Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Great Temple

THE Great Temple, or Stonehenge as it is now called, though its decay had already commenced, still preserved the form which we have now some difficulty in tracing. There was an outer circle consisting of thirty huge triliths, the greater part of which were still standing in the position in which the unsparing labour of a long past generation had placed them. Within this there was a circle of forty single stones, this circle again containing two ovals. One of these ovals was composed of five triliths, even larger than those which stood in the outer circle; the other was made of nineteen upright stones. At the upper end of this stood the altar, a low, flat structure of blue marble.

All the preparations for the sacrifice were complete when Cedric—for we may as well henceforth call the Saxon by the name which he bore among his countrymen—reached the spot. Carna was being led by two of the subordinate priests to the altar, where Caradoc stood, robed for the rite which he was about to perform. The sky had now again cleared, and the moon, riding high in the heavens, poured a flood of silver light through the south entrance, and fell on the priest's impassive face as he stood fronting the light, while it glittered on his crown of gold and gave a dazzling brilliancy to his white robe. In his hand he held a knife of flint, with which it was the custom to give the first blow to the victim, though innovation had so far prevailed even in the Druid worship that the sacrifice was completed with a weapon of steel. But this latter lay at his feet, and was concealed by the fall of his robe. It was not, indeed, supposed to be used.

The attendants, who were also dressed in white, were rough and brutal creatures, selected for their office because they could be trusted to carry out any orders without remonstrance or hesitation. Yet even they seemed touched by the girl's dignity and courage, as she walked with head erect and unfaltering gait between them. Had she hesitated, or hung back, or struggled, doubtless they would not have hesitated to drag her to the altar; but walking as she did with a proud resignation to her fate, they showed her a rude respect by letting their hands rest as lightly as possible, so as to give no sense of constraint, upon her arms.

On either side of the priest stood Martianus and Ambiorix. The younger man had braced himself to what, fanatical patriot as he was, was evidently a hateful task. He looked steadfastly and unflinchingly at the scene; but his face was deadly pale, and the blood trickled down his chin as he bit his lip in the unconscious effort to maintain a stern composure. Martianus was overwhelmed with shame and horror. If there was one softer heart among the "stern, black-bearded kings" who of old in Aulis watched the daughter of Agamemnon die, he must have looked and felt as Martianus did in the Great Temple that night. Cursing again and again in his heart the ambition which had led him to mix himself up with this fanatical crew, but too much a craven at heart to protest, he stood trembling with agitation, mostly keeping his eyes shut or fixed upon the earth, but sometimes compelled by a fascination which he could not resist to lift them, and take in the horror of the scene. Each of the chiefs had an armed attendant standing behind him. Besides these there were no spectators of the scene, though guards were disposed at each of the entrances which led to the central shrine. Even these had been kept in ignorance of what was to be done, and they were too deeply imbued with the traditional awe felt for the Great Temple to think of playing the spy.

The priest, after observing the position of the moon and seeing that the shadows fell now almost straight towards the north, began the invocation which was the preliminary of the sacrifice. It was for this that the Saxon was waiting, as he stood in the shadow of one of the huge triliths. He crept silently out of his congealment, entirely unobserved, so intent were all present on the scene that was being enacted. His first object was the priest. This had been laid down for him in the instructions given him by the peddler before he started; and indeed his own instinct would have dictated the act. The priest put out of the way, the sacrifice would, for the time at least, be stopped; for so high a solemnity could not be performed but by one of the very highest rank. Time would thus be gained, and with time anything might happen.

One firm thrust between the shoulders sent the Saxon's sword right through the priest's body, so that the point stood out an inch or two from the priest. Without a cry the man fell forward, deluging with his blood the stone of sacrifice. The ministrants who stood on either side of Carna were paralysed with astonishment and dismay. Before they could recover themselves Cedric had dragged his weapon out of the priest's body, sheathed it, and thrown himself on them. Two blows, delivered almost simultaneously by fists that had almost the force of sledge hammers, levelled them both senseless to the ground. He then caught the girl up in his arms. A full-grown woman—and Carna had a stature beyond the average of her sex—is no light burden, but Cedric's strength was exceptionally great, and now it seemed doubled by the fierce excitement of the hour.

To escape with her by running was, he knew, impossible. For such a task no fleetness of foot, no strength, would be sufficient. To attempt would be to expose himself to certain death, and Carna to as certain re-capture. But his quick eye had caught sight of a place where he might hold out, at least for a time, against a much superior strength of assailants. One of the triliths had partially fallen, the huge cross-stone having been so displaced that it formed an angle with one of its supports, and so afforded a protection to the back and sides of a fighter who managed to ensconce himself in the niche, and who would so have only his front to protect. Setting Carna behind him, and making her understand by a movement of the hand that she must crouch as low as she could upon the ground, he prepared to hold his position.

The odds against him were not so heavy as might have been supposed. The two ministrants were unarmed. Of the four left, the two chiefs and their attendants, one was a middle-aged man, who had never been expert in arms; and who, whatever his skill and strength, would scarcely have cared to use them in such a conflict. Ambiorix, indeed, was of another temper. The gloomy, fanatical doggedness with which he had looked on at the preparations for the sacrifice gave way to a fierce delight when he saw an enemy before him with whom he could cross swords. In his inmost soul he had hated the thought of the sacrifice; but yet the man who had hindered it, and with it the weal of Britain, was a foe whom it would be pleasure to smite to the ground. But fierce as was his temper, it was full of chivalry. He would not dishonour himself by bringing odds against an enemy. Signing to the armed attendants to stand back, he advanced to challenge Cedric. The Saxon, in height and strength, was more than match for his antagonist. But he was hampered by his position, especially by the presence of the girl. The weapon, too, with which he was armed—a short Roman sword—was strange to him. He thought with regret of his own good steel, an heirloom come down to him from warriors of the past, and inscribed with magic Runic rhymes, that was then lying at the bottom of the Channel.

The change, however, was not really so much to his disadvantage as he thought. The stones behind him would have hindered the long sweeping blow which made the great Saxon swords especially formidable. Altogether it might have seemed as if Cedric must inevitably be worsted in the struggle. The British chief, though he hated the customs and even the civilization of the Roman conquerors, had not disdained to learn what they could teach him in the use of arms. They were acknowledged masters in that, and he accepted the maxim that it was right to be instructed even by one's bitterest enemy. Accordingly he knew all that a fencing master could teach him; and all the Saxon's agility, quickness of eye, and strength, could not counterbalance the advantage. Before many minutes had passed Cedric was bleeding from two wounds, neither of them very serious, but sufficient to hamper and weaken him. One had been inflicted on the sword-arm, and threatened to disable him altogether before long. He felt this himself, and took his resolve.

"The curse of Thor upon this foolish toy!" he cried, in his native tongue, as he threw the short sword straight in the face of his enemy; and followed up the strange missile by leaping on his antagonist, both of whose arms he fastened down to his sides with a supreme exertion of strength. Gigantic strength, indeed, was the only thing which gave so desperate a resort the chance of success, and this might well have failed, if the adversary had not been entirely unprepared for the movement. Once held in this tremendous clasp, Ambiorix was as helpless as a kid in the hug of a bear. Cedric fairly lifted him off his feet, and threw him backwards. His head struck one of the great stones in his fall, and he lay senseless and helpless on the ground.

The struggle was over so quickly that the attendants had no time to interfere; nor when it was finished did they feel any great eagerness to engage so formidable a champion. Still they advanced, and Martianus, who felt himself unable to maintain any longer in the face of what had happened his attitude of inaction, advanced with them. By this time Carna, who had been almost stunned by the rapid succession of startling incidents, had recovered her self-possession. She lifted herself from the ground, and stepped between Cedric and the three antagonists who stood confronting him.

"Martianus," she cried, "what are you doing here? What mixes you up with these horrible doings—you, my father's friend, you, a Christian man?"

The Briton stood silent, cursing in his heart the hideous enterprise which had not even the poor merit of success. He was spared the necessity of speaking by an exclamation from one of the ministrants.

"See!" cried the man, "there is a party coming. It is not likely that they are friends—let us be off."

And indeed the moonlight clearly showed a number of persons who were rapidly advancing up one of the great avenues.

Martianus did not hesitate.

"You are right," he said to the man, "we must go. The priest's body must be left. It is useless to cumber ourselves with the dead; we shall have as much as we can do to escape ourselves, but take the sacred things. They at least must not fall into the hands of the enemy. And you," he went on, addressing himself to the two attendants, "take up your master and carry him off. We have something of a start, and it is possible that they may not pursue us."

His directions were at once obeyed. The priest's body was stripped of its robes and ornaments. Ambiorix, who still lay unconscious on the ground, was carried by the united efforts of the soldiers and ministrants, and the whole party had started in the direction of Amesbury before the new-comers, who proved to be the priest Flavius, with a party of his people, reached the Temple.

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