WARRIOR AND ABBESS.
WARRIOR AND ABBESS.
Refreshed by his bath and daintily dressed, Berthoald was half an hour later led by Ricarik to the apartment of the abbess. When he appeared in the hall where Meroflede awaited him, he found her alone. The abbess had doffed her black vestments to array herself in a long white robe. A light veil half hid the tresses of her thick and reddish hair. A necklace and bracelets of precious stones ornamented her neck and bare arms. The Franks, having preserved the custom, introduced before them in Gaul by the Romans, of surrounding their banquet tables with couches, the abbess, extended almost at full length upon a long and wide lounge furnished with cushions, made a sign to the young chief to sit down near her. Berthoald obeyed, increasingly taken with the unusual beauty of Meroflede. A large fire flamed in the hearth. Rich vessels of silver glistened on the table, which was covered with embroidered linen; daintily carved flagons stood near gold cups; the plates held toothsome dishes; a candelabrum, on which two little wax candles were burning, barely lighted the spacious apartment, which was thrown into semi-obscurity a few paces away from Meroflede and her guest, and into complete darkness at its further ends. The lounge stood against a wainscoted wall from which hung two portraits, one of them, coarsely painted on an oak panel in Byzantine style, representing a Frankish warrior barbarously accoutred after the fashion of the leudes of Clovis three centuries earlier. Below the painting was the inscription: "Gonthram Neroweg." Beside this picture was one of the abbess Meroflede herself, draped in her long black and white veils; in one hand she held her abbatial crosier, in the other a naked sword. The second picture was much smaller than the first; it was painted on parchment, in the style of the miniatures that sacred books were then commonly illuminated with. Berthoald's eyes fell upon the two pictures at the moment when he was about to sit down beside his hostess. At their sight a tremor ran through him, and he remained as if thunder-struck. Presently he looked from Gonthram Neroweg to Meroflede, and from the abbess back to the former. He seemed to compare the resemblance between the two, an obvious resemblance; like Neroweg, Meroflede's hair was reddish, her nose beaked, her eyes green. The young chief could not conceal his astonishment.
"You seem to contemplate with deep interest the portrait of one of my ancestors, deceased several centuries ago!"
"You are of the race of Neroweg!"
"Yes, and my family still inhabits its vast domains of Auvergne, conquered by my ancestors' swords, or bestowed upon them by royal gifts.... But that is quite enough for the past. Glory to the dead, joy to the living! Sit down here near me, and let us take supper.... I am an odd abbess. But by Venus, I live like the other abbots and bishops of my time, with the only difference that these mitred folks sup with young girls, while I shall spend the night with a handsome soldier.... Will that be to your taste?" and raising one of the heavy silver flagons with a virile hand, she filled to the brim the gold cup that was placed near her guest. After merely moistening her own red lips in the cup, she reached it to the young chief and said resolutely:
"Let us drink your welcome to this convent!"
Berthoald held the cup for a moment between his two hands, and casting one more look at the portrait of Neroweg, he smiled caustically, fixed upon the abbess a look as bold as that which she cast at him, and replied: "Let us drink, beautiful abbess!" and emptying the cup at one draught, he added: "Let us drink to love!... which overpowers the abbesses as it does the simple maids!"
"Aye! Let us drink to love, the god of the world, as the pagans used to say!" answered Meroflede, and filling her own cup from a little red flagon, and replenishing the cup of the young chief, who fixedly gazed at her with eyes that shot fire, she added: "I have drunk to your toast; now drink to mine!"
"Whatever it be, holy abbess, and even though this cup be filled with poison, I shall empty it to your toast, I swear by your snow-white arms!—by your beautiful eyes!—by your voluptuous lips! I drink to Venus Callipyge!"
"Well, then," said the abbess, fixing a penetrating look upon the young man, "let us drink to the Jew Mordecai!"
Berthoald had his cup at his lips, but at the name of the Jew he shivered, laid his cup down abruptly, his face grew dark and he cried in terror:
"Drink to the Jew Mordecai?"
"Come, by Venus, the patroness of lovers, do not tremble like that, my brave friend!"
"Drink to the Jew Mordecai!... I——"
"You said to me: 'Let us drink to Love!'" replied the abbess, without losing the effect of her words upon Berthoald; "you swore by the whiteness of this arm," and she raised her sleeves, "you swore to drink my toast. Fulfill your promise!"
"Woman!" cried Berthoald with impatience and embarrassment, "what whim is that? Why do you wish me to drink to the Jew Mordecai, to a merchant of human flesh?"
"I shall satisfy your curiosity.... Had not Mordecai sold you as a slave to the Seigneur Bodegesil, you would not have stolen your master's horse and armor to go in search of adventures, and palmed yourself off upon that devil of a Charles Martel—you, a Gaul of the subject race—for a noble of the Frankish race and son of a dispossessed beneficiary, and finally, Charles, one of whose best captains you have become, would not have presented you with this abbey. Consequently, you would not be here now, at my side, at this table, where we are together drinking to Love.... That is the reason why, my valiant warrior, I empty this cup to the memory of that filthy Jew! And now, will you drink to the Jew Mordecai?"
While Meroflede was uttering these words, Berthoald contemplated her with increased astonishment, now mixed with fear, and could find not one word in answer.
"Ah! Ah! Ah!" said the abbess laughing, "see how dumb he has become. Why grow alternately pale and red? What does it matter whether you are of Gallic or Frankish race? Does that render your eyes less blue, your hair less black, your shape less comely? Come, shame upon you, my warrior! Must I teach a soldier how cups are emptied, and how love is made?"
Berthoald felt as if in a dream. Meroflede did not seem to despise him; she did not seem to triumph at the advantage that she had gained over him by the knowledge of his secret. Frank in her cynicism, she contemplated the young chief with mild and ardent eyes. Her looks that at once troubled his mind and fired his veins; the strangeness of the adventure; the effect of the large cup that he had just drained at one draught, either a heady wine or perchance mixed with some philtre, and that began to throw his brain into disorder;—all these thoughts crowded upon Berthoald's mind. He took a sudden resolve—to vie with the abbess in audacity, and said resolutely to her: "You are of the race of Neroweg, I of that of Joel!"
"We shall drink to Joel ... he has raised a breed of handsome soldiers."
"Are you acquainted with the death of the son of Gonthram Neroweg, whose portrait I see there on the wall?"
"A tradition in my family has it that he was killed in his domain of Auvergne by the chief of a troop of bandits and revolted slaves. May the devil keep his soul!"
"The chief of those bandits was named Karadeucq ... he was the great grandfather of my grandfather!"
"By heaven! That is a singular coincidence! And how did the bandit kill Neroweg?"
"Your ancestor and mine fought valiantly with axes, and the count succumbed. The Gaul triumphed over the Frank!"
"Indeed ... you refresh the recollections of my childhood. Did not your ancestor cut some words in the trunk of a tree with the point of a dagger after the combat?"
"Yes—'Karadeucq, a descendant of Joel, killed Count Neroweg'!"
"A few months after her husband's death, the count's wife, Godegisele, gave birth to a son, who was the grandfather of my grandfather."
"Strange coincidence, indeed ... and you, my beautiful abbess, listen to the story with great calmness!"
"What are those combats of our ancestors and of our races to me? By Venus! By her beautiful hips! I know but one race in all the world—the race of lovers! Empty your cup, my valiant warrior, and let us sup merrily. To-night there is a truce between us two.... War to-morrow!"
"Shame! Remorse! Reason! Duty!—let them all be drowned in wine!... I know not whether I am awake or dreaming on this strange night!" cried the young chief, and taking up his full cup, he rose and proceeded with an air of feverish defiance while turning towards the somber and savage portrait of the Frankish warrior: "To you, Neroweg!" Having emptied his cup, Berthoald felt seized with a vertigo and threw himself upon the lounge, saying to Meroflede: "Long live Love, abbess of the devil! Let us love each other to-night, and fight to-morrow!"
"We shall fight on the spot!" cried a hoarse and strangling voice, that seemed to proceed from the extremity of the large hall that lay in utter darkness, and, the curtains of one of the doors being thrust aside, Broute-Saule, who, without the knowledge of the abbess and driven by savage jealousy, had managed to penetrate into the apartment, rushed forward agile like a tiger. With two bounds he reached Berthoald, seized him by the hair with one hand and raised a dagger over him with the other, determined to plunge the weapon into the young chief's throat. The latter, however, although taken by surprise, quickly drew his sword, held with his iron grip the armed hand of Broute-Saule, and ran his weapon through the unfortunate lad. Deadly wounded, Broute-Saule staggered about for a few seconds and then dropped, crying: "Meroflede ... my beautiful mistress ... I die under your eyes!"
Still holding his bloody sword in his hand, and aware that the powerful wine was making further inroads upon his senses, Berthoald mechanically fell back upon the lounge. The dazed chief for a moment scrutinized the darkness of the apartment, apprehensive of further attempts upon his life, when he saw the abbess knock over with her fist the candelabrum which alone lighted the room, and in the midst of the total darkness that now pervaded the place he felt himself in the close embrace of the monster. Hardly any recollection remained to him of what happened during the rest of that night of drunkenness and debauchery.
Dawn was about to succeed the night in which Broute-Saule was killed by Berthoald. Profoundly asleep and with his hands pinioned behind his back, the young chief lay upon the floor of Meroflede's bedchamber. Wrapped in a black cloak, her face pale and half veiled by her now loose thick red hair that almost reached the floor, the abbess proceeded to the window, holding in her hand a lighted torch of rosin. Leaning over the sill whence the horizon could be seen at a distance, the abbess waved her torch three times, while intently looking towards the east which began to be tinted with the approaching day. After a few minutes, the light of a large flame, that rose from a distance behind the retreating shades of night, responded to Meroflede's signal. Her features beamed with sinister joy. She dropped her torch into the moat that surrounded the monastery, and then proceeded to awaken Berthoald by shaking him rudely. Berthoald was with difficulty drawn from his lethargy. He sought to take his hand to his forehead, but found that he was pinioned. He raised himself painfully upon his leaden feet, and still unclear of mind he contemplated Meroflede in silence. The abbess extended her bare arms towards the horizon, that dawn was feebly lighting, and said: "Do you see yonder, far away, the narrow road that crosses the pond and prolongs itself as far as the outer works of the abbey?"
"Yes," said Berthoald, struggling against the strange torpor that still paralyzed his mind and will, without thereby wholly clouding his intellect; "yes, I see the road surrounded by water on all sides."
"Did not your companions in arms camp on that road during the night?"
"I think so," replied the young chief, seeking to collect his confused thoughts; "last evening ... my companions—"
"Listen!" put in the abbess nervously and placing her hand upon the young man's shoulder. "Listen ... what do you hear from the side on which the sun is about to rise?"
"I hear a great rumbling noise ... that seems to draw nearer towards us. It sounds like the rush of waters."
"Your ear does not deceive you, my valiant warrior;" and leaning upon Berthoald's shoulder: "Yonder, towards the east, lies an immense lake held in by dikes and locks."
"A lake? What of it?"
"The level of its waters is eight to ten feet above those of the ponds.... Do you understand what will follow?"
"No, my mind is heavy ... I hardly remember ... our charming night ... but why am I pinioned?"
"For the purpose of checking your joy when, as will soon be the case, you will have recovered your senses.... Now, let us continue our confidential chat. You will understand that the moment the dikes are broken through and the locks opened, the water will rise in these ponds to the extent that they will submerge the narrow road on which your companions encamped for the night with their horses and the carts that held their booty and slaves.... Now, watch.... Do you notice how the water is rising? It is now up to the very edge of the jetty.... Within an hour, the jetty itself will be entirely submerged. Not one of your companions will have escaped death.... If they seek to flee, a deep trench, cut at my orders over night, will stop their progress.... Not one will escape death.... Do you hear, my handsome prisoner?"
"All drowned!" murmured Berthoald, still under the dominion of a dull stupor; "all my companions drowned——"
"Oh, does not yet that new piece of confidential news wake you up?... Let us pass to another thing," and the abbess proceeded with a voice of ringing triumph: "Among the female slaves, taken from Languedoc, that your band brought in its train, there was a woman ... who will drown with the rest, and that woman," said Meroflede, emphasizing each word in the hope of each being a dagger in Berthoald's heart, "is—your—mother!"
Berthoald trembled violently, leaped up in his bonds, and vainly sought to snap them. He uttered a piercing cry, cast a look of despair and terror upon the immense sheet of water that, tinted with the first rays of the rising sun, now extended in every direction. The wretched man called aloud: "Oh, my mother!"
"Now," said Meroflede with savage joy, "the water has almost completely invaded the causeway. The tent-cloths that cover the carts can hardly be seen. The flood still rises, and at this very hour your mother is undergoing the agonies of death ... agonies that are more horrible than death itself."
"Oh, demon!" cried the young man, writhing in his bonds. "You lie! My mother is not there!"
"Your mother's name is Rosen-Aër, she is forty years of age; she lived one time in the valley of Charolles in Burgundy."
"Woe! Woe is me!"
"Fallen into the hands of the Arabs at the time of their invasion of Burgundy, she was taken to Languedoc as a slave. After the last siege of Narbonne by Charles, your mother was captured in the vicinity of the town together with other women. When the division of the booty took place, Rosen-Aër having fallen to the lot of your band was brought as far as here.... If still you should doubt, I shall give you one more token. That woman carries on her arm, like you, traced in indelible letters the two words: 'Brenn' and 'Karnak'.... Are these details accurate enough?"
"Oh, my mother!" cried the unfortunate Berthoald casting upon the waters of the pond a look of most poignant pain.
"Your mother is now dead.... The jetty has disappeared under the waters, and still they rise.... Aye, your mother was drowned in the covered cart, where she was held confined with the other slaves."
"My heart breaks," murmured Berthoald, crushed by the weight of pain and despair: "My suffering is beyond endurance!"
"Are you so soon at the end of your strength?" cried Meroflede with a peal of infernal laughter. "Oh! no, no! You have not yet suffered enough. What! You stupid slave! You Gallic renegade! Cowardly liar, who brazenly deck yourself with the name of a noble Frank! What, did you imagine vengeance did not boil in my veins because you saw me smile last evening at the death of my ancestor, who was killed by a bandit of your race! Aye! I smiled because I thought how at daybreak I would have you witness from a distance the death agonies of your own mother! I was but preparing my vengeance."
"Monster of lewdness and ferocity!" cried Berthoald, making superhuman efforts to break his bonds. "I must punish you for your crimes!... Yes, by Hesus, I shall throttle you with my own hands!"
The abbess realized the impotence of Berthoald's fury, shrugged her shoulders and continued: "Your ancestor, the bandit, set fire a century and a half ago to the castle of my ancestor, Count Neroweg, and killed him with an axe. I reply to the fire with the inundation, and I drown your mother! As to the fate that awaits you, it will be terrible!"
"Did my mother know that I was the chief of the Franks who took her prisoner?"
"My vengeance lacked only that!"
"But who, miserable woman, could have told you what you know about my mother?"
"The Jew Mordecai."
"How did he know her? Where did he see her?"
"At the halt that you made at the convent of St. Saturnine with Charles Martel; it was there that the Jew recognized you."
"God was merciful to me! My mother did not live to know my shame. Her death would have been doubly terrible.... And now, monster, deliver me of your presence and of life. I am in a hurry to die!"
On the morning of the fateful day when the abbess Meroflede drowned, as in a mouse-trap, the troop of Frankish warriors that had presumed to dispossess her, the goldsmith Bonaik entered his workshop at the accustomed hour. He was soon joined by his slave apprentices. After lighting the fire in the forge, the old man opened the window that looked over the fosse, to let the smoke escape. With no little astonishment Bonaik observed that the water in the moat had risen so high as to be within a foot of the window sill. "Oh, my lads," said he to the apprentices, "I fear some great calamity happened last night! For very many years the water of this moat did not reach the height of to-day, and then it happened when the dike of the upper lake broke, and caused widespread disasters. Look yonder at the other end of the moat. The water is almost up to the air-hole cut into the cavern under the building opposite us."
"And it looks as if the water were still rising, Father Bonaik."
"Alack, yes, my lad! It is still rising. Oh, the bursting of the dikes will bring on great calamities. There will be many victims!"
While Bonaik and his apprentices were looking at the rising water in the moat, the voice of Septimine was heard calling on the outside: "Father Bonaik, open the door of the workshop!" One of the apprentices ran to the door and the girl entered, supporting a woman whose long hair streamed with water; her clothes were drenched, her face livid; she was barely able to drag herself along; so weak was she that after taking a few steps in the shop she fell fainting in the arms of the old goldsmith and Septimine.
"Poor woman! She is cold as ice!" exclaimed the old man, and turning to his apprentices: "Quick, quick boys! Fetch some coal from the vault, ply the bellows and raise the fire in the forge to warm up this unfortunate woman. I thought so! This inundation must have caused much damage."
At the words of the goldsmith, two apprentices ran down into the vault behind the forge for charcoal, and the other blew upon the fire, while the old man approached Septimine, who, on her knees before the unconscious woman, wept and said: "Oh, she is going to die!"
"Reassure yourself," the old man said; "this poor woman's hands, icy cold a minute ago, are becoming warmer. But what has happened? Your clothes also are drenched. You look strangely shocked."
"Good father, at daybreak this morning, the girls who sleep in my room and I woke up and went into the courtyard. There we heard other slaves crying that the dikes had burst. The girls all ran to see the progress of the inundation. I went along without knowing why. They dispersed. I advanced to a tongue of land that is washed by the water of the pond. A large willow stands near the spot. I presently saw a half-submerged cart floating a little way off. It was being turned around by the opposite currents, and it was covered by a tent-cloth."
"Thanks be to God! The spreading tent-cloth acted like a balloon and kept the cart from sinking."
"The wind blew into this sort of a sail, driving the cart towards the shore where I stood. I then saw this unfortunate woman, holding to the tent-cloth, the rest of her body in the water."
"And what happened then, my daughter?"
"There was not a second to lose. The failing hands of the poor woman, whose strength was exhausted, were about to drop. I fastened one end of my belt to one of the branches of the willow-tree and the other to my wrist and I leaned forward towards the poor woman calling out to her: 'Courage!' She heard me, and seized my right hand convulsively. The sudden pull caused my feet to slip from the edge and I fell into the water."
"Fortunately your left wrist was tied to one of the ends of the belt that you had fastened to the tree!"
"Yes, good father. But the shock was violent. I thought my arm was wrenched from its socket. Fortunately the poor woman took hold of the edge of my dress. My first pain having passed I did my best, and with the aid of my belt that remained fastened to the tree and on which I tugged away, I succeeded in reaching the shore and pulling out this woman, on the point of drowning. Our workshop being the nearest place that I could think of, I brought her here; she could hardly support herself; but, alack!" added the girl at the sight of the still inanimate face of Rosen-Aër, for it was Berthoald's mother that Septimine had just saved, "I may only have retarded the supreme moment for a few seconds!"
"Do not lose hope," answered the old man, "her hands are growing warmer."
With the aid of the apprentices, who were no less compassionate than Septimine and the old man, Rosen-Aër was drawn sitting on a stool near the forge. Little by little she felt the salutary effect of the penetrating heat, she gradually recovered her senses, and finally awoke. Gathering her thoughts, she stretched out her arms to Septimine and said in a feeble voice: "Dear child, you saved me!"
Septimine threw herself around Rosen-Aër's neck, shedding glad tears, and answered: "We have done what we could; we are only poor slaves."
"Oh! my child, I am a slave like yourselves, brought to this country from the center of Languedoc. We spent the night on the road between the two ponds of this monastery. The oxen had been unhitched from the carts. We were caught in the inundation that began at daybreak——" But Rosen-Aër suddenly broke off and rose to her feet. Her face was at first expressive of stupor, but immediately a delirious joy seized her, and precipitating herself towards the open window, she passed her arm through the thick iron bars, crying: "My son! I see my son Amael yonder!"
For a moment both Septimine and Bonaik believed the unhappy woman had become demented, but when they approached the window the young girl joined her hands and cried out: "The Frankish Chief, he in an underground passage of the abbey?"
Rosen-Aër and Septimine saw on the other side of the moat Berthoald holding himself up with both hands by the iron bars of the air-hole of the cavern. He suddenly saw and as quickly recognized his mother, and, delirious with joy, he cried in a thrilling voice that, despite the distance, reached the workshop: "Mother!... My dear mother!"
"Septimine," Bonaik said anxiously to the girl, "do you know that young man?"
"Oh, yes! He was as good to me as an angel from Heaven! I saw him at the convent of St. Saturnine. It is to that warrior that Charles donated this abbey."
"To him!" replied the old man, bewildered. "How, then, comes he in that cavern?"
"Master Bonaik," one of the apprentices ran by saying, "I hear outside the voice of the intendant Ricarik. He stopped under the vault to scold some one. He will be here in a minute. He is coming on his morning round, as is his habit. What is best to be done?"
"Good God!" cried the old man in terror. "He will find this woman here, and will question her. She may betray herself and acknowledge that she is the mother of that young man—undoubtedly a victim of the abbess." And the old man, running to the window, seized Rosen-Aër by the arm and said to her while he dragged her away: "In the name of your son's life, come! Come quick!"
"What threatens my son's life?"
"Follow me, or he is lost, and you also." And Bonaik, without further explanations to Rosen-Aër, pointed out to her the vault behind the forge, saying: "Hide there, do not stir," and turning to his apprentices while he put on his apron: "You, boys, hammer away as loud as you can, and sing at the top of your voices! You, Septimine, sit down and polish this vase. May God prevent that poor young man from remaining at the air-hole or from being seen by Ricarik!" Saying this the old goldsmith started to hammer upon his anvil, striking with a sonorous voice the old and well-known goldsmith's song in honor of the good Eloi:
"From the station of artisan
He was raised to that of bishop,—
With his duties of pastor,
Eloi purified the goldsmith.
His hammer is the authority for his word,
His furnace the constancy of zeal,
His bellows the inspirer,
His anvil, obedience!"
Ricarik entered the workshop. The goldsmith seemed not to notice him, and proceeded with his song while flattening with hammer blows a silver leaf into which the abbatial cross terminated. "You are a jolly set," remarked the intendant stepping to the center of the workshop; "stop your singing ... you dogs ... you deafen my ears!"
"I have not a drop of blood in my veins," Septimine whispered to Bonaik. "That wicked man is drawing near the window.... If he were to see the Frankish chief—"
"Why have you so much fire in the forge?" the intendant proceeded to say, taking a step towards the fireplace, behind which was the cave that Rosen-Aër was concealed in. "Do you amuse yourself burning coal uselessly?"
"No, indeed! This very morning I shall melt the silver that you brought me yesterday."
"Metal is melted in crucibles, not in forges—"
"Ricarik, everyone to his trade. I have worked in the workshops of the great Eloi. I know my profession, seigneur intendant. I shall first subject my metal to the strong fire of the forge, then hammer it, and only after that will it be ready for the crucible. The cast will then be more solid."
"You never lack for an answer."
"Because I always have good ones to give. But there are several necessary things that I shall want from you for this work, the most important of any that I shall have made for the monastery, seeing the silver vase is to be two feet high, as you may judge from the cast on the table."
"What do you need, dotard?"
"I shall need a barrel that I shall fill with sand, and in the middle of which I shall place my mold.... That is not all.... I have often found that, despite the hoops that hold the staves of the barrel, where molds are placed inside of the sand, the barrel bursts when the molten metal is poured into the hollow. I shall need a long rope to wind tightly around the barrel. If the hoops snap, the rope will hold. I shall also need a long thin string to hold the sides of the mold."
"These young folks and I shall be forced to spend part of the night at the work. The days are short at this season. Order a pouch of wine for us, who otherwise drink only water. The good cheer will keep up our strength during our hard night's work. On casting days, at the workshops of the great Eloi, the slaves were always treated to something extra.... Eatables were not spared."
"You shall have your pouch of wine ... seeing that this is a holy-day at the convent. A miracle has taken place—"
"A miracle! Tell us about it!"
"Yes.... A just punishment of heaven has struck a band of adventurers upon whom Charles the accursed had the audacity of bestowing this abbey that is consecrated to the Church. They camped last night upon the jetty, expecting to attack the monastery at daybreak. But the Lord, by means of a redoubtable and astonishing prodigy opened the cataracts of heaven. The ponds swelled and the whole band of criminals was drowned!"
"Glory be to the Lord!" cried the old goldsmith, making a sign to his apprentices to imitate him. "Glory be to the Lord, who drowns impious wretches in the cataracts of his wrath!"
"Glory be to the Lord!" repeated the young slaves in chorus at the top of their voices. "Glory be to the Lord, who drowns impious wretches in the cataracts of his wrath! Amen!"
"It is a miracle that does not at all surprise me, Ricarik," added the goldsmith; "it is surely due to the teeth of St. Loup, to the holy relic that you brought me yesterday."
"That's probable ... it is certain.... You do not need anything else?"
"No," answered the old man, rising and looking into several boxes; "I have here for the mold enough sulphur and bitumen, there is also enough charcoal; one of my apprentices shall go with you, Ricarik, and bring the barrel, rope and cord, and do not forget the pouch of wine and the victuals, seigneur intendant!"
"You will get them later, together with your pittances at double rations."
"Ricarik, we shall not be able to leave the workshop one instant, on account of the mold. Let us have our daily pittance this morning, if you please, so that the work may not be interrupted. We shall lock the door to keep out intruders."
"Let one of your apprentices come with me; he shall bring all the things, but be sure and have the vase cast to-morrow so as to please our holy abbess; if you fail your backs will have to pay for it."
"You may assure our holy and venerable abbess that when the vase shall come out of the mold it will be worthy of an artisan who saw the great Eloi handle the file and burin." Bonaik then said in a low voice to one of the apprentices, while Ricarik was moving towards the door: "Pick up on your way a dozen stones of the size of walnuts; keep them in your pockets, and bring them to me." He then said aloud: "Accompany the seigneur intendant, my boy; and be sure not to loiter on the way back."
"Rest assured, master," said the apprentice with a significant gesture to the old man while following the intendant out of the shop; "your orders will be obeyed to the letter."
The goldsmith remained a few moments at the threshold of the workshop listening to the retreating steps of the intendant; he then closed and bolted the door and went to the vault where Rosen-Aër was in hiding, while Septimine ran to the window to see whether Berthoald was still in sight. But the sight that presented itself to her eyes made her exclaim with terror: "Great God, the young chief is lost!... The water has reached the air-hole!"
"Lost!... My son!" cried Rosen-Aër in despair, rushing to the window despite the old man's efforts to restrain her. "Oh, my son! To have seen you again only to lose you.... Amael, Amael!... Answer your mother!"
"The woman will betray us ... if she is heard outside!" said the fear-stricken old man, vainly endeavoring to drag Rosen-Aër from the window bars to which the distracted woman clung, hysterically calling out to her son. But Amael did not reappear. The flood had gained the opening of the air-hole, and despite the width of the moat that separated the two buildings, the muffled sound of the water was heard pouring through the opening and falling into the cavern. Pale as death, Septimine could not utter a word. In the frenzy of her despair, Rosen-Aër sought to break the stout iron bars of the window, while she sobbed aloud: "To know that he is there ... in agony ... dying ... and we unable to save him!"
"Have hope!" cried the old man with tears in his eyes at the sight of the mother's anguish; "hope!... I have been watching the moss-covered stone at the corner of the air-hole. The water does not rise to it.... It has stopped rising.... See for yourselves!"
Septimine and Rosen-Aër dried their tears and looked at the stone that Bonaik pointed out. In fact it was not submerged. Presently even the noise of the water flowing down through the air-hole sounded with less distinctness, and finally ceased altogether. The flood seemed checked.
"He is saved!" cried Septimine. "Thank God, the young chief will not drown!"
"Saved!" stammered Rosen-Aër in a heart-rending tone of doubt. "And if enough water has poured into the cavern to drown him.... Oh! If he were still alive he would have answered my voice.... No, no! He is dying! He is dead!"
"Master Bonaik, some one knocks," an apprentice said. "What shall I do? Open?"
"Return to your hiding place," the old man said to Rosen-Aër, and as she did not seem to hear, he added: "Are you determined to perish and have us all perish with you, we who are ready to sacrifice ourselves for you and your son?" Rosen-Aër left the window and returned to the vault, while the old man walked to the door and inquired: "Who is there?"
"I," answered from the outside the voice of the apprentice who had gone out with Ricarik; "I, Justin, I have executed your commissions, Father Bonaik."
"Come in, quick," said the goldsmith to the lad who carried an empty barrel on his shoulders and had in his hand a basket of provisions, the wine pouch, and a large roll of rope and cord. Re-bolting the door, the old man took the wine pouch out of the basket and going to the vault where Rosen-Aër was hiding said to her: "Take a little wine to comfort you."
But Amael's mother pushed the pouch aside, crying in despair: "My son! My son! What has become of my son Amael?"
"Justin," the old man said to the apprentice, "give me the stones I told you to pick up."
"Here, Master Bonaik, are they. I filled my pockets with them."
The old man picked out a small stone and went to the window, saying: "If the unfortunate man is not drowned, he will understand, when he sees this stone drop into the cave, that it is a signal." Father Bonaik took accurate aim and threw the stone through the air-hole. Rosen-Aër and Septimine awaited the result of Bonaik's attempt in mortal anguish. Even the apprentices observed profound silence. A few seconds of intense anxiety passed. "Nothing," murmured the old goldsmith with his eyes fixed upon the air-hole.
"He is dead!" cried Rosen-Aër, held by Septimine in her arms. "I shall never more see my son!"
The old man threw a second stone. Another interval of anxiety ensued. All held their breath. A few seconds later, as Rosen-Aër raised herself on tip-toe, she cried: "His hands! I see his hands! He is holding to the bar of the air-hole. Thanks, Hesus! Thanks! You have saved my son!" and the woman fell upon her knees in an attitude of prayer.
Bonaik thereupon saw the pale face of Amael, framed in his long black hair that now streamed with water, rise between the iron bars of the air-hole. The old man made him a sign to withdraw quickly, while saying in a low voice as if he expected to be heard by the prisoner: "Now, hide yourself, disappear and wait!" and turning to Rosen-Aër: "Your son has understood me. No imprudence. Be calm." Bonaik then went to his work-bench, took a piece of parchment from a little roll that he used to trace his models on, and wrote these words:
"If the water has not invaded the cavern so that you cannot stay there without danger until night, then give three pulls to the string at the end of which will be attached the stone tied in this note. This cord can then serve as a means of communicating. When you see it shake get ready for further information. Until then do not show yourself at the air-hole. Courage!"
Having written these words, the goldsmith rolled the stone in the parchment, happily impermeable to water, and tied both in a knot to one end of the string, at about the middle of which he attached a piece of iron in order that the body of the rope might be held under water, and thus the means of communication between the workshop and the cavern remain invisible. Bonaik slung the stone through the air-hole, retaining in his hand the other end of the string. Almost immediately after, three pulls given to the string announced to Bonaik that Amael could remain until evening without danger in his prison, and that he would follow the orders of the old man. Hope revived the spirits of Rosen-Aër. In the fulness of her thanks she took the goldsmith's hands and said to him: "Good father, you will save him, will you not? You will save my son?"
"I hope so, poor woman! But let me collect my thoughts.... At my age, you know, such experiences are trying. In order to succeed, we must be prudent. The task is difficult.... We cannot be too cautious."
While the goldsmith, leaning on his elbows at his work-bench, held his head in his hands, and the apprentices remained silent and uneasy, Rosen-Aër, struck by a sudden recollection, said to Septimine: "My child, you said my son had been good to you, like an angel from heaven.... All that concerns you interests me. Where did you meet him?"
"Near Poitiers, at the convent of St. Saturnine.... My family and I, touched with pity for a young prince, a boy, who was kept confined in the monastery, wished to help him to escape; all was discovered, they meant to punish me in a shameful, infamous manner," Septimine said blushing; "and they decided to sell me and separate me from my father and mother.... It was at that moment that your son, a favorite of Charles, the Chief of the Franks, interceded in my behalf and took me under his protection—"
"My son, say you, dear child?"
"Yes, madam, the seigneur Berthoald."
"You call him Berthoald?"
"That is the name of the young Frankish chief who is locked up in that cavern—"
"My son Amael with the name of Berthoald! My son a favorite of the Frankish chief!" cried Rosen-Aër struck with amazement. "My son, who was raised in horror for the conquerors of Gaul, those oppressors of our race! My son one of their favorites! No, no.... It is impossible!"
"Live a hundred years, and never shall I forget what happened at the convent of St. Saturnine—the touching kindness of the seigneur Berthoald towards me, whom he had never seen before. Did he not obtain my liberty from Charles, and also the liberty of my father and mother? Was he not generous enough to give me gold to meet my family's wants?"
"I am lost in the attempt to penetrate this mystery. The troop of warriors, that brought us slaves in their train, did indeed stop at the abbey of St. Saturnine," replied Rosen-Aër in great agony, and she added: "but if he whom you call Berthoald obtained your freedom from the chief of the Franks, how come you to be a slave here, my poor child?"
"The seigneur Berthoald trusted the word of Charles, and Charles trusted the word of the abbot of the convent. But after the departure of the chief of the Franks and your son, the abbot, who had previously sold me to a Jew named Mordecai, kept his bargain with the Jew.... In vain did I beseech the warriors whom Charles left behind in possession of the monastery, and as a guard over the little prince, to stand by me. I was torn away from my family. The Jew kept the gold that your son had generously given me, and brought me to this country. He sold me to the intendant of this abbey that was donated by Charles to the seigneur Berthoald, as I learned at the convent of St. Saturnine."
"This abbey was donated to my son!... He a companion in arms of these accursed Franks!... He a traitor! a renegade! Oh, if you speak truly, shame and perdition upon my son!"
"A traitor! A renegade!... The seigneur Berthoald! The most generous of men! You judge your son too severely!"
"Listen, poor child, and you will understand my sorrow.... After a great battle, delivered near Narbonne against the Arabs, I was taken by the warriors of Charles. The booty and slaves were divided by lot. I and my female fellow prisoners were told that we belonged to the chief Berthoald and his men."
"You, a slave of your own son!... But, God, he did not know it!"
"Yes, the same as I did not know that my new master, the young Frankish chief Berthoald, was my son Amael."
"And probably your son, who marched at the head of his troop, did not see you on the journey."
"We were eight or ten female slaves in a covered cart. We followed the army of Charles. Occasionally the men of chief Berthoald visited us, and ... but I shall spare your blushes, poor child, and shall not dilate upon their infamous conduct!" added Rosen-Aër shuddering at the disgusting and horrible recollection. "My age protected me from a shame that, however, I was determined to escape by death.... My son never joined in those orgies, frequently stained with blood and moistened in tears—the men beat the girls to the point of shedding their blood when they sought to resist being outraged. In that way we arrived in the vicinity of the convent of St. Saturnine. We stopped there several hours. The Jew Mordecai happened to be at the monastery. Learning, no doubt, that there were slaves to buy in the train of the army, he came to us accompanied by some men of the band of Berthoald. You were sold, poor child; you know the disgraceful examination that these dealers in Gallic flesh submit the slaves to."
"Yes, yes; I had to undergo the shame before the monks of the abbey of St. Saturnine when they sold me to the Jew," answered Septimine, hiding her face, purple with shame.
"Women and young girls, despite their prayers and resistance, were stripped of their clothes, profaned and spoiled by the looks of the men who wanted either to sell or to buy us. My age could not spare me this general disgrace—" and breaking out into tears and wringing her arms in despair, the mother of Amael added amidst moans: "Such are the Franks whose companion of war my son is!"
"It is horrible!"
"The baseness confounds my senses and makes my heart to sicken. At the age of fifteen my son disappeared from the valley of Charolles, where he lived free and happy ... before the Saracen invasion. What happened since? I do not know."
Hearing the name of the valley of Charolles, Bonaik, who had remained steeped in thought, trembled and listened to the conversation between Septimine and the mother of Amael, who proceeded to say: "Perhaps the Jew holds the secret of my son's life."
"That Jew?... How?"
"When, despite the pain it gave me, the Jew came to inspect me, I had to undergo the fate of the rest. I was stripped of my clothes.... Oh, may my son never know of my shame! The thought alone would haunt him as a perpetual remorse through life, if he should live," Rosen-Aër interjected in a low voice. "While I underwent the fate of my companions in slavery ... the Jew observed with a start on my left arm these two words traced in indelible letters: 'Brenn,' 'Karnak.'"
"'Brenn,' 'Karnak'!" cried the old goldsmith.
"The custom of doing so was adopted in my family several generations back, because, alack, in those troubled days of continuous war, families were exposed to being rent apart and dispersed far and wide. 'Twas an indelible sign which might help them to recognize one another."
Rosen-Aër had hardly pronounced these words when, drawing near her in deep emotion, Bonaik cried: "Are you of the family of Joel, the brenn of the tribe of Karnak?"
"Did you live in Burgundy in the valley of Charolles, once ceded to Loysik, the brother of Ronan, by King Clotaire I?"
"But, good father, how do you know all that?"
For only answer, the old man rolled up the sleeve of his blouse and pointed with his finger to two words indelibly traced on his left arm: "Brenn," "Karnak."
Rosen-Aër remained stupified, and recovering said: "You also?... You also.... You, good father.... Are you of the family of Joel?"
"One of my ancestors was Kervan, the uncle of Ronan. That is my affiliation."
"Does your family live in Brittany, near Karnak?"
"My brother Allan or his children remained at the cradle of our stock."
"And how did you fall into slavery?"
"Our tribe crossed the frontier and came, according to their custom from time immemorial, to trade arms for the vines of the Franks near the county of Rennes. I was then fifteen, and accompanied my father on his journey. A troop of Franks attacked us. I was separated during the fight from my father, was captured and taken far away into bondage. Sold from one master to another, accident brought me to this country where I am now twelve years. Alack! Often have my eyes wandered towards the frontier of our old Brittany, ever free! My advanced age coupled to the habit of a profession that I love and that consoles me, have kept me from thinking of escape. And so we are relatives!... The unhappy young man yonder, near us, imprisoned in the cavern, is of our blood?... But how did he become chief of this Frankish troop that the inundation has just swallowed up?"
"I was telling this poor child that a Jew, a dealer in slaves, having noticed these two words—'Brenn,' 'Karnak'—on my arm seemed astonished, and said to me: 'Have you not a son who must be about twenty-five years old, and who carries like you, those two words traced on his arm?' But despite the horror that the Jew inspired me with, his words revived in me the hope of finding my son again. 'Yes,' I answered him, 'ten years ago my son disappeared from the place where we lived.' 'And you lived in the valley of Charolles?' the Jew asked. 'Do you know my son?' I cried. But the infamous man refused to answer me, and he walked away casting a cruel look upon me."
"And you have seen him since?" asked Septimine.
"Never again. The carts resumed their march to this country, where I arrived with my fellow female slaves. All the women must have perished this morning ... and without the efforts of this brave girl I would have perished also."
"The Jew Mordecai," replied the goldsmith reflecting, "that dealer in the flesh of Gauls, a great friend of the intendant Ricarik, arrived here a few days ago. He was at the convent of St. Saturnine when the donation of this abbey was made to your son and his band. He must, undoubtedly, have run ahead to warn the abbess, and she, accordingly, made her preparations of defence against the warriors who came to dispossess her."
"The Jew was in a great hurry to arrive here after his departure from the convent of St. Saturnine, where he took me from," replied Septimine. "We were only three slaves and he packed us on his light wagon that was drawn by two horses. He must have arrived here two or three days ahead of the troop of the seigneur Berthoald, who must have been delayed on his march by his large baggage."
"So that the Jew must have notified Meroflede in advance, and must also have revealed to her the secret of the alleged Frankish chief being of the Gallic race," observed Bonaik. "Hence the terrible vengeance of the abbess, who must have had your son cast into that subterranean prison, expecting to expose him to certain death. The thing now is how to save him, and to protect ourselves from the vengeance of Meroflede. To remain here after your son's escape would be to expose these poor apprentices and Septimine to death."
"Oh, good father! What shall we do?" put in Septimine, joining her hands. "No one can penetrate into the building under which the seigneur Berthoald is imprisoned."
"Call him Amael, my child," said Rosen-Aër bitterly. "The name of Berthoald constantly reminds me of a shame that I would forget."
"To extricate Amael out of the cavern is not an impossible feat," said the old goldsmith, raising his head. "I have just been thinking it over. We have a fair chance of success."
"But, good father," asked Rosen-Aër, "what about the iron bars at the window of this workshop, and those at the air-hole of the cave in which my son is confined? And then that large and deep moat? What obstacles!"
"These are not the most difficult obstacles to surmount. Suppose night has set in and Amael is with us, free. What then?"
"Leave the abbey," said Septimine; "escape ... we shall all flee—"
"And how, my child? Do you forget that with nightfall the gate of the jetty is locked? A watchman is there on guard. But, even if we cleared the gate, the inundation covers the road. It will take two or three days for the waters to withdraw. Until then this abbey will remain surrounded by water like an island."
"Master Bonaik," said one of the young apprentices, "there are the fishing boats."
"Where are they usually fastened, my boy, at what part of the pond?"
"On the side of the chapel."
"To reach them we would have to cross the interior court of the cloister, and its door is every evening bolted and barred from within!"
"Alack!" exclaimed Rosen-Aër, "must we renounce all hope of escape?"
"Never give up hope. Let us first think of Amael. Whatever may happen, once he is out of the cavern, his fate will not be worse. Now, my lads," the goldsmith added, addressing the apprentices, "what we are about to attempt is grave ... your lives and ours are at stake. You have no choice but to help us or betray us. To betray us would be a base act. Nevertheless your only interest in this flight is the uncertain hope of recovering your freedom. Do you prefer to betray us? Say so frankly, and now.... In that event I shall not undertake anything, and the fate of the worthy woman and her son is sealed.... If, on the contrary, we succeed with your help to save Amael and leave this abbey, this is my plan: I am told it is about four days' march from here to Armorica, the only territory in all Gaul that is still free. Arrived in Brittany, we shall take the road to Karnak. There we shall find my brother or his descendants. My tribe will receive us all as children of its own family. From goldsmith's apprentices you will become apprentices in field-labor, unless you should prefer to pursue your trade in some town of Brittany, only no longer as slaves but as free artisans. Reflect ripely, and decide. The day is slipping by. Time is precious."
Justin, one of the apprentices, consulted with his companions in a low voice, and then answered: "Our choice is not doubtful, Master Bonaik. We shall join you in restoring a son to his mother; hap what hap may, we shall share your fate."
"Thank you, my generous boys!" said Rosen-Aër, with her eyes full of tears. "Alack! All I can offer you in exchange for your noble conduct is the gratitude of a mother!"
"Now," said the goldsmith, who seemed to have regained the agility and vivacity of his youth, "no more words! To work! Two of you will see to the sawing of the bars of the window. But do it so that they remain in position."
"We understand, Father Bonaik," said Justin; "the bars will remain in position; all that will be needed to throw them down will be a slight tap of the hammer when you tell us."
"There is no fear of being seen from without. The opposite building has no windows facing us."
"But how are the bars of the air-hole to be sawed?"
"The prisoner will do that himself with the aid of this file that I shall throw over to him wrapped in another note directing him what to do." Saying this the old man sat down upon his work-bench and wrote the following lines which Septimine, leaning over his shoulders, read aloud as fast as he wrote:
"Saw off with this file the iron bars of the air-hole, keeping them, however, in position. When it is dark remove them. Three pulls given to the string, one end of which you hold, will announce to us that you are ready. You will then draw towards the air-hole an empty barrel that we shall have tied to the end of the string."
"What! Good father! You had so much presence of mind as to think of all these means of escape and prepare for them? How grateful my heart is to you!"
"We must find means of escape," answered the old man, starting to write; "the lives of us all are now at stake——"
"And we who are of the trade, we really believed you were preparing these articles for the cast," said Justin. "This is a fine trick! The wicked Ricarik will himself have furnished us the barrel and ropes."
Septimine continued to read as Bonaik wrote:
"When the barrel is near enough to the air-hole, you will take firm hold of a rope that is wound around the barrel and throw yourself into the water. You will push the barrel, and we will pull it gently toward the window, which you will then be able to scale easily with our help. We shall consider the rest."
"Oh, good father," exclaimed Rosen-Aër tenderly, "thanks to you, my son is saved!"
"Alack! Not so fast, poor woman! I told you before, to take him out of the cavern is possible; but after that the need will be to get out of this accursed convent.... Well, we shall try!" and he proceeded to write these last lines:
"Perhaps you can swim; no imprudence! The best swimmers get drowned. Reserve your strength so as to be able to help your mother to escape from this abbey. When you receive this parchment tear it up in little bits; the same with the first, throw them into the darkest corner of your prison because it is possible that you may be sent for and taken from there before evening."
"Oh, God!" exclaimed Rosen-Aër joining her hands in terror. "We never thought of that. Such a misfortune is possible."
"We must foresee every eventuality," replied the old man closing his letter with these words:
"Do not despair, and place your hope in Hesus, the God of our fathers!"
"Oh!" murmured Rosen-Aër in distress, "the faith of his fathers, the teachings of his family, the sufferings of his race, and the hatred for the stranger—he has forgotten it all!"
"But the sight of his mother will have brought all back again to him," answered the old man. Saying this he gave a pull to the string to notify Amael. The latter answered the signal in the same way. Bonaik then wrapped the file in the parchment and threw it to the other side of the moat. The aim was again accurate. The missive, together with the file, flew through the air-hole and dropped on the floor of the cavern. After having informed himself on these further instructions from the old man, Amael showed himself behind the bars. His eager eyes seemed to ask for his mother.
"He is looking for you," said Septimine to Rosen-Aër; "show yourself to him; do not deny him this consolation."
The Gallic matron sighed, and leaning upon Septimine took two steps towards the window. There, with a solemn and resigned mien, she raised a finger to heaven, as if to say to her son to trust the God of his fathers. At the sight of his mother and Septimine, the sweet image of whom had never left him since he first saw her at the convent of St. Saturnine, Amael joined his hands, and raised them above his head. His face indicated at once resignation, respect and happiness.
"And now, my boys," the goldsmith said to the young apprentices, "take your files and start filing off the bars of the window; I and one of you shall place the crucible on the brasier and melt the metal. Ricarik may come back. He must be made to believe that we are busy at the cast. The door is bolted inside. You, Rosen-Aër, remain near the entrance of the vault so as to escape into it quickly should that accursed intendant take it into his head to return here, a probable thing. His early morning round being done, we hardly ever see him again, thanks to God! But the least imprudence may be fatal."
Night has returned. Clad in her monastic vestments, the abbess Meroflede reclines on the lounge in the banquet hall where the evening before Amael was seated near her. The woman's pale face has a sinister aspect. Seated opposite her at the table lighted by a wax taper, Ricarik had been writing under the dictation of the abbess.
"Madam," said Ricarik, "you need only to attach your signature to the letter for the Bishop of Nantes," and seeing that, absorbed in her own thoughts, Meroflede did not answer, the intendant repeated in a louder voice: "Madam, I am waiting for your signature."
Her forehead resting on her hand, her eye fixed, her bosom heaving, Meroflede said to her intendant in a slow and hollow voice: "What did Berthoald have to say this morning when you went to see him in his prison?"
"He remained silent and somber."
The abbess rose brusquely and paced the hall in great agitation. Overpowering the storm within her breast she said to the intendant:
"Go and bring me Berthoald."
"Madam!... Is it you who issue such an order?"
"I have commanded; obey without delay."
"But the messenger whom you sent for is waiting for this letter to the Bishop of Nantes. The boat is ready with its oarsmen."
"I obey the orders of my noble mistress."
Ricarik walked slowly towards the entrance of the hall and was about to disappear behind the curtain when, after another equally violent struggle, Meroflede called to him: "No ... come back!" and letting herself heavily down upon the lounge, the abbess covered her face with her hands, uttering prolonged and woeful moans that resembled the howlings of a wounded she-wolf. The intendant drew near and waited in silence for the crisis that was convulsing his mistress to spend itself. A few seconds later the abbess rose again. Her cheeks were inflamed; her eyes shot fire, her lips curled disdainfully. "I am too weak!" she cried. "Oh, that man! that man! He shall pay dearly for what he makes me suffer!" Again Meroflede paced the hall in violent agitation, but presently she grew calmer, sat down upon the lounge and said to the intendant: "Read me the letter over again.... I was temporarily insane!"
The intendant read:
"Meroflede, the maid-servant of the maid-servants of the Lord, to her beloved father in Christ, Arsene, Bishop of the diocese of Nantes, respectful greeting. Very beloved father, the Lord has shown by a wonderful miracle what terrible punishment he reserves for the wicked who wrong him in the person of his poor hand-maids. Charles, the chief of the Franks, contemner of all divine laws, desolator of the Church, devastator of faithful women, had the sacrilegious audacity of bestowing upon a band of his warriors the possession of this abbey, a patrimony of God. The chief of these adventurers summoned me outrageously to vacate this monastery, adding that if I did not obey, he would attack us by main force at daybreak. In order to be nearer to their damnable work, these accursed men camped over night behind one of the approaches of the abbey. But the eye of the Lord watched over us. The Almighty has known how to defend us against the ravishing wolf. During the night the cataracts of heaven opened with a frightful crash. The waters of the ponds, miraculously swollen, swallowed up the sacrilegious warriors. Not one of them escaped the punishment of heaven! It was a terrible prodigy! Red lights shimmered at the bottom of the waves as if a mouth of hell had opened to recover its detestable prey. The justice of the Lord being accomplished, the waters again became calm and limpid, and peacefully returned to their bed. So that, after the deluge the white dove of peace and hope winged its flight out of the holy ark. This letter, oh, my venerable father in Christ, is to notify you of the miracle. This fresh proof of the omnipotence of the Lord will serve to edify, comfort, console and delight all pious, and terrify the impious. I close asking your apostolic benediction."
After Ricarik had finished reading this pious letter he again said to the abbess: "Madam, may it please you to sign."
Meroflede took the pen and wrote at the bottom, "Meroflede, Abbess of Meriadek," after which she said with a satanic leer: "The Bishop of Nantes is a skilful man; he will know how to make the miracle tell; a century hence people will speak of the prodigy to which the virgins of the convent of Meriadek owed their deliverance." An instant later she said distractedly: "The fires of hell are burning in my veins!"
"What, madam, are you still thinking of Berthoald? How strong an impression must he have made upon you!"
"What I feel for that man is a mixture of contempt, hatred and amorous frenzy.... I am frightened at my own feelings.... No other man ever inspired me with such a passion!"
"There is a very simple method of ridding yourself of these agonies.... I proposed the method to you.... I am ready to apply it."
"Take care! No violence upon him! Your life answers to me for his!"
"I do not know what to decide upon.... One moment I wish him to undergo a thousand deaths ... the next I am ready to fall at his knees, and ask pardon.... I am out of my mind ... out of my mind with love!" And the abbess wrung her hands, bit into the cushions of the lounge, and tore them with her nails in savage fury. Suddenly rising, her eyes wet with tears and glistening with passion, she cried: "Give me the key of Berthoald's prison!"
"It is on this bunch," answered the intendant pointing to several keys that hung from his belt.
"Give me that one quick!"
"Here it is," said the intendant, detaching a large iron key from the bunch. Meroflede took the key, contemplated it in silence, and fell into a revery.
"Madam," said Ricarik, "I shall order the messenger in waiting to depart with your letter to the Bishop of Nantes."
"Go.... Go.... Take the letter and return!"
"I shall also take a look at the old goldsmith's shop.... He is to cast the large silver vase to-day!"
"Oh! What do I care!"
"There is a vague suspicion in my mind. I imagined this morning I noticed a sign of embarrassment on the face of the wily old man. He told me he was to lock himself in the whole day. I suspect he has a plot with his apprentices to pilfer a portion of the metal. He also notified me the casting would not commence until night. I wish to see how it is done. I shall then come back, madam. Have you any other orders for me, my abbess?"
Meroflede remained plunged in revery, holding in her hand the key of Amael's prison. After a few seconds of silence, and without raising her eyes that remained fixed upon the floor, she said to the intendant:
"Your cloak, madam? Do you expect to go out? Do you need it to go to Berthoald in his prison——?"
Meroflede interrupted the intendant by stamping her foot in a rage, and pointed him to the door with an imperious gesture, saying:
Bonaik, his apprentices, Rosen-Aër, and Septimine, confined since morning in the workshop, had impatiently waited for night. Everything was in readiness for the escape of Amael from the cavern when darkness should set in. The glare of the brasier in the forge and the furnace alone lighted the workshop.
"You are young and strong," said the old man to his apprentices; "for want of better weapons, the iron bars that have been removed from the window may serve you to defend us. Deposit them in a corner. Now pass the barrel out of the window, and fasten to one of the hoops this string, the other end of which is in Amael's hands. He is ready. He has just answered my signal."
Their hearts beating with hope and anxiety, Rosen-Aër and Septimine stood near the window in a close embrace. The apprentices pushed out the barrel. The darkness was thick. Not even the whiteness of the building in whose lower part lay Amael's prison, was distinguishable. Drawn towards himself by the latter, the barrel soon disappeared in the dark. In the measure that it went, one of the apprentices paid out the rope attached to it. The rope was to help pull the barrel back as soon as Amael had seized it. At that critical moment a profound silence reigned in the workshop. All seemed to hold their breath. Despite the pitchy darkness of the night that prevented anything being seen without, the eyes of all sought to penetrate the obscurity. Finally, after a few minutes of anxiety, the apprentice, who, leaning out of the window, held the cord that was to pull the barrel back, said to the old man: "Master Bonaik, the prisoner is out of the cavern; he is holding the barrel; I feel the cord tighten."
"Then, you pull, my boy!... Pull gently.... Do not jerk!"
"He is coming," replied the apprentice joyfully; "the prisoner's weight is upon the barrel."
"Great God!" suddenly cried Rosen-Aër, pointing out of the window. "Look in the cavern! There is a light!... All is lost!"
Indeed, a strong light, shed by a lamp, suddenly appeared in the subterranean prison. The semi-circular opening of the air-hole was luminously marked across the darkness. The reverberation of the light projected itself upon the water in the moat—and revealed the fugitive, who, half submerged, held himself up with his two hands on the floating barrel. Immediately after, Meroflede appeared at the air-hole wrapped in her scarlet cloak with its hood thrown back, and leaning against the remaining bars which Amael had not had time to remove. At the sight of the fugitive, the abbess uttered a scream of rage and cried twice, "Berthoald! Berthoald!" She then disappeared, taking her lamp with her, so that again all was left in thickest darkness without. Frightened at the appearance of the abbess, the apprentice who drew the barrel threw himself back and dropped the cord. Fortunately the goldsmith seized it as soon, and amidst the mortal fear of all, drew the barrel close to the window, saying: "Let us first save Amael."
Thanks to the barrel, which floated almost on a level with the window sill, the latter was easily scaled by the prisoner. His first movement upon stepping into the workshop was to throw himself on his mother's neck. Mother and son for a moment forgot their common danger and were holding each other in a passionate embrace when a rap was heard at the door.
"Woe is us!" muttered one of the apprentices. "It is the abbess!"
"Impossible!" said the goldsmith. "To ascend from the prison, pass the cloister, cross the courtyard, and come as far as our workshop she would need more than ten minutes."
"Bonaik!" cried from the outside the rough voice of Ricarik, "open the door instantly."
"Oh! what shall we do! The coal vault is too narrow to conceal Rosen-Aër and her son," muttered the old man; then raising his voice, he answered: "Seigneur intendant, we are just at the cast, we cannot leave it——"
"That is the very operation I want to witness," cried back the intendant. "Open immediately."
"You, Septimine, and your son remain near the window, lean out your heads; you will otherwise be suffocated," hastily said the old man to Rosen-Aër, taking a swift resolution. And pushing Amael, his mother and Septimine to the casement, he whispered to one of the apprentices: "Pour the full contents of the box of sulphur and bitumen upon the forge brasier.... We shall fill the workshop with smoke."
The young slave obeyed mechanically. At the moment when Ricarik began again to knock at the door with redoubled force, a sulphurous and bituminous smoke began to spread in the workshop, and soon was so intense that one could hardly see his hand before his eyes. Thus, when the old man finally proceeded to open the door to the intendant, the latter, blinded and suffocated by a puff of the pungent and thick vapor, instead of stepping in, jumped back.
"Walk in, seigneur intendant," said Bonaik, "this is the effect of the casting after the fashion of the great Eloi.... We could not open to you sooner out of fear of chilling the liquid metal, which we were pouring into the mold.... Step forward, seigneur intendant; come and see the casting."
"Go to the devil!" answered Ricarik, coughing fit to strangle and stepping further away from the threshold. "I am suffocated ... blinded!"
"It is the effect of the casting, dear seigneur," and watching the bunch of keys at the belt of the intendant, who was rubbing his smarting eyelids with both hands, Bonaik seized him by the throat and cried: "This way, boys! He has the keys of the gates!"
At the call of the old man, the apprentices and Amael rushed forward, precipitated themselves upon the intendant and smothered his cries by holding his throat tight, while Bonaik, seizing the bunch of keys, said: "Drag this fellow into the workshop and throw him out of the window into the moat. That will settle him quickly, and he will no longer punish and kill poor slaves!"
The old man's orders were immediately executed. Despite the resistance of the Frank, the noise of his body was soon heard, dropping into the water.
"Now," cried the old man, "all come here! Follow me and let us run!"
Hardly had the old man taken a few steps in the alley when he saw the slave who watched the gate approaching from a distance with a lighted lantern in his hand. "Remain hidden in the shadow," the goldsmith said in a low voice to the fugitives, and he walked briskly toward the gateman, who met him with a look of surprise:
"Helloa, old Bonaik! Is not the intendant in your workshop? I do not know what the man is thinking about. It is two hours since the boat and oarsmen are waiting for his messenger.... They are growing impatient and want to go."
"They will not have long to wait; I am the messenger."
"Are you going to fill the functions of messenger?"
"Surely I know this bunch of keys. It is the one the intendant always carries at his belt."
"He confided it to me so that I could get out of the abbey yard in case you were not at your lodge. Let us go quick to the boat. Walk ahead."
Convinced by the sincerity of the old man, whose presence of mind seemed to grow with the difficulties that arose in his way, the gateman marched ahead of him. Bonaik, however, slackened his pace, and, calling to one of the apprentices, in a low voice said: "Justin, you and the others follow me at a distance; the night is dark, the light of the gateman's lantern will guide us, but the moment you hear me whistle, all run up to me." Having attended to that, Bonaik addressed the gateman who had gone far ahead: "Helloa, Bernard! Do not walk so fast; you forget that at my age one's legs are not as nimble as yours." Thus, preceded by the gateman and followed at a distance in the dark by the rest of the fugitives, Bonaik arrived at the outer court of the monastery. Bernard stopped and seemed to listen.
"What's the matter?" asked the goldsmith. "Why do you halt?"
"Do you not see the flare of torches lighting the top of the wall of the inside court? Do you not hear voices?"
"March, man! March! I have other business in hand than to stop to look at torches, or listen to noises. I must obey our holy abbess and deliver Ricarik's message as soon as possible. I have not a second to lose. Quick, let's hurry."
"But something out of the usual order is going on in the monastery!"
"It is for that very reason that the intendant sent me off with so much haste on this message.... Hurry up! Time presses!"
"Oh, that is something else, old Bonaik," answered Bernard, quickening his steps. The gateman hurried on, arrived in a minute at the outside enclosure, and opened the gate. Immediately the old man whistled. Greatly surprised at this, the gateman asked him: "What are you whistling for? The door is open. Go out, if you are in such a hurry. But I hear steps. They seem to be running this way. Who are these people?" and he raised his lantern in order to obtain a better view. "There are two women; who may they be?"
Bonaik cut short the gateman's observations with the peremptory order to the fugitives: "Take the key out of the lock and close it after you. That will keep the gateman locked in." Hardly had the old man pronounced these words when Amael, the apprentices, Rosen-Aër and Septimine rushed through the opening. One of the apprentices pushed Bernard roughly back into the court, took out the key, pulled the door after him and locked it on the outside. Bonaik took up the lantern and cried: "Helloa, there! The boat! Come here for us to embark!"
"Come this way!" answered several voices. "This way! The boat is tied to the large willow tree."
"Master Bonaik," said one of the apprentices in great trepidation, "we are pursued. The porter is calling for help. Look at the glimmer of approaching torches! They seem to be in the garden that we have just left."
"There is now nothing to fear, my lads, the gate is studded with iron and locked from without. Before they can have time to break it down, we shall have embarked," saying which the old man proceeded at a rapid pace towards the willow tree. Observing on his way a full bag on Justin's shoulder, Bonaik said to him: "What have you got in that bag?"
"Master Bonaik, while you were talking to the intendant, Gervais and I, fearing some oversight on your part, took, out of precaution, I, my bag in which I stowed away the rest of our provisions, and Gervais the wine pouch which is still half full."
"You are wise lads; we have a long tramp before us after we shall have disembarked."
A few minutes later and the old man, together with his companions, arrived at the old willow tree. A boat stood ready. Four slave oarsmen sat on the benches, with the steersman at the rudder. "At last!" said the steersman in a peevish tone. "Here we have been waiting over three hours; we are chilled through, and have more than two hours to row—"
"I am going to give you a piece of good news, my friends," answered the goldsmith to the boatmen. "I have brought oarsmen with me to relieve you. You can go back to the monastery. The steersman alone will have to remain to pilot the boat."
Glad and quickly the slaves jumped out of the boat. The steersman resigned himself not without a murmur. Bonaik let Rosen-Aër and Septimine enter first. Amael and the apprentices took hold of the oars, the steersman the rudder, and the boat swiftly left the bank behind, while Bonaik, wiping the sweat from his brow, said with a sigh of relief and joy:
At noon of the day following the exciting night in which the fugitives left the abbey, they halted for rest after having been uninterruptedly on the march from the time that they disembarked at the other shore of the abbey's pond. Thanks to the precaution of the apprentices, one of whom had brought provisions and another a pouch of wine, their strength was speedily restored. The travelers had sat down upon the grass under a wide-spreading oak whose foliage was yellowed by the late season. At their feet flowed a stream of limpid water, behind them rose a hill that they had just traveled over, following the track of an old Roman road that had fallen into decay. The road continued for a long distance until the turning of a wooded headland behind which it disappeared. Far away in the distant horizon stood outlined the dark blue mountain-tops that form the boundaries and frontier of Brittany. Guided by one of the apprentices who was familiar with the surroundings of the abbey, the fugitives had struck the old Roman road. It led to Nantes, at the boundary line of Armorica, and in the neighborhood of which, seven centuries earlier, Julius Cæsar established several entrenched camps in order to protect his military colonies. Accustomed through his profession of war to measure distances, Amael calculated that by marching until sunset, resting an hour, and then resuming their tramp, it would be possible to reach Brittany at the end of the next day. Septimine sat near Rosen-Aër and Amael, and the apprentices, spread out upon the grass, had just finished their frugal meal. The old goldsmith having also repaired his forces, pulled out of the pocket of his blouse a little packet that was carefully wrapped up in a piece of smooth skin. The young folks followed the old man's movements with curiosity, and to their great surprise they saw him take from its wrapping the little abbatial crosier of silver, at which he had for some time been chiseling. There were also two burins in the package. Noticing the look of astonishment on the faces of the apprentices, he said to them:
"You seem surprised, my children, to see that I carried this jewel from the abbey. It is not the value of the metal that tempted me."
"I believe that, Master Bonaik; the little crosier has but little silver in it. But we still wonder why you brought it along."
"Well, my boys, I love my trade.... I shall have no further opportunities to exercise it during the remaining days of my life.... I preserved my two best burins.... I mean to chisel this crosier so nicely that by working upon it a little every day I shall consume the rest of my life at it. It will be the masterpiece of my long career."
"You congratulated us upon our foresight, Master Bonaik, because we thought of the pouch of wine and the provisions. But we must admit that your foresight exceeds ours."
"Good father, and you, my friends," said Amael, addressing himself to the goldsmith and his apprentices, "please draw near; I wish you to hear what I have to say to my mother. I have committed a wrong, I should now have courage to make a public confession ... and beseech forgiveness."
Rosen-Aër sighed and listened with sad and severe curiosity to her son's account of his conduct and career since she saw him as a boy. Looking at her with a surprised face Septimine seemed to beseech the indulgence of the mother, of this Gallic mother who felt so justly and so painfully mortified at her son.
"From the moment that all peril to me was over," Amael began, "my mother has not spoken to me during this long journey, either by day or night; she has refused the support of my arm, preferring that of this poor girl, who saved her life. My mother's severity is just, I cannot complain of it, though it pains me.... May the truthful account of my faults, the confession of my errors, and my sincere repentance merit her pardon."
"A mother always forgives," said Septimine timidly, looking at Rosen-Aër, but the latter answered in a tremulous and grave voice, without deigning to look at Amael:
"My son's abandonment has torn my heart; a prey to unceasing and ever renewing anxieties on his behalf, I gave myself up alternately to despair and to insane hope.... These torments have lasted long years. I can pardon my son for having caused them; but what is not in my power to pardon is his criminal alliance with the oppressors of our race, with those accursed Franks, who enslaved our fathers, outraged our mothers, and who continue to hold our children in bondage!"
"My crime is great. But I swear to you, mother, that long before I saw you again remorse gnawed at my heart. It is ten years since I left the valley of Charolles, where I lived happily with my family. But I yielded to curiosity, to an overpowering thirst for adventure. I believed that beyond our own confines I was to see an entirely new world. One evening I left, but not without shedding many a tear, not without turning more than once to take a parting look at our valley."
"In my youth," said the old man, "my father often told me how Karadeucq, one of our ancestors, also left his family to run what then was called the 'Bagaudy'—to tramp free through the woods and lie in ambush for our oppressors. May, Rosen-Aër, the remembrance of our ancestor soften your heart towards your son."
"The Bagauders and the Vagres warred against the Romans and then against the Franks; they did not ally themselves with our oppressors, and fight on their side, as my son has done."
"Your reproaches are merited, mother! You will see in the course of my account that I often made them to myself. Almost immediately upon quitting the valley I fell into the hands of a band of Franks. They were on their way back from Auvergne and were traveling north. They made me a slave. Their chief kept me for a time to oversee and tend his horse, and to furbish his weapons. I had the instinct of war. The sight of arms or of a fine horse always fascinated me since childhood. You know it, mother."
"Yes, your holidays were those on which the colonists of the valley exercised themselves in arms ... or ran races on horseback."
"Led a slave by that Frankish chief, I never sought to flee. He treated me kindly. Besides, it was to me a pleasure to polish armors and to ride on the march. At least, and at last, I was seeing a new country.... Alas, quite new! The fields were ravaged, the harvest was neglected, the frightful distress of the subjugated populations of the districts that we traversed contrasted cruelly with the independent and happy life of the inhabitants of our valley. It was on such occasions that, thinking of our happy region, of you, and of my father, tears dropped from my eyes, and my heart felt like breaking. Occasionally, the thought came to me of running away from the Franks and returning to you. But the fear of a severe reprimand held me back."
"I would have felt the same way, had I committed the same fault," said Septimine, who listened to Amael's report with tender interest. "I never would have dared to return to my family."
"After being more than a year with the Frankish chief, I had become a good groom, and I could master the most spirited horses. By cleaning the weapons I had learned to handle them. The Frank died. I was to be sold with all his other slaves. A Jew named Mordecai, who traveled over Gaul as a trafficker in slaves, happened to be in Amiens at the time; he inspected my deceased master's slaves. He bought me and told me in advance that he was to sell me to a rich Frankish seigneur named Bodegesil, Duke of the country of Poitiers. The seigneur, said the Jew, owned the finest horses and the finest armors imaginable. 'If you flee' said the Jew to me, 'I would lose a fat sum of money, because I bought you for a large amount, knowing I could dispose of you to the seigneur Bodegesil at a good profit. If you run away you will lose a chance of making your fortune. Bodegesil is a generous seigneur. Serve him faithfully and he will take you to war with him whenever he is called to take the field with his men, and we have seen in these days of war more than one manumitted slave become a count.' The Jew's words fired my ambition, pride intoxicated me, I believed what he said, and did not try to run away. He himself, in order to confirm my purpose, treated me at his best; he even promised me to have a letter that I wrote to you reach you through another Jew who was to go to Burgundy."
"The man did not keep his promise," said Rosen-Aër. "No tidings from you ever reached me."
"I am not surprised at his breach of promise. That Jew was greedy and faithless. He took me to Duke Bodegesil. That Frank did indeed raise superb horses on the immense meadows of his domain, and one of the halls of his burg, an ancient Roman castle, was fitted out with splendid armors. But the Jew had lied to me on the duke's character. He was a violent, cruel man. Still, struck almost immediately after my arrival at the manner in which I broke in a savage colt that had until then been the terror of the stable slaves, he treated me with less severity than he did my Gallic or Frankish companions, because, you know, mother, that, thanks to the ups and downs of the times, a large number of the descendants of the conquerors of the Gauls have fallen into poverty, and from poverty into slavery. Bodegesil was as cruel towards his slaves of his own German extraction as towards those of the Gallic race. Always on horseback, always busy furbishing and handling weapons, I now steadily pursued an idea that was destined to be realized. The renown of Charles, the steward of the palace, had reached my ears; I had heard some of the Frankish friends of Bodegesil say that Charles, being compelled to defend Gaul in the north against the Frisians and in the south against the Arabs, and finding himself ill-supported by the old lay and clerical seigneurs, who furnished him little money and only small forces, gave a friendly reception to adventurers, several of whom by bravely fighting under his orders, had arrived at unexpected wealth. I was twenty years old when I learned that Charles was approaching Poitiers for the purpose of driving back the Arabians, who then threatened to invade the region. The moment, long dreamed of by my ambition, had arrived. One day I took the handsomest suit of armor from Bodegesil's racks, I sequestered a sword, a battle-axe, a lance and a buckler. When night fell I picked out of the stable the finest and most spirited horse. I put on the armor, and rode rapidly away from the castle. I wished to join Charles and decided to conceal my extraction and pass for the son of a Frankish seigneur so as to interest Charles in my fortunes. About five or six leagues from the castle, I was attacked early the next morning by bandits who infested the roads. I defended myself vigorously. I killed two of the robbers and said to the others: Charles needs brave men. He leaves a large part of the booty to them. Come with me. It is better to fight in an army than to attack travelers on the road. The danger is the same, but the profit is larger! The bandits took my advice and followed me. Our little troop was increased on the route by other idle but determined men. We arrived at the camp of Charles on the eve of the battle of Poitiers. I claimed to be the son of a noble Frank who died poor and left me his horse and arms as only inheritance. Charles received me with his habitual roughness. 'There will be a fight to-morrow,' he answered me, 'if you and your men behave well you will be pleased with me.' Accident willed it that at that battle against the Arabs I saved the life of the Frankish chief by helping him to defend himself against a group of Berbery riders who attacked him furiously. I was wounded in several places. That day secured the affection of Charles to me. I shall not tell you, mother, of the many proofs of favor that he gave me. My great fortune was ever poisoned by the thought ever present in my mind: 'I have lied; I have denied my race; I have allied myself to the oppressors of Gaul; I have given them the aid of my sword in repelling the Saxons and Arabs, who are neither more nor less barbarous than our accursed Frankish conquerors.' More than once, during the incessant struggles between the seigneurs of Austrasia and those of Neustria or Aquitaine—impious wars in which the counts, the dukes, and the bishops drafted their Gallic colonists as soldiers—I fought against the men of my own race.... I reddened my sword with their blood. These are crimes."
"Oh, shame and sorrow," murmured Rosen-Aër, covering her face with her hands, "to be the mother of such a son!"
"Yes, shame and sorrow ... not for you only, but also for me. Alack! I yielded to the consequence of a first false step; I fought the men of my race, out of fear to be taken for a coward by Charles, out of fear to betray my extraction. Pride intoxicated me when I saw myself admiringly surrounded by the proudest of our conquerors—I, the son of that conquered and subjugated people. But after such moments of vertigo were over, I often envied the fate of the most miserable slave. They at least were entitled to the respect that undeserved misfortune inspires. Vainly did I look for death in battle. I was condemned to live. Only in the intoxication of battle, in perilous undertakings did I find temporary relief from the remorse that haunted me. Oh, how often did I not think with sorrow of our valley of Charolles, where my family lived! When I afterward learned of the ravages of the region by the Arabs, of the desperate resistance that its inhabitants had offered ... my relatives, my friends; when I thought that my sword might have defended you, or at least avenged you, mother, from that time forward remorse embittered my life. I never since had one instant of happiness."
"Your father fought up to his last breath for freedom and for the freedom of his kin. I saw him fall at my feet riddled with wounds! Where were you when your father was defending his hearth, his freedom and his family?... Near the Frankish chief, fawning for his favor! Perchance even fighting your own brothers!"
Amael covered his face with his hands and answered only with a smothered sob.
"Oh, for pity's sake, do not overwhelm him!" said Septimine to Rosen-Aër. "See how wretched he feels ... how contrite he is!"
"Rosen-Aër," added the old man, "remember that yesterday your son was still the favorite of the sovereign chief of Gaul, and that to-day he renounces the favors that intoxicated him. He is no less wretched than we, and has no other wish than to live a poor and hard but free life in the old Armorica that is the cradle of our family."
"By Hesus!" cried Rosen-Aër. "Did my son voluntarily renounce those goods, those lands, those favors, the accursed gifts of Charles? Did you not extract him from a prison, where, without you, he would have perished? Oh! The gods are just. My son owed his fortune to an impious ambition ... and the fortune came near being fatal to him. Glorified and enriched by the Franks, he has been shamefully punished and stripped of all by a woman of their race."
"Oh!" cried Septimine, breaking down in tears, "do you believe that Amael, even if in full possession, would not have renounced all to follow you, his mother?"
"The man who falls away from his duty to his country and his race can also fall away from his duty to his mother! I am justified to question the goodness of my son's heart!"
"Master Bonaik," suddenly cried one of the apprentices in an accent of fear, "look down below there, at the turning of the road ... there are soldiers. They are approaching rapidly. They will be here within short!"
At these words of the lad the fugitives jumped to their feet. Amael himself, forgetting for a moment the sorrow into which his mother's just severity plunged him, dried his face that was moist with tears and took a few steps forward to reconnoiter.
"Great God!" cried Septimine. "They may be in pursuit of Amael.... Good father Bonaik, let us hide in this thicket——"
"My child, that would be to expose ourselves to being pursued. The riders have seen us.... Our flight would awaken their suspicion. Besides, they come from the side opposite to Nantes; they cannot have been sent in our pursuit."
"Master Bonaik," said one of the apprentices, "three of the riders are hastening their horses' steps, and motion us with their hands to come to them."
"Perhaps a new danger now threatens us!" said Septimine, drawing close to Rosen-Aër, who had alone remained seated, and seemed indifferent to what went on around her. "Alack, what is to become of us!"
"Oh, poor child!" said Rosen-Aër, "I care little for life at this moment!... And yet the mere hope of some day finding again my son, served to sustain my sad life!"
"But you have found again that son whose loss you so tenderly regretted. He is here, near you!"
"No!" answered the Gallic mother with sorrow, "no, that is not my son!"
Feeling not a little uneasy, Amael had walked toward the three Frankish horsemen, who rode at the head of a more numerous troop. One of them reined in his steed, and said to Rosen-Aër's son: "Does this road lead to Nantes?"
"Yes; it is the nearest road."
"Does it also lead to the abbey of Meriadek?"
"Yes," answered Amael, as much surprised at the meeting as at the questions.
"Arnulf," said the rider to one of his companions, "ride back and tell Count Bertchram that we are on the right road; while waiting for your return to us, I shall let my horse drink at this stream."
The rider departed, and while his two companions were allowing their horses to take a few throatfuls of water, Amael, who had not been able to overcome the growing curiosity that seized him at hearing the name of Count Bertchram, asked the two riders: "What brings Count Bertchram to this country?"
"He comes as a messenger of Charles, the chief of the Franks. Tell us, young man, whether we still have a long way to ride before we reach the abbey of Meriadek."
"You could not reach the place until late to-night."
"Is that abbey as rich as they claim?"
"It is rich.... But why do you ask?"
"Why?" said the soldier with a merry smile, "because Bertchram and we are to take possession of the abbey, which the good Charles has bestowed upon us."
"But I heard it said that Charles had bestowed the monastery and all its dependencies upon one Berthoald."
During this conversation the other riders had joined their vanguard, followed by several carts drawn by mules and a few horses led by the bridle. The carts were loaded with baggage. Bertchram rode at the head of the main body. He was an elderly warrior of rude and stupid physiognomy. Amael took a few steps toward the count. The latter suddenly stopped his horse, dropped the reins, and rubbed his eyes as if he could not believe the evidence of their sense. He contemplated the son of Rosen-Aër for a few seconds in utter amazement, and then cried: "Berthoald! Count Berthoald!"
"Yes, it is I.... Good-day to you, Bertchram!"
Bertchram alighted from his horse and ran toward the young man to contemplate him closer. "It is he ... and no mistake! And what are you doing here, valiant count, in the company of these beggars?"
"Speak not so loud. I am on a mission from Charles."
"Bareheaded in that way? Without arms, your clothes soiled with mud and almost in rags?"
"It is a disguise that I have assumed."
"You are a wily customer! Whenever the good Charles had some delicate matter in hand, it was always you he charged with it, because you are more subtle than any of us others. Charles always said to me: 'Bertchram, you would be a terrible man if your brain were as powerful as your fist!' You probably do not know that I am the bearer of a message to you?"
"What is the message about?"
"Simply this, that I come to replace you as abbot at the abbey of Meriadek."
"Charles is master, he can give and take back again."
"Do not look upon the substitution as a disgrace, Berthoald! Far from it! Charles raises you to the rank of duke, and he reserves for you the command of his vanguard in the war he is about to undertake against the Frisians. 'Upon the word of the Hammerer,' he said to us, 'I was a fool in confining to an abbey one of my youngest captains, and at this season when wars break out so unexpectedly; it is now, when I have not Berthoald at my side, that I feel how much I need him. The post I gave him is good for an aged soldier; it fits you better than him, old Bertchram, go and take the place of Berthoald and his men; you shall give him this letter from me, and as a pledge of my constant friendship, take to him two of my best horses; besides that, take to him from me a magnificent armor of Bordeaux. He loves fine armor and fine horses. It will please him.' And there they are with me," added Bertchram. "The horses are led by the bridle. They are beautiful, one is as black as a raven, the other white as a swan. As to the armor, it is carefully packed up in my baggage, I cannot show it to you now. It is a masterpiece of the most famous armorer of Bordeaux. It is enriched with gold and silver ornaments. The casque is a marvel."
"I am truly touched with this fresh proof of Charles' affection," answered Amael, "I shall report to him as soon as I have fulfilled his mission."
"But he wishes you to join him immediately, as you will see by the letter that I have carefully put away in my cuirass," said the warrior hunting for the parchment.
"Charles will not regret to see me arrive a day or two later if I return to him after successfully attending to the mission that he confided to me. I shall find the horses and the armor at the abbey, where I shall see you again, and now I shall move on with my men. But you must have made a wide circuit, to judge by the road you are on!"
"Charles gave me the command of a large troop that he has cantonned on the frontiers of Brittany."
"Does he expect to attack Armorica?"
"I do not know. I left the troops entrenched in two old Roman camps, one to the right, the other to the left of a long road that winds up there."
"Is the troop large?"
"About two thousand men distributed in two camps."
"Charles can undertake nothing against Brittany with so small a number of soldiers."
"All he expects to do is to reconnoiter the frontier of the country until after the war with the Frisians is ended, when he will be able to give his attention in person to the accursed Armorica. This province has resisted our arms for more than three centuries, since the glorious Clovis conquered Gaul. Indeed it is a shame to us!"
"Yes, the independence of Armorica is a shame to the arms of the Franks."
"Here is Charles' letter," said Bertchram pulling from under his cuirass a scroll of parchment that he delivered to Amael, and ordering the two horses which his slaves had unsaddled to be brought forward, he added: "Look at them! Are there any nobler or more spirited animals in the world?"
"No," answered Amael unable to avoid admiring the two superb stallions, that were with difficulty held by the slaves. The horses reared and caracoled, daintily striking the ground with their hoofs; one was ebony black, with a bluish tinge; the other, white as snow, shone like silver. Their nostrils were inflated, their eyes sparkled under their long manes, and they lashed the air with their flowing tails.
"These are noble horses!" said Amael smothering a sigh; and motioning to the slaves to re-cover the animals with their housings, he muttered: "Adieu, fine battle horses! Adieu magnificent armors!" Turning to the Frank, Amael said: "I wish you a happy journey.... I shall see you again at the abbey of Meriadek where I hope you may enjoy yourself."
"Adieu, Berthoald; but ... a thought strikes me. Should your men refuse to admit me during your absence, what shall I do?"
"Keep Charles' letter; it will notify my men of Charles' pleasure. You may break the seal before them."
"I shall do it that way. Adieu, I shall take your place at the abbey, where I expect to have a dull time until your return. Adieu, and come back soon."
"One more question.... Who are the chiefs of the troops that are cantonned near the frontiers of Brittany?"
"Two friends of yours, Hermann and Gondulf. They asked me to remember them to you."
The chief of the Frankish troops, having resumed his march, followed by his troops and train, soon disappeared before the eyes of the fugitives. Amael returned to the tree under which his traveling companions were assembled. Hardly had he taken a few steps towards them when his mother opened her arms to him: "Come, my son; I have heard every word. Now, at least, your renunciation of a brilliant career, that might have dazzled you, is voluntary!"
"You were near me, mother, and yonder I saw the frontiers of Brittany. Could I be dazzled by any favors from Charles against my mother and my country?"
"Oh!" cried the matron tenderly pressing Amael to her breast. "This day makes me forget all that I have suffered!"
"And this, mother, is the first happy day that I have had in years—a day of unalloyed happiness."
"You see I was right, your son's heart remained true," said Septimine to Rosen-Aër with touching kindness.
"Septimine!" replied Amael with a look of tenderness, "would you doubt my heart in the future?"
"No, Amael," she answered naïvely, looking at the young man with an expression of timidity and surprise. "I shall never doubt you."
"Mother, this sweet and brave girl saved your life; she is now a fugitive, forever separated from her family. If she should consent to give me her hand, would you accept her as a daughter?"
"Oh, with joy! With thankfulness!" said Rosen-Aër. "But would you consent to the union, Septimine?"
Blushing with surprise, with happiness and confusion, the girl threw herself on the neck of Amael's mother, and holding her face on the matron's breast, murmured:
"I loved him since the day he showed himself so generous toward me at the convent of St. Saturnine. Did he not there protect me?"
"Oh, Rosen-Aër!" now exclaimed the old man who had stood near wrapped in thought, "the gods have blessed my old age, seeing they reserved such a day for me." And after a few seconds of silent emotion, shared in by the young apprentices, the old man proceeded, saying: "My friends, if you will take my advice, let us resume our march. We shall have to walk briskly in order to arrive to-morrow evening at the frontier of Armorica."
"No, oh, no! my child!" answered the matron with tenderness, and brimful of happiness, taking her son's arm.
"And you, good father," said Septimine to the old goldsmith, "you lean on me."
The fugitives resumed their march. After having traveled without accident until night and the following day, they arrived at moon-rise not far from the first spurs of the wild and high mountains that serve both as boundary and as ramparts to Armorica. The sight of his native soil awoke in Bonaik the recollections of his boyhood days as if by enchantment. Having before now crossed the frontiers with his father in order to attend the Breton fairs, he remembered that four druid stones of colossal size rose not far from a path that was cut between the rocks, and that was so closely hemmed in, that it allowed only one person to march abreast. The fugitives entered the path one after the other and began climbing the steep ascent. Amael marched first. Presently they arrived at a little clearing or platform, surrounded by precipices and beetled over by huge rocks.
Suddenly the fugitives heard from a far distance above their heads a sonorous voice, that, quivering through the surrounding and profound silence of the night, melancholically chanted these words:
"She was young,
She was fair,
And holy was she;
Hena her name,
Hena, the Maid of the Island of Sen."
Rosen-Aër, Bonaik and Amael, the three descendants of Joel, remained for a moment transfixed with exaltation, and yielding to an irresistible impulse all three fell upon their knees. Tears ran down their cheeks. Septimine and the apprentices, sharing the emotion which they were unable to account for, also fell upon their knees, and all listened, while the sonorous voice which seemed to descend from the skies, concluded the Gallic chant now eight centuries old.
"Oh, Hesus!" finally exclaimed Rosen-Aër, raising her tear-stained face toward the starry vault where the sacred luminary of Gaul was shining in its splendor, "Oh, Hesus! I see a divine omen in this chant, so dear to the descendants of Joel.... Blessed be the chant! It salutes us at this solemn hour when, at last setting foot on this free soil, we return to the ancient cradle of our family!"
Guided by the old goldsmith, Amael, his mother, Septimine and the apprentices, arrived in the vicinity of the sacred stones of Karnak, and were tenderly received by the sons of Bonaik's brother. Amael became a field laborer, the young apprentices followed his example and settled in the tribe. At the death of Bonaik, the abbatial crosier, which he had finished at his leisure, was joined to the relics of the family of Joel accompanied by this narrative which I, Amael, the son of Guen-Ael, who was the son of Wanoch, who was the son of Alan a grandson of Ronan the Vagre through Ronan's son Gregory, wrote shortly after our return to Brittany.