Charles W. (Charles Watts) Whistler.

A prince of Cornwall : a story of Glastonbury and the West in the days of Ina of Wessex online

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Online LibraryCharles W. (Charles Watts) WhistlerA prince of Cornwall : a story of Glastonbury and the West in the days of Ina of Wessex → online text (page 19 of 25)
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only smiled at the prince, for my mind was full of
other things as I followed him toward the glen
whence the stream came. And now I was sure
that here was growing more clearly a trace as of a
seldom trodden path toward its mouth. We passed
a great flat rock, whereon were strange markings
and a hollowed basin, which stood behind the


menhir near the cliff, and to this the path led, but
not beyond, from the glen. Now we were almost
in the opening, when both of us stopped and looked
at one another. Surely there were footsteps coming
among the rocks of the water-course before us.
Steep and crooked as this was, we could hear them,
though as yet if it were a man or men who came
we could not see. I pulled the prince back into
cover, where the rocks hid us from any one who
came down the stream, and I loosened my sword in
its sheath, for I could not be so sure that it might
not be sorely needed. The rattle of stones came
nearer, and I saw Evan hurrying to us. He also
had heard, and he had made shift to tie the horses
to some point of rock, and he ran with our spears
in his hand to join us.

" Get to the other side of the pool, Thane," he
said. "It may be the band of men who wrought
the burning."

" No," I answered. " Listen. Maybe there are
three or four men, not more. I want to take one
if I can. He shall tell me all he knows of this

For I had made up my mind that one who would
come here freely must needs be of those who had
brought Owen.

Then from the narrow portal of the glen passed
quickly, looking neither to the right nor left, a tall
man, followed by two others, and they seemed not
to see us, but went straight toward the menhir along
that path I thought I had traced, and Howel and I
stared at them, speechless and motionless, for the
like of them we had never seen. As for Evan,


he reeled against the rock, and stared after them,
clutching it with both hands, so that his spear fell
rattling along the rocks.

" The Druids ! " he gasped. " We are dead men."

At the sharp rattle the leader of the three men
turned, and I knew him. He was clad in a wonder-
ful gold and white robe that swept the ground,
priestlike, but not that of any Christian, and his
hair was bound with a golden fillet with which oak
leaves were twisted, and in his ears were large
earrings. On his bare right arm was a coiled golden
bracelet, and a heavy golden torque was round his
neck, and a great golden brooch knit up the folds
of his flowing white cloak on his right shoulder.
But for all this strange dress I knew him, and he
was Morfed the priest, and I heard Howel mutter
the name also. Then a word from Morfed caused
the other two to turn, and they saw us, and there
flashed from under their robes which were like
those of their leader, save for golden ornaments a
long knife in the hand of each, and they made as
if to fly on us.

Morfed held up his hand, and they stayed, glaring
at us. I listened for the coming of more of his
followers down the water-course, but I heard none.

Then Morfed spoke a word or two to his men, and
came toward us, leaving them standing where they
were, some twenty paces or less behind him, and as
he came his pale face shewed no sort of feeling
of any kind. His strange bright eyes seemed to
look past us, as if we were but stones at the path

" So it is the Saxon," he said, staying close before


us. " Well, I have waited for you, if I did not look
to see you here. And this is Howel of Dyfed.
Surely a Briton knows that to break in on the rites
of the Druid is death ? But Howel ever was rash.
And this is the outlaw. It is a true saying that he
who sees this place shall die, Evan."

Then said Howel boldly : " Briton I am, and
therefore I know that the rites of the Druid are
banned by Holy Church. Wherefore does one of
her priests come in this heathen robe to such a place
as this on the eve of midsummer ? "

" Seeing that none but the initiated may know what
truth the ancient faith holds, it is not for you to say
that this is heathenry, Prince," Morfed answered
more quietly than I expected. " Ask yon Saxon if
his Yule-feast is less sacred to him now because it is
not so long since that it was Woden's. Is to-morrow
less Midsummer Day because it is the day of St.
John ? Hold your peace thereon, and go hence
while I suffer you."

At that I glanced at the mouth of the valley
whence we came, half looking to see it blocked by
men, but it was not. There was nothing to stay us
three armed men in this place, with but three against
us, and they well-nigh defenceless. Morfed saw that
glance and laughed.

" The Druid has other arms than those of steel,"
he said, and he drew slowly from the wide cincture
round his waist a little golden sickle and balanced it
in his hand before me, flashing it to and fro.

Now I was sure that he was crazed in all truth,
and I would speak him fair that I might learn what
he would tell me. Howel was silent, seeming to


look curiously at the golden toy in the priest's hand,
as it shifted restlessly backward and forward.

" We have come hither to pry into no ancient rites,
Morfed," I said. " Tell me what you know of Owen
the prince, my foster-father, and we will go hence.
I have seen that which tells me that he is near, but
there are yet things that I must learn of how he came
and where he lies."

But Morfed seemed to heed me not at all as I
spoke. Only, he kept moving the little sickle which
Howel watched, and its glancings drew my eyes to
it in spite of myself, for overhead the sky was
clearing somewhat and the sun was trying to break
through, and the gold shone brightly.

" Midday," muttered the priest, " nigh midday, and
what is to be done against the morrow must be done,
else will the tale of many a thousand years be
marred, and by me. Lo ! the sun comes, and time
passes swiftly."

The sun did indeed shine out now as some cloud
passed, and I saw that its rays came slanting through
the gap in the cliffs across the pool, passing the
menhir without lighting on it, but falling now on
the flat rock that was behind it, though not fully
yet. Half thereof was still in the shadow thrown by
the hills.

Morfed glanced at that shadow, and his face
changed, for I think that he knew the time for some
midday rite which we might not see was near, and
at that he seemed to make some resolve. He did
not turn from us, but he lifted his voice in a strange
chant, and said somewhat in Welsh that I could not
understand, and as they heard it his two followers


placed themselves on either side of the flat rock
three paces behind him, and stood motionless. Then
Morfed lifted his arm and began to sing softly,
swinging the sickle in time to the song, with his
eyes on us.

I thought that maybe he would sing to us the
end of Owen, as would Thorgils, but the tongue in
which the words were spoken was not the Welsh
that I knew. I think now that it was the tongue of
the men who reared the menhir, and that which was
the mother of the tongue of Howel and Cerent alike.
It was an uncanny song, and I waxed uneasy as it
went on, and the flashing sickle waved more quickly
before my eyes.

Soon the murmur of the song seemed to get into
my brain, as it were, and the sparkle of the gold in
the sunlight wove itself into strange circles of light
before my eyes, widening and narrowing in mystic
curves that dazzled me, until at last I would look no
longer, and with an effort I turned my head and
glanced at Howel to ask if this foolishness should
not be ended.

But he shook his head.

" Let him be," he said in a whisper. " It is ill to
anger a crazed man. Surely he will tell what we
need soon."

But beside him Evan seemed to be shrinking as
in terror. I suppose the Briton has old memories of
the Druids of past days which yet bid him fear them.

" Hearken to me, and heed them not," sang Morfed
in words that I could understand. " Hearken, for
you have much to learn."

That was true, and I turned to him. I supposed


that he was in truth about to speak to me as I
would, and straightway the look of Morfed was on
my face, and the song went back to [its old burden,
and the flashing sickle held my eyes with its circling,
and I knew that if I looked long I also must pass as
it were from myself, as had those two, and I wrenched
my eyes from him.

Then a movement on the stone caught my gaze,
and I saw that the two men yet stood motionless,
but across the sunlit patch which had crept nearer
the centre where the hollowed bowl was, a great
adder, greater than any I had ever seen, thick and
spade - headed, had coiled itself in shining folds
peaceably and seeming not to heed the men. Only
its head was raised a little, and it swayed as in time
to the chant of the priest, while the long forked
tongue flickered forth now and then restlessly.

But Morfed went on with his song and his waving,
seeming to try to draw my look back to him, and I
noted, as I glanced again at him, that a shade of
doubt crossed his face, and at that a new thought
came to me. Maybe if he saw that I feared him
not he would speak. So I looked in his eyes and
bade him be silent and hearken to what I said to

Some wave of anger flushed his face then, and he
drew a pace nearer to me, but he was not silent, and
the waving sickle was not still. Neither of these
things troubled me any longer, and I looked past
them, in such wise that he might see that I meant
him to obey me, even as one will look at a sullen
thrall who delays to carry out an order given. A
captain of warriors will know what signs to watch for


in a man's face well enough, and slowly and at last
I saw the look for which I waited steal across the
face of the man before me, and then I raised my
hand and said : " Be still, and answer me."

The song stopped, and the lifted sickle sank with
the hand that held it, and the eyes of Morfed left
mine and sought the ground.

" What will you ? " he said. " Let me go, for it is

' When you have answered," I said sternly. " Tell
me, where is Owen ? "

" In yonder pool," he said, as a child will answer
its teacher.

But if he answered as a child, his face was sullen
as of a child that is minded to rebel, and I knew
that he would try not to tell me aught.

" You lie," I said coldly. " Neither Christian
priest nor Druid would dare set a prince of Cornwall
in an unhallowed grave. Tell me the truth."

" Ay, I lied," he said, speaking in a strange voice
that seemed to come from him against his will.
And then he spoke quickly, without faltering or
excuse. " I led the men who should slay the
despiser of the faith of his youth and friend of the
Saxon, and we came to the house and destroyed it,
but they slew him not. Sorely wounded he was,
and yet they would not do my bidding and make
an end, but murmured at me. Then they bore him
away into the hills, saying that they would heal him
of his hurts and thereafter win his pardon, for he
was ever forgiving, and it is true that I told them
not who it was they were to slay. I said that it
was Oswald the Saxon, who slew Morgan, and they


were glad. I do not know how it has come to
pass that you are here. I hate you."

" Speak on, Morfed," I said, for he had stayed his
words on that, and I bent all my mind into that
command as it were, so that he knew that I meant
to be his master in this.

" Why should I not speak," he said dully. " Let
me end quickly. Ay, I went with them, thinking
that he would die on the way, for he was sorely
wounded, and I mocked them and threatened them
in vain. I led them to this place, and when they
knew it they fled, and left him to me. Wherefore I
brought him here, that I might see him die I and
these two carried him on the litter 'the men made.
Then will I bury him in no hallowed grave, for I
myself spoke the uttermost ban of Holy Church
against him, for that he had herded with the men of
the Saxons who follow Canterbury, and has wrought
for peace with them."

Then I knew at last that Owen was not dead,
and I think that in my gladness I lost my hold on
Morfed, as it were, for I half forgot him. And at
that moment there came a little cry from one of the
men who waited by the flat altar stone, and both of
them looked to Morfed for some command, as if a
time had come. The stone was in full light now,
and I noted that the shadow of the menhir was
creeping toward its base, but not yet quite pointing to
it. But Morfed did not answer the cry, and the great
adder, roused by it, moved restlessly in its coils,
darting its long forked tongue into the hollow of the
stone as if it sought somewhat. That one of the men
who seemed the younger took from under his robe


a golden flask and poured what looked like milk
into the hollow, and the creature lowered its head
and lapped it thence.

At that cry Morfed started and half turned. But
I had more to ask him, and I spoke sternly.
Behind me was a rattle of arms, as if Howel would
have stayed him.

" Morfed," I said, " you have yet to tell me where
Owen, the prince, is hidden. If you would finish
what you are about here, tell me straightway, or bid
one of these men shew me, or we will stay all this

Maybe I spoke more boldly than I felt, for indeed
the whole business and the place made all seem un-
canny. I know that my comrades feared it all.

But now Morfed heeded my word no longer.
Slowly at last he turned away, and now he must
needs look back toward the altar stone and the
menhir in turning, and the sight of them seemed to
bring to his mind what work he had here, so that in
a moment I was forgotten, and he sprang past me
toward his attendants, one of whom was pointing
silently, but with a white face, to the shadow of the
menhir. And I saw that now it touched the stone
and crept up on its surface for an inch or less.

I suppose that to-morrow that shadow would be
so much shorter, and would not lie on the flat top
of the stone at all. Then for a little space the sun
would seem to one at the back of the altar to stand
on the menhir's top, while all the stone and the
bowl where the adder lay was in full light, even as
men say the sun seems to stand on the great stone
of Stonehenge on Midsummer Day at its rising. I


had seen that wonder once, and this minded me
of it.

But what Morfed saw told him that midday had
come and was passing ; and all that meant to him,
beyond that the time for some rite had been for-
gotten, I cannot tell. There came from his lips a
cry that was of terror and of sorrow as I thought,
and the adder lifted its head from its lapping and
coiled itself menacingly.

He did not heed the creature, but threw abroad
his hands sunwards, and began to speak hurriedly in
that tongue which I could not follow; and as his
words went on the faces of his men grew haggard,
and one of them wept openly. The younger threw
the golden vessel he had in his hand into the pool,
and turned on me a look of the most terrible hate,
and his hand stole under his robes as if he sought
the knife I had seen him draw when they first came.

Now Howel and Evan were beside me, wonder-
ing, but spear in hand, and I was glad. There was
more than enmity in the look of these men, and one
to three has little chance. Whatever strange fears
my friends had felt passed with the sight of danger.

But while Morfed spoke his followers were still,
listening to him intently, until at last he seemed to
dismiss them ; and then they turned from him with
a strange deep reverence, and folded their hands on
their breasts, and came past where we stood, not
looking at us, but with their eyes on the ground as
if they were going back, up the water-course whence
they came. And at that I thought they might be
going to where Owen was, and that they would
harm him.



" Quick, Evan," I said ; " follow them. See where
they go."

" Ay, follow them," said Morfed. " Now I care
not what befalls."

And with that he raised his voice and called
somewhat to the men, and they quickened their
pace into the glen. I did not understand what they
said in return, but somewhat in the words of the
ancient tongue they spoke was more plain to Howel,
and he cried to me hastily, hurrying after Evan.

" Guard you the priest here, and beware of him ! "

Then he dashed up the water-course into which
Evan had already disappeared, and I heard the feet
of the four on the loose stone as they climbed upward.
I had almost a mind to follow them, for I thought
that their way led to Owen, but I dared not leave
Morfed to go elsewhere. This might only be a
plan to lead us astray.



So I was left with Morfed the priest, and he did not
offer to follow his men, but stood and faced me with
eyes that gleamed with the fire of wrath or madness,
or both. We waited, both of us, as I think, to hear
if any sound beyond the lessening foot-falls came
from the water-course, but they died away upward,
and there was still no word between us. Then I
thought that I would try one more plan with him.

" Morfed," I said, " take me to Owen, and I will
pledge my word that Cerent shall seek no revenge
for what has been done by you."

" What I have done ! " he broke out. " I sought
to rid the land of a foe, and that was a deed worth
doing. Know you what you have done ? Through
you is ended the tale of many a thousand years.
The time is past when I, the priest and Archdruid
of this poor land, should have done what has been
done, since time untold, without fail, against to-
morrow's rites. That day, therefore, through you
shall be unobserved. It is strange that a mere
Saxon warrior, with no thought beyond his feasting
and fighting, should set his will against mine and



prove the stronger. Now I wit well that this is
some fated day, and that herein lies some omen of
what shall be."

Then he turned a little from me, and looked at
the shadow which had passed altogether from the
altar stone now, and half to himself he said

" I had thought that this menhir had fallen when
this came to pass. But maybe the old prophecy
meant that not until it fell we must cease our rites.
But that was not how we read the words of old
time. If we read them wrong, what else have we
mistaken ? "

" Morfed," I broke in on his musings, " end this
idle talk, and tell me of Owen. Then I will go
hence and leave you to work what you will here. I
had no wish to disturb your rites, whatsoever they
were. If aught has happened amiss, it was your own
fault, not mine. Your own deed brought me here."

But he paid not the least heed to me, and yet I
thought that he tried to put me off, as it were, by
seeming wrapt in thoughts.

" Surely it should have fallen on this day that sees
the end, even as runs the ancient prophecy

When the pool shall whelm the stone,
Druid rite and chant are done.'

But it has not fallen, and the end is not yet. But
what shall amend this fault ? "

I had listened for some sound from Howel and
Evan, but since the footsteps passed up the glen I
had heard none until this moment. Then came one
cry from far upward, and silence thereafter. Morfed
heard it and looked up, setting at the same time his
hand on the edge of the altar stone.


The golden sickle flashed as he did so, and at
that, swift as the flash itself, the adder stiffened its
coils, and its head flew back, baring the long fangs,
and twice it struck the hand deeply.

" I am answered," Morfed said quietly. " My life
shall amend."

But he never moved his hand, and the adder
swiftly slid from off the stone and sought some
hiding-place in the loose rocks at the cliff foot, and
the priest watched it go, motionless.

" Look you, Saxon," he said, lifting his eyes to
me ; " now I must die, and with me ends the line of
the Druids of this land of the olden faith. Yonder
in the Cymric land beyond the narrow sea whence
Howel came it shall not be lost. The hills shall
keep it, and there the slow mind of the Saxon shall
not slay the old powers as you have slain them in
me. Now I know that nought but the power of the
cross shall avail on such minds as yours, for the lore
of the older days is not for you. See ! This is an
end, and now you in your simpleness shall do one
last thing for me."

I saw that the hand which yet rested on the altar
was swelling already, and was waxing fiery red with
four black marks where the fangs struck it. And I
had a sort of pity for him, seeing him bear this,
which he deemed his punishment, bravely. Still, he
had answered nothing as to where Owen was.

" Morfed," I said, therefore " if it is indeed the
last hour for you, make amends for another ill by
telling me where Owen is, and I will do what you
ask me, if it is what I may do honestly and as a


" Grave me a cross on yonder menhir in token that
the days of the Druid are numbered," he said softly,
sitting down on the stone with his head bowed, as if
in deadly faintness.

Two steps took me to the menhir, and I drew my
seax that I might do as he asked me. It was a
little thing, and Christian, and I thought that maybe
he had come to himself from the madness of which
men spoke. Yet though it seemed long that Howel
was away, and I longed to follow him, I dared not
leave this man, seeing that for all I knew Owen was
somewhere close at hand, and it was not to be
known what this priest might do in his despair.
Howel and Evan might be following the men yet
into some hiding-place.

I set the point of my weapon to the stone and
went to work, graving the upright stem of the cross
first, thinking that Morfed would speak when he saw
that I was indeed doing as he asked me. The stone
was softer than I expected, and surely was not of
the granite of the cliffs around, but had been brought
from far, else I could not have marked it at all.
Yet I had to lean heavily on my seax as I cut, and
it was no light task, as I stood sidewise that I
might not lose sight of Morfed,

" I die," he said presently. " There will be none
left who may bring back the ancient secrets hither
from the land of the Cymro. See, this is an end."

He rose up, staggering a little, and cast the golden
sickle from him into the pool with a light eddying
splash, as if it skimmed the surface ere it sank, but I
did not look at it, and that was well for me. I saw
his hand fly to his breast, as the hands of his men


P- 3=5.


had gone for their weapons when they first saw us,
and I knew what was coming.

Hardly had the golden toy touched the water
when out flashed a long dagger from his robes, and
he flew on me, thinking, no doubt, that I must needs
turn my head to watch the fall of his sickle, and I
was ready for him. He was no warrior, and his
hand was too high, but he was a priest, and on him
I would not use my weapon. I swung aside from him,
striking up his arm, and his blind rush carried him
against the menhir, so that the blow which was
meant for me fell thereon, scoring the stone deeply ;
and lo ! his own hand ended with that blow what I
had begun, marking the cross-beam I had yet to
make, so that the holy sign was complete.

And I saw that in a flash, even as he reeled back
from the menhir and staggered. His foot splashed
into the ooze of the bank and went down ; and with
that he lost his footing altogether and fell headlong
into the pool, swaying as he went, across the front
of the menhir.

Now there was a shout and the sound of hurrying
footsteps behind me, but it was Howel's voice, and I
did not turn. I leaned on the menhir to try to
catch the white robes that swirled below me, and
then I felt a heave and quaking in the turf on which
I knelt as I reached over the black water, and Howel
cried out and dragged me back roughly for a long

The menhir was falling. Slowly at first, and then
more swiftly, it bent forward over the pool, and then
it gathered way suddenly, and with a mighty crash
it fell with all its towering height across it and


across the last flash of the white robes of the man
who yet struggled therein.

For a moment the cross looked skyward, and then
the wave swept over the stone, and it was gone into
the unknown depths that maybe held so many

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Online LibraryCharles W. (Charles Watts) WhistlerA prince of Cornwall : a story of Glastonbury and the West in the days of Ina of Wessex → online text (page 19 of 25)