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.
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.’