THE PROUD PRINCE
JUSTIN HUNTLY McCARTHY
AUTHOR OF "MARJORIE" "IF I WERE KING" ETC.
NEW YORK R. H. RUSSELL 1903
Copyright, 1903, by HARPER & BROTHERS.
All rights reserved.
Published October, 1903.
E. H. SOTHERN
I. FAIR MAID AND FOUL FOOL 1
II. THE COMING OF THE KING 28
III. ROBERT OF SICILY 46
IV. THE HUNTER 71
V. LYCABETTA 89
VI. THE ARCHANGEL 99
VII. DISCROWNED, DISHONORED 118
VIII. PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN 128
IX. THE LILY OF SICILY 150
X. THE TWO VOICES 164
XI. GLAMOUR 177
XII. IN SYRACUSE 194
XIII. THE CHURCH BY THE SEA 201
XIV. THE EXILES 213
XV. THE HUNTER'S VOICE 223
XVI. THE CALL OF THE BELL 232
XVII. IN THE ARENA 247
XVIII. ORDEAL OF BATTLE 264
XIX. ROBERT THE RIGHTEOUS 271
"'I LOVE THE MAN'" Frontispiece
PERPETUA AND DIOGENES THE FOOL Facing p. 14
PERPETUA " 36
KING ROBERT OF SICILY " 50
"ROBERT CAUGHT HER OUTSTRETCHED HANDS" " 78
"'I AM ROBERT OF SICILY'" " 86
"PERPETUA MOVED SLOWLY TOWARDS HIM" " 180
"ROBERT, SWINGING THE CROSS, WITH ONE BLOW BEAT HIM TO THE GROUND" " 244
THE PROUD PRINCE
FAIR MAID AND FOUL FOOL
The girl stood on the summit of the hill looking down the white highway that stretched to Syracuse. The morning sun shone hotly; sky and sea and earth seemed to kindle and quicken in the ecstasy of heat, setting free spirits of air and earth and water, towards whom the girl's spirit stirred in sympathy. All about her beauty flamed luxuriant. At her feet the secrets of the world were written in wild flowers, the wild flowers of Sicily, which redeem the honor of the wellnigh flowerless land of Greece. All about her the ground flushed with such color as never yet was woven on a Persian loom or blended in a wizard's diadem. The gold and silver of great daisies gleamed in the grass; pimpernel blue and red, mallow red and white, yellow spurge and green mignonette, blue borage and pink asphodel and parti-colored convolvulus, snap-dragon and marigold, violet and dandelion, and that crimson flower which shepherds call Pig's Face and poets call Beard of Jove for its golden change in autumn—all these and a thousand other children of the spring lay at the girl's feet and carpeted her kingdom. But the girl was more beautiful than all the flowers.
The spot where the girl stood was as fair a spot as any in Sicily. Behind her on the fringe of the thick mountain pine-wood the blue tiled dome of a Saracenic mosque glowed like a great turquoise in the midst of the amber-tinted pillars of a ruined Grecian temple. In front of her, on a little hill, stood the beautiful Norman church that Robert the King had erected there on the highest point of his kingdom in gratitude for his son's recovery from sickness, a miracle of austere strength and comeliness, with its great bronze image in a niche by the door of the Archangel Michael, all armored, with his hands resting on the hilt of his drawn sword. Below her lay all the splendor of Syracuse, the island town, the smiling bay where the Athenian galleys had been snared more than fifteen hundred years before, the quarries where the flower of Athenian chivalry had died its dreadful death, the sapphire sea that sang its secrets to Theocritus. In all Sicily there was no lovelier spot, no fairer prospect. But the girl was more beautiful than the place whereon she stood or the sights on which she gazed.
If the spirit of Theocritus, coming from the fields where Virgil lingered unaware of Dante, could have revisited his much-loved Syracuse, the poet of Berenice would have found that the island of Aphrodite still bore women worthy of the goddess. The girl was tall and straight and slim; health and youth gave their warm color to her cheeks; the old Greek beauty reigned in her face, but her blue eyes shone with the brightness of Oriental stars. Her red hair, wine red, blood red, framed her face with amazing color. Something of the composition of the woodland entered into the hues of the garments she wore, the simple garments of a country girl, but shaped of stuffs that were dyed warm reds and browns, the red of forest fires, the brown of forest trees. It seemed as if the child, conscious of the strange loveliness of her red hair, sought to harmonize her very habit to its fierce assertion. Yet there was no fierceness in the face that the red hair crowned so radiantly. If it carried the Grecian beauty, it carried also the Grecian calm, the noble repose of the Grecian image that once had stood in the splendid temple whose ruined pillars now girdled ironically the ruined Moslem mosque. Two civilizations had withered in Sicily to afford a shelter for Perpetua, the daughter of Theron, the executioner of Syracuse.
Perpetua, daughter of Theron the executioner of Syracuse, waiting for the coming of Theron the executioner, looked with calm eyes upon Syracuse, upon the distant city of which she knew no more in all her eighteen years of life than that same distant vision, a jewel city lying in orchards at her feet. She had no desire to know more of it; her father wished that she should know no more of it, and she was content, for Theron the executioner was the wisest man in the world, wiser than the few priests who tended the chapel on the hill, wiser than the few country folk who sometimes climbed to those heights and seemed to fear the executioner and the executioner's hut and the executioner's daughter, the white girl with the hair that was red as blood. These were all the men she knew; these made the world, the outer world, for her. Her real world was where her father was with his tales of gods and heroes, and his ancient songs and his great sword. It was her task, self-chosen and rich in pride, to tend the great sword, to keep it stainless, to sharpen its edge on the grindstone while she sang the Song of the Sword, and the sparks flew and the great sword seemed to gleam with an answering fervor. But never in all the days of her young life had blood to be washed from the sword. For Sicily smiled under the sway of King Robert the Good, who had no need for executioners.
But the father went sometimes into the city, where the girl never went, and then the hours seemed long to the girl, and she often came to the edge of the mountain and gazed down the white ribbon of winding road for the earliest glimpse of the dear, familiar figure, toilsomely ascending. To-day the hours seemed longer than ever, for there was the shadow of a secret over the child's soul, and she sighed for her father's presence, that she might tell him the secret and be free of it, though she knew very well in her heart that when her father was by her side she would still stifle her secret. A little secret, indeed, a laughable secret, for those down there in Syracuse, at the foot of the mountain, who took the world for what it was, but a great one to the soul of a girl who had lived all her life on the top of a mountain in a dwelling whose roof was the crest of a Moslem mosque, and whose garden palings were the pillars of a temple of Aphrodite; a girl who took the world for what it was not and for what it could never be.
The white road was as empty as a noon-day dream; its whiteness only troubled by one moving object, as noon-day dreams are often troubled by one persistent, inappreciable idea. But the girl had eyes as keen as a mountain-eagle, and she knew that, whoever the climber was, the climber was not her father. Then she sighed a little sigh and turned and entered her dwelling and drew the door behind her, and the mountain-top was lonely for a time. Only for a time. Up the hill came a fantastical fellow, alternately singing and sighing, for it seemed that the fierce heat vexed him despite of his melody. He was a strange ape, tall and lean and withered, with a wry shoulder like a gibbous moon and a wry leg like a stricken tree, and his face was as the face of a goblin, with a long, peaked nose, and loose, protruding lips, traitors to the few and evil teeth that interwalled his livid gums, and his ears stood out like bats' wings from his yellow, wrinkled cheeks. He was visibly punished by his journey; the sweat streamed from his leather and under his puckered eyelids his eyes flamed imprecations. His grotesque body was enveloped in yet more grotesque apparel—the piebald of the buffoon, the mottled livery of the chartered mountebank. There was a slender collar of gold about his neck, on which those that were near enough to him and had quick sight might read in plain terms that he was a royal fool, one of those jesters whom the great loved to tend to their beck, that they might ply them with mirth in hours that were mirthless. When the fantastical fellow had reached the summit he flung himself at once onto the nearest seat that one of the fallen columns afforded, and sat for a space gasping and puffing and spitting out blasphemies between every gasp and puff of his staggered anatomy.
When his wind came to him it took shape in a furious soliloquy, addressed to the vacant space about. "Devil take the day!" he grunted, pressing his hands to his lean sides as if he were trying to squeeze back the breath into his jaded body. "The sun rides as sky-high as the King's pride, and the air blazes as dog-hot as the King's choler. I have climbed the hill-side to spite him, and now am like to die of thirst to spite myself, unless I can find friends and flagons."
So he chattered to himself as if he were conversing with some familiar spirit or demon, and as he babbled his dull eyes stared around him stupidly, taking slow stock of unfamiliar objects. He grinned spitefully at the church and its great archangel and mouthed a lewd objurgation. Turning his back on the church, he leered at the pillars and the mosque contemptuously until it dimly dawned upon him that the ruin was now a place of human habitation. He rose with a groan of fatigue and hobbled towards it. "A church is no good," he muttered, "but hospitality may hide in that hovel. Knock and know." And having by this time arrived at the door of the dwelling, he proceeded to rain a succession of blows on it with his clinched fists, as if he were determined not to be denied, and, at worst, to force an entrance.
The fury of his call was soon answered. Perpetua flung back the door and faced the insistent fool.
"Is doom-crack at hand," she asked, quietly, as she eyed the strange figure before her, "that you hammer so hotly?"
The misshapen petitioner surrendered something of his malevolence to the beauty of the girl. He swept her a salutation that exaggerated courtliness, and there was a quality of apology in his voice as he spoke.
"I am sand dry as the ancient desert, and to be thirsty roughens my temper. Ply me tongue-high with wine and I will pipe for you blithely."
Perpetua shook her head, and her red locks gleamed and quivered with the motion like an aureole of flame.
"I have no wine," she said, gravely, "for my father denies its virtues. But there is a pitcher of milk within at your pleasure."
At the mention of the word milk the face of the petitioning fool, ugly enough when untroubled by crosses, took upon itself an expression so hideous that if the girl's spirit had ever permitted her to recoil from any terror she might have recoiled from that.
"Milk!" he yelped, and the sound of his voice was as ugly as the show of his face. "Milk! Gods of the Greeks! Milk! Your father is no less than a fool to favor such liquor."
The girl's red eyebrows knitted. "Unless you mend your manners," she said, decisively, "you shall go as thirsty as you came. You dare not speak so to my father's face."
The fool answered with a little crackling laugh, while the wide sweep of his withered fingers seemed at once to plead for forgiveness and to justify impertinence.
"Fair virgin of the heights and of the hollows," he cackled, "I would speak so to his face or to his foot or to any part of his honorable anatomy, for, you see, I am a fool myself, and may pass the crazy name without cuffing. Come, I will sip your white syrup to please you."
The girl shrugged her shoulders at the sudden condescension. "Please yourself. There is water, if you disdain milk."
The hunchback twisted his pliant features into a new and peculiarly repulsive form of protest.
"Even as there is the devil if you escape from the deep sea," he sneered. "I begin to lust after milk now."
The maiden looked at him for a moment, with a curious pity for his changing moods and his changeless deformity. Then she turned and entered her home, from which she emerged a moment later with a vessel of milk in one hand and a silver cup in the other. She filled the cup with milk and handed it to the fool, who took it from her fingers with an ill grace. His spiteful eyes grinned at the white fluid malignly, as if whatever it emblemed of purity, of simplicity, exasperated him. He leered up again at the girl with the same visible rage at her purity, her simplicity, and he made a little tilting motion with his fingers, as if the devil in him were minded to dash the milk in the maid's face. But her indifference defied him and the thirst tugged at his throat.
"Water is the drink of the wise," the girl said, steadily. "But milk is the wine of the gods."
She was saying words that her father often said, and for his sake they seemed very fair and very true, and she uttered them lovingly. To the fool they seemed the last frenzy of folly. But there was nothing better to drink, and his dryness yearned furiously. He lifted the cup to his lips and sipped with a wry face. Then he glanced up at the girl slyly.
"It were but courteous to drink my hostess's health, but I will not pledge your ripeness in so thin-spirited a tipple. Yet a malediction may cream on it, so here's damnation to the King."
And as he spoke he drank again, and seemed to drink with more gusto, but the girl frowned at his malevolence.
"The milk should be sour that is supped so sourly," she said.
The grimace on the twisted face deepened into a sneer as the fool handed back the empty cup, to be filled again.
"Mistress Red-head," he said, "if you knew the King as well as I know him you would damn him as deeply."
Perpetua's wide eyes watched the deformed thing with wonder. She thought he must, indeed, be mad to rail at the good King, so she answered him gently as she gave him back the full cup.
"I have lived on this hill-top all my life, and know little of the world of cities at the foot of the mountain. But whenever my father speaks of the King he calls him Robert the Good."
The fool shrugged his shoulders—an action that accentuated their deformity; and he chuckled awhile to himself, like a choking hen, while he peered maliciously at the maiden through narrowed slits of eyelids. When he had savored sufficiently whatever jest so moved him to ugly mirth he spoke again.
"Oh, ay—Robert the Good! But virtue is no medicine for mortality, so Robert the Good is dead and buried these six weeks, and Robert the Bad reigns in his stead, and again I drink to his happy damnation."
And again he drank the cool fluid, sucking it greedily from the cup ere he returned it to Perpetua.
The girl took it unconsciously. She had forgotten the fool in his phrase, in the name he gave to the King. Her springs had been sweetened by hearing of Robert the Good, of his gentleness, his justice, his mercy, of how men loved him in Sicily. She had taken it for granted that his golden reign would endure forever, and now she learned from these mocking lips that gentleness and justice and mercy were in the dust. "Robert the Bad," she murmured to herself, and the words made her shudder in the sun.
The fool leered at her as if he read her thoughts, and he laughed briskly.
"Angel of Arcady," he piped, "shall I tell you tales of the King to admonish your innocency?"
Perpetua's eyes and mind came back from the sky into which she had been staring. There might be a new king in Sicily, but she had her old work to do.
"I have my task to do," she answered. "But you can talk to me at my work, if you choose."
"What is your task?" questioned the fool, and the girl answered, simply:
"To serve my father's sword!"
She turned from her interrogator and entered her dwelling, passing between its fringe of columns, as slim and erect as they, while the fool gaped at her. In another moment she reappeared, carrying with her that which contrasted strangely enough with her sex, her beauty, and her youth. She bore in her strong hands, and bore with ease, a great two-handed sword—the two-handed sword of the executioner, her father—the two-handed sword that was the symbol of the stroke of justice in the eyes of all the world. With an air of pride the girl carried the great weapon, the pride of a child with its doll, of a mother with her infant, of a soldier with his flag.
At the sight of her the fool flung up his arms and emitted a queer, ropy gust of laughter.
"Oh, ho!" he gurgled, "oh, ho! I think I know you now. You are the daughter of Theron the executioner."
The girl looked straightly at him, her eyes shining under levelled brows. She let the point of the great sword rest on the grass, and she leaned upon its mighty cross-piece, resting her cheek against its handle. Her red hair ran in ripples over her shoulders and over the hilt of the blade, red as ever the blood the blade had caused to flow of old.
"I am the daughter of Theron the executioner," she said, gravely.
The monster flung a sneer from thrust-out lips, emphasizing it with thrust-out hands.
"A pretty trade!" he cried, derisively. The girl answered him as calmly and proudly as if she were the very divinity of justice rebuking some obscene brawler.
"I have no horror of my father's trade. This sword is but the red weapon of law, as law is the red weapon of life."
"I have heard of you," the man retorted, yelping at her serenity. "The wild, shy country people believe the blood that sword has shed flushes in your hair, and that the life it has taken rekindles in your eyes."
Perpetua shook her head.
"This sword has shed no blood since I was born. King Robert the Good had no need of it."
The deformed clasped his lean fingers across his knees and rocked to and fro in an ecstasy of pleasure.
"King Robert the Bad will have great need of it. Your father's arms shall ache with swinging. Why, my own head would drop to-morrow like a wind-fallen apple if I had not taken fool's leave to the heights and the hollows."
The girl drew back a little, still clinging to the sword.
"Are you blood-guilty?" she asked, sternly.
The fool laughed shrilly to see the executioner's daughter shrink from blood-guiltiness.
"Not I. I am but Diogenes, the Court Fool. I have been Prince Robert's plaything over yonder in Naples since the dawn of his evil spring. When his father's death brought him over-seas to Sicily, I must needs come too, for my wry wit diverts him and my wry body sets off his comeliness. I plumed myself on my favor, but I was bottle-brave last night, and I blundered. In my cups I aped the King's airs and graces to a covey of court strumpets till their sleek sides creaked with laughter. 'Thus does King Robert carry himself,' jigged I, 'and thus does he kiss a lady's hand—fa, la, la!' Oh, it was rare."
Even as he spoke Diogenes renewed his antics, skipping on the grass to mimic how the King skipped on the palace floor, and with his lean claws he blew kisses. Perpetua thought him more repulsive in his mirth than in his rage. But suddenly his mirth dropped and his voice fell to a whisper.
"And then the King caught me at my capers and his heart swelled like a wet sponge. He swore a great oath that my fool's head should be the first to fall under his tyranny."
The girl crossed herself in horror as she questioned.
"Surely, he would not kill a fool for his folly?"
The fool shrugged his shoulders; fear and malignity tugged at the muscles of his cheeks and made them twitch.
"The King's soul is as red as hell; sin scarlet through and through; warp and woof, there is no white thread of heaven in him. Shall I number you the beads in his chaplet of vices? The seven deadly devils wanton in his heart; his spirit is of an incredible lewdness; he is prouder than the Pope, more cruel than a mousing cat—all which I complacently forgave him till he touched at my top-knot, but now I hate him."
Again the girl crossed herself swiftly, while she looked at the puckered face with curiosity, with pity.
"Can you hate in God's sunshine?" she asked, and as she spoke she looked about her at the trees and the mountains and the sea and the grass and the flowers, ennobled and ennobling in the sunlight, and her heart ached at the new thoughts that had thrust themselves into her life. But the fool sneered at her surprise and did not heed her pity.
"My hate is a cold snake, and the sun will not thaw me." He struck himself fiercely on the breast and stared at her. "Look at me, humped and hideous. How could this rugged hull prove an argosy of ineffabilities?"
The pity deepened on the girl's face, scattering the curiosity, and she spoke gently, hopefully:
"I have sometimes picked a wrinkled, twisted pear and found it honey-sweet at the heart."
Even the callous fool felt the tenderness in Perpetua's voice, the tender pity of the strong spirit for the weak, the evil, the unhappy. He shook his head less angrily than before.
"I am no such bird-of-paradise," he sighed. "My mind is a crooked knife in a crooked sheath. When I was a child in my Italian village, trimly built, children laughed at me for my ugliness, for my hump, for my peaked chin and my limp, and I learned to curse other children as I learned to speak. Every hand, every tongue was against the hunchback, yet my shame saved me. For my gibbosities tickled the taste of a travelling mountebank. He bought me of my parents, who were willing enough to part with their monster; he trained me to his trade, taught me to sing foul songs and to dance foul dances. I have grinned and whistled through evil days and ways. My wit was gray with iniquities when Hildebrand, the King's minion, saw me one day at a fair in Naples and picked me out for jester to Prince Robert."
The head of Diogenes drooped upon his breast. He had not talked, he had not thought, of the past for long enough, and the memory vexed him. Perpetua propped the sword against the wall of her dwelling and stood with linked hands for a little while in silence, looking out over the sea. Then she turned again to where the fool crouched, and spoke to him softly.
"Are all court folk like you?"
Diogenes lifted his head, and the old malignity glittered in his eyes.
"Ay, in the souls; but for the most part they have smooth bodies."
He watched the girl closely while her eyes again sought the sea and came back and met the fool's gaze.
"Is the King like you?" she questioned.
The fool unhuddled himself and leaped to his feet, snapping his fingers in fantastic imprecation.
"My soul is as the soul of a sucking babe by his wicked soul; but, as for his body, the imperious gods who mock us have given him a most exquisite outside, the case of an angel masking a devil."
He raged into silence, but his mouth still worked hideously, as if his hate were fumbling for words it could not find. The girl gave a great sigh.
"I did not know there were such men in the world," she said. The fool stared at her in amaze.
"Then you must have seen few men," he grunted.
"I have seen few men," the girl answered, sadly—"my father, who is old, and the timid country folk, and the holy brothers of the church. Of men from the valley, from the city, I have seen but two—you and one other." She paused for a moment, thoughtfully, and then went on with a swell of exultation in her voice—"and that other was not like you."
The fool drew nearer to her, eagerly, apish curiosity goading him. "Who was my fellow?" he asked of the girl, who, with averted head, seemed as one who dreams waking. Dreamily she answered:
"One dewy morning a week ago I met a hunter in these happy woods." She closed her eyes for a moment as if the memory was sweet to her and she wished to shut it away from the staring fool.
"Humph!" said Diogenes. "In the days of Robert the Good men might not hunt in these forests."
Perpetua looked at Diogenes again with bright eyes of scorn.
"King Robert was gentle with beast as with man. But this hunter did not seem cruel. Like you, he was tired; like you, he was thirsty. I showed him where a spring of sweet water bubbled."
"What was his outer seeming?" Diogenes asked. Somewhat of a warmer color touched the girl's cheeks.
"My father has told me tales of the ancient heroes. I think he was blessed with all the comeliness and goodliness of the Golden Age."
Diogenes jeered at her enthusiasm with his voice, with his eyes, with every curve and angle of his misshapen frame—protesting against praise of beauty.
"Did he pilfer your silly heart from your soft body?" he asked. Perpetua answered him mildly, heedless of the sneering speech.
"He spoke me fair. He was grave and courteous. I know he was brave and good." She moved a little away, with her hands clasped, speaking rather to herself, but indifferent to the presence of the fool. "When God wishes me to mate, God grant that I love such a man."
The frankness, the simplicity, the purity of this prayer seemed to sting Diogenes to a fierce irritation. Leering and lolling, he advanced upon the girl.
"Did he kiss you upon the mouth?" he whispered, mean insinuation lighting his face with an ignoble joy.
The girl turned upon him swiftly, and there was a sternness in her face that made the fool recoil involuntarily and wince as if at a coming blow. But there was little anger in the girl's clear speech as she condemned the unclean thing.
"You have a vile mind," she said, quietly. "And if I did not pity you very greatly I should change no words with you."
Diogenes, nothing dashed by her reproof, neared her in a dancing manner, smiling as some ancient satyr may have smiled at the sight of some shy, snared nymph.
"How if I chose to kiss you?" he asked, and his loose lips mouthed caressingly. To his surprise the girl met his advances as no shy nymph ever met satyr, with a hearty peal of laughter, that brought the tears into her eyes and red rage into his. She thrust towards him her strong, smooth arms.
"I have a man's strength to prop my woman's pity," she said, as she broke off her laughter, "and, believe me, you would fare ill."
Diogenes eyed her with a dubiousness that soon became certainty. That well-fashioned, finely poised creature, with the firm flesh and the clean lines of an athlete, was of very different composition from the court minions who swam in the sunshine of Robert's favor, of late at Naples and now in Sicily. He had strength enough to tease them and hurt them sometimes when it pleased Robert to suffer him to maltreat them; but here was a different matter. He gave ground sullenly, the girl still laughing, with her strong arms lying by her sides.
"You seem a stalwart morsel," he grunted. "I will leave you in peace if you will tell me where to hide from the King's anger. Indeed, I do not greatly grieve to leave the city, for they say a seaman died of the plague there last night, one of those that came with us out of Naples." He shivered as he spoke, and his bird-like claws fumbled at his breast in an attempt to make the unfamiliar sign of the cross. But the face of the girl showed no answering alarm.
"Neither the plague nor the King's rage need be feared in these forests," she said. "The pure breezes here bear balsam. As for the King's rage, there are caves in these woods where a man might hide, snug and warm, for a century. Bush and tree yield fruits and nuts in plenty, for a simple stomach."
"I will keep myself alive, I warrant you," Diogenes responded, "and to pay for your favor I will sing you a song." So he began to sing, or rather to croak, to a Neapolitan air, the words of the Venus-song of the light women of Naples:
"Venus stretched her arms, and said, 'Cool Adonis, fool Adonis, Hasten to my golden bed—'"
Perpetua's face flamed, and she put her fingers in her ears. "Away with you! away with you!" she commanded.
The fool stopped in his measure; it was no use piping to deaf ears. "Farewell, fair prudery," he chuckled, and in a series of fantastic hops and bounds he reached the edge of the pine wood and soon was lost to sight within its sheltering depths.
THE COMING OF THE KING
When the last gleam of the fool's parti-colored habit had disappeared in the sanctuary of the wood, Perpetua took her hands from her ears and seated herself on a fragment of a fallen column that had formerly made part of the colonnade of the Temple of Venus. Here she sat for a while with her hands listlessly clasped, trying to disentangle the puzzling web of her thoughts. Her most immediate sensation was delight at the departure of Diogenes. The warm, fair day seemed to have grown old and cold with his world wisdom, a wisdom so different from all that she had ever been taught to venerate as wise.
"If I were a bird," she sighed aloud, "I could not sing while he was near. If I were a flower, I should fade at his coming."
She rose from her throne and blew kisses on her finger-tips to the birds that sang about her, to the flowers that flamed beneath her feet. "Be happy, birds," she whispered; "be happy, flowers, for the withered fool has gone."
She spoke to the birds, she spoke to the flowers as she would have spoken to human friends if she had any; they were her friends, and she loved them dearly, and she believed with all her heart that they understood her speech. She bent tenderly over one tall plant and touched its golden crest. Diogenes had passed from her thoughts as she stooped and made the flower her confidant. "I wonder when the hunter will come again."
She turned and stretched out her hands in pretty appeal towards the woodland.
"Dear forest beasts," she whispered, "forgive me, for I think I shall rejoice at his coming."
She drew her hand across her forehead, as if she sought to banish distracting thoughts, thoughts that had no place before in the simple order of her life. Then, as one who seeks distraction in the fulfilment of an appointed task, she moved to take the great sword and dedicate herself to its service. Holding it surely and firmly in her strong grasp, she carried it to where the grindstone stood, and carefully laid the edge of the blade to the shoulder of the stone wheel, while she worked the treadle with her foot. As the wheel spun and the sword hissed on the stone, she sang to herself the old, old sword-song that her father had taught her, the song that men who made swords had sung in some form or other from the dawn of war:
"Out of the red earth The sword of sharpness; Blue as the moonlight, Bright as the lightning."
The song wavered on her lips to the merest thread of music and then faded into silence. Her body was still busy with the sword, but her mind had drifted away from the place where she was to the place where she had been a week ago, to that cool, green hollow in the wood where she had met the tired hunter. He came upon her through the cracking brush, through the parting leaves; he stood before her, the sunlight touching him through the branches, with a smile on his young, fair face; he saluted her with simplicity and grace, and as she gazed at him dim legends of Greek heroes crowded upon her and she could well have believed that she beheld Perseus the dragon-slayer or Theseus the redresser of mortal wrongs. Their speech had been scanty, but it still sounded sweet to her ears. He had said he was thirsty, and she gave him to drink from a familiar spring; he had asked for guidance, and she had shown him the way out of the forest.
That was all, or almost all. He had said he would come again; and, of course, he would come again. In her simple philosophy a given word was given, a promise ever redeemed. There was no trouble in her thought of him; she had been glad to meet this wonderful, joyous being; she would be glad to see him again; in the mean time there was pleasure in meditation. How bright his hair was and how kind his smile! and his eyes were like a mountain lake.
Perpetua was so absorbed by her thoughts and her task that she did not hear the soft sound of quiet footsteps on the grass as a man crested the hill, an old man, tall and gray and sturdy, dressed in a jerkin and leggings of faded scarlet leather, who stood upon the open space, silently watching her.
Once again the clear voice of Perpetua floated into the air:
"Arising, falling, The sword of sharpness, Weapon of Godhead, Baffles the Devil."
The song ended; the sword lay motionless upon the motionless stone; the girl's thoughts were in the green heart of the wood.
"I wonder what sweet name he carries. I wonder who was his mother. She must have been a happy woman. I wonder who will be his happy wife."
A tear fell upon the bright blade and startled Perpetua.
"I am too big a girl," she said to herself, "to be such a baby—and tears will rust on a sword."
As she wiped the sword clean with her sleeve, the new-comer advanced and touched her gently on the shoulder. The girl swung round with a cry of joy. She leaned the sword against a tree, and, running to the man, clasped him in her arms, the strong young girl clinging to the strong elder like some beautiful creeper encircling an ancient, stalwart tree.
"Oh, father!" she cried. "I am so glad you have come! I have been so lonely."
Theron's brown hand rested gently on the girl's head, and his brown face smiled love. There was trouble in his eyes, there was trouble in the lines of his forehead, but the sight of his daughter softened them, and she read nothing but greeting.
"Lonely, little eagle?" he asked, with surprise in his voice. The girl noted the surprise and laughed a little as she answered.
"I never knew what it was to be lonely before. You and I and the sword, and our songs, and the holy men, and the trees and the flowers and the furred and feathered woodlanders"—she ran through the sum of her companionships—"they seemed to make a perfect world of peace."
Theron heard the change in the child's voice, Theron saw the change in the child's eyes.
"Who has disturbed this world of peace?" he asked, and a frown grew on his face.
"Strangers," the girl answered, turning a little away, while the old man caught at the word and echoed it in fear and anger, while his hand went to the hilt of his knife.
"There was one here but now," Perpetua answered, "a fugitive from the city, whose coming troubled me. He said the world was as wicked as a sick dream, and my heart grew cold in the sunshine."
The lines on Theron's face deepened dangerously. "Had I been by I would have twitched his tongue out," he said, fiercely. Perpetua pressed her hand upon his lips.
"No, father, you could not have touched him, for he was deformed and twisted—a hideous, helpless thing."
Theron stamped his foot upon the ground. "I set my heel upon a scorpion!" he cried. Perpetua shook her head.
"I am sorry for the things that are made to bite and sting. Let us think no more of it. Tell me of the Golden Age, father, when heroes roamed through the world, beautiful youths with eyes like mountain lakes."
Theron turned moodily from his daughter, and, going to the edge of the hill, looked down upon the distant city.
"The Golden Age is over long ago," he said, gloomily, "and we have come to the end of time."
Perpetua saw that her father was agitated, and wondered why the passing of Diogenes should move him so much. She yearned to tell him her sweet secret of the other comer, the beautiful hunter with the bright eyes and the bright hair, yet when she strove to speak words seemed to be denied her. In all the years of her young life, in all the years of love for her father, and of a friendship, a comradeship wellnigh more wonderful than love, there had been no secret shut in her heart from him. Now there was, and it seemed as if she could not set it free. While she hesitated, Theron turned to her again, and asked, abruptly, "Was this the only intruder to-day?"
Perpetua felt her cheeks burn as she answered, "Ay," but Theron did not notice her confusion, for he was again gazing down upon the city, and, though he questioned anew, his voice was listless.
"I thought you said strangers?"
"There has been no one else to-day," Perpetua answered. She purposely set some stress on the last word, that her father might, if he chose, make further question, but he seemed to be absorbed in heavy thoughts. He turned from his view of the city and came to her with a grave face.
"There will be others," he said. "The new King—"
"Robert the Bad?" Perpetua interrupted.
Theron stared at her. "Where did you learn that?"
"The withered fool called the King so."
"The fool yelped wisdom," Theron said, bitterly.
Perpetua came up to him and touched him on the arm. "Father," she said. "You did not tell me that there was a new king in Sicily."
The executioner looked down upon his daughter's face with a smile of grim pity. Putting his arm around her shoulders, he led her to the fallen column, and they sat there side by side.
"Ill news comes too soon, whenever it comes," he said. "I had hoped against hope for so long. I never told you that our good King had a son, the pride and anguish of his life, the beautiful youth for whose restoration to health yonder church was set on the highest pinnacle of these mountains. Sometimes we get our wish and find it a weapon that wounds our flesh. 'Any price,' King Robert prayed—'any price for my son's life.' And life came back to the dying child, but it seemed like a new life, selfish and vain and cruel. Weary of his father's simple rule and quiet court, he went oversea to his duchy of Naples and lived there an evil life. The King's ministers tried to keep knowledge of this from the good King's ears, but such news flies in through the chinks of palace doors. Still he did not know the worst, and to the day of his sudden death he hoped that his heir might yet prove worthy to wear the crown of Sicily. How vain that hope was Sicily now knows."
Theron was silent, staring sullenly at the ground. Perpetua plucked softly at his sleeve.
"Why did you never tell me this?" she whispered.
Theron shook his head.
"Dear child, for the sake of your mother's memory, who died to give you life, you have lived here in the holy woods away from an unholy world. As a man shelters a little, flickering flame, hollowing his hands around it to keep it from the wind, as a man screens a flower from the cold, so I have striven to shelter and to screen your life, so that you might come to womanhood in such a fashion—so simple, so pure, so holy—as that in which girls grew to womanhood in the Golden Age. Therefore I did not tell you that Robert the Good was dead; therefore I did not tell you that this Italianate Prince of Naples reigned in his stead. So much you have learned from a stranger, but you shall learn no more. Men seldom come to these windy pinnacles; the King and the King's men and the King's women never, in all likelihood, again."
The girl listened lovingly to the well-loved voice. "Father," she asked, "why does the King come to these heights? His father never came here."
"Robert the Good never came here in your life-time, child," Theron answered, "for his heart was sad within him at the thought of all the hope and joy that had gone to the building of this temple and all the disappointment that came after. But his son comes in ostentation. Since his accession, he has visited in turn every church in his kingdom, and given to every altar some glorious gift, that Heaven, so he boasts, impiously, may be in debt to him. He comes to-day to this, the least and last."
Perpetua crossed herself as her father spoke of the King's impious boast.
"Then I shall see the King?" she said.
Theron shook his head.
"No, Perpetua, you will not see the King. You and I will keep close in-doors to-day, talking of the old gods and the old heroes, till the King has come and gone, and then we will try to forget that there is such a king in Sicily."
Perpetua sat silently for a few moments, with her hands clasped across her knees, gazing with wide eyes at the golden air, quivering with heat. Then she turned to Theron.
"Father," she said, "if the world be not all peace and sweetness, are we wise to shut our eyes to the worse part of God's handiwork? Are we wise to hide from life, like a lizard in a cranny of a wall? You say the Golden Age is dead and gone. Can we bring it back by make-believe? Can we hold the summer back by saying it is still summer while the snow is on the ground?"
Theron turned and looked at her thoughtful face with some wonder. Never before had it happened that she had questioned his judgment. They had been happy together in their mountain nest; he had shut out the world for so long; he hated to think that he could not shut it out forever. And now some knowledge had come to the so jealously guarded girl, creeping into the unreal world he had created for her, and the thought of it vexed him. But there was no vexation in his voice as he answered her, smiling.
"You talk as glibly as the Seven Sages, little eagle, but I will not argue with you. We must make the best of a bad world, and the best way is to shut it out."
Perpetua leaned forward and kissed him. "Dear father," she said, with infinite reverence and affection in her voice. From far below there came to her ears a sound of distant music. She read in Theron's face that he heard it, too, and, hearing, he shuddered.
"Hark!" he said. "Do you hear that music?"
He rose and moved to the brow of the hill, and Perpetua, rising, followed him. Standing by his side she looked down the slope of the mountain, and saw, far away, on the long, white road, a moving mass and the gleam of gold and steel.
"It is the King's company," Theron said, sadly. "In-doors with you, sword and singer."
Instantly obedient, Perpetua turned, took the sword from the tree against which she had propped it when Theron arrived, and entered the dwelling, murmuring as she went another verse of the sword-song:
"The gods of Hellas Blessed it with beauty; The gods of Norland Filled it with fury."
As she passed, singing, out of sight beneath the turquoise-tinted dome, Theron looked after her sadly. Then he went again to the brow of the hill and looked down the green slope, clothed thickly with venerable trees, cypress and pine and pepper tree, tamarisk and prickly pear, to the fair city beyond, nestling amid her groves of gray-leaved olive and green-leaved almond, her vineyards, her orchards of peach and apple and fig.
"Unhappy Syracuse!" he sighed. "Evil hours are gathering about you as the vultures gather around the dead body that is cast into the Barathron. It was whispered within your walls this morning that one had died of the plague, but this proud prince is worse than any plague."
He sighed again as he watched the distant procession moving slowly onward. His keen sight could distinguish horsemen and litters, golden trappings, many-colored banners; his keen ears caught, with no pleasure, the triumphant swell of the royal music. It would be a long while yet before the new King and his people could reach the shrine of the archangel. There was a point on the steep hill-side where horseman must dismount, where lady must leave litter and continue the ascent on foot.
Theron still seemed to gaze at the slowly advancing cortege, but his mind was far away from the glittering, tinkling company. He was turning in fancy the pages of his past, as he might have turned the pages of some painted manuscript, and reading therein the record of his strange life. He saw himself in his boyhood, the son of the hereditary executioner, aiding his father's task, learning his father's trade, patient and unashamed. He saw himself in his young manhood loving beyond his star, and his heart quickened as he thought of youth and beauty. He saw himself in his prime, and his eyes filled as he thought of youth and beauty wronged, betrayed, and abandoned. He saw himself clasping in his arms the injured idol of his youth; he saw again the strange scene in the forest, the captured wronger, the rude, lawless trial, and the stroke of the great sword which avenged dishonor. He saw again his sad, sweet nuptials; he lived anew through that brief spring and summer and autumn of belated happiness; he saw again the dead woman and the living child. He recalled his vow that the girl Heaven had given him should live apart from the world, sequestered in the holy solitude of the hills, cloistered in the pine woods. Year by year he seemed to see again the growth of the girl's life, the patient care, the mutual love—saw at the last the fairest flower of Sicilian maidenhood, Perpetua. All these memories belonged to the reign of the good king Robert, the days when the executioner's sword never swung in the sunlight over a victim, when it was almost possible for the executioner to credit the ancient tales that he told to his beautiful child, and to believe that the Golden Age, indeed, had come again. And now King Robert the Good was dead and the Golden Age was as far off as those little, golden clouds above the sea.
The executioner clasped his hands together in a despairing prayer for Syracuse. For himself he must ply his trade, for that was his duty as it had been that of his father before him, and his father before him. As for Perpetua, he would make a home for her still deeper in the heart of the mountain woods, and still tell her marvellous stories of the Age of Gold.
He turned away from the prospect of the city and walked slowly towards his dwelling. Clearer and clearer now came the sound of the advancing music. He paused for a moment on his threshold.
"I shall be brighter when the King has come and gone," he said. Then he entered his dwelling and drew the door to after him.
And for a while there was quiet on the summit of the mountain.
ROBERT OF SICILY
The bronze archangel, resting on his sword, in the niche hollowed in the side of the gray Norman church, had never looked before upon so great or so brave a concourse of people. When the statue had been put in its place, setting thus the seal upon the pious founder's purpose, King Robert the Good came simply clad and with little state, as was his custom, to attend the consecration of the church. Since that day, twenty years had come and gone, tempering the bronze figure with the changes of the seasons and the drift of time; but the changing years brought few visitors to the shrine. King Robert himself never came again, for with that day had begun the bitter disappointment which shadowed the rest of the good King's life. And if the King did not visit the temple himself had erected, the rest of Syracuse was ready enough to follow his example. For the way was long, the road only in part possible for horse travel, and the rest of the ascent steep and arduous. The few appointed priests did their daily offices in the lonely building to a scanty congregation consisting of Theron and his child, with now and then such of the country folk as chose rather to climb to the lonely church upon the height than to descend to the more populous places of worship that lay along the valley.
But to-day the condition of things was strangely changed. In the mellow light of the late afternoon the grassy platform below the rock on which the church stood was thronged with a brilliant assemblage of men and women, as unfamiliar to the bronze archangel as the bronze archangel was unfamiliar to them. Within a circle of men-at-arms in shining shirts of mail and pointed helmets, and of knights more heavily armored and appointed with fantastically painted shields, stood at one side the lords and ladies who made up the flower of the new King's court, and on the other all the principal ecclesiastics of Syracuse. Court and Church vied with each other in splendor of apparel. The jewels that gleamed on the hands and in the hair and round the neck of beautiful women and comely men stiffened with no lesser splendor the vestments of the princes of the Church, whose robes, as rich as the gorgeous garments of the court, answered color with color and texture with texture. A Sicilian nurtured in the school of Robert the Good would have frowned at the effrontery with which the women audaciously intensified the clinging fit of the garments, which moulded the form so precisely, and would have deplored the elegance, the effeminate foppery, which the comrades of the new King had imported with them as part and parcel of the Neapolitan inheritance. But the new-comers cared nothing for the opinion of the old-fashioned adherents of a dead king and a dead day; their desire was, as their master's, to renew the delights of Naples under a Sicilian sky and to enrich life to the limit with all the luxury that could add a grace to grace and give a sharper zest to pleasure.
This splendid brotherhood, this shining sisterhood, stood, as it were, poised in an attitude of expectation more eager than ever was shown for the passing of Ramazan by any of those Saracens who at one time were lords of the lovely island. The sun that means so much to the Saracen was sinking down the sky, but the sun for which those fair faces of men and women watched with so much real or assumed impatience had not yet risen upon their horizon. They were waiting for the coming of the King. At the point where the road to the church had become impracticable for horse or litter, courtiers and ladies, priests and knights had to climb as best they could the stubborn slope to the summit. But the fatigue which was thus imposed upon the tender limbs of women, upon the ancient frames of ecclesiastics, was not to be borne by the new King of Sicily. He was carried up the incline in a chair by two herculean Moorish slaves, so strong and surefooted that the stubborn ascent could be made with the least possible discomfort to his royal body. While the others had groaned and sweated as they scuffled up the hill—that they might reach the goal in time to receive their royal master—that royal master made his progress with all the ease and leisure possible, accompanied by his closest friend, his dearest favorite, the Count Hildebrand.
A little stir in the courtly circle intimated that the awaited moment had arrived. Men bent the knee in homage, women bowed in reverence, as the young King, lightly resting his hand on Hildebrand's shoulder, leaped from his chair and advanced in smiles upon his worshippers.
It is the privilege of an older world to learn with something like intimate accuracy the appearance of the King, for though the few pictures that exist of him in certain illuminated manuscripts in the libraries of Sicilian monasteries are, in the first place, but indifferent specimens of the indifferent portraiture of the period, and, in the second place, are almost all taken at a later period of his life, the records, both monastic and civil, of the age furnish descriptions, evidently faithful and always in agreement, which allow of some attempt to appreciate his form and features.
The young Prince, whom the fool Diogenes had nicknamed Robert the Bad, was still in the flower of his age, the pride of his health, the triumph of his beauty. Of middle height, his slender form made him always seem taller than he really was, an effect further heightened by the erect grace of his carriage. His body was nimble and alert—the words are the words of an ancient chronicler—his limbs were finely shaped; his hands and feet were the theme and the despair of his parasites. But no quality with which it had pleased Heaven to endow his body was ever noted by an observer who was not at first taken captive by the enchantment of the young King's face. His countenance was cast in the mould of antique beauty. So might Alcibiades have looked when he reeled into the banquet-hall, with roses on his forehead, to reason and to jest with Socrates; so might Antinous have seemed when he drifted with Hadrian upon the Nile. The passion for pleasure, which had characterized him from the moment of his recovery from the illness that threatened his youth, had laid no stain upon his visage; his cheeks were as smooth, his lips as red, his hair as bright as those of a child, and the limpid clearness of his eyes met the beholder's gaze with the unblemished frankness of a boy. Most of those who praised Prince Robert for his physical beauty would, no doubt, have so praised him if he had been as ugly as a monkey, but for once in a way the tongue of flattery could scarcely overcrow the truth.
The young King, heedless of the fashion of the day, clothed his comely body so as to display it to the best advantage; he eschewed the long and cumbrous garments that were associated with dignity, with royalty, and wore, instead, the tunic and long hose that gave his shapely limbs the greatest freedom and the most liberal display. But any simplicity in the form of his habit was splendidly atoned for by the costliness of the material. The revenues of a rich merchant for a year might have been spent upon the woven and embroidered stuffs that garbed the King's person, yet little of these noble stuffs was visible, so richly were they embellished with gold and adorned with jewels.
Behind the King came the Count Hildebrand, who might have passed for the handsomest man in Sicily if Sicily had no King Robert. Dressed almost as richly as the monarch, he would have dazzled many if Robert himself had not been by. He was of a more powerful make than the King, though he affected with success the same almost feminine daintiness of carriage and habit; but the beauty of his face was of a coarser pattern than the King's, and his dark eyes had no gleam of the almost infantile candor which was the charm of the King's regard.
Robert greeted his adorers with a salutation that was in itself an act of grace, and made an amiable gesture with his hand which immediately summoned to him those of the court ladies who for the moment were warmed by his more immediate favor.
They fluttered about him in an instant, tremulous as brilliant butterflies hovering around a royal rose: Faustina, with the proud face of a Roman marble; Messalinda, with the fair hair of some witch-woman of the North; Yolande, the exquisite French girl with the brown hair and the brown eyes—Yolande so envied of all the others, as being, as it seemed, the latest in the King's favor, the nearest in the King's grace. Robert caught Faustina and Messalinda round the waist and drew them for a moment tenderly to him, serenely indifferent to the presence of spectators, many of whom were ministers of the Church, while he shot a mocking smile at Yolande, who modestly lowered her lids. Then he released his laughing, delighted captives, and snatched a fan from Yolande's fingers, with which he fanned himself languishingly.
"Surely this hill is as high as heaven," he complained. "Of a truth, we should wear the wings of angels for these adventures into cloud-land."
Messalinda gave him an extravagant bow and a yet more extravagant simper.
"Your Majesty has all the other attributes of angelhood," she averred.
Faustina hastened to offer her own tribute of flattery to the pleased Prince.
"Would you leave nothing to the celestials, sire?"
The bright face of the King smiled infinite approval of her speech.
"In truth," he said, "if they were like me at all points they might become too vain for the courts of heaven."
It was now Yolande's turn to weave her flower of praise into the royal garland.
"The celestials had better abide in the courts of heaven, for if they came to earth they could never hope to rival Sicily."
Her brown eyes glowed more adoration than her words. Robert, advancing towards her and taking her by the chin, peered into their depths with a perverse smile that made the girl quiver.
"Your lips drop honey," he said, lightly. "But you must linger for your reward. I kiss out of court to-night."
At this insolent announcement the favorites exchanged rapid glances. Faustina spoke first and swiftly.
"One smile from the King's eyes is sufficing payment for his poor servants."
Messalinda came quickly at her heels with no less flagrant humility.
"To be honored with one thought of the great King's mind is to be honored above the need of women."
French Yolande was less politic. Perhaps she had hoped to hold the King's fancy more surely than her fellows. She, too, winged her compliment, but she barbed it with a question.
"Who is the happiest she in all the world?" she asked. "Whom does the King's pleasure consecrate to-night?"
Robert smiled enigmatically, teasing her with his eyes, teasing her with his fan. All the women leaned forward their heads, hoping for an answer. Robert let his gaze travel over their eager faces and laughed aloud, mockingly.
"Sweet creatures of prey, I will not tell you this secret, for if you knew you would make an end of her between you, and very surely I would have her live to see another sunrise. To-morrow, who knows, I may care no more, and then you may make common cause against her."
He yawned slightly behind the fan, and then made a little gesture of dismissal, which sent the three women scurrying back from his immediate presence to the places they had quitted in the courtly ranks. His eyes, quietly indifferent, travelled over the body of Church dignitaries, waiting patiently till he should be pleased to tire of women's talk and turn to them; his gaze rested with no show of interest upon the gray church and the great effigy of the archangel. He beckoned Hildebrand to his side.
"Is this the goal of our generosity?" he asked, pointing disdainfully with the fan to the sacred house. Hildebrand answered with deferential familiarity.
"This is the church of St. Michael, sire. Your amiable father set it here in the tenth year of your life."
"Yes, yes, I have heard the story," Robert said, again checking a desire to yawn. "My excellent parent, fretting over some childish sickness that presumed upon our person, vowed to build this shrine to his patron saint if I recovered. As if such men as I ever died in childhood!"
Hildebrand agreed, obsequiously. "May the King live forever," he murmured. Robert surveyed the church again with cold disfavor.
"Whoever wrought that image, wrought it well," he said. "It is pity to think of so much skill and so much good metal going to the composition of a mere saint that might have moulded me a Venus."
Hildebrand raised his hands in pitying protestation against the folly of the late King.
"Your royal father was something weak of wit," he sneered. Robert sighed commiseratingly.
"Poor man, he meant well," he condescended. "Measured by our standard he must needs seem puny—as, indeed, what king of them all, Christian or Pagan, would not?" His manner so far had been in agreement with his supple companion, but suddenly a change came over his temper, and he turned on Hildebrand a frown so coldly menacing that the favorite recoiled in surprise and alarm.
"Still, he had the honor to beget me," he added. "So you will do well not to speak lightly of him, my good Hildebrand."
The embarrassed favorite tried to recover his ground and his composure.
"Sire, you are always right," he stammered. "The tree from which so royal a rose sprang—"
Robert, having enjoyed his friend's discomfiture, was now weary of it, and interrupted his apologies with a raised hand.
"Enough," he said, and, turning from Hildebrand in the direction of the group of ecclesiastics, he deigned for the first time to regard them as if they really existed and were not mere gorgeous puppets set up there as portion of the pageant of his pride. The archbishop of Syracuse and his fellows had waited in their splendid vestments as patiently for any sign of the King's favor as any light lady of the court, and this slight show of it served to stir them into delighted animation.
Few in that synod of slaves had served the Church in the days of Robert the Good. In his six-weeks' reign, Robert the Bad had worked wonders, and now his armies, civil and ecclesiastic, were generalled by his servants imported from Naples. Such soldiers, such churchmen as had offered opposition to his imperious humors had been either banished or imprisoned, or at the best flung from their offices without reward or appeal, and the young Prince had both sword and crozier at his absolute command, for it pleased Robert's fancy to proclaim himself religious as well as military head of the state, to whom the proudest of prelates was no more and no less a pawn than a captain of the guard.
Contempt smiled in the eyes of the King and on his lips as he saw the new-made archbishop of Syracuse move eagerly forward in response to the disdainful gesture which told him that the King remembered his existence. He was followed by two priests who bore between them on a stand of ebony a magnificent reliquary, a masterpiece of Byzantine handicraft, its gold and jewels glowing like the fires of fairyland in the mellow evening sunlight.
"Sire," said the archbishop, "this is your princely gift to this poor temple; this is the reliquary, fashioned by the most cunning artificers of your realms, rich in outward seeming, richer still in holding in its core the precious relics of a saint."
Robert looked at the reliquary with sufficient attention to assure himself that it was as magnificent an offering as his pride could desire.
"It is a pleasing piece of work," he said. "Look at it, ladies fair; there be jewels here as bright as your eyes, as red as your lips. Truly, I shall be famous for my piety."
He turned with a little shrill laugh of satisfaction to the three women, who in obedience to the invitation of his speech had come near him and were gazing in greedy admiration at the precious vessel.
"It would have made me a rare jewel-box," Messalinda sighed.
"I would have made it a casket for love-songs," Faustina muttered.
Yolande, eager to be quickest in saying something that should please the King, looked up reverentially at Robert.
"Some day, sire," she said, "your precious bones will be so shrined and worshipped."
In a second the summer of the King's face lowered to storm darkness, and he turned on Yolande with so much fury, stretching out his hands as if he would take her by the throat, that the girl fell back in a panic fear. For a second the King could not speak with rage; his lips mouthed ineffective; at last words came to him.
"How dare you speak to me of death?" he screamed at her. "You she-devil, do you wish to die of scourging?"
The fury in his eyes, the fury in his fury, the fury in his gestures, transforming him so swiftly from his regal civility to a raging animal, palsied the fair girl's limbs, palsied her tongue.
"Sire," she stammered, piteously, "forgive—"
She could say no more, for her fear choked her, and tears raced from her eyes. Her companions shrank from her as from an unclean thing, one blighted by this fierce show of the King's disfavor. Robert, by a violent effort, controlled himself to composure. His arms dropped by his side, his face smoothed again.
"You shall weep red tears for this, minion!" he said to the unhappy girl, and turned from her again to regard the reliquary. Yolande slunk back to hide herself in the courtly company, and Faustina and Messalinda regained their places.
"The fool!" whispered Faustina to Messalinda, with a glance in the direction where Yolande sought to efface herself—"to hint at death to a king who would like to believe himself immortal as a god."
"Ay," retorted Messalinda, "and to hint it now when they say that the plague creeps abroad."
Robert now addressed the obsequious prelate: "My lord archbishop, escort this coffer into the chapel and give your ceremonial rein. Attend him, lords and ladies," he continued, turning to his retinue; "for ourselves we will linger awhile in this sunlight, having some thoughts of weight to change with the Lord Hildebrand. We will bless you with our presence by-and-by."
Obedient to the King's somewhat contemptuous dismissal, all those that had accompanied Robert to the summit of the mountain now made haste to leave him alone with his favorite. Priests and courtiers, ladies and soldiers, a glittering line, ascended the stone steps that led to the chapel and disappeared within its doors. The rear of the procession was brought up by the King's Varangian body-guard, under the captain, Sigurd Olafson, a young Norseman, whose yellow hair and bright blue eyes made him a conspicuous figure in the thick of so many Southern forms and faces.
When the church doors had closed upon the last of the company, Robert turned a smiling face upon his friend.
"Do you think, Hildebrand," he questioned, "that I came here for this mummery in my father's monument?"
"I never question your Majesty's thoughts or deeds," Hildebrand answered, deferentially. "They are oracles and miracles to your slave."
The King's face yielded a ready brightness to a flattery that never staled.
"I will tell you my true purpose instantly," he said. "But first I have a task for you."
He took Hildebrand by the arm and drew him through the first fringe of the pine wood to the space where Theron's home stood, the mosque with its circle of pillars.
"What do you see?" he asked.
Hildebrand eyed the two beautiful ruins with frank indifference.
"Some pagan pillars," he answered, "and the praying-place of the followers of Mahomet."
"It is to my mind a lovelier shrine than the gaudy box we have just been gaping at," Robert said; and then went on, answering the surprise in his companion's face: "You shall learn why by-and-by. In the mean time know that it is the dwelling of Theron the executioner."
"Theron the executioner?" said Hildebrand. "I thought your honest father had no use for such shedders of blood."
"In the very madness of truth, he had not," Robert answered. "So this rogue has rusted here idly through a generation of eating and sleeping. Very likely his sword is grown with ivy. But now he must stretch his sinews, now he must scour his scimitar, now he begins to be briskly busy."
Robert drew from his thumb his massive gold signet-ring and handed it to Hildebrand.
"Knock at his door. Show him my signet-ring and tell him to speed at once to Syracuse, to my palace, for the beheading of my court-fool."
Hildebrand, weighing the great ring in the cup of his hand, stared at his master.
"Have you caught the runagate?" he questioned, "and do you, indeed, mean to divide him so dismally?"
"I have not caught him yet," said the King, with a frown; "but when I do I will halve him and set up his head on a spear in Syracuse market-place, as a warning to all who cross my pleasure."
Robert emphasized the word "all" so unpleasantly that Hildebrand hastened to excuse himself from any suspicion of sympathy with the offending jester.
"You may carve him into cutlets, for all I care," he said. "He was a ribald thing, and deserves no pity."
He advanced towards the mosque as he spoke, while Robert screened himself from view behind one of the pillars of the ruined temple.
As the fist of Hildebrand beat upon the door of the dwelling, the voice of Theron answered from within: "Who knocks?"
"Open in the King's name!" Hildebrand cried, imperiously. He could hear the voice of Theron inside repeat his words: "'In the King's name!'"
In another moment Theron opened the door and came out, closing it carefully behind him.
"Who calls me in the King's name?" he asked, gazing in astonishment at the brilliant youth who had summoned him.
"I am the Lord Hildebrand, the King's friend," Hildebrand answered, impatiently, holding out the ring. "Here is the King's signet. He bids you by my lips that you gather up your great sword and go to Syracuse with what speed you may, for he has work for you."
Theron gave a heavy groan.
"Work for me?" he echoed.
"Ay, work for you!" Hildebrand retorted. "You have been idle a great while, gaffer, but your age-long holiday dies to-day. We are no longer in the reign of King Robert the Foolish."
Theron shook his head in protest.
"King Robert the Good," he murmured.
Hildebrand reiterated his nickname with a sneer:
"King Robert the Foolish! King Robert the Wise means to begin his reign by beheading his court-fool as an example to all other fools and courtiers. So bustle, man; bring out your blade and be off."
Theron turned away with a gesture of sorrow.
"King Robert the Bad!" he said, beneath his breath. Then he entered his hut again and passed to an inner room, where Perpetua sat spinning. As she looked up he laid his finger on his lip.
"I am called to Syracuse," he said. "Bolt doors and bar windows. Make all fast and firm. Open to none till I return."
"Why, who should come?" Perpetua asked, pausing in her work. Her clear eyes saw the trouble in her father's face, but she did not seek its cause, for he had laid finger on lip.
Theron shivered as if cold. "I do not know," he said. "Open to none."
Perpetua rose and rested her hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes.
"You speak as if you feared something," she whispered.
And Theron whispered back, "Perhaps I do."
Perpetua shook her head, and the flame of her hair rippled over her shoulders.
"God's will rules the world. There is nothing to fear. Farewell, dear father."
Theron took her face in his two brown, wrinkled hands and kissed it tenderly.
"Farewell, eaglet," he sighed. Then he left her and went into the open, bearing the great sword, that seemed to gleam crimson with the sunlight. He closed the door behind him carefully, and was making for the mountain-path, when Hildebrand caught him by the arm.
"Is that the headsman's weapon? 'Tis a pretty piece of steel. Can your withered sinews still wield it?"
Theron looked at his interrogator with a frown of disdain for his foppery.
"I doubt if you could do as much, younker," he growled.
Hildebrand only laughed.
"Do you think because I am feathered like a bird-of-paradise that I have no sap in me? Let me handle your chin-chopper."
Still smiling, he took the sword from Theron, who watched him contemptuously. Hildebrand, to his surprise, lifted the sword easily with one hand, played with it as if it were no heavier than a staff of wood, threw it lightly from his right hand to his left hand and back again, and then returned it to Theron, from whose face contempt had vanished.
"'Tis finely poised," Hildebrand commented, "but something light for its purpose; yet it will serve its turn. Away!"
"Do you accompany me?" Theron asked, with more respect than he had yet shown to the King's man.
Hildebrand shook his head.
"Not I, old man. I say a prayer or two in the chapel by the side of my liege lord that I may return with a smooth soul to Syracuse. Farewell." He turned away and walked towards the chapel.
Shouldering his sword, the old man tramped down the mountain towards the city.
When he was well on his way the King came quietly out of the wood and approached his favorite.
"Was there ever a greater king than I, Hildebrand?" he asked.
"Never since sun-birth," Hildebrand responded, with glib emphasis. "The glory of Solomon, the sword of Caesar, the beauty of Adonis, the lyre of Orpheus, the strength of Hercules, the grace of Apollo, the sum of all possibilities—God-man, or man-God, what shall our poor lips call you?" He made the monarch a profound obeisance, too profound to permit Robert to see the mockery shining in his eyes.
The monarch drank the delicious draught with more than royal gravity as he answered:
"You are a wise man. But if I have immortal merits, I have very mortal desires. This is not the first time that I have climbed to these summits."
Hildebrand had raised his head, and mockery had given ground to surprise.
"Indeed, sire?" he asked. The King was silent for a moment, musing on sweet memories, and when he spoke it was with smiling lips.
"My honest father, worthy man, forbade hunting in these happy hills, which gave me an itch to beat their coverts. Last week, while you were away at Naples, I rode in these hills till I could ride no longer, left my horse, lost my way, till in the very heart of the forest I met a girl—indeed, at first my joy mistook her for a goddess."
"Was she so fair?" Hildebrand asked, questioning rather the delight on Robert's face than the weight of Robert's words.
And Robert answered him eagerly, hotly:
"I tell you, Hildebrand, the loveliest I ever saw. No wonder that the antique world called Venus Erycina, if in the island where Eryx rears its crest such wonderful women still tread the earth with goddess feet."
Hildebrand repeated his question. "Was she so fair?"
There was a rapture on Robert's face as he answered:
"Naples is a very rose-garden of radiant women, but this wild rose of the woods was as far above them as I am above other men. She gave me drink from a fountain, lifting it to me in a cool, green leaf, and the clear water was sweeter than wine of Cyprus and headier than wine of Hungary, and I drank delicious madness."
A smile puckered Hildebrand's lips.
"Did you pluck this wild rose of the woods?" he asked.
Robert shook his head, but there was no look of regret in his eyes or sound of regret in his voice.
"No, no, no! Oh, not then, not yet! There are pleasures of Tantalus as well as pains of Tantalus. Had I told her I was the King, she would have flung herself into my arms and there would have been a workaday end to the wonder. No. I lingered and sipped at sweet desires. I masqued and ambled Arcady for her; was no more than I seemed, a simple hunter; flattered her with honest boy-babble, said her farewell with a low sweep of my cap, and left her with a new happiness in my heart, the happiness of an unsatisfied longing, an unanswered ache. If your school-boy were ever an epicure, he would sometimes leave the queen apples of the orchard unfingered."
"Is this the end of the idyl?" Hildebrand asked, quietly, when the King had run to the end of his rhapsody. Again Robert shook his head.
"You are a traitor, Hildebrand, to think such treason of your King. What of the wisdom of Solomon? I am of the mind of the ungodly, and let no flower of the spring go by me. But I have lived an exquisite week—sunlight and starlight I have dreamed dreams. In other arms I have sighed divinely for my dryad; but I know she will prove rarer than my most adorable guesses. That I will tell you to-morrow."
"To-morrow?" Hildebrand asked.
Robert laughed joyously as he pointed to Theron's dwelling.
"She lives here, Hildebrand. She is the daughter of Theron the executioner."
Hildebrand shrugged his shoulders. "Fie! A vile parentage!" he protested.
"I am like Midas," Robert retorted. "All I touch turns to gold. My love will make her flesh imperial as a pope's niece and her rags as purple as Caesar's mantle."
Hildebrand smiled admiration.
"I have seldom seen your Majesty so enamoured," he said.
Robert put his arm affectionately round his companion's neck.
"I tell you, Hildebrand," he said, earnestly, "my heart sings as it has never sung since its earliest love-flutter. I feel like a stainless god in a sacred garden, listening for the first time to the dear madness of the nightingale. No subtle Neapolitan ever stirred me as this wood-nymph does with her flaming hair and her frank eyes. No wonder the old gods loved mortal women, if they knew my royal joy with this child of earth. Into the church, man, and leave me to my wooing!"
Hildebrand responded to the release of Robert's arm, and the impatient gesture of dismissal that followed, by a reverential salutation, which Robert suddenly interrupted.
"I had forgotten," he said. "Did you do as I bade you, and bring a hunter's cloak with you?"
Hildebrand bowed. "I hid it behind yonder fallen pillar," he said, and, going to the spot, he returned to the King bearing a large, green cloak, which the King threw over his shoulders and gathered about his arms so as to muffle his royal bravery.
"I woo as the hunter, not as the King," he said.
Hildebrand bowed again. Then, turning, he climbed the hill that led to the church. Robert's eyes followed him till the doors of the church had closed upon his minister. Then with swift, noiseless steps he sped in the opposite direction, and, pausing before the dwelling of Perpetua, knocked lightly at the door and listened eagerly for answer. He could hear a sound as of an inner door being opened, of light footsteps crossing an intervening space; then his answer came in the voice of Perpetua.
"Who is there?" Perpetua called through the door. She was wondering at this sudden fulfilment of her father's fears, but she felt no fear herself. Instantly a voice outside whispered her name:
The words came so softly through the closed door that they might have been uttered by any one. But she was conscious of a stirring at her heart as she asked anew:
This time the response came clearly, in the unmistakable voice.
"A certain hunter," Robert said; and at the sound a passion of memory conquered her, banishing her father's cautions.
Robert could hear her give a little, glad cry. He could hear the sound of a bolt being shot back; then the door opened and Perpetua came out into the sunlight. Her eyes were very bright, her hands extended in welcome. He drew back a little in delight at her beauty, and she advanced to him joyously.
"You have come back?" she said.
Robert caught her outstretched hands.
"How could I keep away?" he asked, looking into her eyes that mirrored his.
She drew her hands away and spoke softly.
"I dreamed that you would come back. With my eyes open and with my eyes shut, I dreamed that you would come back."
Robert's heart leaped at her speech.
"Are you glad to see me?" he questioned, tenderly.
The girl responded with the frankness of a child.
"Very glad. I liked you much that day when we met in the woods hollow, and those whom I like I am always glad to greet."
Robert took her hand again, and this time she suffered him to hold it for a little, unresisting, as he led her to where a fallen column at the edge of the pine wood offered a noble throne.
"Would you have grieved if I had not come again?" he asked her, as they sat side by side, and the girl answered, simply:
"Much, for my own sake and for yours."
"For mine, too, maiden?" Robert asked, wondering at her words.
Perpetua shook back her mane of flame.
"Yes, for you said you would come, and truth is the best thing in the world."
If she had seemed adorable before in the green heart of the ancient wood, she seemed many times more adorable now to the hot eyes of the man as she sat there so quietly, speaking so frankly, looking at him so frankly. He would linger no more over this sweet preface of pleasure. He asked her eagerly:
"Shall I tell you the best truth in the world? I love you."
The girl's calm eyes studied his flushed face gravely.
"Love is the greatest truth or the greatest lie in the world. We have met but twice. Can you love so quickly?"
The fierce desire which the King called love clamored for interpretation. Robert spoke swiftly, warmly, feeding his greedy eyes with her beauty.
"When I drank the white water from your hands, I drank love with it. When I looked into your glorious eyes love leaped from them, all armed, and conquered me. The wood wind blew one tress of your red hair across my face and the red flame of love ran through my veins and burned out all memories save only the memory of your face. I would lose a kingdom to kiss you on the lips. I would surrender the power and the glory to be kissed upon the lips by you."
He made as if to clasp her in his arms, but in a moment she eluded him with the quickness of some forest creature. She had risen and was standing at a little distance before he realized that his longing arms clasped emptiness.
"You speak with the speech of angels," Perpetua said, speaking low; "wonderful words that shine like little stars, that make me tremble as if they were little flames that played about me." She paused for a moment as if thoughts troubled her; then went on: "And yet I think you say too much. All I should ask of my lover would be but a true heart and a true hand."
Anger strove with admiration on Robert's cheeks and in his eyes. He was untrained to any cross, and the composure with which the girl at once accepted and held off his homage galled him. But he curbed his irritation, remembering himself as the beseeching hunter, not as the commanding King.
Quitting the column, he came to where she stood. She did not move, but she did not take his offered hand, and he let it fall idly by his side, while he tried to overcrow her with his bold eyes.
"You have never loved or you would not reason so," he argued. "Let me look into your eyes. I think you love me a little."
He was very close to her now, but she did not surrender to his lips or his eyes. A kind of wonder was growing in her face, but she met his gaze as firmly as she answered his words.
"I have never loved, and yet I know what love might be. The spring wind sighs in these forests, and the nightingales are my friends. Though I know only of the world by hearsay, I know that men and women have done great things for love's sake, and are remembered with songs and tears. I am not afraid of love."
Her eyes were smiling as she spoke. Life seemed clear and easy to her. Life seemed clear and easy to her suitor; but his clarity, his ease, were not those of the mountain maid, and he misunderstood her, weighing her soul in false scales. He wooed her now with a low, triumphant challenge.
"I believe you love me a little."
She baffled his challenge by her immediate frankness. The powers of life were not to be denied in shyness by a child who might have been a nymph of Artemis.
"I think I might love you a great deal. I will love you with all my heart if you know how to win me. I will surrender my soul to my true lord and lover when he comes."
Her eyes softened as she made her sweet confession, and his cheeks burned to hear her. But her purity only tempted him without touching him. Again he made to clasp her in his arms.
"He has come. Kiss me, Perpetua!" he cried, exultingly; but she flitted from his reach as subtly as a shadow shifting with the sun, and there was command in her voice as she motioned to him to hold aloof.
"Wait! I am not to be won in a whirlwind. Great love is gentle love, hunter."
He could have cursed at her for avoiding him, yet the avoidance spurred him to succeed, and his words were tender as caresses.
"When I clasp you in my arms you will forget to be so wise."
The fair girl knitted her brows in a frown at his overboldness. For his life the King could not tell why he refrained from again attempting to embrace her—and yet he did refrain, standing and listening while she reproved him, and to his ears there seemed to be something of irony and something of mirth in her smooth, cool tones.
"Then you shall not clasp me in your arms till I am sure of myself and you."
Robert wrestled with an unwelcome sense of reverence. Surely it was madness to be baffled by a country maid. He held out his comely hands, he commanded every appealing intonation of his musical voice.
"Child," he cried, "you shall not deny me now. I am your hunter, sweet, and you my quarry. Be happy, being mine."
He moved upon her as he spoke, trusting to charm her with the spell of speech that never yet had known defeat. But the girl stretched out her hand to stay him, and he paused, angry and yet curious to see how far she would carry contradiction.