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- Veranilda - 50/67 -
cause of good. Let it not surprise you that I receive the man with open arms. He was my dear friend; I have only of late discovered his infamy, and for the gravest reasons, which you shall learn, I am obliged to mask my knowledge. Beloved father, you will give me your countenance?'
'I will, I will,' replied Gaudiosus nervously. 'You would not deceive me, I well know, dear son.'
Marcian summoned the waiting servant, and ordered that the traveller should be straightway admitted. A few minutes passed in absolute silence, then, as the two stood gazing towards the entrance, they saw the gleam of a casque and of a breastplate, and before them stood Basil. His arms extended, Marcian stepped forward.
'So soon, O brave Basil!' he exclaimed. 'What speed you must have made! How long is it since my letter reached you?'
There passed the semblance of an embrace between them. Basil was death pale; he spoke in hollow tones, as though his tongue were parched, and looked with bloodshot eyes from Marcian to the ecclesiastic.
'I am travel-worn. Your hospitality must restore me.'
'That it shall,' replied Marcian. 'Or, better still,' he added, 'the hospitality of my father Gaudiosus.' He touched the priest's arm, as if affectionately. 'For here there is little solace; barely one chamber habitable. You have often heard me describe, O Basil, my poor, ruinous island villa, and now at length you behold it. I did not think you would pass this way, or I would have prepared for your fitting reception. By the greatest chance you find me here; and to-morrow I must be gone. But scarce two thousand paces from here is the dwelling of this reverend man, who will entertain you fittingly, and give you the care you need; for it seems to me, dear Basil, that you are more than wearied.'
The listener nodded, and let himself drop upon a seat near to where Marcian was standing.
'What have you to tell me?' he asked under his breath.
'Nothing good, alas!' was the murmured reply.
'Shall we speak in private?'
'Nay, it is needless. All my secrets lie open to Gaudiosus.'
Again Basil cast a glance at the presbyter, who had seated himself and appeared to be absorbed in thought.
'Do you mean,' he asked, 'that something new has befallen?'
His eyes were upon Marcian, and Marcian's upon those of Proserpine.
'Yes, something new. The deacon of whom you know has left Rome, accompanying the Pope on his journey eastward. And with him he has taken--'
A name was shaped upon the speaker's lips, but whether of purpose, or because his voice failed him, it found no utterance.
As Basil spoke, his eye was caught by the movement of a curtain at the back of the room. The curtain was pushed aside, and there appeared the figure of a maiden, pale, beautiful. Marcian did not see her, nor yet did the priest.
'Veranilda?' repeated Basil, in the same questioning tone. He leaned forward, his hand upon his wrist.
'She--alas!' was Marcian's reply.
'Liar! traitor! devil!'
At each word, Basil's dagger drank blood up to the hilt. With his furious voice blended a yell of terror, of agony, a faint cry of horror from Gaudiosus, and a woman's scream. Then came silence.
The priest dropped to his knees by Marcian's prostrate form. Basil, the stained weapon in his crimson hand, stared at Veranilda, who also had fallen.
'Man! What hast thou done?' gasped Gaudiosus.
The trembling, senile tones wakened Basil as if from a trance. He thrust his dagger into its sheath, stepped to the back of the room, and bent over the white loveliness that lay still.
'Is it death?' he murmured.
'Death! death!' answered the priest, who had just heard Marcian's last sob.
'I speak not of that perjured wretch,' said Basil. 'Come hither.'
Gaudiosus obeyed, and looked with wonder at the unconscious face.
'Who is this?' he asked.
'No matter who. Does she live?'
Basil had knelt, and taken one of the little hands in both his own, staining it with the blood of Marcian.
'I can feel no throb of life,' he said, speaking coldly, mechanically.
The priest bent, and put his cheek to her lips.
'She lives. This is but a swoon. Help me to bear her to the couch.'
But Basil took the slender body in his arms, and carried it like that of a child. When he had laid it down, he looked at Gaudiosus sternly.
'Have you authority in this house?'
'Some little, perhaps. I know not. What is your will?'
Utterly confounded, his eyes dropping moisture, his limbs shaken as if with palsy, the priest babbled his reply.
'Use any power you have,' continued Basil, 'to prevent more bloodshed. Outside the gates are men of mine. Bid the porter admit them to the outer court. Then call thither two servants, and let them bear away _that_--whither you will. After, you shall hear more.'
Like an obedient slave, Gaudiosus sped on his errand. Basil the while stood gazing at Veranilda; but he did not go very near to her, and his look had nothing of tenderness. He saw the priest return, followed by two men, heard him whisper to them, saw them take up and carry away their master's corpse; all this as if it did not regard him. Again he turned his gaze upon Veranilda. It seemed to him that her lips, her eyelids moved. He bent forward, heard a sigh. Then the blue eyes opened, but as yet saw nothing.
Gaudiosus reappeared, and Basil beckoned him.
'You do not know her?' he asked in a low voice.
'I never looked upon her face till now,' was the reply.
At the sound of their voices Veranilda stirred, tried to rouse herself, uttered a sound of distress.
'Speak to her,' said Basil.
Gaudiosus approached the couch, and spoke soothing words.
'What dreadful thought is this?' said Veranilda. 'What have I seen?'
The priest whispered an adjuration to prayer. But she, raising her head, cast terrified glances about the hall. Basil had moved further away, and she did not seem to be aware of his presence.
'How long is it,' he asked, with his eyes upon Gaudiosus, 'since Marcian came from Rome?'
'This is the fourth day. So I have been told. I myself saw him for the first time not an hour--nay, not half an hour ago.'
'You knew not that he brought _her_ with him?'
Basil, without looking in that direction, signalled with his head towards Veranilda.
'I had heard of some companion unnamed.'
'He had not spoken of her to you?'
'Not a word.'
On the tesselated floor where Marcian had fallen was a pool of blood. Basil only now perceived it, and all at once a violent shudder went over him.
'Man of God!' he exclaimed in a voice of sudden passion, terribly resonant after the dull, hard accents of his questioning. 'You look upon me with abhorrence, and, perhaps, with fear. Hearken to my vindication. He whom I have slain was the man I held in dearest friendship. I believed him true to the heart's core. Yesterday-- was it but yesterday?--O blessed Christ!--it seems to me so long ago--I learned that his heart was foul with treachery. Long, long, he has lied to me, pretending to seek with me for one I had lost, my plighted love. In secret he robbed me of her. Heard you not his answer when, to catch the lie on his very lips, I asked what news he could give me of her. I knew that she was here; his own servant had secretly avowed the truth to me. And you heard him say that she was gone on far travel. Therefore it was that he would not harbour me in his house--me, his friend. In the name of the Crucified, did I not well to lay him low?'
Somewhat recovered from the emotions which had enfeebled him, Gaudiosus held up his head, and made solemn answer.
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