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The Garland by Maurice Baring

 

The Referendarius had three junior clerks to carry on the business of his department, and they in their turn were assisted by two scribes, who did most of the copying and kept the records. The work of the Department consisted in filing and annotating the petitions and cases which were referred from the lower Courts, through the channel of the Referendarius, to the Emperor.

The three clerks and their two scribes occupied a high marble room in the spacious office. It was as yet early in April, but, nevertheless, the sun out of doors was almost fierce. The high marble rooms of the office were cool and stuffy at the same time, and the spring sunshine without, the soft breeze from the sea, the call of the flower-sellers in the street, and the lazy murmur of the town had, in these shaded, musty, and parchment-smelling halls, diffused an atmosphere of laziness which inspired the clerks in question with an overwhelming desire to do nothing.

There was, indeed, no pressing work on hand. Only from time to time the Referendarius, who occupied a room to himself next door to theirs, would communicate with them through a hole in the wall, demanding information on some point or asking to be supplied with certain documents. Then the clerks would make a momentary pretence of being busy, and ultimately the scribes would find either the documents or the information which were required.

As it was, the clerks were all of them engaged in occupations which were remote from official work. The eldest of them, Cephalus by name-- a man who was distinguished from the others by a certain refined sobriety both in his dark dress and in his quiet demeanour--was reading a treatise on algebra; the second, Theophilus, a musician, whose tunic was as bright as his flaming hair, was mending a small organ; and the third, Rufinus, a rather pale, short-sighted, and untidy youth, was scribbling on a tablet. The scribes were busy sorting old records and putting them away in their permanent places.

Presently an official strolled in from another department. He was a middle-aged, corpulent, and cheerful-looking man, dressed in gaudy coloured tissue, on which all manner of strange birds were depicted. He was bursting with news.

"Phocas is going to win," he said. "It is certain."

Cephalus looked vaguely up from his book and said: "Oh!"

Theophilus and Rufinus paid no attention to the remark.

"Well," continued the new-comer cheerfully, "Who will come to the races with me?"

As soon as he heard the word races, Rufinus looked up from his scribbling. "I will come," he said, "if I can get leave."

"I did not know you cared for that sort of thing," said Cephalus.

Rufinus blushed and murmured something about going every now and then. He walked out of the room, and sought the Referendarius in the next room. This official was reading a document. He did not look up when Rufinus entered, but went on with his reading. At last, after a prolonged interval, he turned round and said: "What is it?"

"May I go to the races?" asked Rufinus.

"Well," said the high official, "what about your work?"

"We've finished everything," said the clerk.

The Head of the Department assumed an air of mystery and coughed.

"I don't think I can very well see my way to letting you go," he said. "I am very sorry," he added quickly, "and if it depended on me you should go at once. But He," he added--he always alluded to the Head of the Office as He--"does not like it. He may come in at any moment and find you gone. No; I'm afraid I can't let you go to-day. Now, if it had been yesterday you could have gone."

"I should only be away an hour," said Rufinus, tentatively.

"He might choose just that hour to come round. If it depended only on me you should go at once," and he laughed and slapped Rufinus on the back, jocularly.

The clerk did not press the point further.

"You'd better get on with that index," said the high official as Rufinus withdrew.

He told the result of his interview to his sporting friend, who started out by himself to the Hippodrome.

Rufinus settled down to his index. But he soon fell into a mood of abstraction. The races and the games did not interest him in the least. It was something else which attracted him. And, as he sat musing, the vision of the Hippodrome as he had last seen it rose clearly before him. He saw the seaweed-coloured marble; the glistening porticoes, adorned with the masterpieces of Greece, crowded with women in gemmed embroideries and men in white tunics hemmed with broad purple; he saw the Generals with their barbaric officers--Bulgarians, Persians, Arabs, Slavs--the long line of savage-looking prisoners in their chains, and the golden breastplates of the standard-bearers. He saw the immense silk velum floating in the azure air over that rippling sea of men, those hundreds of thousands who swarmed on the marble steps of the Hippodrome. He saw the Emperor in his high- pillared box, on his circular throne of dull gold, surrounded by slaves fanning him with jewel-coloured plumes, and fenced round with golden swords.

And opposite him, on the other side of the Stadium, the Empress, mantled in a stiff pontifical robe, laden with heavy embroidered stuffs, her little head framed like a portrait in a square crown of gold and diamonds, whence chains of emeralds hung down to her breast; motionless as an idol, impassive as a gilded mummy.

He saw the crowd of gorgeous women, grouped like Eastern flowers around her: he saw one woman. He saw one form as fresh as a lily of the valley, all white amidst that hard metallic splendour; frail as a dewy anemone, slender as the moist narcissus. He saw one face like the chalice of a rose, and amidst all those fiery jewels two large eyes as soft as dark violets. And the sumptuous Court, the plumes, the swords, the standards, the hot, vari-coloured crowd melted away and disappeared, so that when the Emperor rose and made the sign of the Cross over his people, first to the right, and then to the left, and thirdly over the half-circle behind him, and the singers of Saint Sofia and the Church of the Holy Apostles mingled their bass chant with the shrill trebles of the chorus of the Hippodrome, to the sound of silver organs, he thought that the great hymn of praise was rising to her and to her alone; and that men had come from the uttermost parts of the earth to pay homage to her, to sing her praise, to kneel to her--to her, the wondrous, the very beautiful: peerless, radiant, perfect.

A voice, followed by a cough, called from the hole in the wall; but Rufinus paid no heed, so deeply sunk was he in his vision.

"Rufinus, the Chief is calling you," said Cephalus.

Rufinus started, and hurried to the hole in the wall. The Head of the Department gave him a message for an official in another department.

Rufinus hurried with the message downstairs and delivered it. On his way back he passed the main portico on the ground floor. He walked out into the street: it was empty. Everybody was at the games.

A dark-skinned country girl passed him singing a song about the swallow and the spring. She was bearing a basket full of anemones, violets, narcissi, wild roses, and lilies of the valley.

"Will you sell me your flowers?" he asked, and he held out a silver coin.

"You are welcome to them," said the girl. "I do not need your money."

He took the flowers and returned to the room upstairs. The flowers filled the stuffy place with an unwonted and wonderful fragrance.

Then he sat down and appeared to be once more busily engrossed in his index. But side by side with the index he had a small tablet, and on this, every now and then, he added or erased a word to a short poem. The sense of it was something like this:--

  Rhodocleia, flowers of spring
  I have woven in a ring;
  Take this wreath, my offering, Rhodocleia.

  Here's the lily, here the rose
  Her full chalice shall disclose;
  Here's narcissus wet with dew,
  Windflower and the violet blue.
  Wear the garland I have made;
  Crowned with it, put pride away;
  For the wreath that blooms must fade;
  Thou thyself must fade some day, Rhodocleia.