Antonina by Wilkie Collins - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
Shortly after the opening of the provision markets outside the gates of Rome, the Goths broke up their camp before the city and retired to winter quarters in Tuscany. The negotiations which ensued between Alaric and the Court and Government at Ravenna, were conducted with cunning moderation by the conqueror, and with infatuated audacity by the conquered, and ultimately terminated in a resumption of hostilities. Rome was besiege and second and a third time by 'the barbarians'. On the latter occasion the city was sacked, its palaces were burnt, its treasures were seized; the monuments of the Christian religion were alone respected.
But it is no longer with the Goths that our narrative is concerned; the connection with them which it has hitherto maintained closes with the end of the first siege of Rome. We can claim the reader's attention for historical events no more--the march of our little pageant, arrayed for his pleasure, is over. If, however, he has felt, and still retains, some interest in Antonina, he will not refuse to follow us, and look on her again ere we part.
More than a month had passed since the besieging army had retired to their winter quarters, when several of the citizens of Rome assembled themselves on the plains beyond the walls, to enjoy one of those rustic festivals of ancient times, which are still celebrated, under different usages, but with the same spirit, by the Italians of modern days.
The place was a level plot of ground beyond the Pincian Gate, backed by a thick grove of pine trees, and looking towards the north over the smooth extent of the country round Rome. The persons congregated were mostly of the lower class. Their amusements were dancing, music, games of strength and games of chance; and, above all, to people who had lately suffered the extremities of famine, abundant eating and drinking--long, serious, ecstatic enjoyment of the powers of mastication and the faculties of taste.
Among the assembly were some individuals whose dress and manner raised them, outwardly at least, above the general mass. These persons walked backwards and forwards together on different parts of the ground as observers, not as partakers in the sports. One of their number, however, in whatever direction he turned, preserved an isolated position. He held an open letter in his hand, which he looked at from time to time, and appeared to be wholly absorbed in his own thoughts. This man we may advantageously particularise on his own account, as well as on account of the peculiarity of his accidental situation; for he was the favoured minister of Vetranio's former pleasures--'the industrious Carrio'.
The freedman (who was last introduced to the reader in Chapter XIV., as exhibiting to Vetranio the store of offal which he had collected during the famine for the consumption of the palace) had contrived of late greatly to increase his master's confidence in him. On the organisation of the Banquet of Famine, he had discreetly refrained from testifying the smallest desire to save himself from the catastrophe in which the senator and his friends had determined to involve themselves. Securing himself in a place of safety, he awaited the end of the orgie; and when he found that its unexpected termination left his master still living to employ him, appeared again as a faithful servant, ready to resume his customary occupation with undiminished zeal.
After the dispersion of his household during the famine, and amid the general confusion of the social system in Rome, on the raising of the blockade, Vetranio found no one near him that he could trust but Carrio--and he trusted him. Nor was the confidence misplaced: the man was selfish and sordid enough; but these very qualities ensured his fidelity to his master as long as that master retained the power to punish and the capacity to reward.
The letter which Carrio held in his hand was addressed to him at a villa--from which he had just returned--belonging to Vetranio, on the shores of the Bay of Naples, and was written by the senator from Rome. The introductory portions of this communication seemed to interest the freedman but little: they contained praised of his diligence in preparing the country-house for the immediate habitation of its owner, and expressed his master's anxiety to quit Rome as speedily as possible, for the sake of living in perfect tranquillity, and breathing the reviving air of the sea, as the physicians had counselled. It was the latter part of the letter that Carrio perused and re-perused, and then meditated over with unwonted attention and labour of mind. It ran thus:--
'I have now to repose in you a trust, which you will execute with perfect fidelity as you value my favour or respect the wealth from which you may obtain your reward. When you left Rome you left the daughter of Numerian lying in danger of death: she has since revived. Questions that I have addressed to her during her recovery have informed me of much in her history that I knew not before; and have induced me to purchase, for reasons of my own, a farm-house and its lands, beyond the suburbs. (The extent of the place and its situation are written on the vellum that is within this.) The husbandman who cultivated the property had survived the famine, and will continue to cultivate it for me. But it is my desire that the garden, and all that it contains, shall remain entirely at the disposal of Numerian and his daughter, who may often repair to it; and who must henceforth be regarded there as occupying my place and having my authority. You will divide your time between overlooking the few slaves whom I leave at the palace in my absence, and the husbandman and his labourers whom I have installed at the farm; and you will answer to me for the due performance of your own duties and the duties of those under you--being assured that by well filling this office you will serve your own interests in these, and in all things besides.' The letter concluded by directing the freedman to return to Rome on a certain day, and to go to the farm-house at an appointed hour, there to meet his master, who had further directions to give him, and who would visit the newly acquired property before he proceeded on his journey to Naples.
Nothing could exceed the perplexity of Carrio as he read the passage in his patron's letter which we have quoted above. Remembering the incidents attending Vetranio's early connection with Antonina and her father, the mere circumstances of a farm having been purchased to flatter what was doubtless some accidental caprice on the part of the girl, would have little perplexed him. But that this act should be followed by the senator's immediate separation of himself from the society of Numerian's daughter; that she was to gain nothing after all from these lands which had evidently been bought at her instigation, but the authority over a little strip of garden; and yet, the inviolability of this valueless privilege should be insisted on in such serious terms, and with such an imperative tone of command as the senator had never been known to use before--these were inconsistencies which all Carrio's ingenuity failed to reconcile. The man had been born and reared in vice; vice had fed him, clothed him, freed him, given him character, reputation, power in his own small way--he lived in it as in the atmosphere that he breathed; to show him an action, referable only to a principle of pure integrity, was to set him a problem which it was hopeless to solve. And yet it is impossible, in one point of view, to pronounce him utterly worthless. Ignorant of all distinctions between good and bad, he thought wrong from sheer inability to see right. However his instructions might perplex him, he followed them now--and continued in after days to follow them--to the letter. If to serve one's own interests be an art, of that art Carrio deserved to be head professor. He arrived at the farmhouse, not only punctually, but before the appointed time, and calling the honest husbandman and the labourers about him, explained to them every particular of the authority that his patron had vested in him, with a flowing and peremptory solemnity of speech which equally puzzled and impressed his simple audience. He found Numerian and Antonina in the garden when he entered it. The girl had been carried there daily in a litter since her recovery, and her father had followed. They were never separated now; the old man, when his first absorbing anxiety for her was calmed, remembered again more distinctly the terrible disclosure in the temple, and the yet more terrible catastrophe that followed it, and he sought constant refuge from the horror of the recollection in the presence of his child. The freedman, during his interview with the father and daughter, observed, for once, an involuntary and unfeigned respect; but he spoke briefly, and left them together again almost immediately. Humble and helpless as they were, they awed him; they looked, thought, and spoke like beings of another nature than his; they were connected, he knew not how, with the mystery of the grave in the garden. He would have been self-possessed in the presence of the Emperor himself, but he was uneasy in theirs. So he retired to the more congenial scene of the public festival which was in the immediate neighbourhood of the farm-house, to await the hour of his patron's arrival, and to perplex himself afresh by a re-perusal of Vetranio's letter.
The time was now near at hand when it was necessary for the freedman to return to his appointed post. He carefully rolled up his note of instructions, stood for a few minutes vacantly regarding the amusements which had hitherto engaged so little of his attention, and then, turning, he proceeded through the pine-grove on his way back. We will follow him.
On leaving the grove, a footpath conducted over some fields to the farm- house. Arrived here, Carrio hesitated for a moment; then moved slowly onward to await his master's approach in the lane that led to the highroad. At this point we will part company with him, to enter the garden by the wicket-gate.
The trees, the flower-beds, and the patches of grass, all remained in their former positions--nothing had been added or taken away since the melancholy days that were past; but a change was visible in Hermanric's grave. The turf above it had been renewed, and a border of small evergreen shrubs was planted over the track which Goisvintha's footsteps had traced. A white marble cross was raised at one end of the mound; the short Latin inscription on it signified--'PRAY FOR THE DEAD'.
The sunlight was shining calmly over the grave, and over Numerian and Antonina as they sat by it. Sometimes when the mirth grew louder at the rustic festival, it reached them in faint, subdued notes; sometimes they heard the voices of the labourers in the neighbouring fields talking to each other at their work; but, besides these, no other sounds were loud enough to be distinguished. There was still and expression of the melancholy and feebleness that grief and suffering leave behind them on the countenances of the father and daughter; but resignation and peace appeared there as well--resignation that was perfected by the hard teaching of woe, and peach that was purer for being imparted from the one to the other, like the strong and deathless love from which it grew.
There was something now in the look and attitude of the girl, as she sat thinking of the young warrior who had died in her defence and for her love, and training the shrubs to grow closer round the grave, which, changed though she was, recalled in a different form the old poetry and tranquillity of her existence when we first saw her singing to the music of her lute in the garden on the Pincian Hill. No thoughts of horror and despair were suggested to her as she now looked on the farm-house scene. Hers was not the grief which shrinks selfishly from all that revives the remembrance of the dead: to her, their influence over the memory was a grateful and a guardian influence that gave a better purpose to the holiest life, and a nobler nature to the purest thoughts.
Thus they were sitting by the grave, sad yet content; footsore already on the pilgrimage of life, yet patient to journey farther if they might--when an unusual tumult, a noise of rolling wheels, mingled with a confused sound of voices, was heard in the lane behind them. They looked round, and saw that Vetranio was approaching them alone through the wicket-gate.
He came forward slowly; the stealthy poison instilled by the Banquet of Famine palpably displayed its presence within him as the clear sunlight fell on his pale, wasted face. He smiled kindly as he addressed Antonina; but the bodily pain and mental agitation which that smile was intended to conceal, betrayed themselves in his troubled voice as he spoke.
'This is our last meeting for years--it may be our last meeting for life,' he said; 'I linger at the outset of my journey, but to behold you as guardian of the one spot of ground that is most precious to you on earth--as mistress, indeed, of the little that I give you here!' He paused a moment and pointed to the grave, then continued: 'All the atonement that I owe to you, you can never know--I can never tell!-- think only that I bear away with me a companion in the solitude to which I go in the remembrance of you. Be calm, good, happy still, for my sake, and while you forgive the senator of former days, forget not the friend who now parts from you in some sickness and sorrow, but also in much patience and hope! Farewell!' His hand trembled as he held it out; a flush overspread the girl's cheek while she murmured a few inarticulate words of gratitude, and, bending over it, pressed it to her lips. Vetranio's heart beat quick; the action revived an emotion that he dared not cherish; but he looked at the wan, downcast face before him, at the grave that rose mournful by his side, and quelled it again. Yet an instant he lingered to exchange a farewell with the old man, then turned quickly, passed through the gate, and they saw him no more.
Antonina's tears fell fast on the grass beneath as she resumed her place. When she raised her head again, and saw that her father was looking at her, she nestled close to him and laid one of her arms round his neck: the other gradually dropped to her side, until her hand reached the topmost leaves of the shrubs that grew round the grave.
Shall we longer delay in the farm-house garden? No! For us, as for Vetranio, it is now time to depart! While peace still watches round the walls of Rome; while the hearts of the father and daughter still repose together in security, after the trials that have wrung them, let us quit the scene! Here, at last, the narrative that we have followed over a dark and stormy track reposes on a tranquil field; and here let us cease to pursue it!
So the traveller who traces the course of a river wanders through the day among the rocks and precipices that lead onward from its troubled source; and, when the evening is at hand, pauses and rests where the banks are grassy and the stream is smooth.