Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Stranger’s Story

"I have found out that my name is known to these ladies, though they are not aware that it belongs to me. You, sir, have very probably not found time among your many cares to give any thought to the trifles which, if I may say so much of myself, have made me famous. I am Claudius Claudianus."

"What! The poet!" cried the Count, "the Virgil of these later days?"

The poet blushed with pleasure to hear the compliment, which, extravagant as it may seem to us, did not strike him as being anything out of the way. For had not his statue been set up in Trajan's Forum at Rome, an honour which none of his predecessors had been thought worthy to receive?

"Ah! Sir," he replied, "you are too good. But it would have been well for me if I had contented myself with following Virgil; unfortunately I must also imitate Juvenal. Praise of the fallen may be for- given, but there is no pardon for satire against those that succeed. Enmity lasts longer than friendship, and I have made enemies whom nothing can appease."

"But what of Stilicho?" said the Count. "Surely he has not ceased to be your friend. Doubtless you owe much to him, but he owes more, I venture to say, to you. He may have given you wealth, but you have given him immortality."

"Ah! sir," said Claudian, "have you not then heard?"

"Heard!" cried the Count; "we hear nothing here. We always were cut off from the rest of the world; but for the last nine months we might as well have been living in the moon, for all that has reached us of what is going on elsewhere."

"You did not know, then, that Stilicho was dead?"

"Dead! But how?"

"Killed by the order of the Emperor."

"What! killed? by the Emperor's orders? It is impossible. The man who saved the Empire, the very best soldier we have had since Cæsar! And you say that the Emperor ordered him to be killed?"

The Count rose from his seat, and walked about in incontrollable emotion.

"So they have killed him! Fools and madmen that they are! There never was such a man. I knew him well. He was always ready, always cheerful, as gay in a battle as at a wedding; as brave as a lion, and yet never doing anything by force that he could contrive by stratagem. But tell me—they had, or pretended to have, some cause. What was it?"

"They said he was a traitor, that he wanted the Empire for himself, or for his son, that he intrigued with the barbarians."

"Well, he was fond of power; and who can wonder that he was dissatisfied when he saw in what hands it was lodged? But tell me—what do you think?"

"I don't say," resumed Claudian, "that he was blameless, but he had an impossible task—he had to save the Empire without soldiers. He did it again and again; he played off one barbarian power against another with consummate skill; and filled his legion one day with the enemies whom he had routed the day before. But this could not be done without intrigues, without devices which, taken by themselves, looked like treason. But it is idle to speak of the past. He lies in a dishonoured grave, and the Empire of Augustus is tottering to its fall."

"Tell me of his end," said the Count. "You saw it?"

"Yes," said the poet; "I saw it, and, I am ashamed to say, survived it. Well, I will tell you my tale. You know he might have had the Empire; the soldiers offered it to him; Alaric and his Goths would have been delighted to help him. But he refused. He was loyal to the last. He would not even fly. There are many places where he would have been safe——"

"Yes," interrupted the Count; "he would have been safe here, if I know anything of Britain."

"Well, he would go to none of them. He went to the one place where safety was impossible. He went to Ravenna; and at Ravenna every one, from the Emperor down to the meanest slave, was an enemy. He wanted to make them trust him by trusting them—as if one disarmed a tiger by going into his lair! He had two or three of his chief officers with him, besides myself, and as many slaves. We had not a weapon of any kind among us. Stilicho made a point of our being unarmed. Well, we had not an encouraging greeting when we entered the city. Every one, as you may suppose, recognized him. Indeed, there was no man, I suppose, in the whole Empire, who was better known. No one who had ever seen Stilicho could forget that towering form, that white head. There were sullen looks as we walked through the streets, and hisses, and even some stone throwing.

“However, we got safe to our lodgings, and passed the night without disturbance. The next day, as we were standing in the market-place, an old Vandal soldier—one of the general's countrymen, you know—put a flower in his hand as he walked by, without saying a word, or even looking at him; for it would have been as much as his life was worth to be seen communicating with us. 'An old comrade,' said Stilicho, who never forgot a face. 'He served with me in Greece.'

“The flower was a little red thing; the 'shepherd's hour-glass' they call it, because it shuts when there is rain coming. It was a warning. There was danger close at hand. The general said, 'We must take sanctuary.' Then he called me to him. 'Leave me, Claudian,' he said; 'you cannot take sanctuary with us, for you are not a baptized man. I do not count much on the Church's protection; but still it may give me time to make my defence to the Emperor. So you must look out for your own safety. But surely they can't be base enough to harm you, for what you have done?'

“'I don't know about that, my Lord,' I answered; 'you remember the fable of the trumpeter. Anyhow, I shall follow you as far as I can.' Well, he went into the great church—what used to be the Basilica before Constantine's time—and took sanctuary by the altar. I did not go further than the nave. In the course of an hour or so comes the bishop, with the archdeacon and two or three priests, and following them one of the great officers of the Court, with a body-guard. The church was now crowded from end to end; the people had climbed up into the pulpit, and every accessible spot from which they could get a view of what was going on. I think that there was a reaction in the general's favour. No one, whose heart was not flint, could see the man who had saved the Empire, and that not once or twice, a suppliant for his life. Well, I could not see for myself what went on, but I heard the story afterwards. The bishop brought a safe-conduct from the Emperor; or rather the chamberlain brought it, and the bishop gave it to Stilicho, with his own guarantee. I can't believe that a man of peace and truth, as he calls himself, could have been a party to so base a fraud—he must have been deceived himself. Well, the safe-conduct promised that the general should be heard in his own defence; and he wanted nothing more. I doubt whether a trial would have served him; but they never intended to give him even so much. As soon as he was out of the church I could see what was meant, for I followed him. The chamberlain's body-guard drew their swords.

“Well, I was wrong to say that he had no friends in Ravenna. He had a friend even in that crew of hirelings—another of his old soldiers, I daresay. I told you that Stilicho had neither armour nor weapon. Well, in a moment, no one could see how, there was a long sword lying at his feet. He took it up; and, verily, if he had used it, he would at least have sold his life dearly. The general was a great swordsman, as good a swordsman as he was a general. But no; he would not condescend to it; after a soldier's first impulse to take the weapon, he made no use of it. He pointed it to the ground, and stood facing his enemies. Ah, it was a noble sight—that grand old man looking steadfastly at that crew of murderers. For a few moments they seemed cowed. No one lifted his hand—then some double-dyed villain crept behind and stabbed him. He staggered forward, and immediately there were a dozen swords hacking at him. At least his was no lingering death. They cut off that grand white head and carried it to the Emperor; his body they threw into the pit where they bury the slaves. And that was the end of the saviour of the Empire."

"And about yourself?" said the Count.

"Well," went on the poet, "I have since thought that if I had been a man I should have died with him. But when I knew that he was dead, I was coward enough to fly. You would not care to hear how I spent the next few days. I had a few gold pieces in my pocket, and I found a wretched lodging in one of the worst parts of the city, and I lay there in hiding. One day I was having my morning meal at a wine shop, when a shabbily dressed old man, who sat next, turned to me in a meaning way, and, pouring a few drops out of his wine cup, said, 'To Apollo and the Muses.' That is a crime now-a-days, in some places at least, Ravenna among them; and he wanted, I suppose, to put me at my ease. 'Will you not do the same,' he went on, 'of all men in the world there is no one who has better cause.' Pardon me, illustrious Count, if I repeat his flatteries. 'Whom do you take me for?' said I, for one gets to be a sad coward after a few days' hiding, and I was unwilling to declare myself. He replied by repeating some of my verses in so meaning a way that I could not misunderstand him. 'These wine-bibbers here,' he went on, 'don't know one verse from another, but they might catch up a name. Come along with me; I will give you a flask of something better than this sour stuff.'

“Well, we went to his house, which was close to the harbour. He was the owner, I found, of two or three small trading vessels. The house was a veritable temple of the Muses, ornamented with busts of the poets—my own I was flattered to see among them—and containing an excellent library of books. Manlius—that was my friend's name—had heard me recite at Rome; and he recognized me partly from memory, partly from my resemblance to the bust. To make a long story short, he entertained me most hospitably for several days, while we discussed the question what was to become of me. Home I could not go, not, at least, till there should be a change in the Emperor's surroundings. The further I got from Italy the more chance there would be of safety. We thought of North-western Gaul or Britain, or of getting across the Rhine. The end of it was that the good fellow took me across Italy, disguised as his servant, to Genoa, where he had correspondents. From Genoa I went to Marseilles, and from Marseilles overland to Narbonne, using now the character of a bookseller's agent, one which I thought myself better qualified to sustain than any other. At Narbonne I found employment as a bookseller's assistant, till I could get a letter from my wife in Africa with some money. That came in due course, and then I set off on my travels again, still working northwards. Then, sir, I thought of you. I had often heard the great man speak of you. You served under him against the Bastarnæ, I think, and it occurred to me that for Stilicho's sake you might give me shelter. Not that it matters much to me. To Stilicho I owe so much that I can scarcely imagine life without him. He gave me honour, wealth, even," added the poet, with a sad little smile, "even my wife, for it was not my courting, but the Lady Serena's letter that won her for me. But to go on, I found an honest trader, and bargained with him to bring me here. I had been sickening for some time, and I remember little or nothing from the time of my embarking. There, sir, you have my history carried up to the latest point."

"We will put off the future to another day," said the Count; "meanwhile you may count on me for anything that I can do."

"Your kindness does much to reconcile me to life," said the poet, "and now I will retire, for I feel a little tired."

"Ah," said Carna half to herself, when he had left the room, "now I understand about Proserpine."

"About Proserpine? What do you mean?" asked Ælia.

"Why, when he came to himself for the first time I was sitting in the window with a piece of embroidery work in my hand, and I heard him whisper something about Proserpine." Carna suppressed the flattering epithet. "Don't you remember that passage where he describes the tapestry which Proserpine was working for her mother, and how we admired it, and thought we would work something of the kind for ourselves, only we could not get any design?"

"Yes, I remember," replied the other, and you have had a Pluto, too, to carry you off. Luckily he was not so successful as the god."

Previous Next

No comments:

Post a Comment