Felix Dahn was a nineteenth century German Professor of Jurisprudence, as well as a historian, novelist and poet, who was greatly admired by his academic contemporaries for his grasp of the historical detail of the periods about which he wrote. He has been well served by this magisterial translation, which at last makes this astonishingly rich novel available to the modern English reader. This is a story - perhaps the story - of the clash between two great civilizations of the sixth century of the Common Era, when the Roman Empire had crumbled into dust; the struggle for Rome, and for Italy, between the Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium, ruled by Justinian, and the Gothic warrior tribes who had captured Italy under their legendary king Theodoric. We see this epoch through the eyes of different personalities at the centre of these events which shook the world as they knew it; most are historical figures and some are imaginary but typical; Justinian and his beautiful and scheming wife, Theodora; the great commander Belisarius, immortalised by Robert Graves; Totila and Teias, two Gothic kings, one as bold and bright as the sun and the other as black as night; and Cethegus, the Prefect of Rome and the last of the Romans, whose cold and calculating nature runs through the book like a steel thread, who will stop at nothing to regain the ancient city, and who, in the end, fails and redeems his many crimes with a hero's death. Firmly based on historical fact and contemporary sources, A Struggle for Rome is one of the great historical novels of the world.
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Copyright © 2016 by Felix Dahn
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“Dietericus de Berne, de quo cantant rustici usque hodie.”
It was a sultry summer night of the year five hundred and twenty-six, A.D.
Thick clouds lay low over the dark surface of the Adrea, whose shores and waters were melted together in undistinguishable gloom; only now and then a flash of distant lightning lit up the silent city of Ravenna. At unequal intervals the wind swept through the ilexes and pines on the range of hills which rise at some distance to the west of the town, and which were once crowned by a temple of Neptune. At that time already half ruined, it has now almost completely disappeared, leaving only the most scanty traces.
It was quiet on the bosky heights; only sometimes a piece of rock, loosened by storms, clattered down the stony declivity, and at last splashed into the marshy waters of the canals and ditches which belted the entire circle of the sea-fortress; or a weather-beaten slab slipped from the tabled roof of the old temple and fell breaking on to the marble steps—forebodings of the threatened fall of the whole building.
But these dismal sounds seemed to be unnoticed by a man who sat immovable on the second step of the flight which led into the temple, leaning his back against the topmost step and looking silently and fixedly across the declivity in the direction of the city below.
He sat thus motionless, but waiting eagerly, for a long time. He heeded not that the wind drove the heavy drops which began to fell into his face, and rudely worried the full long beard that flowed down to his iron belt, almost entirely covering his broad breast with shining white hair.
At last he rose and descended several of the marble steps: “They come,” said he.
The light of a torch which rapidly advanced from the city towards the temple became visible; then quick and heavy footsteps were heard, and shortly after three men ascended the flight of steps.
“Hail, Master Hildebrand, son of Hilding!” cried the advancing torch-bearer, as soon as he reached the row of columns of the Pronaos or antehall, in which time had made some gaps. He spoke in the Gothic tongue, and had a peculiarly melodious voice. He carried his torch in a sort of lantern—beautiful Corinthian bronze-work on the handle, transparent ivory forming the four-sided screen and the arched and ornamentally-perforated lid—and lifting it high, put it into the iron ring that held together the shattered centre column.
The white light fell upon a face beautiful as that of Apollo, with laughing light-blue eyes; his fair hair was parted in the middle of his forehead into two long and flowing tresses, which fell right and left upon his shoulders. His mouth and nose, finely, almost softly chiselled, were of perfect form; the first down of a bright golden beard covered his pleasant lip and gently-dimpled chin. He wore only white garments—a war-mantle of fine wool, held up on the right shoulder by a clasp in the form of a griffin, and a Roman tunic of soft silk, both embroidered with a stripe of gold. White leather straps fastened the sandals to his feet, and reached, laced cross-wise, to his knees. Two broad gold rings encircled his naked and shining white arms. And as he stood reposing after his exertion, his right hand clasping a tall lance which served him both for staff and weapon, his left resting on his hip, looking down upon his slower companions, it seemed as if there had again entered the grey old temple some youthful godlike form of its happiest days.
The second of the new-comers had, in spite of a general family likeness, an expression totally different from that of the torch-bearer.
He was some years older, his form was stouter and broader. Low down upon his bull-neck grew his short, thick, and curly brown hair. He was of almost gigantic height and strength. There were wanting in his face the sunny shimmer, the trusting joy and hope which illumined the features of his younger brother. Instead of these, there was in his whole appearance an expression of bear-like strength and bear-like courage; he wore a shaggy wolf-skin, the jaws of which shaded his head like a cowl, a simple woollen doublet beneath, and on his right shoulder he carried a short and heavy club made of the hard root of an oak.
The third comer followed the others with a cautious step; a middle-aged man with a dignified and prudent expression of countenance. He wore the steel helmet, the sword, and the brown war-mantle of the Gothic footmen. His straight light-brown hair was cut square across the forehead—an ancient Germanic mode of wearing the hair, which one often sees represented on Roman triumphal columns, and which has been preserved by the German peasant to this day. The regular features of his open face, his grey and steady eyes, were full of reflective manliness and sober repose.
When he, too, had reached the cella of the temple, and had greeted the old man, the torch-bearer cried in an eager voice:
“Well, old Master Hildebrand, a fine adventure must it be to which thou hast bidden us on such an inhospitable night, and in this wilderness of art and nature! Speak—what is it?”
Instead of replying, the old man turned to the last comer and asked: “Where is the fourth whom I invited?”
“He wished to go alone. He shunned us all. Thou knowest his manner well.”
“There he comes!” cried the beautiful youth, pointing to another side of the hill. And, in fact, a man of very peculiar appearance now drew near.
The full glare of the torch illumined a ghastly-pale face that seemed almost bloodless. Long and shining black locks, like dark snakes, hung dishevelled from his uncovered head. Arched black brows and long lashes shaded large and melancholy dark eyes, full of repressed fire. A sharply-cut eagle nose bent towards the fine and smoothly-shaven mouth, around which resigned grief had traced deep lines.
His form and bearing were still young; but pain seemed to have prematurely ripened his soul.
He wore a coat of mail and greaves of black steel, and in his right hand gleamed a battle-axe with a long lance-like shaft. He merely greeted the others with a nod of the head, and placing himself behind the old man, who now bade them all four step close to the pillar on which the torch was fixed, began in a suppressed voice:
“I appointed you to meet me here to listen to earnest words, which must be spoken, unheard, to faithful men. I have sought for months in all the nation, and have chosen you. You are the right men. When you have heard me, you will yourselves feel that you must be silent about this night’s meeting.”
The third comer, he with the steel helmet, looked at the old man with earnest eyes.
“Speak,” said he quietly, “we hear and are silent. Of what wilt thou speak to us?”
“Of our people; of this kingdom of the Goths, which stands close to an abyss!”
“An abyss!” eagerly cried the fair youth. His gigantic brother smiled and lifted his head attentively.
“Yes, an abyss,” repeated the old man; “and you alone can hold and save it.”
“May Heaven pardon thee thy words!” interrupted the fair youth with vivacity. “Have we not our King Theodoric, whom even his enemies call the Great; the most magnificent hero, the wisest prince in the world? Have we not this smiling land Italia, with all its treasures? What upon earth can compare with the kingdom of the Goths?”
The old man, without heeding his questions, continued:
“Listen to me. The greatness and worth of King Theodoric, my beloved master and my dear son, are best known by Hildebrand, son of Hilding. More than fifty years ago I carried him in these arms, a struggling boy, to his father, and said: ‘There is an offspring of a strong race—he will be a joy to thee.’ And when he grew up I cut for him his first arrow, and washed his first wound. I accompanied him to the golden city of Byzantium, and guarded him body and soul. When he fought for this lovely land, I went before him, foot by foot, and held the shield over him in thirty battles. He may possibly, since then, have found more learned advisers and friends than his old master-at-arms, but hardly wiser, and surely not more faithful. Long ere the sun shone upon thee, my young falcon, I had experienced a thousand times how strong was his arm, how sharp his eye, how clear his head, how terrible he could be in battle, how friendly over the cup, and how superior he was even to the Greekling in shrewdness. But the old Eagle’s wings have become heavy. His battle-years weigh upon him; for he and you, and all your race, cannot bear years like I and my play-fellows; he lies sick in soul and body, mysteriously sick, in his golden hall down there in the Raven-town. The physicians say that though his arm be yet strong, any beat of his heart may kill him with lightning-like rapidity, and with any setting sun he may journey down to the dead. And who is his heir? who will then uphold this kingdom? Amalaswintha, his daughter; and Athalaric, his grandson; a woman and a child!”
“The Princess is wise,” said he with the helmet and the sword.
“Yes, she writes Greek to the Emperor, and speaks Latin with the pious Cassiodorus. I doubt that she even thinks in Gothic. Woe to us, if she should hold the rudder in a storm!”
“But I see no signs of storm, old man,” laughed the torch-bearer, and shook his locks. “From whence will it blow? The Emperor is again reconciled, the Bishop of Rome is installed by the King himself, the Frank princes are his nephews, the Italians are better off under our shield than ever before. I see no danger anywhere.”
“The Emperor Justinus is only a weak old man,” said he of the sword, assentingly. “I know him.”
“But his nephew, who will soon be his successor, and is already his right arm—knowest thou him? Unfathomable as the night and false as the sea is Justinian! I know him well, and fear that which he meditates. I accompanied the last embassy to Byzantium. He came to our camp; he thought me drunk—the fool! he little knows what Hilding’s child can drink!—and he questioned me about everything which must be known in order to undo us. Well, he got the right answer from me! But I know as well as I know my name, that this man will again get possession of Italy; and he will not leave in it even the footprint of a Goth!”
“If he can,” grumblingly put in the brother of the fair youth.
“Right, friend Hildebad, if he can. And he can do much. Byzantium can do much.”
The other shrugged his shoulder
“Knowest thou how much?” asked the old man angrily. “For twelve long years our great King struggled with Byzantium and did not prevail. But at that time thou wast not yet born,” he added more quietly.
“Well,” interposed the fair youth, coming to his brother’s help, “but at that time the Goths stood alone in the strange land. Now we have won a second half. We have a home—Italy. We have brothers-at-arms—the Italians!”
“Italy our home!” cried the old man bitterly; “yes, that is the mistake. And the Italians our allies against Byzantium? Thou young fool!”
“They were our King’s own words,” answered the rebuffed youth.
“Yes, yes; I know these mad speeches well, that will destroy us all. We are as strange here to-day as forty years ago, when we descended from the mountains; and we shall still be strangers in the land after another thousand years. Here we shall be for ever ‘the barbarians.’”
“That is true; but why do we remain barbarians? Whose fault is it but ours? Why do we not learn from the Italians?”
“Be silent,” cried the old man, trembling with wrath, “be silent, Totila, with such thoughts; they have become the curse of my house!” Painfully recovering himself, he continued: “The Italians are our deadly enemies, not our brothers. Woe to us if we trust them! Oh that the King had followed my counsel after his victory, and slain all who could carry sword and shield, from the stammering boy to the stammering old man! They will hate us eternally. And they are right. But we, we are the fools to trust them.”
There ensued a pause; the youth had become very grave, and asked:
“So thou holdest friendship to be impossible ‘twixt them and us?”
“No peace between the sons of Gaul and the Southern folk! A man enters the gold cave of a dragon—he holds the head of the dragon down with an iron fist; the monster begs for life. The man feels compassion because of his glittering scales, and feasts his eyes on the treasures of the cavern. What will the poisonous reptile do? As soon as he can he will sting him stealthily, so that he who spared him dies.”
“Well then, let them come, the despicable Greeks!” shouted the gigantic Hildebad; “let the race of vipers dart their forked tongues at us. We will beat them down—so!” And he lifted his club and let it fall heavily, so that the marble slab split into pieces, and the old temple resounded with the blow.
“Yes, they shall try!” cried Totila, and from his eyes shone a martial fire that made him look still more beautiful; “if these unthankful Romans betray us, if the false Byzantines come,” he looked with loving pride at his strong brother, “see, old man, we have men like oaks!”
The old master-at-arms nodded, well pleased:
“Yes, Hildebad is very strong, though not quite as strong as Winither, Walamer and others, who were young with me. Against North-men strength is a good thing. But this Southern folk,” he continued angrily, “fight from towers and battlements. They carry on war as they might make a reckoning, and at last they reckon a host of heroes into a corner, where they can neither budge nor stir. I know one such arithmetician in Byzantium, who is himself no man, but conquers men. Thou, too, knowest him, Witichis?” So asking, he turned to the man with the sword.
“I know Narses,” answered Witichis reflectively. He had become very grave. “What thou hast said, son of Hilding, is, alas! too true. Such thoughts have often crossed my mind, but confusedly, darkly, more a horror than a thought. Thy words are undeniable; the King is at the point of death—the Princess has Grecian sympathies—Justinian is on the watch—the Italians are false as serpents—the generals of Byzantium are magicians in art, but"—here he took a deep breath—"we Goths do not stand alone. Our wise King has made friends and allies in abundance. The King of the Vandals is his brother-in-law, the King of the West Goths his grandson, the Kings of the Burgundians, the Herulians, the Thuringians, the Franks, are related to him; all people honour him as their father; the Sarmatians, even the distant Esthonians on the Baltic, send him skins and yellow amber in homage. Is all that–-”
“All that is nothing! It is flattering words and coloured rags! Will the Esthonians help us against Belisarius and Narses with their amber? Woe to us, if we cannot win alone! These grandsons and sons-in-law flatter as long as they tremble, and when they no more tremble, they will threaten. I know the faith of kings! We have enemies around us, open and secret, and no friends beyond ourselves.”
A silence ensued, during which all gravely considered the old man’s words; the storm rushed howling round the weather-beaten columns and shook the crumbling temple.
Then, looking up from the ground, Witichis was the first to speak:
“The danger is great,” said he, firmly and collectedly, “we will hope not unavoidable. Certainly thou hast not bidden us hither to look deedless at despair. There must be a remedy, so speak; how, thinkest thou, can we help?”
The old man advanced a step towards him and took his hand:
“That’s brave, Witichis, son of Waltari. I knew thee well, and will not forget that thou wert the first to speak a word of bold assurance. Yes, I too think we are not yet past help, and I have asked you all to come here, where no Italian hears us, in order to decide upon what is best to be done. First tell me your opinion, then I will speak.”
As all remained silent, he turned to the man with the black locks:
“If thy thoughts are ours, speak, Teja! Why art thou ever silent?”
“I am silent because I differ from you.”
The others were amazed. Hildebrand spoke:
“What dost thou mean, my son?”
“Hildebad and Totila do not see any danger; thou and Witichis see it and hope; but I saw it long ago, and have no hope.”
“Thou seest too darkly; who dare despair before the battle?” said Witichis.
“Shall we perish with our swords in the sheath, without a struggle and without fame?” cried Totila.
“Not without a struggle, my Totila, and not without fame, I am sure,” answered Teja, slightly swinging his battle-axe. “We will fight so that it shall never be forgotten in all future ages; fight with highest fame, but without victory. The star of the Goths is setting.”
“Meseems, on the contrary, that it will rise very high,” cried Totila impatiently. “Let us go to the King; speak to him, Hildebrand, as thou hast spoken to us. He is wise; he will devise means.”
The old man shook his head:
“I have spoken to him twenty times. He listens no more. He is tired and will die, and his soul is darkened, I know not by what shadows. What is thy advice, Hildebad?”
“I think,” answered Hildebad, proudly raising his head, “that as soon as the old lion has closed his tired eyes, we arm two hosts. Witichis and Teja lead the one before Byzantium and burn it down; with the other I and my brother climb the Alps and destroy Paris, that dragon’s nest of the Merovingians, and make it a heap of stones for ever. Then there will be peace in East and West.”
“We have no ships against Byzantium,” said Witichis.
“And the Franks are seven to one against us,” said Hildebrand. “But thy intentions are valiant, Hildebad. Say, what advisest thou, Witichis?”
“I advise a league—weighted with oaths, secured with hostages—of all the Northern races against the Greeks.”
“Thou believest in fidelity, because thou thyself art true. My friend, only the Goths can help the Goths. But they must be reminded that they are Goths. Listen to me. You are all young, love all manner of things, and have many pleasures. One loves a woman, another weapons, a third has some hope or some grief which is to him as a beloved one. But believe me, a time will come—it may be during your young days—when all these joys and even pains will become worthless as faded wreaths from yesterday’s banquet.
“Then many will become soft and pious, forget that which is on earth, and strive for that which is beyond the grave. But that neither you nor I can do. I love the earth, with mountain and wood and meadow and rushing stream; and I love life, with all its hate and long love, its tenacious anger and dumb pride. Of the ethereal life in the wind-clouds which is taught by the Christian priests, I know, and will know, nothing. But there is one possession—when all else is gone—which a true man never loses. Look at me. I am a leafless trunk. I have lost all that rejoiced my life; my wife is dead long since; my sons, my grandchildren are dead: except one, who is worse than dead—who has become an Italian.
“All, all are gone, and now my first love and last pride, my great King, descends tired into his grave. What keeps me still alive? What gives me still courage and will? What drives me, an old man, up to this mountain in this night of storm like a youth? What glows beneath my icy beard with pure love, with stubborn pride, and with defiant sorrow? What but the impulse that lies indestructible in our blood, the deep impulsion and attraction to my people, the glowing and all-powerful love of the race that is called Goth; that speaks the noble, sweet, and homely tongue of my parents! This love of race remains like a sacrificial fire in the heart, when all other flames are extinguished; this is the highest sentiment of the human heart; the strongest power in the human soul, true to the death and invincible!”
The old man had spoken with enthusiasm—his hair floated on the wind—he stood like an old priest of the Huns amongst the young men, who clenched their hands upon their weapons.
At last Teja spoke: “Thou art in the right; these flames still glow when all else is spent. They burn in thee—in us—perhaps in a hundred other hearts amongst our brothers; but can this save a whole people? No! And can these fires seize the mass, the thousands, the hundred thousands?”
“They can, my son, they can! Thanks to the gods, that they can!—Hear me. It is now five-and-forty years ago that we Goths, many hundred thousands, were shut up with our wives and children in the ravines of the Hæmus. We were in the greatest need.
“The King’s brother had been beaten and killed in a treacherous attack by the Greeks, and all the provisions that he was to bring to us were lost. We lay in the rocky ravines and suffered such hunger, that we cooked grass and leather. Behind us rose the inaccessible precipices; before, and to the left of us, the sea; to the right, in a narrow pass, lay the enemy, threefold our number. Many thousands of us were destroyed by famine or the hardships of the winter; twenty times had we vainly tried to break through the pass.
“We almost despaired. Then there came a messenger from the Emperor to the King, and offered us life, freedom, wine, bread, meat—under one condition: that, separated from each other, four by four, we should be scattered over the whole Roman Empire; none of us should ever again woo a Gothic woman; none should ever again teach his child our tongue or customs; the name and being of Goth should cease to exist, we should become Romans.
“The King sprang up, called us together, and reported this condition to us in a flaming speech, and asked at the end, whether we would rather give up the language, customs and life of our people, or die with him? His words spread like wildfire, the people shouted like a hundred-voiced tumultuous sea; they brandished their weapons, rushed into the pass; the Greeks were swept away as if they had never stood there, and we were victors and free!”
His eyes glittered with pride; after a pause he continued:
“It is this alone which can save us now as then; if once the Goths feel that they fight for their nationality, and to protect the secret jewel that lies in the customs and speech of a people, like a miraculous well-spring, then they may laugh at the hate of the Greeks and the wiles of the Italians. And, first of all, I ask you solemnly: Do you feel as strongly convinced as I do, that this love of our people is our highest aim, our dearest treasure, our strongest shield? Can you say with me: My people is to me the highest, all else is nothing; to my people I will sacrifice all that I have and am. Will you say this, and can you do it?”
“We will; we can!” cried the four men.
“‘Tis well,” continued the old man. “But Teja is right, all Goths do not feel this as we do, and yet, if it is to be of any use, all must feel it. Therefore swear to me, to fill with the spirit of this hour all those with whom you live and act, from now henceforward. Too many of our folk have been dazzled by the foreign splendour; many have donned Grecian clothing and Roman thoughts; they are ashamed to be called barbarians; they wish to forget, and to make it forgotten, that they are Goths—woe to the fools! They have torn their hearts out of their bosoms, and yet wish to live; they are like leaves that have proudly loosened themselves from the parent stem. The wind will come and blow them into the mire and dirt to decay; but the stem will still stand in the midst of the storm, and will keep alive whatever clings to it faithfully. Therefore awaken and warn the people. Tell the boys the legends of their forefathers, relate the battles of the Huns, the victories over the Romans; show the men the threatening danger, and that nationality alone is our shield; warn your sisters that they may embrace no Roman and no would-be Roman; teach your wives and your brides that they must sacrifice everything, even themselves and you, to the fortune of the good Goths, so that when the enemy come, they may find a strong, proud, united people, against which they shall break themselves like waves upon a rock. Will you aid me in this?”
“Yes,” they cried, “we will!”
“I believe you,” continued the old man; “I believe you on your mere word. Not to bind you faster—for what can bind the false?—but because I cling to old custom, and because that succeeds best which is done after the manner of our forefathers—follow me.”
HILDEBRAND TOOK THE TORCH FROM the column, and went across the inner space, past the cella of the temple, past the ruined high altar, past the bases of the statues of the gods—long since fallen—to the porticum or back of the edifice. Silently his companions followed the old man, who led them down the steps into the open field.
After a short walk they stopped under an ancient holm, whose mighty boughs held off storm and rain like a roof.
A strange sight presented itself under this oak, which, however, at once reminded the old man’s Gothic companions of a custom of ancient heathen times in their distant Northern home.
Under the oak a strip of thick turf, only a foot broad, but several yards long, had been cut loose from the ground; the two ends of the strip still lay in the shallow ditch thus formed, but in the middle it was raised over and supported by three long spears of unequal length, which were fixed into the ground, the tallest spear being in the middle, so that the whole arrangement formed a triangle, under which several men could stand commodiously between the shafts of the spears.
In the ditch stood a brazen cauldron filled with water, near it lay a pointed and sharp butcher’s knife, of extremely ancient form; the haft was made of the horn of the ure-ox, the blade of flint.
The old man came forward, stuck the torch into the earth close to the cauldron, and then stepped, right foot foremost, into the ditch; he turned to the east and bent his head, then he beckoned to his friends to join him, putting his finger to his lip in sign of silence. Without a sound the four men stepped into the ditch beside him, Witichis and Teja to his right, the two brothers to his left, and all five joined hands in a solemn chain.
Then the old man loosened his hands from those of Witichis and Hildebad, who stood next to him, and knelt down. First he took up a handful of the black mould and threw it over his left shoulder; then he dipped his other hand into the cauldron and sprinkled the water to the right behind him. After this he blew into the windy night-air that rustled in his long beard; and, lastly, he swung the torch from right to left over his head. Then he again stuck it into the earth and spoke in murmuring tones:
“Hear me, ancient earth, welling water, ethereal air, flickering flame! Listen to me well and preserve my words. Here stand five men of the race of Graut, Teja and Totila, Hildebad and Hildebrand, and Witichis, Waltari’s son.
“We stand here in a quiet hour
To bind a bond between blood-brethren,
For ever and ever and every day.
In closest communion as kindred companions.
In friendship and feud, in revenge and right.
One hope, one hate, one love, one lament,
As we drop to one drop
Our blood as blood-brethren.”
At these words he bared his left arm, the others did the same; close together they stretched their five arms over the cauldron, the old man lifted the sharp flint-knife, and with one stroke scratched the skin of his own and the others’ forearms, so that the blood of all flowed in red drops into the brazen cauldron. Then they retook their former positions, and the old man continued murmuring:
“And we swear the solemn oath,
To sacrifice all that is ours,
House, horse, and armour,
Court, kindred, and cattle,
Wife, weapons, and wares,
Son, and servants, and body, and life,
To the glance and glory of the race of Gaut,
To the good Goths.
And who of us would withdraw
From honouring the oath with all sacrifices—”
here he, and at a sign, the others also, stepped out of the ditch from under the strip of turf—
“His red blood shall run unrevenged
Like this water under the wood-sod—”
he lifted the cauldron, poured its bloody contents into the ditch, and then took it out, together with the other implements—
“Upon his head shall the halls of Heaven
Crash cumbrous down and crush him,
Solid as this sod.”
At one stroke he struck down the three supporting lance-shafts, and dully fell the heavy turf-roof back into the ditch. The five men now placed themselves again on the spot thus covered by the turf, with their hands entwined, and the old man said in more rapid tones:
“Whosoever does not keep this oath; whosoever does not protect his blood-brother like his own brother during his life, and revenge his death; whosoever refuses to sacrifice everything that he possesses to the people of the Goths, when called upon to do so by a brother in case of necessity, shall be for ever subject to the eternal and infernal powers which reign under the green grass of the earth; good men shall tread with their feet over the perjurer’s head, and his name shall be without honour wherever Christian folk ring bells and heathen folk offer sacrifices, wherever mothers caress their children and the wind blows over the wide world. Say, companions, shall it be thus with the vile perjurer?”
“Thus shall it be with him,” repeated the four men.
After a grave pause, Hildebrand loosened the chain of their hands, and said:
“That you may know why I bade you come hither, and how sacred this place is to me, come and see.”
With this he lifted the torch and went before them behind the mighty trunk of the oak, in front of which they had taken the oath. Silently his friends followed, and saw with astonishment, that, exactly in a line with the turfy ditch in which they had stood, there yawned a wide and open grave, from which the slab of stone had been rolled away. At the bottom, shining ghastly in the light of the torch, lay three long white skeletons; a few rusty pieces of armour, lance-points, and shield-bosses lay beside them.
The men looked with surprise; now into the grave, now at Hildebrand. He silently held the torch over the chasm for some minutes. At last he said quietly:
“My three sons. They have lain here for more than thirty years. They fell on this mountain in the last battle for the city of Ravenna. They fell in the same hour; to-day is the day. They rushed with joyous shouts against the enemies’ spears—for their people.”
He ceased. The men looked down with emotion. At last the old man drew himself up and glanced at the sky.
“It is enough,” said he, “the stars are paling. Midnight is long since past. You three return into the city. Thou, Teja, wilt surely remain with me; to thee, more than to any other, is given the gift of sorrow, as of song; and keep with me the guard of honour beside the dead.”
Teja nodded, and sat down without a word at the foot of the grave, just where he was standing. The old man gave Totila the torch, and leaned opposite Teja against the stone slab. The other three signed to him with a parting gesture. Gravely, and buried in deep thought, they descended to the city.
A FEW WEEKS AFTER THIS midnight meeting near Ravenna an assembly took place in Rome; just as secret, also under protection of night, but held by very different persons for very different aims.
It took place on the Appian Way, near the Cœmeterium of St. Calixtus, in a half-ruined passage of the Catacombs; those mysterious underground ways, which almost make a second city under the streets and squares of Rome.
These secret vaults—originally old burial-places, often the refuge of young Christian communities—are so intricate, and their crossings, terminations, exits, and entrances so difficult to thread, that they can only be entered under the guidance of some one intimately acquainted with their inner recesses.
But the men, whose secret intercourse we are about to watch, feared no danger. They were well led. For it was Silverius, the Catholic archdeacon of the old church of St. Sebastian, who had led his friends direct from the crypt of his basilica down a steep staircase into this branch of the vaults; and the Roman priests had the reputation of having studied the windings of these labyrinths since the days of the first confessor.
The persons assembled also seemed not to have met there for the first time; the gloom of the place made little impression upon them. Indifferently they leaned against the walls of the dismal semi-circular room, which, scantily lighted by a hanging lamp of bronze, formed the termination of the low passage. Indifferently they heard the drops of damp fall from the roof to the floor, or, when their feet now and then struck against white and mouldering bones, they calmly pushed them to one side.
Besides Silverius, there were present a few other orthodox priests, and a number of aristocratic Romans, nobles of the Western Empire, who had remained for centuries in almost hereditary possession of the higher dignities of the state and city.
Silently and attentively they observed the movements of the archdeacon; who, after having mustered those present, and thrown several searching glances into the neighbouring passages—where might be seen, keeping watch in the gloom, some youths in clerical costume—now evidently prepared to open the assembly in form.
Yet once again he went up to a tall man who leaned motionless against the wall opposite to him, and with whom he had repeatedly exchanged glances; and when this man had replied to a questioning gesture by a silent nod, he turned to the others and spoke.
“Beloved in the name of the triune God! Once again are we assembled here to do a holy work. The sword of Edom is brandished over our heads, and King Pharaoh pants for the blood of the children of Israel. We, however, do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, we fear much more those who may destroy both body and soul in hell-fire. We trust, during the terrors of night, to His help who led His people through the wilderness, in the day by a cloud of smoke, at night by a pillar of fire. And to this we will hold fast: that what we suffer, we suffer for God’s sake; what we do, we do to the honour of His name. Thanks to Him, for He has blest our zeal. Small as those of the Gospel were our beginnings, but we are already grown like a tree by the fresh water-springs. With fear and trembling we first assembled here; great was our danger, weak our hope; noble blood of the best has been shed; to-day, if we remain firm in faith, we may boldly say that the throne of King Pharaoh is supported on reeds, and that the days of the heathen are counted in the land.”
“To business!” interrupted a young man with short curly black hair and brilliant black eyes. Impatiently he threw his sagum (or short cloak) back over his right shoulder, so that his broad sword became visible. “To business, priest! What shall be done to-night?”
Silverius cast a look at the youth, which, with all its unctuous repose, could not quite conceal his lively dissatisfaction at such bold independence. In a sharp tone of voice he continued:
“Those who do not believe in the holiness of our aim, should not, were it only for the sake of their own worldly aims, try to disturb the belief of others in its sanctity. But to-night, my Licinius, my hasty young friend, a new and highly welcome member is to be added to our league; his accession is a visible sign of the grace of God.”
“Who will you introduce? Are the conditions fulfilled? Do you answer for him unconditionally, or have you other surety?” So asked another of those present, a man of ripe years with regular features, who, a staff between his feet, sat quietly on a projection of the wall.
“I answer for him, my Scævola; besides, his person? is sufficient–-”
“Nothing of the sort. The statutes of our league demand surety, and I insist upon it,” said Scævola quietly.
“Good, good; I will be surety, toughest of all jurists!” repeated the priest with a smile.
He made a sign towards one of the passages to the left.
From thence appeared two young ostiarii (doorkeepers), leading a man into the middle of the vault, upon whose covered head all eyes were fixed. After a pause, Silverius lifted the cover from the head and shoulders of the new comer.
“Albinus!” cried the others, in surprise, indignation, and anger.
Young Licinius grasped his sword; Scævola slowly rose; confused exclamations sounded from all sides.
“What! Albinus, the traitor?”
The reviled man looked shyly about him; his relaxed features announced inborn cowardice; as if beseeching help he turned his eyes towards the priest.
“Yes, Albinus!” said the latter quietly, thus appealed to. “Will any one of the colleagues speak against him? Let him speak.”
“By my Genius!” cried Licinius, before any one could reply, “needs it to be told? We all know who and what Albinus is. A cowardly shameful traitor"—anger suffocated his voice.
“Invectives are no proof,” interposed Scævola. “But I ask himself; he shall confess here before us all. Albinus, was it you, or was it not, who, when the existence of our league was betrayed to the tyrant and you alone were accused, looked quietly on and saw the noble Boëthius and Symmachus, our confederates, because they defended you against the tyrant, despoiled of their fortune, persecuted, taken prisoners and executed; while you, the really accused, saved yourself by taking a shameful oath that you would never more trouble yourself about the state, and by suddenly disappearing? Speak, was it you for whose sake the pride of our fatherland fell?”
A murmur of indignation went through the assembly. The accused remained dumb and trembled; even Silverius lost countenance for a moment.
Then the man who was leaning against the wall opposite, raised himself and took a step forward; his mere vicinity seemed to embolden the priest, who again began:
“Friends, what you say has happened, but not as you say it. Before all things, know this: Albinus is the least to blame. What he did, he did by my advice.”
“By your advice!”
“You dare to confess it?”
“Albinus was accused through the treachery of a slave, who had deciphered the secret writing in the letters to Byzantium. All the tyrant’s suspicion was aroused; every appearance of resistance or of connection would increase the danger. The impetuosity of Boëthius and Symmachus, who courageously defended Albinus, was noble but foolish, for it revealed to the barbarians the sentiments of the whole of the Roman aristocracy; and showed that Albinus did not stand alone. They acted against my advice, and alas! have suffered death for so doing. But their zeal was superfluous; for the hand of the Lord suddenly bereft the slave of life before further revelations, and the secret writings of Albinus had been successfully destroyed before his arrest.
“But do you believe that Albinus would have been silent under torture, under the threat of death, if naming his co-conspirators could have saved him? You do not believe it, Albinus himself did not believe it. Therefore it was necessary, before all else, to gain time and to prevent the use of torture. This was accomplished by his oath. Meanwhile, it is true, Boëthius and Symmachus suffered; they could not be saved; but of their silence, even under torture, we were sure.
“Albinus was freed from his prison by a miracle, like St. Paul at Philippi. It was said that he had escaped to Athens, and the tyrant was contented with prohibiting his return. But the triune God has prepared a refuge for him here in His temple until the hour of freedom approaches. In the solitude of His sacred asylum the Lord has touched his heart in a wonderful manner, and, undismayed by the danger of death, which once before had so nearly overtaken him, he again enters into our circle, and offers to the service of God and the fatherland his whole immense fortune. Listen: he has made over all his property to the church of St. Maria Majoris for the uses of our league. Would you despise him and his millions?”
A pause of astonishment ensued; at last Licinius cried:
“Priest, you are as wise as–-as a priest. But such wisdom pleases me not.”
“Silverius,” said the jurist, “you may take the millions. It is fitting that you should do so. But I was the friend of Boëthius; it is not fitting that I should have anything in common with that coward. I cannot forgive him. Away with him!”
“Away with him!” sounded from all sides. Scævola had given utterance to the sentiment of all present. Albinus grew pale; even Silverius quailed under this general indignation. “Cethegus!” whispered he, claiming assistance.
This man, who, until now, had remained silent and had only regarded the speakers with cool superiority, now stepped into the middle of the assembly.
He was tall and lean, but powerful, with a broad breast and muscles of pure steel.
A purple hem on his toga and delicate sandals betrayed riches, rank and taste, but a long brown soldier’s mantle hid the remainder of his underclothing. His head was one of those which, once seen, are never again forgotten. His thick and still glossy black hair was cut short, after Roman fashion, round his lofty, almost too prominent forehead and nobly-formed temples. Deep under his finely-arched brows were hidden his narrow eyes, in whose undecided dark-grey colour lay a whole ocean of sunken passions and a still more pronounced expression of the coolest self-control. Round his sharply cut and beardless lips lurked a trait of proud contempt of God and His whole creation.
As he stepped forward, and, with quiet distinction, allowed his eyes to wander over the excited assembly; as he commenced his insinuating yet commanding speech, every one felt his superiority, and few could remain in his presence without a consciousness of subordination.
“Why do you wrangle,” he said coldly, “about things that must be done? Who wills the end, must will the means. You will not forgive? As you please! That is of little consequence. But you must and you can forget. I also was a friend of the dead, perhaps their dearest. And yet—I will forget. I do so just because I was their friend. He loves them, Scævola, and he alone, who avenges them. For the sake of revenge–- Albinus, your hand!”
All were silent, awed more by the personality than convinced by the reasons of the speaker.
But the jurist still objected:
“Rusticiana, the influential woman, the widow of Boëthius, the daughter of Symmachus, is favourable to our league. Will she remain so if this man enters it? Can she ever forget and forgive? Never!”
“She can. Do not believe me, believe your eyes.”
With these words Cethegus quickly turned and entered one of the side-passages, whose opening had been hidden until now by his own person.
Close to the entrance a veiled figure stood listening; he caught her hand:
“Come,” whispered he, “come now.”
“I cannot! I will not!” was the almost inaudible answer of the resisting woman. “I curse him! I cannot look at him, the wretch!”
“It must be. Come; you can and you shall—for I will have it so.” He threw back her veil; one look, and she followed as if deprived of the power of will.
They turned the corner of the entrance:
“Rusticiana!” cried the whole assembly.
“A woman in our meeting!” exclaimed the jurist. “It is against the statutes, the laws.”
“Yes, Scævola; but the laws are made for the league, not the league for the laws. And you would never have believed from me, that which you now see with your own eyes.”
He laid the widow’s hand within the trembling right hand of Albinus.
“Look! Rusticiana forgives! Who will now resist?”
Vanquished and overruled, all remained silent. For Cethegus all further proceedings seemed to have lost interest. He retired into the background with Rusticiana. But the priest now said:
“Albinus is a member of the league.”
“And the oath that he swore to the tyrant?” hesitatingly asked Scævola.
“Was forced, and he is absolved from it by Holy Church. But now it is time to depart. Let us only conclude the most pressing business. Here, Licinius, is the plan of the fortress of Neapolis: you must have it copied by to-morrow; it goes to Belisarius. Here, Scævola, letters from Byzantium, from Theodora, the pious wife of Justinian: you must answer them. Here, Calpurnius, is an assignment of half a million solidi from Albinus: you will send them to the Frankish major domus; he has great influence with his king. Here, Pomponius, is a list of the patriots in Dalmatia; you know men and things there, take notice if important names are omitted. And be it known to all of you, that, according to news received to-day from Ravenna, the hand of the Lord lies heavy on the tyrant. Deep melancholy, too tardy remorse for all his sins, oppresses him, and the consolations of the true faith have not yet penetrated into his soul. Have patience but a little while; the angry voice of the Judge will soon summon him; then comes the day of freedom. At the next Ides, at the same hour, we shall meet here again. The blessing of the Lord be with you!”
A motion of his hand dismissed the assembly; the young priests came out of the side-passage with torches, and led the members, each one singly, in different directions, to the secret exits of the Catacombs.
SILVERIUS, CETHEGUS, AND RUSTICIANA WENT together up the steps which led to the crypt of the basilica of St. Sebastian. From thence they passed through the church into the adjoining house of the archdeacon. On arriving there, Silverius convinced himself that all the inhabitants of the house were asleep, with the exception of an old slave, who was watching in the atrium near a half-extinguished lamp. At a sign from his master he lighted a silver lamp which stood near him, and pressed a secret spring in the marble wainscot of the room.
A slab of marble turned on its hinges and allowed the priest who had taken up the lamp to pass, with his two companions, into a small, low chamber, and then quickly and noiselessly closed behind them, leaving no trace of an opening.
The small chamber, now simply adorned by a tall wooden crucifix, a fall-stool, and a few plain Christian symbols on a golden background, had evidently, as the cushioned shelf which ran round the walls showed, served for those small banquets of one or two guests, whose unrestrained comfort Horace has so often celebrated in song. At the time of which I speak it was the private chamber in which the archdeacon brooded over his most secret priestly or worldly plans.
Cethegus silently seated himself on the lectus (a small couch), throwing the superficial glance of a critic at a Mosaic picture inserted into the opposite wall. While the priest was occupied in pouring wine from an amphora with large curving handles into some cups which stood ready, and placing a metal dish of fruit on the bronze tripod table, Rusticiana stood opposite Cethegus, measuring him with an expression of astonishment and indignation.
Scarcely forty years of age, this woman showed traces of a rare—and rather manly—beauty, which had suffered less from time than from violent passions. Here and there her raven-black braids were streaked with white, not grey, and strong lines lay round the mobile corners of her mouth.
She leaned her left hand on the table, and meditatively stroked her brow with her right, while she gazed at Cethegus. At last she spoke.
“Tell me, tell me, Cethegus, what power is this that you have over me? I no more love you. I ought to hate you. I do hate you. And yet I must involuntarily obey you, like a bird under the fascinating eye of a snake. And you place my hand, this hand, in that of that miserable man! Say, you evil-doer, what is this power?”
Cethegus was inattentively silent. At last, leaning back, he said: “Habit, Rusticiana, habit.”
“Truly, ‘tis habit! The habit of a slavery that has existed ever since I can remember. It was natural that as a girl I should admire the handsome son of our neighbours; that I believed in your love was excusable, did you not kiss me? And who could—at that time—know that you were incapable of loving anything—even yourself? That the wife of Boëthius did not smother the mad passion which, as if in sport, you again fanned into a flame, was a sin; but God and the Church have forgiven it. But that I should still, after knowing for years your utter heartlessness, when the glow of passion is extinguished in my veins, that I should still most blindly follow your demoniac will—that is folly enough to make me laugh aloud.”
And she laughed wildly, and pressed her right hand to her brow.
The priest stopped in his domestic occupations and looked stealthily at Cethegus. He was intensely interested.
Cethegus leaned his head back against the marble moulding, and with his right hand grasped the drinking-cup which stood before him.
“You are unjust, Rusticiana,” he said quietly, “and confused. You mix the sports of Eros with the works of Eris and the Fates. You know that I was the friend of Boëthius, although I kissed his wife. Perhaps just for that reason. I see nothing particular in that. And you—well, Silverius and the saints have forgiven you. You know further, that I hate these Goths, mortally hate them; that I have the will and—more than all others—the power to carry through that which is now your greatest wish, to revenge your father, whom you loved, and your husband, whom you honoured, on these barbarians.
“Therefore you obey my instigations, and you are wise in so doing; for you have a decided talent for intrigue, but your impetuosity often clouds your judgment. It spoils your finest plans. Therefore it is well that you follow cooler guidance. That is all. But now go. Your slave is crouching, drunk with sleep, in the vestibule. She believes that you are in the confessional with friend Silverius. The confession must not last too long. And we also have business to transact. Greet Camilla, your lovely child, for me, and farewell.”
He rose, took her hand, and led her gently to the door. She followed reluctantly, nodded to the priest at parting, looked once more at Cethegus, who appeared not to observe her inward emotion, and went out, slightly shaking her head.
Cethegus sat down again and emptied his cup of wine.
“A strange struggle in this woman’s nature,” remarked Silverius, and sat down by Cethegus with stylus, wax-tablets, letters and documents.
“It is not strange. She wishes to atone for having wronged her husband by avenging him,” said Cethegus. “And that she can accomplish this by means of her former lover, makes the sacred duty doubly sweet. To be sure, she is not conscious of it.—But what have we to do?”
The two men now began their business: to consider such points of the conspiracy as they did not judge advisable to communicate to all the members of the league.
“At present,” began the archdeacon, “it is above all things necessary to ascertain the amount of this fortune of Albinus, and decide upon its appropriation. We assuredly require money, much money.”
“Money affairs are your province,"—said Cethegus, drinking. “I understand them, of course, but they annoy me.”
“Further,” continued Silverius, “the most influential men in Sicilia, Neapolis, and Apulia must be won over to our cause. Here is the list of their names, with notes annexed. There are men amongst them who are not to be allured by the usual means.”
“Give it to me,” said Cethegus, “I will manage that,” And he cut up a Persian apple.
After an hour’s hard work, the most pressing business was settled, and the host replaced the documents, in a secret drawer in the wall behind the crucifix.
The priest was tired, and looked with envy at his companion, whose powerful frame and indefatigable spirit no late hours or exertion seemed able to exhaust.
He expressed something of the sort, as Cethegus again filled the silver cup.
“Practice, friend, strong nerves, and,” added Cethegus, smiling, “a good conscience; that is the whole secret.”
“Yes, but in earnest, Cethegus, you are a riddle to me in other respects.”
“I should hope so.”
“Oh ho! do you consider yourself such a superior being that I cannot fathom you?”
“Not at all. But still sufficiently deep to be to others no less a riddle than—to myself. Your pride in your knowledge of mankind may be at ease. I am no wiser about myself than you are. Only fools are transparent.”
“In fact,” said the priest, expatiating on the subject, “the key to your nature must be difficult to find. For example, look at the members of our league. It is easy to say what motives have led them to join us. The hot young courage of a Licinius; the pig-headed but honest sense of justice of a Scævola; as for myself and the other priests—our zeal for the honour of God.”
“Naturally,” said Cethegus, drinking.
“Others are induced by ambition, or are in hopes that they may cut off the heads of their creditors in a civil war; or they are tired of the orderly condition of this country under the Goths, or have been offended by one of these foreigners. Most of them have a natural repugnance to the barbarians, and are in the habit of seeing in the Emperor alone the master of Italy. But none of these reasons apply to you, and–-”
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