‘Can it be,’ asked Marcian, ’that you think of wedding this Gothic beauty?’
‘Assuredly,’ answered Basil, with a laugh, ‘I have thought of it.’
‘And it looks as though Aurelia favoured your desire.’
‘It has indeed something of that appearance.’
‘Pray you now, dear lord,’ said Marcian, ’be sober awhile. Have you reflected that, with such a wife, you would not dare return to Rome?’
Basil had not regarded that aspect of the matter, but his friend’s reasoning soon brought him to perceive the danger he would lightly have incurred. Dangers, not merely those that resulted from the war; could he suppose, asked Marcian, that Heliodora would meekly endure his disdain, and that the life of Veranilda would be safe in such a rival’s proximity? Hereat, Basil gnashed his teeth and handled his dagger. Why return to Rome at all? he cried impatiently. He had no mind to go through the torments of a long siege such as again threatened. Why should he not live on in Campania—
‘And tend your sheep or your goats?’ interrupted Marcian, with his familiar note of sad irony. ’And pipe sub tegmine fagi to your blue-eyed Amaryllis? Why not, indeed? But what if; on learning the death of Maximus, the Thracian who rules yonder see fit to command your instant return, and to exact from you an account of what you have inherited? Bessas loses no time—suspecting—perhaps— that his tenure of a fruitful office may not be long.’
‘And if the suspicion be just?’ said Basil, gazing hard at his friend.
‘Well, if it be?’ said the other, returning the look.
’Should we not do well to hold far from Rome, looking to King Totila, whom men praise, as a deliverer of our land from hateful tyranny?’
Marcian laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder.
‘O, brave Basil!’ he murmured, with a smile. ’O, nobly confident in those you love! Never did man so merit love in return.—Do as you will. In a few days I shall again visit you at Surrentum, and perchance bring news that may give us matter for talk.’
From a portico hard by there approached a beggar, a filthy and hideous cripple, who, with whining prayer, besought alms. Marcian from his wallet took a copper coin, and, having glanced at it, drew Basil’s attention.
‘Look,’ said he, smiling oddly, ’at the image and the superscription.’
It was a coin of Vitiges, showing a helmeted bust of the goddess of the city, with legend ‘Invicta Roma.’
‘Invicta Roma,’ muttered Basil sadly, with head bent.
Meanwhile, out of earshot of their masters, the two servants conversed with not less intimacy. At a glance these men were seen to be of different races. Felix, aged some five and thirty, could boast of free birth; he was the son of a curial—that is to say, municipal councillor—of Arpinum, who had been brought to ruin, like so many of his class in this age, by fiscal burdens, the curiales