Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lost

CARNA was known all over the neighbourhood of the villa as the best and kindest of nurses, always ready to help in cases of sickness, and able to command the services of the household physician where her own medical skill was at fault. It was therefore with no surprise that the morning after the consultation, she was told that her help was wanted in a case of urgent need. The woman who had brought the message was a stranger. She was the daughter, she said, of an old woman living at Uricum, a small hamlet about four miles from the villa. She had happened to come the day before on a visit to her mother, and found her very ill; they had no medicines in the house, and indeed should not have known how to use them if they had. Would the lady come, and, if she thought proper, bring the physician with her?

The place mentioned was on the limits of the district with which Carna was acquainted. It could only be approached by a path through the forest; and the girl had not visited it more than two or three times in her life. She had a vague remembrance, however, of the patient's name. On sending for the physician, it was found that he was out, having been called away, Carna was told, to a case which, he had said before starting, would probably occupy him for the greater part of the day. On hearing this, she made up her mind to start without waiting for him. The illness was very probably of a simple kind, though it might be violent in degree. Very likely it was a case in which the nurse would be more wanted than the doctor. She provided herself with two or three simple remedies which she learnt to employ in the ordinary maladies of the country, of which feverish colds were the most common, and started, taking with her as companion and protector a stately Milesian dog, or mastiff, who was always delighted to play the part of a guard in her country walks. Her own pet dog, a long-haired little creature, something of the Spanish kind, whom she had intended to leave at home, contrived to free himself from the custody to which he had been assigned, and stealthily followed her, cunningly keeping out of sight till the party had gone too far for him to be conveniently sent back. He then showed himself with extravagant gestures of contrition, was tenderly reproached, pardoned, and allowed to go on.

During the walk the messenger was curiously silent, and answered all Carna's questions about her mother and her affairs in the very briefest fashion. All that could be got from her was that she lived on the main land, about twenty miles inland, in a northerly direction, and that since her marriage, now twenty years ago, she had seen very little of her mother. When they reached the outskirts of the hamlet she pointed out her mother's house, and, making an excuse that she had an errand for a neighbour, disappeared. Carna, seeing nothing but a certain surliness of temper, possibly only shyness, in her companion, went on without suspicion. She reached the house, and knocked at the door. There was no answer. She knocked again. Still all was silence. Looking a little more closely at the place she could see no signs of habitation, no smoke, for instance, making its way out of the thatch (for chimneys did not yet exist, at least, in the poorer dwellings). The next thing was to peep in at the window, a wooden lattice, which had been left partially open. The room into which she looked was perfectly bare.

A suspicion rushed into her mind that she had been tricked, and that danger of some unknown kind was at hand. The strange sympathy which often makes the dog so quick to understand the feelings of man, made the big mastiff, Malcho, uneasy. With a low growl, showing uneasiness rather than fear or anger, he ranged himself at her side.

As she stood considering what was next to be done, a party of six men, one of whom led a horse, issued from the wood which bordered the little garden of the cottage.

"Can you tell me where I shall find one Utta, who, I am told, is sick, and wishful to see me? Can it be that I have mistaken the house?"

"Utta, my lady," said one of the party, "is not to be found any more. She died a week since."

" But," said Carna, with rising anger, "a woman, who said that she was her daughter, told me, not more than two hours ago, that she was sick, and desired to see me. Why have I been brought here for nothing?"

"Pardon me, lady," returned the first speaker, in a tone in which respect and command were curiously blended, "but you have not been brought for nothing. You have a better work to do than ministering to a sick old woman."

As he spoke he moved forwards. But he had not taken two steps before the great dog, who had been watching the speakers, almost listening to their talk with the most eager attention, sprang furiously at him, and laid him prostrate on the ground. His companions rushed to rescue their leader from the dog and to seize the girl. They did not accomplish either of their objects with impunity. The gallant creature turned from one assailant to another with a strength and a fury which made him a most formidable antagonist, and he had inflicted some frightful wounds before he was made senseless by repeated blows from the weapons of the assailants.

Nor was Carna overpowered without a struggle. Weapons she had none, except a little dagger, meant for use in needlework, which hung at her side; but she used this not without effect. She clenched her fist, and dealt two or three blows, of which her antagonists bore the marks upon their faces for days to come. Finally she wrenched herself from the grasp of the assailants as a last resource, and endeavoured to fly, but it was a hopeless effort. Before she had run more than a few yards she was overtaken. Her captors used no more violence than they could help. Probably had they been less unwilling to hurt her, she could not have resisted so long. Finding her so strong and so determined, they were obliged to bind her hands and feet; but they did this with all the gentleness compatible with an evident resolve to make her bonds secure. In the midst of her terror and distress Carna could not help observing with astonishment that the cords which they used were of silk. Then finding herself absolutely helpless, she said—

"Do not bind me as though I were a slave. On the faith of a Christian, I will not attempt to escape."

"Lady, we trust you," said the leader of the party, and at the same time directed one of his companions to unbind the ropes. "Be comforted;" he went on; "we do not intend you harm; on the contrary, high honour is in store for you."

Carna was scarcely reassured by these mysterious words, but she had now recovered her calmness. Summoning up all her courage—and it was far beyond even the average of a singularly fearless race—she intimated to her captors that she was ready to follow them without further delay. They mounted her upon the horse, which, as has been said, one of them was holding, and started in a northerly direction. Two of the party had been so severely injured by the hound, that they were obliged to stay behind. One of the others held the bridle of the horse, and led him forward at an ambling pace; the others followed behind.

The way of the party lay entirely along rough forest-paths which seemed from their appearance, often grown over as they were with branches and creepers, to be but seldom traversed. Night had fallen some hours before they reached the northern coast of the island. Their way had lain in a north-westerly direction, and they emerged near to the arm of the sea now known as Fishbourne Creek. Here they found a rowing boat in waiting.

Carna's captors now handed over their charge to the boat party, which was under the command of the young chief Ambiorix. He received his prisoner with a dignified civility, made her as comfortable as he could with rugs and wraps in the stern of the boat, and then gave orders to start. The journey across the channel, which we now know as the Solent, occupied some hours, though the night was calm, and the ebbing tide mostly in the rowers' favour, the shortest route not being taken, but a north-westerly direction still followed. The morning was just beginning to break when the coast was reached near the spot where Lymington now stands. The party hurriedly disembarked, put the girl on a rough litter which they had with them in the boat, and carried her to a dwelling some half-mile inland, and surrounded by the woods which here almost touched high-water mark. Carna found a tolerable chamber allotted to her, where she was waited upon by an elderly woman who seemed bent on doing everything that she could for her comfort. The girl was of the elastic temper which soon recovers itself even under the most depressing circumstances. She had the wisdom, too, to feel that, if she was to help herself, she must keep up her strength to the very best of her power. She did not refuse the simple but well-cooked meal which her attendant served to her, after she had enjoyed the refreshment of a bath. And then overpowered by the fatigue of a journey which had lasted not much less than twenty-four hours, she sank into a deep sleep.

It was dark when her attendant gently roused her and told her that in an hour she would be required to resume her journey, in which, as Carna heard with some pleasure, she was herself to be her companion. A start was made about three hours before midnight, and the journey was continued till an hour before dawn. This plan was followed till their destination was reached. The party was evidently careful to keep its movements secret. Their way lay as before, by woodland paths, leading them through the district now known as the New Forest. They travelled but slowly, more slowly indeed than they had done on the island, for the paths were still rougher, and, in fact, almost undistinguishable. Carna, too, was the only one of the company that had a horse, and her female attendant, who was neither young nor active, could manage but a few miles at a time. It was the morning of the second day after they had left the coast before they reached the edge of the great forest known as the Natanleah. Some five miles to the west lay Sorbiodunum, now Salisbury. This was a Roman town of some importance, and had of course to be avoided by the party, who, indeed, were anxious, as Carna could gather from a few scattered words that were let drop in her presence, as to the way in which the rest of their journey was to be accomplished. The country was open, cultivated, and comparatively populous, the inhabitants being, for the most part, thoroughly Latinized. Two Roman roads, too, had to be crossed before their destination was reached.

The day was spent as usual in concealment and repose. An hour after nightfall the party started. They had now managed to procure another horse for Carna's attendant; and as the ground was fairly level, unenclosed, and, at that time of year, unencumbered by crops, they moved rapidly onwards. The moon had now risen, and Carna, for the first time, could at least see where they were going. She was still, however, at a loss to know what part of the country they had reached. At midnight a halt was called, and the leader of the party proceeded to blindfold the captive's eyes. But if he wanted to keep her in ignorance of the locality, he was a little too late. The girl's quick sight had caught a glimpse in the distance of the huge circle of earth walls, now known as Amesbury. She had never seen the place, but it was known to her in the chronicles of her people. There, as she had read with a patriotism which all her Roman surroundings had not been able to quench, her countrymen had more than once, held at bay the legions of Rome. She knew roughly the situation of the famous camp of the Belgæ, and she was sure that these massive fortifications, just seen for a moment in the moonlight, could be none others than those of which she had read so often.

When the bandage was removed, she found herself in a chamber larger and more comfortably furnished than any she had hitherto occupied on her journey. Part of the palace of one of the old kings of the Belgæ was still standing, and the travellers had taken up their quarters in it. The Amesbury camp was indeed as safe a place as they could have chosen. It was a spot which no Roman, much less a Briton living under Roman protection, would care to visit. The whole countryside believed that it was haunted by the spirits of the great chiefs and warriors who had been buried within its precincts, and of the slaves who had been killed to furnish them with service and attendance in the unseen world. The scanty remnant who still clung to the Druid faith found their account in encouraging these superstitions. More than one appearance had been arranged to terrify sceptical or curious persons who had been rash enough to visit the vast circle of embankments. For many years before the time of our story the enclosure had been untrodden except by the few who were in the secret of the Druid initiation. Here, then, the party waited securely with their prisoner till the time should come for the solemn visit to Choir Gawr, the Great Temple, known to us by the name of Stonehenge.

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