The Saxons, hungry and weary from their march, ate hugely and drank deep. Horns of mead and beer were drained and filled; white wine was as good as red. They talked with the men of Thorney, in strange Latin, with much gesticulation and interpolation of Saxon words. Among the many figures on the beach, black in the mingled light of moon and flame, was ceaseless motion, kaleidoscopic and bewildering. Thorney woke to a lusty gayety, born of deep drinking; of recklessness, even, such as she had known rarely since the old days of the legions. Laughter became louder; quarrels, short and fierce, arose as hot blood mounted with the fumes of wine. Into the air there crept a tension, the intangible effluvium of excitement which precedes the arousing of the crowd. Quite suddenly the spirits of people were raised to fever pitch; the boisterous vigor of the Saxons was infectious.
Nicanor soon lost sight of Nicodemus. He stood among the people, regarding the scene with eyes of detachment. As always in a crowd, an odd sense of impersonality possessed him, of aloofness; in it he was forgetful of his own presence, of his own corporeality; became as a Mind seeking out its own. Here and there he was recalled by a man's greeting; here and there also a woman spoke. Everywhere he was hailed cheerily, as one comrade by another. Jests were passed to him, for which he gave as good as he got. There was that in their intercourse with him which proved him one of themselves, an intimate sharer in their pleasures, their sorrows, their lives. Yet he was the man who not so many years before had in this place been baited as men bait a bear—the surlier, the better sport.
A red-lipped flower-girl, on the way home from her day's business in Londinium with her basket of remaining blossoms, was pressed against his shoulder in the outer edge of the crowd that watched the Saxons feed, as boys gather to see the wild beasts of the arena tear their meat. She turned, saw him, and laughed with gay raillery.
"Couldst even thou, O Silver-tongued, make of these great guzzling cattle a tale?"
He looked at her with quick artist joy in the vivid color and effect of her,—red lips, cheeks as brilliant as her roses, black eyes, midnight hair in which a crimson flower was tangled. In her laughing glance, her care-free joyous innocence, he caught a hint, gone as swiftly as it come, of that Other who held his soul. Now he understood the heart and inmost meaning of it; it was the all-compelling Womanhood, the sacred spark, guarded and precious, which set men's hearts aflame; and for him, henceforth, because of that one, it made all women sacred. He answered her, banter for banter.
"What would the world be without cattle, O Flower-maiden? And why not a tale? There is a tale in all things, if one but look to find it—in every bud and leaf and flower—in these Saxons—in thee, little sister to the rose!"
"That is pretty," she cried, dimpling. "Here is a bloom in payment; once it was as fragrant as thy words. May they never lose sweetness like a flower which fadeth!"
Reaching up, she thrust a flower behind his ear, as a young fop of the nobility would wear it, and sprang away into the crowd laughing.
"The wish of innocence should be good omen; the gods grant it!" said Nicanor. He pushed onward through the press to get a nearer view of the Saxons; and heard as he came a great voice shouting a rhythmic chant.
Over the shoulders of those in front he could see a ring of Saxons surrounding the man who sang. As they listened they drank, and as they drank grew more emphatic in applause. The singer was a bull-chested fellow, purple-faced with his exertions. He swung his sword, he roared, he heaved himself upon his toes; and Nicanor, fellow-craftsman and maker of words, eyed him and smiled a smile of pity.
The shouting ceased; the man cast himself upon the ground and called for wine. Nicanor touched upon the shoulder one whose face showed that he understood the words.
"Friend, who is this dainty warbler, and what the burden of his song?"
"Who he is I know not," said the man, with a grunt of laughter. "What he sang was the greatness of his people, and their skill in war. Tell thou them a tale, Nicanor; these Saxons will listen all day to tales, and give good silver to the teller."
Nicanor shook his head.
"Nay; perhaps they understand not Latin over well, and I had rather that they understood than that they gave me silver. Now what are they going to do?"
Two men dragged the prisoner forward into the circle of the firelight. He was afoot, but the hand free of the sling was bound to his body. That the poor wretch knew what they would do with him was plain; he cringed, and cast hunted glances around the ring of fire-lit, curious faces.
"I am Felix of Anderida, a Roman lord!" he cried in a high voice, his pale eyes wide with fear. "If there be any Roman among ye who will free me from these Saxon wolves, I will give him gold as much as his back may carry!"
A Saxon raised his hand and smote the lord upon the mouth, so that blood began to trickle down his chin.
"Cease thy bleating, thou white-eyed sheep!" he growled in Latin.
"That is not right, to strike a man unarmed and bound," said the man beside Nicanor. "I think our backs could carry a goodly sum of gold, eh, friend? These fellows be half drunken; it should not be difficult to get him free of them, and after, make him pay. I am of the collegium of smiths in Londinium, and I see many of my fellows here who would stand with me. Also, we could summon the militarii unto us and let them settle the matter; it is not lawful that these Saxons make away with a Roman after this fashion."
"I can hold them, if thou canst summon thy fellows quickly," said Nicanor. His tone was quite assured. "But it must be done at once, before they have worked themselves up to mischief over him."
"Do thou so then, and I will shake a staff aloft when he is safe," said the man, and slipped away among the people.
Before Nicanor could make his way through to confront the Saxons, who were preparing for brutal sport with their prisoner, the horses of the two chieftains broke through the ring and the riders dismounted in the open space. The lord Felix twisted away from those who held him and ran to the younger chief.
"Call thy fellows from me!" he cried. "Each time when thou art not by they seek to torture me for their sport."
The brown-haired leader folded his arms across his chest and looked down upon his prisoner. He spoke, in Latin sufficiently fluent.
"Hast thou forgotten that I am Ceawlin, son of that Evor whom thou hast slain, and that my foot is upon thy neck and thy blood shall be let out in payment for my sire his blood? How then shouldst thou say what may or may not be done with thee, thou little toad?"
It was then that Nicanor came into the torchlit ring, walking carelessly, a song upon his lips. He stopped where the light fell fullest on him, facing the chieftains, shapely as a young pagan god in the strength and flower of his manhood, the red rose behind his ear. The speech of Ceawlin broke and stopped; his gaze fastened upon the intruder with the swift recognition of one strong man for another.
"Who is this man?" he said sharply. None answered; his own people did not know, and no one else seemed ready to stand sponsor. Ceawlin spoke again. "Who art thou, fellow? Art thou also of the Welsh?"
For as Briton was the Roman word, so Welsh, or waelisc, a foreigner, was the Saxon word, meaning merely one who was not of Teuton race, and given to those nations which spoke the Latin tongue.
"I am a Briton," said Nicanor. "Men call me the teller of tales, and I am come to buy from thee thy prisoner. What price wilt thou put upon him, O son of Evor?"
"How knowest thou me?" Ceawlin asked doubtfully. His voice became angered. "What price, quotha! No price that thou canst pay, sir teller of tales!"
"So? Didst ever hear of that ancient sea-king who put too high a price upon his spoils?" said Nicanor, with a laugh, choosing simple words that all might understand. Before Ceawlin had time to speak he swung around upon the listening men, standing tall in the ruddy light, his head thrown back to shake the hair from his eyes. "Listen, O friends, for it is a good tale, such as ye know how to love. Five black ships, dragon-prowed, rode out of the night, upon the black seas, upon the foam. Long were they, and lean, and swift as the vertragus, the hound that outspeeds the hart. Winds roared behind them; great birds swooped through the storm across their way; great waves rushed under them as they rode with rocking spars. Spray swept across the faces of those who manned them, as the hair of a woman sweeps across her lover's face; crashing they reeled through lifting seas, and swam to the crests of curling billows rimmed with pale fire, and the thunder of their going outroared the clamoring storm. Know ye the yell of the wind in the straining cordage, the heave and fall of the plunging deck beneath your feet? Know ye the sting of brine upon your lips, and the savor of the salt winds in your lungs, O ye sons of Evor?"
A deep breath went through the circle, as though a breath from the outer seas had filled men's nostrils. Ceawlin licked his lips as though he had thought to find them stiff with salt.
"Ay—we know!" he said deeply, his eyes alight. "Hast thou then been also upon the seas?"
Nicanor laughed low.
"Nay, never I!" he said. "But I see that ye do know."
"Go on!" spoke a voice, impatient, from the circle.
They were his, every man, and he knew it. In his first words he had struck the chord which answered true in them, these lawless sea-rovers; they were his to play upon as a musician on his lyre. The sure instinct of his art taught him to tell of those things which they themselves knew best, which were nearest to them, to their own lives. The ring held silent, awaiting his next word, bearded men who leaned upon their spears and iron swords, and listened. They had eyes for none other than he, this tall youth with the black hair and the eyes of steel, who stood before them in his careless pose of triumph, with his red rose thrust behind his ear; who knew what they knew, felt what they had felt, made them see what he saw, and held them in the hollow of his hand. Caught up in his swift imagery, even they forgot their prisoner, who, it seemed, was further to one side, less in evidence among his guards. By now the Romans had drawn closer to the ring of Saxons, so that there was one dense crowd about the open space—much narrowed now—where the chieftains and Nicanor stood.
Not for nothing had he listened to the talk of the deep-sea fishermen and the whalers who frequented Thorney, and stored in his memory all that they could give him. In his tale was the clamor of the wild north wind, the scream of wheeling gulls, the groan of straining timbers, the rush of bubbling foam beneath sharp prows. He told of swift battle fought over heaving waters, whose jaws yawned for their dead; and men hung upon his words. He told of the red medley of the fight; of the heavy fall and sullen splash of bodies into the grave which waited; of ships that grappled in their death-throes like wrestling men and sank locked in their grim embrace; of defeat and triumph, of high courage of men who lost, and the higher courage of mercy of men who won; and men's faces grew eager, who themselves had lived through scenes such as these, and themselves had watched the death of gallant ships.
Nicanor glanced over the ring and saw that the prisoner had disappeared, leaving not a ripple in the crowd to mark his trail. The absorbed faces of his hearers, and the sense of what was being done behind their backs, seized him, and he smothered a laugh. His voice flowed on, deep-toned, vibrant, working his magic upon them, talking against time.
Somewhere in the outskirts of the crowd a horse neighed loudly; there was a flurry among those people nearest the sound, and high over men's heads a staff was shaken. Nicanor's speech broke midway; this was the signal, and he no longer cared whether or not he held them. In that instant the spell was snapped; men stirred and whispered. And suddenly a shout of warning and anger went up—
"The prisoner! The prisoner hath gone!"
Forgotten were the tale and its teller; the inner group of Saxons surged into commotion and uproar. There was a rising storm of assertion and denial. Ceawlin strode to Nicanor, his link armor clashing softly as he moved.
"Now do I believe that thou hast had to do with this!" he cried in ready anger.
"Perhaps after all it had been better if thou hadst paid the price, lord Saxon!"
Swift words sprang to Ceawlin's lips, but the elder leader ran to them, shouting something in his own tongue. Ceawlin turned to answer, and Nicanor slipped away.
Face to face he came with a woman seldom seen beyond her jealous doors; a fat and shapeless bunch of garments topped by thin hair streaked with ruddy dye, a high white marble brow, an old face deeply lined. The woman was looking at him keenly, with boring vulture eyes. She spoke swiftly, in a voice clear-toned and silvery as a bell.
"I heard thee speak.... Once, long years ago, stood I in this place and heard a boy speak, an elfin, wolf-eyed child, who came out of the night and spoke with an un-childish tongue. Often since have I thought of him and the power within him, for though I was young in years yet was I old in knowledge, and I knew that never had I seen one like him. Into his hand I put a piece of silver, and I think it was the first that ever he had touched. Art thou that child?"
"Ay," said Nicanor. "That child was I. So it was thou who first didst teach me that silver could pay for souls." He thrust a hand into the pouch that hung at his belt and drew forth a broad piece of silver, holding it to her. "But I think it must be clean silver that pays for mine, O Chloris."
The woman flinched oddly. Both had forgotten the rising tide of excitement around them.
"Nay," she said. "I will not have it back. Canst not leave me the thought that there was one gift which I gave honestly—or is it with thee as ever with stony-hearted youth, swift to condemn, slow to understand?"
"Why should I condemn thee?" said Nicanor. "That is not mine to do until in me is nothing to condemn. Nay, rather could I pity thee."
The heavy lids opened slightly over Chloris's eyes.
"And wherefore?" she asked with a hard note in her flute-like voice. "If I pity not myself, why shouldst thou pity? Am I not loved, and have I not loved greatly? Have I not riches beyond thine imaginings?"
Nicanor laughed low and softly, his keen eyes on the old face.
"Love thou hast never known, O Chloris," he said gently. "In all thy long life of wanton ease, thy long life in which children might have leaned upon thy knees and children's voices might have called thee blessed, love thou hast never known. Who could not pity this? Or thy name would not be upon the lips of men in the market-place. When men love, think you they make common talk of what they love? When women love, keep they not themselves pure for love's pure sake? Ay, truly I could pity thee, because some day thou wilt so pity thyself, in spite of thy riches beyond mine imaginings. That is all."
"Thou art over strange," said Chloris. "And I would I had not spoken with thee. After all, what doth it matter? There is always the end, when darkness comes and the wax is wiped clean."
"Is there?" said Nicanor. "Is there an end to anything upon the earth?"
"Now thou art foolish," said Chloris. Her eyes were unchanged, but her voice was angry. "In truth there is an end, and the end is—death." She spoke with the deep-rooted and universal distaste of all Romans to the direct reference to death. "Must not all things be gathered to the shades? And is not that the end of them?"
"Believe it, then, for so long as thou canst, for thou wilt be the happier for believing," said Nicanor. "And if some day it come to pass that thou dost believe differently, remember then what others have found, that only love can save thee—the love which thou hast never known. Were it not wise, O Chloris, to seek it while yet there may be time?" He paused, and his eyes forgot her. "I am seeking now," he said below his breath, and turned away from her into the crowd.
Chloris looked after him a moment with lids half dropped over her changeless eyes.
"The breath of the gods hath breathed upon him, and he understands. Oh, ay! he understands." She laughed, a silver tinkle which was not wholly mirth. "Will it ever come to pass that Chloris, the greatly loving, will rejoice to know that there is one who pities her? We shall see!"
But meanwhile affairs had changed on Thorney, even during the moments of Nicanor's speech with Chloris. The throng upon the beach, no longer orderly, was heaving with excitement. The Saxons, spreading in all directions to search for their prisoner, were in no mood to care what offence they gave. They plucked brands from the fire, using them as torches, and started for the village, while men and women retreated before them, not knowing how far trouble might ensue. But before they reached the village, a body of militarii, hastily summoned, came forth from between the houses to meet them. The officer commanding them sprang upon a pile of lumber, shouting to the Saxons, who halted, as it were irresolute.
"While ye remain in this province it is right that ye should obey its laws! If this Roman whom ye have taken hath committed crime against your laws or ours, let him be tried by these laws. Otherwise will we not give him up to you. He is a freeborn Roman, and is not to be done away with as a slave. If ye make oath to grant him trial, we will deliver him unto you."
Ceawlin, the hot-headed young chieftain, pulled his long sword from its bronze sheath, pointing with it to the figure upon the lumber-pile. His face flamed with red rage; he shook his sword and shouted to his men behind him. There was a rush; before the Romans could prevent, a score of Saxons had leaped upon the pile, dragging down him who spoke; and the first blood on Thorney had been shed. It was the signal; like warring currents of the sea the two forces clashed. The beach was alive with figures, struggling, shouting, or swaying in deadly silence in each other's grip. Light flickered snakelike along uplifted blades which shot above the sea of heads. It was a fight hand to hand, primitive, blind with insensate rage, ever-smouldering, which wanted but the spark of excuse to flame into the full flare of battle. The resistance of the militarii was speedily overcome; outnumbered, lacking their leader, they broke and fled. The Saxons, with shouts of triumph, gave chase over the stony beach into the streets of the island, bent on the recapture of their prisoner, and on wreaking vengeance upon those who had dared oppose them.
That night, in the house of Juncina the fish-wife, kneeled Eldris at the window of the loft where she slept, looking out upon the house-tops with her shoulders gleaming white through her loosened hair. Through the window moonlight drifted, showing the squalor of the loft, and the bed where Sosia, the daughter of Juncina, lay asleep.
Into the night she murmured love-words, happy in her dreaming, calling to her love across the darkness.
"Is he in the wine-shop of Nicodemus, or is he in the moonlight by the fords, telling his tales to those who crowd around him? Doth he think of me, whose thoughts are all of him? Or have I angered him over-deeply?—for never have I seen him since that day I said him nay. Ah, Nicanor, was it love that said thee nay? This hour might I have been lying in his arms, Love's happy handmaid—so happy! What if I had yielded? I so want his love! What would God care? Mary, Mother, keep me from these thoughts! I would that I could see him now—this same moon doth shine upon him somewhere. Thou old moon, how many maids hast thou looked down on since the beginning of the world, who have kneeled at windows, and thought of a man, and been foolish?"
Sosia, in the bed, awoke, turned on her back, and raised herself upon an elbow, showing her flat and heavy face above the blanket pulled to her chin. She spoke drowsily, in a voice thick with sleep:
"Hath the moon bewitched thee quite? In truth I think thee off thy wits with love. All these nights hast thou been foolish, and waked me from my sleep. Wilt not come to bed, thou cruel girl?"
Reluctantly Eldris undressed and got into bed beside Sosia, who slept again, heavily, with stertorous breathings. The night breeze blew freshly in the window; from the village dogs barked, and the distant voices of men reached her. Somewhere in that press was he, in the midst of the tide of hurrying life; and her heart went out to him.
So she slept, deeply. Once or twice she tried to waken, as one strives to rouse from dreams; but the black swoon of sleep held her fast; body and soul she was drowned in the soundless depths of oblivion. But suddenly she was awake, startled, and somewhat dazed. Her first thought was wonder as to what had waked her; her next, that it was not so late as she had thought, for the noise at the ford still continued. More, it seemed increased. And even in the first moment of full consciousness which followed her waking daze, a sound grew out of all the noises of the village; a long mellow note, like the note of a deep-toned hunting-horn, vibrant yet steady, filling every cranny of the air. At once she knew it was this that had awakened her. It hung a moment, sweet, unearthly, haunting; and dropped back into an outburst of fierce clamor that leaped at it as hounds leap at a stag. Eldris put out her hand and shook Sosia.
"Sosia—waken! Dost hear that strange sound? What is it? Never have I heard such a sound before."
She scrambled out of bed and went to the window, her feet shining white on the rough floor. She saw other faces appear at other windows and at doorways of dim hovels; there came black figures of men from lanes between the houses, running from the river-ford. The sharp clatter of the feet of a galloping horse clashed for a moment through other sounds.
"It is but a drunken brawl," said Sosia, sitting on the bed, a blanket about her bare shoulders. Her tone was indifferent; drunken brawls were no new things on Thorney. "Come back to bed."
"I think that something hath happened," said Eldris, and started to dress. "Dress thyself quickly, Sosia, and let us go out to see. It is not so late—the moon hath not left the window." This was true, although the wide pool of light upon the floor had narrowed to a silver bar.
But the room was lighted suddenly by a ruddy glare which leaped into it from without; a gust of voices swept beneath the window like the rising of a wind; there came the sound of many feet, as though a crowd had gathered before the house; cries, and the rattle of weapons. Again Eldris ran to the window. She cried over her shoulder in a frightened voice:
"Oh, blessed Peter! there be armed men entering all the houses in the lane! Haste thee, Sosia—let them not find thee naked here. I will go down and see—"
Below, the voice of Juncina cried:
"We harbor no fugitive here, I tell thee! Here be none but I and my two maids!"
Eldris, climbing down the ladder with hasty feet, saw that the room, fogged with gray smoke, was filled with half a score of men; saw Juncina struggling in a corner, held by two; saw others overturning the scanty furniture, slashing with their swords at fish-nets and bedding, thrusting their torches into every nook and corner. She would have stumbled up the ladder again out of their sight, but a shout told her that she was seen. A great fellow seized her, dragging her from the ladder; in his grasp she fluttered like a rag caught in a briar. Another pulled her from him; she was in the midst of mail-clad forms that towered over her, drink-flushed faces, brutal with greed, that leered down upon her, hairy hands that grasped at her. Her captor she eluded, and another, her breath coming in dry sobs of terror; at her desperate doublings, like a frightened hare, their shouts of laughter told that the sport was very well to their liking. The doorway, close at hand, broken open and unguarded, offered a chance. She darted through it into the night, into another world of terror, in which sinister sounds met her on every side.
In a blind panic of fright she ran, thinking at every step to feel a heavy hand upon her; in the narrow lane she ran, jostled by those who fled beside her. Flames from burning houses threw their glare over fights which occurred in every street and lane, in which wounded men and dying crawled from beneath the feet of combatants into the shelter of black doorways. A band of horsemen galloped up the lane, overriding those who crossed their path, with shouts of "Death to Britons!"
Eldris saw them coming; saw the mouth of an alley black on one side, a slit between houses scarce wide enough for a horseman to ride through. She dived into it, stumbling now and again into the gutter which channelled it. She began to sob with fright and exhaustion as she ran.
"Lord, let me find him, or I die of fear! He will save me—with him shall I be safe. Take me to him—let me find him, for my love is stronger than am I." Fear swept her from all the rationalities to which she had clung; out of the tumult and the terror in which she struggled, love rose like a wave and claimed her—the passion which was stronger than she. God was very strong, without doubt; but without doubt also He had many souls to guard that night, and it was the strength of a man's arm she wanted.
So she reached the end of the alley where it opened into the street of the fords, and crouched behind the elbow of a rambling wall, looking out warily, a hunted thing, to see if further faring might be safe.
The broad paved street was lighted by flames from a house blazing fiercely opposite her; and figures ran to and fro before it like imps gone mad. Other figures there were also, which lay very still upon the roadway in the crimson light, with their black shadows crouched behind them. There was a rending crackle from the heart of the fire, and shrieks and shouting from those around it; and under it all the dull roar from all Thorney which never ceased. And quite suddenly Eldris knew that she was listening to a sound that came out of the din around her, the sound of men's voices, singing in unison. In that hour and place it was to her more dreadful, more a thing of terror, than even the cries which it was drowning. The voices came nearer; and at that in them, for all her fear, the blood thrilled through her to her finger-tips.
For in them was the very spirit of the fight, of lust and blood and fierce exultant triumph; barbaric and pagan, they were reckless with a pitiless pride which feared neither gods nor men nor devils. Eldris crouched closer against the sheltering wall as though it had been a sentient thing to aid her. So she saw a line of men, on foot, approaching; and the line reached from side to side of the wide street. Each man walked with arms across his fellows' shoulders; and their song kept time with their swift marching feet. The red light of the burning houses fell upon them, on their reckless faces, and glinted on their shirts of link-mail which clashed as they moved, on their crested caps of metal, and on the weapons which hung at their sides. They swept all before them as they came; plunderers left their work of outrage and slaughter and fell in with them, taking up their song. The first line passed; and Eldris saw the reason of their triumph. For those in the rear dragged with them a prisoner, a small man, battered and bloody, with one arm hanging in a torn sling. She could not see his face, but her heart turned to water within her. The song sickened her with an overpowering sense of her own weakness against all that it signified of brutal male strength; it dominated her, and before it she shrank and shivered. But now her terror was not all for herself alone, but for that one who might be also in their hands, prisoner to them even as was this poor puppet prisoner. She started up, with a cry which was drowned in the rhythm of the terrible song as ever the cries of women have been drowned in the song of the fighting, and fell back in a huddle against the wall, with her face hidden on her knees, sobbing:
"Christ—oh, Christ, save him! Mary, save him, or let me die with him!"
When she found her way back to life, Thorney was wrapped in silence and illimitable gloom. The light of the burning houses had died; the shouts of men and shrieks of women and the fierce song of the Saxons had ceased. Yet there were other sounds which grew out of the darkness as she listened; a thin far wailing, like the ghost of grief, and close at hand a man's deep voice, very low, broken by sobbing.
"Soul of my heart, where art thou! All the night I have searched and cannot find thee, dead nor living. The curse of all evil be upon these Saxon swine! They have slain her—my woman!—and she is dead! No more will she lie beside me when the dark swims in the hut.—O light of my life, could I but hear thee call me once again thy great ugly bear! Eh, thy bear is a sad bear this night, my lamb!"
Eldris stumbled to her feet, covering her ears with her hands. She also was seeking and could not find. She started running from the dreadful sobbing voice, picking her way as best she might in the wreck and ruin of the Saxons' trail.
Long she searched, and everywhere met others, also seeking, and yet others who had found what they had lost. Torches flashed in and out like fireflies among the darkened lanes; from houses left unscathed came the wailing of women who had brought home their dead. The air was heavy with smoke, so that the eyes smarted and the throat stung.
Into the face of every man who passed her she looked with eager eyes of hope. Every man's body that lay in street or lane she hovered over with caught breath and eyes of fear, nerving herself to stoop, to turn the dead weight that settled sullenly into itself as her hands left it; to scan the face by the light of her flaring torch. And the light showed her as ghastly as what she looked on; black hair streaming like smoke behind her, eyes wide with fear, pinched face glimmering pallid. No joyful handmaiden of Love looked she, going to love's embraces, rather a wild thing, terror-ridden, possessed wholly by the frenzy of her love. Strange faces she looked on in her search among the living and the dead; bearded faces, boyish faces, but never that face she sought.
To a dead man's side she flitted, like a spirit of the night; and on her knees, holding her torch to a face with light staring eyes and open jaws that seemed still to shriek a last despairing curse at her, she caught her breath with a stifled scream. For the shock of thick hair, cut below the ears, was black and coarse; and the half-naked body, from which the tunic had been stripped, was long and lean. The torchlight cast quick shadows upon the fearful face; and sometimes to her eyes it was the face of her love, who had died terribly, and sometimes it was the face of a stranger. She began to shake.
"I cannot tell—oh, God, I cannot tell!" she wailed. "Is my mind gone, that I should not know thee? I must know—how can I go further until I know?"
With wild eyes she looked about her. She was in the open space of the market-place,—alone, save for the thing at her feet, and for other things huddled here and there around her,—a silent battleground from which the hosts had departed. The carcass of a horse lay near, and her torch struck points of light from the metal of its trappings. A dog ran by her on padding feet, its fangs dripping, its tail between its legs. Eldris thrust the torch into the earth, that it might stand erect. She knelt beside that silent screaming figure, and the light flashed from the white bared teeth of the open mouth, and showed dark smears of blood upon the face. She laid her hand on the shoulder, and the clammy cold of the dead flesh sent a spasm of sickness through her.
"If it is thou I will kiss thee," she moaned. "I will lie upon thy breast and put my mouth to that mouth of thine. And I must find out—what if I should pass and leave thee here? God give me strength—I must find out! Whose own mother could know him so?"
She wiped blood from the face with the skirt of her tunic; she forced the stiffened jaws together, so that the horror took again the likeness to a human face; while her breath whistled in sobbing gasps and her flesh crept and crawled with horror. She bent and peered into the poor face that no longer seemed to scream at her, holding the jaws shut with tense and shaking hands. And then she sat back upon her heels with a strangled sob of relief and nerves far overwrought, wiping her hands furiously upon her skirt and crying:
"It is not thou! Dear Christ in heaven! it is not thou! How thou wilt laugh when I tell thee, beloved—when I tell thee that a dead man screamed at me and I thought him thee! How thou wilt laugh—and I shall laugh with thee!"
Sobbing, she began to laugh, a laughter strange and cracked like the laugh of a very old woman, that mounted high and higher, welling from her throat as blood wells from a wound; and rocked herself to and fro and stared into the face of the dead stranger with wide eyes of unreason....
She took her torch and fled on, and the face that she had left behind seemed to scream its mockery with open jaws through the darkness after her.
Nicanor was half way up the beach when the stationarius went down and his men fell upon the Saxons. Instantly, nothing loath, he found himself in the midst of the fighting. He was unarmed, save for his knife; so that his first thought was to get within the length of the long swords of those attacking him, since at close range, these, built for thrusting, were as good as useless. This was not easy to do, for the Saxons, despite their bulk, were light upon their feet, and wary to keep their opponents at sufficient distance. But twice he did it, each time forcing his adversary to leave his sword-play and take to his dagger, the terrible seaxa which had won for the Saxons their name.
He went into battle joyously, cool-eyed, alert, heart and soul in the work ahead; yet ever with that other self within him, which stood apart as a spectator in the arena, and watched through the smoke and crimson light of battle the faces of those who fought,—the fierce delight of one, the black hate of another, red wounds, and the swift black swoop of Death. His heart sang its high song of triumph which his lips would fain have echoed, of thanksgiving in the clean strength of his manhood, in the power of his arm, which could uphold his own before all men. He stooped to catch a sword from one who needed it no longer; and heard the soft clashing of links of mail beside him and felt the breath of a great horse that stirred his hair. Above him the voice of Ceawlin cried:
"Thou tale-teller, thee I seek! This is thy work—that dead-eyed toad is gone, but it is thou shalt pay the price for him!"
He straightened up, the sword in hand, a laugh upon his lips; and a bolt of red fire entered into his side and seared him to the vitals. He fell; and the horse's tread jarred him and shook the world as it passed, spurred by its mail-clad rider with the blood-tinged spear.
At first he fought to keep his hold on consciousness; knew that the fight surged over and around him, but with those who fought he seemed suddenly to have no part nor lot. They faded into spectres, beings somehow set apart from him, in whose affairs he no longer had concern. He lay quiet, his eyes closed, the red flower behind his ear, the red flower of his life staining the trampled sands on which he lay. Quite suddenly he drifted into a gray empty world of twilight, in which he wandered seeking for what he did not know. He became aware, presently, that on the other side of this world, at the end of the road of Time, there was a little narrow door which would lead him into his Garden of Lost Dreams, and he thought that if he might reach it, all would be very well with him. But across the world, from out the twilight, there appeared a tiny point of light, ever growing, ever brighter. It came upon him as a rolling ball of fire, and he turned and would have fled from it; but it enveloped him in rose-red light that burned and blinded, and he knew that it was Pain. It lapped over him like water; it shrivelled him, soul and body; it entered into the marrow of his bones and twisted him in every joint and sinew. And suddenly he found his soul following the fight into the streets of Thorney; he was plunged amid the slaughter, in the smoke of burning houses. Yet through it all he knew, with strange inner knowledge drawn from the deeps below consciousness, that his soul was in his body, lying quiet on the sands in the dark and moonlight, and that the fight had passed him by.
Out of the flame-shot darkness of his oblivion a sound came to him; and the devil-lights that danced before his eyes ceased their wheeling to listen—a bell, deep-throated, majestic, that tolled once, and out of its sonorous, slow throbbing that lingered in the air, a voice intoning.
"Ave Maria, gratia plena."
The bell-note boomed again.
"Benedicta tu in mulieribus."
Again the heavy clanging shook the air.
"Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis, Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae!"
The voice drifted from him; yet the air seemed alive with the vibrations of the words. "Ora pro nobis!" Who was the Mary full of grace who could pray for one, to whom one could call as men called upon the gods? Who but the Mother of Jesus, the Little Brother of the World, sweet comrade of his black and bitter hour? He smiled as one who hears names well known and well beloved. "Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae!" Who was that mortal one for whom priests prayed in the silence before the dawning, for whom the hour of death was striking in the tolling of the bell? "In the hour of our death"—not one death only was prayed for, but all deaths. But then the words took upon themselves new and startling meaning. He knew that the hour had struck for him also in the great bell's voice; was that prayer for his death among all others—for his, the pagan's? With sudden lonely longing he wished it might be so, as one who starts upon a journey wishes for a friendly voice, a handclasp, for farewell. Would Mary pray for him; would the Little Brother bring him solace as in that bitter time before? If this were so, could not one go down into death, as one had gone through life, with a song upon his lips? What, after all, was death? For the first time the question of Life was launched at him from the vastness of infinity; and he, poor atom of mortality, with his bright tongue and his groping heart, his longings, his hopes and fears and ignorances, was called upon to answer. Was it full of terrors, the terrors at which men hinted and dared not speak? He knew that he was not afraid. Was it lonely? He did not feel alone.
But his thoughts were fluttering from him like birds rising from the grass; slowly darkness closed above him, in which he struggled as a drowning man to keep his head above the waters. Again he stood upon the edge of the gray twilight land, and saw that something was coming to him—a mist of light, cool and pure as pearl. It grew, and out of it there looked down on him a face, young and fair and tender, with holy eyes. It was the face of his lost Lady, yet her face transfigured as his eyes had never seen it,—the same and not the same. The mist grew brighter and he saw that in her arms there lay a babe that leaned its head against her breast and smiled at all the world. At once he knew them for his Dream made manifest, and his face lightened to adoration.
"O Best Beloved!" he whispered, "how mine eyes have hungered for thee in the dark days that are gone over! My lips would sing unto thee even as my heart is singing, but my tongue is black within my throat. I have found that who would seek for peace must pass through pain, and when pain hath ended, peace shall come. When therefore it cometh to my body, as it hath come upon my soul, then I shall sing my song to thee,—my song, which thou and little Jesus did teach me how to make, I will sing to-morrow when the moon shines on the fountains, in the garden."
His voice died; he saw his Lady lean to him from her mist of rose and pearl; cool as the dews of morning he felt her hand upon his head. Very softly then his fever left him; love's touch soothed the red flame of pain that ate his life away, as in the long ago love's touch had stilled the bitter soul within him. He smiled happily, for that soul's pain and body's pain had brought heart's peace. With no surprise, he knew that he had found the answer.
"I think it is the door of the garden," he said clearly.
A keen sweet wind blew over the world, first pure breath of the coming day, driving before it the reek of smoke and blood and death which hovered over Thorney as a pall. A tinge of gray light diffused itself like mist through the darkness; in this mist the forms of people wandered like dim restless ghosts seeking the graves from which the night had called them. Out of the stillness which had succeeded to the turmoil of the night, cocks began to crow, a homely sound, as though this dawning held no difference from the peaceful morn of yesterday. The ripples of the river woke, gurgling like a happy child that laughs itself out of dreams.
Eldris came out upon the beach from between the rows of tottering houses. She cast away her torch and stretched her hands to the east, where momently the earth was turning from black to gray, steeped in a haze as of twilight, the strange half-light of dawn.
"O day, come swiftly and give me back my own! I shall put my hands upon his breast and say, 'Take me, for I am all, all thine and love's, and where thou goest there will I go also, for my God is love. I am only woman, and weak and very weary, and I love thee. Ah, dear God! I would leave heaven and all the angels for thine arms!' And he will take me in his arms, and I shall fear nothing any more. O day, come swiftly!"
Along the beach she hastened, light-footed, and came to the lumber-pile, with no more than a glance for the Roman soldier who lay upon it, his duty done. And so, behind the lumber-pile, with but a strip of gray sand between his bed and the broad river, she found him, with the dawn-light upon his face.
As once before she had gone to him and knelt beside him as he slept, so she thought to go to him again. But this time she would not fear to wake him, for he, her lord, had called her, and her delight was to obey. She had come to yield herself his, body and soul forever, and in her face the bridal joy outshone the bridal terror. She would do this and that; thought to play with her joy to taste the sweetness of its savor; but suddenly all her thought was lost in the flood of love triumphant which rose to overwhelm her. She ran forward, her arms outflung to him, crying:
"Beloved, wake, for I am come to thee! All my soul is a flame of fire, and the fire is love which blindeth me to all in earth and heaven save only thee. Wilt thou not wake and take me?" On her knees she threw herself beside him.
But he did not move, nor did he speak in answer.
And even in the moment of her exaltation, Eldris understood. Her words broke; an instant she knelt with arms outstretched above him; she ceased to breathe, and her face froze into lines of stone. But suddenly she gave a cry, loud and sharp, and her hands fell upon him. Her eyes awoke into living terror; with desperate fingers she strove to turn his face further to the light. At the weight of him she shook and shuddered; she had felt that horrible dead weight before, that sullen settling into itself of his bulk as her hands left it. In the gray light of the slow dawning she turned his face toward her, gray, and smiling, and still. She looked down upon him and put her hands to her throat.
"I am glad, ay, glad, that thy mouth is not open and screaming at me!" she said aloud, in a dead voice.
The sense of her words smote her, and she closed her eyes with a long-drawn whispering moan.
Again she looked at him, scarcely believing; and once more the flood overwhelmed her. She wrung her hands and brought them down before her face.
"Oh, God, is this Thy punishment for that I said my God was love? Very well—punish Thou me, then—what canst Thou do that matters now?"
Her voice faltered; she lowered her hands to stroke the hair from his pale forehead. She sat upon the sands and drew his heavy head to her knees, and her voice sank to the crooning of a woman with her man-child that is dead.
"I am too late—too late—too late! In mine ears was the wailing of the women in empty houses—how knew I that my voice must cry among them? My love, that liest so quiet at my knee, thou art gone very far from me, and all my tears and pleading may not call thee back. O pale lips sealed forever, all thy magic dumb within thee, give me of thy power that I may mourn my love! O wandering feet that have strayed in lands of bright enchantment, thou walkest in the dim paths of the twilight places, and I would that my feet might follow! O strong hands that have wrought the work of men, why dost thou not answer to the clinging of my fingers? O heart that camest through bitter waters, was it good to rest? I and old Sorrow walk hand in hand; for the red flower of my lover's life which is withered here, we shall cover him with lilies. The young men and the maidens shall walk softly; the old shall mourn him saying 'Eheu! it is not well for the young to go before us.' And I—what is there that I may say? Dead—dead—dead—and my heart is breaking—Ah! bitter woe is mine! O ye Elder Gods, would ye have been more kind than the One who hath torn him from me?"
She bent over him so that her tears fell warm upon his face and the veil of her hair shrouded him; she kissed his lips as though she would breathe her own life into him.
"This my bridal kiss I give thee, O Nicanor, O my dear!—here on thy mouth, and thou canst never know—God have pity!—thou canst never know! Thy lips are cold—so cold—thou art all cold, and even my bosom may not warm thee. My love, who didst die with a flower in thy hair and a smile upon thy lips, why is thy face so bright with triumph? Peace lieth upon thee as a garment.... O Nicanor, Nicanor, give me of thy peace!"
There fell a voice upon her weeping:
"My daughter, what dost thou here?"
Thin-faced Father Ambrose stood before her, very gentle, very old, from Saint Peter's Church within the wall. On his arm he bore a basket filled with simple dressings; his brown frock, up-kilted, was stained with blood and mire. Perhaps all night he had done his work of mercy among the dying and the dead.
"I have found him!" said Eldris. She swept back her hair with one arm, showing her sorrow.
The priest knelt, touching here and there with skilful fingers.
"Is it not he whom men called Nicanor? Nay, daughter, weep not so bitterly! Is it not the death he would have chosen, being man? We have heard of him; we have seen that his power he hath striven to use for good, so that many loved him; we have thought that in God's own time the light would come upon him and he should be baptized into the Faith."
But Eldris broke in fiercely:
"Ye have heard—ye have seen—ye have thought—but can ye give him back to me? I knew not your God was a cruel God; ye have taught that He is the Father of all mercy and all love. What mercy is there in this that He hath done? I am Christian, for I wished to seek love from that God that is thy God; and this my love did I try to make Christian also. But since God hath done this thing unto him and me, I am glad that he was not Christian and hath not gone to God!"
Father Ambrose looked down upon her, smiling, and his face was holy.
"I think he was a better Christian than art thou, dear child, even though he did not know it. Can one be Christian, for all he cries 'God, God!' if he have not Christ within his heart as well as on his lips? What is a Christian, save one who dealeth gently, liveth cleanly, giveth of himself? And such an one, I think, whether he professeth all gods or no god, will our Father call 'my son.' Long have I lived, and very much have I seen, and I think that this is so."
He paused. Eldris's sobbing alone made answer.
"Daughter, thou sayest thou art glad he hath not gone to God. Loving him, wouldst thou not rather think of him with God than wandering lonely in the outer darkness?"
But Eldris flung out her hands with a bitter cry.
"Nay—nay—oh, Lord Christ, not that! I cannot bear to think he wanders lonely, as all his life he hath been lonely—anything but that! What have I said—what have I done! Oh, father, father, he must not be lonely! Pray thou that God will take him, even though he did not know! Dear God, let him into heaven—do not Thou be angered because he did not know! Mary Mother, pity him and let him not be lonely any more!"
She stretched her hands in desolate appeal over the still face at her knee. Father Ambrose gathered them into his.
"God hath taken him, dear child," he said gently. "Out of his darkness hath he entered into light; and I think that it is well with him."
A long time he looked down at the face that smiled in answer; at the long lithe limbs whose strength was dust. From his basket he took a cup, and went aside and filled it with water from the river, and offered it to God. Returning, he knelt, and with the water signed the cross on the pale forehead and the broad pulseless breast.
"So sign I and seal I thee with the Cross of Christ, that in His mercy thy Lord may receive thy soul. 'Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.'" He raised his hand, and Eldris dropped her face to the rough black hair and sobbed. "The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord make His face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace."
His gentle voice ceased, and a moment the earth hung silent, awaiting the mystery of the dawn. Then the red misty sun shot up over the hills on the east of Thorney, and the bright new day was come.