Antonina was the first novel that Wilkie Collins wrote. Its success was so pronounced as to give him at once a recognized place among the English writers of fiction of that time, a group that included Dickens, Thackeray, and Bulwer. It also led Collins to abandon the law and make a profession of novel-writing. Yet, curiously enough, the success of Antonina did not tempt him to enter again upon the same or a similar field. All the rest of his novels were modern and not historical; all were radically different from this first one in time, theme, manner, and purpose. So that Antonina stands alone among his works, in a class by itself and with no structural or literary kinship to its author’s other writings.
IN the autumn of the year 408 A.D. Alaric with his Gothic hordes was advancing over the Alps to assail Rome, already enfeebled by luxury and misrule.
In the mountain fastnesses, a woman bearing a severely wounded infant in her arms joined her brother, the young Gothic warrior Hermanric.
This woman was called Goisvintha, and with her husband and three children had been left as a Gothic hostage at Aquileia. The Romans had treacherously massacred the band, but Goisvintha had escaped. Her husband and two of her children were slain before her eyes, and the babe that she now bore in her arms was wounded unto death by a cruel sword-thrust. The child was confided to the women of the camp, who were the only doctors among the Goths, but, not-withstanding their ministrations, it died of its wounds. With the spirit of her people, among whom the bravest warriors often killed themselves when so far wounded in battle as to be incapable of further martial service, Goisvintha reconciled herself to the loss of her babe, realizing that even had he lived his wounds must have incapacitated him for the career of a warrior. But her submission to fate had no touch of softness or forgiveness in it. Her mind was hardened into an implacable hatred of the Romans. Her soul was set on vengeance, and in her passion she made Hermanric swear that he would wreak that vengeance in her behalf.
Honorius was then Emperor of Rome. Weak in mind and character, without honor, conscience, or courage, he had retired with his court and a great company of patricians to the strong-hold of Ravenna, for the sake of securing his personal safety when the Goths, already advancing over the Alps, should descend upon the plains of Italy to wreak vengeance for their wrongs. He had brought his chickens and his legions with him : the chickens that they might entertain his hours of idlenessand all hours were hours of idleness to him and the legions that they might protect him at Ravenna, leaving Rome to take care of itself.
Vetranio, the senator, the libertine, the luxurious devotee of self-indulgence, who in his luxuriousness required to be awakened from sleep only by the strains of soft music, had followed the Emperor to Ravenna, but he planned to return to Rome immediately on a mission of lust. He asked his friend Juliawitty, but growing old and wornto lend him her villa at Avicia for a time. She, understanding his purpose, consented, but questioned him about the woman in the case.
He told her of Antonina, a girl, scarcely more than a child, whose father’s home adjoined his palace grounds. The father, Numerian, was a stern reformer, a puritan in revolt against the corruption of the church and society, who had gathered a little flock about him and preached to them against the luxurious indulgence of the time, the venality of the priests, and the decay of Christianity.
The girl had invaded his grounds, drawn thither by his playing upon the lute, for he was alike master of music and gastronomy, the composer of sonatas and the inventor of sauces. Little by little he had overcome her shyness, and after teaching her to play had given her a lute, which she jealously concealed from her stern father’s knowledge. Vetranio meant now to return to Rome and carry the girl to the borrowed villa.
Rome was at this time in decay, brilliant, gorgeous, happy, lawless decay. The luxury of the rich knew no bounds. Their oppression of those of the middle class whose lands they coveted was resistless, while the lewd populace was supplied alike with amusements and sustenance at the public expense, in order to prevent outbreaks of discontent. Vice was not only tolerated but esteemed.
The soldiery were as dissolute as their patrician officers. The city was guarded only in the most perfunctory way, and even now that the Goths were coming not a legion was sent to arrest their attack, not an effort made to oppose their march. Rome relied for her defense upon the terror of the Roman name and upon her wealth, with which she had bought off many invaders. But the effects of luxury and license had robbed the Roman name of its terror in the eyes of the virile Goths, and, so far from bargaining for a bribe from the wealth of Rome, Alaric had decided to make the whole of it his own.
Numerian knew well the conditions of the life about him. He knew that an attractive girl like his daughter Antonina was regarded as legitimate prey by the nobles; that should any patrician seize her and carry her off to his villa, there was nowhere redress for the wrong, nowhere a thought of punishment for the crime. Nevertheless he felt secure of his daughter. She was in charge of his servant Ulpius, whom he trusted absolutely as a Christian reformer like himself.
Ulpius was, in fact, the most fanatic pagan left in the Roman Empire. In his youth his name had been Emilius. He had been sent to Alexandria to become a priest in the temple of Serapis with the changed name Ulpius. He had become a fanatic of fanatics in the pagan priesthood. When Christianity triumphed he had organized and led the bloody defense of the temple of Serapis. Made captive, he had been sent to the copper-mines of Spain under life sentence. After years of crippling and cruel servitude he had escaped. Returning to Rome, and cherishing a monomaniacal dream of restoring paganism by fair means or foul, he had feigned sympathy with Numerian’s idea of reforming Christianity, and Numerian trusted him unquestioningly. He betrayed the trust by abetting Antonina’s visits to the palace grounds of Vetranio and concealing her possession of a lute. Even when Numerian discovered the lute and angrily dashed it to fragments he did not suspect Ulpius of treachery.
After a little while Ulpius carried his treachery farther. He secretly visited Vetranio and notified him that on the following morning, at dawn, he would be ready to conduct the wealthy libertine to Antonina’s chamber and aid him in her abduction.
Vetranio had one of his feasts that night, and when the morning came the fumes of wine still clouded his faculties. A bath restored him, but when Ulpius led him into his own confined quarters beneath Numerian’s house and detained him there to make a bargain with him, the stifling atmosphere and the heat brought on again the uncertainty of drunkenness. The bargain Ulpius exacted was that Vetranio should aid him in his project of overthrowing Christianity and restoring the worship of the pagan gods. Vetranio, muddled with wine, eager to escape the close quarters, and madly impatient to possess himself of his victim Antonina, swore to all that the pagan required. He was led to the bedchamber of the sleeping girl. Still half-drunk he took her in his arms and caressed her. At that moment her father, the stern Numerian, appeared. His wrath took an unexpected form. With a calmness that was almost appalling he asked a favor of the libertine. He begged him to remove his harlot for so he called the innocent childto his own palace, that her presence might no longer pollute a Christian home.
The girl, escaping at once from her drunken abductor and her unjustly wrathful father, fled into the streets, clad only in her night-robes.
At that moment the streets were thronged with multitudes of refugees fleeing into the city from the populous suburbs and the farming regions beyond. Alaric’s hosts had appeared before the careless city, and all the people without the walls were hastening in panic to find shelter.
Antonina, driven from home by her angry father and in still greater terror of her abductor, fled in an opposite direction, passed the city gates ere they were closed, and became a help-less wanderer over the abandoned fields that lay between the walls and the Gothic camps; for, instead of pushing on into the city and sacking it as, with his overwhelming force, he might easily have done, Alaric had completely invested the place, meaning to starve it into absolute and abject submission.
From the words of Vetranio, who was drunkenly penitent, and of Ulpius, who was insanely defiant and had fled the house, Numerian learned his daughter’s innocence, and bitterly repented him of the unjust judgment that had driven her in terror from her home. Almost frantic with grief he set out to find her, summoning his faithful followers to aid him in the search. Vetranio, too, remorseful now and compassionate, set all the agencies that his wealth, his power, and his mighty influence could command, to work for the same end. It proved all to be of no avail.
The half-crazed Goisvintha was bitterly disappointed when she learned that, instead of rushing into Rome to plunder and to slay, Alaric had decided to blockade the city and by starvation reduce it to surrender. She thirsted for blood and vengeance. Her brother, Hermanric, in vain reminded her that famine and pestilence would wreak her vengeance more effectually than slaughter itself. She wanted blood, and in her mad enthusiasm she exacted of him an oath that he would mercilessly slay with his own hands the first man, woman, or child who should come to him from Rome, whether for peace or for war.
Soon afterward Antonina, fleeing in her night-robe, approached his tent and pleaded piteously for succor. As soon as she made herself known as a Roman, Goisvintha demanded that her brother should kill the child in fulfilment of his oath. Her innocence and helplessness appealed so strongly to Hermanric, however, that he refused, and while the quarrel over her went on the girl escaped into the deserted suburbs in the rear of the Gothic camp. There she hid herself in an abandoned farmhouse.
Hermanric, with the force under his command, was ordered to take a position in front of the Pincian gate. Feeling that he had deserted Antonina when he had bidden her flee from his sister’s wrath, he proceeded secretly by night to search for her. He found her in the farmhouse, and, visiting her there night after night, learned to love her and won her love in return.
Meanwhile Goisvintha’s rage and disappointment had thrown her into a fever, so that Hermanric was not troubled by her presence at his new post in front of the Pincian gate.
By accident the fanatic pagan Ulpius discovered a point in the Roman walls, near the Pincian gate, where time, neglect, a .subterranean stream, and long years of decay had so far weakened the structure that by tireless toil, involving much of hard-ship and still more of danger, he was able to open a secret passageway through the rampart. He conceived the plan of escaping through this hole, gaining access to Alaric, and, in return for his service in guiding the Goths into Rome, demanding of the Gothic King a pledge to abandon Christianity and to restore in Rome the worship of the pagan deities.
In the city itself, meanwhile, famine was slowly but surely doing the work that Alaric expected of it. The grain supplies were exhausted, and the people were starving. Cats, dogs, parrots, canary birds, rats, and even the lizard that infested the garden walls were cast into a caldron, the loathsome contents of which were doled out sparingly to the famishing populace.
There was nowhere any energy of defense, nowhere a man who thought of organizing and arming the multitudes of men in Rome and hurling them in military fashion upon the enemy’s lines. The Senate vainly hoped for relief from Ravenna; the priests vainly prayed for relief from Heaven. In all Rome there was not a man bold enough to suggest self-help to the multitudes assembled there.
In the Gothic camp Goisvintha recovered from her fever and again sought out her brother Hermanric. He was absent from his post by night, and she rightly conjectured that he had gone to visit the hated Roman girl Antonina, for whose blood she thirsted.
Some low-browed, chinless, repulsively deformed Huns under Hermanric’s command had learned to hate the young Gothic warrior. They tracked him to his trysting-place with Antonina and reported his desertion of post to Alaric. The Gothic King gave orders that they should search him out, arrest him, and bring him before his sovereign commander, adding that if he should resist they were to slay him without mercy.
Having learned from these Huns the whereabouts of Hermanric, Goisvintha preceded them to the farmhouse, slipped unobserved into the room where Hermanric and Antonina were in converse, and bided her time.
Ulpius had succeeded in forcing his way through the defensive wall, and on that same night secured audience of Alaric, the Gothic King. With the insolence of his crazy fanaticism, he sought to dictate terms to the half-savage Goth. He offered to lead into Rome, through his secret passage, enough Gothic warriors to overcome the Roman sentinels and throw open the gates. In return he demanded that the Goth should renounce Christianity and swear to restore the worship of the pagan gods in Rome.
Alaric laughed the lunatic to scorn and bade him return to Rome. The Goths needed no guides and no secret passages. They could force their way into the starved and pestilence-stricken city whenever they pleased.
Ulpius, dazed and only half-conscious, wandered away from Rome rather than back toward the city.
While Hermanric and Antonina were exchanging vows of love in the farmhouse, Goisvintha silently slipped out of her hiding-place within the room, and with a single cut of her knife across the backs of her brother’s hands, severed all the tendons, thus forever disabling him as a warrior. Almost immediately afterwards the Huns broke into the house and demanded Hermanric’s surrender to their order of arrest, as a deserter from his post. Meanwhile Goisvintha was taunting him with the disability she had herself inflicted and calling upon him to follow the tradition of his race by suicide, in imitation of warriors who had killed themselves as useless because of disabling wounds received in achieving victories.
Unable even to grasp his sword, or to take hold of an enemy’s throat, Hermanric could oppose no resistance to the demand of the Huns for his surrender. Yet he refused to surrender and bade them strike the fatal blow.
When he fell Antonina swooned by his side and Goisvintha planned presently to kill her. But Goisvintha was herself absent without leave from her place in the camp, and the Huns arrested her and carried her away.
Presently two of the Hunstwo to whom Hermanric had done remembered kindnessesdetached themselves, returned and buried the warrior in the garden. The girl still lay unconscious, and they left her as one dead.
Dismissed in scorn by Alaric, Ulpius, with mind completely gone, wandered through the suburbs, until at last he reached the farmhouse and found Antonina. Dazed as he was, he blindly felt it to be his mission to take the girl back to Rome and restore her to her father in whose service he dully believed himself still to be, or else to deliver her to Vetranio, again demanding as the price of his service the restoration of the pagan worship. In brief, he did not know what he sought, but he blindly pursued his way. With the strange cunning of insanity, he passed through the sentry lines, forcing Antonina to accompany him. Her longing to find her father and secure his pardon made her not unwilling. She had kept her father in tenderest remembrance throughout all her wanderings and sufferings. She had exacted of Hermanric, as the price of her love, a promise to protect Numerian whenever the Goths should enter the doomed city.
Dragging the girl by the hand, Ulpius again passed through his secret breach in the walls. In Rome his mind became a blank again, and he wandered far, still dragging Antonina with him. The sights that presented themselves were horrible. The dead and the dying lay together in the streets. The Senate had offered high money rewards to those who should help rid the city of its pestilence-breeding corpses, by casting them over the walls; but money could not appease hunger in a city where there was no food to be bought at any price, and the weakened wretches in the streets were not tempted to exertion by any promise of worthless pecuniary rewards. Bands of robbers and murderers wandered about, but it was food they sought and not unsatisfying gold.
At last, in his blind journeying with Antonina, Ulpius came upon a temple of Serapis, for, though the pagan worship had been suppressed, a superstitious fear had deterred the people and the Senate from destroying the temples of the old religion or despoiling them of their rich treasures of gold, ivory, and precious stones. The sight of the temple woke a half-consciousness in the crazed pagan priest. He entered the place and fancied himself again a high priest of Serapis in the temple at Alexandria. Forgotten by her captor, Antonina made her way to her father’s house, intent upon securing his pardon and winning back his love before she should die.
She found him starving, but loving her, and her soul was satisfied.
Vetranio, disappointed in his effort to undo his wrong to Antonina, met the approach of starvation in a spirit of bravado. He determined upon an orgy at the end of which he would die, as he had lived, with the trappings of luxurious self-indulgence about him. He ordered a feast of famine. There was no food but offal to be had, but his cellars were full of wine. He decorated his palace and summoned his friends. There were ten in the company who thus assembled to die as they had lived, in revel. Ten lamps burned above them. It was agreed that as one after another of the revelers succumbed to the wine, one after another of the lamps should be extinguished; and they were pledged that the last one left should fire the place, so that their funeral pyre should be the costliest palace in Rome.
The last to yield to the wine proved to be Vetranio himself. He set out, torch in hand, to fire the place. He heard footsteps, and Antonina confronted him. She had come to the palace in a last despairing effort to find food for her father. Her appoarance and her appeal awakened in the half-stupefied mind of Vetranio the memory of the purest love he had ever known. There was a bowl of offal there, which he and his guests had disdained to eat. She took it, at his suggestion, and left to secure to her father yet a little longer lease of life. Vetranio, thus arrested in his suicidal purpose, sank into a drunken coma before he could apply the torch.
The Senate had at last opened negotiations with the Goths. The first embassy failed, but, seizing the opportunity of this brief opening of the gates, the crazed hag, Goisvintha, had made her way into Rome, insanely bent upon finding Antonina and shedding her blood.
As Antonina and her father were wandering through the streets with but a vague purpose; the hag caught sight of them and followed. Antonina’s terror reduced her to insensibility and her father took refuge with her in the temple of which Ulpius had taken possession as high priest. He had gathered there in a mountainous pile all the treasures of the other deserted pagan temples.
In this temple there was a device by which human sacrifice might be practised in secret. A door in the wall opened upon a dark stairway at the bottom of which the pressure of the victim’s foot caused a sword to be thrust out of a dragon’s mouth with the murderous certainty of slaying the doomed person.
While Ulpius, in his dazed way, was apparently planning to force Antonina down the fatal stairway as a sacrifice Goisvintha emerged from her hiding-place and struck deep into the neck of her victim with the knife that had maimed Hermanric. The girl fell, apparently dead, but Ulpius, not to be disappointed of his sacrifice, bound Goisvintha, and a little later sent her down the fatal stairway to her death.
Meanwhile the Senate had at last made a treaty with the Goths for the ransom of the city. A stupendous price was to be paid in gold, silver, jewels, silks, spices, and precious stones. In order to secure these treasures it was decided to despoil the heathen temples, and as Ulpius had gathered the wealth of many of them in the one over which he insanely ruled as high priest, an attempt was made upon it. He closed the great iron gates and, fancying himself in command of a host, resisted. The place was fired and the pagan perished among his idols.
Antonina’s wound for a time threatened to be fatal. But fortunately the blade, thrust into her neck by the crazed hag, had been deflected backward and had missed the great blood-vessels. The gates of the city being now open again, food was to be had, and after a time of half-despairing anxiety, her father, Vetranio and the master physician whom Vetranio had summoned to attend her were gladdened by signs of recovery, and slowly the suffering girl was brought back to health.
Vetranio was an altered man in every way. The excesses of debauchery in which he had indulged in that banquet of suicide had shattered his constitution, aged him in a remark-able degree, and robbed him forever of his lust for sensuous self-indulgence. Remorse had come upon him, and remorse had ripened into that far better sentiment, repentance with the impulse of atonement.
Under advice of his physician he decided to retire to a villa on the Bay of Naples, there to live in the simplest way. But before going thither he purchased the farm which had furnished a refuge to Antonina at her time of sorest necessity, and in the garden of which her hero-lover, Hermanric, lay buried. To his trusted freedman, Carrio, he gave orders that the farm-house was thenceforth to be the home of Antonina and her aged father, and that the surrounding acres were to be tilled at his own expense for their sole benefit.
He saw them settled there in love and peace, and having done all he could to repair the wrong he had done to them, he departed to seek quietude and peace for the premature old age his debauchery had brought upon him.
Antonina planted flowers about the grave of her hero-lover and devoted herself thenceforth to the care of the father whose love was all that remained to her of life.