Part 2 out of 6
"These are my words. After what has chanced, not for all the wealth in
Denmark would I take Iduna the Fair to be my wife. Let her stay with
Steinar, whom she has chosen. Still, I do not wish to cause the blood
of innocent men to be spent because of my private wrong. Neither do I
wish to wreak vengeance upon Steinar, who for many years was my
brother, and who has been led away by a woman, as may chance to any
one of us and has chanced to many. Therefore I say that my father
should accept Athalbrand's fine in satisfaction of the insult to our
House, and let all this matter be forgotten. As for myself, I purpose
to leave my home, where I have been put to shame, and to seek my
fortune in other lands."
Now, the most of those present thought this a wise saying and were
ready to abide by it. Yet, unluckily enough, it was made of no account
by what had slipped from my lips at its end. Although many held me
strange and fey, all men loved me because I had a kind heart and
gentleness, also because of the wrongs that I had suffered and for
something which they saw in me, which they believed would one day make
of me a great skald and a wise leader. When she heard me announce thus
publicly that I was determined to leave them, Thora, my mother,
whispered in the ears of Thorvald, my father, and Ragnar and others
also said to each other that this might not be. It was Ragnar, the
headlong, who sprang up and spoke the first.
"Is my brother to be driven from us and his home like a thrall caught
in theft because a traitor and a false woman have put him to shame?"
he said. "I say that I ask Athalbrand's blood to wash away that stain,
not his gold, and that if need be I will seek it alone and die upon
his spears. Also I say that if Olaf, my brother, turns his back upon
this vengeance, I name him niddering."
'No man shall name me that," I said, flushing, "and least of all
So, amidst shouts, for there had been long peace in the land, and all
the fighting men sighed for battle, it was agreed that war should be
declared on Athalbrand, those present pledging themselves and their
dependents to follow it to the end.
"Go back to the troth-breaker, Athalbrand," said my father to the
messengers. "Tell him that we will not accept his fine of gold, who
come to take all his wealth, and with it his land and his life. Tell
him also that the young lord Olaf refuses his daughter, Iduna, since
it has not been the fashion of our House to wed with drabs. Tell
Steinar, the woman-thief, that he would do well to slay himself, or to
be sure that he is killed in battle, since if we take him living he
shall be cast into a pit of vipers or sacrificed to Odin, the god of
"We go," answered the spokesman of the messengers; "yet before we go,
Thorvald, we would say to you that you and your folk are mad. Some
wrong has been done to your son, though perhaps not so much as you may
think. For that wrong full atonement has been offered, and with it the
hand of friendship on which you spit. Know then that the mighty lord
Athalbrand does not fear war, since for every man you can gather he
numbers two, all pledged to him until the death. Also he has consulted
the oracle, and its answer is that if you fight with him, but one of
your House will be left living."
"Begone!" thundered my father, "lest presently you should stay here
So they went.
That day my heart was very heavy, and I sought Freydisa to take
counsel with her.
"Trouble hovers over me like a croaking raven," I said. "I do not like
this war for a woman who is worth nothing, although she has hurt me
sorely. I fear the future, that it may prove even worse than the past
"Then come to learn it, Olaf, for what is known need no more be
"I am not so sure of that," I said. "But how can the future be
"Through the voice of the god, Olaf. Am I not one of Odin's virgins,
who know something of the mysteries? Yonder in his temple mayhap he
will speak through me, if you dare to listen."
"Aye, I dare. I should like to hear the god speak, true words or
"Then come and hear them, Olaf."
So we went up to the temple, and Freydisa, who had the right of entry,
unlocked its door. We passed in and lit a lamp in front of the seated
wooden image of Odin, that for unnumbered generations had rested there
behind the altar. I stood by the altar and Freydisa crouched herself
before the image, her forehead laid upon its feet, and muttered runes.
After a while she grew silent, and fear took hold of me. The place was
large, and the feeble light of the lamp scarcely reached to the arched
roof; all about me were great formless shadows. I felt that there were
two worlds, one of the flesh and one of the spirit, and that I stood
between the two. Freydisa seemed to go to sleep; I could no longer
hear her breathing. Then she sighed heavily and turned her head, and
by the light of the lamp I noted that her face was white and ghastly.
"What do you seek?" her lips asked, for I saw them moving. Yet the
voice that issued from them was not her own voice, but that of a deep-
throated man, who spoke with a strange accent.
Next came the answer in the voice of Freydisa.
"I, your virgin, seek to know the fate of him who stands by the altar,
one whom I love."
For a while there was quiet; then the first voice spoke, still through
the lips of Freydisa. Of this I was sure, for those of the statue
remained immovable. It was what it had always been--a thing of wood.
"Olaf, the son of Thorvald," said the deep voice, "is an enemy of us
the gods, as was his forefather whose grave he robbed. As his
forefather's fate was, so shall his be, for in both of them dwells the
same spirit. He shall worship that which is upon the hilt of the sword
he stole from the dead, and in this sign shall conquer, since it
prevails against us and makes our curse of none effect. Great sorrow
shall he taste, and great joy. He shall throw away a sceptre for a
woman's kiss, and yet gain a greater sceptre. Olaf, whom we curse,
shall be Olaf the Blessed. Yet in the end shall we prevail against his
flesh and that of those who cling to him preaching that which is upon
the sword but not with the sword, among whom thou shalt be numbered,
woman--thou, and another, who hast done him wrong."
The voice died away, and was followed by a silence so deep that at
length I could bear it no more.
"Ask of the war," I said, "and of what shall happen."
"It is too late," answered the voice of Freydisa. "I sought to know of
you, Olaf, and you alone, and now the spirit has left me."
Then came another long silence, after which Freydisa sighed thrice and
awoke. We went out of the temple, I bearing the lamp and she resting
on my arm. Near the door I turned and looked back, and it seemed to me
that the image of the god glared upon me wrathfully.
"What has chanced?" asked Freydisa when we stood beneath the light of
the friendly stars. "I know nothing; my mind is a blackness."
I told her word for word. When I had finished she said,
"Give me the Wanderer's sword."
I gave it to her, and she held it against the sky by the naked blade.
"The hilt is a cross," she said; "but how can a man worship a cross
and preach it and conquer thereby? I cannot interpret this rede, yet I
do not doubt but that it shall all come true, and that you, Olaf, and
I are doomed to be joined in the same fate, whatever it may be, and
with us some other who has wronged you, Steinar perchance, or Iduna
herself. Well, of this at least I am glad, for if I have loved the
father, I think that I love the son still more, though otherwise."
And, leaning forward, she kissed me solemnly upon the brow.
After Freydisa and I had sought the oracle of Odin, three long ships
of war sailed by the light of the moon from Fladstrand for
Athalbrand's Isle of Lesso. I do not know when we sailed, but in my
mind I can still see those ships creeping out to sea. In command of
the first was Thorvald, my father; of the second, Ragnar, my brother;
and of the third myself, Olaf; and on each of these ships were fifty
men, all of them stout fighters.
The parting with Thora, my mother, had been sad, for her heart
foreboded ill of this war, and her face could not hide what her heart
told her. Indeed, she wept bitterly, and cursed the name of Iduna the
Fair, who had brought this trouble on her House. Freydisa was sad
also. Yet, watching her opportunity, she glided up to me just before I
embarked and whispered to me,
"Be of good cheer, for you will return, whoever is left behind."
"It will give me little comfort to return if certain others are left
behind," I answered. "Oh, that the folk had hearkened to me and made
"Too late to talk of that now," said Freydisa, and we parted.
This was our plan: To sail for Lesso by the moonlight, and when the
moon went down to creep silently towards the shores of the island.
Then, just at the first break of dawn, we proposed to beach the ships
on a sandy strand we knew, and rush to attack Athalbrand's hall, which
we hoped to carry before men were well awake. It was a bold scheme and
one full of dangers, yet we trusted that its very boldness would cause
it to succeed, especially as we had put it about that, owing to the
unreadiness of our ships, no attack would be made until the coming of
the next moon.
Doubtless all might have gone well with us but for a strange chance.
As it happened, Athalbrand, a brave and skilful captain, who from his
youth had seen much war by sea and land, had a design of his own which
brought ours to nothing. It was that he and his people should sail to
Fladstrand, burn the ships of Thorvald, my father, that he knew were
fitting out upon the beach, which he hoped to find unguarded, or at
most only watched by a few men, and then return to Lesso before he
could be fallen upon. By ill luck he had chosen this very night for
his enterprise. So it came about that just as the moon was sinking our
watchmen caught sight of four other ships, which by the shields that
hung over their bulwarks they knew must be vessels of war, gliding
towards them over the quiet sea.
"Athalbrand comes to meet us!" cried one, and in a minute every man
was looking to his arms. There was no time for plans, since in that
low light and mist the vessels were almost bow to bow before we saw
each other. My father's ship ran in between two of Athalbrand's that
were sailing abreast, while mine and that of Ragnar found themselves
almost alongside of the others. On both sides the sails were let down,
for none had any thought of flight. Some rushed to the oars and got
enough of them out to work the ships. Others ran to the grappling
irons, and the rest began to shoot with their bows. Before one could
count two hundred from the time of sighting, the war cry of
"/Valhalla! Valhalla! Victory or Valhalla!/" broke upon the silence of
the night and the battle had begun.
It was a very fierce battle, and one that the gathering darkness made
more grim. Each ship fought without heed to the others, for as the
fray went on they drifted apart, grappled to their foes. My father,
Thorvald's, vessel fared the worst, since it had an enemy on either
bulwark. He boarded one and cleared it, losing many men. Then the crew
of the other rushed on to him as he regained his own ship. The end of
it was that my father and all his folk were killed, but only after
they had slain the most of their foes, for they died fighting very
Between Ragnar's ship and that of Athalbrand himself the fray was more
even. Ragnar boarded Athalbrand and was driven back. Athalbrand
boarded Ragnar and was driven back. Then for the second time Ragnar
boarded Athalbrand with those men who were left to him. In the narrow
waist of Athalbrand's ship a mighty battle was fought, and here at
last Ragnar and Athalbrand found themselves face to face.
They hacked at each other with their axes, till at length Ragnar, with
a fearful blow, drove in Athalbrand's helmet and clove his skull in
two, so that he died. But even as he fell, a man, it may have been
friend or foe, for the moon was sinking and the darkness grew dense,
thrust a spear into Ragnar's back, and he was carried, dying, to his
own vessel by those who remained to him.
Then that fight ceased, for all Athalbrand's people were dead or
wounded to the death. Meanwhile, on the right, I was fighting the ship
that was commanded by Steinar, for it was fated that we two should be
thrown together. Here also the struggle was desperate. Steinar and his
company boarded at the prow, but I and my men, charging up both
boards, drove them back again. In that charge it is true that I, Olaf,
fighting madly, as was my wont when roused, killed three of the Lesso
folk with the Wanderer's sword. Still I see them falling one by one.
Followed by six of my people, I sprang on to the raised prow of
Steinar's ship. Just then the grapnels parted, and there we were left,
defending ourselves as best we could. My mates got their oars and once
more brought our boat alongside. Grapple they could not, because the
irons were lost. Therefore, in obedience to the order which I shouted
to them from the high prow of the enemy's ship, they began to hurl
their ballast stones into her, and thus stove out her bottom, so that
in the end she filled and sank.
Even while she was down the fray went on. Nearly all my people were
down; indeed but two remained to me when Steinar, not knowing who I
was, rushed up and, having lost his sword, gripped me round the
middle. We wrestled, but Steinar, who was the stronger, forced me back
to the bulwarks and so overboard. Into the sea we went together just
as the ship sank, drawing us down after her. When we rose Steinar was
senseless, but still clinging to me as I caught a rope that was thrown
to me with my right hand, to which the Wanderer's sword was hanging by
a leathern loop.
The end of it was that I and the senseless Steinar were both drawn
back to my own ship just as the darkness closed in.
An hour later came the dawn, showing a sad sight. My father,
Thorvald's, ship and one of Athalbrand's lay helpless, for all, or
nearly all, their crews were dead, while the other had drifted off and
was now half a mile away.
Ragnar's ship was still grappled to its foe. My own was perhaps in the
best case, for here over twenty men were left unhurt, and another ten
whose wounds were light. The rest were dead or dying.
I sat on a bench in the waist of the ship, and at my feet lay the man
who had been dragged from the sea with me. I thought that this man was
dead till the first red rays of dawn lit upon his face, whereon he sat
up, and I saw that he was Steinar.
"Thus we meet again, my brother," I said in a quiet voice. "Well,
Steinar, look upon your work." And I pointed to the dead and dying and
to the ships around, whence came the sound of groans.
Steinar stared at me and asked in a thick voice:
"Was it with you, Olaf, that I fell into the sea?"
"Even so, Steinar."
"I knew it not in the darkness, Olaf. If I had known, never would I
have lifted sword against you."
"What did that matter, Steinar, when you had already pierced my heart,
though not with a sword?"
At these words Steinar moaned aloud, then said:
"For the second time you have saved my life."
"Aye, Steinar; but who knows whether I can do so for a third time? Yet
take comfort, for if I may I will, for thus shall I be best avenged."
"A white vengeance," said Steinar. "Oh, this is not to be borne." And
drawing a knife he wore at his girdle, he strove to kill himself.
But I, who was watching, snatched it away, then gave an order.
"Bind this man and keep him safe. Also bring him drink and a cloak to
"Best kill the dog," grumbled the captain, to whom I spoke.
"I kill that one who lays a finger on him," I replied.
Someone whispered into the captain's ear, whereon he nodded and
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "I am a thickhead. I had forgotten Odin and his
sacrifice. Yes, yes, we'll keep the traitor safe."
So they bound Steinar to one of the benches and gave him ale and
covered him with a blood-stained cloak taken from a dead man.
I also drank of the ale and drew a cloak about me, for the air was
keen. Then I said,
"Let us go to the other ships and see what has chanced there."
They got out the oars and rowed to Ragnar's vessel, where we saw men
"How went it with you?" I asked of one who stood upon the prow.
"Not so ill, Olaf," he answered. "We won, and but now, with the new
light, have finished the game. They are all quiet yonder," he added,
nodding at the vessel of Athalbrand, to which they were still
"Where is Ragnar?" I asked.
"Come on board and see," answered the man.
A plank was thrust out and I ran across it, fear gripping at my heart.
Resting against the mast sat Ragnar, dying.
"Good morrow to you, Olaf," he gasped. "I am glad you live, that there
may be one left to sit at Aar."
"What do you mean, my brother?"
"I mean, Olaf, that our father, Thorvald, is dead. They called it to
us from yonder." And he pointed with his red sword to our father's
ship, that lay side by side with one of Athalbrand's. "Athalbrand is
dead, for I slew him, and ere the sun is well clear of the sea I also
shall be dead. Oh, weep not, Olaf; we have won a great fight, and I
travel to Valhalla with a glorious company of friends and foes, there
to await you. I say that had I lived to be old, never could I have
found a better death, who then at last might have died like a cow. Get
the ships to Fladstrand, Olaf, and gather more men to put all Lesso to
the sword. Give us good burial, Olaf, and build a great mound over us,
that we may stand thereon at moonrise and mock the men of Lesso as
they row past, till Valhalla is full and the world dies. Is Steinar
dead? Tell me that Steinar is dead, for then I'll speak with him
"No, Ragnar, I have taken Steinar captive."
"Captive! Why captive? Oh, I understand; that he may lie on Odin's
altar. Friends, swear to me that Steinar shall lie on Odin's altar,
Steinar, the bride-thief, Seiner the traitor. Swear it, for I do not
trust this brother of mine, who has woman's milk in his breasts. By
Thor, he might spare him if he had his way. Swear it, or I'll haunt
your beds o' nights and bring the other heroes with me. Swift now,
while my ears are open."
Then from both ships rose the cry of
"We swear! Fear not, Ragnar, we swear."
"That's well," said Ragnar. "Kiss me now, Olaf. Oh! what is it that I
see in your eyes? A new light, a strange light! Olaf, you are not one
of us. This time is not your time, nor this place your place. You
travel to the end by another road. Well, who knows? At that end we may
meet again. At least I love you."
Then he burst into a wild war song of blood and vengeance, and so
singing sank down and died.
Afterwards, with much labour, I and the men who were left roped
together our vessels, and to them those that we had captured, and when
a favouring wind arose, sailed back for Fladstrand. Here a multitude
awaited us, for a fishing-boat had brought tidings of the great sea
battle. Of the hundred and fifty men who had sailed in my father,
Thorvald's, ships sixty were dead and many others wounded, some of
them to death. Athalbrand's people had fared even worse, since those
of Thorvald had slain their wounded, only one of his vessels having
escaped back to Lesso, there to tell the people of that island and
Iduna all that had happened. Now it was a land of widows and orphans,
so that no man need go wooing there for long, and of Aar and the
country round the same song was sung. Indeed, for generations the folk
of those parts must have told of the battle of Lesso, when the chiefs,
Thorvald and Athalbrand, slew each other upon the seas at night
because of a quarrel about a woman who was known as Iduna the Fair.
On the sands of Fladstrand my mother, the lady Thora, waited with the
others, for she had moved thither before the sailing of the ships.
When mine, the first of them, was beached, I leapt from it, and
running to her, knelt down and kissed her hand.
"I see you, my son Olaf," she said, "but where are your father and
"Yonder, mother," I answered, pointing to the ships, and could say no
"Then why do they tarry, my son?"
"Alas! mother, because they sleep and will never wake again."
Now Thora wailed aloud and fell down senseless. Three days later she
died, for her heart, which was weak, could not bear this woe. Once
only did she speak before she died, and then it was to bless me and
pray that we might meet again, and to curse Iduna. Folk noted that of
Steinar she said nothing, either good or ill, although she knew that
he lived and was a prisoner.
Thus it came about that I, Olaf, was left alone in the world and
inherited the lordship of Aar and its subject lands. No one remained
save my dark-browed uncle, Leif, the priest of Odin, Freydisa, the
wise woman, my nurse, and Steinar, my captive foster-brother, who had
been the cause of all this war.
The dying words of Ragnar had been noised abroad. The priest of Odin
had laid them before the oracle of the gods, and this oracle declared
that they must be fulfilled without change.
So all the folk of that land met together at my bidding--yes, even the
women and the children. First we laid the dead in the largest of
Athalbrand's ships, his people and Athalbrand himself being set
undermost. Then on them we set the dead of Thorvald, Thorvald, my
father, and his son Ragnar, my brother, bound to the mast upon their
feet. This done, with great labour we dragged the ship on to high
ground, and above it built a mighty mound of earth. For twenty days we
toiled at the task, till at last it was finished and the dead were
hidden beneath it for ever. Then we separated to our homes and mourned
But Steinar was carried to the temple of Odin at Aar, and there kept
in the prison of the temple.
HOW OLAF FOUGHT WITH ODIN
It was the eve of the Spring Feast of Odin. It comes back to me that
at this feast it was the custom to sacrifice some beast to Odin and to
lay flowers and other offerings upon the altars of certain other gods
that they might be pleased to grant a fruitful season. On this day,
however, the sacrifice was to be of no beast, but of a man--Steinar
That night I, Olaf, by the help of Freydisa, the priestess of the god,
won entrance to the dungeon where Steinar lay awaiting his doom. This
was not easy to do. Indeed, I remember that it was only after I had
sworn a great oath to Leif and the other priests that I would attempt
no rescue of the victim, nor aid him to escape from his prison, that I
was admitted there, while armed men stood without to see that I did
not break my word. For my love of Steinar was known, and in this
matter none trusted me.
That dungeon was a dreadful place. I see it now. In the floor of the
temple was a trap-door, which, when lifted, revealed a flight of
steps. At the foot of these steps was another massive door of oak,
bolted and barred. It was opened and closed behind me, who found
myself in a darksome den built of rough stone, to which air came only
through an opening in the roof, so small that not even a child could
pass it. In the far corner of this hole, bound to the wall by an iron
chain fastened round his middle, Steinar lay upon a bed of rushes,
while on a stool beside him stood food and water. When I entered,
bearing a lamp, Steinar sat up blinking his eyes, for the light,
feeble as it was, hurt them, and I saw that his face was white and
drawn, and the hand he held to shade his eyes was wasted. I looked at
him and my heart swelled with pity, so that I could not speak.
"Why have you come here, Olaf?" asked Steinar when he knew me. "Is it
to take my life? If so, never were you more welcome."
"No, Steinar, it is to bid you farewell, since to-morrow at the feast
you die, and I am helpless to save you. In all things else men will
obey me, but not in this."
"And would you save me if you could?"
"Aye, Steinar. Why not? Surely you must suffer enough with so much
blood and evil on your hands."
"Yes, I suffer enough, Olaf. So much that I shall be glad to die. But
if you are not come to kill me, then it is that you may scourge me
with your tongue."
"Not so, Steinar. It is as I have said, only to bid you farewell and
to ask you a question, if it pleases you to answer me. Why did you do
this thing which has brought about such misery and loss, which has
sent my father, my brother, and a host of brave men to the grave, and
with them my mother, whose breasts nursed you?"
"Is she dead also, Olaf? Oh! my cup is full." He hid his eyes in his
thin hands and sobbed, then went on: "Why did I do it? Olaf, I did not
do it, but some spirit that entered into me and made me mad--mad for
the lips of Iduna the Fair. Olaf, I would speak no ill of her, since
her sin is mine, but yet it is true that when I hung back she drew me
on, nor could I find the strength to say her nay. Do you pray the
gods, Olaf, that no woman may ever draw you on to such shame as mine.
Hearken now to the great reward that I have won. I was never wed to
Iduna, Olaf. Athalbrand would not suffer it till he was sure of the
matter of the lordship of Agger. Then, when he knew that this was gone
from me, he would suffer it still less, and Iduna herself seemed to
grow cold. In truth, I believe he thought of killing me and sending my
head as a present to your father Thorvald. But this Iduna forbade,
whether because she loved me or for other reasons, I cannot say. Olaf,
you know the rest."
"Aye, Steinar, I know the rest. Iduna is lost to me, and for that
perhaps I should thank you, although such a thrust as this leaves the
heart sore for life. My father, my mother, my brother--all are lost to
me, and you, too, who were as my twin, are about to be lost. Night has
you all, and with you a hundred other men, because of the madness that
was bred in you by the eyes of Iduna the Fair, who also is lost to
both of us. Steinar, I do not blame you, for I know yours was a
madness which, for their own ends, the gods send upon men, naming it
love. I forgive you, Steinar, if I have aught to forgive, and I tell
you, so weary am I of this world, which I feel holds little that is
good, that, if I might, I'd yield up my life instead of yours, and go
to seek the others, though I doubt whether I should find them, since I
think that our roads are different. Hark! the priests call me.
Steinar, there's no need to bid you to be brave, for who of our
Northern race is not? That's our one heritage: the courage of a bull.
Yet it seems to me that there are other sorts of courage which we
lack: to tread the dark ways of death with eyes fixed on things
gentler and better than we know. Pray to our gods, Steinar, since they
are the best we have to pray to, though dark and bloody in their ways;
pray that we may meet again, where priests and swords are not and
women work no ruin, where we may love as we once loved in childhood
and there is no more sin. Fare you well, my brother Steinar, yet not
for ever, for sure I am that here we did not begin and here we shall
not end. Oh! Steinar, Steinar, who could have dreamed that this would
be the last of all our happy fellowship?"
When I had spoken such words as these to him, I flung my arms about
him, and we embraced each other. Then that picture fades.
It was the hour of sacrifice. The victim lay bound upon the stone in
the presence of the statue of the god, but outside of the doors of the
little temple, that all who were gathered there might see the
The ceremonies were ended. Leif, the head priest, in his robe of
office, had prayed and drunk the cup before the god, dedicating to him
the blood that was about to fall, and narrating in a chant the crimes
for which it was offered up and all the tale of woe that these had
brought about. Then, in the midst of an utter silence, he drew the
sacrificial sword and held it to the lips of Odin that the god might
breathe upon it and make it holy.
It would seem that the god did breathe; at least, that side of the
sword which had been bright grew dull. Leif turned it to the people,
crying in the ancient words:
"Odin takes; who dare deny?"
All eyes were fixed upon him, standing in his black robe, and holding
aloft the gleaming sword that had grown dull. Yes, even the patient
eyes of Steinar, bound upon the stone.
Then it was that some spirit stirred in my heart which drove me on to
step between the priest and his prey. Standing in the doorway of the
chapel, a tall, young shape against the gloom behind, I said in a
"I dare deny!"
A gasp of wonderment went up from all who heard, and Steinar, lifting
himself a little from the stone, stared at me, shook his head as if in
dissent, then let it fall again, and listened.
"Hearken, friends," I said. "This man, my foster-brother, has
committed a sin against me and my House. My House is dead--I alone
remain; and on behalf of the dead and of myself I forgive him his sin,
which, indeed, was less his than another's. Is there any man among you
who at some time has not been led aside by woman, or who has not again
and again desired to be so led aside? If such a one there be, let him
say that he has no forgiveness in his heart for Steinar, the son of
Hakon. Let him come forward and say it."
None stirred; even the women drooped their heads and were silent.
"Then, if this is so," I went on, "and you can forgive, as I do, how
much more should a god forgive? What is a god? Is he not one greater
than man, who must know all the weakness of man, which, for his own
ends, he has bred into the flesh of man? How, then, can he do
otherwise than be pitiful to what he has created? If this be so, how
can the god refuse that which men are willing to grant, and what
sacrifice can please him better than the foregoing of his own
vengeance? Would a god wish to be outdone by a man? If I, Olaf, the
man can forgive, who have been wronged, how much more can Odin the god
forgive, who has suffered no wrong save that of the breaking of those
laws which will ever be broken by men who are as it has pleased him to
fashion them? On Odin's behalf, therefore, and speaking as he would
speak, could he have voice among us, I demand that you set this victim
free, leaving it to his own heart to punish him."
Now, some whom my simple words had touched, I suppose because there
was truth in them, although in those days and in that land none
understood such truths, and others, because they had known and loved
the open-handed Steinar, who would have given the cloak from his back
to the meanest of them, cried:
"Aye, let him go free. There has been enough of death through this
But more stood silent, lost in doubt at this new doctrine. Only Leif,
my uncle, did not stand silent. His dark face began to work as though
a devil possessed him, as, indeed, I think one did. His eyes rolled;
he champed his jaws like an angry hog, and screamed:
"Surely the lord Olaf is mad, for no sane man would talk thus. Man may
forgive while it is within his power; but this traitor has been
dedicated to Odin, and can a god forgive? Can a god spare when his
nostrils are opened for the smell of blood? If so, of what use is it
to be a god? How is he happier than a man if he must spare? Moreover,
would ye bring the curse of Odin upon you all? I say to you--steal his
sacrifice, and you yourselves shall be sacrificed, you, your wives,
your children, aye, and even your cattle and the fruit of your
When they heard this, the people groaned and shouted out:
"Let Steinar die! Kill him! Kill him that Odin may be fed!"
"Aye," answered Leif, "Steinar shall die. See, he dies!"
Then, with a leap like to that of a hungry wolf, he sprang upon the
bound man and slew him.
I see it now. The rude temple, the glaring statue of the god, the
gathered crowd, open mouthed and eyed, the spring sunshine shining
quietly over all, and, running past the place, a ewe calling to the
lamb that it had lost; I see the dying Steinar turn his white face,
and smile a farewell to me with his fading eyes; I see Leif getting to
his horrible rites that he might learn the omen, and lastly I see the
red sword of the Wanderer appear suddenly between me and him, and in
my hand. I think that my purpose was to cut him down. Only a thought
arose within me.
This priest was not to blame. He did no more than he had been taught.
Who taught him? The god he served, through whom he gained honour and
livelihood. So the god was to blame, the god that drank the blood of
men, as a thrall drinks ale, to satisfy his filthy appetite. Could
such a monster be a god? Nay, he must be a devil, and why should free
men serve devils? At least, I would not. I would cast him off, and let
him avenge himself upon me if he could. I, Olaf, would match myself
against this god--or devil.
I strode past Leif and the altar to where the statue of Odin sat
within the temple.
"Hearken!" I said in such a voice that all lifted their eyes from the
scene of butchery to me. "You believe in Odin, do you not?"
They answered "Aye."
"Then you believe that he can revenge himself upon one who rejects and
"Aye," they answered again.
"If this be so," I went on, "will you swear to leave the matter
between Odin and me, Olaf, to be settled according to the law of
single combat, and give peace to the victor, with promise from all
harm save at the hands of his foe?"
"Aye," they answered, yet scarcely understanding what they said.
"Good!" I cried. "Now, God Odin, I, Olaf, a man, challenge you to
single combat. Strike you first, you, Odin, whom I name Devil and Wolf
of the skies, but no god. Strike you first, bloody murderer, and kill
me, if you can, who await your stroke!"
Then I folded my arms and stared at the statue's stony eyes, which
stared back at me, while all the people gasped.
For a full minute I waited thus, but all that happened was that a wren
settled on the head of Odin and twittered there, then flew off to its
nest in the thatch.
"Now," I cried, "you have had your turn, and mine comes."
I drew the Wanderer's sword, and sprang at Odin. My first stroke sunk
up to the hilt in his hollow belly; my next cut the sceptre from his
hand; my third--a great one--hewed the head from off him. It came
rattling down, and out of it crawled a viper, which reared itself up
and hissed. I set my heel upon the reptile's head and crushed it, and
slowly it writhed itself to death.
"Now, good folk," I cried, "what say you of your god Odin?"
They answered nothing, for all of them were in flight. Yes, even Leif
fled, cursing me over his shoulder as he went.
Presently I was alone with the dead Steinar and the shattered god, and
in that loneliness strange visions came to me, for I felt that I had
done a mighty deed, one that made me happy. Round the wall of the
temple crept a figure; it was that of Freydisa, whose face was white
"You are a great man, Olaf," she said; "but how will it end?"
"I do not know," I answered. "I have done what my heart told me,
neither more nor less, and I bide the issue. Odin shall have his
chance, for here I stay till dark, and then, if I live, I leave this
land. Go, get me all the gold that is mine from the hall, and bring it
here to me by moonrise, and with it some garments and my armour. Bring
me also my best horse."
"You leave this land?" she said. "That means that you leave me, who
love you, to go forth as the Wanderer went--following a dream to the
South. Well, it is best that you should go, for whatever they have
promised you but now, it is sure that the priests will kill you, even
if you escape the vengeance of the god." And she looked askance at the
shattered statue which had sat in its place for so many generations
that none knew who had set it there, or when.
"I have killed the god," I answered, pointing to the crushed viper.
"Not quite, Olaf, for, see, its tail still moves."
Then she went, leaving me alone. I sat myself down by the murdered
Steinar, and stared at him. Could he be really dead, I wondered, or
did he live on elsewhere? My faith had taught me of a place called
Valhalla where brave men went, but in that faith and its gods I
believed no more. This Valhalla was but a child's tale, invented by a
bloody-minded folk who loved slaughter. Wherever Steinar and the
others were, it was not in Valhalla. Then, perhaps, they slept like
the beasts do after these have been butchered. Perhaps death was the
end of all. It might be so, and yet I did not believe it. There were
other gods besides Odin and his company, for what were those which we
had found in the Wanderer's tomb? I longed to know.
Yes, I would go south, as the Wanderer went, and search for them.
Perhaps there in the South I should learn the secret truth--and other
I grew weary of these thoughts of gods who could not be found, or who,
if found, were but devils. My mind went back to my childhood's days,
when Steinar and I played together on the meads, before any woman had
come to wreck our lives. I remembered how we used to play until we
were weary, and how at nights I would tell him tales that I had
learned or woven, until at length we sank to sleep, our arms about
each other's necks. My heart grew full of sorrow that in the end broke
from my eyes in tears. Yes, I wept over Steinar, my brother Steinar,
and kissed his cold and gory lips.
The evening gathered, the twilight grew, and, one by one, the stars
sprang out in the quiet sky, till the moon appeared and gathered all
their radiance to herself. I heard the sound of a woman's dress, and
looked up, thinking to see Freydisa. But this woman was not Freydisa;
it was Iduna! Yes, Iduna's self!
I rose to my feet and stood still. She also stood still, on the
farther side of the stone of sacrifice whereon that which had been
Steinar was stretched between us. Then came a struggle of silence, in
which she won at last.
"Have you come to save him?" I asked. "If so, it is too late. Woman,
behold your work."
She shook her beautiful head and answered, almost in a whisper:
"Nay, Olaf, I am come to beg a boon of you: that you will slay me,
here and now."
"Am I a butcher--or a priest?" I muttered.
"Oh, slay me, slay me, Olaf!" she went on, throwing herself upon her
knees before me, and rending open her blue robe that her young breast
might take the sword. "Thus, perchance, I, who love life, may pay some
of the price of sin, who, if I slew myself, would but multiply the
debt, which in truth I dare not do."
Still I shook my head, and once more she spoke:
"Olaf, in this way or in that doubtless my end will find me, for, if
you refuse this office, there are others of sterner stuff. The knife
that smote Steinar is not blunted. Yet, before I die, who am come here
but to die, I pray you hear the truth, that my memory may be somewhat
less vile to you in the after years. Olaf, you think me the falsest of
the false, yet I am not altogether so. Hark you now! At the time that
Steinar sought me, some madness took him. So soon as we were alone
together, his first words were: 'I am bewitched. I love you.'
"Olaf, I'll not deny that his worship stirred my blood, for he was
goodly--well, and different to you, with your dreaming eyes and
thoughts that are too deep for me. And yet, by my breath, I swear that
I meant no harm. When we rode together to the ship, it was my purpose
to return upon the morrow and be made your wife. But there upon the
ship my father compelled me. It was his fancy that I should break with
you and be wed to Steinar, who had become so great a lord and who
pleased him better than you did, Olaf. And, as for Steinar--why, have
I not told you that he was mad for me?"
"Steinar's tale was otherwise, Iduna. He said that you went first, and
that he followed."
"Were those his words, Olaf? For, if so, how can I give the dead the
lie, and one who died through me? It seems unholy. Yet in this matter
Steinar had no reason left to him and, whether you believe me or no, I
tell the truth. Oh! hear me out, for who knows when they will come to
take me, who have walked into this nest of foes that I may be taken?
Pray as I would, the ship was run out, and we sailed for Lesso. There,
in my father's hall, upon my knees, I entreated him to hold his hand.
I told him what was true: that, of you twain, it was you I loved, not
Steinar. I told him that if he forced this marriage, war would come of
it that might mean all our deaths. But these things moved him nothing.
Then I told him that such a deed of shame would mean the loss of
Steinar's lordship, so that by it he would gain no profit. At last he
listened, for this touched him near. You know the rest. Thorvald, your
father, and Ragnar, who ever hated me, pressed on the war despite all
our offerings of peace. So the ships met, and Hela had her fill."
"Aye, Iduna, whatever else is false, this is true, that Hela had her
"Olaf, I have but one thing more to say. It is this: Only once did
those dead lips touch mine, and then it was against my will. Aye,
although it is shameful, you must learn the truth. My father held me,
Olaf, while I took the betrothal kiss, because I must. But, as you
know, there was no marriage."
"Aye, I know that," I said, "because Steinar told me so."
"And, save for that one kiss, Olaf, I am still the maid whom once you
loved so well."
Now I stared at her. Could this woman lie so blackly over dead
Steinar's corpse? When all was said and done, was it not possible that
she spoke the truth, and that we had been but playthings in the hands
of an evil Fate? Save for some trifling error, which might be forgiven
to one who, as she said, loved the worship that was her beauty's due,
what if she were innocent, after all?
Perhaps my face showed the thoughts that were passing through my mind.
At the least, she who knew me well found skill to read them. She crept
towards me, still on her knees; she cast her arms about me, and,
resting her weight upon me, drew herself to her feet.
"Olaf," she whispered, "I love you, I love you well, as I have always
done, though I may have erred a little, as women wayward and still
unwed are apt to do. Olaf, they told me yonder how you had matched
yourself against the god, with his priests for judges, and smitten
him, and I thought this the greatest deed that ever I have known. I
used to think you something of a weakling, Olaf, not in your body but
in your mind, one lost in music and in runes, who feared to put things
to the touch of war; but you have shown me otherwise. You slew the
bear; you overcame Steinar, who was so much stronger than you are, in
the battle of the ships; and now you have bearded Odin, the All-
father. Look, his head lies there, hewn off by you for the sake of one
who, after all, had done you wrong. Olaf, such a deed as that touches
a woman's heart, and he who does it is the man she would wish to lie
upon her breast and be her lord. Olaf, all this evil past may yet be
forgotten. We might go and live elsewhere for awhile, or always, for
with your wisdom and my beauty joined together what could we not
conquer? Olaf, I love you now as I have never loved before, cannot you
love me again?"
Her arms clung about me; her beautiful blue eyes, shimmering with
moonlit tears, held my eyes, and my heart melted beneath her breath as
winter snows melt in the winds of spring. She saw, she understood; she
cast herself upon me, shaking her long hair over both of us, and
seeking my lips. Almost she had found them, when, feeling something
hard between me and her, something that hurt me, I looked down. Her
cloak had slipped or been thrown aside, and my eye caught the glint of
gold and jewels. In an instant I remembered--the Wanderer's necklace
and the dream--and with those memories my heart froze again.
"Nay, Iduna," I said, "I loved you well; there's no man will ever love
you more, and you are very fair. Whether you speak true words or
false, I do not know; it is between you and your own spirit. But this
I do know: that betwixt us runs the river of Steinar's blood, aye, and
the blood of Thorvald, my father, of Thora, my mother, of Ragnar, my
brother, and of many another man who clung to us, and that is a stream
which I cannot cross. Find you another husband, Iduna the Fair, since
never will I call you wife."
She loosed her arms from round me, and, lifting them again, unclasped
the Wanderer's necklace from about her breast.
"This it is," she said, "which has brought all these evils on me. Take
it back again, and, when you find her, give it to that one for whom it
is meant, that one whom you love truly, as, whatever you may have
thought, you never have loved me."
Then she sank upon the ground, and resting her golden head upon dead
Steinar's breast, she wept.
I think it was then that Freydisa returned; at least, I recall her
tall form standing near the stone of sacrifice, gazing at us both, a
strange smile on her face.
"Have you withstood?" she said. "Then, truly, you are in the way of
victory and have less to fear from woman than I thought. All things
are ready as you commanded, my lord Olaf, and there remains but to say
farewell, which you had best do quickly, for they plot your death
"Freydisa," I answered, "I go, but perchance I shall return again.
Meanwhile, all I have is yours, with this charge. Guard you yonder
woman, and see her safe to her home, or wherever she would go, and to
Steinar here give honourable burial."
Then the darkness of oblivion falls, and I remember no more save the
white face of Iduna, her brow stained with Steinar's life-blood,
watching me as I went.
IRENE, EMPRESS OF THE EARTH
A gulf of blackness and the curtain lifts again upon a very different
Olaf from the young northern lord who parted from Iduna at the place
of sacrifice at Aar.
I see myself standing upon a terrace that overlooks a stretch of quiet
water, which I now know was the Bosphorus. Behind me are a great
palace and the lights of a vast city; in front, upon the sea and upon
the farther shore, are other lights. The moon shines bright above me,
and, having naught else to do, I study my reflection in my own
burnished shield. It shows a man of early middle life; he may be
thirty or five-and-thirty years of age; the same Olaf, yet much
changed. For now my frame is tall and well-knit, though still somewhat
slender; my face is bronzed by southern suns; I wear a short beard;
there is a scar across my cheek, got in some battle; my eyes are
quiet, and have lost the first liveliness of youth. I know that I am
the captain of the Northern Guard of the Empress Irene, widow of the
dead emperor, Leo the Fourth, and joint ruler of the Eastern Empire
with her young son, Constantine, the sixth of that name.
How I came to fill this place, however, I do not know. The story of my
journey from Jutland to Byzantium is lost to me. Doubtless it must
have taken years, and after these more years of humble service, before
I rose to be the captain of Irene's Northern Guard that she kept ever
about her person, because she would not trust her Grecian soldiers.
My armour was very rich, yet I noted about myself two things that were
with me in my youth. One was the necklace of golden shells, divided
from each other by beetles of emeralds, that I had taken from the
Wanderer's grave at Aar, and the other the cross-hilted bronze sword
with which this same Wanderer had been girded in his grave. I know now
that because of this weapon, which was of a metal and shape strange to
that land, I had the byname of Olaf Red-Sword, and I know also that
none wished to feel the weight of this same ancient blade.
When I had finished looking at myself in the shield, I leaned upon the
parapet staring at the sea and wondering how the plains of Aar looked
that night beneath this selfsame moon, and whether Freydisa were dead
by now, and whom Iduna had married, and if she ever thought of me, or
if Steinar came to haunt her sleep.
So I mused, till presently I felt a light touch upon my shoulder, and
swung round to find myself face to face with the Empress Irene
"Augusta!" I said, saluting, for, as Empress, that was her Roman
title, even though she was a Greek.
"You guard me well, friend Olaf," she said, with a little laugh. "Why,
any enemy, and Christ knows I have plenty, could have cut you down
before ever you knew that he was there."
"Not so, Augusta," I answered, for I could speak their Greek tongue
well; "since at the end of the terrace the guards stand night and day,
men of my own blood who can be trusted. Nothing which does not fly
could gain this place save through your own chambers, that are also
guarded. It is not usual for any watch to be set here, still I came
myself in case the Empress might need me."
"That is kind of you, my Captain Olaf, and I think I do need you. At
least, I cannot sleep in this heat, and I am weary of the thoughts of
State, for many matters trouble me just now. Come, change my mind, if
you can, for if so I'll thank you. Tell me of yourself when you were
young. Why did you leave your northern home, where I've heard you were
a barbarian chief, and wander hither to Byzantium?"
"Because of a woman," I answered.
"Ah!" she said, clapping her hands; "I knew it. Tell me of this woman
whom you love."
"The story is short, Augusta. She bewitched my foster-brother, and
caused him to be sacrificed to the northern gods as a troth-breaker,
and I do not love her."
"You'd not admit it if you did, Olaf. Was she beautiful, well, say as
I turned and looked at the Empress, studying her from head to foot.
She was shorter than Iduna by some inches, also older, and therefore
of a thicker build; but, being a fair Greek, her colour was much the
same, save that the eyes were darker. The mouth, too, was more hard.
For the rest, she was a royal-looking and lovely woman in the flower
of her age, and splendidly attired in robes broidered with gold, over
which she wore long strings of rounded pearls. Her rippling golden
hair was dressed in the old Greek fashion, tied in a simple knot
behind her head, and over it was thrown a light veil worked with
"Well, Captain Olaf," she said, "have you finished weighing my poor
looks against those of this northern girl in the scales of your
judgment? If so, which of us tips the beam?"
"Iduna was more beautiful than ever you can have been, Augusta," I
She stared at me till her eyes grew quite round, then puckered up her
mouth as though to say something furious, and finally burst out
"By every saint in Byzantium," she said, "or, rather, by their relics,
for of live ones there are none, you are the strangest man whom I have
known. Are you weary of life that you dare to say such a thing to me,
the Empress Irene?"
"Am I weary of life? Well, Augusta, on the whole I think I am. It
seems to me that death and after it may interest us more. For the
rest, you asked me a question, and, after the fashion of my people, I
answered it as truthfully as I could."
"By my head, you have said it again," she exclaimed. "Have you not
heard, most innocent Northman, that there are truths which should not
be mentioned and much less repeated?"
"I have heard many things in Byzantium, Augusta, but I pay no
attention to any of them--or, indeed, to little except my duty."
"Now that this, this--what's the girl's name?"
"Iduna the Fair," I said.
"----this Iduna has thrown you over, at which I am sure I do not
wonder, what mistresses have you in Byzantium, Olaf the Dane?"
"None at all," I answered. "Women are pleasant, but one may buy sweets
too dear, and all that ever I saw put together were not worth my
brother Steinar, who lost his life through one of them."
"Tell me, Captain Olaf, are you a secret member of this new society of
hermits of which they talk so much, who, if they see a woman, must
hold their faces in the sand for five minutes afterwards?"
"I never heard of them, Augusta."
"Are you a Christian?"
"No; I am considering that religion--or rather its followers."
"Are you a pagan, then?"
"No. I fought a duel with the god Odin, and cut his head off with this
sword, and that is why I left the North, where they worship Odin."
"Then what are you?" she said, stamping her foot in exasperation.
"I am the captain of your Imperial Majesty's private guard, a little
of a philosopher, and a fair poet in my own language, not in Greek.
Also, I can play the harp."
"You say 'not in Greek,' for fear lest I should ask you to write
verses to me, which, indeed, I shall never do, Olaf. A soldier, a
poet, a philosopher, a harpist, one who has renounced women! Now, why
have you renounced women, which is unnatural in a man who is not a
monk? It must be because you still love this Iduna, and hope to get
her some day."
I shook my head and answered,
"I might have done that long ago, Augusta."
"Then it must be because there is some other woman whom you wish to
gain. Why do you always wear that strange necklace?" she added
sharply. "Did it belong to this savage girl Iduna, as, from the look
of it, it might well have done?"
"Not so, Augusta. She took it for a while, and it brought sorrow on
her, as it will do on all women save one who may or may not live
"Give it me. I have taken a fancy to it; it is unusual. Oh! fear not,
you shall receive its value."
"If you wish the necklace, Augusta, you must take the head as well;
and my counsel to you is that you do neither, since they will bring
you no good luck."
"In truth, Captain Olaf, you anger me with your riddles. What do you
mean about this necklace?"
"I mean, Augusta, that I took it from a very ancient grave----"
"That I can believe, for the jeweller who made it worked in old
Egypt," she interrupted.
"----and thereafter I dreamed a dream," I went on, "of the woman who
wears the other half of it. I have not seen her yet, but when I do I
shall know her at once."
"So!" she exclaimed, "did I not tell you that, east or west or north
or south, there /is/ some other woman?"
"There was once, Augusta, quite a thousand years ago or more, and
there may be again now, or a thousand years hence. That is what I am
trying to find out. You say the work is Egyptian. Augusta, at your
convenience, will you be pleased to make another captain in my place?
I would visit Egypt."
"If you leave Byzantium without express permission under my own hand--
not the Emperor's or anybody else's hand; mine, I say--and are caught,
your eyes shall be put out as a deserter!" she said savagely.
"As the Augusta pleases," I answered, saluting.
"Olaf," she went on in a more gentle voice, "you are clearly mad; but,
to tell truth, you are also a madman who pleases me, since I weary of
the rogues and lick-spittles who call themselves sane in Byzantium.
Why, there's not a man in all the city who would dare to speak to me
as you have spoken to-night, and like that breeze from the sea, it is
refreshing. Lend me that necklace, Olaf, till to-morrow morning. I
want to examine it in the lamplight, and I swear to you that I will
not take it from you or play you any tricks about it."
"Will you promise not to wear it, Augusta?"
"Of course. Is it likely that I should wish to wear it on my bare
breast after it has been rubbing against your soiled armour?"
Without another word I unhooked the necklace and handed it to her. She
ran to a little distance, and, with one of those swift movements that
were common to her, fastened it about her own neck. Then she returned,
and threw the great strings of pearls, which she had removed to make
place for it, over my head.
"Now have you found the woman of that dream, Olaf?" she asked, turning
herself about in the moonlight.
I shook my head and answered:
"Nay, Augusta; but I fear that /you/ have found misfortune. When it
comes, I pray you to remember that you promised not to wear the
necklace. Also that your soldier, Olaf, Thorvald's son, would have
given his life rather than that you should have done so, not for the
sake of any dream, but for your sake, Augusta, whom it is his business
"Would, then, it were your business either to protect me a little
more, or a little less!" she exclaimed bitterly.
Having uttered this dark saying, she vanished from the terrace still
wearing the string of golden shells.
On the following morning the necklace was returned to me by Irene's
favourite lady, who smiled as she gave it to me. She was a dark-eyed,
witty, and able girl named Martina, who had been my friend for a long
"The Augusta said that you were to examine this jewel to see that it
has not been changed."
"I never suggested that the Augusta was a thief," I replied,
"therefore it is unnecessary."
"She said also that I was to tell you, in case you should think that
it has been befouled by her wearing of it, that she has had it
"That is thoughtful of her, Martina, for it needed washing. Now, will
you take the Augusta's pearls, which she left with me in error?"
"I have no orders to take any pearls, Captain Olaf, although I did
notice that two of the finest strings in the Empire are missing. Oh!
you great northern child," she added in a whisper, "keep the pearls,
they are a gift, and worth a prince's ransom; and take whatever else
you can get, and keep that too."[*]
[*] I have no further vision concerning these priceless pearls and do
not know what became of them. Perhaps I was robbed of them during
my imprisonment, or perhaps I gave them to Heliodore or to
Martina. Where are they now, I wonder?--Editor.
Then, before I could answer her, she was gone.
For some weeks after this I saw no more of the Augusta, who appeared
to avoid me. One day, however, I was summoned to her presence in her
private apartments by the waiting-lady Martina, and went, to find her
alone, save for Martina. The first thing that I noticed was that she
wore about her neck an exact copy of the necklace of golden shells and
emerald beetles; further, that about her waist was a girdle and on her
wrist a bracelet of similar design. Pretending to see nothing, I
saluted and stood to attention.
"Captain," she began, "yonder"--and she waved her hand towards the
city, so that I could not fail to see the shell bracelet--"the uncles
of my son, the Emperor, lie in prison. Have you heard of the matter,
and, if so, what have you heard?"
"I have heard, Augusta, that the Emperor having been defeated by the
Bulgarians, some of the legions proposed to set his uncle, Nicephorus
--he who has been made a priest--upon the throne. I have heard further
that thereon the Emperor caused the Cęsar Nicephorus to be blinded,
and the tongues of the two other Cęsars and of their two brothers, the
/Nobilissimi/, to be slit."
"Do you think well of such a deed, Olaf?"
"Augusta," I answered, "in this city I make it my business not to
think, for if I did I should certainly go mad."
"Still, on this matter I command you to think, and to speak the truth
of your thoughts. No harm shall come to you, whatever they may be."
"Augusta, I obey you. I think that whoever did this wicked thing must
be a devil, either returned from that hell of which everyone is so
fond of talking here, or on the road thither."
"Oh! you think that, do you? So I was right when I told Martina that
there was only one honest opinion to be had in Constantinople and I
knew where to get it. Well, most severe and indignant judge, suppose I
tell you it was I who commanded that this deed should be done. Then
would you change your judgment?"
"Not so, Augusta. I should only think much worse of you than ever I
did before. If these great persons were traitors to the State, they
should have been executed. But to torment them, to take away the sight
of heaven and to bring them to the level of dumb beasts, all that
their actual blood may not be on the tormentors' hand--why, the act is
vile. So, at least, it would be held in those northern lands which you
are pleased to call barbarian."
Now Irene sprang from her seat and clapped her hands for joy.
"You hear what he says, Martina, and the Emperor shall hear it too;
aye, and so shall my ministers, Stauracius and Aetius, who supported
him in this matter. I alone withstood him; I prayed him for his soul's
sake to be merciful. He answered that he would no longer be governed
by a woman; that he knew how to safeguard his empire, and what
conscience should allow and what refuse. So, in spite of all my tears
and prayers, the vile deed was done, as I think for no good cause.
Well, it cannot be undone. Yet, Olaf, I fear that it may be added to,
and that these royal-born men may be foully murdered. Therefore, I put
you in charge of the prison where they lie. Here is the signed order.
Take with you what men you may think needful, and hold that place,
even should the Emperor himself command you to open. See also that the
prisoners within are cared for and have all they need, but do not
suffer them to escape."
I saluted and turned to go, when Irene called me back.
At that moment, too, in obedience to some sign which she made, Martina
left the chamber, looking at me oddly as she did so. I came and stood
before the Empress, who, I noted, seemed somewhat troubled, for her
breast heaved and her gaze was fixed upon the floor now. It was of
mosaic, and represented a heathen goddess talking to a young man, who
stood before her with his arms folded. The goddess was angry with the
man, and held in her left hand a dagger as though she would stab him,
although her right arm was stretched out to embrace him and her
attitude was one of pleading.
Irene lifted her head, and I saw that her fine eyes were filled with
"Olaf," she said, "I am in much trouble, and I know not where to find
I smiled and answered:
"Need an Empress seek far for friends?"
"Aye, Olaf; farther than anyone who breathes. An Empress can find
flatterers and partisans, but not a single friend. Such love her only
for what she can give them. But, if fortune went against her, I say
that they would fall away like leaves from a tree in a winter frost,
so that she stood naked to every bitter blast of heaven. Yes, and then
would come the foe and root up that tree and burn it to give them
warmth and to celebrate their triumph. So I think, Olaf, it will be
with me before all is done. Even my son hates me, Olaf, my only child
for whose true welfare I strive night and day."
"I have heard as much, Augusta," I said.
"You have heard, like all the world. But what else of ill have you
heard of me, Olaf? Speak out, man; I'm here to learn the truth."
"I have heard that you are very ambitious, Augusta, and that you hate
your son as much as he hates you, because he is a rival to your power.
It is rumoured that you would be glad if he were dead and you left to
"Then a lie is rumoured, Olaf. Yet it is true that I am ambitious, who
see far and would build this tottering empire up afresh. Olaf, it is a
bitter thing to have begotten a fool."
"Then why do you not marry again and beget others, who might be no
fools, Augusta?" I asked bluntly.
"Ah! why?" she answered, flashing a curious glance upon me. "In truth,
I do not quite know why; but from no lack of suitors, since, were she
but a hideous hag, an empress would find these. Olaf, you may have
learned that I was not born in the purple. I was but a Greek girl of
good race, not even noble, to whom God gave a gift of beauty; and when
I was young I saw a man who took my fancy, also of old race, yet but a
merchant of fruits which they grow in Greece and sell here and at
Rome. I wished to marry him, but my mother, a far-seeing woman, said
that such beauty as mine--though less than that of your Iduna the
Fair, Olaf--was worth money or rank. So they sent away my merchant of
fruits, who married the daughter of another merchant of fruits and
throve very well in business. He came to see me some years ago, fat as
a tub, his face scored all over with the marks of the spotted
sickness, and we talked about old times. I gave him a concession to
import dried fruits into Byzantium--that is what he came to see me for
--and now he's dead. Well, my mother was right, for afterwards this
poor beauty of mine took the fancy of the late Emperor, and, being
very pious, he married me. So the Greek girl, by the will of God,
became Augusta and the first woman in the world."
"By the will of God?" I repeated.
"Aye, I suppose so, or else all is raw chance. At least, I, who to-day
might have been bargaining over dried fruits, as I should have done
had I won my will, am--what you know. Look at this robe," and she
spread her glittering dress before me. "Hark to the tramp of those
guards before my door. Why, you are their captain. Go into the
antechambers, and see the ambassadors waiting there in the hope of a
word with the Ruler of the Earth! Look at my legions mustered on the
drilling-grounds, and understand how great the Grecian girl has grown
by virtue of the face which is less beauteous than that of--Iduna the
"I understand all this, Augusta," I answered. "Yet it would seem that
you are not happy. Did you not tell me just now that you could not
find a friend and that you had begotten a fool?"
"Happy, Olaf? Why, I am wretched, so wretched that often I think the
hell of which the priests preach is here on earth, and that I dwell in
its hottest fires. Unless love hides it, what happiness is there in
this life of ours, which must end in blackest death?"
"Love has its miseries also, Augusta. That I know, for once I loved."
"Aye, but then the love was not true, for this is the greatest curse
of all--to love and not to be beloved. For the sake of a perfect love,
if it could be won--why, I'd sacrifice even my ambition."
"Then you must keep your ambition, Augusta, since in this world you'll
find nothing perfect."
"Olaf, I'm not so sure. Thoughts have come to me. Olaf, I told you
that I have no friend in all this glittering Court. Will you be my
"I am your honest servant, Augusta, and I think that such a one is the
best of friends."
"That's so; and yet no man can be true friend to a woman unless he is
--more than friend. Nature has writ it so."
"I do not understand," I answered.
"You mean that you will not understand, and perhaps you are wise. Why
do you stare at that pavement? There's a story written on it. The old
goddess of my people, Aphrodite, loved a certain Adonis--so runs the
fable--but he loved not her, and thought only of his sports. Look, she
woos him there, and he rejects her, and in her rage she stabs him."
"Not so," I answered. "Of the end of the story I know nothing, but, if
she had meant to kill him, the dagger would be in her right hand, not
in her left."
"That's true, Olaf; and in the end it was Fate which killed him, not
the goddess whom he had scorned. And yet, Olaf, it is not wise to
scorn goddesses. Oh! of what do I talk? You'll befriend me, will you
"Aye, Augusta, to the last drop of my blood, as is my duty. Do I not
take your pay?"
"Then thus I seal our friendship and here's an earnest of the pay,"
Irene said slowly, and, bending forward, she kissed me on the lips.
At this moment the doors of the chamber were thrown open. Through
them, preceded by heralds, that at once drew back again, entered the
great minister Stauracius, a fat, oily-faced man with a cunning eye,
who announced in a high, thin voice,
"The ambassadors of the Persians wait upon you, Augusta, as you
appointed at this hour."
THE BLIND CĘSAR
Irene turned upon the eunuch as a she-lion turns upon some hunter that
disturbs it from its prey. Noting the anger in her eyes, he fell back
and prostrated himself. Thereupon she spoke to me as though his entry
had interrupted her words.
"Those are the orders, Captain Olaf. See that you forget none of them.
Even if this proud eunuch, who dares to appear before me unannounced,
bids you to do so, I shall hold you to account. To-day I leave the
city for a while for the Baths whither I am sent. You must not
accompany me because of the duty I have laid upon you here. When I
return, be sure I'll summon you," and, knowing that Stauracius could
not see her from where he lay, for a moment she let her splendid eyes
meet my own. In them there was a message I could not mistake.
"The Augusta shall be obeyed," I answered, saluting. "May the Augusta
return in health and glory and more beautiful than----"
"Iduna the Fair!" she broke in. "Captain, you are dismissed."
Again I saluted, retreating from the presence backwards and staying to
bow at each third step, as was the custom. The process was somewhat
long, and as I reached the door I heard her say to Stauracius,
"Hearken, you dog. If ever you dare to break in upon me thus again,
you shall lose two things--your office and your head. What! May I not
give secret orders to my trusted officer and not be spied upon by you?
Now, cease your grovellings and lead in these Persians, as you have
been bribed to do."
Passing through the silk-clad, bejewelled Persians who waited in an
antechamber with their slaves and gifts, I gained the great terrace of
the palace which looked upon the sea. Here I found Martina leaning on
"Have you more of the Augusta's pearls about you, Olaf?" she asked
mockingly, speaking over her shoulder.
"Not I, Martina," I answered, halting beside her.
"Indeed. I could have sworn otherwise, for they are perfumed, and I
seemed to catch their odour. When did you begin to use the royal scent
upon that yellow beard of yours, Olaf? If any of us women did so, it
would mean blows and exile; but perchance a captain of the guard may
"I use no scents, girl, as you know well. Yet it is true that these
rooms reek of them, and they cling to armour."
"Yes, and still more to hair. Well, what gift had my mistress for you
"A commission to guard certain prisoners, Martina."
"Ah! Have you read it yet? When you do, I think you'll find that it
names you Governor of the jail, which is a high office, carrying much
pay and place. You are in good favour, Olaf, and I hope that when you
come to greatness you will not forget Martina. It was I who put it
into a certain mind to give you this commission as the only man that
could be trusted in the Court."
"I do not forget a friend, Martina," I answered.
"That is your reputation, Olaf. Oh! what a road is opening to your
feet. Yet I doubt you'll not walk it, being too honest; or, if you do,
that it will lead you--not to glory, but a grave."
"Mayhap, Martina, and to speak truth, a grave is the only quiet place
in Constantinople. Mayhap, too, it hides the only real glory."
"That's what we Christians say. It would be strange if you, who are
not a Christian, alone should believe and keep the saying. Oh!" She
went on with passion, "we are but shams and liars, whom God must hate.
Well, I go to make ready for this journey to the Baths."
"How long do you stay there?" I asked.
"The course of waters takes a month. Less than that time does not
serve to clear the Augusta's skin and restore her shape to the lines
of youth which it begins to need, though doubtless you do not think
so. You were named to come as her officer of the Person; but, Olaf,
this other business rose up of a new governor for the jail in which
the Cęsars and /Nobilissimi/ are confined. I saw a chance for you in
it, who, although you have served all these years, have had no real
advancement, and mentioned your name, at which the Augusta leapt. To
tell the truth, Olaf, I was not sure that you would wish to be captain
of the guard at the Baths. Was I right or was I wrong?"
"I think you were right, Martina. Baths are idle places where folk
drift into trouble, and I follow duty. Martina--may I say it to you?--
you are a good woman and a kind. I pray that those gods of yours whom
you worship may bless you."
"You pray in vain, Olaf, for that they will never do. Indeed, I think
that they have cursed me."
Then suddenly she burst into tears, and, turning, went away.
I, too, went away somewhat bewildered, for much had happened to me
that morning which I found it hard to understand. Why had the Augusta
kissed me? I took it that this was some kind of imperial jest. It was
known that I kept aloof from women, and she may have desired to see
what I should do when an Augusta kissed me, and then to make a mock of
me. I had heard that she had done as much with others.
Well, let that be, since Stauracius, who always feared lest a new
favourite should slip between him and power, had settled the matter
for me, for which I blessed Stauracius, although at the moment, being
but a man, I had cursed him. And now why did Martina--the little, dark
Martina with the kind face and the watchful, beady eyes, like to those
of a robin in our northern lands--speak as she had done, and then
burst into tears?
A doubt struck me, but I, who was never vain, pushed it aside. I did
not understand, and of what use was it to try to interpret the meaning
of the moods of women? My business was war, or, at the moment, the
service that has to do with war, not women. Wars had brought me to the
rank I held, though, strangely enough, of those wars I can recall
nothing now; they have vanished from my vision. To wars also I looked
to advance me in the future, who was no courtier, but a soldier, whom
circumstances had brought to Court. Well, thanks to Martina, as she
said, or to some caprice of the Empress, I had a new commission that
was of more worth to me than her random kisses, and I would go to read
Read it I did in the little private room upon the palace wall which
was mine as captain of the Augusta's guard, though, being written in
Greek, I found this difficult. Martina had spoken truly. I was made
the Governor of the State prison, with all authority, including that
of life and death should emergency arise. Moreover, this governorship
gave me the rank of a general, with a general's pay, also such
pickings as I chose to take. In short, from captain of the guard,
suddenly I had become a great man in Constantinople, one with whom
even Stauracius and others like him would have to reckon, especially
as his signature appeared upon the commission beneath that of the
Whilst I was wondering what I should do next, a trumpet blew upon the
ramparts, and a Northman of my company entered, saluted and said that
I was summoned. I went out, and there before me stood a dazzling band
that bowed humbly to me, whom yesterday they would have passed without
notice. Their captain, a smooth-faced Greek, came forward, and,
addressing me as "General," said the imperial orders were that he was
to escort me to the State jail.
"For what purpose?" I asked, since it came to my mind that Irene might
have changed her fancy and issued another kind of commission.
"As its General and Governor, Illustrious," he replied.
"Then I will lead," I answered, "do you follow behind me."
Thus that vision ends.
In the next I see myself dwelling in some stately apartments that
formed the antechambers to the great prison. This prison, which was
situated not far from the Forum of Constantine, covered a large area
of ground, which included a garden where the prisoners were allowed to
walk. It was surrounded by a double wall, with an outer and an inner
moat, the outer dry, and the inner filled with water. There were
double gates also, and by them guard-towers. Moreover, I see a little
yard, with posts in it, where prisoners were scourged, and a small and
horrible room, furnished with a kind of wooden bed, to which they were
bound for the punishment of the putting out of their eyes and the
slitting of their tongues. In front of this room was a block where
those condemned to death were sometimes executed.
There were many prisoners, not common felons, but people who had been
taken for reasons of State or sometimes of religion. Perhaps in all
they numbered a hundred men, and with them a few women, who had a
quarter to themselves. Besides the jailers, three-score guards were
stationed there night and day, and of all of these I was in command.
Before I had held my office three days I found that Irene had
appointed me to it with good reason. It happened thus. The most of the
prisoners were allowed to receive presents of food and other things
sent to them by their friends. All these presents were supposed to be
inspected by the officer in charge of the prison. This rule, which had
been much neglected, I enforced again, with the result that I made
some strange discoveries.
Thus, on the third day, there came a magnificent offering of figs for
the Cęsars and /Nobilissimi/, the brothers-in-law of Irene and the
uncles of the young Emperor Constantine, her son. These figs were
being carried past me formally, when something about the appearance of
one of them excited my suspicion. I took it and offered it to the
jailer who carried the basket. He looked frightened, shook his head,
"General, I touch no fruit."
"Indeed," I answered. "That is strange, since I thought that I saw you
eating of it yesterday."
"Aye, General," he replied; "the truth is that I ate too much."
Making no answer, I went to the window, and threw the fig to a long-
tailed, tame monkey which was chained to a post in the yard without.
It caught it and ate greedily.
"Do not go away, friend," I said to the jailer, who was trying to
depart while my back was turned. "I have questions that I would ask
So I spoke to him about other matters, and all the while watched the
Soon I saw that it was ill at ease. It began to tear at its stomach
and to whimper like a child. Then it foamed at the mouth, was seized
with convulsions, and within a quarter of an hour by the water-clock
"It would seem that those figs are poisoned, friend," I said, "and
therefore it is fortunate for you that you ate too much fruit
yesterday. Now, man, what do you know of this matter?"
"Nothing, sir," he answered, falling on his knees. "I swear to you by
Christ, nothing. Only I doubted. The fruits were brought by a woman
whom I thought that once I had seen in the household of the Augustus
Constantine, and I knew----" and he paused.
"Well, what did you know, man? It would be best to tell me quickly,
who have power here."
"I knew, sir, what all the world knows, that Constantine would be rid
of his uncles, whom he fears, though they are maimed. No more, I swear
it, no more."
"Perhaps before the Augusta returns you may remember something more,"
I said. "Therefore, I will not judge your case at present. Ho! guard,
As he heard the soldiers stirring without in answer to my summons, the
man, who was unarmed, looked about his desperately; then he sprang at
the fruit, and, seizing a fig, strove to thrust it into his mouth. But
I was too quick for him, and within a few seconds the soldiers had him
"Shut this man in a safe dungeon," I said. "Treat and feed him well,
but search him. See also that he does himself no harm and that none
speak with him. Then forget all this business."
"What charge must be entered in the book, General?" asked the officer,
"A charge of stealing figs that belonged to the Cęsar Nicephorus and
his royal brethren," I answered, and looked through the window.
He followed my glance, saw the poor monkey lying dead, and started.
"All shall be done," he said, and the man was led away.
When he had gone, I sent for the physician of the jail, whom I knew to
be trustworthy, since I had appointed him myself. Without telling him
anything, I bade him examine and preserve the figs, and also dissect
the body of the monkey to discover why it died.
He bowed and went away with the fruit. A while later he returned, and
showed me an open fig. In the heart of it was a pinch of white powder.
"What is it?" I asked.
"The deadliest poison that is known, General. See, the stalk has been
drawn out, the powder blown in through a straw, and then the stalk
"Ah!" I said, "that is clever, but not quite clever enough. They have
mixed the stalks. I noted that the purple fig had the stalk of a green
fig, and that is why I tried it on the monkey."
"You observe well, General."
"Yes, Physician, I observe. I learned that when, as a lad, I hunted
game in the far North. Also I learned to keep silent, since noise
frightens game. Do you as much."
"Have no fear," he answered; and went about his business with the dead
When he had gone I thought a while. Then I rose, and went to the
chapel of the prison, or, rather, to a place whence I could see those
in the chapel without being seen. This chapel was situated in a gloomy
crypt, lighted only with oil lamps that hung from the massive pillars
and arches. The day was the Sabbath of the Christians, and when I
entered the little secret hollow in the walls, the sacrament was being
administered to certain of the prisoners.
Truly it was a sad sight, for the ministering priest was none other
than the Cęsar Nicephorus, the eldest of the Emperor's uncles, who had
been first ordained in order that he might be unfit to sit upon the
throne, and afterwards blinded, as I have told. He was a tall, pale
man, with an uncertain mouth and a little pointed chin, apparently
between forty and fifty years of age, and his face was made dreadful
by two red hollows where the eyes should have been. Yet,
notwithstanding this disfigurement, and his tonsured crown, and the
broidered priest's robes which hung upon him awkwardly, as he stumbled
through the words of his office, to this poor victim there still
seemed to cling some air of royal birth and bearing. Being blind, he
could not see to administer the Element, and therefore his hand was
guided by one of his imperial brethren, who also had been made a
priest. The tongue of this priest had been slit, but now and again he
gibbered some direction into the ear of Nicephorus. By the altar,
watching all, sat a stern-faced monk, the confessor of the Cęsars and
of the /Nobilissimi/, who was put there to spy upon them.
I followed the rite to its end, observing these unhappy prisoners
seeking from the mystery of their faith the only consolation that
remained to them. Many of them were men innocent of any crime, save
that of adherence to some fallen cause, political or religious;
victims were they, not sinners, to be released by death alone. I
remember that, as the meaning of the scene came home to me, I recalled
the words of Irene, who had said that she believed this world to be a
hell, and found weight in them. At length, able to bear no more, I
left my hiding-place and went into the garden behind the chapel. Here,
at least, were natural things. Here flowers, tended by the prisoners,
bloomed as they might have done in some less accursed spot. Here the
free birds sang and nested in the trees, for what to them were the
high surrounding walls?
I sat myself down upon a seat in the shade. Presently, as I had
expected, Nicephorus, the priest-Cęsar, and his four brethren came
into the garden. Two of them led the blind man by the hand, and the
other two clung close to him, for all these unfortunates loved each
other dearly. The four with the split tongues gabbled in his ears. Now
and again, when he could catch or guess at the meaning of a word, he
answered the speaker gently; or the others, seeing that he had not
understood them aright, painfully tried to explain the error. Oh! it
was a piteous thing to see and hear. My gorge rose against the young
brute of an Emperor and his councillors who, for ambition's sake, had
wrought this horrible crime. Little did I know then that ere long
their fate would be his own, and that a mother's hand would deal it
out to him.
They caught sight of me seated beneath the tree, and chattered like
startled starlings, till at length Nicephorus understood.
"What say you, dear brothers?" he asked, "that the new governor of the
prison is seated yonder? Well, why should we fear him? He has been
here but a little while, yet he has shown himself very kind to us.
Moreover, he is a man of the North, no treacherous Greek, and the men
of the North are brave and upright. Once, when I was a free prince, I
had some of them in my service, and I loved them well. Our nephew, the
Emperor, offered a large sum to a Northman to blind or murder me, but
he would not do it, and was dismissed from the service of the Empire
because he spoke his mind and prayed his heathen gods to bring a like
fate upon Constantine himself. Lead me to this governor; I would talk
So they brought Nicephorus to me, though doubtfully, and when he was
near I rose from my seat and saluted him. Thereon they all gabbled
again with their split tongues, till at length he understood and
flushed with pleasure.
"General Olaf," he said to me, "I thank you for your courtesy to a
poor prisoner, forgotten by God and cruelly oppressed by man. General
Olaf, the promise is of little worth, but, if ever it should be in my
power, I will remember this kindness, which pleases me more than did
the shouting of the legions in the short day of my prosperity."
"Sir," I answered, "whatever happens I shall remember your words,
which are more to me than any honours kings can bestow. Now, sir, I
will ask your royal brethren to fall back, as I wish to speak with
Nicephorus made a sign with his hand, and the four half-dumb men, all
of whom resembled him strangely, especially in the weakness of their
mouths and chins, obeyed. Bowing to me in a stately fashion, they
withdrew, leaving us alone.
"Sir," I said, "I would warn you that you have enemies whom you may
not suspect, for my duty here wherewith I was charged by the Augusta
is not to oppress but to protect you and your imperial brothers."
Then I told him the story of the poisoned figs.
When he had heard it, the tears welled from his hollow eyes and ran
down his pale cheeks.
"Constantine, my brother Leo's son, has done this," he said, "for
never will he rest until all of us are in the grave."
"He is cruel because he fears you, O Nicephorus, and it is said that
your ambition has given him cause to fear."
"Once, General, that was true," the prince replied. "Once, foolishly,
I did aspire to rule; but it is long ago. Now they have made a priest
of me, and I seek peace only. Can I and my brethren help it if,
mutilated though we are, some still wish to use us against the
Emperor? I tell you that Irene herself is at the back of them. She
would set us on high that afterwards she may throw us down and crush
"I am her servant, Prince, and may not listen to such talk, who know
only that she seeks to protect you from your enemies, and for that
reason has placed me here, it seems not in vain. If you would continue
to live, I warn you and your brethren to fly from plots and to be
careful of what you eat and drink."
"I do not desire to live, General," he answered. "Oh! that I might
die. Would that I might die."
"Death is not difficult to find, Prince," I replied, and left him.
These may seem hard words, but, be it remembered, I was no Christian
then, but a heathen man. To see one who had been great and fallen from
his greatness, one whom Fortune had deserted utterly, whining at Fate
like a fretful child, and yet afraid to seek his freedom, moved me to
contempt as well as to pity. Therefore, I spoke the words.
Yet all the rest of that day they weighed upon my mind, for I knew
well how I should have interpreted them were I in this poor Cęsar's
place. So heavily did they weigh that, during the following night, an
impulse drew me from my bed and caused me to visit the cells in which
these princes were imprisoned. Four of them were dark and silent, but
in that of Nicephorus burned a light. I listened at the door, and
through the key-place heard that the prisoner within was praying, and
sobbing as he prayed.
Then I went away; but when I reached the end of the long passage
something drew me back again. It was as though a hand I could not see
were guiding me. I returned to the door of the cell, and now through
it heard choking sounds. Quickly I shot the bolts and unlocked it with
my master-key. This was what I saw within:
To a bar of the window-place was fastened such a rope as monks wear
for a girdle; at the end of the rope was a noose, and in that noose
the head of Nicephorus. There he hung, struggling. His hands had
gripped the rope above his head, for though he had sought Death, at
the last he tried to escape him. Of such stuff was Nicephorus made.
Yet it was too late, or would have been, for as I entered the place
his hands slipped from the thin cord, which tightened round his
throat, choking him.
My sword was at my side. Drawing it, with a blow I cut the rope and
caught him in my arms. Already he was swooning, but I poured water
over his face, and, as his neck remained unbroken, he recovered his
breath and senses.
"What play is this, Prince?" I asked.
"One that you taught me, General," he answered painfully. "You said
that death could be found. I went to seek him, but at the last I
feared. Oh! I tell you that when I thrust away that stool, my blind
eyes were opened, and I saw the fires of hell and the hands of devils
grasping at my soul to plunge it into them. Blessings be on you who
have saved me from those fires," and seizing my hand he kissed it.
"Do not thank me," I said, "but thank the God you worship, for I think
that He must have put it into my mind to visit you to-night. Now swear
to me by that God that you will attempt such a deed no more, for if
you will not swear then you must be fettered."
Then he swore so fervently by his Christ that I was sure he would
never break the oath. After he had sworn I told him how I could not
rest because of the strange fears which oppressed me.
"Oh!" he said, "without doubt it was God who sent His angel to you
that I might be saved from the most dreadful of all sins. Without
doubt it was God, Who knows you, although you do not know Him."
After this he fell upon his knees, and, having untied the cut rope
from the window bars, I left him.
Now I tell this story because it has to do with my own, for it was
these words of the Prince that first turned me to the study of the
Christian Faith. Indeed, had they never been spoken, I believe that I
should have lived and died a heathen man. Hitherto I had judged of
that Faith by the works of those who practised it in Constantinople,
and found it wanting. Now, however, I was sure that some Power from
above us had guided me to the chamber of Nicephorus in time to save
his life, me, who, had he died, in a sense would have been guilty of
his blood. For had he not been driven to the deed by my bitter,
mocking words? It may be said that this would have mattered little;
that he might as well have died by his own hand as be taken to Athens,
there to perish with his brethren, whether naturally or by murder I do
not know. But who can judge of such secret things? Without doubt the
sufferings of Nicephorus had a purpose, as have all our sufferings. He
was kept alive for reasons known to his Maker though not to man.
Here I will add that of this unhappy Cęsar and his brethren I remember
little more. Dimly I seem to recollect that during my period of office
some attack was made upon the prison by those who would have put the
prince to death, but that I discovered the plot through the jailer who
had introduced the poisoned figs, and defeated it with ease, thereby
gaining much credit with Irene and her ministers. If so, of this plot
history says nothing. All it tells of these princes is that afterwards
a mob haled them to the Cathedral of St. Sophia and there proclaimed
Nicephorus emperor. But they were taken again, and at last shipped to
Athens, where they vanished from the sight of men.
God rest their tortured souls, for they were more sinned against than
MOTHER AND SON
The next vision of this Byzantine life of mine that rises before me is
that of a great round building crowned with men clad in bishops'
robes. At least they wore mitres, and each of them had a crooked
pastoral staff which in most cases was carried by an attendant monk.
Some debate was in progress, or rather raging. Its subject seemed to
be as to whether images should or should not be worshipped in
churches. It was a furious thing, that debate. One party to it were
called Iconoclasts, that was the party which did not like images, and
I think the other party were called Orthodox, but of this I am not
sure. So furious was it that I, the general and governor of the
prison, had been commanded by those in authority to attend in order to
prevent violence. The beginnings of what happened I do not remember.
What I do remember is that the anti-Iconoclasts, the party to which
the Empress Irene belonged, that was therefore the fashionable sect,
being, as it seemed to me, worsted in argument, fell back on violence.
There followed a great tumult, in which the spectators took part, and
the strange sight was seen of priests and their partisans, and even of
bishops themselves, falling upon their adversaries and beating them
with whatever weapon was to hand; yes, even with their pastoral
staves. It was a wonderful thing to behold, these ministers of the
Christ of peace belabouring each other with pastoral staves!
The party that advocated the worship of images was the more numerous
and had the greater number of adherents, and therefore those who
thought otherwise were defeated. A few of them were dragged out into
the street and killed by the mob which waited there, and more were
wounded, notwithstanding all that I and the guards could do to protect
them. Among the Iconoclasts was a gentle-faced old man with a long
beard, one of the bishops from Egypt, who was named Barnabas. He had
said little in the debate, which lasted for several days, and when he
spoke his words were full of charity and kindness. Still, the image
faction hated him, and when the final tumult began some of them set
upon him. Indeed, one brawny, dark-faced bishop--I think it was he of
Antioch--rushed at Barnabas, and before I could thrust him back, broke
a jewelled staff upon his head, while other priests tore his robe from
neck to shoulder and spat in his face.
At last the riot was quelled; the dead were borne away, and orders
came to me that I was to convey Barnabas to the State prison if he
still lived, together with some others, of whom I remember nothing. So
thither I took Barnabas, and there, with the help of the prison
physician--he to whom I had given the poisoned figs and the dead
monkey to be examined--I nursed him back to life and health.
His illness was long, for one of the blows which he had received
crippled him, and during it we talked much together. He was a very
sweet-natured man and holy, a native of Britain, whose father or
grandfather had been a Dane, and therefore there was a tie between us.
In his youth he was a soldier. Having been taken prisoner in some war,
he came to Italy, where he was ordained a priest at Rome. Afterwards
he was sent as a missionary to Egypt, where he was appointed the head