WHEN Ælius had come, some eighteen years before the beginning of our story, to take up his command on the coast of Britain, he had brought with him his young wife. This lady, always delicate in health, had not long survived her transplantation to a northern climate. Six months after her arrival in Britain she had died in giving birth to a daughter. The child was entrusted to the care of a British woman, wife of the sailing master of one of the Roman ships, who had reared her together with her own daughter. When little Ælia was but a few weeks old her foster-mother had become a widow, her husband having met with his death in a desperate encounter with one of the Saxon cruisers. This misfortune had been followed by another, the loss of her two elder children, who had been carried off by a malarious fever.
The widow, thus doubly bereaved, had thankfully accepted the Count's offer that she should take the post of mother of the maids in his household. Her foster-daughter, a feeble little thing, whom she had the greatest difficulty in rearing, was as dear to her as was her own child, and the new arrangement ensured that she should not be separated from her. For ten years she was as happy as a woman who had lost so much could hope to be. She had the pleasure of seeing her delicate nursling pass safely through childhood, and grow into a handsome, vigorous girl. Then her own call came; and feeling that her earthly work was done, she had been glad to meet it. The Count, who was a frequent visitor to her deathbed, had no difficulty in promising her that the two children should never be separated. Indeed he could not have divided the pair even had he wished. Every wish of the ten-year-old Ælia was as a law to him, and Ælia would have simply broken her heart to lose her playmate and sister Carna.
The two friends were curiously unlike in person and disposition. Ælia was a Roman of the Romans. Her hair was of a shining blue-black hue, and so abundant that when unbound it fell almost to her knees. Her black eyes, soft and lustrous in repose, and shaded with lashes of the very longest, could give an almost formidable flash when anything had roused her to anger. Her complexion was a rich brown, relieved by a slight ruddy tinge; her features regular, less delicately carved, indeed, than the Greek type, but full of expression, which was tender or fiery, according to her mood. Her figure was somewhat small but beautifully formed.
If Ælia was unmistakably Roman, Carna showed equally clearly one of the finest British types. She was tall, overtopping her companion by at least a head; her hair, which fell in curls about her shoulders, was of a glossy chestnut; her eyes of the very deepest blue; her complexion, half-way between blonde and brunette, mantled with a delicate colour, which deepened, when her emotions were touched, into an exquisite blush; her forehead was somewhat low, but broad, and with a rare promise both of artistic power and of intelligence; her nose would have been pronounced by a casual observer to be the most faulty feature in her face; and it is true that its outline was not perfect. But the same observer, after a brief acquaintance, would probably have retracted his censure, and owned that this feature suited the rest of her face, and would have been less charming if it had been more perfect.
Ælia was impulsive and quick of temper, honest and affectionate, but not caring to go below the surface of things, and without a particle of imagination. Carna, on the other hand, seemed the gentlest of women. Those blue eyes of hers were ready to express affection and pity; but no one—not even Ælia, who could be exceedingly provoking at times—had ever seen a flash of anger in them. But her nature had depths in it that none suspected to be there; it was richly endowed with all the best gifts of her Celtic race. She had a world of her own with which the gay Roman girl, whom she loved so dearly, and with whom she seemed to share all her thoughts, had nothing to do. Music touched her soul in a way of which Ælia, who could sing very charmingly, and play with no little expression on the cithara, had no conception. And though she had never written, or even composed, a verse, and possibly would never write or compose one, she was a poetess. At present all her soul was given to religion, religion full of the imagination and enthusiasm which has made saints of so many women of her race. The good British priest, to whose flock she belonged, a worthy man who eked out his scanty income by working a small farm, was perplexed by her enthusiasm. She was not satisfied with the duties of adorning the little church where he ministered, and its humble altar-cloths and vestments, by the skill of her nimble fingers, of aiding the chants with the rich tones of her beautiful voice, of ministering to the sick. She performed these, indeed, with devotion, but she demanded more, and the good man did not know how to satisfy her.
In addition to her other gifts Carna had that of being a born nurse. It was her first impulse to fly to the help of anything—whether it was man, or beast, or bird—that was sick or hurt, just as it was Ælia's impulse, though she mastered it at any strong call of duty, to avoid the sight of suffering. She had now heard that a prisoner had been brought in desperately wounded, and she could not rest till she knew whether she could do anything for the poor creature's soul or body. Ælia was as scornful as her love for her foster-sister allowed her to be.
"My dearest Carna," she cried, "what on earth can make you trouble yourself in this fashion about this miserable creature? They are the worst plagues in the world, these Saxons, and it would be a blessing to the world if it were well quit of the whole race of them! A set of pagan dogs!"
"Oh, sister," said Carna, her eyes brimming with tears, "that is the worst of it. A pagan, who has never heard of the Blessed Lord, and now, they say, he is dying! What shall we do for him?"
"But surely," returned the other, "he is no worse off than his threescore companions who went to the bottom the other day."
"God be good to them," said Carna, "but then we did not know them, and that seems to make a difference. And to think that this poor creature should be so near to the way and not find it. But I must go and see him."
"It will only tear your poor, tender heart for no purpose. You had far better come and talk to father."
Carna was not to be persuaded, but hurried to the chamber to which the wounded man had been borne.
It was evident at first sight that the end was not far off. The dying Saxon lay stretched on a rude pallet. He was a young man, who could scarcely have seen as many as twenty summers, for the down was hardly to be seen on his upper lip and chin. His face, which was curiously fair for one who had followed from infancy an outdoor life, was deadly pale, a pathetic contrast with the red-gold hair which fell in curly profusion about it. His eyes, in which the fire was almost quenched, were wide open, and fixed with an unchanging gaze upon a figure that stood motionless at the foot of the bed. This was his brother, who had been permitted by the humanity of the Count to be present. They had been exchanging a few sentences, but the dying man was now too far gone to speak, and the two could only look their last farewell to each other. It was a pitiful thing to see the twins, so like in feature and form, but now so different, the one, prisoner as he was, full of life and strength, the other on the very threshold of death.
By the side of the wounded man stood the household physician, a venerable-looking slave, who had acquired such knowledge of medicine and surgery as sufficed for the treatment of the commoner ailments and accidents. This case was beyond his skill, or indeed the skill of any man. He could do nothing but from time to time put a few drops of cordial between the sufferer's lips. Next to the physician stood the priest, and his skill, too, seemed to be at fault. A messenger, sent by Carna, had warned him that a dying man required his ministrations, but had added no further particulars, and the worthy man, who was busy at the time in littering down his cattle, had hastily changed his working dress for his priestly habiliments, and had come ready, as he thought, to administer the last consolations of the Church to a dying Christian. The case utterly perplexed him. He had tried the two languages with which he was familiar, and found them useless. No one had been able to understand a single word of the dialogue which had passed between the brothers. The dying stranger was as hopelessly separated from him and the means of grace that he could command as if he had been a thousand miles away. He could not even venture—for his theology was of the narrowest type—to commend to the mercy of God the passing of this unbaptized heathen.
Carna understood the situation at a glance. She saw death in the Saxon's face; she saw the hopeless perplexity in the expression of the priest.
"Father," she cried, "can you do nothing, nothing at all for this poor soul?"
"My daughter," said the priest, "I am helpless. He knows nothing; he understands nothing."
"Can you not baptize him?"
"Baptize him without a profession of repentance, without a confession of faith! Impossible!"
"Will you let him perish before your eyes without an effort to save him?"
"Child," said the priest, with some impatience in his tone, "I have told you that I am helpless. It was not I that brought these things about."
The girl cast an agonized look about the room, as of one that appealed for help, and seized a crucifix that hung upon the wall. She threw herself upon her knees by the bedside, and after pressing the symbol of Redemption passionately to her lips, held it to the mouth of the dying man. The Saxon, on his first entrance into the room, had removed his look from his brother and fixed it steadfastly on this beautiful apparition. Clad in white from head to foot, with a golden girdle about her waist, her eyes shining with excitement, her whole face transfigured by a passion of pity, she seemed to him a vision from another world, one of the Walhalla maidens of whom his mother had talked to him in days gone by. His lips closed feebly on the crucifix which she held to them; a smile lighted up his fading eyes, and he uttered with his last breath "Valkyria." The girl heard the word and remembered without understanding it. The next moment he was dead, and one of the women standing by stepped forward and closed his eyes.
Carna burst into a passion of tears.
"He is gone," she cried, amidst her sobs, "he is gone, and we could not help him."
The priest was silent. He had no consolation to offer. Indeed, but that he recognized the girl's saintliness—a saintliness to which he, worthy man as he was, had no pretensions—he would have thought her grief foolish. But the old physician could not keep silence.
"Pardon me, lady," he said, "if I seem to reprove you. I pray you not to suffer your zeal for the salvation of souls to overpower your faith. Do you think that the All-Father does not love this poor stranger as well as you, nay, better than you can love him? That He cannot care for him as well? That you, forsooth, must save him out of His hands? Nay, my daughter—pardon an old man for the word—do not so distrust Him."
"You are right, father, as always," said the girl. “I have been selfish and faithless. I was angry, I suppose, to find myself baffled and helpless. You must set me a penance, father," she added, turning to the priest.
The Saxon meanwhile had contrived by his gestures to make his guards understand that he wished to take his farewell of his dead brother. They allowed him to approach the bed. He stooped and kissed the lips of the dead, and then, choking down the sobs which convulsed his breast, turned away, seemingly calm and unmoved. But as he passed Carna he contrived to catch with his manacled hands one of the flowing sleeves of her white robe, and to lift the hem to his lips.