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
The clerk did not press the point further.
"You'd better get on with that index," said the high official as
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
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,
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
"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.