"Prophet-like that lone one stood, With dauntless words and high, That shook the sere leaves from the wood As if a storm pass'd by."--The Last Man.--CAMPBELL.
"So perish the old Gods! But out of the sea of time Rises a new land of song, Fairer than the old."--The Seaside and the Fireside.--LONGFELLOW.
Full of evil augury was the morning of this eventful day in Vazon Forest. There were the same trees, the same glades and streams, as on the well-remembered Midsummer day of the preceding year; but nature and man alike were in a different mood. The trees were leafless and churlish, the glades ragged and colourless; the turbid, dusky streams bore but small resemblance to the limpid rivulets of June; the native youths were absent, engaged in military service; the maidens, headed by Suzanne Falla, had indeed an appearance of mirth, but there was a hollow ring in the boisterous recklessness of their merriment; the old men tramped feebly and aimlessly, for the reverence for age had been transferred to the veterans of the conquerors. The latter also supplied the musicians; and the clanging of drums and cymbals, with the blast of horns, replaced the sylvan melody of the aborigines.
Still there was every sign of festivity. The proceedings began with dances in which the men, who posed as athletes and warriors, gave representations of deeds of martial prowess. Then the girls were allowed to foot their native dances in their own fashion. Dances for both sexes followed, in which the native maidens found it difficult to conceal their terror of the rough partners ever ready to become rougher wooers.
These preliminaries concluded, the business of the day began. Though this wild race sacrificed human beings, they did not treat their victims with the coldblooded cruelty of the Druids, who slaughtered them as if they were oxen or sheep; their custom was to burn their captives; and it is not for critics, whose pious forefathers kindled the fires of Smithfield, to assert that their practice was wholly barbarous. In the present case a pyre, some twelve feet high, was built at the foot of a huge granite boulder, near the sea-coast: it was constructed of dry wood, and was drenched with combustible materials. Jean was bound firmly to a strong hurdle, made of birch stems and withies securely lashed together. Judith, Garthmund, and the principal elders, placed themselves under the venerable oak; the people stood at a respectful distance. Twelve stalwart warriors bore the litter on which the prisoner was stretched, and placed it on stone trestles planted for the purpose in the intervening space. Then the priests arrived; twelve old men whose white locks and beards, and snowy dresses, gave them a venerable appearance which was soon belied by their performances.
Halting when they reached the victim, the priests faced the oak, and chanted a solemn, wailing dirge; this, which might have been a farewell to the spirit whose departure they were preparing to accelerate, was not unimpressive. Then one stepped forward whose voice was yet clear and loud; he passed a warm eulogy on the qualities of the captive, whom he described in exaggerated phrases as a sage in council, and a hero in battle, endowing him also with every domestic virtue which seemed in his eyes worthy of enumeration. This discourse was followed by a warlike song in honour of Thor and Odin, and it was during the course of this hymn that it became clear from their rolling eyes and unsteady gait that the old men were in a state of no ordinary excitement. All night they had been feasting their deities, and the solemnity had involved deep potations; now, as the rapid movements of a dance which accompanied the inspiriting words sent the fumes into their heads, they appeared to be beside themselves. The bystanders, however, attributing their frenzy to religious fervour, and not unaccustomed to such manifestations, looked on unmoved. The music ceased; and the song of triumph gave way to a hideous scene over which it were painful to dwell. The drunken old men, with incredible agility, whirled round the prostrate form of Jean. There was no question now of eulogizing his virtues: he was accused, in language which seemed devil-born, of every crime, every infamy, of which the human race is capable; held up to scorn and ignominy, he was cursed and execrated with a shower of blasphemy and obscenity; a by-stander, contemplating his calm, clear face, the lips parted in prayer, gleaming amidst the contorted features of the screaming miscreants, might have believed him to be already passing, unscathed, through the terrors of purgatory.
It is impossible at this day to fathom the mystery of this terrible relic of some remote superstition. It may have been that the abhorrence and extinction of evil was roughly typified, or that it was understood that the death of the victim would, as if he were a scapegoat, cleanse the worshippers of the sins with which he was thus loaded. It is idle to grope where all is, and must be, dark; all that can be asserted with any certainty is that the preliminary eulogy, a more modern practice, was intended to enhance the value of the offering which they were about to make to the Gods.
The warriors now resumed their burden, and a procession was formed towards the pyre, on which the litter-bearers, mounting by an inclined plane, placed the doomed youth. Judith ascended the huge boulder, which was some eight feet higher than the pyre at its foot. The chief and people grouped themselves round its base. The priests stood ready to apply the torch when the sorceress gave the signal, and the distant watchman on the Guct waited in his turn for the first flash of flame to kindle the beacon which was to set the assailing forces in motion.
Judith turned to the expectant crowd: her glance was searching, in her eye was an ineffable look of scorn. "Down on your knees!" she said, "craven sons, whose sires would blush to own you! You who have steeped your hearts in pride and boastfulness! Were your fathers slow to draw the sword and quick to sheathe it? Did they cower by their hearths when warm blood was being spilt? did they feast when others fought? would they not have leaped, as the tempest rushes from its caves, to scatter like the sand those who should have dared to bend the knee to false Gods, objects of their loathing and derision? Runs this noble blood in your stagnant veins? From giants ye have become pigmies!" The majestic contempt with which these words had been delivered had a crushing effect. She continued her harangue for some time in the same strain. Every Voizin's head was bowed, every form bent and trembling. The sorceress then, slowly turning, faced seaward. Her arms assumed the well-known beseeching attitude, the serpent bracelet glittering fiercely in the sun. Her voice changed, became softer. "Yet they are my people!" she continued, "and the last of our race. Ennoble them, great Gods! quicken their hearts and spare them!" Looking outward with the rapt look of a prophetess in whom, though torn with tempests of fanaticism and of passion, human and superhuman, no thought was mean, no sentiment ignoble, she poured out this her prayer; not for mercy!--her Gods knew not this attribute; nor could she understand it; if the craven continued to be a craven she felt he were better dead;--not for peace and contentment!--to these blessings neither she nor they attached value;--but for fearlessness and steadfastness of purpose, and also for courage to die for the truth! there were petitions poured out by this woman that would have honoured the lips of the champion of any creed.
The supplication ended, she seemed about to raise her hand to give the anticipated signal when a look of amazement passed over her features; she brushed her hand over her eyes and looked again, then folded her arms and gazed steadily seawards. What she saw might have shattered even her nerves of iron. At the close of her prayer, which had exactly coincided with the moment when Hilda stepped from her cell, the bosom of the sea heaved and rose: a wave, ten feet high, glided, stole as it were, so gently did it move, into the forest; but so rapidly, that in one minute every human being except herself and Jean was engulphed. They were gone, the high-couraged and the craven, the frenzied priest and the laughing child, with their passions, their hopes, and their fears, without the faintest note of warning of coming danger! Judith glanced at Jean, almost contemptuously; he, not having seen what had happened, was still momentarily expecting the application of the torch. A second wave crept in, smaller than the former, but overwhelming the pyre. The dazed warrior on the Guet reported that after this second wave had passed he saw the tall form still towering on the peak, but that when he looked again the rock, though still above water, was tenantless; a little later the granite mass, together with the tops of the tallest trees, lay under an unruffled surface.
When the pyre was submerged the litter, to which Jean was attached, floated off and formed a tolerably secure raft. His life was safe for a time; but he would have been exposed to a still more ghastly fate from the swooping sea-birds had he not been able by a supreme effort to wrest one of his arms from its bands. In speechless wonderment he was carried seaward by the slowly receding tide. Suddenly his raft was hailed by a well-known voice. Friendly hands cut the ropes that bound him, and he was lifted into a boat. The occupant was Haco who, attracted to the spot when hurrying to the Vale, by the cries of the clustering gulls, had thus again saved his life.
The giant pulled vigorously to the point which, now known as the Hommet, terminates the northern arm of Vazon Bay; there he landed the youth, to enable him to stretch his cramped limbs, and to clothe him in such articles as he could spare from his own equipment. A rapid explanation passed between them. Haco told him how the force investing Lihou had, when apparently waiting for a signal to move, been overwhelmed by a wave which cut off the promontory from L'Erée, and had perished to a man. Jean could tell of nothing but the sudden cessation of the tumult and the floating of his litter. The minds of both were wandering, burningly anxious as they were to know what had passed at the Vale. Scaling the Hommet, they obtained a sufficient view to satisfy them that Lancresse Common no longer formed a portion of the mainland; an hour afterwards, entering the Grand Havre, they saw an unbroken channel between that inlet and St. Sampson's: every trace of the invading host had disappeared. Jean was soon in Hilda's arms; and the two lovers, with Haco, spent the remainder of the day in pious thanksgiving to the Holy Mother by whose special interposition, testified so miraculously to the maiden, the cause of Christ had triumphed and the parted had been reunited, when the last gleam of safety seemed to have been extinguished.
The next morning Father Austin arrived. Hilda was then made acquainted with her relationship to Haco, whose tender attentions during her late troubles had already won her unreserved affection. The news was an inexpressible joy to her, and it was touching to see how she nestled in the deep embrace of her father, whose feelings, so long pent up, now at last found vent. Jean absented himself during the day, but on the following morning insisted that his nuptials should no longer be deferred. The same evening, in the little chapel of the nunnery, Austin bestowed his blessing on a union which had been sanctified by such special manifestations of Divine approval.
The readjustment of the shattered organization of the island was imperative. The inhabitants of the eastern side, and those of the Vale, had for the most part preserved their lives by their absence from the forest; the Christian converts who had aided in the struggle were also safe; with these exceptions the island was practically depopulated. Jean was elected chief by acclamation. After giving such pressing directions as immediate exigencies required, he acceded to his wife's ardent wish to obtain intelligence respecting Judith, and also to ascertain the fate of Tita.
The Lihou monks had already reported that all communication was broken between the Hanois and the shore, but that the tower appeared to be intact. On an April morning Haco and the young couple sailed across Rocquaine Bay, and landed close to the tower, which now stood on a rugged and inhospitable island. The door was opened by Tita, who smiled, and prattled, and caressed her young mistress like a lap-dog. She recognised Jean with indifference, but a start, followed by a shudder, seized her when she observed Haco; her terror, however, seemed to pass away when he spoke a few soothing words to her. It was evident that a shock, or a succession of shocks, had unsettled the poor woman's brain. On the name of Judith being mentioned, she pointed fearfully to the upper story. Uncertain as to her meaning, Jean cautiously ascended the ladder, and ascertained that the sorceress was in truth there. After a consultation it was decided that Haco and Hilda should seek her presence.
As father and daughter entered the apartment, they saw the old woman half-seated, half-lying, on a couch placed close to the window; her face, which was turned seaward, was haggard, the leanness bringing into strong relief the handsome chiselling of her profile; the sternness of her mouth was somewhat relaxed; there was an indication almost of softness in its corners. Her high spirit had accepted, not resented, defeat.
As her eye fell on her two visitors there was no gleam of defiance, no mark of anger, or even surprise; but, when Haco stood fully revealed before her, a flash of triumph and pleasure shot into it, kindling every feature with its glow. "You here, Haco!" she cried, "and with her! The Gods have relented. You will hold her fast in their worship, and lead her steps to the land of her sires! I die contented." She fell back exhausted. "Sister," said the giant, laying his hand softly on her shoulder, "it is too late; when Algar slew my loved one the Pagan died in me; I am a servant of the God of the Christians." Hilda awaited fearfully the result of this announcement, but she knew not the greatness of the old woman's soul. It was long ere her voice was heard again. Presently, raising herself, she said, "I would it had been otherwise; but I have erred, I have misjudged. I thought that your Gods were false; puny creations of a nerveless brain; but they are strong, I own their power! It may be that the great ones of old have wearied of our spiritless race, and abandoned us. So perchance you may be wise to turn to the new-comers!" Her voice failed her, but as they knelt by her side her hands wandered over their heads and lingered with a caressing movement among Hilda's locks. She seemed to have forgotten Jean, whom she doubtless believed to have been lost in the general calamity. Suddenly she started up and pointed to a storm-cloud rising rapidly from the western horizon, assuming a succession of fantastic shapes as it passed upwards. "Do you not see them?" she cried--"the great, the glorious ones! they bend from their seats; they smile! see their power! Their majesty! their locks stream, their swords are half drawn! they sheathe them, they lean forward, they extend their arms! they beckon!--I come, I come!" She stretched out her arms with the old familiar gesture and sank back, having breathed her spirit to the tempest which she loved so well.
They buried her on the cliffs of Pleinmont, where a cairn long marked her resting-place. Tita was taken to the Vale; all attempts to restore her from the shock which her nerves had received failed till on one sunny morning Hilda's infant was placed on her knees: when the child crowed, and smiled at her, the cloud imperceptibly passed away, never to return. From that time she assumed her regular place in the household.
Haco abandoned his Lihou cell; his rough readiness of resource, unfailing good-humour, and skill in managing men, proved invaluable during the task of the restoration of the broken links of government and society.
The labours of Father Austin and his coadjutors did not relax, but their course lay in smoother waters: if their prospects of martyrdom were diminished they were more than consoled by the knowledge that they possessed among them a veritable saint, to whom the Holy Virgin had vouchsafed the honour of a personal appearance, and that they had been witnesses of a miraculous interposition, the evidence of which would be indelible as long as the sea should wash the storm-beaten cliffs of their beloved island.