Read CHAPTER II of The Truce of God A Tale of the Eleventh Century, free online book, by George Henry Miles, on ReadCentral.com.

The golden sceptre which thou didst reject,
Is now an angry rod to bruise and break
Thy disobedience.

Gilbert de Hers, as the good priest withdrew into his own apartment, resumed his seat upon the bench, and soon became absorbed in meditation. His varying face betrayed the character of each thought as it filed before his mind in rapid review. For more than an hour he remained in that statue-like state, when we, in a measure, assume a triple being, as the past and the present unite to form a future.

But as all reveries, like life itself, must end, Gilbert at length seemed to be aware of the reality of the unpretending bed in the corner. Having repeated the prayers which his piety suggested, he extinguished the almost exhausted taper, and threw himself upon the bed. He could not sleep, however; for, great as the fatigue of the day had been, the excitement was greater. His mind was perpetually recurring to the events at the spring, from which they wandered to his father’s lonely and anxious chamber: now he remembered the earnest appeal of Father Omehr, and now pondered the injuries he had received from the house of Stramen. Through a narrow opening in the wall he could see the noble church sleeping in the moonlight. Its walls of variegated marble had been built principally at the expense of the Barons of Stramen, for in those days it was not unfrequent for private families to erect magnificent churches from their own resources; and as his eye rested upon the misty window, perhaps he felt that though utterly opposed in all else, there was one thing in common between his own haughty race and the founders of that church religion.

The night wore on, and was far advanced; but Gilbert still kept piling thought upon thought, unable and even scarcely desiring to exchange them for the deep repose or more confused images of slumber. It must have been after midnight when, as he lay awake, he could distinctly hear the sound of blows. Gilbert was not a moment in conjecturing the cause; he knew at once that the venerable priest was subjecting himself to corporal chastisement. He did not live in an age when voluntary mortification was ridiculed, when a sacred ambition to imitate a crucified God insured contempt from man. Then, those self-denying religious were not taunted with “the hope of gaining heaven by making earth a hell.” And perhaps Gilbert knew that the spiritual peace and delight derived from such chastisements, were infinitely sweeter, even here below, than the impure pleasures of worldlings. Feeling thus, he could not but contrast the mortified life of that holy man with his own indulged and pampered existence. He had never known the sting of adversity, and rarely been thwarted in a single desire; yet how much greater his sins than those of Father Omehr! Amid such reflections he felt and it is a salutary feeling the truth of a hereafter.

But we will no longer pursue the reflections of the youth. Some time after the sounds had ceased he fell asleep, and was only roused by the sun streaming into his apartment, and the solemn tones of the church bell.

The morning was beautiful. The sun was everywhere; kindling the hoary tops of the Suabian Alps, sparkling on the broad Danube as it rolled majestically on from the southwest to the northeast, lighting up hamlet, hill, vale, rivulet, forest, and making the church glitter like a stupendous diamond. But Gilbert was ill-prepared to enjoy this blaze of beauty. In a melancholy mood he leaned against the window, watching the sturdy serf in the centre of his family, as he came to share the blessings of the Mass. He was rather startled when the outer door opened and admitted the lady he had seen in the church the night before with Henry de Stramen. She came unattended, save by an old female servant, who carried with some difficulty a basket filled with fruits, delicacies, and medicines of various kinds, designed for Father Omehr to apply to any purpose his piety might point out.

Though in the year 1076 chivalry was not the regular and well-defined institution it became during and after the Crusades, yet the same amount of valor and devotion to woman was expected from the knight. The spirit of Christianity, operating upon Teutonic virtue, which has raised the woman from the drudge of man to be the ornament of society, created a chivalric courtesy long before the cry of “Deus vult!” rang from Italy to England. Gilbert de Hers, born and bred in the courtly circle of Suabia, though his spurs were not yet won, was still familiar with the duties of knighthood. As the lady paused, surprised at his presence, he made a profound and respectful reverence, and he would have done the same had she been less noble, or had he known, as he then surmised, that the fair visitor was the daughter of his father’s deadliest foe.

Their embarrassment was relieved by the appearance of Father Omehr, who extended to both his blessing, gratefully received the basket from the attendant, and, after Margaret de Stramen had retired, accompanied Gilbert to the church. As they emerged into the morning air, Gilbert caught a glimpse of the graceful figure of the young lady entering the church. But his attention was soon arrested by a strange, wild-looking being upon the church steps. She was apparently not over forty, tall, slightly built, and evidently the victim of insanity. Her long black hair hung in thick masses over her pale face and deathly-white neck; her arms swung to and fro with a restless motion, and she sang at intervals snatches from the ballads for which Suabia is so renowned. As Gilbert passed her, she bent her large wild eyes upon him with an expression of such fearful meaning, that brave as was the youth in battle, he recoiled from their ferocious glare. The next instant she was abstracted as before, and crossed her hands upon her breast in an attitude of devotion. Gilbert looked to his companion with an inquiring eye, but the priest was silent.

The next instant they were treading the marble aisle. Gilbert knelt down upon a tombstone, and endeavored to compose himself for the Mass. He perceived from the glances thrown upon him from time to time by some of the peasantry, that he was recognized as an enemy, yet respected as one under the aegis of religion. These glances became more frequent when Father Omehr, in his brief discourse, eloquently adverted to the example of Jesus in the forgiveness of injuries, and enforced the sacred duty of a Christian to imitate that Divine model. In powerful terms the gray-haired priest portrayed the miseries of discord, and the blessings of mutual forbearance; and Gilbert felt that a change was creeping over him.

He left the church when the Holy Sacrifice had been completed, meditating upon the pastor’s powerful exhortation. But the train of his thoughts was broken upon the steps by that wild face almost touching his. As the maniac stared fixedly at him, she muttered in a hoarse whisper:

They laid him ’neath a noisy tree,
And his glossy head was bare;
They piled the cold earth on his breast,
Then left him helpless there.

While the youth listened in amazement, and almost in terror, the frantic woman drew from her bosom a long knife, and inflicted a deep wound upon him before he could wrench it from her determined grasp. The knife had penetrated to the rib, but not farther, having glanced off to the side. As the blood spread rapidly over his hunting-shirt, the maniac gave a wild laugh, and repeated in the same low, dismal tone:

’T is red, ’t is red, as red as his;
Man’s blood is ever red;
’T was thus his side was crimsoned o’er
When they told me he was dead.

With the last words, she laughed again, more wildly than before, and, darting into the wood, was soon lost among the gigantic trees.

Some serfs were standing around, but offered no assistance. They seemed rooted to the ground in terror at the rash act, and crossed themselves in mute astonishment. At this juncture, while Gilbert was examining the extent of the wound, and vainly endeavoring to stanch the blood, the Lady Margaret and the priest appeared at the doorway, having been attracted by the loud laugh of Gilbert’s assailant.

Comprehending in an instant that Gilbert had been wounded, Father Omehr hastened to support him.

“It is but a trifle, Father,” said the youth, anxious to relieve the evident uneasiness of the old man.

“May God will that it be so!” replied the priest, eagerly removing the hunting-shirt, and examining the path of the knife. After which, having carefully replaced the garment, he turned to the serfs who yet lingered there, inquiring, in a voice of deep indignation:

“Who has dared to do this? Who has been impious enough to draw blood during the truce of God, upon the threshold of God’s sacred temple?”

One of them hastened to reply:

“It was Alber of the Thorn’s widow, crazy Bertha. God preserve us from such a deed, at such a time, and in such a place!”

“But could you not have prevented it?” continued the priest, eyeing the man until he quailed.

Gilbert interposed.

“They are not to blame, Father,” he said; “I did not expect the attack myself, and none else could have prevented the blow.”

“It bleeds much,” pursued the priest, again examining the wound.

Gilbert made a step forward, but Father Omehr detained him, and reluctantly the youth allowed himself to be supported by two of the serfs of Stramen to the bed he had occupied during the night.

Margaret de Stramen, in the spirit of the age, had gone to the cell, after discovering the nature of the young man’s injury, and taken from the basket she had brought some salves and stringents with which she stood ready at the door. She washed the wound and dressed it with the tenderness peculiar to woman, and received Gilbert’s thanks with a slight inclination of the head. Having completed her task, she drew the priest aside, and, looking up into his face with evident emotion, said:

“Could there have been poison on the knife?”

Though spoken in a whisper, the youth must have heard it, for he smiled at first, and the next moment became pale as death. Father Omehr noticed the change upon his features, and replied loud enough to be overheard:

“No, no! it cannot be. Some momentary paroxysm prompted the deed; there could have been no preparation, no predetermination.”

“It is not for his sake,” continued Margaret, in a still lower tone, and withdrawing farther from the bed; “not for his sake I fear an unfortunate result; but for our own. I know that it is Gilbert de Hers who lies there, and I have drunk too deeply in the prejudices of our family to repine at any calamity that may befall him. But this impious outrage can insure nothing but the Divine vengeance upon our heads. If he were borne down in battle, I perhaps should rejoice at heart at the triumph of my father; but I would rather die than see him perish from a noble confidence in the house of Stramen.”

“You are not responsible, my child,” rejoined her companion, “for the blind violence of a crazy woman. I am confident that the wound is not dangerous. Perhaps the accident, apparently so untoward, may in the end be productive of good. We are too apt to receive as good what should be avoided as evil, and to deem that a curse which should be considered a blessing.”

The young lady made no reply, but advanced to Gilbert’s bedside.

“Believe me, sir,” she began with dignity but in some confusion, “that I sincerely regret the accident which has confined you here, and that I desire and will pray for your speedy recovery. You cannot suspect the house of Stramen of conniving at such a cowardly assault; they are too powerful in the field to resort to such a pitiful stratagem. Our effort shall now be to secure you from further violence.”

The blood returned to Gilbert’s cheek as she spoke. Feeble with pain and the loss of blood, he with difficulty replied:

“I little expected ever to receive such kindness as you have shown me from the daughter of my father’s foes; but come what may, kind lady, I shall never forget your services. I feel assured that the kinsmen of her whom I address, could never be guilty of so ignoble an action.”

It was not without pleasure that the noble maiden heard an answer so flattering to her pride, and so earnestly pronounced. Her cheek became brighter than Gilbert’s as she bowed and left the apartment, attended by the old woman servant.

We will leave Gilbert, for the present, in the care of Father Omehr, to follow the footsteps of the fair lady of Stramen.

Margaret led the way rapidly to the border of the forest, where she had left a groom with horses. She sprang lightly upon her spirited palfrey, and exchanging a few words with the old woman, dismissed both domestics to the castle, and galloped off alone in an opposite direction. As she rode along, she was greeted with smiles and blessings by all who met her; yet she seemed to heed but little the frequent reverence and heartfelt salutation.

After proceeding about three miles, she struck into a deep, dark ravine, through which there rushed a slender stream, whose waters, seldom gladdened by a sunbeam, seemed to groan and murmur like an angry captive. The way, thickly strewn with moss-bound stones and the mouldering skeletons of trees, required all the maiden’s horsemanship. But she struggled on, until she reached something midway between a grotto and a hut, projecting from the side of the gully, and looking as though by some fantastic freak of nature it had grown there, so admirably was it in keeping with the character of the place.

From the time she had mounted her horse, the maiden’s face expressed great anxiety, which increased as she alighted and entered the singular excrescence we have mentioned. A blazing pine-knot driven in the ground, shed a fierce, and flickering light over the interior of this gloomy abode, for it was an abode and more, a home the home of Bertha! The maniac was sitting upon a rude bench, close to the firebrand which gave a fearful lustre to her haggard features, while with a species of exultation she gazed upon the knife stained with Gilbert’s blood, still clenched in her hand.

The husband of this unfortunate woman had, about a year before, been mortally wounded in a chance affray between the partisans of the lords of Hers and Stramen. He was brought home only to die in the arms of his wife. The shock had reduced her to this miserable extremity. She could not be prevailed upon to remain in the cottage she had occupied in the hour of her joy; and though repeatedly offered a home by Father Omehr and the Baron of Stramen, she had built for herself this wild nest, and obstinately refused to leave it except to wander to the church or to the grave-yard. She was maintained by the Lady Margaret principally, and by the charities of the peasantry. Up to the present time, she had been perfectly harmless, and was rather loved than feared by the children of the country. She had always manifested an extreme affection for the Lady Margaret, to whom she would sing her sweetest songs, and whose hand she would almost devour with kisses.

Margaret, though somewhat appalled at Bertha’s frightful appearance, yet confiding in the power she had over her, advanced and silently sat down upon the bench. For some minutes Bertha seemed unconscious of the presence of her visitor, but suddenly removing her eyes from the knife, she bent them upon Margaret. In an instant a smile of strange sweetness stole over the poor creature’s wasted face: every trace of anger disappeared as she fell upon her knees and raised the hem of the maiden’s garment to her lips. Without rising she sang one of those simple ballads which even insanity could not make her forget. The lady of Stramen patiently permitted her to proceed without interruption. But the moment her strange companion was silent, she minted to the knife, exclaiming:

“Is this blood, Bertha?”

Still kneeling, the woman began:

The chieftain swore on bended knee,
That blood for blood should flow
Then leaped upon his coal-black steed,
And spurred against the foe.

“Has anyone hurt you?” continued Margaret.

But Bertha only replied:

Sir Arthur swung his falchion keen
The serf implored in vain;
The knight is galloping away
The serf lies on the plain!

“Bertha! Bertha! this is wrong: I hope you have committed no violence?”

But the answer, as before, was given in rude, indefinite verse.

It may be unnecessary to say that the object of the lady’s visit was to discover if the knife had been poisoned. Finding that all question would be useless, she had recourse to an artifice to effect her purpose, suggested by the discovery of a splinter buried in Bertha’s thumb.

“Let me remove this it must give you pain,” she said, examining the hand she had taken in hers, and reaching after the knife. Bertha passively resigned the weapon, but rapidly withdrew her hand, just as her mistress feigned to prepare for the incision. Margaret shuddered, for she naturally saw in that quick gesture a confirmation of her worst fears. For some moments they gazed at each other in mute anxiety. Bertha was the first to break the silence, and her words revived a gleam of hope in the bosom of her companion.

“No! no!” she exclaimed, slowly and sternly, “his blood must not mix with mine!”

“Is there poison here?” pursued the lady, in a low searching tone.

She received in reply:

There was no poison on the steel
That robbed Sir James of breath;
There was no poison on the blade
That well avenged his death.

Greatly relieved, but still unsatisfied, the high-born damsel sprang to her feet.

“It is the blood of Hers!” she cried, exultingly.

The maniac’s face assumed a look of savage triumph.

“Then will I keep this blood-stained instrument as a precious jewel. Farewell, Bertha; you shall hear from me soon.”

She passed rapidly through the narrow aperture by which she had entered, leaving Bertha in blank amazement, utterly unable to comprehend what had passed.

Emerging from the dark ravine, the Lady Margaret rode straight toward the old castle of Stramen, whose gray towers retained their sombre majesty, which the merry sun could not entirely dispel. It was not long before she passed the drawbridge, sped through the massive gate, and reined in her palfrey upon the ample terrace; when, having thrown her bridle to an attendant, she proceeded at once to her chamber, and summoned Linda, the old domestic, to her side.

“You are skilled in such matters, Linda,” she said, producing the knife, before the faithful neif had finished her salutation; “is there poison on this blade?”

Linda took the knife, and having examined it attentively, returned it to her mistress; after which she left the room, making a signal that she would soon return. After the lapse of a few minutes, she reappeared with a vessel of boiling water, which she placed upon a marble slab. Then taking from her pocket a piece of polished silver, and at the same time receiving the knife, she plunged them both into the hissing liquid. As the lady of Stramen, eagerly watching the experiment, stood bending over the water with her back to the door, she was not aware of her father’s presence. He had entered unperceived, and was contemplating in some surprise the mysterious operation going on before him. He could scarce repress a laugh, for there was something ludicrous in Linda’s very wise and consequential manner, as she knelt over the kettle, while his daughter, equally absorbed, her hat yet untied, continued in an attitude of profound attention beside her.

When the water had cooled, the old woman with a trembling hand drew out the silver it was bright as ever!

“It is venomless as the bill of the turtle-dove,” she exclaimed, with the importance of an oracle, looking up at her mistress.

“May I ask the meaning of all this, without being referred to the prince of magic for an answer?” said the Baron of Stramen, stepping forward; and he added, addressing Linda, who in her surprise had nearly overturned the vessel: “Do you wish to be hung for a witch?”

The old woman slunk terrified into a corner, but Margaret hastily replied:

“You are already informed, sir, of the violation of the truce of God, which occurred this morning. Our magic consisted only in the discovery that there was no poison upon the knife which inflicted the wound.”

“I cannot but think,” rejoined her father, “that you have displayed an unnecessary interest about the result. That young stripling has cost me more lives than he numbers years; and though I could not connive at Bertha’s attempt to assassinate, I certainly do not see much reason to rejoice at his escape.”

It may have been that Margaret quailed a little beneath her father’s rigid scrutiny, but without embarrassment she returned:

“If I had been born and bred to arms, if my breast were accustomed to the coat of mail, if my hand could wield the battle-axe, I might anxiously crave, or coldly behold the murder of a foe confiding in our generosity and in our plighted faith to the Church; but I have never worn the gauntlet, or drawn the sword; my heart has never exulted at the gladsome sight of an enemy’s blood, and I scorn to ascribe the interest I may have shown, to a wish of having the sweet assurance that a scion of Hers would perish like a dog, when in reality I hoped to find the weapon venomless.”

“Spoken like a woman, as you are,” muttered the knight. “I would have you feel otherwise, but God has given you your sex; I cannot change its nature.”

The Baron of Stramen was a tall, powerful man, whose vigor fifty years had not impaired. His face was stern, though not repulsive, and free from any approach to vulgarity. A man of strong passions, yet the strongest of all was an unvarying love for his daughter, on whom seemed to have centered all the tenderness of which he was capable. On the present occasion, he put an end to further controversy by drawing Margaret to his side, and giving her an exquisitely wrought head of Gregory VII.

“Treasure it, my child,” he said, “it is the faithful likeness of a wonderful man a man who may one day, with a few stout hearts to second his energy, chastise the impious tyranny of the house of Franconia!” He spoke with deep feeling, and, after pacing the room, with his arms folded upon his broad breast, abruptly stalked through the door, apparently absorbed in some momentous question.

No sooner had he gone, than Margaret turned to Linda, who still occupied the corner, and dismissed her with a message to Father Omehr. When alone, she knelt down before an ivory image of the Blessed Virgin and prayed not to the polished ivory but to the Mother of purity whose intercession it suggested, with a fervency and constancy which only they venture to ridicule who cannot record the virtues of Mary without a sneer.

Though not apprehensive, Father Omehr was pleased to learn from Linda that the knife had not been poisoned. Gilbert’s eye brightened at the intelligence, though he had not given utterance to his fears fears they were for even the young and brave recoil in terror from death, when it assumes a form and hovers near in a detested shape. Having informed the youth that a messenger had been despatched to his father, the priest left Gilbert in charge of the sacristan, and proceeded on his daily errand of mercy through the neighborhood. By men like him, fervent, fearless, faithful, the rude Northern hordes were induced to abandon their idolatry, and embrace the faith of the Church of Rome. These noble missionaries slowly but surely prepared the canvas on which were afterward laid, in colors of enduring brightness, the features of Christian civilization.

When Father Omehr returned, Gilbert was asleep. The sacristan put in his hands a letter from a distinguished prelate, informing him of the nomination of Henry, canon of Verdun, by Henry IV.

“O God, protect Thy holy Church!” exclaimed the missionary, crushing the paper in his excitement. “If the ministers of God become the creatures of the king, despotism and irreligion must inevitably ensue. How long will virtue be accounted a crime? Shall every faithful shepherd be supplanted, to make room for the wolf of lay investiture, the instrument of a lustful tyrant, raised by simony, and upheld by royal favor?”

Gilbert’s light slumber had been broken by the voice of his benefactor. As soon as Father Omehr saw the youth awake, he approached him, and inquired, with great kindness of manner, whether he felt better.

The youth replied in the affirmative.

“I have discovered,” continued the other, “that you have richly deserved this wound. You killed with your own hand the husband of the woman who stabbed you, and though the chance thrust of an affray, it was noted, and communicated to Bertha by an eye-witness, one of the combatants. This is her revenge but how inadequate to her suffering!”

“It is, indeed,” said Gilbert, replying to the last remark, which had been particularly emphasized. His companion could not conceal the satisfaction with which he hailed this reply, as an omen of regret, and of a right apprehension of his former violence. But the youth was drowsy, and prudence forbade a longer conversation. At the close of the evening service, the lady of Stramen was seen to exchange a few words with her venerable pastor, but she did not enter the cell.

The gorgeous sun of ancient Suabia was beneath the horizon but Gilbert slept upon his couch; the moon had lit her feebler torch, and walked silently beneath the stars yet not until midnight did Gilbert awake. All was profoundly still. The dim light of the taper at his bedside revealed only the motionless figure of the sacristan, and the outline of a crucifix hanging against the wall. His eyes involuntarily closed, and in a moment he stood before his father, in the oaken halls of Hers his retainers were around him the horses pranced merrily the bugle sounded “On to the chase!” was the cry. He opened his eyes the crucifix became more distinct.

He knelt before a prince, and arose a knight a broidered kerchief streamed from his polished casque the herald, in trumpet tones, proclaimed his prowess the troubador embalmed his deeds in immortal verse the smiles of high-born damsels were lavished upon him the page clasped his sword at the mention of his name. He opened his eyes the crucifix, and the sacristan!

A form of beauty was before him at first, haughty and disdainful, but gradually assuming a look of interest and pity it bent over him, and poured a balm into his wound, with a prayer for its efficacy but the figure lifted its finger with a menacing air, and pointed to a snake, hissing from its hair a mist settled around him, and the apparition was gone. He opened his eyes the taper burned brighter the crucifix became more distinct.

Gilbert was now fully awake. His wound was more painful than it had yet been, and in vain he endeavored to win back the repose so lately enjoyed. Nor was corporal uneasiness his only annoyance. Father Omehr’s revelation of the motives by which Bertha was actuated, had left a more painful impression upon his mind than his monitor perhaps desired. Though the priest had not directly attributed the woman’s insanity to her husband’s death, Gilbert too clearly understood that such was the fact. His was too generous a heart, not to deplore bitterly so terrible a calamity, of which he was however unintentionally the cause. He felt no resentment for his misguided assailant he would willingly have exposed himself to a second attack, could he have thus restored her reason. The memento of the crucifixion that Catholic alphabet, the crucifix held up unto his soul the wondrous truth that God had voluntarily suffered, for the sake of man, all that humanity can endure; and the youth interiorly acknowledged that the errors of his life were but imperfectly balanced by the inconvenience he then experienced.

It is not in the pride of health and youth, surrounded by pleasure, and strangers to care, that a heart, wedded to the world, is apt to prostrate itself in humility before the Author of life; but in danger and affliction, we learn to mistrust our self-sufficiency, and feel our complete dependence upon an invisible and almighty power. We are much more disposed to appeal to heaven for protection, than to return thanks for repeated favors. It is not to be wondered at, then, that Gilbert sought relief in prayer; there is nothing more natural to one who prefers the consolations of religion to the staff of philosophy. He was far indeed from that exalted perfection of loving God for Himself alone; but who can predict what may spring from the mustard-seed?

By the first gray light of the morning Father Omehr was bending over his youthful charge: Gilbert was fast asleep.