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The Tomb of Heiri by Arthur Christopher Benson


In the old days, when the Romans were taking Britain for their own, there lived in Cambria a great prince called Heiri. He was forty summers old; he had long been wed, but had no son to reign after him. Many times had he fought with the Romans, but his tribe had been driven slowly backward to the northern mountains; here for a time he dwelt in some peace, but the Romans crept ever nearer; and Heiri, who was a brave and generous prince and a great warrior, was sore afflicted, seeing the end that must come. He dwelt in a high valley of moorland, where his tribe kept such herds as yet remained to them. Heiri often asked himself in what he and his people had wronged the gods, that they should be thus vexed; for he was, as it seemed, like a wild beast with his back to a wall, fighting with innumerable foes; to the north and east and south and west lay great mountains, and behind them to west and north lay the sea; to south and east the Romans held the land, so that the Cambrians were penned in a corner.

One day heavy news came; a great army of the Romans had come by sea to the estuary in the south. The next day the scouts saw them marching up the pass, like ants, in countless numbers, with a train of baggage; and the day after, when the sun went down, the watch-fires burnt in a long line across the southern moorland, and the sound of the horns the Romans blew came faintly upon the wind; all day the tribesmen drove in their cattle up to the great camp, that lay on a low hill in the centre of the vale. Heiri held a council with his chiefs, and it was determined that next day they should give them battle.

That night, when Heiri was sitting in his hut, his beloved wife beside him, there came to see him the chief priest of the tribe; he was an old man, hard and cruel, and Heiri loved him not; and he hated Heiri secretly, being jealous of his power; he came in, his white priestly robe bound about the waist with a girdle of gold; and Heiri rose to do him honour, making a sign to his wife that she should leave them. So she withdrew softly; then the priest sat down. He asked first of Heiri whether it was determined to fight on the morrow; and Heiri said that it was so determined. Then the priest said, “Lord Heiri, to-morrow is the feast of the God of Death; and he claims a victim, if we are to be victorious.” Now Heiri hated the sacrifice of men, and the priest knew it; and so for a while Heiri sat in silence, frowning, and beating his foot upon the ground, while the priest watched him with bright and evil eyes. Then Heiri said, “To-morrow must many men, both valiant and timid, die; surely that were enough for the god!” But the priest said, “Nay, my lord, it is not enough; the law saith that unless a victim should offer himself, the priests should choose a victim; and the victim must be goodly; for we are in an evil case.” Then Heiri looked at the priest and said, “Whom have ye chosen?” for he saw that the priests had named a victim among themselves. So the priest said, “We have named Nefri—be content.”

Now Nefri was a lad of fifteen summers, cousin to Heiri; his father was long dead, and Heiri loved the boy, who was brave and gracious, and had hoped in his heart that Nefri would succeed him as prince of the tribe. Then Heiri was very wroth, and said, “Lord priest, that may not be; Nefri is next of kin to myself, and will grow up a mighty warrior; and he shall be chief after me, if the gods grant him life; look you, to-morrow we shall lose many mighty men; and it may be that I shall myself fall; for I have been heavy-hearted for many days, and I think that the gods are calling me—and Nefri we cannot spare.”

Then the priest said, “Lord Heiri, the gods choose whom they will by the mouth of their priests; it were better that Nefri should perish than that the people should be lost; and, indeed, the gods have spoken; for I prayed that the victim should be shown me, hoping that it might be some common man; but hardly had I done my prayer, when Nefri came to my hut to bring an offering; and my heart cried out, 'Arise, for this is he.' The gods have chosen him, not I; and Nefri must die for the people.”

Then Heiri was grievously troubled; for he reverenced the gods and feared the priests. And he rose up, with anger and holy fear striving within him; and he said, “Prepare then for the sacrifice; only tell not Nefri—I myself will bring him—it may be that the gods will provide another victim.” For he hoped within his heart that the Romans might attack at dawn, so that the sacrifice should tarry.

Then the priest rose up and said, “Lord Heiri, I would it were otherwise; but we must in all things obey the gods; the sacrifice is held at dawn, and I will go and set all things in order.” So Heiri rose and bowed to the priest; but he knew in his heart that the priest sorrowed not, but rather exulted in the victim he had chosen. Then Heiri sent word that Nefri should come to him, and presently Nefri came in haste, having risen from his bed, with the warm breath of sleep about him. And there went as it were a sword through Heiri's heart, to see the boy so fair and gracious and so full of love and bravery.

Then Heiri made the boy sit beside him, and embraced him with his arm; and then he said, “Nefri, I have sent for you in haste, for there is a thing that I must tell you; to-morrow we fight the Romans, and something tells me in my heart that it will be our last fight; whether we shall conquer or be conquered I know not, but it is a day of doom for many—and now hearken. I have prayed many times in my heart for a son, but no son is given me; but I hoped that you would reign after me, if indeed there shall be any people left to rule; and if it so fall out, remember that I spoke with you to-night, and bade you be brave and just, loving your people and fearing the gods; and forget not that I loved you well.”

And Nefri, half in awe and half in eager love for the great prince his cousin, said, “I will not forget.” Then Heiri kissed him on the cheek and said, “Dear lad, I know it. And now you must sleep, for there is a sacrifice at dawn, and you must be there with me; but before you sleep—and I would have you sleep here in my hut to-night—pray to the father of the gods to guide and strengthen me—for we are as naught in his hands, and I have a grievous choice to make—a choice between honour and love—and I know not which is the stronger.”

Then Heiri spread a bearskin on the floor and bade Nefri sleep, and he himself sat long in thought looking upon the embers. And it was quiet in the hut—only he saw by the firelight the boy's bright eye watching him, till he chid him lovingly, saying, “Sleep, Nefri, sleep.” And Heiri himself lay down to sleep, for he knew that a weary day of fighting lay before him.

But the priest went to the other chiefs and spake with each of them, saying that the gods had chosen Nefri for the victim of the sacrifice, but that Heiri would fain forbid it. But the priest did worse than that, for he told many of the tribesmen the same story, and though they were sorry that Nefri should die, yet they feared the gods exceedingly, and did not think to dispute their will.

About an hour before the dawn, when there was a faint light in the air, and the breeze began to blow chill from the hills, and the stars went out one by one, the chiefs began to gather their men; and there was sore discontent in the camp; all night had the rumour spread beside the fires and in the huts that Heiri would resist the will of the gods and save Nefri from death; and many of the soldiers told the chiefs that if this were so they would not fight; so the chiefs assembled in silence before the hut of Heiri, for they feared him greatly, but they feared the gods more, and they had resolved that Nefri should die.

While they stood together Heiri came suddenly out among them. He carried a brand in his hand, which lit up his pale face and bright armour; and he came like a man risen from the dead.

Then the oldest chief, by name Gryf, drew near, and Heiri asked him of the Romans; and the chief said that they were not stirring yet. Then Heiri held up his hand; every now and then came the crying of cocks out of the camp, but in the silence was heard the faint sound of trumpets from the moorland, and Heiri said, “They come.”

Then Gryf, the chief, said, “Then must the sacrifice be made in haste,” and he turned to Heiri and said, “Lord Heiri, it is rumoured in the camp that Nefri is the chosen victim, but that you seek to save him.” And Heiri looked sternly at him and said, “And wherefore are the purposes of the gods revealed? Lo, I will bring Nefri myself to the sacrifice, and we shall see what will befall.”

Then the chiefs were glad in their hearts and said, “Lord Heiri, it is well. The ways of the gods are dark, but they rule the lives of men, and who shall say them nay?” And Heiri said, “Ay, they are dark enough.”

Then he made order that the scouts should go forth from the camp; and while he yet spake the procession of priests in their white robes passed like ghosts through the huts on their way to the temple. And Heiri said, “We must follow,” and he called to Nefri; but the boy did not answer. Then Heiri went within and found him sleeping very softly, with his face upon his hand; and he looked upon him for a moment, and then he put his hand upon his head; and the boy rose up, and Heiri said, “It is time, dear Nefri—and pray still for me, for the gods have not showed me light.” So Nefri marvelled, and tried to make a prayer; but he was filled with wonder at the thought of the sacrifice, for he had never been present at a sacrifice before—and he was curious to see a man slain—for the sight of death in those grievous years of battle had lost its terrors even for children. So Nefri rose up; and Heiri smiled upon him and took the boy's hand, and the two went out together.

Then they came with the chiefs through the camp. The precinct of the goddess was at the upper end, to the north; it was a thick grove of alders, through which no eye could pierce; and it was approached by a slanting path so that none could see into the precinct.

So presently they came to the place and entered in; and Heiri felt the boy's hand cold within his own; but it was not fear, for Nefri was fearless, but only eagerness to see what would be done.

They passed inside the precinct; none was allowed to enter except the priests and the chiefs and certain captains. It was a dolorous place in truth. All round ran a wall of high slabs of slate. At the upper end, on a pedestal, stood the image of the god, a rude and evil piece of handiwork. It was a large and shapeless figure, with hands outspread; in the head of it glared two wide and cruel eyes, painted with paint, red-rimmed and horrible. The pedestal was stained with rusty stains; and at the foot lay a tumbled heap that was like the body of a man, as indeed it was—for the victim was left lying where he fell, until another victim was slain. All around the body sprouted rank grasses out of the paved floor. The priests stood round the image; the chief priest in front holding a bowl and a long thin knife. Two of them held torches which cast a dull glare on the image. The chiefs arranged themselves in lines on each side; and Heiri, still holding Nefri by the hand, walked up to within a few feet of the image, and there stood silent.

Then the chief priest made a sign, and at that two other priests came out with a large box of wood and shovels; and they took the bones of the victim up and laid them in the box, in which they clattered as they fell—and Nefri watched them curiously, but shuddered not; and when the poor broken body was borne away, then Nefri began to look round for the victim, but the priests began a hymn; their loud sad voices rang out very strangely on the chilly air—and the tribesmen without, hearing the sound, trembled for fear and cast themselves upon the ground.

Then there was a silence; and the chief priest came forward, and made signs to Heiri to draw near, and Heiri advanced, and said to Nefri as he did so, “Now, child, be brave.” And Nefri looked up at Heiri with parted lips; and then it came suddenly into his mind that he was indeed to be the victim; but he only looked up with a piteous and inquiring glance at Heiri; and Heiri drew him to the pedestal. Then there was a terrible silence, and the hearts of the chiefs beat fast for fear and horror; and some of them turned away their faces, and the tears came to their eyes.

Then the priest raised his knife, while Nefri watched him; but Heiri stepped forward and said, “Lord priest, I have chosen. Hold thy hand. The law saith that a victim must die, and that one may offer himself to die; ye have chosen Nefri, for none has offered himself. But I bid thee hold; for here I offer myself as a victim to the god.”

Then there was an awful silence, and the priest looked fiercely and evilly upon Nefri, and made as though he would have smitten him; but Heiri seized the priest's hand in both his own, and with great strength drove the knife into his own breast, stood for a moment, then swayed and fell. And as he lay he said, “My father, I come, the last victim at the shrine;” and then he drew out the knife, sobbed and died. But the chiefs crowded round to look upon him; and Gryf said, “We are undone; our king is dead, and who shall lead us?”

Then he scowled evilly upon the priests, and said, “This is your work, men of blood—and as ye have slain our king, ye shall fight for us to-day, and see if the god will protect you; then, if he saves you, we shall know that you have spoken truly—and if he saves you not then ye are false priests.” And the chiefs cried assent; and Gryf, the eldest chief, commanded that weapons should be given them, and that they should be guarded and fight with the vanguard. But Nefri cast himself upon the body of Heiri and wept sore. But while they stood came a scout in terror, and told them that the Romans were indeed advancing. So the temple was emptied in a moment; and Nefri sat by the body of the dead and looked upon it. But the chiefs hastened to the wall of the camp; and it was now day; in the light that fell pale and cold from the eastern hills they saw the Romans creeping across the moor, in black dots and patches, and the sound of the horns drew nearer.

Then they arrayed themselves, and went out in the white morning; and the women watched from the wall. But Heiri's wife was told the tale, and went to the temple, but dared not enter, for no woman might set foot therein; and she wailed sitting at the gate, calling upon Heiri to come forth; but Heiri lay on his back before the image, the blood flowing from his breast, while Nefri held his head upon his knee.

Then went the battle very evilly for the tribe; little by little they were driven back upon the camp; and they were like sheep without a shepherd—and still the chiefs hoped in the help of the god; but the priests were smitten down one by one, and last of all the chief priest fell, his bowels gushing from a wound in his side, and cursed the god and died cursing.

Then the heavens overclouded: blacker and blacker the clouds gathered, with a lurid redness underneath like copper; till a mighty storm fell upon them, just as the Cambrians broke and fled back to the camp, and watched the steady advance of the Roman line, with the eagles bowing and nodding as they swept over the uneven moor.

Then suddenly they were aware of a strange thing. Whence it came they knew not, but suddenly under the camp wall there appeared the figure of a man in armour, on a white horse; it was the form of Heiri as they had often seen him ride forth on his white charger to battle; and behind him seemed to be a troop of dark and shadowy horsemen. Heiri seemed to turn round, and raise his sword in the air, as he had often done in life; and then, with a great rending of the heavens, and a mighty crash of thunder, the troop of horse swept down upon the Roman line. Then came a fearful sound from the moorland; and those who gazed from the wall saw the Romans waver and turn; and in a moment they were in flight, melting away in the moor, as stones that roll from a cliff after a frost; and all men held their breath in silence; for they saw the Romans flying and none to pursue, except that some thought that they saw the white horse ride hither and thither, and the flash of the waving sword of Heiri.

There followed a strange and dreadful night; the list of warriors was called and many were absent; from hour to hour a few wounded men crawled in; and in the morning, seeing that the Romans were not near at hand, they sent out a party with horses to bring in the wounded and the dead; all the priests were among the slain; those of the chiefs that were alive held a meeting and resolved that the camp must now be held, for the Romans would attack the next day; and they sent the women and children, with the herds, away to a secret place in the mountains, all but Heiri's wife, who would not leave the camp.

Then the other chiefs would have made Gryf, the old chief, prince of the tribe; but he refused it, saying that Heiri had wished Nefri to be chief, and that none but Nefri should succeed. So search was made for Nefri, and he was found in Heiri's hut with Heiri's wife; he had stayed beside the body till it grew stiff and cold and the eyes had glazed; and then he had feared to be alone with it, and had crept away. So they put a crown upon Nefri's head, and each of the chiefs in turn knelt before him and kissed his hand; and Nefri bore himself proudly but gently, as a prince should, rising as each chief approached; and then he was led out before the people, and they were told that Nefri was prince by the wish of Heiri; and no one disputed the matter.

Then in the grey dawn a scout came in haste and said that three Romans were approaching the camp, and that one was a herald; and the old chief asked Nefri what his will was; and the boy looked him in the face, and said, “Let them be brought hither.” So the chiefs were again summoned, and the Romans came slowly into the camp. The herald came in front, and he was followed by an officer of high rank, as could be seen from his apparel and the golden trappings of the horse that bore him; and another officer followed behind; and the herald, who knew something of the Cambrian language, said that this was the Lord Legate himself, and that he was come to make terms.

The chiefs looked at each other in silence, for they knew that the Romans must needs have taken the camp that day if they had assaulted it. The Legate was a young man with a short beard, very much burnt by the sun, and bearing himself like a great gentleman. He looked about him with a careless and lordly air; and when they came into the presence of the chiefs, the three dismounted; and the Legate looked round to see which was the prince; then the old chief put Nefri forward, and said to the herald, “Here is our king.” And the Legate bowed to Nefri, and looked at him in surprise; and the herald said in the Cambrian language to Nefri that the Legate was fain to arrange a truce, or indeed a lasting peace, if that were possible.

Then the old chief said to Nefri, “My lord, ask him wherefore the Legate has come;” and Nefri asked the herald, and the herald asked the Legate; then the Legate said, smiling, to the herald, “Tell him anything but the truth—say that it is our magnanimity;” and then he added in a lower tone, turning to the other officer, “though the truth is that the men will not dare to attack the place after the rout of yesterday;” and the Legate added to the herald, “Say that the Romans respect courage, and have seen that the Cambrians are worthy foes, and we would not press them hard; it is a peaceful land of allies that we desire, and not a land conquered and made desolate.” So the herald repeated the words.

Then the old chief bade Nefri say that they must have time to consider, adding that it would not be well to seem eager for peace. Then he said to the other chiefs, “Yet this is our salvation.” So they conferred together, and at last it was decided to tell the Legate that they would be friends and allies, but that the boundaries of the land must be respected, and that the Romans must withdraw beyond the boundaries. And this the Legate accepted, and it was determined that all the land that could be seen from the camp should be left to the Cambrians, and that the mountains should be as a wall to them; and this too the Legate approved.

So in the space of an hour the Cambrians were relieved of their foes, and were in peace in their own land. And the Legate was royally entertained; but before he went he asked, through the herald, where the great warrior was who had led the last charge on the day before, for he had taken him to be the prince of the land. Then the old chief said, “He is sick and may not come forth.” Then the Legate rode away, and Nefri rode a little way with him to do him honour, and after courteous greetings they departed.

Then the old chief and Nefri talked long together, and they determined what they would do.

Then the people were assembled, and Nefri spoke first, and said that he was young and could not put words together; but he added that the old chief knew his will and would announce it.

Then the old chief stood forward and told the people the story of Heiri's death and how he had died for the people; and then he told them that he had made the priests fight, and that the gods had surely shown that they were false priests, for they were slain, and the gods had not protected them, and that Nefri was prince by the will of Heiri.

And then he said that Heiri with his latest breath had said that he should be the last victim—and that thus it should be; “for Heiri,” he said, “has become a god indeed and fought for us, and has conquered the Romans, and, therefore,” he said, “the Lord Nefri has decreed that the precinct of the god should not indeed be destroyed—for that were impious; but that a great mound should be raised over the place, and that it should be the tomb of Heiri, and that peaceful offerings should be made there, and that it should be kept as a day of festival; and that Nefri himself should be priest as well as prince, and his successors for ever.”

And the people all applauded, for they had dreaded the bloody sacrifices; and the next day and for many days they laboured until over the whole precinct they had raised a mighty mound, burying the image of the god; and for Heiri's body they made a chamber of stone, and they laid him therein, with his face upward to the sky, and made great lamentation over him.

When all things were in order a solemn feast was held; and Nefri on the top of the mound made a sacrifice of fruits and milk, and blessed the people in the name of Heiri; and he made order that to make the place more blessed, all weddings should thenceforth be celebrated upon the mound, so that it should be the precinct of life and not of death. And the people rejoiced.

That night Nefri slept in the hut of Heiri; and at the dead time of darkness, when all was silent in the camp, except for the pacing of the sentry to and fro, Nefri awoke, and saw in the hut the form of Heiri standing, only brighter and fairer than when he lived; and he looked upon Nefri with a smile as though his heart was full of joy; then he came near and said, in a voice like the voice of a distant fall of water, “Nefri, dear child, thou hast done well and wisely; be just and merciful and loving to all; and rule with diligence, and grieve not.”

Then Nefri would have asked him of the place wherein his spirit abode, but could not find words; for he was full of wonder, though not afraid. But Heiri smiled again, as though he knew his thoughts, and said, “Ask me not that, for I may not tell; but only this I may tell you, that no man who has lived wisely and bravely need fear the passage; it is but a flying shadow on the path, like a cloud on the hill; and then he stands all at once in a fairer place; neither need he fear that he lays aside with the body the work and labour of life; for he works and labours more abundantly, and his labour is done in joy, without fear or heaviness; and for all such spirits is there high and true labour waiting. Therefore, Nefri, fear not; and though I cannot come to thee again—for thou shalt live and be blest—yet will I surely await thee yonder.”

And then there came a darkness, and the form of Heiri seemed to fade gradually away, as though he were withdrawn along some secret path; and there went others with him. And Nefri slept.

And in the morning came Heiri's wife, and said to Nefri that Heiri had stood beside her in the night and comforted her; “and I know,” she said, “that he lives and waits for me.”

So the land had peace; and Nefri ruled wisely and did justice among the mountains by the sea.