THE PRIEST'S DEMAND
 "SO the time has come at last," said Ambiorix; "at last
the yoke is broken from off the neck of Britain.
Blessed be the day that saw the legions of the
"Yes," replied Martianus, "but will they not return?
They have gone before; but have they not come back? I
take it these Romans get too much out of us to let us
"I have no fear of their return. If Honorius can make
terms with this Constantine and his army, he will never
send them back here; he wants them too much at home. He
has got King Alaric to reckon with, and he has been
long since drawing every soldier that he can from the
provinces into Italy. No, depend upon it, at last
Britain is free.
"Free; yes, if it has not forgotten how to move."
"We haven't all learnt to play the slave," said
Ambiorix fiercely, as he started from his seat.
 "There are some who have not sold their birthright for
the delights of the bath and the banquet, and who are
too proud to ape the manners of their masters."
"Peace, my son," interposed the aged priest; "Martianus
is not the less able to help the cause of our country
because he seems to be the friend of those who oppress
"These are but the wild words of youth, father," said
Martianus. "By a wise man they are forgotten as soon as
they are heard. But let us hear what Ambiorix has to
tell us about the force which we can bring into the
The young chief entered into details which it is
impossible to reproduce. Preparations had been made
over nearly the whole of Britain, though the more
northerly parts, owing to the perpetual attacks of
their neighbours the Picts, had little to contribute in
the way of help. Ambiorix knew how many men could be
relied upon in every district; he was acquainted with
the disposition of the representatives of the chief
British families; he knew what each would want for
himself, to whom he would be prepared to yield
precedence, from whom he would claim precedence for
himself. All his views and calculations were those of a
sanguine temper; but he certainly could show—on paper
at least, as we should say—a very respectable amount of
strength. When he had finished his account of the
 of Britain, Martianus, who, whatever his faults, had at
least a genuine admiration for ability, held out his
"This is wonderful!" he said. "You have a true genius
for rule. That you should keep the threads of so
complicated a business all so distinct is simply
wonderful. You certainly give me hopes that I never had
"I never doubted for a moment," returned the young man,
"but that when this Roman incubus was removed all would
go well. Besides, who is there to attack us? We have no
"No enemies!" replied the other, in a tone of surprise.
"Do you forget the Saxons by sea and the Picts by
"I believe that neither will trouble us. They are not
our enemies, but the enemies of Rome. They have
harassed—they were quite right in harassing—the
oppressors of the world: they will respect, I am sure,
the liberties of a free people. When Britain is as
independent as they are we shall be friends."
Martianus could not help smiling sarcastically. "That
is very fine. One would think that you had been a pupil
in one of the schools of rhetoric which you so much
despise. The most famous of our declaimers could not
have put it better. But I am afraid that there will be
some difficulty in explaining all this to them."
 "In any case, we can defend ourselves," returned the
young chief, "though I do not think that the need will
"Let us hope not," said Martianus, but his tone was not
confident or cheerful.
There were, it may easily be supposed, not a few other
subjects for discussion, and the conversation lasted
for a long time, the young chief showing throughout
such a mastery of details as greatly impressed his
companions. When he had finished a brief silence
followed. It was broken by the priest. There was a
special solemnity in his tone, which seemed to claim an
authority for his utterances, quite different from the
position that he had taken up while politics or
military matters were being discussed.
"My children," he said, "this is a grave matter. The
weal or woe of Britain for many generations is at
stake. If we fail, we may well be undone for ever. You
cannot enter on so great an enterprise without the
favour of the gods, and the favour of the gods is not
easily to be won. For many years they have lacked the
sacrifice which they most prize. I myself, though I
have completed my threescore years and ten, have but
once only been privileged so to honour them. The time
has come for this sacrifice to be offered once more.
Have I your consent, my children? But indeed I need not
ask. This is a
 matter in which I cannot be mistaken, and from which I
cannot go back."
The young chief nodded assent, but said nothing. He was
"What do you mean, father?" he said.
"The sacrifice which the gods most prize," answered
the old man, "is also that which is most prized by men.
The most perfect offering which we can present to them
is the most perfect creature they themselves have made.
Sheep and oxen may suffice for common needs; but at
such a time as this, when Britain itself is at stake,
we must appease the gods with the blood of
Martianus grew pale. "It is not possible," he
"Not only possible, but necessary," calmly returned the
priest. "Our fathers were commonly content to offer
those who had offended against the laws; but in times
of special necessity they chose the noblest victims.
Even our kings have given up their sons and their
daughters. So it must be now."
All this was absolutely horrible to Martianus. He did
not believe indeed in Christianity, but it had
influenced him as it had influenced all the world.
Whether he was at heart much the better may be doubted.
But he was softer, more refined; he shrank from visible
horrors, from open cruelty—though he could be cruelly
selfish on occasion—and from
blood-  shed though he would not stretch out a finger to save
a neighbour's life. And what the priest said was as new
and unexpected to him as it was hideous. He had no idea
that this savage faith had survived in Britain.
"Father," he said, "such a thing would ruin us. Such a
deed would raise the whole country against us. A human
sacrifice! It is monstrous!"
"You are right so far," returned the priest, "the
country must not know it. Britain is utterly corrupted
by this new faith, a superstition fit only for women,
and children, and slaves; and I don't doubt but that it
would lift up its hands in horror at this holy
solemnity. But there is no need that it should know it.
It must be done secretly—so much I concede."
"And the victim?"
"Well, the days are passed when a Druid could lay his
command on Britain's noblest, and be obeyed without a
murmur. The victim must be taken by force, and
"And have you any such victim in your thoughts?"
The priest hesitated for a moment; but it was only for
a moment. He resumed in a low voice, which it evidently
cost him an effort to keep steady—
"I have not forgotten the necessity of a choice;
indeed for months past it has been without ceasing in
my mind, and now the choice is made. The victim
 whom the gods should have is a maiden, beautiful and
pure. She is of noble descent, though her father was
compelled, by poverty and the oppression of the Roman
tyrants, to follow a humble occupation. Thus she is
worthy to be offered. And yet no true Briton will
regret her fate, for she has deserted the faith of her
ancestors for the base superstition of the Cross."
"And her name, father?" said both of the conspirators
Again the priest hesitated; a close observer might even
have seen a trace of agitation in that stern
"It is Carna," he said, after a pause, which raised the
suspense of his hearers almost to agony. "It is Carna,
adopted daughter of Count Ælius."
And he looked steadfastly at his companions' faces, as
if he would have said, "I dare you to challenge my
The two started simultaneously to their feet. Not long
before, young Ambiorix, who was then not yet possessed
by the fanatical patriotism which now mastered him, had
admired her beauty and sweetness of manner, and had
had day-dreams of her as the goddess of his own hearth.
Then a stronger love had come in the place of the old.
It was not of woman, but of Britain free among the
nations, as she had been before the restless eagles of
 had found her, that he thought day and night. Still, he
could not calmly hear her doomed to a horrible death,
and for a moment he was ready to rebel against the
sentence of the priest.
The older man was terribly agitated. He had been for
many years on the friendliest footing with the Count, a
frequent guest at his table, almost an intimate of the
house. And Carna was an especial favourite with him.
Her sweetness, her simplicity, and a pathetic
resemblance that she bore to a dead daughter of his
own, touched him on the best side of his nature.
"Priest," he thundered, "it shall not be. I would
sooner the whole scheme came to ruin; I would sooner
die. A curse on your hideous worship!"
The priest had now crushed down the risings of human
feelings which his training had not sufficed to
"You have sworn by the gods," he said, "and you cannot
go back. If you do not hesitate to betray Britain, at
least you will not dare to betray yourself. You know
the power I can command. Go back from your promise to
follow my leading, and you are a dead man. You are
faithful?" he went on, turning to Ambiorix. "You do not
The young chief returned a muttered assent.
The older man, meanwhile, was in a miserable condition
of indecision and terror. Unbeliever as he was,
 having long since given up the faith of his fathers,
and never accepted the doctrine of the church but with
the emptiest formality, he had not put from his breast
the superstitious fear that commonly lingers when
belief is gone. And he knew that the priest's
threatened vengeance on himself was no empty boast. The
strength of Druidism had passed, but it still had
fanatics at its command, whose daggers would find their
way sooner or later to his heart. The cold, cynical
look with which he had entered on the conference had
given place to mingled looks of rage, remorse, and
"You must have your own way," he muttered, sullenly.
"My son," said the priest, in a tone which he made
studiously cautious, "what is one life in comparison
with the happiness and glory of our nation? You, I
know, would shrink from no sacrifice, and believe me,"
he added in a lower voice, for he had to play off the
two rivals against each other, "believe me, whatever
sacrifice you make shall not miss its reward."
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics