The King Orgulous
T o and fro in the open cloister of Essalona walked the monk Desiderius, musing and musing. Every now and again he stayed in his paces to feed a tall white stork and two of her young, which stood on the parapet between the pillars of the cloister; and though for the most part his dole went to the storklings, the brother was well content with his stroking of her head and soft white back-feathers.
Then he resumed his slow walk, turning over and over in his perplexed mind the questions of grace and nature, and praying for light in the obscure ways where reason groped darkling. Meanwhile the storks stood grave and patient, as if they too had matter for deep musing.
As in this day, so in the ancient time the convent of Essalona was perched on a beetling crag on the northern side of the Sarras mountains. There the mighty ridge, with its belts of virgin pinewood and its stony knolls and pastoral glens, breaks off suddenly in a precipitous escarpment; and, a thousand feet below, the land is an immense green plain, sweeping away to the blue limits of the north.
It is as though the sea had once on a time run up to the mountain wall and torn down the tawny rocks for sand and shingle, and had then drawn back into the north, leaving the good acres to grow green in the sun. Through the plain winds a river, bright and slow; in many places the fruitful level is ruffled with thicket and coppice; and among the far fields the white walls of farms and hamlets glitter amid their boskage. When the clear sunlight fell on that still expanse of quiet earth, one might see, in those days, the stone towers and sparkling pinnacles of the royal city of Sarras, with a soft blue feather of smoke floating over it.
Often had Desiderius let his eyes rest on the smoulder and gleam of that busy city, which was all so hushed and dreamlike in the distance, little thinking the while that one day he should dwell within its walls, and play a strange part in the deeds that men remember.
From the brink of the escarpment rises the rock of Essalona, and the convent is built on the edge of the rock, in such sort that, leaning over the parapet of the open cloister, Desiderius might have dropped a pebble sheer down to the plain below. A single path wound up the rock to the gate, so narrow and steep that one sturdy lay-brother might have held the way with a thresher's flail against a score of men-at-arms.
Here, then, in this solitary house, Desiderius dwelt with five other brethren, all good and faithful men; but he, the youngest and yet the most learned in philosophy and star-lore and the sacred Scriptures and the books of the wise, was the most meek and lowly of heart. No pains did he spare his body or his spirit to master the deep knowledge of divine things. Diligent by day, he eked out the light of the stars with the lamp of the firefly, or conned his page by the dim shining of the glow-worm along the lines.
Now as he mused in the cloister he stopped short with a deep sigh, and stood before the storks, and said: "Away, happy birds; you have leave. Disport yourselves, soaring very high in the sunny heavens, or take your rest on our roofs. I have appeased you with food; but to the hunger of my soul who shall minister?"
At his word the storks flapped their wings and rose from the parapet, and went sailing up into the sunshine; and Desiderius heard at his shoulder a most sweet and gracious voice saying: "What is thy hunger, and wherein wouldst thou have me minister to thee?"
Turning about, Desiderius saw that it was an Angel which spoke, and he fell at the bright spirit's feet, abashed and in great dread. But the Angel raised him up, and gave him courage, saying: "O Desiderius, most dear to me (for I am thine Angel Guardian), do not tremble to tell me; but speak to me even as thou wouldst speak to a man of thy brethren."
Then said Desiderius: "Show to me and make plain, I pray thee, the mystery of the grace of God in the heart of man."
"Many are the mysteries of God," said the Angel, "whereof even the highest of the Archangels may not sustain the splendour, and this is one of them. Howbeit, if thou wilt be patient and prayerful, and wilt repose thy trust in the Lord Christ, I will strive to show thee two pictures of thy very self—one, to wit, of the natural Adam in Desiderius, and one of the man redeemed by the blood shed for thee. So in some wise shalt thou come to some dim light of this mystery of grace divine. Will that suffice thee?"
"That, Lord Angel, will suffice," said the monk, bowing low before the Angel.
"Wait, then, and watch; and even in thy body and before thou diest thou shalt behold as I have said."
Therewith the Angel left him, and Desiderius was aware of but the walls and pillars of the cloister, and the bright vast plain, and, far away, the city of Sarras glittering, and the smoke sleeping like a small blue cloud above it. And the coming and going of the Angel was after this manner. Desiderius perceived him, bright in the brightness of the sunshine, as one perceives a morsel of clear ice floating in clear water; and when Desiderius saw him no more it was as though the clear ice had melted into the clear water.
Now after the lapse of three short years, and when he was but in his thirtieth summer, Desiderius was summoned from his cell on the lonely mountain, and, despite his tears and supplications and his protestations of ignorance and inexperience and extreme youth, made Archbishop of Sarras. Only one answer was vouchsafed to him. "One of thy vows was entire obedience, and the grace of God is sufficient for thee."
In that same year a horde of the fierce Avars poured out from the round green earth-walls of their mysterious stronghold, which lay beyond Danube, and, crossing. the river, fell on Sarras; and clashing with that ravening horde, Astulf the King of Sarras was slain.
Ill had it then fared with the folk of Sarras, city and plain alike, but for a certain Talisso, a free-rider, who from a green knoll had watched the onset. When he saw the slaying of the King, he plunged into the battle, cleaving his way through the ranks of squat and swarthy Avars; and heartening the men of Sarras with his ringing cheer and battle-laughter, shaped them into wedges of sharp iron and drove them home through the knotted wood of their foemen, till the Avars fled hot-foot to Danube water, and through the water, and beyond, and so reached the strait doorways of their earth-bound stronghold, the Hring.
Now, seeing that the King of Sarras had left neither child nor brother to heirship, and that their deliverer was a stalwart champion, young and nobly statured, and handsome and gracious as he was valiant, frank too and open-handed, and that moreover he seemed a man skilled in the mastery of men and in affairs of rule, the fighting men of Sarras thought that no better fortune could befall them than they should choose this Talisso for their king. To Sarras therefore they carried him with them on their merry home-going, and having entered the free town, called the Council of Elders to say yea or nay. With few words the Elders confirmed the choice, and the joy-bells were rung, and great was the rejoicing of all men, gentle and simple, that God had sent them so goodly a man for their ruler and bulwark.
In a week from that the city was dight and decked for the crowning of Talisso. Garlands were hung across the streets; windows and walls were graced with green branches and wreaths of flowers; many-coloured draperies, variegated carpets and webs of silk and velvet hung from parapet and balcony; once more the joy-bells were set aswing, and amid a proud array of nobles and elders and gaily harnessed warriors the new King walked under a canopy of cloth of gold to the High Church.
There in solemn splendour the new Archbishop administered to him the kingly oath, and anointed him with the chrism of consecration, and set the gold of power on his head, and invested him with the mantle of St. Victor and girt about him the Saint's great iron sword set with many jewels on the apple and the cross. As the Archbishop was completing these ordinances, he chanced to look full into the King's face for the first time, and as the King's eyes met his each stood still as stone regarding the other for such a space as it would take one to count four, telling the numbers slowly. Neither spoke, and when they who were nearest looked to learn the cause of the stillness and the stop-page they saw with amazement that the new King and the new Archbishop were as like the one to the other as brothers who are twins. With a slow and audible drawing of the breath the Archbishop took up again the words of the ritual, and neither looked at the other any more at that time.
Now, having been crowned and consecrated, Talisso ascended the steps in front of the altar, and, drawing the huge blade from its sheath, lunged with it four times into the air—once to the north, and once to the south, once to the east and once to the west. Sheathing the sword, he descended, and walking to the western portal mounted his war-horse, and paced slowly down the street, followed by a brilliant cavalcade, to the Mound of Coronation.
Urging his steed up the ascent, he drew rein on the summit, and once more bared the holy brand, and, wheeling to the four quarters of heaven, thrust it into the air in token of lordship and power inalienable; and when he rode down the Mound to his people a great cry was raised in greeting, and four pigeons were loosed. High they flew in circles overhead, and, each choosing his own airt, darted out to the four regions of the world to bear the news of that crowning.
The first years of the new reign seemed to be the dawn of a Golden Age in the land of Sarras, and in those years no man was more beloved and honoured by the King than was Archbishop Desiderius. As time passed by, however, and the evil leaven of unrestrained power began to ferment in the King's heart, and the Archbishop opposed and reproved him, gently and tenderly at first, but ever more gravely and steadfastly, coldness and estrangement divided them; and soon that strange resemblance which gave them the aspect of twin brothers, became a root of suspicion and dread in the King's mind, for he reasoned with himself, "What more likely than that this masterful prelate should dream of wearing the crown, he who so nearly resembles the King that the mother of either might well pause ere she should say which was her son? A foot of iron, and a sprinkling of earth, and farewell Talisso! None would guess it was Desiderius who took his ease in thy chair."
Thus by degrees limitless power waxed into lawlessness, and suspicion and dread into moroseness and cruelty, and on this rank soil the red weeds of lust and hate and bitter pride sprang up and choked all that was sweet and gracious and lovable in the nature of the man.
Then did the wise and gentle folk of Sarras come to perceive how woefully they had been deceived in the tyrant they had crowned, and speedily it came to pass that when they spoke of King Talisso they breathed not his name, but using an ancient word to signify such insane and evil pride as that of Lucifer and the Fallen Angels, they called him the King Orgulous. Yet if this was the mind of the better folk, there was no lack of base and venomous creatures—flatterers, time-servers, and sycophants—to minister to his wickedness and malignity.
Dark were the days which now fell on Sarras, and few were those on which some violence or injustice, some deed of lust or rapacity was not flaunted in the face of heaven. The most noble and best men of the city were attainted and plundered and driven into exile. Of the meaner sort of folk many a poor citizen or rustic toiler went shaven and branded, or maimed of nose and eyelids, or with black stumps seared with pitch and an iron hook for hand. Once more the torture-chamber of the castle rang with the screams of poor wretches stretched on the rack; and the ancient instruments of pain, which had rusted through many a long year of clemency, were once more reddened with the sweat of human agony.
An insatiable lust of cruelty drove the King to a sort of madness. With a fiendish malice he fashioned of wood and iron an engine of torment which bore the likeness of a beautiful woman, but which opened when a spring was pressed, and showed within a hideous array of knives; and these pierced the miserable wight about whom the Image closed her arms. In blasphemous merriment the King called this woman of his making Our Lady of Sorrow, and in mockery of holy things he kept a silver lamp burning constantly before her, and crowned her with flowers.
Now in the hour in which the King was left wholly to his wickedness, he doomed to the Image the young wife of one of the chief men of Sarras. Little more than a girl was she in years; sweet and exceeding lovely; and she still suckled her first babe.
When the tormentors would have haled her to the Image, "Forbear," she said, "there is no need; willingly I go and cheerfully." And with a fearless meekness she walked before them with her little babe in her arms into the chamber of agony.
Coming before the Image with its garland of flowers she knelt down, and prayed to the Virgin Mother of our Lord, and commended her soul and the soul of her dear babe to our Lady and her divine Son; and the babe stretched out its little hands to the Image, cooing and babbling in its innocence.
Then, as though this were a spectacle to make the very stones shriek and to move the timber of the rack and the iron of the axe to human tenderness, the Image stepped down from its pedestal, and lifted up mother and child, and a wondrous light and fragrance filled the stone vault, and the tormentors fled, stricken with a mad terror.
Down from the castle and through the streets of the hushed and weeping city the Image led the mother and her babe to their own door, and when they had entered the house, and the people stood by sobbing and praying, the Image burst into flames, and on the spot where it stood there remained a little heap of ashes when that burning was done.
Judge if the land of Sarras was silent after this day of divine interposition. Hastily summoning the Bishops of the realm, and gathering a body of men-at-arms, the Archbishop Desiderius proclaimed from the Jesus alter of the High Church the deposition of the King Orgulous. Talisso was seized and stripped of his royal robes; a width of sack-cloth was wrapped about his body, and with a rope round his neck he was led to the Mound of Coronation. There, on the height whereon he had thrust his sword into the four regions of heaven, he received his sentence.
Standing erect in a circle on the top of the Mound the nine Bishops of the realm held each a lighted torch in. his hand. In the centre stood Desiderius beside the King deposed, and holding high his torch uttered the anathema which was to sever all bonds of plighted troth and loyalty and service, and to cast him forth from the pale of Holy Church, and to debar him from the. common charity of all Christian people. At that moment the Bishops marked with awe the strange resemblance between Desiderius and the King, and the eyes of these two met, and each was aware how marvellously like to himself was the other. But with a clear unfaltering voice the Archbishop cried aloud the doom:
"May he be outcast from the grace of heaven and the gladness of earth. May the stones betray him, and the trees of the forest be leagued against him. In want or in sickness may no hand help him. Accursed may he be in his house and in his fields, in the water of the streams and in the fruits of the earth. Accursed be all things that are his, from the cock that crows to awaken him to the dog that barks to welcome him. May his death be the death of Pilate and of Judas the betrayer. May no earth be laid on the earth that was he. May the light of his life be extinguished thus!"
And the Archbishop cast down his torch and trampled it into blackness; and crying "Amen, amen, amen!" the Bishops threw down their torches and trod them under foot and crushed out every spark of fire.
"Begone," said the Archbishop, "thou art banned and banished. If within three days thy feet be found on the earth of Sarras, thou shalt hang from the nearest tree."
As he spoke the great bell of the High Church began to toll as for one whose spirit has passed away. At the sound Talisso started; then taking the rope from his neck and flinging it on the ground with a mocking laugh, he turned and fled down the Mound and into the green fields that lie to the north.
Not far had he fled into the open country before the recklessness of the reiver and strong-thief fell on Talisso. Entering a homestead he smote down the master, and got himself clothing and food and weapons, and seizing a horse, pushed on apace till he came to the red field where he had routed the Avars, and thence onward to Danube water.
Beyond Danube, some days' riding into the north, lay that mysterious stronghold, the Hring, the camp-city of the Avar robber-horde. And thither Talisso was now speeding, for he said to himself: "They are raiders and slayers, and this kind is quick to know a man. They will love me none the less that I have stricken and chased them. Rather will they follow me and avenge me, if not for my sake for the sake of the fat fields and rich towns of Sarras."
Now the stronghold was a marvel in the manner of its contrivance, and in its size and strength; for it was bulwarked with seven rings, each twenty feet high and twenty feet wide, and the rings were made of stockades of oak and beech and pine trunks, filled in with stones and earth, and covered atop with turf and thick bushes. The distance across the outer ring was thirty miles, and between each ring and the one within it there were villages and farms in cry of each other, and each ring was pierced by narrow gateways well guarded. In the midst of the innermost ring were the tent of the Chagan or Great Chief, and the House of the Golden Hoard. Piled high were the chambers of that house with the enormous treasure of a century of raiding—silken tissues and royal apparel and gorgeous arms, great vases and heavy plate of gold and silver, spoil of jewels and precious stones, leather sacks of coined money, the bribes and tribute of Greece and Rome, and I know not what else of rare and costly. Long afterwards, when the Avars were broken and the Hring thrown down, that hoard filled fifteen great waggons drawn each by four oxen.
In the very manner in which Talisso had forecast it, so it fell out with him at the Hring. The fierce, swart, broad-shouldered dwarfs with the almond eyes and woven pigtails gazed with glee and admiration on the tall and comely warrior who had swept them before his sword-edge; and when he spoke of the rich markets and goodly houses and fruitful land of Sarras their eyes glistened, and they swore by fire and water and the four winds to avenge his wrongs.
Little need is there to linger in telling of a swift matter. Mounted on their nimble and hardy ponies, the Avars dashed into Sarras land two hundred strong, and tarried neither to slay nor spoil, but outsped the fleet feet of rumour, till in the grey glimmer of cock-crow they sighted the towers of Sarras city. Under cover of a wood they rested till the gates were flung wide for the early market folk. Who then but Talisso laughed his fierce and orgulous laugh as he rode at their head and they all hurled through the gates, and, clattering up the empty street, carried the castle out of hand?
Not a blow was struck, no drop of blood reddened iron or stone; and such divinity doth hedge even a wicked king dethroned that when the guards saw the tyrant once more ascending the steps of power they lowered their points and stood at a loss how to act. But Talisso, with some touch of his pristine graciousness, bade no man flee or fear who was willing to return to his allegiance. "First, however, of all things, bring me hither the Archbishop; bring with ropes and horses if need be; but see that not a hair of his head be injured."
Now on this same night that these Hunnish folk were pressing forward to Sarras city Desiderius saw in a dream Talisso standing before the throne of God. On his head he wore his crown, but otherwise he was but such as he stood for sentence on the Mound of Coronation, to wit, with a rope around his neck, and naked save for the fold of sack-cloth about his loins.
Beside him stood an Angel, and the Angel was speaking: "All the lusts of the flesh, and all the lusts of the eyes, and all the lusts of the will, and the pride of life this man hath gratified and glutted to surfeiting, yet is he as restless as the sea and as insatiable as the grave. Speak, man, is it not so?"
And Talisso answered, with a peal of orgulous laughter: "Restless as the sea; insatiable as the grave."
"How then, Lord," said the Angel, "shall this man's unrest and hunger be stayed?"
God spoke and said: "Fill his mouth with dust."
Then the Angel took a handful of dust and said to Talisso: "Open thy mouth and eat."
Talisso cried aloud, "I will not eat."
"Open thy mouth," said the Angel sternly.
"My mouth I will not open," replied Talisso.
Thereupon the Angel caught him by the hair, and plucked his head backward till his throat made a knotted white ridge above the neck, and as Talisso opened his mouth, shrieking blasphemies and laughing with frantic rage, the Angel filled it with dust.
Talisso fell backwards, thrusting with his feet and thrashing the ground with his hands; his crown fell from his head and rolled away; his face grew set and white; and then he lay straight and rigid.
"Hast thou filled his mouth?"
"His mouth, Lord, is filled," the Angel answered. This was the dream of Desiderius.
When citizens came running to the palace, and the Archbishop learned how the gates had been surprised and the castle taken, he lost no time in casting about what he should do. He sent messengers to summon the Council of the Elders, and bade his men-at-arms fall into array. Then he hastened to the High Church, and, after a brief prayer before the altar, girt on the great sword of St. Victor, threw over his purple cassock the white mantle of the Saint, and putting on his head a winged helm of iron, made his way to the castle where Talisso awaited his capture.
"Stay you here," he said to his men-at-arms when they reached the portals, "and if by God's blessing work fall to your hands to do, do it doughtily and with right good will."
Up the high hall of the castle, through the groups of lounging Avars he went, with great strides and eyes burning, to the days where Talisso sat apart in the royal chair.
"Ha! well met, Lord Archbishop," cried the dethroned King, springing to his feet at the sight of him.
"Well met, Talisso," replied Desiderius in a loud voice. "With no more ado I now tell thee that for thee there is but one end. Thy mouth must be filled with dust."
As he spoke, Desiderius flung back his mantle and drew the holy sword. Heaving it aloft he struck mightily at Talisso. From the King's helmet glanced the keen brand, and descending to the shoulder shore away the plates of iron, and bit the flesh.
Once more the great sword was swung up, for Desiderius neither heard nor heeded the cry and rush of the Avars; but or ever the stroke could fall Desiderius saw the Angel of Essalona by his side and felt his hand restraining the blade; and at the same instant the figure before him, the figure of the King Orgulous, grew dim and hazy, and wavered, and broke like smur blown along a wooded hillside, and vanished from his gaze.
"A little truer stroke," said the Angel, "and thou hadst slain thyself, for of a truth the man thou wast slaying was none other than thyself; as it is, thou art hurt more than need was"—for the shoulder of the Archbishop was bare, and the blood streamed from it.
Bewildered at these words, Desiderius gazed about to see if the high hall and the Avars were but the imagery of a dream. But there in front of him stood the dwarfish tribe, with naked brands and battle-axes. These, when they looked on his face, raised a hoarse cry of terror, for they too had beheld Talisso, how at a blow of the magic sword he had fallen and perished even from the vision of men, and now they saw that he who had slain the King was himself the King. Howling and clamouring, they broke from the hall and fled into the street; and there the men-at-arms did right willingly and doughtily the work which thus came to their hands. Of that fierce and uncouth robber horde, which rode to Sarras two hundred strong, scarce two score saw Danube water again.
When Desiderius knew for a surety that the natural man within him was verily that King wicked and orgulous, and understood that the sins of that evil King were the sins he himself would have committed but for the saving grace of God, a great awe fell upon him, and he was abashed with a grievous dread lest the King Orgulous were not really dead and done with, but were sleeping still, like the Kings of old legend, in some dusky cavern of his nature, ready to awake and break forth with sword and fire. Gladly would he have withdrawn to the solitude of the little convent on the beetling crag, far from the temptations of power and the splendour and tumult of life; but the same answer was given to him now as had been given to him of old: "One of thy vows was entire obedience, and the grace of God is sufficient for thee."