‘Then why do you look so strangely at me? Ah, he is a prisoner?’
‘Not so. No man’s liberty is less in danger.’
She clasped her hands before her. ’You make me suffer. I was so light of heart, and now—your eyes, your silence. Oh, speak, lord Marcian!’
’I have hidden the truth so long because I knew not how to utter it. Veranilda, Basil is false to you.’
Her hands fell; her eyes grew wider in wonder. She seemed not to understand what she had heard, and to be troubled by incomprehension rather than by a shock of pain.
‘False to me?’ she murmured. ‘How false?’
‘He loves another woman, and for her sake has turned to the Greeks.’
Still Veranilda gazed wonderingly.
‘Things have come to pass of which you know nothing,’ pursued Marcian, forcing his voice to a subdued evenness, a sad gravity. ’Listen whilst I tell you all. Had you remained but a few days longer at Cumae, you would have been seized by the Greeks and sent to Constantinople; for the Emperor Justinian himself had given this command. You came to Surrentum; you plighted troth with Basil; he would have wedded you, and—not only for safety’s sake, but because he wished well to the Goths—would have sought the friendship of Totila. But you were carried away; vainly we searched for you; we feared you had been delivered to the Greeks. In Rome, Basil was tempted by a woman, whom he had loved before ever he saw you, a woman beautiful, but evil hearted, her name Heliodora. She won him back to her; she made him faithless to you and to the cause of the Goths. Little by little, I learnt how far he had gone in treachery. He had discovered where you were, but no longer desired to release you that you might become his wife. To satisfy the jealousy of Heliodora, and at the same time to please the Greek commander in Rome, he plotted to convey you to Constantinople. I having discovered this plot, found a way to defeat it. You escaped but narrowly. When I carried you away from Praeneste, pursuers were close behind us, therefore it was that we travelled through the night. Here you are in safety, for King Totila is close at hand, and will guard you against your enemies.’
Veranilda pressed her hands upon her forehead, and stood mute. As his eyes shifted furtively about her, Marcian caught sight of something black and undulant stirring among stones near her feet; at once he grasped her by the arm, and drew her towards him.
‘A viper!’ he exclaimed, pointing.
‘What of that?’ was her reply, with a careless glance. ’I would not stir a step to escape its fangs.’
And, burying her face in her hands, she wept.
These tears, this attitude of bewildered grief, were Marcian’s encouragement. He had dreaded the innocence of her eyes lest it should turn to distrust and rejection. Had she refused to believe him, he knew not how he would have persisted in his villainy; for, even in concluding his story, it seemed to him that he must betray himself; so perfidious sounded to him the voice which he could hardly believe his own, and so slinking-knavish did he feel the posture of his body, the movements of his limbs. The distress which should have smitten him to the heart restored his baser courage. Again he spoke with the sad gravity of a sympathetic friend.