THE day after Cedric's disappearance the Count returned to the island. The prospect before him had not by any means lightened. Britain, conquered, oppressed, protected, for nearly four hundred years, governed sometimes ill and sometimes well, according to the varying characters of the Roman legates, but never allowed to do anything for herself, was not ready at a moment's notice to be independent and stand alone. The Count was much too shrewd a man to hope that she would. Still, even he had not realized how bad things would be; and when he came to see them face to face he felt something like disappointment, and even despair. A man will often make up his mind to the general fact of failure, and yet be almost as much vexed at the details of failure, when it comes, as if he had expected success.
The fact was that the Count had found little or no disposition in the native States to take up and carry on the work which he was being compelled to give up. They would make no sacrifices, or even efforts. They refused to work together. Each reckoned on its own chance of escaping the common danger, and would not contribute to the defence that might possibly be wanted for its neighbours, and not for itself. Then jealousies and enmities, hitherto kept in check by the strong hand of a master, began to break out. The cities seemed likely, not only not to combine against Picts and Saxons, but actually to go to war among themselves. The Count felt all the pain that comes to an honest and capable man when he has to face the breaking up of a bad system which he has inherited from predecessors less high principled than himself. It happens very often that revolutions come in the days, not of the worst offenders, but of the men who are making sincere endeavours to do their duty. And so it was with the Count.
It was in a very gloomy and depressed condition of mind, therefore, that he returned to the villa. And almost every day brought news of fresh troubles and disasters. Some of the Roman houses scattered through the country had been attacked and burnt of late. Since the central authority had been weakened the Roman residents had sometimes begun to behave in a lawless and oppressive way to their British neighbours, and these were taking their revenge with the cruelty that is always natural to the oppressed. Tragical tales of villas surrounded by infuriated crowds of Britons, of masters and families shut up within the walls, and perishing in the fires that consumed them, were brought to the Count by the scared survivors who had contrived to escape from the general destruction.
The Count's personal difficulties were considerable. He had a considerable colony now settled near the villa, and many of its members were helpless and dependent people. The question of feeding them would soon become an urgent one. At present he could use the surplus stores which would no longer be wanted now that his squadron had been so reduced in strength. And there was another question that pressed upon his mind—that of defence. Already he had had to contract his operations. With single pirate vessels, or even small squadrons of two or three, he would be able to deal, but anything stronger would have to be left alone. With the few ships that were left to him it would be madness to run any risk. And what, he could not help thinking, if the Saxons were to attack the villa itself? It had been built as a pleasure residence, and though now fortified as far as circumstances permitted, could not be held against a strong force. Should he continue to occupy, or should he retire to the camp of the Great Harbour, which would at least be a more defensible position?
It may easily be imagined that these anxieties, which had been troubling his thoughts during the whole time of his absence, were not relieved when he heard the story of what had happened during his absence. He owed the Saxon more than he could ever repay, for he shuddered to think what would have happened to Carna but for his strength and energy. And apart from this feeling of gratitude, he admired the man's splendid courage and tenacity. He had even come to rely upon him for services of unusual difficulty and danger. And now, to think that he was lost to them by the stupid perversity and jealousy of a set of slaves!
The said slaves had a bad time with their master for some days after his return. Good-humoured and kind as he was, yet he was a Roman—in other words, he had inherited the lordly temper of a race which had ruled the world for five hundred years, and any contradiction that thwarted him in one of his serious convictions or purposes, broke through the veneer of refinement and culture that commonly concealed the sterner part of his nature. A Christian master could not crucify an offender—indeed, crucifixion had been long since forbidden by the law—but he had almost unlimited power over life and limb. Life, indeed, the Count was too conscientious a follower of his religion to touch, but he had no scruple about going to the very utmost verge of severity in the use of minor punishments. As for his daughter, she was only too like her father to be any check on his anger, and for the first time in her life Carna found her mediation useless.
"Girl," he said to her on one occasion, when she had urged her intercession with tears, "you do not know what mischief these foolish, cowardly knaves have done. One thing I see plainly, that as soon as ever the Saxons know the weakness of the position we shall not be able to hold it any longer. There is nothing to hinder them from coming and burning the whole place over our heads; nothing in the way of fortifications, and certainly nothing in the way of garrison. They did not know all this before, but they are sure to know it soon; and we shall see the consequences before many months are over."
In the course of the summer occurred an incident which diverted the Count's attention for a time, though it did not lessen his perplexities.
One morning a small trading vessel entered the haven near the villa. Her business, it was found, was to land a stranger, who had bargained for a passage to the island. The trader had come from a port of Western Gaul, and had then taken her passenger on board. Who he was the captain could not say, except that he had the appearance of a Roman gentleman. The day after they had set sail an illness, which had evidently been upon him when he came on board, had increased to such an extent that he had lost consciousness. Two or three days of delirium had been succeeded by stupor; in this condition the unfortunate man still lay. But while still conscious he had written down his destination, and added an appeal to the compassion of his future host. The Count read on the paper which the merchant captain handed to him a few words written in a trembling hand. They ran as follows:—
"In case I should not be able to speak for myself, I invoke by these words the compassionate protection of the Count Ælius. Let him not fear to receive me, but believe that I am unfortunate rather than guilty, and that there is between us the tie of a great common affection."
The Count did not recognize the stranger, though a dim impression of having seen him before floated across his mind; and there was something in his appearance which agreed with the trading captain's conviction that he was a man of birth and position. In any case Ælius was not one who was inclined to resist such an appeal to his compassion. The stranger, still unconscious, was landed, together with a few effects which were said to belong to him, and at once handed over to the care of Carna. All her diligence and watchfulness as a nurse, and all the skill of the old physician, were wanted before the patient could be brought back to life. For fourteen days he lay hovering on the very verge of death, mostly sunk in a stupor so complete that it was barely possible to perceive either pulse or breath; sometimes muttering in delirium a few broken sentences, of which all that physician and nurse were able to distinguish was that they were certainly Latin, and that they seemed to be verse.
It was on the morning of the fifteenth day that there came a change. Carna sat by the window of the sick man's room. It had a southern aspect, and the sunshine came with a softened brilliance through the thick tinted glass, and brought out the exquisite tints of the girl's glossy hair, as she sat bending over the embroidery with which she was employing her nimble, never-idle fingers.
"By heaven! Another, fairer Proserpine!" said the sick man.
The girl turned her head at the sound of the clearly pronounced words which her practised ear distinguished at once from the strained or blurred utterances of delirium.
She held up her finger to her lips. "Do not speak," she said; "you have been very ill, and must not tire yourself."
"Lady," said the sick man, with a smile, "you must at least let me ask you where I am."
"Yes, you shall hear, if you will promise to ask no more questions, but to be content with what you are told. You are with friends, in the island of Vectis, in the house of Ælius, Count of the Saxon Shore. And now be quiet, and don't spoil all our pains by making yourself ill again."
She gave him a little broth which was being kept hot by the fire in readiness for the time when he should recover consciousness; and after this had been disposed of, and she had found by feeling his pulse that he was free from fever, a small quantity of well diluted wine.
"And now," she said, "you must sleep"—a command which he was ready enough to obey.
After this his recovery was rapid. For a time, indeed, the cautious old physician, though he did not forbid conversation, prohibited any reference to business. "You will want, of course," he said, "to tell your story, and to make your plans for the future; that will excite you, and, till you are stronger, may bring about a relapse. Be content for a while with the ladies' company"—Ælia, now that no nursing had to be done, was often with her foster-sister—"the Count will see you when I give permission."
And much talk the ladies had with him, and greatly astonished they were at the variety and brilliance of his conversation. He seemed equally familiar with books and men. He had read everything—so at least thought the two girls, who were sufficiently well educated to recognize a full mind when they came across it—he had been everywhere, he had seen everybody. He never boasted of his intimacy with great people, and indeed very seldom mentioned a name, but his allusions showed that he was equally familiar with courts and camps. It would have puzzled more experienced persons than the sisters to guess who this man of the world, who was also a man of letters, could possibly be.
At the end of another week the physician removed his prohibition, and the Count, who had hitherto judged it better not to agitate his guest by his presence, now paid a visit to his room.
After a few kindly inquiries as to his health, the Count went on, "Understand me, sir, that I have no wish to force any confidence from you. My good fortune gave me the chance of serving you, but it has not given me the right of asking you questions which you might not care to answer. You are welcome to my hospitality as long as you choose to remain here, and you may command my help when you wish to go. But of course, if you care to give me your confidence, it may make the help a great deal more effective."
"Yours is a true hospitality," answered the stranger, with a smile, "but it is right that you should know who I am, and how I came to be here; and I have only been waiting for the good Strabo's leave to tell you. But may your daughter and her sister be present? I have a sad story to relate, but there is nothing in it which is unfit for them to hear, and they have been good enough to show some interest in an unhappy man."
"They shall come, if you wish it," said the Count, "indeed they have been almost dying of curiosity."
It was to this audience that the stranger told his story.