Gateway to the Classics: Legends and Stories of Italy by Amy Steedman
Legends and Stories of Italy by  Amy Steedman

The Story of the Empress Flavia

Flavia was very young when she married the Emperor of Rome. Life seemed full of joy, and she had everything that her heart could desire. The Emperor loved her dearly, and she was as happy as the day was long. It is true that her husband sometimes flew into terrible passions and was often harsh in his judgments when he was angry, but to Flavia he was always gentle and kind, and she loved him with all her heart. He was not very clever, perhaps, but he was straightforward and honourable, very different to the prince, his brother, who always lived with them at the palace.

This prince was a handsome, clever young man and had great influence over the Emperor, but his ways were crooked and crafty and his heart was bad.

It happened soon after his marriage that war broke out with the Turks, and the Emperor was obliged to leave his young wife and put himself at the head of his army.

It troubled him to think of leaving Flavia with all the cares of the state on her hands. She was so young and would be so lonely in the great palace without him. It was a comfort, however, to think his brother would be there to help and cheer her, and in parting he earnestly prayed the prince to do all in his power to help and protect the Empress.

But scarcely had the Emperor gone when the prince began to plan and plot how he might get rid of his brother. If only by some happy chance the Emperor should be killed and never return, what good fortune that would be!

The prince had long been envious of his brother. He longed to seize both the crown and the beautiful Empress, but he was obliged to work cautiously.

First he began with Flavia. With a word here and a word there he tried to make her feel ill-used.

"It is a pity," he said, "that the dear Emperor has such a terrible temper. I fear you must often have suffered from it."

"That I never have," said Flavia indignantly; "he is always gentle with me."

"Yet he has left you all alone and unprotected," said the prince. "He really need not have gone away so soon."

"He always does his duty," said Flavia proudly.

It was no use hinting to Flavia, and time was going on, so one day the prince spoke out boldly.

"The Emperor will return no more," he said. "I am about to arrange that he shall be accidentally killed, and then I shall seize the crown. Help me with my plans and you shall still be Empress."

For a moment Flavia was paralysed with astonishment and horror, and could not answer. The prince thought she was about to consent, and left her well pleased.

But he little knew Flavia. Scarcely had he gone out than she sent for the officer of the guard and bade him arrest the Emperor's brother immediately and see that he was locked up in a lonely tower outside the city where no one should go near him except the gaoler. The officer looked astonished, but Flavia did not tell him what crime the prince had committed; she could not bear to think that the Emperor's subjects should know that his brother was a base traitor. Then she wrote him a note in which she said that she hoped she would never look on his treacherous face again.

But though the prince found himself locked up and his plans upset, he did not despair, for he was very clever. First he pretended to be very ill indeed, and begged that a priest might be sent to him. Flavia was tender-hearted and could not bear to think he should die alone, so she sent him her own father confessor, a gentle old man who was very easily deceived. He very soon began to beg Flavia to release the prince.

"I do not know what crime you accuse him of," said the old man, "but he seems truly penitent. He cannot remember anything that happened before his illness, and, indeed, I think he has been quite out of his mind and did not know what he was doing."

Then the prince, too, wrote long letters, pretending to be terribly afraid of his brother's anger.

"When he knows, he will kill me," he wrote over and over again as if in an agony of fear. And he implored Flavia to set him at liberty before the Emperor returned.

Meanwhile the news came that the war was over, and the Emperor sent word that he would soon be on his way home. Flavia's heart was filled with happiness, and in her joy she could not bear to think that the Emperor should learn at once the story of his brother's treachery, so she sent word that the prince was to be released.

At last the happy day came when the Emperor entered the city at the head of his victorious army. There were great rejoicings throughout Rome, but happiest of all was the Empress Flavia.

There was one face, however, that was sad and downcast. The Emperor's brother went about with his melancholy eyes fixed on the ground as if he were too miserable to look up. The Emperor looked at him keenly several times and at last took him aside.

"Why dost thou look so sorrowful?" he asked; "tell me what has come to thee?"

The prince shook his head and sighed. "Ah, there is sorrow enough," he said, "but I cannot tell thee what it is."

"I command thee to tell me at once," said the Emperor.

"I dare not," said the prince. "Alas, it is a tale of treachery aimed against thy own life."

"That is but what an emperor must expect," said his brother calmly. "Come, tell me the plot and the names of the plotters."

The prince made great pretence of being most unwilling, but at last, when the Emperor began to lose patience, he spoke out.

"How can I tell thee," he said, "when the one who plotted against thy life was thine own wife, Flavia?"

The Emperor sprang to his feet and seized his brother's arm.

"Take care what thou sayest," he said; "such a thing cannot be."

Then the prince began his tale saying that he had discovered the plot and begged Flavia to stop before it was too late. But as soon as the Empress knew that her crime was discovered by him, she sent immediately for the guard and ordered him to be arrested and shut up in a lonely prison, refusing to tell any one of what crime she accused him.

"There, in that solitary prison, I have lain sick and sorrowful until yesterday when the Empress ordered me to be released, doubtless fearing your anger," ended the wily prince.

Even then the Emperor could not believe it, until the prince showed him some letters, really written by himself, but copied from Flavia's handwriting, in which all the treachery was told.

Then the Emperor called the officer of the guard and demanded why it was that the prince had been imprisoned.

"Your Highness," said the officer, "it was by order of the Empress, but for what crime he was punished we do not know."

When the Emperor heard that, he flew into one of his dreadful rages and declared that Flavia should be put to death.

The prince pretended to plead for her, but that only made the Emperor more furious. He sent immediately for two of his most trusted officers and bade them go at once to the Empress's apartments and conduct her to a villa some distance from Rome. The way led through a lonely wood, and when they reached the wood the officers were instructed to put the Empress to death, but to pretend that she had died of an illness, so that no one might know of her dreadful crime.

"And as a token that ye have done your duty," added the Emperor, "bring me the ring and gold chain which the Empress wears, that I may know that the deed has been accomplished."

Flavia could not understand why she should undertake this hurried journey, but the officers told her it was the Emperor's will, and that he would join her later. So she set out with them, feeling somewhat perplexed and unhappy.

They journeyed on for some time until they came to the edge of a dark wood, and there the officers requested the Empress to alight from her horse, as there was only a narrow footpath through the woods. The servants would take the horses round by a longer road, they said.

This also seemed strange to Flavia, for she was not accustomed to walking on rough roads, but she dismounted and went on with the two officers.

As the wood grew darker and darker, and the path so narrow that it was difficult to push a way through the briars, the men began to look at one another.

"Wilt thou tell her?" said one.

"No, I cannot," said the other; "indeed I have no liking for this business. The Emperor is often hasty in his judgment, when those terrible rages seize him."

"Still, it must be done," said the first, and turning to Flavia he told her that she had been brought here to be executed, since the Emperor had discovered her treachery and how she had plotted against his life.

Flavia turned pale, but she held her head high and fearlessly.

"I am innocent," was all she said.

"I verily believe she is," said one of the officers. "I would that we might spare her."

"If we spare her, the Emperor will not spare us," said the other. "It is her life or ours. Remember how we are to take back her ring and her golden chain as a token that we have obeyed his commands."

As soon as Flavia heard these words she quickly slipped off her ring and unwound the chain from her neck and thrust them into the guard's hand. Then, quick as thought, she turned and ran through the trees.

It was drawing towards evening and the light in the wood was very dim as the trees grew thickly together. The men started to overtake Flavia, but the foremost officer, catching his foot in the root of a tree, fell heavily to the ground, while his companion, just behind him, fell headlong over him. When they picked themselves up Flavia had disappeared, and though they searched the wood all night they could discover no trace of her.

When morning dawned the men consulted together and made up their minds to return to Rome and carry the ring and the chain to the Emperor, and allow him to think that Flavia was dead.

By this time the Emperor's rage had spent itself, and although he was still sure that Flavia was guilty, he began to wish he had not been so hasty.

"She is little more than a child," he said to his brother sorrowfully. "It would have been better if I had shut her up in some convent where she might have had time to repent."

So when the officers returned and silently offered him the well-known ring and golden chain, he asked no questions, but made a gesture for them to take the things away, for he would not touch them.

After that the Emperor lived but a sad, lonely life, and the name of Flavia never passed his lips. Only once, when a crowd of poor people came to the palace door and he heard them lamenting that their "little mother," as they called Flavia, was gone, he gave orders that whatever charity the Empress had given should be continued in her name.

Now when poor Flavia had escaped from the two officers, she wandered about the wood all night and in the early morning found her way out on to the high-road once more.

Weary and footsore, her clothes torn by the brambles and her hands scratched and bleeding, she looked no longer like an empress but rather like a poor wayfarer. There she sat by the roadside and wondered what she should do next. She knew that the road in one direction must lead to Rome, and she did not know which way to take. Just then, in the dim morning light, she saw a company of people and horses coming along. Some of the horses were laden with merchandise, and at the head of the company rode an old man who appeared to be the chief merchant.

He had a kind, gentle-looking face, and Flavia, feeling desperate, went out into the road as he was passing and held out her hands to him as if to implore a favour.

The old man stopped his horse at once, but bade his servants go on. He saw that this was no common beggar, but some one of gentle birth.

"What can I do for thee?" he asked kindly.

"Wilt thou tell me whither this road leads?" she asked

"That way to Rome," he said, pointing behind him, "and this way in front to Ostia where I am going."

"Oh, wilt thou help me?" said Flavia, clasping her hands. "I am alone and unprotected, and I, too, would go to Ostia. Wilt thou take me under thy protection?"

The old man thought for a moment.

"What is thy name, and how camest thou here alone?" he asked.

Flavia looked into his kind eyes and felt she could trust him.

"I cannot tell thee who I am," she said, "but the reason I am here alone is that I was condemned to death and have just escaped."

"Lift up thy veil and let me see thy face," said the old man.

Flavia lifted her veil as he bade her, and the merchant looked at her with a long, searching gaze.

"Thou mayest come," he said at last; "I see nothing but good in that face."

So he called to one of the men to bring a horse and lift the maiden upon it, and they journeyed on together to Ostia.

"I will take thee home to my wife for one night," said the merchant thoughtfully as they neared the town, "and to-morrow I will see thee safe in a convent where the Emperor himself could not touch thee."

Flavia thanked him gratefully, and also thanked God in her heart that she had fallen into such kind hands.

But if the merchant was kind-hearted his wife was even kinder. She looked keenly at Flavia and listened to the tale which her husband had to tell, and when he talked of the convent she shook her head.

"Why not let her stay here with us?" she said. "I have never seen a sweeter or a purer face, and it is useless to tell me she has committed a crime worthy of death. Why, she is but a child, just the age our little daughter would have been now had she lived to grow up."

The thought of the little daughter who had died made the merchant feel very pitiful towards Flavia, but still he hesitated.

"Art thou sure it is wise to take a stranger into our house of whom we know nothing but that she is accused of a great crime?" he asked.

"You know our Emperor," answered his wife; "when he is seized with one of his sudden rages he is seldom just, and I feel sure this maiden is innocent. Let her stay with us, and she shall help me to look after the child."

For the merchant and his wife had one little child, a son of their old age, whom they loved very dearly.

So it was settled that the maiden should stay, and for a while all went well. Poor Flavia began to hold up her head again and to feel as if there was still some peace for her in the world, sheltered as she was in that kind home. But the peace did not last long.

The merchant had a younger brother who lived in the house, and this young man, seeing Flavia's beauty, began to wish to make her his wife. Flavia told him at once that he must not think of such a thing, that she was but a servant in the house, and not fit to marry her master's brother. But when he continued to trouble her she saw that she must tell the truth.

"Why wilt thou not marry me?" he asked.

"For the best reason of all," she answered at last gravely. "I am already married."

At first the young man would not believe this, but afterwards he said even that did not matter, for her husband was as good as dead.

Then Flavia turned from him in great anger, and he in his turn waxed furious and warned her that she would soon repent of the way she had scorned him.

"Do as I wish or a terrible misfortune will overtake thee," he said.

"The good God holds the future in His hands," answered Flavia, "and He will protect me."

After this it seemed as if the young man's thoughts grew blacker and more evil every day. Very soon he began to arrange a dreadful plan to punish Flavia, and ended one day by killing the poor little boy and then pretending that it was Flavia who had done the cruel deed.

Poor Flavia! at first she could not understand why they thought it possible for her to commit such a crime, for she loved the child dearly. But when the guards arrived to carry her off to prison and she asked them who had accused her and they told her it was her master's brother, then she understood it all.

The judges before whom she was taken asked at once who she was and what was her history. The poor old merchant could only tell what he knew, how he had found her alone and friendless and accused of some terrible crime. Flavia herself would tell nothing more, and everything looked so black that they were sure she was guilty. So the poor innocent maiden was condemned to death, with no one to help or pity her.

The judges shook their heads sorrowfully to think that one so young and beautiful should be so wicked, and they declared it was fitting that a terrible punishment should follow such a life of crime. So they ordered that both her hands should be cut off and then that she should be carried out to sea and left to die alone on a desolate rock.

But when Flavia came to herself on the little desert island alone and dying, a strange feeling of peace began to steal over her. It was so cool and quiet lying on that rock. The soft lap of the waves soothed her after the turmoil of the angry voices, and the gentle breeze seemed like a friend laying a cool, caressing hand upon her aching forehead.

"I have found peace at last," she said to herself with a tired smile as she turned and fell quietly asleep, thinking that all was over.


But that sleep was not the sleep of death. In the middle of the night she awoke and looked up to see the kindly stars shining down on her and to feel the cool wind gently stirring her hair. The soothing sound of the lapping water was still the only thing she heard, and again a great peace seemed to wrap her round and comfort her sad heart.

Then, as she lay there watching the stars, a light began to dawn in the sky. At first she thought it must be morning, but it was not at all like the light of dawn. Brighter and brighter it grew until it took the form of a shining cloud, so white and full of dazzling light that it seemed as if the midday sun must be shining from within.

Flavia gazed with wondering eyes as the cloud came ever nearer and nearer until it hung over the rock on which she lay. Then the wonder of it seemed to grow too great for mortal eyes. Like the petals of a white flower the soft masses of cloud unfolded from within, and there in the centre of the light stood the Madonna. Flavia knew that face at once, although it was far more beautiful than any picture she had ever seen.

The pitying look in the Madonna's face grew deeper as she bent down over Flavia and gently spoke to her.

"Poor child," she said, "I have come to put an end to all thy sufferings. There is nothing now but happiness in store for thee. Ere long thou wilt be taken from off this rock and thy troubles will be over. But first I have a gift to bestow upon thee."

And as she spoke the Madonna fastened two of the fairest, whitest hands upon Flavia's poor wrists, and round the join she placed two bands of shining gold. They looked the most perfect, the most beautiful hands that mortal eyes had ever seen, and no wonder, since they were a gift from the Madonna herself.

"O Madonna mia," said Flavia with a sobbing breath, "take me away with thee. I am so weary of this world and all its troubles. I only want to be at rest."

"Nay," said the Madonna, "I cannot take thee with me now, for there is still work for thee to do on earth."

"How can that be?" asked Flavia sadly.

"Only wait and thou shalt see," answered the Madonna. "I have still another gift for thee. When I am gone lift up that stone close to the water's edge, and under it thou shalt find a bunch of sweet herbs. Take them with thee, for they will cure all ills and bring much comfort to those in sorrow. Now, my child, wait patiently for thy release, and farewell."

Then the cloud began to fold itself once more like a closing flower round its shining heart. And Flavia watched it float away, growing dimmer and dimmer in the distance, until it vanished from her sight.

Could it have been only a dream and was she still asleep? Flavia wondered if she was dreaming, but she looked down at those fair white hands and the golden bands and knew that the Madonna had indeed come to comfort and heal her. Then she remembered the second gift, and, lifting the stone, she found there the bunch of sweet herbs which the Madonna had promised. She pressed them against her cheek to smell their fragrance and then carefully hid them in her robe. And, strange to say, she felt almost as happy and light-hearted as she used to feel when she was a young bride and Empress of Rome.

It was morning now, and as she looked across the blue water she saw a fishing-boat coming towards the island rowed by two men, one old and bent and the other with a bandage round his eyes. She called to them as they were rowing past, but at first they did not hear. Presently, however, they caught sight of her and came towards the rock.

The amazement of the fishermen was great to see a lady on that desolate island. It was all the more strange because she was so beautiful, with such wonderful golden bracelets and fair, white hands. They thought it must be some vision, until Flavia spoke to them and asked them from whence they came.

They told her their home was in a little fishing-village some distance from Ostia, and this pleased Flavia well.

"Wilt thou take me there?" she asked the old man. "I will find means to repay thee."

The old man spoke some words to his companion, who nodded his head. He was a young man and seemed to be suffering great pain when he lifted the bandage from his eyes and tried to look at Flavia.

"Is aught amiss with thine eyes?" asked Flavia gently.

"We fear he will soon be blind," said the old man mournfully. "One eye was cut by a stone thrown by a careless boy, and now the sight of the other eye is almost gone."

"Stay," said Flavia, "perhaps I can help thee."

She took the bunch of herbs from her bosom, and after she had very tenderly undone the bandage she laid the sweet-smelling leaves upon the poor injured eyes.

The work of healing was done in a moment. The pain vanished and sight returned. Then feeling and seeing the miracle the two men fell on their knees, and lifting the hem of Flavia's robe, pressed it to their lips.

"My lady," they said, "tell us if thou art the Madonna herself?"

"Nay," said Flavia, smiling, "but these herbs are indeed a gift from heaven. So give thanks to God for thy healing."

The grateful fishermen gladly now took her into their boat and rowed her back to the little village, where they gave her the best of everything their poverty could afford.

Every one who was sick or suffering came there to be cured by Flavia, and the blessed herbs never failed in their virtue. From the poor she took no payment, but from the rich she asked money, for she needed to live, and her clothes, too, were almost worn out.

Ere long the work in the village seemed ended, and Flavia made up her mind to depart. She had now bought a few garments, a plain black robe, and a long veil which covered her from head to foot. No one, she felt sure, would recognise her now, and so she set out to return to Ostia.

The fame of her cures had already reached that town, and people soon began to crowd around the Saint, as they called her. Very patiently she listened to all their woes and cured any one who came to her, just as she had done in the little fishing-village.

One day when they had brought a sick child to her, and the crowd was pressing round as usual to watch the miracle, she noticed a man trying to force his way through the crush as if anxious to reach her. As he came nearer and she saw his face she recognised him as one of the servants who lived in her old master's house. She bade the people allow the man to pass, and when he reached her side asked him what he sought.

"Wilt thou come with me at once?" he panted; "my master's brother is dying. My master prays thee to come and try if thou canst save him."

"When I am finished my work here I will come," said Flavia quietly

The servant waited impatiently, but Flavia would not come until she had done all she could for the sick child, and then she set out for the merchant's house.

"What ails thy master's brother?" she asked as they hurried along.

"No one knows," answered the man, "but he seems to have something on his mind and grows daily worse and worse."

When Flavia reached the house she knew so well, she almost forgot to pretend she was a stranger, but she allowed the man to lead her upstairs as if she did not know the way.

There was a priest in the room into which they led her, and the old merchant and his wife were also there. They were all standing round the bed on which the young man lay.

The old merchant turned quickly to meet the stranger, and in a low tone implored her to do all she could to cure his brother.

"I will do my best," said Flavia gravely. "But first I must ask if he has confessed his sins, because my herbs can only cure those who are truly penitent."

"Oh yes, he has confessed only this morning," said the priest.

But Flavia knew by the calm way he spoke that the young man had not confessed all.

She went up to the bed and quietly bent over him.

"There is one sin you have not confessed," she said.

The sick man began to tremble from head to foot, and the people around thought he was dying

"Oh, help him!" cried the old merchant in an imploring voice to Flavia.

"I cannot help him unless he will help himself first and confess his sin," answered Flavia. "My herbs are powerless to heal until he does that."

"Then let us leave him alone with the priest," said the merchant.

"Nay," said Flavia, "he must confess before thee and thy wife and me."

The young man groaned, but feeling sure that he was about to die he made up his mind to confess his great sin.

"I killed the child myself," he moaned, "and laid the blame on Flavia."

A great cry broke from the lips of the merchant's wife, and the master himself gave a deep groan, but Flavia bent gently over the sick man and laid the bunch of herbs upon his breast. Health and strength came back immediately, but he turned his head to the wall.

"To think how that poor child Flavia suffered while all the time she was innocent," sobbed the merchant's wife.

"Well, at least he shall suffer the same," said the merchant sternly. "Call the guards that they may carry him off to prison."

"No," said Flavia firmly. "See, his life has just been given back by a miracle. How would you dare to take it away again?"

"He has committed a crime and shall be put to death, although he is my brother," said the merchant sternly.

"It is right that he should suffer seeing that he allowed Flavia to bear the punishment of his sin," said the merchant's wife. "I shall never have a moment's peace thinking of that poor young innocent maid."

"Let me entreat you to spare at least his life," pleaded Flavia.

"No, for Flavia's sake I cannot," replied her old mistress.

"But if I tell you that the maid you mourn for is alive and well," said Flavia, "will you then be merciful?"

"If you promise that I shall indeed see Flavia some day you shall have your way," said the merchant's wife.

"That I promise," said Flavia, "and as to this man he shall go into a convent where he will have time to pray and repent all the rest of his life."

So at last this was settled and Flavia went home well content.

Soon after this the news reached Ostia that a terrible pestilence was raging in Rome and hundreds were dying daily. As soon as Flavia heard this she made up her mind to go there and see if she might help with her wonderful herbs.

Night and day she worked amongst the stricken people, healing all those who came to her, until the news of the wonderful cure reached the Emperor's ears. Then came a call for Flavia to go to the Imperial palace. The Emperor's brother was seized with the pestilence and the doctors said he could not live.

"Send for the wonderful saint who would seem to work miracles," said the Emperor.

It was with strange feelings that Flavia mounted the great staircase of the Imperial palace. She thought of the day when she had entered so gaily as a young bride, and that sad day when she had come down for the last time.

No one could see that her eyes were full of tears, for she never lifted her long black veil, and only the servants noticed with wonder that she seemed to know her way without a guide.

"In which room is the prince laid?" she asked, when at last they reached the Emperor's apartments.

They led her to the room, and she entered very quietly and looked around. The Emperor stood by the bedside and he turned as she entered, but Flavia scarcely knew him, so old and sad had he grown. And when he lifted his eyes there was such a world of sorrow in them that Flavia's heart ached with pity. The prince, indeed, looked terribly ill and seemed in fearful pain, but Flavia scarcely glanced at him, for she could think of no one but the Emperor.

"I think thou needest my healing powers as much as he who lies stricken there," she said in a low voice.

"Mine is no illness that thou canst cure," said the Emperor quietly. "It is sickness of the heart, not of the body."

"But my herbs have wonderful power," said Flavia eagerly; "let me but try."

The Emperor motioned her towards the bed.

"I ask for nothing for myself," he said, "only cure my brother, for he is all I have left."

"I cannot cure him until he has confessed a sin that lies heavy on his soul," said Flavia.

"Then call a priest," said the Emperor, "and let it be done quickly."

"Nay," said Flavia, "he must confess it to thee and to me."

When the prince heard these words he turned his face to the wall and groaned aloud.

"I would rather die than confess," he whispered.

But his sufferings began to increase so sorely that at last he could endure it no longer.

"I will confess," he moaned. "It was I who plotted against the Emperor's life. I accused Flavia to shelter myself. I am guilty. She was innocent."

The Emperor stood there as if turned to stone when these words fell on his ear, but Flavia bent over the dying man and gently laid her herbs upon his mouth, and the pain and fever fled away.

Then the low, stern voice of the Emperor sounded through the room when he saw his brother was saved.

"Summon the guards," he said.

"Stop!" cried Flavia; "think well before thou takest a life which God has but just given back."

"Alas!" said the Emperor, "I cannot undo my rash mistake, but I can at least punish my brother as he caused Flavia to be punished."

Then Flavia began to plead with all her heart that he would spare the prince's life, while the young man clung to a fold of her robe, feeling that his only chance of safety lay with her.

But for a long time she pleaded in vain.

"If I ordered Flavia to be put to death when she was innocent, how much more should I condemn this traitor when he himself owns that he is guilty? "said the Emperor.

"But supposing my wonderful herbs could bring the Empress back to life?" said Flavia at last.

"Ah," said the Emperor sadly, "let me but once more see Flavia alive, and there would be no room in my heart for anything but forgiveness."

Then Flavia slowly lifted her veil and threw it back.

"I am Flavia," she said simply.

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