Not many days after, in a still noontide of mellow autumn, Basil and Marcian drew towards Rome. They rode along the Via Appia, between the tombs of ancient men; all about them, undulant to the far horizon, a brown wilderness dotted with ruins. Ruins of villas, of farms, of temples, with here and there a church or a monastery that told of the newer time. Olives in scant patches, a lost vineyard, a speck of tilled soil, proved that men still laboured amid this vast and awful silence, but rarely was a human figure visible. As they approached the city, marshy ground and stagnant pools lay on either hand, causing them to glance sadly at those great aqueducts, which for ages had brought water into Rome from the hills and now stood idle, cleft by the Goths during the siege four years ago.
They rode in silence, tired with their journey, occupied with heavy or anxious thoughts. Basil, impatient to arrive, was generally a little ahead. Their attendants numbered half a dozen men, among them Felix and Sagaris, and two mules laden with packs came in the rear. Earthworks and rough buildings of military purpose, again recalling the twelve months’ blockade, presently appeared; churches and oratories told them they were passing the sacred ground of the catacombs; then they crossed the little Almo, rode at a trot along a hollow way, and saw before them the Appian Gate. Only a couple of soldiers were on guard; these took a careless view of the travellers, and let them pass without speaking.
Marcian rode up to his friend’s side, and spoke softly.
‘You have promised to be advised by me.’
Basil answered only with a dull nod.
‘I will see her to-day,’ continued the other, ’and will bring you the news before I sleep.’
No more words passed between them. On their left hand they saw the Thermae of Caracalla, their external magnificence scarce touched by decay, but waterless, desolate; in front rose the Caelian, covered with edifices, many in ruin, and with neglected or altogether wild gardens; the road along which they went was almost as silent as that without the walls. Arrived at a certain point, the two looked at each other and waved a hand; then Marcian, with Sagaris and one other servant, pushed forward, whilst Basil, followed by the rest of the train, took an ascending road to the right.
The house in which he was born, and where he alone now ruled, stood on the summit of the Caelian. Before it stood the ruined temple of Claudius, overlooking the Flavian Amphitheatre; behind it ranged the great arches of the Neronian aqueduct; hard by were the round church of St. Stephen and a monastery dedicated to St. Erasmus. By a narrow, grass-grown road, between walls overhung with ivy, Basil ascended the hill; but for the occasional bark of a dog, nothing showed