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The Count of the Saxon Shore by  Alfred J. Church

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THE BRITISH VILLAGE

[173] THE British priest's home was at a populous village on the banks of the Avon, now known by the name of Netton, and as this was some miles nearer than Sorbiodunum, he determined to take thither the party whom his opportune arrival had rescued from danger. Once arrived there, it would be easy to send a messenger to the town, and await further instructions. A litter was hastily constructed for Carna, who, though her spirits and courage were still unbroken, was somewhat exhausted by excitement and fatigue. The Saxon's wounds were dressed and bound up by the priest, who united some knowledge of medicine and surgery to his other accomplishments, and was indeed scarcely less well qualified for the cure of bodies than of souls. The priest-doctor looked somewhat grave when he saw how deep the sword-cuts were, and how much blood had been lost, but Cedric made light of his injuries, [174] scorned the idea of being carried, and indeed seemed to find no difficulty in keeping close to Carna's litter on the homeward journey.

Netton—we are unable to give the British name of the village—was reached some time before dawn. At sunrise the priest, who had refreshed himself with two or three hours' sleep, was ready to perform his office at his little church. It was the first day of the week, and the building was crowded. It was an oblong building, with a semicircular eastern end, that resembled that kind of chancel which is known by the name of an apse. It had been designed by an Italian builder, who had copied the shape that seems to have been used in the earliest Christian buildings, that of the schola  or meeting-house of the trade guilds or associations. The body of the building was of timber. The eastern end, or sanctuary, had a little more pretension to ornament; it was of stone, and the walls were hung with somewhat handsome tapestry, wrought with symbolic designs.

Few of the party which had accompanied the priest the night before were prevented by their fatigue from being present. The Britons were always a devout people, and in Netton their priest had gained such an influence over them, that they were exceptionally regular in their religious duties. Carna had been anxious to attend the service, but [175] the priest's wife—he had followed the usual practice of the British Church in marrying before ordination—had absolutely forbidden so unreasonable an exertion. Cedric, who would otherwise have been present in whatever part of the building was open to an unbaptized person, was still buried in a profound slumber. The service was in Latin, a language of which most if not all the worshippers knew enough to be able to follow the prayers. Such portions of the Scriptures as were read were accompanied by the priest with occasional expositions in the British language; and the sermon, except the text, which was in Latin, and taken from the recently published Vulgate of St. Jerome, was wholly in that tongue. The preacher's text was from the Psalms, "Quomodo dicitis animæ meæ, Transmigra in montem sicut passer?" and was mostly concerned with the troubles of the time. He had in an uncommon degree the national gift of eloquence, and stirred the hearts of his hearers to their inmost depths. He warned them that troublous times were approaching, such as neither they nor their fathers had seen were approaching, and that they would have to resist unto blood for the faith into which they had been baptized.

"Antichrist," he cried, adapting to the day, as [176] Christian preachers have done in every age, the language of the apostles—"Antichrist is at hand! You see him in these heathen hosts who are threatening you on every side; these Saxon pirates from the east, who are ravaging our shores; these Pictish ravagers from the north, who every year are penetrating further and further into the land. Yes," he added, with a telling reference to the event of the night before, "and even in apostates of British blood, who have preserved in your midst the hideous superstitions from which our ancestors turned to worship the blessed Christ; and as it was in the days of the blessed Paul, so is it now: 'He that letteth will let till he be taken out of the way.' The Roman power has kept these forces in check, but it will keep them no more. The time is short. They are gathering every day in greater strength, and you must gird yourselves to meet them." Therefore, he went on, they must be strong and quit them like men. They must gird on them, and make complete in every point, their spiritual armour—the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Divine Word, the all-covering shield of faith; nor must they forget the temporal weapons with which the outward enemies who assail the body must be met. "He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one," cried the preacher, in his final apostrophe to his people, "and he will find that as his day so shall his strength be, and that the Lord can [177] deliver by few as by many, Gideon's three hundred, as by the eight hundred thousand men that drew word in Israel."

Wrought by the eloquence of the orator to an almost incontrollable excitement, the whole congregation sprang to their feet, as if they were asking to be led at once to the battle. Then, with a sudden change from the stirring tone of the trumpet to the sweet music of the flute, the preacher touched another note. In a pleading voice, almost but never quite broken with tears, he besought them to cleanse their hearts; he reminded them that the armies of the Lamb of God must be clothed in the white robe of righteousness; that purity, tenderness to the weak, charity to the fallen, were as needed for Christ's soldiers as steadfastness and courage, till many a cheek was wet with tears of contrition and repentance.

In the course of the forenoon a fleet-footed messenger was despatched to Sorbiodunum. By the time he reached that town the Count and his party had arrived, excepting one who had been left behind, still too exhausted by his forced march to move. Some, too, had been sent back in the hope that they might not be too late to rescue the stragglers who had perforce been left behind during the journey through the snow. As there was now no immediate necessity of haste, Ælius allowed his followers to rest and refresh [178] themselves for the remainder of the day at Sorbiodunum. The following morning he went on to Netton, where he found, to his great delight, that Carna had apparently suffered no harm from her perilous adventures. His gratitude to the Saxon was beyond the power of words to express. Though it somewhat hurt his Roman pride that a barbarian should ever have the strength to hold out when all others fail, he did not suffer his vexation to take anything from the hearty warmth of his thanks. Cedric received them with the courtesy of an equal, a bearing which both Britons and Italians could not help resenting in their hearts, while they reluctantly admired his surpassing strength.

Three days were spent in Netton with much comfort to the party, the priest and his people showing them as liberal an hospitality as their means admitted, and refusing the recompense which the Count almost forced upon them.

"Take something for your poor," said Ælius, when his arguments were exhausted.

"My people," answered the priest, "must not lose one of the most precious privileges of their Christian life, the sweet compulsion of having to minister to the necessities of those who want their help."

"Then you cannot refuse some ornament for your church," the Count went on.

The good man hesitated for a moment. His [179] church was dear to his heart, and he would gladly have seen it made as fair as art and wealth could make it.

"My lord," he replied, after his brief hesitation, in happier times, and in another place, I would not refuse your generous offer. But now the poorer we are the better. I should like to see our altar-vessels of gold, but it would not be well to tempt the barbarians to a deadly sin, and to expose Christian lives to worse peril than that they now stand in, by such treasures, of which the report could scarcely fail to be spread abroad. Our chalices, and flagons, and patens are now of lead, thinly covered for decency's sake with silver, and they are of no value to any but those who use them. No, my lord, leave our church with at least such safety as poverty can give. But there are places in the world, I would fain believe, though indeed in these days I scarce know where they are, where Christian men worship God in security, and where the treasures of the church are safe from robbery. Let your gift be given there, when you find the occasion. And if you will let me know the place I shall be happy with imagining it, without the anxious care of its custody."

With this answer the Count was compelled to be content, till at least next morning, by which time Carna's ready wit had suggested that the priest could hardly refuse a gift of books.

[180] "My lord," said the good man, when the Count renewed his offer in its fresh shape on the following day, "your determined generosity has overcome me. Books I cannot refuse either for my own sake or my people's. I sometimes feel that they are starved, or at the best ill-fed with spiritual food. I can speak to them of their every-day duties, but I cannot build them up in their faith for lack of knowledge in myself, and where is the knowledge to come from? Of books I have none but my Bible and my Service-book, and two small books of homilies. If I had some of the commentaries and homilies of the two great doctors of our Church, Hieronymus and Augustine, I should be well content. I have heard of the great preacher of Antioch and Constantinople, John the Golden Mouth, but, alas, I cannot read Greek."

"You shall have them as soon as they can be got," said the Count.

In the course of the day the search party sent back from Sorbiodunum returned. They had found one of the stragglers still alive, and had brought him on to the village where the first halt had been made. There he was being carefully tended, but there was no chance of his being restored to health for many weeks to come. Of the other two they had a terrible [181] account to give. Only a few mangled remains could discovered, the poor creatures having been manifestly devoured by wolves. All that could be hoped was that they had expired before they were attacked.

The Count had now nothing to detain him, and as was for many reasons anxious to be at home, where a multiplicity of duties were awaiting him, he determined to start on the following day. His route was first to Sorbiodunum. There he would be on the main road leading to Venta Belgarum. From Venta, by following another main road he and his party would make their way easily to the Camp of the Great Harbour.


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