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The sunlight was shining calmly over the grave, and over Numerian and Antonina as they sat by it. Sometimes when the mirth grew louder at the rustic festival, it reached them in faint, subdued notes; sometimes they heard the voices of the labourers in the neighbouring fields talking to each other at their work; but, besides these, no other sounds were loud enough to be distinguished. There was still an expression of the melancholy and feebleness that grief and suffering leave behind them on the countenances of the father and daughter; but resignation and peace appeared there as well--resignation that was perfected by the hard teaching of woe, and peace that was purer for being imparted from the one to the other, like the strong and deathless love from which it grew.
There was something now in the look and attitude of the girl, as she sat thinking of the young warrior who had died in her defence and for her love, and training the shrubs to grow closer round the grave, which, changed though she was, recalled in a different form the old poetry and tranquillity of her existence when we first saw her singing to the music of her lute in the garden on the Pincian Hill. No thoughts of horror and despair were suggested to her as she now looked on the farm-house scene. Hers was not the grief which shrinks selfishly from all that revives the remembrance of the dead: to her, their influence over the memory was a grateful and a guardian influence that gave a better purpose to the holiest life, and a nobler nature to the purest thoughts.
Thus they were sitting by the grave, sad yet content; footsore already on the pilgrimage of life, yet patient to journey farther if they might--when an unusual tumult, a noise of rolling wheels, mingled with a confused sound of voices, was heard in the lane behind them. They looked round, and saw that Vetranio was approaching them alone through the wicket-gate.
He came forward slowly; the stealthy poison instilled by the Banquet of Famine palpably displayed its presence within him as the clear sunlight fell on his pale, wasted face. He smiled kindly as he addressed Antonina; but the bodily pain and mental agitation which that smile was intended to conceal, betrayed themselves in his troubled voice as he spoke.
'This is our last meeting for years--it may be our last meeting for life,' he said; 'I linger at the outset of my journey, but to behold you as guardian of the one spot of ground that is most precious to you on earth--as mistress, indeed, of the little that I give you here!' He paused a moment and pointed to the grave, then continued: 'All the atonement that I owe to you, you can never know--I can never tell!-- think only that I bear away with me a companion in the solitude to which I go in the remembrance of you. Be calm, good, happy still, for my sake, and while you forgive the senator of former days, forget not the friend who now parts from you in some sickness and sorrow, but also in much patience and hope! Farewell!'
His hand trembled as he held it out; a flush overspread the girl's cheek while she murmured a few inarticulate words of gratitude, and, bending over it, pressed it to her lips. Vetranio's heart beat quick; the action revived an emotion that he dared not cherish; but he looked at the wan, downcast face before him, at the grave that rose mournful by his side, and quelled it again. Yet an instant he lingered to exchange a farewell with the old man, then turned quickly, passed through the gate, and they saw him no more.
Antonina's tears fell fast on the grass beneath as she resumed her place. When she raised her head again, and saw that her father was looking at her, she nestled close to him and laid one of her arms round his neck: the other gradually dropped to her side, until her hand reached the topmost leaves of the shrubs that grew round the grave.
Shall we longer delay in the farm-house garden? No! For us, as for Vetranio, it is now time to depart! While peace still watches round the walls of Rome; while the hearts of the father and daughter still repose together in security, after the trials that have wrung them, let us quit the scene! Here, at last, the narrative that we have followed over a dark and stormy track reposes on a tranquil field; and here let us cease to pursue it!
So the traveller who traces the course of a river wanders through the day among the rocks and precipices that lead onward from its troubled source; and, when the evening is at hand, pauses and rests where the banks are grassy and the stream is smooth.
End of this Project Gutenberg Etext of Antonina, by Wilkie Collins
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