life she had been little given to kisses and caresses, but she drew the girl to her with her chained hands and kissed her.
"Christe Salvator, libera nos, catenatas servas," she whispered, and He was not too busy in heaven to hear her. Those who asked few favours are heard for their nobility.
"If there's a thing she hates," the jailor almost screamed, "it is being kissed. Mind yourself! She killed her mother for trying to kiss her. I've never kissed her since she was a little baby, and then she spat, and scratched at me."
"He loves you," whispered Faustula; "go and kiss him."
Nigra sobbed and laughed, and scrambled down upon her knees, shuffled along the cold floor and kissed her father's ugly hand that held the keys. Then she lifted her dark face and held it up to him for him to kiss.
"I'm tired," she half whispered. "Let me rest by her," and she shambled back to Faustula and hid her head on Faustula's neck.
"What's that?" she cried presently, lifting her face quickly. Something wet and warm had fallen on it. "Are you crying because you have to die?"
"No," answered Faustula simply. "I had forgotten." And she drew the wild dark head down again upon her breast.
"Come," said the jailor gruffly.
"Go with him," whispered Faustula.
"I don't want. I want to stay."
"Go with him, dear; but thank you for coming. All these months I have seen none but men."
Slowly, reluctantly, but obediently Nigra arose.
"If you bid me," she said meekly. "Wicked!" she muttered, "let's all be wicked if that's it."
"I've never had my money," Faustula said gently to Nigra's father. "I could never give you anything for the trouble I've been to you. I cannot give you anything else."
And she gave Nigra to her father.
"You know he loves you," she added to Nigra.
"Yes. I know that."
"And you will love him?"
"Yes. You bid me. I will do all you tell me."
"That's all I can give," Faustula repeated to her jailor.
"Give her something," Nigra bade him.
"What can I?"
Nigra looked at her eagerly.
"A priest to baptize me," pleaded Faustula.
And Domnio came and baptized her that very night.
Nigra insisted on being baptized too, and her father suffered it. At first he wanted to refuse, but Nigra was eager and imperious. Long afterwards he averred that while he was holding back his consent he saw a grinning small black ape behind her, nodding and nodding, and making as though to leap up upon her shoulder. But he said nothing of this at the time and neither Domnio nor Faustula saw anything.
Casca was the name of this jailor. Though he would not allow the priest to stay more than a few minutes, nor to talk at all to Faustula except to use the few words necessary for her baptism, still less to see her for a moment alone, he allowed Nigra to stay with her when he led Domnio out.
"It was strange I should have found you here when I looked out," he said when they had reached the outer door of the prison.
It was not so strange as he pretended to think, for Domnio had hung about that door nightly for many months.
"It was by God's mercy," said the priest quietly. Then he drew out a gold coin for Casca to take. Had he taken that money I doubt if he would ever have become a Christian. He longed to take it, but he pushed Domnio away roughly.
"Go, go!" he muttered. "You've been here too long. Go right away quickly. No—she gave me my girl and this was all she asked me to give her—Go, then!"
Domnio would not press the coin upon him, but kept it for a purpose and afterwards caused it to be beaten into a plain ring.
"Now I will work for you," said Nigra when she and Faustula were alone together; and far into the night she, who had always been lazy and useless, toiled happily. Her father came to take her away, but she made him bring her back, and she cleaned the foul cell, and brought fresh furnishing of the pallet unchanged for months; finally she brought clean raiment for the prisoner.
She made Faustula talk while she worked.
"Tell me about being a Christian," she demanded, and Faustula told her, smiling to herself a little as she thought this was her first sermon.
"There's one thing," Nigra said at last, pausing in her busy labour. "If He is God why does He let His enemies get the upper hand? He could easily kill them all, eh?"
"Yes; but He loves them also."
"Well, but He can't help loving you better than the City Praefect. Why does He let you be killed?"
Faustula laughed a little low laugh that was like one of Melania's.
"I'm not dead yet," she said. "But if He does let them it will be a sign—a sign."
"Of what?" Nigra asked, looking keenly at her, for she saw a little flush on Faustula's white face.
"A sign that He lets me give. Nigra, He is not like a vulgar King that overloads servants with big gifts but will not stoop to take anything of theirs."
When Faustula was taken from her prison next day into the staring light she could see nothing. For many months she had been in darkness, and now the pitiless glare of day seemed black to her. It was not for a long time that she could see the crowd, though she could hear it.
Many cursed her, and she heard that. Many uttered foul and brutal gibes, and them also she heard. The worst of these scoffs, the meanest and the most cruel, were spoken by women. Many pitied her, but these were not bold to express their compassion, and so she could not know of it.
Her appearance astonished thousands of those who had come to stare upon her. Her beauty was not lost, but it was wholly changed. A flower grown in the dark looks as she looked. She was utterly white with the singular clear whiteness of bleached wax. Only her hair had any colour, and it had altered its tint, which was once a golden brown, and was now like pale gold. The light hurt her so that she was fain to keep her eyes closed. Nigra had prayed to go with her, to lead her; but that had been refused, so she walked alone: but they moved slowly, and if she swerved to right or left, one of her jailors, or of the escort, pushed her back into the right line.
Only once did any faint colour flush into her face, when she heard a filthy name given to her; and then she blushed for her cowardice in shrinking. It seemed to her like grudging back part of the price.
Some who looked on were of her own class, and had known her; and these had told themselves that she, who had always had a proud beauty, would hold herself with a colder pride than ever to-day. Not one of them believed her guilty. That she had loved a Christian, and declared herself Christian, they believed, but they believed nothing shameful of her. Her only protest could be a pride aloof and impregnable.
But the reality was different. Her pride was all gone, merged into a serenity that was more astounding than mere patience. She was a girl, alone in a huge and mostly hostile crowd. Every step was taking her to a doom that those who thought could not bear to think of. She was noble, and of a great house, and her ears were filled with the foul gibes of a foul populace. But she was undismayed, and unarmed with any shield of quiet scorn.
To-day she seemed, by years, younger even than she was. The innocence of her face was like that of a mere child, and all her noble serenity could not make her look like a woman. She did not smile, but on her lips was a lovely light like the dawn of a smile that would break soon. Only once they quivered as though for tears—when a blind girl in the crowd bewailed her blindness because it cheated her of this rare sight.
"What is the—like?" the singular creature asked of her mother.
A heathen soldier, idle in the throng, turned fiercely to the girl as if he would have made her dumb too if he could.
"Gods!" he muttered. "What things women are!"
At last they came to the Campus Sceleratus by the Porta Collina, that led out to the quiet country where the Sabines dwelt, from whom old Sabina liked to think her race descended. A ladder led down into the living tomb prepared for Faustula, and she must now open her eyes to climb down it. A soldier held steady the top of it, and for a moment her face was close to his.
"Spare your bread but eat it," he whispered. "Leave alone the wine."
Over his shoulder Faustula saw the crowd at last, and yet she saw but one face in it.
"It is a fancy," she thought; and the fancy troubled her. Fabian in heaven could not look thus; and he was in heaven. In heaven is no unavailing protest, nor horror, nor passion of helpless anguish.
Slowly, encumbered by her dress, though freed from chains now, she went down, glad to escape from the staring eyes above. Then the ladder was drawn up.
Immediately a huge slab of stone was laid upon the hole, like a lid, cemented down and covered with other blocks of stone, cemented too. Then earth was beaten down upon the place and sods of turf, and finally a guard was set, and the crowd melted away to its idle pleasures, and its business of the interrupted day.
Faustula's tomb was larger than her prison cell, and clean, new-hewn out of the soft rock. There was a sort of bed in it for her last slumber, a lamp and a cruise of oil, a huge loaf of good white bread, and a knife to cut it with—sharper than such knives are wont to be. There was also a stoup of wine, strong itself, and drugged more strongly. The poisoned wine and the sharp knife were meant for heathen mercy.
"It is better than the Atrium Vestae," she said, speaking aloud, and only half attending to her words, for her last look at the upper earth had troubled her, not because it was the last, but because she had had that fancy of seeing Fabian's face, and it had been different from what she would have counted on its being. During the long darkness of her imprisonment many faces had risen before her, and the light was on them all. She had seen Melania often, in waking fancy and in sleep, Clodia, too, and Acilia, and her father. Fabian's face she had never seen, in dream or wakeful imagining. As soon as she had opened her eyes in the sharp daylight she had seen it, and it was not as she would have supposed, for, among many other things it expressed, she thought she saw a deep anger, and a passionate protest as against the injustice of his death. She would not believe he had died with such angry resentment in his eyes.
"It was a sick fancy, not a vision," she told herself. "Yes, this is better than the Atrium."
It was like her to be troubled, not for herself but for him. Again she spoke aloud, and the thought crossed her mind that she would never hear now any other voice but her own, but still it was not of that she was really thinking. It pained her to remember that look of unspeakable, angry, stifled protest. Cruel and wickedly unjust, as his slaughter had been, it had never once struck her as possible that he could have died resentful. It was like a shadow on the glory of his crown. It shook her peace, and with that troubling of her peace came, to her dismay, a temptation utterly un-looked for.
A sudden dizziness came over her, and she thought she was about to fall. Her knees grew weak, like water, and would not bear her up, so that she sank down in a heap, upon the hard floor, and buried her face in the woollen cloths of her low bed. A horrible coldness crept outwards from her heart and made her shiver, and for a few moments her brain seemed bruised by some dull, hard blow. Her command of herself failed her, and she seemed sinking into a chill blankness. Then a great trembling shook her, and a great fear, for she felt that someone was behind her, standing over her, and she waited breathlessly for a voice; and it came.
"Listen," it said. "I have been waiting for a long time for you to listen. I know you well; and have known you all your life. I called you long ago—and you were coming, but a busybody would not let you. I should have given you the peace you sought. Yes. I know you better than you know yourself, Faustula."
She crouched still in the same attitude, and though her head was lifted she did not turn it.
"Tell me your name," she said, and her lips were dry as she spoke, and would scarcely serve her. But her heart felt drier still.
The answer did not come quickly; nor when it came did it come willingly. With a slow reluctance the voice replied:
"Light-bearer was my name."
It was true that another light than the dim yellow flicker of the light was there, but though it was behind her it cast no shadow of her own crouched figure on the wall of rock. It was lurid, colourless, and made her eyes burn.
"Dare you turn and look at me?"
"Dare," said another voice within herself. And she rose trembling, and turned herself about.
"You tremble. Drink of that good wine and it will strengthen you."
But she shook her head, and lifted her eyes.
He was tall, clad in a long raiment of strange hue, like that of the throbbing heart of a smokeless fire, and his face had been most beautiful, but something had ruined it. Not age, for immortal youth that could not age was its saddest stamp. It was stamped, too, with profound knowledge, perverse wisdom, a clear, wilful vision that nothing could blind, but itself so pitiless that it dazzled and blinded like the naked sun.
"Why are you come?"
"In pity," he answered, with a smile that seemed to intensify the ineffable anguish of his lips. "Pity yourself and I will save you."
"How came you?"
He smiled again proudly.
"Because I chose. I go to and fro in the earth, where I will. But I stay nowhere unwelcome. As I came you can go. But put your hand in mine and I will carry you up hence and give you to him for whose sake you were willing to die."
Another smile lifted a corner of the tortured lips that should have been so lovely.
"To Fabian. It is for his sake that death has seemed to you so sweet. You cheat yourself. Me you cannot cheat. But you have been cheated. Fabian is alive. You jostle to meet him in heaven. He is not there. If you should enter there you would find it empty, for he is here on earth; and the heaven-folk would mock at you and thrust you down; they know it is Fabian you seek, not—"
"Say His name. Why do you stumble at it?"
"It needs not. You know it, and you know it is not Him you die for but for Fabian who lives and waits for you. Hold your hand out to me and I will bring you to him. In pity I came; pity yourself."
"Pity me, Thou," Faustula whispered, not to him, and held her hands straightly crossed.
"Answer him," said that other voice.
"I did not come here for Fabian," she said bravely, "and I will not go hence for him. If you were the Light-Bearer you have spilled it. I came for Christ and I will wait for Him."
At the Name she uttered the other dwindled as a fire that is spent, and he ceased, as though he had never been there. So Faustula was left alone, tired, but in peace.
There came other temptations to Faustula, but they did not again embody themselves, take shape and urge her with audible speech. Their assault was from within, from the recesses of mind and heart; so that it seemed harder to be sure that she was not yielding to them.
Suddenly all her youth seemed to arise within her and make angry protest against her cruel unjust fate. All the happiness youth holds as its prerogative spread itself to her fancy like a picture, of tender yet brilliant colouring; and something within her bade her at least regret, grudge it, and cry out against the pitiless decree that had robbed her of it.
It was very hard not to yield, not to bemoan herself and protest that she had done nought for which justice should have punished her. But she did not yield, because, instead of arguing she prayed; refusing to answer herself, she would only speak to God.
How pitiful it would be if, martyred in fact, her will should fail, and she should after all be no martyr because she grudged the price she could not help paying! This very thought brought with it a new and subtle temptation.
"None of the martyrs," it whispered, "have suffered like you. In a few moments their pain was over. From this life, by one swift, sharp step, they entered heaven. Your death is spread over months; and even now that you are as surely dying as if wounded by some mortal stroke, your death will drag its slow length over many days. You are suffering more than the others. God must love you better than any of them; and God's love is not given with blind, causeless, unreasoned caprice—you must excel them, some way, in yourself. That is why He lays on you a greater weight of hard endurance. To those most worthy he accords the privilege of being most like Himself in suffering. His own passion was not really crowded into a few hours; it began long before its outward circumstance—that yours has been so long-drawn is His sign that you are specially near Him, and it is for your merits that He has seemed to stand by unmoved without interference."
How hard it was to know if these were her own words, or mere rebel chatter of vagrant thoughts she was too weak to master.
"It does not matter though I cannot know," she said to God. "You know. I leave it to Your charity.''
She fell at last into a sleep of sheer weakness, and could not guess how long she had slept. When she awoke she was hungry, and cut her loaf in two, intending to cut one half again in two, and use only a little of one of the halves. It seemed to her that, divided into eight little portions, it would keep her alive as many days—though to live longer would but make longer the slow agony of her death. It seemed to her a plain duty to keep the life God had given her as long as possibly might be. She knew why they had given her so sharp a knife; she guessed that if she drank the wine put for her, she would escape the torture that waiting must bring; but she was sure that, certain as death's coming was, it was her part to wait patiently with such courage as God might give her. If He lent her none, still she must wait.
"No patience can alter the decree of your death," whispered that inner rebel voice that she could only pray God not to take as hers. "When the fact is certain what difference can a day less or more make? Heathen injustice passed the sentence; not God. Even heathen mercy leaves you knife and cup. Is His mercy less? Does He insist on torture being added to death? Mind you of this—in the final weakness of your body you may curse Him, and die with that curse upon your lips. Die now, while still you have strength to see that this death is dealt by heathen hands, not His."
She could only protest, and protest again, to God that these words were not meant by her.
"Listen," murmured another voice, smooth and persuasive, "you know not the Scriptures. It is written in them: 'though you should drink of any deadly thing it shall not harm you.'"
"Nay, Lord," she said, answering not that voice, but her Master, "I know not the Scriptures, being ignorant. But I know Thee."
And then, being hungry, she ate sparingly of her bread. It tasted sweeter than any she had ever eaten; and it gave her almost immediate strength.
"Lord," she whispered, "I am but a fool. That one temptation I can fling down."
And she took the stoup into her hand and poured all the wine out upon the rocky floor of the tomb, in a red stream, till not a drop was left in the big cup.
That God blest her for it she knew, for in a moment she heard a strange sweet sound of singing; whence she could not tell—from some far distance, for it was wordless, muffled, almost inaudible, and yet there. And to her there seemed to be another sign; for, from the place where the wine fell, she saw a small yellowish-black snake glide swiftly to the wall and disappear.
Thanking God she took the knife, and resolved that with it she would cut her bread into eight portions and then scrape the sharp edges of the blade up and down the rock-wall of her grave until all its tempting sharpness should be spoilt.
And this she did; but as she cut the second half of her loaf she came upon a tiny parchment that had been hidden in the bread. It was curled tightly up, and her heart gave a horrible leap as she found it, and with tremulous fingers began to untwist it. There was writing on the inner side; but, before she read it she would do what she had resolved, and she let it go so that it curled sharply up again. Then she finished dividing the loaf, and rose from her seat upon the bed with the knife in her hand, and went with it to the wall, where she did exactly as she had promised to herself that she would do. When one edge of the blade was quite blunt she broke off the sharp point, for it was like a dagger, and was about to spoil the other edge when that voice she feared whispered again:
"Pause—it is not too late. There is no pain yet. When the horror of torture comes you will long for this kindly blade... Is it not greater courage, too, to keep it, and not use it, than to make its use impossible?"
"Courage is neither here nor there—but obedience," she answered, and with quiet force she spoiled the second edge as she had spoiled the first. But all the time her throbbing heart was choking her. What was in the writing? Now she might turn and read.
She turned and took the little tight roll of parchment in her hand; but her heart hurt her with its hammer-like beating, and her brain seemed to melt like water. She knew she was staggering, and clutched, to hold herself upright, at the little table on which lamp and bread and empty flagon were. As she fell herself they fell with her, and her lamp went out.
When her senses came to her again she was in utter darkness. Groping she found her bits of bread, and felt that they were sopped in oil. Tasting she found they were horribly nauseous.
Nevertheless she gathered up all the eight pieces and resolved that day by day she would eat one. The oil was rancid and horrible; but oil of olives is food, and it would feed her like the bread. How was she to know when day succeeded day?
"Nay I cannot know," she confessed. "I will eat when hunger presses me hard, and that is all I can do."
Still she prayed: and in the darkness no other temptation was suffered to assault her. About her loneliness a thick fence was set that none of those who had tormented before might invade.
Sometimes too, merciful sleep came to her, dreamless and sweet like a child's.
After such a sleep she awoke and knelt upon the floor to pray again.
Again there came the sound of singing, muffled and wordless, from some unmeasured distance and she knelt upright to listen, her eyes gazing into the blackness. Ever so slowly a small round white spot showed, as upon the wall, and its whiteness grew and gathered form; a disc of pure, soft-glowing radiance.
"Ecce," a voice sounded, not far off, "Ecce Panis Angelorum."
Slowly, from the wall, the round white disc came to her. And it hung in the air above her head.
"Hast thou anything to ask of me? Ask and I will give it."
The word came from the White Thing itself.
"Ask life," the other dreaded voice murmured in her ear.
"Nothing," she answered.
A sigh of bitter, loveless anguish and disappointment sounded in her ear, and he who had bidden her ask life spoke no more.
"Nothing, Lord," she whispered again.
"Then I will give thee all. Myself and all else. Because thou hast chosen thus I give thee what thou hast chosen, and what thou hast not chosen too."
Before the portal of her lips the round white thing hovered, and she opened them.
Thus Faustula in her grave made her first Communion.
Faustulus came no more to Rome, for Faustulus was dead, his body sleeping not far from that of the girl-martyr Merula. It was by country folk, who had seen him at Mass in the morning, that he was found before the life was quite ebbed out. And he made them know that he would be carried back to the little chapel on the knoll by the roadside. They fetched their old priest to him and between them all was done that anyone could do; but all was of no avail. Such simple restoratives as they could give brought back the power to utter a few words; that was about all.
"Faustula..." he whispered.
"Your daughter?" asked the old priest, holding the hand already cold.
"With her," he added after a long pause.
The old man pondered and bade God show him the dying father's meaning.
"You want," he asked after a patient listening for God's showing. "You want to be with her?"
Yes: that was what Faustulus wanted.
"I only know one way," the old priest said with a shy simplicity.
"Yes, that way."
Yes, in the Christian's heaven, since he had not been able to keep her here.
The old man paused, uncertain. He could not tell if this heathen believed, or knew, anything of what Christ's servants believe. It was too late for questions, too late for teaching. God knew. And God Himself can lighten in a brief moment the darkness of a long life, as He can pardon in a moment a life's offence.
The kind grey head was bent low near the dying man's ear and he asked him whether he repented all his faults.
"She forgives them."
They were the last words Faustula's father could make his lips speak. Were they enough?
The old man weighed them, and he told himself they sufficed. Faustula forgave; her father knew that. Would God's generosity fall short of hers? Will the Master let himself be outdone by the servant? The Teacher forget the lesson taught?
"Nay, then, I know He has forgiven," the country priest told himself.
Faustulus could speak no more, but he lived still: lived while the water of baptism flowed upon his cold brow; then that other water rose to meet it, the water of the river that flows about this darkness beyond which there is light.
Faustulus came no more to Rome: but to the Christians in Rome crept at last the tidings of his death, and they kept the news to themselves: lest the knowledge of his death should hasten that of Faustula.
It was on the night of her baptism that Domnio went to the Pope and told him the wonderful news that she was in fact, as well as in will, a Christian, and that God had given a daughter to her in faith.
"He has given her father to her prayers, and now this poor girl. You told of her father's journey and its ending in his baptism?"
"I was given no chance. Casca, the jailor, suffered me to do my office, as he had promised: he would allow no private speech with her."
"In heaven she will know, for her father will tell her himself."
As Domnio entered his own house, half an hour later, a man stepped quietly out of the black shadow and said:
"Let me in with you. I am Fabian."
Domnio trembled as they went in together, and he could scarcely bar the door, for his hand shook.
"I thought," he said, when they were in his poor bare room, "that you must be dead."
"I was condemned to die, for refusing to sacrifice to the standards, as my brother was condemned long before; but as he escaped so did I... We were not together, but he had my letter to Faustula and he came here with it. I know the rest. He is with our mother."
Both were silent for a time; then Domnio asked if he knew also concerning Faustula.
"Yes. Felix told me. He alone knows I am here. I came to-night and he met me."
Domnio could scarce bear to look at Fabian's face; scarce bear to speak to him of Faustula.
"I baptized her to-night," he said gently: and told his friend the wonderful manner of it. Then they spoke in low sad tones of Faustulus and his fruitless journey.
"Nay, not fruitless. She would not hold it so," Domnio said with a grave reverence.
"To-morrow," Fabian whispered, "is the last of the eighty days?"
Domnio could only sigh for answer.
"And this house," Fabian said, with a chill horror, "is near the place."
"Yes. The only one very near. It has a dreary repute, and all night the credulous heathen avoid it. That is why I came to live here. Our people can come here unobserved. Here we meet for the mysteries in the early dawn, and many are thus able to hear Mass and receive Our Lord unmolested."
"Show me the place. I would pray there."
Domnio took a lamp, and opening a door, like that of a cupboard, led the way down by a narrow stone stair to a room much beneath the level on which the house stood. It was like a cellar, hewn out of the soft yellowish rock. At one end was a rude stone altar.
For a long time Fabian knelt praying, and Domnio knelt behind him, entreating God to hear his prayer.
When Fabian stood up at last he asked gravely:
"Is it to-morrow?"
"Tell me all you know."
"The tomb is made already."
He would not look at his friend's face: let God only see the agony of it.
"Where is it?"
And Domnio pointed behind the rock-well where the little altar stood.
"Sixty feet—seventy, perhaps."
Already Domnio was trembling again; for already he could divine a purpose in Fabian's questions. And Fabian told it.
"Many men must labour," he said, "must labour—surely there are many we can trust."
"Yes. I know many. And I will labour with you."
Before the end of that same night the work had begun. The rock was soft, and easy to hew, but all that was taken out had to be removed or the cellar-chapel would itself have been blocked. Every room in the desolate house was piled with it. Only at the hour of Mass was their labour interrupted.
At Mass all prayed for the one thing; and, at the first Mass after Faustula had gone down into her grave alive, Fabian knelt to receive Our Lord. All night he had been toiling.
As Domnio came to him, holding their Master in His White disguise, all in the chapel adoring and watching, they saw It leave the priest's fingers and hang motionless a breathing-space in the air. Then It receded, and lost Itself against the wall of rock.
"He has gone to her," Fabian knew. And he longed to know whether he himself might follow.
It was not till the ninth day that the long tunnel was completed, and the last dividing wall of rock gave way. Fabian threw down his mattock and snatched the lamp Domnio held. When they could enter together they found her whom they sought.
"She is not for me," Fabian thought. "Nor am I worthy. Christ has forestalled me. She was for Him alone."
Domnio also thought that she was dead. She knelt against her low bed, as if she had died praying; but she was not dead. God had taken her long will for deed, and if she was a martyr it was not by the mere passing out of life that she had not that likeness to the King of Martyrs. They have their Queen also, and Faustula was one of her hand-maidens.
"I know I am not worthy of her," Fabian told his friend. "Is it a sacrilege that I should take her?"
"Nay, who is worthy of God's least gift? And His greatest is less than Himself that He gives to us and we accept, unworthy but thankful. He Himself has given her to you, else would He have taken her from you to Himself."
And since He had left her here, what other shelter was there for her except in the reverent love of the man whom God had used to save her from an unjust death?
Her earthly love had not stood between her and her Master, and the Master would not stand between her and her earthly love.
She herself had no doubt.
"I am a Christian, but I know nothing. God has given me a space to learn. You began the teaching; it is yours to finish it."
It was in the little chapel under Domnio's house whence Christ had gone to her, that He blest her union with the only friend of her desolate orphaned years.
For months they lived in hiding, in Domnio's house. Then, in June, died the hapless Julian, who had brought all the might of his imperial power against the Galilean and been conquered. Slowly the whisper crept to Rome, and the nightmare of heathenism reborn was rudely wakened.
Then it was that Faustina's old friend Claudia, Vestalis Maxima, plucked courage to profess the faith for which she had not dared to die, but had long known to be true. For her there was no martyrdom; only the degradation of her statue in the Atrium Vestae, and the obliteration of her name upon its base.