"Mother! list a suppliant child! Ave Maria! Ave Maria! Stainless styled. Foul demons of the earth and air, From this their wonted haunt exiled, Shall flee before thy presence fair."--Lady of the Lake.--WALTER SCOTT.
Jean's recovery after Hilda's departure had been slow and lingering; but for the unwearied care of the good fathers and of the recluse, aided by a constitution of no ordinary strength, he must have succumbed to the terrible injuries which he had received. As, however, the days began to lengthen, and signs of spring to appear even on the wild rock where he had taken refuge, his vigour gradually returned. It had been necessary that he should be protected from excitement; consequently, while receiving from the hermit regular reports from the Vale, and many a sweet message from his love which made his heart leap with happiness, he knew nothing till the beginning of February of the incursion of the Voizins, and the accompanying events. Since he had been alone, however, he had dwelt for hours together on the strange story which he had overheard in the tower, the principal figure of which, while his brain had been still confused, had been always mingled in his delirium with the massive form of the hermit. Father Austin, watching him with anxiety, at length suggested that he should relieve his mind by repeating the tale to the recluse himself. He readily adopted the suggestion. His listener, who had been too delicate to question Hilda as to her antecedents, but who had been burning to learn the explanation of the striking resemblance of her features to a face which, whether he waked or slept, ever haunted him, though more often contorted in agony than wreathed in smiles, heard with impatience the history of Algar's treachery; but when Jean detailed the escape of Tita and her charge, and identified the latter with the maiden whom he had rescued, he sprang to his feet at the risk of plunging his patient into a fresh crisis of fever, and exclaimed, "May the choicest gifts of heaven be showered on thee, brave youth! the blessed angels and saints will love thee for this deed!" He reflected a moment, then turned his eyes full on Jean's face, "Why should I leave it to Austin to tell thee what he has long known under the solemn secrecy which binds priest and sinner? Thou shalt know it from my own lips: I am Haco! Drifted hitherward on that lonely voyage, I was released by holy men, now saints above, who healed my wounds and taught me to bury my pride, and to kneel humbly before the Cross. I never doubted that I was childless as well as wifeless; had I done so, I should have returned at all risks to claim my own. But she! Hilda! 'twas her mother's name! this maiden, towards whom my soul went out in yearning, is my own! yes! my child! If a wild feeling rose when I watched her I crushed it out, for I thought that I had stifled all human passions; but now--" He fell on his knees, and hid his face in his hands, his giant frame convulsed with sobs; but it was evident that he was controlling himself, and when he rose his rugged face was full of humanity: youth seemed to have returned to it; under the disfiguring scars Jean could trace without difficulty the fearless, generous features of which Judith had spoken with such enthusiasm. Haco warmly grasped the sick man's hand, and left the cell.
Father Austin had, it appeared, learnt Judith's story from Hilda, but this confidence also had been made under the seal of confession. He had been confirmed in his impression of its accuracy by the tale he had already heard from Haco, whose strange arrival was still a favourite topic among the monks, though none of those now in the monastery had witnessed it. The three men were now able openly to discuss the subject in its various bearings, but they agreed that the mystery should not be revealed till peace was restored.
Haco had from the first foreseen the danger to be apprehended from the Voizin incursion. The monks were still further surprised to see the being, whose gentleness had amazed them on Hilda's arrival, now a leader of men, active, vigorous, inspiring others with the love of life with which he himself seemed to be animated. Before the attack came Jean was sufficiently recovered to be able to render efficient assistance; he had ably seconded Haco in the two encounters, after which he was specially entrusted with the defence of the Vale.
Judith was in no degree daunted by temporary failure: her nature revelled in overcoming opposition; her spirit rose to the occasion. Garthmund was inclined to be sulky after his second defeat, and might have abandoned the enterprise had he dared to do so; but fear of the sorceress kept him firm. For a month the system of blockade was tried, varied by occasional assaults which, being made with less spirit than the earlier ones, were easily repulsed. The blockade was not more successful. Haco had provided ample stores for the small garrison which he had considered sufficient to protect the promontory of Lihou, naturally almost impregnable; and the force defending the Vale, camped chiefly on Lancresse Common, was only nominally blockaded. The sallies, made from time to time, were ordered more with a view of keeping up the martial spirit of the men than with that of providing for wants, for the friendly inhabitants of the eastern side of the island, emboldened by recent proofs that the dreaded Voizins were not invincible, ran their boats almost with impunity into the little creeks into which the heavier craft of the enemy could not follow them.
Judith hardly noticed these details. Her attention was fixed upon the key of the position. She knew that a resistance of this description was altogether contrary to the unwarlike character of the natives; she was convinced that they were actuated by some abnormal spirit, and that if the motive power were removed the machine would collapse. She made it her business to ascertain what the spring was that guided them. All her art failed in detecting the presence of Haco, perhaps because her engines were powerless when directed against one of her own blood; but she easily ascertained that the warriors in the opposing camp looked to Jean as their leader, that his spirit pervaded all, and that his ardour to protect his sacred charge filled him with a wondrous power which astonished even those who from childhood had bent to his unchallenged primacy.
Having satisfied herself as to the character of the opposing force, her next step was to secure Jean's person. This presented no difficulty to her. A scroll was delivered to the young leader by an unknown messenger, who at once disappeared. Jean, seeing that the characters were those which, as he believed, Austin alone was able to trace, took the scroll to the sister who alone was able to interpret them. What Sister Theresa read was alarming:--"Hasten! I am grievously sick; my strength fails! I must see thee without delay." Jean was distressed beyond measure, but Hilda, whom he hurried to consult, agreed with him that no time must be lost in obeying the summons; the fact that Haco was at Lihou convinced them that the father would not have sent for Jean if his case had not been one of extreme danger. After a hasty farewell and a promise of speedy return, for his presence with the forces was imperative and he grudged every hour of absence from his beloved, he set out alone in his boat. Before an hour had passed he was captured by a flotilla which had been lying in ambuscade behind the Grandes Rocques, and was a prisoner in the enemy's camp.
If Judith had been an ordinary woman she would have been content with this result, would have executed the prisoner, and have awaited the submission of his disheartened followers; and she would have failed, defeated by the indomitable courage and resource of Haco. But it was not in this clumsy fashion that her genius moulded the materials at her command. She now controlled, as she believed, the mainspring of the resistance, which would probably cease with the death of Jean. But her aim went far beyond the mere submission of her antagonists; she wished that the blow should be struck in such a manner as to stamp out the false creed which had held the islanders in thrall, to prove to all sceptics the powers of her own Gods and the impotence of those of her opponents, and to commit the recently reconverted islanders so irretrievably that they could not afterwards backslide. She wished also, by making an example that would inspire terror, to establish the undisputed supremacy of her people in the whole island. But, side by side with these political considerations, were the religious influences honestly and steadfastly working in her powerful intellect. When she communed with her Gods she thought of no earthly good or ill: she loved these strange conceptions, and fixed her whole soul on conciliating them. It was now her conviction that they were displeased: their displeasure, awful as she believed it to be, did not terrify her, but it vexed her to the inmost heart: she feared that they had not been rightly propitiated, and resolved that the shortcoming must be remedied.
All her reflections pointed with unerring force to the same conclusion. She held in her hands the strong frame, the stout heart, the ruling mind. All were concentrated in Jean Letocq. He, then, must be offered up as a fitting sacrifice. By such an offering the deities could not fail to be appeased, and by the death of this man in this fashion all the natural exigencies of the situation would be satisfied. She never allowed herself to dwell for one moment on the fact that the victim was beloved by Hilda. On this point she had armed herself with bars of brass and triple steel. He might have fooled the girl, but at the thought of love her heart was ice.
The sorceress communicated her resolution to Garthmund. The chieftain exhibited no surprise: he expressed a grim approval of the proposal, which seemed likely to give an excuse for revelry and to bring the campaign to a prompt conclusion, and proceeded to make the requisite arrangements.
The 30th of March was the day chosen. The forces investing the two beleaguered positions were ordered to assemble, that on the western side on the low ground between L'Erée and Lihou, that on the northern under shelter of the woods of the Braye du Valle, facing the fortifications thrown up by the defenders. At a given signal, the kindling of a beacon on the Rocque du Guet, the two hosts were to make simultaneously a determined assault. The islanders not engaged in these operations, with the exception of those openly or secretly sympathizing with the Christians, poured into Vazon Forest, none remaining behind but those absolutely incapable of conveying themselves or of being conveyed.
By this time the consternation in the enemy's camp was all that the sorceress could desire. Jean's capture had been ascertained, and all the particulars respecting his coming fate were known by means of spies. Haco shook his head at the proposals of rescue made by spirited youths. "Success would be hopeless," he said; "failure would be fatal to those whose lives are precious to us. If he dies we will brace every nerve to avenge him, but we must be patient, and await their onslaught. Then will come our turn! then will we spring at their dastard throats! then shall they drink freely of their own gore!" If the man of the sword thought the case hopeless, what could the men of the cloister do? They did all in their power--prayed ceaselessly, fasted, did penance under the guidance of Father Austin; but nevertheless the fatal morning arrived.
Hilda knew her lover's danger. When he failed to return, and when Haco, arriving from Lihou, admitted that he had not been seen at the monastery, her heart sank; she, better than any of those around her, knew the stern, implacable patriotism and fanaticism of Judith's nature; she fully realized the savage dispositions of her countrymen, their contempt of human life, and their brutal treatment of captives. She had some conception of their fearful orgies, and she shuddered when her mind touched, not daring to dwell, on Jean's possible fate. She had sufficient presence of mind to bear up bravely before Haco, who had no suspicion that she had a perception of the terrible truth from which even his rent and seared feelings shrank; nor did she reveal to Father Austin, during a short visit which he paid her at great risk this inner serpent which was devouring her young heart. Sister Theresa and her fellows marvelled at her as on the morning of the fatal day she passed between them, her eyes rapt in contemplation, her look serene and calm, though beneath the surface lay a depth of unutterable woe, sinking, receding, chill as the dark, haunted, bosom of an unfathomable mountain lake.
She sought her own cell and begged to be left alone. Then the full heart burst the bounds imposed by the strong will. She placed before her the little Madonna, from which she never parted, and fell on her knees. She prayed till noon, and her prayer continued still; it was not simply a woman's supplication: her whole essence was poured out before the Holy Mother, who was the object of her special adoration. This girl had never known evil: for nineteen years her mind had rippled on, sparkling with good deeds, little bright thoughts, gentle inspirations sweetly obeyed; then first streamed in the warm current of human love, followed by the rapid thrilling rush of the flow of Divine awakening. The little stream had become a torrent; but one in which every element was pure, for its component parts were faith in God, trust in man, the will to act, the power to bear, contentment in joy and resignation in sorrow. Above all, she had ever before her the words which Austin had told her comprised the sermon of the universe--"Thy will be done!" Was it possible that, in the days when miracles were yet wrought, such a prayer at such a time from such a saint should not be heard? Some three hours had passed after noon when she felt a sweet languor overspread her. A mist crept before her eyes, which quickly passed away and was replaced by a radiance brighter than the sun's rays; her eyes had power however to look aloft, and she gazed with clasped hands and with loving reverence: the Holy Virgin herself stood before her, holding in her arms the Blessed Infant; the Mother looking down with a smile inexpressibly tender and compassionate, the Child stretching forth its dimpled hand and giving its blessing. She sank in rapture, the glory too great for her. As the vision faded she arose, a marvellous strength possessing her. She stepped forth, and found herself in the midst of a crowd gazing, horror-stricken, seawards. "Fear nothing," she said with a calm expression that seemed to permeate the whole assembly like an inner voice; "he is saved, and you are saved!" The words came opportunely.