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The Count of the Saxon Shore by  Alfred J. Church

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AT LAST

[306] IT was nearly sunset on the second day of the great battle of Badon Hill. The long, desperate fight was over, and the great British champion had turned back for a time the tide of Saxon invasion. The heathen dead lay, rank by rank, as they had fallen, every man in his place, in the great wedge-like formation which had resisted all the efforts of the Britons during the first day of the struggle, and had been with difficulty broken through on the second.

The King was sitting amidst a circle of his knights on the top of the hill, resting from his toils. His cross-hilted sword stood fixed in the ground before him. On one side lay his helmet, bearing for its crest a dragon wrought in gold; on the other, his shield, on which was blazoned the figure of the Virgin.

[307] A priest approached, walking in front of a party of four who were carrying a litter, and who, at a sign from their leader, set it down before the King.

"My lord," said the priest, "I was traversing the field to see whether I could serve any of the wounded with my ministrations, when word was brought to me that a Saxon desired to talk with me. He could speak the British tongue, it was told me, a thing almost unheard of among these barbarians. I did not delay to visit the man, and finding that he desired above all things to speak to your lordship, I took it upon myself to order that he should be brought."

The wounded man raised himself with some difficulty, and by the help of one of the bearers, into a sitting posture. He was of almost gigantic proportions, and though his hair and beard were white as snow, showed little of the waste and emaciation of age.

One of the King's knights recognized him at once.

"I noted him," said he, "for a long time during the battle. He was in the front rank, and stood close to a young chief, whose guardian he seemed to be. I observed that he was content to ward off blows that were aimed at the young man, but never dealt any himself. What came to him and his charge afterwards I do not know, for the tide of battle carried me away."

[308] "What do you want?" said the King.

"My lord King," said the old man, speaking British fluently, though with a foreign accent, "the knight speaks true. Neither to-day, nor yesterday, nor indeed through all the years during which my people have fought with yours, have I stained my hands with British blood. Indeed for forty years I have not set foot on this island. But this year I was constrained to come, for the young Prince of my people, Logrin by name, was with the army, and his father had given him into my charge, and I could not leave him. All day, therefore, I stood by him, and warded off the blows with such strength and skill as I had, and when his death hour came, for he fell on the morning of the second day, I cared no more for my own life. So much I say that you may listen to me the more willingly, though report says of you that you are generous, not to friends only, but also to foes. But I have something to say that is of more moment. Many years ago I was a prisoner in this land, having been taken by one of the ships of Count Ælius. Many things happened to me during my sojourn here of which it does not concern me to speak, except of this. There was in the household of the Count a maiden, his daughter by adoption, but of British birth, Carna by name. She was very anxious to bring me to faith in her Master, Christ; and I was no little moved by her words, and still [309] more by the example of her goodness. But I loved her, and this love seemed to hinder me, for how could I tell whether it were truth itself or the love that was persuading me? And would not he be the basest of men who for love of a woman should leave the faith of his fathers? So I remained, though it was half against my own mind, in my unbelief, and when she would not take me for her husband, being unbaptized, we parted, and I saw her no more. But her words, and the memory of her, have dwelt with me unceasingly, and now that God has brought me back to this land, I desire to have that which once I refused. But tell me, my lord King, have you any knowledge of this lady Carna?"

"Yes," said the King, "I know her well, and by the ordering of God, as I do not doubt, she is in this very place this day, for she gives her whole time to ministering to such as are in trouble or sorrow. She shall be sent for forthwith, and the archbishop also who will, if he thinks fit, administer to you the holy rite of baptism."

Cedric, for as my readers will have guessed it was he, bowed his head in assent, and after swallowing a cordial which the King's physician put to his lips, sank back upon the litter.

In about half an hour Carna appeared. She was dressed in the garb of a religious house, for she had taken the vows, and she was followed by a small [310] company of holy women who, like her, had devoted their lives to the service of their poor and suffering brothers and sisters in Christ. Time had dealt gently with her, as he often does with gentle souls. The glossy chestnut hair of the past was changed indeed to a silvery white, and her face was wasted with fast and vigil; but her complexion was clear and delicate as of old, and her eyes as lustrous and deep.

When she saw and recognized the wounded man—for she did recognize him at once—a sweet and tender smile came over her face. Her gift of intuition seemed to tell her that her prayers were answered, and that the soul for which her supplications had gone up day by day, from youth to age, had been given to her.

"Carna," said the dying man, "God has brought me back to you after many years, and before it is too late. Your God is my God, and your country my country—but not here. Once I could not own it, fearing lest my love should be leading me into falsehood; but all things are now made clear. But, my lord King," he went on, feebly turning his head to Arthur, "bid them make haste, for I would be baptized before I die, and my time is short."

The priest had departed on another errand, and the King was perplexed. The physician whispered in his ear—

[311] "He has not many moments to live."

"Baptize him, my lord King, yourself," said Carna; "it is lawful in case of need, and none can do it more fittingly."

"I will willingly be his sponsor," said the knight who had first spoken, "for there was never braver man wielded axe or sword."

The King dipped his hand in a golden cup that stood on the table by his chair, sprinkled the water thrice on the dying man, as he pronounced the solemn formula, and signed on his forehead the sign of the Cross. He then put the cross-shaped hilt of his sword to the lips of the newly baptized. Cedric devoutly kissed it. The next minute he was dead.


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