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"If there be anything more powerful than Fate,
It is the courage which bears it undismayed."
Thanks to the precautions taken by Procopius, the trick had succeeded completely.
At the moment in which the flag of the Goths fell and their King was taken prisoner, they were everywhere surprised and overpowered. In the courts of the palace, in the streets and canals of the city and in the camp, they were surrounded by far superior numbers. A palisade of lances met their sight on all sides. Almost without an exception the paralysed Goths laid down their arms. The few who offered resistance—the nearest associates of the King—were struck down.
Witichis himself, Duke Guntharis, Earl Wisand, Earl Markja, and the leaders of the army who were taken prisoners with them, were placed in separate confinement; the King imprisoned in the "prison of Theodoric," a strong and deep dungeon in the palace itself.
The procession from the Gate of Stilicho to the Forum of Honorius had not been interrupted.
Arrived at the palace, Belisarius summoned the Senate and decurions of the city, and took their oaths of allegiance for Emperor Justinian.
Procopius was sent to Byzantium with the golden keys of Neapolis, Rome, and Ravenna. He was to give a full report to the Emperor, and to demand for Belisarius the prolongation of his office until Italy had been completely tranquillised, as could not fail to be the case presently, and afterwards, as had been the case after the Vandal wars, to accord him the honour of a triumph, with the exposure of the King of the Goths, as prisoner of war, in the Hippodrome.
For Belisarius looked upon the war as ended.
Cethegus almost shared this belief. But still he feared the outbursts of indignation amongst the Goths in the provinces. Therefore he took care that, for the present, no report of the manner in which the city had fallen should pass the gates; and he pondered upon some means of making use of the imprisoned King himself, to palliate the possible renewal of national feeling in the Goths.
He also persuaded Belisarius to send Acacius, with the Persian horsemen, to follow Hildebad, who had escaped in the direction of Tarvisium.
In vain he tried to speak to the Queen.
She had not yet fully recovered the effects of the night of the earthquake, and admitted no one. She had even listened to the news of the fall of the city with indifference. The Prefect gave her a guard of honour, in order to make sure of her, for he had great plans in connection with her. Then he sent her the sword of the King, accompanying it with a note.
"I have kept my word. King Witichis is ruined, you are revenged and free. Now it is your turn to fulfil my wish."
A few days later, Belisarius, deprived of his constant adviser Procopius, called the Prefect to an interview in the right wing of the palace, where he had taken up his quarters.
"Unheard-of mutiny!" he cried, as Cethegus entered.
"What has happened?"
"You know that I placed Bessas, with the Lazian mercenaries, in the trenches of the Gate of Honorius, one of the most important points of the city. Hearing that the temper of these troops was insubordinate I recalled them—and Bessas——"
"Refuses to obey."
"Without reason? Impossible!"
"A ridiculous reason! Yesterday the term of my office expired."
"And Bessas declares that since midnight I am no longer his commander!"
"Shameful! But he is in the right."
"In the right! In a few days the Emperor's reply will arrive, according to my wish. He will naturally, after the conquest of Ravenna, again appoint me as commander-in-chief, until the war is ended. The news may be here the day after to-morrow."
"Perhaps still sooner, Belisarius. At sunset the watchman on the lighthouse of Classis announced the approach of a ship coming from Ariminum. It appears to be an imperial trireme. It may run into harbour at any hour. Then the knot will be loosened."
"I will cut it beforehand. My body-guard shall storm the trenches and strike the head off the obstinate Bessas——"
He was interrupted by the entrance of Johannes.
"General," he cried, "the Emperor is here! The Emperor, Justinian himself, has just anchored in the harbour of Classis."
Cethegus involuntarily started. Was such a thunderbolt from a clear sky, such a whim of the incalculable despot, after such toil, to overthrow the almost perfect structure of his plans?
But Belisarius, with sparkling eyes, asked:
"The Emperor? How do you know?"
"He comes himself to thank you for your victory—never was such honour done to mortal man! The ship from Ariminum bears the imperial flag—purple and silver. You know that that indicates the actual presence of the Emperor."
"Or of a member of his family," interposed Cethegus thoughtfully, and once more breathing freely.
"Let us hasten to the harbour, to receive our Imperial master," cried Belisarius.
He was disappointed in his joy and pride when, on their way to Classis, they were met by the first courtiers who had disembarked, and who demanded quarters in the palace, not for the Emperor, but for his nephew Germanus.
"At least he sends the next in rank," said Belisarius—consoling himself—to Cethegus as they went on. "Germanus is the noblest man at court. Just, incorruptible, and pure. They call him 'The Lily of the Swamp.' But you do not listen to me!"
"Pardon! but I saw my young friend Lucius Licinius in the crowd of people who are approaching us."
"Salve, Cethegus!" cried Lucius as he made his way to the Prefect.
"Welcome to free Italy! What news from the Empress?" asked Cethegus in a whisper.
"Her parting word, 'Nike!' (Victoria), and this letter," Lucius whispered just as softly. "But," and he frowned, "never again send me to that woman!"
"No, no, young Hippolytus, I think it will never again be necessary."
They had now reached the quay of the harbour, the steps of which the Imperial Prince was just ascending. His noble form distinguished itself from the crowd of splendid courtiers who surrounded him, and he was received by the troops and the people with imperial honours and cries of joy.
Cethegus looked keenly at him.
"His pale face has become still paler," he remarked to Licinius.
"Yes. They say that the Empress, because she could not seduce him, has poisoned him."
The Prince, bowing his acknowledgments to all sides, had now reached Belisarius, who greeted him reverently.
"I return your greeting, Belisarius," said the Prince gravely; "follow me at once to the palace. Where is Cethegus the Prefect? Where is Bessas? Ah, Cethegus!" he said, grasping the latter's hand, "I am glad to see again the greatest man in Italy. You will presently accompany me to the granddaughter of Theodoric. To her belongs my first visit. I bring her gifts from Justinian and my humble service. She was a prisoner in her own kingdom; she shall be a queen at the Court of Byzantium."
"That she shall!" thought Cethegus. He bowed profoundly and said, "I know that you are acquainted with the Princess already. Her hand was once destined for you."
A flush rapidly spread over the cheek of the Prince.
"But unfortunately," he answered, "not her heart. I saw her here years ago, at her mother's court, and since then, my mind's eye has beheld nothing but her picture."
"Yes, she is the loveliest woman on earth," said the Prefect quietly.
"Accept this chrysolite as thanks for that word!" cried Germanus, and put a ring upon the Prefect's finger.
They entered the door of the palace. "Now, Mataswintha," said Cethegus to himself, "now a new life begins for you. I know no Roman woman—one girl perhaps excepted—who could resist such a temptation. And shall this rude barbarian withstand?"
As soon as the Prince had partially recovered from the fatigue of the voyage, and had exchanged his travelling dress for a state-costume, he appeared, with Cethegus at his side, in the throne-room of the great Theodoric.
The trophies of Gothic valour still hung on the walls of the lofty and vaulted hall. On three sides ran a colonnade; in the middle of the fourth stood the elevated throne of Theodoric.
The Prince ascended the steps of the throne with dignity. Cethegus with Belisarius, Bessas, Demetrius, Johannes, and numerous other leaders, remained standing at a short distance.
"In the name of my Imperial master and uncle, I take possession of this city of Ravenna and of the Western Roman Empire," said Germanus. "To you, magister militum, this writing from our master the Emperor. Break the seal, and read it before the assembly. Such were the orders of Justinian."
Belisarius stepped forward, received the letter upon his knees, kissed the seal, rose, opened it, and read:
"'Justinian, Emperior of the Romans, Lord of the East and West, conqueror of the Persians and Saracens, of the Vandals and Alans, of the Lazians and Sabirians, of the Huns and Bulgarians, the Avarians and Slavonians, and lastly of the Goths, to Belisarius the Consul, lately magister militum. We have been acquainted by Cethegus the Prefect with the events which led to the fall of Ravenna. His report will, at his request, be communicated to you. We, however, cannot at all agree with the good opinion, therein expressed, of you and your successes; and we dispense you from your office as commander-in-chief. We order you by this letter to return at once to Byzantium, to answer for yourself before our throne. We can the less accord you a triumph, such as you received after the Vandal wars, because neither Rome nor Ravenna fell through your valour; Rome having freely capitulated, and Ravenna having fallen by means of an earthquake, which was a sign of the anger of the Almighty against the heretics, and against highly suspicious actions, the harmlessness of which you, accused of high treason, must prove before our throne. As, in consideration of former merit, we would not condemn you unheard—for East and West shall celebrate us to all time as the King of Justice—we refrain from arresting you as your accusers wish. Without chains—only bound by the fetters of your own self-accusing conscience—you will appear before our Imperial countenance.'"
Belisarius reeled; he could read no further; he covered his face with his hands and let the letter fall.
Bessas lifted it up, kissed it, and read on:
"'We name the strategist Bessas as your successor in the army. We charge the Archon Johannes with the care of Ravenna. The administration of the taxes will remain—in spite of the highly unjust complaints made against him by the Italians—in the hands of the logician Alexandros, who is so zealous in our service. And as our Governor in Italy we name the highly-deserving Prefect of Rome, Cornelius Cethegus Cæsarius. Our nephew Germanus, furnished with Imperial power, is answerable for your transport to our fleet off Ariminum, whence Areobindos will take you to Byzantium.'"
Germanus rose, and ordered all present, except Belisarius and Cethegus, to leave the hall.
Then he descended from the throne, and went up to Belisarius, who was now totally unconscious of what was going on around him. He stood immovable, leaning his head and arm against a column, and staring at the ground.
The Prince took his right hand.
"It pains me, Belisarius, to be the bearer of such a message. I undertook it, because I thought that a friend would fulfil such an errand more gently than any of the enemies who were eager to do it. But I cannot deny that this last victory of yours cancels the fame of many former ones. Never could I have expected such a game of lies from the hero Belisarius! Cethegus begged that his report to the Emperor should be laid before you. It is full of your praise. Here it is. I believe it was the Empress who kindled the anger of Justinian against you. But you do not hear——"
And he laid his hand upon the shoulder of the unfortunate man. Belisarius shook it off.
"Let me alone, boy! You bring me—you bring me the true thanks of a crowned head!"
Germanus drew himself up with dignity.
"Belisarius, you forget yourself, and who I am!"
"Oh no! I am a prisoner, and you are my gaoler. I will go at once on board your ship—only spare me chains and fetters."
It was very late before the Prefect could get away from the Prince, who spoke to him with the greatest frankness on state affairs and his own personal wishes.
As soon as Cethegus was alone in his rooms, which had also been appointed to him in the palace, he hastened to read the letter which Lucius Licinius had brought from the Empress. It ran thus:
"You have conquered, Cethegus. As I read your epistle I thought of old times, when your letters to Theodora, written in the same cipher, did not talk of statesmanship and warfare, but of kisses and roses——"
"She must always remind me of that!" cried the Prefect, interrupting his perusal of the letter.
"But even in this letter I recognise the irresistible intellect that, more even than your youthful beauty, conquered the women of Byzantium. And this time also I accede to the wishes of the old friend as I once did to those of the young one. Ah, how I love to think of our youth—our sweet youth! I fully understand that Antonina's spouse would stand far too securely for the future if he did not fall now. So—as you wrote me—I whispered to the Emperor that a subject who could play such a game with crowns and rebellion was too dangerous; no general ought to be exposed to such temptations. What he had this time feigned, he could, at another time, carry into earnest practice. These words weighed more heavily than all Belisarius's success, and my—that is, your—demands were granted. For mistrust is the very soul of Justinian. He trusts no one on earth, except—Theodora. Your messenger, Lucius, is handsome, but unamiable; he has nothing in his head but weapons and Rome. Ah, Cethegus, my friend, youth is now no more what it was! You have conquered, Cethegus—do you remember that evening when I first whispered those words?—but do not forget to whom you owe your victory. And mind: Theodora permits herself to be used as a tool only so long as she likes. Never forget that."
"Certainly not," said Cethegus, as he carefully destroyed the letter. "You are too dangerous an ally, Theodora, my little demon! I will see whether you cannot be replaced.—Patience! In a few weeks Mataswintha will be in Byzantium."
The round tower, in the deepest dungeon of which Witichis was confined, was situated at the angle of the right wing of the palace, the same in which he had dwelt and ruled as King.
The iron door of the tower formed the end of a long passage which led from a court, and which was separated from this court by a heavy iron gate.
Exactly opposite this gate, on the ground-floor of the building at the left side of the court, was the small dwelling of Dromon, the carcerarius or gaoler of the prison.
This dwelling consisted of two small chambers; the first, which was separated from the second by a curtain, was merely an ante-room.
The inner chamber afforded an outlook across the court to the round tower.
Both rooms were very simply furnished. A straw couch in the inner room, and two chairs, a table, and a row of keys upon the walls in the outer room, was almost all that they contained.
Upon the wooden bench in the window abovementioned, sat, day and night—her eyes fixed upon the hole in the wall, through which alone light and air could penetrate to the King's prison—a silent and thoughtful woman.
It was Rauthgundis. Her eyes never left the little chink in the wall, "For," she said to herself, "thither turn all my thoughts—there, where his eyes too are ever fixed."
Even when she spoke to her companion, Wachis, or to the gaoler, she never turned her eyes away. It seemed as if she thought that her mere look could guard the prisoner from every danger.
On the day of which we speak she had sat thus for a long time.
It was evening. Dark and threatening the massive tower rose into the sky, casting a broad shadow over the court and the left wing of the palace.
"Thanks, O Heavenly Father," murmured Rauthgundis; "even the strokes of fate have led to good. If, as I once intended, I had gone to my father upon the High Arn, I should never have heard of all the misery here. Or far too late. But I could not bear to forsake the last resting-place of my child near our home. The last, indeed, I was obliged to leave, for how could I know that she, his Queen, would not come there? I dwelt in the woods near Fæsulæ, and when news came of failure, and one misfortune followed another; when the Persians burnt our house, and I saw the flames from my hiding-place; it was too late to escape to my father. All the roads were blocked, and the Italians delivered all whom they found with yellow hair into the hands of the Massagetæ. No way was open but the road here—to the city where I had ever refused to go as his wife. I came like a fugitive beggar. Wachis, the slave, now the freedman, and Wallada, our horse, alone remained faithful to me. But—forced by God's hand to come, whether I would or not—I found that it was only that I might save him—deliver him from the shameful treachery of his wife, and out of the hands of his enemies! I thank Thee, O God, for this Thy mercy!"
Her attention was attracted by the rattling of the iron gate opposite.
A man with a light came through it across the court, and now entered the ante-room. It was the old gaoler.
"Well? Speak! cried Rauthgundis, leaving her seat and hurrying to him.
"Patience—patience! Let me first set down the lamp. There! Well, he has drunk and it has done him good."
Rauthgundis laid her hand upon her heart.
"'What is he doing?" she asked.
"He always sits in the same position, perfectly silent. He sits on a stone block, his back turned to the door, his head supported on his hands. He gives me no answer when I speak to him. Generally he does not even move; I believe grief and pain have stupefied him. But to-day, when I handed him the wine in the wooden cup and said, 'Drink, dear sir; it comes from true friends,' he looked up. Ah, his look was so sorrowful, as sad as death! He drank deeply, and bowed his head thankfully, and gave such a sigh, that it cut me to the heart."
Rauthgundis covered her eyes with her hand.
"God knows what horrid thing that man means to do to him!" the old man murmured to himself.
"What sayest thou?"
"I say that you must eat and drink well, or else you will lose your strength; and you will need it before long, poor woman!"
"I shall have strength enough!"
"Then take at least a cup of wine."
"Of this wine? No, it is all for him!"
And she went back into the inner chamber, where she again took her old place.
"The flask will last some time," old Dromon said to himself; "but we must save him soon, if he is to be saved at all. There comes Wachis. May he bring good news, else——"
Wachis entered. Since his visit to the Queen he had exchanged his steel cap and mantle for clothes borrowed from Dromon.
"I bring good news!" he cried, as he entered. "But where were you an hour ago? I knocked in vain."
"We had both gone out to buy wine."
"To be sure; that is the reason why the whole room smells so sweet. What do I see? Why, this is old and costly Falernian! How could you pay for it?"
"Pay for it?" repeated the old man. "With the purest gold in the world! I told you that the Prefect had purposely let the King starve, in order to undermine his health. For many days I have received no rations for him. Against my conscience I have kept him alive by depriving the other prisoners. This Rauthgundis would no longer suffer. She fell into deep thought, and then asked me whether the rich Roman ladies still paid so dearly for the yellow locks of the Gothic women. Suspecting nothing, I said 'Yes.' She went away, and soon returned shorn of her beautiful auburn hair, but with a handful of gold. With this the wine was bought."
Wachis went into the next room, and kissing the hand of Rauthgundis, exclaimed: "Good and faithful wife!"
"What art thou doing, Wachis? Rise, and tell me thy news."
"Yes, tell us," said Dromon, joining them. "What says my Paukis? What advice does he give?"
"What matters his advice?" asked Rauthgundis. "I can manage alone."
"We need him very much. The Prefect has formed nine cohorts, after the model of the Roman legionaries, of all the youth of Ravenna, and my Paulus is enrolled amongst them. Luckily, the Prefect has entrusted the guard of the city gates to these legionaries. The Byzantines are placed outside the city in the harbour; the Isaurians here in the palace."
"Yes," continued Wachis; "and these gates are carefully closed at night; but the breach near the Tower of Ætius is not yet repaired. Only sentinels are placed there to guard it."
"When has my son the watch?"
"In two days. He will have the third night-watch."
"Thanks be to the saints! It could not have lasted much longer. I feared——"
"What? Speak!" cried Rauthgundis. "I can bear to hear everything."
"Perhaps it is well that you should know it; for you are cleverer than we two, and will better find out what is to be done. I fear they have something wicked in their heads. As long as Belisarius had the command here, it went well with the King. But since Belisarius has gone and the Prefect—that silent demon!—is master of the palace, things look dangerous. He visits the King every day, and speaks to him for a long time, earnestly and threateningly. I have often listened in the passage. But it seems to have little effect, for the King, I believe, never answers him; and when the Prefect comes out, he looks as black as thunder. For six days I have received no wine for the King, and only a little piece of bread; and the air down there is as mouldy and damp as the grave."
Rauthgundis sighed deeply.
"Yesterday," continued Dromon, "when the Prefect came up, he looked blacker than ever. He asked me——"
"Well? Tell me, whatever it may be!"
"He asked me whether the instruments of torture were in good order!"
Rauthgundis turned pale, but remained silent.
"The wretch!" cried Wachis. "What did you——"
"Do not be afraid; all is safe for a time. 'Clarissimus,' I said—and it is the pure truth—'the screws and pincers, the weights and spikes, and the whole delightful apparatus lie all together as safe as possible.' 'Where?' he asked. 'In the deep sea,' I answered; 'I myself, at the order of King Theodoric, threw them in!' For you must know, Mistress Rauthgundis, that when your master was a simple Earl, he once saved me from being tortured. At his request, the horrible practice was fully abolished. I owe him my life and my sound limbs, and I would gladly risk my neck for him. And, if it cannot be otherwise, I will leave this city with you. But we must not delay long, for the Prefect has no need of my pincers and screws if he once takes it into his head to torture a man's marrow out of his bones. I fear him as I fear the devil!"
"And I hate him as I hate a lie!" cried Rauthgundis sternly.
"So we must be quick," Dromon went on, "before he can carry out his cruel intentions; for he is certainly planning something terrible against the King. I don't know what he can want of the poor prisoner. Now listen, and mark my words. The third night from now, when Paulus keeps the watch, and I take the King his evening drink, I will unlock his chains, throw my mantle over him, and lead him out of the prison and the passage into the court. Thence he will be able to go unnoticed to the gate of the palace, where the sentinel will demand the watch-word. This I shall acquaint him with. When he is once in the street, he must go direct to the Tower of Ætius, where Paulus will let him pass the breach. Outside, in the pine-grove of Diana, at a short distance from the gate, Wachis will wait for him with Wallada. But no one must accompany him; not even you, Rauthgundis. He will escape more surely alone."
"Of what consequence am I? He shall be free; not even bound to me! Thou must not even name my name. I have brought him misfortune enough, I will only look at him once again from the window as he goes away!"
The Prefect now sunned himself in the feeling of supremacy. He was Governor of Italy. By his order the fortifications were repaired and strengthened, the citizens practised in the use of arms all over the country. The representatives of Byzantium could no longer counterbalance him. Their captains had no luck; the siege of Tarvisium, as well as of Verona and Ticinum, made no progress. And Cethegus heard with pleasure that Hildebad, whose troops had been augmented by deserters to the number of about six hundred, had badly beaten Acacius, who had overtaken and attacked him with a thousand Persian horsemen. But Hildebad's road was still blocked by a strong battalion of Byzantines, who marched against him from Mantua—he had intended to join Totila at Tarvisium—and he was obliged to throw himself into the Castle of Castra Nova, which was still occupied by the Goths under Thorismuth.
Here the Byzantines kept him shut up. They could not, however, take the strong fortress, and the Prefect already foresaw that Acacius would soon call upon him to help to destroy the Goths, who could then no longer escape him. It rejoiced him that, since the departure of Belisarius, the forces of Byzantium were proved, in the face of all Italy, to be incapable of putting an end to the resistance of the Goths. And the harshness of the Byzantine financial administration, which had accompanied Belisarius wherever he went—for he could not prevent the practice of draining the resources of the country, which was carried on at the Emperor's command—awakened or heightened the dislike of both town and country to the East Roman rule.
Cethegus took good care not—as Belisarius had often done—to oppose the worst acts of Justinian's officials. It gave him great pleasure when the populations of Neapolis and Rome repeatedly broke out into open rebellion against their oppressors.
When the Goths were completely annihilated, the power of the Byzantines become contemptible, and their tyranny sufficiently hated, Italy might be called upon to assert her independence, and her saviour, her ruler, would be Cethegus.
Notwithstanding, he was troubled by one circumstance—for he was far from undervaluing his enemies. The Gothic war, the last sparks of which were not yet trampled out, might at any time flame up anew, fanned by the national indignation aroused by the treachery which had been practised. It had great weight with the Prefect that the most hated leaders of the Goths, Totila and Teja, had not been taken in the trap laid at Ravenna.
For the purpose, therefore, of preventing such a national uprising as he feared, he attempted to drag from the Gothic King a declaration, that he had surrendered himself and the city without hope and without condition, and that he called upon his people to abstain from fruitless resistance. He also wished his prisoner to tell him in what castle the war-treasure of Theodoric was concealed.
Even in those days such a treasure, as a means of gaining foreign princes and mercenaries, was of the highest importance. If the Goths lost it, they would lose their best chance of strengthening their exhausted forces by the aid of foreign weapons.
And it was the Prefect's greatest wish not to let this treasure—which legend spoke of as immense—fall into the hands of the Byzantines—whose need of money, and the tyranny caused by this need, were such active allies in his plans—but to secure it for himself. His means were also not inexhaustible. But opposed to the calm steadfastness of his prisoner, the Prefect's efforts to extort the secret were vain.
All necessary measures had been taken for the escape of the King.
Rauthgundis and Wachis had made themselves thoroughly acquainted with the pine-grove where the faithful freedman was to wait with the charger of Dietrich of Bern.
And it was with the confidence which completed preparations always lend to a stout heart, that Rauthgundis returned to the dwelling of the gaoler.
But she turned pale when the latter rushed to meet her with an air of desperation, and dragged her across the threshold.
Once in the room, he threw himself on his knees before her, beating his breast with his fists and tearing his grey hair.
For some time he could find no words.
"Speak," cried Rauthgundis, pressing her hand to her wildly-beating heart. "Is he dead?"
"No; but flight is impossible! all is lost! all is lost! An hour ago the Prefect came, and went down to the King. As usual, I opened both doors for him, the passage and the prison door, and then——"
"Then he took both keys from me, saying he would keep them in future himself."
"And thou gavest them up!" said Rauthgundis, grinding her teeth.
"How could I refuse? I did all I could. I kept them back and asked: 'Master, do you no longer trust me?' He looked at me with a look that seemed to pierce soul and body. 'From this moment,' he said, 'no longer,' and snatched the keys from my hand."
"And thou didst not prevent him?"
"Oh, mistress, you are unjust! What could you have done in my place? Nothing!"
"I should have strangled him. And now? What shall we do now?"
"Do? Nothing! Nothing can be done!"
"He must be liberated. Dost thou hear? he must!"
"But, mistress, I know not how."
Rauthgundis caught up an axe which lay near the hearth.
"We will open the doors by force."
Dromon tried to take the axe from her hand.
"It is impossible! They are thickly plated with iron."
"Then send for the monster! Tell him that Witichis desires to speak with him, and I will strike him down at the passage door."
"And then? You rave! Let me go out. I will call Wachis away from his useless watch."
"No! I cannot think that we shall not succeed. Perhaps that devil will return of his own accord. Perhaps—" she continued reflectively—"Ha!" she cried suddenly, "it must be so. He wants to murder him! He intends to steal alone to the defenceless prisoner. But woe to him if he come! I will guard the threshold of that door as if it were a sanctuary, and woe to him if he cross it!"
She leaned heavily against the half-door of the room, and swung the ponderous axe.
But Rauthgundis was wrong.
Not to kill his prisoner had the Prefect taken the keys into his own keeping.
He had gone with them in his hand to the south side of the palace, where he gained admittance to Mataswintha's room.
The stillness of death and the excitement of fever alternated so rapidly in Mataswintha, that Aspa could never look at her mistress without the tears rushing to her eyes.
"Most beautiful daughter of the Germans," began the Prefect, "dissipate the cloud which rests upon your white brow, and listen to me calmly."
"How is the King? You leave me without news. You promised to let him go free when all was decided. You promised that he should be taken over the Alps. You have not kept your word."
"I promised it on two conditions. You know them well, and you have not yet done your part. Tomorrow the nephew of the Emperor will return from Ariminum, ready to take you to Byzantium, and I desire you to give him hopes that you will become his bride. Your marriage with Witichis was forced and null."
"No, never! I have told you so before."
"I am sorry for it, for the sake of my prisoner, for he will not see the light of day again until you are on the way to Byzantium with Germanus."
"Do not irritate me, Mataswintha. The folly of the girl who bought the Ares' head at such a high price, is, I think, outgrown. For that once enamoured being has since sacrificed the Ares of the Goths to his enemies. But if you still honour that dream of girlhood, then save the man you once loved."
Mataswintha shook her head.
"Until now I have treated you as a free agent, as a Queen. Do not remind me that you, as well as he, are in my power. You will become the wife—soon the widow—of this noble Prince—and Justinian—Byzantium—the whole world, will lie at your feet. Daughter of the Amelungs, is it possible that you do not love power?"
"I only love—— Never!"
"Then I must force you."
"You? Force me?"
"Yes, I force you! (She still loves the man she has ruined!) The second condition is this: that the prisoner fill up this empty space with a name—the name of the castle in which the treasure of the Goths is concealed—and sign the declaration. He refuses to do this with a stubbornness which begins to anger me. Seven times I, the conqueror, have been to him. He would never yet speak to me. And the first time I went I received a look for which alone he deserves to lose his haughty head."
"He will never consent!"
"That remains to be seen. The continual dropping of water wears away a stone at last. But I can wait no longer. Early to-day I received word that that mad Hildebad, in a furious sally, has beaten Bessas so thoroughly, that the latter can scarcely continue the siege. Everywhere the Goths rebel. I must go and make an end of it, and extinguish these last sparks with the water of deception, which is better than blood. To this end I must have the King's declaration, and the secret of the castle. Therefore I tell you that if, before to-morrow, you do not consent to accompany the Prince to Byzantium, and have not procured for me the signature of the prisoner, witnessed as such by yourself, I will—I swear by the Styx—kill——"
Horrified at the awful expression of Cethegus's face, Mataswintha started from her seat and grasped his arm.
"You will not kill him!"
"Yes; or rather, I will first torture him, then blind him, and afterwards kill him!"
"No! no!" screamed Mataswintha.
"I am resolved. The executioners are ready. And you, you shall tell him this. He will believe that I am in earnest when he sees your despair. You will perhaps be able to soften him; the sight of me only hardens him. Perhaps he thinks that he is still in the hands of Belisarius, that tender-hearted hero. You will tell him in whose power he really is. Here are the documents—here the keys which open his prison. You shall choose the hour yourself."
A ray of joyful hope shone from Mataswintha'a eyes. Cethegus failed not to remark it, but, smiling calmly, he left the room.
Soon after the Prefect had left the Queen it became quite dark.
The sky was thickly covered with ragged clouds, which were driven across the moon by the fierce wind, so that brief and uncertain light alternated with a gloom rendered greater by contrast.
Dromon had completed his evening round of the cells, and returned to his dwelling tired and sad.
He found no light within. He could scarcely make out that Rauthgundis was still leaning against the half«door, the axe in her hand, her eyes fixed upon the door of the passage.
"Let me strike a light, mistress, and kindle the chips upon the hearth. Share the evening meal with me. Come, you wait here in vain."
"No, no light, no fire! I can see better what happens in the court without, for it is moonlight."
"Well, at least come in here and rest yourself. Here is bread and meat."
"Shall I eat while he hungers?"
"You will be exhausted! Of what are you thinking the whole evening?"
"Of what am I thinking?" repeated Rauthgundis, still looking out. "I am thinking how often we have sat in the colonnade before our beautiful house, when the fountain splashed in the garden and the cicalas chirped in the trees. The cool night-breeze fanned his beloved face, and I nestled against his shoulder, and we did not speak one word, and above us was the silent march of the stars. And we listened to the deep and peaceful breathing of our child, who had fallen asleep upon my lap, his little hands, like soft white fetters, clasping the arm of his father. Alas! his arm now wears other fetters! Iron fetters—that pain——"
And she pressed her forehead against the iron grating, until she, too, felt pain.
"Mistress, why do you torment yourself thus? We cannot help it!"
"'But we will help it! I must save him and——Dromon! look there! What is that?" she whispered, and pointed at something in the court.
The old man hastened noiselessly to her side.
In the court was a tall white figure, which seemed to glide stealthily along the wall.
At brief intervals, but sharp and clear, the moonlight fell upon it.
"It is a Lemure! The ghost of some one who has been murdered here!" said the old man, trembling. "God and all the saints protect us!"
He crossed himself and covered his head with his mantle.
"No," said Rauthgundis, "the dead do not return from the other world! Now it has disappeared—all is dark. Ha! the moon breaks through once—more there it is again! It moves towards the passage-door. What is that shining red in the white light? Ha! it is the Queen—that is her red hair? She stops at the door! She opens it! She is going to murder him in his sleep!"
"God knows, it is the Queen! But she murder him! How could she?"
"She could! But, as I live, she shall not! Follow her! A miracle opens the door to us. But softly, softly!"
And she went out on tiptoe into the court, the axe still in her hand, slowly and stealthily, seeking the shadow. Dromon followed her closely.
Meanwhile Mataswintha, for she it was, had opened the door and gone forward, down many steps and then through a small passage, feeling the way with her hands.
She now reached the door of the prison. She opened it very softly.
Through an aperture high up on the wall, where a stone had been taken out, a slanting strip of moonlight fell into the square and narrow dungeon.
The light revealed the prisoner. He sat motionless upon a block of stone, his back turned to the door, his head supported on his hands.
Mataswintha trembled and leaned against the doorpost. The air felt damp and icy-cold. She shivered. She could not say a word for very horror.
Witichis remarked the draught of air from the open door. He lifted his head, but did not look round.
"Witichis—King Witichis—" at last stammered Mataswintha; "it is I! Dost thou hear me?"
But the prisoner did not move.
"I come to save thee—fly! Thou art free!"
But the prisoner dropped his head again.
"Oh, speak!—oh, only look at me!"
She now went quite into the dungeon. Gladly would she have touched his arm, and taken his hand, but she did not yet dare.
"Cethegus will kill thee!" she said; "torture thee. He surely will if thou dost not fly!"
And now her desperation gave her courage. She drew nearer.
"But thou wilt fly! Thou shalt not die! I must save thee! I beseech thee, fly, fly! Oh, thou dost not hear me, and time presses! Sometime thou shalt know everything! but now fly—to life and liberty! I have the keys of the doors! fly, fly!" And now she grasped his arm and tried to drag him from his seat.
But she heard the rattling of chains—on his arms on his feet. He was chained to the block of stone.
"Oh! what is this?" she cried, and fell upon her knees.
"Stone and iron," he said, in a toneless voice. "Leave me, I am doomed. And even if these bonds did not hold me—I would not follow thee. Back to the world? The world is one great lie. Everything is a lie."
"Thou art right. It is better to die. Let me die with thee, but forgive me! For I, too, have lied to thee."
"It is very possible. It does not surprise me."
"But thou wilt forgive me before we die? I have hated thee—I have rejoiced in thy ruin—I have—oh, it is so hard to tell! I have not the strength to confess it! And yet I must have thy forgiveness. Oh, forgive me!—give me thy hand as a sign of thy pardon."
But Witichis had sunk back into his former stupor.
"Oh, I beseech thee—forgive me, whatever I may have done!"
"Go—why should I not forgive thee? thou art like the rest—not better and not worse."
"No, I am more wicked than all—and yet better. At least more miserable. It is true that I hated thee, but only because thou hast ever thrust me from thee. Thou wouldst not permit me to share thy life. Forgive me!—O God! I only wish to die with thee!—give me thy hand as a sign of pardon!"
Kneeling and beseeching, she stretched out both her hands.
The King again lifted his head. The kindness of his nature awoke within him, and overpowered his own dull pain.
"Mataswintha," he said, lifting his chained hand, "go. I am sorry for thee. Let me die alone. Whatever thou mayst have done—go—I forgive thee."
"O Witichis!" breathed Mataswintha, and would have clasped his hand, but she felt herself suddenly and violently dragged away.
"Incendiary! never shall he forgive thee! Come, Witichis!—my Witichis!—follow me; thou art free!"
The King sprang up, roused to life by this voice.
"Rauthgundis! My wife! Thou hast never lied! Thou art true! at last I have thee again!"
And, with a gasp of joy, he stretched out his arms. His wife flew to his bosom, and tear's of delight rushed from their eyes.
But Mataswintha, who had risen, tottered to the wall. She slowly stroked her loose red hair out of her eyes and looked at the pair, who were illuminated by the bright moonlight from the chink in the wall.
"How he loves her! Yes, he will follow her! But he shall not! He shall remain and die with me!"
"Delay no longer!" said the voice of Dromon at the door.
"Come, come quickly, my life!" cried Rauthgundis.
She drew a little key from her bosom and felt at the chains, seeking the small opening of the lock.
"What? Shall I really breathe once more the air of freedom?" asked the prisoner, half sinking back into his stupor.
"Yes; the free and open air!" cried Rauthgundis, and threw the loosened chains to the ground. "Here, Witichis, here is a weapon! an axe! Take it!"
Eagerly the Goth took the axe and weighed it in his hand.
"Ha! how the weapon strengthens my arm and soul!"
"I knew it, my brave Witichis," said Rauthgundis, kneeling down and unlocking the chain which bound his left foot to the block of stone. "Now step out, for thou art free!"
Witichis, raising the axe in his right hand, made a step toward the door.
"And she is permitted to loose his chains!" whispered Mataswintha.
"Yes, free!" cried Witichis, drawing a deep breath. "Come, Rauthgundis, let us go!"
"He goes with her!" screamed Mataswintha, and cast herself before the pair. "Witichis—farewell—but tell me once more—that thou hast forgiven me!"
"Forgiven thee!" cried Rauthgundis. "Never—never! She has destroyed our kingdom—she has betrayed thee! It was no lightning—it was her hand which kindled the granaries!"
"Ha—then be thou accursed!" cried Witichis. "Away, away from this serpent!" and, thrusting Mataswintha violently away, he crossed the threshold, followed by Rauthgundis.
"Witichis," screamed Mataswintha, dragging herself up—"stay—stay! Hear one word—Witichis!"
"Be silent," said Dromon, grasping her arm. "You will alarm the guard!"
But Mataswintha, now no more mistress of herself, ran up the steps into the passage. "Stay, Witichis—stay!" she screamed. "Thou canst not leave me thus!" and fell fainting to the earth.
Dromon hurried past her, and followed the fugitives.
But the shrill cries of Mataswintha had already reached the ear of one who ever slept lightly. Cethegus, his sword in his hand, and only half dressed, came out of his chamber into the gallery which looked over the square court of the palace.
"Guards!" he cried. "To arms!"
The soldiers were already astir.
Scarcely had Witichis, Rauthgundis, and Dromon left the passage and safely reached the dwelling of the latter, when six Isaurian mercenaries rushed noisily into the passage.
Quick as thought Rauthgundis ran out of the house to the heavy iron door, shut it, turned the key, and took it out.
"Now they can do no harm," she whispered.
The husband and wife presently hastened from Dromon's house to the great gate which led from the court into the street. The single sentinel who had remained behind stopped them and demanded the watchword. "Rome," he cried, "and——"
"Revenge!" cried Witichis, and struck him down with the axe.
The sentinel screamed and fell, hurling his spear at the fugitives. It pierced the last of the three—Dromon.
As Witichis and Rauthgundis rushed down the marble stairs of the palace into the street, they heard the imprisoned soldiers thundering at the strong iron door, and a loud voice calling: "Syphax, my horse!" Then they disappeared into the darkness.
A few minutes later the courtyard was bright with the lights of many torches, and several horsemen galloped off to the different gates of the city.
"Six thousand solidi to whoever takes him alive; three thousand if he be brought in dead!" cried Cethegus, swinging himself into the saddle. "Up, Sons of the Wind, Ellak and Mondzach, Huns and Massagetæ! Ride as you have never ridden before!"
"But whither?" asked Syphax, as he galloped out of the gate at his master's aide.
"That is difficult to say. But all the gates are closed and guarded. They can only escape by a breach."
"There are two large breaches."
"Look at Jupiter, which is just rising from behind the clouds in the east. It seems to sign to me. In that direction——"
"Lies the breach near the Tower of Ætius."
"Good! Then thither—I follow my star!"
Meantime the fugitives had happily reached the breach, where Paulus, the son of Dromon, let them pass. In the pine-grove of Diana they found their faithful Wachis and two horses.
The husband and wife mounted Wallada. The freedman took the other horse and rode off at a gallop towards the river, which at this point was very broad.
Witichis held Rauthgundis before him.
"My wife—losing thee I had lost all: life and courage. But now I will once more try for the kingdom. Oh, how could I ever let thee go, thou soul of my soul!"
"Thine arm is wounded with the chaffing of the chain. Lay it across my neck, my Witichis."
"Forward, Wallada—quick! It is for life or death!"
They now issued from the grove into the open country. They reached the shore of the river.
Wachis was trying to urge his rearing steed into the dark flood. The animal shyed and resisted.
The freedman sprang off.
"It is very deep, very rapid," he said. "For three days the river has been unusually full. The ford is useless. The horses will have to swim, and the current will drag us far to the left. There are rocks in the stream, and the moonlight is so inconstant and deceptive."
He looked doubtfully and searchingly up and down the river.
"Hark! what was that?" asked Rauthgundis. "It was not the wind in the trees."
"It is horses!" cried Witichis. "They approach rapidly. I hear the clatter of arms. There—torches! Now into the river for life or death—but softly!"
He urged his horse into the water.
"There is no footing. The horses must swim. Hold fast by the mane, Rauthgundis. Forward, Wallada!"
Snorting and trembling, the noble animal looked at the black water. His mane was blown wildly about his head—he held his fore-feet stretched out, his haunches drawn in.
"Forward, Wallada!" said Witichis, and called softly into the faithful animal's ear, "Theodoric!"
At this the charger sprang willingly into the water.
The pursuing horsemen had already galloped out of the wood, Cethegus foremost; at his side rode Syphax with a torch.
"Here the track disappears in the sand, master."
"They are in the river. Forward, Huns!"
But the horsemen drew rein and stood stock-still.
"Well, Ellak, why do you linger? At once into the flood!"
"Sir, we cannot. Before we ride into running water at night-time, we must ask forgiveness of Phug, the water-spirit. We must first pray to him."
"Pray when you are across as long as you like; but now——"
Just then a strong gust of wind blew from the river and extinguished all the torches.
The river rushed and roared.
"You see, sir, that Phug is angry."
"Be silent. Did you see nothing? There to the left."
The moon just then glanced between the driving clouds. It shone upon the light-coloured garments of Rauthgundis. She had lost her brown mantle.
"Aim quickly; there!"
"We cannot; we must first finish our worship!"
The clouds passed across the moon, and it was again quite dark.
With a curse, Cethegus snatched bow and quiver from the shoulder of the chief of the Huns.
"Come on!" cried Wachis in a low voice, when he had almost reached the opposite shore; "come quickly, before the moon issues from that narrow strip of cloud!"
"Halt, Wallada!" cried Witichis, as he dismounted in order to lighten the burden, and held fast by the horse's mane. "Here is a rock. Take care, Rauthgundis."
Horse, man, and woman were checked for a moment while balancing upon the top of the rock, past which the water rushed and gurgled in a deep whirl.
Suddenly the moon shone out clear and bright. It illuminated the surface of the stream and the group on the rock.
"It is they!" cried Cethegus, who held his bow and arrow ready.
He took a rapid aim, and pulled the string.
Whistling, the long black-feathered arrow flew from the string.
"Rauthgundis!" cried Witichis in terror; for his wife started convulsively and sank forward upon the horse's neck. But she did not utter a groan. "Rauthgundis, thou art hit?"
"I believe so. Leave me here and save thyself."
"Never! Let me support thee."
"For God's sake, sir, stoop! dive! They take aim again!"
The Huns had finished praying. They rode a short way into the water, fixing their arrows and taking aim.
"Leave me, Witichis. Fly! I will die here."
"No; I will never leave thee again!"
He lifted her out of the saddle, and tried to hide her on the rock. The group stood in the full light of the moon.
"Yield, Witichis!" cried Cethegus, spurring his horse up to its haunches in the water.
"A curse upon thee, thou traitor!" was the reply of Witichis.
Twelve arrows whizzed at once. The charger of Theodoric leaped wildly forward, and sank for ever into the flood.
But Witichis also was mortally wounded.
"With thee!" sighed Rauthgundis. She held him closely with both arms.
And, locked in a fast embrace, husband and wife sank into the river.
In bitter grief, Wachis, on the farther shore, called their names. In vain. Three times he called, and then galloped away into the night.
"Get the bodies out," ordered Cethegus grimly, turning his horse to the bank.
And the Huns rode and swam to the rock, and sought for the bodies. But they sought in vain.
The rapid current had carried man and wife, united now for ever, into the free and open sea.
The same day Prince Germanus had returned from Ariminum to the harbour of Ravenna, ready to take Mataswintha to Byzantium.
The latter was only roused from the faint into which she had fallen when left by Witichis and Rauthgundis, by the noise of the hammers with which the work-people broke open the passage to liberate the soldiers.
The Princess was found crouching upon the steps of the prison. She was carried up to her chamber in a high fever. She lay for hours upon her purple cushions without moving or speaking, her eyes fixed in a wild stare.
Towards noon Cethegus asked for admission.
His look was dark and threatening; his expression cold as ice.
He went up to Mataswintha's couch.
"He is dead!" she quietly said.
"He would not have it otherwise. He—and you. It is useless to reproach you. But you see what ensues when you oppose me. The report of his death will inevitably rouse the barbarians to new fury. You have created a difficult task for me; for you only are the cause of his flight and death. The least that you can do to atone for this is to fulfil my second wish. Prince Germanus has landed. He comes to fetch you. You will follow him."
"Where is the corpse?"
"It has not been found. The current has carried it away; his body and—the woman's."
Mataswintha's lips twitched.
"Even in death! She died with him?"
"Think no more of the dead. In two hours I will return with the Prince. Will you then be prepared to welcome him?"
"I shall be ready."
"'Tis well. We will be punctual."
"I also. Aspa, call all my slaves; they shall adorn me richly to meet this Prince. Diadem, purple, and silk."
"She has lost her senses," Cethegus said to himself as he left the room. "But women are tough; she will recover them. These women can live, even when their hearts are broken."
He went to console the impatient Prince.
Before the expiration of the time appointed, a slave came to invite the two men to come to the Queen.
Germanus crossed the threshold of her room with a rapid step. But he stood still astonished. He had never seen the Gothic Princess looking so lovely, so queenly.
She had placed a high golden diadem upon her shining hair, which fell over her shoulders in two thick tresses. Her under-dress of heavy white silk, embroidered with golden flowers, was only visible below the knee, for the upper part of her body was covered by the royal purple. Her face was white and cold as marble: her eyes blazed with a strange and supernatural light.
"Prince Germanus," she said, as he entered, "you once spoke to me of love; but do you know of what you spoke? To love is to die."
Germanus looked inquiringly at the Prefect, who now came forward.
He was about to speak, but Mataswintha, in a clear loud voice, recommenced:
"Prince Germanus, you are famed as the most highly-cultivated man of a learned court, where it is a favourite pastime to practise the solving of finely-pointed riddles. I also will put to you a riddle; see to it that you solve it. Let the clever Prefect, who so well understands human nature, help you. What is this?—A wife, and yet a maid; a widow, and yet no wife? You cannot guess? You are right; death alone resolves all riddles!"
With a sudden movement, she cast off her purple robe.
There was a flash of steel! She had stabbed herself to the heart.
With a shriek, Germanus and Aspa (who had stood behind) sprang forward.
Cethegus silently caught the falling figure.
She died as soon as he drew the sword from her breast. He knew the sword. He himself had sent it to her.
It was the sword of King Witichis.
"Well for us that this sunny youth still lives!"—
Margrave Ruediger of Bechelaren, Act i., Scene i.
A few days after the death of Mataswintha and the departure of Prince Germanus, who was deeply shocked by the sad event, a message came from Castra Nova, which rendered necessary the march of Byzantine troops from Ravenna.
Hildebad had been informed, by fugitive Goths, who had made their way in disguise through the lines of the besiegers, of the treacherous imprisonment of the King.
On hearing the news, he sent word to Cethegus and Belisarius, through some prisoners whom he released, that he challenged them, either together or singly, to mortal combat, "if they had a drop of courage in their veins, or a trace of honour in their souls."
"He thinks that Belisarius is still in the country, and does not seem to fear him greatly," said Bessas.
"This might be a means," said Cethegus cunningly, of ruining the turbulent fellow. "But, certainly, it needs great courage—such courage as Belisarius possesses."
"You know that I do not yield to him a jot in that," answered Bessas.
"Good," said Cethegus. "Then follow me to my house. I will show you how to destroy this giant. You shall succeed where Belisarius failed." But he said to himself, "Bessas is indeed a tolerably bad commander; but Demetrius is still worse, and therefore easier to lead. And I owe Bessas a grudge for that affair of the Tiburtinian Gate at Rome."
The Prefect had not without reason feared that the almost extinguished resistance of the Goths would be renewed on hearing of the treason practised on their King.
No exact report had yet reached old Hildebrand at Verona, Totila at Tarvisium, or Teja at Ticinum.
They had only heard that Ravenna had fallen, and that the King was imprisoned.
Vague rumours of treachery accompanied this report, and the friends of the King, in their pain and anger, were persuaded that the fall of the strong fortress and of the brave King had not been effected by honest means.
Instead of discouraging them, this misfortune only increased the strength of their resistance.
They weakened their besiegers by repeated and successful sallies.
And the enemy felt almost constrained to raise the siege, for already signs of an important change of circumstance crowded upon them from all sides.
This change was, in fact, a rapidly progressing reversion of feeling in the Italian population, at least of the middle classes: the merchants and artisans of the towns; the peasants and farmers of the country.
The Italians had everywhere greeted the Byzantines as liberators.
But after a short period their exultation died away.
Whole troops of officials followed Belisarius from Byzantium, sent by Justinian to reap without delay the fruits of the war, and to fill the ever-empty treasury of the East with the riches of Italy.
In the midst of all the suffering caused by the war, these zealous officials began their work.
As soon as Belisarius had occupied a town, his treasurer summoned all free citizens to the Curia or to the Forum; ordered them to divide themselves into six classes according to their wealth, and then called upon each class to value the property of the class above it.
According to this valuation, the imperial officials then laid the highest possible tax upon each class.
And, as these officials were almost necessitated, because of the retention and curtailment of their never punctually paid salaries, to think of filling their own pockets as well as the Emperor's treasury, the oppression they put in practice became intolerable.
They were not content with the high rates which the Emperor required to be paid in advance for three years; the special tax laid upon every liberated town of Italy as a "gratitude tax"—besides the large contributions and requisitions which Belisarius and his generals were obliged to demand for the use of the army—for neither gold nor provisions came from Byzantium—but every official sought to extort special payments, by special means, out of the richer citizens.
They everywhere ordered a revision of the tax-lists, discovered arrears owing since the times of the Gothic Kings, even from the days of Odoacer, and left the citizens the option of paying immense sums for indemnity or of carrying on a ruinous lawsuit with Justinian's fiscus, who scarcely ever lost one.
But if the tax-lists were incomplete or destroyed—which happened often enough in those times of war—the accountants arbitrarily reconstructed them.
In short, all the arts of finance which had ruined the provinces of the Eastern Empire were practised in Italy, after the landing of Belisarius, as far as imperial arms could reach.
Without consideration for the misery of war-time, the tax executors unyoked the oxen of the peasant from the plough, took his tools from the workshop of the artisan, and his wares from the house of the merchant.
In many towns the people rebelled against their oppressors and drove them away; but they only returned in larger numbers with severer measures.
The Mauretanian horsemen of Justinian, with African bloodhounds, hunted the desperate peasants from their hiding-places in the woods, whither they had fled to escape the tax-gatherer. And Cethegus, who alone was in a position to check such deeds, looked on with calculating coolness.
He desired that, before the end of the war, all Italy should have become acquainted with the tyranny of Byzantium, for then it would be a lighter task for him to persuade the people to rise and, when they had got rid of the Goths, to throw off the burden of the Byzantines. He listened to the complaints of the deputations from various towns, who appealed to him for assistance, with a shrug and the laconic answer:
"That is only Byzantine government—you must get used to it."
"No," had answered the deputation from Rome, "one does not get accustomed to what is unbearable. The Emperor may live to see that of which he has never even dreamed!"
To Cethegus this could only mean the independence of Italy; he knew of nothing else.
But he was mistaken.
Although he thought meanly enough of his countrymen and the times in which he lived, he yet believed that he could elevate them by example.
But the thought so natural to his spirit; as necessary to him as the air he breathed—the freedom and independence of Italy—was far too grand for the comprehension of that generation.
They could only vacillate between two masters.
And when the yoke of Byzantium proved unbearable they began to recall to their memory the milder rule of the Goths; a possibility which had never entered the Prefect's head.
And yet such was the case.
Before Tarvisium, Ticinum, and Verona, there now happened on a small scale, that which was preparing on a large one in such cities as Neapolis and Rome. The Italian country-people revolted against the Byzantine officials and soldiers, and the inhabitants of the above-named three cities supported the Goths in every possible manner.
So, when Totila, backed by the armed peasants of the plains, had destroyed a great part of their works, the besiegers of Tarvisium were obliged to cease their attacks, and limit themselves to the defence of their camp, thus enabling Totila to draw supplies and soldiers from the neighbouring country.
With a more cheerful spirit than usual he one evening made his round of the walls of Tarvisium.
Rosy clouds floated across the sky, and the sun, as it sank behind the Venetian hills, gilded all the plain before him.
With emotion he watched the peasants from the neighbourhood streaming through the open gates of the city, bringing bread, meat, and wine to his half-starved Goths; who, on their part, hurried out into the open country, and Germans and Italians, embracing, celebrated the victory which they had together gained over their hated enemies.
"Is it then impossible," said Totila to himself, "to preserve and propagate this amity through the whole country? Is it a necessity that these two nations should be eternally divided? How their friendship embellishes each! Have we not also failed, in that we ever treated the Italians as the vanquished? We meet them with suspicion, instead of with generous confidence. We demand their obedience, and neglect to win their affection. And it would have been well worth the winning! Had it been won—never would Byzantium have gained a footing here! The release from my vow—Valeria—would not have been so unattainable. Would that it were permitted me to strive for this goal in my way!"
His reflections and dreams were interrupted by a messenger from the outposts, announcing that the enemy had suddenly forsaken their camp, and were in fall retreat to the south, towards Ravenna. On the road to the west clouds of dust were seen: a large body of horsemen was approaching—probably Goths.
Totila received the news with joy, but also with doubt. He took all necessary measures against a stratagem.
But during the night his doubts were resolved. He was awakened by the news of a Gothic victory, and the arrival of the victor.
He hurried out and found Hildebrand, Teja, Thorismuth, and Wachis.
With the cry of "Victory! victory!" his friends greeted him, and Teja and Hildebrand announced that at Ticina, and Verona also, the country-people had rebelled against the Byzantines, and had aided the Goths in falling upon the besiegers, whom, after destroying their defences, they had forced to retreat.
But in spite of this joyful news, there lay in Teja's eyes and voice a deeper melancholy than usual.
"What of sorrow hast thou to communicate, beside this joy?" asked Totila.
"The shameful ruin of the best man in the world!" said Teja, and signed to Wachis, who now related the sufferings and death of the King and his wife.
"I escaped the arrows of the Huns by hiding amongst the rushes. Thus I still live. But only for one thing; that is, to revenge my master upon his betrayer and murderer—Cethegus the Prefect."
"No; the Prefect is mine!" said Teja.
"Thou, Totila, hast the first right to his life," said Hildebrand, "for thou hast a brother to revenge."
"My brother Hildebad!" cried Totila. "What of him?"
"He has been shamefully murdered by the Prefect," said Thorismuth, "before my very eyes, and I could not prevent it."
"My strong Hildebad dead!" exclaimed Totila. "Speak!"
"The hero lay with us in the Castle of Castra Nova, near Mantua," related Thorismuth. "The report of the King's treacherous death had reached us. Hildebad challenged Belisarius and Cethegus to mortal combat. Presently a herald arrived, who said that Belisarius had accepted the challenge, and expected thy brother on the plain between our walls and their camp. Thy brother set forth rejoicing; we horsemen followed. And verily, there rode out of a tent, in his golden armour, with closed helm and white plume, with his round shield—well known to us all—the hero, Belisarius. Only twelve horsemen followed him; foremost of all, Cethegus the Prefect. The other Byzantines halted just outside the camp. Hildebad ordered me to follow him with an equal number of horsemen. The two combatants greeted each other with their spears; the trumpets sounded, and Hildebad rushed at his enemy. The next moment the latter lay upon the ground, pierced through and through. Thy brother, unhurt, dismounted, crying: 'That was no thrust from Belisarius!' and opened the visor of the dying man. 'Bessas!' cried Hildebad, and looked, furious at the deception, towards his enemies. Then the Prefect gave a sign. The twelve Moorish horsemen hurled their spears, and, severely hit, thy brother fell."
Totila covered his face. Teja went sympathisingly up to him.
"Listen to the end," said Thorismuth. "When we saw this murder, we were filled with fury. We threw ourselves upon the enemy, who, trusting that we should be discouraged, pressed forward from the camp. After a hot fight, we compelled them to fly. Only the speed of his devilish horse saved the Prefect, who was wounded in the shoulder by my spear. Thy brother lived to see our victory. He caused the chest which he had brought from Ravenna to be carried down to the Castle; opened it, and said to me: 'Crown, shield, and sword of Theodoric. Take them to my brother.' And with his last breath he cried: 'He must revenge me and renew our kingdom. Tell him—that I loved him very dearly!' Then he sank back upon his shield, and his faithful soul departed."
"My brother! Oh, my beloved brother!" cried Totila, leaning against a pillar. Tears flowed from his eyes.
There was a moment of reverent silence.
Then: "Remember thine oath!" cried Hildebrand. "He was doubly thy brother! Thou wilt revenge him!"
"Yes," said Totila, and involuntarily he drew the sword—which Teja handed to him—from its sheath. "I will revenge him!"
It was the sword of Theodoric.
"And renew the kingdom," said old Hildebrand solemnly, and, taking the crown, he set it upon Totila's head. "Hail to thee, King of the Goths!"
He raised his left hand to the golden coronet.
"What do ye?" he exclaimed.
"That which is right. The dying hero's words were prophecy! Thou wilt surely renew the kingdom. Three victories call upon thee to take up the struggle. Remember thine oath. We are not yet defenceless. Shall we lay down our weapons? Shall we submit to treachery and tricks?"
"No," cried Totila, "that we will not. And it is well done to choose a king, as a sign of renewed hope. But here stands Earl Teja, worthier than I, of proved experience. Choose Teja!"
"No," said Teja, shaking his head, "it is thy turn first! Thy dying brother has sent thee this sword and crown. Wear them happily! If the kingdom can be saved, it is thou who canst save it; if not, an avenger must be left."
"But now," interrupted Hildebrand, "now we must hasten to sow the seeds of confidence in all hearts. This is thine office, Totila! See, the young day breaks in glory. The first rays of the sun fall into the hall and kiss, thy brow! It is a sign from the gods! Hail, King Totila—thou that shalt renew the Gothic kingdom!"
The youth pressed the glittering crown firmly upon his golden locks, and raised Theodoric's sword towards the morning sun.
"Yes!" he cried, "if human strength can do it, I will raise anew the kingdom of the Goths."
And King Totila kept his word.
Once again he raised the Goths, whose sole hold on Italy was embodied in a few thousand men and three cities, to a great power, greater even than in the days of Theodoric.
He drove the Byzantines out of all the towns of Italy, with one fatal exception.
He won back the islands of Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicilia.
And still more: he victoriously crossed the old limits of the kingdom, and, as the Emperor obstinately refused recognition of the Gothic rule and possession, sent his royal fleet to carry terror and devastation into the provinces of the Eastern Empire.
And Italy, in spite of the continuance of the war—which was never quite extinguished—bloomed under his government as in the time of Theodoric.
It is remarkable that the legends both of the Goths and Italians celebrate this fortunate King, now as the grandchild of Numa Pompilius, Titus, or Theodoric, now as the spirit of the latter, returned to earth in youthful form, to restore and bless his well-beloved kingdom.
As the morning sun, issuing from the clouds of night, irresistibly spreads light and blessing abroad, so Totila's arms brought happiness to Italy.
The dark shadows retreated step by step at his approach. Victory flew before him, and the gates of the cities and the hearts of men opened to him almost without a struggle.
The manly qualities—the genius of a general and a ruler—which had slumbered in this fair youth, which were only guessed at by Theodoric and Teja, and known to their full extent to no one, were now gloriously displayed.
The youthful freshness of his nature, far from being destroyed by the hard trials of the last years, by the sufferings which he had endured in Neapolis and before Rome, by the long absence from his beloved Valeria, from whom he was parted farther and farther by every fresh victory of the Byzantines, had only deepened into more earnest manliness. The bright sympathy of his manner remained, and cast the charm of amiability and heartfelt kindness over all his actions.
Sustained by his own ideality, he tamed trustingly to the ideal in his fellow-men; and almost all, except those governed by some diabolical power, found his confident appeal to what was noble and good irresistible.
As light illumines whatever it shines upon, so the noble-heartedness of this glorious King seemed to communicate itself to his courts to his associates, and even to his adversaries.
"He is irresistible as Apollo!" said the Italians.
More closely regarded, we find that the secret of his great and rapid success lay in the genial art with which—following the inmost impulse of his nature—he contrived to transmute the bitterness of the Italians against Byzantine oppression into sympathy with the benevolence of the Goths.
We have seen how this feeling of bitterness had taken root amongst the peasants, the farmers, the rich merchants, the artisans, and the middle and lower ranks of the citizens; in fact, among the greater part of the population.
And later, when the Goths marched to the field of battle with the jubilating cry of "Totila!" the personality of the young King completely estranged the Italians from their Byzantine oppressors, who seemed to be totally forsaken by the fortune of war.
It is true that a minority remained uninfluenced: the Orthodox Church, which knew of no peace with heretics; hard-headed Republicans; and the kernel of the Catacomb conspiracy—the proud Roman aristocrats and the friends of the Prefect. But this small minority compared to the mass of the population, was of little moment.
The King's first act was to publish a manifesto to the Goths and Italians.
It was proved to the first that the fall of King Witichis and Ravenna had been the work of superior falsehood, and not of superior strength; and the duty of revenge, begun already by three victories, was impressed upon them.
And the Italians, having now experienced what kind of exchange they had made in revolting to Byzantium, were invited to return to their old friends.
In order to favour this return, the King promised not only a general amnesty, but equal rights with the Goths; the abolition of all former Gothic privileges; the right of forming a native army; and—what was especially effective by contrast—the abolition of all taxes upon Italian soil or property until the end of the war.
Further, as the aristocracy favoured the Byzantines—the farmers, on the contrary, the Goths—it was a measure of the highest prudence which provided that every Roman noble who did not, within three months, subject himself to the Goths, should lose his landed property in favour of his former tenants.
And, lastly, the King placed a high premium, to be paid out of the royal purse, on all intermarriages between Goths and Italians, promising the settlement of the pair upon the confiscated property of Roman senators.
"Italia," concluded the manifesto, "bleeding from the wounds inflicted by the tyranny of Byzantium, shall recover and bloom again under my protection. Help us, sons of Italia, to drive from this sacred ground our common enemies, the Huns and Scythians of Justinianus. Then, in the new-born kingdom of the Italians and Goths, a new people shall arise—begotten of Italian beauty and cultivation, of Gothic strength and truth—whose nobility and splendour shall be such as the world has. never yet beheld!"
When Cethegus the Prefect, awaking at morn on the field-bed to which his wound had confined him, heard the news of Totila's accession, he sprang from his couch with a curse.
"Sir," said the Grecian physician, "you must take care of yourself and——"
"Did you not hear? Totila wears the Gothic crown! It is no time now to be prudent.—My helm, Syphax."
And he snatched the manifesto from the hand of Lucius Licinius, who had brought the news, and read eagerly.
"Is it not ridiculous—madness?" asked Lucius.
"Madness it is if the Romans be yet Romans! But are they so? If they are not—then we—and not the barbarian prince—work madness. The thing must never be put to a trial, but be at once nipped in the bud. The blow directed against the aristocracy is a masterpiece. It must not have time to take effect. Where is Demetrius?"
"He marched against Totila last evening. You were asleep. The physician forbade us to awaken you, and Demetrius also."
"Totila king, and you let me sleep! Do you not know that this flaxen-head is the very genius of the Goths? Demetrius wishes to win his laurels alone. How strong is he?"
"More than twice as strong as the Goths; twelve thousand to five thousand."
"Demetrius is lost. Up—to horse! Arm all who can carry a lance. Leave only the wounded to guard the walls. This firebrand Totila must be trampled out, or an ocean of blood cannot extinguish him. My weapons—to horse!"
"I have never seen the Prefect look so," said Lucius Licinius to the physician. "It must be fever? He grew pale."
"He is without fever."
"Then I do not comprehend it, for it cannot be fear. Syphax, let us follow him."
Cethegus urged on his troop indefatigably. So indefatigably, that only a small suite of horsemen could keep up with his impatience and the swift hoofs of his war-horse.
At long intervals followed Marcus Licinius, Massurius with Cethegus's mercenaries, and Balbus with the hurriedly-armed citizens of Ravenna. For Cethegus had indeed left in the fortress only old men, women and children, and the wounded soldiers.
At last the Prefect succeeded in communicating with the rear-guard of the Byzantines.
Totila was marching from Tarvisium southwards against Ravenna.
He was joined by numerous bands of armed Italians from the provinces of Liguria, Venetia, and Æmilia, who had been roused by his manifesto into new hope and new resolve.
They desired to fight with him his first battle against the Byzantines.
"No," Totila had answered their general; "you shall decide upon what you will do after the battle. We Goths will fight alone. If we win, then you may join us. If we lose, then the revenge of the Byzantines will not affect you. Await the result."
The report of such magnanimous sentiments attracted many more to the Gothic flag.
Besides this, Totila's army was reinforced from hour to hour, during the march, by the arrival of Gothic warriors, who, singly, or in small bands, had come out of prison or left their hiding-places when they heard of the treachery practised on King Witichis, the accession of a new King, and the renewal of the war.
The haste with which Totila pressed forward, in order to avail himself of the enthusiasm of his troops before it had time to cool, and the zeal with which Demetrius flew to meet him, soon brought the two armies in sight of each other.
It was at the bridge across the Padus, named Pons Padi.
The Byzantines stood in the plain; they had the river, which they had crossed with half their foot, at their backs.
The Goths appeared upon the gently-sloping hills towards the north-west.
The rays of the setting sun dazzled the eyes of the Byzantines.
Totila, from the hill, observed the position of the enemy.
"The victory is mine!" he cried to his troops, and, drawing his sword, he swooped upon his enemies like a falcon on his prey.
Cethegus and his followers had reached the last deserted camp of the Byzantines shortly after sunset.
They were met by the first fugitives.
"Turn, Prefect," cried the foremost horseman, who recognised him, "turn and save yourself! Totila is upon us! He cleaved the helm and head of Artabazes, the best captain of the Armenians, with his own hand!" And the man continued his flight.
"A god led the barbarians!" cried a second. "All is lost—the commander-in-chief is taken!"
"This King Totila is irresistible!" cried a third, trying to pass the Prefect, who blocked his way.
"Tell that in hell!" cried Cethegus, and struck him to the earth. "Forward!"
But he had scarcely given the command when he recalled it.
For already whole battalions of vanquished Byzantines came flying through the wood towards him. He saw that it would be impossible to stem the flight of these masses with his small troop.
For some time he watched the movement irresolutely.
The Gothic pursuers were already visible in the distance, when Vitalius, one of Demetrius's captains, came wounded up to Cethegus.
"Oh, friend," he cried, "there is no stopping them! They will now go on till they reach Ravenna."
"I verily believe it," said Cethegus. "They will more likely carry my men away with them than stand and fight."
"And yet only the half of the victors, under Teja and Hildebrand, follow us. The King turned back already on the field of battle. I saw him withdraw his troops. He wheeled to the south-west."
"Whither?" cried Cethegus, becoming attentive. "Tell me again. In what direction?"
"He marched towards the south-west."
"He is going to Rome!" exclaimed the Prefect, and pulled his horse round so suddenly that it reared. "Follow me!—to the coast!"
"And the routed army? without leaders!" cried Lucius Licinius. "See how they fly!"
"Let them fly! Ravenna is strong. It will hold out. Do you not hear? The Goth is going to Rome! We must get there before him. Follow me to the coast—the way by sea is open. To Rome!"
Lovely—famed far and wide for its beauty—is the valley in which the Passara flows from the north into the rapid Athesis, which hurries from the west to the south-east.
Like a bending figure, which leans longingly towards the beautiful Southland, the lofty Mendola rises at a distance from the right bank of the river.
Here, above the junction of the two streams, once lay the Roman settlement of Mansio Majæ.
A little farther up the river, on a dominating rock, stood the Castle of Teriolis.
Now—from a mountain-"muhr" or "mar" (landslip)—the town is called Meran.
The Castle has given its name to the Tyrol.
"Mansio Majæ" is heard even now in the name of the place "Mais," rich in pleasant villas.
But at the time of which we speak an East Gothic garrison lay in the Castle of Teriolis, as was the case in all the old Rhætian rock-nests on the Athesis, the Isarcus, and the Oenus, in order to keep down the only half-subjected Suevi, Alamanni, and Markomanni, or, as they were already named, the Bajuvars, who dwelt in Rhætia, on the Licus, and on the lower course of the Oenus.
But, besides the garrisons of the castles, East-Gothic families had settled in larger numbers in the mild and fruitful valley and on the willow-covered slopes of the mountains.
Even now a singular, noble, and grave beauty distinguishes the peasants of the valleys of Meran, Ultner, and Sarn. These reticent people are much more refined, pensive, and aristocratic than the Bajuvar type on the Inn, the Lech, and the Isar.
Their dialect and legends support the supposition that here some few remains of the Goths continued to flourish; for the legends of the Amelungs, Dietrich of Bern, and the Rose-garden, still live in the names of the places and the traditions of the people.
Upon one of the highest mountains on the left shore of the Athesis, a Goth named Iffa had before-times settled; his descendants continued the settlement.
The mountain is named the "Iffinger" to this day. Upon the southern slope, half-way up, the simple settlement was fixed. The Gothic emigrants had found it already cultivated. The Rhætian alpine-house, which Druses had met with when he conquered the Rasenian mountain-people, had suffered no change in its characteristic and commodious form through the Roman conquerors, who built their villas in the valley, and their watch-towers on dominating rocks.
All the Romanised inhabitants of the Eltsch valley had, after the East-Gothic invasion, remained in quiet possession of their property.
For not here, but farther east, from the Save and over the Isonzo, had the Goths pressed forward into the peninsula; and only when Ravenna and Odoacer had fallen, did Theodoric spread his hosts in a peaceful and regular manner over North Italy and the Etschland.
Thus Iffa and his people had peacefully shared the soil with the Roman settlers whom they found upon the mountain, which at that time still possessed its Rasenian name.
A third of the arable land, the meadows and woods; a third part of the house, slaves, and animals, was, here as everywhere, claimed by the Gothic settler from the Roman farmer.
In the course of years, however, the Roman hospes had found this close and involuntary vicinity to the barbarians inconvenient. He therefore left the rest of his property on the mountains to the Goths, in exchange for thirty yoke of the splendid oxen which the Germans had brought with them from Pannonia—and which they so well understood how to breed—and went southwards, where the Romans dwelt in greater numbers.
And so the "Iffinger" had become completely Germanic, for the present master had suddenly sold the few Roman slaves which he possessed, and had replaced them by men and maids of Germanic race: Gepidians taken in war. This master was again named "Iffa," like his ancestor. He lived alone, a silver-haired man. A brother, and his wife and daughter-in-law, had, many years ago, been buried under a landslip.
A son, a younger brother, and a son of the latter, had obeyed the call of King Witichis to arms, and had never returned from the siege of Rome.
So no one was left to the old man but his two grandchildren, the boy and girl of the son who had fallen.
The sun had set gloriously behind the mountains which bordered the incomparable Etsch valley in the blue distance to the south and west.
A warm golden lustre lay upon the tender porphyry colouring of the "Iffinger," making it glow like red wine.
Up the mountain slope, upon the top of which stood a dwelling-house with a row of stalls a little apart, climbed slowly, step by step, resting ever and again, and holding her hands over her eyes as she looked at the sunset, a child—or was it already a maiden?—who was driving a flock of lambs before her.
She now and then gave her protégées time to crop with dainty tooth the aromatic Alpine herbs which grew in their path, and beat time with the hazel stick which she carried to an ancient and simple melody, the words of which she was softly singing:
"Little lambkins, Follow freely; By your shepherd's Hand led heedful; Like the heaven's Lovely lambkins, Like the quiet Steady stars, that Shining, sparkling, Obey ever Their bright shepherd, Mustered by the Mild moon ever, Without trouble, Without pause."
She ceased, and bent forward to look over into a deep ravine on her left hand, which had been hollowed out in the steep slope by a rapid mountain brook. Now, being summer, the water was very shallow. On the opposite side the hill again rose steeply upward.
"Where can he be?" the girl said; "usually his goats are already descending the hill when the sun has turned to gold. My flowers will fade soon!"
She seated herself upon a stone near the path, let the lambs graze, laid the hazel stick beside her, and allowed the apron of sheepskin, which, till now, she had held up carefully, to fall. A shower of the loveliest Alpine flowers fell to the ground.
She began to wind a wreath.
"The blue speik will suit his brown hair the best," she said as she worked busily. "I get much more tired when I drive the flock alone than when he is with me. And yet then we climb much higher. I wonder how it is! How my naked feet burn! I might go down to the brook and cool them. And then I should see him sooner when he comes along the height. The sun does not scorch any more."
She took off the large broad pumpkin leaf which she wore instead of a hat; and now was seen the shining colour of her pale golden hair—so fair it was!—which, stroked back from the temples, was tied together at the back of the head with a red ribbon. Like a flood of sunbeams it rippled over her neck, which was only covered by a white woollen kirtle, that, confined at the waist with a leather girdle, reached a little above the knees.
She measured the size of her wreath on her own head.
"Certainly," she said, "his head is larger. I will add these Alpine roses."
Then she tied the two ends of the wreath together with delicate grasses, sprang up, shook the remaining flowers from her lap, took the wreath in her left hand, and turned to descend the steep declivity, at the foot of which the brook gurgled amid the stones.
"No! stop up here and wait! Thou, too, darling White Elf! I will come back directly."
And she drove back the lambs, which had tried to follow, and which now, bleating, looked wistfully after their mistress.
With great agility the practised girl sprang down the ravine; now holding fast to the tough shrubs, spurge-olives, and yellow willow; now boldly leaping from rock to rock.
The loose stones broke and the fragments came rattling after her. As she merrily jumped after the rolling pebbles, she suddenly heard a sharp and threatening hiss from below.
Before she could turn, a great copper-brown snake, which had no doubt been disturbed from sunning itself on a stone, coiled itself up, ready to dart at her naked feet.
The child was alarmed; her knees trembled, and screaming loudly, she called:
"Adalgoth, help! help!"
A clear voice immediately replied to this cry of fear with the words, "Alaric! Alaric!" which sounded like a battle-cry.
The bushes on the right creaked and cracked; stones rolled down the slope, and, swift as an arrow, a slender boy in a rough wolf-skin flew between the hissing snake and the affrighted maiden.
He hurled his strong Alpine stick like a spear, and with so true an aim that the small head of the snake was transfixed to the ground. Its long body twined convulsively round the deadly shaft.
"Gotho, thou art not wounded?"
"No, thanks to thee, thou hero!"
"Then let me say the snake-charm before the viper ceases to struggle; it will ban all its fellows for three leagues around."
And lifting the three first fingers of his right hand, the boy repeated the ancient saying:
"Woe! thou wolf-worm, Wriggle wildly! Bite the bushes, Poisonous panting: Men and maidens, Hurt thou shalt not. Down, black devil, Venomous viper, Down and die now! High o'er the heads Of scaly-bright serpents Steppeth the race of the glorious Goths!"
As he finished speaking, and was bending to examine the snake, the girl suddenly placed the wreath which she had made upon his curly auburn hair.
"Hail, hero and helper! Look! the victor's wreath was ready for thee. Ah! how well the blue flowers become thee!" And she clapped her hands joyfully.
"Thy foot is bleeding!" said Adalgoth anxiously; "let me suck the wound. If the poisonous snake has bitten thee!"
"It was only a sharp stone. Thou wouldst better like to die thyself?"
"For thee, Gotho, how gladly! But the poison is harmless in the mouth. Now let me wash thy wound. I have still some vinegar and water left in my gourd. And then I will put sage-leaves upon it, and healing endive."
Thus saying, he gently made her sit down upon a stone, lifted her naked foot and dropped the mixture out of the gourd upon it. This done, he sprang up, looked about in the grass, and presently returned with some soothing herbs, which he tied carefully over the wound with the leather strap which he loosened from his own foot.
"How kind thou art, dear boy!" said the girl, stroking his hair.
"Now let me carry thee—only up the hill?" he begged; "I should so like to hold thee in my arms!"
"Indeed thou shalt not!" she laughed, as she sprang up; "I am no wounded lamb! See how I can run. But where are thy goats?"
"There they come out from the juniper-trees. I will call them."
And putting his shepherd's-pipe to his mouth, he blew a shrill note, swinging his stick round his head.
The sturdy goats came leaping towards him—fearing punishment.
And now, laying his arm tenderly about the girl's neck, and strewing a stripe of salt from his pocket upon the earth, which the goats, following, eagerly licked up, Adalgoth went up the slope.
"But tell me, dearest," said Gotho, when they had arrived at the top of the hill, and she was gathering her lambs together, "why thy cry was again 'Alaric! Alaric!' just as when thou madest the eagle leave my little White Elf, which it had already seized in its talons?"
"That is my battle-cry."
"Who taught it thee?"
"Grandfather; the first time he took me with him to hunt wolves. The time when I got this skin from Master Isegrim's ribs. As I sprang at the wolf, which could not escape and turned to attack me, crying 'Iffa,' just as I had always heard grandfather cry, he said, 'Thou must not cry "Iffa," Adalgoth. When thou attackest a hero or a monster, cry "Alaric!" it will bring thee luck.'"
"But none of our ancestors are so named, brother. We know all their names."
They had now reached the stalls, into which they drove the animals, and then seated themselves before an open window upon a wooden bench, which ran round the front of the house on each side of the door.
"There are," counted Gotho, "first Iffamer, our father; and Uncle Wargs, who was buried by the mountain; then Iffa, our grandfather; Iffamuth, our other uncle; Iffaswinth, his son; and Iffarich, our great-grandfather; and Iffa again—but no Alaric."
"And yet I feel as if I had often heard that name at the time when I used first to run about the mountain; when the great landslip killed Uncle Wargs. And I like the name. Grandfather has told me about a hero-king who was called so; who was first of all the heroes to conquer the fortress of Roma—thou knowest, it is the city from which father and Uncle Iffamuth and Cousin Iffaswinth never returned. And that hero died young, like Siegfried, the dragon-killer, and Balthar, the heathen god. And his grave is in a deep river. There he lies on his golden shield, under his treasures, and tall reeds bend and wave above him. And now another king has arisen, who is called Totila, as the warriors who relieved the garrison over there in the Castle of Teriolis told me. They say he is just like that Alaric, and like Siegfried and the Sun-god. And grandfather says that I also shall become a warrior and go down to King Totila and rush into the fray with the cry of 'Alaric! Alaric!' Long ago I got tired of climbing about and keeping goats here on the mountains, where there is nothing to fight but wolves, or at most a bear which eats up the grapes and honey-combs. You all praise my harp-playing and my songs, but I feel that they are not worth it, and that I cannot learn much more from the old man. I should like to sing better things. I am never tired of listening to the soldiers' stories about the victories of glorious King Totila. Lately I gave the best chamois I ever shot to old Hunibad—whom the King sent up here to nurse his wounds—so that he might tell me, for the third time, all about the battle at the bridge across the Padus, and how King Totila himself overthrew that black devil, the dreadful Cethegus. And I have made a song about it, which begins:
"Tremble, thou traitor, Cunning Cethegus; Tricks will not serve thee; Teja the terrible Daunts thy defiance. And brightly arises, Like morning and May-time, Like night from the darkness, The favourite of Heaven, The bright and the beautiful King of the Goths.
"But it goes no further; and I can make no more poetry alone. I need a master for the words and the harp. I should like to finish a song that I have began about the spear-hurler Teja, whom they call the 'Black Earl,' and who is said to play the harp wonderfully. And long ago—but this I tell to thee alone—I should have run away without asking grandfather, who always says I am too young yet, if one thing did not keep me back."
He sprang hastily up.
"What is that, brother?" asked Gotho, who sat quite still and looked full at him with her large blue eyes.
"Nay, if thou dost not guess it," he answered almost angrily, "I cannot tell thee. But now I must go and forge some new arrow-points in the smithy. First give me one more kiss—there! And now let me kiss each of thine eyes, and thy fair hair. Good-bye, dear sister, until supper-time."
He left her and ran to a side building, before the door of which stood a grind-stone and various implements.
Gotho rested her cheek upon her hand, and looked thoughtful. Then she said aloud:
"I cannot guess it; for of course he would take me with him. We could not live apart."
She rose with a slight sigh, and went to a field near the house, to look after the linen which was lying there bleaching.
But now old Iffa rose from his seat behind the open window, where he had heard all that had passed.
"This will not do," he cried, rubbing his head hard. "I never yet had the heart to separate the children—for they were but children! I always waited and waited; and now I think I have put it off a little too long. Away with thee, young Adalgoth!"
He left the dwelling-house, and walked slowly to the smithy. He found the boy working busily. With puffed-out cheeks, he blew into the fire on the hearth, and held the already roughly-prepared arrow-points in it, in order to make them red-hot and fit for the hammer. Then he took them out with a pair of pincers, laid them on an anvil, and hammered out neat points and hooks. Without pausing in his work, he nodded silently to his grandfather, striking sturdily upon the anvil till the sparks flew.
"Well," thought the old man, "just now, at least, he thinks of nothing but arrows and iron."
But suddenly the young smith finished his work with a tremendous stroke, threw away the hammer, passed his hand across his hot forehead, and asked, turning sharply to the old man:
"Grandfather, where do men come from?"
"Jesus, Woden, and Maria!" exclaimed the old man, starting back. "Boy, how comest thou to such thoughts?"
"The thoughts come to me, not I to them. I mean the first men—the very first. That tall Hermegisel over there in Teriolis, who ran away from the Arian church at Verona, and can read and write, says that the Christian God made a man in a garden out of clay, and, while he slept, took one of his ribs and made a woman. That is ridiculous; for out of the longest rib that ever was, one could not make ever so small a girl."
"Well, I don't believe it either," the old man thoughtfully confessed. "It is difficult to imagine. And I remember that my father once said, as he was sitting by the hearth, that the first men grew upon trees. But old Hildebrand, who was his friend, although he was much older—and who stopped here on his way back from an expedition against the savage Bajuvars, and who was sitting near father, for it was early in the year, and very rough and cold—he said that it was all right about the trees; only that men did not grow on them, but that two heathen gods—Hermegisel called them demons—once found an ash and an alder lying on the sea-shore, and from them they framed a man and a woman. They still sing an old song about it. Hildebrand knew a few words of it, but my father could not remember it."
"I would rather believe that. But, at all events, there were very few people at the beginning?"
"To be sure."
"And at first there was only one family?"
"And the old ones generally died before the young ones?"
"Then I tell thee what, grandfather. Either the race of men must have died out, or, as it still exists—and thou seest that is what I am coming to—brothers and sisters must often have married each other, until more families were formed."
"Adalgoth, the fairies are riding thee! Thou speakest nonsense!"
"Not at all. And, in short, if it could happen before, it can happen now; and I will have my sister Gotho for my wife."
The old man ran to stop the boy's mouth by force; but the lad evaded him and said:
"I know all that thou wouldst say. The priests from Tridentum would soon get to know of it here, and tell the King's Earl. But I can go with her to some distant land, where no one knows us. And she will go with me, I know."
"Indeed! Thou knowest that already?"
"Yes; I am sure."
"But this thou dost not know, Adalgoth," the old man now said, gravely and decidedly: "that to-night is the last which thou wilt spend upon the 'Iffinger.' Up, Adalgoth! I command thee—I, thy grandfather and guardian! Thou hast a sacred duty to perform—the duty of revenge! Thou wilt fulfil it at the court, and with the army of Totila. A duty bequeathed to thee by thine uncle Wargs—bequeathed to thee by thine ancestor. Thou art now old and strong enough to undertake it. To-morrow, at dawn of day, thou wilt start for the south—for Italia, where King Totila punishes evil-doers, helps the good cause, and fights against that wretch, Cethegus. Follow me to my chamber. I have to hand over to thee a jewel, which was left for thee by thine uncle Wargs, and to give thee many a word of counsel. But do not speak about it to Gotho; do not make her heart heavy. If thou obeyest thine uncle's orders and my counsel, thou wilt become a mighty and joyous hero in King Totila's court. And then, but only then, thou shalt again see Gotho!"
Very grave and pale, the youth followed his grandfather into the house. There, in the old man's chamber, they talked in low voices for a long time.
At supper, Adalgoth was missing.
He sent word to Gotho by their grandfather that he had gone to bed, being more tired than hungry.
But at night, when Gotho slept, he went into her room on tiptoe. The moon threw a soft light upon her angel face.
Adalgoth stopped upon the threshold, and only stretched out his right hand towards her.
"I shall see thee again, my Gotho," he cried, and signed a farewell.
Presently he crossed the threshold of the simple alpine cottage.
The stars had scarcely begun to pale; fresh and exhilarating the night-wind blew from the mountains around his temples.
He looked up at the silent sky.
All at once a falling star shot in a bright semicircle over his head. It fell towards the south.
The youth raised his shepherd's staff, and cried:
"The stars beckon thither! Now beware, Cethegus the traitor!"
On seeing the disastrous result of the battle at the bridge across the Padus, the Prefect had sent messengers back to his troops and the armed citizens of Ravenna, who were following him, to order them to return at once to the latter city. He left the defeated troops of Demetrius to their fate.
Totila had taken all the flags and field-badges of the twelve thousand, a thing which, as Procopius angrily writes, "never before happened to the Romans."
Cethegus himself, with his small band of trusty adherents, hastened across the Æmilia to the west coast of Italy, which he reached at Populonium. There he went on board a swift ship of war, and, favoured by a strong breeze from the north-east (sent, as he said, by the ancient gods of Latium), sailed to the harbour of Rome—Portus.
He could never have succeeded in reaching Rome by land, for, after Totila's victory, all Tuscany and Valeria fell to the Goths; the plains unconditionally, and also such cities as were held by weak Byzantine garrisons.
Near Mucella, a day's march from Florence, the King once again vanquished a powerful army of Byzantines, under the command of eleven disunited leaders, who had gathered together the imperial garrisons of the Tuscan fortresses to block his way. The commander-in-chief of this army, Justinus, escaped to Florence with difficulty.
The King treated his numerous prisoners with such lenity, that very many Italians and imperial mercenaries deserted their flag and joined the Gothic army.
And now all the roads of Central Italy were covered by Goths and natives who hastened to join Totila on his march to Rome.
Arrived at the latter city, Cethegus had at once taken the necessary measures for its defence.
For Totila, after this new victory at Mucella, approached rapidly, scarcely detained by anything but the ovations made to him by the cities and castles on his way, which rivalled each other in opening wide their gates to the conqueror.
The few forts which still resisted were invested by small divisions of Italians, kept in order by a few chosen Gothic troops. Totila was enabled to do this without weakening his army, as, during his march to Rome, his power was increased, like a river, by the inflowing of greater or smaller parties of Goths and Italians. Not only did the Italian peasants join him by thousands, but even the mercenaries of Belisarius, who for months had received no pay, now offered their weapons to the Goths, so that a few days after the arrival of the Prefect, Totila led a very considerable army before the walls of Rome.
With loud hurrahs the troops in the Gothic encampment greeted the arrival of the brave Duke Guntharis, Wisand the bandalarius. Earl Markja, and old Grippa, whose release Totila had procured by exchanging them for the prisoners taken at the battle of the Padus.
And now the almost impossible task was laid upon Cethegus of manning effectually his grandly-designed fortifications. The whole army of Belisarius was missing—besides the greater part of his own soldiers, who were slowly sailing to the harbour of Portcus from Ravenna.
In order, even insufficiently, to defend the entire circle of the ramparts, Cethegus was obliged, not only to demand unusual and unexpected exertions from the Roman legionaries, but also to increase their numbers by despotic measures.
From boys of sixteen years of age to old men of sixty, he called "all the sons of Romulus, Camillus, and Cæsar to arms; to protect the sanctuary of their forefathers against the barbarians."
But his appeal was scarcely read or propagated, and was responded to by very few volunteers; while he saw with mortification that the manifesto of the Gothic King, which was thrown every night over the walls in many places, was carried about and read by crowds; so that he angrily proclaimed that anyone found picking up, pasting on the walls, or reading this manifesto, or in any way facilitating its publication, would be punished by the confiscation of his property or the loss of his liberty.
In spite of this, the manifesto still spread among the citizens, and the list of volunteers remained empty.
He then sent his Isaurians into all the houses to drag boys and old men to the walls by force; and very soon he was more feared, and even hated, than beloved.
His stern will, and the gradual arrival of his troops from Ravenna, alone checked the growing discontent of the Roman population.
But in the Gothic camp messengers of good fortune overtook each other.
Teja and Hildebrand had pursued the Byzantines to the gates of Ravenna.
The defence of that city was conducted by Demetrius, one of the exchanged prisoners, and by Bloody Johannes; that of the harbour town of Classis by Constantianus against Hildebrand, who had won Ariminum in passing, for the citizens had disarmed the Armenian mercenaries of Artasires and opened the gates.
Teja had beaten the troops of the Byzantine general Verus, who had defended the crossing of the Santernus; had killed the general with his own hand, and had then hastened through the whole of North Italy with the manifesto in his left hand, his sword in his right, and in a few weeks had won by force or by persuasion all towns and castles as far as Mediolanum.
But Totila, taught by the experience of the first siege of Rome, would not expose his troops by attempting to storm the formidable defences of the Prefect, and also desired to spare his future capital.
"I will get into Rome with linen wings, and on wooden bridges," he one day said to Duke Guntharis; left to him the investment of the city; and taking all his horsemen with him, marched for Neapolis.
There in the harbour lay, very inefficiently manned, an imperial fleet.
Totila's march upon the Appian Way through South Italy resembled a triumphal procession.
Those districts which had suffered the longest under the yoke of the Byzantines were now most willing to greet the Goths as liberators.
The maidens of Terracina went to meet the King of the Goths with wreaths of flowers.
The people of Minturnæ brought out a golden chariot, made the King descend from his white horse, and dragged him into the town in triumph.
"Look! look!" was the cry in the streets of Casilinum—an ancient place once dedicated to the worship of the Campanian Diana—"Phoebus Apollo himself has descended from Olympus and comes as a saviour to the sanctuary of his sister!"
The citizens of Capua begged him to impress the first gold coins of his reign with the inscription, "Capua revindicata."
Thus it continued until he reached Neapolis; the very same road he had once passed as a wounded fugitive.
The commander of the Armenian mercenaries in Neapolis, who had a very brave but small troop, did not dare to trust the fidelity of the population in case of a siege.
He therefore led his lance-bearers and the armed citizens to meet the King outside the gates.
But before the battle commenced, a man on a white horse rode out of the lines of Goths, took his helmet from his head, and cried:
"Have you forgotten me, men of the Parthenopæian city? I am Totila. You loved me when I was commander of your harbour. You shall bless me as your King. Do you not recollect how I saved in my ships your wives and children from the Huns of Belisarius? Listen. These very wives and children are again in my power; not as fugitives, but as prisoners. To protect them from the Byzantines (perhaps from me also), you sent them into the strong fortress of Cumæ. But know that Cumæ has surrendered, and all the fugitives are in my power. I have been advised to keep them as hostages in order to compel you to capitulate. But that is repugnant to my feelings. I have set them at liberty; the wives of the Roman senators I have sent to Rome. But your wives and children, men of Neapolis, I have brought with me; not as my hostages, not as my prisoners, but as my guests. Look how they stream out of my tents! Open your arms to receive them—they are free! Will you now fight against me? I cannot believe it! Who will be the first to aim at this breast?" and he opened wide his arms.
"Hail to King Totila the Good!" was the universal acclamation.
And the warm-hearted men threw down their weapons, rushed forward, and greeted with tears of joy their liberated wives and children, kissing the hem of Totila's mantle.
The commander of the mercenaries rode up to him.
"My lancers are surrounded and too weak to fight alone. Here, O King, is my sword. I am your prisoner."
"Not so, brave Arsakide! Thou art unconquered—therefore no prisoner. Go with thy troop whither thou wilt."
"I am a prisoner, conquered by your magnanimity and the splendour of your eyes. Permit us henceforward to fight under your flag."
In this manner a chosen troop, who stood by him faithfully, was won for Totila.
Amid a shower of flowers he made his entry into Neapolis through Porta Nolana.
Before Aratius, the admiral of the Byzantine fleets could raise the anchors of his war-ships, their crews were overpowered by the sailors of the many merchant vessels which lay near in the harbour, the masters of which were old admirers and thankful protégés of Totila.
Without shedding a drop of blood, the King had gained a fleet and the third city of importance in the kingdom.
In the evenings during the banquet which the rejoicing inhabitants had prepared for him, Totila stole softly away.
With surprise the Gothic sentinels saw their King, all alone, disappear into an old half-fallen tower, close to an ancient olive-tree by the Porta Capuana.
The next day there appeared a decree of Totila which dispensed the women and girls of the Jews of Neapolis from a pole-tax which had, until now, been laid upon them; and which—they being forbidden to carry jewels in public—permitted them to wear a golden heart upon the bosom of their dress as a mark of distinction.
In the neglected garden, where a tall stone cross and a deep-sunk grave were completely overgrown with wild ivy and moss, there presently arose a monument of the most beautiful black marble, with the simple inscription: "Miriam from Valeria."
But there was no one living in Neapolis who understood its meaning.
There now streamed into Neapolis ambassadors from Campania and Samnium, Bruttia and Lucania, Apulia and Calabria, who came to invite the Gothic King to enter their cities as a liberator.
Even the important and strong fortress of Beneventum and the neighbouring forts of Asculum, Canusia, and Acheruntia surrendered at discretion.
In these districts thousands of cases occurred in which the peasants were settled upon the lands of their former masters, who had fallen in battle, or had fled to Byzantium or to Rome.
Besides Rome and Ravenna, there were now in the hands of the Byzantines, only Florentia, held by Justinus; Spoletium, whose joint governors were Bonus and Herodianus; and Perusia, under the Hun, Uldugant.
In a few days the King, reinforced by many Italians from the south of the Peninsula, had new manned his conquered fleet, and left the harbour in full sail, while his horsemen marched by land on the Via Appia to the north.
Rome was the goal of both ships and horse; while Teja, having conquered all the country between Ravenna and the Tiber—Petra and Cæsena fell without bloodshed—the Æmilia and both Tuscanies (the Annonarian and the Sub-urbicarian), marched with a third army on the Flaminian Way against the city of the Prefect.
On hearing of these movements, Cethegus was obliged to acknowledge that the struggle would now begin in good earnest, and, like a dragon in his den, he determined to defend himself to the death.
With a proud and contented look he viewed the ramparts and towers, and said to his brothers-in-arms, who were uneasy at the approach of the Goths:
"Be comforted! Against these invincible walls they shall be broken to pieces for the second time!"
But at heart he was not so easy as his words and looks would seem to indicate.
Not that he ever repented his past deeds or thought his plans unachievable. But that when, after repeated reverses, he appeared to have arrived at the point of success, he should be as far off the goal as ever because of Totila's victories—this feeling had a great effect upon even his iron nerves.
"Water wears away a rock!" he said, when his friend Licinius once asked him why he looked so gloomy. "And besides, I cannot sleep as I used to do."
"Since—Totila! That fair youth has stolen my slumbers!"
Though the Prefect felt so secure and so superior to all his enemies and adversaries, Totila's bright and open nature, and his easily-won success, irritated him so much, that his coolness often melted in the heat of his passion; while Totila went to meet the universally feared foe with a sense of victory which nothing could disquiet.
"He has luck, the downy-beard!" cried Cethegus, when he heard of the easy conquest of Neapolis. "He is as fortunate as Achilles and Alexander. But luckily such god-like youths never grow old! The soft gold of such natures is quickly worn out. We lumps of native iron last longer. I have seen the laurels and roses of the enthusiast, and it seems to me that I shall soon see his cypresses. It cannot be that I shall yield to this maiden soul! Fortune has borne him rapidly to a dizzy height; she will hurl him down as rapidly and dizzily. Will she first carry him over the ramparts of Rome?—Fly then, without effort, young Icarus, in the brightest sunshine. I, through blood and strife, step by step, climb up in the shade. But I shall stand on high when the treacherous and burning kiss of Fortune has melted the wax on thy bold wings. Thou wilt vanish beneath me like a falling star!"
This, however, did not seem likely to happen soon.
Cethegus awaited with impatience the arrival of a numerous fleet from Ravenna, which was to bring him the remainder of his troops, and all who could be spared of the legionaries and the troops of Demetrius, as well as a quantity of provisions.
When these reinforcements had arrived, he would be able to relieve the grumbling Romans from their arduous duties.
For weeks he had comforted the embittered inhabitants with the promise of this fleet.
At last it was announced by a swift-sailer that the fleet had reached Ostia.
Cethegus caused the news to be published in all the streets with a flourish of trumpets, and announced that at the next Ides of October, eight thousand citizens would be relieved from duty on the walls. He also caused double rations of wine to be distributed among the soldiers on the ramparts.
When the Ides of October arrived, thick fog covered Ostia and the sea.
The day after, a little sailing-boat flew from Ostia to Portus. The trembling crew announced that King Totila had attacked the Ravennese triremes with the fleet from Neapolis, under the protection of a thick fog. Of the eighty ships, twenty were burnt or sunk; the remaining sixty, with all their men and provisions, taken.
Cethegus would not believe it.
He hurried on board his own swift boat, the Sagitta, and flew down the Tiber.
But with difficulty he escaped the boats of the King, who had already blockaded the harbour of Portus and sent small cruisers up the river.
The Prefect now hastily caused a double river-bolt to be laid across the Tiber; the first consisting of masts; the second of iron chains placed an arrow's length farther up the river. The space between the two bolts was filled with a great number of small boats.
Cethegus felt deeply the blow which had fallen upon him. Not only had his long-wished-for reinforcements fallen into the enemy's hand; not only was he obliged to lay still heavier burdens upon the Romans, who began to curse him, for now the river, too, had to be defended against the constant attempts of the Gothic ships to break through; but with a slight shudder of horror he saw approaching nearer and nearer the most terrible of all enemies—famine.
The water-road, by which he, as formerly Belisarius, had received abundant provisions, was now blocked.
Italy had no third fleet. That of Neapolis and that of Ravenna blockaded Rome under the Gothic flag.
And now the horsemen which Marcus Licinius had sent on the Flaminian Way to reconnoitre and forage, came galloping back with the news that a strong army of Goths, under the dreaded Teja, was approaching at a quick step. The vanguard had already reached Reate.
The day following Rome was also invested on the last side which had remained open—the north—and had nothing left to depend upon but its own citizens.
And the latter were weak enough, however strong might be the Prefect's will and the walls of the city.
Yet for weeks and months Cethegus's stern resolution sustained the despairing defenders against their will.
At last the fall of the city, not by force, but by starvation, was expected daily.
At this juncture an unexpected event occurred, which revived the hopes of the besieged, and put the genius and good fortune of the young King to a hard proof: for there once more appeared upon the scene of battle—Belisarius!
When news arrived in the golden palace of the Cæsars at Byzantium of the lost battles on the Padus and at Mucella; of the renewed siege of Rome, and the loss of Neapolis and almost all Italy, the Emperor Justinian, who had already imagined the West again united to the East, was awakened from his dream of triumph in a terrible manner.
It was now easy for the friends of Belisarius to prove that the recall of that hero had been the origin of all these disasters.
It was clear that as long as Belisarius had been in Italy victory had followed victory; and no sooner had he turned his back, than misfortunes crowded one upon the other.
The Byzantine generals in Italy openly acknowledged that they could not replace Belisarius.
"I am not able," wrote Demetrius from Ravenna, "to meet Totila in the open field. Scarcely am I able to defend this fortress in the marshes. Neapolis has fallen. Rome may surrender any day. Send us again the lion-hearted man, whom, in our vanity, we dreamed we could replace—the conqueror of the Vandals and the Goths."
And Belisarius, although he had sworn never again to serve the ungrateful Emperor, forgot all his wrongs as soon as Justinian smiled upon him. And when, after the fall of Neapolis, he actually embraced him and called him "his faithful sword"—in truth, the Emperor had never believed in the general's rebellion, but was envious of his sovereign position—Belisarius could no longer be restrained by Antonina and Procopius. As, however, the Emperor feared the expense of a second enterprise in Italy (besides that of the Persian wars, which Narses conducted successfully but expensively in Asia), avarice and ambition produced a struggle within him, which would, perhaps, have lasted longer than the resistance of Rome and Ravenna, had not Prince Germanus and Belisarius proposed an expedient. The noble Prince was impelled by the wish to revisit Ravenna and the tomb of Mataswintha, and to revenge her memory on the rude barbarians, for Cethegus had declared that the cause of the tragic end of this incomparable woman was that her mind had been disordered in consequence of her forced marriage with Witichis.
Belisarius, on his side, could not endure that all his fame should be imperilled by Totila's success. "For," asked his enemies at court, "could he really have conquered a people who, within the year, had again almost made themselves masters of Italy?"
He had given his word to annihilate the Goths, and he would keep it.
So, influenced by these motives, Germanus and Belisarius proposed to conquer Italy for the Emperor at their own expense. The Prince offered his whole fortune for the equipment of a fleet; Belisarius all his lately reinforced body-guard and lance-bearers.
"That is a proposition after Justinian's own heart!" cried Procopius, when informed of it by Belisarius. "Not a solidus out of his own pocket! And perhaps the laurels of fame and a province for this world, and the wholesale destruction of heretics to rejoice Heaven and Theodora! You may be sure that he will accept, and give you his fatherly benediction into the bargain. But nothing else. You, Belisarius, I know, can be as little kept back as Balan, your piebald, when he hears the call of the trumpet; but I will not see your lamentable fall."
"Fall? Wherefore, Raven of Misfortune?"
"This time you have both Goths and Italians against you. And you could not conquer the first when Italy was for you."
But Belisarius only reproached him with cowardice, and presently went to sea with Germanus.
The Emperor, in fact, gave them nothing but his blessings and the great toe of the holy Mazaspes.
The Byzantines in Italy breathed again when they heard that an imperial fleet had anchored off Salona, in Dalmatia, and that the army had landed.
Even Cethegus, to whom the news was brought by spies, exclaimed with a sigh:
"Better Belisarius in Rome than Totila!"
And the King of the Goths was filled with anxiety. He determined first of all to discover the strength of the Byzantine army, in order to decide upon what course he would take. Perhaps it would be necessary to raise the siege of Rome, and advance to attack the army of relief.
Belisarius sailed from Salona to Pola, where he mustered his ships and men. While there, two men came to him, who announced themselves to be Herulian mercenaries, therefore Goths, but speaking Latin well. They said that they had been sent by Bonus, one of the commanders of Spoletium.
They had succeeded in passing the Gothic lines, and they pressed the commander-in-chief to come to the relief of that place. They begged for exact particulars as to the strength of his army and the number of his ships, in order to be able to revive the sinking courage of the besieged by trustworthy reports.
"Well, my friends," said Belisarius, "you must perforce embellish your report; for the truth is, that the Emperor has left me entirely to my own resources."
All the day long he showed these messengers his army and fleet.
The night following the messengers had disappeared.
They were Thorismuth and Aligern, who had been sent by King Totila, and now furnished him with the much-desired particulars.
So, from the very beginning, fate was against Belisarius, and the whole course of this campaign was unworthy of the fame of that great general.
It is true that he succeeded in running into the harbour of Ravenna, and providing that city with provisions.
But, the very day that he arrived. Prince Germanus was attacked by a fatal malady while visiting the tomb of Mataswintha.
She had been buried in the vault of the palace, near the graves of her brother and the young King Athalaric.
Germanus died, and, according to his last wish, was buried beside the woman he had loved so truly.
In a little niche in the same vault there reposed a heart which had ever beat warmly for Queen "Beautiful-hair."
Aspa, the Numidian slave, would not outlive her beloved mistress.
"In my home," she had said, "the virgins of the Goddess of the Sun often voluntarily leap into the flames which receive the Godhead. Aspa's goddess, the lovely, bright, and kind, has left her. Aspa will not live forlorn in the cold and darkness. She will follow her Sun."
She had heaped up flowers in the death-chamber of her mistress—heaped them still higher than on the day when she had prepared the same small room for a bridal chamber—and had kindled unknown combustibles and African resin, the stupefying odours of which drove away all the other slaves. But Aspa had spent the night in the room.
The next morning Syphax, attracted by the well-known but dangerous odour, which reminded him of his country's sacrificial customs, went softly into the room, which was as silent as the grave. At Mataswintha's feet, her head buried in flowers, he had found his Antelope—dead.
"She died," he told Cethegus, "for love of her mistress. And now I have none left on earth but you."
After the burial of Germanus, Belisarius left Ravenna with the whole fleet.
But his very next undertaking, an attempt to surprise Pisaurum, was repulsed with great loss.
And King Totila, now acquainted with the small number of Belisarius's troops, had sent skirmishers, under the command of Wisand, supported by a few ships of war, to take Firmum, which was situated on the same coast, almost under the generals very eyes.
The Byzantines, Herodian and Bonus, surrendered Spoletium to Earl Grippa, after the lapse of thirty days, during which they had hoped for reinforcements from Belisarius in vain.
In Assisium the commander of the garrison was a man of the name of Sisifrid, a Goth who had deserted in the days of the fall of Witichis.
This man well knew what was in store for him, should he fall into Hildebrand's hands, who besieged the fort in person. Hatred of such treason had enticed the old man from the siege of Ravenna to complete this task of retribution.
The Goth obstinately defended the town, but when, during a sally, the axe of the old master-at-arms sent him to the other world, the citizens obliged the Thracian garrison to yield. Many aristocratic Italians, members of the old Catacomb conspiracy, three hundred Illyrian horsemen, and some chosen body-guards of Belisarius, were taken prisoners.
Immediately afterwards, Placentia, the last town in the Æmilia which was held by a Saracen garrison for the Emperor, was forced to capitulate to Earl Markja, who commanded the small army of investment.
In Bruttia, the fortress of Ruscia, the most important harbour for Thurii, surrendered to the bold Aligern.
Belisarius now despaired of reaching Rome by land. On hearing of the terrible distress of that city, he determined at once to attempt to relieve it by running the blockade of the Gothic fleet.
But as he sailed round the south point of Calabria, off Hydrunt, a fearful storm dispersed his ships; he himself, with a few triremes, was driven southward as far as Sicily, and the greater part of his ships, which had taken refuge in a bay near Croton, were there surprised and taken by a Gothic squadron sent by the King from Rome, which had lain in ambush near Squillacium. These prizes proved to be an important addition to the Gothic fleet, for, as we shall see hereafter, the Goths, were thereby enabled to attack the Byzantines in their islands and coast-towns.
After this blow, the forces of Belisarius, which had been weak from the very first, became completely powerless.
Generalship and valour could not replace missing ships, warriors, and horses.
The hope that the Italians, as in the first campaign, would revolt to the Emperor's commander-in-chief, proved vain.
Thus the whole enterprise was a complete failure, as we are told by Procopius in unsparing words.
The Emperor left all petitions for reinforcements unanswered. And when Antonina repeatedly begged for permission to return, the Empress sent the mocking reply, "that the Emperor dare not venture, for the second time, to interrupt the hero in the course of his victories."
So, lying off Sicily, Belisarius spent a miserable time of doubt and helplessness.
And meanwhile the suffering and exhaustion of the citizens in Rome reached its highest point.
Hunger thinned the ranks, never very full, of the defenders on the walls.
The Prefect in vain did his utmost. In vain he had recourse to all possible measures of persuasion or despotism. In vain he lavishly opened his coffers to provide the means of existence for the people.
For the stores of grain which he had procured from Sicily and garnered in the Capitol were exhausted.
He promised incredible rewards to any boat which should succeed in running the blockade of the King's ships and bring provisions to the city; to every mercenary who ventured to creep through the gates and the tents of the besiegers and bring back food.
But Totila's watchfulness was not to be deceived.
At first the promised reward had tempted a few avaricious and daring men to venture out at night. But when Earl Teja, next morning, caused their heads to be thrown over the walls at the Flaminian Gate, even the most venturesome lost all desire to follow their example.
The dung of animals was sold at a high price.
Hungry women fought for the weeds and nettles which they found on the heaps of rubbish.
Long since had hunger taught the populace to eat greedily unheard-of things.
And countless deserters fled from the city to the Goths.
Teja would have forced them to return, in order the sooner to oblige the city to surrender; but Totila gave orders that they should be received and fed, and that care should be taken that they did not injure themselves by the too sudden gratification of their ravenous appetites.
Cethegus now spent his nights upon the walls. At various hours he himself, spear and shield in hand, went the round of the patrols, and sometimes took the place of a sentinel who was overcome with hunger or the want of sleep. His example certainly had the greatest effect on the brave. The two Licinii, Piso, and Salvius Julianus stood by the Prefect and his blindly-devoted Isaurians with enthusiasm.
But not so all Romans; not Balbus, the gormandiser.
"No, Piso," said Balbus one day, "I cannot endure it any longer. It is not in a man's power, at least not in mine. Holy Lucullus! who would have thought that I should ever give my last and largest diamonds for half a rock-marten!"
"I remember the time," answered Piso, laughing, "when you would have put your cook in irons if he had let a lobster boil a minute too long."
"A lobster! Mercy on us! How can you recall such a picture to my mind! I would give my immortal soul for one claw of a lobster, or even for the tail. And never to sleep one's fill! To be awakened, if not by hunger, by the trumpets of the patrol!"
"Look at the Prefect! For the last fourteen days he has not slept fourteen hours. He lies upon his hard shield, and drinks rain-water out of his helmet."
"The Prefect! He need not eat. He lives upon his pride, like the bear on his fat, and sucks his own gall. He is made of nothing but sinews and muscles, pride and hatred! But I—who had accumulated such soft white flesh, that the mice nibbled at me when I slept, thinking that I was a Spanish ham!—Do you know the latest news? A whole herd of fat oxen was driven into the Gothic camp this morning—all from Apulia; darlings of gods and men!"
The next day early Piso, with Salvius Julianus, came to wake the Prefect, who had lain down on the wall by the Porta Portuensis, close to the most important point of defence, the bolt across the river.
"Forgive me for disturbing your rare slumbers."
"I was not asleep; I was awake. Tell me your news, tribune."
"Last night Balbus deserted his post with twenty citizens. They let themselves down from the Porta Latina by ropes. Outside there had been heard all night long the lowing of Apulian herds. It seems that their bellowing was irresistible."
But the smile of the satirist faded away when he looked at the Prefect's face.
"Let a cross thirty feet high be erected before the house of Balbus in the Via Sacra. Every deserter who falls into our hands shall be crucified thereon."
"General—Constantinus abolished the punishment of crucifixion in the name of our Saviour," said Salvius Julianus reprovingly.
"Then I re-introduce the practice in honour of Rome. That Emperor no doubt held it to be impossible that a Roman noble and tribune could desert his post for the sake of roast meat."
"I have other news. I can no longer set the watch on the tower of the Porta Pinciana. Of the sixteen mercenaries nine are either dead or sick."
"Almost the same thing is reported by Marcus Licinius, at the Porta Tiburtina," said Julianus. "Who can ward off the danger which threatens us on all sides?"
"I! and the courage of the Romans. Go! Let the heralds summon all the citizens, who may yet be in the houses, to the Forum Romanum."
"Sir, there are only women, children, and sick people——"
And with a dark expression on his face the Prefect descended from the walls, mounted his noble Spanish charger, and, followed by a troop of mounted Isaurians, made a long round through the city, everywhere assuring himself that the sentinels were on the alert, and examining the troops; thus giving the herald time to summon the people, and the latter to obey. He advanced, very slowly, along the right bank of the Tiber. A few ragged people crept out of their huts to stare in dull despair at the passing horsemen. Only at the Bridge of Cestius did the throng become thicker.
Cethegus stopped his horse in order to muster the guard on the bridge.
Suddenly, from the door of a low hut, there rushed a woman with dishevelled hair, holding a child in her arms. Another pulled at her ragged skirt.
"Bread? bread?" she asked; "can stones be softened by tears until they become bread? Oh no! They remain as hard—as hard as that man. Look, children, that is the Prefect of Rome. He upon the black horse, with the crimson crest and the terrible eyes! But I fear him no longer. Look, children! that man forced your father to keep watch on the walls day and night, until he fell dead. Curses on the Prefect of Rome!"
And she shook her fist at the immovable horseman.
"Bread, mother! Give us something to eat," howled the children.
"I have nothing more for you to eat, but plenty to drink! Come!" screamed the woman, and, clasping the elder child round the waist with her right arm, and pressing the younger more firmly to her bosom, she cast herself over the wall into the river.
A cry of horror, followed by curses, ran through the crowd.
"She was mad!" said the Prefect in a loud voice, and rode on.
"No, she was the wisest of us all!" cried a voice from the crowd.
"Silence! Legionaries, sound the trumpets! Forwards! To the Forum!" commanded Cethegus, and the troop of horsemen galloped away.
Across the Fabrician Bridge and through the Carmentalian Gate, the Prefect arrived in the Forum Romanum at the foot of the Capitoline Hill.
The wide space appeared almost empty; the few thousand people who, clad in miserable garments, crouched upon the steps of the temple and halls, or supported themselves on their staffs or spears, made little impression.
"What does the Prefect want?"—"What can he want? we have nothing left but our lives."—"And those he will—" "Do you know that the day before yesterday the coast town Centumcellæ surrendered to the Goths?"—"Yes; the citizens overpowered the Prefect's Isaurians and opened the gates."—"Would that we could follow their example!"—"We must do it soon, or it will be too late."—"Yesterday my brother fell down dead, some boiled nettles still in his mouth. He was too weak to swallow the mess."—-"Yesterday in the Forum Boarium a mouse was sold for its weight in gold!"—"For a week I got roasted meat from a butcher—he would not sell the flesh raw."—"You were lucky! They storm all houses where they smell roast meat!"—"But the day before yesterday he was torn to pieces by the mob, for he had enticed beggar-children into his house—and that was the flesh he had sold us!"—"But do you know what the Gothic King does with his prisoners? He treats them as a father treats his helpless children; and most of them enter his army at once."—"Yes, and those who will not he provides with money for the journey."—"Yes, and with clothes and shoes and provisions. The sick and wounded are nursed."—"And he gives them guides to the coast towns."—"And sometimes he even pays for their passage in merchant-ships to the East."—"Look, the Prefect dismounts!"
"He looks like Pluto!"
"He is no longer Princeps Senatus, but Princeps Inferorum."
"Look at his eyes! As cold as ice, and yet like red-hot arrows."
"Yes, my godmother is right; she says that only those who have no heart can look like that."
"That is an old tale. Spectres and Lemures have eaten his heart in the night."
"Ah, bah! There are no Lemures. But there is a devil, for it says so in the Bible. And the Prefect has sold himself to the devil. The Numidian who is holding his black horse by the bridle is an imp from hell, who always accompanies him. Nothing can hurt the Prefect. He feels neither hunger nor thirst nor the want of sleep. But he can never smile, for he has sold his soul!"
"How do you know?"
"The deacon of St. Paul's has explained it all. And it is a sin to serve such a man any longer. Did he not betray our Bishop, Silverius, to the Emperor, and send him over the sea in chains?"
"And lately he accused sixty priests, Orthodox and Arian, of treason, and banished them from the city."
"That is true!"
"And he must have promised the devil that he would torment the Romans."
"But we will endure it no longer. We are free! He himself has often told us so. I will ask him by what right——"
But the bold speaker stopped short, for the Prefect glanced at the murmuring group as he mounted the rostrum.
"Quirites," he began, "I call upon you all to become legionaries. Famine and treachery—a shameful thing to say of Romans!—have thinned the ranks of our defenders. Do you hear the sound of hammers? A crucifix is being erected to punish all deserters. Rome demands still greater sacrifices from her citizens, for they have no choice. The citizens of other towns choose between surrender or destruction. We, who have grown up in the shadow of the Capitol, have no choice; for more than a thousand years of heroism sanctify this place. Here no coward thought dare arise. You cannot again endure to see the barbarians tie their horses to the columns of Trajan. We must make a last effort. The marrow of heroism ripens early in the descendants of Romulus and Cæsar; and late is spent the strength of the men who drink of the waters of the Tiber. I call upon all boys from their twelfth, all men until their eightieth year, to help to man the walls. Silence! Do not murmur. I shall send my tribunes and the lance-bearers into every house—only to prevent boys of too tender years and too aged men from volunteering their services—then why do you murmur? Does any one know of something better? Let him speak out boldly; from this place, which I now vacate in his favour."
At this, the group at which the Prefect looked became perfectly silent.
But behind him, amid those whom his eye could not intimidate, there arose a threatening cry:
"Bread!" "Surrender!" "Bread!"
"Are you not ashamed? You, worthy of your great name, have borne so much, and now, when it is only necessary to hold out a little longer, you would succumb? In a few days Belisarius will bring relief."
"You told us so seven times already!"
"And after the seventh time Belisarius lost almost all his ships.
"Which now aid in blocking our harbour!"
"You should name a term; a limit to this misery. My heart bleeds for this people!"
"Who are you?" the Prefect asked the invisible speaker of the last sentence; "you can be no Roman!"
"I am Pelagius the deacon, a Christian and a priest of the Lord. And I fear not man but God. The King of the Goths, although a heretic, has promised to restore to the orthodox the churches of which his fellow-heretics, the Arians, have deprived them, in every town which surrenders. Three times already has he sent a herald to the citizens of Rome with the most lenient proposals—they have never been permitted to speak to us."
"Be silent, priest! You have no fatherland but heaven; no people but the communion of saints; no army but that of the angels. Manage your heavenly kingdom, but leave to men the kingdom of the Romans."
"But the man of God is right!"
"Set us a term."
"A short one!"
"Till then we will still hold out."
"But if it elapse without relief——"
"Then we will surrender!"
"We will open the gates."
But Cethegus shunned this thought. Not having received news from the outer world for weeks, he had no idea when Belisarius could possibly arrive at the mouth of the Tiber.
"What!" he cried. "Shall I fix a term during which you will remain Romans, and after which you will become cowards and slaves! Honour knows no term!"
"You speak thus, because you do not believe in the reinforcements."
"I speak thus, because I believe in you!"
"But we will have a term. We are resolved. You speak of Roman freedom! Are we free, or are we bound to obey you like your slaves? We demand a term, and we will have it."
"We will have it!" repeated a chorus of voices.
Before Cethegus could reply, the sound of trumpets was heard from the south-eastern corner of the Forum.
From the Via Sacra advanced a crowd of people, citizens and soldiers; in their midst were two horsemen in foreign armour.
Lucius Licinius galloped before them, sprang off his horse, and mounted the tribune.
"A herald from the Goths! I arrived too late to prevent his entrance as usual. The famished legionaries at the Tiburtinian Gate opened it for him."
"Down with him! He must not speak," cried the Prefect, rushing from the tribune and drawing his sword.
But the people guessed his intentions. They surrounded the herald with cries of joy, protecting him from the Prefect.
"Bread! Peace! Listen to the herald!"
"No! do not listen to him!" thundered Cethegus. "Who is Prefect of Rome, he or I? Who defends this city? I, Cornelius Cethegus Cæsarius; and I tell you, do not listen!"
And he tried to make a way for himself.
But, thick as a swarm of bees, women and old men threw themselves into his path, and the armed citizens surrounded the herald.
"Speak, herald!" they cried; "what bring you?"
"Peace and deliverance!" cried Thorismuth, and waved his white wand. "Totila, King of the Italians and the Goths, sends you greetings and demands a safe-conduct into the city, in order to tell you important news and to announce peace."
"Hail to King Totila!"
"We will hear him. He shall come!"
Cethegus had hastily mounted his horse, and now ordered his trumpeters to blow a flourish.
At this well-known sound, all became quiet.
"Hear me, herald! I, the governor of this city, refuse a safe-conduct. I shall treat every Goth who enters this city as an enemy."
But at these words a cry of rage burst from the multitude.
"Cornelius Cethegus, are you our officer or our tyrant? We are free. You have often vaunted the majesty of the Roman people. And the Roman people command that the King shall be heard. Do we not, people of Rome?"
"It is according to law," growled the Quirites.
"You have heard! Will you obey or defy the people of Rome?"
Cethegus sheathed his sword.
Thorismuth and his companion galloped off to fetch the King.
The Prefect signed to the young tribunes to draw near him.
"Lucius Licinius," he said, "go to the Capitol. Salvius Julianus, you will protect the lower river-bolt: the bolt of masts. Quintus Piso, you will defend the chain-bolt. Marcus Licinius, you shall keep the bulwark which protects the ascent to the Capitoline Hill and the way to my house. The mercenaries will follow me."
"What do you intend to do, general?" asked Lucius Licinius, as he was preparing to obey the order.
"Attack and destroy the barbarians."
There were but fifty horsemen and about a hundred lance-bearers to follow the Prefect, when he had sent away the tribunes.
Meanwhile the people had waited anxiously for the sound of the Gothic horns.
At last they were heard, and presently there appeared Thorismuth and six horn-blowers; Wisand the bandalarius, carrying the royal blue banner of the Goths; the King, accompanied by Duke Guntharis and Earl Teja; and about ten other leaders, almost all without weapons; only Earl Teja displayed his broad and dreaded axe.
As this procession was on the point of setting forth from the Gothic encampment, to ride through the Metronian Gate into the city, Duke Guntharis felt some one pull his mantle, and looking down, beheld a boy or youth, with short and curly brown hair and blue eyes, standing near his horse, with a shepherd's staff in his hand.
"Art thou the King? No, thou art not he. And that, that is brave Teja, the Black Earl, as the songs call him!"
"What wouldst thou with the King, boy?"
"I would fight for him."
"Thou art still too tender. Go, and return two summers hence. And, meanwhile, guard thy flocks."
"I may be young, but I am no longer weak, and I have guarded the flock long enough. Ha! I see that that is the King!" and he went up to Totila, and bowed gracefully, saying:
"By thy leave, O King!"
And he caught the bridle of the horse to lead it, as if it were a matter of course.
The King looked amused, and smiled at the boy.
And the boy led his horse.
But Guntharis thought: "I have seen that face before! But no, it is only a resemblance; yet such a resemblance I have never seen in my life. And how noble is the young shepherd's carriage!"
"Hail to King Totila! Peace and salvation!" cried the people, as the Goths entered the city.
But the young guide looked up into the King's shining countenance, and sang in a soft sweet voice:
"Cunning Cethegus: Tricks will not serve thee! Teja the terrible Daunts thy defiance. And brightly arises, Like morning and May-time, Like night from the darkness, The favourite of heaven, The bright, and the beautiful King of the Goths! To him are wide opened All halls and all hearts; To him, overpowered, Yield Winter and Woe!"
When the King entered the Forum, there fell a dead silence upon the people.
But Cethegus, who had expected this, immediately took advantage of it. He urged his horse into the crowd and cried:
"What would you, Goth, in this my city?"
Totila cast one flaming look at him, and then turned away.
"With him I speak, for evermore, only with my sword! With him, the threefold liar and murderer! To you I speak, unhappy and befooled inhabitants of Rome! Your sufferings wring my heart. I come to end your misery. I come without arms, for I am safer, trusting to the honour of Romans, than protected by sword and shield."
Cethegus no more attempted to interrupt him.
"Quirites," continued Totila, "you yourselves have truly acknowledged that I might long since have stormed your walls with my hosts. For now you have but stones, and no men to defend them. But if Rome were carried by storm, then Rome would burn; and I confess that I would rather never enter Rome, than enter to find it in ashes. I will not reproach you with the manner in which you have requited the kindness of Theodoric and the Goths. Have you forgotten the time when you coined your gold with the grateful inscription, 'Roma felix'? Truly you are punished enough; more heavily punished by hunger, pestilence, and the yoke of the Byzantines and that demon Cethegus, than by the severest penalty which we could have inflicted. More than eight thousand people—women and children not included—have perished. Your deserted houses fall into ruins; you greedily pluck the grass which grows in your temples; despair walks your streets with hollow eyes; famished mothers—Roman mothers—have devoured the flesh of their own children. Until this day, your resistance was heroic, although lamentable. But henceforward it is madness. Your last hope was placed in Belisarius. Then hear: Belisarius has sailed from Sicily to Byzantium. He has deserted you."
Cethegus ordered the trumpets to be sounded, in order to drown the groans of the multitude.
For some time it was all in vain, but at last the brazen tones conquered.
When all was quiet the Prefect cried:
"It is a lie! Do not believe such barefaced lies!"
"Have the Goths, have I, ever lied to you, Romans? But you shall believe your own eyes and ears. Come forward, man, and speak. Do you know him?"
A Byzantine in rich armour was led forward by the Gothic horsemen.
"The navarchus of Belisarius!"
"We know him!" cried the crowd.
Cethegus turned pale.
"Men of Rome," said the Byzantine, "Belisarius, the magister militum, has sent me to King Totila. I arrived in the camp to-day. Belisarius was obliged to return to Byzantium. On leaving Sicily, he recommended Rome and Italy to the well-known benevolence of King Totila. This was my message to him and to you."
"If this be so," cried Cethegus, with a threatening voice, "then now is the day to prove whether you be Romans or bastards! Mark me well! Cethegus the Prefect will never, never surrender his Rome to the barbarians! Oh I think once more of the time when I was your all! When you exalted my name above those of the saints! Who has given you, for years, work, bread, and, what is more, weapons? Who protected you—Belisarius or Cethegus?—when these barbarians encamped by millions before your walls? Who saved Rome, with his heart's blood, from King Witichis? For the last time I call you to the combat! Do you hear me, grandchildren of Camillus? As he once, solely by the might of the Roman sword, swept the Gauls, who had already taken the city, away from the Capitol, so will I sweep away these Goths! Follow me! We will sally forth and let the world see what is possible to Roman valour when led by Cethegus and despair. Choose!"
"Aye, choose!" cried Totila, raising himself in his stirrups. "Choose between certain destruction or certain freedom. If you once more follow this madman, I can no longer protect you. Listen to Earl Teja, who stands at my right hand. You know him, I think. I can no longer protect you."
"No," cried Teja, raising his mighty axe, "then, by the God of Hate, no more mercy! If you refuse this last offer, not a life will be spared within these walls. I, and a thousand others, have sworn it!"
"I offer you complete immunity, and will prove a mild and just king to you. Ask Neapolis what I am! Choose between me and the Prefect!"
"Hail to King Totila! Death to the Prefect!" was the unanimous acclamation.
And, as if at a signal, the women and children, with uplifted hands, threw themselves on their knees; while all the armed inhabitants raised their weapons threateningly, and many a spear was hurled at the Prefect. They were the very weapons which he himself had given to the people.
"They are dogs—no Romans!" exclaimed Cethegus, with disdainful fury, and turned his horse. "To the Capitol!"
And his horse, with a sudden leap, cleared the row of kneeling and screaming women. Through a shower of darts which the Romans now sent after him galloped the Prefect, riding down the few who had courage enough to try to stop him.
His crimson crest soon disappeared in the distance.
His companions galloped swiftly after him. The lance-bearers on foot retreated in good order, now and then turning and levelling their spears. Thus they reached the lofty bulwark which, held by Marcus Licinius, protected the ascent to the Capitol, and the way to the Prefect's house.
"What next? Shall we pursue?" the citizens asked the King.
"No—stay. Let all the gates be opened. Wagons laden with meat, bread, and wine stand ready in the camp. Let them be brought into all parts of the city. Feed the people of Rome for three whole days. My Goths shall keep watch to prevent excess."
"And the Prefect?" asked Duke Guntharis.
"Cornelius Cethegus, the ex-Prefect of Rome, will not escape the vengeance of God," cried Totila, turning away.
"And not mine!" cried the shepherd-boy.
"And not mine!" said Teja, and galloped after the King.
Most of the quarters of the city of Rome had now fallen into the hands of the enemy.
Cethegus was in possession of that part of the city which extended on the right bank of the Tiber from the Mausoleum of Hadrian in the north to the Porta Portuensis in the south, near which were situated the two bolts across the river.
On the left bank the Prefect held only the small but dominating quarter west of the Forum Romanum, of which the Capitol formed the centre. This quarter was enclosed by walls and high bulwarks which stretched from the shore of the Tiber at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, and round the hill eastwards, to the Forum of Trajan in the north; while at the back and westwards from the Capitol, they passed between the Circus Flaminius and the Theatre of Marcellus (abandoning the first and enclosing the last), and ended at the Fabrician Bridge and the Island of the Tiber.
The King had left the Forum, and the rest of the day was spent by the inhabitants of the city in feasting and rejoicing.
The King caused eighty wagons, each drawn by four oxen, to be drawn up in all the principal squares and places of those parts of the city which had surrendered. And round about these wagons, upon the pavement or upon speedily-erected wooden benches, lay the famishing population, raising their voices in thanks to God, the saints, and the "good King."
The Prefect had at once closed all the gates which led from those parts of the city occupied by the Goths into his Rome; particularly the approaches from the Forum Romanum to the Capitol, and the Flumentanian, Carmentalian and Ratumenian Gates. He caused them all to be barricaded, and divided the few soldiers he had at his command among the most important points of defence.
He held much about the same part of Rome as he had before occupied under and against Belisarius.
"Salvius Julianus must have another hundred Isaurians to protect the bolt of masts on the river," he commanded. "The Abasgian bowmen must hasten to join Piso at the bolt of chains. Marcus Licinius will remain on the bulwark of the Forum."
But now Lucius Licinius announced that the rest of the legionaries, who had not been present at the scene on the Forum, because they had been on duty in the now barricaded portion of the city, were become very unruly.
"Ah," cried Cethegus, "the odour of the roast meat for which their comrades sold their honour, tickles their nostrils! I come."
And he rode up to the Capitol, where the legionaries, about five hundred men, were standing in their ranks with a very gloomy and threatening aspect.
Looking at them with a searching eye, Cethegus slowly rode along their front.
At last he spoke.
"For you I had reserved the fame of having defended the Lares and Penates of the Capitol against the barbarians. I hear, indeed, that you prefer the joints of beef below there. But I will not believe it. You will not desert the man who, after centuries of helplessness, has again taught the Romans how to fight and conquer. Whoever will stand by Cethegus and the Capitol—let him raise his sword."
But not a blade was seen.
"Hunger is a more powerful god than the Capitoline Jupiter," said Cethegus contemptuously.
A centurion stepped forward.
"It is not that, Prefect of Rome. But we will not fight against our fathers and brothers who are on the side of the Goths."
"I ought to keep you as hostages for your fathers and brothers, and when they storm the bulwarks, throw to them your heads! But I fear it would not stop them in their enthusiasm, which comes from their stomachs! Go—you are not worthy to save Rome! Open the gate, Licinius. Let them turn their backs upon the Capitol and honour!"
And the legionaries marched away, all but about a hundred men, who stood still irresolutely, leaning on their spears.
"Well, what do you want?" cried Cethegus, riding up to them.
"To die with you, Prefect of Rome!" cried one of them.
And the others repeated: "To die with you!"
"I thank you! Do you see, Licinius, a hundred Romans! Are they not enough to found a new Roman Empire?—I will give you the post of honour; you shall defend the bulwark to which I have given the name of Julius Cæsar."
He sprang from his horse, threw the bridle to Syphax, called his tribunes together, and spoke:
"Now listen to my plan."
"You have a plan already?"
"Yes. We will attack! If I know these barbarians, we are safe for to-night from any assault. They have won three quarters of the city. Before they think of the last quarter, their victory must be celebrated in a hundred thousand tipsy bouts. At midnight the whole company of yellow-haired heroes and drinkers will be immersed in feasting, wine, and sleep; and the hungry Quirites will not be behindhand in excess. Look! How they feast and sing below there—crowned with flowers! And very few barbarians have yet entered the city. That is our hope of victory. At midnight we will sally forth from all our gates—they will not dream of an attack from such a minority—and slay them in their revels."
"Your plan is bold," said Lucius Licinius. "And if we fall, the Capitol will be our tombstone!"
"You learn from me words as well as sword-strokes," said Cethegus, smiling. "My plan is desperate, but it is the only one now possible. Is the watch set? I will go home and sleep for a couple of hours. No one must rouse me before that time. In two hours come and wake me."
"You can sleep at such a moment, general?"
"Yes; I must. And I hope I shall sleep soundly. I must have time to collect myself—I have just yielded the Forum Romanum to the barbarian King! It was too much! I need time to recover myself. Syphax, I asked yesterday if no more wine was to be had on the right bank of the Tiber?"
"I have been to seek some. There is yet a little in the temple of your God; but the priests say that it is dedicated to the service of the altar."
"That will not have spoiled it! Go, Lucius, and take it from the priests. Divide it amongst the hundred men on the bulwark of Cæsar. It is the only thing that I can give them to show my gratitude."
Followed by Syphax, Cethegus now rode slowly home.
He stopped at the principal entrance to his house.
In answer to the call of Syphax, Thrax, a groom, opened the gate.
Cethegus dismounted and stroked the neck of his noble charger.
"Our next ride will be a sharp one, my Pluto—to victory or in flight! Thrax, give him the white bread which was reserved for me."
The horse was led into the stables near at hand. The stalls were empty. Pluto shared the spacious building only with the brown horse belonging to Syphax. All the Prefect's other horses had been slaughtered and devoured by the mercenaries.
The master of the house passed through the splendid vestibule and atrium into the library.
The old ostiarius and secretary, the slave Fidus, who was past carrying a spear, the only domestic in the house. All the slaves and freedmen were upon the walls—either living or dead.
"Reach me the roll of Plutarch's Cæsar, and the large goblet set with amethysts—it scarcely needed their decoration—full of spring water."
The Prefect stayed in the library for some time. The old servant had lighted the lamp, filled with costly oil of spikenard, as he had been accustomed to do in times of peace.
Cethegus cast a long look at the numerous busts, Hermes, and statues, which cast sharp shadows along the exquisite mosaic pavement.
There, upon pedestals or brackets, on which were inscribed their names, stood small marble busts of almost all the heroes of Rome, from the mythic Kings to the long rows of Consuls and Cæsars, ended by Trajan, Hadrian, and Constantine.
The ancestors of the "Cethegi" formed a numerous group.
An empty niche already contained the pedestal upon which his bust would one day stand—the last on that side of the room, for he was the last of his house.
But on another side there was a whole row of arches and empty niches, destined for future scions of the family, not by marriage, but by adoption, should the name of Cethegus be continued into more fortunate generations.
As Cethegus walked slowly past the rows of busts, he chanced to look at the niche destined to contain his own, and, to his astonishment, saw that it was not empty.
"What is that?" he asked. "Lift up the lamp, secretary. Whose is that bust standing in my place?"
"Forgive, master! The pedestal of that bust, one of the ancients, needed reparation. I was obliged to remove it, and I placed it in the empty niche to keep it from harm."
"Show a light. Still higher. Who can it be?"
And Cethegus read the short inscription upon the bust: "Tarquinius Superbus, tyrant of Rome, died in exile; banished from the city by the inhabitants on account of his monstrous despotism. A warning to future generations."
Cethegus, in his youth, had himself composed this inscription.
He took the bust away, and placed it on one side.
"Away with the omen!" he cried.
Lost in thought, he entered his study.
He leaned his helm, shield, and sword against the couch. The slave kindled the lamp which stood on the tortoise-shell table, brought the goblet and the roll of papyrus, and left the room.
Cethegus took up the roll.
But he soon laid it down again. His forced composure could not last; it was too unnatural. In the Roman Forum the Quirites drank with the barbarians to the health of the King of the Goths and the ruin of the Prefect of Rome, the Princeps Senatus! In two hours he was about to attempt to wrest the city from the Goths. He could not fill up the short pause with the perusal of a biography which he almost knew by heart.
He drank thirstily of the water in the goblet.
Then he threw himself upon his couch.
"Was it an omen?" he asked himself. "But there are no omens for those who do not believe in them. 'This is the only omen: to fight for the fatherland,' says Homer. Truly, I fight not alone for my native land; I fight still more for myself. But have not to-day's events disgracefully proved that Rome is Cethegus, and Cethegus is Rome? These name-forgetting Romans do not make Rome. The Rome of to-day is far more Cethegus than the Rome of old was Cæsar. Was not he, too, a tyrant in the eyes of fools?"
He rose uneasily, and went up to the colossal statue of his great ancestor.
"God-like Julius! If I could pray, I would pray now to thee! Help me! Complete the work of thy grandchild. How hard have I striven since the day when the idea of the renewal of thy empire was born within my brain—born full-armed, like Pallas Athene from the head of Jupiter! How have I fought, mentally and physically, by day and by night! And though thrown to the ground seven times by the superior force of two peoples, seven times have I again struggled to my feet, unconquered and unintimidated! A year ago my goal seemed near—so near; and now, this very night, I must fight this fair youth for Rome and for my life! Can it be that I must succumb after such deeds and such exertions? Succumb to the good fortune of a youth! Is it, then, impossible for thy descendant to stand alone for his nation, until he renew both it and himself? Is it impossible to conquer the barbarians and the Greeks? Can not I, Cethegus, stop the wheel of Fate and roll it backward? Must I fail because I stand alone—a general without an army, a king without a nation to support him? Must I yield thy and my Rome? I cannot, will not think so! Did not thy star fade shortly before Pharsalus? and didst thou not swim over the Nile to save thy life, bleeding from a hundred wounds? And yet thou hast succeeded. Again thou hast entered Rome in triumph. It will not go more hardly with thy descendant. No; I will not lose my Rome! I will not lose my house, and this thy God-like image, which has often, like the crucifix of the Christian, filled me with hope and comfort. As a pledge of my success, to thee I will entrust a treasure. Where can anything on earth be safe if not with thee? In an hour of despondency, I was about to give this treasure to Syphax to bury in the earth. But if I lose Rome and this house, this sanctuary, I will lose all. Who can decipher these hieroglyphics? As thou hast kept the letters and the diary, so shalt thou keep this treasure also."
So saying, he drew from the bosom of his tunic, beneath his shirt of mail, a rather large leather bag, filled with costly pearls and precious stones, and touched a spring on the left side of the statue, below the edge of its shield.
A small opening was revealed, out of which he took an oblong casket of beautifully-carved ivory, provided with a golden lock. The casket contained all sorts of writings and rolls of papyrus. He now added the bag.
"Here, great ancestor, guard my secrets and my treasure. With whom should they be safe, if not with thee?"
He touched the spring again, and the statue looked as perfect as before.
"Beneath thy shield, upon thy heart! As a pledge that I trust in thee and my good fortune as thy descendant! As a pledge that nothing shall force me away from thee and Rome—at least for any length of time. If I must go—I will return again. And who will seek my secret in the marble Cæsar?"
If the water in the amethyst cup had been the strongest wine, it could not have had a more intoxicating effect than this soliloquy or dialogue with the colossal statue which Cethegus worshipped like a god.
The unnatural strain upon all his mental and physical powers during the last few weeks; the unsuccessful attempt to persuade the people on the Forum; the conception of a new and desperate plan as soon as he had been defeated in the first, and the consuming anxiety with which he awaited its execution, had excited and exhausted the iron nerves of the Prefect to the utmost.
He thought, spoke, and acted as if in a high fever.
Tired out, he threw himself upon his couch at the foot of the statue; and suddenly sleep overcame him.
But it was not the sound sleep which, until now, he had been able to command at will, even after some criminal act or before a dangerous enterprise: the result of a strong constitution which was superior to all excitement.
For the first time his slumber was uneasy, disturbed by changeful dreams, which, like the fancies of a delirious man, chased each other through his brain.
At last the visions of the dreamer took a more concrete form.
He saw the statue at the feet of which he lay, grow and grow. The majestic head rose higher and higher, and passed through the roof of the house. With its crown of laurel it at last penetrated the clouds, and towered into the starry heavens.
"Take me with thee!" sighed Cethegus.
But the demigod replied:
"I can scarcely see thee from this height. Thou art too small! Thou canst not follow me."
And it seemed to Cethegus that a thunderbolt fell and shattered the roof of his house. With a crash the beams fell upon him, burying him under the ruins. The statue of Cæsar also broke and fell.
And crash after crash echoed through the place.
Cethegus woke, sprang up, and looked around in bewilderment.
The sound continued.
It was real—no dream! Blow after blow fell thundering against the door of his house.
Cethegus caught up his helm and sword.
At that moment Syphax and Lucius rushed into the room.
"Two hours cannot yet have passed. Why have you awakened me?"
"The Goths! They have been beforehand with us! They storm the bulwarks!"
"Damn them! Where do they storm?"
Cethegus had already reached the door of the room.
"Where does the King attack?"
"At the bolts on the river. He has sent fire-ships up the stream. Floats with heavy towers on deck, full of resin, pitch, and sulphur. The first bolt of masts and all the boats between are in flames! Salvius Julianus is wounded and taken prisoner. There! you can see the reflection of the flames in the south-east!"
"The bolt of chains—does it hold?"
"It holds still. But if it break—"
"Then I, as once before, am the bolt of Rome! Forward!"
Syphax led up the snorting horses.
Cethegus swung himself into the saddle.
"Away! Where is your brother Marcus?"
"At the bulwark by the Forum."
As Cethegus and Lucius were galloping off, they were met by a mass of mercenaries, Isaurians and Abasgians, who fled from the river.
"Fly!" they cried. "Save the Prefect!"
"Where is Cethegus?"
"Here—to save you! Turn back. To the river!"
He galloped on. The reflection of the burning masts plainly showed the way. Arrived at the river bank, Cethegus dismounted. Syphax placed his horse out of harm's way in an empty storehouse.
"Torches!" cried Cethegus. "Into the boats! There lie a dozen ready. Bowmen, into the boats! Follow me! Lucius, go into the second boat. Row up to the chain. Place yourselves close to it. Whatever comes up the river—shoot! They cannot land below the bolt, the walls are too high and descend straight into the water. They must come up here to the chain!"
Already a few boats, filled with Goths, had ventured too near. Some caught fire at the burning masts; others were upset in the crush and confusion. One, which had approached within half an arrow's length of the chain, drove helplessly down the stream again: all the crew had been killed by the arrows of the Abasgians.
"Do you see! There goes a boat of corpses! Resist to the last man. Nothing is lost! Bring torches and firebrands! Kindle the wharf there! Fire against fire!"
"Look there, master!" cried Syphax, who never left the Prefect's side.
"Aye, now comes the struggle!"
It was a splendid sight.
The Goths had seen that the bolt of chains could never be forced by small boats, so they had hewn away so much of the burning bolt of masts that a space was left in the middle just broad enough to permit the passage of a ship of war.
But to try to pass up the river, exposed to the arrows of the Abasgians, between the flaming ends of the masts, and propelled only by their oars, might be more dangerous for the large vessel than for the "boat of corpses."
The Goths hesitated and stopped just before the burning beams.
But suddenly there arose a strong breeze from the south, rippling the surface of the water.
"Do you feel the wind? It is the breath of the God of Victory! Set the sails! Now follow me, my Goths!" cried a joyful voice.
The sails were set, and the wings of the royal galley, the "Wild Swan," spread wide to the breeze.
It was a magnificent spectacle as the great vessel, all its canvas spread, and urged by a hundred oarsmen, came majestically up the river, illuminated by the terrible light from the burning masts and boats.
With irresistible force the noble galley sailed up the stream.
On both sides of the upper deck, high above the heads of the oarsmen on the lower deck, kneeled close rows of Gothic warriors, their shields forming a brazen roof to protect them from the arrows of the foe.
Upon the bows of the ship an immense figure of a swan lifted high its snowy wings.
Between these wings, upon the back of the swan, stood King Totila, his sword in his right hand.
"Forward!" he cried. "Pull, my men, with all your might! Be ready, Goths!"
Cethegus recognised the youth's tall figure. He even recognised the voice.
"Let the galley approach quite close. When within twenty feet, shoot! Not yet!—Now! now shoot!"
"Crouch close, Goths!" cried Totila.
A hail of arrows fell over the galley. But they rebounded from a roof of shields.
"Damn them!" cried Piso, behind the Prefect. "They intend to break the chain with the force of the shock. And they will surely do it, even if every man on deck should fall! The oarsmen we cannot reach, and the south wind cannot be wounded!"
"Fire the sails! fire the ship! Bring firebrands!" cried Cethegus.
Ever nearer rustled the threatening "Swan."
Ever nearer approached the ruinous shock against the tightly-stretched chains.
Firebrands were hurled at the galley.
One flew into the sail of the main-mast, burnt quickly up, and then died out.
A second—Cethegus himself had hurled it—passed close to the golden locks of the King. It fell near him. He had not remarked it; but a shepherd-boy, who carried no weapon but a shepherd's staff, ran up and trampled it out.
The other brands rebounded from the shields and fell hissing into the river.
And now the prow of the galley was only eight feet from the chain.
The Romans trembled in expectation of the shock.
Cethegus stepped to the bow of his boat, balancing and aiming his heavy spear.
"Mark!" he said; "as soon as the King falls, be quick with more firebrands."
Never had the practised soldier aimed better. Drawing back his spear once more, he launched it at the King with all the force lent to his arm by hatred.
His followers waited breathlessly. But the King did not fall. He had caught sight of Cethegus while aiming; at the same moment he threw down his long and narrow shield and awaited the flying shaft with his left arm drawn back.
Whistling came the spear straight at the spot where the King's bare neck showed above his breastplate.
When within a few inches of his throat, the King caught the shaft with his left hand and immediately hurled it back at the Prefect, wounding him on the left arm just above his shield.
Cethegus fell on his knee.
At the same instant the galley struck the chain. It burst. The Roman boats which lay near, including that of Cethegus, were upset; and most of them drove masterless down the river.
"Victory!" shouted Totila. "Yield, mercenaries!"
Cethegus, bleeding, swam to the left bank of the river. He saw how the Gothic galley lowered two boats, into one of which sprang the King.
He saw how a whole flotilla of large vessels, which had sailed up in the wake of the King's galley, now broke through the boats of his bowmen, and landed troops on both sides of the river.
He saw how his Abasgians—neither armed nor in the mood for a hand-to-hand fight—surrendered themselves by companies to the Goths.
He saw how a rain of arrows from the royal galley fell upon the defenders on the left bank.
He saw how the little boat, in which stood the King, now approached the place where he himself stood, dripping with water.
He had lost his helmet in the river, his shield he had thrown away, in order the more speedily to gain the land.
He was on the point of attacking the King, who had just landed, with his sword alone, when a Gothic arrow grazed his neck.
"Well hit, Haduswinth?" cried a young voice; "better than at the Mausoleum!"
Syphax caught his arm.
At the same moment a hand was laid on his shoulder. He recognised Marcus Licinius.
"You here! Where are your men?"
"Dead!" said Marcus. "The hundred Romans fell on the bulwark. Teja, the terrible Teja, stormed it. The half of your Isaurians fell on the way to the Capitol. The rest still keep the doors, and the half-bulwark in front of your house. I can no more. Teja's axe penetrated through my shield and entered my ribs. Farewell, O great Cethegus! Save the Capitol. But—look there! Teja is quick!"
And he fell to the ground.
From the Capitoline Hill flames rose high into the night.
"There is nothing more to be done here," the Prefect said with difficulty, for he was losing blood fast and becoming rapidly weak. "I will save the Capitol! To you, Piso, I leave the barbarian King. Once before you have wounded a Gothic King upon the threshold of Rome. Now wound a second, but this time mortally! You, Lucius, will revenge your brother. Do not follow me!"
As he spoke he cast one more furious glance at the King, at whose feet kneeled his Abasgians, and sighed deeply.
"You tremble, master!" said Syphax sadly.
"Rome trembles!" cried Cethegus. "To the Capitol!"
Lucius Licinius pressed the hand of his dying brother.
"I shall follow him notwithstanding," he said, "for he is wounded."
While Cethegus, Syphax, and Lucius Licinius disappeared in the distance, Piso crouched behind the columns of a Basilica close to which the street led upwards from the river.
Meanwhile the King had placed the Abasgians under the guard of his soldiers. He went a few steps up the bank of the river and pointed with his sword to the flames which arose from the Capitol.
Then he turned to the Goths who were landing.
"Forward!" he cried. "Make haste! The flames up there must be extinguished. The fight is over. Now, Goths, protect and preserve Rome, for it is yours!"
Piso took advantage of the moment.
"Apollo!" he exclaimed; "if ever my satires hit their mark, help now my sword!"
And he sprang from behind the column towards the King, who stood with his back turned to him. But before he could deal a blow, he let his sword fell with a loud cry. A sturdy stroke from a stick had lamed his hand.
Immediately a young shepherd sprang upon him and pulled him to the ground, kneeling on his breast.
"Yield, thou Roman wolf!" cried a clear boyish voice.
"Ah! Piso.... the poet He is thy prisoner, boy," said the King, who now turned. "He shall ransom himself with a goodly sum. But who art thou, young shepherd?"
"He is the saviour of your life, sire," interposed old Haduswinth. "We saw the Roman rush at you, but we were too far off to call or help you. We owe your life to this boy."
"What is thy name, young hero?"
"And what wouldst thou here?"
"Cethegus, the traitor, the Prefect of Rome! where is he, King? Pray tell me. I was sent to the boats. I heard that he would oppose thy attack here."
"He was here. He has fled; most likely to his house."
"Wouldst thou overcome that King of Hell with this stick?" asked Haduswinth.
"No," cried the boy; "I have now a sword."
And he took up his prisoner's sword, which was lying on the ground; brandished it over his head and rushed away.
Totila gave Piso in charge to the Goths, who had now landed in great numbers.
"Hasten!" he cried again. "Save the Capitol, which the Romans are destroying!"
Meanwhile the Prefect had left the river and gone in the direction of the Capitol.
He passed the Porta Trigemina and arrived at the Forum Boarium.
Before the Temple of Janus he met with a crowd of people by which he was detained for a short time.
In spite of his wound he had made such haste that Lucius and Syphax could scarcely follow. They had repeatedly lost sight of him. Only now did they overtake him.
He now tried to go through the Porta Carmentalis, and thus gain the back of the Capitol.
But he found the gate already occupied by numerous Goths. Amongst them was Wachis. He recognised the Prefect from a distance.
"Revenge for Rauthgundis!" he cried.
A heavy stone struck the Prefect's helmless head. He turned and fled.
He now remembered that there was a sinking of the wall not far from the gate. He determined to climb it at that place.
As he neared it, the flames from the Capitol again shot high into the air.
Three men sprang over the wall just in front of him. They were Isaurians. They recognised him.
"Fly, general! The Capitol is lost! Teja, the black Gothic devil!"
"Did he—did Teja kindle the fire?"
"No; we ourselves set a wooden bulwark, which the barbarians had taken, on fire. The Goths do all they can to extinguish the flames."
"The barbarians save the Capitol!" said Cethegus bitterly, and supported himself upon a spear which was handed to him by one of the mercenaries.
"I must get to my house."
And he turned to the right, the shortest way to the principal entrance to his house.
"O master, that way is dangerous!" cried one of the Isaurians. "The Goths will soon be there. I heard the Black Earl ask repeatedly after you. He was seeking you everywhere upon the Capitol. He will now seek you in your house."
"I must once more go to my house!"
But he had scarcely gone a few steps, when a troop of Goths and Romans, carrying torches and firebrands, came towards him from the city.
The foremost, who were Romans, recognised him.
"The destroyer of Rome!"
"He has set the Capitol on fire! Down with him!"
Arrows, stones, and spears were hurled at Cethegus. One of his Isaurians fell; the others took to their heels.
Cethegus was hit by an arrow; it penetrated slightly into his left shoulder. He tore it out.
"A Roman arrow, with my own stamp!" he cried with a terrible laugh.
With difficulty he gained a dark side-street.
Before his House there was a crowd of soldiers, trying in vain to break open the principal door.
Cethegus heard the uproar, and well understood the cries of rage with which the soldiers accompanied their ineffectual exertions.
"The door is strong," he said to himself. "Before they force an entrance, I shall be again out of the house."
He hurried to the back of the house. He pressed a secret spring which opened the door of the court, entered, and, leaving the door open behind him, hurried in.
Hark! a stroke—very different from all which had gone before—thundered against the front door of the house.
"That is a battle-axe!" thought Cethegus. "That is Teja?"
He hastened to a small gap in the wall, which afforded an outlook into the main street. It was Teja. His long black locks waved about his bare head; in his left hand he carried a firebrand; in his right the dreaded battle-axe. He was covered with blood.
"Cethegus!" he shouted at every stroke of his axe. "Cornelius Cethegus Cæsarius, where art thou? I sought thee in the Capitol, Prefect of Rome! Where art thou? Must I seek thee upon thy hearth?"
Cethegus, listening, heard hasty steps behind him.
Syphax had reached the court, and had followed his master through the open door. He now caught sight of him.
"O master, fly! I will protect thy threshold with my body."
And he hastened past Cethegus, through a suite of apartments to the front door.
Cethegus turned to the right. He could hardly keep himself upright. He managed to reach the "Hall of Jupiter." Here he sank to the ground. But the next moment he again sprang to his feet, for a fearful noise was heard from the front door.
At last it was broken in.
With a thundering crash it fell inwards, and Teja entered the dwelling of his enemy.
Upon the threshold, with a leap like that of a panther, the Moor sprang upon him, grasping his throat and raising a dagger in his hand.
But the Goth let fall his axe, seized him in his right hand, and, like a stone from a sling, the Moor flew sideways through the door and rolled down the steps into the street.
"Where art thou, Cethegus?" again sounded the voice of Teja, coming nearer and nearer, from the vestibule and the atrium.
Some doors, which had been bolted by the secretary, Fidus, were forced one after the other by Teja's axe.
With difficulty Cethegus dragged himself to the middle of the Hall of Jupiter. He still hoped to be able to reach the study and take the writings and treasure out of the statue of Cæsar.
He heard the crash of another falling door, and the voice of Teja now sounded from the study.
He heard how the soldiers, who had pressed forward after Teja into the library, were demolishing the statues and busts of his ancestors.
"Where is thy master, old man?" asked Teja's voice.
The slave had taken refuge in the study.
"I know not, by my soul!"
"Not even here! Cethegus! coward! Where hidest thou?"
It was now evident that the soldiers had also entered the study.
Cethegus could no longer stand upright.
He leaned against the marble statue of Jupiter, from which the hall took its name.
"What shall be done with this house?" he heard some one ask.
"It shall be burned!" cried Teja.
"The King has forbidden that," answered the voice of Thorismuth.
"Yes; but I have begged this house from the King. It shall be razed to the ground! Down with the temple of that devil! Down with the holiest of holies—this idol!"
A fearful blow resounded.
With a crash the Cæsar statue fell in fragments to the ground.
Gold, jewels, and rolls of papyrus covered the floor.
"Ah! the barbarian!" cried Cethegus, forgetting himself, and he was about to rush into the study with his drawn sword, when he fell senseless at the foot of the statue of Jupiter.
"Hark! What was that?" cried a boyish voice.
"The voice of the Prefect!" exclaimed Teja, and opening the door which led from the study into the hall, he sprang forward, swinging his battle-axe.
But the hall was empty.
A pool of blood lay at the feet of the Jupiter, and a broad track of the crimson fluid led to the window which opened into the inner court.
The court was empty.
But some Goths who entered it found the little door closed from outside; the key was still in the lock on the side of the street.
When they had forced this door—some of them had also gone round from the front of the house—and had searched the side-street and the dwellings in it, they only found the Prefect's sword, which was recognised by Fidus, the secretary.
With a gloomy look Teja took it up, and returned into the study.
"Take up carefully all that was concealed in the Prefect's idol, particularly the writings, and carry everything to the King. Where is the King?"
"When he left the Capitol, he, with all the Romans and Goths, went into the sanctuary of St. Peter, to attend a service of thanksgiving."
"'Tis well. Go to him in the church and give him everything. Also the sword of the fugitive. Tell him that Teja sends it."
"Thy order shall be obeyed," said Thorismuth. "But thou—wilt thou not go with us to the church?"
"Where wilt thou spend this night of victory, when all the others are giving thanks?"
"I will spend it in the ruins of this house!"
And he thrust the firebrand into the purple cushions of the Prefect's couch.
"Happy are we that this sunny youth still lives!" —Margrave Ruediger of Bechelaren, Act i., Scene i.
Thenceforth King Totila held his court in Rome with much splendour and rejoicing.
The heaviest task of all the war seemed to be completed.
After the fall of Rome, most of the small forts on the coast and in the Apennines opened their gates; very few remained to be taken by siege.
For this purpose the King sent forth his generals, Teja, Guntharis, Grippa, Markja, and Aligern; while he himself undertook the difficult political task of reducing to order the kingdom so long disturbed by war or rebellion. He had, indeed, almost to refound it.
He sent his dukes and earls into the towns and districts to carry out his intentions in all departments of the state; particularly to protect the Italians from the vengeance of the victorious Goths. He had published from the Capitol a general amnesty; excluding only one person: the ex-Prefect, Cornelius Cethegus Cæsarius.
Everywhere he caused the destroyed churches, both Catholic and Arian, to be restored; everywhere the landed property was settled, the taxes newly-laid and diminished.
The beneficial results of all this care were not long in making themselves felt.
Even when Totila had first assumed the crown and issued his manifesto, had the Italians resumed the long-neglected cultivation of the land. The Gothic soldiers were directed to refrain from disturbing this important work, and to do all in their power to prevent any such disturbance on the part of the Byzantines.
And a wonderful fertility of the soil, a harvest of grain, wine, and oil, such as had not been seen for ages, seemed to prove that the blessing of Heaven had fallen upon the young King.
The news of the taking of Neapolis and Rome spread rapidly through the Eastern Empire, where it was received with great astonishment, for all there had long since considered the Gothic kingdom to be extinct.
Merchants who had been tempted by the strong and just government, the security of the high-roads and of the sea—which were severally protected by patrols of soldiers and watchful squadrons of Gothic ships—to revisit the deserted towns and harbours of the peninsula, praised the justice and benevolence of the royal youth, and told of the flourishing state of his kingdom, and of the brilliancy of his court at Rome, where he gathered about him the senators who had repented of their rebellion, and gave to the populace liberal alms and splendid games in the Circus.
The Kings of the Franks acknowledged this change of circumstances. They sent presents—Totila rejected them; they sent ambassadors—Totila would not receive them.
The King of the Ostrogoths frankly offered an alliance against Byzantium and the hand of his daughter. The Avarian and Slavonian marauders on the eastern frontier were punished. With the exception of the few fortresses which were still in a state of siege—Ravenna, Perusium, and a few small castles—the whole country enjoyed as perfect peace as in Theodoric's most glorious days.
At the same time, the King was wise enough to be moderate. He acknowledged, in spite of his victories, the danger-fraught superiority of the East, and earnestly sought to make peace with the Emperor.
He resolved to send an embassy to Byzantium, to offer peace on the basis of a full acknowledgment of the Gothic rule in Italy. He would renounce all claim to Sicily—where not a Goth was now dwelling (the Gothic settlements on that island had never been very numerous); he would also resign those parts of Dalmatia now occupied by the Byzantines. On his side the Emperor should immediately evacuate Ravenna, which no perseverance or stratagem on the part of the Gothic besiegers had been able to reduce.
As the person most qualified to undertake this mission of peace and reconciliation, the King thought of a man who was distinguished by worth and dignity, by his love for Italy and the Goths, and who was renowned, even in the East, for his wisdom—the venerable Cassiodorus.
Although the pious old man had withdrawn from all affairs of state for many years, the young King succeeded in persuading him to leave the peaceful quiet of his lonely cloister, and brave the troubles and dangers of a journey to Byzantium in order to perform this noble and pious work.
But it was impossible to lay upon the old man the whole burden of such an embassy, and the King now sought for a younger and stronger man to accompany him. A man of similar benevolent and Christian feeling—a second apostle of peace.
A few weeks after the conquest of Rome, a royal messenger carried the following letter over the Cottian Alps into Provence:
"To Julius Manilius Montanus, Totila, who is called the King of the Goths.
"Come, my beloved friend, return to my heart! Years have passed; much blood has been shed, and many tears have fallen. More than once, terribly or fortunately, has everything changed around me since I pressed your hand for the last time. Everything around me has changed, but I remain the same. All is as it was between you and me. I still revere the idols at whose shrines we worshipped together in the first dreams of our youth, but growing experience has ennobled these idols. When sin, treachery, and all dark powers raged upon Italian soil, you abandoned it. See, they have disappeared, like moisture in the sun and wind. The conquered demons growl in the distance, and a rainbow stretches its brilliant arch over this my beloved kingdom. When nobler souls unhappily succumbed. Heaven preserved me to see the end of the fearful storm and to sow the seeds of a new time. Come now, my Julius; help me to carry out those dreams at which you so often smiled, thinking them mere dreams. Help me to create a new people of Goths and Italians, which will unite the advantages and exclude the weaknesses of both nations. Help me to found a realm of justice and of peace, of freedom and of beauty, ennobled by Italian grace, and strengthened by Gothic endurance. You, my Julius, have built a cloister for the Church—help me to build a temple for humanity. I am lonely, friend, at the summit of fortune. Lonely my bride awaits the full completion of my vow. The war has robbed me of my devoted brother. Will you not come, my Dioscuros? In two months I shall expect you at Taginæ with Valeria."
Julius read; and with emotion said to himself: "My friend, I come!"
Before King Totila left Rome for Taginæ, he resolved to pay an old debt of gratitude, and to give a worthy, that is a beautiful, form to an old connection that, until now, had not satisfied the desire for harmony which possessed his soul—his connection with the first hero of his nation, with Teja.
They had been friends from their earliest boyhood. Although Teja was several years older, he had always perceived and honoured the depth of the younger man's nature under the brilliant husk of his joyous temperament. And a common inclination to enthusiasm and idealism, besides a certain pride and magnanimity, had drawn them early together. Later, however, their opposite fates had caused their originally very different natures to deviate more and more.
The sunny brightness of the one seemed to contrast with the austerity of the other with painful brilliancy. And Totila, after repeated and impetuous attempts to dispel the gloom of his silent friend—the cause of which he did not know, and the nature of which he did not understand—had at last, attributing it to a morbid mind, withdrawn to a distance.
The milder, though grave and softer influence of Julius, and his passion for Valeria, gradually estranged Totila from the friend of his boyhood.
But the experience of late years, the sufferings and dangers he had endured since the death of Valerius and Miriam, the burning of Neapolis, the distress of Rome, the crimes committed at Ravenna and Castra Nova, and lately the cares and duties of royalty, had so completely matured the impatient and joyous youth, that he was now able to do full justice to his gloomy friend.
And what had not this friend accomplished since the night when they had sworn brotherhood!
When the others had become paralysed by suffering; when Hildebrand's impatience, Totila's enthusiasm, and the quiet steadfastness of Witichis, even old Hildebrand's icy fortitude, had wavered—Teja had never sighed, but always acted; never hoped, but always dared!
At Regeta, before Rome, after the fall of Ravenna, and again before Rome—what had he not accomplished! What did not the kingdom owe to his efforts! And he would receive no thanks.
When Witichis had offered him the dignity of a duke, gold, and land, he had rejected the offer as an offence.
Lonely, silent, and melancholy, he walked through the streets of Rome, the last shadow in the light of Totila's presence. He stood next to the King's throne, with his black eyes ever lowered to the ground. He stole away without a word from the royal table. He never laid aside his armour or weapons.
Only when in action did he sometimes laugh; when, with contempt of death, or the temerity which courts it, he sprang amid the spears of the Byzantines—then only did he seem to feel at ease, then all his being was life, movement, and fire.
It was known to all the nation—and Totila specially had known it from his boyhood—that this melancholy hero possessed the gift of song.
But since his return from captivity in Greece, no one had ever been able to persuade him to sing one of his glowing and inspiring songs; and yet every one knew that his little triangular harp was his constant companion in war or peace, inseparable as his sword. At the moment of attack he was sometimes heard to sing wild snatches of song to the measure of the Gothic horns. And whoever followed him into the wilderness of white marble and green bushes, among the old Roman ruins, where he was fond of passing his nights, might sometimes hear him play some long-forgotten melody, accompanying it with dreamy words. But if any one—which was seldom the case—ventured to ask what he wanted, he turned silently away.
Once, after the taking of Rome, he replied to a similar question put by Guntharis, by the words, "The head of the Prefect!"
The only person whose company he affected was Adalgoth, to whom he had lately attached himself.
The young shepherd had been raised to the office of herald and cup-bearer to the King, as a reward for his bold act at the storming of the Tiber shore.
He had brought with him, though little schooled, a decided gift for song. Teja was pleased with his genius; and it was reported that he secretly taught him his superior art, though they suited each other as little as night and morning.
"It is just on that account," said Teja, when his brave cousin Aligern once remarked this to him, "something must be left when the night sinks."
The King felt that the only thing that could be offered to this man was in his power to offer—neither gold, nor land, nor dignities.
One night King Totila came to where the two bards were sitting. He followed the sounds which, arising at irregular intervals from a grove of cypresses, and interrupted by half-sung, half-spoken words, were borne to his ear by the night wind. Unnoticed and unbetrayed by the soft moonlight, Totila reached the avenue of half-wild laurels and cypresses which led into the centre of the garden.
But now Teja heard the approaching footsteps, and laid aside his harp.
"It is the King," he said; "I recognise his step. What seekest thou here, my King?"
"I seek thee, Teja," answered Totila.
Teja sprang from his seat upon a fallen column.
"Then we must fight!" he exclaimed.
"No," said Totila; "but I deserve this reproach."
He took Teja's hand, and affectionately drew him down to his former seat, placing himself at his side.
"I did not seek thy sword, Teja; I sought thyself. I need thee; not thine arm, but thy heart. No, Adalgoth; do not go. Thou mayst see—and I wish thee to see—how every one must love this proud man, the 'Black Earl.'"
"I knew it," said Adalgoth, "ever since I first saw him. He is like a dark forest, through the branches of whose lofty trees blows a mysterious breach, full of terror and charm."
Teja fixed his large and melancholy eyes upon the King.
"My friend," began Totila, "the gracious God of Heaven has endowed me richly. I have won back a kingdom which was half-lost; shall I not be able to win back the half-lost heart of a friend? And it was to this friend's efforts that most of my success was owing; he must now help me to regain my friend. What has estranged thee from me? Forgive me if I, or my good fortune, has offended thee. I know to whom I owe my crown; but I cannot wear it with gladness if only thy sword and not thy heart be mine. We were once friends, Teja; oh! let us be so again, for I miss thee sorely!"
And he would have embraced Teja, but the latter caught both his hands and pressed them to his heart.
"This evening's walk honours thee more than thy victorious march through Italy! The tear which I see glittering in thine eye is worth more than the richest pearl upon thy crown. Forgive thou me; I have been unjust. The gifts of fortune and thy careless joy have not corrupted thy heart. I have never been angered against thee; I have ever loved thee, and it was with sorrow that I saw our paths in life diverge; for, in truth, thou art more congenial to me, nearer than thou ever wert to the brave Witichis, or even to thine own brother."
"Yes," said Adalgoth; "you two complete each other like light and shade."
"Our natures are, indeed, equally emotional and fiery," said the King.
"If Witichis and Hildebad," continued Teja, "went the straight way with a steady pace, we two were borne, by our impatient enthusiasm, as if on wings. And being so congenial, though so different, it pains me that, in thy sunny bliss, thou seemest to think that any one who cannot laugh like thee is a sick fool! Oh, my King and friend! whoever has once experienced certain trials and woes, and conceived certain thoughts, has for ever lost the sweet art of laughter!"
Totila, filled with a deep sense of Teja's worth, answered:
"Whoever has fulfilled life's noblest duties with a heroism equal to thine, my Teja, may be pitied, but not blamed, if he proudly scorns life's light pleasures."
"And thou couldst think that I was envious of thy good fortune or thy cheerful humour? O Totila! it is not with envy, but with deep, deep sadness that I observe thee and thy hopefulness. As a child may excite our sadness who believes that sunshine, spring-time, and life endure for ever; who knows neither night, winter, nor death! Thou trustest that success and happiness will be the reward of the cheerful-hearted; but I for ever hear the flapping of the wings of Fate, who, deaf and merciless to curses, prayers, or thanks, sweeps high above the heads of poor mortals and their futile works."
He ceased, and looked out into the darkness, as if he saw the shadow of the coming future.
"Yes, yes," said the young cup-bearer, "that reminds me of an old adage which Iffa sang in the mountain, and which means something like that; he had learnt it from Uncle Wargs:
"'Good fortune or bad Is not the world's aim; That is but vain folly, Imagined by men. On the earth is fulfilled A Will everlasting. Obedience, defiance— They serve it alike.'
"But," he continued thoughtfully, "if, with all our exertions, we can never alter the inevitable, why do we move our hands at all? Why do we not wait for what shall come in dull inaction? In what lies the difference between hero and coward?"
"It does not lie in victory, my Adalgoth, but in the kind of strife or endurance! Not justice, but necessity decides the fate of nations. Often enough has the better man, the nobler race, succumbed to the meaner. 'Tis true that generosity and nobility of mind are in themselves a power. But they are not always able to defy other and ignoble powers. Noble-mindedness, generosity, and heroism can always consecrate and glorify a downfall, but not always prevent it. And the only comfort we have is, that it is not what we endure, but how we endure it, that honours us the most; it is often not the victor, but the conquered hero, who deserves the crown of laurels."
The King looked meditatively at the ground, leaning on his sword.
"How much thou must have suffered, friend," he then said warmly, "before thou couldst embrace such a dark error! Thou hast lost thy God in heaven! For me, that would be worse than to lose the sun in the sky—I should feel as if blinded. I could not breathe if I could not believe in a just God, who looks down from His heavenly throne upon the deeds of men, and makes the good cause to triumph!"
"And King Witichis?" asked Teja; "what evil had he done? that man without spot or blemish! And I myself, and——"
He suddenly became silent.
"Thy life has been a mystery to me since our early youth——"
"Enough for the present," said Teja. "I have this evening revealed more of my inmost heart than in many a long year. The time will surely come when I may unfold to thee my life and my thoughts. I should not like," he continued, turning to Adalgoth, and stroking his shining locks, "to dim too soon the bright harp-strings of the youngest and best singer of our nation."
"As thou wilt," said the King, rising. "To me thy sorrow is sacred. But, I pray thee, let us cherish our refound friendship. To-morrow I go to Taginæ, to my bride. Accompany me—that is, if it does not pain thee to see me happy with a Roman woman."
"Oh no—it touches me—it reminds me of—— I will go with thee!"
Soon after this conversation, the King, Earl Teja, Adalgoth, and a numerous suite, arrived at the small town of Taginæ, above which, on a precipitous and thickly-wooded height, stood the cloister founded by Valerius, in which Valeria still continued to reside.
For her the place had lost all its terrors. She had become used to it, not only physically but morally. Slowly but surely, her reluctant soul was influenced by the grave authority of the sacred precincts.
The King met her in the cloister garden, and it seemed to him that her complexion was much paler, her step slower, than usual.
"What ails you, Valeria?" he asked tenderly. "When our vow seemed past fulfilment, you were still full of hope and courage. Now, when your lover wears the crown of this realm, and the foot of the enemy treads the sacred soil of Italia in scarcely more than one city, will you sink and despair?"
"Not despair, friend," said Valeria gravely, "but renounce. No, no! be patient and hear me. Why do you hide from me what all Italia knows—what your people wish? The King of the Ostrogoths at Toletum has offered you his alliance against Byzantium, and the hand of his daughter. Your people expect and wish you to accept both these offers. I will not be more selfish than was that high-minded daughter of your nation, Rauthgundis, of whom your minstrels already sing. And I know that you are as capable of sacrifice as the simple-minded man who was your unfortunate King."
"I hope that I should be so, if necessary. But happily there is no need of sacrifice. I do not want the help of the Ostrogoth. Look around, or rather, look beyond these convent walls. Never has the kingdom flourished as it does now. Once again I will offer to make peace with the Emperor. If he still refuse, a war will break out such as he has never seen. Ravenna will soon fell. Truly, my power and my courage are not reduced to the point of renunciation! The air of this cloister has at length enervated your steadfast mind. You must leave this place. Choose the most lovely of all Italian cities for your residence. Let us rebuild your father's house in Neapolis."
"No. Leave me here. I have learned to love this quiet place."
"It is the quiet of the grave! And you know well that to renounce you would be to renounce the ideal of my life. You are the living symbol of all my plans; you are to me Italia herself! You must become mine—wholly, irrevocably mine. Goths and Italians shall take their King and Queen for a pattern; they shall become as united and happy as we. No—no objections—no more doubts! Thus I smother them!" and he passionately embraced her.
A few days later Julius Montanus arrived, coming from Genoa and Urbinum.
The King and his retinue went to meet him outside the cloister gates.
The two friends embraced each other tenderly; for some time they were incapable of speaking.
Teja stood near and gravely observed them.
"Sir," whispered Adalgoth, "who is the man with the deep-set eyes? a monk?"
"In his heart he is; but not outwardly."
"Such a young man with such an old look! Dost thou know whom he resembles? That picture in the cloisters on the golden background."
"It is true; he is like that gentle and sorrowful head of the Apostle John."
"Your letter," Julius said to Totila, "found me already resolved to come here."
"You were about to seek me—or Valeria?"
"No, Totila. I came to be examined and accepted by Cassiodorus. Benedict of Nursia, who fills our century with the fame of his miracles, has founded an order which powerfully attracts me."
"Julius, you must not do that! What spirit of flying from the world has seized upon my companions? Valeria, you, and Teja!"
"I fly from nothing," said Julius, "not even from the world."
"How," continued the King, taking his friend by the arm, and leading him towards the cloister, "how come you, in the bloom of your manhood, to think of this moral suicide? Look, there comes Valeria. She must help me to convince you. Ah, if you had ever loved, you would not turn your back upon the world."
Julius smiled, but made no reply. He quietly clasped Valeria's offered hand, and followed her into the cloister, where Cassiodorus came to meet them.
Thanks to the King's eloquence, he was able to induce his friend to promise that he would accompany the aged Cassiodorus to Byzantium in a few days. Julius at first shunned the glitter, the noise, and the wickedness of the Emperor's court, until at last Cassiodorus' example and Totila's persuasions overcame his scruples.
"I think," the King said, "that more pious works can be accomplished in the world than in the cloister. This embassy is such a pious work; a work which is to save two nations from the horrors of renewed warfare."
"Certainly," said Julius, "a king and a hero can serve God as well as a monk. I do not blame your manner of service—leave mine to me. It seems to me that in the time in which we live, when an ancient world is sinking amid much terror, and a new one arises amid wild storms; when all the vices of a degenerated heathenism are mixed with the wildness of a barbarous race; when luxury, brute force, and the lusts of the flesh fill East and West, I think it is well done to found a sanctuary apart from the world, where poverty, purity, and humble-mindedness can dwell in peace."
"But to me," said Totila, "it seems that splendour, the happiness of honest love, and cheerful pride, are no sin before the God of Heaven! What thinkest thou of our dispute, friend Teja?"
"It has no meaning for me," answered Teja quietly, "for your God is not my God. But let us not speak of that, for here comes Valeria."
One evening, the same on which Adalgoth had arrived with the King at Taginal, Gotho, the shepherdess, stood in the sunset light upon the southern declivity of the Iffinger, leaning upon her staff.
Round her gambolled and grazed her flock of sheep and lambs, and gradually gathered close round their mistress, eagerly expecting to be led to the sheepfold.
But they waited and bleated in vain, for the pretty maiden bent over the mossy stones on the edge of the clear mountain brook. Heaped up in her leather apron lay the lovely scented flowers of the mountain: thyme, wild-rose, mint—which grew on the moist edges of the brook—and the dark blue enzian.
Gotho murmured and spoke to herself, to the flowers, and to the running stream, throwing the flowers into the water, sometimes singly, sometimes in little sprays or unfinished wreaths.
"How many," said the girl, as she tossed her thick yellow braids over her shoulder, "how many of you have I sent away to greet him! For he has gone to the south, and the water runs there too. But I know not if you give my greeting, for he has never yet come home. But you, as you rise and sink in the dance of the ripples, you beckon me to follow you. Ah! if I could! or follow the little fish which dart down the stream like dark arrows! Or the swift mountain swallows that skim through the air as free as thought! Or the rosy-winged evening clouds, when the mountain wind drives them southwards! But most surely of all would the heart of the seeker herself find him, could she but leave the mountain, and follow him to the distant and sunny land. But what should I do down there? A shepherdess amongst the warriors or the wise court-ladies! And I shall certainly see him again, as surely as I shall again see the sun, although it sinks behind yonder mountains. It is sure to come again, and yet! all the time between its parting ray and its morning greeting is filled with longing!"
From the house there suddenly sounded a far-reaching tone, a blast upon the twisted ram's horn. Gotho looked up; it had become darker; she could see the red fire upon the hearth glimmer through the open door. The sheep answered the well-known sound with louder bleatings, stretching their necks in the direction of the house and the stalls. The brown and shaggy sheep-dog sprang upon Gotho, as if to remind her that it was time to go home.
"I will go directly," she said, smiling, and stroking the dog's head. "Ah! the sheep are sooner tired of their pasture than the shepherdess of her thoughts! Now, forwards, White Elf, thou art already become a great fat sheep!"
She went down the hill towards the little hollow between two mountain summits, where the house and stalls found protection from the wind and the avalanches. There the last rays of the sun dazzled her no more. The stars were already visible. Gotho looked up at the sky.
"They are so beautiful, because he has looked at them so often!"
A shooting-star fell to the south.
"He calls me! Thither!" cried Gotho, slightly trembling.
She now drove the sheep more quickly forward, and presently shut them into their cot, and entered the large and only chamber of the ground-floor of the dwelling-house.
There she found her grandfather stretched upon the raised stone placed close to the hearth; his feet covered with two large sheep-skins.
He looked paler and older than usual.
"Seat thyself beside me, Gotho," he said, "and drink; here is milk mixed with honey. Listen to me. The time is come of which I have often spoken. We must part. I am going home. Thy dear face is indistinct; my tired old eyes can no longer distinguish thy features. And yesterday when I tried to go down to the spring, my knees failed me. Then I felt that the end was near, and I sent the goat-herd over to Teriolis with a message. But thou shalt not be present when his soul flies out of old Iffa's mouth. The death of a man is not lovely to behold—especially death upon the straw-bed. And thou hast never yet seen anything sorrowful. This shadow shall not fall upon thy young life. To-morrow, before cockcrow, brave Hunibad will come over from Teriolis to fetch thee—he has promised me to do so. His wounds are not yet healed; he is yet weak; but he says that he cannot remain idle when, as they say, the war will be sure to break out again. He wishes to go to King Totila in Rome. And there too thou must go with an important message. He shall be thy guide and protector. Bind thick soles of beech-rind under thy feet, for the way is long. Brun, the dog, may accompany thee. Take that bag of goat's leather; in it are six gold pieces which belonged to—to Adalgoth's—to your father; they are Adalgoth's—but thou mayst use them—they will last till thou reachest Rome. And take a bundle of scented mountain hay from the meadows of the Iffinger, and lay thy head upon it at night; then thou wilt sleep more soundly. And when thou reachest Rome and the golden palace of the King, and enterest the hall, observe which of the men wears a golden circlet upon his brow, and from whose countenance shines a light like that of the morning—that will be King Totila. Then bow thy head before him—but not too much—and do not bend thy knee; for thou art a free Goth's free child. Thou must give the King this roll, which I have carefully kept for many summers. It comes from Uncle Wargs, who was buried by the mountain."
The old man lifted a brick from the masonry which separated the hearth from the floor of stamped clay, and took from a hole a roll of papyrus, which, tied and sealed, was folded in a piece of parchment covered with writing and fastened with strange seals.
"Here," he said, "take the greatest care of this writing. That upon the parchment cover I myself dictated to Hermegisel over in Majæ. He swore to keep it secret, and he has kept his oath. And now he can speak no more from out of his grave in the church. And thou and Hunibad—you cannot read. That is a good thing, for it might be dangerous for thee and—and another—if any one knew what that roll contains before Totila, the mild and just King, has read it. Above all, hide it carefully from the Italians. And in every town to which thou comest, ask if there dwells Cornelius Cethegus Cæsarius, the Prefect of Rome. And if the door-keepers say aye, then turn upon thy heel, however tired thou mayst be, and however late the night, or hot the day, and wander on until thou hast put three several waters between thee and the man Cethegus. And no less carefully than the writing—thou seest that I have put rosin, such as drops from the fir-trees, upon it instead of wax, and I have scratched our house-mark upon the seal, the mark that our cattle and wagons bear—not less carefully keep this old and costly gold."
And he took from the hole the half of a broad gold bracelet, such as the Gothic heroes wore upon their naked arms. He kissed the bracelet and the imperfect Runic inscription upon it reverently.
"This came from Theodoric, the great King, and from him—my dear—son Wargs. Mark—it belongs to Adalgoth. It is his most valuable inheritance. The other half of the bracelet—and the half of the inscription—I gave to the boy when I sent him away. When King Totila has read the writing, and if Adalgoth is present—as he must be if he obeys my orders—then call Adalgoth and put half-ring to half-ring, and ask the King to pronounce a judgment. He is said to be mild and wise and clear as the light of da