THE task of tracing the lost girl was at first easy enough. She and the stranger, who, it now seemed, had been sent to entrap her, had been seen proceeding in the direction mentioned in the message. The neighbourhood of the villa was mostly cultivated ground, and there had been people at work in the fields who had noticed the girl's well-known figure. Beyond this belt of cultivated country, which might have been about a mile broad, there was only one road which it was possible for her to have taken. Following this, and reaching the hamlet at the further end of which, the abduction had taken place, they still found themselves on the right track. A child had seen two people, one of them, she said, a pretty lady, pass by on the morning of the day before. The lady had smiled, and said a few words to her in her own language, and had given her a sweetmeat. Further on the traces of what they were looking for became still more evident. There were marks of struggle on the ground, for Carna, as we have seen, had not suffered herself to be taken without resistance; a button was found on the ground, which the peddler at once identified as one of his own selling. And a little off the path, the tree was found to which the dog had been tied, with the fragment of string still attached to it. Curiously enough, no traces of the great dog could be found.
Nor did the next step in the pursuit delay them long. There were, it is true, three paths through the forest, which closed in the hamlet on every side except that by which the party had approached it. Carna's pet dog at once decided for the searchers which of the three they should follow. He discovered the scent very quickly, ran at the top of his speed along the path thus distinguished from the others for about a hundred yards, and then, coming back, implored the party, so to speak, by his gestures, that they should come with him. It was evident that the path had been traversed by a party of considerable size, whose tracks, the marks of a horse's hoofs among them, were still fresh in the ground, soft as it was with the winter rains. The dog was evidently satisfied that they were right, for he ran quietly on, now and then giving a very soft little whine. It wanted still an hour or so of sunset when the party emerged out of the forest upon the shore.
Here it might have seemed at first all trace was lost. The tide had flowed and ebbed twice since the girl had been there, and had swept away all marks of footsteps. The dog too was no longer a guide. The poor little creature's distress indeed was pitiful, as he ran to and fro upon the shore with a plaintive whine.
The Count asked his companions for their opinions.
"Have they taken to the wood again, do you think? Or have they crossed the water? They may have gone a mile or more along the shore and then entered the forest. In that case it seems hopeless to recover the track."
"It is my opinion," said the peddler, "that they have crossed to the mainland; but it is only an opinion, and I have little or nothing to urge for it."
Other members of the party had different views; and, on the whole, opinion was adverse to the peddler's view; and the Count was about to order a search in the direction of the wood further along the shore, when the attention of the party was arrested by a shout from the Saxon.
The discussion had been carried on in a language which he had still some difficulty in understanding, and he had been pacing backwards and forwards along the shore, seemingly lost in thought, but really watching everything with that keen attention to all outward objects which is one of the characteristics of uncivilized man. It was thus that something caught his eye. He plunged his hand into one of the little rock-pools upon the shore, and drew it out. It was a small gold trinket, which the girl had dropped in the forlorn hope that it might be found. Its weight, for it was an almost solid piece of metal, had kept it in the place where it fell, and as the night and day had been uniformly calm, there had been no sufficient movement of the water to disturb it. With a cry of delight the Saxon held it up, and the Count recognized it at once.
"Ah!" said the peddler, “I knew the fellow would be of use to us. If the Lady Carna is anywhere on the earth he would find her. This proves, my lord, that they have crossed the sea. They would certainly have not come down so far from the shore as this."
This seemed too probable to admit of any doubt. Happily it had occurred to the Count that it would be well to have some kind of vessel at his command, and he had ordered a pinnace to start from the haven as soon as it could be got ready, and to coast along the shore of the island, watching for any signal that might be given. The land party had outstripped the ship, which, indeed, had not started till somewhat later. Still, it might be expected very soon. Meanwhile there was an opportunity for discussing the aspect which the affair now bore.
After various opinions had been given, the Count turned to the peddler. "And what do you think of the affair?"
"I have a notion," the man replied, "but it may be only a fancy—still I seem to myself to have a notion of what their purpose is."
"Do you mean," pursued the Count, as the other paused, and seemed almost unwilling to speak, "do you mean that they think of holding her as a kind of hostage against me? Do they fancy that I shall not be able to act against them, and shall hinder my colleagues from acting, as long as she is in their power? Or will they keep her as something to make terms about if they fail?"
The other was still silent for a few minutes, and seemed to be collecting his thoughts. At last he said:
"My lord, what I am going to tell you may seem as foolish as a dream. I should have gone on saying nothing about it, as I have said nothing about it hitherto, if things had not happened which makes it a crime for me to be silent any longer. You find it difficult to believe that a rebellion is possible among a nation which you have always looked upon as thoroughly subdued. But what will you say if I tell you that this rebellion has been preparing for generations, and that the Druids have been, and are, at the bottom of it. "
"Druids!" cried the Count, "I did not know that there were any Druids. I thought that the last of them had disappeared years ago."
"Not so," replied the peddler; "the people who rule do not know what is going on about them. Now I have been among this people the greater part of my life. I have seen them, not as they show themselves to you, but as they are. You think that they are Christians—not very good Christians, perhaps, but still not worse than other people—and believing the Creeds, if they believe anything. Now I know for a certainty that many of them are no more Christians now than their fathers were three hundred and fifty years ago. I have seen sometimes, when no one knew that I saw, what they really worshipped. I have pieced together many little things. I have heard hints dropped unawares, and I know that there is a secret society, which has existed ever since the island was conquered, which has for its object the bringing back of the old faith. I could name—if things turn out as I expect they will, I will name—men whom you believe to be quiet, respectable citizens, but who are the heads of a conspiracy reaching all over Britain, against Rome and the Christian Church. You never see them except in the tunic and the cap, but they can wear on occasion the Druid's robe and crown."
"But tell me," said the Count, with a certain impatience, "what has this got to do with my daughter?"
"This, my lord," answered the other, "that if the Druids are making the great effort for which they have been preparing for no one knows how many years, they will begin it with all the solemnity that is possible—in a word, with the great sacrifice. This, I suppose, has not been practised for many generations, but it has not been forgotten. To speak plainly, I believe that the Lady Carna has been carried off for the victim."
The Count staggered back as if he had been struck. "Impossible!" he cried. "Such things cannot be in Britain: and why should they fix upon her?"
"For two reasons," said the peddler. "She is of royal race. You very likely do not know or care about such things. All Britons to you will be much about the same; but they do not forget it. Yes, though her father was nothing more than a sailor, she is descended from Cassibelan. And then she is a Christian. These are the two reasons why they have chosen her—this is what they honour her for, and this is what they hate her for."
"But where," cried the Count, "where is this monstrous thing to be done?"
"That," replied the other, "I think I know. It can hardly be done anywhere but at the Great Temple, the Choir Gawr, as they call it themselves."
"And where is this Great Temple?"
"About forty miles inland, in a nearly northerly direction. I have seen the place once, and I can find my way to it, I believe; but, to make sure, I will find a guide."
"At the full moon, I should say."
"And how much does it want to the full moon now?"
"It will be full moon to-morrow night."
"We have to cross then to the mainland—and the galley is not in sight—to find a guide, and to travel forty miles, and all before to-morrow night. Well, it must be done. To think of these wretches murdering my dear Carna!"
"Do not fear, my lord; we shall do it," said the peddler; but added, in a low voice, "if nothing happens."
At that moment the galley came in sight. "That is right," cried the Count; "anyhow, we begin well; no time will be lost in getting across."