'I have observed,' pursued the Prefect, after an interval, speaking with his mouth
full of stewed peacock; 'I have observed, oh esteemed colleague! the melancholy
of your manner and your absolute silence during your attendance to-day at our
deliberations. Have we, in your opinion, decided erroneously? It is not
impossible! Our confusion at this unexpected appearance of the barbarians may
have blinded our usual penetration! If by any chance you dissent from our plans, I
beseech you communicate your objections to me without reserve!'
'I dissent from nothing, because I have heard nothing,' replied Vetranio sullenly. 'I
was so occupied by a private matter of importance during my attendance at the
sitting of the Senate, that I was deaf to their deliberations. I know that we are
besieged by the Goths--why are they not driven from before the walls?'
'Deaf to our deliberations! Drive the Goths from the walls!' repeated the Prefect
faintly. 'Can you think of any private matter at such a moment as this? Do you
know our danger? Do you know that our friends are so astonished at this frightful
calamity, that they move about like men half awakened from a dream? Have you
not seen the streets filled with terrified and indignant crowds? Have you not
mounted the ramparts and beheld the innumerable multitudes of pitiless Goths
surrounding us on all sides, intercepting our supplies of provisions from the
country, and menacing us with a speedy famine, unless our hoped-for auxiliaries
arrive from Ravenna?'
'I have neither mounted the ramparts, nor viewed with any attention the crowds in
the streets,' replied Vetranio, carelessly.
'But if you have seen nothing yourself, you must have heard what others saw,'
persisted the Prefect; 'you must know at least that the legions we have in the city
are not sufficient to guard more than half the circuit of the walls. Has no one
informed you that if it should please the leader of the barbarians to change his
blockade into an assault, it is more than probable that we should be unable to
repulse him successfully? Are you still deaf to our deliberations, when your
palace may to-morrow be burnt over your head, when we may be staved to death,
when we may be doomed to eternal dishonour by being driven to conclude a
peace? Deaf to our deliberations, when such an unimaginable calamity as this
invasion has fallen like a thunderbolt under our very walls! You amaze me! You
overwhelm me! You horrify me!'
And in the excess of his astonishment the bewildered Prefect actually abandoned
his stewed peacock, and advanced, wine-cup in hand, to obtain a nearer view of
the features of his imperturbable host.
'If we are not strong enough to drive the Goths out of Italy,' rejoined Vetranio
coolly, 'you and the Senate know that we are rich enough to bribe them to depart
to the remotest confines of the empire. If we have not swords enough to fight, we
have gold and silver enough to pay.'
'You are jesting! Remember our honour and the auxiliaries we still hope for from
Ravenna,' said the Prefect reprovingly.
'Honour has lost the signification now, that it had in the time of the Caesars,'
retorted the Senator. 'Our fighting days are over. We have had heroes enough for
our reputation. As for the auxiliaries you still hope for, you will have none! While