Part 6 out of 6
forgot, you cannot. Give the copy of the letter to the Lady Irene; the
original she can see afterwards if she wills."
So the paper was given to her by Jodd, and she read it aloud, weighing
each word carefully.
"Oh, what a dog is this!" she said when it was finished. "Know, Olaf,
that of my free will I surrendered the throne to him, yes, and all my
private treasure, he swearing upon the Gospels that I should live in
peace and honour till my life's end. And now he sends me to you to be
blinded and then done to death, for that is what he means. Oh! may God
avenge me upon him! May he become a byword and a scorn, and may his
own end be even worse than that which he has prepared for me. May
shame wrap his memory as in a garment, may his bones be dishonoured
and his burying-place forgotten. Aye, and so it shall be."[*]
[*] The skull of this Nicephorus is said to have been used as a
drinking cup by his victorious enemy, the King Krum.--Editor.
She paused in her fearful curse, then said in a new voice, that voice
in which she was wont to plead,
"You will not blind me, Olaf. You'll not take from me my last
blessing, the light of day. Think what it means----"
"The General Olaf should know well enough," interrupted Jodd, but I
waved him to be silent, and answered,
"Tell me, Madam, how can I do otherwise? It seems to me that my life
and that of my wife and children hang upon this deed. Moreover, why
should I do otherwise now that by God's justice the wheel has come
round at last?" I added, pointing to the hollows beneath my brows
where the eyes once had been.
"Oh! Olaf," she said, "if I harmed you, you know well it was because I
"Then God send that no woman ever loves me in such a fashion," broke
"Olaf," she continued, taking no note of him, "once you went very near
to loving me also, on that night when you would have eaten the
poisoned figs to save my son, the Emperor. At least, you kissed me. If
you forget, I cannot. Olaf, can you blind a woman whom you have
"Kissing takes two, and I know that you blinded him," muttered Jodd,
"for I crucified the brutes you commanded to do the deed to which they
"Olaf, I admit that I treated you ill; I admit that I would have
killed you; but, believe me, it was jealousy and naught but jealousy
which drove me on. Almost as soon would I have killed myself; indeed,
I thought of it."
"And there the matter ended," said Jodd. "It was Olaf who walked the
Hall of the Pit, not you. We found him on the brink of the hole."
"Olaf, after I regained my power----"
"By blinding your own son," said Jodd, "for which you will have an
account to settle one day."
"----I dealt well with you. Knowing that you had married my rival, for
I kept myself informed of all you did, still I lifted no hand against
"What good was a maimed man to you when you were courting the Emperor
Charlemagne?" asked Jodd.
Now at last she turned on him, saying,
"Well is it for you, Barbarian, that if only for a while Fate has reft
power from my hands. Oh! this is the bitterest drop in all my cup,
that I who for a score of years ruled the world must live to suffer
the insults of such as you."
"Then why not die and have done?" asked the imperturbable Jodd. "Or,
if you lack the courage, why not submit to the decree of the Emperor,
as so many have submitted to your decree, instead of troubling the
general here with prayers for mercy? It would serve as well."
"Jodd," I said, "I command you to be silent. This lady is in trouble;
attack those in power, if you will, not those who have fallen."
"There speaks the man I loved," said Irene. "What perverse fate kept
us apart, Olaf? Had you taken what I offered, by now you and I would
have ruled the world."
"Perhaps, Madam; yet it is right I should say that I do not regret my
choice, although because of it I can no longer--look upon the world."
"I know, I know! She of that accursed necklace, which I see you still
wear, came between us and spoiled everything. Now I'm ruined for lack
of you and you are nobody for lack of me, a soldier who will run his
petty course and depart into the universal darkness, leaving never a
name behind him. In the ages to be what man will take count of one of
a score of governors of the little Isle of Lesbos, who might yet have
held the earth in the hollow of his hand and shone a second Cæsar in
its annals? Oh! what marplot of a devil rules our destinies? He who
fashioned those golden shells upon your breast, or so I think. Well,
well, it is so and cannot be altered. The Augusta of the Empire of the
East must plead with the man who rejected her, for sight, or rather
for her life. You understand, do you not, Olaf, that letter is a
command to you to murder me?"
"Just such a command as you gave to those who blinded your son
Constantine," muttered Jodd beneath his breath.
"That is what is meant. You are to murder me, and, Olaf, I'm not fit
to die. Great place brings great temptations, and I admit that I have
greatly sinned; I need time upon the earth to make my peace with
Heaven, and if you slay my body now, you will slay my soul as well.
Oh! be pitiful! Be pitiful! Olaf, you cannot kill the woman who has
lain upon your breast, it is against nature. If you did such a thing
you'd never sleep again; you would shudder yourself over the edge of
the world! Being what you are, no pomp or power would ever pay you for
the deed. Be true to your own high heart and spare me. See, I who for
so long was the ruler of many kingdoms, kneel to you and pray you to
spare me," and, casting herself down upon her knees, she laid her head
upon my feet and wept.
All that scene comes back to me with a strange and terrible vividness,
although I had no sight to aid me in its details, save the sight of my
soul. I remember that the wonder and horror of it pierced me through
and through; the stab of the dagger in my eyes was not more sharp.
There was I, Olaf, a mere gentleman of the North, seated in my chair
of office, and there before me, her mighty head bowed upon my feet,
knelt the Empress of the Earth pleading for her life. In truth all
history could show few stranger scenes. What was I to do? If I yielded
to her piteous prayers, it was probable that my own life and those of
my wife and children would pay the price. Yet how could I clap my
hands in their Eastern fashion and summon the executioners to pierce
those streaming eyes of hers? "Rise, Augusta," I said, for in this
extremity of her shame I gave her back her title, "and tell me, you
who are accustomed to such matters, how I can spare you who deal with
the lives of others as well as with my own?"
"I thank you for that name," she said as she struggled to her feet.
"I've heard it shouted by tens of thousands in the circus and from the
throats of armies, but never yet has it been half so sweet to me as
now from lips that have no need to utter it. In times bygone I'd have
paid you for this service with a province, but now Irene is so poor
that, like some humble beggar-woman, she can but give her thanks.
Still, repeat it no more, for next time it will sound bitter. What did
you ask? How you could save me, was it not? Well, the thing seems
simple. In all that letter from Nicephorus there is no direct command
that you should blind me. The fellow says that you are to treat me as
I treated you, and as I treated Constantine, the Emperor--because I
must. Well, I imprisoned both of you. Imprison me and you fulfil the
mandate. He says that if I die you are to report it, which shows that
he does not mean that I /must/ die. Oh! the road of escape is easy,
should you desire to travel it. If you do not so desire, then, Olaf, I
pray you as a last favour not to hand me over to common men. I see
that by your side still hangs that red sword of yours wherewith once I
threatened you when you refused me at Byzantium. Draw it, Olaf, and
this time I'll guide its edge across my throat. So you will please
Nicephorus and win the rewards that Irene can no longer give. Baptised
in her blood, what earthly glory is there to which you might not yet
attain, you who had dared to lay hands upon the anointed flesh that
even her worst foes have feared to touch lest God's sudden curse
should strike them dead?"
So she went on pouring out words with the strange eloquence that she
could command at times, till I grew bewildered. She who had lived in
light and luxury, who had loved the vision of all bright and glorious
things, was pleading for her sight to the man whom she had robbed of
sight that he might never more behold the young beauty of her rival.
She who had imagination to know the greatness of her sins was pleading
to be spared the death she dared not face. She was pleading to me, who
for years had been her faithful soldier, the captain of her own guard,
sworn to protect her from the slightest ill, me upon whom, for a
while, it had pleased her to lavish the wild passion of her imperial
heart, who once had almost loved--who, indeed, had kissed her on the
My orders were definite. I was commanded to blind this woman and to
kill her in the blinding, which, in truth, I who had power of life and
death, I who ruled over this island like a king by virtue of the royal
commission, could do without question asked. If I /failed/ to fulfil
those orders, I must be prepared to pay the price, as if I did fulfil
them I might expect a high reward, probably the governorship of some
great province of the Empire. This was no common prisoner. She was the
ex-Empress, a mighty woman to whom tens of thousands or perhaps
millions still looked for help and leadership. It was necessary to
those who had seized her place and power that she should be rendered
incapable of rule. It was desirable to them that she should die. Yet
so delicately were the scales poised between them and the adherents of
Irene, among whom were numbered all the great princes of the Church,
that they themselves did not dare to inflict mutilation or death upon
her. They feared lest it should be followed by a storm of wrath that
would shake Nicephorus from his throne and involve them in his ruin.
So they sent her to me, the governor of a distant dependency, the man
whom they knew she had wickedly wronged, being certain that her
tongue, which it was said could turn the hearts of all men, would
never soften mine. Then afterwards they would declare that the warrant
was a forgery, that I had but wreaked a private vengeance upon an
ancient foe, and, to still the scandal, degrade me from my
governorship--into some place of greater power and profit.
Oh! while Irene pleaded before me and, heedless of the presence of
Jodd, even cast her arms about me and laid her head upon my breast,
all these things passed through my mind. In its scales I weighed the
matter out, and the beam rose against me, for I knew well that if I
spared Irene I condemned myself and those who were more to me than
myself, my wife, my children, and all the Northmen who clung to me,
and who would not see me die without blow struck. I understood it all,
and, understanding, of a sudden made up my mind--to spare Irene. Come
what might, I would be no butcher; I would follow my heart
whithersoever it might lead me.
"Cease, Madam," I said. "I have decided. Jodd, bid the messenger
summon hither Heliodore and Martina, my wife and yours."
"Oh!" exclaimed Irene, "if these women are to be called in counsel on
my case all is finished, seeing that both of them love you and are my
enemies. Moreover, I have some pride left. To you I could plead, but
not to them, though they blind me with their bodkins after they have
stabbed me with their tongues. Excellency, a last boon! Call in your
guard and kill me."
"Madam, I said that I had decided, and all the women in the world will
not change my mind in this way or in that. Jodd, do my bidding."
Jodd struck a bell, once only, which was the signal for the messenger.
He came and received his orders. Then followed a pause, since
Heliodore and Martina were in a place close by and must be sent for.
During this time Irene began to talk to me of sundry general matters.
She compared the view that might be seen from this house in Lesbos to
that from the terrace of her palace on the Bosphorus, and described
its differences to me. She asked me as to the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid,
whom she understood I had seen, inquiring as to the estimate I had
formed of his character. Lastly, with a laugh, she dwelt upon the
strange vicissitudes of life.
"Look at me," she said. "I began my days as the daughter of a Greek
gentleman, with no dower save my wit and beauty. Then I rose to be a
ruler of the world, and knew all that it has to give of pomp and
power. Nations trembled at my nod; at my smile men grew great; at my
frown they faded into nothingness. Save you, Olaf, none ever really
conquered me, until I fell in the appointed hour. And now! Of this
splendour there is left but a nun's robe; of this countless wealth but
one silver crucifix; of this power--naught."
So she spoke on, still not knowing to what decision I had come;
whether she were to be blinded or to live or die. To myself I thought
it was a proof of her greatness that she could thus turn her mind to
such things while Fate hovered over her, its hand upon a sword. But it
may be that she thought thus to impress me and to enmesh me in
memories which would tie my hands, or even from the character of my
answers to draw some augury of her doom.
The women came at length. Heliodore entered first, and to her Irene
"Greeting, Lady of Egypt," she said. "Ah! had you taken my counsel in
the past, that title might have been yours in very truth, and there
you and your husband could have founded a new line of kings
independent of the Empire which totters to its fall."
"I remember no such counsel, Madam," said Heliodore. "It seems to me
that the course I took was right and one pleasing to God, since it has
given me my husband for myself, although, it is true, wickedly robbed
of his eyes."
"For yourself! Can you say so while Martina is always at his side?"
she asked in a musing voice. "Well, it may be, for in this world
strange things happen."
She paused, and I heard both Heliodore and Jodd move as though in
anger, for her bitter shaft had gone home. Then she went on softly,
"Lady, may I tell you that, in my judgment, your beauty is even
greater than it was, though it is true it has grown from bud to
flower. Few bear their years and a mother's burdens so lightly in
these hot lands."
Heliodore did not answer, for at that moment Martina entered. Seeing
Irene for the first time, she forgot everything that had passed and
curtseyed to her in the old fashion, murmuring the familiar words,
"Thy servant greets thee, Augusta."
"Nay, use not that title, Martina, to one who has done with the world
and its vanities. Call me 'Mother' if you will, for that is the only
name of honour by which those of my religious order may be known. In
truth, as your mother in God, I welcome you and bless you, from my
heart forgiving you those ills which you have worked against me,
being, as I know well, driven by a love that is greater than any woman
bears to woman. But that eating fire of passion scorned is the
heritage of both of us, and of it we will talk afterwards. I must not
waste the time of the General Olaf, whom destiny, in return for many
griefs, has appointed to be my jailer. Oh! Olaf," she added with a
little laugh, "some foresight of the future must have taught me to
train you for the post. Let us then be silent, ladies, and listen to
the judgment which this jailer of mine is about to pass upon me. Do
you know it is no less than whether these eyes of mine, which you were
wont to praise, Martina, which in his lighter moments even this stern
Olaf was wont to praise, should be torn from beneath my brow, and if
so, whether it should be done in such a fashion that I die of the
deed? That and no less is the matter which his lips must settle. Now
"Madam," I said slowly, "to the best of my wit I have considered the
letter sent to me under the seal and sign of the Emperor Nicephorus.
Although it might be so interpreted by some, I cannot find in that
letter any direct command that I should cause you to be blinded, but
only one that I should keep you under strict guard, giving you such
things as are necessary to your sustenance. This then I shall do, and
by the first ship make report of my action to the Emperor at
Now, when she heard these words, at length the proud spirit of Irene
"God reward you, for I cannot, Olaf," she cried. "God reward you,
saint among men, who can pay back cruel injuries with the gentlest
So saying, she burst into tears and fell senseless to the ground.
Martina ran to aid her, but Heliodore turned to me and said in her
"This is worthy of you, Olaf, and I would not have you do otherwise.
Yet, husband, I fear that this pity of yours has signed the death-
warrant of us all."
So it proved to be, though, as it chanced, that warrant was never
executed. I made my report to Byzantium, and in course of time the
answer came in a letter from the Emperor. This letter coldly approved
of my act in set and formal phrases. It added that the truth had been
conveyed publicly to those slanderers of the Emperor who announced
that he had caused Irene to be first blinded and then put to death in
Lesbos, whereby their evil tongues had been silenced.
Then came this pregnant sentence:
"We command you, with your wife and children and your lieutenant, the
Captain Jodd, with his wife and children, to lay down your offices and
report yourselves with all speed to Us at our Court of Byzantium, that
we may confer with you on certain matters. If it is not convenient to
you, or you can find no fitting ship in which to sail at once, know
that within a month of your receipt of this letter our fleet will call
at Lesbos and bring you and the others herein mentioned to our
"That is a death sentence," said Martina, when she had finished
reading out this passage. "I have seen several such sent in my day,
when I was Irene's confidential lady. It is the common form. We shall
never reach Byzantium, Olaf, or, if we do, we shall never leave it
I nodded, for I knew that this was so. Then, at some whispered word
from Martina, Heliodore spoke.
"Husband," she said, "foreseeing this issue, Martina, Jodd, and most
of the Northmen and I have made a plan which we now submit to you,
praying that for our sakes, if not for yours, you will not thrust it
aside. We have bought two good ships, armed them and furnished them
with all things needful. Moreover, during the past two months we have
sold much of our property, turning it into gold. This is our plan--
that we pretend to obey the order of the Emperor, but instead of
heading for Byzantium, sail away north to the land in which you were
born, where, having rank and possessions, you may still become a
mighty chief. If we go at once we shall miss the Imperial fleet, and I
think that none will follow us."
Now I bowed my head for a while and thought. Then I lifted it and
"So let it be. No other road is open."
For my own sake I would not have stirred an inch. I would have gone to
the Court of the Emperor at Byzantium and there argued out the thing
in a gambler's spirit, prepared to win or prepared to lose. There at
least I should have had all the image-worshippers who adored Irene,
that is, the full half of the Empire, upon my side, and if I perished,
I should perish as a saint. But a wife and children are the most
terrible gifts of God, if the most blessed, for they turn our hearts
to water. So, for the first time in my life, I grew afraid, and, for
their sakes, fled.
As might be expected, having Martina's brains, Heliodore's love, and
the Northmen's loyalty at the back of it, our plan went well. A letter
was sent to the Emperor saying that we would await the arrival of the
fleet to obey his commands, having some private matters to arrange
before we left Lesbos. Then, on a certain evening, we embarked on two
great ships, about four hundred souls in all.
Before we went I bade farewell to Irene. She was seated outside the
house that had been given to her, employed in spinning, for it was her
fancy to earn the bread she ate by the labour of her hands. Round her
were playing Jodd's children and my own, whom, in order to escape
suspicion, we had sent thither till the time came for us to embark,
since the people of Lesbos only knew of our scheme by rumour.
"Whither do you go, Olaf?" she asked.
"Back to the North, whence I came, Madam," I answered, "to save the
lives of these," and I waved my hand towards the children. "If I bide
here all must die. We have been sent for to Byzantium, as I think
/you/ were wont to send for officers who had ceased to please you."
"I understand, Olaf; moreover, I know it is I who have brought this
trouble upon you because you spared me, whom it was meant that you
should kill. Also I know, through friends of mine, that henceforth,
for reasons of policy, my little end of life is safe, and perhaps with
it my sight. All this I owe to you, though now at times I regret that
I asked the boon. From the lot of an Empress to that of a spinning-
wife is a great change, and one which I find it heard to bear. Still,
I have my peace to make with God, and towards that peace I strive. Yet
will you not take me with you, Olaf? I should like to found a nunnery
in that cold North of yours."
"No, Augusta. I have done my best by you, and now you must guard
yourself. We part for ever. I go hence to finish where I began. My
birthplace calls me."
"For ever is a long word, Olaf. Are you sure that we part for ever?
Perchance we shall meet again in death or in other lives. Such, at
least, was the belief of some of the wisest of my people before we
became Christian, and mayhap the Christians do not know everything,
since the world had learnt much before they came. I hope that it may
be so, Olaf, for I owe you a great debt and would repay it to you full
measure, pressed down and running over. Farewell. Take with you the
blessing of a sinful and a broken heart," and, rising, she kissed me
on the brow.
Here ends the story of this life of mine as Olaf Red-Sword, since of
it I can recover no more. The darkness drops. Of what befell me and
the others after my parting with Irene I know nothing or very little.
Doubtless we sailed away north, and, I think, came safely to Aar,
since I have faint visions of Iduna the Fair grown old, but still
unwed, for the stain of Steinar's blood, as it were, still marked her
brow in all men's eyes; and even of Freydisa, white-haired and noble-
looking. How did we meet and how did we separate at last, I wonder?
And what were the fates of Heliodore and of our children; of Martina
and of Jodd? Also, was the prophecy of Odin, spoken through the lips
of Freydisa in the temple at Aar, that he and his fellow gods, or
demons, would prevail against my flesh and that of those who clung to
me, fulfilled at last in the fires of martyrdom for the Faith, as his
promise of my happiness was fulfilled?
I cannot tell. I cannot tell. Darkness entombs us all and history is
At Aar there are many graves! Standing among them, not so long ago,
much of this history came back to me.