Basilissa by John Buchan
When Vernon was a very little boy he was the sleepiest of mortals,
but in the spring he had seasons of bad dreams, and breakfast became an
idle meal. Mrs Ganthony, greatly concerned, sent for Dr Moreton from
Axby, and homely remedies were prescribed.
'It is the spring fever,' said the old man. 'It gives the gout to me
and nightmares to this baby; it brings lads and lasses together, and
scatters young men about the world. An antique complaint, Mrs Ganthony.
But it will right itself, never fear. Ver non semper viret.' Chuckling
at his ancient joke, the doctor mounted his horse, leaving the nurse
only half comforted. 'What fidgets me,' she told the housekeeper, 'is
the way his lordship holds his tongue. For usual he'll shout as lusty
as a whelp. But now I finds him in the morning with his eyes like moons
and his skin white and shiny, and never a cheep has he given the whole
blessed night, with me laying next door, and it open, and a light
sleeper at all times, Mrs Wace, ma'am.'
Every year the dreams came, generally--for his springs were spent at
Severns--in the big new night-nursery at the top of the west wing,
which his parents had built not long before their death. It had three
windows looking over the moorish flats which run up to the Lancashire
fells, and from one window, by craning your neck, you could catch a
glimpse of the sea. It was all hung, too, with a Chinese paper whereon
pink and green parrots squatted in wonderful blue trees, and there
seemed generally to be a wood fire burning. Vernon's recollections of
his childish nightmare are hazy. He always found himself in a room
different from the nursery and bigger, but with the same smell of wood
smoke. People came and went, such as his nurse, the butler, Simon the
head-keeper, Uncle Appleby his guardian, Cousin Jennifer, the old woman
who sold oranges in Axby, and a host of others. Nobody hindered them
from going away, and they seemed to be pleading with him to come too.
There was danger in the place; something was going to happen in that
big room, and if by that time he was not gone there would be mischief.
But it was quite clear to him that he could not go.
He must stop there, with the wood smoke in his nostrils, and await
the advent of a terrible Something. But he was never quite sure of the
nature of the compulsion. He had a notion that if he made a rush for
the door at Uncle Appleby's heels he would be allowed to escape, but
that somehow he would be behaving badly. Anyhow, the place put him into
a sweat of fright, and Mrs Ganthony looked darkly at him in the
Vernon was nine before this odd spring dream began to take definite
shape--at least he thinks he must have been about that age. The
dream-stage was emptying. There was nobody in the room now but himself,
and he saw its details a little more clearly. It was not any apartment
in the modern magnificence of Severns. Rather it looked like one of the
big old panelled chambers which the boy remembered from visits to
Midland country-houses, where he had arrived after dark and had been
put to sleep in a great bed in a place lit with dancing firelight. In
the morning it had looked only an ordinary big room, but at that hour
of the evening it had seemed an enchanted citadel. The dream-room was
not unlike these, for there was the scent of a wood fire and there were
dancing shadows, but he could not see clearly the walls or the ceiling,
and there was no bed. In one corner was a door which led to the outer
world, and through this he knew that he might on no account pass.
Another door faced him, and he knew that he had only to turn the handle
and enter it. But he did not want to, for he understood quite clearly
what was beyond. There was another room like the first one, but he knew
nothing about it, except that opposite the entrance another door led
out of it. Beyond was a third chamber, and so on interminably. There
seemed to the boy no end to this fantastic suite. He thought of it as a
great snake of masonry, winding up hill and down dale away to the fells
or the sea. Yes, but there was an end. Somewhere far away in one of the
rooms was a terror waiting on him, or, as he feared, coming towards
him. Even now it might be flitting from room to room, every minute
bringing its soft tread nearer to the chamber of the wood fire.
About this time of life the dream was an unmitigated horror. Once it
came while he was ill with a childish fever, and it sent his
temperature up to a point which brought Dr Moreton galloping from Axby.
In his waking hours he did not, as a rule, remember it clearly; but
during the fever, asleep and awake, that sinuous building, one room
thick, with each room opening from the other, was never away from his
thoughts. It fretted him to think that outside were the cheerful moors
where he hunted for plovers' eggs, and that only a thin wall of stone
kept him from pleasant homely things. The thought used to comfort him
for a moment when he was awake, but in the dream it never came near
him. Asleep, the whole world seemed one suite of rooms, and he, a
forlorn little prisoner, doomed to wait grimly on the slow coming
through the many doors of a Fear which transcended word and
He was a silent, self-absorbed boy, and though the fact of his
nightmares was patent to the little household, the details remained
locked in his heart. Not even to Uncle Appleby would he tell them when
that gentleman, hurriedly kind, came down to visit his convalescent
ward. His illness made Vernon grow, and he shot up into a lanky, leggy
boy--weakly, too, till the hills tautened his sinews again. His Greek
blood--his grandmother had been a Karolides--had given him a face
curiously like the young Byron, with a finely-cut brow and nostrils,
and hauteur in the full lips. But Vernon had no Byronic pallor, for his
upland home kept him sunburnt and weather-beaten, and below his
straight Greek brows shone a pair of grey and steadfast and very
He was about fifteen--so he thinks--when he made the great
discovery. The dream had become almost a custom now. It came in April
at Severns during the Easter holidays--a night's discomfort (it was now
scarcely more) in the rush and glory of the spring fishing. There was a
moment of the old wild heart-fluttering; but a boy's fancy is quickly
dulled, and the endless corridors were now more of a prison than a
witch's ante-chamber. By this time, with the help of his diary, he had
fixed the date of the dream: it came regularly on the night of the
first Monday of April. Now the year I speak of he had been on a long
expedition into the hills, and had stridden homewards at a steady four
miles an hour among the gleams and shadows of an April twilight. He was
alone at Severns, so he had his supper in the big library, where
afterwards he sat watching the leaping flames in the open stone hearth.
He was very weary, and sleep fell upon him in his chair. He found
himself in the wood-smoke chamber, and before him the door leading to
the unknown. But it was no indefinite fear that lay beyond. He knew
clearly--though how he knew he could not tell--that each year the
Something came one room nearer, and was even now but ten rooms off. In
ten years his own door would open, and then--
He woke in the small hours, chilled and mazed, but with a curious
new assurance in his heart. Hitherto the nightmare had left him in
gross terror, unable to endure the prospect of its recurrence, till the
kindly forgetfulness of youth had soothed him. But now, though his
nerves were tense with fright, he perceived that there was a limit to
the mystery. Some day it must declare itself, and fight on equal terms.
As he thought over the matter in the next few days he had the sense of
being forewarned and prepared for some great test of courage. The
notion exhilarated as much as it frightened him. Late at night, or on
soft dripping days, or at any moment of lessened vitality, he would
bitterly wish that he had been born an ordinary mortal. But on a keen
morning of frost, when he rubbed himself warm after a cold tub, or at
high noon of summer, the adventure of the dream almost pleased him.
Unconsciously he braced himself to a harder discipline. His fitness,
moral and physical, became his chief interest, for reasons which would
have been unintelligible to his friends and more so to his masters. He
passed through school an aloof and splendid figure, magnificently
athletic, with a brain as well as a perfect body--a good fellow in
everybody's opinion, but a grave one. He had no intimates, and never
shared the secret of the spring dream. For some reason which he could
not tell, he would have burned his hand off rather than breathe a hint
of it. Pure terror absolves from all conventions and demands a
confidant, so terror, I think, must have largely departed from the
nightmare as he grew older. Fear, indeed, remained, and awe and
disquiet, but these are human things, whereas terror is of hell.
Had he told any one, he would no doubt have become self-conscious
and felt acutely his difference from other people. As it was, he was an
ordinary schoolboy, much beloved, and, except at odd moments, unaware
of any brooding destiny. As he grew up and his ambition awoke, the
moments when he remembered the dream were apt to be disagreeable, for a
boy's ambitions are strictly conventional and his soul revolts at the
abnormal. By the time he was ready for the University he wanted above
all things to run the mile a second faster than any one else, and had
vague hopes of exploring wild countries. For most of the year he lived
with these hopes and was happy; then came April, and for a short season
he was groping in dark places. Before and after each dream he was in a
mood of exasperation; but when it came he plunged into a different
atmosphere, and felt the quiver of fear and the quick thrill of
expectation. One year, in the unsettled moods of nineteen, he made an
attempt to avoid it. He and three others were on a walking tour in
Brittany in gusty spring weather, and came late one evening to an inn
by an estuary where seagulls clattered about the windows. Youth--like
they ordered a great and foolish feast, and sat all night round a bowl
of punch, while school songs and 'John Peel' contended with the dirling
of the gale. At daylight they took the road again, without having
closed an eye, and Vernon told himself that he was rid of his incubus.
He wondered at the time why he was not more cheerful. Next April he was
at Severns, reading hard, and on the first Monday of the month he went
to bed with scarcely a thought of what that night used to mean. The
dream did not fail him. Once more he was in the chamber with the wood
fire; once again he was peering at the door and wondering with
tremulous heart what lay beyond. For the Something had come nearer by
two rooms, and was now only five doors away. He wrote in his diary at
that time some lines from Keats' 'Indian Maid's Song':
'I would deceive her,
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind.'
And there is a mark of exclamation against the 'she,' as if he found
some irony in it.
From that day the boy in him died. The dream would not suffer itself
to be forgotten. It moulded his character and determined his plans like
the vow of the young Hannibal at the altar. He had forgotten now either
to fear or to hope; the thing was part of him, like his vigorous young
body, his slow kindliness, his patient courage. He left Oxford at
twenty-two with a prodigious reputation which his remarkable athletic
record by no means explained. All men liked him, but no one knew him;
he had a thousand acquaintances and a hundred friends, but no comrade.
There was a sense of brooding power about him which attracted and
repelled his little world. No one forecast any special career for him;
indeed, it seemed almost disrespectful to condescend upon such details.
It was not what Vernon would do that fired the imagination of his
fellows, but what they dimly conceived that he already was. I remember
my first sight of him about that time, a tall young man in his corner
of a club smoking-room, with a head like Apollo's and eyes which
received much but gave nothing. I guessed at once that he had foreign
blood in him, not from any oddness of colouring or feature but from his
silken reserve. We of the North are angular in our silences; we have
not learned the art of gracious reticence.
His twenty-third April was spent in a hut on the Line, somewhere
between the sources of the Congo and the Nile, in the trans-African
expedition when Waldemar found the new variety of okapi. The following
April I was in his company in a tent far up on the shoulder of a
Kashmir mountain. On the first Monday of the month we had had a heavy
day after ovis, and that night I was asleep almost before my weary
limbs were tucked into my kaross. I knew nothing of Vernon's dream, but
next morning I remember that I remarked a certain heaviness of eye, and
wondered idly if the frame of this Greek divinity was as tough as it
Next year Vernon left England early in March. He had resolved to
visit again his grandmother's country and to indulge his passion for
cruising in new waters.
His 20-ton yawl was sent as deck cargo to Patras, while he followed
by way of Venice. He brought one man with him from Wyvenhoe, a lean
gypsy lad called Martell, and for his other hand he found an Epirote at
Corfu, who bore a string of names that began with Constantine. From
Patras with a west wind they made good sailing up the Gulf of Corinth,
and, passing through the Canal, came in the last days of March to the
Piraeus. In that place of polyglot speech, whistling engines, and the
odour of gas-works, they delayed only for water and supplies, and
presently had rounded Sunium, and were beating up the Euripus with the
Attic hills rising sharp and clear in the spring sunlight. Vernon had
no plan. It was a joy to him to be alone with the racing seas and the
dancing winds, to scud past little headlands, pink and white with
blossom, or to lie of a night in some hidden bay beneath the thymy
crags. It was his habit on his journeys to discard the clothes of
civilisation. In a blue jersey and old corduroy trousers, bare-headed
and barefooted, he steered his craft and waited on the passing of the
hours. Like an acolyte before the temple gate, he believed himself to
be on the threshold of a new life.
Trouble began under the snows of Pelion as they turned the north end
of Euboea. On the morning of the first Monday in April the light west
winds died away, and scirocco blew harshly from the south. By midday it
was half a gale, and in those yeasty shallow seas with an iron coast on
the port the prospect looked doubtful. The nearest harbour was twenty
miles distant, and as no one of the crew had been there before it was a
question if they could make it by nightfall. With the evening the gale
increased, and Constantine advised a retreat from the maze of rocky
islands to the safer deeps of the Ægean. It was a hard night for
the three, and there was no chance of sleep. More by luck than skill
they escaped the butt of Skiathos, and the first light found them far
to the east among the long seas of the North Ægean, well on the
way to Lemnos. By eight o'clock the gale had blown itself out, and
three soaked and chilly mortals relaxed their vigil. Soon bacon was
frizzling on the cuddy-stove, and hot coffee and dry clothes restored
them to comfort.
The sky cleared, and in bright sunlight, with the dregs of the gale
behind him, Vernon stood in for the mainland, where the white crest of
Olympus hung in the northern heavens. In the late afternoon they came
into a little bay carved from the side of a high mountain. The slopes
were gay with flowers, yellow and white and scarlet, and the young
green of crops showed in the clearings. Among the thyme a flock of
goats was browsing, shepherded by a little girl in a saffron skirt, who
sang shrilly in snatches. Midway in the bay and just above the
anchorage rose a great white building, which showed to seaward a blank
white wall pierced with a few narrow windows. At first sight Vernon
took it for a monastery, but a look through the glasses convinced him
that its purpose was not religious. Once it had been fortified, and
even now a broad causeway ran between it and the sea, which looked as
if it had once held guns. The architecture was a jumble, showing here
the enriched Gothic of Venice and there the straight lines and round
arches of the East. It had once, he conjectured, been the hold of some
Venetian sea-king, then the palace of a Turkish conqueror, and now was,
perhaps, the homely manor-house of this pleasant domain.
A fishing-boat was putting out from the shore. He hailed its
occupant and asked who owned the castle.
The man crossed himself and spat overboard. 'Basilissa,' he said,
and turned his eyes seaward.
Vernon called Constantine from the bows and asked him what the word
might mean. The Epirote crossed himself also before he spoke. 'It is
the Lady of the Land,' he said, in a hushed voice. 'It is the great
witch who is the Devil's bride. In old days in spring they made
sacrifice to her, but they say her power is dying now. In my country we
do not speak her name, but elsewhere they call her "Queen".' The man's
bluff sailorly assurance had disappeared, and as Vernon stared at him
in bewilderment he stammered and averted his eyes.
By supper-time he had recovered himself, and the weather-beaten
three made such a meal as befits those who have faced danger together.
Afterwards Vernon, as was his custom, sat alone in the stern, smoking
and thinking his thoughts. He wrote up his diary with a ship's lantern
beside him, while overhead the starless velvet sky seemed to hang low
and soft like an awning. Little fires burned on the shore at which folk
were cooking food--he could hear their voices, and from the keep one
single lit window made an eye in the night.
He had leisure now for the thought which had all day been at the
back of his mind. The night had passed and there had been no dream. The
adventure for which he had prepared himself had vanished into the
Ægean tides. He told himself that it was a relief, that an old
folly was over, but he knew in his heart that he was bitterly
disappointed. The fates had prepared the stage and rung up the curtain
without providing the play. He had been fooled, and somehow the zest
and savour of life had gone from him. No man can be strung high and
then find his preparation idle without suffering a cruel recoil.
As he scribbled idly in his diary he found some trouble about dates.
Down in his bunk was a sheaf of Greek papers bought at the Piraeus and
still unlooked at. He fetched them up and turned them over with a
growing mystification. There was something very odd about the business.
One gets hazy about dates at sea, but he could have sworn that he had
made no mistake. Yet here it was down in black and white, for there was
no question about the number of days since he left the Piraeus. The day
was not Tuesday, as he had believed, but Monday, the first Monday of
He stood up with a beating heart and that sense of unseen hands
which comes to all men once or twice in their lives. The night was yet
to come, and with it the end of the dream. Suddenly he was glad,
absurdly glad, he could almost have wept with the joy of it. And then
he was conscious for the first time of the strangeness of the place in
which he had anchored. The night was dark over him like a shell,
enclosing the half-moon of bay and its one lit dwelling. The great
hills, unseen but felt, ran up to snows, warding it off from a profane
world. His nerves tingled with a joyful anticipation. Something, some
wonderful thing, was coming to him out of the darkness.
Under an impulse for which he could give no reason, he called
Constantine and gave his orders. Let him be ready to sail at any
moment--a possible thing, for there was a light breeze off shore. Also
let the yacht's dinghy be ready in case he wanted it. Then Vernon sat
himself down again in the stern beside the lantern, and waited...
He was dreaming, and did not hear the sound of oars or the grating
of a boat alongside. Suddenly he found a face looking at him in the
ring of lamplight--an old bearded face curiously wrinkled. The eyes,
which were grave and penetrating, scanned him for a second or two, and
then a voice spoke--
'Will the Signor come with me? There is work for him to do this
Vernon rose obediently. He had waited for this call these many
years, and he was there to answer it. He went below and put a loaded
revolver in his trouser-pocket, and then dropped over the yacht's side
into a cockleshell of a boat. The messenger took the oars and rowed for
the point of light on shore.
A middle-aged woman stood on a rock above the tide, holding a small
lantern. In its thin flicker he made out a person with the air and
dress of a French maid. She cast one glance at Vernon, and then turned
wearily to the other. 'Fool, Mitri!' she said. 'You have brought a
'Nay,' said the old man, 'he is no peasant. He is a Signor, and as I
judge, a man of his hands.'
The woman passed the light of her lantern over Vernon's form and
face. 'His dress is a peasant's, but such clothes may be a nobleman's
whim. I have heard it of the English.'
'I am English,' said Vernon in French.
She turned on him with a quick movement of relief.
'You are English and a gentleman? But I know nothing of you, only
that you have come out of the sea. Up in the House we women are alone,
and my mistress has death to face, or a worse than death. We have no
claim on you, and if you give us your service it means danger--ah, what
danger! The boat is waiting. You have time to go back and go away and
forget that you have seen this accursed place. But, 0 Monsieur, if you
hope for Heaven and have pity on a defenceless angel, you will not
'I am ready,' said Vernon.
'God's mercy,' she sighed, and, seizing his arm, drew him up the
steep causeway, while the old man went ahead with the lantern. Now and
then she cast anxious glances to the right where the little fires of
the fishers twinkled along the shore. Then came a point when the three
entered a narrow uphill road, where rocky steps had been cut in a
tamarisk thicket. She spoke low in French to Vernon's ear--
'My mistress is the last of her line, you figure; a girl with a wild
estate and a father long dead. She is good and gracious, as I who have
tended her can witness, but she is young and cannot govern the wolves
who are the men of these parts. They have a long hatred of her house,
and now they have rumoured it that she is a witch and blights the crops
and slays the children. No one will look at her; the priest--for they
are all in the plot--signs himself and crosses the road; the little
ones run screaming to their mothers. Once, twice, they have cursed our
threshold and made the blood mark on the door. For two years we have
been prisoners in the House, and only Mitri is true. They name her
Basilissa, meaning the Queen of Hell, whom the ancients called
Proserpine. There is no babe but will faint with fright if it casts
eyes on her, and she as mild and innocent as Mother Mary...'
The woman stopped at a little door and in a high wall of masonry.
'Nay, wait and hear me out. It is better that you hear the tale from me
than from her. Mitri has the gossip of the place through his daughter's
husband, and the word has gone round to burn the witch out. The winter
in the hills has been cruel, and they blame their sorrow on her. The
dark of the moon in April is the time fixed, for they say that a witch
has power only in moonlight. This is the night, and down on the shore
the fishers are gathered. The men from the hills are in the higher
'Have they a leader?' Vernon asked.
'A leader?' her voice echoed shrilly. 'But that is the worst of our
terrors. There is one Vlastos, a lord in the mountains, who saw my
mistress a year ago as she looked from the balcony at the
Swallow-singing, and was filled with a passion for her. He has
persecuted her since with his desires. He is a king among these
savages, being himself a very wolf in man's flesh. We have denied him,
but he persists, and this night he announces that he comes for an
answer. He offers to save her if she will trust him, but what is the
honour of his kind? He is like a brute out of a cave. It were better
for my lady to go to God in the fire than to meet all Hell in his arms.
But this night we must choose, unless you prove a saviour.'
Did you see my boat anchor in the bay?' Vernon asked, though he
already knew the answer.
'But no,' she said. 'We live only to the landward side of the House.
My lady told me that God would send a man to our aid. And I bade Mitri
The door was unlocked and the three climbed a staircase which seemed
to follow the wall of a round tower. Presently they came into a stone
hall with curious hangings like the old banners in a church. From the
open flame of the lantern another was kindled, and the light showed a
desolate place with crumbling mosaics on the floor and plaster dropping
from the cornices. Through another corridor they went, where the air
blew warmer and there was that indefinable scent which comes from human
habitation. Then came a door which the woman held open for Vernon to
enter. 'Wait there, Monsieur,' she said. 'My mistress will come to
It was his own room, where annually he had waited with a fluttering
heart since he was a child at Severns. A fire of wood--some resinous
thing like juniper--burned on the hearth, and spirals of blue smoke
escaped the stone chimney and filled the air with their pungent
fragrance. On a Spanish cabinet stood an antique silver lamp, and there
was a great blue Chinese vase filled with spring flowers. Soft Turcoman
rugs covered the wooden floor--Vernon noted every detail for never
before had he been able to see his room clearly. A woman had lived
here, for an embroidery frame lay on a table and there were silken
cushions on the low divans. And facing him in the other wall there was
In the old days he had regarded it with vague terror in his soul.
Now he looked at it with the hungry gladness with which a traveller
sees again the familiar objects of home. The hour of his destiny had
struck. The thing for which he had trained himself in body and spirit
was about to reveal itself in that doorway...
It opened, and a girl entered. She was tall and very slim, and moved
with the free grace of a boy. She trod the floor like one walking in
spring meadows. Her little head on the flower-like neck was bent
sideways as if she were listening, and her eyes had the strange
disquieting innocence of a child's. Yet she was a grown woman, nobly
made, and lithe and supple as Artemis herself when she ranged with her
maidens through the moonlit gades. Her face had the delicate pallor of
pure health, and above it the masses of dark hair were bound with a
thin gold circlet. She wore a gown of some soft white stuff, and had
thrown over it a cloak of russet furs.
For a second--or so it seemed to Vernon--she looked at him as he
stood tense and expectant like a runner at the start. Then the
hesitation fled from her face. She ran to him with the confidence of a
child who has waited long for the coming of a friend and has grown
lonely and fearful. She gave him both her hands and in her tall pride
looked him full in the eyes. 'You have come,' she sighed happily. 'I
did not doubt it. They told me there was no help, but, you see, they
did not know about you. That was my own secret. The Monster had nearly
gobbled me, Perseus, but of course you could not come quicker. And now
you will take me away with you? See, I am ready. And Elise will come
too, and old Mitri, for they could not live without me. We must hurry,
for the Monster is very near.'
In that high moment of romance, when young love had burst upon him
like spring, Vernon retained his odd discipline of soul. The adventure
of the dream could not be satisfied by flight, even though his
companion was a goddess.
'We will go, Andromeda, but not yet. I have something to say to the
She broke into a ripple of laughter. 'Yes, that is the better way.
Mitri will admit him alone, and he will think to find us women. But you
will be here and you will speak to him.' Then her eyes grew solemn. 'He
is very cruel, Perseus, and he is full of evil. He may devour us both.
Let us begone before he comes.'
It was Vernon's turn to laugh. At the moment no enterprise seemed
too formidable, and a price must be paid for this far-away princess.
And even as he laughed the noise of a great bell clanged through the
Mitri stole in with a scared face, and it was from Vernon that he
took his orders. 'Speak them fair, but let one man enter and no more.
Bring him here, and see that the gate is barred behind him. After that
make ready for the road.' Then to the girl: 'Take off your cloak and
wait here as if you were expecting him. I will stand behind the screen.
Have no fear, for I will have him covered, and I will shoot him like a
dog if he lays a finger on you.'
From the shelter of the screen Vernon saw the door open and a man
enter. He was a big fellow of the common mountain type, gorgeously
dressed in a uniform of white and crimson, with boots of yellow
untanned leather, and a beltful of weapons. He was handsome in a coarse
way, but his slanting eyes and the heavy lips scarcely hidden by the
curling moustaches were ugly and sinister. He smiled, showing his white
teeth, and spoke hurriedly in the guttural Greek of the north. The girl
shivered at the sound of his voice, and to the watcher it seemed like
Pan pursuing one of Dian's nymphs.
'You have no choice, my Queen,' he was saying. 'I have a hundred men
at the gate who will do my bidding, and protect you against these fools
of villagers till you are safe with me at Louko. But if you refuse me I
cannot hold the people. They will burn the place over your head, and by
to-morrow's morn these walls will be smouldering ashes with your fair
body in the midst of them.'
Then his wooing became rougher. The satyr awoke in his passionate
eyes. 'Nay, you are mine, whether you will it or not. I and my folk
will carry you off when the trouble begins. Take your choice, my girl,
whether you will go with a good grace, or trussed up behind a servant.
We have rough ways in the hills with ungracious wenches.'
'I am going away,' she whispered, 'but not with you!'
The man laughed. 'Have you fetched down friend Michael and his
angels to help you? By Saint John the Hunter, I would I had a rival. I
would carve him prettily for the sake of your sweet flesh.'
Vernon kicked aside the screen. 'You will have your chance,' he
said. 'I am ready.'
Vlastos stepped back with his hand at his belt. 'Who in the devil's
name are you?' he asked.
'One who would dispute the lady with you,' said Vernon.
The man had recovered his confidence. 'I know nothing of you or
whence you come, but to-night I am merciful. I give you ten seconds to
disappear. If not, I will spit you, my fine cock, and you will roast in
'Nevertheless the lady goes with me,' said Vernon, smiling.
Vlastos plucked a whistle from his belt, but before it reached his
mouth he was looking into the barrel of Vernon's revolver. 'Pitch that
thing on the floor,' came the command. 'Not there! Behind me! Off with
that belt and give it to the lady. Quick, my friend.'
The dancing grey eyes dominated the sombre black ones. Vlastos flung
down the whistle, and slowly removed the belt with its silver-mounted
pistols and its brace of knives.
'Put up your weapon,' he muttered, 'and fight me for her, as a man
'I ask nothing better,' said Vernon, and he laid his revolver in the
He had expected a fight with fists, and was not prepared for what
followed. Vlastos sprang at him like a wild beast and clasped him round
the waist. He was swung off his feet in a grip that seemed more than
human. For a second or two he swayed to and fro, recovered himself, and
by a back-heel stroke forced his assailant to relax a little. Then,
locked together in the middle of the room, the struggle began. Dimly
out of a corner of his eye he saw the girl pick up the silver lamp and
stand by the door holding it high.
Vernon had learned the rudiments of wrestling among the dalesmen of
the North, but now he was dealing with one who followed no ordinary
methods. It was a contest of sheer physical power. Vlastos was a stone
or two heavier, and had an uncommon length of arm; but he was clumsily
made, and flabby from gross living. Vernon was spare and hard and
clean, but he lacked one advantage--he had never striven with a man
save in friendly games, and the other was bred to kill. For a minute or
two they swayed and stumbled, while Vernon strove for the old
Westmorland 'inside click.' Every second brought him nearer to it,
while the other's face was pressed close to his shoulder.
Suddenly he felt a sharp pain. Teeth met in his flesh, and there was
the jar and shiver of a torn muscle. The thing sickened him, and his
grip slackened. In a moment Vlastos had swung him over in a
strangle-hold, and had his neck bent almost to breaking.
On the sickness followed a revulsion of fierce anger. He was
contending not with a man, but with some shaggy beast from the thicket.
The passion brought out the extra power which is dormant in us all
against the last extremity. Two years before he had been mauled by a
leopard on the Congo, and had clutched its throat with his hand and
torn the life out. Such and no other was his antagonist. He was
fighting with one who knew no code, and would gouge his eyes if he got
the chance. The fear which had sickened him was driven out by fury.
This wolf should go the way of other wolves who dared to strive with
By a mighty effort he got his right arm free, and though his own
neck was in torture, he forced Vlastos' chin upward. It was a struggle
of sheer endurance, till with a snarl the other slackened his pressure.
Vernon slipped from his grasp, gave back a step, and then leaped for
the under-grip. He seemed possessed with unholy strength, for the
barrel of the man gave in his embrace. A rib cracked, and as they
swayed to the breast-stroke, he felt the breath of his opponent coming
in harsh gasps. It was the end, for with a twist which unlocked his
arms he swung him high, and hurled him towards the fireplace. The head
crashed on the stone hearth, and the man lay stunned among the blue
jets of wood-smoke.
Vernon turned dizzily to the girl. She stood, statue-like, with the
lamp in her hand, and beside her huddled Mitri and Elise.
'Bring ropes,' he cried to the servants. 'We will truss up this
beast. The other wolves will find him and learn a lesson.' He bound his
legs and arms and laid him on a divan.
The fire of battle was still in his eyes, but it faded when they
fell upon the pale girl. A great pity and tenderness filled him. She
swayed to his arms, and her head dropped on his shoulder. He, picked
her up like a child, and followed the servants to the sea-stair.
But first he found Vlastos' whistle, and blew it shrilly. The answer
was a furious hammering at the castle door...
Far out at sea, in the small hours, the yacht sped eastward with a
favouring wind. Behind in the vault of night at a great distance shone
a point of brightness, which flickered and fell as if from some mighty
The two sat in the stern in that first rapture of comradeship which
has no words to fit it. Her head lay in the crook of his arm, and she
sighed happily, like one awakened to a summer's dawn from a night of
ill dreams. At last he spoke.
'Do you know that I have been looking for you for twenty years?' She
nestled closer to him.
'And I,' she said, 'have been waiting on you from the beginning of