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?’