Chapter XXIII. The Red Hand
 

Resting at length from desire and intrigue, Marcian lay cold upon the bed where he had passed his haunted nights. About his corpse were gathered all the servants of the house; men, with anger on their brows, muttering together, and women wailing low because of fear. The girl who had met the horsemen by the bridge told her story, whence it became evident that Marcian's death was the result of private quarrel; but some of the slaves declared that this armed company came in advance of the Gothic host; and presently the loss of their master was all but forgotten in anxiety as to their own fate at the hands of the Emperor.

This talk was interrupted by the approach of Basil's men, who came to seek a meal for themselves and forage for their horses. Having no choice but to obey, the servants went about the work required of them. A quiet fell upon the house. The strangers talked little, and, when they spoke, subdued their voices. In still chambers and corridors was heard now and then a sound of weeping.

Basil, though he had given orders for departure as soon as the meal was done, knew not whither his journey should be directed. A paralysis of thought and will kept him pacing alone in the courtyard; food he could not touch; of repose he was incapable; and though he constantly lifted up his bloodstained hand, to gaze at it as if in bewildered horror, he did not even think of washing the blood away. At moments he lost consciousness of what he had done, his mind straying to things remote; then the present came back upon him with a shock, seeming, however, to strike on numbed senses, so that he had to say to himself, 'I have slain Marcian,' before he could fully understand his suffering.

Veranilda was now scarce present to his mind at all. Something vaguely outlined hovered in the background; something he durst not look at or think about; the sole thing in the world that had reality for him was the image of Marcian--stabbed, shrieking, falling, dead. Every minute was the fearful scene re-enacted. More than once he checked himself in his walk, seeming to be about to step on Marcian's body.

At length, seeing a shadow draw near, he raised his eyes and beheld Gaudiosus. He tried to speak, but found that his tongue clave to the roof of his mouth. Automatically he crossed himself, then caught the priest's hand, and knelt and kissed it.

'Rise, my son,' said Gaudiosus, 'for I would talk with you.'

On one side of the courtyard was a portico with seats, and thither the old man led.

'Unless,' he began gravely, 'unless the author of all falsehood-- who is so powerful over women--has entered into this maiden to baffle and mislead me utterly, I feel assured that she is chaste; not merely unsullied in the flesh, but as pure of heart as her fallen nature may permit a woman to be.'

Basil gazed at him darkly.

'My father, how can you believe it? Did you not hear her lament because the man was dead? It is indeed the devil that beguiles you.'

Gaudiosus bent his head, and pondered anxiously.

'Tell me,' he said at length, 'all her story, that I may compare it with what I have heard from her own lips.'

Slowly at first, and confusedly, with hesitations, repetitions, long pauses, Basil recited the history of Veranilda, so far as he knew it. The priest listened and nodded, and when silence came, continued the narrative. If Veranilda spoke truth she had never seen Marcian until he took her from the convent at Praeneste. Moreover, Marcian had never uttered to her a word of love; in his house she had lived as chastely as among the holy sisters.

'What did she here, then?' asked Basil bitterly. 'Why did he bring her here? You know, O father, that it was not in fulfilment of his promise to me, for you heard his shameless lie when I questioned him.'

'He told her,' replied the priest, 'that she sojourned here only until he could put her under the protection of the Gothic King.'

'Of Totila?' cried Basil. 'Nay, for all I know, he may have thought of that--his passion being appeased.'

Even as he spoke be remembered Sagaris and the letter written in Gothic. Some motive of interest might, indeed, have prompted Marcian to this step. None the less was he Veranilda's lover. Would he otherwise have kept her here with him, alone, and not rather have continued the journey, with all speed, till he reached Totila's camp?

'When I left her,' pursued Gaudiosus, whose confidence in his own judgment was already shaken by the young man's vehemence, 'I spoke in private with certain of the bondswomen, who declared to me that they could avouch the maiden's innocence since her coming hither-- until to-day's sunrise.'

Basil laughed with scorn.

'Until to-day's sunrise? And pray, good father, what befell her at that moment? What whisper the Argus-eyed bondswomen?'

'They tell me,' replied the priest, 'that she went forth and met Marcian, and walked with him in a wood, her own woman having been sent back to the villa. This troubled me; but her voice, her countenance--'

'Helped by the devil,' broke in Basil. 'Reverend man, do not seek to deceive yourself, or to solace me with a vain hope. I pray you, did Marcian, when you came to visit him, speak of a lady whose virtue he was sworn to guard? Plainly, not a word fell from him. Yet assuredly he would have spoken had things been as you pretend.'

Gaudiosus, bent double, a hand propping his white-bearded chin, mused for a little with sadded air.

'Lord Basil,' he resumed at length, 'somewhat more have I to say to you. I live far from the world, and hear little of its rumour. Until this day your name was unknown to me, and of good concerning you I have to this hour heard nothing save from your own lips. May I credit this report you make of yourself? Or should I rather believe what Marcian, in brief words, declared to me when he heard that you were at his gate?'

The speaker paused, as if to collect courage.

'He spoke ill of me?' asked Basil.

'He spoke much ill. He accused you of disloyalty in friendship, saying that he had but newly learnt how you had deceived him. More than this he had not time to tell.'

Basil looked into the old man's rheumy eyes.

'You do well to utter this, good father. Tell me one thing more. Yonder maiden, does she breathe the same charge against me?'

'Not so,' replied Gaudiosus. 'Of you she said no evil.'

'Yet I scarce think'--he smiled coldly--'that she made profession of love for me?'

'My son, her speech was maidenly. She spoke of herself as erstwhile your betrothed; no more than that.'

As he uttered these words, the priest rose. He had an uneasy look, as if he feared that infirmity of will and fondness for gossip had betrayed him into some neglect of spiritual obligation.

'It is better,' he said, 'that we should converse no more. I know not what your purposes may be, nor do they concern me I remain here to pray by the dead, and I shall despatch a messenger to my brother presbyter, that we may prepare for the burial. Remember,' he raised his head, and his voice struck a deeper note, 'that the guilt of blood is upon you, and that no plea of earthly passion will avail before the Almighty Judge. Behold your hand--even so, but far more deeply have you stained your soul.'

Basil scarce heard. Numbness had crept over him again; he stared at the doorway by which the priest re-entered the house, and only after some minutes recalled enough of the old man's last words to look upon his defiled hand. Then he called aloud, summoning any slave who might hear him, and when the doorkeeper came timidly from a recess where he had been skulking, bade him bring water. Having cleansed himself, he walked by an outer way to the rear of the villa; for he durst not pass through the atrium.

Here his men were busy over their meal, sitting or sprawling in a shadowed place, the slaves waiting upon them. With a reminder that they must hold themselves ready to ride at any moment, he passed on through a large, wild garden, and at length, where a grove of box-trees surrounded the ruins of a little summer-house, cast himself to the ground.

His breast heaved, his eyes swelled and smarted, but he could not shed tears. Face downwards, like a man who bites the earth in his last agony, he lay quivering. So did an hour or more pass by.

He was roused by the voices of his men, who were searching and calling for him. With an effort, he rose to his feet, and stepped out into the sunshine, when he learnt that a troop of soldiers had just ridden up to the villa, and that their captain, who had already entered, was asking for him by name. Careless what might await him, Basil followed the men as far as the inner court, and there stood Venantius.

'I surprise you,' cried out the genial voice with a cheery laugh. You had five hours start of me. Pray, dear lord, when did you get here?'

Basil could make no reply, and the other, closely observing his strange countenance, went on to explain that, scarcely started from Aesernia on his way to the king, Marcian's messenger had met with Totila himself, who was nearer than had been thought. After reading the letter, Totila had come on rapidly to Aesernia, and had forthwith despatched Venantius to the villa by Arpinum.

'You guess my mission, lord Basil,' he pursued, with bluff good-humour. 'Dullard that I was, the talk of a fair lady travelling in Marcian's charge never brought to my mind that old story of Surrentum. Here is our royal Totila all eagerness to see this maiden--if maiden still she be. What say you on that point, dear lord? Nay, look not so fiercely at me. I am not here to call any one to account, but only to see that the Gothic beauty comes safe to Aesernia as soon as may be.'

'You will find her within,' muttered Basil.

'And Marcian? I might have thought I came inopportunely to this dwelling, but that he himself wrote to the king that the lady was here.'

'You are assured of that?' Basil asked, under his breath.

'I have Totila's word for it, at all events. But you seem indisposed for talk, lord Basil, and my business is with Marcian. The slaves all look scared, and can't or won't answer a plain question. I have no time to waste. Tell me, I pray you, where the lord of the villa may be found.'

Basil summoned one of his followers.

'Conduct the lord Venantius to Marcian's chamber.'

It was done. Basil remained standing in the same spot, his eyes cast down, till a quick step announced the captain's return. Venantius came close up to him, and spoke in a grave but not unfriendly voice:

'The priest has told me what he saw, but will not say more. I ask you nothing, lord Basil. You will make your defence to the king.'

'Be it so.'

'My men must rest for an hour,' continued Venantius. 'We shall ride this afternoon as far as Aquinum, and there pass the night. I go now to speak with Veranilda.'

'As you will.'

Basil withdrew into the portico, sat down, and covered his face with his hands. Fever consumed him, and a dreadful melancholy weighed upon his spirit. At a respectful distance from him, his followers had assembled, ready for departure. The soldiers who had come with Venantius, a score in number, were eating and drinking outside the gates. Within, all was quiet. Half an hour elapsed, and Venantius again came forward. Seeing Basil in the shadow of the portico, he went and sat beside him, and began to speak with rough but well-meaning solace. Why this heaviness? If he surmised aright, Basil had but avenged himself as any man would have done. For his own part, he had never thought enough of any woman to kill a man on her account; but such little troubles were of everyday occurrence, and must not be taken too much to heart. He had seen this Gothic damsel of whom there had been so much rumour, and, by Diana I (if the oath were not inappropriate) her face deserved all that was said of it. His rival being out of the way, why should not Basil pluck up cheer? Totila would not deal harshly in such a matter as this, and more likely than not he would be disposed to give the maiden to a Roman of noble race, his great desire being to win all Romans by generosity.

'Yonder priest tells me,' he added, 'that you were over hasty; that you struck on a mere suspicion. And methinks he may be right. By the Holy Cross, I could well believe this maiden a maiden in very deed. I never looked upon a purer brow, an eye that spoke more innocently. Hark ye, my good Basil, I am told that you have not spoken with her. If you would fain do so before we set forth, I will be no hinderer. Go, if you will, into yonder room'--he pointed to a door near by--' and when she descends (I have but to call), you shall see her undisturbed.'

For a moment Basil sat motionless; then, without a word, he rose and went whither Venantius directed him. But a few minutes passed before he saw Veranilda enter. She was clad for travel, a veil over her face; this, and the shadow in which Basil stood, made her at first unaware of his presence, for Venantius had only requested her to enter this room until the carriage was ready. Standing with bowed head, she sobbed.

'Why do you weep?' demanded an abrupt voice, which made her draw back trembling.

Basil moved a little towards her.

'You weep for him?' he added in the same pitiless tone.

'For him, for you, and for myself, alas! alas!'

The subdued anguish of her voice did not touch Basil. He burned with hatred of her and of the dead man.

'Shed no tears for me. I am cured of a long folly. And for you consolation will not be slow in coming. Who knows but you may throw your spell upon Totila himself.'

'You know not what you say,' replied Veranilda; not, as when she used the words before, in accents quivering from a stricken heart, but with sorrowful dignity and self-command. 'Is it Basil who speaks thus? Were it only the wrong done me that I had to bear, I could keep silence, waiting until God restored your justice and your gentleness. But, though in nothing blameworthy, I am the cause of what has come about; for had I not entered that room when I did, you would not have struck the fatal blow. Listen then, O Basil, whilst I make known to you what happened before you came.'

She paused to control herself.

'I must go back to the night when I left the convent. No one had told me I was to go away. In the middle of the night I was aroused and led forth, with me the woman who served me. We had travelled an hour or two, perhaps, when some one standing by the carriage spoke to me, some one who said he was Marcian the friend of Basil, and bade me have no fears, for Basil awaited me at the end of the journey. The next day he spoke to me again, this time face to face, but only a few words. We came to this villa. You have been told, by I know not whom, that I was light of heart. It is true, for I believed what Marcian had said to me, and nothing had befallen to disturb my gladness. I lived with my serving woman privately, in quiet and hope. This morning, yielding, alas! to a wish which I thought harmless, I went forth with my attendant to the waterfall. As I stood gazing at it, the lord Marcian came forth on horseback. He alighted to speak with me, and presently asked if I would go to see another fall of the river, across the island. I consented. As we went, he dismissed my servant, and I did not know what he had done (thinking she still followed), until, when we were in a wood at the water's edge, I could no longer see the woman, and Marcian told me he had bidden her go to fetch seats for us. Then he began to speak, and what he said, how shall I tell you?'

There was another brief silence. Basil did not stir; his eyes were bent sternly upon the veiled visage.

'Was it evil in his heart that shaped such words? Or had he been deceived by some other? He said that Basil had forgotten me; that Basil loved, and would soon wed, a lady in Rome. More than that, he said that Basil was plotting to get me into his power, his purpose being to deliver me to the Greeks, who would take me to Constantinople. But Marcian, so he declared, had rescued me in time, and I was to be guarded by the King of the Goths.'

The listener moved, raising his arm and letting it fall again. But he breathed no word.

'This did he tell me,' she added. 'I went back to the villa to my chamber. I sat thinking, I know not how long; I know not how long. Then, unable to remain any longer alone, driven by my dreadful doubt, I came forth to seek Marcian. I descended the stairs to the atrium. You saw me--alas! alas!'

Basil drew nearer to her.

'He had spoken no word of love?'

'No word. I had no fear of that.'

'Why, then, did he frame these lies, these hellish lies?'

'Alas!' cried Veranilda, clasping her hands above her head. 'Did he still live, the truth might be discovered. His first words to me, in the night when he stood beside the carriage, sounded so kind and true; he named himself the friend of Basil, said that Basil awaited me at the journey's end. How could he speak so, if he indeed then thought you what he afterwards said? Oh, were he alive, to stand face to face with me again!'

'It is not enough,' asked Basil harshly, 'that I tell you he lied?'

She did not on the instant reply, and he, possessed with unreasoning bitterness, talked wildly on.

'No! You believed him, and believe him still. I can well fancy that he spoke honestly at first; but when he had looked into your face, when he had talked with you, something tempted him to villainy. Go! Your tears and your lamentations betray you. It is not of me that you think, but of him, him, only him! "Oh, were he alive!" Ay, keep your face bidden; you know too well it could not bear my eyes upon it.'

Veranilda threw back the long veil, and stood looking at him.

'Eyes red with weeping,' he exclaimed, 'and for whom? If you were true to me, would you not rejoice that I had slain my enemy? You say you were joyful in the thought of seeing me again? You see me--and with what countenance?'

'I see not Basil,' she murmured, her hands upon her breast.

'You see a false lover, an ignoble traitor--the Basil shown you by Marcian. What would it avail me to speak in my own defence? His voice is in your ears, its lightest tone outweighing my most solemn oath. "Oh, that he were alive!" That is all you find to say to me.'

'I know you not,' sobbed Veranilda. 'Alas, I know you not!'

'Nor I you. I dreamt of a Veranilda who loved so purely and so constantly that not a thousand slanderers could have touched her heart with a shadow of mistrust. But who are you--you whom the first gross lie of a man lusting for your beauty utterly estranges from your faith? Who are you--who wail for the liar's death, and shrink in horror from the hand that slew him? I ever heard that the daughters of the Goths were chaste and true and fearless. So they may be--all but one, whose birth marked her for faithlessness.'

As though smitten by a brutal blow, Veranilda bowed her head, shuddering. Once more she looked at Basil, for an instant, with wide eyes of fear; then hid herself beneath the veil, and was gone.