I will now tell of Hilary and his companions, who came over the snowy passes of the Alps, and carried the lamp of faith into the north; and this was in the days of the ancient gods. Many of their shrines had Hilary overturned, and broken their images, and cut down their sacred trees, and defiled their wells of healing. Wherefore terrible phantoms pursued him in his dreams, and in the darkness, and in the haunted ways of the woods and mountains. At one time it was the brute-god Pan, who sought to madden him with the terror of his piping in desolate places; at another it was the sun-god Apollo, who threatened him with fiery arrows in the parching heat of noon; or it was Pallas Athene, who appeared to him in visions, and shook in his face the Gorgon's head, which turns to stone all living creatures who look on it. But the holy Bishop made the sign of the cross of the Lord, and the right arm of their power was broken, and their malice could not harm him.
The holy men traversed the mountains by that Roman road which climbed up the icy rocks and among the snowy peaks of the Mountain of Jove, and at sundown they came to that high temple of Jove which had crowned the pass for many centuries. The statue of the great father-god of Rome had been hurled down the ravine into the snow-drift, and his altar had been flung into the little wintry mere which shivers in the pass, and his last priest had died of old age a lifetime ago; and the temple was now but a cold harbour for merchants and soldiers and wandering men.
Here in the freezing air the apostles rested from their journey, but in the dead of the night Hilary was awakened by a clamour of forlorn voices, and opening his eyes he saw the mighty father-god of Olympus looking down upon him with angry brows, and brandishing in his hand red flashes of lightning. In no way daunted, the Bishop sprang to his feet, and cried in a loud voice, "In the name of Him who was crucified, depart to your torments!" And at the sound of that cry the colossal figure of the god wavered and broke like a mountain cloud when it crumbles in the wind, and glimmering shapes of goddesses and nymphs flitted past, sighing and lamenting; and the Bishop saw no longer anything but the sharp cold stars, and the white peaks and the ridges of the mountains.
When they had descended and reached the green valleys, they came at length to a great lake, blue and beautiful to look upon, and here they sojourned for a while. It was a fair and pleasant land, but the people were rude and barbarous, and drove them away with stones when they would enter their hamlets. So, as they needed food, Hilary bade his companions gather berries and wild herbs, and he himself set snares for birds, and wove a net to cast into the lake, and made himself a raft of pine-trees, from which he might cast it the more easily.
One night as he floated on this raft in the starlight, he heard the voice of the Spirit of the Peak calling to the Spirit of the Mere. And the Spirit of the Mere answered, "Speak, I am listening." Then the Mountain Spirit cried, "Arise, then, and come to my aid; alone I cannot chase away these men who are driving out all the ancient gods from their shrines in the land." The Water Spirit answered, "Of what avail is our strength against theirs? Here on the starry waters is one whose nets I cannot break, and whose boat I cannot overturn. Without ceasing he prays, and never are his eyes closed in slumber." Then Hilary arose on his raft, and raising his hand to heaven cried against the Spirit of the Peak and the Spirit of the Mere: "In the name of Him crucified, be silent for evermore, and leave these hills and waters to the servants of God." And these creatures of evil were stricken dumb, and they fled in dismay, making a great moaning and sobbing, and the dolorous sound was as that of the wind in the pines and the water on the rocks.
Then Hilary and his companions fared away into the north, through the Grey Waste, which is a wild and deserted country where in the olden time vast armies had passed with fire and sword; and now the field had turned into wildwood and morass, and the rich townsteads were barrows of ruins and ashes overgrown with brambles, and had been given for a lodging to the savage beasts. The name of this waste was more terrible than the place, for the season was sweet and gracious, and of birds and fish and herbs and wild honey there was no dearth. They were now no longer harassed by the phantoms of the ancient gods, or by the evil spirits of the unblessed earth. Thus for many long leagues was their journey made easy for them.
Now it chanced, when they had reached the further edge of this region, that as they went one night belated along a green riding, which in the old time had been a spacious paved causeway between rich cities, they heard the music of a harp, more marvellously sweet and solacing than any mortal minstrel may make; and sweet dream-voices sighed to them "Follow, follow!" and they felt their feet drawn as by enchantment; and as they yielded to the magical power, a soft shining filled the dusky air, and they saw that the ground was covered with soft deep grass and brilliant flowers, and the trees were of the colour of gold and silver. So in strange gladness, and feeling neither hunger nor fatigue, they went forward through the hours of the night till the dawn, wondering what angelic ministry was thus beguiling them of hardship and pain. But with the first gleam of the dawn the music ceased amid mocking laughter, the vision of lovely woodland vanished away, and in the grey light they found themselves on the quaking green edges of a deep and dangerous marsh. Hilary, when he saw this, groaned in spirit and said: "O dear sons, we have deserved this befooling and misguidance, for have we not forgotten the behest of our Master, 'Watch and pray lest ye enter into temptation'?"
Now when after much toilsomeness they had won clear of that foul tract of morass and quagmire, they came upon vast herds of swine grubbing beneath the oaks, and with them savage-looking swineherds scantily clad in skins. Still further north they caught sight of the squalid hovels and wood piles of charcoal burners; and still they pursued their way till they cleared the dense forest and beheld before them a long range of hills blue in the distant air. Towards sun- down they came on a stony moorland, rough with heather and bracken and tufts of bent; and when there was but one long band of red light parting the distant land from the low sky, they descried a range of thick posts standing high and black against the red in the heavens. As they drew near, these, they discovered, were the huge granite pillars of a great ring of stone and of an avenue which led up to it; and in the midst of the ring was a mighty flat stone borne up on three stout pillars, so that it looked like a wondrous stone house of some strong folk of the beginning of days.
"This, too, companions," said Hilary, "is a temple of false gods. Very ancient gods of a world gone by are these, and it may be they have been long dead like their worshippers, and their names are no more spoken in the world. Further we may not go this night; but on these stones we shall put the sign of the blessed tree of our redemption, and in its shelter shall we sleep."
As they slept that night in the lee of the stones Hilary saw in a dream the place wherein they lay; and the great stones, he was aware, were not true stones of the rock, but petrified trees, and in his spirit he knew that these trees of stone were growths of that Forbidden Tree with the fruit of which the Serpent tempted our first mother in Paradise. On the morrow when they rose, he strove to overthrow the huge pillars, but to this labour their strength was not equal.
This same day was the day of St. John, the longest in all the year, and they travelled far, till at last in the long afternoon they arrived in sight of a cluster of little homesteads, clay huts thatched with bracken and fenced about with bushes of poison-thorn, and of tilled crofts sloping down the hillside to a clear river wending through the valley.
As Hilary and his companions approached they saw that it was a day of rejoicing and merry-making among the people, for they were all abroad, feasting and drinking from great mead horns in the open air, and shouting barbarous songs to the noise of rude instruments. When it grew to such duskiness as there may be in a midsummer night countless fires were lit, near at hand and far away, on the hills around; and on the ridges above the river children ran about with blazing brands of pine-wood, and young men and maidens gathered at the flaming beacon. Wheels, too, wrapped round tire and spoke with straw and flax smeared with pine-tree gum, were set alight and sent rolling down the hill to the river, amid wild cries and clapping of hands. Some of the wheels went awry and were stayed among the boulders; on some the flames died out; but there were those which reached the river and plunged into the water and were extinguished; and the owners of these last deemed themselves fortunate in their omens, for these fiery wheels were images of the sun in heaven, and their course to the river was the forecasting of his prosperous journey through the year to come.
Thus these outland people held their festival, and Hilary marvelled to see the many fires, for he had not known that the land held so many folk. But now when it was time for the wayfarers to cast about in their minds how and where they should pass the night, there came to them a stranger, a grave and seemly man clad in the manner of the Romans, and he bowed low to them, and said: "O saintly men, the Lady Pelagia hath heard of your coming into this land, and she knows that you have come to teach men the new faith, for she is a great lady, mistress of vast demesnes, and many messengers bring her tidings of all that happens. She bids me greet you humbly and prevail on you to come and abide this night in her house, which is but a little way from here."
"Is your lady of Rome?" asked Hilary.
"From Rome she came hither," said the messenger, "but aforetime she was of Greece, and she hath great friendship for all wise and holy men."
The wayfarers were surprised to hear of this lady, but they were rejoiced that, after such long wandering, there was some one to welcome them where least they had expected word of welcome, and they followed the messenger.
Horn lantern in hand he led them through the warm June darkness, and on the way answered many questions as to the folk of these parts, and their strange worship of sun and moon and wandering light of heaven; "but in a brief while," he said, "all these heathen matters will be put by, when you have taught them the new faith."
Up a gloomily wooded rise he guided them, till they passed into the radiance of a house lit with many lamps and cressets, and the house, they saw, was of fair marble such as are the houses of the patricians of Rome; and many beautiful slaves, lightly clad and garlanded with roses, brought them water in silver bowls and white linen wherewith they might cleanse themselves from the dust of their travel.
In a little the Lady Pelagia received them and bade them welcome, and prayed them to make her poor house their dwelling-place while they sojourned in that waste of heathendom. Then she led them to a repast which had been made ready for them.
Of all the gracious and lovely women in the round of the kingdoms of the earth none is, or hath been, or will be, more marvellous in beauty or in sweetness of approach than this lady; and she made Hilary sit beside her, and questioned him of the Saints in the Queen City of the world, and of his labours and his long wanderings, and the perils through which he and his companions had come. All the while she spoke her starry eyes shed soft light on his face, and she leaned towards him her lovely head and fragrant bosom, drinking in his words with a look of longing. The companions whispered among themselves that assuredly this was rather an Angel of Paradise than a mortal creature of the dust of the earth, which to-day is as a flower in its desirableness and to-morrow is blown about all the ways of men's feet. Even the good Bishop felt his heart moved towards her with a strange tenderness, so sweet was the thought of her youth and her beauty and her goodness and humility.
Sitting in this fashion at table and conversing, and the talk now veering to this and now to that, the Lady Pelagia said: "This longest of the days has been to me the most happy, holy fathers, for it has brought you to the roof of a sinful woman, and you have not disdained the service she has offered you in all lowliness of heart. A long and, it may be, a dangerous labour lies before you, for the folk of this land are fierce and quick to violence; but here you may ever refresh yourselves from toil and take your rest, free from danger. No loving offices or lowly observance, no, nor ought you desire is there that you may not have for the asking—or without the asking, if it be given me to know your wish unspoken."
Hilary and the brethren bowed low at these gracious words, and thought within themselves: Of a truth this may be a woman, but she is no less an Angel for our strength and solacement.
Hilary wondered and mused.
"In the days to come," said the lady, "there will be many things to ask and learn from you, but now ere this summer night draws to end let me have knowledge of divine things from thee, most holy father, for thou art wise and canst answer all my questionings."
And Hilary smiled gravely, not ill pleased at her words of praise, and said: "Ask, daughter."
"First tell me," she said, "which of all the small things God has made in the world is the most excellent?"
Hilary wondered and mused, but could find no answer; and when he would have said so, the voice which came from his lips spoke other words than those he intended to speak, so that instead of saying "This is a question I cannot answer," his voice said: "Of all small things made by God, most excellent is the face of man and woman; for among all the faces of the children of Adam not any one hath ever been wholly like any other; and there in smallest space God has placed all the senses of the body; and it is in the face that we see, as in a glass, darkly, all that can be seen of the invisible soul within."
The companions listened marvelling, but Hilary marvelled no less than they.
"It is well answered," said the lady, "and yet it seemed to me there was one thing more excellent. But let me ask again: What earth is nearest to heaven?"
Again Hilary mused and was silent. Then, once more, the voice which was his voice and yet spoke words which he did not think to speak, gave the answer: "The body of Him who died on the tree to save us, for He was of our flesh, and our flesh is earth of the earth."
"That too is well answered," said the lady, who had grown pale and gazed on the Bishop with great gloomy eyes; "and yet I had thought of another answer. Once more let me question you: What is the distance between heaven and earth?"
Then for the third time was Hilary unable to reply, but the voice answered for him, in stern and menaceful tones: "Who can tell us that more certainly than Lucifer who fell from heaven?"
With a bitter cry the Lady Pelagia rose from her seat, and raised her beautiful white arms above her head; but the voice continued: "Breathe on her, Hilary—breathe the breath of the name of Christ!"
And the Bishop, rising, breathed on the white lovely face the breath of the holy name; and in an instant the starry eyes were darkened, and the spirit and flower of life perished in her sweet body; and the companions saw no longer the Lady Pelagia, but in her stead a statue of white marble. At a glance Hilary knew it for a statue of the goddess whom men in Rome called Venus and in Greece Aphrodite, and with a shudder he remembered that another of her names was Pelagia, the Lady of the Sea. But, swifter even than that thought, it seemed to them as though the statue were smitten by an invisible hand, for it reeled and fell, shattered to fragments; and the lights were extinguished, and the air of the summer night blew upon their faces, and in the east, whence cometh our hope, there was a glimmer of dawn.
Praying fervently, and bewailing the brief joy they had taken in the beauty of that dreadful goddess, they waited for light to guide them from that evil place.
When the day broadened they perceived that they were in the midst of the ruins of an ancient Roman city, over-grown with bush and tree. Around them lay, amid beds of nettles and great dock leaves, and darnel and tangles of briars, and tall foxgloves and deadly nightshade, the broken pillars of a marble temple. This had been the fair house, lit with lamps, wherein they had sat at feast. Close beside them were scattered the white fragments of the image of the beautiful Temptress.
As they turned to depart three grey wolves snarled at them from the ruins, but an unseen hand held these in leash, and Hilary and his companions went on their way unharmed.