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save my soul, and flee from the evil which I cannot hinder and will not share. This world is bad. I will seek a better."
Father Boniface did not like the decision. The world was certainly bad, but badness to which we are accustomed is rarely intolerable. And if the lords of Dene had burnt and slain, quarrelled and feasted, it was only natural, he did not expect anything better. They performed their religious duties, and if the young baron was so scrupu. lous, he could have masses said for them to any amount.
But Nicolas had never been a popular character. He was weak in health, and would have been studiously disposed, if he had had anything to study. He was a melancholy child, not knowing what ailed him, till in the course of some raid on a neighbouring castle, a young French priest was taken prisoner and kept for some time at Dene. From him Nicolas learnt of a different and more civilised life, of graces of manner and courteous intercourse. And he learnt too of faith, and hope, and heaven, and of the higher life, and had his eyes opened to such visions as shone before the finer spirits of his day. In the part of England and at the time where he lived even a monastery was hardly a safe refuge, and his presence in one would never have been concealed. He had been saved from the flames by Father Boniface and hidden from his enemies, and the priest had never supposed that he would not at once endeavour to recover his rights, and rejoice in the chance of harrying Fitz-urse in his turn. To renounce the world at the end of a long and sinful life and lead a life of penitence, was one thing, but to prefer in youth, peace and quiet, and the absence of rough turmoil and riotous pleasure, was another.
But Nicolas had the resolution of his race. He swore the priest to secrecy, and declared his resolve to live as a hermit in the wood and save his soul and pray for a sinful world, which he being what he was could never have aided in
way. Was it a leaving of his place, a shrinking from his allotted task ? Perhaps, but it bore in upon the minds of that age, the fact that there was a higher life than fighting and feasting.
Meanwhile, as time went by, Avis knew no pity, and the event which old Agnes had felt sure would reconcile ber to her fate, failed; for the child that was born to her never saw the light. Avis did not appear to grieve; but perhaps the disappointment and experience which she did not understand added to the bitterness of her spirit. Sir Eustace was much away from the Tower, and the excessive dulness and blankness of her life weighed on the girl's awakening and strengthening faculties. She had nothing to do; she could not even embroider and sew well enough to give her pleasure, she could not read, and no wandering minstrels came to Dene to fill her empty mind with tale and ballad. She was wretched, and vehemently resented her wretchedness, as one dreary spring-day she sat in the hall at Dene, in the corner by the great fire. East winds whistled through the paneless windows, smoke curled out from the great chimney and mingled with damp clouds of fog that came in from the uncleared forest.
Avis was used to these discomforts; but no doubt they added to her depression and displeasure. Whose fault was it that she was so wretched ? Had Avis been Lord instead of Lady of Dene revenge would have been a sacred duty to her, and it was of revenge that she now thought, on the Fitz-urses, on her fate, on the heavenly powers that permitted such evil to befall her. Avis was too ignorant to get much above S. Dunstan of Dene, in her thoughts ; she hardly conceived that our LORD or even the Blessed Mary herself stood in any personal relation to her.
Her family always made presents to S. Dunstan, if they succeeded in their enterprises, and prayed to him for what they wanted, regarding him as all powerful in their behalf.
Avis was daring enough to think that S. Dunstan had altogether failed her, and those more powerful than S. Dunstan had done nothing to help her. She would like S. Dunstan to be punished, to suffer as she did, since he would not hear her prayers. Was there no one else to turn to ? Suddenly, right into Avis's mind came the thought of old Agnes's words, that if she blasphemed the Saints the Evil One would come at her call.
There was then another side. Some one of whose power she had no doubt at all, who in return for her allegiance would give her what S. Dunstan and all the Saints refused to her prayers, revenge on the Fitz-urses—some one who would make others suffer for her wretched
She might sell her soul-well she would rather have hell than heaven, if to win heaven she must bear this misery. It was the passionate revolt of an utterly rebellious soul against the weight of life, taking the extremest form it knew, and daring with a kind of desperate relief everything which it held most sacred. Eustace and his father should perish, S. Dunstan should lose his adherents. She would choose evil instead of good—if so she could work her will, for igno
rant as Avis was, she knew quite well that she was choosing evil, that heaven and the Saints, and a dutiful, prayerful life lay on one side, and the powers of darkness on the other. Her light was dim, but it was quite clear enough for her to see, as is the light of every human creature if they choose to follow it. It may lead a very little
but there is always a way that is the right way for them--some faint and far-off ray of God and goodness, however obscured by ignorance and misbelief. When Avis flung the rosary that her husband had given her into the fire and stamped the rude image of S. Dunstan that had always hung round her neck under her foot, she committed as impious and wicked an act as she could conceive; she having thought out her dulness and discomfort and anger to this extreme result. Of course she was also a very naughty child; but she was a naughty child clever enough to have invented an unusually wicked action.
She did not know very well how to set about this traffic with the Evil One on which she had thus resolved. No “ wise woman,” no witch white or black happened to dwell in the neighbourhood of Dene, --and all her knowledge of the subject was derived from an old tale of Agnes's, of some one who went into a lonely spot at the full of the moon, drew a circle on the grass and said his prayers
backwards; little brown man appeared to him, and gave him gold enough to make him a rich man for life, but bound him to come back that day twenty years, when he must pay the price,-and after that day twenty years no man saw him more.
Twenty years is a long time to the imagination of fifteen, and Avis made
her mind to imitate this hero. The fog clearing off, showed a full frosty moon on that very night. There was a glade in the wood that bore an indefinitely bad reputation as the haunt of elves and demons, and hither Avis resolved to betake herself. It was difficult to escape from the Tower at night without the knowledge of Agnes, who was the only authority really feared by the girl, but Avis did contrive to slip down stairs while she was asleep, unbarred a postern, at which no one was watching, and as Dene had no moat to guard it, but stood on high ground above the village, she was soon safe in the shades of the forest, and a good deal fluttered and afraid of being discovered by Agnes, ran on to the little open glade, a pretty peaceful spot, with early celandines, and budding violets sleeping in the moonlight. Avis drew her circle with a stick with which she had provided herself, making a clear line in the heavy dew.
And then she dropped down on her knees, and with a beating heart and hidden face endeavoured to begin at the wrong end of her Paternoster and her Ave, and to repeat them backwards, a feat which she found so difficult that she could hardly stumble through it, as she scarcely knew one word from another, and as far as meaning was concerned was no worse off than she had ever been. But all the same, her wicked will was defying every whisper of her conscience, and as she finished a sort of hard strength came into her soul, a daring defiance, unknown through all her previous passionate protests.
“Evil One, help me !" she whispered, and suddenly a shadow fell between her and the moon, and a low stern voice said,
“ Look not up for your life. What is your will ?”
I suppose that when supernatural experiences are regarded as extremely probable, and in fact not much out of the common way, they can hardly cause the utter shock and terror which they would bring, could they take place when utterly unexpected. When the devil was more familiar he was, after all, less awful, and though Avis's pulse stood still with fear, she managed to say,
“On the Fitz-urses, and—and on S. Dunstan, who has never done anything for us.”
Did you come here to sell your soul ?”
Yes." “You cast off the blessed Saints at whose feet your mother sits in Paradise. You deny Him Who died for you on the Cross. You cut yourself away from love and peace, and cast in your lot with the outcasts in the lake of fire. You forsake the light-you choose the darkness--you give up bliss—you choose woe.”
Avis was silent. The Evil One put the other side remarkably well. .
“ You choose to suffer in the other life, if your husband suffer in this. You give your soul to destroy his body. You will burn in hell, while he sits in Heaven ; but here you will see him suffer more than he has made you suffer. You will see him lose lands and life. You will see him die, and when S. Dunstan and S. Hugh lead him together to the throne of God, you will stand below and pay
the price. Your soul will go to its own place ; you will serve the master you have chosen.”
Avis could not speak.
“ Go home,” said the voice; "you chose your part; your prayer is granted. Go home, and have your will. But never for one hour forget the bargain you have made. Your Master will remember it.”
When Avis lifted her head from the ground she was alone in the moonlight. She had done the deed, and she knew what an awful deed it had been to do. She fled back to the Tower, with a new and dreadful bondage on her soul. Eustace would die, S. Dunstan had lost his follower—but she ? Good and evil, blessing and cursing had been set before her, and for the first time her soul was alive. The awful choice lay behind her ; but all that day she thought of her mother sitting in Heaven, and she herself cast down into hell.
That same evening, Sir Eustace at the head of a few followers came riding back to Dene. He had had reverses; he told her, that part of King Stephen's army with which he was connected had suffered a defeat, he himself had been wounded and had caught a chill from lying unheeded on the field-and he was sick.
“So, Avis, I am here for my wife to tend me,” he said with a wistful smile, as he threw himself wearily on the settle by the hall-fire.
A.vis caught her breath. The Evil One had been very prompt with his side of the bargain. Her desire had even been forestalled.
She had not seen Sir Eustace for four months, and much had passed in her life since then. There was a great contest within her. She had indeed "given place to the devil,” and there was many an hour when he reigned supreme, and when she rejoiced, or thought she rejoiced at Eustace's suffering. But, she never forgot the bargain ; she never forgot the price she had to pay. Was she after all so glad to see him fail and fade, to see the ruddy joyous youth pale and languid ? She left all the tending of him to Agnes ; but she watched him, half in an awful terror at seeing her wicked will work its way, and half — with what ?
There was scant skill in the healing art at Dene, and Eustace seemed to grow weaker every day, while Avis, spite of her inward agitations, grew taller and fairer in her advancing womanhood. Ah, madam,” said Agnes, one day, o'tis all in vain.
My lord will die, and then what will become of us, with no one to guard us !”
So it was to be. The revenge had come ; Eustace was struck down in the pride of his youth and his strength !
“I thought he would be killed in open fight, not lie and look so pale,” thought Avis.
“Oh, he looks at me as if he knew I had killed him.” VOL. II.