"The place chosen for this purpose was eminently beautiful, from the small and comparatively insignificant ridge of hills which melt irregularly down into the plains stretching between the pass which we occupied and Laodicea. The town was about one hundred stadia distant, and some of our more sanguine warriors pretended that they could already discern its towers and pinnacles, glittering in the early beams of the sun, which had not as yet risen high into the horizon. A mountain torrent, which found its source at the foot of a huge rock, that yawned to give it birth, as if struck by the rod of the prophet Moses, poured its liquid treasure down to the more level country, nourishing herbage and even large trees, in its descent, until, at the distance of some four or five miles, the stream, at least in dry seasons, was lost amid heaps of sand and stones, which in the rainy season marked the strength and fury of its current.
"It was pleasant to see the attention of the Emperor to the comforts of the companions and guardians of his march. The trumpets from time to time gave license to various parties of the Varangians to lay down their arms, to eat the food which was distributed to them, and quench their thirst at the pure stream, which poured its bounties down the hill, or they might be seen to extend their bulky forms upon the turf around them. The Emperor, his most serene spouse, arid the princesses and ladies, were also served with breakfast, at the fountain formed by the small brook in its very birth, and which the reverent feelings of the soldiers had left unpolluted by vulgar touch, for the use of that family, emphatically said to be born in the purple. Our beloved husband was also present on this occasion, and was among the first to detect one of the disasters of the day. For, although all the rest of the repast had been, by the dexterity of the officers of the imperial mouth, so arranged, even on so awful an occasion, as to exhibit little difference from the ordinary provisions of the household, yet, when his Imperial Highness called for wine, behold, not only was the sacred liquor, dedicated to his own peculiar imperial use, wholly exhausted or left behind, but, to use the language of Horace, not the vilest Sabine vintage could be procured; so that his Imperial Highness was glad to accept the offer of a rude Varangian, who proffered his modicum of decocted barley, which these barbarians prefer to the juice of the grape. The Emperor, nevertheless, accepted of this coarse tribute."
"Insert," said the Emperor, who had been hitherto either plunged in deep contemplation or in an incipient slumber, "insert, I say, these very words: 'And with the heat of the morning, and anxiety of so rapid a march, with a numerous enemy in his rear, the Emperor was so thirsty, as never in his life to think beverage more delicious.'"
In obedience to her imperial father's orders, the Princess resigned the manuscript to the beautiful slave by whom it was written, repeating to the fair scribe the commanded addition, requiring her to note it, as made by the express sacred command of the Emperor, and then proceeded thus:—"More had I said here respecting the favourite liquor of your Imperial Highnesses faithful Varangians; but your Highness having once graced it with a word of commendation, this ail, as they call it, doubtless because removing all disorders, which they term 'ailments,' becomes a theme too lofty for the discussion of any inferior person. Suffice it to say, that thus were we all pleasantly engaged, the ladies and slaves trying to find some amusement for the imperial ears; the soldiers, in a long line down the ravine, seen in different postures, some straggling to the watercourse, some keeping guard over the arms of their comrades, in which duty they relieved each other, while body after body of the remaining troops, under command of the Protospathaire, and particularly those called Immortals, [Footnote: The [Greek: Athanatoi], or Immortals, of the army of Constantinople, were a select body, so named, in imitation of the ancient Persians. They were first embodied, according to Ducange, by Michael Ducas] joined the main army as they came up. Those soldiers who were already exhausted, were allowed to take a short repose, after which they were sent forward, with directions to advance steadily on the road to Laodicea; while their leader was instructed, so soon as he should open a free communication with that city, to send thither a command for reinforcements and refreshments, not forgetting fitting provision of the sacred wine for the imperial mouth. Accordingly, the Roman bands of Immortals and others had resumed their march, and held some way on their journey, it being the imperial pleasure that the Varangians, lately the vanguard, should now form the rear of the whole army, so as to bring off in safety the Syrian light troops, by whom the hilly pass was still occupied, when we heard upon the other side of this defile, which he had traversed with so much safety, the awful sound of the Lelies, as the Arabs name their shout of onset, though in what language it is expressed, it would be hard to say. Perchance some in this audience may enlighten my ignorance."
"May I speak and live," said the Acoulouthos Achilles, proud of his literary knowledge, "the words are, Alla illa alla, Mohamed resoul alla.[Footnote: i. e. "God is god—Mahomet is the prophet of God."] These, or something like them, contain the Arabs' profession of faith, which they always call out when they join battle; I have heard them many times."
"And so have I," said the Emperor; "and as thou didst, I warrant me, I have sometimes wished myself anywhere else than within hearing."
All the circle were alive to hear the answer of Achilles Tatius. He was too good a courtier, however, to make any imprudent reply. "It was my duty," he replied, "to desire to be as near your Imperial Highness as your faithful Follower ought, wherever you might wish yourself for the time."
Agelastes and Zosimus exchanged looks, and the Princess Anna Comnena proceeded in her recitation.
"The cause of these ominous sounds, which came in wild confusion up the rocky pass, was soon explained to us by a dozen cavaliers, to whom the task of bringing intelligence had been assigned.
"These informed us, that the barbarians, whose host had been dispersed around the position in which they had encamped the preceding day, had not been enabled to get their forces together until our light troops were evacuating the post they had occupied for securing the retreat of our army. They were then drawing off from the tops of the hills into the pass itself, when, in despite of the rocky ground, they were charged furiously by Jezdegerd, at the head of a large body of his followers, which, after repeated exertions, he had at length brought to operate on the rear of the Syrians. Notwithstanding that the pass was unfavourable for cavalry, the personal exertions of the infidel chief made his followers advance with a degree of resolution unknown to the Syrians of the Roman army, who, finding themselves at a distance from their companions, formed the injurious idea that they were left thereto be sacrificed, and thought of flight in various directions, rather than of a combined and resolute resistance. The state of affairs, therefore, at the further end of the pass, was less favourable than we could wish, and those whose curiosity desired to see something which might be termed the rout of the rear of an army, beheld the Syrians pursued from the hill tops, overwhelmed, and individually cut down and made prisoners by the bands of caitiff Mussulmans.
"His Imperial Highness looked upon the scene of battle for a few minutes, and, much commoved at what he saw, was somewhat hasty in his directions to the Varangians to resume their arms, and precipitate their march towards Laodicea; whereupon one of those northern soldiers said boldly, though in opposition to the imperial command, 'If we attempt to go hastily down this hill, our rear-guard will be confused, not only by our own hurry, but by these runaway scoundrels of Syrians, who in their headlong flight will not fail to mix themselves among our ranks. Let two hundred Varangians, who will live and die for the honour of England, abide in the very throat of this pass with me, while the rest escort the Emperor to this Laodicea, or whatever it is called. We may perish in our defence, but we shall die in our duty; and I have little doubt but we shall furnish such a meal as will stay the stomach of these yelping hounds from seeking any farther banquet this day.'
"My imperial father at once discovered the importance of this advice, though it made him wellnigh weep to see with what unshrinking fidelity these poor barbarians pressed to fill up the number of those who were to undertake this desperate duty—with what kindness they took leave of their comrades, and with what jovial shouts they followed their sovereign with their eyes as he proceeded on his march down the hill, leaving them behind to resist and perish. The Imperial eyes were filled with tears; and I am not ashamed to confess, that amid the terror of the moment, the Empress, and I myself, forgot our rank in paying a similar tribute to these bold and self-devoted men.
"We left their leader carefully arraying his handful of comrades in defence of the pass, where the middle path was occupied by their centre, while their wings on either side were so disposed as to act upon the flanks of the enemy, should he rashly press upon such as appeared opposed to him in the road. We had not proceeded half way towards the plain, when a dreadful shout arose, in which the yells of the Arabs were mingled with the deep and more regular shouts which these strangers usually repeat thrice, as well when bidding hail to their commanders and princes, as when in the act of engaging in battle. Many a look was turned back by their comrades, and many a form was seen in the ranks which might have claimed the chisel of a sculptor, while the soldier hesitated whether to follow the line of his duty, which called him to march forward with his Emperor, or the impulse of courage, which prompted him to rush back to join his companions. Discipline, however, prevailed, and the main body marched on.
"An hour had elapsed, during which we heard, from time to time, the noise of battle, when a mounted Varangian presented himself at the side of the Emperor's litter. The horse was covered with foam, and had obviously, from his trappings, the fineness of his limbs, and the smallness of his joints, been the charger of some chief of the desert, which had fallen by the chance of battle into the possession of the northern warrior. The broad axe which the Varangian bore was also stained with blood, and the paleness of death itself was upon his countenance. These marks of recent battle were held sufficient to excuse the irregularity of his salutation, while he exclaimed,—'Noble Prince, the Arabs are defeated, and you may pursue your march at more leisure.'
"'Where is Jezdegerd?' said the Emperor, who had many reasons for dreading this celebrated chief.
"'Jezdegerd,' continued the Varangian, 'is where brave men are who fall in their duty.'
"'And that is'—said the Emperor, impatient to know distinctly the fate of so formidable an adversary—
"'Where I am now going,' answered the faithful soldier, who dropped from his horse as he spoke, and expired at the feet of the litter- bearers. The Emperor called to his attendants to see that the body of this faithful retainer, to whom he destined an honourable sepulchre, was not left to the jackal or vulture; and some of his brethren, the Anglo-Saxons, among whom he was a man of no mean repute, raised the body on their shoulders, and resumed their march with this additional encumbrance, prepared to fight for their precious burden, like the valiant Menelaus for the body of Patroclus."
The Princess Anna Comnena here naturally paused; for, having attained what she probably considered as the rounding of a period, she was willing to gather an idea of the feelings of her audience. Indeed, but that she had been intent upon her own manuscript, the emotions of the foreign soldier must have more early attracted her attention. In the beginning of her recitation, he had retained the same attitude which he had at first assumed, stiff and rigid as a sentinel upon duty, and apparently remembering nothing save that he was performing that duty in presence of the imperial court. As the narrative advanced, however, he appeared to take more interest in what was read. The anxious fears expressed by the various leaders in the midnight council, he listened to with a smile of suppressed contempt, and he almost laughed at the praises bestowed upon the leader of his own corps, Achilles Tatius. Nor did, even the name of the Emperor, though listened to respectfully, gain that applause for which his daughter fought so hard, and used so much exaggeration.
Hitherto the Varangian's countenance indicated very slightly any internal emotions; but they appeared to take a deeper hold on his mind as she came to the description of the halt after the main army had cleared the pass; the unexpected advance of the Arabs; the retreat of the column which escorted the Emperor; and the account of the distant engagement. He lost, on hearing the narration of these events, the rigid and constrained look of a soldier, who listened to the history of his Emperor with the same feelings with which he would have mounted guard at his palace. His colour began to come and go; his eyes to fill and to sparkle; his limbs to become more agitated than their owner seemed to assent to; and his whole appearance was changed into that of a listener, highly interested by the recitation which he hears, and insensible, or forgetful, of whatever else is passing before him, as well as of the quality of those who are present.
As the historian proceeded, Hereward became less able to conceal his agitation; and at the moment the Princess looked round, his feelings became so acute, that, forgetting where he was, he dropped his ponderous axe upon the floor, and, clasping his hands together, exclaimed,—"My unfortunate brother!"
All were startled by the clang of the falling weapon, and several persons at once attempted to interfere, as called upon to explain a circumstance so unusual. Achilles Tatius made some small progress in a speech designed to apologize for the rough mode of venting his sorrows to which Hereward had given way, by assuring the eminent persons present, that the poor uncultivated barbarian was actually younger brother to him who had commanded and fallen at the memorable defile. The Princess said nothing, but was evidently struck, and affected, and not ill-pleased, perhaps, at having given rise to feelings of interest so flattering to her as an authoress. The others, each in their character, uttered incoherent words of what was meant to be consolation; for distress which flows from a natural cause, generally attracts sympathy even from the most artificial characters. The voice of Alexius silenced all these imperfect speakers: "Hah, my brave soldier, Edward!" said the Emperor, "I must have been blind that I did not sooner recognise thee, as I think there is a memorandum entered, respecting five hundred pieces of gold due from us to Edward the Varangian; we have it in our secret scroll of such liberalities for which we stand indebted to our servitors, nor shall the payment be longer deferred." "Not to me, if it may please you, my liege," said the Anglo-Dane, hastily composing his countenance into its rough gravity of lineament, "lest it should be to one who can claim no interest in your imperial munificence. My name is Hereward; that of Edward is borne by three of my companions, all of them as likely as I to have deserved your Highness's reward for the faithful performance of their duty."
Many a sign was made by Tatius in order to guard his soldier against the folly of declining the liberality of the Emperor. Agelastes spoke more plainly: "Young man," he said, "rejoice in an honour so unexpected, and answer henceforth to no other name save that of Edward, by which it hath pleased the light of the world, as it poured a ray upon thee, to distinguish thee from other barbarians. What is to thee the font-stone, or the priest officiating thereat, shouldst thou have derived from either any epithet different from that by which it hath now pleased the Emperor to distinguish thee from the common mass of humanity, and by which proud distinction thou hast now a right to be known ever afterwards?"
"Hereward was the name of my father," said the soldier, who had now altogether recovered his composure. "I cannot abandon it while I honour his memory in death. Edward is the title of my comrade—I must not run the risk of usurping his interest."
"Peace all!" interrupted the Emperor. "If we have made a mistake, we are rich enough to right it; nor shall Hereward be the poorer, if an Edward shall be found to merit this gratuity."
"Your Highness may trust that to your affectionate consort," answered the Empress Irene.
"His most sacred Highness," said the Princess Anna Comnena, "is so avariciously desirous to do whatever is good and gracious, that he leaves no room even for his nearest connexions to display generosity or munificence. Nevertheless, I, in my degree, will testify my gratitude to this brave man; for where his exploits are mentioned in this history, I will cause to be recorded,—'This feat was done by Hereward the Anglo-Dane, whom it hath pleased his Imperial Majesty to call Edward.' Keep this, good youth," she continued, bestowing at the same time a ring of price, "in token that we will not forget our engagement."
Hereward accepted the token with a profound obeisance, and a discomposure which his station rendered not unbecoming. It was obvious to most persons present, that the gratitude of the beautiful Princess was expressed in a manner more acceptable to the youthful life- guardsman, than that of Alexius Comnenus. He took the ring with great demonstration of thankfulness:—"Precious relic!" he said, as he saluted this pledge of esteem by pressing it to his lips; "we may not remain long together, but be assured," bending reverently to the Princess, "that death alone shall part us."
"Proceed, our princely daughter," said the Empress Irene; "you have done enough to show that valour is precious to her who can confer fame, whether it be found in a Roman or a barbarian."
The Princess resumed her narrative with some slight appearance of embarrassment.
"Our movement upon Laodicea was now resumed, and continued with good hopes on the part of those engaged in the march. Yet instinctively we could not help casting our eyes to the rear, which had been so long the direction in which we feared attack. At length, to our surprise, a thick cloud of dust was visible on the descent of the hill, half way betwixt us and the place at which we had halted. Some of the troops who composed our retreating body, particularly those in the rear, began to exclaim 'The Arabs! the Arabs!' and their march assumed a more precipitate character when they believed themselves pursed by the enemy. But the Varangian guards affirmed with one voice, that the dust was raised by the remains of their own comrades, who, left in the defence of the pass, had marched off after having so valiantly maintained the station intrusted to them. They fortified their opinion by professional remarks that the cloud of dust was more concentrated than if raised by the Arab horse, and they even pretended to assert, from their knowledge of such cases, that the number of their comrades had been much diminished in the action. Some Syrian horsemen, despatched to reconnoitre the approaching body, brought intelligence corresponding with the opinion of the Varangians in every particular. The portion of the body-guard had beaten back the Arabs, and their gallant leader had slain their chief Jezdegerd, in which service he was mortally wounded, as this history hath already mentioned. The survivors of the detachment, diminished by one half, were now on their march to join the Emperor, as fast as the encumbrance of bearing their wounded to a place of safety would permit.
"The Emperor Alexius, with one of those brilliant and benevolent ideas which mark his paternal character towards his soldiers, ordered all the litters, even that for his own most sacred use, to be instantly sent back to relieve the bold Varangians of the task of bearing the wounded. The shouts of the Varangians' gratitude may be more easily conceived than described, when they beheld the Emperor himself descend from his litter, like an ordinary cavalier, and assume his war-horse, at the same time that the most sacred Empress, as well as the authoress of this history, with other princesses born in the purple, mounted upon mules in order to proceed upon the march, while their litters were unhesitatingly assigned for the accommodation of the wounded men. This was indeed a mark, as well of military sagacity as of humanity; for the relief afforded to the bearers of the wounded, enabled the survivors of those who had defended the defile at the fountain, to join us sooner than would otherwise have been possible.
"It was an awful thing to see those men who had left us in the full splendour which military equipment gives to youth and strength, again appearing in diminished numbers—their armour shattered—their shields full of arrows—their offensive weapons marked with blood, and they themselves exhibiting all the signs of desperate and recent battle. Nor was it less interesting to remark the meeting of the soldiers who had been engaged, with the comrades whom they had rejoined. The Emperor, at the suggestion of the trusty Acoulouthos, permitted them a few moments to leave their ranks, and learn from each other the fate of the battle.
"As the two bands mingled, it seemed a meeting where grief and joy had a contest together. The most rugged of these barbarians,—and I who saw it can bear witness to the fact,—as he welcomed with a grasp of his strong hand some comrade whom he had given up for lost, had his large blue eyes filled with tears at hearing of the loss of some one whom he had hoped might have survived. Other veterans reviewed the standards which had been in the conflict, satisfied themselves that they had all been brought back in honour and safety, and counted the fresh arrow- shots with which they had been pierced, in addition to similar marks of former battles. All were loud in the praises of the brave young leader they had lost, nor were the acclamations less general in laud of him who had succeeded to the command, who brought up the party of his deceased brother—and whom," said the Princess, in a few words which seemed apparently interpolated for the occasion, "I now assure of the high honour and estimation in which he is held by the author of this history—that is, I would say, by every member of the imperial family— for his gallant services in such an important crisis."
Having hurried over her tribute to her friend the Varangian, in which emotions mingled that are not willingly expressed before so many hearers, Anna Comnena proceeded with composure in the part of her history which was less personal.
"We had not much time to make more observations on what passed among those brave soldiers; for a few minutes having been allowed to their feelings, the trumpet sounded the advance towards Laodicea, and we soon beheld the town, now about four miles from us, in fields which were chiefly covered with trees. Apparently the garrison had already some notice of our approach, for carts and wains were seen advancing from the gates with refreshments, which the heat of the day, the length of the march, and columns of dust, as well as the want of water, had rendered of the last necessity to us. The soldiers joyfully mended their pace in order to meet the sooner with the supplies of which they stood so much in need. But as the cup doth not carry in all cases the liquid treasure to the lips for which it was intended, however much it may be longed for, what was our mortification to behold a cloud of Arabs issue at full gallop from the wooded plain betwixt the Roman army and the city, and throw themselves upon the waggons, slaying the drivers, and making havoc and spoil of the contents! This, we afterwards learned, was a body of the enemy, headed by Varanes, equal in military fame, among those infidels, to Jezdegerd, his slain brother. When this chieftain saw that it was probable that the Varangians would succeed in their desperate defence of the pass, he put himself at the head of a large body of the cavalry; and as these infidels are mounted on horses unmatched either in speed or wind, performed a long circuit, traversed the stony ridge of hills at a more northerly defile, and placed himself in ambuscade in the wooded plain I have mentioned, with the hope of making an unexpected assault upon the Emperor and his army, at the very time when they might be supposed to reckon upon an undisputed retreat. This surprise would certainly have taken place, and it is not easy to say what might have been the consequence, had not the unexpected appearance of the train of waggons awakened the unbridled rapacity of the Arabs, in spite of their commander's prudence, and attempts to restrain them. In this manner the proposed ambuscade was discovered.
"But Varanes, willing still to gain some advantage from the rapidity of his movements, assembled as many of his horsemen as could be collected from the spoil, and pushed forward towards the Romans, who had stopped short on their march at so unlooked for an apparition. There was an uncertainty and wavering in our first ranks which made their hesitation known even to so poor a judge of military demeanour as myself. On the contrary, the Varangians joined in a unanimous cry of 'Bills' [Footnote: Villehardouin says, "Les Anglois et Danois mult bien rombattoint avec leurs haches."] (that is, in their language, battle-axes,) 'to the front!' and the Emperor's most gracious will acceding to their valorous desire, they pressed forward from the rear to the head of the column. I can hardly say how this manoeuvre was executed, but it was doubtless by the wise directions of my most serene father, distinguished for his presence of mind upon such difficult occasions. It was, no doubt, much facilitated by the good will of the troops themselves; the Roman bands, called the Immortals, showing, as it seemed to me, no less desire to fall into the rear, than did the Varangians to occupy the places which the Immortals left vacant in front. The manoeuvre was so happily executed, that before Varanes and his Arabs had arrived at the van of our troops, they found it occupied by the inflexible guard of northern soldiers. I might have seen with my own eyes, and called upon them as sure evidences of that which chanced upon the occasion. But, to confess the truth, my eyes were little used to look upon such sights; for of Varanes's charge I only beheld, as it were, a thick cloud of dust rapidly driven forward, through which were seen the glittering points of lances, and the waving plumes of turban'd cavaliers imperfectly visible. The tecbir was so loudly uttered, that I was scarcely aware that kettle-drums and brazen cymbals were sounding in concert with it. But this wild and outrageous storm was met as effectually as if encountered by a rock.
"The Varangians, unshaken by the furious charge of the Arabs, received horse and rider with a shower of blows from their massive battle-axes, which the bravest of the enemy could not face, nor the strongest endure. The guards strengthened their ranks also, by the hindmost pressing so close upon those that went before, after the manner of the ancient Macedonians, that the fine-limbed, though slight steeds of those Idumeans could not make the least inroad upon the northern phalanx. The bravest men, the most gallant horses, fell in the first rank. The weighty, though short, horse javelins, flung from the rear ranks of the brave Varangians, with good aim and sturdy arm, completed the confusion of the assailants, who turned their back in affright, and fled from the field in total confusion.
"The enemy thus repulsed, we proceeded on our march, and only halted when we recovered our half-plundered waggons. Here, also, some invidious remarks were made by certain officers of the interior of the household, who had been on duty over the stores, and having fled from their posts on the assault of the infidels, had only returned upon their being repulsed. These men, quick in malice, though slow in perilous service, reported that, on this occasion, the Varangians so far forgot their duty as to consume a part of the sacred wine reserved for the imperial lips alone. It would be criminal to deny that this was a great and culpable oversight; nevertheless, our imperial hero passed it over as a pardonable offence; remarking, in a jesting manner, that since he had drunk the ail, as they termed it, of his trusty guard, the Varangians had acquired a right to quench the thirst, and to relieve the fatigue, which they had undergone that day in his defence, though they used for these purposes the sacred contents of the imperial cellar.
"In the meantime, the cavalry of the army were despatched in pursuit of the fugitive Arabs; and having succeeded in driving them behind the chain of hills which had so recently divided them from the Romans, the imperial arms might justly be considered as having obtained a complete and glorious victory.
"We are now to mention the rejoicings of the citizens of Laodicea, who, having witnessed from their ramparts, with alternate fear and hope, the fluctuations of the battle, now descended to congratulate the imperial conqueror."
Here the fair narrator was interrupted. The principal entrance of the apartment flew open, noiselessly indeed, but with both folding leaves at once, not as if to accommodate the entrance of an ordinary courtier, studying to create as little disturbance as possible, but as if there was entering a person, who ranked so high as to make it indifferent how much attention was drawn to his motions. It could only be one born in the purple, or nearly allied to it, to whom such freedom was lawful; and most of the guests, knowing who were likely to appear in that Temple of the Muses, anticipated, from the degree of bustle, the arrival of Nicephorus Briennius, the son-in-law of Alexius Comnenus, the husband to the fair historian, and in the rank of Caesar, which, however, did not at that period imply, as in early ages, the dignity of second person in the empire. The policy of Alexius had interposed more than one person of condition between the Caesar and his original rights and rank, which had once been second to those only of the Emperor himself.
CHAPTER THE FIFTH.
The storm increases—'tis no sunny shower, Foster'd in the moist breast of March or April, Or such as parched Summer cools his lip with: Heaven's windows are flung wide; the inmost deeps Call in hoarse greeting one upon another; On comes the flood in all its foaming horrors, And where's the dike shall stop it! THE DELUGE, a Poem.
The distinguished individual who entered was a noble Grecian, of stately presence, whose habit was adorned with every mark of dignity, saving those which Alexius had declared sacred to the Emperor's own person and that of the Sebastocrator, whom he had established as next in rank to the head of the empire. Nicephorus Briennius, who was in the bloom of youth, retained all the marks of that manly beauty which had made the match acceptable to Anna Comnena; while political considerations, and the desire of attaching a powerful house as friendly adherents of the throne, recommended the union to the Emperor.
We have already hinted that the royal bride had, though in no great degree, the very doubtful advantage of years. Of her literary talents we have seen tokens. Yet it was not believed by those who best knew, that, with the aid of those claims to respect, Anna Comnena was successful in possessing the unlimited attachment of her handsome husband. To treat her with apparent neglect, her connexion with the crown rendered impossible; while, on the other hand, the power of Nicephorus's family was too great to permit his being dictated to even by the Emperor himself. He was possessed of talents, as it was believed, calculated both for war and peace. His advice was, therefore, listened to, and his assistance required, so that he claimed complete liberty with respect to his own time, which he sometimes used with less regular attendance upon the Temple of the Muses, than the goddess of the place thought herself entitled to, or than the Empress Irene was disposed to exact on the part of her daughter. The good-humoured Alexius observed a sort of neutrality in this matter, and kept it as much as possible from becoming visible to the public, conscious that it required the whole united strength of his family to maintain his place in so agitated an empire.
He pressed his son-in-law's hand, as Nicephorus, passing his father-in- law's seat, bent his knee in token of homage. The constrained manner of the Empress indicated a more cold reception of her son-in-law, while the fair muse herself scarcely deigned to signify her attention to his arrival, when her handsome mate assumed the vacant seat by her side, which we have already made mention of.
There was an awkward pause, during which the imperial son-in-law, coldly received when he expected to be welcomed, attempted to enter into some light conversation with the fair slave Astarte, who knelt behind her mistress. This was interrupted by the Princess commanding her attendant to enclose the manuscript within its appropriate casket, and convey it with her own hands to the cabinet of Apollo, the usual scene of the Princess's studies, as the Temple of the Muses was that commonly dedicated to her recitations.
The Emperor himself was the first to break an unpleasant silence. "Fair son-in-law," he said, "though it now wears something late in the night, you will do yourself wrong if you permit our Anna to send away that volume, with which this company have been so delectably entertained that they may well say, that the desert hath produced roses, and the barren rocks have poured forth milk and honey, so agreeable is the narrative of a toilsome and dangerous campaign, in the language of our daughter."
"The Caesar," said the Empress, "seems to have little taste for such dainties as this family can produce. He hath of late repeatedly absented himself from this Temple of the Muses, and found doubtless more agreeable conversation and amusement elsewhere."
"I trust, madam," said Nicephorus, "that my taste may vindicate me from the charge implied. But it is natural that our sacred father should be most delighted with the milk and honey which is produced for his own special use."
The Princess spoke in the tone of a handsome woman offended by her lover, and feeling the offence, yet not indisposed to a reconciliation.
"If," she said, "the deeds of Nicephorus Briennius are less frequently celebrated in that poor roll of parchment than those of my illustrious father, he must do me the justice to remember that such was his own special request; either proceeding from that modesty which is justly ascribed to him as serving to soften and adorn his other attributes, or because he with justice distrusts his wife's power to compose their eulogium."
"We will then summon back Astarte," said the Empress, "who cannot yet have carried her offering to the cabinet of Apollo."
"With your imperial pleasure," said Nicephorus, "it might incense the Pythian god were a deposit to be recalled of which he alone can fitly estimate the value. I came hither to speak with the Emperor upon pressing affairs of state, and not to hold a literary conversation with a company which I must needs say is something of a miscellaneous description, since I behold an ordinary life-guardsman in the imperial circle."
"By the rood, son-in-law," said Alexius, "you do this gallant man wrong. He is the brother of that brave Anglo-Dane who secured the victory at Laodicea by his valiant conduct and death; he himself is that Edmund— or Edward—-or Hereward—-to whom we are ever bound for securing the success of that victorious day. He was called into our presence, son- in-law, since it imports that you should know so much, to refresh the memory of any Follower, Achilles Tatius, as well as mine own, concerning some transactions of the day of which we had become in some degree oblivious."
"Truly, imperial sir," answered Briennius, "I grieve that, by having intruded on some such important researches, I may have, in some degree, intercepted a portion of that light which is to illuminate future ages. Methinks that in a battle-field, fought under your imperial guidance, and that of your great captains, your evidence might well supersede the testimony of such a man as this.—Let me know," he added, turning haughtily to the Varangian, "what particular thou canst add, that is unnoticed in the Princess's narrative?"
The Varangian replied instantly, "Only that when we made a halt at the fountain, the music that was there made by the ladies of the Emperor's household, and particularly by those two whom I now behold, was the most exquisite that ever reached my ears."
"Hah! darest thou to speak so audacious an opinion?" exclaimed Nicephorus; "is it for such as thou to suppose for a moment that the music which the wife and daughter of the Emperor might condescend to make, was intended to afford either matter of pleasure or of criticism to every plebeian barbarian who might hear them? Begone from this place! nor dare, on any pretext, again to appear before mine eyes— under allowance always of our imperial father's pleasure."
The Varangian bent his looks upon Achilles Tatius, as the person from whom he was to take his orders to stay or withdraw. But the Emperor himself took up the subject with considerable dignity.
"Son," he said, "we cannot permit this. On account of some love quarrel, as it would seem, betwixt you and our daughter, you allow yourself strangely to forget our imperial rank, and to order from our presence those whom we have pleased to call to attend us. This is neither right nor seemly, nor is it our pleasure that this same Hereward—or Edward— or whatever be his name—either leave us at this present moment, or do at any time hereafter regulate himself by any commands save our own, or those of our Follower, Achilles Tatius. And now, allowing this foolish affair, which I think was blown among us by the wind, to pass as it came, without farther notice, we crave to know the grave matters of state which brought you to our presence at so late an hour.—You look again at this Varangian.—Withhold not your words, I pray you, on account of his presence; for he stands as high in our trust, and we are convinced with as good reason, as any counsellor who has been sworn our domestic servant."
"To hear is to obey," returned the Emperor's son-in-law, who saw that Alexius was somewhat moved, and knew that in such cases it was neither safe nor expedient to drive him to extremity. "What I have to say," continued he, "must so soon be public news, that it little matters who hears it; and yet the West, so full of strange changes, never sent to the Eastern half of the globe tidings so alarming as those I now come to tell your Imperial Highness. Europe, to borrow an expression from this lady, who honours me by calling me husband, seems loosened from its foundations and about to precipitate itself upon Asia"——
"So I did express myself," said the Princess Anna Comnena, "and, as I trust, not altogether unforcibly, when we first heard that the wild impulse of those restless barbarians of Europe had driven a tempest as of a thousand nations upon our western frontier, with the extravagant purpose, as they pretended, of possessing themselves of Syria, and the holy places there marked as the sepulchres of prophets, the martyrdom of saints, and the great events detailed in the blessed gospel. But that storm, by all accounts, hath burst and passed away, and we well hoped that the danger had gone with it. Devoutly shall we sorrow to find it otherwise."
"And otherwise we must expect to find it," said her husband. "It is very true, as reported to us, that a huge body of men, of low rank and little understanding, assumed arms at the instigation of a mad hermit, and took the road from Germany to Hungary, expecting miracles to be wrought in their favour, as when Israel was guided through the wilderness by a pillar of flame and a cloud. But no showers of manna or of quails relieved their necessities, or proclaimed them the chosen people of God. No waters gushed from the rock for their refreshment. They were enraged at their sufferings, and endeavoured to obtain supplies by pillaging the country. The Hungarians, and other nations on our western frontiers, Christians, like themselves, did not hesitate to fall upon this disorderly rabble; and immense piles of bones, in wild passes and unfrequented deserts, attest the calamitous defeats which extirpated these unholy pilgrims."
"All this," said the Emperor, "we knew before;—but what new evil now threatens, since we have already escaped so important a one?"
"Knew before?" said the Prince Nicephorus. "We knew nothing of our real danger before, save that a wild herd of animals, as brutal and as furious as wild bulls, threatened to bend their way to a pasture for which they had formed a fancy, and deluged the Grecian empire, and its vicinity, in their passage, expecting that Palestine, with its streams of milk and honey, once more awaited them, as God's predestined people. But so wild and disorderly an invasion had no terrors for a civilized nation like the Romans. The brute herd was terrified by our Greek fire; it was snared and shot down by the wild nations who, while they pretend to independence, cover our frontier as with a protecting fortification. The vile multitude has been consumed even by the very quality of the provisions thrown in their way,—those wise means of resistance which were at once suggested by the paternal care of the Emperor, and by his unfailing policy. Thus wisdom has played its part, and the bark over which the tempest had poured its thunder, has escaped, notwithstanding all its violence. But the second storm, by which the former is so closely followed, is of a new descent of these Western nations, more formidable than any which we or our fathers have yet seen. This consists not of the ignorant or of the fanatical—not of the base, the needy, and the improvident. Now,—all that wide Europe possesses of what is wise and worthy, brave and noble, are united by the most religious vows, in the same purpose."
"And what is that purpose? Speak plainly," said Alexius. "The destruction of our whole Roman empire, and the blotting out the very name of its chief from among the princes of the earth, among which it has long been predominant, can alone be an adequate motive for a confederacy such as thy speech infers."
"No such design is avowed," said Nicephorus; "and so many princes, wise men, and statesmen of eminence, aim, it is pretended, at nothing else than the same extravagant purpose announced by the brute multitude who first appeared in these regions. Here, most gracious Emperor, is a scroll, in which you will find marked down a list of the various armies which, by different routes, are approaching the vicinity of the empire. Behold, Hugh of Vermandois, called from his dignity Hugh the Great, has set sail from the shores of Italy. Twenty knights have already announced their coming, sheathed in armour of steel, inlaid with gold, bearing this proud greeting:—'Let the Emperor of Greece, and his lieutenants, understand that Hugo, Earl of Vermandois, is approaching his territories. He is brother to the king of kings—The King of France,[Footnote: Ducange pours out a whole ocean of authorities to show that the King of France was in those days styled Rex, by way of eminence. See his notes on the Alexiad. Anna Comnena in her history makes Hugh, of Vermandois assume to himself the titles which could only, in the most enthusiastic Frenchman's opinion, have been claimed by his older brother, the reigning monarch.] namely—and is attended by the flower of the French nobility. He bears the blessed banner of St. Peter, intrusted to his victorious care by the holy successor of the apostle, and warns thee of all this, that thou mayst provide a reception suitable to his rank.'"
"Here are sounding words," said the Emperor; "but the wind which whistles loudest is not always most dangerous to the vessel. We know something of this nation of France, and have heard more. They are as petulant at least as they are valiant; we will flatter their vanity till we get time and opportunity for more effectual defence. Tush! if words can pay debt, there is no fear of our exchequer becoming insolvent.—What follows here, Nicephorus? A list, I suppose, of the followers of this great count?"
"My liege, no!" answered Nicephorus Briennius; "so many independent chiefs, as your Imperial Highness sees in that memorial, so many independent European armies are advancing by different routes towards the East, and announce the conquest of Palestine from the infidels as their common object."
"A dreadful enumeration," said the Emperor, as he perused the list; "yet so far happy, that its very length assures us of the impossibility that so many princes can be seriously and consistently united in so wild a project. Thus already my eyes catch the well-known name of an old friend, our enemy—for such are the alternate chances of peace and war—Bohemond of Antioch. Is not he the son of the celebrated Robert of Apulia, so renowned among his countrymen, who raised himself to the rank of grand duke from a simple cavalier, and became sovereign of those of his warlike nation, both in Sicily and Italy? Did not the standards of the German Emperor, of the Roman Pontiff, nay, our own imperial banners, give way before him; until, equally a wily statesman and a brave warrior, he became the terror of Europe, from being a knight whose Norman castle would have been easily garrisoned by six cross-bows, and as many lances? It is a dreadful family, a race of craft as well as power. But Bohemond, the son of old Robert, will follow his father's politics. He may talk of Palestine and of the interests of Christendom, but if I can make his interests the same with mine, he is not likely to be guided by any other object. So then, with the knowledge I already possess of his wishes and projects, it may chance that Heaven sends us an ally in the guise of an enemy.—Whom have we next? Godfrey [Footnote: Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine—the great Captain of the first Crusade, afterwards King of Jerusalem. See Gibbon,—or Mills, passim.] Duke of Bouillon— leading, I see, a most formidable band from the banks of a huge river called the Rhine. What is this person's character?"
"As we hear," replied Nicephorus, "this Godfrey is one of the wisest, noblest, and bravest of the leaders who have thus strangely put themselves in motion; and among a list of independent princes, as many in number as those who assembled for the siege of Troy, and followed, most of them, by subjects ten times more numerous, this Godfrey may be regarded as the Agamemnon. The princes and counts esteem him, because he is the foremost in the ranks of those whom they fantastically call Knights, and also on account of the good faith and generosity which he practises in all his transactions. The clergy give him credit for the highest zeal for the doctrines of religion, and a corresponding respect for the Church and its dignitaries. Justice, liberality, and frankness, have equally attached to this Godfrey the lower class of the people. His general attention to moral obligations is a pledge to them that his religion is real; and, gifted with so much that is excellent, he is already, although inferior in rank, birth, and power to many chiefs of the crusade, justly regarded as one of its principal leaders."
"Pity," said the Emperor, "that a character such as you describe this Prince to be, should be under the dominion of a fanaticism scarce worthy of Peter the Hermit, or the clownish multitude which he led, or of the very ass which he rode upon! which I am apt to think the wisest of the first multitude whom we beheld, seeing that it ran away towards Europe as soon as water and barley became scarce."
"Might I be permitted here to speak, and yet live," said Agelastes, "I would remark that the Patriarch himself made a similar retreat so soon as blows became plenty and food scarce."
"Thou hast hit it, Agelastes," said the Emperor; "but the question now is, whether an honorable and important principality could not be formed out of part of the provinces of the Lesser Asia, now laid waste by the Turks. Such a principality, methinks, with its various advantages of soil, climate, industrious inhabitants, and a healthy atmosphere, were well worth the morasses of Bouillon. It might be held as a dependence upon the sacred Roman empire, and garrisoned, as it were, by Godfrey and his victorious Franks, would be a bulwark on that point to our just and sacred person. Ha! most holy patriarch, would not such a prospect shake the most devout Crusader's attachment to the burning sands of Palestine?"
"Especially," answered the Patriarch, "if the prince for whom such a rich theme [Footnote: These provinces were called Themes.] was changed into a feudal appanage, should be previously converted to the only true faith, as your Imperial Highness undoubtedly means."
"Certainly—most unquestionably," answered the Emperor, with a due affectation of gravity, notwithstanding he was internally conscious how often he had been compelled, by state necessities, to admit, not only Latin Christians, but Manicheans, and other heretics, nay, Mahomedan barbarians, into the number of his subjects, and that without experiencing opposition from the scruples of the Patriarch. "Here I find," continued the Emperor, "such a numerous list of princes and principalities in the act of approaching our boundaries, as might well rival the armies of old, who were said to have drunk up rivers, exhausted realms, and trode down forests, in their wasteful advance." As he pronounced these words, a shade of paleness came over the Imperial brow, similar to that which had already clothed in sadness most of his counsellors.
"This war of nations," said Nicephorus, "has also circumstances distinguishing it from every other, save that which his Imperial Highness hath waged in former times against those whom we are accustomed to call Franks. We must go forth against a people to whom the strife of combat is as the breath of their nostrils; who, rather than not be engaged in war, will do battle with their nearest neighbours, and challenge each other to mortal fight, as much in sport as we would defy a comrade to a chariot-race. They are covered with an impenetrable armour of steel, defending them from blows of the lance and sword, and which the uncommon strength of their horses renders them able to support, though one of ours could as well bear Mount Olympus upon his loins. Their foot-ranks carry a missile weapon unknown to us, termed an arblast, or cross-bow. It is not drawn with the right hand, like the bow of other nations, but by placing the feet upon the weapon itself, and pulling with the whole force of the body; and it despatches arrows called bolts, of hard wood pointed with iron, which the strength of the bow can send through the strongest breastplates, and even through stone walls, where not of uncommon thickness."
"Enough," said the Emperor; "we have seen with our own eyes the lances of Frankish knights, and the cross-bows of their infantry. If Heaven has allotted them a degree of bravery, which to other nations seems wellnigh preternatural, the Divine will has given to the Greek councils that wisdom which it hath refused to barbarians; the art of achieving conquest by wisdom rather than brute force—obtaining by our skill in treaty advantages which victory itself could not have procured. If we have not the use of that dreadful weapon, which our son-in-law terms the cross-bow, Heaven, in its favour, has concealed from these western barbarians the composition and use of the Greek fire—well so called, since by Grecian hands alone it is prepared, and by such only can its lightnings be darted upon the astonished foe." The Emperor paused, and looked around him; and although the faces of his counsellors still looked blank, he boldly proceeded:—"But to return yet again to this black scroll, containing the names of those nations who approach our frontier, here occur more than one with which, methinks, old memory should make us familiar, though our recollections are distant and confused. It becomes us to know who these men are, that we may avail ourselves of those feuds and quarrels among them, which, being blown into life, may happily divert them from the prosecution of this extraordinary attempt in which they are now united. Here is, for example, one Robert, styled Duke of Normandy, who commands a goodly band of counts, with which title we are but too well acquainted; of earls, a word totally strange to us, but apparently some barbaric title of honour; and of knights whose names are compounded, as we think, chiefly of the French language, but also of another jargon, which we are not ourselves competent to understand. To you, most reverend and most learned Patriarch, we may fittest apply for information on this subject."
"The duties of my station," replied the patriarch Zosimus, "have withheld my riper years from studying the history of distant realms; but the wise Agelastes, who hath read as many volumes as would fill the shelves of the famous Alexandrian library, can no doubt satisfy your Imperial Majesty's enquiries."
Agelastes erected himself on those enduring legs which had procured him the surname of Elephant, and began a reply to the enquiries of the Emperor, rather remarkable for readiness than accuracy. "I have read," said he, "in that brilliant mirror which reflects the time of our fathers, the volumes of the learned Procopius, that the people separately called Normans and Angles are in truth the same race, and that Normandy, sometimes so called, is in fact a part of a district of Gaul. Beyond, and nearly opposite to it, but separated by an arm of the sea, lies a ghastly region, on which clouds and tempests for ever rest, and which is well known to its continental neighbours as the abode to which departed spirits are sent after this life. On one side of the strait dwell a few fishermen, men possessed of a strange charter, and enjoying singular privileges, in consideration of their being the living ferrymen who, performing the office of the heathen Charon, carry the spirits of the departed to the island which is their residence after death. At the dead of night, these fishermen are, in rotation, summoned to perform the duty by which they seem to hold the permission to reside on this strange coast. A knock is heard at the door of his cottage who holds the turn of this singular service, sounded by no mortal hand. A whispering, as of a decaying breeze, summons the ferryman to his duty. He hastens to his bark on the sea-shore, and has no sooner launched it than he perceives its hull sink sensibly in the water, so as to express the weight of the dead with whom it is filled. No form is seen, and though voices are heard, yet the accents are undistinguishable, as of one who speaks in his sleep. Thus he traverses the strait between the continent and the island, impressed with the mysterious awe which affects the living when they are conscious of the presence of the dead. They arrive upon the opposite coast, where the cliffs of white chalk form a strange contrast with the eternal darkness of the atmosphere. They stop at a landing-place appointed, but disembark not, for the land is never trodden by earthly feet. Here the passage-boat is gradually lightened of its unearthly inmates, who wander forth in the way appointed to them, while the mariners slowly return to their own side of the strait, having performed for the time this singular service, by which they hold their fishing-huts and their possessions on that strange coast." Here he ceased, and the Emperor replied,—
"If this legend be actually told us by Procopius, most learned Agelastes, it shows that that celebrated historian came more near the heathen than the Christian belief respecting the future state. In truth, this is little more than the old fable of the infernal Styx. Procopius, we believe, lived before the decay of heathenism, and, as we would gladly disbelieve much which he hath told us respecting our ancestor and predecessor Justinian, so we will not pay him much credit in future in point of geographical knowledge.—Meanwhile, what ails thee, Achilles Tatius, and why dost thou whisper with that soldier?"
"My head," answered Achilles Tatius, "is at your imperial command, prompt to pay for the unbecoming trespass of my tongue. I did but ask of this Hereward here what he knew of this matter; for I have heard my Varangians repeatedly call themselves Anglo-Danes, Normans, Britons, or some other barbaric epithet, and I am sure that one or other, or it may be all, of these barbarous sounds, at different times serve to designate the birth-place of these exiles, too happy in being banished from the darkness of barbarism, to the luminous vicinity of your imperial presence."
"Speak, then, Varangian, in the name of Heaven," said the Emperor, "and let us know whether we are to look for friends or enemies in those men of Normandy who are now approaching our frontier. Speak with courage, man; and if thou apprehendest danger, remember thou servest a prince well qualified to protect thee."
"Since I am at liberty to speak," answered the life-guardian, "although my knowledge of the Greek language, which you term the Roman, is but slight, I trust it is enough to demand of his Imperial Highness, in place of all pay, donative, or gift whatsoever, since he has been pleased to talk of designing such for me, that he would place me in the first line of battle which shall be formed against these same Normans, and their Duke Robert; and if he pleases to allow me the aid of such Varangians as, for love of me, or hatred of their ancient tyrants, may be disposed to join their arms to mine, I have little doubt so to settle our long accounts with these men, that the Grecian eagles and wolves shall do them the last office, by tearing the flesh from their bones."
"What dreadful feud is this, my soldier," said the Emperor, "that after so many years still drives thee to such extremities when the very name of Normandy is mentioned?"
"Your Imperial Highness shall be judge!" said the Varangian. "My fathers, and those of most, though not all of the corps to whom I belong, are descended from a valiant race who dwelt in the North of Germany, called Anglo-Saxons. Nobody, save a priest possessed of the art of consulting ancient chronicles, can even guess how long it is since they came to the island of Britain, then distracted with civil war. They came, however, on the petition of the natives of the island, for the aid of the Angles was requested by the southern inhabitants. Provinces were granted in recompense of the aid thus liberally afforded, and the greater proportion of the island became, by degrees, the property of the Anglo-Saxons, who occupied it at first as several principalities, and latterly as one kingdom, speaking the language, and observing the laws, of most of those who now form your imperial body- guard of Varangians, or exiles. In process of time, the Northmen became known to the people of the more southern climates. They were so called from their coming from the distant regions of the Baltic Sea—an immense ocean, sometimes frozen with ice as hard as the cliffs of Mount Caucasus. They came seeking milder regions than nature had assigned them at home; and the climate of France being delightful, and its people slow in battle, they extorted from them the grant of a large province which was, from the name of the new settlers, called Normandy, though I have heard my father say that was not its proper appellation. They settled there under a Duke, who acknowledged the superior authority of the King of France, that is to say, obeying him when it suited his convenience so to do.
"Now, it chanced many years since, while these two nations of Normans and Anglo-Saxons were quietly residing upon different sides of the salt-water channel which divides France from England, that William, Duke of Normandy, suddenly levied a large army, came over to Kent, which is on the opposite side of the channel, and there defeated in a great battle, Harold, who was at that time King of the Anglo-Saxons. It is but grief to tell what followed. Battles have been fought in old time, that have had dreadful results, which years, nevertheless, could wash away; but at Hastings—O woe's me!—the banner of my country fell, never again to be raised up. Oppression has driven her wheel over us. All that was valiant amongst us have left the land; and of Englishmen— for such is our proper designation—no one remains in England save as the thrall of the invaders. Many men of Danish descent, who had found their way on different occasions to England, were blended in the common calamity. All was laid desolate by the command of the victors. My father's home lies now an undistinguished ruin, amid an extensive forest, composed out of what were formerly fair fields and domestic pastures, where a manly race derived nourishment by cultivating a friendly soil. The fire has destroyed the church where sleep the fathers of my race; and I, the last of their line, am a wanderer in other climates—a fighter of the battles of others—the servant of a foreign, though a kind master; in a word, one of the banished—a Varangian."
"Happier in that station" said Achilles Tatius, "than in all the barbaric simplicity which your forefathers prized so highly, since you are now under the cheering influence of that smile which is the life of the world."
"It avails not talking of this," said the Varangian, with a cold gesture.
"These Normans" said the Emperor, "are then the people by whom the celebrated island of Britain is now conquered and governed?"
"It is but too true" answered the Varangian.
"They are, then, a brave and warlike people?"—said Alexius.
"It would be base and false to say otherwise of an enemy" said Hereward. "Wrong have they done me, and a wrong never to be atoned; but to speak falsehood of them were but a woman's vengeance. Mortal enemies as they are to me, and mingling with all my recollections as that which is hateful and odious, yet were the troops of Europe mustered, as it seems they are likely to be, no nation or tribe dared in gallantry claim the advance of the haughty Norman."
"And this Duke Robert, who is he?"
"That," answered the Varangian, "I cannot so well explain. He is the son—the eldest son, as men say, of the tyrant William, who subdued England when I hardly existed, or was a child in the cradle. That William, the victor of Hastings, is now dead, we are assured by concurring testimony; but while it seems his eldest son Duke Robert has become his heir to the Duchy of Normandy, some other of his children have been so fortunate as to acquire the throne of England,—unless, indeed, like the petty farm of some obscure yeoman, the fair kingdom has been divided among the tyrant's issue."
"Concerning this," said the Emperor, "we have heard something, which we shall try to reconcile with the soldier's narrative at leisure, holding the words of this honest Varangian as positive proof, in whatsoever he avers from his own knowledge.—And now, my grave and worthy counsellors, we must close this evening's service in the Temple of the Muses, this distressing news, brought us by our dearest son-in-law the Caesar, having induced us to prolong our worship of these learned goddesses, deeper into the night than is consistent with the health of our beloved wife and daughter; while to ourselves, this intelligence brings subject for grave deliberation."
The courtiers exhausted their ingenuity in forming the most ingenious prayers, that all evil consequences should be averted which could attend this excessive vigilance.
Nicephorus and his fair bride spoke together as a pair equally desirous to close an accidental breach between them. "Some things thou hast said, my Caesar," observed the lady, "in detailing this dreadful intelligence, as elegantly turned as if the nine goddesses, to whom this temple is dedicated, had lent each her aid to the sense and expression."
"I need none of their assistance," answered Nicephorus, "since I possess a muse of my own, in whose genius are included all those attributes which the heathens vainly ascribed to the nine deities of Parnassus!"
"It is well," said the fair historian, retiring by the assistance of her husband's arm; "but if you will load your wife with praises far beyond her merits, you must lend her your arm to support her under the weighty burden you have been pleased to impose." The council parted when the imperial persons had retired, and most of them sought to indemnify themselves in more free though less dignified circles, for the constraint which they had practised in the Temple of the Muses.
CHAPTER THE SIXTH.
Vain man! thou mayst, esteem thy love as fair As fond hyperboles suffice to raise. She may be all that's matchless in her person, And all-divine in soul to match her body; But take this from me—thou shalt never call her Superior to her sex, while one survives, And I am her true votary. OLD PLAY.
Achilles Tatius, with his faithful Varangian close by his shoulder, melted from the dispersing assembly silently and almost invisibly, as snow is dissolved from its Alpine abodes as the days become more genial. No lordly step, nor clash of armour, betokened the retreat of the military persons. The very idea of the necessity of guards was not ostentatiously brought forward, because, so near the presence of the Emperor, the emanation supposed to flit around that divinity of earthly sovereigns, had credit for rendering it impassive and unassailable. Thus the oldest and most skilful courtiers, among whom our friend Agelastes was not to be forgotten, were of opinion, that, although the Emperor employed the ministry of the Varangians and other guards, it was rather for form's sake, than from any danger of the commission of a crime of a kind so heinous, that it was the fashion to account it almost impossible. And this doctrine, of the rare occurrence of such a crime, was repeated from month to month in those very chambers, where it had oftener than once been perpetrated, and sometimes by the very persons who monthly laid schemes for carrying some dark conspiracy against the reigning Emperor into positive execution.
At length the captain of the life-guardsmen, and his faithful attendant, found themselves on the outside of the Blacquernal Palace. The passage which Achilles found for their exit, was closed by a postern which a single Varangian shut behind, them, drawing, at the same time, bolt and bar with an ill-omened and jarring sound. Looking back at the mass of turrets, battlements, and spires, out of which they had at length emerged, Hereward could not but feel his heart lighten to find "himself once more under the deep blue of a Grecian heaven, where the planets were burning with unusual lustre. He sighed and rubbed his hands with pleasure, like a man newly restored to liberty. He even spoke to his leader, contrary to his custom unless addressed:—"Methinks the air of yonder halls, valorous Captain, carries with it a perfume, which, though it may be well termed sweet, is so suffocating, as to be more suitable to sepulchrous chambers, than to the dwellings of men. Happy I am that I am free, as I trust, from its influences."
"Be happy, then," said Achilles Tatius, "since thy vile, cloddish spirit feels suffocation rather than refreshment in gales, which, instead of causing death, might recall the dead themselves to life. Yet this I will say for thee, Hereward, that, born a barbarian, within the narrow circle of a savage's desires and pleasures, and having no idea of life, save what thou derivest from such vile and base connexions, thou art, nevertheless, designed by nature for better things, and hast this day sustained a trial, in which, I fear me, not even one of mine own noble corps, frozen as they are into lumps of unfashioned barbarity, could have equalled thy bearing. And speak now in true faith, hast not thou been rewarded?"
"That will I never deny," said the Varangian. "The pleasure of knowing, twenty-four hours perhaps before my comrades, that the Normans are coming hither to afford us a full revenge of the bloody day of Hastings, is a lordly recompense, for the task of spending some hours in hearing the lengthened chat of a lady, who has written about she knows not what, and the flattering commentaries of the bystanders, who pretended to give her an account of what they did not themselves stop to witness."
"Hereward, my good youth," said Achilles Tatius, "thou ravest, and I think I should do well to place thee under the custody of some person of skill. Too much hardihood, my valiant soldier, is in soberness allied to over-daring. It was only natural that thou shouldst feel a becoming pride in thy late position; yet, let it but taint thee with vanity, and the effect will be little short of madness. Why, thou hast looked boldly in the face of a Princess born in the purple, before whom my own eyes, though well used to such spectacles, are never raised beyond the foldings of her veil."
"So be it in the name of Heaven!" replied Hereward. "Nevertheless, handsome faces were made to look upon, and the eyes of young men to see withal."
"If such be their final end," said Achilles, "never did thine, I will freely suppose, find a richer apology for the somewhat overbold license which thou tookest in thy gaze upon the Princess this evening."
"Good leader, or Follower, whichever is your favourite title," said the Anglo-Briton, "drive not to extremity a plain man, who desires to hold his duty in all honour to the imperial family. The Princess, wife of the Caesar, and born, you tell me, of a purple colour, has now inherited, notwithstanding, the features of a most lovely woman. She hath composed a history, of which I presume not to form a judgment, since I cannot understand it; she sings like an angel; and to conclude, after the fashion of the knights of this day—though I deal not ordinarily with their language—I would say cheerfully, that I am ready to place myself in lists against any one whomsoever, who dares detract from the beauty of the imperial Anna Comnena's person, or from the virtues of her mind. Having said this, my noble captain, we have said all that it is competent for you to inquire into, or for me to answer. That there are hansomer women than the Princess, is unquestionable; and I question it the less, that I have myself seen a person whom I think far her superior; and with that let us close the dialogue."
"Thy beauty, thou unparalleled fool," said Achilles, "must, I ween, be the daughter of the large-bodied northern boor, living next door to him upon whose farm was brought up the person of an ass, curst with such intolerable want of judgment."
"You may say your pleasure, captain," replied Hereward: "because it is the safer for us both that thou canst not on such a topic either offend me, who hold thy judgment as light as thou canst esteem mine, or speak any derogation of a person whom you never saw, but whom, if you had seen, perchance I might not so patiently have brooked any reflections upon, even at the hands of a military superior."
Achilles Tatius had a good deal of the penetration necessary for one in his situation. He never provoked to extremity the daring spirits whom he commanded, and never used any freedom with them beyond the extent that he knew their patience could bear. Hereward was a favourite soldier, and had, in that respect at least, a sincere liking and regard for his commander: when, therefore, the Follower, instead of resenting his petulance, good-humouredly apologized for having hurt his feelings, the momentary displeasure between them was at an end; the officer at once reassumed his superiority, and the soldier sunk back with a deep sigh, given to some period which was long past, into his wonted silence and reserve. Indeed the Follower had another and further design upon Hereward, of which he was as yet unwilling to do more than give a distant hint.
After a long pause, during which they approached the barracks, a gloomy fortified building constructed for the residence of their corps, the captain motioned his soldier to draw close up to his side, and proceeded to ask him, in a confidential tone—"Hereward, my friend, although it is scarce to be supposed that in the presence of the imperial family thou shouldst mark any one who did not partake of their blood, or rather, as Homer has it, who did not participate of the divine ichor, which, in their sacred persons, supplies the place of that vulgar fluid; yet, during so long an audience, thou mightst possibly, from his uncourtly person and attire, have distinguished Agelastes, whom we courtiers call the Elephant, from his strict observation of the rule which forbids any one to sit down or rest in the Imperial presence?"
"I think," replied the soldier, "I marked the man you mean; his age was some seventy and upwards,—a big burly person;—and the baldness which reached to the top of his head was well atoned for by a white beard of prodigious size, which descended in waving curls over his breast, and reached to the towel with which his loins were girded, instead of the silken sash used by other persons of rank."
"Most accurately marked, my Varangian," said the officer. "What else didst thou note about this person?"
"His cloak was in its texture as coarse as that of the meanest of the people, but it was strictly clean, as if it had been the intention of the wearer to exhibit poverty, or carelessness and contempt of dress, avoiding, at the same time, every particular which implied anything negligent, sordid, or disgusting."
"By St. Sophia!" said the officer, "thou astonishest me! The Prophet Baalam was not more surprised when his ass turned round her head and spoke to him!—And what else didst thou note concerning this man? I see those who meet thee must beware of thy observation, as well as of thy battle-axe."
"If it please your Valour" answered the soldier, "we English have eyes as well as hands; but it is only when discharging our duty that we permit our tongues to dwell on what we have observed. I noted but little of this man's conversation, but from what I heard, it seemed he was not unwilling to play what we call the jester, or jack-pudding, in the conversation, a character which, considering the man's age and physiognomy, is not, I should be tempted to say, natural, but assumed for some purpose of deeper import."
"Hereward," answered his officer, "thou hast spoken like an angel sent down to examine men's bosoms: that man, Agelastes, is a contradiction, such as earth has seldom witnessed. Possessing all that wisdom which in former times united the sages of this nation with the gods themselves, Agelastes has the same cunning as the elder Brutus, who disguised his talents under the semblance of an idle jester. He appears to seek no office—he desires no consideration—he pays suit at court only when positively required to do so; yet what shall I say, my soldier, concerning the cause of an influence gained without apparent effort, and extending almost into the very thoughts of men, who appear to act as he would desire, without his soliciting them to that purpose? Men say strange things concerning the extent of his communications with other beings, whom our fathers worshipped with prayer and sacrifice. I am determined, however, to know the road by which he climbs so high and so easily towards the point to which all men aspire at court, and it will go hard but he shall either share his ladder with me, or I will strike its support from under him. Thee, Hereward, I have chosen to assist me in this matter, as the knights among these Frankish infidels select, when going upon an adventure, a sturdy squire, or inferior attendant, to share the dangers and the recompense; and this I am moved to, as much by the shrewdness thou hast this night manifested, as by the courage which thou mayst boast, in common with, or rather beyond, thy companions."
"I am obliged, and I thank your Valour," replied the Varangian, more coldly perhaps than his officer expected; "I am ready, as is my duty, to serve you in anything consistent with God and the Emperor's claims upon my service. I would only say, that, as a sworn inferior soldier, I will do nothing contrary to the laws of the empire, and, as a sincere though ignorant Christian, I will have nothing to do with the gods of the heathens, save to defy them in the name and strength of the holy saints."
"Idiot!" said Achilles Tatius, "dost thou think that I, already possessed of one of the first dignities of the empire, could meditate anything contrary to the interests of Alexius Comnenus? or, what would be scarce more atrocious, that I, the chosen friend and ally of the reverend Patriarch Zosimus, should meddle with anything bearing a relation, however remote, to heresy or idolatry?"
"Truly," answered the Varangian, "no one would be more surprised or grieved than I should; but when we walk in a labyrinth, we must assume and announce that we have a steady and forward purpose, which is one mode at least of keeping a straight path. The people of this country have so many ways of saying the same thing, that one can hardly know at last what is their real meaning. We English, on the other hand, can only express ourselves in one set of words, but it is one out of which all the ingenuity of the world could not extract a double meaning."
"'Tis well," said his officer, "to-morrow we will talk more of this, for which purpose thou wilt come to my quarters a little after sunset. And, hark thee, to-morrow, while the sun is in heaven, shall be thine own, either to sport thyself or to repose. Employ thy time in the latter, by my advice, since to-morrow night, like the present, may find us both watchers."
So saying, they entered the barracks, where they parted company—the commander of the life-guards taking his way to a splendid set of apartments which belonged to him in that capacity, and the Anglo-Saxon seeking his humble accommodations as a subaltern officer of the same corps.
CHAPTER THE SEVENTH.
Such forces met not, nor so vast a camp, When Agrican, with all his northern powers, Besieged Albraeca, as romances tell. The city of Gallaphron, from thence to win The fairest of her sex, Angelica, His daughter, sought by many prowess'd knights, Both Paynim, and the Peers of Charlemagne. PARADISE REGAINED.
Early on the morning of the day following that which we have commemorated, the Imperial Council was assembled, where the number of general officers with sounding titles, disguised under a thin veil the real weakness of the Grecian empire. The commanders were numerous and the distinctions of their rank minute, but the soldiers were very few in comparison. The offices formerly filled by prefects, praetors, and questors, were now held by persons who had gradually risen into the authority of those officers, and who, though designated from their domestic duties about the Emperor, yet, from that very circumstance, possessed what, in that despotic court, was the most effectual source of power. A long train of officers entered the great hall of the Castle of Blacquernal, and proceeded so far together as their different grades admitted, while in each chamber through which they passed in succession, a certain number of the train whose rank permitted them to advance no farther, remained behind the others. Thus, when the interior cabinet of audience was gained, which was not until their passage through ten anterooms, five persons only found themselves in the presence of the Emperor in this innermost and most sacred recess of royalty, decorated by all the splendour of the period.
The Emperor Alexius sat upon a stately throne, rich with barbaric gems and gold, and flanked on either hand, in imitation probably of Solomon's magnificence, with the form of a couchant lion in the same precious metal. Not to dwell upon other marks of splendour, a tree whose trunk seemed also of gold, shot up behind the throne, which it over-canopied with its branches. Amid the boughs were birds of various kinds curiously wrought and enamelled, and fruit composed of precious stones seemed to glisten among the leaves. Five officers alone, the highest in the state, had the privilege of entering this sacred recess when the Emperor held council. These were—the Grand Domestic, who might be termed of rank with a modern prime minister—the Logothete, or chancellor—the Protospathaire, or commander of the guards, already mentioned—the Acolyte, or Follower, and leader of the Varangians—and the Patriarch.
The doors of this secret apartment, and the adjacent antechamber, were guarded by six deformed Nubian slaves, whose writhen and withered countenances formed a hideous contrast with their snow-white dresses and splendid equipment. They were mutes, a species of wretches borrowed from the despotism of the East, that they might be unable to proclaim the deeds of tyranny of which they were the unscrupulous agents. They were generally held in a kind of horror, rather than compassion, for men considered that slaves of this sort had a malignant pleasure in avenging upon others the irreparable wrongs which had severed themselves from humanity. It was a general custom, though, like many other usages of the Greeks, it would be held childish in modern times, that by means of machinery easily conceived, the lions, at the entrance of a stranger, were made, as it were, to rouse themselves and roar, after which a wind seemed to rustle the foliage of the tree, the birds hopped from branch to branch, pecked the fruit, and appeared to fill the chamber with their carolling. This display had alarmed many an ignorant foreign ambassador, and even the Grecian counsellors themselves were expected to display the same sensations of fear, succeeded by surprise, when they heard the roar of the lions, followed by the concert of the birds, although perhaps it was for the fiftieth time. On this occasion, as a proof of the urgency of the present meeting of the council, these ceremonies were entirely omitted.
The speech of the Emperor himself seemed to supply by its commencement the bellowing of the lions, while it ended in a strain more resembling the warbling of the birds.
In his first sentences, he treated of the audacity and unheard-of boldness of the millions of Franks, who, under the pretence of wresting Palestine from the infidels, had ventured to invade the sacred territories of the empire. He threatened them with such chastisement as his innumerable forces and officers would, he affirmed, find it easy to inflict. To all this the audience, and especially the military officers, gave symptoms of ready assent. Alexius, however, did not long persist in the warlike intentions which he at first avowed. The Franks, he at length seemed to reflect, were, in profession, Christians. They might possibly be serious in their pretext of the crusade, in which case their motives claimed a degree of indulgence, and, although erring, a certain portion of respect. Their numbers also were great, and their valour could not be despised by those who had seen them fight at Durazzo, [Footnote: For the battle of Durazzo, Oct. 1081, in which Alexius was defeated with great slaughter by Robert Guiscard, and escaped only by the swiftness of his horse, see Gibbon, ch. 56.] and elsewhere. They might also, by the permission of Supreme Providence, be, in the long run, the instruments of advantage to the most sacred empire, though they approached it with so little ceremony. He had, therefore, mingling the virtues of prudence, humanity, and generosity, with that valour which must always burn in the heart of an Emperor, formed a plan, which he was about to submit to their consideration, for present execution; and, in the first place, he requested of the Grand Domestic, to let him know what forces he might count upon on the western side of the Bosphorus.
"Innumerable are the forces of the empire as the stars in heaven, or the sand on the sea-shore," answered the Grand Domestic.
"That is a goodly answer," said the Emperor, "provided there were strangers present at this conference; but since we hold consultation in private, it is necessary that I know precisely to what number that army amounts which I have to rely upon. Reserve your eloquence till some fitter time, and let me know what you, at this present moment, mean by the word innumerable?"
The Grand Domestic paused, and hesitated for a short space; but as he became aware that the moment was one in which the Emperor could not be trifled with, (for Alexius Comnenus was at times dangerous,) he answered thus, but not without hesitation. "Imperial master and lord, none better knows that such an answer cannot be hastily made, if it is at the same time to be correct in its results. The number of the imperial host betwixt this city and the western frontier of the empire, deducting those absent on furlough, cannot be counted upon as amounting to more than twenty-five thousand men, or thirty thousand at most."
Alexius struck his forehead with his hand; and the counsellors, seeing him give way to such violent expressions of grief and surprise, began to enter into discussions, which they would otherwise have reserved for a fitter place and time.