Complete Works of Wilkie Collins (5 page)

At whatever point of view it could have been regarded, the assemblage of persons thus indicated to Goisvintha must have arrested inattention itself. Near a confused mass of weapons, scattered on the ground, reclined a group of warriors apparently listening to the low, muttered conversation of three men of great age, who rose above them, seated on pieces of rock, and whose long white hair, rough skin dresses, and lean tottering forms appeared in strong contrast with the iron-clad and gigantic figures of their auditors beneath. Above the old men, on the highroad, was one of Alaric’s waggons; and on the heaps of baggage piled against its clumsy wheels had been chosen resting-place of the future conqueror of Rome. The top of the vehicle seemed absolutely teeming with a living burden. Perched in every available nook and corner were women and children of all ages, and weapons and live stock of all varieties. Now, a child — lively, mischievous, inquisitive — peered forth over the head of a battering-ram. Now, a lean, hungry sheep advanced his inquiring nostrils sadly to the open air, and displayed by the movement the head of a withered old woman pillowed on his woolly flanks. Here, appeared a young girl struggling, half entombed in shields. There, gasped an emaciated camp-follower, nearly suffocated in heaps of furs. The whole scene, with its background of great woods, drenched in a vapour of misty rain, with its striking contrasts at one point and its solemn harmonies at another, presented a vast combination of objects that either startled or awed — a gloomy conjunction of the menacing and the sublime.

 

Bidding Goisvintha wait near the waggon, one of her conductors approached and motioned aside a young man standing near the king. As the warrior rose to obey the demand, he displayed, with all the physical advantages of his race, and ease and elasticity of movement unusual among the men of his nation. At the instant when he joined the soldier who had accosted him, his face was partially concealed by an immense helmet, crowned with a boar’s head, the mouth of which, forced open at death, gaped wide, as if still raging for prey. But the man had scarcely stated his errand, when he started violently, removed the grim appendage of war, and hastened bare-headed to the side of the waggon where Goisvintha awaited his approach.

The instant he was beheld by the woman, she hastened to meet him; placed the wounded child in his arms, and greeted him with these words: —

‘Your brother served in the armies of Rome when our people were at peace with the Empire. Of his household and his possessions this is all that the Romans have left!’

She ceased, and for an instant the brother and sister regarded each other in touching and expressive silence. Though, in addition to the general characteristics of country, the countenances of the two naturally bore the more particular evidences of community of blood, all resemblance between them at this instant — so wonderful is the power of expression over feature — had utterly vanished. The face and manner of the young man (he had numbered only twenty years) expressed a deep sorrow, manly in its stern tranquility, sincere in its perfect innocence of display. As he looked on the child, his blue eyes — bright, piercing, and lively — softened like a woman’s; his lips, hardly hidden by his short beard, closed and quivered; and his chest heaved under the armour that lay upon its noble proportions. There was in this simple, speechless, tearless melancholy — this exquisite consideration of triumphant strength for suffering weakness — something almost sublime; opposed as it was to the emotions of malignity and despair that appeared in Goisvintha’s features. The ferocity that gleamed from her dilated, glaring eyes, the sinister markings that appeared round her pale and parted lips, the swelling of the large veins, drawn to their extremest point of tension on her lofty forehead, so distorted her countenance, that the brother and sister, as they stood together, seemed in expression to have changed sexes for the moment. From the warrior came pity for the sufferer; from the mother, indignation for the offence.

Arousing himself from his melancholy contemplation of the child, and as yet answering not a word to Goisvintha, Hermanric mounted the waggon, and placing the last of his sister’s offspring in the arms of a decrepid old woman, who sat brooding over some bundles of herbs spread out upon her lap, addressed her thus: —

‘These wounds are from the Romans. Revive the child, and you shall be rewarded from the spoils of Rome.’

‘Ha! ha! ha!’ chuckled the crone; ‘Hermanric is an illustrious warrior, and shall be obeyed. Hermanric is great, for his arm can slay; but Brunechild is greater than he, for her cunning can cure!’

As if anxious to verify this boast before the warrior’s eyes, the old woman immediately began the preparation of the necessary dressings from her store of herbs; but Hermanric waited not to be a witness of her skill. With one final look at the pale, exhausted child, he slowly descended from the waggon, and approaching Goisvintha, drew her towards a sheltered position near the ponderous vehicle. Here he seated himself by her side, prepared to listen with the deepest attention to her recital of the scenes of terror and suffering through which she had so recently passed.

‘You,’ she began, ‘born while our nation was at peace; transported from the field of war to those distant provinces where tranquility still prevailed; preserved throughout your childhood from the chances of battle; advanced to the army in your youth, only when its toils are past and its triumphs are already at hand — you alone have escaped the miseries of our people, to partake in the glory of their approaching revenge.

‘Hardly had a year passed since you had been removed from the settlements of the Goths when I wedded Priulf. The race of triflers to whom he was then allied, spite of their Roman haughtiness, deferred to him in their councils, and confessed among their legions that he was brave. I saw myself with joy the wife of a warrior of renown; I believed, in my pride, that I was destined to be the mother of a race of heroes; when suddenly there came news to us that the Emperor Theodosius was dead. Then followed anarchy among the people of the soil, and outrages on the liberties of their allies, the Goths. Ere long the call to arms arose among our nation. Soon our waggons of war were rolled across the frozen Danube; our soldiers quitted the Roman camp; our husbandmen took their weapons from their cottage walls; we that were women prepared with our children to follow our husbands to the field; and Alaric, the king, came forth as the leader of our hosts.

‘We marched upon the territories of the Greeks. But how shall I tell you of the events of those years of war that followed our invasion; of the glory of our victories; of the hardships of our defences; of the miseries of our retreats; of the hunger that we vanquished; of the diseases that we endured; of the shameful peace that was finally ratified, against the wishes of our king! How shall I tell of all this, when my thoughts are on the massacre from which I have just escaped — when these first evils, though once remembered in anguish, are, even now, forgotten in the superior horrors that ensued!

‘The truce was made. Alaric departed with the remnant of his army, and encamped at AEmona, on the confines of that land which he had already invaded, and which he is now prepared to conquer. Between our king and Stilicho, the general of the Romans, passed many messages, for the leaders disputed on the terms of the peace that should be finally ordained. Meanwhile, as an earnest of the Gothic faith, bands of our warriors, and among them Priulf, were despatched into Italy to be allies once more of the legions of Rome, and with them they took their wives and their children, to be detained as hostages in the cities throughout the land.

‘I and my children were conducted to Aquileia. In a dwelling within the city we were lodged with our possessions. It was night when I took leave of Priulf, my husband, at the gates. I watched him as he departed with the army, and, when the darkness hid him from my eyes, I re-entered the town; from which I am the only woman of our nation who has escaped alive.’

As she pronounced these last words, Goisvintha’s manner, which had hitherto been calm and collected, began to change: she paused abruptly in her narrative, her head sunk upon her breast, her frame quivered as if convulsed with violent agony. When she turned towards Hermanric after an interval of silence to address him again, the same malignant expression lowered over her countenance that had appeared on it when she presented to him her wounded child; her voice became broken, hoarse, and unfeminine; and pressing closely to the young man’s side, she laid her trembling fingers on his arm, as if to bespeak his most undivided attention.

‘Time grew on,’ she continued, ‘and still there came no tidings that the peace was finally secured. We, that were hostages, lived separate from the people of the town; for we felt enmity towards each other even then. In my captivity there was no employment for me but patience — no pursuit but hope. Alone with my children, I was wont to look forth over the sea towards the camp of our king; but day succeeded to day, and his warriors appeared not on the plains; nor did Priulf return with the legions to encamp before the gates of the town. So I mourned in my loneliness; for my heart yearned towards the homes of my people; I longed once more to look upon my husband’s face, and to behold again the ranks of our warriors, and the majesty of their battle array.

 

‘But already, when the great day of despair was quickly drawing near, a bitter outrage was preparing for me alone. The men who had hitherto watched us were changed, and of the number of the new guards was one who cast on me the eyes of lust. Night after night he poured his entreaties into my unwilling ear; for, in his vanity and shamelessness, he believed that I, who was Gothic and the wife of a Goth, might be won by him whose parentage was but Roman! Soon from prayers he rose to threats; and one night, appearing before me with smiles, he cried out that Stilicho, whose desire was to make peace with the Goths, had suffered, for his devotion to our people, the penalty of death; that a time of ruin was approaching for us all, and that he alone — whom I despised — could preserve me from the anger of Rome. As he ceased he approached me; but I, who had been in many battle-fields, felt no dread at the prospect of war, and I spurned him with laughter from my presence.

‘Then, for a few nights more, my enemy approached me not again. Until one evening, as I sat on the terrace before the house, with the child that you have beheld, a helmet-crest suddenly fell at my feet, and a voice cried to me from the garden beneath: ‘Priulf thy husband has been slain in a quarrel by the soldiers of Rome! Already the legions with whom he served are on their way to the town; for a massacre of the hostages is ordained. Speak but the word, and I can save thee even yet!’

‘I looked on the crest. It was bloody, and it was his! For an instant my heart writhed within me as I thought on my warrior whom I had loved! Then, as I heard the messenger of death retire, cursing, from his lurking-place in the garden, I recollected that now my children had none but their mother to defend them, and that peril was preparing for them from the enemies of their race. Besides the little one in my arms, I had two that were sleeping in the house. As I looked round, bewildered and in despair, to see if a chance were left us to escape, there rang through the evening stillness the sound of a trumpet, and the tramp of armed men was audible in the street beneath. Then, from all quarters of the town rose, as one sudden sound, the shrieks of women and the yells of men. Already, as I rushed towards my children’s beds, the fiends of Rome had mounted the stairs, and waved in bloody triumph their reeking swords! I gained the steps; and, as I looked up, they flung down at me the body of my youngest child. O Hermanric! Hermanric! it was the most beautiful and the most beloved! What the priests say that God should be to us, that, the fairest one of my offspring, was to me! As I saw it mutilated and dead — I, who but an hour before had hushed it on my bosom to rest! — my courage forsook me, and when the murderers advanced on me I staggered and fell. I felt the sword-point enter my neck; I saw the dagger gleam over the child in my arms; I heard the death-shriek of the last victim above; and then my senses failed me, and I could listen and move no more!

‘Long must I have lain motionless at the foot of those fatal stairs; for when I awoke from my trance the noises in the city were hushed, and from her place in the firmament the moon shone softly into the deserted house. I listened, to be certain that I was alone with my murdered children. No sound was in the dwelling; the assassins had departed, believing that their labour of blood was ended when I fell beneath their swords; and I was able to crawl forth in security, and to look my last upon my offspring that the Romans had slain. The child that I held to my breast still breathed. I stanched with some fragments of my garment the wounds that he had received, and laying him gently by the stairs — in the moonlight, so that I might see him when he moved — I groped in the shadow of the wall for my first murdered and my last born; for that youngest and fairest one of my offspring whom they had slaughtered before my eyes! When I touched the corpse, it was wet with blood; I felt its face, and it was cold beneath my hands; I raised its body in my arms, and its limbs already were rigid in death! Then I thought of the eldest child, who lay dead in the chamber above. But my strength was failing me fast. I had an infant who might yet be preserved; and I knew that if morning dawned on me in the house, all chances of escape were lost for ever. So, though my heart was cold within me at leaving my child’s corpse to the mercy of the Romans, I took up the dead and the wounded one in my arms, and went forth into the garden, and thence towards the seaward quarter of the town.

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