"I curse the hand that did the deid, The heart that thocht the ill, The feet that bore him wi' sik speid, The comely youth to kill."--Gill Morrice.--OLD BALLAD.
Jean had often expressed his curiosity to see the interior of the tower, and Hilda had promised to gratify it. On the 25th of October an opportunity occurred. She informed her lover that on that day a feast of unusual importance would be held from which none would be absent, and that her mother would be engaged at it from noon to midnight. On that day, therefore, he walked freely along the cliffs, and was admitted to the dwelling. He had unconsciously based his idea of its contents upon his recollections of the squalid abode of Marie Torode, where human skulls, skeletons, bones of birds and beasts, dried skins, and other ghastly objects had been so grouped as to add to the superstitious feeling inspired by the repulsive appearance of the crone herself. His astonishment was therefore proportionate when he saw what to his eyes appeared exceptional luxury. A wooden partition divided the room on the lower story into two chambers of unequal size: the larger, in which he stood, was the common dwelling apartment, the other was given over to Hilda. The upper story, approached by a ladder and also by an external staircase, was sacred to Judith; Tita occupied some outbuildings. The sitting-room was hung with rich stuffs of warm and glowing colours; here and there fitful rays of the sun flickered upon gold brocade and Oriental embroidery; rugs and mats, which must have been offered for sale in the bazaars of Egypt and Morocco, were littered about in strange contrast with the bracken-strewed floor. On the walls were inlaid breastplates and helmets, pieces of chain armour, swords and daggers of exquisite workmanship. On shelves stood drinking vessels of rougher make, but the best that northern craftsmen could produce. The seats were rude and massive: one of them, placed by a window fronting the setting sun, was evidently the favourite resting-place of Judith. Above this seat was a shelf on which lay some of the mysterious scrolls of which Jean had seen specimens in the possession of the fathers. Instruments of witchcraft, if such existed, must have been in the upper story: none were visible. All this splendour was manifestly inconsistent with the homely taste and abstracted mode of thought of the sorceress. In point of fact she was hardly aware of its existence. The decorator was Tita, in whom was the instinct of the connoisseur, supported by no inconsiderable knowledge to which she had attained in those early years of which she never could be induced to speak. When a rich prize was brought into the bay, freighted with a cargo from Asia, Africa, or the European shores of the Mediterranean, she never failed to attend the unloading, during which, by the help of cajolery, judicious depreciation, and other ingenious devices still dear to the virtuoso, she succeeded in obtaining possession of articles which would have enraptured a modern collector. Judith was apparently indifferent to a habit which she looked upon as a caprice of her faithful servant, and the only evidence of her noticing it was her concentration in her own apartments of all that related to her personal studies and pursuits.
It was now Jean's turn to listen and learn, and Hilda's to explain and instruct. Towards nine o'clock he was preparing to return. He was indifferent to the darkness, as by this time he knew the track so well that he crossed it fearlessly at all hours. His hand was on the bolt when Tita announced in alarm that Judith was returning and was on the point of entering. Hardly was there time to conceal him behind the hangings before she appeared. Her countenance was pale and worn, her tone, as Hilda took off her outer garments was weary and sad. "The portents were hostile and dangerous," she said; "they foretold woe, disaster, ruin. Will the mighty ones reveal to me the future? I cannot tell! But my spirit must commune with them till dawn breaks. Dost hear them? They call me now!" She held up her finger as a sudden blast rocked the tower to its foundations. "Aye," she continued more firmly after a pause, "they will not forget those who are true to them. But this people! this people!" She hid her face with her hands as if to cover a painful vision. After a time she rose to her feet and took the girl by the hand. Leading her to the seat by the window on which she placed herself, and making her kneel by her side, she said--
"Hilda! the chill mist closes round! my life draws to its end! Nay, weep not, child! were it not for thee I would long ere this have prayed the gods my masters to remove me from my sojourn among the degenerate sons of our noble fathers; but I trembled for thy fate, sweet one!" These last words were almost inexpressibly tender. "I dared not trust thy slight frame to battle unsheltered with the storm. Now the blast summoning me is sounded. I cannot much longer disobey, though I may crave for brief respite. But I have found thee refuge! thou wilt be in a safe haven. Stay! I must speak while the spirit is on me!"
"Mother!" sobbed the girl, clasping the old woman's knees.
"Hilda!" said Judith slowly, "call me no longer by that name! I am not thy mother; before men only do I call thee daughter. Silence!" she exclaimed imperatively, as Hilda looked quickly up, doubting whether she heard aright. "Silence! and listen!"
"I have loved thee truly, child, and have nurtured thee as a mother would! and thou art no stranger! the same blood runs in our veins! Yes! thou art mine! for thy father was my brother. Does not that give thee to me? Hush! thou shalt hear the tale."
Hilda's were not the only ears that drank in every word of the following story.
"Twenty years ago what a demi-god was Haco! He was a giant, but even men who feared him loved him. Though brave and strong as Odin himself, his mind was gentle and kind as a maiden's; first in council, in war, in manly sports, he ever had an open ear and a helping hand for the troubled and distressed. He was adored, nay, worshipped, by all. What wonder then that when he and the proud chief Algar courted the same maiden, he was preferred! Thou knowest not, Hilda, the mysteries of a tender heart; may it be long indeed before thy heart is seared by human passion!" It was fortunate that darkness hid the burning blush which suffused Hilda's face and neck at this pious wish. Judith proceeded:--"Thy father wedded and thou wast born. He poured on thy infant form all the wealth of his great generous heart. Algar nursed his revenge: he dared not act openly, for our house was as noble as his own--nay, nobler!" she added haughtily, "but he bided his time. Haco's tower was near the shore, a pleasant, lovely, spot. One night the news was borne to me that enemies had landed, and that his dwelling was in flames; I hurried towards it; I was stopped by armed warriors; Algar's men, they said, had hastened to the rescue; the chief had ordered that no women should leave their homes. It was in vain that I urged and protested. When at last I reached the spot the struggle was said to be over, and the assailants, beaten off, were declared to have sailed away. Algar himself came to me with well-assumed grief. He had arrived, he swore, too late to save. The tower had been fired whilst the inmates slept, the wife and child had perished; Haco, after performing incredible feats of valour, had fallen before the strokes of numerous foes; when he himself had come with a chosen band, while sending the rest of his forces to other posts which the unforeseen danger might threaten, nothing remained but to avenge the murder. Why recount the caitiffs lies? Where were the signs of landing, of hasty re-embarkation? Where were the dead of the strangers? Thrown into the sea! he said; it was foul falsehood, and fouler treachery. I found your father's body; he was smitten and gashed, but nobler than the living. I touched him and was silent. I knew what none others guessed. I arose. The spirits of the Gods came over me, and I cursed his slayer. Never had I spoken so fiercely; men stood and wondered. I prayed the Gods to make the wretch who had caused my darling's death miserable by land and by sea, by day and by night, in the field and at the board, loathed by his friends, and scorned by his foes. The Gods heard my imprecations; as I turned my eyes skywards they looked from their clouds, wrath kindling on their brows, and Algar's face was white with fear, his hand trembled and his knee shook.
"'We must bury him,' he faltered.
"'Yea,' said I, 'but in a hero's grave, and after the custom of our fathers.'
"There was a murmur of applause. Algar could not refuse.
"They brought the choicest of the boats, they made the sails bright and gay, they put in it the dead man's arms, and food to accompany him to the land of spirits. Then they bound him before the mast, his face turned seaward. At sundown they towed the boat to deep water, so pierced her that she might sink slowly under the waves, and then they left the hero to his rest. I had gone out with them: alone I said to him my last farewell. But they did not know my secret. They did not guess that I had ascertained by my art that life was yet in him, that I had poured between his lips subtle drops which would maintain animation for many days and nights, during which consciousness might be restored; nor did they imagine that when I kneeled before him I had stopped the leak by which the water was to flow into the doomed boat. Algar was now the deceived; it was a living man, not a corpse, who started on that voyage. Haco lives still, though where my art cannot tell. I thought that Marie Torode knew, and sought her on her death-bed to question her, but either she could not or she would not tell." Hilda's mind was in such confusion that she could not speak. The old woman continued. "Algar lived on--yes, lived that he might suffer all the evils with which my curse loaded him, and died that he might be hurled into the abyss where traitors and cravens writhe and groan. Enough of him!
"When I returned to my tower, a figure was crouching before the hearth: it was Tita, and you were in her arms. The faithful creature, whom your father had chosen from a band of captives to be your nurse, had, unperceived, saved your life from the flames. Thenceforward you were my care. I took your mother's place as best I could. Others knew not your parentage, nor did they dare to question me. None suspected the truth."
When she reached this point she bent over the kneeling girl and gave her a kiss, tender as a mother's if not a mother's kiss; her fingers caressed the head bowed upon her knees; for a time the silence was only broken by Hilda's sobs. She then spoke again, this time quickly, sternly, as if to prevent interruption.
"I cannot leave thee alone, and I will not! Listen, child, and be silent! What I now tell thee is beyond thy young understanding: thou hast but to shape thy will to my bidding: it is for me to launch thy vessel on its voyage, the Gods will help thy riper judgment to steer its course! The time has come when thou must wed! I have chosen for thee a suitor, the chief to whom all thy countrymen bend the knee. Garthmund claims thee as his bride; ere eight days expire the marriage feast will be held. He is of noble birth, there is none nobler; he is young and strong, and should be favoured by the Gods if he prove worthy of them. He is a fitting bridegroom for Haco's daughter."
The girl was dazed and trembling. She knew this chief: he answered Judith's description, but was rough and coarse. Had she not met Jean she might not have dared to refuse, but now she felt that death would be more welcome than this marriage. "Spare me, mother!" she said, as if she had not heard the disclaimer of maternity. "I am too young, too weak." The old woman pressed her hand on the girl's lips. "We will not speak further to-night," she said; "thou canst not see Garthmund for three days, for so long the feast will last. May the Gods protect thee!" She rose: the fitful moonlight streamed on her gaunt form; she turned and slowly ascended to her chamber.
The terrified girl quickly released Jean, who led her from the tower. If she was broken and trembling he was erect and resolute; no longer the soft lover, but the prompt man of action. She felt the bracing influence. "We have three days," he said. "Within that time we must flee. I will not return to the cave; my task must be to repair the boat." He mentioned certain articles which he begged her to provide, pressed her to his breast, and disappeared in the darkness.
At daylight he examined the little vessel. She was no worse than she had been, as each incoming tide, reaching the place where she was secured, had floated her, but the rock had opened a large jagged fissure. Hilda brought him such materials as she could procure, a log of wood, bark which she stitched with her own hands, a hatchet and nails. Jean utilized also the vraick with which the sand was strewn. He worked without fear of detection, knowing that the whole population was inland; but the lovers had to rely on themselves alone, for, when there was a question of flight, Tita was no longer to be trusted.
On the third day Jean found the boat fairly seaworthy. Hilda felt a severe pang at leaving Judith, who had not reverted to the subject of her marriage. Whether her parent or not, she loved her dearly; she felt also the pain of parting with Tita, but her resolution never swerved. She had given her heart to Jean; she felt also a presentiment that she would discover her father; while it was her belief that the parting from her old associates was but temporary.
When the sun went down Jean set his sail, meaning to make a rapid dash across the bay, and seeing no cause for concealing his movements. There was more swell than he liked for so frail a craft, but wind and tide were favourable to the enterprise, and the night was exceptionally bright, the moon being full; this brightness would have been fatal had the inhabitants been on the alert, but under present circumstances the pale beams were welcome. Hilda took the helm; she knew every passage in the labyrinth of submerged rocks, and they were soon in comparatively open water. Jean then assumed control, wrapping the maiden in his cloak, for the waves were tossing their spray over the boat as she heeled over to the breeze.
They had traversed in safety three-fourths of their course when Jean, looking seaward, saw a dark sail bearing down on them. One of the pirate ships, delayed by contrary winds, was hurrying homeward, the crew of five men hoping to arrive ere the feast was over. Jean's hope that the boat might not be discovered was soon dispelled: the vessel altered her course slightly and hailed. Jean made no answer. The pirate was evidently in no mood to parley; the crew were in a fierce temper, angry and discontented at the postponement of their arrival. She made a deliberate attempt to run the boat down. Jean divined her object and, putting up his helm sharply at the right moment, let her shoot by him astern; he then resumed his course. A second attempt was clumsier, and was easily evaded; the assailants were hurried and impatient; nor did they know the seamanlike qualities of the man with whom they were dealing. But Jean saw that ultimate escape was hopeless, and this was equally apparent to Hilda who, however, though pale as death, gave a firm pressure of the hand in response to his grasp. At this moment an object glimmered under the youth's feet: stooping down he touched the shell. The hermit's parting words flashed on his mind: he seized on the hope of rescue, and sounded two loud and clear blasts.
The pirates now altered their tactics. Handling their vessel with more care they succeeded, after two or three unsuccessful attempts, in ranging alongside and grappling the boat. A man sprung on board and seized Hilda. "A rare booty!" he cried,--"the Gods repent of their waywardness." Jean was engaged with those of the crew who had seized the boat; the man laughingly gave the girl a rough embrace: it was the last act he had to record before entering the spirit world. Hilda drew from her bosom one of the daggers which Jean had noticed on the tower walls, whose blade, still sharp and keen, might have been forged by a Damascus smith; it struck deep to the heart of the ruffian, who fell lifeless into the waves. Jean had now freed the craft, but the respite was short: before she had made much progress she was again captured. The pirates, furious at the death of their comrade, made a determined onslaught. Jean, fighting desperately, received from behind a terrific blow which laid him senseless. But a superstitious feeling made them hesitate before committing further outrage; they had recognized Hilda, and feared the consequence of Judith's vengeance if she were injured. There was no time, however, for delay; the, rude repairs, torn by the trampling feet, had given way, and the leak had re-opened: the boat was fast sinking. The pirates cared not for Jean's lifeless body; that might sink or swim; but they felt they must save the girl whatever might be her future doom. Even their hearts softened somewhat as they watched her erect in the sinking boat, her face pallid, her fair hair shining in the moonlight, but her lips set, her lovely eyes bent tearless on her prostrate lover, her right hand, holding the blood-stained dagger, hanging listlessly by her side.
Watching an opportunity, a stalwart youth seized her from behind and pinned her arms. The next moment he himself was seized as if he were a dog, and hurled into the water. The new combatant, whose arrival had so effectually changed the aspect of affairs, was the hermit, who followed up his first stroke by another still more decisive. Springing into the pirate craft, wrenching a weapon from the grasp of the chief of the assailants, he drove before him the three remaining men, terror-struck at his sudden and inexplicable appearance, his superhuman size and strength. One by one he swept them overboard; then grasping a huge stone, which formed part of the ballast, he dashed it with the full force of his gigantic strength through the planks of the boat, which at once began to fill. All this was the work of a few moments. He then leaped into the skiff, which sank as he swiftly transferred to his own vessel its two occupants.
Before another hour was over, Jean, stretched on a pallet, was receiving the attention of loving hands in a cell of the Lihou monastery.