Count of the Saxon Shore - Alfred J. Church

The Priest's Demand

"So the time has come at last," said Ambiorix; "at last the yoke is broken from off the neck of Britain. Blessed be the day that saw the legions of the oppressor depart!"

"Yes," replied Martianus, "but will they not return? They have gone before; but have they not come back? I take it these Romans get too much out of us to let us go willingly."

"I have no fear of their return. If Honorius can make terms with this Constantine and his army, he will never send them back here; he wants them too much at home. He has got King Alaric to reckon with, and he has been long since drawing every soldier that he can from the provinces into Italy. No, depend upon it, at last Britain is free.

"Free; yes, if it has not forgotten how to move."

"We haven't all learnt to play the slave," said Ambiorix fiercely, as he started from his seat. "There are some who have not sold their birthright for the delights of the bath and the banquet, and who are too proud to ape the manners of their masters."

"Peace, my son," interposed the aged priest; "Martianus is not the less able to help the cause of our country because he seems to be the friend of those who oppress it."

"These are but the wild words of youth, father," said Martianus. "By a wise man they are forgotten as soon as they are heard. But let us hear what Ambiorix has to tell us about the force which we can bring into the field."

The young chief entered into details which it is impossible to reproduce. Preparations had been made over nearly the whole of Britain, though the more northerly parts, owing to the perpetual attacks of their neighbours the Picts, had little to contribute in the way of help. Ambiorix knew how many men could be relied upon in every district; he was acquainted with the disposition of the representatives of the chief British families; he knew what each would want for himself, to whom he would be prepared to yield precedence, from whom he would claim precedence for himself. All his views and calculations were those of a sanguine temper; but he certainly could show—on paper at least, as we should say—a very respectable amount of strength. When he had finished his account of the resources of Britain, Martianus, who, whatever his faults, had at least a genuine admiration for ability, held out his hand—

"This is wonderful!" he said. "You have a true genius for rule. That you should keep the threads of so complicated a business all so distinct is simply wonderful. You certainly give me hopes that I never had before."

"I never doubted for a moment," returned the young man, "but that when this Roman incubus was removed all would go well. Besides, who is there to attack us? We have no enemies."

"No enemies!" replied the other, in a tone of surprise. "Do you forget the Saxons by sea and the Picts by land."

"I believe that neither will trouble us. They are not our enemies, but the enemies of Rome. They have harassed—they were quite right in harassing—the oppressors of the world: they will respect, I am sure, the liberties of a free people. When Britain is as independent as they are we shall be friends."

Martianus could not help smiling sarcastically. "That is very fine. One would think that you had been a pupil in one of the schools of rhetoric which you so much despise. The most famous of our declaimers could not have put it better. But I am afraid that there will be some difficulty in explaining all this to them."

"In any case, we can defend ourselves," returned the young chief, "though I do not think that the need will occur."

"Let us hope not," said Martianus, but his tone was not confident or cheerful.

There were, it may easily be supposed, not a few other subjects for discussion, and the conversation lasted for a long time, the young chief showing throughout such a mastery of details as greatly impressed his companions. When he had finished a brief silence followed. It was broken by the priest. There was a special solemnity in his tone, which seemed to claim an authority for his utterances, quite different from the position that he had taken up while politics or military matters were being discussed.

"My children," he said, "this is a grave matter. The weal or woe of Britain for many generations is at stake. If we fail, we may well be undone for ever. You cannot enter on so great an enterprise without the favour of the gods, and the favour of the gods is not easily to be won. For many years they have lacked the sacrifice which they most prize. I myself, though I have completed my threescore years and ten, have but once only been privileged so to honour them. The time has come for this sacrifice to be offered once more. Have I your consent, my children? But indeed I need not ask. This is a matter in which I cannot be mistaken, and from which I cannot go back."

The young chief nodded assent, but said nothing. He was evidently disturbed.

"What do you mean, father?" he said.

"The sacrifice which the gods most prize," answered the old man, "is also that which is most prized by men. The most perfect offering which we can present to them is the most perfect creature they themselves have made. Sheep and oxen may suffice for common needs; but at such a time as this, when Britain itself is at stake, we must appease the gods with the blood of MAN."

Martianus grew pale. "It is not possible," he stammered.

"Not only possible, but necessary," calmly returned the priest. "Our fathers were commonly content to offer those who had offended against the laws; but in times of special necessity they chose the noblest victims. Even our kings have given up their sons and their daughters. So it must be now."

All this was absolutely horrible to Martianus. He did not believe indeed in Christianity, but it had influenced him as it had influenced all the world. Whether he was at heart much the better may be doubted. But he was softer, more refined; he shrank from visible horrors, from open cruelty—though he could be cruelly selfish on occasion—and from bloodshed though he would not stretch out a finger to save a neighbour's life. And what the priest said was as new and unexpected to him as it was hideous. He had no idea that this savage faith had survived in Britain.

"Father," he said, "such a thing would ruin us. Such a deed would raise the whole country against us. A human sacrifice! It is monstrous!"

"You are right so far," returned the priest, "the country must not know it. Britain is utterly corrupted by this new faith, a superstition fit only for women, and children, and slaves; and I don't doubt but that it would lift up its hands in horror at this holy solemnity. But there is no need that it should know it. It must be done secretly—so much I concede."

"And the victim?"

"Well, the days are passed when a Druid could lay his command on Britain's noblest, and be obeyed without a murmur. The victim must be taken by force, and secretly."

"And have you any such victim in your thoughts?"

The priest hesitated for a moment; but it was only for a moment. He resumed in a low voice, which it evidently cost him an effort to keep steady—

"I have not forgotten the necessity of a choice; indeed for months past it has been without ceasing in my mind, and now the choice is made. The victim whom the gods should have is a maiden, beautiful and pure. She is of noble descent, though her father was compelled, by poverty and the oppression of the Roman tyrants, to follow a humble occupation. Thus she is worthy to be offered. And yet no true Briton will regret her fate, for she has deserted the faith of her ancestors for the base superstition of the Cross."

"And her name, father?" said both of the conspirators together.

Again the priest hesitated; a close observer might even have seen a trace of agitation in that stern countenance.

"It is Carna," he said, after a pause, which raised the suspense of his hearers almost to agony. "It is Carna, adopted daughter of Count Ælius."

And he looked steadfastly at his companions' faces, as if he would have said, "I dare you to challenge my decision."

The two started simultaneously to their feet. Not long before, young Ambiorix, who was then not yet possessed by the fanatical patriotism which now mastered him, had admired her beauty and sweetness of manner, and had had day-dreams of her as the goddess of his own hearth. Then a stronger love had come in the place of the old. It was not of woman, but of Britain free among the nations, as she had been before the restless eagles of the South had found her, that he thought day and night. Still, he could not calmly hear her doomed to a horrible death, and for a moment he was ready to rebel against the sentence of the priest.

The older man was terribly agitated. He had been for many years on the friendliest footing with the Count, a frequent guest at his table, almost an intimate of the house. And Carna was an especial favourite with him. Her sweetness, her simplicity, and a pathetic resemblance that she bore to a dead daughter of his own, touched him on the best side of his nature.

"Priest," he thundered, "it shall not be. I would sooner the whole scheme came to ruin; I would sooner die. A curse on your hideous worship!"

The priest had now crushed down the risings of human feelings which his training had not sufficed to eradicate.

"You have sworn by the gods," he said, "and you cannot go back. If you do not hesitate to betray Britain, at least you will not dare to betray yourself. You know the power I can command. Go back from your promise to follow my leading, and you are a dead man. You are faithful?" he went on, turning to Ambiorix. "You do not draw back?"

The young chief returned a muttered assent.

The older man, meanwhile, was in a miserable condition of indecision and terror. Unbeliever as he was, having long since given up the faith of his fathers, and never accepted the doctrine of the church but with the emptiest formality, he had not put from his breast the superstitious fear that commonly lingers when belief is gone. And he knew that the priest's threatened vengeance on himself was no empty boast. The strength of Druidism had passed, but it still had fanatics at its command, whose daggers would find their way sooner or later to his heart. The cold, cynical look with which he had entered on the conference had given place to mingled looks of rage, remorse, and fear.

"You must have your own way," he muttered, sullenly.

"My son," said the priest, in a tone which he made studiously cautious, "what is one life in comparison with the happiness and glory of our nation? You, I know, would shrink from no sacrifice, and believe me," he added in a lower voice, for he had to play off the two rivals against each other, "believe me, whatever sacrifice you make shall not miss its reward."