Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Unexpected Arrival

CEDRIC, after making good his escape from the villa, had nearly died of hunger on the shore to which he had managed to make his way. When he was almost at his last gasp, a Saxon galley had touched at the very spot to supply itself with water. Fortunately for him it was commanded by a kinsman of his own, who persuaded the crew—the Saxon adventurers had to be dealt with by persuasion rather than by command—to return home with their passenger. This probably saved his life; his mother, a skilful leech, whose fame was spread abroad among the dwellers on the coast, nursed him back into health. Still he had suffered long and much; and it was not till the summer was far advanced that he was allowed to join an expedition. His noble birth, his reputation for strength and courage, not a little enhanced, of course, by his late escape, and the personal fascination that he exercised on all about him, pointed him out, young as he was, for command.

Carna had been unceasingly in his thoughts since the day when he had last seen her. During the delirium of his illness her name had been continually on his lips, and one of the earliest confidences of his recovery was the story of his love for this Christian maiden of the west. His mother was touched by the story. The girl's passionate desire for the welfare of the son that was dead (which she appreciated without comprehending its motive), and the very heroism which the son that was living had shown in defending her, combined to move her heart. That any living woman could resist the attraction of such a champion as her son, she did not believe for a moment, in spite of all that Cedric could say about the height of saintliness on which Carna stood; and by degrees the young chief himself found his worshipping devotion mingled with hopes that were very sweet to his heart.

It is not surprising, therefore, that as soon as he was at sea, and the destination of their voyage became a question, his thoughts at once turned to the island. Approaching it with caution, for he was too good a leader to risk an encounter with the superior force of the Roman squadron, he learnt with surprise that the Count had departed. Of Carna his informant, a fisherman who found it answer his purpose to give what information he could to the Saxons, could tell him nothing, and Cedric naturally supposed that she had gone with the family into which she had been adopted. The news struck a strange chill into his heart, but at the same time it relieved him of considerable perplexity. His course was now clear; if the Romans were gone there was nothing to be feared. He knew the approaches to the villa, and how weak were its defences, and he felt sure that a British garrison would not be a match for his own vigorous Saxons.

He reached the island two days after the landing of Ambiorix. Acting as his own spy on the strength of his knowledge of the country, he soon found out the position of affairs, and thought that he could not do better than wait to see how things would turn out. The galleys—Cedric had two under his command—lay in hiding at some little distance from the Haven, and meanwhile every detail of the struggle was watched, unknown to the combatants, by scouts who carried news of its progress to their chief. The gathering of the troops previous to the attack on the fortifications had been observed and rightly understood by these men. Cedric had been at once informed of what was in progress, had landed his crews, amounting in all to about two hundred, and marched with all the speed that was possible to the scene of action. As the news had reached him not long after midnight he was able to reach the spot very soon after the attack had commenced.

The battle-cry of the Saxons, terrible to those who knew it, scarcely less terrible, with its shrillness and fierceness, to those to whom it was strange, arrested the attention of all, and made every eye turn to the rear of the attacking party. There could be seen, running swiftly up the ascent which led to the palisade, the band of Saxons. In front a huge standard-bearer carried a blood-red banner, on which was wrought in black the raven of Odin. Behind him came, in a loose order which served to conceal their scanty number, Cedric's warriors, a sturdy race, whose tall stature was made to seem almost gigantic by the height to which their hair was dressed. They were formidable foes, but still there were brave men in both the British parties who would have had the courage to stand up against them. Unhappily one of the panics which defy all reason and all individual courage began among the inland Britons at the sight of these strange enemies; and, once begun, it could not be checked. Ambiorix, indeed, with a few of his immediate followers, faced the enemy, but was quickly swept away by the rush of their onset. Martianus, with some of the garrison, carrying Carna along with him, took refuge in the villa, and hastily secured the doors. Others fled wildly over the country, or hid themselves in the out-buildings. Nowhere was there any thought of resistance, and the Saxons won their victory almost without losing a drop of blood.

Cedric's eyes, sharpened as they were by love, had caught a glimpse of Carna, as she was swept in the throng of fugitives within the doors of the villa, and he at once led his men to the attack. Any defence of the place against assailants so determined would have been hopeless, even had the garrison been as resolute as they were, in fact, feeble and demoralized. A few sturdy blows from Cedric's battle-axe brought the principal door to the ground, and he rushed across the fragments into the hall, followed by some ten of his attendants. The rest he had signed to remain without. Carna, who, herself undismayed amidst all the tumult, was surrounded by a group of terrified men and women, stood facing him. The crimson mounted to her forehead as she met his eyes, for she saw, as no woman could fail to see, the love that was in them; but she showed no other sign of emotion.

"Spare these poor creatures," she said, pointing to her terrified companions.

"Your lives are safe," said Cedric in British. "Go with this man, and he pointed to one of his attendants, to whom at the same time he gave some brief directions. He turned to Carna: "Lady," he said, "this is no time for many words; and I could not say them if it were, for my tongue is ill-taught in your language. But you cannot have failed to see my heart. It is yours, and all that I have. Come and be a queen in my home and among my people."

The girl's eyes, which she had turned to the ground at his first address, were now lifted to meet his gaze. "I cannot leave my people," she said.

"Yet," he answered, "the good women of whom you used to tell me, whose lives are written in that holy book of yours, left their own people to follow their husbands."

"Yes, but the God of the husbands whom they followed was the God whom they worshipped in their own homes. You worship strange gods, with whom I can have no fellowship."

"Come with me and teach the truth to my people and me," cried the young man, feeling that there was nothing which he would not do to win this bright, brave, beautiful maiden.

"Listen, Cedric," she answered—it was the first time that she had called him by his name, and he thought that he had never known before what a name it was—"You told me some time since that you would sooner go into the everlasting darkness with your own people than bow the knee to a God whom you believed to have dealt unjustly with them. It was a noble resolve; and I have honoured you for it. Will you give it up for the love of a woman? If you did, I could honour you no more, and you are too good to have a wife that did not honour you. No, Cedric, I will pray for you. Perhaps God will hear me, and give you light, and bring us together to the blessed Christ, but it cannot be here."

She caught his right hand which he had reached out in the earnestness of his speaking, and lifted it to her lips. Her kiss was the last expression of her gratitude. And perhaps there was something in it of a woman's love. But she never faltered for one instant in the resolve that was to separate them.

Behind Cedric stood a burly, middle-aged warrior, his father's foster-brother. He had watched the scene with an intense interest, and though of course he could not understand what was said, had a very shrewd notion of the turn which affairs were taking, Perhaps he saw, too, expressed in the girl's tone something of a feeling which the young man was too rapt in his adoration to observe. Anyhow, he was ill-content that his young chief should miss the bride on whom his heart was set, and who seemed so worthy of him.

"A noble maiden!" he whispered to Cedric, "and fit to be the wife and mother of kings; and I think that she loves you. Shall we carry her off? I warrant that it will not be long before she forgives us."

"Peace!" said Cedric, turning fiercely upon him, "Peace! Would you have me wed a slave? My wife must come to me freely, or come not at all."

He spoke to Carna again. "Your will is my law. If you say that we must part, I go. But, lady, you must leave this house. My people are set upon burning it, and I could not hinder them, if I would."

Without another word, she obeyed his bidding, and passed into the court, followed by Cedric and his attendants.

Meanwhile some of the Saxon crews had been busy with their torches, and the flames were beginning to gain a mastery over the building. Before many minutes had passed the sheds and outbuildings, which were, to a great extent, constructed of wood, were in a blaze, while dense volumes of smoke rolled out of the windows of the villa itself. Carna stood spellbound by the sight, at once so terrible and so grand. The spectacle of a burning house exercises a curious fascination even on those for whom it means loss and disaster, and Carna, even in that supreme crisis of her life, could not help gazing at the conflagration, and even admiring unconsciously the splendid contrasts of light and darkness which it produced.

It seemed as if that day was about to sweep away all her past. She had torn from her heart her half-acknowledged love; she saw the home of her childhood and youth vanishing into smoke and ashes; and now another actor in the bygone of her life was to disappear for ever.

Martianus had observed the scene from the chamber in which he had taken refuge, and had misunderstood it. He fancied that the girl, whom, though no formal betrothal had bound her to him, he regarded as his own, was going of her own accord with this Saxon robber, in whom, of course, he recognized the champion who had saved her life at the Great Temple. The thought stung him to madness. With all his foppery and frivolity, he had the courage of his race. He might probably have escaped unnoticed from the burning building. But, disdaining flight, he rushed at Cedric, heedless of the odds which he was challenging.

The chief's followers, knowing their master's temper, stood aside to let the conflict be decided without their interference. It was fierce, but it was brief. Martianus was a skilled swordsman, but a life of indolence, if not of excess, had slackened his sinews and unsteadied his nerves. He parried some of his antagonist's blows with sufficient adroitness, but his defence grew weaker and weaker, and he could not save himself from one or two severe wounds. Giving way before the fierce, unremitting attack of his antagonist, he came without knowing it to the edge of the well, stumbled over the raised parapet that surrounded it, and fell headlong into its depths.

The sight of the conflict had diverted Carna's attention from the burning house. She did not wait to see its issue, but at once quitted the precincts of the villa. Some of the survivors of the garrison, the old priest and his wife, and the rest of the non-combatants, followed her. Not only did they feel that it was she who had saved them from the swords of the Saxons, but they recognized in her calmness and courage the qualities of a true leader, and were sure that they could not do better than follow her guidance. Her own plans had been formed for some time. She saw that the strength of Britain was in the great cities. If the country, disorganized as it was, was to be made capable again of order and self-defence, the impulse must come from them, the centres of its civil and religious life. Londinium, where the Count's name was well-known and respected, and where she had some connections of her own, was her destination. There she hoped to be able to do something for her people.

The first step was to leave the neighbourhood of the villa, and with the helpless companions who now, she saw, looked to her for guidance, to make her way to the north of the island, and from thence to the mainland. Making a short pause till the stragglers had come up, she addressed a few words of counsel and comfort to the fugitives.

"Dear friends," she said, "God has delivered us from the hands of the heathen, and will bring us safe to the haven where we would be. But this is no place for us. We will go to where we may serve Him in peace and quietness."

Her clear, firm tones, which seemed inspired with all the confidence of an unfaltering faith, seemed to breathe in their turn new courage into the terrified crowd. They received them with a murmur of assent, and without an expression of fear or doubt, followed her as she led the way to the summit of the neighbouring downs.

Arrived at this spot, she paused and turned, as if to take a last look at the scenes in which her past life had been spent. The landscape lay calm and smiling about her. Every feature in it was familiar to her eyes; there was not one with which she had not some happy association. But now the sight had lost its power; her soul was occupied with more profound emotions. The home of her childhood lay beneath her feet, a blackened ruin; and there, upon the sea, could be seen flashing in the sunlight the oars of the Saxons' departing galleys.

It was a contrast full of significance, and the girl, in whose pure and enthusiastic soul there seemed to be something of a prophetic power, caught some of its meaning. That ruined house was the past, the days of the Roman domination. It had had its uses, it had done its work, but it had become corrupt and feeble, and it was passing away for ever. And the future was there, symbolized in the Saxon ships that, brightened by the sunshine, were speeding their way, instinct, as it seemed, with a vigorous and hopeful life, across the waters. That was the new power that was to shake this worn-out civilization, and raise in the course of the ages a fair fabric of its own.

For the moment the present, with all its misery and desolation, mastered the girl's spirit with an overpowering sense of loss. Thoughts of her ruined home, her helpless country, and her own personal loss, though almost unacknowledged to herself, in the final parting with the young hero of her life, came upon her with a force which broke down all her fortitude. She covered her face with her hands and wept.

Then her fortitude and her conscience reasserted themselves. "Courage, my, friends," she cried, "God hath not deserted us, nor our dear country. We have sinned much, and we shall have much to bear. But He has chosen this land for a great work, and He will make all things work together for good till He has accomplished it." She was silent for a few moments. When she began to speak again, some mighty inspiration seemed to carry her beyond the present and out of herself. Yes," she cried, "God hath great things in store for this dear country of ours. I see a great blackness of darkness. From many houses, great and fair, where the rulers of the land lived delicately, shall go up to heaven the smoke of a great burning, and the fields shall be untilled and desolate, and the rivers shall run red with blood. But beyond the darkness I see a light, and the light shines upon a land that is fair as the garden of the Lord; and therein I behold great cities thronged with men, and in the midst of them stately houses of God, such as have never yet been built by skill of human hand. And the people that work and worship there are not of our race, nor yet wholly strange. For the Lord shall make to Himself a people from out of them that know Him not, even from the rovers of the sea; they that pull down His Church shall build it again, and they shall carry His name to many lands, for the sea shall be covered with their ships; and they shall rule over the nations from the one end of heaven to the other."

She sank upon her knees, and remained wrapt in prayer, while the crowd stood round and watched her with awe-stricken faces. When she rose again to her feet she was calm. Resolutely she set her face from the scene of her past life, and went her way to meet the future that lay before her.

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