‘Good. She has been buried?’
‘She was carried out before dawn.’
‘Tell me now, upon your salvation, is any one kept prisoner here?’
Leo, an elderly man, his eyes red with tears and his hands tremulous, gazed meaningly at the questioner.
‘No one; no one,’ he answered under his breath. ’I swear it to you, O lord Basil.’
‘Come with me through the house.’
’But Leo, moving nearer, begged that he might be heard and believed. He understood the meaning of these inquiries, for he had been with his mistress at Surrentum. They whom Basil sought were not here; all search would be useless; in proof of this Leo offered the evidence of his wife, who could reveal something of moment which she had learnt only a few hours ago. The woman was called, and Basil spoke apart with her; he learnt that Petronilla, as soon as her pains began, sent a messenger to the deacon Leander, entreating him to come; but Leander had only yesterday set out on a journey, and would not be back for a week or more. Hearing this, the stricken lady fell into an anguish of mind worse even than that of the body; she uttered words signifying repentance for some ill-doing, and, after a while, said to those who were beside her—a physician and the speaker—that, if she died, they were to make known to Bessas that the deacon Leander, he and he alone, could tell all. Having said this, Petronilla became for a time calmer; but her sufferings increased, and suddenly she bade summon the presbyter of St. Cecilia’s church. With him she spoke alone, and for a long time. Since, she had uttered no word touching worldly matters; the woman believed that she was now unconscious.
‘And you swear to me,’ said Basil, who quivered as he listened, ‘that this is the truth and all you know?’
Leo’s wife swore by everything sacred on earth, and by all the powers of heaven, that she had falsified nothing, concealed nothing. Thereupon Basil turned to go away. In the vestibule, the slaves knelt weeping before him, some with entreaties to be permitted to leave this stricken house, some imploring advice against the plague; men and women alike, all were beside themselves with terror. In this moment there came a knocking at the entrance; the porter ran to open, and admitted Gordian. Basil and he, who had not met since the day of the family gathering, spoke together in the portico. He had come, said Gordian, in the fear that Petronilla had been forsaken by all her household, as sometimes happened to those infected. Had it been so, he would have held it a duty to approach her with what solace he could. As it was, physician and priest and servants being here, he durst not risk harm to his own family; but he would hold himself in readiness, if grave occasion summoned him. So Gordian remounted his horse, and rode back home.