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245

CHAPTER XXXI

THE DOOMED THREE

’Old man, ‘tis not so difficult to die.’

Byron, Manfred.

Well, has John talked you over?’ asked Typhos, with a sneer, coming forward from another part of the tent when Chrysostom had left.

‘He has not,’ said Gaïnas.

‘Good!’ said Typhos. ‘Leave the little man to deal with his priests. They, I imagine, will give him enough to do ere long, and they all hate him like poison.’

‘Because he is the best among them all,’ said Gaïnas.

‘It may be so,’ said Typhos, with a shrug of his shoulders; ’but he has no right to come interfering with you.’

He proceeded to undo all the good that the Patriarch had done by appealing to every evil passion in the warrior’s nature—pride, ambition, and revenge. Gaïnas almost decided to execute his three opponents, and so to sweep them out of the way. But when Typhos had gone his two sons came in.

‘Father,’ said Thorismund, ‘don’t behead those men. They behaved nobly in giving themselves up.’

‘What cause have we to love or to spare these Romans, Thorismund?’

‘Yet spare them, father! They are voluntary hostages in your hands. Their lives may serve you better than their deaths.’

‘Is it policy or compassion, son?’

‘Perhaps a little of both, father.’

‘And what says my Walamir?’ asked Gaïnas.

‘Spare them, father,’ said Walamir, who was his father’s favourite. ‘That boy who looked as if he had never done 246 wrong in his life asked us both to intercede with you, and we promised—and he is half a Goth.’

‘I will think of it,’ said Gaïnas.

While the fate of the three great officials yet hung in the balance, no day passed without a visit from the Archbishop to the tent of the Gothic chief. He would have carried his point almost from the first but for the countermining efforts of Typhos and of the chieftain’s wife, who had been won over by the wife of Typhos. And these, again, would have succeeded more easily but for the faithful influence of Thorismund and Walamir. So there was a struggle in the mind of the magister militum, between the impulse of the barbarian and the softening influence of his imperfect Christianity; and it was far from certain which would win the victory. Chrysostom was always accompanied by Philip, and generally by either Eutyches or David. While he was pleading with the chieftain, the Gothic youths took their friends round the camp, to repay Philip, Thorismund said, for his kindness to them at Antioch.

One day, when Chrysostom told them that he should be detained by business for some hours at Chalcedon, and bade them come for him in the evening, they seized the opportunity to take the young Goths to the Patriarcheion at Constantinople, and to show them the chief sights of the city. There sprang up between them one of those warm friendships which often arise amid complete dissimilarity.

At last the Archbishop triumphed. He received from Gaïnas the definite promise that the lives of Aurelian, Saturninus, and Count John should be spared. He begged that he might go to the tent where they still lay, fettered, under the close guard of Gothic sentries, and be the first to break to them the glad intelligence.

‘Nay,’ said Gaïnas, with a grim smile; ‘I have reasons of my own why that must not be. Farewell, Archbishop! Whatever happens in the future—and many things may happen—you at least I shall ever hold in honour, and I beg your prayers. Farewell, but leave those two youths here with my young wolf-cubs. They shall bear you news of what I do.’

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So Chrysostom went back over the Bosporus, and when Gaïnas saw his pinnace on its way, he told his boys to keep Philip and Eutyches with them at the end of the tent, and not to let them move, but at the same time not to be themselves alarmed by what they should see. Then, with a colossal Goth by his side, who leaned on a huge sword, and whom Thorismund knew to be the executioner, the chieftain ordered Aurelian to be brought into his presence.

The noble Roman was led in, and neither his chains nor his untrimmed beard and hair, and the squalor of his imprisonment, detracted from a dignity of bearing worthy of the Prætorian Præfect and Consul-designate. He glanced at the executioner, but did not wince, and confronted the Gothic Amal with an undaunted look.

‘So you are the man,’ said Gaïnas, rudely, ‘who wants me to be ousted from all my offices? You are the man to whom all Goths are contemptible Scythians, little better than animals, who ought to be turned out of the Roman armies in a mass, and I suppose massacred, as some of them have been ere now, by you holy Romans.’

‘You wrong me, chieftain,’ answered Aurelian calmly, ’and you know that you wrong me. I have never despised your countrymen; there is much in them that I admire. As for massacre, I loathe and abhor it. Let there be Goths in Gothland, and Romans for the Empire, and let them be allies and friends. But it boots not to argue. I am ready for my fate.’

‘Prepare, then, to die,’ said Gaïnas. ‘Kneel at this block.’

‘One moment, and I am ready,’ he said. He folded his hands, turned his gaze heavenwards, and his lips moved in silent prayer. ‘Now strike,’ he said; ‘I am a Christian. A Christian does not fear to die.’

He bowed his head, and the executioner raised his mighty sword. Eutyches trembled and turned deadly pale. An involuntary cry of anguish and despair had burst from the lips of Philip, and he would have sprung forward, but Thorismund held him back with a hand of iron, and, putting his other hand upon Philip’s lips, whispered, ‘Hush! Fear not! My father is not a Roman. He keeps his word.’

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Down swept the sword, and a rude laugh burst from the Gothic chieftain’s lips. For the descending glaive had but touched the neck of Aurelian. It had not made a scratch. It had not even drawn blood.

‘Rise, Aurelian,’ said Gaïnas, ‘and thank the Patriarch John that your life is spared.’

It was a frightful experience. The sudden revulsion of feeling was infinitely trying, but the Roman was master of himself. Rising from the block, he bowed, and said nothing. Even Gaïnas was struck with admiration. ’Strike off his chains,’ he said, ‘and lead him away. Only keep him under guard.’

‘Let me go away,’ said Eutyches to Walamir. ‘This grim jest is cruel.’

‘Nay, you must see it, Eutyches, and tell the Patriarch,’ said Walamir; ‘but no blood will be shed.’

Then Saturninus was led in; and he, too, did nothing common or mean, but bore himself worthily of a Consular of Rome.

‘Kneel, enemy of the Goths!’ said Gaïnas. ‘There is the block. Prepare to die.’

‘I have faced death many a time on the battlefields where I have defeated your countrymen. I am a soldier and a Roman. Slay me if thou wilt. There is a God in heaven who will avenge my blood.’

Again the executioner lifted his two-handed sword; again he arrested the blow in mid-air, and only grazed the neck of the Consular.

‘Rise! Go!’ said Gaïnas; ‘you are not dead. Thank the Patriarch John for your life. Unchain him. Lead him away.’

Count John was led in last. He was white as death. He trembled as he saw the huge executioner wiping his sword, as though from the stain of blood.

‘So you are the lover of the Empress,’ said Gaïnas, disdainfully, for he despised the man. ‘You are the father of the Emperor’s children. You are the man who weaves plots in the Gynæceum with hags like Marsa and Epigraphia.’

Count John summoned up all the dignity and fortitude which he could command. ‘Kill me,’ he said with trembling 249 lips, ‘if you will, but spare your brutal taunts, and do not slander the sacredness of your Empress.’

‘A Frankish woman, an adulteress; no Empress of mine,’ said Gaïnas, pointing to the block. ‘Kneel. You shall die.’

Count John, who had been one of the gilded youth—one of the many handsome dandies of Constantinople who murmured at the weight of their own rings and silken dress—a lady’s man, and a debauchee, could not pretend to regard death lightly, as the Christian and the soldier had done. A blood-red mist seemed to sweep over his eyes. He stumbled piteously as he felt for the block.

‘Strike!’ said Gaïnas. The sword swished frightfully through the air, and inflicted on the Count’s neck a wound slight indeed, but a trifle deeper than the barely visible scratch which had been given to the others.

‘Rise,’ said Gaïnas, laughing once more. ‘You are not dead, coward.’

But John rose not. Overcome with the horror of the moment, sensible that the sword had cut his skin, he had swooned away. Gaïnas sprang forward, a little alarmed. ’Has terror done the work of the glaive?’ he cried, seizing the arm of Count John. ‘No; his pulse beats. He has only fainted. Fling a bucket of cold water over him. Carry him away. Enough, Wolf, for the day,’ he said to the executioner. ‘There is a gold-piece for thee. Go!’

Philip and Eutyches were deeply agitated by this stern spectacle. ‘Go back to the Patriarch, and tell him what you have witnessed,’ said Gaïnas. ‘Tell him I have kept my word; and though I have thoroughly frightened his three friends—and I really am sorry for Aurelian—I spare their lives, though so many in the city and in the camp have urged me night and day to slay them. I swore that they should kneel at the block, and they have done so. Tell him further, that for his sake I shall send them into banishment, that they may do me no more mischief; but I shall not even forfeit their goods. I am not a Rufinus; I am not a Eutropius.’

‘We will tell him, sir,’ said Philip.

‘My father, you see, has kept his word,’ said Thorismund to Philip.

250

‘Yes, Thorismund,’ said Philip, ‘but it was a grim and cruel jest.’

‘It was meant to be more than a jest,’ said, the young Goth. ’But it will not hurt them. They are men—at least two of them are.’

The face of Eutyches had not recovered its colour. His intensely sympathetic character and quick imagination always made him suffer with those whom he saw suffer. He felt as if he, too, had knelt at the block, expecting instant death, and had heard the sword rush down. Walamir was still holding his hand, and swinging it uneasily, as though he would fain apologise to his wounded feelings.

At last he said: ‘Do not think worse of us, Eutyches. We are altogether Goths, not Romans or half-Romans. Trained in raids, or battles and hardships, we think far less of scenes which seem terrible to you.’

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