Complete Works of Wilkie Collins (4 page)

It was near noon; but no sun appeared in the heaven. The dull clouds, monotonous in colour and form, hid all beauty in the firmament, and shed heavy darkness on the earth. Dense, stagnant vapours clung to the mountain summits; from the drooping trees dead leaves and rotten branches sunk, at intervals, on the oozy soil, or whirled over the gloomy precipice; and a small steady rain fell, slow and unintermitting, upon the deserts around. Standing upon the path which armies had once trodden, and which armies were still destined to tread, and looking towards the solitary lake, you heard, at first, no sound but the regular dripping of the rain-drops from rock to rock; you saw no prospect but the motionless waters at your feet, and the dusky crags which shadowed them from above. When, however, impressed by the mysterious loneliness of the place, the eye grew more penetrating and the ear more attentive, a cavern became apparent in the precipices round the lake; and, in the intervals of the heavy rain-drops, were faintly perceptible the sounds of a human voice.

The mouth of the cavern was partly concealed by a large stone, on which were piled some masses of rotten brushwood, as if for the purpose of protecting any inhabitant it might contain from the coldness of the atmosphere without. Placed at the eastward boundary of the lake, this strange place of refuge commanded a view not only of the rugged path immediately below it, but of a large plot of level ground at a short distance to the west, which overhung a second and lower range of rocks. From this spot might be seen far beneath, on days when the atmosphere was clear, the olive grounds that clothed the mountain’s base, and beyond, stretching away to the distant horizon, the plains of fated Italy, whose destiny of defeat and shame was now hastening to its dark and fearful accomplishment.

The cavern, within, was low and irregular in form. From its rugged walls the damp oozed forth upon its floor of decayed moss. Lizards and noisome animals had tenanted its comfortless recesses undisturbed, until the period we have just described, when their miserable rights were infringed on for the first time by human intruders.

A woman crouched near the entrance of the place. More within, on the driest part of the ground, lay a child asleep. Between them were scattered some withered branches and decayed leaves, which were arranged as if to form a fire. In many parts this scanty collection of fuel was slightly blackened; but, wetted as it was by the rain, all efforts to light it permanently had evidently been fruitless.

The woman’s head was bent forwards, and her face, hid in her hands, rested on her knees. At intervals she muttered to herself in a hoarse, moaning voice. A portion of her scanty clothing had been removed to cover the child. What remained on her was composed, partly of skins of animals, partly of coarse cotton cloth. In many places this miserable dress was marked with blood, and her long, flaxen hair bore upon its dishevelled locks the same ominous and repulsive stain.

The child seemed scarcely four years of age, and showed on his pale, thin face all the peculiarities of his Gothic origin. His features seemed to have been once beautiful, both in expression and form; but a deep wound, extending the whole length of his cheek, had now deformed him for ever. He shivered and trembled in his sleep, and every now and then mechanically stretched forth his little arms towards the dead cold branches that were scattered before him.

Suddenly a large stone became detached from the rock in a distant part of the cavern, and fell noisily to the ground. At this sound he woke with a scream — raised himself — endeavoured to advance towards the woman, and staggered backward against the side of the cave. A second wound in the leg had wreaked that destruction on his vigour which the first had effected on his beauty. He was a cripple.

At the instant of his awakening the woman had started up. She now raised him from the ground, and taking some herbs from her bosom, applied them to his wounded cheek. By this action her dress became discomposed: it was stiff at the top with coagulated blood, which had evidently flowed from a cut in her neck.

All her attempts to compose the child were in vain; he moaned and wept piteously, muttering at intervals his disjointed exclamations of impatience at the coldness of the place and the agony of his recent wounds. Speechless and tearless the wretched woman looked vacantly down on his face. There was little difficulty in discerning from that fixed, distracted gaze the nature of the tie that bound the mourning woman to the suffering boy. The expression of rigid and awful despair that lowered in her fixed, gloomy eyes, the livid paleness that discoloured her compressed lips, the spasms that shook her firm, commanding form, mutely expressing in the divine eloquence of human emotion that between the solitary pair there existed the most intimate of earth’s relationships — the connection of mother and child.

For some time no change occurred in the woman’s demeanour. At last, as if struck by some sudden suspicion, she rose, and clasping the child in one arm, displaced with the other the brushwood at the entrance of her place of refuge, cautiously looking forth on all that the mists left visible of the western landscape. After a short survey she drew back as if reassured by the unbroken solitude of the place, and turning towards the lake, looked down upon the black waters at her feet.

‘Night has succeeded to night,’ she muttered gloomily, ‘and has brought no succour to my body, and no hope to my heart! Mile on mile have I journeyed, and danger is still behind, and loneliness for ever before. The shadow of death deepens over the boy; the burden of anguish grows weightier than I can bear. For me, friends are murdered, defenders are distant, possessions are lost. The God of the Christian priests has abandoned us to danger and deserted us in woe. It is for me to end the struggle for us both. Our last refuge has been in this place — our sepulchre shall be here as well!’

With one last look at the cold and comfortless sky, she advanced to the very edge of the lake’s precipitous bank. Already the child was raised in her arms, and her body bent to accomplish successfully the fatal spring, when a sound in the east — faint, distant, and fugitive — caught her ear. In an instant her eye brightened, her chest heaved, her cheek flushed. She exerted the last relics of her wasted strength to gain a prominent position upon a ledge of the rocks behind her, and waited in an agony of expectation for a repetition of that magic sound.

 

In a moment more she heard it again — for the child, stupefied with terror at the action that had accompanied her determination to plunge with him into the lake, now kept silence, and she could listen undisturbed. To unpractised ears the sound that so entranced her would have been scarcely audible. Even the experienced traveller would have thought it nothing more than the echo of a fallen stone among the rocks in the eastward distance. But to her it was no unimportant sound, for it gave the welcome signal of deliverance and delight.

As the hour wore on, it came nearer and nearer, tossed about by the sportive echoes, and now clearly betraying that its origin was, as she had at first divined, the note of the Gothic trumpet. Soon the distant music ceased, and was succeeded by another sound, low and rumbling, as of an earthquake afar off or a rising thunderstorm, and changing, ere long, to a harsh confused noise, like the rustling of a mighty wind through whole forests of brushwood.

At this instant the woman lost all command over herself; her former patience and caution deserted her; reckless of danger, she placed the child upon the ledge on which she had been standing; and, though trembling in every limb, succeeded in mounting so much higher on the crag as to gain a fissure near the top of the rock, which commanded an uninterrupted view of the vast tracts of uneven ground leading in an easterly direction to the next range of precipices and ravines.

One after another the long minutes glided on, and, though much was still audible, nothing was yet to be seen. At length the shrill sound of the trumpet again rang through the dull, misty air, and the next instant the advance guard of an army of Goths emerged from the distant woods.

Then, after an interval, the multitudes of the main body thronged through every outlet in the trees, and spread in dusky masses over the desert ground that lay between the woods and the rocks about the borders of the lake. The front ranks halted, as if to communicate with the crowds of the rearguard and the stragglers among the baggage waggons, who still poured forth, apparently in interminable hosts, from the concealment of the distant trees. The advanced troops, evidently with the intention of examining the roads, still marched rapidly on, until they gained the foot of the ascent leading to the crags to which the woman still clung, and from which, with eager attention, she still watched their movements.

Placed in a situation of the extremest peril, her strength was her only preservative against the danger of slipping from her high and narrow elevation. Hitherto the moral excitement of expectation had given her the physical power necessary to maintain her position; but just as the leaders of the guard arrived at the cavern, her over-wrought energies suddenly deserted her; her hands relaxed their grasp; she tottered, and would have sunk backwards to instant destruction, had not the skins wrapped about her bosom and waist become entangled with a point of one of the jagged rocks immediately around her. Fortunately — for she could utter no cry — the troops halted at this instant to enable their horses to gain breath. Two among them at once perceived her position and detected her nation. They mounted the rocks; and, while one possessed himself of the child, the other succeeded in rescuing the mother and bearing her safely to the ground.

The snorting of horses, the clashing of weapons, the confusion of loud, rough voices, which now startled the native silence of the solitary lake, and which would have bewildered and overwhelmed most persons in the woman’s exhausted condition, seemed, on the contrary, to reassure her feelings and reanimate her powers. She disengaged herself from her preserver’s support, and taking her child in her arms, advanced towards a man of gigantic stature, whose rich armour sufficiently announced that his position in the army was one of command.

‘I am Goisvintha,’ said she, in a firm, calm voice — ’sister to Hermanric. I have escaped from the massacre of the hostages of Aquileia with one child. Is my brother with the army of the king?’

This declaration produced a marked change in the bystanders. The looks of indifference or curiosity which they had at first cast on the fugitive, changed to the liveliest expression of wonder and respect. The chieftain whom she had addressed raised the visor of his helmet so as to uncover his face, answered her question in the affirmative, and ordered two soldiers to conduct her to the temporary encampment of the main army in the rear. As she turned to depart, an old man advanced, leaning on his long, heavy sword, and accosted her thus —

‘I am Withimer, whose daughter was left hostage with the Romans in Aquileia. Is she of the slain or of the escaped?’

‘Her bones rot under the city walls,’ was the answer. ‘The Romans made of her a feast for the dogs.’

No word or tear escaped the old warrior. He turned in the direction of Italy; but, as he looked downwards towards the plains, his brow lowered, and his hands tightened mechanically round the hilt of his enormous weapon.

The same gloomy question was propounded to Goisvintha by the two men who guided her to the army that had been asked by their aged comrade. It received the same terrible answer, which was borne with the same stern composure, and followed by the same ominous glance in the direction of Italy, as in the instance of the veteran Withimer.

Leading the horse that carried the exhausted woman with the utmost care, and yet with wonderful rapidity, down the paths which they had so recently ascended, the men in a short space of time reached the place where the army had halted, and displayed to Goisvintha, in all the majesty of numbers and repose, the vast martial assemblage of the warriors of the North.

No brightness gleamed from their armour; no banners waved over their heads; no music sounded among their ranks. Backed by the dreary woods, which still disgorged unceasing additions to the warlike multitude already encamped; surrounded by the desolate crags which showed dim, wild, and majestic through the darkness of the mist; covered with the dusky clouds which hovered motionless over the barren mountain tops, and poured their stormy waters on the uncultivated plains — all that the appearance of the Goths had of solemnity in itself was in awful harmony with the cold and mournful aspect that the face of Nature had assumed. Silent — menacing — dark, — the army looked the fit embodiment of its leader’s tremendous purpose — the subjugation of Rome.

Conducting Goisvintha quickly through the front files of warriors, her guides, pausing at a spot of ground which shelved upwards at right angles with the main road from the woods, desired her to dismount; and pointing to the group that occupied the place, said, ‘Yonder is Alaric the king, and with him is Hermanric thy brother.’

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