Basil reflected, then asked boldly:
’Has not the King Totila welcomed and honourably entertained Romans who have embraced his cause?’
‘Come now,’ exclaimed the other, his sad visage lighting up, ’that is to speak like a man! So, we do understand each other. Be it known unto you then, O Basil, that at this moment the Gothic king is aware of your love for Veranilda, and of your purpose to espouse her. You indeed are a stranger to him, even in name; but not so the Anician house; and an Anician, be assured, will meet with no cold reception in the camp of the Goths.’
‘You enjoy the confidence of Totila?’ asked Basil, wondering, and a little confused.
’Did I not tell you that I claimed the merit of playing traitor to both sides?’
Marcian spoke with a note of bitterness, looking his friend fixedly in the face.
‘It is a noble treachery,’ said Basil, seizing both his hands. ’I am with you, heart and soul! Tell me more. Where is the king? Will he march upon Rome?’
’Neapolis will see him before Rome does. He comes slowly through Samnium, making sure his conquest on the way. Let me now speak again of Venantius. He would fain know you.’
‘He is one of ours?’
’One of those true Romans who abhor the Eastern tyranny and see in the Goth a worthy ally. Will you ride with me to-morrow to Nuceria?’
‘I cannot,’ replied Basil, ’for I dare not leave Veranilda without protection, after what you have told me.’
‘Why, then, Venantius must come hither.’
Whilst the friends were thus conversing a courier rode forth from Surrentum towards Neapolis. He bore a letter whereof the contents were these:—
’To the holy and reverend deacon Leander, Petronilla’s humble salutation.
’I am most punctually informed of all that passes at the villa. My nephew goes not to Rome; his place will be taken by Decius. The reason is that which I have already suggested to your Sanctity. Marcian has arrived this afternoon, coming I know not whence, but I shall learn. I suspect things of the darkest moment. Let your Sanctity pursue the project with which heaven has inspired you. You shall receive, if necessary, two missives every day. Humbly I entreat your prayers.’
The Roman Empire, by confining privileges and honours to the senatorial order, created a noble caste, and this caste, as Imperial authority declined, became a power independent of the state, and a menace to its existence. In Italy, by the end of the fifth century, the great system of citizenship, with its principle of infinite devotion to the good of the commonwealth, was all but forgotten. In matters of justice and of finance the nobles were beginning to live by their own law, which was that of the right of the strongest. Having ceased to hold office