‘Welcome,’ he murmured, ‘ye whose love is innocent.’
From a little bag that lay on the table he drew grains, and scattered them on the floor. The doves flew down and ate, and, as he watched them, Benedict seemed to forget all the sorrows of the world.
VIVAS IN DEO
The telling of his story was to Basil like waking from a state of imperfect consciousness in which dream and reality had indistinguishably mingled. Since the fight with the brigands he had never been himself; the fever in his blood made him incapable of wonted thought or action; restored to health, he looked back upon those days with such an alien sense that he could scarce believe he had done the things he related. Only now did their move in him a natural horror when he thought of the death of Marcian, a natural distress when he remembered his bearing to Veranilda. Only now could he see in the light of reason all that had happened between his talk with Sagaris at Aesernia and his riding away with Venantius from the villa on the island. As he unfolded the story, he marvelled at himself, and was overcome with woe.
There needed not the words of the holy abbot to show him how blindly he had acted. He could see now that, however it might appear, the guilt of Marcian was quite unproved. The Syrian slave might have lied, or else have uttered a mistaken suspicion. It might be true that Marcian had been misled by some calumniator into thinking evil of his friend. And had he not heard the declaration of Veranilda, that she had suffered no wrong at his hands? Basil saw the face of his beloved. Only a man possessed by the Evil Spirit could have answered her as he had done. Was not the fact that Marcian had brought Veranilda to his villa in order to give her into the hands of Totila sufficient proof that he had neither wronged her nor meditated wrong? Ay, but Basil reminded himself that he had accused Veranilda of amorous complicity with Marcian. And at this recollection his brain whirled.
Even were it permitted him ever to behold her again, how could he stand before her? Must she not abhor him, as one whose baseness surpassed all she had thought possible in the vilest slave? Jealousy was pardonable; in its rage, a man might slay and be forgiven. But for the reproach with which he had smitten her—her, pure and innocent—there could be no forgiveness. It was an act of infamy, branding him for ever.
Thoughts such as these intermingled with his reading of the Psalms of penitence. Ever and again grief overwhelmed him, and he wept bitterly. At the hour of the evening meal, he would willingly have remained in his cell, to fast and mourn alone; but this, he felt, would have been to shirk part of his penance; for, though the brothers knew not of his sin, he could not meet their eyes for shame, and such humiliation must needs be salutary. This evening other guests sat at the abbot’s table, and he shrank from their notice, for though they were but men of humble estate, pilgrims from Lucania, he felt debased before them. The reading, to which all listened during their meal, was selected from that new volume of Cassiodorus so esteemed by the abbot; it closed with a prayer in which Basil found the very utterance his soul needed.