On the Road from Rome
A dramatic story of two crusaders and a lover who was read a stiff lesson
THEY were in Rome, sitting close together under an ilex on the slope of the Capitoline. “Leo,” she said, after a long pause, “I want to tell you something.”
“I’m very much here,” smiled the young man. “It’s something I’ve never told you before.” “I’ve always maintained you were the most original girl I’ve ever met. Let the oracle speak.” “Well, I love you very much, but—” “Thank the gods that’s not original.” “But,” she added warningly.
“Need there be a but?”
“It's this. I’m not so sure I can go on loving'you.” He thought this jocular, but she seemed so much in earnest, and her dark eyes were so steady, that he gave her a stare of incredulity.”
, “What’s his name—the other man’s?”
“There isn’t any; that’s the sobering part of it. It’s you, Leo, the other you.”
“Are there two of me?”
She nodded gravely, looking past him and down at the columns of the Forum. Rome was very quiet that night, so quiet that one could almost hear the city breathe. Tweity miles away, the low ridge of the Alban hills lay sleeing under an opulent moon. Laura loved Rome,
and for the past winter had loved it more than ever.
“Don’t you know that there are two of you—and one without any serious thoughts?”
He put his hand under her chin, tilting it so that her lovely face was like pale ivory in the moonlight. She had a small and exquisitely shaped head, on which her hair, almost a purple black, was piled in a loose knot. Her eyes were large and far apart. The contour of that face, gentle, sweet and strong, had captured him the first time he saw it. Presently a wave of feeling swept over him. He caught her in his arms, kissing her passionately.
“Laura, don’t talk so strangely. I adore you, and you know it. You’re going to make me the happiest man in the world.”
She hardly stirred, and, certainly, there was no answering emotion. He drew away, dubious and ill at ease.
“Are you going to make me the happiest woman in the world?” she asked in a small voice. “You can’t, Leo, as things go now. Oh, you think I’m a dead sort of person, T can see that, but I’m trying to look ahead. Leo, you’re much too fond of nothing.”
“It amounts to that. You’ve got a brain, and you
won’t use it; you've got money, and you fling it about; and, Leo, you don’t earn it yourself. You can earn it, but you won’t. Father was talking about it only yesterday.”
“I seem to have been pretty well overhauled by my future relations,” he remarked stiffly.
“My people are interested - naturally. Why did you refuse that consular job?”
“Tunisia is too hot for my taste. Was your father talking about that, too?”
“Isn’t it natural? He got you the offer."
“You never told me that."
“He told me not to.”
“So I’ve been under test?” he said with a grimace.
She studied him with a sort of detachment in which a new power of comprehension was finding birth. He was very handsome, with close, curling flaxen hair, but -the small mouth with its full, amorous lips was unde ably weak.
“I had a queer sensation just now,” she vent an odd tone, “as though we two had been jr long way—oh, twenty years—and I got a as you will be then. And, Leo, you wer*"
lazy, and hadn’t any business or hobbies, and were accustomed to having things all your own way. And you weren’t connected with matters outside—I mean worth-while things, the kind our people have always been keen on. The world had moved without you!” She broke off, eyes rounding at her own daring, then gave a mirthless little laugh.
“Don’t look so furious, darling, but if I can’t talk out now, when can I? Say anything you like about me; I’m sure I’ll deserve it. But sometimes—oh, it’s so hard to make it sound like common sense—sometimes one gets a queer twist, and things . . . just things come at you as though they were alive. Is it that we can depend on things more than humans, and are they more reasonable and less changeable? Perhaps,” she pointed to the silent Forum, “it’s the effect of that.
So much has happened there.”
“Possibly, but nothing quite like this,” he said satirically. “Well, since I’m going to be fat and spoilt and a sort of left-behind, it’s hardly fair—”
She caught his hand, pressing it to her breast.
“Leo, Leo, don’t take me so grimly. I’m all whims and moods and fancies tonight. You’ll have to get used to that. And you must remember never to remind me in the future of something or other I’ve said in the past. But now it’s just as though we were walking through a wood with paths leading everywhere, and I’m dreadfully anxious to take the right one. And you needn’t be fat. I’ll see to that. And I’ll swear not to let you get spoilt. But as to not being left behind, that’s up to you.”
HE CAPITULATED, as always, to her unexpectedness and charm, but only half perceiving the fine strain of ambition that underlay even her gayest moments. She was full of nuances. She shrank from appearing too practical, but nevertheless shrouded a very practical nature under her lighthearted manner. Only a few of her intimates knew what stirred within. Sometimes she wondered whether her lover was in this sense an intimate. And now, because his arms had gone round her again, it was hard to be consecutive.
“Is the lecture over?” he whispered, lips close to her eyes.
“Darling, you’ve been perfect so far.”
“Good! Have I taken it nicely?”
“Good! Have I taken it nicely?”
“Well, I’d loathe being fat. 1 decline to be spoilt, even by you; and, thirdly, if you’ll suggest some suitable—or—activity, I’ll see what can be done.”
“I suggest it!”
“Why not? You express yourself with painful clearness, and at the moment I’m a bit hazy.”
“There are a thousand things you could do, and you know it.”
"One or two will serve to start with.”
“Well, since you’re going to live here, why not something municipal? Got. elected to the Council father could manage that.....or com-
"Better leave your father out this time. Committees are as dry as —as the Appian Way; and the Council, well, the Council would laugh its head off.”
“Not if you were in earnest, Leo. They want young blood.”
He began to feel rather ashamed, and they drifted into a long discussion, heads close together, reconnoitring the affairs of the day with the labored seriousness of youth. Suddenly the girl gave an exclamation.
“Leo, we must be going. I’d no idea it was so late. Shall we leave it like that?”
“Then my general orders are to set about helping the fellow who apparently cannot help himself?” “Isn’t that the most human thing to begin with? And in your own way, because I’ve nothing to do with that part of it.”
“You’ve everything to do with every part of it. When may I come to Taormina? Jove! I want you all to myself, and there.”
“In two months. It would be wisest to wait that long.”
“Meaning that you give the man you really love two months in which to take the other fellow in hand?”
He stood up, and lifted his arm toward the empty Forum.
“Then by all the gods who ever misbehaved themselves on Olympus, I swear to eat meat but thrice a V lest I get fat, to walk on these my own feet ten ■*ay lest I get lazy, and to help the fellow who ’'imself lest I get spoilt. Will that do, you
For answer she put her lips to his; then, hand in hand they went swiftly down the sharp slope of the Capitoline.
T IFE seemed desolate without her, but he stuck to *-J his word. No hardship about the first two months, but with the third he encountered exactly the difficulty he anticipated. He was out of touch with real things. Coming to Rome, he had brought letters that opened every door. He was rich, very attractive, and of a wellknown family. By nature he was artistic and rather sensuous. Thus, quite inevitably, he found himself engrossed in a very metropolitan society, and it was not long before he began to set the pace.
In the weeks that followed Laura’s departure he gained a certain discomforting experience. He dropped
out of society with impulsive abruptness, but the sobersides, the people associated with movements, regarded his offers of service with hesitation. They welcomed his subscriptions, but there was no quite suitable post for the subscriber.
He stuck to it with a touch of growing cynicism, learning little by little something of the undercurrents of a great city. Then, dressed in cheap clothes, he frequented the poorer streets, and it was during this period that he caught the first echoes of a queer unrest, almost spiritual in its character, that was beginning to assert itself among the downtrodden and friendless. It wa3 not revolt as yet, but that which might find expression in later upheaval.
During these explorations he avoided the Lucians’ house altogether. The family were at their summer home in Sicily, while Lucian stuck to business, promising himself a holiday in August. That merchant prince wondered not a little about his prospective son-in-law, but made no move. He had a quizzical belief that love
affairs of the young could not be made subject to parental disposition. He admitted to being vexed, then felt rather relieved. And he had entire confidence in Laura’s judgment.
THE sun’s narrowing disc was casting long shadows across the Via Appia, when Leo, returning on foot from the Campagna, saw a little crowd gathered beside the pyramid of Cestius. In the middle, standing on the fragment of a column, a man was speaking—a small man with weatherbeaten features and poorly clad. But that part of it seemed unimportant; so great was his earnestness. His eyes, large, intelligent, full of fire and courage, stared boldly at his audience. And he was meeting with constant interruptions.
“Some fanatic,” grunted Leo, dusty and rather footsore. Then one impassioned phrase reached him, and he joined the outer ring.
The man had education, of a sort. He spoke with extreme force in a very unconventional fashion, and was, thought Leo, distinctly blasphemous. Certainly he was devoid of fear. By his own account he had travelled extensively. As a result, he seemed to have collected a set of revolutionary doctrines that were violently -' opposed to any established government, especially the kind of dictatorship in power in Rome. Did he not know, wondered Leo, that attacks of this kind were extremely dangerous. Others had done the same, and paid with their lives. The Dictator had his spies everywhere! Here no doubt . . . now . . . listening!
The man’s torrent of speech rushed on to assail religion. The creed of the day was, he avowed, a byword. Modern life here in Rome, as elsewhere, was rotten. He described it as shot through with perverted sexuality. This with a gesture that included his listeners. They were all rotten, the lot of them, and eternally lost unless they accepted what he would now tell them. He alone knew the way out of this national morass.
Here again, thought Leo, the man was utterly reckless. One could feel the resentment, the rising temper of the crowd. He was brave enough, no doubt about that, but the slightest knowledge of local affairs would have proved the folly of this attitude. The established religion had never a more complete possession of the affection and imagination of the people than at present. There was an entente between Church and State. The State controlled with inflexible authority the actions of the multitude, while the Church dominated their souls. Here there were a few who would have welcomed a greater liberty, but any open insult to the accepted form of law and worship was a very different matter. And Leo, scrutinizing the crowd, felt a sudden apprehension.
In the midst of his diatribe the speaker caught the young man’s eye, and smiled rather confidentially. Something seemed to pass between them, as though the evangelist—he could be nothing else—had penetrated Leo’s disguise, and appealed to his superior mind for agreement, or, if not that, some indication of support.
It was at this moment that one of the roughs who infest the hovels on the edge of the Campagna, threw the first stone. It hit the man’s cheek, and started a trickle of blood. A murmur ran through the crowd, and its temper turned ugly. More missiles were flung, then a rain of them. There followed a concerted inward closing movement, and amid a volley of oaths the evangelist was pulled down. He disappeared, waving his arms like one drowning.
Leo felt rather sick, and plunged forward. Big, strong and excessively angry, he ploughed his way through with the conviction that here was the most vividly real event he had yet encountered, and Laura would certainly approve of him now. The man was on his knees, looking straight up at the arms^ raised to strike. No coward he, but full of unshakeable purpose. His eyes swerved to Leo with a fleeting smile of welcome, but he did not speak.
A fraction too late. A flying piece of broken marble hit him on the temple. For an instant he saw the light. Then all turned dark. His knees sagged and he pitched over.
Sudden fear took possession of the crowd. There was a confused murmur, and to a man they vanished, some racing to the outskirts of the city, others diving into neighboring dark alleys. /•-
The evangelist wiped the blood from his face, stooped beside Leo, and put his head to the young man’s heart. It throbbed faintly—faintly. He gripped the big young
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hand, and as the chill air of night crept in from the flat Campagna, so did the warmth of that hand seem to recede. Then, kneeling, he lifted a transfigured face and began to pray. He was pouring out his soul when a disciplined tread sounded on the paved road nearby. At that he shouted.
nPHE Lucian villa at Taormina had a wide terrace whose gracious curve followed the shoulder of the hill. From this one reached the house by broad marble steps of such purity that they resembled a crystalline cataract leaping between flanking rows of lemon trees. Below the terrace, the land fell away abruptly, thickset with cactus and rhododendron, to the miniature strip of foreshore that marked the village of Taormina Giardini.
Southwestward, toward Syracuse stretched the lace-fringed coast, lisping its murmurous monotone. Inland lifted the titanic bulk of Etna, a trail of smoke escaping from his flattened cone. The descending sun glowed through this smoke, giving it the semi-fluid opaqueness of amber.
Leo, pale, thin, and with the transparent quality of one who has been very near death, lay on a,couch so raised that the whole panorama could be seen with a turn of the head. Close by sat Laura, hands folded idly over her work. She was very quiet, and very, very thoughtful.
“Well,” she said presently, “now that you’re safely here, what do you think of it?”
“I didn’t dream such a lovely spot existed. Can’t I get up?”
“Indeed you can’t—not for days. Was the journey very hard, dearest?”
“No; everyone was awfully kind, and the sea like glass.”
“I feel horribly guilty, Leo.”
“Silly girl. You hadn’t anything to do with it.”
“If I hadn’t given you that frightful lecture, the thing would not have happened.”
He laughed contentedly. “Something worse might have happened.”
“But how—I don’t understand?”
“It’s rather a long story,” he said, “and I won’t tackle that part of it yet But I came to myself just in time.”
“Well, you see the chap was in prison and about to be tried for attempted murder. Public feeling was very much against him. It seems from what little could be found out, that he has rather a mixed record. Distinctly spotty in fact, and has been in prison before. I asked about him as soon as I came round.”
She noted the large brightness of his eyes. “Leo, should you talk about it now; isn’t it too soon?”
“I rather want to talk—just a bit. As soon as I gave my evidence, the chap was discharged—with a warning. He came to see me often, much to everyone’s amusement, especially your father’s. We’re rather good friends now.”
“He interests you, really?”
“Yes—being different from any man I ever knew. Has a heap of ideas—says he got them abroad—the kind that are too revolutionary for most people. But, Laura, he wants nothing for himself. That’s what I like about him.”
“It’s funny,” she said, picking up her work, “but you haven’t told me his name.”
“I thought I had. It’s Paul—born in some outlandish place called Tarsus. He’s a follower of that fellow called Christus who was crucified by the local government in Jerusalem. You may remember that our man, Pilate, was against it.”