Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XXI. The Betrayer Betrayed
Sagaris, making his best speed, soon arrived at Aquinum. He and his horse were bathed in sweat; the shelter of an inn, where he had dinner, tempted him to linger more than he need have done, and the fierce sun was already declining when he rode forth along the Latin Way. As yet he had seen no Goths. Every one talked of Totila, but he had a difficulty in ascertaining where at this moment the king was to be found; some declared he was as near as Venafrum, others that he lay much further down the valley of the Vulturnus. Arrived at Venafrum, the messenger learnt that he could not have less than another whole day's journey before him, so here be harboured for the night.
His wily and unscrupulous mind had all day long been busy with speculations as to the errand on which he was sent. Knowing that his master wrote to Goths in the Gothic tongue, he was spared temptation to break open the letter he carried; otherwise he would assuredly have done so, for the hatred which Sagaris naturally felt for any one in authority over him was now envenomed by jealousy, and for the last month or two he had only waited an opportunity of injuring Marcian and of advancing, by the same stroke, his own fortunes.
Having started from Rome in ignorance of his master's purpose, the events of the night at Praeneste at once suggested to him the name of the person who was being so cautiously and hurriedly conveyed under Marcian's guard, and by the end of the journey he had no doubt left. Here, at last, was the Gothic maiden who had been sought so persistently by Marcian, by Basil, by Bessas, by Heliodora, and doubtless by many others, since her disappearance from Surrentum. Whither was she now being conducted? Sagaris did not know that among her seekers was King Totila himself; on the other hand, he had much reason for suspecting that Marcian pursued Veranilda with a lover's passion, and when the journey ended at the island villa, when the convoy of horsemen was dismissed, when he himself was sent off to a distance, he saw his suspicion confirmed. By some supreme subtlety, Marcian had got the beautiful maiden into his power, and doubtless the letter he was sending to Totila contained some device for the concealing of what had happened.
Now to the Syrian this would have been a matter of indifference, but for his secret communications with Heliodora and all that had resulted therefrom. Heliodora's talk was of three persons--of Marcian, of Basil, of Veranilda--and Sagaris, reasoning from all the gossip he had heard, and from all he certainly knew, concluded that the Greek lady had once loved Basil, but did so no more, that her love had turned to Marcian, and that she either knew or suspected Marcian to be a rival of Basil for the love of Veranilda. Thus had matters stood (he persuaded himself) until his own entrance on the scene. That a woman might look with ardent eyes on more than one man in the same moment, seemed to Sagaris the simplest of facts; he consequently found it easy to believe that, even whilst loving Marcian, Heliodora should have conceived a tenderness for Marcian's slave. That Heliodora's professions might be mere trickery, he never imagined; his vanity forbade it; at each successive meeting he seemed to himself to have strengthened his hold upon the luxurious woman; each time he came away with a fiercer hatred of Marcian, and a deeper resolve to ruin him. True, as yet, he had fed only on promises, but being the man he was, he could attribute to Heliodora a selfish interest in combination with a lover's desire; what more intelligible than that she should use him to the utmost against those she hated, postponing his reward until he had rendered her substantial service? Thus did Sagaris feel and reason, whilst riding along the Latin Way. His difficulty was to decide how he should act at this juncture; how, with greatest profit to himself, he could do most scathe to Marcian.
Was his master serving the Greeks or the Goths? Uncertainty on this point had long troubled his meditations, and was now a cause of grave embarrassment. Eager to betray, he could not be sure to which side betrayal should direct itself. On the whole he himself favoured Totila, feeling sure that the Goth would bring the war to a triumphant end; and on this account he was disposed to do his errand faithfully. If the king interrogated him, he could draw conclusions from the questions asked, and could answer as seemed best for his own ends. So he decided to push on, and, despite the storm which broke on this second morning, he rode out from Venafrum.
A few hours' travel, and, drenched with the furious rain, he came to Aesernia. This town stood in a strong position on an isolated hill; its massive walls yet compassed it about. On arriving at the gate he found himself unexpectedly challenged by armed men, who, though Italians, he at once suspected to be in the Gothic service. A moment's hesitancy in replying to the questions, 'Whence?' and 'Whither?' sufficed to put him under arrest. He was led to the captain, in whom with relief he recognised Venantius of Nuceria. His doubts being at an end, for he knew that this Roman noble had long since openly joined Totila, he begged that Venantius would hear him in private, and this being granted, began by telling in whose service he was.
'I thought I somehow remembered your face,' said the captain, whose look seemed to add that the face did not particularly please him. 'And where is the lord Marcian?'
'In Rome, Illustrious.'
'You have come straight from Rome, then?'
The answer was affirmative and boldly given.
'And whither are you bound? On what business?'
Sagaris, still obeying his master's injunctions, declared that he carried a verbal message to the King of the Goths, and for him alone. Having reflected for a moment, Venantius called the soldier who stood without the door.
'See to the wants of this messenger. Treat him hospitably, and bring him hither again in an hour's time.'
The captain then walked to a house close by, where, admitted to the atrium, he was at once met by an elderly lady, who bent respectfully before him.
'Has the traveller yet risen?' he began by asking.
'Not yet, my lord. A little while ago his servant told me that he was still sleeping.'
'Good; he will recover from his fatigue. But pray inquire whether he is now awake, for I would speak with him as soon as may be.'
The lady was absent for a minute or two, then brought word that the traveller had just awoke.
'I will go to his bedside,' said Venantius.
He was led to an upper chamber, a small, bare, tiled-floored room, lighted by a foot-square window, on which the shutter was half closed against the rays of the sun. Some aromatic odour hung in the air.
'Do you feel able to talk?' asked the captain as he entered.
'I am quite restored,' was the reply of a man sitting up in the bed. 'The fever has passed.'
'So much for the wisdom of physicians!' exclaimed Venantius with a laugh. 'That owl-eyed Aesernian who swears by Aesculapius that he has studied at Constantinople, Antioch, and I know not where else, whispered to me that you would never behold to-day's sunset. I whispered to him that he was an ass, and that if he uttered the word plague to any one in the house, I would cut his ears off. Nevertheless, I had you put into this out-of-the-way room, that you might not be disturbed by noises. Who'--he sniffed--'has been burning perfumes?'
'My good fellow Felix. Though travel-worn and wounded, he has sat by me all the time, and would only go to bed when I woke up with a cool forehead.'
'A good fellow, indeed. His face spells honesty. I can't say so much for that of a man I have just been talking with--a messenger of your friend Marcian.'
The listener started as though he would leap out of bed. A rush of colour to his cheeks banished the heavy, wan aspect which had partly disguised him, and restored the comely visage of Basil. A messenger from Marcian? he exclaimed. With news for him? And, as if expecting a letter, he stretched forth his hand eagerly.
'He has nothing, that I know of, for you,' said the captain. 'If he tells the truth, he is charged with a message for the king.'
'Is it Sagaris--a Syrian slave?'
'A Syrian, by his looks; one I remember to have seen with Marcian a year ago.'
'Sagaris, to be sure. Then you can trust him. He has the eye of his race, and is a prating braggart, but Marcian has found him honest. I must see him, Venantius. Will you send him to me, dear lord?'
Venantius had seated himself on a chair that was beside the bed; he wore a dubious look, and, before speaking again, glanced keenly at Basil.
'Did you not expect,' he asked, 'to meet Marcian in the king's camp?'
'My last news from him bade me go thither as fast as I could, as he himself was leaving Rome to join the king. I should have gone a little out of my road to visit his villa near Arpinum, on the chance of hearing news of him there; but our encounter with the marauders drove me too far away.'
'So much,' said Venantius, 'I gathered from your talk last night, when you were not quite so clear-headed as you are now. What I want to discover is whether this Syrian has lied to me. He declares that he left Marcian in Rome. Now it happens that some of our men, who were sent for a certain purpose, yesterday, along the Latin Way, came across half a dozen horsemen, riding westward, and as their duty was, learnt all they could from them. These six fellows declared themselves servants of the bishop of Praeneste, and said that they had just been convoying a Roman noble and a lady to a villa not far from Arpinum. And the noble's name--they had it, said they, from his own servants at the villa, where they had passed a night--was Marcian.'
Basil stared; he had gone pale again and haggard.
'What lady was with him?' he asked, under his breath.
'That I cannot tell you. The bishop's men knew nothing about her, and had not seen her face. But'--Venantius smiled--'they left her safely housed with our friend Marcian. How comes this Syrian to say that his master is at Rome? Does he lie? Or did the horsemen lie? Or are there, perchance, two Marcians?'
'I must speak with him,' said Basil. 'Leave me to find out the truth for you. Send Sagaris here, Venantius, I entreat you.'
The captain appeared to hesitate, but, on Basil's beseeching him not to delay, he agreed and left the room. As soon as he was alone, Basil sprang up and dressed. He was aching from head to foot, and a parched mouth, a hot hand, told of fever in his blood. On receipt of Marcian's last letter, he had not delayed a day before setting forth; all was in readiness for such a summons, and thirty well-mounted, well-armed men, chosen from the slaves and freedmen on his Asculan estate in Picenum, rode after him to join the King of the Goths. The journey was rapidly performed; already they were descending the lower slopes of the westward Apennine, when they had the ill-luck to fall in with that same band of marauders which Marcian so narrowly escaped. Basil's first thought was that the mounted troop coming towards him might hem the Gothic service, but this hope was soon dispelled. Advancing with fierce threats, the robbers commanded him and his men to alight, their chief desire being no doubt to seize the horses and arms. Though outnumbered, Basil shouted defiance; a conflict began, and so stout was the resistance they met that, after several had fallen on either side, the brigands drew off. Not, however, in final retreat; galloping on in hope of succour, Basil found himself pursued, again lost two or three men, and only with the utmost difficulty got clear away.
It was the young Roman's first experience of combat. For this he had been preparing himself during the past months, exercising his body and striving to invigorate his mind, little apt for warlike enterprise. When the trial came, his courage did not fail, but the violent emotions of that day left him so exhausted, so shaken in nerve, that he could scarce continue his journey. He had come out of the fight unwounded, but at nightfall fever fell upon him, and he found no rest. The loss of some half dozen men grieved him to the heart; had the brave fellows fallen in battle with the Greeks, he would have thought less of it; to see them slain, or captured, by mere brigands was more than he could bear. When at length he reached Aesernia, and there unexpectedly met with Venantius, he fell from his horse like a dying man. A draught given by the physician sent him to sleep, and from the second hour after sunset until nearly noon of to-day he had lain unconscious.
What he now learnt from Venantius swept into oblivion all that he had undergone. If it were true that Marcian had travelled in this direction with a lady under his guard, Basil could not doubt for a moment who that lady was. The jest of Venantius did not touch him, for Venantius spoke, it was evident, without a thought of Veranilda, perhaps had forgotten her existence; not the faintest tremor of uneasiness stirred in Basil's mind when he imagined Veranilda at his friend's house; Marcian had discovered her, had rescued her, had brought her thither to rest in safety till her lover could join them--brave Marcian, truest of friends! For this had he sent the summons southward, perhaps not daring to speak more plainly in a letter, perhaps not being yet quite sure of success. This had he so often promised--O gallant Marcian!
Quivering with eagerness, he stood at the door of his chamber. Footsteps sounded; there appeared a slave of the house, and behind him that dark, handsome visage which he was expecting.
'Sagaris! My good Sagaris!' he cried joyously.
The Syrian knelt before him and kissed his hand, but uttered no word. At sight of Basil, for which he was not at all prepared, Sagaris felt a happy shock; he now saw his way before him, and had no more anxiety. But, on rising from the obeisance, he let his head drop; his eyes wandered: one would have said that he shrank from observation.
'Speak low,' said Basil, standing by the open door so as to guard against eavesdropping. 'What message have you for me?'
Sagaris replied that he had none.
'None? Your lord charged you with nothing for me in case you should meet me on your way?'
Again Sagaris murmured a negative, and this time with so manifest an air of confusion that Basil stared at him, suspicious, angry.
'What do you mean? What are you keeping from me?'
The man appeared to stammer incoherencies.
'Listen,' said Basil in a low, friendly voice. 'You know very well that the lord Marcian has no secrets from me. With me you can speak in entire confidence. What has come to you, man? Tell me--did your lord leave Rome before or after you?'
'At the same time.'
No sooner had this reply fallen from his lips than Sagaris seemed stricken with alarm. He entreated pardon, declared he knew not what he was saying, that he was dazed by the weariness of travel.
'I should have said--neither before nor after. My lord remains in the city. I was to return with all speed.'
'He remains in the city?'
Basil reflected. It was possible that Marcian had either purposely concealed his journey from this slave, and had suddenly found himself able to set forth just after Sagaris had started.
'You bear a letter for the king?' he asked.
'A letter, Illustrious,' answered the slave, speaking very low.
'Ah, a letter?'
Sagaris went on to say that he had kept this a secret from Venantius, his master having bidden him speak of it to no one and deliver it into the king's own hand.
'It is in the Gothic tongue,' he added, his head bent, his look more furtive than ever; 'and so urgent that I have scarce rested an hour since leaving the villa.'
A terrible light flashed into Basil's eyes. Then he sprang at the speaker, caught him by the throat, forced him to his knees.
'Scoundrel, you dare to lie to me! So you started from the villa and not from Rome?'
Sagaris cried out for mercy, grovelled on the floor. He would tell everything; but he implored Basil to keep the secret, for, did his master learn what had happened, his punishment would be terrible.
'Fool!' cried Basil fiercely. 'How come you to have forgotten all at once that I am your lord's chosen friend, and that everything concerning him is safe with me. In very deed, I think you have ridden too hard in the sun; your brains must have frizzled. Blockhead! If in haste, the lord Marcian did not speak of me, he took it for granted that, should you meet me--'
Something so like a malicious smile flitted over the slave's countenance that in extremity of wrath he became mute.
'Your Nobility is deceived,' said Sagaris, in the same moment. 'My lord expressly forbade me to tell you the truth, should I see you on my journey.'
Basil stared at him.
'I swear by the holy Cross,' exclaimed the other, 'that this is true. And if I did not dread your anger, I could tell you the reason. I dare not. By all the saints I dare not!'
A strange quiet fell upon Basil. It seemed as if he would ask no more questions; he half turned away, and stood musing. Indeed, it was as though he had already heard all the slave had to tell, and so overcome was he by the revelation that speech, even connected thought, was at first impossible. As he recovered from the stupefying blow, the blood began to boil in his veins. He felt as when, in the fight of two days ago, he saw the first of his men pierced by a javelin. Turning again to Sagaris, he plied him with brief and rapid questions, till he had learnt every detail of Marcian's journey from Rome to the villa. The Syrian spoke of the veiled lady without hesitation as Veranilda, and pretended to have known for some time that she was in a convent at Praeneste; but, when interrogated as to her life at the villa, he affected an affectation of doubt, murmuring that he had beheld nothing with his own eyes, that perhaps the female slaves gossiped idly.
'What do they say?' asked Basil with unnatural self-control.
'They speak of her happy mien and gay talk, of her walking with my lord in private. But I know nothing.'
Basil kept his eyes down for a long minute, then moved like one who has taken a resolve.
'Show me the letter you bear,' he commanded.
Sagaris produced it, and having looked at the seal, Basil silently handed it back again.
'Thrice noble,' pleaded the slave, 'you will not deliver me to my lord's wrath?'
'Have no fear; unless in anything you have lied to me. Follow.'
They descended the stairs, and Basil had himself conducted to the house where Venantius sate at dinner. He spoke with the captain in private.
'This slave has a letter, not merely a message, for the king. He says it is urgent, and so it may be; but, from what I have learnt I doubt whether he is wholly to be trusted. Can you send some one with him?'
'I,' continued Basil, 'ride straightway for Arpinum. Ask me no questions, Venantius. When I return, if I do return, you shall know what sent me there. I may be back speedily.'
He took food, and in an hour's time was ready to start. Of his followers, he chose ten to accompany him. The rest remained at Aesernia. Felix, worn out by watching and with a slight wound in the side which began to be troublesome, he was reluctantly obliged to leave. Having inquired as to the road over the mountains by which he might reach Arpinum more quickly than by the Latin Way, he rode forth from the town, and was soon spurring at headlong speed in a cloud of dust.
His thoughts far outstripped him; he raged at the prospect of long hours to elapse ere he could reach Marcian's villa. With good luck he might arrive before nightfall. If disappointed in that, a whole night must pass, an eternity of torment, before he came face to face with him he had called his dearest friend, now his abhorred enemy.
What if he did not find him at the villa? Marcian had perhaps no intention of remaining there. Perhaps he had already carried off his victim to some other place.
Seeing their lord post so furiously, the men looked in wonder at each other. Some of them were soon left far behind, and Basil, though merciless in his frenzy, saw at length that his horse was seriously distressed; he slackened pace, allowed his followers to rejoin him, and rode, perforce, at what seemed to him a mere crawl. The sun was a flaming furnace; the earth seemed to be overspread with white fire-ash, which dazed the eyes and choked. But Basil felt only the fire in his heart and brain. Forgetful of all about him, he had not ridden more than a few miles, when he missed the road; his men, ignorant of the country, followed him without hesitation, and so it happened that, on stopping at one of the few farms on their way, to ask how far it still was to Arpinum, he learnt that he must ride back for nearly a couple of hours to regain the track he should have taken. He broke into frantic rage, cursed the countrymen who directed him, and as he spurred his beast, cursed it too because of its stumbling at a stone.
There was now no hope of finishing the journey to-day. His head on his breast, Basil rode more and more slowly. The sun declined, and ere long it would be necessary to seek harbourage. But here among the hills no place of human habitation came in view. Luckily for themselves some of the horsemen had brought provender. Their lord had given thought to no such thing. The sun set; the hills cast a thickening shadow, even Basil began to gaze uneasily ahead. At length there appeared a building, looking in the dusky distance like a solitary country house. It proved to be the ruin of a temple.
'Here we must stop,' said Basil. 'My horse can go no further. Indeed, the darkness would stay us in any case. We must shelter in these walls.'
The men peered at each other, and a whisper went among them. For their part, said one and all, they would rest under the open sky. Basil understood.
'What! you are afraid? Fools, do as you will. These walls shall shelter me though all the devils in hell were my bedfellows.'
What had come to him? asked his followers. Never had Basil been known to speak thus. Spite of their horror of a forsaken temple, two or three entered, and respectfully made offer of such food as they had with them. Basil accepted a piece of bread, bade them see to his horse, and crept into a corner of the building. He desired to be alone and to think; for it seemed to him that he had not yet been able to reflect upon the story told by Sagaris. What was it that lurked there at the back of his mind? A memory, a suggestion of some sort, which would have helped him to understand could he but grasp it. As he munched his bread he tried desperately to think, to remember; but all within him was a passionate misery, capable only of groans and curses. An intolerable weariness possessed his limbs. After sitting for a while with his back against the wall, he could not longer hold himself in this position, but sank down and lay at full length; and even so he ached, ached, from head to foot.
Perhaps an hour had passed, and it was now quite dark within the temple, when two of the men appeared with blazing torches, for they, by means of flint and iron, had lit a fire in a hollow hard by, and meant to keep it up through the night as a protection against wolves. They brought Basil a draught of water in a leather bottle, from a little stream they had found; and he drank gratefully, but without a word. The torchlight showed bare walls and a shattered roof. Having searched all round and discovered neither reptile nor beast, the men made a bed of leaves and bracken, with a folded cloak for a pillow, and invited their master to lie upon it. Basil did so, turned his face away, and bade them leave him alone.
What was that memory at the back of his mind? In the effort to draw it forth he ground his teeth together, dug his nails into his hands. At moments he forgot why he was wretched, and, starting up, strained his eyes into the darkness, until he saw the face of Sagaris and heard him speaking.
For a while he slept; but dreadful dreams soon awoke him, and, remembering where he was, he shook with horror. Low sounds fell upon his ear, movements, he thought, in the black night. He would have shouted to his men, but shame kept him mute. He crossed himself and prayed to the Virgin; then, raising his eyes, he saw through the broken roof a space of sky in which a star shone brilliantly. It brought him comfort; but the next moment he remembered Sagaris, and mental anguish blended with his fears of the invisible.
Again sleep overcame him. He dreamt that an evil spirit, with a face he knew but could not name, was pursuing him over trackless mountains. He fled like the wind; but the spirit was close behind him, and wherever he turned his head, he saw the familiar face grinning a devilish mockery. A precipice lay before him. He leapt wildly, and knew at once that he had leapt into fire, into hell. But the red gleam was that of a torch, and before him, as he opened his eyes, stood one of his faithful attendants who had come to see if all was well with him. He asked for water, and the man fetched him a draught. It was yet long till dawn.
Now he could not lie still, for fever burned him. Though awake, he saw visions, and once sent forth what seemed to him a yell of terror; but in truth it was only a moan, and no one heard. He relived through the fight with the marauders; sickened with dread at the gleam of weapons; flamed into fury, and shouted with savage exultation as he felt his sword cut the neck of an enemy. He was trying to think of Veranilda, but all through the night her image eluded him, and her name left him cold. He was capable only of hatred. At daybreak he slept heavily; the men, approaching him and looking at his haggard face, thought better to let him rest, and only after sunrise did he awake. He was angry that they had not aroused him sooner, got speedily to horse, and rode off almost at the same speed as yesterday. Now, at all events, he drew near to his goal; for a ride of an hour or two he needed not to spare his beast; sternly he called to his men to follow him close.
And all at once, as though his brain were restored by the freshness of the morning, he grasped the thought which had eluded him. Marcian's treachery was no new thing: twice he had been warned against his seeming friend, by Petronilla and by Bessas, and in his folly he had scorned the accusation which time had now so bitterly justified. Forgotten, utterly forgotten, until this moment; yet how blinded he must have been by his faith in Marcian's loyalty not to have reflected upon many circumstances prompting suspicion. Marcian had perhaps been false to him from the very day of Veranilda's disappearance, and how far did his perfidy extend? Had he merely known where she was concealed, or had he seen her, spoken with her, wooed her all along? He had won her; so much was plain; and he could scarce have done so during the brief journey to his villa. O villainous Marcian! O fickle, wanton Veranilda!
So distinct before his fiery imagination shone the image of those two laughing together, walking alone (as Sagaris had reported), that all reasoning, such as a calmer man might have entertained, was utterly forbidden. Not a doubt crossed his mind. And in his heart was no desire but of vengeance.
At length he drew near to Arpinum. Avoiding the town, he questioned a peasant at work in the fields, and learnt his way to the island. Just as he came within view of the eastward waterfall, a girl was crossing the bridge, away from the villa. Basil drew rein, bidding his men do likewise, and let the girl, who had a bundle on her head, draw near. At sight of the horsemen, of whom she was not aware till close by them, the maid uttered a cry of alarm, and would have run back but Basil intercepted her, jumped from his horse, and bade her have no fear, as he only wished to ask a harmless question. Easily he learnt that Marcian was at the villa, that he had arrived a few days ago, and that with him had come a lady.
'What is that lady's name?' he inquired.
The girl did not know. Only one or two of the slaves, she said, had seen her; she was said to be beautiful, with long yellow hair.
'She never goes out?' asked Basil.
The reply was that, only this morning, she had walked in the wood-- the wood just across the bridge--with Marcian.
Basil sprang on to his horse, beckoned his troop, and rode forward.