Authors: Wilkie Collins
On quitting the Court waiting-room, Vetranio and Julia descended the palace stairs and passed into the emperor’s garden. Used generally as an evening lounge, this place was now untenanted, save by the few attendants engaged in cultivating the flower-beds and watering the smooth, shady lawns. Entering one of the most retired of the numerous summer-houses among the trees, Vetranio motioned his companion to take a seat, and then abruptly addressed her in the following words: —
‘I have heard that you are about to depart for Rome — is it true?’
He asked this question in a low voice, and with a manner in its earnestness strangely at variance with the volatile gaiety which had characterised him, but a few moments before, among the nobles of the Court. As Julia answered him in the affirmative, his countenance expressed a lively satisfaction; and seating himself by her side, he continued the conversation thus: —
‘If I thought that you intended to stay for any length of time in the city, I should venture upon a fresh extortion from your friendship by asking you to lend me your little villa at Aricia!’
‘You shall take with you to Rome an order on my steward to place everything there at your entire disposal.’
‘My generous Julia! You are of the gifted few who really know how to confer a favour! Another woman would have asked me why I wanted the villa — you give it unreservedly. So delicate an unwillingness to intrude on a secret reminds me that the secret should now be yours!’
To explain the easy confidence that existed between Vetranio and Julia, it is necessary to inform the reader that the lady — although still attractive in appearance — was of an age to muse on her past, rather than to meditate on her future conquests. She had known her eccentric companion from his boyhood, had been once flattered in his verses, and was sensible enough — now that her charms were on the wane — to be as content with the friendship of the senator as she had formerly been enraptured with the adoration of the youth.
‘You are too penetrating,’ resumed Vetranio, after a short pause, ‘not to have already suspected that I only require your villa to assist me in the concealment of an intrigue. So peculiar is my adventure in its different circumstances, that to make use of my palace as the scene of its development would be to risk a discovery which might produce the immediate subversion of all my designs. But I fear the length of my confession will exceed the duration of your patience!’
‘You have aroused my curiosity. I could listen to you for ever!’
‘A short time before I took my departure from Rome for this place,’ continued Vetranio, ‘I encountered an adventure of the most extraordinary nature, which has haunted me with the most extraordinary perseverance, and which will have, I feel assured, the most extraordinary results. I was sitting one evening in the garden of my palace on the Pincian Mount, occupied in trying a new composition on my lute. In one of the pauses of the melody, which was tender and plaintive, I heard sounds that resembled the sobbing of some one in distress among the trees behind me. I looked cautiously round, and discerned, half-hidden by the verdure, the figure of a young girl, who appeared to be listening to the music with the most entranced attention. Flattered by such a testimony to my skill, and anxious to gain a nearer view of my mysterious visitant, I advanced towards her hiding-place, forgetting in my haste to continue playing on the lute. The instant the music ceased, she discerned me and disappeared. Determined to behold her, I again struck the chords, and in a few minutes I saw her white robe once more among the trees. I redoubled my efforts. I played with the utmost expression the most pathetic parts of the melody. As if under the influence of a charm, she began to advance towards me, now hesitating, now moving back a few steps, now approaching, half-reluctantly, half willingly, until, utterly vanquished by the long trembling close of the last cadence of the air, she ran suddenly up to me, and falling at my feet, raised her hands as if to implore my pardon.’
‘Truly this was no common tribute to your skill! Did she speak to you?’
‘She uttered not a word,’ continued Vetranio. ‘Her large soft eyes, bright with tears, looked piteously up in my face; her delicate lips trembled, as if she wished to speak, but dared not; her smooth round arms were the very perfection of beauty. Child as she seemed in years and emotions, she looked a woman in loveliness and form. For the moment I was too much astonished by the suddenness of her supplicating action to move or speak. As soon as I recovered myself I attempted to fondle and console her, but she shrunk from my embrace, and seemed inclined to escape from me again; until I touched once more the strings of the lute, and then she uttered a subdued exclamation of delight, nestled close up to me, and looked into my face with such a strange expression of mingled adoration and rapture, that I declare to you, Julia, I felt as bashful before her as a boy.’
‘You bashful! The Senator Vetranio bashful!’ exclaimed Julia, looking up with an expression of the most unfeigned incredulity and astonishment.
‘The lute,’ pursued Vetranio gravely, without heeding the interruption, ‘was my sole means of procuring any communication with her. If I ceased playing, we were as strangers; if I resumed, we were as friends. So, subduing the notes of the instrument while she spoke to me in a soft tremulous musical voice, I still continued to play. By this plan I discovered at our first interview that she was the daughter of one Numerian, that she was on the point of completing her fourteenth year, and that she was called Antonina. I had only succeeded in gaining this mere outline of her story, when, as if struck by some sudden apprehension, she tore herself from me with a look of the utmost terror, and entreating me not to follow her if I ever desired to see her again, she disappeared rapidly among the trees.’
‘More and more wonderful! And, in your new character of a bashful man, you doubtless obeyed her injunctions?’
‘I did,’ replied the senator; ‘but the next evening I revisited the garden grove, and, as soon as I struck the chords, as if by magic, she again approached. At this second interview I learned the reason of her mysterious appearances and departures. Her father, she told me, was one of a new sect, who imagine — with what reason it is impossible to comprehend — that they recommend themselves to their Deity by making their lives one perpetual round of bodily suffering and mental anguish. Not content with distorting all his own feelings and faculties, this tyrant perpetrated his insane austerities upon the poor child as well. He forbade her to enter a theatre, to look on sculpture, to read poetry, to listen to music. He made her learn long prayers, and attend to interminable sermons. He allowed her no companions of her own age — not even girls like herself. The only recreation that she could obtain was the permission — granted with much reluctance and many rebukes — to cultivate a little garden which belonged to the house they lived in, and joined at one point the groves round my palace. There, while she was engaged over her flowers, she first heard the sound of my lute for many months before I had discovered her, she had been in the habit of climbing the enclosure that bounded her garden, and hiding herself among the trees to listen to the music, whenever her father’s concerns took him abroad. She had been discovered in this occupation by an old man appointed to watch her in his master’s absence. The attendant, however, on hearing her confession, not only promised to keep her secret, but permitted her to continue her visits to my grove whenever I chanced to be playing there on the lute. Now the most mysterious part of this matter is, that the girl seemed — in spite of his severity towards her — to have a great affection for her surly; for, when I offered to deliver her from his custody, she declared that nothing could induce her to desert him — not even the attraction of living among fine pictures and hearing beautiful music every hour in the day. But I see I weary you; and, indeed, it is evident from the length of the shadows that the hour of my departure is at hand. Let me then pass from my introductory interviews with Antonina, to the consequences that had resulted from them when I set forth on my journey to Ravenna.’
‘I think I can imagine the consequences already!’ said Julia, smiling maliciously.
‘Begin then,’ retorted Vetranio, ‘by imagining that the strangeness of this girl’s situation, and the originality of her ideas, invested her with an attraction for me, which the charms of her person and age contributed immensely to heighten. She delighted my faculties as a poet, as much as she fired my feelings as a man; and I determined to lure her from the tyrannical protection of her father by the employment of every artifice that my ingenuity could suggest. I began by teaching her to exercise for herself the talent which had so attracted her in another. By the familiarity engendered on both sides by such an occupation, I hoped to gain as much in affection from her as she acquired in skill from me; but to my astonishment, I still found her as indifferent towards the master, and as tender towards the music, as she had appeared at our first interview. If she had repelled my advances, if they had overwhelmed her with confusion, I could have adapted myself to her humour, I should have felt the encouragement of hope; but the coldness, the carelessness, the unnatural, incomprehensible ease with which she received even my caresses, utterly disconcerted me. It seemed as if she could only regard me as a moving statue, as a mere impersonation, immaterial as the science I was teaching her. If I spoke, she hardly looked on me; if I moved, she scarcely noticed the action. I could not consider it dislike; she seemed to gentle to nourish such a feeling for any creature on earth. I could not believe it coldness; she was all life, all agitation, if she heard only a few notes of music. When she touched the chords of the instrument, her whole frame trembled. Her eyes, mild, serious, and thoughtful when she looked on me, now brightened with delight, now softened with tears, when she listened to the lute. As day by day her skill in music increased, so her manner towards me grew more inexplicably indifferent. At length, weary of the constant disappointments that I experienced, and determined to make a last effort to touch her heart by awakening her gratitude, I presented her with the very lute which she had at first heard, and on which she had now learned to play. Never have I seen any human being so rapturously delighted as this incomprehensible girl when she received the instrument from my hands. She alternately wept and laughed over it, she kissed it, fondled it, spoke to it, as if it had been a living thing. But when I approached to suppress the expressions of thankfulness that she poured on me for the gift, she suddenly hid the lute in her robe, as if afraid that I should deprive her of it, and hurried rapidly from my sight. The next day I waited for her at our accustomed meeting-place, but she never appeared. I sent a slave to her father’s house, but she would hold no communication with him. It was evident that, now she had gained her end, she cared no more to behold me. In my first moments of irritation, I determined to make her feel my power, if she despised my kindness; but reflection convinced me, from my acquaintance with her character, that in such a matter force was impolitic, that I should risk my popularity in Rome, and engage myself in an unworthy quarrel to no purpose. Dissatisfied with myself, and disappointed in the girl, I obeyed the first dictates of my impatience, and seizing the opportunity afforded by my duties in the senate of escaping from the scene of defeated hopes, I departed angrily for Ravenna.’
‘Departed for Ravenna!’ cried Julia, laughing outright. ‘Oh, what a conclusion to the adventure! I confess it, Vetranio, such consequences as these are beyond all imagination!’
‘You laugh, Julia,’ returned the senator, a little piqued; ‘but hear me to the end, and you will find that I have not yet resigned myself to defeat. For the few days that I have remained here, Antonina’s image has incessantly troubled my thoughts. I perceive that my inclination, as well as my reputation, is concerned in subduing her ungrateful aversion. I suspect that my anxiety to gain her will, if unremoved, so far influence my character, that from Vetranio the Serene, I shall be changed into Vetranio the Sardonic. Pride, honour, curiosity, and love all urge me to her conquest. To prepare for my banquet is an excuse to the Court for my sudden departure from this place; the real object of my journey is Antonina alone.’
‘Ah, now I recognise my friend again in his own character,’ remarked the lady approvingly.
‘You will ask me how I purpose to obtain another interview with her?’ continued Vetranio. ‘I answer, that the girl’s attendant has voluntarily offered himself as an instrument for the prosecution of my plans. The very day before I departed from Rome, he suddenly presented himself to my in my garden, and proposed to introduce me into Numerian’s house — having first demanded, with the air more of an equal than an inferior, whether the report that I was still a secret adherent of the old religion, of the worship of the gods, was true. Suspicious of the fellow’s motives (for he abjured all recompense as the reward of his treachery), and irritated by the girl’s recent ingratitude, I treated his offer with contempt. Now, however, that my dissatisfaction is calmed and my anxiety aroused, I am determined, at all hazards, to trust myself to this man, be his motives for aiding me what they may. If my efforts at my expected interview — and I will not spare them — are rewarded with success, it will be necessary to obtain some refuge for Antonina that will neither be suspected nor searched. For such a hiding-place, nothing can be more admirably adapted than your Arician villa. Do you — now that you know for what use it is intended — repent of your generous disposal of it in aid of my design?’