’I have no leisure to debate with you, to confute your errors. One thing only will I add, before dismissing you to ponder what I have uttered. It is in your power to prove your return to reason and the dignity of a Roman; I need not say how; the occasion will surely ere long present itself, and leave you in no doubt as to my meaning. Remember, then, how I have dealt with you; remember, also, that no such indulgence will be granted to a renewal of your crime against Rome, your sin against God.’
Marcian dropped to his knees; there was a moment of silence; then he arose and went forth.
A week passed, and there came the festival of St. Laurentius. All Rome streamed out to the basilica beyond the Tiburtine Gate, and among those who prayed most fervently at the shrine was Marcian. He besought guidance in an anguish of doubt. Not long ago, in the early days of summer, carnal temptation had once more overcome him, and the sufferings, the perils, of this last month he attributed to that lapse from purity. His illness was perhaps caused by excess of rigour in penitence. To-day he prayed with many tears that the Roman martyr would enlighten him, and make him understand his duty to Rome.
As he was leaving the church, a hand touched him; he turned, and beheld the deacon Leander, who led him apart.
‘It is well that I have met you,’ said the cleric, with less than his usual bland deliberation. ’A messenger is at your house to bid you come to me this evening. Can you leave Rome to-morrow?’
‘On what mission?’
Leander pursed his lips for a moment, rolled his eyes hither and thither, and said with a cautious smile:
‘That for which you have been waiting.’
With difficulty Marcian dissembled his agitation. Was this the saint’s reply to his prayer? Or was it a temptation of the Evil Power, which it behoved him to resist?
‘I am ready,’ he said, off-hand.
’You will be alone for the first day’s journey, and in the evening you will be met by such attendants as safety demands. Do you willingly undertake the charge? Or is there some new danger which you had not foreseen?’
‘There is none,’ replied Marcian, ’and I undertake the charge right willingly.’
’Come to me, then, at sunset. The travel is planned in every detail, and the letters ready. What follower goes with you?’
‘The same as always—Sagaris.’
’Confide nothing to him until you are far from Rome. Better if you need not even then.’
Leander broke off the conference, and walked away at a step quicker than his wont. But Marcian, after lingering awhile in troubled thought, returned to the martyr’s grave. Long he remained upon his knees, the conflict within him so violent that he could scarce find coherent words of prayer. Meanwhile the August sky had clouded, and thunder was beginning to roll. As he went forth again, a flash of lightning dazzled him. He saw that it was on the left hand, and took courage to follow the purpose that had shaped in his thoughts.