Petronilla’s countenance, fixed as a face in marble, still suggested no thought save one of scorn; but there was a brief silence before she replied.
‘I would not have believed,’ she said calmly, ’that a man could be so besotted with foolish passions. Listen, you in turn. Where those women are, I know as little as do you yourself. I think, and have good reason for thinking, that the Goth is already on her way to Constantinople, but I have no certainty of it. The one thing I do surely know, is that you are hoodwinked and baffled by the man you trust.’
A groan of rage and anguish broke from Basil. He wrung his bands together.
’You lie! A thousand times you lie! Either Veranilda or Aurelia is in this house. Who was it you brought back with you yesterday when you returned from beyond the walls?’
The listener uttered a short, fierce laugh.
’So that is what brought you here? O fool! Think you I should have no more wisdom than that? Since you must needs pry into my doings yesterday, you shall hear them. I went to the church of the holy Petronilla, to pray there against all the dangers that environ me— against the wiles of the wicked, the cruelty of violent men, the sickness which is rife about us. And when I rose from before the altar, the servant of God who passes his life there, who is pleased to regard me with kindness, led me apart into the sacristy, where sat a woman who had lost her sight. She had travelled, he told me, from Mediolanum, because of a vision in which she had been bidden to seek the tomb of the daughter of the chief Apostle; and, whilst praying in the church, her darkness had been illumined by a vision of the saint herself, who bade her go into the city, and abide in the house of the first who offered her welcome, and there at length she would surely receive her sight. So I spoke with the woman, who, though in poverty, is of noble blood, and when I had offered to make her welcome, she gladly came with me, and straightway we returned to Rome. And I brought with me oil from the lamp of the saint, wherewith, at the hours of prayer, I cross my forehead, that no evil may befall me. So, you have heard. Believe or not, as you list, O Basil.’
Whether true or not, Basil had no choice but to accept the story. He looked helplessly about him. If by killing this woman he could have obtained liberty to search through every chamber of the great house, his dagger would have leapt at her breast; and that Petronilla well knew; whence the defiant look in her eyes as they watched his slightest movement.