THE FIRES OF ST. JOHN
It was the eve of St. John in the year of our Lord Nine Hundred
High on the cypress-clad hills of the Eternal City the evening sun had
flamed valediction, and the last lights of the dying day were fading
away on the waves of the Tiber whose changeless tide has rolled down
through centuries of victory and defeat, of pride and shame, of glory
The purple dusk began to weave its phantom veil over the ancient
capital of the Cæsars and a round blood-red moon was climbing slowly
above the misty crests of the Alban Hills, draining the sky of its
crimson sunset hues.
The silvery chimes of the Angelus, pealing from churches and convents,
from Santa Maria in Trastevere to Santa Maria of the Aventine, began to
sing their message of peace into the heart of nature and of man.
As the hours of the night advanced and the moon rose higher in the
star-embroidered canopy of the heavens, a vast concourse of people
began to pour from shadowy lanes and thoroughfares, from sanctuaries
and hostelries, into the Piazza Navona. Romans and peasants from the
Campagna, folk from Tivoli, Velletri, Corneto and Terracina, pilgrims
from every land of the then known world, Africans and Greeks, Lombards
and Franks, Sicilians, Neapolitans, Syrians and Kopts, Spaniards and
Saxons, men from the frozen coast of Thulé and the burning sands of
Arabia, traders from the Levant, sorcerers from the banks of the Nile,
conjurers from the mythical shores of the Ganges, adventurers from the
Barbary coast, gypsies from the plains of Sarmatia, monks from the
Thebaide, Normans, Gascons and folk from Aquitaine.
In the Piazza Navona booths and stalls had been erected for the sale of
figs and honey, and the fragrant products of the Roman osterié.
Strings of colored lanterns danced and quivered in the air. The fitful
light from the torches, sending spiral columns of resinous smoke into
the night-blue ether, shed a lurid glow over the motley, fantastic
crowd that increased with every moment, recruited from fishermen,
flower girls, water-carriers and herdsmen from the Roman Campagna.
Ensconced in the shadow of a roofless portico, a relic of the ancient
Circus Agonalis, which at one time occupied the site of the Piazza
Navona, and regarding the bewildering spectacle which presented itself
to his gaze, with the air of one unaccustomed to such scenes, stood
a stranger whose countenance revealed little of the joy of life that
should be the heritage of early manhood.
His sombre and austere bearing, the abstracted mood and far-away look
of the eyes would have marked him a dreamer in a society of men who had
long been strangers to dreams. For stern reality ruled the world and
the lives of a race untouched alike by the glories of the past and the
dawn of the Pre-Renaissance.
He wore the customary pilgrim’s habit, almost colorless from the
effects of wind and weather. Now and then a chance passer-by would
cast shy glances at the lone stranger, endeavoring to reconcile his age
and his garb, and wondering at the nature of the transgression that
weighed so heavily upon one apparently so young in years.
And well might his countenance give rise to speculation, were it but
for the determined and stolid air of aloofness which seemed to render
futile every endeavor to entice him into the seething maelstrom of
humanity on the part of those who took note of his dark and austere
form as they crossed the Piazza.
Tristan of Avalon was in his thirtieth year, though the hardships
of a long and tedious journey, consummated entirely afoot, made him
appear of maturer age. The face, long exposed to the relentless rays
of the sun, had taken on the darker tints of the Southland. The nose
was straight, the grey eyes tinged with melancholy, the hair was of
chestnut brown, the forehead high and lofty. The ensemble was that of
one who, unaccustomed to the pilgrim’s garb, moves uneasily among his
kind. Yet the atmosphere of frivolity, while irritating and jarring
upon his senses, did not permit him to avert his gaze from the orgy of
color, the pandemonium of jollity, that whirled and piped and roared
about him as the flow of mighty waters.
One of many strange wayfarers bound upon business of one sort or
another to the ancient seat of empire, whose worldly sceptre had long
passed from her palsied grip to the distant shores of the Bosporus,
Tristan had arrived during the early hours of the day in the feudal and
turbulent witches’ cauldron of the Rome of the Millennium.
And with him constituents of many peoples, from far and near, had
reached the Leonine quarter from the Tiburtine road, after months of
tedious travel, to worship at the holy shrines, to do penance and to
obtain absolution for real or imaginary transgressions.
From Bosnia, from Servia and Hungary, from Negropont and the islands
of the Greek Archipelago, from Trebizond and the Crimea it came
endlessly floating to the former capital of the Cæsars, a waste drift
of palaces and temples and antique civilizations, for the End of Time
was said to be nigh, and the dread of impending judgment lay heavily
upon the tottering world of the Millennium.
A grotesque and motley crowd it was, that sought and found a temporary
haven in the lowly taverns, erected for the accommodation of perennial
pilgrims, chiefly mean ill-favored dwellings of clay and timber,
divided into racial colonies, so that pilgrims of the same land and
creed might dwell together.
A very Babel of voices assailed Tristan’s ear, for the ancient sonorous
tongue had long degenerated into the lingua Franca of bad Latin, though
there were some who could still, though in a broken and barbarous
fashion, make themselves understood, when all other modes of expression
All about him throbbed the strange, weird music of zitherns and lutes
and the thrumming of the Egyptian Sistrum. The air of the summer night
was heavy with the odor of incense, garlic and roses. The higher
risen moon gleamed pale as an alabaster lamp in the dark azure of
the heavens, trembling luminously on the waters of a fountain which
occupied the centre of the Piazza Navona.
Here lolled some scattered groups of the populace, discussing the
events of the day, jesting, gesticulating, drinking or love-making.
Others roamed about, engaged in conversation or enjoying the antics of
two Smyrniote tumblers, whose contortions elicited storms of applause
from an appreciative audience.
A crowd of maskers had invaded the Piazza Navona, and the uncommon
spectacle at last drew Tristan from his point of vantage and caused
him to mingle with the crowds, which increased with every moment,
their shouts and gibes and the clatter of their tongues becoming
quite deafening to his ears. Richly decorated chariots, drawn by
spirited steeds, rolled past in a continuous procession. The cries of
the wine-venders and fruit-sellers mingled with the acclaim of the
multitudes. Now and then was heard the fanfare of a company of horsemen
who clattered past, bound upon some feudal adventure.
Weary of walking, distracted by the ever increasing clamor, oppressed
with a sense of loneliness amidst the surging crowds, whose festal
spirit he did not share, Tristan made his way towards the fountain and,
seating himself on the margin, regardless of the chattering groups,
which intermittently clustered about it, he felt his mood gradually
calm in the monotony of the gurgling flow of the water, which spurted
from the grotesque mouths of lions and dolphins.
The stars sparkled in subdued lustre above the dark, towering cypresses
which crowned the adjacent eminence of Monte Testaccio, and the
distant palaces and ruins stood forth in distinctness of splendor and
desolation beneath the luminous brightness of the moonlit heavens.
White shreds of mist, like sorrowing spirits, floated above the winding
course of the Tiber, and enveloped in a diaphanous haze the cloisters
upon St. Bartholomew’s Island at the base of Mount Aventine.
For a time Tristan’s eyes roamed over the kaleidoscopic confusion which
met his gaze on every turn. His ear was assailed by the droning sound
of many voices that filled the air about him, when he was startled by
the approach of two men, who, but for their halting gait, might have
passed unheeded in the rolling sea of humanity that ebbed and flowed
over the Piazza.
Basil, the Grand Chamberlain, was endowed with the elegance of the
effeminate Roman noble of his time. Supple as an eel, he nevertheless
suggested great physical strength. The skin was of a deep olive tinge.
The black, beady eyes were a marked feature of the countenance.
Inscrutable and steadfast in regard, with a hint of mockery and
cynicism, coupled with an abiding alertness, they seemed to penetrate
the very core of matter.
He wore a black mantle reaching almost to his feet. Of his features,
shaded by a hood, little was to be seen, save his glittering minx-eyes.
These he kept alternately fixed upon the crowds that surged around him
and on his companion, a hunchback garbed entirely in black, from the
Spanish hat, which he wore slouched over his face, to the black hose
and sandals that encased his feet. A large red scar across the low
forehead heightened the repulsiveness of his countenance. There was
something strangely sinister in his sunken, cadaverous cheeks, the low
brow, the inflamed eyelids, and his limping gait.
Without perceiving or heeding the presence of Tristan they paused as by
some preconcerted signal.
As the taller of the two pushed back the hood of his pilgrim garb, as
if to cool his brow in the night breeze, Tristan peered into a face not
lacking in sensuous refinement. Dark supercilious eyes roved from one
object to another, without dwelling long on any particular one. There
was somewhat of a cynical look in the downward curve of the eyebrows,
the thin straight lips and the slightly aquiline nose, which seemed to
imbue him with an air of recklessness and daring, that ill consorted
with his monkish garb.
Their discourse was at first almost unintelligible to Tristan. The
language of the common people had, at this period of the history of
Rome, not only lost its form, but almost the very echo of the Latin
After a time, however, Tristan distinguished a name, and, upon
listening more attentively, the burden of the message began to unfold