Part 2 out of 4
Alexandria, he had watched the mob which blocked the hippodrome of
Constantinople, yet never had he imagined such a multitude as now
defiled beneath his eyes, coming from that eastern skyline which had
been the end of his world. Sometimes the dense streams of horsemen were
broken by droves of brood-mares and foals, driven along by mounted
guards; sometimes there were herds of cattle; sometimes there were lines
of waggons with skin canopies above them; but then once more, after
every break, came the horsemen, the horsemen, the hundreds and the
thousands and the tens of thousands, slowly, ceaselessly, silently
drifting from the east to the west. The long day passed, the light
waned, and the shadows fell; but still the great broad stream was
But the night brought a new and even stranger sight. Simon had marked
bundles of faggots upon the backs of many of the led horses, and now he
saw their use. All over the great plain, red pin-points gleamed through
the darkness, which grew and brightened into flickering columns of
flame. So far as he could see both to east and west the fires extended,
until they were but points of light in the furthest distance. White
stars shone in the vast heavens above, red ones in the great plain
below. And from every side rose the low, confused murmur of voices,
with the lowing of oxen and the neighing of horses.
Simon had been a soldier and a man of affairs before ever he forsook the
world, and the meaning of all that he had seen was clear to him.
History told him how the Roman world had ever been assailed by fresh
swarms of Barbarians, coming from the outer darkness, and that the
Eastern Empire had already, in its fifty years of existence since
Constantine had moved the capital of the world to the shores of the
Bosphorus, been tormented in the same way. Gepidae and Heruli,
Ostrogoths and Sarmatians, he was familiar with them all. What the
advanced sentinel of Europe had seen from this lonely outlying hill, was
a fresh swarm breaking in upon the Empire, distinguished only from the
others by its enormous, incredible size and by the strange aspect of the
warriors who composed it. He alone of all civilized men knew of the
approach of this dreadful shadow, sweeping like a heavy storm-cloud
from the unknown depths of the east. He thought of the little Roman
posts along the Dneister, of the ruined Dacian wall of Trajan behind
them, and then of the scattered, defenceless villages which lay with
no thought of danger over all the open country which stretched down to
the Danube. Could he but give them the alarm! Was it not, perhaps, for
that very end that God had guided him to the wilderness?
Then suddenly he remembered his Arian neighbour, who dwelt in the cave
beneath him. Once or twice during the last year he had caught a glimpse
of his tall, bent figure hobbling round to examine the traps which he
laid for quails and partridges. On one occasion they had met at the
brook; but the old theologian waved him away, as if he were a leper.
What did he think now of this strange happening? Surely their
differences might be forgotten at such a moment. He stole down the side
of the hill, and made his way to his fellow-hermit's cave.
But there was a terrible silence as he approached it. His heart sank at
that deadly stillness in the little valley. No glimmer of light came
from the cleft in the rocks. He entered and called, but no answer came
back. Then, with flint, steel, and the dry grass which he used for
tinder, he struck a spark, and blew it into a blaze. The old hermit,
his white hair dabbled with crimson, lay sprawling across the floor.
The broken crucifix, with which his head had been beaten in, lay in
splinters across him. Simon had dropped on his knees beside him,
straightening his contorted limbs, and muttering the office for the
dead, when the thud of a horse's hoofs was heard ascending the little
valley which led to the hermit's cell. The dry grass had burned down,
and Simon crouched trembling in the darkness, pattering prayers to the
Virgin that his strength might be upheld.
It may have been that the newcomer had seen the gleam of the light, or
it may have been that he had heard from his comrades of the old man whom
they had murdered, and that his curiosity had led him to the spot.
He stopped his horse outside the cave, and Simon, lurking in the shadows
within, had a fair view of him in the moonlight. He slipped from his
saddle, fastened the bridle to a root, and then stood peering through
the opening of the cell. He was a very short, thick man, with a dark
face, which was gashed with three cuts upon either side. His small eyes
were sunk deep in his head, showing like black holes in the heavy, flat,
hairless face. His legs were short and very bandy, so that he waddled
uncouthly as he walked.
Simon crouched in the darkest angle, and he gripped in his hand that
same knotted cudgel which the dead theologian had once raised against
him. As that hideous stooping head advanced into the darkness of the
cell, he brought the staff down upon it with all the strength of his
right arm, and then, as the stricken savage fell forward upon his face,
he struck madly again and again, until the shapeless figure lay limp and
still. One roof covered the first slain of Europe and of Asia.
Simon's veins were throbbing and quivering with the unwonted joy of
action. All the energy stored up in those years of repose came in a
flood at this moment of need. Standing in the darkness of the cell, he
saw, as in a map of fire, the outlines of the great Barbaric host, the
line of the river, the position of the settlements, the means by which
they might be warned. Silently he waited in the shadow until the moon
had sunk. Then he flung himself upon the dead man's horse, guided it
down the gorge, and set forth at a gallop across the plain.
There were fires on every side of him, but he kept clear of the rings of
light. Round each he could see, as he passed, the circle of sleeping
warriors, with the long lines of picketed horses. Mile after mile and
league after league stretched that huge encampment. And then, at last,
he had reached the open plain which led to the river, and the fires of
the invaders were but a dull smoulder against the black eastern sky.
Ever faster and faster he sped across the steppe, like a single
fluttered leaf which whirls before the storm. Even as the dawn whitened
the sky behind him, it gleamed also upon the broad river in front, and
he flogged his weary horse through the shallows, until he plunged into
its full yellow tide.
So it was that, as the young Roman centurion--Caius Crassus--made his
morning round in the fort of Tyras he saw a single horseman, who rode
towards him from the river. Weary and spent, drenched with water and
caked with dirt and sweat, both horse and man were at the last stage of
their endurance. With amazement the Roman watched their progress, and
recognized in the ragged, swaying figure, with flying hair and staring
eyes, the hermit of the eastern desert. He ran to meet him, and caught
him in his arms as he reeled from the saddle.
"What is it, then?" he asked. "What is your news?"
But the hermit could only point at the rising sun. "To arms!" he
croaked. "To arms! The day of wrath is come!" And as he looked, the
Roman saw--far across the river--a great dark shadow, which moved slowly
over the distant plain.
THE LAST OF THE LEGIONS
Pontus, the Roman viceroy, sat in the atrium of his palatial villa by
the Thames, and he looked with perplexity at the scroll of papyrus which
he had just unrolled. Before him stood the messenger who had brought
it, a swarthy little Italian, whose black eyes were glazed with want of
sleep, and his olive features darker still from dust and sweat.
The viceroy was looking fixedly at him, yet he saw him not, so full was
his mind of this sudden and most unexpected order. To him it seemed as
if the solid earth had given way beneath his feet. His life and the
work of his life had come to irremediable ruin.
"Very good," he said at last in a hard dry voice, "you can go."
The man saluted and staggered out of the hall.
A yellow-haired British major-domo came forward for orders.
"Is the General there?"
"He is waiting, your excellency."
"Then show him in, and leave us together."
A few minutes later Licinius Crassus, the head of the British military
establishment, had joined his chief. He was a large bearded man in a
white civilian toga, hemmed with the Patrician purple. His rough, bold
features, burned and seamed and lined with the long African wars, were
shadowed with anxiety as he looked with questioning eyes at the drawn,
haggard face of the viceroy.
"I fear, your excellency, that you have had bad news from Rome."
"The worst, Crassus. It is all over with Britain. It is a question
whether even Gaul will be held."
"Saint Albus save us! Are the orders precise?"
"Here they are, with the Emperor's own seal."
"But why? I had heard a rumour, but it had seemed too incredible."
"So had I only last week, and had the fellow scourged for having spread
it. But here it is as clear as words can make it: 'Bring every man of
the Legions by forced marches to the help of the Empire. Leave not a
cohort in Britain.' These are my orders."
"But the cause?"
"They will let the limbs wither so that the heart be stronger. The old
German hive is about to swarm once more. There are fresh crowds of
Barbarians from Dacia and Scythia. Every sword is needed to hold the
Alpine passes. They cannot let three legions lie idle in Britain."
The soldier shrugged his shoulder's.
"When the legions go no Roman would feel that his life was safe here.
For all that we have done, it is none the less the truth that it is no
country of ours, and that we hold it as we won it by the sword."
"Yes, every man, woman, and child of Latin blood must come with us to
Gaul. The galleys are already waiting at Portus Dubris. Get the orders
out, Crassus, at once. As the Valerian legion falls back from the Wall
of Hadrian it can take the northern colonists with it. The Jovians can
bring in the people from the west, and the Batavians can escort the
easterns if they will muster at Camboricum. You will see to it."
He sank his face for a moment in his hands. "It is a fearsome thing,"
said he, "to tear up the roots of so goodly a tree."
"To make more space for such a crop of weeds," said the soldier
bitterly. "My God, what will be the end of these poor Britons!
From ocean to ocean there is not a tribe which will not be at the
throat of its neighbour when the last Roman Lictor has turned his back.
With these hot-headed Silures it is hard enough now to keep the swords
in their sheaths."
"The kennel might fight as they chose among themselves until the best
hound won," said the Roman Governor. "At least the victor would keep
the arts and the religion which we have brought them, and Britain would
be one land. No, it is the bear from the north and the wolves from
oversea, the painted savage from beyond the walls and the Saxon pirate
from over the water, who will succeed to our rule. Where we saved, they
will slay; where we built, they will burn; where we planted, they will
ravage. But the die is cast, Crassus. You will carry out the orders."
"I will send out the messengers within an hour. This very morning there
has come news that the Barbarians are through the old gap in the wall,
and their outriders as far south as Vinovia." The Governor shrugged his
shoulders. "These things concern us no longer," said he. Then a bitter
smile broke upon his aquiline clean-shaven face. "Whom think you that I
see in audience this morning?"
"Nay, I know not."
"Caradoc and Regnus, and Celticus the Icenian, who, like so many of the
richer Britons, have been educated at Rome, and who would lay before me
their plans as to the ruling of this country."
"And what is their plan?"
"That they themselves should do it." The Roman soldier laughed.
"Well, they will have their will," said he, as he saluted and turned
upon his heel. "Farewell, your excellency. There are hard days coming
for you and for me."
An hour later the British deputation was ushered into the presence of
the Governor. They were good steadfast men, men who with a whole heart,
and at some risk to themselves, had taken up their country's cause, so
far as they could see it. At the same time, they well knew that under
the mild and beneficent rule of Rome it was only when they passed from
words to deeds that their backs or their necks would be in danger.
They stood now, earnest and a little abashed, before the throne of the
viceroy. Celticus was a swarthy black-bearded little Iberian. Caradoc
and Regnus were tall middle-aged men of the fair flaxen British type.
All three were dressed in the draped yellow toga after the Latin
fashion, instead of in the bracae and tunic which distinguished their
more insular fellow-countrymen.
"Well?" asked the Governor.
"We are here," said Celticus boldly, "as the spokesmen of a great number
of our fellow-countrymen, for the purpose of sending our petition
through you to the Emperor and to the Roman Senate, that we may urge
upon them the policy of allowing us to govern this country after our own
ancient fashion." He paused, as if awaiting some outburst as an answer
to his own temerity; but the Governor merely nodded his head as a sign
that he should proceed. "We had laws of our own before ever Caesar set
foot in Britain, which have served their purpose since first our
forefathers came from the land of Ham. We are not a child among the
nations, but our history goes back in our own traditions--further even
than that of Rome, and we are galled by this yoke which you have laid
"Are not our laws just?" asked the Governor.
"The code of Caesar is just, but it is always the code of Caesar.
Our own laws were made for our own uses and our own circumstances, and
we would fain have them again."
"You speak Roman as if you had been bred in the Forum; you wear a Roman
toga; your hair is filleted in Roman fashion--are not these the gifts
"We would take all the learning and all the arts that Rome or Greece
could give, but we would still be Britain, and ruled by Britons."
The viceroy smiled. "By the rood of Saint Helena," said he, "had you
spoken thus to some of my heathen ancestors, there would have been an
end to your politics. That you have dared to stand before my face and
say as much is a proof for ever of the gentleness of our rule. But I
would reason with you for a moment upon this your request. You know
well that this land has never been one kingdom, but was always under
many chiefs and many tribes, who have made war upon each other.
Would you in very truth have it so again?"
"Those were in the evil pagan days, the days of the Druid and the
oak-grove, your excellency. But now we are held together by a gospel of
The viceroy shook his head. "If all the world were of the same way of
thinking, then it would be easier," said he. "It may be that this
blessed doctrine of peace will be little help to you when you are face
to face with strong men who still worship the god of war. What would
you do against the Picts of the north?"
"Your excellency knows that many of the bravest legionaries are of
British blood. These are our defence."
"But discipline, man, the power to command, the knowledge of war, the
strength to act--it is in these things that you would fail. Too long
have you leaned upon the crutch."
"The times may be hard, but when we have gone through them, Britain will
be herself again."
"Nay, she will be under a different and a harsher master," said the
Roman. "Already the pirates swarm upon the eastern coast. Were it not
for our Roman Count of the Saxon shore they would land tomorrow. I see
the day when Britain may, indeed, be one; but that will be because you
and your fellows are either dead or are driven into the mountains of
the west. All goes into the melting-pot, and if a better Albion should
come forth from it, it will be after ages of strife, and neither you nor
your people will have part or lot in it."
Regnus, the tall young Celt, smiled. "With the help of God and our own
right arms we should hope for a better end," said he. "Give us but the
chance, and we will bear the brunt."
"You are as men that are lost," said the viceroy sadly. "I see this
broad land, with its gardens and orchards, its fair villas and its
walled towns, its bridges and its roads, all the work of Rome.
Surely it will pass even as a dream, and these three hundred years of
settled order will leave no trace behind. For learn that it will indeed
be as you wish, and that this very day the orders have come to me that
the legions are to go."
The three Britons looked at each other in amazement. Their first
impulse was towards a wild exultation, but reflection and doubt followed
close upon its heels.
"This is indeed wondrous news," said Celticus. "This is a day of days
to the motherland. When do the legions go, your excellency, and what
troops will remain behind for our protection?"
"The legions go at once," said the viceroy. "You will doubtless rejoice
to hear that within a month there will be no Roman soldier in the
island, nor, indeed, a Roman of any sort, age, or sex, if I can take
them with me."
The faces of the Britons were shadowed, and Caradoc, a grave and
thoughtful man, spoke for the first time.
"But this is over sudden, your excellency," said he. "There is much
truth in what you have said about the pirates. From my villa near the
fort of Anderida I saw eighty of their galleys only last week, and I
know well that they would be on us like ravens on a dying ox. For many
years to come it would not be possible for us to hold them off."
The viceroy shrugged his shoulders. "It is your affair now," said he.
"Rome must look to herself."
The last traces of joy had passed from the faces of the Britons.
Suddenly the future had started up clearly before them, and they quailed
at the prospect.
"There is a rumour in the market-place," said Celticus, "that the
northern Barbarians are through the gap in the wall. Who is to stop
"You and your fellows," said the Roman.
Clearer still grew the future, and there was terror in the eyes of the
spokesmen as they faced it.
"But, your excellency, if the legions should go at once, we should have
the wild Scots at York, and the Northmen in the Thames within the month.
We can build ourselves up under your shield, and in a few years it would
be easier for us; but not now, your excellency, not now."
"Tut, man; for years you have been clamouring in our ears and raising
the people. Now you have got what you asked. What more would you have?
Within the month you will be as free as were your ancestors before
Caesar set foot upon your shore."
"For God's sake, your excellency, put our words out of your head.
The matter had not been well considered. We will send to Rome. We will
ride post-haste ourselves. We will fall at the Emperor's feet. We will
kneel before the Senate and beg that the legions remain."
The Roman proconsul rose from his chair and motioned that the audience
was at an end.
"You will do what you please," said he. "I and my men are for Italy."
And even as he said, so was it, for before the spring had ripened into
summer, the troops were clanking down the via Aurelia on their way to
the Ligurian passes, whilst every road in Gaul was dotted with the carts
and the waggons which bore the Brito-Roman refugees on their weary
journey to their distant country. But ere another summer had passed
Celticus was dead, for he was flayed alive by the pirates and his skin
nailed upon the door of a church near Caistor. Regnus, too, was dead,
for he was tied to a tree and shot with arrows when the painted men came
to the sacking of Isca. Caradoc only was alive, but he was a slave to
Elda the red Caledonian, and his wife was mistress to Mordred the wild
chief of the western Cymri. From the ruined wall in the north to Vectis
in the south blood and ruin and ashes covered the fair land of Britain.
And after many days it came out fairer than ever, but, even as the
Roman had said, neither the Britons nor any men of their blood came into
the heritage of that which had been their own.
THE FIRST CARGO
"Ex ovo omnia"
When you left Briton with your legion, my dear Crassus, I promised that
I would write to you from time to time when a messenger chanced to be
going to Rome, and keep you informed as to anything of interest which
might occur in this country. Personally, I am very glad that I remained
behind when the troops and so many of our citizens left, for though the
living is rough and the climate is infernal, still by dint of the three
voyages which I have made for amber to the Baltic, and the excellent
prices which I obtained for it here, I shall soon be in a position to
retire, and to spend my old age under my own fig tree, or even perhaps
to buy a small villa at Baiae or Posuoli, where I could get a good
sun-bath after the continued fogs of this accursed island. I picture
myself on a little farm, and I read the Georgics as a preparation; but
when I hear the rain falling and the wind howling, Italy seems very far
In my previous letter, I let you know how things were going in this
country. The poor folk, who had given up all soldiering during the
centuries that we guarded them, are now perfectly helpless before these
Picts and Scots, tattoed Barbarians from the north, who overrun the
whole country and do exactly what they please. So long as they kept to
the north, the people in the south, who are the most numerous, and
also the most civilized of the Britons, took no heed of them; but now
the rascals have come as far as London, and the lazy folk in these parts
have had to wake up. Vortigern, the king, is useless for anything but
drink or women, so he sent across to the Baltic to get over some of the
North Germans, in the hope that they would come and help him. It is
bad enough to have a bear in your house, but it does not seem to me to
mend matters if you call in a pack of ferocious wolves as well.
However, nothing better could be devised, so an invitation was sent and
very promptly accepted. And it is here that your humble friend appears
upon the scene. In the course of my amber trading I had learned the
Saxon speech, and so I was sent down in all haste to the Kentish shore
that I might be there when our new allies came. I arrived there on the
very day when their first vessel appeared, and it is of my adventures
that I wish to tell you. It is perfectly clear to me that the landing
of these warlike Germans in England will prove to be an event of
historical importance, and so your inquisitive mind will not feel
wearied if I treat the matter in some detail.
It was, then, upon the day of Mercury, immediately following the Feast
of Our Blessed Lord's Ascension, that I found myself upon the south bank
of the river Thames, at the point where it opens into a wide estuary.
There is an island there named Thanet, which was the spot chosen for the
landfall of our visitors. Sure enough, I had no sooner ridden up than
there was a great red ship, the first as it seems of three, coming in
under full sail. The white horse, which is the ensign of these rovers,
was hanging from her topmast, and she appeared to be crowded with men.
The sun was shining brightly, and the great scarlet ship, with
snow-white sails and a line of gleaming shields slung over her side,
made as fair a picture on that blue expanse as one would wish to see.
I pushed off at once in a boat, because it had been arranged that none
of the Saxons should land until the king had come down to speak with
their leaders. Presently I was under the ship, which had a gilded
dragon in the bows, and a tier of oars along either side. As I looked
up, there was a row of helmeted heads looking down at me, and among them
I saw, to my great surprise and pleasure, that of Eric the Swart, with
whom I do business at Venta every year. He greeted me heartily when I
reached the deck, and became at once my guide, friend, and counsellor.
This helped me greatly with these Barbarians, for it is their nature
that they are very cold and aloof unless one of their own number can
vouch for you, after which they are very hearty and hospitable.
Try as they will, they find it hard, however, to avoid a certain
suggestion of condescension, and in the baser sort, of contempt, when
they are dealing with a foreigner.
It was a great stroke of luck meeting Eric, for he was able to give me
some idea of how things stood before I was shown into the presence of
Kenna, the leader of this particular ship. The crew, as I learned
from him, was entirely made up of three tribes or families--those of
Kenna, of Lanc, and of Hasta. Each of these tribes gets its name by
putting the letters "ing" after the name of the chief, so that the
people on board would describe themselves as Kennings, Lancings, and
Hastings. I observed in the Baltic that the villages were named after
the family who lived in them, each keeping to itself, so that I have no
doubt if these fellows get a footing on shore, we shall see settlements
with names like these rising up among the British towns.
The greater part of the men were sturdy fellows with red, yellow, or
brown hair, mostly the latter. To my surprise, I saw several women
among them. Eric, in answer to my question, explained that they always
take their women with them so far as they can, and that instead of
finding them an incumbrance as our Roman dames would be, they look upon
them as helpmates and advisers. Of course, I remembered afterwards that
our excellent and accurate Tacitus has remarked upon this characteristic
of the Germans. All laws in the tribes are decided by votes, and a vote
has not yet been given to the women, but many are in favour of it, and
it is thought that woman and man may soon have the same power in the
State, though many of the women themselves are opposed to such an
innovation. I observed to Eric that it was fortunate there were several
women on board, as they could keep each other company; but he answered
that the wives of chiefs had no desire to know the wives of the inferior
officers, and that both of them combined against the more common women,
so that any companionship was out of the question. He pointed as he
spoke to Editha, the wife of Kenna, a red-faced, elderly woman, who
walked among the others, her chin in the air, taking no more notice than
if they did not exist.
Whilst I was talking to my friend Eric, a sudden altercation broke out
upon the deck, and a great number of the men paused in their work, and
flocked towards the spot with faces which showed that they were deeply
interested in the matter. Eric and I pushed our way among the others,
for I was very anxious to see as much as I could of the ways and manners
of these Barbarians. A quarrel had broken out about a child, a little
blue-eyed fellow with curly yellow hair, who appeared to be greatly
amused by the hubbub of which he was the cause. On one side of him
stood a white-bearded old man, of very majestic aspect, who signified by
his gestures that he claimed the lad for himself, while on the other was
a thin, earnest, anxious person, who strongly objected to the boy being
taken from him. Eric whispered in my ear that the old man was the
tribal high priest, who was the official sacrificer to their great god
Woden, whilst the other was a man who took somewhat different views, not
upon Woden, but upon the means by which he should be worshipped.
The majority of the crew were on the side of the old priest; but a
certain number, who liked greater liberty of worship, and to invent
their own prayers instead of always repeating the official ones,
followed the lead of the younger man. The difference was too deep and
too old to be healed among the grown men, but each had a great desire to
impress their view upon the children. This was the reason why these two
were now so furious with each other, and the argument between them ran
so high that several of their followers on either side had drawn the
short saxes, or knives from which their name of Saxon is derived, when a
burly, red-headed man pushed his way through the throng, and in a voice
of thunder brought the controversy to an end.
"You priests, who argue about the things which no man can know, are more
trouble aboard this ship than all the dangers of the sea," he cried.
"Can you not be content with worshipping Woden, over which we are all
agreed, and not make so much of those small points upon which we may
differ? If there is all this fuss about the teaching of the children,
then I shall forbid either of you to teach them, and they must be
content with as much as they can learn from their mothers."
The two angry teachers walked away with discontented faces; and
Kenna--for it was he who spoke--ordered that a whistle should be
sounded, and that the crew should assemble. I was pleased with the free
bearing of these people, for though this was their greatest chief, they
showed none of the exaggerated respect which soldiers of a legion might
show to the Praetor, but met him on a respectful equality, which showed
how highly they rated their own manhood.
From our Roman standard, his remarks to his men would seem very wanting
in eloquence, for there were no graces nor metaphors to be found in
them, and yet they were short, strong and to the point. At any rate it
was very clear that they were to the minds of his hearers. He began by
reminding them that they had left their own country because the land was
all taken up, and that there was no use returning there, since there was
no place where they could dwell as free and independent men.
This island of Britain was but sparsely inhabited, and there was a
chance that every one of them would be able to found a home of his own.
"You, Whitta," he said, addressing some of them by name, "you will found
a Whitting hame, and you, Bucka, we shall see you in a Bucking hame,
where your children, and your children's children will bless you for the
broad acres which your valour will have gained for them." There was no
word of glory or of honour in his speech, but he said that he was aware
that they would do their duty, on which they all struck their swords
upon their shields so that the Britons on the beach could hear the
clang. Then, his eyes falling upon me, he asked me whether I was the
messenger from Vortigern, and on my answering, he bid me follow him into
his cabin, where Lanc and Hasta the other chiefs were waiting for a
Picture me, then, my dear Crassus, in a very low-roofed cabin, with
these three huge Barbarians seated round me. Each was clad in some
sort of saffron tunic, with chain-mail shirts over it, and helmets
with the horns of oxen on either side, laid upon the table before them.
Like most of the Saxon chiefs, their beards were shaved, but they wore
their hair long and their huge light-coloured moustaches drooped down on
to their shoulders. They are gentle, slow, and somewhat heavy in their
bearing, but I can well fancy that their fury is the more terrible when
it does arise.
Their minds seem to be of a very practical and positive nature, for they
at once began to ask me a series of questions upon the numbers of the
Britons, the resources of the kingdom, the conditions of its trade, and
other such subjects. They then set to work arguing over the information
which I had given, and became so absorbed in their own contention that I
believe there were times when they forgot my presence. Everything,
after due discussion, was decided between them by vote, the one who
found himself in the minority always submitting, though sometimes with a
very bad grace. Indeed, on one occasion Lanc, who usually differed from
the others, threatened to refer the matter to the general vote of the
whole crew. There was a constant conflict in the point of view; for
whereas Kenna and Hasta were anxious to extend the Saxon power, and to
make it greater in the eyes of the world, Lanc was of opinion that they
should give less thought to conquest and more to the comfort and
advancement of their followers. At the same time it seemed to me that
really Lanc was the more combative of the three; so much so that, even
in time of peace, he could not forego this contest with his own
brethren. Neither of the others seemed very fond of him, for they were
each, as was easy to see, proud of their chieftainship, and anxious to
use their authority, referring continually to those noble ancestors from
whom it was derived; while Lanc, though he was equally well born, took
the view of the common men upon every occasion, claiming that the
interests of the many were superior to the privileges of the few.
In a word, Crassus, if you could imagine a free-booting Gracchus on one
side, and two piratical Patricians upon the other, you would understand
the effect which my companions produced upon me.
There was one peculiarity which I observed in their conversation which
soothed me very much. I am fond of these Britons, among whom I have
spent so much of my life, and I wish them well. It was very pleasing,
therefore, to notice that these men insisted upon it in their
conversation that the whole object of their visit was the good of the
Islanders. Any prospect of advantage to themselves was pushed into the
background. I was not clear that these professions could be made to
agree with the speech in which Kenna had promised a hundred hides of
land to every man on the ship; but on my making this remark, the three
chiefs seemed very surprised and hurt by my suspicions, and explained
very plausibly that, as the Britons needed them as a guard, they could
not aid them better than by settling on the soil, and so being
continually at hand in order to help them. In time, they said, they
hoped to raise and train the natives to such a point that they would be
able to look after themselves. Lanc spoke with some degree of eloquence
upon the nobleness of the mission which they had undertaken, and the
others clattered their cups of mead (a jar of that unpleasant drink was
on the table) in token of their agreement.
I observed also how much interested, and how very earnest and intolerant
these Barbarians were in the matter of religion. Of Christianity they
knew nothing, so that although they were aware that the Britons were
Christians, they had not a notion of what their creed really was.
Yet without examination they started by taking it for granted that their
own worship of Woden was absolutely right, and that therefore this other
creed must be absolutely wrong. "This vile religion," "This sad
superstition," and "This grievous error," were among the phrases which
they used towards it. Instead of expressing pity for any one who had
been misinformed upon so serious a question, their feelings were those
of anger, and they declared most earnestly that they would spare no
pains to set the matter right, fingering the hilts of their long
broad-swords as they said so.
Well, my dear Crassus, you will have had enough of me and of my Saxons.
I have given you a short sketch of these people and their ways. Since I
began this letter, I have visited the two other ships which have come
in, and as I find the same characteristics among the people on board
them, I cannot doubt that they lie deeply in the race. For the rest,
they are brave, hardy, and very pertinacious in all that
they undertake; whereas the Britons, though a great deal more spirited,
have not the same steadiness of purpose, their quicker imaginations
suggesting always some other course, and their more fiery passions being
succeeded by reaction. When I looked from the deck of the first Saxon
ship, and saw the swaying excited multitude of Britons on the beach,
contrasting them with the intent, silent men who stood beside me, it
seemed to me more than ever dangerous to call in such allies.
So strongly did I feel it that I turned to Kenna, who was also looking
towards the beach.
"You will own this island before you have finished," said I.
His eyes sparkled as he gazed. "Perhaps," he cried; and then suddenly
collecting himself and thinking that he had said too much, he added--
"A temporary occupation--nothing more."
In the spring of the year 528, a small brig used to run as a passenger
boat between Chalcedon on the Asiatic shore and Constantinople. On the
morning in question, which was that of the feast of Saint George,
the vessel was crowded with excursionists who were bound for the great
city in order to take part in the religious and festive celebrations
which marked the festival of the Megalo-martyr, one of the most choice
occasions in the whole vast hagiology of the Eastern Church. The day
was fine and the breeze light, so that the passengers in their holiday
mood were able to enjoy without a qualm the many objects of interest
which marked the approach to the greatest and most beautiful capital in
On the right, as they sped up the narrow strait, there stretched the
Asiatic shore, sprinkled with white villages and with numerous villas
peeping out from the woods which adorned it. In front of them, the
Prince's Islands, rising as green as emeralds out of the deep sapphire
blue of the Sea of Marmora, obscured for the moment the view of the
capital. As the brig rounded these, the great city burst suddenly upon
their sight, and a murmur of admiration and wonder rose from the crowded
deck. Tier above tier it rose, white and glittering, a hundred brazen
roofs and gilded statues gleaming in the sun, with high over all the
magnificent shining cupola of Saint Sophia. Seen against a cloudless
sky, it was the city of a dream-too delicate, too airily lovely for
In the prow of the small vessel were two travellers of singular
appearance. The one was a very beautiful boy, ten or twelve years of
age, swarthy, clear-cut, with dark, curling hair and vivacious black
eyes, full of intelligence and of the joy of living. The other was an
elderly man, gaunt-faced and grey-bearded, whose stern features were lit
up by a smile as he observed the excitement and interest with which his
young companion viewed the beautiful distant city and the many vessels
which thronged the narrow strait.
"See! see!" cried the lad. "Look at the great red ships which sail out
from yonder harbour. Surely, your holiness, they are the greatest of
all ships in the world."
The old man, who was the abbot of the monastery of Saint Nicephorus in
Antioch, laid his hand upon the boy's shoulder.
"Be wary, Leon, and speak less loudly, for until we have seen your
mother we should keep ourselves secret. As to the red galleys they are
indeed as large as any, for they are the Imperial ships of war, which
come forth from the harbour of Theodosius. Round yonder green point is
the Golden Horn, where the merchant ships are moored. But now, Leon, if
you follow the line of buildings past the great church, you will see a
long row of pillars fronting the sea. It marks the Palace of the
The boy looked at it with fixed attention. "And my mother is there," he
"Yes, Leon, your mother the Empress Theodora and her husband the great
Justinian dwell in yonder palace."
The boy looked wistfully up into the old man's face.
"Are you sure, Father Luke, that my mother will indeed be glad to see
The abbot turned away his face to avoid those questioning eyes.
"We cannot tell, Leon. We can only try. If it should prove that there
is no place for you, then there is always a welcome among the brethren
of Saint Nicephorus."
"Why did you not tell my mother that we were coming, Father Luke?
Why did you not wait until you had her command?"
"At a distance, Leon, it would be easy to refuse you. An Imperial
messenger would have stopped us. But when she sees you, Leon--your
eyes, so like her own, your face, which carries memories of one whom she
loved--then, if there be a woman's heart within her bosom, she will take
you into it. They say that the Emperor can refuse her nothing.
They have no child of their own. There is a great future before you,
Leon. When it comes, do not forget the poor brethren of Saint
Nicephorus, who took you in when you had no friend in the world."
The old abbot spoke cheerily, but it was easy to see from his anxious
countenance that the nearer he came to the capital the more doubtful did
his errand appear. What had seemed easy and natural from the quiet
cloisters of Antioch became dubious and dark now that the golden domes
of Constantinople glittered so close at hand. Ten years before, a
wretched woman, whose very name was an offence throughout the eastern
world where she was as infamous for her dishonour as famous for her
beauty, had come to the monastery gate, and had persuaded the monks to
take charge of her infant son, the child of her shame. There he had
been ever since. But she, Theodora, the harlot, returning to the
capital, had by the strangest turn of Fortune's wheel caught the fancy
and finally the enduring love of Justinian the heir to the throne.
Then on the death of his uncle Justin, the young man had become the
greatest monarch upon the earth, and had raised Theodora to be not only
his wife and Empress, but to be absolute ruler with powers equal to and
independent of his own. And she, the polluted one, had risen to the
dignity, had cut herself sternly away from all that related to her past
life, and had shown signs already of being a great Queen, stronger and
wiser than her husband, but fierce, vindictive, and unbending, a firm
support to her friends, but a terror to her foes. This was the woman to
whom the Abbot Luke of Antioch was bringing Leon, her forgotten son.
If ever her mind strayed back to the days when, abandoned by her lover
Ecebolus, the Governor of the African Pentapolis, she had made her way
on foot through Asia Minor, and left her infant with the monks, it was
only to persuade herself that the brethren cloistered far from the world
would never identify Theodora the Empress with Theodora the dissolute
wanderer, and that the fruits of her sin would be for ever concealed
from her Imperial husband.
The little brig had now rounded the point of the Acropolis, and the long
blue stretch of the Golden Horn lay before it. The high wall of
Theodosius lined the whole harbour, but a narrow verge of land had been
left between it and the water's edge to serve as a quay. The vessel ran
alongside near the Neorion Gate, and the passengers, after a short
scrutiny from the group of helmeted guards who lounged beside it, were
allowed to pass through into the great city.
The abbot, who had made several visits to Constantinople upon the
business of his monastery, walked with the assured step of one who knows
his ground; while the boy, alarmed and yet pleased by the rush of
people, the roar and glitter of passing chariots, and the vista of
magnificent buildings, held tightly to the loose gown of his guide,
while staring eagerly about him in every direction. Passing through the
steep and narrow streets which led up from the water, they emerged into
the open space which surrounds the magnificent pile of Saint Sophia, the
great church begun by Constantine, hallowed by Saint Chrysostom, and now
the seat of the Patriarch, and the very centre of the Eastern Church.
Only with many crossings and genuflections did the pious abbot succeed
in passing the revered shrine of his religion, and hurried on to his
Having passed Saint Sophia, the two travellers crossed the marble-paved
Augusteum, and saw upon their right the gilded gates of the hippodrome
through which a vast crowd of people was pressing, for though the
morning had been devoted to the religious ceremony, the afternoon was
given over to secular festivities. So great was the rush of the
populace that the two strangers had some difficulty in disengaging
themselves from the stream and reaching the huge arch of black marble
which formed the outer gate of the palace. Within they were fiercely
ordered to halt by a gold-crested and magnificent sentinel who laid his
shining spear across their breasts until his superior officer should
give them permission to pass. The abbot had been warned, however,
that all obstacles would give way if he mentioned the name of Basil the
eunuch, who acted as chamberlain of the palace and also as Parakimomen--
a high office which meant that he slept at the door of the Imperial
bed-chamber. The charm worked wonderfully, for at the mention of that
potent name the Protosphathaire, or Head of the Palace Guards, who
chanced to be upon the spot, immediately detached one of his soldiers
with instructions to convoy the two strangers into the presence of the
Passing in succession a middle guard and an inner guard, the travellers
came at last into the palace proper, and followed their majestic guide
from chamber to chamber, each more wonderful than the last. Marbles and
gold, velvet and silver, glittering mosaics, wonderful carvings, ivory
screens, curtains of Armenian tissue and of Indian silk, damask from
Arabia, and amber from the Baltic--all these things merged themselves in
the minds of the two simple provincials, until their eyes ached and
their senses reeled before the blaze and the glory of this, the most
magnificent of the dwellings of man. Finally, a pair of curtains,
crusted with gold, were parted, and their guide handed them over to a
negro mute who stood within. A heavy, fat, brown-skinned man, with a
large, flabby, hairless face was pacing up and down the small apartment,
and he turned upon them as they entered with an abominable and
threatening smile. His loose lips and pendulous cheeks were those of a
gross old woman, but above them there shone a pair of dark malignant
eyes, full of fierce intensity of observation and judgment.
"You have entered the palace by using my name," he said. "It is one of
my boasts that any of the populace can approach me in this way. But it
is not fortunate for those who take advantage of it without due cause."
Again he smiled a smile which made the frightened boy cling tightly to
the loose serge skirts of the abbot.
But the ecclesiastic was a man of courage. Undaunted by the sinister
appearance of the great chamberlain, or by the threat which lay in his
words, he laid his hand upon his young companion's shoulder and faced
the eunuch with a confidential smile.
"I have no doubt, your excellency," said he, "that the importance of my
mission has given me the right to enter the palace. The only thing
which troubles me is whether it may not be so important as to forbid me
from broaching it to you, or indeed, to anybody save the Empress
Theodora, since it is she only whom it concerns."
The eunuch's thick eyebrows bunched together over his vicious eyes.
"You must make good those words," he said. "If my gracious master--the
ever-glorious Emperor Justinian--does not disdain to take me into his
most intimate confidence in all things, it would be strange if there
were any subject within your knowledge which I might not hear. You are,
as I gather from your garb and bearing, the abbot of some Asiatic
"You are right, your excellency, I am the abbot of the Monastery of St.
Nicephorus in Antioch. But I repeat that I am assured that what I have
to say is for the ear of the Empress Theodora only."
The eunuch was evidently puzzled, and his curiosity aroused by the old
man's persistence. He came nearer, his heavy face thrust forward, his
flabby brown hands, like two sponges, resting upon the table of yellow
jasper before him.
"Old man," said he, "there is no secret which concerns the Empress
which may not be told to me. But if you refuse to speak, it is certain
that you will never see her. Why should I admit you, unless I know your
errand? How should I know that you are not a Manichean heretic with a
poniard in your bosom, longing for the blood of the mother of the
The abbot hesitated no longer. "If there be a mistake in the matter,
then on your head be it," said he. "Know then that this lad Leon is the
son of Theodora the Empress, left by her in our monastery within a month
of his birth ten years ago. This papyrus which I hand you will show you
that what I say is beyond all question or doubt."
The eunuch Basil took the paper, but his eyes were fixed upon the boy,
and his features showed a mixture of amazement at the news that he had
received, and of cunning speculation as to how he could turn it to
"Indeed, he is the very image of the Empress," he muttered; and then,
with sudden suspicion, "Is it not the chance of this likeness which has
put the scheme into your head, old man?"
"There is but one way to answer that," said the abbot. "It is to ask
the Empress herself whether what I say is not true, and to give her the
glad tidings that her boy is alive and well."
The tone of confidence, together with the testimony of the papyrus, and
the boy's beautiful face, removed the last shadow of doubt from the
eunuch's mind. Here was a great fact; but what use could he make of it?
Above all, what advantage could he draw from it? He stood with his fat
chin in his hand, turning it over in his cunning brain.
"Old man," said he at last, "to how many have you told this secret?"
"To no one in the whole world," the other answered. "There is Deacon
Bardas at the monastery and myself. No one else knows anything."
"You are sure of this?"
The eunuch had made up his mind. If he alone of all men in the palace
knew of this event, he would have a powerful hold over his masterful
mistress. He was certain that Justinian the Emperor knew nothing of
this. It would be a shock to him. It might even alienate his
affections from his wife. She might care to take precautions to prevent
him from knowing. And if he, Basil the eunuch, was her confederate in
those precautions, then how very close it must draw him to her.
All this flashed through his mind as he stood, the papyrus in his hand,
looking at the old man and the boy.
"Stay here," said he. "I will be with you again." With a swift rustle
of his silken robes he swept from the chamber.
A few minutes had elapsed when a curtain at the end of the room was
pushed aside, and the eunuch, reappearing, held it back, doubling his
unwieldy body into a profound obeisance as he did so. Through the gap
came a small alert woman, clad in golden tissue, with a loose outer
mantle and shoes of the Imperial purple. That colour alone showed that
she could be none other than the Empress; but the dignity of her
carriage, the fierce authority of her magnificent dark eyes, and the
perfect beauty of her haughty face, all proclaimed that it could only be
that Theodora who, in spite of her lowly origin, was the most majestic
as well as the most maturely lovely of all the women in her kingdom.
Gone now were the buffoon tricks which the daughter of Acacius the
bearward had learned in the amphitheatre; gone too was the light charm
of the wanton, and what was left was the worthy mate of a great king,
the measured dignity of one who was every inch an empress.
Disregarding the two men, Theodora walked up to the boy, placed her two
white hands upon his shoulders, and looked with a long questioning gaze,
a gaze which began with hard suspicion and ended with tender
recognition, into those large lustrous eyes which were the very
reflection of her own. At first the sensitive lad was chilled by the
cold intent question of the look; but as it softened, his own spirit
responded, until suddenly, with a cry of "Mother! mother!" he cast
himself into her arms, his hands locked round her neck, his face buried
in her bosom. Carried away by the sudden natural outburst of emotion,
her own arms tightened round the lad's figure, and she strained him for
an instant to her heart. Then, the strength of the Empress gaining
instant command over the temporary weakness of the mother, she pushed
him back from her, and waved that they should leave her to herself.
The slaves in attendance hurried the two visitors from the room. Basil
the eunuch lingered, looking down at his mistress, who had thrown
herself upon a damask couch, her lips white and her bosom heaving with
the tumult of her emotion. She glanced up and met the chancellor's
crafty gaze, her woman's instinct reading the threat that lurked within
"I am in your power," she said. "The Emperor must never know of this."
"I am your slave," said the eunuch, with his ambiguous smile. "I am an
instrument in your hand. If it is your will that the Emperor should
know nothing, then who is to tell him?"
"But the monk, the boy? What are we to do?"
"There is only one way for safety," said the eunuch.
She looked at him with horrified eyes. His spongy hands were pointing
down to the floor. There was an underground world to this beautiful
palace, a shadow that was ever close to the light, a region of dimly-lit
passages, of shadowed corners, of noiseless, tongueless slaves, of
sudden, sharp screams in the darkness. To this the eunuch was pointing.
A terrible struggle rent her breast. The beautiful boy was hers, flesh
of her flesh, bone of her bone. She knew it beyond all question or
doubt. It was her one child, and her whole heart went out to him.
But Justinian! She knew the Emperor's strange limitations. Her career
in the past was forgotten. He had swept it all aside by special
Imperial decree published throughout the Empire, as if she were new-born
through the power of his will, and her association with his person.
But they were childless, and this sight of one which was not his own
would cut him to the quick. He could dismiss her infamous past from his
mind, but if it took the concrete shape of this beautiful child, then
how could he wave it aside as if it had never been? All her instincts
and her intimate knowledge of the man told her that even her charm, and
her influence might fail under such circumstances to save her from ruin.
Her divorce would be as easy to him as her elevation had been. She was
balanced upon a giddy pinnacle, the highest in the world, and yet the
higher the deeper the fall. Everything that earth could give was now at
her feet. Was she to risk the losing of it all--for what? For a
weakness which was unworthy of an Empress, for a foolish new-born spasm
of love, for that which had no existence within her in the morning?
How could she be so foolish as to risk losing such a substance for such
"Leave it to me," said the brown watchful face above her.
"Must it be--death?"
"There is no real safety outside. But if your heart is too merciful,
then by the loss of sight and speech--"
She saw in her mind the white-hot iron approaching those glorious eyes,
and she shuddered at the thought.
"No, no! Better death than that!"
"Let it be death then. You are wise, great Empress, for there only is
real safety and assurance of silence."
"And the monk?"
"But the Holy Synod? He is a tonsured priest. What would the Patriarch
"Silence his babbling tongue. Then let them do what they will. How are
we of the palace to know that this conspirator, taken with a dagger in
his sleeve, is really what he says?"
Again she shuddered and shrank down among the cushions.
"Speak not of it, think not of it," said the eunuch. "Say only that you
leave it in my hands. Nay, then, if you cannot say it, do but nod your
head, and I take it as your signal."
In that moment there flashed before Theodora's mind a vision of all her
enemies, of all those who envied her rise, of all whose hatred and
contempt would rise into a clamour of delight could they see the
daughter of the bearward hurled down again into that abyss from which
she had been dragged. Her face hardened, her lips tightened, her little
hands clenched in the agony of her thought. "Do it!" she said.
In an instant, with a terrible smile, the messenger of death hurried
from the room. She groaned aloud, and buried herself yet deeper amid
the silken cushions, clutching them frantically with convulsed and
The eunuch wasted no time, for this deed, once done, he became--save for
some insignificant monk in Asia Minor, whose fate would soon be sealed--
the only sharer of Theodora's secret, and therefore the only person who
could curb and bend that most imperious nature. Hurrying into the
chamber where the visitors were waiting, he gave a sinister signal,
only too well known in those iron days. In an instant the black mutes
in attendance seized the old man and the boy, pushing them swiftly down
a passage and into a meaner portion of the palace, where the heavy smell
of luscious cooking proclaimed the neighbourhood of the kitchens.
A side corridor led to a heavily-barred iron door, and this in turn
opened upon a steep flight of stone steps, feebly illuminated by the
glimmer of wall lamps. At the head and foot stood a mute sentinel like
an ebony statue, and below, along the dusky and forbidding passages from
which the cells opened, a succession of niches in the wall were each
occupied by a similar guardian. The unfortunate visitors were dragged
brutally down a number of stone-flagged and dismal corridors until they
descended another long stair which led so deeply into the earth that the
damp feeling in the heavy air and the drip of water all round showed
that they had come down to the level of the sea. Groans and cries, like
those of sick animals, from the various grated doors which they passed
showed how many there were who spent their whole lives in this humid and
At the end of this lowest passage was a door which opened into a single
large vaulted room. It was devoid of furniture, but in the centre was a
large and heavy wooden board clamped with iron. This lay upon a rude
stone parapet, engraved with inscriptions beyond the wit of the eastern
scholars, for this old well dated from a time before the Greeks founded
Byzantium, when men of Chaldea and Phoenicia built with huge unmortared
blocks, far below the level of the town of Constantine. The door was
closed, and the eunuch beckoned to the slaves that they should remove
the slab which covered the well of death. The frightened boy screamed
and clung to the abbot, who, ashy-pale and trembling, was pleading hard
to melt the heart of the ferocious eunuch.
"Surely, surely, you would not slay the innocent boy!" he cried. "What
has he done? Was it his fault that he came here? I alone--I and Deacon
Bardas--are to blame. Punish us, if some one must indeed be punished.
We are old. It is today or tomorrow with us. But he is so young and
so beautiful, with all his life before him. Oh, sir! oh, your
excellency, you would not have the heart to hurt him!"
He threw himself down and clutched at the eunuch's knees, while the boy
sobbed piteously and cast horror-stricken eyes at the black slaves who
were tearing the wooden slab from the ancient parapet beneath. The only
answer which the chamberlain gave to the frantic pleadings of the abbot
was to take a stone which lay on the coping of the well and toss it in.
It could be heard clattering against the old, damp, mildewed walls,
until it fell with a hollow boom into some far distant subterranean
pool. Then he again motioned with his hands, and the black slaves threw
themselves upon the boy and dragged him away from his guardian.
So shrill was his clamour that no one heard the approach of the Empress.
With a swift rush she had entered the room, and her arms were round her
"It shall not be! It cannot be!" she cried. "No, no, my darling! my
darling! they shall do you no hurt. I was mad to think of it--mad and
wicked to dream of it. Oh, my sweet boy! To think that your mother
might have had your blood upon her head!"
The eunuch's brows were gathered together at this failure of his plans,
at this fresh example of feminine caprice.
"Why kill them, great lady, if it pains your gracious heart?" said he."
With a knife and a branding iron they can be disarmed for ever."
She paid no attention to his words. "Kiss me, Leon!" she cried. "Just
once let me feel my own child's soft lips rest upon mine. Now again!
No, no more, or I shall weaken for what I have still to say and still to
do. Old man, you are very near a natural grave, and I cannot think from
your venerable aspect that words of falsehood would come
readily to your lips. You have indeed kept my secret all these years,
have you not?"
"I have in very truth, great Empress. I swear to you by Saint
Nicephorus, patron of our house, that, save old Deacon Bardas, there is
none who knows."
"Then let your lips still be sealed. If you have kept faith in the
past, I see no reason why you should be a babbler in the future. And
you, Leon"--she bent her wonderful eyes with a strange mixture of
sternness and of love upon the boy, "can I trust you? Will you keep a
secret which could never help you, but would be the ruin and downfall of
"Oh, mother, I would not hurt you! I swear that I will be silent."
"Then I trust you both. Such provision will be made for your monastery
and for your own personal comforts as will make you bless the day you
came to my palace. Now you may go. I wish never to see you again.
If I did, you might find me in a softer mood, or in a harder, and the
one would lead to my undoing, the other to yours. But if by whisper or
rumour I have reason to think that you have failed me, then you and your
monks and your monastery will have such an end as will be a lesson for
ever to those who would break faith with their Empress."
"I will never speak," said the old abbot; "neither will Deacon Bardas;
neither will Leon. For all three I can answer. But there are others--
these slaves, the chancellor. We may be punished for another's fault."
"Not so," said the Empress, and her eyes were like flints. "These
slaves are voiceless; nor have they any means to tell those secrets
which they know. As to you, Basil--" She raised her white hand
with the same deadly gesture which he had himself used so short a time
before. The black slaves were on him like hounds on a stag.
"Oh, my gracious mistress, dear lady, what is this? What is this?
You cannot mean it!" he screamed, in his high, cracked voice. "Oh, what
have I done? Why should I die?"
"You have turned me against my own. You have goaded me to slay my own
son. You have intended to use my secret against me. I read it in your
eyes from the first. Cruel, murderous villain, taste the fate which you
have yourself given to so many others. This is your doom. I have
The old man and the boy hurried in horror from the vault. As they
glanced back they saw the erect inflexible, shimmering, gold-clad figure
of the Empress. Beyond they had a glimpse of the green-scummed lining
of the well, and of the great red open mouth of the eunuch, as he
screamed and prayed while every tug of the straining slaves brought him
one step nearer to the brink. With their hands over their ears they
rushed away, but even so they heard that last woman-like shriek, and
then the heavy plunge far down in the dark abysses of the earth.
THE RED STAR
The house of Theodosius, the famous eastern merchant, was in the best
part of Constantinople at the Sea Point which is near the Church of
Saint Demetrius. Here he would entertain in so princely a fashion that
even the Emperor Maurice had been known to come privately from the
neighbouring Bucoleon palace in order to join in the revelry. On the
night in question, however, which was the fourth of November in the year
of our Lord 630, his numerous guests had retired early, and there
remained only two intimates, both of them successful merchants like
himself, who sat with him over their wine on the marble verandah of his
house, whence on the one side they could see the lights of the shipping
in the Sea of Marmora, and on the other the beacons which marked out the
course of the Bosphorus. Immediately at their feet lay a narrow strait
of water, with the low, dark loom of the Asiatic hills beyond. A thin
haze hid the heavens, but away to the south a single great red star
burned sullenly in the darkness.
The night was cool, the light was soothing, and the three men talked
freely, letting their minds drift back into the earlier days when they
had staked their capital, and often their lives, on the ventures which
had built up their present fortunes. The host spoke of his long
journeys in North Africa, the land of the Moors; how he had travelled,
keeping the blue sea ever upon his right, until he had passed the
ruins of Carthage, and so on and ever on until a great tidal ocean beat
upon a yellow strand before him, while on the right he could see the
high rock across the waves which marked the Pillars of Hercules.
His talk was of dark-skinned bearded men, of lions, and of monstrous
serpents. Then Demetrius, the Cilician, an austere man of sixty, told
how he also had built up his mighty wealth. He spoke of a journey over
the Danube and through the country of the fierce Huns, until he and his
friends had found themselves in the mighty forest of Germany, on the
shores of the great river which is called the Elbe. His stories were of
huge men, sluggish of mind, but murderous in their cups, of sudden
midnight broils and nocturnal flights, of villages buried in dense
woods, of bloody heathen sacrifices, and of the bears and wolves who
haunted the forest paths. So the two elder men capped each other's
stories and awoke each other's memories, while Manuel Ducas, the young
merchant of gold and ostrich feathers, whose name was already known all
over the Levant, sat in silence and listened to their talk. At last,
however, they called upon him also for an anecdote, and leaning his
cheek upon his elbow, with his eyes fixed upon the great red star which
burned in the south, the younger man began to speak.
"It is the sight of that star which brings a story into my mind," said
he. "I do not know its name. Old Lascaris the astronomer would tell me
if I asked, but I have no desire to know. Yet at this time of the year
I always look out for it, and I never fail to see it burning in the same
place. But it seems to me that it is redder and larger than it was.
"It was some ten years ago that I made an expedition into Abyssinia,
where I traded to such good effect that I set forth on my return with
more than a hundred camel-loads of skins, ivory, gold, spices, and other
African produce. I brought them to the sea-coast at Arsinoe, and
carried them up the Arabian Gulf in five of the small boats of the
country. Finally, I landed near Saba, which is a starting-point for
caravans, and, having assembled my camels and hired a guard of forty men
from the wandering Arabs, I set forth for Macoraba. From this point,
which is the sacred city of the idolaters of those parts, one can always
join the large caravans which go north twice a year to Jerusalem and
the sea-coast of Syria.
"Our route was a long and weary one. On our left hand was the Arabian
Gulf, lying like a pool of molten metal under the glare of day, but
changing to blood-red as the sun sank each evening behind the distant
African coast. On our right was a monstrous desert which extends, so
far as I know, across the whole of Arabia and away to the distant
kingdom of the Persians. For many days we saw no sign of life save our
own long, straggling line of laden camels with their tattered, swarthy
guardians. In these deserts the soft sand deadens the footfall of the
animals, so that their silent progress day after day through a scene
which never changes, and which is itself noiseless, becomes at last like
a strange dream. Often as I rode behind my caravan, and gazed at the
grotesque figures which bore my wares in front of me, I found it hard to
believe that it was indeed reality, and that it was I, I, Manuel Ducas,
who lived near the Theodosian Gate of Constantinople, and shouted for
the Green at the hippodrome every Sunday afternoon, who was there in so
strange a land and with such singular comrades.
"Now and then, far out at sea, we caught sight of the white triangular
sails of the boats which these people use, but as they are all pirates,
we were very glad to be safely upon shore. Once or twice, too, by the
water's edge we saw dwarfish creatures-one could scarcely say if they
were men or monkeys--who burrow for homes among the seaweed, drink the
pools of brackish water, and eat what they can catch. These are the
fish-eaters, the Ichthyophagi, of whom old Herodotus talks--surely the
lowest of all the human race. Our Arabs shrank from them with horror,
for it is well known that, should you die in the desert, these little
people will settle on you like carrion crows, and leave not a bone
unpicked. They gibbered and croaked and waved their skinny arms at us
as we passed, knowing well that they could swim far out to sea if we
attempted to pursue them; for it is said that even the sharks turn with
disgust from their foul bodies.
"We had travelled in this way for ten days, camping every evening at the
vile wells which offered a small quantity of abominable water. It was
our habit to rise very early and to travel very late, but to halt during
the intolerable heat of the afternoon, when, for want of trees, we would
crouch in the shadow of a sandhill, or, if that were wanting, behind
our own camels and merchandise, in order to escape from the insufferable
glare of the sun. On the seventh day we were near the point where one
leaves the coast in order to strike inland to Macoraba. We had
concluded our midday halt, and were just starting once more, the sun
still being so hot that we could hardly bear it, when, looking up, I saw
a remarkable sight. Standing on a hillock to our right there was a man
about forty feet high, holding in his hand a spear which was the size of
the mast of a large ship. You look surprised, my friends, and you can
therefore imagine my feelings when I saw such a sight. But my reason
soon told me that the object in front of me was really a wandering Arab,
whose form had been enormously magnified by the strange distorting
effects which the hot air of the desert is able to cause.
"However, the actual apparition caused more alarm to my companions than
the imagined one had to me, for with a howl of dismay they shrank
together into a frightened group, all pointing and gesticulating as they
gazed at the distant figure. I then observed that the man was not
alone, but that from all the sandhills a line of turbaned heads was
gazing down upon us. The chief of the escort came running to me, and
informed me of the cause of their terror, which was that they
recognized, by some peculiarity of their headgear, that these men
belonged to the tribe of the Dilwas, the most ferocious and unscrupulous
of the Bedouin, who had evidently laid an ambuscade for us at this point
with the intention of seizing our caravan. When I thought of all my
efforts in Abyssinia, of the length of my journey and of the dangers and
fatigues which I had endured, I could not bear to think of this total
disaster coming upon me at the last instant and robbing me not only of
my profits, but also of my original outlay. It was evident, however,
that the robbers were too numerous for us to attempt to defend
ourselves, and that we should be very fortunate if we escaped with our
lives. Sitting upon a packet, therefore, I commended my soul to our
blessed Saint Helena, while I watched with despairing eyes the stealthy
and menacing approach of the Arab robbers.
"It may have been our own good fortune, or it may have been the handsome
offering of beeswax candles--four to the pound--which I had mentally
vowed to the blessed Helena, but at that instant I heard a great outcry
of joy from among my own followers. Standing up on the packet that I
might have a better view, I was overjoyed to see a long caravan--five
hundred camels at least-with a numerous armed guard coming along the
route from Macoraba. It is, I need not tell you, the custom of all
caravans to combine their forces against the robbers of the desert, and
with the aid of these newcomers we had become the stronger party.
The marauders recognized it at once, for they vanished as if their
native sands had swallowed them. Running up to the summit of a
sandhill, I was just able to catch a glimpse of a dust-cloud whirling
away across the yellow plain, with the long necks of their camels,
the flutter of their loose garments, and the gleam of their spears
breaking out from the heart of it. So vanished the marauders.
"Presently I found, however, that I had only exchanged one danger for
another. At first I had hoped that this new caravan might belong to
some Roman citizen, or at least to some Syrian Christian, but I found
that it was entirely Arab. The trading Arabs who are settled in the
numerous towns of Arabia are, of course, very much more peaceable than
the Bedouin of the wilderness, those sons of Ishmael of whom we read in
Holy Writ. But the Arab blood is covetous and lawless, so that when
I saw several hundred of them formed in a semi-circle round our camels,
looking with greedy eyes at my boxes of precious metals and my packets
of ostrich feathers, I feared the worst.
"The leader of the new caravan was a man of dignified bearing and
remarkable appearance. His age I would judge to be about forty. He had
aquiline features, a noble black beard, and eyes so luminous, so
searching, and so intense that I cannot remember in all my wanderings to
have seen any which could be compared with them. To my thanks and
salutations he returned a formal bow, and stood stroking his beard and
looking in silence at the wealth which had suddenly fallen into his
power. A murmur from his followers showed the eagerness with which they
awaited the order to tall upon the plunder, and a young ruffian, who
seemed to be on intimate terms with the leader, came to his elbow and
put the desires of his companions into words.
"'Surely, oh Revered One,' said he, 'these people and their treasure
have been delivered into our hands. When we return with it to the holy
place, who of all the Koraish will fail to see the finger of God which
has led us?'
"But the leader shook his head. 'Nay, Ali, it may not be,' he answered.
'This man is, as I judge, a citizen of Rome, and we may not treat him as
though he were an idolater.'
"'But he is an unbeliever,' cried the youth, fingering a great knife
which hung in his belt. 'Were I to be the judge, he would lose not only
his merchandise, but his life also, if he did not accept the faith.'
"The older man smiled and shook his head. 'Nay, Ali; you are too
hot-headed,' said he, 'seeing that there are not as yet three hundred
faithful in the world, our hands would indeed be full if we were to take
the lives and property of all who are not with us. Forget not, dear
lad, that charity and honesty are the very nose-ring and halter of the
"'Among the faithful,' said the ferocious youth.
"'Nay, towards every one. It is the law of Allah. And yet'--here his
countenance darkened, and his eyes shone with a most sinister light--
'the day may soon come when the hour of grace is past, and woe, then, to
those who have not hearkened! Then shall the sword of Allah be drawn,
and it shall not be sheathed until the harvest is reaped. First it
shall strike the idolaters on the day when my own people and kinsmen,
the unbelieving Koraish, shall be scattered, and the three hundred and
sixty idols of the Caaba thrust out upon the dungheaps of the town.
Then shall the Caaba be the home and temple of one God only who brooks
no rival on earth or in heaven.'
"The man's followers had gathered round him, their spears in their
hands, their ardent eyes fixed upon his face, and their dark features
convulsed with such fanatic enthusiasm as showed the hold which he
had upon their love and respect.
"'We shall be patient,' said he; 'but some time next year, the year
after, the day may come when the great angel Gabriel shall bear me the
message that the time of words has gone by, and that the hour of the
sword has come. We are few and weak, but if it is His will, who can
stand against us? Are you of Jewish faith, stranger?' he asked.
"I answered that I was not.
"'The better for you,' he answered, with the same furious anger in his
swarthy face. 'First shall the idolaters fall, and then the Jews, in
that they have not known those very prophets whom they had themselves
foretold. Then last will come the turn of the Christians, who follow
indeed a true Prophet, greater than Moses or Abraham, but who have
sinned in that they have confounded a creature with the Creator.
To each in turn--idolater, Jew, and Christian--the day of reckoning will
"The ragamuffins behind him all shook their spears as he spoke. There
was no doubt about their earnestness, but when I looked at their
tattered dresses and simple arms, I could not help smiling to think of
their ambitious threats, and to picture what their fate would be upon
the day of battle before the battle-axes of our Imperial Guards, or the
spears of the heavy cavalry of the Armenian Themes. However, I need not
say that I was discreet enough to keep my thoughts to myself, as I had
no desire to be the first martyr in this fresh attack upon our blessed
"It was now evening, and it was decided that the two caravans should
camp together--an arrangement which was the more welcome as we were by
no means sure that we had seen the last of the marauders. I had invited
the leader of the Arabs to have supper with me, and after a long
exercise of prayer with his followers he came to join me, but my attempt
at hospitality was thrown away, for he would not touch the excellent
wine which I had unpacked for him, nor would he eat any of my dainties,
contenting himself with stale bread, dried dates, and water. After this
meal we sat alone by the smouldering fire, the magnificent arch of the
heavens above us of that deep, rich blue with those gleaming, clear-cut
stars which can only be seen in that dry desert air. Our camp lay
before us, and no sound reached our ears save the dull murmur of the
voices of our companions and the occasional shrill cry of a jackal among
the sandhills around us. Face to face I sat with this strange man, the
glow of the fire beating upon his eager and imperious features and
reflecting from his passionate eyes. It was the strangest vigil, and
one which will never pass from my recollection. I have spoken with many
wise and famous men upon my travels, but never with one who left the
impression of this one.
"And yet much of his talk was unintelligible to me, though, as you are
aware, I speak Arabian like an Arab. It rose and fell in the strangest
way. Sometimes it was the babble of a child, sometimes the incoherent
raving of a fanatic, sometimes the lofty dreams of a prophet and
philosopher. There were times when his stories of demons, of miracles,
of dreams, and of omens, were such as an old woman might tell to please
the children of an evening. There were others when, as he talked with
shining face of his converse with angels, of the intentions of the
Creator, and the end of the universe, I felt as if I were in the company
of some one more than mortal, some one who was indeed the direct
messenger of the Most High.
"There were good reasons why he should treat me with such confidence.
He saw in me a messenger to Constantinople and to the Roman Empire.
Even as Saint Paul had brought Christianity to Europe, so he hoped that
I might carry his doctrines to my native city. Alas! be the doctrines
what they may, I fear that I am not the stuff of which Pauls are made.
Yet he strove with all his heart during that long Arabian night to bring
me over to his belief. He had with him a holy book, written, as he
said, from the dictation of an angel, which he carried in tablets of
bone in the nose-bag of a camel. Some chapters of this he read me; but,
though the precepts were usually good, the language seemed wild and
fanciful. There were times when I could scarce keep my countenance as I
listened to him. He planned out his future movements, and indeed, as
he spoke, it was hard to remember that he was only the wandering leader
of an Arab caravan, and not one of the great ones of the earth.
"'When God has given me sufficient power, which will be within a few
years,' said he, 'I will unite all Arabia under my banner. Then I will
spread my doctrine over Syria and Egypt. When this has been done, I
will turn to Persia, and give them the choice of the true faith or the
sword. Having taken Persia, it will be easy then to overrun Asia Minor,
and so to make our way to Constantinople.'
"I bit my lip to keep from laughing. 'And how long will it be before
your victorious troops have reached the Bosphorus?' I asked.
"'Such things are in the hands of God, whose servants we are,' said he.
'It may be that I shall myself have passed away before these things are
accomplished, but before the days of our children are completed, all
that I have now told you will come to pass. Look at that star,' he
added, pointing to a beautiful clear planet above our heads.
'That is the symbol of Christ. See how serene and peaceful it shines,
like His own teaching and the memory of His life. Now,' he added,
turning his outstretched hand to a dusky red star upon the horizon--the
very one on which we are gazing now--'that is my star, which tells of
wrath, of war, of a scourge upon sinners. And yet both are indeed
stars, and each does as Allah may ordain.'
"Well, that was the experience which was called to my mind by the sight
of this star tonight. Red and angry, it still broods over the south,
even as I saw it that night in the desert. Somewhere down yonder that
man is working and striving. He may be stabbed by some brother fanatic
or slain in a tribal skirmish. If so, that is the end. But if he
lives, there was that in his eyes and in his presence which tells me
that Mahomet the son of Abdallah--for that was his name--will testify in
some noteworthy fashion to the faith that is in him."
THE SILVER MIRROR
Jan. 3.--This affair of White and Wotherspoon's accounts proves to be a
gigantic task. There are twenty thick ledgers to be examined and
checked. Who would be a junior partner? However, it is the first big
bit of business which has been left entirely in my hands. I must
justify it. But it has to be finished so that the lawyers may have the
result in time for the trial. Johnson said this morning that I should
have to get the last figure out before the twentieth of the month.
Good Lord! Well, have at it, and if human brain and nerve can stand the
strain, I'll win out at the other side. It means office-work from ten
to five, and then a second sitting from about eight to one in the
morning. There's drama in an accountant's life. When I find myself
in the still early hours, while all the world sleeps, hunting through
column after column for those missing figures which will turn a
respected alderman into a felon, I understand that it is not such a
prosaic profession after all.
On Monday I came on the first trace of defalcation. No heavy game
hunter ever got a finer thrill when first he caught sight of the trail
of his quarry. But I look at the twenty ledgers and think of the jungle
through which I have to follow him before I get my kill. Hard work--but
rare sport, too, in a way! I saw the fat fellow once at a City dinner,
his red face glowing above a white napkin. He looked at the little pale
man at the end of the table. He would have been pale too if he could
have seen the task that would be mine.
Jan. 6.--What perfect nonsense it is for doctors to prescribe rest when
rest is out of the question! Asses! They might as well shout to a man
who has a pack of wolves at his heels that what he wants is absolute
quiet. My figures must be out by a certain date; unless they are so, I
shall lose the chance of my lifetime, so how on earth am I to rest?
I'll take a week or so after the trial.
Perhaps I was myself a fool to go to the doctor at all. But I get
nervous and highly-strung when I sit alone at my work at night. It's
not a pain--only a sort of fullness of the head with an occasional mist
over the eyes. I thought perhaps some bromide, or chloral, or something
of the kind might do me good. But stop work? It's absurd to ask such a
thing. It's like a long-distance race. You feel queer at first and
your heart thumps and your lungs pant, but if you have only the pluck to
keep on, you get your second wind. I'll stick to my work and wait for
my second wind. If it never comes--all the same, I'll stick to my work.
Two ledgers are done, and I am well on in the third. The rascal has
covered his tracks well, but I pick them up for all that.
Jan. 9.--I had not meant to go to the doctor again. And yet I have had
to. "Straining my nerves, risking a complete breakdown, even
endangering my sanity." That's a nice sentence to have fired off at
one. Well, I'll stand the strain and I'll take the risk, and so long as
I can sit in my chair and move a pen I'll follow the old sinner's slot.
By the way, I may as well set down here the queer experience which drove
me this second time to the doctor. I'll keep an exact record of my
symptoms and sensations, because they are interesting in themselves--
"a curious psycho-physiological study," says the doctor--and also
because I am perfectly certain that when I am through with them they
will all seem blurred and unreal, like some queer dream betwixt sleeping
and waking. So now, while they are fresh, I will just make a note of
them, if only as a change of thought after the endless figures.
There's an old silver-framed mirror in my room. It was given me by a
friend who had a taste for antiquities, and he, as I happen to know,
picked it up at a sale and had no notion where it came from. It's a
large thing--three feet across and two feet high--and it leans at the
back of a side-table on my left as I write. The frame is flat, about
three inches across, and very old; far too old for hall-marks or other
methods of determining its age. The glass part projects, with a
bevelled edge, and has the magnificent reflecting power which is only,
as it seems to me, to be found in very old mirrors. There's a feeling
of perspective when you look into it such as no modern glass can ever
The mirror is so situated that as I sit at the table I can usually see
nothing in it but the reflection of the red window curtains. But a
queer thing happened last night. I had been working for some hours,
very much against the grain, with continual bouts of that mistiness of
which I had complained. Again and again I had to stop and clear my
eyes. Well, on one of these occasions I chanced to look at the mirror.
It had the oddest appearance. The red curtains which should have been
reflected in it were no longer there, but the glass seemed to be clouded
and steamy, not on the surface, which glittered like steel, but deep
down in the very grain of it. This opacity, when I stared hard at it,
appeared to slowly rotate this way and that, until it was a thick white
cloud swirling in heavy wreaths. So real and solid was it, and so
reasonable was I, that I remember turning, with the idea that the
curtains were on fire. But everything was deadly still in the room--no
sound save the ticking of the clock, no movement save the slow gyration
of that strange woolly cloud deep in the heart of the old mirror.
Then, as I looked, the mist, or smoke, or cloud, or whatever one may
call it, seemed to coalesce and solidify at two points quite close
together, and I was aware, with a thrill of interest rather than of
fear, that these were two eyes looking out into the room. A vague
outline of a head I could see--a woman's by the hair, but this was very
shadowy. Only the eyes were quite distinct; such eyes--dark, luminous,
filled with some passionate emotion, fury or horror, I could not say
which. Never have I seen eyes which were so full of intense, vivid
life. They were not fixed upon me, but stared out into the room.
Then as I sat erect, passed my hand over my brow, and made a strong
conscious effort to pull myself together, the dim head faded into the
general opacity, the mirror slowly cleared, and there were the red
curtains once again.
A sceptic would say, no doubt, that I had dropped asleep over my
figures, and that my experience was a dream. As a matter of fact, I was
never more vividly awake in my life. I was able to argue about it even
as I looked at it, and to tell myself that it was a subjective
impression--a chimera of the nerves--begotten by worry and insomnia.
But why this particular shape? And who is the woman, and what is the
dreadful emotion which I read in those wonderful brown eyes? They come
between me and my work. For the first time I have done less than the
daily tally which I had marked out. Perhaps that is why I have had no
abnormal sensations tonight. Tomorrow I must wake up, come what may.
Jan. 11.--All well, and good progress with my work. I wind the net,
coil after coil, round that bulky body. But the last smile may remain
with him if my own nerves break over it. The mirror would seem to be a
sort of barometer which marks my brain-pressure. Each night I have
observed that it had clouded before I reached the end of my task.
Dr. Sinclair (who is, it seems, a bit of a psychologist) was so
interested in my account that he came round this evening to have a look
at the mirror. I had observed that something was scribbled in crabbed
old characters upon the metal-work at the back. He examined this with a
lens, but could make nothing of it. "Sanc. X. Pal." was his final
reading of it, but that did not bring us any farther. He advised me to
put it away into another room; but, after all, whatever I may see in it
is, by his own account only a symptom. It is in the cause that the
danger lies. The twenty ledgers--not the silver mirror--should be
packed away if I could only do it. I'm at the eighth now, so I
Jan. 13.-Perhaps it would have been wiser after all if I had packed away
the mirror. I had an extraordinary experience with it last night.
And yet I find it so interesting, so fascinating, that even now I will
keep it in its place. What on earth is the meaning of it all?
I suppose it was about one in the morning, and I was closing my books
preparatory to staggering off to bed, when I saw her there in front of
me. The stage of mistiness and development must have passed unobserved,
and there she was in all her beauty and passion and distress, as
clear-cut as if she were really in the flesh before me. The figure was
small, but very distinct--so much so that every feature, and every
detail of dress, are stamped in my memory. She is seated on the extreme
left of the mirror. A sort of shadowy figure crouches down beside her--
I can dimly discern that it is a man--and then behind them is cloud, in
which I see figures--figures which move. It is not a mere picture upon
which I look. It is a scene in life, an actual episode. She crouches
and quivers. The man beside her cowers down. The vague figures make
abrupt movements and gestures. All my fears were swallowed up in my
interest. It was maddening to see so much and not to see more.
But I can at least describe the woman to the smallest point. She is
very beautiful and quite young--not more than five-and-twenty, I should
judge. Her hair is of a very rich brown, with a warm chestnut shade
fining into gold at the edges. A little flat-pointed cap comes to an
angle in front, and is made of lace edged with pearls. The forehead
is high, too high perhaps for perfect beauty; but one would not have it
otherwise, as it gives a touch of power and strength to what would
otherwise be a softly feminine face. The brows are most delicately
curved over heavy eyelids, and then come those wonderful eyes--so large,
so dark, so full of over-mastering emotion, of rage and horror,
contending with a pride of self-control which holds her from sheer
frenzy! The cheeks are pale, the lips white with agony, the chin and
throat most exquisitely rounded. The figure sits and leans forward in
the chair, straining and rigid, cataleptic with horror. The dress is
black velvet, a jewel gleams like a flame in the breast, and a golden
crucifix smoulders in the shadow of a fold. This is the lady whose
image still lives in the old silver mirror. What dire deed could it be
which has left its impress there, so that now, in another age, if the
spirit of a man be but worn down to it, he may be conscious of its
One other detail: On the left side of the skirt of the black dress was,
as I thought at first, a shapeless bunch of white ribbon. Then, as I
looked more intently or as the vision defined itself more clearly,
I perceived what it was. It was the hand of a man, clenched and knotted
in agony, which held on with a convulsive grasp to the fold of the
dress. The rest of the crouching figure was a mere vague outline,
but that strenuous hand shone clear on the dark background, with a
sinister suggestion of tragedy in its frantic clutch. The man is
frightened-horribly frightened. That I can clearly discern. What has
terrified him so? Why does he grip the woman's dress? The answer lies
amongst those moving figures in the background. They have brought
danger both to him and to her. The interest of the thing fascinated me.
I thought no more of its relation to my own nerves. I stared and stared
as if in a theatre. But I could get no farther. The mist thinned.
There were tumultuous movements in which all the figures were vaguely
concerned. Then the mirror was clear once more.
The doctor says I must drop work for a day, and I can afford to do so,
for I have made good progress lately. It is quite evident that the
visions depend entirely upon my own nervous state, for I sat in front of
the mirror for an hour tonight, with no result whatever. My soothing
day has chased them away. I wonder whether I shall ever penetrate what
they all mean? I examined the mirror this evening under a good light,
and besides the mysterious inscription "Sanc. X. Pal.," I was able to
discern some signs of heraldic marks, very faintly visible upon the
silver. They must be very ancient, as they are almost obliterated.
So far as I could make out, they were three spear-heads, two above and
one below. I will show them to the doctor when he calls tomorrow.
Jan. 14.--Feel perfectly well again, and I intend that nothing else
shall stop me until my task is finished. The doctor was shown the marks
on the mirror and agreed that they were armorial bearings. He is deeply
interested in all that I have told him, and cross-questioned me closely
on the details. It amuses me to notice how he is torn in two by
conflicting desires--the one that his patient should lose his symptoms,
the other that the medium--for so he regards me--should solve this
mystery of the past. He advised continued rest, but did not oppose me
too violently when I declared that such a thing was out of the question
until the ten remaining ledgers have been checked.
Jan. 17.--For three nights I have had no experiences--my day of rest has
borne fruit. Only a quarter of my task is left, but I must make a
forced march, for the lawyers are clamouring for their material. I will
give them enough and to spare. I have him fast on a hundred counts.
When they realize what a slippery, cunning rascal he is, I should gain
some credit from the case. False trading accounts, false
balance-sheets, dividends drawn from capital, losses written down as
profits, suppression of working expenses, manipulation of petty cash--
it is a fine record!
Jan. 18.--Headaches, nervous twitches, mistiness, fullness of the
temples--all the premonitions of trouble, and the trouble came sure
enough. And yet my real sorrow is not so much that the vision should
come as that it should cease before all is revealed.
But I saw more tonight. The crouching man was as visible as the lady
whose gown he clutched. He is a little swarthy fellow, with a
black-pointed beard. He has a loose gown of damask trimmed with fur.
The prevailing tints of his dress are red. What a fright the fellow is
in, to be sure! He cowers and shivers and glares back over his
shoulder. There is a small knife in his other hand, but he is far too
tremulous and cowed to use it. Dimly now I begin to see the figures in
the background. Fierce faces, bearded and dark, shape themselves out of
the mist. There is one terrible creature, a skeleton of a man, with
hollow cheeks and eyes sunk in his head. He also has a knife in his
hand. On the right of the woman stands a tall man, very young, with
flaxen hair, his face sullen and dour. The beautiful woman looks up at
him in appeal. So does the man on the ground. This youth seems to be
the arbiter of their fate. The crouching man draws closer and hides
himself in the woman's skirts. The tall youth bends and tries to drag
her away from him. So much I saw last night before the mirror cleared.
Shall I never know what it leads to and whence it comes? It is not a
mere imagination, of that I am very sure. Somewhere, some time, this
scene has been acted, and this old mirror has reflected it. But
Jan. 20.--My work draws to a close, and it is time. I feel a tenseness
within my brain, a sense of intolerable strain, which warns me that
something must give. I have worked myself to the limit. But tonight
should be the last night. With a supreme effort I should finish the
final ledger and complete the case before I rise from my chair. I will
do it. I will.
Feb. 7.--I did. My God, what an experience! I hardly know if I am
strong enough yet to set it down.
Let me explain in the first instance that I am writing this in Dr.
Sinclair's private hospital some three weeks after the last entry in my
diary. On the night of January 20 my nervous system finally gave
way, and I remembered nothing afterwards until I found myself three days
ago in this home of rest. And I can rest with a good conscience.
My work was done before I went under. My figures are in the solicitors'
hands. The hunt is over.
And now I must describe that last night. I had sworn to finish my work,
and so intently did I stick to it, though my head was bursting, that I
would never look up until the last column had been added. And yet it
was fine self-restraint, for all the time I knew that wonderful things
were happening in the mirror. Every nerve in my body told me so. If I
looked up there was an end of my work. So I did not look up till all
was finished. Then, when at last with throbbing temples I threw down my
pen and raised my eyes, what a sight was there!
The mirror in its silver frame was like a stage, brilliantly lit, in
which a drama was in progress. There was no mist now. The oppression
of my nerves had wrought this amazing clarity. Every feature, every
movement, was as clear-cut as in life. To think that I, a tired
accountant, the most prosaic of mankind, with the account-books of a
swindling bankrupt before me, should be chosen of all the human race to
look upon such a scene!
It was the same scene and the same figures, but the drama had advanced a
stage. The tall young man was holding the woman in his arms.
She strained away from him and looked up at him with loathing in her
face. They had torn the crouching man away from his hold upon the skirt
of her dress. A dozen of them were round him--savage men, bearded men.
They hacked at him with knives. All seemed to strike him together.
Their arms rose and fell. The blood did not flow from him-it squirted.
His red dress was dabbled in it. He threw himself this way and that,
purple upon crimson, like an over-ripe plum. Still they hacked, and
still the jets shot from him. It was horrible--horrible! They dragged
him kicking to the door. The woman looked over her shoulder at him and
her mouth gaped. I heard nothing, but I knew that she was screaming.
And then, whether it was this nerve-racking vision before me, or
whether, my task finished, all the overwork of the past weeks came in
one crushing weight upon me, the room danced round me, the floor seemed
to sink away beneath my feet, and I remembered no more. In the early
morning my landlady found me stretched senseless before the silver
mirror, but I knew nothing myself until three days ago I awoke in the
deep peace of the doctor's nursing home.
Feb. 9.--Only today have I told Dr. Sinclair my full experience. He had
not allowed me to speak of such matters before. He listened with an
absorbed interest. "You don't identify this with any well-known scene
in history?" he asked, with suspicion in his eyes. I assured him that I
knew nothing of history. "Have you no idea whence that mirror came and
to whom it once belonged?" he continued. "Have you?" I asked, for he
spoke with meaning. "It's incredible," said he, "and yet how else can
one explain it? The scenes which you described before suggested it, but
now it has gone beyond all range of coincidence. I will bring you some
notes in the evening."
Later.--He has just left me. Let me set down his words as closely as I
can recall them. He began by laying several musty volumes upon my
"These you can consult at your leisure," said he. "I have some notes
here which you can confirm. There is not a doubt that what you have
seen is the murder of Rizzio by the Scottish nobles in the presence of
Mary, which occurred in March, 1566. Your description of the woman is
accurate. The high forehead and heavy eyelids combined with great
beauty could hardly apply to two women. The tall young man was her
husband, Darnley. Rizzio, says the chronicle, 'was dressed in a loose
dressing-gown of furred damask, with hose of russet velvet.' With one
hand he clutched Mary's gown, with the other he held a dagger.
Your fierce, hollow-eyed man was Ruthven, who was new-risen from a bed
of sickness. Every detail is exact."
"But why to me?" I asked, in bewilderment. "Why of all the human race
"Because you were in the fit mental state to receive the impression.
Because you chanced to own the mirror which gave the impression."
"The mirror! You think, then, that it was Mary's mirror--that it stood
in the room where the deed was done?"
"I am convinced that it was Mary's mirror. She had been Queen of
France. Her personal property would be stamped with the Royal arms.
What you took to be three spear-heads were really the lilies of France."
"And the inscription?"
"'Sanc. X. Pal.' You can expand it into Sanctae Crucis Palatium.
Some one has made a note upon the mirror as to whence it came. It was
the Palace of the Holy Cross."
"Holyrood!" I cried.
"Exactly. Your mirror came from Holyrood. You have had one very
singular experience, and have escaped. I trust that you will never put
yourself into the way of having such another."
THE BLIGHTING OF SHARKEY
Sharkey, the abominable Sharkey, was out again. After two years of the
Coromandel coast, his black barque of death, _The Happy Delivery_, was
prowling off the Spanish Main, while trader and fisher flew for dear
life at the menace of that patched fore-topsail, rising slowly over the
violet rim of the tropical sea.
As the birds cower when the shadow of the hawk falls athwart the field,
or as the jungle folk crouch and shiver when the coughing cry of the
tiger is heard in the night-time, so through all the busy world of
ships, from the whalers of Nantucket to the tobacco ships of Charleston,
and from the Spanish supply ships of Cadiz to the sugar merchants of the
Main, there spread the rumour of the black curse of the ocean.
Some hugged the shore, ready to make for the nearest port, while others
struck far out beyond the known lines of commerce, but none were so
stout-hearted that they did not breathe more freely when their
passengers and cargoes were safe under the guns of some mothering fort.
Through all the islands there ran tales of charred derelicts at sea, of
sudden glares seen afar in the night-time, and of withered bodies
stretched upon the sand of waterless Bahama Keys. All the old signs
were there to show that Sharkey was at his bloody game once more.
These fair waters and yellow-rimmed, palm-nodding islands are the
traditional home of the sea rover. First it was the gentleman
adventurer, the man of family and honour, who fought as a patriot,
though he was ready to take his payment in Spanish plunder.
Then, within a century, his debonnaire figure had passed to make room
for the buccaneers, robbers pure and simple, yet with some organized
code of their own, commanded by notable chieftains, and taking in hand
great concerted enterprises.
They, too, passed with their fleets and their sacking of cities, to make
room for the worst of all, the lonely outcast pirate, the bloody Ishmael
of the seas, at war with the whole human race. This was the vile brood
which the early eighteenth century had spawned forth, and of them all
there was none who could compare in audacity, wickedness, and evil
repute with the unutterable Sharkey.
It was early in May, in the year 1720, that _The Happy Delivery_ lay
with her fore-yard aback some five leagues west of the Windward Passage,
waiting to see what rich, helpless craft the trade-wind might bring down
Three days she had lain there, a sinister black speck, in the centre of
the great sapphire circle of the ocean. Far to the south-east the low
blue hills of Hispaniola showed up on the skyline.
Hour by hour as he waited without avail, Sharkey's savage temper had
risen, for his arrogant spirit chafed against any contradiction, even
from Fate itself. To his quartermaster, Ned Galloway, he had said that
night, with his odious neighing laugh, that the crew of the next
captured vessel should answer to him for having kept him waiting so
The cabin of the pirate barque was a good-sized room, hung with much
tarnished finery, and presenting a strange medley of luxury and
disorder. The panelling of carved and polished sandal-wood was blotched
with foul smudges and chipped with bullet-marks fired in some drunken
Rich velvets and laces were heaped upon the brocaded settees, while
metal-work and pictures of great price filled every niche and corner,
for anything which caught the pirate's fancy in the sack of a hundred
vessels was thrown haphazard into his chamber. A rich, soft carpet
covered the floor, but it was mottled with wine-stains and charred with
Above, a great brass hanging-lamp threw a brilliant yellow light upon
this singular apartment, and upon the two men who sat in their
shirt-sleeves with the wine between them, and the cards in their
hands, deep in a game of piquet. Both were smoking long pipes, and the
thin blue reek filled the cabin and floated through the skylight above
them, which, half opened, disclosed a slip of deep violet sky spangled
with great silver stars.
Ned Galloway, the quartermaster, was a huge New England wastrel, the one
rotten branch upon a goodly Puritan family tree. His robust limbs and
giant frame were the heritage of a long line of God-fearing ancestors,
while his black savage heart was all his own. Bearded to the temples,
with fierce blue eyes, a tangled lion's mane of coarse, dark hair, and
huge gold rings in his ears, he was the idol of the women in every
waterside hell from the Tortugas to Maracaibo on the Main. A red cap, a
blue silken shirt, brown velvet breeches with gaudy knee-ribbons, and
high sea-boots made up the costume of the rover Hercules.
A very different figure was Captain John Sharkey. His thin, drawn,
clean-shaven face was corpse-like in its pallor, and all the suns of the
Indies could but turn it to a more deathly parchment tint. He was part
bald, with a few lank locks of tow-like hair, and a steep, narrow
forehead. His thin nose jutted sharply forth, and near-set on either
side of it were those filmy blue eyes, red-rimmed like those of a white
bull-terrier, from which strong men winced away in fear and loathing.
His bony hands, with long, thin fingers which quivered ceaselessly like
the antennae of an insect, were toying constantly with the cards and the
heap of gold moidores which lay before him. His dress was of some
sombre drab material, but, indeed, the men who looked upon that fearsome
face had little thought for the costume of its owner.
The game was brought to a sudden interruption, for the cabin door was
swung rudely open, and two rough fellows--Israel Martin, the boatswain,
and Red Foley, the gunner--rushed into the cabin. In an instant Sharkey
was on his feet with a pistol in either hand and murder in his eyes.
"Sink you for villains!" he cried. "I see well that if I do not shoot
one of you from time to time you will forget the man I am. What mean
you by entering my cabin as though it were a Wapping alehouse?"
"Nay, Captain Sharkey," said Martin, with a sullen frown upon his
brick-red face, "it is even such talk as this which has set us by the
ears. We have had enough of it."
"And more than enough," said Red Foley, the gunner. "There be no mates
aboard a pirate craft, and so the boatswain, the gunner, and the
quarter-master are the officers."
"Did I gainsay it ?" asked Sharkey with an oath.
"You have miscalled us and mishandled us before the men, and we scarce
know at this moment why we should risk our lives in fighting for the
cabin and against the foc'sle."
Sharkey saw that something serious was in the wind. He laid down his
pistols and leaned back in his chair with a flash of his yellow fangs.
"Nay, this is sad talk," said he, "that two stout fellows who have
emptied many a bottle and cut many a throat with me, should now fall out
over nothing. I know you to be roaring boys who would go with me
against the devil himself if I bid you. Let the steward bring cups and
drown all unkindness between us."
"It is no time for drinking, Captain Sharkey," said Martin. "The men
are holding council round the mainmast, and may be aft at any minute.
They mean mischief, Captain Sharkey, and we have come to warn you."
Sharkey sprang for the brass-handled sword which hung from the wall.
"Sink them for rascals!" he cried. "When I have gutted one or two of
them they may hear reason."
But the others barred his frantic way to the door.
"There are forty of them under the lead of Sweetlocks, the master," said
Martin, "and on the open deck they would surely cut you to pieces.
Here within the cabin it may be that we can hold them off at the points
of our pistols."
He had hardly spoken when there came the tread of many heavy feet upon