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- Veranilda - 60/67 -
'Lord Basil, they tell me that you crossed Italy to draw your sword in my cause. Is this the truth?'
'It is the truth, O king.'
'How comes it then that you are laden with the death of one who had long proved himself my faithful servant, one who, when you encountered him, was bound on a mission of great moment?'
'He whom I slew,' answered Basil, 'was the man whom of all men I most loved. I thought him false to me, and struck in a moment of madness.'
'Then you have since learnt that you were deceived?'
Basil paused a moment.
'Gracious lord, that I accused him falsely, I no longer doubt, having had time to reflect upon many things, and to repent of my evil haste. But I am still ignorant of the cause which led him to think ill of me, and so to speak and act in a way which could not but make my heart burn against him.'
'Something of this too I have heard,' said the king, his blue eyes resting upon Basil's countenance with a thoughtful interest. 'You believe, then, that your friend was wholly blameless towards you, in intention and in act?'
'Save inasmuch as credited that strange slander, borne I know not upon what lips.'
'May I hear,' asked Totila, 'what this slander charged upon you?'
Basil raised his head, and put all his courage into a brief reply.
'That I sought to betray the lady Veranilda into the hands of the Greeks.'
'And you think,' said the king slowly, meditatively, his eyes still searching Basil's face, 'that your friend could believe you capable of that?'
'How he could, I know not,' came the sad reply. 'Yet I must needs think it was so.'
'Why?' sounded from the king's lips abruptly, and with a change to unexpected sternness. 'What forbids you the more natural thought that this man, this Marcian, was himself your slanderer?'
'Thinking so, O king, I slew him. Thinking so, I defiled my tongue with base suspicion of Veranilda. Being now again in my right mind, I know that my accusation of _her_ was frenzy, and therefore I choose rather to believe that I wronged Marcian than that he could conceive so base a treachery.'
Totila reflected. All but a smile as of satisfaction lurked within his eyes.
'Know you,' he next inquired, 'by what means Marcian obtained charge of the lady Veranilda?'
'Of that I am as ignorant as of how she was first carried into captivity.'
'Yet,' said the king sharply, 'you conversed with her after Marcian's death.'
'Gracious lord,' answered Basil in low tones, 'it were miscalled conversing. With blood upon my hands, I said I scarce knew what, and would not give ear to the words which should have filled me with remorse.'
There was again a brief silence. Totila let his eyes stray for a moment, then spoke again meditatively.
'You sought vainly for this maiden, whilst she was kept in ward. Being your friend, did not Marcian lend his aid to discover her for you?'
'He did so, but fruitlessly. And when at length he found her, his mind to me had changed.'
'Strangely, it must be confessed,' said the king. His eyes were again fixed upon Basil with a look of pleasant interest. 'Some day, perchance, you may learn how that came about; meanwhile, you do well to think good rather than evil. In truth, it would be difficult to do otherwise in this dwelling of piety and peace. Is there imposed upon you some term of penance? I scarce think you have it in mind to turn monk?'
The last words, though not irreverently uttered, marked a change in Totila's demeanour. He seemed to lay aside an unwonted gravity, to become the ruler of men, the warrior, the conqueror. His forehead lost its long wrinkle, as, with eyebrows bent and lips compressed into a rallying half smile, he seemed to challenge all the manhood in him he addressed.
'For that,' Basil replied frankly, 'I lack the calling.'
'Well said. And how tends your inclination as regards the things of this world? Has it changed in aught since you came hither?'
'In nothing, O king,' was the firm response 'I honour the Goth, even as I love my country.'
'Spoken like a man. But I hear that you have passed through a long sickness, and your cheek yet lacks something of its native hue. It might be well if you took your ease yet a little with these good bedesmen.'
'It is true that I have not yet all my strength,' answered Basil. 'Moreover,' he added, lowering his voice, 'I would fain lighten my soul of the sin that burdens it. It may be that, ere long, the holy father will grant me absolution.'
Totila nodded with a grave smile.
'Be it so. When you are sound in flesh and spirit, follow me northward. I shall then have more to say to you.'
The look accompanying these words lent them a significance which put confusion into Basil's mind. He saw the courteous gesture wherewith the king dismissed him; he bowed and withdrew; but when he had left the room he stood as one bewildered, aware of nothing, his eyes turned vacantly upon some one who addressed him. Presently he found himself walking apart with Venantius, who spoke to him of public affairs, apprised him of the course of the war during these past weeks, and uttered the hope that before the end of the year the liberators would enter Rome. It was true that the Emperor had at length charged Belisarius with the task of reconquering Italy, but months must pass before an army could be assembled and transported; by the latest news the great commander was in Illyria, striving to make a force out of fresh-recruited barbarians, and lamenting the avarice of Justinian which grudged him needful supplies. And as he listened to all this, Basil felt a new ardour glow within him. He had ever worshipped the man of heroic virtues; once upon a time it was Belisarius who fired his zeal; now his eyes dazzled with the glory of Totila; he burned to devote a loyal service to this brave and noble king.
Suddenly there sounded a trumpet. Its note broke strangely upon the monastic stillness, and, in a moment, echoed clear from the mountains.
'The king goes forth,' said Venantius. 'I must leave you. Join us speedily yonder.'
He pointed towards Rome. On Basil's lips quivered a word, a question, but before it could be uttered the soldier had stridden away, his casque gleaming in the sun, and his sword clanking beside him.
Again with mind confused, Basil went to his cell, and sat there head on hand, trying to recover the mood, the thoughts, with which he had risen this morning. But everything was changed. He could no longer think of the past; the future called to him, and its voice was like that of the Gothic trumpet, stirring his blood, urging him to activity. At midday some one knocked, and there entered Deodatus.
'Where is Felix?' was Basil's first question.
Felix was gone, but only to the town at the foot of the mountain, where he and two of his fellows would abide until their master left the monastery. With this message Deodatus had been charged by Venantius. He added that Felix had been dismissed, at the abbot's order, during Basil's interview with the king.
'I understand,' said Basil in himself; and during the rest of the day he strove with all the force of his will to recover calm and pious thoughts. In the night that followed he slept little; it was now the image of Veranilda that hovered before him and kept him wakeful, perturbed with a tender longing. God, it might be, would pardon him his offence against the Divine law; but could he look for forgiveness from Veranilda? When he thought of the king's last words he was lured with hope; when he reasoned upon this hope, it turned to a mocking emptiness. And through the next day, and the next again, his struggle still went on. He worked and prayed as usual, and read the Psalms of penitence not once only, but several times in the four-and-twenty hours; that other psalm, to which he had turned for strengthening of the spirit, he no longer dared to open. And all this time he scarce spoke with any one; not that the brethren looked upon him with less kindness, or held him at a distance, but the rebuke of his own conscience kept him mute. He felt that his communion with these holy men was in seeming only, and it shamed him to contrast their quiet service of the Eternal with the turbid worldliness of his own thoughts.
During these days the abbot was not seen. Venturing, at length, when he happened to find himself alone with Marcus, to speak of this, he learnt that the holy father was not in his wonted health; Marcus added that the disorder had resulted from the visit of the king. After Totila's departure, Benedict had passed hours in solitary prayer, until a faintness came upon him, from which he could not yet recover. Basil was turning away sadly, when the monk touched his arm, and said in a troubled voice:
'Many times he has spoken of you, dear brother.'
'Would,' replied Basil, 'that I were worthy of his thoughts.'
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