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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 7. Intruders
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The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 7. Intruders Post by :TheVCF Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :949

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The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 7. Intruders

BOOK III. THE WILDERNESS
CHAPTER VII. INTRUDERS

It was on Holy Thursday that the image usually began to bleed, and it would continue so to do until the dawn of Easter Sunday.

Each day now, as the time drew nearer, I watched the image closely, and on the Wednesday I watched it with a dread anxiety I could not repress, for as yet there was no faintest sign. The brown streaks that marked the course of the last bleeding continued dry. All that night I prayed intently, in a torture of doubt, yet soothed a little by the gentle music that was never absent now.

With the first glint of dawn I heard steps outside the hut; but I did not stir. By sunrise there was a murmur of voices like the muttering of a sea upon its shore. I rose and peered more closely at the saint. He was just wood, inanimate and insensible, and there was still no sign. Outside, I knew, a crowd of pilgrims was already gathered. They were waiting, poor souls. But what was their waiting compared with mine?

Another hour I knelt there, still beseeching Heaven to take mercy upon me. But Heaven remained unresponsive and the wounds of the image continued dry.

I rose, at last, in a sort of despair, and going to the door of the hut, I flung it wide.

The platform was filled with a great crowd of peasantry, and an overflow poured down the sides of it and surged up the hill on the right and the left. At sight of me, so gaunt and worn, my eyes wild with despair and feverish from sleeplessness, a tangled growth of beard upon my hollow cheeks, they uttered as with one voice a great cry of awe. The multitude swayed and rippled, and then with a curious sound as that of a great wind, all went down upon their knees before me--all save the array of cripples huddled in the foreground, brought thither, poor wretches, in the hope of a miraculous healing.

As I was looking round upon that assembly, my eyes were caught by a flash and glitter on the road above us leading to the Cisa Pass. A little troop of men-at-arms was descending that way. A score of them there would be, and from their lance-heads fluttered scarlet bannerols bearing a white device which at that distance I could not make out.

The troop had halted, and one upon a great black horse, a man whose armour shone like the sun itself, was pointing down with his mail-clad hand. Then they began to move again, and the brightness of their armour, the fluttering pennons on their lances, stirred me strangely in that fleeting moment, ere I turned again to the faithful who knelt there waiting for my words. Dolefully, with hanging head and downcast eyes, I made the dread announcement.

"My children, there is yet no miracle."

A deathly stillness followed the words. Then came an uproar, a clamour, a wailing. One bold mountaineer thrust forward to the foremost ranks, though without rising from his knees.

"Father," he cried, "how can that be? The saint has never failed to bleed by dawn on Holy Thursday, these five years past."

"Alas!" I groaned, "I do not know. I but tell you what is. All night have I held vigil. But all has been vain. I will go pray again, and do you, too, pray."

I dared not tell them of my growing suspicion and fear that the fault was in myself; that here was a sign of Heaven's displeasure at the impurity of the guardian of that holy place.

"But the music!" cried one of the cripples raucously. "I hear the blessed music!"

I halted, and the crowd fell very still to listen. We all heard it pealing softly, soothingly, as from the womb of the mountain, and a great cry went up once more from that vast assembly, a hopeful cry that where one miracle was happening another must happen, that where the angelic choirs were singing all must be well.

And then with a thunder of hooves and clank of metal the troop that I had seen came over the pasture-lands, heading straight for my hermitage, having turned aside from the road. At the foot of the hillock upon which my hut was perched they halted at a word from their leader.

I stood at gaze, and most of the people too craned their necks to see what unusual pilgrim was this who came to the shrine of St. Sebastian.

The leader swung himself unaided from the saddle, full-armed as he was; then going to a litter in the rear, he assisted a woman to alight from it.

All this I watched, and I observed too that the device upon the bannerols was the head of a white horse. By that device I knew them. They were of the house of Cavalcanti--a house that had, as I had heard, been in alliance and great friendship with my father. But that their coming hither should have anything to do with me or with that friendship I was assured was impossible. Not a single soul could know of my whereabouts or the identity of the present hermit of Monte Orsaro.

The pair advanced, leaving the troop below to await their return, and as they came I considered them, as did, too, the multitude.

The man was of middle height, very broad and active, with long arms, to one of which the little lady clung for help up the steep path. He had a proud, stern aquiline face that was shaven, so that the straight lines of his strong mouth and powerful length of jaw looked as if chiselled out of stone. It was only at closer quarters that I observed how the general hardness of that countenance was softened by the kindliness of his deep brown eyes. In age I judged him to be forty, though in reality he was nearer fifty.

The little lady at his side was the daintiest maid that I had ever seen. The skin, white as a water-lily, was very gently flushed upon her cheeks; the face was delicately oval; the little mouth, the tenderest in all the world; the forehead low and broad, and the slightly slanting eyes--when she raised the lashes that hung over them like long shadows--were of the deep blue of sapphires. Her dark brown hair was coifed in a jewelled net of thread of gold, and on her white neck a chain of emeralds sparkled sombrely. Her close-fitting robe and her mantle were of the hue of bronze, and the light shifted along the silken fabric as she moved, so that it gleamed like metal. About her waist there was a girdle of hammered gold, and pearls were sewn upon the back of her brown velvet gloves.

One glance of her deep blue eyes she gave me as she approached; then she lowered them instantly, and so weak--so full of worldly vanities was I still that in that moment I took shame at the thought that she should see me thus, in this rough hermit's habit, my face a tangle of unshorn beard, my hair long and unkempt. And the shame of it dyed my gaunt cheeks. And then I turned pale again, for it seemed to me that out of nowhere a voice had asked me:

"Do you still marvel that the image will not bleed?"

So sharp and clear did those words arise from the lips of Conscience that it seemed to me as if they had been uttered aloud, and I looked almost in alarm to see if any other had overheard them.

The cavalier was standing before me, and his brows were knit, a deep amazement in his eyes. Thus awhile in utter silence. Then quite suddenly, his voice a ringing challenge:

"What is your name?" he said.

"My name?" quoth I, astonished by such a question, and remarking now the intentness and surprise of his own glance. "It is Sebastian," I answered, and truthfully, for that was the name of my adoption, the name I had taken when I entered upon my hermitage.

"Sebastian of what and where?" quoth he.

He stood before me, his back to the peasant crowd, ignoring them as completely as if they had no existence, supremely master of himself. And meanwhile, the little lady on his arm stole furtive upward glances at me.

"Sebastian of nowhere," I answered. "Sebastian the hermit, the guardian of this shrine. If you are come to..."

"What was your name in the world?" he interrupted impatiently, and all the time his eyes were devouring my gaunt face.

"The name of a sinner," answered I. "I have stripped it off and cast it from me."

An expression of impatience rippled across the white face

"But the name of your father?" he insisted.

"I have none," answered I. "I have no kin or ties of any sort. I am Sebastian the hermit."

His lips smacked testily. "Were you baptized Sebastian?" he inquired.

"No," I answered him. "I took the name when I became the guardian of this shrine."

"And when was that?"

"In September of last year, when the holy man who was here before me died."

I saw a sudden light leap to his eyes and a faint smile to his lips. He leaned towards me. "Heard you ever of the name of Anguissola?" he inquired, and watched me closely, his face within a foot of mine.

But I did not betray myself, for the question no longer took me by surprise. I was accounted to be very like my father, and that a member of the house of Cavalcanti, with which Giovanni d'Anguissola had been so intimate, should detect the likeness was not unnatural. I was convinced, moreover, that he had been guided thither by merest curiosity at the sight of that crowd of pilgrims.

"Sir," I said, "I know not your intentions; but in all humility let me say that I am not here to answer questions of worldly import. The world has done with me, and I with the world. So that unless you are come hither out of piety for this shrine, I beg that you will depart with God and molest me no further. You come at a singularly inauspicious time, when I need all my strength to forget the world and my sinful past, that through me the will of Heaven may be done here."

I saw the maid's tender eyes raised to my face with a look of great compassion and sweetness whilst I spoke. I observed the pressure which she put on his arm. Whether he gave way to that, or whether it was the sad firmness of my tone that prevailed upon him I cannot say. But he nodded shortly.

"Well, well!" he said, and with a final searching look, he turned, the little lady with him, and went clanking off through the lane which the crowd opened out for him.

That they resented his presence, since it was not due to motives of piety, they very plainly signified. They feared that the intrusion at such a time of a personality so worldly must raise fresh difficulties against the performance of the expected miracle.

Nor were matters improved when at the crowd's edge he halted and questioned one of them as to the meaning of this pilgrimage. I did not hear the peasant's answer; but I saw the white, haughty face suddenly thrown up, and I caught his next question:

"When did it last bleed?"

Again an inaudible reply, and again his ringing voice--"That would be before this young hermit came? And to-day it will not bleed, you say?"

He flashed me a last keen glance of his eyes, which had grown narrow and seemed laden with mockery. The little lady whispered something to him, in answer to which he laughed contemptuously.

"Fool's mummery," he snapped, and drew her on, she going, it seemed to me, reluctantly.

But the crowd had heard him and the insult offered to the shrine. A deep-throated bay rose up in menace, and some leapt to their feet as if they would attack him.

He checked, and wheeled at the sound. "How now?" he cried, his voice a trumpet-call, his eyes flashing terribly upon them; and as dogs crouch to heel at the angry bidding of their master, the multitude grew silent and afraid under the eyes of that single steel-clad man.

He laughed a deep-throated laugh, and strode down the hill with his little lady on his arm.

But when he had mounted and was riding off, the crowd, recovering courage from his remoteness, hurled its curses after him and shrilly branded him, "Derider!" and "Blasphemer!"

He rode contemptuously amain, however, looking back but once, and then to laugh at them.

Soon he had dipped out of sight, and of his company nothing was visible but the fluttering red pennons with the device of the white horse-head. Gradually these also sank and vanished, and once more I was alone with the crowd of pilgrims.

Enjoining prayer upon them again, I turned and re-entered the hut.

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