Count of the Saxon Shore - Alfred J. Church

The Villa in the Island

Count Aelius was a man of the best Roman type, a man of "primitive virtue," as the classical writers would have put it, though this virtue had been softened, refined, and purified by civilizing and instructing influences, of which the old Roman heroes—the Fabiuses, the Catos, the Scipios—had known nothing. In the antiquity of his lineage there was scarcely a man in the Empire who could pretend to compare with him. For the most part, the old houses from which had come the Consuls and Dictators of the Republic had died out. The old nobility had gone, and the new nobility had followed it. The great name of Fabius, saved by an accident from extinction, when its three hundred gallant sons, each of them "fit to command an army," perished in one day by the craft of the Etruscan foe, had passed away. There was no living representative of the conqueror of Carthage, or of the conqueror of Corinth. Even the parvenus  of the Empire had in their turn disappeared. The generals and senators, both of the old Rome and of the new, bore names which would have sounded strange and barbarous to Cicero or even to Tacitus. An Ælius then, one who claimed to trace his descent to a time even earlier than the legendary age, to a race which was domiciled in Italy long before even Æneas had brought thither the gods of Troy, was an almost singular phenomenon in a generation of new men. And nothing less than this was the pedigree claimed by the Ælii. Their remotest ancestor—the Count never could hear an allusion to it without a smile—was the famous cannibal king who ruled over the Laestrygones, a tribe of Western Italy, and from whose jaws the prudent Ulysses so narrowly escaped. The pride of ancient descent is not particular as to the character of a progenitor, so he be sufficiently remote; and one branch of the Ælii had always delighted to recall by their surname their connection with this man-eating hero. But the race had not lacked glories of its own in historical times. They had had soldiers, statesmen, and men of letters among them. One of them had been made immortal by the friendship of Horace. Another, an adopted son, it was true, better known by the famous name of Sejanus, had nearly made himself master of the throne of the Cæsars. About a hundred years later this crowning glory of human ambition had fallen to it in the person of Hadrian, third in the list of the "five good Emperors"; though indeed there were purists in the matter of genealogy who stoutly denied that this great soldier and scholar had any of the real Ælian blood in him.

The Count's father had held civil office at Carthage, and the young Ælius had there, for a short time, been a pupil of Aurelius Augustinus, then known as an eloquent teacher of rhetoric, afterwards to become the most famous doctor of the Western Church. But his bent was not for the profession of the law, and his father, though disappointed at his preference for a soldier's career, would not stand in his way. His first experience of warfare was gained on a day of terrible disaster. His father's influence had secured him a position which seemed in every way desirable. He was attached to the staff of Trajanus, a general of division in the army of the Emperor Valens. By great exertions, travelling night and day, at the hottest period of the year, the young Ælius contrived to report himself to his commander on the eve of the great battle of Adrianople. He had borne himself with admirable courage and self-possession during that terrible day, more disastrous to the Roman arms than even Cannæ itself. He had helped to carry the wounded Emperor to a cottage near the field of battle, and had barely escaped with his life, cutting his way with desperate resolution through the enemy, when this place of refuge was surrounded and burnt by the barbarians. After this unfortunate beginning he betook himself for a time to the employments of peace, obtaining an office under Government at Milan, where he renewed his acquaintance with his old teacher, Augustine. Then another opening, in what was still his favourite profession, presented itself. The young soldier's gallant conduct on the disastrous day of Adrianople had not been forgotten by some who had witnessed it, and when Stilicho, then the rising general of the Empire, was looking about for officers to fill posts upon his staff, the name of Ælius was mentioned to him. Under Stilicho he served with much distinction, and it was on Stilicho's recommendation that he was appointed to the post which, when our story opens, he had held for nearly twenty years.

His position during this period had been one of singular difficulty. The tie between the Empire and Britain was very loose. More than once during Ælius' tenure of office it had seemed to be broken altogether. Pretender after pretender had risen against the central power, and had declared his province independent, and himself an Emperor. The Count of the Saxon Shore had contrived to keep himself neutral, so to speak, during these troubles. His own office, that of defending the eastern and southern shores of the island against the attacks of the Saxon pirates, he had filled with remarkable vigilance and skill. And the usurpers had been content to leave him undisturbed. His sailors were profoundly attached to him, and any attempt to interfere with him would have thrown a considerable weight into the opposite scale. And he and his work were necessary. Whether Britain was subject to Rome or independent of it, it was equally important that its coasts should not be harried by pirates. If Ælius would provide for this—and he did provide for it, with an almost unvarying success—he might be left alone, and not required to give in his allegiance to the new claimant of the throne. This allegiance he never did give in. He was always the faithful servant of those who appointed him, and, whoever might happen to be the temporary master of Britain, regularly addressed his despatches and reports to the central authority in Italy. On the other hand, he did not feel himself bound to take direct steps towards asserting that authority in the island. He had to keep the pirates in check, and that was occupation quite sufficient to keep all his energies employed. Thus, as has been said, he observed a kind of neutrality, always loyal to the Roman Emperor, but willing to be on friendly terms with the rebel generals of Britain as long as they left him alone, let him do his work of defending the coast, and did not make any demands upon him which his conscience would not allow him to satisfy.

Having thus sketched the career of the Count, we must now say something about the house, which now—it was early in the afternoon of the day following the events described in the last chapter—was just coming into sight.

The villa was the Count's private property, and had been purchased by him immediately on his arrival in the island, for a reason which will be given hereafter. It was a handsome house, and complete in its way, with all that was necessary for a comfortable residence, but not one of the largest of its kind. Indeed, it may be said that what may be called the "living" part of it was unusually small for the dwelling of so distinguished a person as the Count. It had been found large enough by its previous owners, men of moderate means and, it so happened, of small families; and the Count, feeling that his occupation of it might be terminated at any time, had not cared to add to it. Its situation was remarkably pleasing. Behind it was a sheltering range of hills, keeping off the force of the south-westerly winds, and then richly covered with wood. It was not too near the sea, the Romans not finding that the ceaseless disturbance of rising and falling tides was an element of pleasure, though they could not get too close to their own tideless Mediterranean; but it was within an easy distance of the Haven. The convenience of this neighbourhood had indeed been one of the Count's reasons for selecting this spot. But if the harsh, grating sound of the waves upon the shingle did not reach the ears of the dwellers in the villa, and the force of the sea winds was somewhat broken for them by intervening cliffs, they still enjoyed all the freshness and vitality of an air that had come across many a league of water. The climate, too, was genial, mild without being too soft, mostly free from damp, though not exempt from occasional mist, seldom troubled by frost or snow, and, on the whole, not unlike some of the more temperate regions of Italy.

The villa, with its belongings, occupied three sides of a square, or rather rectangle, and was built nearly to the points of the compass. The eastern side of the square was open, thus giving a prospect seawards. The western contained the principal living rooms. The northern, too, was partly occupied by bed-chambers and sitting-rooms, for which there was no room in the comparatively small portion which had been originally intended for the residence of the owner and his family. Some of the workmen employed lived in cottages outside the villa enclosure. The southern was devoted to storehouses, workshops, and all the miscellaneous buildings which made a Roman villa, as far as possible, an establishment complete in itself. The open space was occupied by a pretty garden, which will be more particularly described hereafter.

The eastward front of the villa was occupied for the greater part of its length by a colonnade or corridor. A low wall of about four feet in height separated this from the garden; above the wall it was open to the air; but an overhanging roof helped greatly to shelter it, while the view into the garden was unimpeded. The floor was adorned with a handsome tesselated pavement, the principal device of which was a representation of the favourite subject of Orpheus attracting beasts and birds by his lyre. The proprietor from whom the Count had purchased the villa had brought it from Italy. He was a Christian of artistic tastes, and, like his fellow-believers, had delighted to trace in the old myth a spiritual meaning, the power of the teaching of Christ to subdue to the Divine obedience the savage, animal nature of man. He had displaced for it the original design, which, indeed, was nothing better than a commonplace representation of dancing figures which had satisfied the earlier owners. The artist had included among the listeners animals, some of which, as the monkey, the Thracian minstrel could hardly have seen, and, with a certain touch of humour, he had adorned the monkey's head with a Phrygian cap, like that which Orpheus himself wore, to indicate probably that the monkey is the caricature of man. The inner wall was ornamented with a bold design of Cæsar's first landing in Britain, worked in fresco. Seats and tables were arranged along it at intervals, and the whole corridor was thus made to furnish a pleasant promenade in winter and a charming resort when the weather was warm.

At the south end of the corridor was the Count's own apartment, or study, as it would be called in a modern house. One window looked into the corridor, into which a door also opened; another, which was built out into the shape of a bow, so as to catch as much of the sun as the aspect allowed, looked into the garden. Part of it was formed of lattices, which admitted of being completely closed when the weather required such protection; the rest was glazed with glass, which would have seemed rough to the present generation, but was quite as good as most people were content to have in their houses fifty years ago. The pavement was tesselated, and presented various designs, a Bacchante, and a pair of gladiators among them. These, however, were commonly covered with thick woollen rugs, the villa being chiefly used as a winter residence. The Count had not forgotten his early studies, and some handsome bookcases contained his favourite authors, among which were to be found the great classic poets of Rome, Tacitus, for whom he had a special regard, some writers on the military art, Cato and Columella on agriculture, and, not least honoured, though some, at least, of their contents had but little interest for him—for, sincere Christian as he was, he cared little for controversy—the numerous treatises of his friend and teacher, Augustine. Behind this room was a simple furnished bed-chamber, showing in an almost bare simplicity the characteristic tastes of a soldier.

At the other end of the corridor was a door leading to the principal chamber in this part of the villa. This measured altogether close upon forty feet in length, but it was divided, or rather could be divided, into two by columns which stood about halfway down its longer sides, and between which a curtain could be hung. When the chamber was occupied in summer it might be used as a whole; in the winter the smaller part, which looked out into the garden, could be shut off from the rest by drawing the curtain, and so made a comfortable room, warmed from below by hot air from the furnace, which had been constructed at the western end of the northern wing of the villa. Much artistic skill had been expended on the pavements of the apartment, and the smaller chamber was very richly decorated in this way. In the middle was a large head of Medusa, and the rest was filled with beautifully-worked scenes illustrating the pleasures of a pastoral life. It was the custom of the Count's family to use the larger portion of the whole chamber as a dining-room, the smaller as a ladies' boudoir. On the rare occasion of some large entertainment being given, the whole was thrown into one.

The ladies of the family, of whom we shall hear more hereafter, had their own apartments at the western end of the north wing, part of which was shut off for their occupation and for their immediate attendants. A covered way connected this with the portion occupied by the Count.

It would be needless to describe the rest of the villa. It was like the houses of its kind, houses which the Romans erected wherever they went in as close an imitation as they could make of what they were accustomed to at home.

The garden, however, must not be wholly passed over. Spacious and handsome as it was, it in part presented a stiff and unnatural appearance, looking, in fact, somewhat theatrical, as contrasted with the pastoral sunniness of the landscape. A Roman gardener had been brought from Rome—one skilled in all the arts of his craft. It was he who had terraced the slope with so much regularity, had planted stiff box hedges—and, above all, it was his taste which led him to cut and train box and laburnum shrubs into fantastic imitations of other forms. The poor trees were forced to abandon their own natural shapes, and to pose as vases, geometrical figures, and animals of various kinds. There was even a ship of box surrounded by a broad channel of water, so that the spectator, making large demands on his imagination, might imagine that the little mock vessel was moored on a still sheet of water. Among the box trees were stone fountains badly copied from classic models. But these had not remained in their bare crudity. The loving British ivy had crept close around them, and added a grace which the sculptor had failed to give. The Roman gardener would have liked to banish this intruder, or to at least train it into the positions prescribed by horticultural rules, but he had been bidden to let it run at its own sweet will; and so it had, and had flourished, well nursed by the soft and humid atmosphere.

Scattered at regular intervals through the green were flower-beds stocked with plants, which were either native to the island, or had been brought hither with great care from the capital. There were roses in several varieties, strange-shaped orchids, which had been found growing wild at lower levels of the island, and adopted into this civilized garden to ornament it with their unique beauty. Gay geraniums and other flowers made throughout the summer bright patches of colour in striking contrast to the dark green.

These beds were enclosed by borders. Between these enclosures were curiously-cut letters of growing box, which perpetuated—at least for the life-time of the shrub—the gardener's own name or that of his master, or classic titles, to serve as designations for certain portions of the place. In the midst of the garden several luxuriant oaks and graceful elms had been allowed to retain in their native freedom the shapes into which they had been growing for so many years. They cast wide shadows, and gave a softened aspect to the unnatural shapes of the trained growths.

Beyond the floral division of the garden was another enclosure for pear and apple trees. They stood on a green sward, soft as velvet, and of a deeper hue than Italian suns permit to the grass on which they smile. Here, too, were foreign embellishments. The monotony of the uniform rows of fruit trees was varied by pyramids of box, and the whole orchard was surrounded by a belt of plane trees.

A circle of oaks had been left at the summit of one of the terraces. Thick hedges were planted between the trees, making a dense wall, in which openings were cut for the view, so that the vista was visible, like a picture set in a dark frame. This green room, roofed by the sky, was paved with a mosaic of the bright coloured chalk from the cliffs at the western end of the island, and contained an oblong basin of water shaped like a table. The water flowed through so gently that the surface always seemed at rest, and yet never grew warm. Couches were placed at this fountain table, and from time to time repasts were served here, certain viands being placed in dishes shaped like swans or boats, which floated gracefully on the watery surface. The more solid meats were placed on the broad marble edges of the basin.

This sylvan retreat seemed made for a meeting of naiads and nereids. In short, the spot was so sheltered, the outlook over sea and land both near and across the strait so fair, that one could well believe even Pliny's famed Tuscan garden, which may have suggested some features of this British one, was not more happily placed.