THE resolution to return to Italy once made, the Count lost no time in carrying it out. His own preparations for departure did not cost him much trouble. He began by offering freedom to all the slaves in his household. The difficulty was in inducing them to accept it. So kind a master had he been—in spite of an occasional outburst of temper—and so uncertain were the prospects of a quiet life in Britain, that very few felt any eagerness to be independent, and the boon had to be forced upon them or made acceptable by a considerable bribe. With the free population that since the departure of the legions had gathered in increasing numbers about the villa it was still more difficult to deal. Many of them were quite helpless people whom it seemed equally difficult to take and to leave behind. To all that were of Italian birth, or that had kinsfolk or friends on the Continent who might be reasonably expected to give them a home, the Count offered a passage. For others employment was found in Londinium and other towns. But, when all that was possible had been done, there was a helpless remnant, about whom the Count felt much as the occupants of the last boat must feel at the sight of the poor creatures whom they are forced to leave behind on a sinking ship.
Carna had quitted the villa very soon after her resolution to remain in Britain had been made. It was indeed too painful to remain there, for, though the Count had confessed that she was right, his daughter remained unconvinced, and assailed her with incessant entreaties and reproaches which went very near to breaking her heart. She made her home with the old priest whose wife was a distant kinswoman of her own, and found, as such tender hearts always will, a solace for her own sorrows in relieving the troubles of others.
About the middle of September all was ready for a start. The two serviceable ships that were left to the Count were loaded to their utmost capacity with the persons and property of the departing colony. Their sailing masters had indeed remonstrated as strongly as they dared.
"We may get safely across," said the senior of them, "if all goes better than we have any right to expect. But if it comes on to blow we shall hardly be able to handle our ships; and if we meet with the pirates—well, a man might as well go into battle with his hands tied."
The Count refused to listen to these protests. Even the suggestion that the cargo should be divided, and part left for a second voyage he scouted, "It will not do," he said, "the poor people would fancy they were being left behind, and I am not at all sure that they would not be right. It is only too likely that if we once get to the other side we should not come back. No! We will sink or swim together."
About an hour before noon on the fifteenth of the month, the crews were ready to weigh anchor. The Count and his daughter, who had just taken their last view of the villa which had been their home for so many years, were standing on the little jetty, ready to step into the boat that was to convey them to the ship. Carna and the old priest and his wife were with them, and the hour of farewell had come. Ælia, if she had not reconciled herself to separation from her sister, at least saw that it was inevitable, and was resolved not to make the parting bitterer than it must needs be. She affected a cheerfulness which she did not feel.
"Good-bye, Carna," she cried, throwing her arms round the girl's neck. "Good-bye! Now we are going like swallows in the autumn, and very likely shall come back like them in the spring. Meanwhile keep the nest as warm for us as you can."
"Remember, Carna," said the Count, "that you have a home as long as either I or my daughter have a roof over our heads. You are doing your duty in staying, but there is a limit even to duty. As long as you can be of service, stop; I would not have it otherwise; but don't sacrifice yourself and those that love you for nothing."
Carna's heart was too full to let her speak. She caught the Count's hands and kissed them. Then she turned to Ælia, and taking her gold cross and chain—the only ornament that she wore—hung it round her sister's neck. When she had succeeded in choking down her sobs, she whispered, "Take this, and, if you will give me yours, we will bear each other's crosses, and, perhaps, they will be a little lighter. But oh, how heavy!"
"Kneel, my children," said the old priest, and the little group knelt down, while the rowers in the boat uncovered their heads. After repeating the pater-noster and a few simple words of prayer, he raised his hand and blessed them, then fell on his knees beside them. After two or three minutes of silent supplication the Count rose, and almost lifted his daughter into the boat, so broken down was she with the passion of her grief. Carna remained on her knees, her face buried in her hands. To have looked up and seen father and sister go was more than she dared to do. For the struggle that she fancied was over had begun again in her heart, and she could not feel sure even then that duty would prevail. The Count gently laid his hand upon her head and blessed her, then stepped into the boat. As the rowers dipped their oars in the water, a gleam of sunshine burst through the clouds, and lighted as with a glory the head of the kneeling girl.