Herman and Thusnelda - George Upton

The Priestess

The scene of the sword dance was deserted by all save Herman. He was in a peculiar mood. The events of the day had been too momentous not to impress him deeply. But more than all else the description of Valhalla by his father haunted his soul. He was devotedly attached to his father, and the latter had spoken with great earnestness upon a subject which had long engaged his own thoughts. To dwell in the companionship of heroes in the abodes of the gods was the longing of his heart, and he resolved to live so as to be worthy of that great honor. His father's sudden decision to send him to Rome also impressed him deeply. "Like the bees of our woods," he said to himself, "I will gather everything that is good and wholesome for my people, and come back with it to the hive. I will listen to the very heart-beats of the stranger people and find out whether an honorable alliance can be made with them."

In the meantime evening had come. The silver moon sailed silent and solitary through the sea of the sky and illuminated the romantic wood region. Thoughtfully looking up, he said: "I shall have thee also among the strangers, O gentle light. But will thy face be as dear to me there as here in our forests?"

The home feeling suddenly grew strong in him, and then sadness came over him as he contemplated his separation from the fatherland. The deep religious feeling of the time made him strongly sympathetic with nature. It was the vital principle. It conferred strength upon men and perfected the divine work upon earth; everything was permeated by the out-flowing of its highest manifestation as if it were some peculiar essence, and they believed that nature itself was a divine manifestation.

There was a gentle rustle among the oaks, through whose branches the moonlight fell upon Herman's noble countenance. There was a sublimity in the spectacle of these very oaks, firs, and shrubs, which sprang from the soil of an ancient battlefield, like columns aspiring to the sky as if to support it.

Everything that met his gaze tended to arouse his deep religious feeling. "Should I forget thee, thou dear land, country of my father, may Odin send me into the realm of the pale goddess of death," he whispered. In this mood he went farther into the depths of the well-known forest. He could not yet go back to the castle. The nearness of the gods, whose presence he fancied was manifest in the rustle of the tree-tops, filled his soul with holy awe. But Flavius sat at home by the side of Segest and listened to his stories of the marvels of Rome.

Herman at last came to the precincts of the sacred grove where a priestess made offerings and uttered prophecies. The moon had set behind the trees. It was dark, for the starlight could not pierce the forest gloom. He at last came to an open spot where he observed a white column of smoke rising in singular convolutions. It seemed to him he saw dark shadows, servants of the evil Loki, trying to prevent the rising smoke from reaching the throne of the gods. But with the help of powerful waves of air produced by the movements of the wings of the huge eagle, Hraefvelgr, who dwells at the end of the world, it eluded them.

Absorbed in contemplation, Herman was not aware he was near the priestess, who was approaching, torch in hand, from behind the neighboring oaks. Her figure was stately, her pale face beautiful, her dark eyes deep and mysterious. Her hair hung down upon a long white robe covering her body, and her brow was crowned with an ivy wreath.

They made a striking picture, the one a tall, noble, priestly figure, spiritual in expression, her glance at the same time serene and severe; the other, a stately youth, the type of strength and courage, and radiant in the transfiguration which celestial reveries cause. Herman looked upon her, and a mysterious pause followed. The tree-tops rustled ominously, the glowing eyes of owls gleamed upon the pair, and far off was heard the howling of wolves. At last the priestess spoke: "I have no earthly communication to make to you, for my utterances come from another world. So, listen, Herman, son of the Cherusci Prince, to what the gods declare through me:

"'They will seek to rob us of freedom; but help will come from the enemy.' "

With this the seeress turned away, went to a fountain, quenched her torch in it, and disappeared in the darkness. The sparks, shooting up from a glowing altar, showed that the priestess had been engaged in making an offering.

Herman stood long in thought and then returned to the place of the sword dance. Driving his sword into the earth with both hands, he seated himself upon a stone. Strange as the events of the day had been, a stranger one was about to happen. He leaned his head against the mossy side of a rock and fell asleep.

In his sleep a dream slid into his soul. He saw a tree with an eagle at its top. His father and several warriors were standing by watching the eagle, and one said: "That eagle is the symbol of our power; let us reverence it." As they were standing there, white eagles came in flocks and lit in the branches. They had firebrands in their talons and suddenly the whole tree was in flames. The white eagles rose, screaming exultantly, and circled about the burning tree. Before the eagle at the top could rise, its feathers were burned. It vainly tried to soar, for the golden fire enveloped it and at last it succumbed.

The men trembled as the strange eagles came lower and, flapping their wings, fanned the fire, which had almost burned the eagle to ashes. Then Herman advanced and said: "I will avenge thee! With this sacred flame I consecrate my sword, and with it I will cut off the talons of the strange eagles which brought the firebrands to the tree of freedom." As he said this he drew his sword through the flames; and as if by magic a tall golden flame shot up out of the ashes and a mighty eagle rose majestically from the ruins. The warriors filled the air with exultant shouts as the eagle of liberty, young again and inspired with fresh strength, attacked the strange eagles. The struggle was brief; for the latter with broken wings fell dead to the earth, while the eagle of the country rose victorious to the sun.

When Herman awoke, the first rays of morning light were shining upon his face. Joyously he rose and turned toward the castle. His hair was wet with the dews of the morning, but his cheeks glowed and his eyes gleamed with the fervor of consecration to the cause of his fatherland.