‘Why, you will never mount your horse,’ he opined, after touching Basil’s hand, and finding it on fire. ’This is what comes of a queasy conscience. Take heart, man! Are you the first that stuck a false friend between the ribs, or the first to have your love kissed against her will? That it was against her will, I take upon myself to swear. You are too fretful, my good lord. Come, now! What are we to do with you?’
‘I can ride on,’ answered Basil. ’Pay no heed to me, and leave me in peace, I pray you.’
He was helped to horseback, and the cavalcade went forth again along the Latin Way. This morning, no beam of sunrise shone above the mountains; the heavens were sullen, and a hot wind blew from the south. Even Venantius, though he hummed a song to himself, felt the sombre influence of the air, and kept glancing uneasily backwards at the death-pale man, who rode with head upon his breast. Scarcely had they ridden for an hour at foot-pace, when a shout caught the captain’s ear; he turned, just in time to see Basil dropping to the ground.
‘God’s thunder!’ he growled. ’I have been expecting this. Well if he dies, it may save the king some trouble.’
He jumped down, and went to Basil’s side. At first the sufferer could not speak, but when water had been given him, he gazed at Venantius with a strange smile, and, pointing before him, said faintly:
‘Is not yonder Casinum?’
‘It is. We will bear you thither for harbourage. Courage, friend!’
‘Above, on the mountain,’ continued Basil painfully, ’dwells my kinsman Benedict, with his holy men. Could I but reach the monastery!’
‘Why, perchance you may,’ replied the captain. ’And in truth you would be better cared for there.’
‘Help me, good Venantius!’ panted Basil, with eyes of entreaty. ’Let me die in the monastery.’
In those days of pestilence, every fever-stricken person was an object of dread to all but the most loving or the most courageous. The stalwart Venantius thought for a moment of carrying Basil before him on his horse, but prudence overcame this humane impulse. Into the carriage, for the same reason (had there been no other), he could not be put; but there was a vacant place beside the driver, and here, supported with cords, he managed to keep his seat until they arrived at Casinum.
Owing to its position on the highroad, trodden by so many barbaric armies, this city had suffered repeated devastation. Its great buildings stood desolate, or had fallen to utter ruin, and the country around, once famous for its fertility, showed but a few poor farms. What inhabitants remained dwelt at the foot of the great hill on whose summit rose the citadel, still united with the town by two great walls. After passing between the tombs on the Latin Way, memorials of citizens long dead, the travellers entered by an unprotected gateway, and here Venantius called