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Ch. 5: Affliction

 

 

 

 

 

    "The race of Thor and Odin
    Held their battles by my side,
    And the blood of man was mingling
    Warmly with my chilly tide."--Danube and the Euxine.--AYTOUN.

 

 

 

 

Father Austin received his pupil's companion with the courtesy due to her distress, but with much misgiving. After tending his patient, whose situation was critical, he paced thoughtfully towards the cell in which he had placed her, revolving in his mind the difficulties of the case. His amazement was intense when he slowly opened the door. The maiden was kneeling, her back towards him; before her was the little picture of the Madonna; she was praying aloud; her words were simple but passionately pathetic; she threw herself and her lover upon the mercy of the Holy Mother with a trust so absolute, a confidence so infinite, that the monk could hardly refrain from tears. How had he been blinded! as he looked and listened the scales fell from his eyes: he humbly owned his error.

The noise of his step startled her; she rose and looked at him inquiringly. "Maiden," he said, answering her appealing look, "his fate is in the hands of God, whose ears are ever open to the prayers of those that fear Him."

Often and often had Jean spoken to her of Father Austin; she loved him already, but she had yet to fathom the nobleness of his soul. His single-heartedness and abnegation of self, his tenderness and quick sympathy (virtues tempering his fierce abhorrence of Paganism), his stern reprobation of the evil, and his yearning for the good, in the untutored barbarians among whom he laboured, were gradually revealed in the discourses which they held daily while Jean lay between life and death. Reaping and garnering what Jean had sown, he scattered fresh seed, opening out to her the great history of God in man. Qualities hitherto unsuspected in her developed; if an apt pupil, she was an instructive teacher of the wealth of charity and purity that dwells in an untainted woman's heart. And she had another friend: the hermit watched over her with touching care and assiduity. He appeared strangely attracted to her; the holy fathers marvelled to see this rough being, who had seemed to them an animal to be feared while pitied, caring for the maiden's comfort with a woman's gentleness: he seemed never weary of contemplating her, sometimes murmuring to himself as he did so. Any little delicacy that the island could afford, game, fish, shellfish, was provided for her by him. Once, thinking her couch hard, he disappeared and returned bearing, whence none knew, soft stuffs better fitted for her tender form; on this occasion the whole man seemed transformed, when he stepped in with a smile in his big frank eyes, and a ruddy glow on his bronzed scarred cheeks, placed his offering at her feet, and strode away. Strange, too, to say, Hilda seemed to return the feeling: happy in the presence of Austin, she was yet with him as the pupil with the master; but with the recluse she was gentle, affectionate, and even playful. The monks attempted not to solve the puzzle of the bond that knitted together the two strange beings; analysis of character troubled little their saintly minds.

At length consciousness returned; Jean opened his eyes and recognised Austin. This was a joyful moment. Quiet was all that was now necessary to complete the restoration of his health, which could not, however, be anticipated for a considerable time. The first inquiry of the patient was for Hilda, and he was allowed to see her; on the next day they were permitted to interchange a few words, after which Austin explained what he had already decided. Hilda, he pointed out, could not fitly remain in Lihou, where she had been allowed to reside only until her lover was out of danger; the laws of the establishment, which forbade the presence of women, must now be put in force, but a fitting home had been provided for her; she would be placed with the Sisters at the Vale; the hermit would conduct her thither on the following day. The girl bowed to this decision, sorely as she grieved to leave him she loved; the next morning they parted, and she embarked with her guardian who, shielding her lovingly from all harm, placed her, ere nightfall, in her new abode.

Judith had not discovered the girl's departure till the sun was well up, when she heard of her absence from the frantic Tita. The old woman's force of character was colossal; pettinesses, small passions, were unknown to her. Had her sphere been larger her promptitude of resource, keenness of perception, resolute look onwards and upwards, solidity of purpose, and incisive action might have graven her name on the tables of history. Stagnating in the shallow pools of the unstoried rocks in which she passed her life, these grand qualities were wasted and perverted. She lost no time now in recrimination; a few sharp questions enabled her to judge how far the weakness of affection had played the traitor with the old woman, whom she left to settle matters with her own conscience. She saw Garthmund, and told him that, in consequence of the unsatisfactory augury of the last sacrifice, she had decided to postpone the marriage. Nor did she appear to notice the indifference with which the chief, who could not pretend that he ardently loved a bride who was practically a stranger to him, received the decision. It took her some time to discover where Hilda had taken refuge; it speaks ill for female reticence that she discovered it shortly after the girl's removal to the sisterhood. She satisfied herself that her own people had no suspicion of the flight, as none of the crew of the belated boat had reached the shore; and she gathered, from the transfer of the maiden to the convent, that Father Austin was, on his side, resolved not to make known the elopement of Garthmund's intended wife. Her paramount wish was to recover her niece, but she perceived that she must act warily, and must be ready to deal with the many contingencies which would inevitably arise during the development of her schemes. Hilda's position under the immediate protection of the religious communities was a serious obstacle. Judith believed that against them her magic arts would be of no avail; she was therefore driven to confine herself to earthly combinations; but she was in no wise daunted by this difficulty, which in point of fact cleared her judgment, and assisted her by inducing her to make the best of the materials at her disposal. The obvious plan for the recovery of the girl was to induce Garthmund to attack the nunnery, and drag his bride from it; but to this there were many objections. Acknowledgment of Hilda's flight would be in itself a confession of failure. She had promised to produce the girl when she was required; to seek the chief's assistance to enable her to fulfil the promise would be a diminution of her prestige, and consequently of her power. Again, it was by no means certain that the chief who, it has been said, was no love-sick bridegroom, would consent to undertake the enterprise; nor, if he did undertake it, was his prospect of success unquestionable, for the islanders, though not ready listeners to the Christian teaching, would have united to repel a heathen attack on their teachers whom they honoured and respected. Judith therefore rejected this expedient, arranging her plan of operations with remarkable ingenuity.

Her first aim was to promote ill-feeling between the Voizins and their neighbours; this part of the campaign was prosecuted with vigour. Cattle were lost on either side of the boundary; houses were burnt; old wells ran dry; rumours, mysteriously circulated, spoke of these as no accidental mishaps; suspicions were whispered; instances of retaliation followed. At the time when a dangerous feeling was thus growing up a famine broke out in the Voizin country while the islanders were well supplied. The hungry Voizin men heard voices in the darkness scoffing at them, laughter and sneers. When their carts were sent to fetch the necessaries of life, lynch-pins were loosened; in more than one case the draught oxen were houghed; the provisions, when received, were mouldy and unwholesome. At last sickness broke out, with stories of poison; then the tension became insupportable. The Voizin chief, too proud to go to his neighbours, summoned them to him; the messenger was murdered. This assassination, of which the natives denied all knowledge, was met by prompt reprisals; three Perelle fishermen were hung on the spot where the body was found. From this date the outbreak of hostilities was but a question of time. A sternness of purpose ruled in the councils of the Voizins which frustrated all attempts at conciliation. A little before Christmas a trivial incident kindled the smouldering flames, and the hordes, pouring from the Torteval valleys, swept over the districts now known as the parishes of St. Saviour's and the Câtel; the resistance was tame and ineffectual, sufficient only to give occasion for considerable slaughter and plunder. The invaders, seeing no reason for returning to their famine-stricken fastnesses, settled themselves in the enjoyment of the abundance of the vanquished, who, in their turn, with their accustomed versatility, submitted patiently, and even cheerfully, to a yoke which, after the first onslaught was over, pressed lightly; the Voizins, to whom fighting was a pastime, bearing no malice, and passing imperceptibly into a genial mood.



Vale Castle. Sketched in 1838.


Judith now prepared to develop the next move, the object of which was to undermine the authority of the monks, and make them vulnerable by isolation. Derisive hints were dropped respecting the failure of the new religion to help its votaries in the hour of peril; the victory of the Voizins was attributed to the superiority of their Gods rather than to deficiency in courage on the part of their foes: this theory, which was not unpalatable to those who had been half-hearted in defence of their homes, was also utilized by the more sober spirits as an argument wherewith to restrain the more ardent from attempting to renew the struggle under similar conditions. The observances of the religion of Thor and Odin, or rather of that debased form of it which prevailed among this singular people, were celebrated under their more alluring aspects: frequent feasts and dances captivated the laughter-loving islanders, who had been tried somewhat severely by the severity of the régime which Austin had endeavoured to impose since he had seen danger in his damaging encounter with Judith. After a time it was proclaimed that none would be permitted to join in the revelries who were enemies to the Gods who presided at them. This stroke was successful: the majority openly embraced the creed of their conquerors, and showed the usual spirit of perverts in exceeding the latter in their zeal to sweep away all traces of the religion which they had abandoned. The minority who held true to their faith drew together, a grim and resolute band, prepared for a bold defence and, if Christ so willed it, for martyrdom.

It was not Judith's purpose, now that the disruption of the islanders was effected, to leave time for the Christians to mature plans for resistance. Garthmund, at her instigation, delivered simultaneous attacks on Lihou and the Vale; he himself superintending the latter operation in order that he might see that the sorceress's instructions, that all in the nunnery were to be made prisoners uninjured, and brought to her closely veiled, were implicitly obeyed. To the surprise of the islanders, however, both assaults, though made with spirit and absolute confidence of success, were completely repulsed; the same result attended a renewed attack, made two days subsequently with fresh and increased forces supported by native levies. Garthmund found that in both places he had before him not only resolute troops, but skilled and enterprising commanders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Anonymous

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