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The Count of the Saxon Shore by  Alfred J. Church

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THE SAXON

[57] IT was not easy to know what should be done with the survivor of the two Saxon captives. The villa had no proper provision for the safe custody of prisoners; and the problem of keeping a man under lock and key, without a quite disproportionate amount of trouble, was as difficult as it would be in the ordinary country house of modern times.

"I shall send him to the camp at the Great Harbour," said the Count, a few days after the scene described in our last chapter. "It is quite impossible to keep him unless we chain him hand and foot, or set half a dozen men to guard him; and even then he is such a giant that he might easily overpower them. At the camp they have got a prison, and stocks which would hold him as fast as death."

Carna's face clouded over when she heard the Count's determination, but she said nothing. The lively Ælia broke in—

[58] "My dear father, you will break poor Carna's heart if you do anything of the kind. She is bent on making a convert of the noble savage. And anyhow, whatever else she may induce him to worship, he seems ready, from what I have seen, to worship her. And besides, what harm can he do? He has no arms, and he can't speak a word of any language known here. If he were to run away he would either be killed or be starved to death."

"Well, Carna," said the Count, with a smile, "what do you say? Will you stand surety for this young pagan? Or shall I make him your slave, and then, if he runs away, it will be your loss?"

"I hope," said the girl, "that you won't send him to the camp, where, I fear, they hold the lives of such as he very cheap."

"Well," replied the Count, "we will keep him here, at all events for the present, and I will give the bailiff orders to give him something to do in the safest place that he can think of."

Accordingly the young Saxon was set to work at the forge attached to the villa, and proved himself a willing and serviceable labourer. No more suitable choice, indeed, could have been made. That he was a man of some rank at home everything about him seemed to show—nothing more than his hands, which were delicate, and unusually small in proportion to his almost gigantic stature. But the [59] greatest chief among his people would not have disdained the hammer and anvil. Was not Thor a mighty smith? And was it not almost as much a great warrior's business to make a good sword as to wield it well when it was made? So the young man, whose mighty shoulders and muscular arms were regarded with respect and even astonishment by his British fellow-workmen, laboured with a will, showing himself no mean craftsman in the blacksmith's art. Sometimes, as he plied the hammer, he would chant to himself, in a low voice, what sounded like a war-song. Otherwise he remained absolutely silent, not even attempting to pick up the few common words which daily intercourse with his companions gave him the opportunity of learning. There was an air of dignity about him which seemed to forbid any of the little affronts to which a prisoner would naturally be exposed; his evidently enormous strength, too, was a thing which even the most stupid of his companions respected. Silent, self-contained, and impassive, he moved quietly about his daily tasks; it was only when he caught a glimpse of Carna that his features were lighted up for a moment with a smile.


[Illustration]

CEDRIC AT THE FORGE.

The idea of opening up any communication with him seemed hopeless, when an unexpected, but still quite natural, way out of the difficulty presented itself. An old peddler, who was accustomed to [60] supply the inmates of the villa with silks and jewellery, and who sometimes had a book in his pack for Carna, paid in due course one of his periodical visits. The old man was a Gaul by birth, a native of one of the States on the eastern bank of the Rhine, and in youth he had been an adventurous trader, extending his journeys eastward and northward as far as the shores of the Baltic. The risk was great, for the Germans of the interior looked with suspicion on the visits of civilized strangers; but, on the other hand, the profits were considerable. Amber, in pieces of a size and clearness seldom matched on the coasts of Gaul and Britain, and beautiful furs, as of the seal and the sea-otter, could be bought at very low prices from these unsophisticated tribes, and sold again to the wealthy ladies of Lutetia and Lugdunum at a very considerable advantage. In these wanderings Antrix—for that was the peddler's name—had acquired a good knowledge of the language—substantially the same, though divided into several dialects—spoken by the German tribes; and, indeed, without such knowledge his trading adventures would have been neither safe nor profitable. As he approached old age Antrix had judged it expedient to transfer his business from Gaul to Britain. Gaul [61] he found to be a dangerous place for a peaceable trader, having lost more than once all the profits of a journey, and, indeed, a good deal more, by one of the marauding bands by whom the country was periodically overrun. Britain, or at least the southern district of Britain, was certainly safer, and it was this that for the last ten years he had been accustomed to traverse, till he had become a well-known and welcome visitor at every villa and settlement along the coast.

Here then chance, or, as Carna preferred to think, Providence, had provided an interpreter; and it so happened that, whether by another piece of good fortune, or an additional interposition, his services were made permanently useful. The old man had found his journeys becoming in the winter too laborious for his strength, and it was not very difficult to persuade him to make his home in the villa for two or three months till the severity of the season should have passed. Every one was pleased at the arrangement. Antrix was an admirable teller of tales, and his had been an adventurous life, full of incident, with which he knew how to make the winter night less long. The Count saw a rare opportunity, such as had never come to him before, of learning something about the hardy freebooters whom it was his business to overawe; and Carna had the liveliest hopes of making a proselyte, if she [62] could only make herself, and the message in which she had so profound a faith, understood.

The young Saxon's resolution and pride did not long hold out against the unexpected delight of being able once more to converse in his own language, and he soon began to talk with perfect freedom—for, he had no idea of having anything to conceal—about his home and his people. He was the son, they learnt from him, of the chief of one of the Saxon settlements near the mouth of the Albis. The people lived by hunting and fishing, and, more or less, by cultivating the soil. But life was hard. The settlements were crowded; game was growing scarce, and had to be followed further afield every year; the climate, too, was very uncertain, and the crops sometimes failed altogether. In short, they could not live without what they were able to pick up in their expeditions to richer countries and more temperate climates. On this point the young Saxon was perfectly frank. The idea that there was anything of which a warrior could possibly be ashamed in taking what he could by the strong hand had evidently never crossed his mind. To rob a neighbour or fellow-tribesman he counted shameful—so much could be gathered from expressions that he let drop; as to others, his simple morality was this—to keep what you had, to take what others could not keep. [63] The Count found him curiously well informed on what may be called the politics of Europe. He was well aware of the decay of the Roman power. Kinsmen and neighbours of his own had made their way south to get their share in the spoil of the Empire. Some, he had heard, had stopped to take service with the enemy; some had come back with marvellous tales of the wealth and luxury which they had seen. About Britain itself he had very clear views. The substance of what he said to the Count was this: You won't stop here very long. My father says that you have been weakening your fleet and armies here for years past, and that you will soon take them away altogether. Then we shall come and take the country. It will hardly be in his time, he says. Perhaps it may not be in mine. It is only you that hinder us; it is only you that we are afraid of. We shall have the island; we must have it. Our own country is too small and too barren to keep us."

Of his own adventures the young Saxon had little to say. This was the first voyage that he and his brother had taken. Their father was in failing health, and their mother, who had but one other child, a girl some ten years younger, had kept them at home, till she had been unwillingly persuaded that they were losing caste by taking no part in the warlike excursions of their countrymen. "We had a fairly successful [64] time," went on the young chief, with the absolute unconsciousness of wrong with which a hunter might relate his exploits; "took two merchantmen that had good cargoes on board, and had a right royal fight with the people of a town on the Gallic coast. We killed thirty of them; and only five of our warriors went to the Walhalla. Then we turned homeward, but our ship struck on a rock near some islands far to the west, and had almost gone to the bottom. With great labour we dragged her ashore, and set to work repairing her; but our chief smith and carpenter had fallen in the battle, and we were a long time in making her fit for sea. This was the reason why we were going home so late, and also why we lagged behind our comrades when you were chasing us. By rights we were the best crew and had the swiftest ship, but she had been clumsily mended, and dragged terribly in the water."

The Count listened to all this with the greatest interest, and plied the speaker with questions, all of which he answered with perfect frankness. He found out how many warriors the settlement could muster, what were the relations with their neighbours, whether there had been any definite plans for a common expedition. On the whole, he came to the conclusion that though there was no danger of an overpowering [65] migration from this quarter such as Western and Southern Europe had suffered from in former times, these sea-faring tribes of the East would be an increasing danger to Britain as years went on. Personally the prospect did not concern him greatly; his fortunes were not bound up with the island. Still he loved the place and its people; it troubled him to see what dark days were in store for them. And taking a wider view—for he was a man of large sympathies—he was grieved to see another black cloud in an horizon already so dark. Would anything civilized be left, he thought to himself, when every part of Europe has been swept by these hosts of barbarians?

Before long another source of interest was discovered in the young Saxon. The Count happened to overhear him chanting to himself, and though he could not distinguish the words, he recognized in the rhythm something like the camp-songs that he had often listened to from German warriors in Stilicho's camp. Here again the peddler's services as an interpreter were put in requisition, and though the old man's Latin, which went little beyond his practical wants as a trader, fell lamentably short of what was wanted, enough was heard to interest the villa family, which had a literary turn, very much. What the young man had sung to himself was an early Saga, a curious romance of heroes fighting with monsters, [66] as unlike as can be conceived to anything to be found in Roman poetry—verse in its rudest shape, but still making itself felt as a real poet's work.

Lastly, Carna, now that she had found a way of communicating her thoughts, threw herself with ardour into the work of proselytizing the stranger. Here the peddler was more at home in his task as interpreter. Carna used the dialect of South Britain, with which he was far more familiar than he was with Latin—it differed indeed but little from his native speech. The topics too were familiar, for he had been brought up in the Christian faith, and though he scarcely understood the girl's zeal, he was quite willing to help her as much as he could.

Carna found her task much more difficult than she had expected. She had thought in her simple faith that it would be enough for her to tell to the young heathen the story of the Crucified Christ for him to fall down at once and worship. He listened with profound attention and respect. This, perhaps, he would have accorded to anything that came from her lips; but, beyond this, the story itself profoundly interested him. But it must be confessed that there was a good deal in it which did not commend itself to his warrior's ideal of what the God whom he could worship should be. He was a soldier, and he could scarcely conceive of anything great or good that was outside a soldier's virtues. The gods of his own [67] heaven, Odin and Thor and Balder, were great conquerors, armed with armour which no mortal blow could pierce, wielders of sword and hammer which were too heavy for any mortal arm to wield. He could bow down to them because they were greater, immeasurably greater than himself, in the qualities and gifts which he most honoured. Now he was called upon to receive a quite different set of ideas, to set up a quite different standard of excellence. The story of the Gospels touched him. It roused him almost to fury when he heard how the good man who had gone about healing the sick and feeding the hungry had been put shamefully to death by His own countrymen, by those who knew best what He had done. If Carna had bidden him avenge the man who had been so ungratefully treated, he would have performed her bidding with pleasure. But to worship this Crucified One, to depose for Him Odin, Lord of Battles—that seemed impossible.

Still he was impressed, and impressed chiefly by the way in which the preacher seemed to translate into her own life the principles of the faith which she tried to set forth to him. She had told him that this Crucified One had died for him. He could not understand why He should have done so, why He should not have led His twelve legions of angels against the wicked, swept them off from the face of the earth, and established by force of arms a kingdom of justice. [68] Still the idea of so much having been given, so much endured for his sake touched him, especially when he saw how passionately in earnest was this wonderful creature, this beautiful prophetess, as, with the German reverence for women, he was ready to regard her, how eager she was to do him good, how little, as he could not but feel, she thought of herself in comparison with others.

As long as Carna dwelt on these topics she made good way; when she wandered away from them, as naturally she sometimes did, she was not so successful. One day it unluckily occurred to her that she would appeal to his fears.

"Do not refuse to listen," she said to him, "for if He is infinitely good to those who love Him, He can also be angry with those who love Him not."

"What will He do with them?" asked the young Saxon.

"He will send them to suffer in everlasting fire."

"Ah!" answered the youth, "I have heard from our wise men of such a place into which Odin drives cowards, and oath-breakers, and such as are false to their friends. But they say it is a place of everlasting cold, and this indeed seems to me to be worse than fire."

"Yes," said Carna, "there is such a place of torment, and it is kept not only for the wicked, as you say, but for all who do not believe."

[69] "Will the Lord Christ then banish thither all who do not own Him as their Master, and call themselves by His name?"

"Yes—and think how terrible a thing it would be if it should happen to you."

"And that is why you are so anxious to persuade me?"

"Yes."

"And why you were so troubled about my brother when you could not make him understand before he died?"

"Yes. Oh! it was dreadful to think he should pass away when safety was in his reach."

"And you think that the Lord Christ has sent him to that place because he did not know Him?"

"I fear that it must be so."

"Then He shall send me also. For how am I better because I have lived longer? No—I will be with my brother, whom I loved, and with my own people."

And neither for that day nor for many days to come would he speak again on this subject. Carna was greatly troubled; but she began to think whether there might not be something in what the young man had said.


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