The Project Gutenberg Etext of Antonina, by Wilkie Collins #24 in our series by Wilkie Collins

НазваниеThe Project Gutenberg Etext of Antonina, by Wilkie Collins #24 in our series by Wilkie Collins
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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.

'I passed through the forsaken streets. Sometimes I stumbled against the body of a child--sometimes the moonlight showed me the death-pale face of some woman of my nation whom I had loved, stretched upward to the sky; but I still advanced until I gained the wall of the town, and heard on the other side the waters of the river running onward to the Port of Aquileia and the sea.

'I looked around. The gates I knew were guarded and closed. By the wall was the only prospect of escape; but its top was high and its sides were smooth when I felt them with my hands. Despairing and wearied, I laid my burdens down where they were hidden by the shade, and walked forward a few paces, for to remain still was a torment that I could not endure. At a short distance I saw a soldier sleeping against the wall of a house. By his side was a ladder placed against the window. As I looked up I beheld the head of a corpse resting on its top. The victim must have been lately slain, for her blood still dripped slowly down into an empty wine-pot that stood within the soldier's reach. When I saw the ladder, hope revived within me. I removed it to the wall--I mounted, and laid my dead child on the great stones at its top--I returned, and placed my wounded boy by the corpse. Slowly, and with many efforts, I dragged the ladder upwards, until from its own weight one end fell to the ground on the other side. As I had risen so I descended. In the sand of the river-bank I scraped a hole, and buried there the corpse of the infant; for I could carry the weight of two no longer. Then with my wounded child I reached some caverns that lay onward near the seashore. There throughout the next day I lay hidden-- alone with my sufferings of body and my affliction of heart--until the night came on, when I set forth on my journey to the mountains; for I knew that at AEmona, in the camp of the warriors of my people, lay the only refuge that was left to me on earth. Feebly and slowly, hiding by day and travelling by night, I kept on my way until I gained that lake among the rocks, where the guards of the army came forward and rescued me from death.'

She ceased. Throughout the latter portion of her narrative her demeanour had been calm and sad; and as she dwelt, with the painful industry of grief, over each minute circumstance connected with the bereavements she had sustained, her voice softened to those accents of quiet mournfulness, which make impressive the most simple words, and render musical the most unsteady tones. It seemed as if those tenderer and kinder emotions, which the attractions of her offspring had once generated in her character, had at the bidding of memory become revivified in her manner while she lingered over the recital of their deaths. For a brief space of time she looked fixedly and anxiously upon the countenance of Hermanric, which was half averted from her, and expressed a fierce and revengeful gloom that sat unnaturally on it noble lineaments. Then turning from him, she buried her face in her hands, and made no effort more to attract him to attention or incite him to reply.

This solemn silence kept by the bereaved woman and the brooding man had lasted but a few minutes, when a harsh, trembling voice was heard from the top of the waggon, calling at intervals, 'Hermanric! Hermanric!'

At first the young man remained unmoved by those discordant and repulsive tones. They repeated his name, however, so often and so perseveringly, that he noticed them ere long; and rising suddenly, as if impatient of the interruption, advanced towards the side of the waggon from which the mysterious summons appeared to come.

As he looked up towards the vehicle the voice ceased, and he saw that the old woman to whom he had confided the child was the person who had called him so hurriedly but a few moments before. Her tottering body, clothed in bear-skins, was bent forward over a large triangular shield of polished brass, on which she leant her lank, shrivelled arms. Her head shook with a tremulous, palsied action; a leer, half smile, half grimace, distended her withered lips and lightened her sunken eyes. Sinister, cringing, repulsive; her face livid with the reflection from the weapon that was her support, and her figure scarcely human in the rugged garments that encompassed its gaunt proportions, she seemed a deformity set up by evil spirits to mock the majesty of the human form-- an embodied satire on all that is most deplorable in infirmity and most disgusting in age.

The instant she discerned Hermanric, she stretched her body out still farther over the shield; and pointing to the interior of the waggon, muttered softly that one fearful and expressive word--dead!

Without waiting for any further explanation, the young Goth mounted the vehicle, and gaining the old woman's side, saw stretched on her collection of herbs--beautiful in the sublime and melancholy stillness of death--the corpse of Goisvintha's last child.

'Is Hermanric wroth?' whined the hag, quailing before the steady, rebuking glance of the young man. 'When I said that Brunechild was greater than Hermanric, I lied. It is Hermanric that is most powerful! See, the dressings were placed on the wounds; and, though the child has died, shall not the treasures that were promised me be mine? I have done what I could, but my cunning begins to desert me, for I am old-- old--old! I have seen my generation pass away! Aha! I am old, Hermanric, I am old!'

When the young warrior looked on the child, he saw that the hag had spoken truth, and that the victim had died from no fault of hers. Pale and serene, the countenance of the boy showed how tranquil had been his death. The dressings had been skilfully composed and carefully applied to his wounds, but suffering and privation had annihilated the feebleness of human resistance in their march toward the last dread goal, and the treachery of Imperial Rome had once more triumphed as was its wont, and triumphed over a child!

As Hermanric descended with the corpse Goisvintha was the first object that met his eyes when he alighted on the ground. The mother received from him the lifeless burden without an exclamation or a tear. That emanation from her former and kinder self which had been produced by the closing recital of her sufferings was henceforth, at the signal of her last child's death, extinguished in her for ever!

'His wounds had crippled him,' said the young man gloomily. 'He could never have fought with the warriors! Our ancestors slew themselves when they were no longer vigorous for the fight. It is better that he has died!'
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