Veranilda by George Gissing
Chapter XXII. Doom
When Marcian parted from Veranilda in the peristyle, and watched her as she ascended to her chamber, he knew that sombre exultation which follows upon triumph in evil. Hesitancies were now at end; no longer could he be distracted between two desires. In his eye, as it pursued the beauty for which he had damned himself, glowed the fire of an unholy joy. Not without inner detriment had Marcian accustomed himself for years to wear a double face; though his purpose had been pure, the habit of assiduous perfidy, of elaborate falsehood, could not leave his soul untainted. A traitor now for his own ends, he found himself moving in no unfamiliar element, and, the irrevocable words once uttered, he thrilled with defiance of rebuke. All the persistency of the man centred itself upon the achievement of this crime, to him a crime no longer from the instant that he had irreversibly willed it.
On fire to his finger-tips, he could yet reason with the coldest clarity of thought. Having betrayed his friend thus far, he must needs betray him to the extremity of traitorhood; must stand face to face with him in the presence of the noble Totila, and accuse him even as he had done to Veranilda. Only thus, as things had come about, could he assure himself against the fear that Totila, in generosity, or policy, or both, might give the Amal-descended maid to Basil. To defeat Basil's love was his prime end, jealousy being more instant with him than fleshly impulse. Yet so strong had this second motive now become, that he all but regretted his message to the king: to hold Veranilda in his power, to gratify his passion sooner or later, by this means or by that, he would perhaps have risked all the danger to which such audacity exposed him. But Marcian was not lust-bitten quite to madness. For the present, enough to ruin the hopes of Basil. This done, the field for his own attempt lay open. By skilful use of his advantages, he might bring it to pass that Totila would grant him a supreme reward--the hand of Veranilda.
Unless, indeed, the young king, young and warm-blooded however noble of mind, should himself look upon Veranilda with a lover's eyes. It was not the first time that Marcian had thought of this. It made him wince. But he reminded himself that herein lay another safeguard against the happiness of Basil, and so was able to disregard the fear.
He would let his victim repose during the heat of the day, and then, towards evening, would summon her to another interview. Not much longer could he hope to be with her in privacy; to-morrow, or the next day at latest, emissaries of the Gothic king would come in response to his letter. But this evening he should speak with her, gaze upon her, for a long, long hour. She was gentle, meek, pious; in everything the exquisite antithesis of such a woman as Heliodora. Out of very humility she allowed herself to believe that Basil had ceased to love her. How persuade her, against the pure loyalty of her heart, that he had even plotted her surrender to an unknown fate? What proof of that could he devise? Did he succeed in overcoming her doubts, would he not have gone far towards winning her gratitude?
She would shed tears again; it gave him a nameless pleasure to see Veranilda weep.
Thinking thus, he strayed aimlessly and unconsciously in courts and corridors. Night would come again, and could he trust himself through the long, still night after long speech with Veranilda? A blacker thought than any he had yet nurtured began to stir in his mind, raising its head like the viper of an hour ago. Were she but his--his irredeemably? He tried to see beyond that, but his vision blurred.
Her nature was gentle, timid; the kind of nature, he thought, which subdues itself to the irreparable. So soft, so sweet, so utterly woman, might she not, thinking herself abandoned by Basil, yield heart and soul to a man whom she saw helpless to resist a passionate love of her? Or, if this hope deceived him, was there no artifice with which to cover his ill-doing, no piece of guile subtle enough to cloak such daring infamy?
He was in the atrium, standing on the spot where first he had talked with her. As then, he gazed at the bronze group of the candelabrum; his eyes were fixed on those of Proserpine.
A slave entered and announced to him a visit from one of the priests whom he was going to see when the meeting at the bridge changed his purpose. The name startled him. Was this man sent by God? He bade introduce the visitor, and in a moment there entered a white-bearded, shoulder-bowed ecclesiastic, perspiring from the sunshine, who greeted him with pleasant cordiality. This priest it was--he bore the name Gaudiosus--who had baptized Marcian, and had given him in childhood religious teaching; a good, but timid man, at all times readier to praise than to reprove, a well-meaning utterer of smooth things, closing his eyes to evil, which confused rather than offended him. From the same newsbearer, who told him of Marcian's arrival at the villa, Gaudiosus had heard of a mysterious lady; but it was far from his thought to meddle with the morals of one whose noble birth and hereditary position of patron inspired him with respect; he came only to gossip about the affairs of the time. They sat down together, Marcian glad of the distraction. But scarce had they been talking for five minutes, when again the servant presented himself.
'What now?' asked his master impatiently.
'My lord, at the gate is the lord Basil.'
Marcian started up.
'Basil? How equipped and attended?'
'Armed, on horseback, and with a number of armed horsemen.'
'Withdraw, and wait outside till I call you.'
Marcian turned to the presbyter. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes strangely bright.
'Here,' he said, in low, hurried tones, 'comes an evil man, a deep-dyed traitor, with the aspect of friendliest integrity. I am glad you are with me. I have no leisure now to tell you the story; you shall hear it afterwards. What I ask of you, reverend father, is to bear me out in all I say, to corroborate, if asked to do so, all I state to him. You may rely upon the truth of every word I shall utter; and may be assured that, in doing this, you serve only the 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.
'Not yours was it to take vengeance. The God to whom you appeal has said: "Thou shalt do no murder."'
'Consider his crime,' returned the other. 'In the moment when he swore falsely I lifted up my eyes, and behold, she herself stood before me. She whom I loved, who had pledged herself to me, who long ago would have been my wife but for the enemy who came between us-- she, hidden here with him, become a wanton in his embraces--'
A low cry of anguish interrupted him. He turned. Veranilda had risen and drawn near.
'Basil! You know not what you say.'
'Nor what I could say,' he replied, his eyes blazing with scorn. 'You, who were truth itself have you so well learned to lie? Talk on. Tell me that he held you here perforce, and that you passed the days and the nights in weeping. Have I not heard of your smiles and your contentment? Whither did you stray this morning? Did you go into the wood to say your orisons?'
Veranilda turned to the priest.
'Servant of God I Hear me, unhappy that I am!'
With a gesture of entreaty she flung out her hands, and, in doing so, saw that one of them was red. Her woebegone look changed to terror.
'What is this? His blood is upon me--on my hand, my garment. When did I touch him? Holy father, whither has he gone? Does he live? Oh, tell me if he lives!'
'Come hence with me,' said Gaudiosus. 'Come where I may hear you utter the truth before God.'
But Veranilda was as one distraught. She threw herself on to her knees.
'Tell me he lives. He is but sorely hurt? He can speak? Whither have they carried him?'
Confirmed in his damning thought by every syllable she uttered, Basil strode away.
'Lead her where you will,' he shouted. 'I stay under this abhorred roof only till my men have eaten and taken rest.'
Without knowing it, he had stepped into the pool of blood, and a red track was left behind him as he went forth from the hall.