NICANOR TELLER OF TALES
NICANOR TELLER OF TALES
A Story Of Roman Britain
By C. BRYSON TAYLOR
Author Of "In The Dwellings Of The Wilderness"
Having Pictures and Designs by Troy and Margaret West Kinney
Chicago A. C. Mcclurg & Co. 1906
Copyright A. C. McCLURG & CO. 1906 Entered at Stationers' Hall, London, England All rights reserved
Published April 28, 1906
Typography by The University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A. Presswork by The Lakeside Press, Chicago, U.S.A.
C. H. B.
To you, whose love did come And oft did sing to me, When I was working in the furrows.
BOOK I PAGE
THE MANTLE OF MELCHIOR . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
THE GARDEN OF DREAMS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59
PAWNS AND PLAYERS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119
THE LORD'S DAUGHTER AND THE ONE WHO WENT IN CHAINS . . . . . . . 207
THE NIGHT AND THE DAWNING . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 295
"In a physical ecstasy he spoke out that which clamored on his lips" [Page 44] Frontispiece
"'Were I that woman, I should have wanted to love him'" [Page 85] 72
"'You sent for me, Lady Varia?'" [Page 152] 176
"Half a dozen young beauties had taken possession,—girls of the haughtiest blood in Britain" [Page 240] 254
"The sight burst upon him in all its hideousness—where had been the stately mansion of his lord" [Page 344] 364
EUDEMIUS, a Roman lord living in Britain
VARIA, his daughter
LIVINIUS, a Roman citizen, a boyhood friend of Eudemius
MARIUS, his son, of the Roman legions in Gaul
MARCUS SILENUS POMPONIUS, Count of the Saxon Shore } AURELIUS MENOTUS, duumvir of Anderida } Guests of FELIX, his son } Eudemius CAIUS JULIUS VALENS, a Roman citizen }
JULIA } NIGIDIA } Roman girls, daughters of the PAULA } guests of Eudemius GRATIA }
NERISSA, nurse to Varia
HITO, master of the household of Eudemius
CHLORIS, of all nations, living upon Thorney
SADA, a Saxon } inmates of her house EUNICE, a Greek }
ELDRIS, a Briton, a convert to Christianity
WARDO, a Saxon, a slave in the house of Eudemius
VALERIUS, a Roman, a soldier of fortune
TOBIAS, a Hebrew, a worker in ivory
RATHUMUS, a British peasant, bound to the soil
SUSANNA, a Hebrew woman, his wife
NICANOR, a story-teller, their son
WULF, the Red, a Saxon free-lance
CEAWLIN, a Saxon chieftain
FATHER AMBROSE, of the Christian church
NICODEMUS, the One-Eyed, a British freedman
MYLEIA, his wife
MARCUS, a slave in the house of Eudemius
BALBUS, a convict
JUNCINA, a fish-wife on Thorney
SOSIA, her daughter
A flower-girl, a Saxon singer, slaves, trades-folk, soldiers of the military police; guards and overseers of the mines, and miners; Roman nobles and patrician women; Saxon men-at-arms, and men of the outland nations
Scene: Britain in the last days of Roman power Time: between A.D. 410 and 446
LIST OF TOWNS AND RIVERS
WITH THEIR MODERN SITES AND NAMES
Abus Flumen Humber River. Ad Fines Broughing, Hertfordshire. Anderida Pevensey. Aquae Solis Bath. Bibracte Unknown. Caledonia Scotland. Calleva Silchester. Corinium Cirencester. Cunetio Folly Farm, near Marlborough. Deva Chester. Dubrae Dover. Eboracum York. Gobannium Abergavenny. Glevum Gloucester. Isca Silurum Carleon. Leucarum Llychwr, county of Glamorgan. Londinium London. Noviomagus Holwood Hill, parish of Bromley. Pontes Staines Portus Magnus Porchester. Ratae Leicester. Regnum Chichester. Rutupiae Richborough Sabrina Flumen Severn River. Serica China. Tamesis Flumen Thames River. Tripontium Near Lilburne. Uriconium Wroxeter. Urus Flumen Ouse River.
THE MANTLE OF MELCHIOR
NICANOR: TELLER OF TALES
THE MANTLE OF MELCHIOR
Nicanor the story-teller was the son of Rathumus the wood-cutter, who was the son of Razis the worker in bronze, who was the son of Melchior the story-teller. So that Nicanor came honestly by his gift, and would even believe that his great-grandsire had handed it down to him by special act of bequest.
Now Rathumus the wood-cutter, tall and gaunt and fierce-eyed, coming home with his fagots on his shoulder in the gloam of the evening, when the fireflies twinkled low among the marshes, saw Nicanor on the side of the hill against the sky, sitting with hands clasped about his knees, crooning to the stars. Rathumus bowed his head and entered his house, and to Susanna, his wife, he said:
"The gift of our father Melchior hath fallen upon the child. I have seen it coming this long, long while. Now he singeth to the stars. When they have heard him and have taught him, he will go and sing to men. He is our child no longer, wife. His life hath claimed him."
Susanna, the mother, said:
"He will be a man among men. He will be a great man among great men. It may be that the Lord Governor will send for him. But—oh, my boy—my boy!"
Rathumus answered gravely:
"Pray the holy gods he will not misuse his power!"
Presently Nicanor came in, with the spell not yet shaken off him, wanting his supper. A smaller image of his father he was, lean and shock-headed, with gray steady eyes changing from the stillness of childhood's innocence to the depth and wonder of dawning knowledge.
"What hast been doing, boy?"
Nicanor stretched like one arousing from sleep.
"I know not," he answered. "Perhaps I slept out under the moon last night and she hath turned my head.—Father, I have been thinking. When I am become a man I shall do great things. Even you have told me that the destiny of a man's life lieth between his hands."
"Son," Rathumus said quickly, "remember also that men's hands lie between the hands of the gods, even as a slave's between the hands of his over-lord. Keep it in mind, child, that thou art very young, that thy first strength hath not yet come upon thee; and strive not to teach to others what thou hast not learned thyself. For that way lies mockery and the scorn of men."
"Now I do not understand where thy words would lead," Nicanor said; and his gray eyes, in the wavering torchlight, were doubtful. "I teach no one. Perhaps—it was not I who slept under the moon, after all."
For he was young, and though his parents saw what had come upon him, he himself saw not.
So Nicanor had his supper, of black bean-porridge, taking no thought of those parents' loving thought for him; and later climbed the ladder to the loft where he slept. After a while, Susanna, yearning over her boy in this, the first dim hour of his awakening,—yearning all the more since she saw that he was following blindly the workings of his own appointed fate, without any sense or knowledge of it himself,—went up the ladder also and sat beside him, thinking him asleep. But Nicanor put out a hand and slid it into hers, and shuffled in his straw until he was close against her. She gathered him into her arms, his shaggy head upon her breast, and rocked him to and fro in the darkness. To-morrow he would go where this fate of his called him; but this last night he must be hers, all hers, who had borne him only to give him up. Nicanor, stupid with sleep and comfort, murmured drowsily, and she bent close over him to listen.
"Mother, three nights ago my father spoke of Melchior, and the name hath lingered in my head. Who was he? What was he?"
"Thy father's father's sire," she told him. She saw it coming; the chains which bound his heart to hers were stretching. "He was a teller of tales, son, and—thy father thinks a fold of his mantle hath fallen upon thee. He it was who was first servus in the family of our lord. Little one, tell mother; what thoughts hast thou when the night comes down and the wide earth hushes into drowsy crooning? Hast ever felt dreams stirring at thy heart-strings like chords of faintest music?"
"Mother!" Nicanor cried, and tightened his arms about her. "Thou hast it—the words—the words! Tell me how to do it! Thoughts I have, and visions so far away that they are gone before I know them—but the words! I cannot say the things I would, so that they ring. Teach it me, then!"
Susanna laughed, and stroked her boy's hot head.
"Words I have, little son," she said softly, "but I have no tune to sing them to. A woman hath but one tune, and that is ever in the same key. One song, and one only, in her life she hath, and when that is ended, she is dumb. But please the good God! thou'lt have what lies behind the words and alone makes them of value; the thought which is the foundation-stone to build upon. And then the words will come also. What visions hast thou seen, sonling?"
"Mother, I cannot tell, for my mouth is empty though my head rings. Always it begins as though a curtain of mist were swept rolling back from the face of the world, and I see below me vague mountains and broad lonely wastes, and gray cities sleeping in dead moonlight, for it is ever night. I see clouds that reach away to the rim of the earth, and it is all as in a dream, and—and so deep within me that I lose it before I know it.—Oh, I cannot tell!"
He stirred restlessly and nestled his head deeper into her breast, and she stroked his hair in silence. When he spoke again there was a new note in his boy's voice.
"Mother, I too will be a teller of tales, even as was that sire of my father's sire whose name was Melchior. For in that there is to me all joy, and no pain nor sorrow at all. And I shall be great, greater than he and greater than those who shall come after me."
Susanna laid her hand across his mouth.
"Hush thee, for the love of dear Heaven, hush! That is boasting, and good never came of that! Oh, little son of mine, listen to me, thy mother,—it may be for the last time,—and keep my words always in a corner of thy heart. They shall be as a charm to keep all danger from thee. Pray to God nightly, the dear God of Whom I have tried to teach thee; keep thy hands from blood, thy body from wanton sin, and thy tongue from guile. So shalt thou be pure and thy tales prosper; for untainted fruit never blossomed from a dunghill. Remember that the Lord loveth all his creatures even the same as he loveth thee. As thou hast good and evil both within thee, so have others; wherefore judge them in mercy as thou wouldst thyself. And judge thyself in sternness as thou wouldst them; so shalt thou keep the balance true. Now thou art sleeping through my preaching—well, never mind! Kiss thy mother, dear one, and I will go."
She descended the ladder; and Nicanor's voice came sleepily muffled through the straw.
"All the same I shall be great—greater than that old man who was before me—greater than kings—greater than any who shall come after—"
He slept, and the moonlight streamed upon him in a flood of silver.
And below, at Rathumus' side, lay Susanna, the mother, and stared wide-eyed and wakeful through the darkness.
Nicanor sat beside the fire, his hands clasping his knees, his eyes glowing in the ruddy leaping of the flames. Around him on the moor squatted a band of belated roving shepherds, who from all the country round were bringing their flocks to fold for the Winter. About the fire, at discreet intervals, the sheep were herded, each flock by itself. Around every huddle a black figure circled, staff in hand, hushing wakeful disturbers into peace. The shepherds ringing the fire sprawled carelessly; uncouth rough men with shaggy beards and keen eyes, their features thrown into sharp relief against the light. Farther off, small groups, close-sitting, cast dice upon a sheepskin with muttered growls of laughter. The musky smell of the animals tinged the first chill of Autumn which hung in the air. Around them the moor stretched away, vast and silent, broken into ridges filled with impenetrable shadows until it melted into the mystery of the night. Over the world's darkness a slender moon, sharp-horned, wandered through rifting clouds.
Nicanor's voice rose and fell with the crackling flames. His eyes gleamed, his face quivered; the men within hearing hung upon his words. Gradually the dicers' laughter died; one by one they left their clusters and joined the circle at the fire. Nicanor saw, and his heart swelled high. This was what he loved,—to fare forth at night and come upon such a crowd of drovers, or it might be wood-cutters or charcoal burners; to begin his chant abruptly, in the midst of conversation; to see his listeners draw close and closer, gazing wide-eyed, half in awe; to move them to laughter or to tears, as suited him; to sway them as the marsh winds swayed the reeds. At times, when this sense of power shook him, he took a savage delight in seeing them turn, one to another, great bearded men, sobbing, gasping for breath, striving for self-control,—simple-hearted children of moor and forest, whose emotions he could mould as a potter moulds his clay. He could have laughed aloud, he could have sung for sheer joy and triumph, to watch this thing. Again, he would make them shiver at his tales of the world of darkness—shiver and glance from side to side into the outer blackness, with eyes gleaming white in the firelight. For it was a superstitious age, in which every field, every hearth-stone, had its presiding genius for good or ill; and there were many things of which men spoke with bated breath and two fingers out.
Nicanor ended his chant:
"So this man died, being unpunished, and went away into a great country which was a field of flowers. And in the midst of the field was a city wherein the man would enter. But even as he walked through this field of flowers, he saw that out of the flowers ran blood, and the flowers spoke and cried out upon him because of that thing which he had done when he was upon the earth. And the man was sorely frightened."
There was a mutter and a stir among the crowd. A black bulk heaved itself up between Nicanor and the firelight, and a swollen voice cried out:
"Now by Christ His cross, how comes it that this snipe of a stripling may speak from his mouth of what lieth beyond the grave? For this is death, and death is a matter concerning Holy Church alone. By what right doth he tell us of what she says no mortal may know?"
Cries from his mates interrupted.
"Nay, Rag; shut thy gaping mouth and leave the lad in peace! And so—and so—what then befell this wicked man, son?"
But Rag was not minded to be put aside so lightly.
"I say 'tis wrong!" he bawled. "No man, without warrant, may thus blab of what goeth on beyond the grave!"
A voice seconded him from the outer ring, but dubiously.
"I think the Saxon right! How may we know if this lad speaks true of that which comes to pass hereafter? Boy, what earnest canst give that this thing happened so?"
But another shouted:
"In the name of the gods, Rag, get thee to sleep once more, thou stupidest lout in Britain! It is a scurvy trick to waken thus at the wrong time and trumpet thy nonsense in such fashion. Good youth canst not skip that bit for peace's sake, and get on to the next part?"
Rag's voice blared into this one's speech.
"Nay, now I am awake, I'll not sleep again until I know if a lie hath waked me. For if it be not the truth, it is a lie, and a lie shall have short shrift with me!"
The men, stirred by the tale, took sides. A gale of conversation sprang up. Some wished the story to go on; others would know by what means this lanky youth could tell of what was to come to pass hereafter. They knew not the word imagination. Consequently fierce arguments arose. The burly cause of the uproar curled up and went quietly to sleep once more, leaving his fellows to settle for themselves the questions he had propounded. It is the way of his kind. High words fanned the spark of their excitement. Two met with blows; one stumbled into the hot embers. He cursed, and the light flashed on a drawn blade. Instantly the noise redoubled. Mingled with it was the bleating of frightened sheep, the oaths of drovers who strove to check incipient stampedes. Nicanor hugged himself with joy. If but his father could be there to see! Melchior, that wonderful great-sire of his, could not have so stirred men that they were ready even for blood and violence. He, Nicanor, could; wherefore he was greater than Melchior. His blood leaped at the thought; he wished to proclaim his exultation to the world.
But things soon took a different turn.
In the confusion, Rag, lying almost beneath his comrades' feet, got himself kicked. He leaped to his feet, dazed, roaring like a bull, and, stupid lout that he was, took unreasoning vengeance upon the first object which caught his eye. This chanced to be Nicanor.
"See what thou hast brought us to, son of perdition!" he cried. "But for thee and thy fool's tales we should be lying asleep like good men and true. This is thy work, with thy talk on heaven and hell and flowers which vomit blood. God's death! Heard ever man the like? If thou knowest not of what thou pratest, thou hast lied, and that deserves a beating. If thou dost know, thou hast the black art of magic,—an evil-doer, with familiars who tell thee things not to be known of earth; and that deserves a flaying!"
His voice was loud. His partisans took up his cry. Nicanor found himself surrounded. He became enraged; forgot that he himself with his wizard tongue had worked them into a very fitting state for any outbreak. That the emotions he had aroused should be turned against himself was a monstrous thing. He drew his knife; one seized it from his hand and flung it into the heart of the fire. Black figures danced around him; he was lifted off his feet by their rush; flung down, trampled upon, bruised, kicked, beaten. Men, losing all thought of him, fought over his head, clamoring old pagan creeds and shrieking aloud their theories concerning the Seven Mysteries of the Church. They differed wildly. From the criticism of a romantic tale, the discussion flamed into a religious war.
One with a broken head fell senseless near Nicanor. He, in scarcely better case, turned and squirmed until he got himself covered with the body; so saved his ribs and perhaps his life.
The combat ended, after a lapse of minutes, as abruptly as it had started. A cry arose from the hurrying guardians of the flocks:
"The sheep! Look to the sheep! They scatter!"
The animals, frightened by the uproar into panic, broke from their cordon and bolted into the darkness. Religion was forgotten on the instant; men in the act of giving a blow swung around and fled after their property. Seeing this out of the tail of his eye, Nicanor crawled from beneath the protecting body. He stood upright beside the deserted fire, panting, glaring, his clothes in tatters. Blood flowed from his nose, and from a cut upon his temple. He was a sorry sight. He lifted his clenched fist and shook it at his vanishing assailants.
"By Christ His cross!" he swore, repeating Rag's oath, "after this I shall make you believe what I tell you, though I say that your hell is heaven and your heaven hell. You have bruised me, beaten me, because of what? Something too high for your sodden brains to know! You have flouted me; now I shall flout you. I shall make you fear me, tremble at my words—ay, kiss the very ground beneath my feet. You shall learn to fear me and my power; you shall cringe like the curs you are!"
He went home in a quiver of rage and hate and shame, wounded in his body, still more sorely in his dignity, and told his mother he was going away. Where, he did not know. This was a small detail, since to him all the world was new. Folk had faith in the manifestations of Providence in those days; Rathumus and Susanna believed they heard Fate speaking by the mouth of their angry son. Susanna's eyes filled with tears. Rathumus nodded his great head gravely and slowly. Nicanor, overflowing with his wrongs, strode up and down the hard earth floor in a passion. Again he gave tongue to his lamentations.
"I am stronger than they—I shall conquer! Thou shalt see! I shall make them acknowledge that I, son of Rathumus, am greater than they. This shall be my revenge, and though it take me all the years of my life, I shall win to it by fair means or foul."
"Son, son!" Rathumus said sternly. "Speak not thus rashly. For the gods, and the gods alone, is vengeance."
But Susanna took her boy to his own loft, and there comforted him, motherwise.
"Thou wilt yet get the better of them all, my son. That they should have dared to treat thee so! But oh, be careful, for my sake! Now hearken. I will have thy father pray that our gracious lord permit thee to go to Christian Saint Peter's church, on Thorney, which is called the Bramble Isle, to learn a trade. Though he be no believer in the Faith, our lord is a good man, merciful unto us, his slaves, and I doubt not will give consent. Then seek there a man by name of Tobias, a colonus and a worker in ivory for the good Christian priests. He, it may be, will aid thee for sake of her who is thy mother."
She stopped, then, and looked into his face. But he met her eyes without a change, and never thought to question what her words might mean. For he was very young; also his mother was his mother. So that Susanna smiled, for pure joy and happiness, and said:
"He is a wise man, with goodly store of wealth. Also hath he been in far strange countries, and seen right marvellous things. And he will take thee to learn of him, if so be thou wilt say thou art son to Rathumus and Susanna his wife. And so wilt thou become great, and very wise, and loving."
So in the end, Nicanor started off alone in the world, with his parents' blessing, which was all they had to give him, to find out whither this Fate of his had called him.
Thus it was that Nicanor left his home in the gray northlands, up by the rolling hills and the barren moors which lay under the great Wall of Hadrian; and journeyed down the long road which led ever southward to Londinium. Past Eboracum, on the Urus, that "other Rome," where the Governor of Britain dwelt, famous as the station of the Sixth Legion, called the Victorious, the flower of the Roman army, which men said had been there for upwards of three hundred years. He crossed the wide river Abus, and thought it the ocean of which he had heard tales; he stole at stations and begged at farms, and drank in all that he could see and hear.
Over hills and through valleys the great road ran, straightaway for league upon league, turning aside for no obstacle, invincible as its builders, ancient and enduring. It crossed rivers, it clove through darkling woods, it traversed wide and lonely wastes, and led past walled towns, worn by the feet of marching legions, scored with the grooves of wheels. And even as across the world all roads led to Rome, so here did all roads lead to Londinium, and therefore to Thorney on Tamesis.
And Londinium was no longer the collection of mud huts filled with blue-painted Britons, of which dim tales were told. For under Roman rule fair Britain had cast half off the shroud of her brutish early days, and blossomed into a civilization such as she never before had known, and would not know again for many hundred years. One passing glimpse of light she caught—even though it had its shadows—before the veil shut down once more with the coming of the Saxons. For, though Roman rule in Britain was said to end with the fourth century, Roman influence, Roman customs, Roman laws, survived and were paramount during the years of independence which followed, until throttled by the slowly tightening hand of Saxon barbarism. Then the old dark times returned.
The Romans were hard taskmasters, but the task they had was hard. They were often merciless, but those beneath them had been wild beasts to tame. They were in power supreme and absolute, and they lived in ease and plenty upon the toil of native serfs and bondsmen. Fair villas, stately palaces, costly foods and fine raiment—all the luxuries those old days knew were theirs. Under them was the mass of the native population, staggering beneath their burden of taxation, bound to the soil, often absolute slaves, who spent their lives toiling in brickfields, in quarries, in mines, and in forests, living in straw-thatched cabins upon the lands of masters who paid no wage. When there was rebellion, these masters knew how to deal punishment swift and sure; when there was submission, they gave kindness and reward. Had Rome not been as strong as even in her decline she was, Romans could not have held Britain as long as they did. For on sea and land, on the verge of the civilization they maintained, were restless tribes, Scots, Picts, and Saxons, seizing every pretext, every moment of unguardedness, for encroachment and disturbance.
So that their stern discipline was necessary, and not without results which went for further good. Under Roman rule all the surface of the land was changed. Great towns, walled and fortified, rose on the sites of ditch-surrounded villages. Marshes were drained, bridges were built, and rivers banked; forests were cleared and waste lands reclaimed. More than all, the land was tilled and rendered productive, so that Britain became the most important grain province of the empire. Romans found in Britain a scant supply of corn, grasses on which the cattle fed, wild plums, a few nuts and berries. They brought to Britain fruits and vegetables from many lands beyond the seas; from Italy gooseberries, chestnuts, and apples; walnuts from Gaul; apricots, peaches, and pears from Asia. Paved roads webbed the island, wide and well-drained, by which bodies of troops could be massed at any given point with incredible rapidity. Fortifications were built and in the north walls of solid masonry were thrown across the country from the Oceanus Ibernicus to the Oceanus Germanicus, for the determent of common foes.
That upon which Rome once set her seal could never wholly lose the mark; must remain bound to her by ties, which, stretching across the centuries, would link the future to the past. In spite of the bitterness of her defeat and ruin, and because she still was Rome, she was mighty enough to leave precious gifts to the peoples who should come after her. To Britain, because Britain had been her own, she left many legacies great and small: the sonorous richness of her speech, soon corrupted to make for a new world a new speech as noble; and more than all, she left the word of her mighty law, proudest monument ever reared by mortal hands to a nation's glory. Rome's sons builded well for her; and the labor of their hearts and hands was not for the day alone, but for the ages. Towns yet to rise upon the ashes of her stately cities would find their model in her municipal government, and in her laws concerning the taxation of land and the distribution of personal and real estate. Old customs she left to be handed down to those who should sit in her sons' places,—the luctus of widows, who for a full year of widowhood might not wed again; the names of her deities she gave to the days of the planetary week. Her superstitions and folk-lore, deep-rooted, survived and lingered long among many nations: the old sorcery of the waxen image of an enemy transfixed by bodkins for the torment of that enemy; the belief in the were-wolf (one of the oldest of Roman traditions); the association of the yew tree with mourning and the passing of human souls.
Britain, with all her virgin wealth unmined, furnished Rome with enormous food supplies; sent many thousand men to serve with Roman armies on the continent; and received the colonists, called auxiliaries, brought thither in accordance with Rome's invariable policy of transplanting to the land of one nation captives from another. Thus the population of Britain, composed of people from nearly every race or tribe which has been subdued by Rome, was strangely heterogeneous, yet as strangely fused. It was Romanized; the national individuality of its units was lost in that of their conqueror. But as Rome destroyed the nationality of her captives, so in time she inevitably destroyed her own. If they were Romanized, she was Gothicized and Gaulicized. But by this means only was the circulation of her life-currents maintained to the uttermost branches of the empire. That great empire, age-old, rotting inwardly almost to decay, was vitalized, as it were galvanically, against her approaching dissolution by the blood of her colonies. In the throes of hierarchical government, torn by three irreconcilable religions,—polytheistic, Julian or Augustan, and Christian,—she had no strength to spare for these outsiders when her own life was at stake. The story of Roman Britain is the old story which history repeats down all the ages: Rome sacrificed one part of Europe that the whole might not be lost, and offered up the few for the good of the greater number.
For in those dark days from the second century of the Christian era until near the close of the fifth, when came the last stage of the struggle and the extinction of the Empire of the West, the world seemed tottering to its ruin. Kingdoms shook and crumbled to their fall; new powers strove headlong for their seats; men found themselves harried on all sides, with no pause for respite, and harried again in turn. They did not understand; they knew only that fierce unrest possessed all the earth, manifesting itself in the terrible wandering of the nations, which was to culminate in a new world and a new order of things. Small wonder that bewildered folk, swept on and overwhelmed in the maelstrom of world-wide turbulence, unknowing what must happen next, predicted and believed that with the year 999 the end of the world would surely come.
They had good reason for such belief. At Rome the fierce tribes from Northern Europe could no longer be held back. Goths, Vandals, Huns, each in their own good time had joined in the attack. Rome the Mighty, the Eternal, invincible as Fate, whose power no man believed could have an end, was brought to bay at last, impotent, drained by internal sores, goaded and tortured by foes without, with a horde of wolfish barbarians snarling and snapping at her throat. From one distant province after another her legions were called home. The fated twelve centuries of her power were ended; the direst tragedy of history had begun.
Britain, with all her fear and hatred of the heavy Roman hand, had yet been secure from outer harm while the strength of that hand was with her. For in the north were skulking bands of Picts and Scots, lawless and undisciplined, seized with the contagion of excitement which stirred their neighbors. In the south were Saxons, the terrible men of the Short Knives; about the coasts to east and south were bands of pirates, Jutes and Saxons both. Driven from their own lairs, they could but seek new resting-places; and Britain was the only spot where they might obtain a foothold. These rovers the Roman legions had held long years in check; yet it was told that soon the troops would be recalled to Rome's defence. None believed that Britain would be left wholly to herself; for Rome was too far away for her full peril to be brought home to those whose own affairs kept their hands well filled. But in the tenth year of the fifth century across the sea came letters from Honorius the Emperor, urging the cities of Britain to provide for their own defence, since Rome could no longer send them aid. And for Britain this was the slow beginning of the end. There followed then invasion after invasion of barbarians, which the cities, forever quarrelling among themselves, were forced to unite in repulsing. The Saxons thus overcome, ended usually by settling in Roman cities under Roman government peaceably enough until the next attack by their countrymen, in which they invariably joined. By the year 420 Angles and Saxons had gradually established themselves on the eastern and southeastern coasts, while other allied tribes constantly harassed the western districts.
Since the second century Rome's army in Britain had dwindled to four legions. At Deva, in the west, was the Twentieth Legion, holding in check the fierce mountain tribes of the Silures, and, with the Second, farther south, at Isca Silurum, keeping at bay the pirates who at times sailed up the broad Sabrina on plunder bent. In the north, at Eboracum, was the famous Sixth, within quick reaching-distance of Valentia and Caledonia. At Ratae was the Ninth, guarding the low country and the eastern fens. But after the Emperor's letter, the Ninth and the Twentieth sailed away, and the proconsul at Eboracum perforce sent part of his own troops to fill their places. Two years later, the Sixth was recalled. And then the consul abandoned Eboracum, that great city which since its foundation had been the seat of government for all the land, and with his forces moved farther south, leaving it deserted.
But not for long. For Caledonians and Saxons came down from the north and occupied it, and settled there to stay. And after that, whenever Romans left the northern towns, seeking greater security in the southward provinces, the barbarians advanced and took possession, and thus gained the foothold for which they had been struggling ever since the Conquest. And so the coming of the end was hastened.
Those later days of the departure of the troops were stirring days. The island, governed by the lords of the cities, each in feudal independence, had shaken off the leading-strings of Rome. It was wealthy; as yet it was prosperous; the advance of the barbarians, though it might be sure, was slow. When Rome's troubles were past, she would send her troops again, and the invaders would be driven out for good and all. Yet there were many folk abroad in those days, asking anxious questions, filled with responsibility and care. And ever and again, along the great white roads, a cohort would go flashing past, lined up to full number, gallant in fighting trim, with standards flying, and eyes set always southward, toward the sea and Rome.
* * * * *
There were many other folk upon the busy highways,—an endless procession that went and came. Pack-horses, war chariots, slaves and soldiers, nobles, merchants, and artificers, men with goods to sell and men without,—a motley throng from many lands. Nicanor, shy and fierce-eyed and of shaggy hair, tramping steadily southward in the wake of the swift-footed soldiers, felt that the world was a very mighty place, and never had he dreamed of such great people. As he drew nearer Londinium, the traffic and the bustle increased. More troops kept coming up; and again others passed them, going down. And now, among the low hills, he caught glimpses of fair and stately houses gleaming among wooded groves; and there were huts of plastered mud, straw-thatched, where dwelt gaunt, collared slaves.
On either side of the road were broad meadows where sheep were grazing; and ploughed fields where men and women stood yoked like cattle and strained to the cut of the ploughman's lash; and quarries where men toiled endlessly under heart-breaking loads, driven on by blows and curses. These were the things which Nicanor had known all his life, for his father worked, and his mother. But when he met a fat and perfumed man, riding upon a milk-white mule, with servants before and behind him, and beasts of burden bearing hampers,—then Nicanor could not understand. He bowed before the fat man deeply, thinking him the great Lord Governor himself; and men by the roadside laughed and mocked him. So that he fought them, and came out of his second conflict very valiantly, with a closed eye and a lip badly cut.
And so, in the fulness of time, he came to the last day of his journey.
It was a gray day, touched with the smoky breath of Autumn, with all the country veiled in softest haze. It was very early morning, and few people were upon the road, although since the first light of dawn men had been working in field and forest. From a farmhouse off the road came the crowing of a cock and the creak of a cumbrous handmill hidden in a thick copse near by. Nicanor, sitting by the roadside where he had slept, ate the food remaining overnight in his wallet, and rolled his sheepskin cloak into a bundle for his shoulders. Behind him, from the road, came a man's voice, suddenly, singing a rollicking drinking-song. The singer brought up beside Nicanor, a black-haired man in a soiled leather jerkin and cap of shining brass, with a matted beard and narrow eyes, and a great leaf-shaped sword swinging at his thigh. This one hailed him heartily, in a loud voice.
"Good youth, canst tell me where I am?"
"Why, yes," said Nicanor, proud to display his knowledge of the locality. "This be the street a Saxon man at Ad Fines named to me Eormen—"
"Ad Fines? Thirty miles from Londinium? Now I could have sworn that yesternight I was in Tripontium, thrice thirty miles from there. I was there yesterday—or maybe that time a week ago. 'Tis a small failing of mine to go where I do not mean to go, and know not how I get there, when the wine is in me. But this way will do, and now I am so far upon it, I may as well go farther."
He sat down beside Nicanor.
"Dost know of any lord would have a fine stout serving-man?" he said with a wheedle. "One who can carve, be it swine or human, skilled with sword or sling, who can drive a chariot, pair or single-span?"
"Not I," Nicanor answered. "I be a stranger in these parts."
"Bound for Londinium?" asked the black-haired man.
"Nay, for the Christian church of Saint Peter's, on Thorney which is called the Isle of Brambles," said Nicanor, without guile.
"Why, then, I'll go there too," the stranger said amiably. "For I am most devilishly lost, driven from town and camp, the first time sober in a week; and money I must gain, or starve. Eh, Bacchus! the women—the women!" He sighed, shaking his black head dolefully.
"What concern had they with it?" Nicanor wished to know. "Did they turn thee out from camp and town?"
"Ay, boy, turned me out and turned me inside out," said the black-haired man, and grinned. "Never a little copper ass have I left upon me. See, now, our paths lie in the same direction, since my path is any path. Shall we go together? For I swear I'll not get lost again. Behold me, Valerius, sometime of the Ninth Legion at Ratae, now, by the grace of God, of no legion at all. I have my tablet of discharge from service; a follower of fortune you see me, with my sword as long as the purse of him who hires it."
Nicanor, half shy, half pleased with his new acquaintance, told in turn his name and station.
"Thou and I will be good friends," the soldier said. "I love a lad of spirit, such as thou. I'll fight for thee and thou shalt steal for me. 'Tis a fair division of labor. Hear you how my tongue waggeth? For a week it hath been sleeping off the wine, and now that it be sober again, it runneth by itself. Come, friend, art ready?"
On the way Valerius talked irrepressibly, with many strange oaths and ejaculations, mixing his religions impartially. He told weird tales of life in camps and teeming cities, so that Nicanor's blood tingled, and he longed to go also and do these things of which he heard. The tales of Valerius did not always hang together, but Nicanor cared not at all for that. By and by Valerius took to asking questions, his tongue in his cheek at some of Nicanor's replies. In half an hour he had learned the boy's life, deeds, and ambitions, and had extracted a promise that Nicanor would get the worthy Tobias to provide him also with employment, preferably around the church, where would be fat pickings and little work. At noon they ate by the roadside with two kindly disposed merchants, and later continued on their way, meeting other folk, with whom Valerius passed the time of day.
So, toward sunset, they came with many others ahorse and afoot, to Thorney, the Isle of Brambles, at the foot of the road. And here Nicanor thought he had never seen anything so wonderful, and stood staring wide-eyed, while Valerius hummed his drinking-song and chewed a piece of metyl leaf, which turned his lips and teeth quite red.
For here the country broadened out into a great marsh, vast and spreading widely over the land, dotted with eyots, where birds flew low among the sedge. Away to west and east were low grim hills, with a sense of unending space and loneliness upon them. And at the foot of the street was the ford, crowded here with men,—soldiers and serfs and freedmen,—with horses and mules and heavy carts. Through the ford they all went splashing; and it was wide and shallow, marked out by stakes and with stepping-stones showing above the water. And beyond the ford, under the gray skies, was Thorney, the Bramble Isle, alive with a swarming throng of people. On the right of the island was Saint Peter's church, upon the spot where next Saint Peter's Abbey, and centuries later the great Westminster, would stand. It rose silent in a smother of confusion and a babel of noise of men shouting, and horses neighing, and the songs of boatmen on the Tamesis which bounded the southern end of the island. There was a temple of Apollo close beside it, for old gods and new dwelt side by side. To the ancient faith of their pagan fathers the aristocracy of Britain still held true; the new God was for slaves and humble folk, who had derived no benefits from the old creeds and were willing to try any which promised help. And old Rome had seen the rise and fall of many gods, for she was aged and very wise. Jupiter, best and greatest, Isis, Mithras, Astarte, Serapis—what was one more or less in her pantheon?
Around the church was a formless huddle of houses, thinning out and straggling at the water's edge; and fires were blazing here and there, and men were hurrying to set all in order for the night. For Thorney was a halting place where travellers from north and south and east and west rested a space and went their way,—a noisy, crowded place, where centred traffic for all Britain passing to and from Londinium, the great port, and the greater inland cities.
All of this Nicanor took in with delighted eyes. He ran down to the ford, dodging between pack-mules and jolting two-wheeled carts, and slipping eel-like past other pedestrians, forgetting Valerius, who hurried after. He strode from stone to stone, splashed by straining horses that tugged beside him, and sprang to shore upon the island. So he won to his journey's end.
"Now to find that good man Tobias," quoth Valerius, and shook his wet feet daintily, as a cat that has stepped by accident in a puddle. "He will give thee food and lodging, which thou wilt share with me—so? Knowest thou his house? Jesus, Lord! Did ever man see the like of the nest of houses? Hey, friend!" He laid a hand on the shoulder of one passing. "Canst tell us where dwells the worthy Tobias, worker in ivory to the Christian Church?"
"Nay, not I," the man said, and hurried on. Over his shoulder he called back: "Ask the good priest yonder."
Valerius doffed his brazen cap to this holy man. He, in frock of sober gray, with head shaven to the line of the ears, and worn, pale face, walked toward the church, his beads swinging by one finger. At Valerius's question he looked up.
"The house next the open space on the right," he answered; raised two fingers in benediction upon them, and went his way. Valerius and Nicanor betook themselves to the house appointed.
It was then that Nicanor began to realize that he wished himself alone. Valerius hung to his arm affectionately, and Nicanor was too shy to shake him off. He did not know what to do; wherefore he did nothing. The house next the open space was low, of stone and timber. It was evident that Tobias was well-to-do. Valerius pounded upon the door; the heavy shutter of a window swung open, and a man's head peered out. It was a pink head, very bald, with flabby cheeks, a full-moon face, and pursed lips, and the beaked Hebraic nose of his father's race.
"Who comes?" the man asked, and stared at them.
"Art thou Tobias, the ivory carver?" and the pink head nodded.
Then Nicanor said:
"From Rathumus and Susanna his wife I come, and I am Nicanor, their son, and would be prentice to thee."
"And Valerius, thy friend," whispered Valerius, plucking at his sleeve.
"And Valerius, my friend," said Nicanor, obediently.
"Why, holy saints!" Tobias said. "From Susanna—and would be prentice to me! Hold a minute till I let thee in."
His pink head disappeared and the shutter slammed. Soon the door was opened, and Tobias welcomed them to his house. And a very good house it was, for Tobias was wealthy. He called his slave, and she brought food and wine, and they sat at the trestled board on cross-legged stools and ate until they could eat no more. Then Tobias asked questions, and Nicanor told of his home and of his parents and of his mother's words, while Valerius, full-fed, dozed with his head on the table. And as Nicanor talked, Tobias watched him, for to save his life the boy could not open his mouth without a tale coming out of it; and when he had ended Tobias rose and kissed him on both cheeks, and said:
"Thou'lt stay with me, boy, and learn all that I can teach thee, until thou'rt master-workman. And thou shalt live with me, and be my son, for sake of her who is thy mother—and it is not my fault that thou art not my son in very truth. Marry, but thou hast a silver tongue in that shock head of thine. Now come to bed; thy friend here is snoring like an ox. And in the morning we'll begin work, and one of my lads shall tell thee what to do."
So they roused up Valerius and took him off to a room with one window and a bed. And here Valerius, slipping out of his baldric, pulled the blanket from the bed, flung himself, dressed as he was, upon the floor, and was instantly as one dead.
But Nicanor went to the window and opened the wooden shutter and leaned out. He heard the roar of the many camps, blending into one vast undercurrent of sound; he caught the red gleam of fires half hidden behind intervening houses; now and then a bellowed chorus reached him. Also there were sweet tinkling sounds, of a kind which he had never heard before, which thrilled him strangely. Sudden desire took him to be out in the midst of this new stirring life; to see the crowded places, the mingling of many men. Preparations for the night were going on, for it was dark by now, with high twinkling stars. He could see, by leaning far out, the moving glare of torches held high as belated wayfarers crossed the ford, the reflection of the lights dancing on the shallow waters. The fascination of it, this his first sight of Life, gripped him, not to be denied. He sprang to the ledge of the window, writhed himself through, and dropped to the ground outside.
Then, at once, he was in a new world,—a world of flickering flames and black dancing shadows, and strange sights and sounds, and restless figures passing always to and fro. And, quite dazed, he stumbled against one, not a rod from the house, who laughed, with a laughter which made him think of the tinkling music he had heard, and beckoned him, drawing him in the darkness. But Nicanor, thrilling through all the awakening soul and body of him, turned and ran, shy suddenly, but at what he did not know.
So he came to a fire burning in a ring of stones; and around the fire men were sitting, eating and drinking, and the light played on their faces. With them were women, at whom Nicanor stared agape. For they were very fair to look on, with jewel-bound hair and slumberous eyes, lithe as snakes, with bare shoulders and dress of strange clinging stuffs. These were dancing girls, being taken to the great inland cities for sale or hire. And near by, huddled close for warmth, were slaves,—men, women, and children, chained in long strings, on the way to be sold in Gaul. Here were fishermen, also, and boatmen, gathered by themselves, a noisy crew, with loud jokes which Nicanor heard and did not understand. All about him was a babel of voices and laughter, boisterous and profane; now and then an altercation, short and violent. It went to Nicanor's head like wine. Never had he known anything like it; life like this had passed his bleak northern home entirely by. He drew nearer the groups around the fire, drinking it all in greedily,—new sights, new sounds, new impressions. His face was flushed with excitement, his breath came short; so much he found to interest him that he stared bewildered, uncertain what to look at first. The smell of cooking food was in the air, mingled with the aromatic pungency of many fires of wood. Horn cups clashed; at intervals hoarse laughter drowned the shouts of teamsters and the creak and strain of wheels.
And suddenly, under the intoxication of it all, Nicanor found himself speaking in a new, fierce mood of exultation. What he was going to say he did not know; but his voice fell into the old measured chant, regular as the tramp of marching feet, which carried through all the tumult of sound around him. His heart beat hard, his hands clenched, but he flung back his head with eyes which glittered in the firelight. Those nearest looked on him in amazement, ready to scorn. Then they held silent, and listened. Others drew closer, to see what might be going on. More came, and more. Women left men's knees and joined the little crowd, smiling, then with parted lips of wonder. Nicanor neither saw nor heard them. For the first time in all his life he was carried beyond himself; in a physical ecstasy he spoke out that which clamored at his lips, caring nothing for his audience, unconscious of them utterly. And because that is the one thing which will grip men's minds and compel them, he held them spellbound, in spite of themselves,—until, abruptly, in a flash, he became conscious of himself, seeing himself, hearing himself. That moment he lost his hold of them. And he knew it, and stopped short. And for an instant there was silence.
Then a woman drew a long breath which was like a sigh, and a man muttered something into his beard. The spell snapped; and like a flood let loose their talk leaped at him. They shouted, "More!" They would know who he was, and whence he came, and he must finish the tale for them. But Nicanor shook his head, dumbly, with a new and strange emotion surging through him. He was frightened at himself, at his feeling, at what he had done. And back of his fear lay something deeper, something which he could not name,—half exultation, half truest awe, as though he stood in a presence mightier than he and knew himself for but the tool with which the work was wrought.
There came a woman, very wonderful, and hot as flame, and put into his hand a broad piece of silver, looking into his eyes. A man with a broken nose thrust a copper coin into his palm; others followed. For a moment he stood staring at the fire-lit faces around him like one foolish or in a trance, with his own face quite white. That he might receive money for his soul had never entered his head. Then he broke away from them all and ran—ran as though for his life—back to the house of Tobias, and clambered through the low window and flung himself upon the bed, laughing and sobbing and shaking, and clutching his coins in sweating hands.
For he had entered into his heritage at last, and the Future had become the Present.
The working-place of Master Tobias was a small room half underground, with three windows on a level with the street. Long boards on trestles were ranged upon three sides, leaving the centre free; these were much chipped and scarred, and black with oil and dirt. On these tables were small list-wheels for polishing, formed of circular thicknesses of woollen stuff clamped tightly between two wooden disks of smaller diameter which left a pliant edge of wool projecting, held firmly in wooden frames and turned by hand. There were trays of tools for carving and graving and scraping, and boxes of fine sand and of glass-parchment. In a corner was a grindstone; and the unclean floor was littered with sawdust and scrapings of bone. Here half a dozen men were working, in oil-stained aprons of leather. The wheels hummed continuously, with a steady droning; at intervals the great saw shrieked and grated; from the storeroom a boy brought long tusks ready for the first cutting.
Men have worked in ivory before ever history began, and of all known arts it is the most ancient and one of the most beautiful. And no two master-workmen have gone about it after precisely the same manner, but each has followed his own method of treating the bone, of cutting, which is a delicate business, of smoothing, and of polishing. At different ages widely differing means were employed to bring about the same effect. There were many curious things to be learned in the way of what and what not to do,—how to treat bone with boiling vinegar, and secret processes of rolling out ivory and joining it invisibly, for the making of larger pieces than could possibly be cut from any one tusk. Lost secrets, these, to us; and being lost, by many doubted as having ever been. These things Master Tobias had learned, many years before, from a workman of Byzantium, where the work was already famous, and far and away ahead of all. This man, dying, had left Master Tobias all he knew, and tools such as never otherwise could he have obtained. So that the fame of Master Tobias went abroad through the province; and he did much work in the way of tablets, diptychs, caskets, figures of gods and goddesses and of Christian saints. Many a carven comb and jewel-box found its way to some haughty Roman beauty's dressing-table, the work of Master Tobias's own fat hands. He found good markets for his wares, since Roman love of bijouterie was strong, and he had few competitors. It was not until the establishment of Saxon dominion that the art obtained a permanent foothold in Britain; and then it went back to its first crude beginnings, as did nearly all other things at that second conquest.
So behold Nicanor, bare-armed and in leathern apron, carrying tusks to and fro, cleaning them after their arrival from the merchants' hands, and giving them out to the workmen as required. Thus he came to learn the various shades of coloring; how to tell when bone was healthy and might be expected to take the cutting well, or when it would be apt to crack and split under the saw. Having come to know the differences in degree, he was put to checking off the lots as they arrived, according to kind and grade. Mammoth tusks of elephants, sometimes ten feet in length, weighing close on a hundred pounds, solid to within six inches of the tip; teeth and tusks of the wild boar, walrus-bone and whale-bone, used for coarser work and filling,—all these he must tell apart at a glance. For to the untrained, bone is bone.
This was light work, and left him time to watch what others did; whereby, quite unconsciously, he absorbed much useful knowledge, which was as Master Tobias intended. Then, being well acquainted with color and texture and grain, he was put to help with the big saw, coarse-toothed, worked by two men, and had to learn to cut his lengths to a fraction of an inch as required, with the least possible waste. This took him some time, for a bone is full of twists and turns which render it liable to be cut to pieces, so that much care is needful. So he went up, step by step, knowing well each detail before he undertook the next, until at last he began to work under Master Tobias's own eye. And then, for the first time, having acquired an insight into the art, was he able to appreciate the skill of the master-workman. And this is the way of all art from the beginning, and as it must be to the end, since only he who knows may understand.
In long course of time, when many months had gone, came the day when he brought forth his own first work, a crucifix, the fruit of his own labors, touched by no other hands from first to last. Himself he selected the tusk, flawless, finely grained; cut it to the block, shaped it, the upright of the cross, the arms, the rough outline of the Christ upon it. Then, bit by bit, cutting, cutting, cutting, the figure grew, with rounding outlines, and coherent features. The straining ribs,—for this effect he cut against the grain, in the way that Master Tobias had taught him,—the pierced hands and feet, the draped cloth about the loins; slowly it formed under his eager fingers. He smoothed it with glass-parchment, polished it on the list-wheel; in the end painted it, with red lips and crimson drops of blood and draping of richest purple. And he chose that Christian symbol solely because, out of all the subjects offered by Master Tobias, it presented fewest difficulties in the matter of draperies—greatest stumbling block to all novices. So it was finished, and became the pride of his life,—but not for what it was; only for that it was the work of his own hands. Had it been an offering to Apollo he would have loved it just as well. And when he had finished it, Master Tobias kissed him upon either cheek, even as he had done once before, and declared that he could die happy, for he should have a successor to keep his art alive.
But all this took much time; and meanwhile Nicanor was learning many things besides the art of carving.
When he was in the humor for it, Nicanor could work very well indeed, as he had shown. But more often than not he was sadly out of humor; and liked nothing so much as to slip away from the hum and drone of the wheels and the smell of bone and oil, and wander out of the quiet church precinct down to the busy life at the fords. Here was unending amusement; all day long he would watch the going and the coming, listen to the uproar of traffic, silent himself or mingling with the crowds.
Day after day narrow barges went up the Tamesis with the tide from the port of Londinium, deep-laden with wines and spices, silks, glass, candles, and rich stuffs from foreign lands; with lamps and statuary and paintings for the great Roman houses; with fruits and grain, vegetables, meats and poultry. And at the ebb came the barges down again, this time with wool and pelts, smelling villanously and tainting all the air as they went by. Here also was the river-ford, passable at low tide, marked out by stakes, and leading from the southern side of Thorney, opposite the marsh-ford, over to the mainland, where again the road began and stretched away to Londinium. Here the fisher-folk cast their nets for salmon in their season, for other fish in plenty the year round, shouting across to the bargemen passing up or down. These, besides the few priests and servants of Saint Peter's church, and the keepers of the inns, were the only ones who lived upon the Bramble Isle. All others came and went, and never stayed save for a night.
Day after day came craftsmen, traders of all kinds, merchants with bundles of hides on pack-horses to be shipped at Dubrae; mimes, actors, musicians, jugglers. Crested-helmeted cohorts, with glancing shields and bristling spears, splashed through the fords on their way south, stern dark-faced men from many nations. Long strings of slaves, who then as later formed so large a part of Britain's export trade, were marched with clanking chains along the highways. Always was color, life, movement, the clamor of voices, the rumble of wheels; a constant stir, ceaseless, pulsing, feverish.
It was small wonder, then, that Nicanor, alive in every fibre of his eager being, thirsting for adventure, should escape from the workshop's confinement as often as might be, to watch and wonder at the passing show. Also it was small wonder that Master Tobias did not like such rovings of his pupil, and openly disapproved. With reason he argued that if a man would make his work worth while he must stick to his bench and tools. But Nicanor, at such times, cared little whether or not he made that work worth while. At his bench he was restless, fretting to be gone. Only outside, amid hurrying men and the confusion of arrival and departure, was he at peace, entirely happy and content. And this was but natural, since young dogs strain always at the leash, and as his fate had written. But this, Master Tobias, bound heart and soul to his beloved task, could not understand.
Being both fiery, they clashed often, when dire confusion followed. Upon these occasions, Master Tobias, purple with wrath, brandished his burin and raved. Nicanor was an ingrate; Nicanor was a fool and a good-for-naught, who deserved everlasting punishment and would surely get it. And Nicanor, white-hot within and silent,—two years before he would have screamed with rage like any other infuriate young wild thing,—laid aside his tools and left the work-room, his head in air, his jaws set like steel to a thin smile, his wrath blazing all the fiercer for being dumb. Not until he found himself with a circle of gaping faces around him, hanging on his words, would his anger cool and his world right itself to normal. Then, his steam worked off, himself peaceful and serene, he would return to the house for supper, meet Master Tobias's menacing growls with demure politeness, and forthwith charm him into abject surrender with diabolical art. So peace would be restored, with the combatants firmer friends than ever—until the spirit within him moved Nicanor once more. And yet,—for this is as it always happens,—each fresh quarrel was fiercer than the one before.
It was after one of these passages-at-arms that Nicanor, losing his temper completely, spoke to Master Tobias as he had never dared speak before. And then, foolishly bound to keep the last word, strode off in a fume, out of the church grounds, through the huddle of houses and crowd of passing folk, whose clamor put him yet more out of sorts, and down to the river-ford. Here he paused, kicking up the earth with the toe of his laced leather shoe, in a very evil temper, wanting only something to vent his spleen upon. And standing thus, he heard all at once an outcry behind him, and wheeled, and saw a thing which made him forget his grievance and consider that after all he was more lucky in his lot than some.
At first he saw only a crowd of men and boys, who jeered and hooted. This was a sight not new; but in their midst he caught a glimpse of a crested helmet and the black cloak of a slave-driver. And then the crowd parted, and Nicanor saw a girl, a lean wisp of a thing, with burning eyes and a gray face framed in straight black hair, with chained wrists and a ragged frock which slipped aside to show a long red welt across her brown shoulders. The slave-driver held the end of the chain, his heavy whip tucked beneath one arm,—a squat man with a black and brutal face and small hard eyes. He was appraising the girl's good points glibly, as though of a mare to be sold,—her working strength, present perfections, future possibilities. The soldier, wax tablets and stylus in hand, his back half turned to Nicanor, made notes of what he said, at intervals throwing in a comment or a question.
"From the north, you say?"
"Ay, lord, born of a Roman soldier and a British wench. A good investment, noble sir, and the price but small,—only five-and-fifty sestertii,—and that because I give thanks to be rid of her."
"Hath she spirit, fire? I want not a puny, slinking chit."
"Spirit—fire!" the man repeated with a curse. "If that be what you wish, lord, it is here in very flesh. This young she-devil hath given me as much trouble as three men."
The soldier fumbled for his pouch and counted money into the dealer's hand. The latter counted it again, spat upon it for luck, made his mark in the Roman's book, and unchained the girl's wrists.
The Roman laid a hand on the shoulder of his bargain.
"Come, pretty one!" said he, and turned, so that for the first time his face was to be seen. "Thou'lt get no more blows nor curses, if so be thou'lt do thy duty well."
Leering, he drew her forward. Nicanor cast a glance upon him, and started, and hailed him. For the Roman was Valerius, the errant one; and what he wanted with a slave girl who had no beauty, and where he got her price, was more than Nicanor could tell.
Valerius, still with a hand on the girl's shoulder, grinned at him, and said:
"Why, now, friend, 'tis a very good day that brings thee to my sight. Not since I was repairer of sandals to the good fathers—thanks to thee—have I seen thee, though I hunted the place over for thee, and mourned right tenderly when I found thee not. And that was near a year ago."
And always, though his speech was pleasant, as he spoke he moved away, sidling, with a certain stealthiness, a glinting of his narrow eyes from side to side. Nicanor became interested, and followed a pace. The girl stared at him with desperate dumb eyes.
"Thou hast made a good purchase," he said carelessly, and thought that for an instant the other showed his teeth.
"Not for myself!" Valerius said humbly. Whether it suited him, for motives of his own, to play the worthy poor man, Nicanor could not tell. "I but act on behalf of my lord Eudemius, of the great white villa off the Noviomagus road, this side of Londinium—hey, now! by all the furies, what is this?"
For the gray-faced girl, with hunted eyes, flung herself suddenly from his hand, crying in a hoarse croak of a voice:
"Not for him! Not for the lord Eudemius, the Torturer! I am not bought for him!"
Again Nicanor found himself staring, for there was fear and anguish in her voice such as he had never heard in human tones. And as they looked at her in amazement, she rocked from side to side, sobbing without tears, and whispering keenly:
"Not for him! Ah, dear Christ in heaven! not for him!"
"And why not?" Valerius demanded. "What hast thou against him that his name sends thee squealing—"
"What against him?" the girl said fiercely. "He tortures—he mutilates—he strips flesh from living bones, and laughs! Let a slave raise an eyelid in his presence, and he were better dead. Ay, I know—I know! I will not go to him! I will drown—choke—hang myself first!"
She glared around her as though to seek deliverance where none was. Valerius shook her roughly by the arm.
"Thou'lt come with me and hush thy whining!"
They had reached a lane between the houses, unpaved, trampled hard and uneven by many feet. This lane was known then as the Street of the Black Dog; and it ended abruptly at the low stone wall which here marked the boundary of Saint Peter's land. By the wall, at the head of the street, was one of the rude stone crosses which were raised at intervals around the walls and at every gate therein. This was forty or fifty yards ahead of them as they stood. As Valerius touched the girl she sprang away from him and fled forward up the street, with head thrown back and torn rags fluttering and her black hair streaming behind her in a cloud. Valerius shouted and plunged after her, a hand outstretched with clutching fingers. And after them went Nicanor, his eyes alight with the lust of the chase, the fierce joy of the hunting, old as mankind itself. As Valerius snatched at a rag on the girl's shoulder, he gave a sharp yelp of triumph, as a hound yells when its leash-mate has nipped the fox. But the rag tore away as the girl struggled free. She reached the head of the street, a flying figure of terror, with the black-browed Roman at her heels and Nicanor racing alongside; staggered, recovered, stumbled again even as he touched her, and fell forward at the foot of the stone cross, with a sob like that of a horse ridden to the death, clasping the column with both hands and crying:
"I claim sanctuary! I claim sanctuary!"
Then her head fell forward on her outflung arms, and she lay with thin shoulders heaving to her fighting breath, and her face hidden in her tangled mane. Valerius stopped, almost in his stride, all but overrunning her, so close upon her had he been. He shook his balled fist and cursed her, glaring down upon her, not daring to touch so much as a strand of hair. For she was in the shelter of holy Church; and few men were bold enough to violate that terrible, wonderful Law of Sanctuary which even then was beginning to be dreaded and respected, and which high and low might claim alike. So that Valerius walked in half-circles about her, like a baffled beast which sees its prey torn from its very jaws; and she lay and shuddered, and Nicanor stood watching with avid eyes. For as yet he was only a very primitive young animal, with the instinct of his kind to join with the hunter against the hunted. People began to gather, quickly, clamoring with question and theory; and upon these Valerius scowled, biting his nails in fury. The girl raised herself, crouching close beneath the cross, and looked around her like a trapped thing, crying:
"A priest! Is there no Christian priest here who will tell this man that I be safe from him in sanctuary?"
Valerius pulled Nicanor to him.
"Go thou and find one," he said harshly; "for while she sticketh to this cross I dare not lay finger upon her lest I be torn limb from limb by fools. He can but give her up; for she is bought and paid for, and it is not hers to say whether she finds her master to her liking. And quick with thee, that I may get her where she cannot fly again."
So Nicanor went swiftly through the nearest gate into the yard of the church, and looked about him for a priest. And it seemed to him that the more hasty grew his search, the less was it rewarded, for he was in a desperate hurry to get back and see what followed. Presently, ahead of him, he saw a priest, whom he knew as Father Ambrose, and he ran to him, shouting:
"Holy Father, a slave hath claimed sanctuary at the cross by the Street of the Black Dog, and asketh for a priest to confirm her right."
The good Father kilted up his gown, and together they ran through the nearest byway to that street. And then, quite suddenly, as they reached the end of it, Nicanor felt with a shock that he must have mistaken the place. For although the cross was there, and the wall, and the street was the Street of the Black Dog, yet there was no sign of the girl, nor of Valerius, nor of any of those who had gathered to look on. So that Nicanor turned to Father Ambrose with a face of pure fright, and stammered:
"But I left them here, upon this spot! Or else I am sure bewitched!"
He looked to right and left and back to Father Ambrose. Father Ambrose shook his head and said passively:
"It may be that they have arranged the matter among themselves. Let us return."
He walked off, placid and unstirred; and Nicanor touched the cross to make sure that it was real and no delusion, and looked into the sky and around upon the clustered houses, and spoke no word at all. But he knew quite surely that the matter had not been arranged.
THE GARDEN OF DREAMS
THE GARDEN OF DREAMS
The years went on,—misty Springs, golden Summers, flaming Autumns, Winters stark and chill, leaving each its tale on the unrolling scroll of time. For in those years the consul departed from Britain with his forces, and the cities ruled themselves, each in a state of feudal independence, now warring amongst themselves, now making common cause against their common foes.
Were history to write itself more often with a view to cumulative dramatic effect, there would be small need for the romance of imagination. One would have history a tale, of swift climax and excitement, when it is in fact a scattered medley—a battle here, a bit of statecraft there; here a burning Rome, yonder a new God; and between these the commonplace round of human life and toil and death, the inevitable dead level of the tale. It is because of the long lapses between cause and effect, the revolutions slow and of secret tardy growth instead of by fire and sword, that men turn to Imagination to bridge the gap. Events, grand and stirring, woven, one believes, into the very fabric of history, are proved to be the pleasant tale of some ancient ardent romancer, with an eye for dramatic effect. And often it is the bit choicest and most intimate of detail, binding the chronicle into a dramatic whole, which the iron pick of Research digs from the heap of bones, and wise men say: "That brilliant hero never lived; this great battle was but a skirmish; some old monk wrote that—it never happened." Many a glowing jewel, cherished tenderly and shining bravely through the dust of ages, has turned, in the white light of knowledge, to worthless glass. So do the old gods perish.
Thus came the chronicle of Saxon conquest down to us,—a brave and lusty tale, scarred with battles, written in blood, picturing a horde of savage foe-men that swarmed over the Walls and swept through a blood-drenched land. In fact and deed, it was a conquest of absorption rather than extermination, dramatic only in its vast significance; a gradual amalgamation of two forces, in which the stronger, cleaner Norse blood triumphed over worn-out and depleted Roman stock. As weeds, rank and sturdy, overrun a garden, choking out other plants, so in Britain, Saxon life overgrew Roman life, inch by inch, almost imperceptibly. The conquest was by no means bloodless. Towns were sacked and men were slain; here was an explosion, there an outbreak of lawlessness; but for the most part the change was wrought with deadly slowness and a sureness which nothing could check.
In these years Nicanor grew tall and strong and long of limb, and his voice ceased to play him false with strange pipings which had filled him with wrath and dire dismay. He learned to use eyes and ears as well as tongue; he worshipped at the altars of strange gods, and laughed at them. He lived from day to day as the birds live, picking up a crumb here and yonder. In the workshop he spent as little time as might be, restless, not content with what he had, ever eager for that which he had not, devoured by the curiosity which would lay hands on the strange throbbing thing called Life, and probe its inmost hidden meaning.
And as time went on, the unrest deepened which possessed him. He was unhappy, and he could not tell why. He wanted something, and he knew not what. His shyness developed into fierce aggressiveness, unreasonable, alarming. He prowled continually among the camps, sullen and quarrelsome, vaguely miserable, and blaming his misery upon all the world. He took to spending much time, with small profit to himself, among the chained gangs of slaves, where were cruel sounds and crueller sights. At the hiss and cut of the lash on bared backs and thighs he thrilled with savage exultation; he took morbid delight in the sight of pain inflicted; and this he could not at all understand. At this season his tales were all of war and blood and violence, of treachery and despair. When night came he slept fitfully or not at all, with uneasy half-formed dreams. And in these dreams he was always searching for a thing which had no name, starting over the river-ford upon the high southern bank, ending nowhere under gray skies and desolation. He neglected his carving, waged bloody battles with his fellow workmen, bullied Master Tobias like any slave-driver. Lonely and shy and sullen, he fought through his crisis by himself, not knowing that it was a crisis, nor why it had come upon him.
No one took the trouble to help him; he would not have thanked them if they had. Outwardly he was taller, more gaunt, with a certain rough virility which impressed. Men knew that he was savage, and baited him even while they feared him; himself only knew that he was miserable,—more miserable, because he could not understand why he should be so at all. He lived the wild life of the camps, drinking, brawling, making fierce love with a vague notion that this was what he wanted, ever finding the fruit of desire change to ashes in his mouth. Always the power within him grew; and always he despised those upon whom he wrought his magic. For it was nothing to master these, to do with them as he willed; all his art was lost upon them since they could not understand.
He was then at work with Master Tobias upon a book-cover for the gospels, which was for Saint Peter's, and very much interested he was and pleased with his share in it. In the morning he went to work right willingly, with no thought other than to do as best he might with all his skill. So he got his tools, and the oil and glass-paper for the first polishing, and, Master Tobias not having yet appeared, started to go on himself with the bit of scroll he had begun the day before. Seeing it with fresh eyes after a lapse of hours, it struck him that a change might be made in one place with much advantage from the design which they had planned. So he made the change, and was still more pleased. When Master Tobias entered, Nicanor pointed to what he had done, and said:
"Is not this a better way, good sir? That corner needs balancing, and it is in my mind that the design should work up this way—" he illustrated with his burin—"and so bring into harmony—"
And then it was that the unexpected happened. For Master Tobias rose from his stool and stood over him, and said:
"Hast thou changed the design I made?"
Nicanor replied that he had, and wished to show the advantage of his new idea. But Master Tobias struck his hand aside, and shrill with rage, exclaimed:
"Thou good-for-nothing clod! Thou hast spoiled the work with thy clumsy handling! Why canst not leave alone what thou dost not understand? Who gave permission to change? Body of me! Must I stand over thee every hour in the day and switch thy hands for disobedience?"
"But it is not spoiled!" Nicanor protested with indignation.
Master Tobias stormed.
"I say it is! I say it is, and must be smoothed out and changed. And thou'lt stay within and do it, until all is as it was before. I'll show thee my designs are not to be altered thus unwarrantably!"
And herein he made a mistake. For when he said "Thou shalt!" Nicanor's impulse was "I will not!" and as yet he acted upon impulse. Master Tobias could have flogged him if he wished; Nicanor cared not a rap for flogging. He rose in open rebellion and pushed away his stool.
"Not I!" he said. "The design is false, and I will not put into my work what is not as it should be!"
He turned and marched out of the room—leaving Master Tobias dumb with astonishment and rage—surly and savage and very bitter, with his hand against every man because he thought that every man's hand was against him.
And then, quite suddenly, there swept over him the fierce, insistent longing for change which wrestles with every man at some time or other in his life; the hot desire to fling himself out of the rut into which that life inevitably must settle, to encounter anything, good or bad, so long as it brought a change. And because he was still too young to see that this is the very one thing which may not be; the one thing of which Fate says: "Come and go, and plan as ye will, but remember that I hold the leading-strings; for my name men call Circumstance, and my law is that man shall do not what he will, but what he must,"—because as yet he could not see this, he left Thorney that day for Londinium, saying no word of his grievance to any man, with his bundle tied to a stick upon his shoulder.
It was on the road to Londinium that he overtook one journeying in the same direction, who kept pace with him persistently, let him go fast or slow. This was a venerable man, with a long beard of white, and wise, all-seeing eyes that smiled and smiled beneath the penthouse of his brows. Nicanor came to hate him vindictively, with no reason at all, as he hated all the world just then.
Nicanor stopped at evening by the roadside, and sat down to eat the food he had brought with him. And this ancient man stopped also, and sat upon a stone near by, and watched him. Nicanor, with meat and black bread in his hands, glanced up, ready to scowl, and met the old man's eyes, smiling at him. It was so long since any man had done other than revile him—since one's own mood will reflect itself like an image in clear water upon the minds of those around one—that Nicanor was surprised into smiling back, uncertainly, it is true, but still smiling. Then it was as though a bit of that outer crust of moroseness melted, and left something of his old boyish shyness in its place. Without stopping in the least to think why he did it, he broke the bread and meat into two portions, and held out one, in silence, awkwardly, as a child who does not know whether his gift will be accepted or cast upon the ground.
Now if that old man, perhaps not understanding, had not taken what he offered, turning from him then, it must surely have been that Nicanor would have shrugged his shoulders, and flung the food upon the road, and shut up once more within his shell of surliness, with his opinion of mankind fully justified in his own mind. But whether he wanted it or not, the old man took his gift, with eyes grave yet always smiling upon his lowering, half-shamed face, and said in a voice like a deep-toned bell, so clear was it and vibrant:
"I thank thee, my son."
He ate the food, slowly; and Nicanor watched him slyly, as he ate his own supper, fancying himself vastly indifferent to all ancient smiling strangers. But deep down in his rough shy heart he was pleased for that he had succeeded in not turning another soul away from him—so small a thing has power to change the balance sometimes; and when the old man spoke he did not wish to repulse him, as often. The stranger said, quite as though he had a right to know:
"Son, art sure that it will be well for thee to go to Londinium? Is what thou seekest there?"
Nicanor answered with immense surprise:
"I seek nothing."
"So?" the old man said, and smiled. "Now I thought that surely thou wert seeking something, and very near to black despair because thou hadst not found it."
And at once, like an echo from another world, there came to Nicanor the memory of a time when he had wandered seeking for something which he could not name, upon the downs, under gray skies and desolation. And he did not know if this had really happened or had been but a dream. But he began to think the old man very strange and rather to be feared. He said:
"Old man, how may you tell that I seek for what I cannot find; and why would it be not well for me in Londinium?"
The old man's face changed then, so that for an instant Nicanor was frightened. For into it there came a high far look of utter peace, such as the face of a holy saint who has suffered all might wear, if he awakened. And while Nicanor stared, not knowing what to think about it, the old man said gently:
"Son, I may tell by right of having known myself what thou art knowing now. For the faces of men are as an open scroll to those who have learned to read what is writ therein, and thy story is upon thee very clear. Thou art in a world of thine own creation, but this world of men hath also claims upon thee, which thou canst not ignore. And I say to thee, go again to that place which thou hast left, for to find what thou art seeking, one need not go afield. And when thou hast found that thing, which is in this world of men, seek thou sanctuary, which is holy love."
Nicanor said: "I do not understand! What hath love to do with it?"—and told of the love that he had seen, which was all he knew. The old man listened, with unchanging eyes upon him, and said:
"Now truly I see thou dost not understand. This be not love, but a blast of furnace heat which scorcheth. But some time thou wilt come to understand the meaning of my words, and then shalt thou find sanctuary and peace. Ay, peace—that is what men cry for in the dark days that are passing; and they shall seek refuge and find none, and the bitterness of death shall be upon them. For it shall be said even as by the prophet of Babylon, mother of old evil—'Rome the Mighty is fallen—is fallen!'"
He swayed gently as he sat, with hands uplifted and eyes no longer smiling; and to Nicanor's eyes his long white beard and hair were as a mist of silver around his head.
"Thou also shalt pass through the Valley, for the Black Dog of trouble is upon thee; and thou shalt work out thine own unhappiness and thine own salvation. For thy way is the way of loneliness, and of misunderstanding, and of the Cross. And this is as it must be, since the price of heart's blood and heart's desire is pain, and for what thou gainest, thou must pay the price."
He ceased, and his hands fell to his sides and his white head drooped. He leaned to Nicanor, groping, old, and suddenly very feeble, and whispered:
"Son of men, I too have trod the path which thou art treading now. And I say to thee, seek thou sanctuary while yet there may be time, for no man knoweth what the end shall be. And when thou art entered in, all else on earth shall matter nothing, for thou shalt be at peace. This I know, O Youth, and tell thee, for—I did not enter in."
He rose and laid a withered hand on Nicanor's bent, shaggy head.
"Unto each his own appointed work, and his own appointed fate, and the reward which he hath merited. Now peace be with thee!"
He turned away and passed onward into the falling night.
Thereafter the world unrolled itself between them, for they never met again.
Wrapped in his cloak, Nicanor lay and stared at the stars above him, and pondered those things which he had heard. And, because again he could not understand, he put upon them his own interpretation. But he at once began to make a tale about that old man, with his silver beard and his smiling eyes; and so he fell asleep, thinking that that was all there was in it.
When he awoke at break of dawn, he was inclined to think the whole a dream. But there was a new and softer mood upon him, greatly surprising to himself, and the black soul within him was tamed and stilled. So, in blindly superstitious obedience to the word of the strange old man, he turned his face away from Londinium and all that he longed to find there, back toward the life which was his, and the work which was his, and the Isle of Brambles in the fords.
And so came Fate, hard following on his heels.
For out of the gray mists of morning came soldiers, six or eight, with ring of weapons and shuffling thud of feet; and with them was a centurion in command. These overtook Nicanor where he went slowly back toward Thorney; and the centurion laid a rough hand upon him and bade him halt. Nicanor turned; but before he could ask angrily why they had stopped him, his wrists were fast in handcuffs and he was a prisoner in chains. He turned upon the centurion.
"Now what is this? I have done no wrong. I demand release!"
"Demand if it please thee," the soldier said. "But in truth I think thee something more than fool to let thyself be thus caught doddering by the way. To escape once, and baffle all the great lord Eudemius's searchers, and then be stumbled upon like any sheep—faugh! I expected better things of thee!"
"Now have I naught at all to do with the lord Eudemius!" said Nicanor. He explained, carefully, who he was, and whence he came and to whom he belonged, and they turned a deaf ear to him. He was the man they sought, even the slave of Eudemius, escaped three days ago, with a reward out for his capture. This last explained it, but that Nicanor could not know. They insisted that they were in the right; all he could say and do would not convince them otherwise.