THE signal previously agreed was promptly hoisted by the party on shore, and as promptly observed and obeyed by the crew of the galley which had been for some time on the watch for some communication.
"My lord," said the peddler, when they had embarked, “if I may suggest, we should not make a straight passage to the mainland from here, but steer for the north-west. Some eight miles beyond the western point of the island there is a river flowing into the sea, and a fishing village at the mouth. I know the place well, and have one or two good friends there. We shall get a guide there; I have in my mind the very man who will suit us well in that capacity. Indeed the river itself would be no bad guide. The Great Temple lies but a few miles westward from its upper course. The road will be easy too along the valley, which is mostly clear of wood."
"Then," said the Count, "the Temple cannot be far from Sorbiodunum. Why not make for the Great Harbour, and go by the Great Road to Venta and from Venta to Sorbiodunum? The travelling would be much easier."
"I have thought of that," said the other, "but I think my plan the best. The distance is far less, and, what is quite as important, we shall not be expected to come that way. Depend upon it there will be an ambuscade laid somewhere along the road; for they will feel sure that we shall try and come that way."
It was evident anyhow that as far as the sea voyage was concerned the man was right. The tide was ebbing slowly, and an east wind, already high and still rising, was blowing. To make way against wind and tide to the Great Harbour would be in any case a laborious business; and if the wind increased to a gale as it threatened to do, might become impossible. The galley had been chosen for swiftness rather than seaworthy qualities in rough weather, and might fail in the attempt to work back. On the other hand both wind and tide thoroughly favoured a westward voyage.
Indeed she moved gaily on with a strong breeze, that in the phraseology of to-day would be called a half-gale, blowing due aft, and scarcely felt the heavy sea, seeming to leave the waves behind, as the rowers bent their backs to their work. The Saxon had now taken his place on one of the thwarts, and his gigantic strength, put it was evident with a will into the labour, seemed of itself to drive the galley forwards. In an incredibly short time the river mouth was reached, the galley stranded, and the guide, who, by great good luck, had just returned from a fishing voyage, engaged.
But now an unforeseen obstacle opposed itself. A few specks of rain had been felt by the party as they went, and then as the day went on, began to change to snow. And now the wind almost suddenly died away, and at the same time the fall of snow grew heavier. The face of the guide fell.
"My lord," he said, "I hear that your business is urgent and cannot wait. But I must tell you that the weather looks very bad, and that the prospects of our journey are almost as unfavourable as they can be. We shall have a very heavy fall of snow, and if the wind gets up again, and it begins to drift, we shall be blocked, and possibly unable to get either backwards or forwards."
"We must go," said the Count, in a determined voice, "though the snow were over our heads."
After a very short interval allowed for refreshment, the party started. At first the snow was no very serious obstacle; but after a couple of hours incessant and rapid fall, it began to make movement very difficult. The progress of the travellers grew slower and slower, and the Count began to calculate that at their present rate of speed they could but barely arrive in time. It was an immense relief when the sky almost suddenly cleared, and showed the moon still evidently somewhat short of the full.
But the relief was only temporary. The clearer weather was the result of a change of wind, which had suddenly veered to a point westward of north and which was rapidly increasing in force. And now occurred the thing which the peddler's knowledge of the country and the weather had suggested to him—the snow began to drift. At first the party was hardly conscious of the change; indeed for a time the way was somewhat clearer and easier than before; then as they came to a slight depression, the snow was felt to be certainly deeper. Still three or four miles were traversed without any particular difficulty. Then the leader of the party suddenly plunged into a drift considerably above his knees. This obstacle, however, was surmounted, or rather avoided by making a détour. But still the wind rose higher and higher, and as it rose, not only did its force hinder the party's advance, but the drifts grew now formidably deep. Some of the party began to lag behind; the Count himself, who was past his prime, began to acknowledge to himself, with an agony of anger and fear in his heart, that his strength was failing. Still they struggled on, leaving one or two of the stragglers to make the best of their way back, or, it might well be, to perish in the snow, till about half the distance was traversed. They had now reached a little hamlet, on the outskirts of which there happened to be a small villa. It was shut up, the proprietor chancing to be absent, but it was put at the disposal of the party by the person who was in charge. Fires were hastily lighted, and the travellers, most of whom had almost reached the end of their powers of endurance, were refreshed with warmth and food.
The Count held a council of war. The situation indeed seemed nothing less than desperate. Two out of the party of twenty-five—their numbers had been increased by a contingent taken from the crew of the galley—were missing. They had fallen out on the march, and it was too probable that they had perished in the snow. Of the remainder but four or five seemed fit for any further exertion. By far the freshest and most vigorous of them was the Saxon. The fatigues of the night had scarcely told on his gigantic strength. The Italians, and even the Britons, natives of the southern parts of the island, and little accustomed to heavy falls of snow, looked at him with astonishment. As for him, he was full of impatience at the delay.
The Count was in an agony of doubt and distress. His own strength had failed so completely that all his spirit—and there was no braver man in the armies of Rome—could not have dragged him a hundred yards further. And he saw that many of his followers were in little better case. And yet to give up the pursuit! To leave Carna, the sweetest, gentlest of women, dear to him as a daughter of his own, to this hideous death! The thought was too dreadful.
"When do they perform their horrible rites?" said the Count to the peddler.
"When the full moon shines through the great south entrance of the Temple," was the answer.
"And when will that be?"
"To-night, and about an hour before midnight, as far as I can guess."
"And what must be done? What is your advice?"
"There seems to me only one thing possible. Those who can must press on. I count a great deal on the Saxon. His strength and endurance are such as I never saw in any man, and they now seem to be increased manyfold. Anything that can be done by mortal man, he, you may be sure, will do. Our guide too has happily something still left in him; and there are three or four others who are equal to going on after they have had a little rest. I should say, let them get two or three hours' sleep, and then push on to Sorbiodunum. That is not far from here, and they can easily reach it before noon to-day, after allowing a fair time for rest. Perhaps they may get some help there, though the place is not what it was. It is some years since I paid it a visit, and then I found it in a very declining condition, so much so that it was not worth my while to go there again. There were not more than two or three Roman traders there, and they made but a very poor living out of their business."
This seemed to be the best course practicable under the circumstances. The Saxon, with whom the peddler held a long conversation, was for pressing on at once, and would almost have gone alone, but for want of a guide. When he understood the state of the case he yielded to what he perceived to be a necessity, and throwing himself down on the hearth was almost immediately buried in a profound sleep, an example which was soon followed by the rest of the party, the Count and the peddler excepted.
Not more than two hours could be allowed for rest. The guide and the three sailors who had volunteered to go on were roused with no little difficulty; the young Saxon was wide awake in a moment. The party partook hastily of a meal of bread, meat, and hot wine and water, which the peddler had been busying himself in preparing while they slept, and, after stowing away some provisions for the day, started on their journey about two hours before noon.
Sorbiodunum was reached without much difficulty. But there a great disappointment awaited them. The peddler's anticipations were more than fulfilled, for the town was almost deserted. Only one Roman remained there. He was an old man who had married a British wife, and who cultivated a farm which had descended to her from her father. When the guide handed to him the letter which the Count had addressed to the authorities of the town, begging for any help which they could give in saving the liberty and life of a person very dear to himself, he shook his head. When he heard the whole of the guide's story, he became still more depressed.
"Authorities!" he said. "There are no authorities. I am the only Roman left in the place, and I do not know where to look for a single man to help you. As for the Great Temple on the plain there is not a creature here who would dare to go near it. They think it haunted by spirits and demons. And indeed there are strange stories about it. To tell you the plain truth, I should not much care to go there myself. No; I see nothing to be done. But I will ask my wife. Perhaps her woman's wit will help us."
Bidding the party be seated, he left the room in which he had received them, and entered the kitchen, where his wife was busy with her domestic affairs.
In about half an hour he returned. His expression was now a shade more cheerful than before.
"Ah!" he said, "I was right about the woman's wit. She has thought of something. You must know that my wife is a very devout Christian—for myself I am a Christian too, but I must own that I don't see so much in it as she does—and that she has brought up our children in that way of thinking. Now, our eldest son is a priest in a village some seven miles hence, and his people are devoted to him. If there is any one in this neighbourhood who can give you the help you want it is he. He has only got to say the word and his people will follow him to the end of the world. Here is a proof of it. Four years ago a strong party of Picts came this way, ravaging and plundering wherever they went. There were not more than fifty of them, but the people were as terrified as if they were so many demons. If you think this place a desert now, what would you have thought it then? There was not a single person left in it—at least a single person that could help himself—for the cowards had the meanness to leave some of the old and the sick behind them.
“But my son was not going to let the robbers have it all their own way—you know he has something of the Roman in him—and he went about talking to his people in such a way, that they plucked up spirit, and fell on the Picts one night when they were expecting nothing less than an attack, and gave such an account of them, that the country has not been troubled since with the like of them. Well, as I say, he is the man to help you. I have my younger son here working with me on the farm; he is just such another as his elder brother, and would have been a priest too if he had not felt it to be his duty to stay and help me. I will bring him in, and he shall hear the whole story and carry it to his brother. That is the best hope that I can give you, and I really think that it is worth something. What I can do for you does not go beyond hospitality, but to that you are heartily welcome. You have some hours before you. If you start an hour after sunset you will be in ample time. And, in fact, you had better not start before, because the less that is seen of your movements the better. I don't know that any of the people about here are infected with the Druid superstition, though I have had one or two hints to that effect, hints which what you have just told me helps to explain. But, in any case, the more secret you are the better. Besides, my son's Party cannot reach the Great Temple till long after dark. Meanwhile take some rest and refreshment, for, believe me, you have something before you."
This advice was so obviously right, that the guide, who was in command of the party, had no hesitation in accepting it.
About six o'clock another start was made. At first, though the weather looked threatening, no serious obstacle presented itself. The snow was somewhat deep on the ground, but there were no serious drifts on their way, a way which, indeed, for some distance from the town lay under the leeward side of a wood. But they had not gone more than a mile and a half when a disastrous change in their circumstances occurred. The wind rose almost suddenly to the height of a gale, and brought with it a fall of snow, separated by the rapid movement of the air into a very fine powder, and working its way through the clothing of the traveller with a penetrating power which nothing could resist. Still, benumbed as they were, almost blinded by the icy particles which were whirled with all the force of the tempest against their faces, they struggled on for more than half the distance which lay between them and their destination. Then the three sailors cried out simultaneously that they must halt, and the guide unwillingly owned that he must follow their example. Only the Saxon was left to go on, and he, with a gesture which it was impossible to mistake, declared his intention of persevering. Just at that moment the clouds parted in the east, and the full moon showed the landscape with a singular clearness, its most conspicuous feature being the gigantic stones of the Great Temple, which could be seen about two miles to the northward. The guide pointed to them, and the Saxon, when they caught his eye, leapt forward with an energy which nothing seemed to have abated, and, with a gesture of farewell to his companions, plunged into the darkness.