In the long-ago stormy days of the Middle Ages, when might was right, and the weak were the prey of the strong, in one of the mountainous districts of Italy there lived a robber chief called Marziale.
When but a boy he had broken away from all restraint and gone to live among the mountains, free as the wild animals he loved. He was tall and strong, active as a panther, and with a certain fierce beauty which belongs to wild things. As time went on he gathered companions around him, and together they lived by robbery and plunder.
At first these young brigands only took what they needed for their daily bread, a lamb or a kid from the flocks grazing on the hillside, or a fresh batch of bread from the frightened housewife's store. But as they grew stronger and bolder they began to rob travellers of their gold and merchandise, and even took the few pence they could seize from the poor.
So powerful did this band of robbers become that at last, with Marziale at their head, they attacked and captured a splendid old castle which was built on the mountain-side, and there took up their abode. This was better than living among the caves and holes of the rocks, and it was a safe place too, where they might hide their plunder.
Night after night the great hall rang with the wild noise of their rioting and revelling, until it seemed as if the very demons which were said to haunt those hills had come down to keep the robbers company.
In the daytime Marziale would look out from the watch-tower, like a cat stealthily waiting for her prey. All along the winding of the high-road his keen eye would sweep, and woe betide any traveller who passed unprotected along that way. It might be a rich noble going to Rome, with a train of frightened servants; it might be a friar ambling along on the convent donkey, or a poor woman laden with her market basket; it was all one to the robbers. Like some great bird of prey, Marziale would swoop down suddenly with so sure an aim and so sudden an onslaught that no one had ever been known to escape his clutches. If the traveller had money or goods, he was stripped of all and suffered to depart; but if he had nothing wherewith to satisfy the greed of the robber band, he was driven up to the castle and thrust into the dungeons, there to await possible ransom.
But while Marziale reigned like a king and boasted that there was no one who could stand against him, a silent enemy entered the castle and at his touch all Marziale's great strength and power were brought low. In the grip of a terrible fever Marziale tossed and groaned and grew weaker day by day. His rough companions gave him but scant pity.
"He will die," they said carelessly. "We need no longer trouble ourselves about him. Let us rather decide now who shall be our chief when he is dead.
"In a little dark, bare room, without even a blanket to cover him, and with no one to give him the water he prayed for, they left Marziale to die.
But among the band of cruel, rough men there was one kind heart that beat with pity for the suffering chief. In the midst of that wilderness of poisonous weeds one pure flower lifted its white cup as fresh and untainted as if it had been reared in some fair lady's bower. The daughter of one of the robber band, she had known no other home than the old grey castle, and no other companions than those men of evil growth. But there she lived her lonely life apart, and her gentle nature remained unharmed.
Beatrice, for that was the maiden's name, never troubled herself about the wild life that went on around her. But there was one thing she could not bear. The sight of any creature suffering pain roused all the anger and sorrow which dwelt in her pitiful heart. Many a wounded animal had she saved and tended back to life, many a trapped creature had she set free. But most bitter of all to her was the thought of those poor prisoners driven like sheep into the dark dungeons. She spent many nights sobbing over the thought of what they suffered, and she would clench her hands and pray for the coming of the day when she should be strong and able to set them free.
It was some time before she knew that the chief was ill, and then she scarcely dared to think of entering the little dark room. Every one feared that strong, terrible man who had never been known to give a kind word or gentle look even to his dog. But she crept silently to his door and stood listening there. A moan of pain reached her ears, and then the sound of a feeble voice asking over and over again for "Water, water."
In a moment Beatrice forgot her fear, forgot that it was the terrible captain who lay there. It was only some one in pain, some one who needed her help, and she swiftly opened the door and went in.
"Water, water," came the cry again from the poor, dry throat, and in a few minutes Marziale's weary head was resting on her strong arm, as Beatrice held a goblet of cool fresh water to the parched lips. Then she brought her own blanket and wrapped it round him and placed a pillow under his head.
From the first moment she ceased to feel any fear of this man. She tended and nursed him as she had nursed many a wild animal which she had found caught in some trap on the mountain-side.
And so, instead of dying, Marziale began daily to grow better, and ere long the fever left him and his strength began to return.
It was one day when the joy of life once more was stirring in his veins that the robber chief called Beatrice to sit by him.
"Tell me, little maid," he said, "why hast thou done all this for me?"
"Because thou wast in pain, and needed my help," replied Beatrice promptly.
"By heaven, thou shalt have thy reward," said the chief. "When those dogs left me to die, thou alone didst have it in thy heart to care what should become of me. Tell me what reward shall I give thee? Nothing thou shalt ask will I deny thee, even if it be all the treasure I have heaped together in my hidden hoards."
Beatrice did not answer at once. She sat with her chin leaning on her hand as she thoughtfully gazed out of the little barred window where the swallows swooped and twittered as they built their nests beneath the eaves. Those free and happy birds, it was a pleasure even to watch them. Oh, if only all might share their freedom and joy, and all suffering and pain be banished!
"I do not want thy gold," she said at last slowly, "for I seek no reward. But if indeed thou dost seek to pleasure me, give me the lives of those poor prisoners who even now are sighing in the dungeons beneath."
Marziale looked at her in amazement.
"What are they to thee?" he asked. "What should it matter to thee whether they go free or die in their dungeons? But thou shalt have thy way, for no man has ever said that Marziale broke his word."
Beatrice bent down and gently touched one of the great wasted hands with her lips. She found no words to speak, but her thanks shone out of her eyes.
Marziale drew back his hand quickly, and muttered almost roughly that a strong man's hand was more fitted for work than foolish child's play. But his eyes watched her as she went to and fro about her work, and her happiness made him feel strangely content.
"Beatrice," he began next day, "before long I shall be myself again and take my place as chief. Then my hounds will once more come to heel. Thou hast chosen thy reward and hast had thy way. But I would choose a way as well, and it is this. Thou, too, shalt be at the head of this band, as thou alone art worthy. Say, then, little maid, wilt thou accept my choice and be my wife?"
He spoke eagerly, and a flush was upon his thin face, so that Beatrice feared the fever had returned.
"Yes, yes," she said soothingly, "I will do all that thou dost wish."
Then she stood at the window and began to tell him how beautiful the outside world was looking. How spring had begun to touch the trees with her dainty green finger-tips, how many swallows had returned, how the corn was sprouting and the anemones were beginning to show purple and scarlet under the olive-trees. He scarcely seemed to listen, but her voice soothed him, and presently she knew he had fallen asleep.
"He will soon grow strong now," she said to herself softly, "and when he is well he will quickly forget this idle fancy."
But it was no idle fancy on the part of Marziale, and although his strength came back and he once more took command of the robber band, he did not forget his promise as Beatrice had expected.
"We must wait until we can lay hands upon some priest," he said. "The first that we can capture shall be brought up to the castle that he may wed us duly and in order."
Time went on, and Beatrice almost felt as if it had all been a dream, for the old evil days of riot and plunder returned to the castle. Marziale was fiercer and more daring than ever, and Beatrice seldom saw him. Only the best room in the castle was now set aside for her use, and by Marziale's orders she was treated with every respect, and no one dared to molest her.
So she lived her old, lonely life apart, and each day she watched from the turret window the band of robbers ride out to rob and plunder, with Marziale at their head.
"How strong and brave he is!" she would cry proudly; "no one can match him in strength and courage. And yet, methinks I loved him better when he lay so weak and helpless and needed all my care. All wild things grow gentle when they suffer, though one would not have them suffer always."
At nights the noise of feasting and brawling was louder than ever, but Beatrice had learned to pay but little heed to it. There came a night, however, when the noise was so great that she thought something unusual must be happening, and she stole downstairs and slipped into the banqueting-hall.
The reason of the noise was not far to seek. A poor, frightened old priest stood there, cowering and defenceless, while the savage crew of robbers made sport of him and roughly ill-treated him.
Beatrice's eyes blazed with indignation. She sprang forward and placed her hand on the arm of Marziale's chair.
"Cowards!" her voice rang fearlessly out. "Twenty strong men to one poor weak old man. Shame on you! shame! Brave and fearless warriors, to make war on unarmed old men! Next time, perchance, it will be women and little children."
A hoarse growl of rage like distant thunder broke out at her words. Marziale, with flaming eyes, sprang to his feet. Scarce knowing what he did in his anger, he raised his arm and struck Beatrice to the ground.
In the noise and confusion that followed Beatrice was carried up to her room, and the old priest was dragged off and thrust into the deepest dungeon of the castle.
All was quiet when Beatrice came to herself. The cool night wind blew through the open window, and the moonlight made bright patches of silver on the stone floor. She sat up and tried to think. Ah, that poor old man! She had not helped him, but had rather done harm by her sudden burst of anger. She must think of some other way, if yet there was time.
At the door she stood and listened awhile, but not a sound broke the silence. The whole castle was in darkness save where the moonlight streamed through the barred windows. Turning back, she gathered up her blanket and pillow in her arms and then crept quietly down the winding stair and along the gloomy passages until she came to the banqueting-hall. Here again she listened, but only the sound of deep breathing was to be heard. She knew the ways of the robbers and their chief. When once they slumbered they were not lightly wakened.
Carefully then she threaded her way between the sleeping forms until she came to the head of the room where Marziale lay stretched out in his great chair. Yes, here was what she sought. The great bunch of keys hung at his girdle fastened by a thong of leather. With deft fingers Beatrice noiselessly unfastened the keys, only stopping once when the robber chief moved uneasily in his sleep. Then she took some food from the table and a pitcher of water, and like a little grey ghost she glided out as noiselessly as she had entered.
Down in the dungeon, meanwhile, the old priest knelt. He was sore and aching in every limb, and he could not sleep. The damp air seemed to choke him, and his throat was parched with thirst.
"O Lord, how long?" he cried, and as he knelt and prayed, suddenly it seemed as if a vision had been sent to comfort him. He thought the door of the dungeon swung slowly open and there stood an angel looking down on him with pitying eyes. A halo of soft, flame-like light shone round her head, and in one hand she held a goblet of cool, crystal water.
"Santa Maria, art thou come thyself to answer my poor prayers," cried the old man in a trembling voice, "or is this but a vision?"
The angel smiled, and a strong human hand was laid on the old man's shoulder.
"I am no vision," she said," I am only a poor maiden who would gladly help thee. I have brought thee food and drink and covering to keep thee warm."
Then she carried in the load of blankets and her own soft pillow, and prepared a bed for him to lie on. Gently raising him from the cold stones, she held the cool water to his lips, and gave him food, until his strength began to return. Not until then did she begin to question him.
"Hast thou friends without?" she asked anxiously. "And will they offer a ransom for thee? It is thy only hope. Marziale, the man into whose power thou hast fallen, is the strongest man in all the world, and no one can stand against his will."
"My child," replied the old priest in a calm, untroubled voice, "my Master is stronger than Marziale, and can deliver me if He will."
"Who is thy master, and what is his name?" asked Beatrice eagerly.
"My Master is the King of Heaven, and men call Him the Christ," answered the old man reverently.
Then in a weak, low voice he began to tell Beatrice all his Master's story. The wonderful birth heralded by the angels; the brave, unselfish life; the cruel death and triumphant resurrection. And as he spoke his voice grew strong and clear, and a light as if from heaven shone on his suffering, weary face.
Beatrice listened as if spell-bound. She had never heard anything like this before.
"Where is thy Master to be found?" she asked. "Tell me quickly, for I must tell all this to Marziale. He will surely take service under such a King."
The old priest shook his head sadly.
"His service is not what thou thinkest, my daughter," he said. "And why dost thou take such an interest in this robber chief? I myself saw him strike thee to the ground."
"I had angered him, and it was but a small matter," said Beatrice carelessly. "To thee, perhaps, he seemeth cruel and rough, but I love him, and ere long I shall marry him. But see, the dawn is breaking, and I dare stay no longer to talk with thee. To-morrow I will come again."
The sun had risen, and the busy stir of morning sounded in the castle before Marziale moved uneasily in his seat and stretched himself. He was still half asleep as his hands felt for the keys which always hung at his girdle, but failing to find them he grew alert and wide-awake in a moment. Who had dared to meddle with those keys? He jumped to his feet and looked about him, fiercely seeking for the thief.
But the room was empty, and as he looked around the only thing his eye lighted on was a little white figure lying fast asleep in the broad window-seat, with the huge bunch of keys hanging loosely in her hands.
The anger died out of Marziale's eyes as he stood looking down on the sleeping face, but even as he looked she awoke and gazed up smiling into his face.
"So, thou hast been at thy tricks again," he said, as he grimly pointed at the keys upon her lap.
But Beatrice was not in the least ashamed or afraid. She jumped up and laughed with glee as she jingled the great bunch of keys before him in tune with her laughter.
"Come, come," she said, "never heed the keys and look not so grim. I have a wonderful tale to tell thee," and she dragged him down on to the seat next to her, and began eagerly to tell him all that she had done, and all that the old priest had told her.
At first Marziale was impatient and inclined to be angry, but by-and-bye he grew interested and listened intently.
"I will go to the old man myself and hear this wonderful story," he said at last.
Long and silently the robber chief sat and listened as the old man told his tale. It was indeed a wonderful story, but, above all, something in Marziale's heart seemed to tell him that it was not only wonderful but true. And if it was indeed true, how black and hideous must his life seem in the eyes of that calm, brave warrior King.
"Old man," he cried at last, "show me a way by which I may seek pardon and take service under this King of kings."
"There is but one way," answered the old man solemnly. "Confess thy sins one by one, and perchance He may pardon thee."
But as Marziale knelt on the cold, damp dungeon floor and began to confess all the evil he had done, a cold horror crept over the old priest. It was so terrible even to listen to the wild tale of sin that the very hair rose from his head and he could only gaze in terror and dismay at the man who knelt there telling of such dreadful deeds. Surely a demon could not have a worse tale to tell.
There was a deep silence when Marziale had finished, and the old priest buried his face in his hands as if he dared not look upon such a monster.
"Oh, horrible, horrible!" he cried. "Thou hast indeed sold thy soul to the Evil One. There is no hope of pardon for such crimes as these."
Then a terrible dark cloud seemed to fall on Marziale and to shut out all light from his soul. He could neither eat nor drink nor sleep, and all day long he groaned in deep despair. Day followed day and brought no light to the black darkness of his soul, and all the time Beatrice never left him. By his side she knelt and tried to pray for pardon, but she could find no words, and the sobs choked her as she watched his dumb misery.
At last, when the robber chief was wasted away to a gaunt shadow, and he had scarcely strength even to moan, she heard a faint whisper come from his lips, and bending down she caught the word "forgive."
"Oh, come quickly!" she cried to the old priest who waited in a room near by, "he is praying, and surely the King will pardon."
"There can be no forgiveness for such as he," said the old priest sternly. But Beatrice took no heed.
"He must, he must be forgiven," she cried, "and thou must bid him hope."
But when together they reached the little chamber it was too late for any word of comfort to reach that poor, despairing soul. Marziale lay stretched out dead upon the floor.
Very bitter were the tears which Beatrice shed, for they came from a broken heart. But in the midst of her great sorrow there was one ray of light which pierced through the gloom. Marziale had prayed for pardon, and surely God had forgiven. The King was more merciful than His servants.
But the old priest could not share that comfort, and he gave his orders mournfully that the chief should not be buried in any holy ground, but that a grave should be digged in the courtyard of the castle.
All the robber band gathered round the grave, and Beatrice, white and calm, knelt beside the body of the dead chief. The old priest talked long and earnestly to that grim company, and pointed out the terrible example of their leader, and bade them one and all take heed and repent while yet there was time.
But as he spoke Beatrice did not seem to listen, but lifted her head and looked up into the sky with an eager, wondering expression in her eyes. Her earnest gaze drew other eyes to look upward, too, and a great silence fell upon them all.
A spot of light shone in the blue above, which gradually grew whiter and whiter until it took the form of a dove. Nearer and nearer it flew till it hovered above their heads and then gently descended. The wondering company saw that it held in its beak a little golden leaf or tablet, and this it gently laid upon the dead man's lips. Then, with scarce a flutter of its wings, up again it flew, up and away until it was lost in the blue haze of the summer sky.
Awe-struck and with trembling hands Beatrice lifted the little gold leaf and saw in shining letters the blessed words "Pardon and peace." The white dove had brought the message to comfort and assure her, for the King had indeed forgiven, and Marziale was pardoned.
Then the old priest knelt down and humbly prayed for forgiveness for himself. Never again did he doubt God's mercy, and never again was he heard to say that any man's sins were too great to shut him out from the hope of pardon and peace.