"Yet, turn not from me, stern prophet of wrath," she exclaimed, "but tell me, if thou canst, in what shall terminate these new and awful feelings that burst on my solitude — Why do deeds, long since done, rise before me in new and irresistible horrors? What fate is prepared beyond the grave for her, to whom God has assigned on earth a lot of such unspeakable wretchedness? Better had I turn to Woden, Hertha, and Zernebock — to Mista, and to Skogula, the gods of our yet unbaptized ancestors, than endure the dreadful anticipations which have of late haunted my waking and my sleeping hours!"
"I am no priest," said Cedric, turning with disgust from this miserable picture of guilt, wretchedness, and despair; "I am no priest, though I wear a priest's garment."
"Priest or layman," answered Ulrica, "thou art the first I have seen for twenty years, by whom God was feared or man regarded; and dost thou bid me despair?"
"I bid thee repent," said Cedric. "Seek to prayer and penance, and mayest thou find acceptance! But I cannot, I will not, longer abide with thee."
"Stay yet a moment!" said Ulrica; "leave me not now, son of my father's friend, lest the demon who has governed my life should tempt me to avenge myself of thy hard-hearted scorn — Thinkest thou, if Front-de-Boeuf found Cedric the Saxon in his castle, in such a disguise, that thy life would be a long one? — Already his eye has been upon thee like a falcon on his prey."
"And be it so," said Cedric; "and let him tear me with beak and talons, ere my tongue say one word which my heart doth not warrant. I will die a Saxon — true in word, open in deed — I bid thee avaunt! — touch me not, stay me not! — The sight of Front-de-Boeuf himself is less odious to me than thou, degraded and degenerate as thou art."
"Be it so," said Ulrica, no longer interrupting him; "go thy way, and forget, in the insolence of thy superority, that the wretch before thee is the daughter of thy father's friend. — Go thy way — if I am separated from mankind by my sufferings — separated from those whose aid I might most justly expect — not less will I be separated from them in my revenge! — No man shall aid me, but the ears of all men shall tingle to hear of the deed which I shall dare to do! — Farewell! — thy scorn has burst the last tie which seemed yet to unite me to my kind — a thought that my woes might claim the compassion of my people."
"Ulrica," said Cedric, softened by this appeal, "hast thou borne up and endured to live through so much guilt and so much misery, and wilt thou now yield to despair when thine eyes are opened to thy crimes, and when repentance were thy fitter occupation?"
"Cedric," answered Ulrica, "thou little knowest the human heart. To act as I have acted, to think as I have thought, requires the maddening love of pleasure, mingled with the keen appetite of revenge, the proud consciousness of power; droughts too intoxicating for the human heart to bear, and yet retain the power to prevent. Their force has long passed away — Age has no pleasures, wrinkles have no influence, revenge itself dies away in impotent curses. Then comes remorse, with all its vipers, mixed with vain regrets for the past, and despair for the future! — Then, when all other strong impulses have ceased, we become like the fiends in hell, who may feel remorse, but never repentance. — But thy words have awakened a new soul within me — Well hast thou said, all is possible for those who dare to die! — Thou hast shown me the means of revenge, and be assured I will embrace them. It has hitherto shared this wasted bosom with other and with rival passions — henceforward it shall possess me wholly, and thou thyself shalt say, that, whatever was the life of Ulrica, her death well became the daughter of the noble Torquil. There is a force without beleaguering this accursed castle — hasten to lead them to the attack, and when thou shalt see a red flag wave from the turret on the eastern angle of the donjon, press the Normans hard — they will then have enough to do within, and you may win the wall in spite both of bow and mangonel. — Begone, I pray thee — follow thine own fate, and leave me to mine."
Cedric would have enquired farther into the purpose which she thus darkly announced, but the stern voice of Front-de-Boeuf was heard, exclaiming, "Where tarries this loitering priest? By the scallop-shell of Compostella, I will make a martyr of him, if he loiters here to hatch treason among my domestics!"
"What a true prophet," said Ulrica, "is an evil conscience! But heed him not — out and to thy people — Cry your Saxon onslaught, and let them sing their war-song of Rollo, if they will; vengeance shall bear a burden to it."
As she thus spoke, she vanished through a private door, and Reginald Front-de-Boeuf entered the apartment. Cedric, with some difficulty, compelled himself to make obeisance to the haughty Baron, who returned his courtesy with a slight inclination of the head.
"Thy penitents, father, have made a long shrift — it is the better for them, since it is the last they shall ever make. Hast thou prepared them for death?"
"I found them," said Cedric, in such French as he could command, "expecting the worst, from the moment they knew into whose power they had fallen."
"How now, Sir Friar," replied Front-de-Boeuf, "thy speech, methinks, smacks of a Saxon tongue?"
"I was bred in the convent of St Withold of Burton," answered Cedric.
"Ay?" said the Baron; "it had been better for thee to have been a Norman, and better for my purpose too; but need has no choice of messengers. That St Withold's of Burton is an owlet's nest worth the harrying. The day will soon come that the frock shall protect the Saxon as little as the mail-coat."
"God's will be done," said Cedric, in a voice tremulous with passion, which Front-de-Boeuf imputed to fear.
"I see," said he, "thou dreamest already that our men-at-arms are in thy refectory and thy ale-vaults. But do me one cast of thy holy office, and, come what list of others, thou shalt sleep as safe in thy cell as a snail within his shell of proof."
"Speak your commands," said Cedric, with suppressed emotion.
"Follow me through this passage, then, that I may dismiss thee by the postern."
And as he strode on his way before the supposed friar, Front-de-Boeuf thus schooled him in the part which he desired he should act.
"Thou seest, Sir Friar, yon herd of Saxon swine, who have dared to environ this castle of Torquilstone — Tell them whatever thou hast a mind of the weakness of this fortalice, or aught else that can detain them before it for twenty-four hours. Meantime bear thou this scroll — But soft — canst read, Sir Priest?"
"Not a jot I," answered Cedric, "save on my breviary; and then I know the characters, because I have the holy service by heart, praised be Our Lady and St Withold!"
"The fitter messenger for my purpose. — Carry thou this scroll to the castle of Philip de Malvoisin; say it cometh from me, and is written by the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and that I pray him to send it to York with all the speed man and horse can make. Meanwhile, tell him to doubt nothing, he shall find us whole and sound behind our battlement — Shame on it, that we should be compelled to hide thus by a pack of runagates, who are wont to fly even at the flash of our pennons and the tramp of our horses! I say to thee, priest, contrive some cast of thine art to keep the knaves where they are, until our friends bring up their lances. My vengeance is awake, and she is a falcon that slumbers not till she has been gorged."
"By my patron saint," said Cedric, with deeper energy than became his character, "and by every saint who has lived and died in England, your commands shall be obeyed! Not a Saxon shall stir from before these walls, if I have art and influence to detain them there."
"Ha!" said Front-de-Boeuf, "thou changest thy tone, Sir Priest, and speakest brief and bold, as if thy heart were in the slaughter of the Saxon herd; and yet thou art thyself of kindred to the swine?"
Cedric was no ready practiser of the art of dissimulation, and would at this moment have been much the better of a hint from Wamba's more fertile brain. But necessity, according to the ancient proverb, sharpens invention, and he muttered something under his cowl concerning the men in question being excommunicated outlaws both to church and to kingdom.