Here, one day of spring, Decius sat over his studies. Long ago he had transferred hither all the books from the great house across the Tiber, and had made his home on the Caelian. As he read or wrote a hard cough frequently interrupted him. During the past half year his health had grown worse, and he talked at times of returning to the Surrentine villa, if perchance that sweeter air might soothe him, but in the present state of things—Totila had just laid siege to Neapolis—the removal did not seem feasible. Moreover, Decius loved Rome, and thought painfully of dying elsewhere than within her walls.
There was a footfall at the door, and Basil entered. He was carelessly clad, walked with head bent, and had the look of one who spends his life in wearisome idleness. Without speaking, however, he threw himself upon a couch and lay staring with vacant eye at the bronze panels of the vaulted ceiling. For some minutes silence continued; then Decius, a roll in his hand, stepped to his kinsman’s side and indicated with his finger a passage of the manuscript. What Basil read might be rendered thus:
’I am hateful to myself. For though born to do something worthy of a man, I am now not only incapable of action, but even of thought.’
‘Who says that?’ he asked, too indolent to glance at the beginning of the roll.
‘A certain Marcus Tullius, in one of his letters,’ replied the other, smiling, and returned to his own couch.
Basil moved uneasily, sighed, and at length spoke in a serious tone.
’I understand you, best Decius. You are right. Many a time I have used to myself almost those very words. When I was young—how old I feel!—I looked forward to a life full of achievements. I felt capable of great things. But in our time, what can we do, we who are born Romans, yet have never learnt to lead an army or to govern a state?’
He let his arm fall despondently, and sank again into brooding silence.
At root, Basil’s was a healthy and vigorous nature. Sound of body, he needed to put forth his physical energies, yet had never found more scope for them than in the exercise of the gymnasium, or the fatigue of travel; mentally well-balanced, he would have made an excellent administrator, such as his line had furnished in profusion, but that career was no longer open. Of Marcian’s ascetic gloom he knew nothing: not all the misery he had undergone in these last six months could so warp his wholesome instincts. Owning himself, in the phrases he had repeated from childhood, a miserable sinner, a vile clot of animated dust, at heart he felt himself one with all the beautiful and joyous things that the sun illumined. With pleasure and sympathy he looked upon an ancient statue of god or hero; only a sense of duty turned his eyes upon the images of Christian art.