‘To the Palatine? I am summoned by Bessas?’
’In a friendly way. Have no anxiety. Petronilla has been examined this morning, and, from what I can gather, she seems to have betrayed herself. Bessas wore the smile which means that he has over-reached somebody.’
‘Then we shall find her,’ exclaimed Basil.
‘They will find her, I doubt not,’ was the reply.
The meal being ready, they sat down to eat together, but their appetite was small. Decius, who had wearied himself this morning in finding discreet answers to the questions with which he was privately assailed by his kinsfolk, did not come to table. Having dined, Basil and his friend set forth on foot, half a dozen servants walking behind them. Midway in the descent of the Caelian, they were met by an odd procession: a beautiful boy of some twelve years old, clad in yellow, riding upon a small white ass with rich housings, and behind him three slaves, dark-visaged men of the East, on mules of great size, caparisoned with yellow cloth, to which hung innumerable tinkling bells. At sight of Basil, the child drew rein; jumped down, and ran forward with smiling demonstrations of respect.
‘What is it, Laetus?’ asked Basil, with no welcome upon his sombre countenance. ‘I cannot talk with you now.’
The boy, who had been sold into slavery from the far island of the Angles, did but smatter the Roman tongue. With a few words to signify that his message was important, he delivered a letter, and Basil, turning aside impatiently, broke the seal. Upon the blank side of a slip of papyrus cut from some old manuscript were written lines which seemed to be in Greek, and proved to be Latin in Greek characters, a foppery beginning to be used by the modish at Rome.
’Heliodora to Basil. You are bidden to supper. Come if you will. If you come not, I care not.’
‘Say that I gave you no reply,’ were Basil’s blunt words, as he walked on past the ass and the mules.
They passed beneath the walls of the amphitheatre and by Constantine’s triumphal arch. Like all the innumerable fountains of the city, the Meta Sudans stood dry; around the base of the rayed colossus of Apollo, goats were browsing. Thence they went along by the Temple of Venus and Rome, its giant columns yet unshaken, its roof gleaming with gilded bronze; and so under the Arch of Titus, when, with a sharp turn to the left, they began the ascent of the Palatine.
The vast buildings which covered the Imperial hill, though discoloured by the lapse of ages and hung with ivy, had suffered little diminution of their external majesty; time had made them venerable, but had not shattered their walls. For two centuries and a half, they had stood all but desolate, and within that time had thrice been sacked by barbarians, yet something of the riches and art which made their ancient