Petronilla trembled with wrath.
‘Falsehood!’ she echoed, on a high, mocking note. ’A charge of falsehood upon her lips! Your Holiness will ere long, I do not doubt, be enlightened as to that woman’s principles in the matter of truth and falsehood. Meanwhile, we shall consult our souls’ welfare, as well as our dignity, in holding as little intercourse as may be with one who has renounced the faith in Christ.’
Aurelia bent her eyes upon the deacon, who met the look with austere fixedness. There was dead silence for a moment, then she turned to the young men behind her.
’My noble cousins, I desired your company because I foresaw this woman’s violence, and knew not to what length it might carry her. She pretends to fear my tongue; for my part, I would not lightly trust myself within reach of her hands, of which I learnt the weight when I was a little child. Lord Decius, attend, I beg you, these reverend men whilst they honour my house and on their way homeward. My cousin Basil, I must needs ask you to be my guard, until I can command service here. Follow me, I pray.’
With another piercing glance at Leander she withdrew from the assembly.
It was a morning of wind and cloud; the day broke sadly. When the first gleam of yellow sunlight flitted over Surrentum towards the cliffs of Capreae, silence had fallen upon the villa. Wearied by their night of watching, the inhabitants slept, or at least reposed in privacy. But this quiet was of short duration. When the customary bell had given notice of the third hour, Aurelia called together the servants of the house—only those who belonged to Petronilla failing to answer her summons—and announced to them her new authority. At the same time the steward of the estate read out a list of those slaves who, under the will of Maximus, could claim their emancipation. The gathering having dispersed, there appeared an attendant of the deacon Leander; his reverend master would wait upon the lady Aurelia, as soon as her leisure permitted, for the purpose of taking leave. Forthwith the deacon was admitted. Alone in the great hall, Aurelia sat beside a brasier, at which she warmed her hands; she scarcely deigned to glance at the ecclesiastic.
‘You pursue your journey, reverend?’ were her first words.
‘As far as Neapolis, gracious lady,’ came the suave reply. ’There or in the neighbourhood I shall remain at least ten days. Should you desire to communicate with me—’
‘I think I can save that trouble,’ interrupted Aurelia, with quivering lips. ’All I have to say to your Sanctity, I will say at once. It is, that you have enlightened me as to the value of solemn oaths on the lips of the Roman clergy.’
‘Your meaning, dear madam?’ asked Leander, with a look of bland disdain.
’You have the face to ask it, deacon, after Petronilla’s words this morning?’
’I feared they might mislead you. The lady Petronilla knows nothing of what has passed between us. She spoke in anger, and hazarded an accusation—as angry ladies are wont.’