Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Martianus

THE little community that remained in the neighbourhood of the villa after the departure of the Count and his household had plenty to occupy their thoughts and hands. The Count had behaved with a liberality and a discretion that were both equally characteristic of him. All the stock of what may be called the home farm, all the agricultural implements, the cattle, sheep, and pigs, and as much of the stores of corn that he could spare, he had made over to the priest and two other principal persons in the settlement for the benefit of the community at large. This was an excellent start, and removed all immediate anxiety for the future. The stores of provisions had been increased by opportune purchases before the resolution to go had been taken, and enough was left to last, if managed with due economy, over the coming winter.

Carna found plenty of employment of the kind in which she found her greatest pleasure. There was indeed a terrible gap in her life; not only had she lost those whom she had loved all her life as father and sister, but her intellectual interests had dropped away from her. Many of the books at the villa had indeed been left with her, but then there was no one to whom to talk about them. The old priest never opened a volume except it was a service book; his wife could not even read. But the time never hung heavily upon her hands, for there was plenty of work to do among the sick and sorry. As the autumn went on an epidemic, which a modern doctor would probably have described as measles, broke out among the children, and Carna spent her days and nights in ministering to the little sufferers. The one relief that she allowed herself—and there was no little sadness mixed with the pleasure which it gave her—was to spend an hour, when she could snatch one from her many cares, in the deserted rooms of the villa. The indulgence was rare, not only because her leisure was infrequent, but because she was conscious of feeling somewhat relaxed after it for the effort of her daily life; but when it came it was precious. Not a room, not a picture on the walls, not a pattern in the tesselated pavements, that did not call up a hundred associations, and make the past in which she had enjoyed so much happiness live again in her fancy. The dwelling was under the charge of an old couple, who gladly kept it clean in exchange for the shelter of two or three of the rooms, and Carna was free to wander about it as she would, while she felt a certain security in the knowledge that the place was not wholly deserted.

The autumn and winter passed without any incident of importance. News from the Continent had never been very regular during that season of the year, and now it came only at the rarest intervals. All that the settlement heard went to show that there was but little chance of the return of the legions. Constantine, after some changes of fortune, had made himself master of Gaul and Spain, and had established a kingdom which looked so much as if it might last, that he had been regularly acknowledged by Honorius as a partner in the Empire. But it would be long before he could spare money or men for adding Britain to his dominions. From Britain itself the news was mostly of the most dismal kind. The Picts, indeed, were not as troublesome as usual. Happily for their neighbours on the south, their attention had been occupied by the tribes on the north, who had been driven by a season of unusual scarcity to forage for themselves. The robbers, in fact, had been obliged to defend themselves against being robbed, and Britain had had in consequence a quiet time. But the people used it to quarrel among themselves. There were scores of chiefs who had each his pedigree, by which he traced his lineage to some king of the pre-Roman days, and which gave him, he fancied, a title to rule over his neighbours. And besides these personal jealousies, there was a great division which split the nation into two hostile factions. There were Britons, who held to Roman ways, and among them, to the religion which Rome had given, and there were Britons who looked back to the old independent days, and to the faith which their forefathers had held long before the name of Christ had been heard out of or in the land of His birth. The former party was by far the more numerous, but its adherents were those who had suffered most by Britain's four centuries of servitude; in the latter the virtues of freedom had been kept alive by a carefully cherished tradition. They were few in number; but they were vigorous and enthusiastic, even fanatical. It was clear that this strife within would cause at least as much trouble as would come from enemies without.

It was about seven months after the Count's departure when Carna paid one of her customary visits to the villa. She had been unusually busy for three or four weeks previously, and had not found time to come. As she passed through the garden, on her way to the house, she noticed that the place looked somewhat neater and less neglected than usual. This, however, did not surprise her, as she had gently remonstrated with the old keeper for doing so little, and, in her usual kindly way, had followed up her reproof with a little present. Accordingly she passed on without thinking more of the matter to the little sitting-room which she had once shared with Ælia, and prepared to spend an hour of quiet enjoyment with a book. Her books, indeed, she kept for these visits to the villa. Not only was her time elsewhere closely occupied, but her hostess, kindly and affectionate as she generally was, could not conceal her dislike of the volumes which Carna loved so dearly.

In the midst of her reading she was startled by the unaccustomed sound of footsteps. She lifted her eyes from the page and saw a sight so unexpected that for a few moments she could not collect her thoughts or believe her eyes.

The British chief Martianus stood before her.

She had seen him last at the Great Temple, and the recollections of those days and nights of horror, her capture, her hurried journey, and the interrupted sacrifice, crowded upon her, and almost overpowered her. Nor could she help giving one thought to the question—if this man's presence recalls such horrors in the past, what does it not mean for the future? Still, the courage which had supported her so bravely before did not fail her now. She rose from her seat and calmly faced the intruder, while she waited for him to speak.

Martianus began in a tone of the deepest respect. "Lady, I am truly glad that you condescend to honour this poor house of mine with your presence."

"This house of yours!" repeated the girl, with astonishment.

"Lady, doubtless you do not know that this villa was built by its former owner on land which belonged to my family, and which was taken from them by force. I do not speak of the Count—he was too honourable a man to do anything of the kind—I speak of the former owner, or so-called owner, from whom he purchased it. In the Count's time I said nothing of my claim. I would not have troubled him for the world. But now that he has gone, and practically given up the place, I am justified, I think, in asserting my ownership."

"I know nothing of these matters," said Carna, coldly, "but I will take care not to intrude again."

"Intrusion!" said the chief. "Did I not say that there is no one who would be more welcome here? We were friends once, in the good Count's time; why should we not be so again? And more," he added in a whisper.

"Friends with you! Surely that is impossible. You cannot wish it yourself, after what has happened. You seem to forget."

“Lady, Carna—I used to call you Carna when you were a child—I do try to forget that dreadful night. I was overborne by those double-dyed villains, Carausius and Ambiorix. Believe me, it was against my will that I took any part in that dreadful business. And you will remember I never lifted a hand against you, no, nor against that base champion of yours. You will do me that justice. Carausius, thank Heaven, has got his deserts, and I have broken with Ambiorix.”

Carna remained silent.

Martianus resolved to try another appeal, and, presuming that the girl's recollections of the scene might be confused by fear, did not scruple to depart considerably from the truth.

"I implore you to believe that I could not have allowed that horrible deed to be accomplished. If that base fellow who had the privilege of saving you had not appeared, I was ready myself to interfere. I know that I ought to have done so before; it has been a ceaseless regret to me that I did not. But I wanted to keep on terms with those two, and I held back till the last moment. Forgive me my irresolution, Carna, but do not believe that I could have been one of the murderers."

The girl's recollections of the scene, which were quite free from the confusion which Martianus had imagined, did not agree with this account of his behaviour, but she did not think it worth while to argue the point.

"Let it be as you will," she said, with a cold dignity, "but you can imagine that these recollections are not pleasing to me. And now I will bid you farewell."

She stepped forward as she spoke with the intention of at once leaving the room, but Martianus barred the way. Dropping on one knee, he caught her hand. For a moment Carna, who had still something of the child in her, felt a strong impulse to use the hand that was still free in dealing him a vigorous blow. But her womanly dignity prevailed: she only wrenched her hand away with something like violence. There was something in the foppish appearance and insincere manner of Martianus that set her more decidedly against him than even the recollection of the plot in which he had been concerned.

"I will listen to what you have to say, but do not touch me."

"You give me little encouragement," Martianus began, "but still I will speak. I say nothing about myself, only about my country—your country and mine. I know how you love it. We have all heard what sacrifices you have made for it, how you gave up home and friends sooner than leave it. Make, if I must put it so, one sacrifice more. You are the heiress of the great Caradoc, the noblest king that Britain ever had, whom even the Romans were com-pelled to admire. I can reckon among my ancestors Cunobelin. Apart our claims might be disputed; together they will make a title which no one can dispute to the crown of Britain. Yes, Carna, it is nothing less than that—the crown of Britain that is in question."

"A crown does not tempt me," said Carna, looking the speaker straight in the face.

"Ah! It is not that," replied the suitor; "you mistake me. I never dreamed of tempting you. I know only too well that it would be impossible. But think what a British crown really means. It means a united Britain, strong against the Picts, strong against the Saxons; and without it—think what that would mean. Every tribe—for we should split up into tribes again—for itself; every chief working for his own hand; the Picts plundering the inland, the Saxons harrying the coast. Oh, Carna! As you love your country—I don't speak of myself, though that, too, might come in time, if a man's devotion is of any avail—but if you love your country, do not say no."

It was a powerful appeal, and touched Carna's heart at the point where it was most accessible. And she was so candid and transparent a soul that what she felt in her heart she soon showed in her face.

Martianus saw his advantage, but, happily for Carna, did not press it as he might have done. The fact was that he was so conscious of his own insincerity and falsehood that his courage failed him, and he dared not press his suit any further. Had he gone on, he might have entangled the girl in a promise which her feeling for truth would not have permitted her to break, which would have made her even shut her eyes to the truth. As it was, he thought it his best policy to rest content with the progress that he had made. He raised Carna's hand respectfully to his lips, and, with a low salutation, opened the door.

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