"Awestruck, the much-admiring crowd Before the virgin vision bowed, Gaz'd with an ever-new delight, And caught fresh virtues at the sight."--EDWARD MOORÉ'S Fables.
On the 24th of June, in the year 708, merry crowds were thronging to Vazon Forest. It was a lovely spot. The other portions of the island were bare and somewhat rugged; here the humidity of the soil favoured the growth of fine, vigorous timber. On the low ground flourished oak and sycamore, torn and bent near the shore where the trees met the force of the Atlantic gales, growing freely and with rich verdure where better protected. On the higher slopes were massed beech, birch, and the sweet chestnut which was even then domesticated in the island. Glades, bursting with a wealth of flowers nurtured by the mildness of the climate, penetrated the wood in every direction; streams bubbling up from springs, and forming little cascades where their course was checked by granite boulders, lent an additional charm. Towards the centre of the forest these streams united to form a lake, or rather a natural moat, surrounding an island in the midst of which stood a gigantic oak. This was the only tree on the island; round it, at even distances, were placed twelve stones, beyond which a meadow glittering with varied hues extended to the surrounding water.
It was to this island that the holiday-makers were wending their way: young men and maidens, and such elders as had vigour enough to traverse the rough tracks leading from the interior. They were a small race, lithe and active, with strong black hair and dark eyes now twinkling with merriment They poured over the wooden bridges into the precincts of the towering oak, under which the elders seated themselves with the musicians, the younger people streaming off to the clear ground between the stones and the water.
When all were assembled the music struck up at a signal from an elder. The instruments were akin to the goat-skin pipes of Lower Brittany; the music wild, weird, appealing to the passion if not melodious to the ear. At any rate the effect was inspiriting. First, the men danced, the maidens seating themselves round the dancers and chanting the following words, to the rhythm of which they swayed their bodies gracefully:--
"Mille Sarrazins, mille Sarmates, Un jour nous avons tués. Mille, mille, mille, mille, mille Perses, Nous cherchons à present."
The dance, footed to this truculent chant, had no warlike features; beginning with a march, or rather a tripping walk, it ended with feats in which each dancer defied his neighbour to out-spring him; nor did the vocalists appear to expect representations of strife and doughty deeds. The words, Roman by origin, as is clear from the allusion to the Persians, had been adapted to a native air by the conquerors, and had been left by them as a legacy to the islanders. Next, the maidens trod a measure, the men standing round and applauding; the dance was quiet and soft, consisting principally of graceful movements of the body as if the dancers were getting themselves into training for greater efforts; in this case the dancers themselves chanted words suitable to the music. This ended, there was a pause before the principal business of the day began, the dance in which both sexes joined, to be followed by the bestowal of a wreath on the loveliest of the maidens.
During the pause it was evident that an unusual incident had occurred. The best-looking of the girls were pouting, the attention of the youths was distracted. During the latter part of the dance the applause had been intermittent; towards the close it had almost ceased. The elders, looking about under their shaggy eyebrows, had not been long in discovering the cause, and when they had found it allowed their attention to wander also.
The disturbing element was, indeed, not far to seek. Close to one of the bridges was seated a maiden, unknown to all of them, but lovely enough to hold the glance of old and young. Unlike the natives she was tall and fair; masses of golden hair encircled her oval face and clustered over her blue eyes. Who was she? Whence came she? None could answer. By degrees some of the boldest of the youths approached, but their bluff manners seemed to displease her; though unaccustomed to rebuffs they retired. One, however, among them fared differently. Jean Letocq, a member of the family to which the hero belonged who near this very spot discovered the sleeping troops of the Grand Sarrazin, was admired and beloved both by youths and maidens. First in every sport, having shown courage and resource in times of peril both by sea and land, tender of glance and gentle of tongue, he held a pre-eminence which none disputed, and which was above the reach of envy. The fair stranger, from his first glance at her, had fascinated, enthralled him: his eyes fastened greedily on her every movement; he noted well her reception of those who had addressed her, and when he approached he came, bare-headed, with a low obeisance and a deferential air. He seated himself by her in silence, after murmuring a few words of welcome to the feast, to which she made no answer. Presently he spoke again, softly and courteously; she replied without constraint, speaking his own language fluently, though with a foreign accent. The ice once broken their talk rippled on, as is the wont of light words, brightly uttered. Jean drank in each gentle phrase, watched every graceful gesture; his heart bounded when she carelessly smiled. But he lost not his daring: when the musicians again struck up he boldly asked her to join in the dance.
She was not offended, her look showed no displeasure, but she refused; he renewed his request; suddenly a change came over her face, she looked rapidly round as though searching for some one who was not present, a flash came into her eyes, she sprang to her feet. "Why should I not dance!" she said; "they are merry, why should I alone be sad!" She let him lead her into the ring. If she had been enchanting when seated, what was her power when she moved! She was a model of grace and loveliness; the contrast of her colouring to that of her neighbours inspired the superstitious with some terror, but made the braver spirits gaze more curiously, indifferent to the half-concealed anger and affected disdain of their partners. Every moment she gained more hearts, though she let her eyes rest only on those of Jean. After the dance was over she seated herself in her former position; the women then, according to custom, retired outside the stone circle, while the men clustered round the oak to award the prize. The ceremony had up to this day been looked on as a pure formality: for the last two summers the wreath had been by common consent placed on the brows of Suzanne Falla, and none who woke that morning had doubted that it would rest there again before night. But now the men's heads were turned; there was commotion both outside and inside the circle; then a hush, as the old men rose in their places and the young men formed a lane to the tree. Jean stepped out, and taking the stranger by the hand, led her to where a white-haired veteran stood with the wreath in his hand. The next moment it was placed on her brows, and then all voices burst into a song of triumph, which rang to the remotest glades of the forest. Suzanne did not join in the song; her little heart was breaking; all the passion of her hot nature was roused; she felt herself unfairly, unjustly, treated; insulted on the very day that was to have crowned her pride. She could not control herself, nor could she accept her defeat: she stamped her foot on the ground, and poured out a torrent of objurgation, accusing Jean of treachery, demanding to know whence he had produced her rival, appealing to the elders to revise the judgment. Then, suddenly ceasing, as she saw by the looks of those around her that while in some her fate created pity, in others it gave rise to amusement, in many to the pleasure which poor human nature felt then as now in a friend's misfortune, her mood altered: she turned and, rapidly leaving the crowd, crossed one of the bridges. Hastening her steps, but not watching them, she tripped over the straggling root of a yew, and fell, her temple striking a sharp boulder, one of many cropping up in the forest. Poor girl! in one moment passion and pride had flown; she lay senseless, blood streaming from the wound.
A quick revulsion of feeling swept through the impressionable people. Her departure had been watched, the fall observed, and the serious nature of the accident was soon known; all hurried to the spot where she lay, full of sympathy and distress. Jean, perhaps not altogether unremorseful, was among the first to proffer aid; the stranger, left alone, took off the wreath and placed it on one of the stones of the circle, by which she stood contemplating the scene.
The blow, struck deep into the temple, was beyond any ordinary means of cure; life indeed seemed to be ebbing away. "Send for Marie!" the cry sprang from many mouths: "send for Marie the wise woman! she alone can save her!" Three or four youths ran hastily off.
"Wish ye for Marie Torode's body or her spirit?" said a harsh female voice; "her body ye can have! but what avail closed eyes and rigid limbs? Her spirit, tossed by the whirling death-blast, is beyond your reach!"
The speaker, on whom all eyes turned, was an aged woman of unusual height; her snow-white hair was confined by a metal circlet, her eyes were keen and searching, her gestures imperious; her dress was simple and would have been rude but for the quaintly ornamented silver girdle that bound her waist, and the massive bracelets on her arms. Like the girl she was seen for the first time; her almost supernatural appearance inspired wonder and awe. She bent over the prostrate form: "Marie said with her last breath," she muttered to herself, "that ere the oaks were green again the sweetest maidens in the island would be in her embrace, but she cannot summon this one now! her vext spirit has not yet the power!"
She examined the wound, and raising herself said, "No human hand can save her. The Spirits alone have power: those Spirits who prolong human life regardless of human ills; but they must be besought, and who will care to beseech them?"
"Prayers may save her," answered a stern voice, "but not prayers to devils! The Holy Virgin should we beseech, by whom all pure maidens are beloved. She will save her if it be God's will, or receive her into her bosom if it be decreed that she should die."
The words were those of Father Austin, one of the monks of Lihou, distinguished by his sanctity and the austerity of his habits. He was spare, as one who lived hardly; his grey eyes had a dreamy look betokening much inward contemplation, though they could be keen enough when, as now, the man was roused; there was a gentleness about his mouth which showed a nature filled with love and sympathy.
The woman drew herself to her full stature, and turned on him a defiant look.
"Gods or devils!" she said in a ringing tone--"which you will! What can an immured anchorite know of the vast mysteries of the wind-borne spirits? Is this child to live or die? My gods can save her; if yours can, let them take her! She is nought to me."
"When Elijah wrestled with the prophets of Baal, where did victory rest?" said the priest, and he too stooped down and inspected the wound. "She is past cure," he said, rising sadly; "it remains but to pray for her soul."
At this critical moment an agonizing shriek rang through the forest. The same runners who had sped to Marie Torode's cottage and had learnt there that the wise woman had in truth passed away, had brought back with them Suzanne's mother, who threw herself on her child's body endeavouring to staunch the blood, and to restore animation. Finding her efforts vain, she had listened anxiously to the words that had passed, and on hearing the priest's sentence of doom she burst into frantic grief and supplication. Turning to each disputant she cried--"Save her! save her young life! I suckled her, I reared her, I love her!--oh, how I love her!--do not let her die!"
"She can be saved!" curtly responded the stranger. The priest was silent. A murmur arose. Austin, who had trained himself to study those among whom he laboured, saw that the feeling was rising strongly against him. His antagonist saw it also, and pressed her victory.
"Yes!" she said scornfully, "it is a small matter for my Gods to save her, but they will not be besought while this bald-pate obtrudes his presence. Let him leave us!"
The priest was much perplexed. He knew the skill of these lonely women; secretly he had faith in their power of witchcraft, though attributing it to the direct agency of Satan. He thought it not impossible that there was truth in the boast; and his heart was wrung with the mother's grief. On the other hand, the public defeat was a sore trial; but it was clear to him that for the present at least the analogy of Elijah's struggle was imperfect: he must wait, and meanwhile bear his discomfiture with meekness. He prepared to retire. The victor was not, however, even now satisfied. "Take with you," she said, "yon idol that defaces the sacred oak!"
The good fathers, following their usual practice of associating emblems of heathen with those of Christian worship, in the hope of gradually diverting the reverence to the latter without giving to the former a ruder shock than could be endured, had suspended a small cross on the oak, hoping eventually to carve the tree itself into a sacred emblem; it was to this that the woman was pointing with a sneer.
But this time she had made a blunder. Father Austin turned to the crucifix and his strength and fire returned. Taking it from the tree, reverently kissing it and holding it aloft, he said solemnly--"Let my brothers and sisters come with me! We will pray apart, where no profane words can reach us. Perchance our prayers may be granted!" Not a few of the hearers followed him; sufficient indeed to make an imposing procession: the triumph of the Evil One was at least dimmed.
But his adversary did not appear to notice their departure. She gave a sharp glance in the direction of the oak, and the now discrowned girl was quickly at her side. Receiving some rapid instructions, the latter disappeared into the wood, and shortly returned with some herbs, which she passed to her companion; she then resumed her position by the stone. The old woman placed some leaves, which she selected, on the wound: the bleeding at once ceased; squeezing juice from the herbs, she applied an ointment made from it; then, opening a phial attached to her waist-belt, she poured some drops of liquid into the girl's mouth, gently parting her lips. This done, she stood erect and began an incantation, or rather a supplication, in an unknown tongue. As she proceeded her form became rigid, her eye gleamed, her arms, the hands clenched, were raised above her head. The sun flashed on the circlet, glittered on the embossed girdle: on the right arm was a heavy bracelet, composed of a golden serpent winding in weird folds round a human bone; the head was towards the wearer's wrist, and the jewelled eyes which, being of large size, must have been formed of rare stones, glowed and shot fire as the red beams struck on them through the branches. It seemed that a forked tongue darted in and out, but this may have been imagined by the heated fancies of the bystanders. The prayer ended; the stillness of death rested a moment on man and nature; then a wild gust of wind, striking the oak without any preliminary warning, bent and snapped the upper branches, and crashed inland through the swaying forest. The watchers saw the colour return to the cheeks of the wounded girl, who opened her eyes and sate up. "Take her home," said the sorceress, now quite composed, to the mother; "she is yours again!--till Marie calls her!" she added in a low voice to herself. The happy mother, shedding tears of joy, but in vain attempting to get her thanks accepted, obeyed the injunction.
As she and her friends disappeared, the old woman, turning to the awed people who seemed more than ever disposed to look on her as a supernatural being, said sternly--"Why linger you here? Are you unmindful of your duties? See you not how the shadows lengthen?" These words produced a magical effect: the deep emotions by which the mass had been recently swayed were swiftly replaced by equally profound feelings of a different nature, as cloud succeeds cloud in a storm-swept sky.
And now a singular scene was enacted. A procession was formed, headed by the old men, bare-headed; the musicians followed, behind whom walked with solemn step the younger members of the community. This procession, emerging from the western border of the forest, slowly climbed the slopes of the Rocque du Guet, and arriving at the summit bent its way seaward, halting at the edge of the precipitous cliff.
The sun was nearing the horizon. The scene was one of unsurpassed loveliness. Behind lay the central and southern portions of the island, hushed as if their primaeval rocks were still tenantless. The outlines of the isles of Herm and Jethou were visible, but already sinking into the shades of evening. On the left the bold bluffs of L'Erée and Lihou, on the right the rugged masses of the Grandes and the Grosses Rocques, the Gros Commet, the Grande and Petite Fourque, lay in sharpened outline, the lapping waves already assuming a grey tint. These masses formed the framework of a picture which embraced a boundless wealth of colour, an infinite depth of softness. Straight from the sun shot out across Cobo Bay a joyous river of gold, so bright that eye could ill bear to face its glow; here and there in its course stood out quaintly-shaped rocks, some drenched with the fulness of the glorious bath, others catching now and again a sprinkling shower. On each side of the river the sea, clear to its depths where alternate sand and rock made a tangle of capriciously mingled light and shade; its surface, here blue as the still waters of the Grotta Azzurra, there green as the olive, here again red-brown as Carthaginian marble, lay waveless, as with a sense that the beauty was too perfect to be disturbed. Suddenly the scene was changed; the lustrous outflow was swiftly drawn in and absorbed; a grey hue swept over the darkening surface; in the distance the round, blood-coloured, orb hung above the expectant ocean.
Then all assembled fell on their knees. The music gave out sharp plaintive notes which were answered by the voices of men and women in short, wailing, as it were inquiring, rhythm; this continued till the sun was on the point of disappearance, when music and voices together burst into a sad chant, seemingly of farewell; the kneeling people extending their hands seaward with an appealing gesture. One figure only was erect; on the projecting boulder, which is still so conspicuous a feature of the Rocque du Guet, stood the sorceress, her arms also outstretched, her figure, firm, erect, sharply outlined, such as Turner's mind conceived when he sketched the Last Man.
Father Austin contemplated the scene from a distance. By his side was his favourite convert, Jean Letocq.
"Strange!" he said, placing his hand on his companion's shoulder. "Your race are not sun-worshippers. Never, except on this day of the year, do they show this feeling; but who that saw them to-day would doubt that they are so! Is it that from old times their intense love of nature has led them to show in this way their sadness at its decay? or do they by mourning over the close of the sun's longest day symbolize their recognition of the inevitable end of the longest life of man? I cannot tell. But, blind as this worship is, it is better than that of the work of man's hands. By God's will your countrymen may be led from kneeling to the created to mount the ladder till they bend the knee only to the Creator. It may be well, too, that their chosen object of veneration is the only object in nature which dies but to rise again. Thus may they be led to the comprehension of the great truth of the resurrection. But Satan," he added with warmth, "must be wrestled with and cast down, specially when he takes the forms of temptation which he has assumed to-day: those of power and beauty. Prayer and fasting are sorely needed."
For once his pupil was not altogether docile. "Thou hast taught me, father," he replied, "the lesson of charity. This old woman is sinful, her error is deep, but may she not be converted and saved?"
"The devils can never regain Paradise," replied the priest sternly. "Arm thyself, Jean, against their wiles, in which I fear thou art already entangled. The two forms we have to-day seen are but human in seeming: demons surely lurked beneath."
Jean was now in open rebellion. "Nay, good father," he said decisively, "the maiden was no fiend; if her companion be an imp of darkness, as well she may, be it my task to rescue her from the evil snare into which she has fallen!" He had indeed a vivid recollection of the soft, human hand to which he had ventured to give a gentle pressure when he had assisted in placing the wreath on the fair, marble, brow, and had no doubt of the girl's womanhood. As he spoke he vanished from the side of the priest, who, seeing the two objects of his pious aversion entering the darkening glades of the wood, was at no loss to divine the cause of his disappearance. The holy father shook his head, and sighed deeply. He was accustomed to disappointments, but this day his path had to an unusual extent been beset with thorns. His faith was unshaken, and he humbly laid the fault on his own shoulders, promising further privations to his already sorely afflicted body. Meanwhile he descended the hill, directing his course to Lihou. Pausing on his way through the forest to replace the cross on the oak, he saw Jean, walking slowly homewards, his listless step showing that his quest had failed. The Evil One had, he thought, for the time at least, forborne to press his advantage. Further off he heard the scattered voices of the dispersing throng.