There was a moment of silence, then the cowled man again spoke, in a voice firmer and less senile.
’My daughters, you have come hither through the gloom of night and over rough places, led by a faithful guide, whom you followed without doubt or fear. You will have your reward. The darkness, the stones that made your feet to stumble, what are these but symbols of your spiritual state? In your blindness, you sought one blind as yourselves, to follow whom was to walk in darkness eternal. But a beneficent Power has watched over you, guiding your steps in the better way, whereof you recked not.’
Aurelia and Veranilda had raised their heads, and were gazing at him, in fearful astonishment.
‘Be not troubled,’ he went on, taking a step forward and speaking in a voice strong and clear. ’Though unworthy, I am a priest of the faith in which you, Aurelia, were baptized. In my hands you will suffer no harm, no indignity. Be still, be silent. Behind you stand those who will not permit you to flee, but who will conduct you hence as if they were your own attendants if you do but follow me, as you needs must, without cry or resistance.’
Aurelia turned and saw a number of figures whom the dim light showed to be men with weapons. A moan of anguish escaped her lips. Clinging to her in terrified silence, Veranilda seemed about to sink to the ground.
‘Our way,’ pursued the priest, who was now revealed as neither old nor infirm, ’is down to the harbour. Not far from here a litter awaits you; summon your strength for the short effort over rugged ground. Speak words of comfort to this maiden; she also will ere long walk in the light, and will be grateful to those who rescued her from the path of destruction. Think not to escape us when we pass through the city; it were vain to cry aloud; not a man in Surrentum would raise his hand to release you, knowing, as all do, that we confine your body only to free your soul from the bonds of the Enemy.’
‘Whither are you taking us?’ asked Aurelia, suddenly commanding herself, and speaking with cold scorn.
’That you will know before the evening. Enough for the present that you will travel without fatigue and without danger. Follow now whither I lead.’
He moved forward, and the armed men, half a dozen in number, among whom stood the black monk, closed about the prisoners. Seeing the futility of any resistance, Aurelia whispered to her companion such words of encouragement as she could find, and supported her with her arms. But Veranilda had overcome the first terror which made her droop.
‘Basil will find and release us,’ she whispered back. ’While he has life, Basil will not forsake us.’
And with unfaltering steps she moved onward, holding Aurelia’s hand.
Their path, illumined by lanterns, the guards presently issued from the wood, and came to the place where the litter was waiting. Hence the captives were borne rapidly towards the haven. As they entered the city gates, Aurelia raised the curtain which concealed her, and looked out at the men on watch; words exchanged between them and her conductors only confirmed what the priest had said, and made her understand that she was powerless amid enemies.