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The Count of the Saxon Shore by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

CEDRIC IN TROUBLE

[207] FOR several weeks life passed at the villa with little change or incident. But the Count, though he kept a cheerful face, and talked gaily of the future to his daughter and Carna, felt more acutely every day how full his position was of anxieties and difficulties. First came, as it always does come first, the question of money. It had never been a very easy matter to provide for the expenses of the fleet. Again and again the Count had drawn on his private means, which were happily very large. But these had lately been crippled by the troubled condition of the provinces in which his estates were situated, and even if they had been untouched the burden that now threatened to fall upon them would have been too great for them to bear. Some of the seaport towns would, he hoped, continue to pay their contributions. He was personally popular, and his influence would do something. Then, again, he could still [208] give at least some return for the money. The sea-coast must be protected from the enemy, and no one could protect it so cheaply and so effectually as he. From the inland towns, which had always grumbled at having to pay an impost from which they saw no visible advantage, nothing was to be hoped. And any expectation of money from the authorities at home was quite out of the question.

One thing was quite certain: the establishment must be reduced within much narrower limits. He must diminish the fleet, and lessen also the range of shore which he professed to defend. He could not henceforth pretend to go north of the mouth of the Thamesis. For the coast southward and westward he might be able to provide more or less effectually. More he could not do.

One of the first necessities of the changed position in which he found himself was that he must give up the villa on the east coast. It would be a matter for after consideration whether the island of Vectis was not too much out of the way. But till that point could be settled, it would have to be his head-quarters. To carry out these new arrangements, and to wind up affairs in the region which he was preparing to relinquish, a voyage became necessary. On this voyage the Count started early in April. He arranged for disposing of that part of the fleet which he could not hope to keep in his own pay. Some of the oldest galleys were broken up; others were handed over to the authorities of the coast-towns, on the understanding that they were to man and pay them themselves. A few picked men were taken from the crews by the Count; the rest, excepting such as were re-engaged by the local authorities, were discharged. When this had been done, and the villa had been dismantled, the Count prepared to return to the island.

Here, meanwhile, there had been trouble. The Saxon had quietly returned to his work at the forge, and would have been perfectly content, as far as could be judged from his demeanour, if only he had been left alone, and permitted to pay as before his distant worship to Carna. But to some members of the villa household he was an object of dislike. They were jealous of the favour in which the Count and the Count's family held him. They were naturally not at all pleased at what they could not but acknowledge his great superiority in strength, and as Christians, though not particularly zealous in their performance of most of their duties, they felt themselves to be unquestionably zealous and sincere in their hatred and contempt for a pagan. The Saxon, on the other hand, heartily despised those by whom he was surrounded. They were slaves, or little better than slaves, and he was a freeman and a chief, though the gods had made him a prisoner. [210] He went to and fro among them with a scorn which was not the less evident because it was not expressed in words.

For a time this enforced silence helped to keep the peace; Cedric knew nothing of the British tongue, or of the mongrel Latin which sometimes took its place, and the other inhabitants of the villa nothing of Saxon. There were angry and contemptuous looks on both sides, but there was nothing more; or if there were words, these were harmless, because they were not understood. But by degrees this was changed. Cedric had intelligence of no common kind—indeed he was something of a poet among his own people—he had many motives for learning the language of those among whom he dwelt, his adoration for Carna being one of the most powerful, and he had, too, opportunities for learning. The peddler taught him much, and Carna, who never forgot her zealous desire for his conversion, taught him more. The end was that he picked up much of the British language with extraordinary rapidity, and, in little more than six months after his capture, could express himself with some ease and fluency.

This was very well in its way, but it had the unfortunate result that he began to understand and be understood. Every day the relations between him and the domestics and artizans employed about the [211] villa became worse and worse, and it was not long before matters came to a crisis.

Cedric had repeatedly noticed that the tools which he used in the forge had been hidden or mischievously damaged. He was too proud to complain, and indeed his temper was curiously patient in any matter where he did not conceive his honour to be involved. He said nothing about the matter, searched for his missing tools, and if he could not find them, continued to do without them, and repaired the injuries as best he could. The offender, of course, grew bolder with impunity, and at last the limits of Cedric's endurance were reached and passed. Coming into the forge at an unusually early hour one morning, he caught the doer of the mischief in the very commission of a more serious piece of mischief than he had yet ventured, namely, cutting a hole in the bellows. He lifted the offender by the skin of the neck—he was a lad of about sixteen, and son of the chief bailiff of the farm attached to the villa—shook him, as a dog shakes a rat, yet without forgetting that he was but a boy, dipped him head foremost in the bath of the forge, and then let him go, more dead than alive from the fear that he felt at finding himself in the hands of the great giant.

Unluckily at the very moment when the young rascal was being dismissed in a paroxysm of howling with a contemptuous kick, his father entered the [212] yard. No one about the place was more prejudiced against the Saxon, or more jealous of the favour in which he stood with the Count and his family. He had too, in its very worst form, the ungovernable Celtic temper, and now, when he saw his son, a spoilt boy whom everybody else disliked, ill-treated as he thought by the prisoner, he was fairly carried out of himself.

"Pagan dog!" he cried, "do you dare to touch with your beast's foot a Christian boy?" and he struck at the Saxon with a long cart whip which he had in his hand.

The end of the lash caught the Saxon's cheek, on which it raised an ugly-looking wheal. Even in the height of his passion the Briton stood aghast at the change which came in a moment over the form and features of the Saxon. One or two of the bystanders had seen him face to face with an enemy, and had wondered how strangely calm he had seemed to be, showing no sign of excitement, except a certain glitter in his eyes. He had a very different look now. "The form of his visage was changed," as it was in the Babylonian king when he found himself, for the first time in his life, confronted by a point-blank refusal to obey. A consuming anger, like the Berseker rage of his kinsmen of after times, [213] the Vikings, seemed to possess and transform him. His features worked, as if caught by some strange malady, his eyes literally blazed with fury, his whole figure seemed to dilate. The luckless bailiff was seized round the middle, lifted from the ground as easily as if he had been a child in arms, and hurled with a crash, like a bolt from a catapult, against the wall. He lay there bleeding from nose and mouth, while the horror-stricken Britons stood helpless and afraid to move.


[Illustration]

CEDRIC'S FURY.

"Dogs of slaves," cried Cedric, "do you dare to growl at your master;" and he swept through the terrified crowd, laying them low on either side. Happily at the moment he had no weapon in his hand, but he seized a bar of iron from the anvil of the forge, and swinging it round his head, prepared, it seemed, to deal about him an indiscriminate destruction. What would have followed it is impossible to say. In his fury and in his absolute mastery over that shrinking crowd, he was like a tiger in the midst of a flock of sheep. But at the critical moment, before his hand had dealt a single blow, the apparition of Carna interposed between him and his victims. The uproar in the court had reached her in her chamber, and brought her ready to play her accustomed part of peacemaker. Now she stood, her figure framed like a picture, in the door which opened on the court from the part of the [214] villa which she occupied. She wore a simple dress of white, fastened with a blue girdle; her long chestnut hair fell in loose waves to her waist, for she had not had time to arrange it in more orderly fashion. Her face was pale and troubled, her eyes wide open with a sad surprise. It was indeed another Cedric that she saw from the one whom she had known. Was this terrible savage, who looked more like some dreadful spirit from the abyss than a human creature, the gentle giant in whose mute homage she had felt such an innocent pleasure, the hopeful pupil whom she was teaching, as she hoped, to put away savage ways for the mild and peaceful behaviour of a Christian. As for Cedric, he seemed paralyzed at the vision that presented itself to him. The sight of the girl always moved him strangely; now she reminded him of the time when he had first seen her by the bedside of his dying brother; and the remembrance completed, if anything was needed to complete, the impression. The fury that had transfigured him seemed to pass away; his hand loosed its hold on the weapon which he held. His adversaries did not fail to use the opportunity. They had been too genuinely frightened to let it slip when it came. Indeed they may be excused for feeling that this most formidable enemy had to be secured against doing any more damage. The moment they saw him unarmed they sprang with one movement [215] on him and overpowered him. Even then, if he had offered resistance, they might have had no small trouble, perhaps might have failed in securing him. But he stood passive, and allowed his hands to be bound without a struggle, and followed without difficulty when he was led to the room where offenders were commonly confined. Some of the meaner spirits in the household were disposed to visit their feelings of annoyance and humiliation on his head, now that he seemed to be in their power. But others felt a salutary dread of rousing the sleeping lion whose rage they had seen could be so terrible. Carna too did not abandon her protegé. He was chained, indeed, to a staple in the wall of the room which served as his prison. This seemed nothing more than a necessary precaution. But the girl let it be distinctly understood that no cruelty must be used to him, and she took care herself that his supply of food should be plentiful and good.


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