For one heart-beat there was no sound but the heavy panting of men's breath. Then a man snatched a golden cup rimmed with rubies, which stood on a stand near the window, and thrust it into his breast. With his first motion the two others started upon Varia where she stood, rose and white, in the middle of the chamber. Midway, the larger man pushed the smaller red-bearded one aside; he recovered, with a vicious pass of his knife, which the other gave aside to parry.
"I entered first!" the red one shouted. "Hands off, thou son of swine! Said we not that I, Wulf, who brought thee hither, should have first choice? Call you the others; thus we shall catch them front and rear."
"Call yourself!" said the other. He sprang forward, clutching at Varia, slipped on the polished floor, and plunged headlong at her feet. Varia screamed in terror; and as Wulf overleaped his prostrate comrade and caught her in his arms, screamed again. Her head was crushed against Wulf's leather-clad breast, but she struggled and cried aloud as a hare cries when the hounds have brought it down.
There was a rush from the corridor outside, a long-drawn shout of warning and triumph, answered by yells from the garden, where more black figures came leaping. Wardo, grimed from head to foot, dashed into the room at the head of his men as a crowd of invaders surged through the long window. He lunged at Wulf with the short broad sword he carried, and the point came away red. Wulf gurgled and fell, dragging Varia with him; and the fight closed over them both as water closes over a cast stone.
And as Life had entered the garden by that little narrow door, so Death also entered, bringing with it what Death must bring.
When dawn washed the first faint streak of gray across the night sky, the barbarians, beaten back and baffled, retreated to the great Wood from which they had come, and lurked darkly there.
"I think we are not yet through with them," said Marius. He had seen Saxons fight before.
With dawn, also, Eudemius sent forth a trusty slave westward to seek aid from the civil authorities and from his own people at the mine, the nearest point at which it might be obtained, and with the dawn was found the body of Hito, stabbed in the back, lying near the little garden door which led to the outer world.
Many of the guests chose to take their chances of attack, and left the villa hurriedly while yet the day was young. Eudemius could not hold them prisoners, and would not if he could. His own was enough to guard. But Felix did not go, and Eudemius could not order him forth. He dared not leave the villa, where he felt a measure of security; were he to do so, he knew that it would be his fate to be captured and killed before he could win to safety. So they shrugged their shoulders and left him.
That day the villa, unmolested and with half its inmates gone, seemed to sink into a calm of exhaustion, which, after the night that had passed, was like the calm of death. Marius and Eudemius themselves superintended the cleaning up of the house, the strengthening of barricades, the muster of the slaves for what further service might be needed.
"I trust the messengers whom I sent forth have not been waylaid," Eudemius said.
"Help could not come before to-morrow night," Marius answered. "It will go hard with us if we cannot hold out that long. This time it may be that we shall fare better; there will be no Hito to betray us."
"I shall have him buried at the crossroads with a stake through his evil heart!" said Eudemius. "There be eleven dead awaiting burial. This we shall do to-night. And Varia, my son, how fares she?"
"She is unhurt, but exhausted, and the old woman watches her," said Marius. "Sleep thou also, and I shall see to setting a watch about the house, and that those may take rest who can be spared."
Mycon entered, his arms before his face.
"Lords, there be a slave, Wardo the Saxon, who insists that he hath grave matters for thine ears. He is in very evil plight—"
"Let him stand forth," said Eudemius.
Wardo came, tall, grim, very dirty. A bloody rag bound his head; he limped, and one of his sandals was stained with blood. He crossed his arms before his face, and waited.
"Speak!" Eudemius commanded.
And Wardo spoke, standing erect, his blue eyes on his lord's face.
"Lord, it was not Hito who betrayed the household, as I hear men say. It was I. There is a little man, red like a fox, who came to a house on Thorney where was I. He also is Saxon. And I, being drunken with much wine, did boast to this one of my lord's greatness, and of the feasts which were made within this house, and the wealth which was herein. And when I was sober, after many hours, one told me of what I had done, and of how this red Saxon was gone to set his fellows upon my lord. So I rode until my horse fell with me and died, but I was too late to bring warning to my lord. When I reached this house last night, it was surrounded, with the door beaten down and men swarming within. So I, being Saxon, and not suspected in the dark, entered, shouting, with others. And in my lady's chamber found I that red Wulf, who is no wolf, but a sly thieving fox, and tried to slay him. But he got away. I am my lord's man."
"It is well that you have told me this," said Eudemius. "At sunset you shall be crucified. Go."
Wardo crossed his arms before his face and went.
When his work about the house was done, Marius entered softly the room where Varia lay, tended by Nerissa. The old woman slipped away, and Varia held out a slim hand to him in one of her sudden and unaccountable moods of coquetry. He kissed it gallantly.
"How fares my lady?"
"I do not wish to think of it! Were it not for Wardo—"
"Ay, that is true," said Marius, misunderstanding. "Well, by this night his fault will be punished. But how know you of what Wardo hath done?"
"How?" she echoed in surprise. "Was it not my life he saved? And what is he to be punished for? What hath he done?"
"Naught that in the least would interest thee," he told her.
"He shall not be harmed," she said firmly. "He saved me from two great men and one little one who would have slain me, and he is not to suffer for it."
"Now this is something new. Dost know, sweeting, that had it not been for this knave Wardo, no great men nor little would have come upon thee? It was he who betrayed us, and it is right that he should suffer for it."
Her eyes filled with tears.
"He saved my life, and I will not have him suffer! What is to be done to him this night?"
He tried to put her off.
"Never mind him, sweet one. Think of him no more."
But she repeated stubbornly:
"What is to be done to him this night?" She glanced at him, one of her strange and sidelong glances. "Is he to be—crucified?"
Marius started in spite of himself.
"Who told thee?" he demanded.
"None told me," she answered. She raised her hands to her temples. "I felt it—here. So, I say that he shall not be crucified, nor harmed in any way at all. And thou must see to it!" She was like an imperious young empress, commanding her meanest slave.
"And if I will not?" said the slave, perversely.
Her child's mouth quivered.
"But thou wilt!" she pleaded. She laid a hand upon his bare sinewy arm, fingering the heavy golden armlet on it, and for a fleeting instant raised her eyes to his. "Thou wilt?" she repeated sweetly.
His dark face hardened against her wiles.
"The man hath played the traitor. He also is Saxon. Who knows but that he may set his fellows on again? Nay, lady wife; I fear thy man must die."
"Ah, no!" she begged. "It is the first request I make of thee—thou'lt not refuse it if I ask thee?"
"Ask it then," said Marius, his eyes on her, "in the right and proper way that a wife should ask her husband."
Rose-leaf color flushed her cheeks; she raised herself to her knees amid the draperies of the couch, and clasped her folded hands upon her breast, and closed her eyes, devout and meek and holy.
"Pray thee, let Wardo go, my lord!" she said softly, and opened her eyes quickly to see how he might take it. "Is it thus thou wouldst have me ask?"
He bent his head, sudden laughter in his eyes, and kissed her pleading lips.
"Who could resist thee, lady mine?" he cried gayly. "Sure never did unworthy man have so fair a lawyer. Ay, child, if he saved thy life—and thy account and his do tally—he shall go free."
Varia slipped out of his arms and clapped her hands.
"Go then—go quickly and tell my lord father so! He will do it for thee, as thou hast done it for me. Is it not so?"
So it came to pass that evening that the cross in the chamber of fate knew not its victim; and for this there were more reasons than a girl's tender wiles.
For while the flame of sunset again stabbed the dusk of night, came men out from the Wood of Anderida, fifteen miles away, some on foot and some on horseback, with at their head the red Wulf, astride a great bay horse. Wardo, from his station on the roofs, saw them from far off; saw also that many as they had been the night before, they were now fivefold more, an army bent on plunder, captained by lawlessness. And still no aid had come. Wardo told Marius, and Marius went up on the roofs to see, and came back square of jaw and with moody eyes. He sought out Eudemius, where the latter was going the rounds of their makeshift defences, and said:
"This red hound of hell hath come back upon us and brought his pack, five times as many as before. Thou knowest I am not one to turn tail when there is fighting to be done, but I can see what is to be seen. And we have women and children with us."
"You think, then, that we should fly from here?" Eudemius asked with sombre eyes.
"I think we are lucky to have the chance to attempt it," said Marius, curtly. "Were it not better to lose half rather than all? For an hour we might stand against them, scarcely more. Thy familia numbers five hundred souls; of these some are wounded and more are but incumbrances. If it pleaseth thee to stay, thou knowest that nothing will suit me better. A good fight against odds is worth risking much for. I but state the case as I have seen it."
"My fighting days are over," said Eudemius. "But I am not too old to run. And there are the women and the children. Be it as thou sayest, lad. This work is thy work—" he broke off to chuckle grimly—"and thou'rt a clever workman! We have chariots and horses, and I will give command to pack what papers and things of value I may."
Again the villa was in uproar. Chests were strapped on sumpter mules; chariots with pawing horses stood in the main courtyard, ready to be gone. Slaves ran here and there with scrolls and bundles in their arms; cooks left the meat turning on the spits; dancing girls, wrapped in cloaks and clinging to their treasures, huddled together, waiting for the start. The gates were opened, and all but certain of the stewards and body-slaves were permitted to depart. They swarmed from the villa like ants when their hill is crushed, and spread off to the west, away from the direction of the enemy. And always the slave stationed on watch cried down to those below the approach, near and ever nearer, of that enemy; and at every cry a spasm of increased activity shuddered through the house. It was each one for himself, and the hindmost would surely rue it.
"Should we be separated in the night, let us plan to meet at one spot," said Marius. He was strapping a bundle of food and a flask of wine to his saddle-bow, in the hurrying confusion of the courtyard, too old a campaigner to face a march without supplies. Eudemius nodded, his arms full of papers, which a slave was placing in a box.
"At Londinium, then, whence I shall sail for Gaul as soon as may be. We will wait there, each for the other. If the barbarians sweep the country widely, we may not at first be able to reach there."
"That is true," said Marius. "I have thought of that. Our best plan will be to hold west from here, make a half circle and gain the Bibracte road, and when the brutes are worrying the carcass here, return eastward, passing them by the road, and so reach Londinium. The gods grant that AEtius can spare me a legion!"
In the end they barely escaped. The slave on watch shouted warning; the stewards flung themselves on their horses and made off. Varia ran into the court, crying for Nerissa; without ado Marius lifted her into the chariot, of which Wardo held the reins. The chariot of Eudemius, driven by himself, was already rumbling through the gateway. There was a terrified scurry of slaves from under his horses' feet. He swung into the road and lashed the stallions to a gallop. Close at his heels Wardo followed, his grays leaping in the traces, with Varia, white-faced, crouched low in front of him. The hollow thunder of the wheels mingled with the pounding of hoofs as they dashed into the oak-bordered road. Marius swung himself to his horse's back as the beast reared with excitement, found his stirrups, and galloped hard after, his sword clapping against his greave. He did not see who followed through the gate, for as he caught up with the flying chariots, the first of the pursuers mounted the brow of the hill to the east of the house, not a quarter of a mile away.
Some of them rode their horses into the courtyard; others took up the trail of the fleeing Romans. But they were there for plunder; soon they gave up the chase and galloped back to strive for their share with the others. Those slaves who had been left behind or who were overtaken on the road were slain; as the sun went down there began in the stately halls an orgy which sounded to high heaven.
So when they had eaten and drunk until they could eat and drink no more, they fought among themselves over the division of the spoils; and between them all they killed their leader, Wulf the red son of Wulf. Also, in their drunken frenzy, they tried to set the villa on fire. In the midst of this, while they swept ravening through the rooms like devouring flame, while every court held its knot of drunken brawlers, who cursed and fought in darkness or under the flaring light of cressets, a detachment of milites stationarii, or military police, in whose hands was the maintenance of law and public order, rode over the western hills, coming hotfoot from Calleva, thirty miles away. They fell upon the barbarians, taking them by surprise; these forgot their quarrels and made common cause against this sudden foe. At once bloody battle was waged beneath the stars; the pillared halls rang to the clang of weapons and the thud of armed feet. Men in armor of bronze came crashing to the ground with their blood spreading from them darkly over the marble floors; in the courtyards men at every moment stumbled over bodies of the dead and dying.
And an hour before dawn there arrived from the west a body of footsore miners, armed for the most part with picks, which it appeared they were skilled in using in a variety of ways. These combined with the stationarii; for an hour red death swept through hall and court and chamber, to the tune of the yelling of the human wolf-pack loosed for blood. At the end of it the barbarians, harried before and behind, unable to rally, fell into panic and started to flee, laden with what spoil they could bear away. By dawn what was left of the villa was again in Roman hands, a wreck mighty in its desolation, epitome of the splendor that had been and the tragedy that was to come. The pendulum of Time had started on its inevitable downward course, and where had been power and grandeur were but the ashes of pomp and pride.
Now, four days after that night when Wardo had betrayed his lord in the house of Chloris, men coming up from the mine, at sunset when the day's work was done, were herded by their overseers and guards into the bare open space at the mouth of the mine. The superintendent came among them, a grizzled man, hard-faced, as became his lot, and spoke. Beside him was a slave whom some there recognized as from the villa, travel-stained and dropping with fatigue, just arrived with letters from his lord.
"An attack hath been made upon the house of our lord by barbarians and insurgents," said the superintendent, glancing over the tablets he held. "It was repulsed, but with loss upon both sides. The barbarians came from the Silva Anderida, and it is thought that they are being reinforced by others, and will try again. My lord is hard pressed, for the house is crowded with guests gathered for the marriage feast of our lady. The attack hath been stubborn beyond belief; the barbarians demand that one lord Felix, who slew their chief at Anderida, be given up to them, and this my lord will not do. Also my lord saith that knowledge of the rich treasure in the house was betrayed to the barbarians by a drunken slave, and they are hot for plunder. Therefore he hath sent to me, as the nearest one to afford him help, commanding that I say to you in his name: Those of you whose crimes are not murder or against religion shall be returned to the house to take part in its defence, as many as can be singled out by to-morrow's dawn. For loyal service and obedience to orders, ye shall receive the freedom of casarii and your sentence here shall be cancelled. To-night your records shall be looked up, and to-morrow those of you whose names and numbers are called will be sent forward as quickly as may be."
Half a hundred voices raised a tired cheer, not so much because their lord was in danger, as because there was prospect of release. The nightly rations of black bread and beans were served out. Some men took their portion to the huts where they slept, as beasts carry food to their lair; but these were for the most part condemned for murders and religious crimes and knew that they had no hope of freedom. The majority gathered in discussion about the fires, always with alert sentries hovering near at hand. All that night the air throbbed with expectation.
In the first dark hours of morning the blast of a brazen trumpet brought five hundred men into the open, eager to know their fate. The superintendent and his assistants appeared with lists of names which they had worked all night to complete. Men pressed close around him, eager not to lose a word; the overseers, whips in hand, mingled with the crowd to check incipient disturbances. A score of mounted guards were drawn up near by, waiting to escort the detail. Lanterns shone here and there through the thin gray mist which hung over the broken land.
Nicanor woke at the first brassy blare of the trumpet. His face was keen with his first conscious thought; there was no doubt that he would be of those chosen. He made his toilet with a shake of his tunic, and went outside. Around him, in the semi-darkness, figures were hurrying to where the superintendent, mounted on a keg, was calling the roll by the light of a lantern, with his hood pulled well over his face against the keen air of morning. His harsh voice, shouting names and numbers, rose above the stir and rustle of excited men.
Three rods from his hut, Nicanor was jostled violently by one who wheeled with an oath to see who had run against him.
"Have a care, Balbus!" Nicanor said shortly. "What is thy haste? Dost hope that thou wilt be chosen, man-killer? What wouldst give to be in my place? For I shall go, having neither religion nor blood upon my head."
Balbus snarled at the taunt. It had been flung at him before, with variations, until his temper was frayed to breaking-point. From Nicanor it was not to be endured; for since the day of the rat-fight encounters between the two had been frequent and bloody, in spite of the guards' whips. Now jealousy was added to the wrath of Balbus, and with this the devil in him broke its chains. But after his nature, he was treacherous. He said nothing, nor gave warning that his anger was more than skin-deep; and made as though to pass Nicanor and go his way. Nicanor went on, laughing carelessly. But he was scarcely past when Balbus wheeled around and struck. There was the glimmer of a blade, a smothered oath, and that was all. Nicanor turned as though to attack his assailant, who had sprung back, staggered, pitched forward, and fell, rolling down the slight declivity. He struggled a moment to rise, and lay down again, very quiet, and the slope of ground hid him from casual observation in the camp.
Balbus drove his weapon into the earth to clean it, hid it in his shirt, and hurried into the crowd of miners, who, as the roll-call progressed, were being divided into two groups.
"Nimus!" the superintendent called, and a man stepped forward and joined the smaller group. "Nico! Niger! Nicanor!"
And at this Balbus pressed forward, elbowing to the superintendent's side.
"Master, the man Nicanor hath been fighting, it would seem, although with whom I do not know. When I came by, I saw him lying dead upon the ground by the huts."
"Nonius! Ollus!" cried the overseer, and in the same breath—"When I have started these I will send men to bury him.—Ossian!"
Shortly after sunrise three hundred and fifty men were started under escort to their lord's assistance, equipped as well as might be with the means at hand.
When Nicanor struggled back to consciousness, after unmarked hours, the noise of the tramping of men had ceased, and again the world was dark. He tried to move, and a twinge of agony hot as flame shot through him, shocking him into full wakefulness. He sat upright, wincing with pain, and slowly felt himself all over. There was blood upon his head, where he had struck it against a stone in falling, but it was caked and dried. And his tunic was torn, on the left side, just behind and under the shoulder. It took him some time to reach around and find the place, for every movement was slow torture. The cloth at this place was stiff with what he knew was blood. So, then, this was where the knife of Balbus had gone home. He wondered if the wound were serious. The stars danced dizzily before his eyes, and he was faint from loss of blood. But there was a thing he had to do, a thing which all through unconsciousness had given him no rest. Across the deeps of night and of oblivion a voice was calling, and he must follow it while he had life to stand. He got to his feet and stood swaying uncertainly. By sheer force of will he steadied himself, and turning his back on the silent settlement, started walking across the rough and broken country straight eastward toward the road which led to his heart's desire.
Sometimes he walked; sometimes he fell and lay staring at the high sky and the wheeling stars, waiting without sound or motion until he could gather strength to rise. Sometimes he felt his tunic wet with fresh blood, and could not get at the wound to stanch it, and did not try; sometimes iron hammers, red-hot, beat upon his temples and left him blind and reeling with pain. Always one idea possessed him; he must get to her who called him. She was in danger; he cursed the gods who had held him back from starting to her rescue with his mates. Time lost—his chance gone—though he died for it, he would not let himself be beaten in this by Fate. Every ounce of the dogged sullen strength of him gathered itself to meet the demands of his stubborn will. And always, whether he walked in reason or in delirium, his course held eastward, straight as a homing pigeon for its loft.
In time, when the sun was high, he reached the road which crossed the Sabrina and led to the moor towns beyond. Here he entered the barge of a waterman about to leave the bank, and sat waiting to be ferried across, staring straight before him, with never an answer to the boatman's idle talk. The boat's nose poked into the further bank, and the boatman demanded his fare. Nicanor looked at him with eyes glittering with fever beneath his shaggy thatch of hair, and shook his head mutely, as at one who spoke an unknown tongue. He got out of the boat and walked up the road, and the man crossed his fingers in superstitious fright, muttered a prayer to the river-gods against ill luck, and let him go.
Once started again, Nicanor walked all that day, and at nightfall reached Corinium, five and twenty miles away. Here his overwrought strength gave out, and he slept as the dead sleep, in the fields outside the town. Hours before dawn he woke, haunted by the demon of unrest which rode him, begged food and a cup of milk at a farmhouse by the road, and started on again. All that day he walked, a mere machine dominated by a force which would drive it forward to the very verge of dissolution; and in the late evening he reached Cunetio. Here he did not know when he stopped, for he went to sleep on his feet, and woke and found himself on his back by the roadside, with the sun at high noon. Desperate for the time he had lost, he hastened on, and in an hour came upon one of the small stations threaded along the high-roads between towns which were more than ten Roman miles apart, kept as taverns by diversores for the entertainment of travellers. There were folk stopping here, for outside the inn door stood horses, saddled and tethered. Nicanor selected the animal which best pleased him,—a tall roan,—mounted, and rode away without so much as a glance behind him for pursuit.
After that his way was easier. He met people, who stared at him and sometimes asked questions which he heard himself answering. Dimly, without at all taking it in, he understood that they were vastly excited about something, but it was not worth while to ask questions on his own account. They were mere shadows, without substance, which drifted by and were forgotten; only he and his desire in all the world were real. So he reached Calleva, in the open country amid the heather, where he stopped for an hour for food and to rest his horse. On again then for fifteen miles, and he rode through the station of Bibracte, and turned aside into the oak-lined by-road for the last ten miles of his journey—miles which stretched before him as the most endless of all. Again excitement burned in his veins like fever; he kicked his horse into a gallop which more than once threatened life and limb. They pounded up the last slope which hid the villa from view, spent horse and exhausted man, and gained the rise. And Nicanor flung the roan back upon its haunches with a jerk which all but broke its jaw.
"Holy gods!" he muttered; and then—"Holy gods! Am I mad—or do I dream again?"
The sight burst upon him in all its blinding suddenness and appalling hideousness,—a smoking ruin where had been the stately mansion of his lord; blank windows grinning at him like dead, open eyes; the garden of his dreams desecrated, its wall shattered, lying open, naked and despoiled, before the world. At the tinge of smoke which hovered like the breath of death above the place, his horse flung up its head and snorted. Nicanor lifted his arms to the high heaven which for him was empty, and brought them slowly down before his face.
"Oh, thou heedless god, whoever thou mayest be that hast done this thing!" he cried into the bitterness of the desolation before him, "smite thou me also, for there is naught left for me! The stars fight against me; I am cursed with unending bitterness, and all that I can do is of no avail."
The shock was as great as though he saw her whom he sought lying dead before him. For the first time he faltered, not knowing whither to go or what to do, not daring to search for what he feared to find. His horse, standing with legs spread wide and drooping head, heaved a great sob of exhaustion from its panting flanks. Nicanor, staring ahead of him with gloomy eyes, roused, picked up his loose reins, and rode down the hill. At the yawning doorway, where no porter challenged, he swung himself from the saddle and went into the great central court. Here was grass uprooted, a fountain wrecked; marble walks were stained with blood and the marks of feet; plants were torn up and broken. Through empty room after empty room he hurried,—to hers, his lady's, first of all. And at the threshold of her bedchamber he stumbled over a body,—Nerissa's, the old nurse; and behind her lay Mycon, chief of the eunuchs. The room was in confusion; chests were torn open and their contents rifled; furniture was upset and hacked. In the bathroom near by, the marble bath, sunken in the floor, was filled with water, and there were towels and unguents and perfumes ready at hand. A bronze strigil lay across the threshold, where it had been dropped in someone's hasty flight.
On from here he went, sick with fear of what might have been, and passed through other rooms. Here were the same signs of wanton destruction; mosaic floors cracked and defaced, statues overthrown, hangings torn down and swaying to the wind in rags. He found other bodies; Hito's huddled in the violated garden, amid the tangle of wrecked vines and trampled shrubbery; and those of many slaves. The storerooms had been looted, and broken amphorae and the remains of food showed where drunken orgies had been held. In the Hall of Columns every article of gold or silver had been carried off. Priceless vessels in embossed and enamelled glass lay shattered into fragments; even some of the bronze lamps were gone. Velvet covers had been stripped from the couches; the table was drenched in spilled wine. A bust of the Emperor which had stood on its marble pedestal at the end of the hall lay upon the floor, mutilated almost beyond recognition—work of Romans, this, of the insurgents who refused to acknowledge the divinity of their temporal lord and sovereign.
Nicanor stood in the doorway, the lone living figure in a great desolation. All his fears and uncertainties were written in his face. When had this thing happened? What had become of his lord and his lord's guests? And his lady, what of her? Had the relief from the mine been in time, and why were there no signs of them? What had become of the invaders, and why had all living things so completely disappeared? And where were the stationarii, that they had not taken possession of the place in the name of the law?
He went back to those rooms which had been his lady's, torn with bitter doubt and dread. He walked reverently among the things which had been hers, as one who treads on holy ground, touching with his hands a chair over which was flung a rug of snowy furs, as though she had just left it—a table covered with bottles and perfume pots. And beside the couch where she had lain he dropped upon his knees and hid his face in the silken covers.
Heavy footsteps echoed outside in the empty corridor, and Nicanor started to his feet, a hand on his knife. A man entered, stepping over Nerissa's body, and stopped short. By his dress, his iron helmet, and short sword, Nicanor knew him for a stationarius. This one, recovering from his surprise, advanced quickly.
"So, fellow, I've caught you red-handed!" he cried, and grasped Nicanor's shoulder. Nicanor winced at the touch, but made no effort to get away.
"There is no need of that," he said quietly. "I am my lord's man, slave in this house until a month ago." His collar of brass, with its graven name, bore evidence to his words. "I pray you tell me of what hath happened here, and of my lord, and his—his people."
"That is another matter," said the stationarius, and let him go. "I thought thee of those roving reavers who have plagued us day and night. Thou hast indeed been out of the world not to know these things. Three nights ago this happened. We were sent down from Calleva as soon as the word was brought, but when we arrived the mischief had been done. The lords had fled; the barbarians were in possession, and wallowing in the havoc they had wrought. We gave them battle; in the midst of it came your lord's men from the mines, whom also he had sent for. The barbarians fled with what booty they could gather. Now the place is patrolled by stationarii. We have been burying bodies and saving what property we might, until your lord shall give command concerning it."
"And my lord?" Nicanor asked. "Whither hath he fled?"
"It is said to Londinium," the soldier answered. "Thence to Rutupiae to take ship for Gaul. But of this I know not the truth. We are directed to send in our reports to his house in Londinium; that is all that hath been told us."
"Then have I no time to lose," said Nicanor.
Forthwith he remounted and rode eastward from the villa into the deepening dusk. He turned into the Noviomagus road which led northward to Londinium, down which he had been brought a prisoner so long a time before, when first he had entered into his slaveship. And here he saw that his lord's mansion had not been the only place to suffer.
For he found himself in the very track of the barbarians as they had spread out of the Silva Anderida, through a neck of which, fifteen miles ahead, the road passed. An acrid smell of smoke hung heavy in the twilight; when he reached the station of Noviomagus he found it all in flames, with dark figures which ran wildly in and out against the glare. Here he changed his exhausted horse for a riderless gray which came snorting with terror out of the smoke and gloom, ready to welcome a master's hand and voice. He caught it, left the good roan by the roadside, and hastened on. He met and passed people on the road fleeing from burning houses and wrecked homes; in his ears were the crackle of flames and the wailing of women who mourned their dead. From small hamlets scattered in the country, folk were seeking refuge in the larger towns. Yet when he had passed these heedless, scattered groups, he rode almost alone.
All through the scented night he rode, and the round yellow moon rode with him. Strange things were happening beneath that moon; in the crucible of destiny a new land was forming, a new order of things was rising on the ashes of the old. Change, long germinating in hidden depths, was in the air, blowing warm with the breath of the South; in the earth, stirring with the first quickening of Spring; in the hearts and minds of men. And it was in Nicanor's heart as he rode fast through the night, fostered in his long season of darkness, unconscious, and inevitable as the changes which were taking place around him.
Ahead of him the great road stretched white in the moonlight, a broad ribbon which lost itself among hills and in the shadows of trees. In his ears was the thunder of his horse's feet, pounding insistent clamor into the quiet of the night; the wind of the speed of his going swept cool against his face. The night was gray around him, a velvet moon-steeped darkness, odorous with the fragrance of breaking earth. Far away the deep-throated bay of a dog rose and died across the world. A bell note, thinned by distance to a faint dream-sound, stole over silent hill and valley; peace seemed to wrap the world around as in a cloister garden. Yet not so many miles away were blazing fires, and red wounds, and the black and bitter death of a battle lost. With every mile the scene unrolled itself before him; off in the wide rolling country, which stretched on either hand, lights twinkled here and yonder, wakeful eyes of watchfulness among the hills. He passed pale glimmering bogs where by day lonely herons brooded, and wide barren heaths over which the road led straight as an arrow's flight.
And as the miles reeled away under him his excitement began to mount with the sweep of his horse's stride. The exultation of rapid motion mingled with the rising fever of his wound; he wished to shout aloud, to sing. Vague forms seemed to slip by him in the shadows; in every bush beside the road he saw white faces lurking. Strange and half-formed impressions haunted him, of bearded men passing, who sometimes spoke an unknown tongue and sometimes vanished silently as ghosts. Later, he could not tell if he had seen them or if it had been but his fevered dreams; for always when he forced himself to rouse and look about him sanely, the road reached before him white and deserted.
All sense of pain left him, even all consciousness of the horse that he bestrode. He seemed floating miraculously through air, and was aware of vague surprise that he did not fall. He could not stop; an iron weight upon his shoulders crushed him to the earth, but at the same time a force against which he could not struggle drove him on. He became possessed of the idea that again he was working in the mines, under the overseer's lash; the sound of his horse's feet merged imperceptibly into the tapping of the picks, hideously loud, and the maddening rhythm of the sound pounded his brain into bruised torpor. Then he knew that he was on fire; from head to foot he burned, parched as a soul in hell. Balls of flame danced before his eyes; while he looked upon them they turned to faces grinning from out a blood-red mist. The faces drew closer and melted into one face, Varia's face, as he had seen it last, white, with scarlet lips and flaming poppies upon either temple.
Then the mist in his eyes cleared suddenly, and he saw the figure below the face, wreathed in a floating web of moonlight through which white limbs gleamed, with dusky hair that streamed behind it in a cloud; saw that it was flying from him upon a great white horse. And as it fled it looked back at him with laughing eyes which yet were Varia's eyes; and in its hand it bore a wan pale flame which was his soul, the essence of the genius in him which was his life. At once he knew the figure to be Life and Love, and all that men strive for and hold most dear; and all his being leaped to the fierce desire for conquest, and he shouted in triumph and pursued. But as fast as the good gray went, with ears laid back and neck outstretched and body flattened to its desperate headlong stride, that great white horse went faster, bearing ever just beyond his reach the slim figure, veiled in misty moonbeams, that laughed into his eyes yet fled from his embraces.
He laughed aloud in answer, caught up in the whirlwind of his furious speed; heaven and earth held nothing but the divine frenzy of his desire. Fire coursed through his veins; the chase was Life itself, full-blooded, reckless, exultant and sublime, rioting gloriously with untamed passion. He was a god, all-conquering in the fierce pride of his lusty youth and strength; Life was his, and Love was his, if he could seize them. Now the gray's head was at the white horse's shoulder; now he bent forward, laughing his hot triumph into those eyes which were Varia's eyes, his arm outstretched to grasp the mist-veiled figure that leaned away from him, flying from him yet ready to yield in his clasp, with the pale flame wavering in one hand and a white arm raised to ward him off. He had no eyes for the road ahead; a stride, and the prize would be in his eager arms. Ahead was the darkness of the great wood; a stride, and he was within its shadow. The moon was blotted out by the high blackness of trees; and in a heart-beat with its light were gone the white horse and the slim rider with its veil of gauze—gone like a wreath of smoke or a dream which is lost in darkness. He reeled in his saddle under the shock of it, and cried aloud in his disappointment; baffled, he thought that he had lost his quarry among the trees. The gray thundered on, with the reins hanging loose upon its neck, through the damp silence of the wood, where night hung heavy, and out into the open, where again the road gleamed white and empty beneath the moon.
And then the moon was gone, and light went out of the world, and he knew himself for a soul cast into outer darkness. His mind was blank; he knew not whether he lived or died, nor did he care. He lived in a nebulous void of gray unconsciousness, horribly empty of all thought and all sensation.
So he would have ridden, blindly, until his horse fell or he was halted. But through sheer exhaustion his fever burned itself out, and left him sane once more, and clinging to his horse's neck. His strength was gone; he was dazed and drunken. He came to himself abruptly, like a man starting from uneasy sleep, and stared about him, not knowing even how far he had been carried. He was on the break of the slope leading down to the marsh-ford, and the lights of Thorney glinted over the water in his eyes.
His horse stumbled, and he pulled it up with an oath. Now he was vividly conscious, every nerve strung taut, every sense alert, as a man will sometimes oddly waken from heavy slumber. They went down the slope at a lurching gallop, along the road churned into mire by the passing of many carts, and splashed into the muddy waters of the ford. And on the further bank the good gray stumbled again, tried gallantly to regain its stride, and came crashing to the ground with a coughing groan and a long sickening stagger. But Nicanor had saved himself from a falling horse before. He was on his feet almost as the beast was down, reeling with sheer weakness, but recovering with dogged persistence. He left the horse dying at the water's edge, and started running up the street which led across the island from ford to ford, and his black shadow raced beside him in the moonlight.
At the low cabin next to the house of Chloris he stopped and pounded on the door.
"Who comes?" cried a great voice within.
"It is I, Nicanor! Let me in!" said Nicanor, huskily, out of a throat parched and stiff, and still pounded.
The door opened with a rasping of bolts. The bulk of Nicodemus appeared, half undressed, his single eye glinting under its furze of brow.
"Thou, lad? In the name of the goddess mothers, what dost thou here at this hour? Not drunk again? Ha, so! Easy!"
Nicanor, with a hoarse and empty laugh, staggered forward even as his spent steed had done, and Nicodemus caught him and lowered him to the floor. He sat quite helpless, fully conscious, yet with the strength of his limbs gone from him for the moment utterly.
Nicodemus shouted for Myleia. She came, unkempt and kindly; between them the two got Nicanor to his feet and helped him to a bunk. A lodger, wakened by the noise, thrust out a tousled head, saw only a drunken wayfarer, and went to sleep again, all undisturbed. But at this point Nicanor resisted.
"Nay, not yet! I have first a thing to do.—Nico, hath there been trouble of sorts on Thorney these last three days?"
Nicodemus shook his great sides with laughter.
"Trouble? Yea, verily! Thorney hath been hopping to a mad dance these days, promise you!"
"And thou hast been dancing with the maddest," said Myleia, a hand upon his shoulder. "What quarrel is it of thine, my big ugly bear? Some day thou'lt be brought home to me dead, or else be haled away to be sold as slave."
"Never fear it, jewel of my heart," Nicodemus said tenderly. "Now see we to this battered one. See, here be a bruise upon his skull the bigness of a duck's egg. Get my shears, sweeting, and I'll clip this lion's mane of hair. It will lighten his head that that silver tongue of his may wag the better."
"No, you will not!" said Nicanor. "Give me wine and let my hair alone. Man, I tell you I've no time to lose. What happened here?"
"Out of the calm came forth a thunderbolt," said Nicodemus, watching as Myleia brought a bowl of water, with cloths and soothing herbs. She thrust the bowl into his hands, and he stood, great and hairy and patient, holding it for her while she cut away Nicanor's tunic, where it had stuck fast to the wound, and washed away the clotted blood and grime. "But not so long ago as thou hast said. Yester eve comes a cloud of dust over the hill by the marshes, and in the cloud as strange a sight as man may see. Chariots, with horses smoking in the traces, lords on horseback, slaves and rabble, all flying from the gods know what. A tall man, very pale, with a mouth set like the jaws of a trap; a younger one, to whom all turned for command and advice; a woman lovely as—er, that is to say, fair enough to please a taste not over-critical as mine, very pale, with red lips and the eyes of a little child in trouble. They stopped here, even at this house, it being nearest, and bought food and wine, resting for a time, for the woman was as one half dead from weariness. Then went they on once more, and took the road for Londinium. I made as much as five and twenty—"
Nicanor raised his head, and his eyes were full of a weary triumph.
"Nico, that pale lord is my lord, and that fair lady my lady, and I must follow them even across to Gaul."
"What use?" said Nicodemus. "They will not stay their passage for thee. Tarry rather with us, and be healed. In the wink of a cat's eye I'll have that collar from off thy throat, and no man be the wiser. We have no son, this old woman of mine and I; stay thou and be son to us. Thy lord will not miss thee, having other matters in his head. And it is long since we heard word from thee, lad."
"I had thought the girl would have told thee," Nicanor said. "And she—where is she?"
"Eh? What she?" Nicodemus asked blankly, and Myleia paused to listen.
"A girl, Eldris by name, half a Briton, I think, who escaped from my lord's house. I told her to come hither, that thou wouldst give her shelter until I could come. Hath she not been here?"
"Never hath such an one darkened these doors of mine," said Nicodemus, and Myleia nodded, adding quickly:
"Nay, or I should know!"
"She hath likely been captured and returned," Nicanor said, and let the subject drop.
In spite of all they could say to him, he borrowed a horse from Nicodemus, and at dawn set forth for Londinium, haggard and stubborn and ridden by haunting desire which would not let him rest. And toward evening he returned, and in his face was written failure. What he told them gave no clew to that which all men could read in him.
"My lord and his family sailed yester eve for Gaul. A ship was on the point of starting, and they were taken on board. This I learned from a waterman at the quays, who had helped to load their goods. And I know beyond doubt that they are gone, and that they will not return hither.... Now I am weary and would rest."
His voice was utterly dead, without life or spirit. Nicodemus, pierced by a glimmer of strange knowledge, laid a hand upon his shoulder. Very dearly he loved his shaggy teller of tales, even though he knew that whether he loved or not was small matter to his idol. His voice lowered to a husky growl of tenderness.
"Son, is all well with thee?"
A spasm, swift and sharp, passed over Nicanor's face, and was gone like a shadow. His eyes flinched as though a hand had touched a raw and quivering nerve.
"Nay," he answered, very quietly. "It is not well."
He wandered out, in time, away from their anxious questionings, across the marsh-ford, and toward the gray hills which rolled away to east and west, where the noise of the traffic could not follow. He threw himself upon the ground and stared upward at the gray misty skies, where no blue showed through and where black dots of birds went sailing. Here was the ground of his boyhood dreams,—he knew it with a tinge of bitterness,—dreams that had ended always under gray skies, upon the bleak hills of the uplands. Here, where the full shy heart of him had first known the secret of its power in those long-gone boyhood days, he had entered upon his heritage, thinking only of its joy, knowing nothing of its pain. And here he had returned. Then he had seen himself a soaring lark, singing out its life in pure joy and triumph in a fair world of dreams and sunshine. Now he knew that the lark was caged, doomed to beat its wings forever against bars stronger than iron, that the dreams were shattered and the world was dark. His life was empty; he had lost all, a slave without a master, a singer whose song was stilled. His face, unchanging, stared at the changeless sky; he lay stolid and motionless, and aching with dumb loneliness. Out of all the world he knew himself alone, set apart from his kind by that heritage which his ardent youth had thought all joy; alien, with his world not the world of those around him, and his way the way of loneliness.
In time, Nature had her way with him, and he slept, alone upon the hillside, in the dead slumber of exhaustion. The world thundered on around him; the web of Life unrolled endlessly from the distaff of the Second Fate; and he slept on, unheeding.
In the late afternoon, when gray shadows were stealing westward over the quiet hills, came Eldris along the road toward Thorney, with an empty basket on her arm. She looked younger, rounder, better fed; her eyes were darkly blue and full of light, her skin as white as milk. Coming up a slight rise of ground, she saw the long figure lying against the hillside but a short distance away, and recognized it and stopped short, turning white, with a hand against her heart, all unprepared for what she had yearned to see. She went to him swiftly, and knelt beside him as he slept.
"Thank God! He hath returned—he is alive and well!" she whispered. "I had feared—oh, I know not what I feared! How hath he escaped? Ay me, but he is changed! There is that in his face which was not there before, and there is something gone from it. So thin he is—sure he hath been ill."
She hung over him in rapt absorption of tenderness; she listened to his slow and heavy breathing; she longed to draw his rough black head into her arms. Yet she dared scarcely touch him, since even in sleep he was still too much his own; rosy and shy she leaned above him, her face transfigured. They were alone in the world, with gray empty skies above them and gray silent hills rolling upon either hand.
With one finger she touched a lock of his hair, rough and matted, and dearer to her than all silken tresses; and he lay as one dead, very far from her. She whispered his name, but not for him to hear; at the deepness of his slumber she became emboldened. She stroked the hair from his forehead with mother-tender hands; her eyes brooded over him. He was her god; out of his strength he had saved her when she was helpless, so she murmured, ready, womanlike, to glorify; now he lay broken at her feet, with lean lithe limbs relaxed, with lids down-dropped over the gray sombre eyes which never had looked love into her eyes, with lips still grim and set even in the unconsciousness of sleep. She bent her head and with her lips touched the hair that she had smoothed. He stirred, and she started, a guilty thing, crimsoned with shame; but he did not wake. Her ears caught a word, as though in sleep he had felt a warm presence near him.
And for a name she listened hungrily, but none came. Who had found a place in that deep stern heart of his?—so she asked herself with a small inward twinge of an emotion new and strange. For whom had his keen eyes softened? Who had listened thralled to the silver speech which was all his? Who had known the strength of his arms? Who had found the spell which would soothe his savage moods to stillness and unloose the flood-gates of his magic? Whose was the name so sacred that even in sleep his lips could guard it?
"That is what he wants," she murmured; "some one to love him, to understand and comfort when he is so black and bitter, and I think it is what he hath never found. Ah, pray God he may find that one!"
Because she loved, it was given her to understand. And, understanding, she caught a glimpse of the tragedy of the loneliness in which those souls must wander whose world is not the world of everyday life and love and death. Quick tears dimmed her eyes, of pity because she understood; and one fell warm on the quiet face at her knee.
Nicanor opened his eyes, without moving, but Eldris saw, and sat stiffened with fear, self-betrayed in her swift flush. He raised himself on an elbow and looked at her, smiling slightly.
"Thou?" he said, with no surprise in his voice, as though he had thought of nothing but to find her there. "I thought Nicodemus said thou hadst not come."
"I did not go to him," said Eldris. "I was at another house a little while. Now I am taken care of by the priests of Saint Peter's."
Nicanor nodded. His eyes had not left her face.
"Perhaps that is best. Why dost thou weep?"
Eldris flushed again. But his gray eyes were inexorable; they dragged truth from her in spite of all her will.
"I—thou wert sleeping, and I thought thee ill, and I—was sorry."
"I am not ill," he answered, and his voice was gentle. "But let us speak of thee. Now I have come, not so soon as I had thought to come. It was not mine to say what I should do."
"You mean—?" Eldris said quickly. "Tell me of it. Tell me all of it, I pray you!"
Nicanor's eyes changed with the quick sweet smile which at rare times had power to lighten his face as a shaft of sunshine lights a thundercloud.
"All?" he repeated indulgently. "So, then, this is the tale."
He sat rocking gently back and forth, hands clasped about his knees, looking not at her at all, but away over the billowing hills.
"When thou hadst slipped away from the door of that torture room, I and Hito amused ourselves. And when our game was ended, he had no thought of thee nor thy escape; me it was upon whom all his loving care was centred. So it was commanded that I be taken to the lowest dungeon cell, there to meditate upon the sins which were mine.... I think that in all the world no man knows darkness as do I. Night is not dark; it hath the silver stars above it, and in the world the red earth-stars of men. But I was in darkness which was the darkness of the grave made manifest; it pressed upon mine eyes like leaden weights, and numbed my brain, and was a cloak which smothered me. What hours rolled on I knew not. I was fed or I starved; all was one. There was no time, there was no life, there was no death; there was but a naked soul sitting in still darkness. Five paces is my cell from wall to wall; shoulder high above the floor is a jutting stone. I doubt not that it is red with blood, since each time I passed, it scored me if I had not care."
Her shiver brought his glance back to her; with a smile he woke to recollection of her presence.
"I cry not thy sympathy, sweet sister; for there were times, and these were many, when the door of that dungeon opened wide, and Hito himself could not take from me my freedom. When I was back upon the moors with shepherds, who listened while I spoke; when I was by the camp-fires of Thorney in the Fords and men left their business at my word; and there was no darkness then in all the world. Back on the hills, where the clouds sweep free and the wind calls; back in the press of life, amid the crowding feet of men; back in the Garden of Lost Dreams, where flowers bloomed and grass was green and tender, and brown birds sang of love and life and freedom. And Hito, fond fool, rubbed his hands and thought he held me caged!"
He was very far from her again, in his own strange world; and she sat and watched him, her soul in her shining eyes, if he had but seen it, and knew she could not enter with him. He spoke more quickly; his voice fell to a deeper note, and in it was a mystery at which Eldris caught her breath.
"And out of the darkness there came a Tale to me, and thereafter there was light. And the tale is not yet ended—but it grows, it grows! Night and day it rings within my head; always it is with me, mine and mine only. But there is that in it which eludes me, which I seek and cannot find. And until I find it, the tale is not yet done. And it is of a Child, a Babe who lay within his mother's arms and smiled at all the world."
Eldris started, and her eyes, fixed upon his face, widened and filled with light. And again at her motion Nicanor came back to her. He looked at her, and his own eyes were as she had seen them once before, when upon a day she had told him that the name men called him was the silver-tongued.
"Once thou didst tell that tale to me," he said, "and day or night it hath never left me since. When it is ended, and I have found this thing I seek, then I'll tell it thee."
He took up his speech again, and she hung upon his words, unafraid to watch him since his eyes were turned from her.
"So there was a gray rat within this my dungeon cell; and at such times when the light faded and I was back therein, I coaxed and fed him, and taught him how to fight. Eh, he was a gallant beast, and his scar is yet upon my hand. He, my gaunt gray rat, and this little Christ of thine were all that kept my brain from madness those days when I sat in darkness. And in time, I, with others, was sent off to the mines, and there we labored until word came that men were needed to help our lord, who was attacked in his household by barbarians. But I was left behind when these were started, wounded by one with whom I had a quarrel about this same gray rat. When I reached our lord's house, it was empty, sacked and spoiled, and stationarii patrolled it. So I came onward to Londinium and here again was I left behind. Our lord hath left the country, and we are free to live or die as we may. I had no plan for thee when I bade thee to come hither, for there was no time for planning with Hito's jaws agape for thee." He rose to his feet and stood looking down upon her. "Now we be both alone, and there is but one thing for it that I can see. Thou must come with me. I cannot promise thee ease nor even safety, but what I have, thou shalt have also."
"With thee!" Eldris repeated below her breath, and turned her face from him. It flushed and was radiant; love brimmed over in her eyes. Was she the one who might find her place in that stern, deep heart of his,—she who might learn the spell which would soothe those bitter moods of his to stillness? Her eyes glowed and drooped. And then, slowly, across her face there fell a shadow, and the shadow was of the cross. She knew nothing of evasion; as her heart, so her lips spoke.
"With thee!" she breathed again. A sob caught her throat. In her turn she rose and faced him. "Ah, I would so gladly—so gladly! But—I can go with thee in but one way, and that way as thy wife."
Nicanor looked at her.
"Why, thou knowest that may not be," he said gently, yet with some surprise. "I am a slave, and a slave hath no rights before the law, nor to lawful marriage. It is the law. But come thou!"
Eldris turned white.
"I am Christian!" she said painfully, "and that thing I may not do. Father Ambrose teacheth that Christ hath forbidden."
"I did not make the law," said Nicanor. "Could I do so, I'd give thee gladly the name of wife. But even thus, more of honor I could not give thee. It is not what I wish to do, but what I must do." He took her face between his hands. "Child, the law is made, not by man, but by men; and it is not for man only, but for men. Were it not found good by men, it could not be. And the law, in its wisdom, saith that a slave is a beast, a thing without rights; and I am a slave. There is no law which could marry me to thee.... I cannot give thee marriage,—I, a slave."
"And I, a Christian, cannot go without," said Eldris, very low. Two tears rolled from beneath her wan closed lids. Nicanor bent his tall head and kissed them away, with what tenderness a brother might give a sister dearly loved. But with sudden wild sobbing Eldris flung up her arms and clasped his neck, and hid her face against him.
"Oh, I would go with thee!" she wept. "Heart of my heart, I would follow to the world's end, wherever thy path might lead me. I love thee, Nicanor, oh, my man of the silver tongue! and I shall love thee even till I die. But go with thee I may not—I dare not! Is this right? Were thy law and my religion made for this, to wreak such woe upon those who follow them? It is cruel,—it is more cruel than death, and I would to God that I were dead!"
Nicanor stood a moment silent, stroking her dark hair gently.
"No man would hold thee less worthy, since the case is as it must be. Never have I heard of slaves who took thy view of this. All thy life shalt thou have honor and protection. Were it in my power to mend matters, and I did not, the fault would then lie with me. As it is, it is no man's fault, and we have the right to make the best we may of it."
She shook her head, struggling with her tears. His tone changed; it deepened and thrilled until she thrilled with it; in it she heard the concentration of all loneliness and all bitterness.
"Come to me, Eldris, for I need thee sorely! All my life have I gone chained, desiring what I could not win, longing for what lay beyond me. Must it be so again? Once one said: 'Seek thou the sanctuary while yet there may be time; and when thou art entered in all else shall be as nothing, for there thou shalt have peace.' Then I did not understand; now know I too well. That is what all my life I have never found, though I have sought in many places, and for a weary while. Therefore pray your God to pity me and all who are as I, for I am ridden by ten thousand devils—a flame consumes me which I cannot quench. An ambition is not all a blessing to him who hath it! Oh, the dreams that were mine, which the high gods gave to me, and which are gone,—gone as the smoke goes and shall never come again! The glimpse I have had of a world that should be mine and never can be mine hath shown me all that I have lost. I beat my hands against the bars, and what doth it avail? I am a slave—a slave was I born and a slave shall I die. There is beauty in the world, and I may not see it; there is knowledge in the world, and I may not share it; and my soul is sick with longing for what all men may have but I. There is a thing within me which cries panting for release, and rends me because I know not how to set it free. It is agony and delight, pain and joy beyond all naming; and once I thought it only joy. Thus ever hath it been: what I have thought would bring me peace hath brought me pain, and pain that I know not what I have done to deserve. It was not thus when I lived a brute's life among the brutes in far, gray, northern hills; there was I content, not knowing that I wanted something more. Now have I stretched my hands out to a star, and found it so far beyond my reach that for me its light is lost in darkness which will never lift. Yet the star is shining,—but not for me."
The torrent of his speech checked. His voice dropped from the strain of its hoarse passion. He gathered her two hands closer on his breast.
"We be two outcasts, thou and I!—thou shunning, I shunned. Yet we still have each the other. Now do I come seeking the sanctuary of thy love, thy balm and healing for the hands and heart I have beaten against my bars. Wilt thou deny? Must I be turned away? Eldris, come!"
"Oh!" cried Eldris, her heart in her stricken voice. Long she looked at him, with eyes drowned in tears and lips quivering, all her struggle in her torn face. But suddenly she drew her hands from his, and slipped to her knees before him, and hid her face in shaking fingers.
"Oh, God!" she prayed,—and once Nicanor had heard words babbling so from a man upon the rack who never knew that he had talked aloud,—"keep me from going with him! I want to so—oh, I want to so! Make me strong—never let me yield to what is sin! Keep me from going with him! I love him so that I would sin for him! Dear Jesus Lord, keep me from doing that! But make me strong very quickly, or I must go—how can I stay when he so sorely needs me? Oh, God, God, God, I could comfort him so well! We cannot help it, neither he nor I. Nay, I will not weaken,—I will be strong, quite strong,—but in pity Thou must help a little too! I love Thee and the little Jesus, but I love him more—oh, nay—not more! I did not mean it!" She raised her streaming face, turning at the last from the Power whence no help came, to the human strength beside her. "Oh, beloved, help me, for I cannot fight alone!"
So, at the need of one soul, into the world another soul was born, and the long travail of spirit rending flesh was ended.
"Dear heart, be strong!—thy will shall be my will. If it be sin to thee, thou shalt not sin through me!" Nicanor said, and knelt beside her.
Nerveless and shaken with strangling sobs, she crept into the shelter of his arms, trusting him wholly now that his word was hers, pleading unconsciously that he save her from herself and from him. He lifted her to her feet, soothing her with touch and voice, forgetting himself in her distress. Her religious scruples he could not comprehend; the gods of religion were to be invoked when one wanted material benefits from them, not held as mentors to dictate one's course in life. But since she had such scruples, and since he was learning new, strange tolerance for and sympathy with others, it was not his to blame her for them; rather to remember that though they might be nothing to him, they were all to her, and were therefore not to be held lightly. So, because he was slowly gaining the strength to think of others before himself,—and of strength this is the surest test,—and because the tenderness of a strong man is greater than all the tenderness of a woman, he soothed her and brought her peace; and, it may be, in bringing it he found a measure of it himself. She was very dear to him,—dear as one might be who was not enshrined above all her kind forever. Heart and soul he was another's, for all time and all eternity; yet life was his to live and to make the best of it, even though there was a locked and guarded chamber in it of which the key was lost....
Hand in hand they walked homeward in the faint twilight glow. He left her at the church gate, and himself turned away, back toward the house of Nicodemus, walking with bent head and broad shoulders bowed. But his face was not all sombre; something of the courage he had given her remained to him, and his eyes were softened with the new tenderness which still lived. For it is one of the compensations as well as of the penalties of life, that what one gives, one shall get again.
At the threshold sudden distaste seized him; after what he had been through, the thought of the well-meaning, brutish chatter of Nicodemus and his wife was not to be endured. He turned back again and went as far from them as he could get, down to the river-ford. Here he sat upon the beach, away from the passing of the people; and the waters rippled at his feet. The west had cleared; overhead the faint rose of the sky was paling, but across the broad river was splashed a pastel of orange and blue and crimson; and the red, misty ball of the sun was dipping below the world's dark rim.
"This is love also," Nicanor said aloud, as though one had been by to hear him. "As she loveth me, so I love. There is love of a man for a maid, and of husband for wife; and there is love of sire for child, and of a friend for a friend, and of these all are different. Yet it is all one love, touching life on every side.... Why, then, it takes in all the world!"
His voice changed and rang with quick and startled exultation.
"Gods of my fathers! I have found it—I have found that thing I sought! It is love, not fear, nor wrath, nor power, that gave that little Child his power! And because it takes in all the world, this little One of whom men tell hath this love, then, for all the world. Now this is strange! Oh, Little Brother, I have found my tale, and it shall be greater than any tale that I have made before!"
His eyes deepened and flashed to the quick surge of power which shook him; now well and truly should all men name him Nicanor of the silver tongue. He was a slave, yet men should bow before him. No iron bars might longer hold him down; Fate, that mocking Fate of his, could no longer keep him chained. But over all the triumph in his face there grew also the old awe as in those days of boyhood, long ago, when first he knew himself for but the tool with which the work was wrought. His face changed and grew longing; his keen eyes dimmed. Quite suddenly he rose to his knees, kneeling as he had seen Eldris kneel, and clasped his hands as Eldris had clasped hers.
"Oh, Little Brother of the World, if thou lovest all men, love me also, for I have no one else. When I have sought love, it hath ever turned from me, prospering nothing. But since it seemeth that all men must love something, woman, or fame, or gold, it may be that it is not for me to love one woman only, but all men. If it be that I must choose, I will lose love of woman, and love of friend, and love of child; I will live alone to the end of my days, if but this soul of mine, which singeth in my loneliness, may return to me and my lips be no longer dumb. Love hath chained them; let now love set them free. And this my tale shall be strong as the wind that calls across the hills, and pure as flame, and great as love which takes in all the world, to the end that it may be worthy. Mine it is, and mine only; I made it, and it is blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh, and none may take it from me. Yet it is all, and I am naught but the voice which speaks."
His voice sank. He sat in silence, looking beyond the sunset, his hands about his knees.
So slowly the waters closed over the sun, and the day died, and the shadow of night descended upon Thorney.
Old oaks caught the sunlight in their reaching hands and dropped it down to earth in flakes of gold; beech and larch and linden reared their tall heads above the road, and vines clung to them in woven tapestries of living green. There opened from this road dim forest aisles, veiled in dusk in which sunbeams quivered, paths of mystery, winding toward strange twilight worlds where wild wood-creatures wandered. Warm earth-scents drenched the air; soft sibilant whisperings stirred overhead, and hidden birds chattered in the leafage.
Here Nicanor sat in the dusk and gold of the forest's afternoon, his back against a gray tree-trunk, his hands about his knees. Hither every day he wandered, drinking new life from Earth's brown bosom, with idle hands and weaving brain. Here, where he had lost his vision, he was drawn back as by enchantment. He wished to dream again; to conjure forth the flying figure from the void into which it had vanished. To him it was more real than reality; for want of the substance he strove to keep the shadow in his heart.
In the spirit he roamed world-wide, with the narrow life of Thorney, its petty din and traffic, fallen away from him and forgotten utterly. Always his wandering ended in a garden, whose every path of dusky green he knew by heart, where one waited for him in the still evening light. In the flesh he lived with Nicodemus and Myleia, letting himself be waited on, worried over, caressed, to their affectionate hearts' content. No mood of his was too wayward for their sympathy; when at nightfall, after long hours of brooding, he would chant strange tales by some crowded camp-fire, than theirs were no voices quicker in wonder and applause. That they understood not half of what he said mattered nothing to their fondness; yet to Nicanor it was this one thing which mattered all. Nor were they the only ones who listened and loved his words. Many a fretting soul he lulled to quiet by his magic; to many he gave pleasure whose pleasures were all too few. Once he had scorned them, these simple children of plain and forest, whose emotions he could mould as a potter moulds his clay; in his high pride he had thought that these were not the worlds he was born to conquer. Now he loved them; to bring a moment's brightness into some gray life, a moment's forgetfulness of pain to one who suffered—this it was his to do. For, as once he had thought to move the hearts of kings with his power, so now he knew that a king's heart is no more than man's heart, and only he may move the one who can move the other. And every heart that he won he laid in spirit at the feet of his lost lady, who had taught him the Master-word of the tongue of men and angels, without which faith and hope can profit nothing, nor can any heart be won.
A thicket of briars and underbrush hid him from the road. For drowsy hours he had looked through his tangled lattice upon the life that went up and down the highway, himself unseen,—a pedler, bent under the weight of the pack upon his shoulders, making wry faces at his blistered feet; a farmer, mounted on his clumsy two-wheeled cart, returning from the markets of Londinium; a chariot, gay with paint and gilding, with two young nobles arguing over the races at Uriconium; and between all these, long intervals of sun-steeped stillness, when the world drowsed and insects shrilled in the untrod grasses.
Later there came northward toward Londinium a funeral train, on the way to the cemeteries that lined the road outside the town, weaving in and out among the checkered shadows, stately and slow and solemn in its pomp of death. There was a bier, draped with a pall of sable velvet, and drawn by four white horses, pacing slow. Slaves and clients went on foot before and behind it; and beside it there walked a man, tall and of lordly bearing. His hand rested on the bier's edge; his face, bowed upon his breast, was scored with sorrow. There was dust upon the richness of his mourning cloak; and dust also on the plumed trappings of the horses, and the garments and the sandals of the slaves. This pilgrimage of love and sorrow had been no easy one, nor short. Nicanor, peering through the brambles at the sombre train, read the story in the man's face, where tragedy sat frozen. At once his mind's eyes saw, beneath the embroidered pall, a fair dead face, great eyes closed, and lashes drooping on a marble cheek, two hands folded on a pulseless breast. In a heart-beat it was as though a veil had lifted, and he probed the depths of one phase of the world's tragedy; through one man's sorrow he looked into the sorrows of all men. By his own pain he felt himself made kin to all those thousands of the earth who knew pain also. The feeling lasted but a moment, and was gone, leaving him with hushed breath and shining eyes.
"Here have I found another chord of life to play on," he said softly. "And when it is touched there is no human heart but must answer. So thou also hast lost her, O friend! And yet, perhaps, after all, thou art happier than I. There are things worse than death, as I have found. At least ... she is all thine!"
When the turn of the afternoon had come, and while he lay watching gnats dancing in a shaft of golden light that fell athwart the trees, his ears caught voices from the road, and the click of a horse's feet against a stone. A woman laughed; and again he parted the brambles and looked out. The road was splashed with sunshine and shadowed by the trees which arched above it and hid the sky. Down it, with faces turned from Thorney, two came toward him,—a girl, sitting sideways on a great bay horse, leaning to the man who walked beside it. She was fair, with long hair lying in a golden sheen upon her crimson mantle. She rode steadying herself to the horse's stride with a hand upon the man's shoulder. He, tall, fair also of hair and skin, with blue eyes laughing under flaxen brows, in a brown leathern jacket and brazen cap which caught the sun in small sliding gleams of light, led the horse by its bridle and looked up at her as she talked. Down the green forest way they came in the mellow shade and sunshine, fair as gods, radiant in their youth and life and happiness, with eyes for nothing, ears for nothing, save each other.
"It is Wardo!" said Nicanor, in surprise. "Sure I had thought him on the way to Gaul."
He pressed through the thicket and stepped into the road. Wardo saw him, and dropped the bridle with an exclamation, and ran forward.
"Thou!" he cried, and fell upon Nicanor in a storm of joy. "Thou great rascal, I had thought thee dead. Where hast been that thou didst not seek me? When didst leave the mines? Hast heard of what befell our lord? Oh, I have hungered for thee, to tell thee the good fortune which is mine!"
The horse came up to them, with the girl in the crimson mantle sitting stately on its back. Her eyes were blue and shining; her cheeks were flushed with the rose of life. Nicanor smiled at her and at his friend.
"So, Sada?" he said, with a note in his voice which neither caught. "All is then as it should be?"
"Ay, promise you that!" said Wardo, a hand on the girl's knee. She smiled down into his eyes. "She is mine now. This day did I take the gold to Chloris, and the cage-door opened, and my bird was free. My bird now, and no other man's."
"Thine!" she murmured, radiant.
"When our lord departed for Gaul, I was left behind in the confusion." So Wardo told his tale. "Well, perhaps I need not have been, had not the gods willed it so. Therefore I was my own man, and could not be held to account for it, since my lord ran away from me, not I from him. So I joined those East Saxons who are moving down upon us from the Fens, and henceforth my lot is cast with them. For some of these I repaired swords, bucklers, what not, since my old trade is not lost to me, and for my work they gave me gold—ay, much gold. And with the gold I bought Sada. Now we go forth to seek our nest; where, we care not. She is mine, and I am free. Ye holy gods, but it is fine for a man to own himself and call none other lord! No man ever more shall hold me slave to him. Henceforth we be rovers, this star of my life and I. Come thou with us, friend! If thou stay here, thou'lt be held no better than erro, a landless, masterless wanderer, who is fair game for the law and for all men. Had my lord stayed, thou knowest that I too should have remained faithful. He being gone, we must fend for ourselves as best we may."
Nicanor shook his head.
"Nay, I stay here. Go thou thy way, and may thy faring prosper. Now tell of our lord and his escape."
"Ho, there was work which thou shouldst have seen!" He told of Wulf, and of the fighting which was done within the villa; of the flight from the house, the long ride by cart-track and highway to Calleva, with his lady crouched in front of him and her hair blowing over his hands. And here Nicanor broke in.
"Thou there with her, and I—Tell me, man, was she hurt or frightened? Did she swoon or weep?"
"How could I see?" said Wardo. "I stood, and she kneeled before me. And little did I care whether she wept or swooned, when the grays were plunging like to tear my arms from my body, and it was all I could do to keep upon two wheels. There went my lord ahead, and here pounded I after, and alongside rode my lord Marius, watching his wife and itching to be back and have it out with those reavers. I saw it in his eye. Eh, that was a wild night. We made the Bibracte road, and doubled back eastward, and so rode for Londinium. But at the second miliarium from Bibracte the grays gave out. So my lord Marius took my lady upon his saddle, and they all went on, bidding me follow as soon as might be. But by the grace of the gods, I was too late. When I reached the port, my lord and his people had set sail for Gaul. Well, then, if thou wilt not come with us, when things be settled, and a man may know better what to look for, I shall come and seek thee, and we will have a talk over old days together, and spill a drop or so to Bacchus. Until then, comrade o' mine, farewell."
They grasped hands, and Sada smiled a farewell at Nicanor. The two went on, then, and left him standing there, and he watched them pass away into the glinting light and shade until Sada's crimson mantle was lost in the green gloom of trees. He took his slow way back toward Thorney, musing as he walked.
"This day mine eyes have looked on life and death, and all that death mourns and life clamors is Love, Love, and again Love. Strange that something all men must love, who cannot live for themselves alone, no matter how they try."
He came down from his dreams at the stepping-stones of the marsh-ford, to find himself all but overrunning a child who stood upon the bank and wept because he feared to cross—a small atom of a man, with little tunic torn and puckered face of woe. At sight of Nicanor he ran, and flung himself against his legs, with the sure confidence of babyhood in all the new, strange world, and clamored to be taken home.
Nicanor stooped to him with a laugh, recognizing him as the son of one Julius the Tungrian, a field-hand belonging to the farmer Medor, whose estate lay between the hills a half-mile from Thorney.
"How now, manling? Why these tears at thy first venture into the world? How didst stray so far from mother's skirts? Dost wish to go home?"
"Ay, home!" wept young Julius. "Thou wilt take me home!"
"Come, then," said Nicanor, and swung him to his shoulder, and turned back from the ford to the road again.
It came upon him then that this was the first time that ever he had held a child in his arms. Always before had children run from him, learning, like their elders, to shun him: now he knew why. The softness of the round little body thrilled him oddly; the touch of the clinging hands, the baby weight upon his shoulder, called into life emotions such as he had never thought to know. A child, a little living child, her child and his.... The thought stirred him suddenly to his soul; and with the thought a fresh bit of the Scroll of Life unrolled before his eyes,—that Scroll which slowly he was learning how to read. His heart caught another phase of the old experience of the world, the high pride and joy of fatherhood. Again, as once before, he got a flash of new, strange light into the hearts and minds of all the world of men, as with the parting of a veil; found a new chord under his hand to be struck into pulsing life. All unaware that on a day his lady had said, "His son could I love, and be proud that he was mine," he marvelled at himself and at his feeling, and still more at the little one that had such power to wake it.
He reached the farm of Medor, and stopped at the cabin of Julius, whom he knew, which stood at the edge of the estate. Through the open doorway he could see, in the obscurity of the one poor room within, a woman's figure, bending to rub her man's back, bruised and raw from the harness of the plough, with ointment of herbs—a nightly proceeding regular as the evening meal. When she had done, he would take his turn in rubbing her; since it was not enough for women to be the bearers of children, but also they must be hewers of wood and drawers of water as well. She rose to straighten herself from her task, and saw the tall figure coming doorward, with the little one crowing upon his shoulder. At her exclamation, Julius, rugged and mossed as a sturdy hemlock, came to the threshold to look over her shoulder, stripped to the waist, his neck and arms shining with the grease.
"Here is thy son, O Kalia!" said Nicanor, halting. "He was by Thorney, weeping because the world was not large enough for his adventure."
The mother received her son with tender welcome, but he held his arms out to Nicanor, whimpering to be taken back.
"He runs away to play with boys while I am in the field, the wicked one!" she said.
Julius looked down at her and at his boy with proud eyes. When he was drunk he would beat his wife, but she loved him because he loved their child. Nicanor looked at the three.
"He is worth having," he said, very soberly, nor thought that his words might sound strange to them. He smiled at the boy, and left them, with the mother's thanks following him.
And Julius, watching him across the field toward the road, said:
"Mark you how the boy hath taken to him? Dost remember, before he went away from Thorney, how children ran from him, and even folk feared him and his gall-tipped tongue?"
"I remember," Kalia answered. "Even I have punished the child by saying, 'The black man Nicanor will get thee if thou stop not thy crying,' until for very fear he ceased. Never have I seen one so changed as he. Juncina, the fish-wife, with whom I spoke but yesterday on Thorney, saith that each day he goeth to lame Gallus, the blacksmith's son, who is dying of a fever, and telleth him tales until the little one sleeps. And when folk give him money for his tales, he will take it, though he never asketh it, and of it he will give half to those three old men whom each day he tendeth. It is not so long since he hath been back on Thorney, yet even so all men wonder at the change in him. Verily, I think that he must be in love."
"That is ever all you women think of!" Julius grumbled. "Were you to have your way of it, it would be love that worketh all the miracles, cureth all the illnesses, taketh the place of all the gods. Now come and rub; I am sore in every joint and sinew."
Nicanor went home in a brown study, seeing never Kalia's broad, homely face, untidy wisps of hair, brown bosom covered by her coarse gray kerchief, but that face, young and fair and tender, which in his dreams had become mingled with that Other Woman's face with holy eyes, who was the Virgin Mother of all love. When he thought of this one, it was to think of the other, no longer woman merely, but idealized and uplifted into all that he could imagine of purity, a something too fine for earth. In place of humble Kalia, he pictured that fair patrician face as his soul's eyes saw it, glorified with the mother-love upon it, brooding over a round little head in the hollow of her breast. Holy gods, the maddening, sweet mockery of it! He shook himself as one who throws off a weight upon him, and turned in at the house of Nicodemus, whistling, with aching throat and sombre eyes of pain.
It was later than he had thought, and the evening meal was over. This troubled him not at all, for in that house he was sovereign lord, and knew his power. Myleia and her ursine spouse served him quite as though they had been his slaves. A roasted pigeon hot from the coals, beans cooked in oil with garlic, a cake of barley-bread baked in the ashes, honey, and a pitcher of wine—no lord could have fared better than their idol.
Nicodemus carried an empty platter to Myleia in the kitchen, showing it to her with immense pride.
"He hath eaten all!" he rumbled in a rasping whisper. "The first time these three weeks. Come! that is doing better. We'll have him around yet, my girl—this spoiled baby of ours."
"Who spoileth him?" she retorted, pinching his ear gently. "Thou art worse over him than a mother whose babe hath cut its first tooth. Thou art foolish in thine old age, my great ugly bear."
"Soul of my heart, a man must find something to be foolish over!" he declared, vastly pleased. "And it is high time I left off being foolish over thee. Eh, sweeting, what sayest thou?"
He ruffled her hair with his great hand. Nicanor looked in upon them from the threshold.
"At it again, thou old lion and his mate? Thou also!" he said, and smiled at them. "I go down to the ford—there be a party of men riding over the hill. Wilt come, Nico?"
The two went forth into the evening, leaving Myleia to watch them with fond eyes of pride from the low doorway.
Along the street people had begun to gather, with more of curiosity to see what might be seen than of apprehension. Woodmen with bundles of fagots on their shoulders, fishermen with strings of fish, itinerant wine-sellers rattling strings of horn cups, with skins of cheap red wine, vendors of the black sticky sweetmeats made of the blood of beeves mixed with rice and honey,—all these ceased to cry custom for their evening trade in interest at the arrival of the strangers. It was long since such a crowd had descended upon Thorney; trade might be improving. Women, ragged, with more ragged children clinging to their skirts, came from the fisher-huts upon the beach to gaze across the marsh.
And across the ford, on the crest of the long gentle rise of hill over which the straight road ran, came riding a troop of horsemen, carelessly, without order, in a tangle of waving spears and gleaming helmets. No merchants or townsfolk were these; and a tingle went through the crowd at the sight of weapons. Those were days when none knew what to expect from hour to hour. The on-comers cantered down the hill and into the waters of the marsh-ford; and it could be seen that they were for the most part fair-skinned, and every man bore a round buckler of bullock's hide upon his arm. At once a whisper flew from end to end of Thorney:
"These be Saxons!"
The name had become a word with which to conjure. The crowd upon the beach increased. Nicanor and Nicodemus stood in the forefront of it and watched.
The leaders of the party—an old man with white drifting beard and hot blue eyes, and a young one, with tanned face and brown, curling hair—rode out upon the shingle with stern faces set straight ahead. Those behind them were more free and easy as to bearing; a man leaned from his saddle to scoop up water in his hand; there was joking in low tones, and deep-throated laughter. As they drew nearer to the people, waiting silent, it could be seen that they had with them a prisoner in their midst, bound upon his horse and wounded; and at sight of him a murmur fluttered through the crowd. For he went in the dress of a Roman noble, torn and stained with blood, his head sunk forward on his breast, his right arm in a sling—a pitiful object, were there those to pity.
With the crowd Nicanor and Nicodemus followed the Saxons as they rode along the main street. Questions flew from mouth to mouth:
"Who is this lord, their prisoner? Whither take they him? How did they capture him? For what come they here?" But to these no man could give an answer.
Thereafter Fate, the grim, smiling goddess, took into her own hand the shuttle of Destiny and sent it flying fast rough the warp and woof of Life. For when they came to the river's brink, the tide was in, and the waters of Tamesis, too deep to ford with safety since the moon was full, swirled past them in their swift rush from the sea.
The Saxons halted on the beach, dismounting, while the leaders conferred, and the prisoner drooped pallid in their midst; and the men of Thorney seized upon their chance for trade. An hundred mouths to feed was a boon not to be despised in those lean days. There sprang up a horde of wine-sellers, men with poultry, with produce, and with meats. The two leaders rode away to seek an inn, each attended by a servant. A fire was kindled on the beach, where in other days so many fires had blazed; for a brief while Thorney took on a semblance of its former thriving self. Mingled with the sounds of trade and barter there was heard the dry, thin rattle of a sistrum from a temple of Isis where priests and worshippers were gathered for hidden rites; the voices of men singing, the neighing of horses.
Here, on the river side of Thorney, the beach was wider than upon the marsh side. The houses grouped themselves in black, irregular masses behind this beach; and to the west, a short distance from the water's edge, rose the low stone wall which bounded the land of the Christian church. Fishermen's huts were crowded at the foot of this wall; and along the sand were strewn rotting spars and timbers, and there were boats drawn out of reach of the tide. Old houses, wrecked by fire and time, leaned their tottering walls above the alleys at strange angles, settling slowly into the ruin of age. The round moon hung stately, low in the eastern sky, drowning in radiance the garish glare of flames; houses stood out sharp-cut against its light, and strange shadows flung across the crooked cobbled streets. A broad path of silver glinted on the inky waters of the river. The smell of fish and tar rose strong above all other scents.