a romantic tale: the dacian outpost
-Gather the cohort! Blow the horns, spread the word that we head for the fortress across the river!
- So soon!
- My fair Constanze, I know that you wanted to see with your own eyes the spots that I mentioned to you this very morning, but to-day it is impossible. Darkness is falling already across the land, the night is at hand - the Night of All Souls. In no time horrific bell-tolls from their graves the pagans raise will...
- But Cassius... This is indeed one of these stories that are told to children so they pray to the good Lord! Would you frighten me?
The cuirassiers dispatched by Cassius gathered slowly the scattered troops. In one or the other spot a centurion would gather near the banners a group of legionnaires.
-Constanze, you are not aware of what happens hereabout. Rein you mare, I will keep my horse at the same pace on our way back and thus you will be able to listen to a story that deserves your highest attention.
The sound of horns echoed in the whole valley as the numerous groups of soldiers marched towards the castle.
The bunch of imperial cuirassiers, their crest-plumes and their purple cloaks waved by the savage winterly north wind, gathered behind Constanze and Cassius, thus escorting them. The sun sank slowly behind the far-away mountains, the shades grew steadily bigger in the valley. In the distant horizont, across the river, a castle stood boldly perched on a cliff.
As the cohort headed for the castle Cassius told the fair Constanze, the emperor's daughter, the promised story in these words:
- These desolate landscapes on your right, Constanze, belonged in a distant past to the Caesars. But the persistence of the barbarians forced the Empire to abandon them many years ago. You can imagine how terrified the colonists were. The governor, forced by the decision of His Serene Imperial Majesty, could do little for them. Nevertheless, he was able to do one thing. He summoned some christian ascetes here, who were half monks, half warriors, and he dessignated them these lands yonder the Danube, which by then belonged to nobody. The ruins of their monastery are still visible there, by the river. Like that very one they founded many of across the whole land. These monasteries were due to serve the Order both as military strongholds and religious sanctuaries.
In spite of the withdrawal of the legions those virtuous monks managed to check the barbarian raids, being even able to inflict them some severe losses. The courage of the monks offered the colonists yet several valuable years of peace and prosperity. It can even be said that the businesses of the industrious colonists flourished, as the monks demanded from them less taxes than the Empire used to. Yet they did request something: that the colonists abandoned their pagan idols and that they worshipped Our Saviour Jesus Christ. The settlers were eager to accept hastily this condition at first, terrified as they were, confronted with the very sight of the leaving legions. But, alas, as years passed by the colonists found this sole condition more and more difficult to bear. In the end some settlers waged an armed revolt against the monks, and this rebellion sparked off in this very spot. In a night of all souls. The monks of the Order insisted on reaching the bridge, the very one we are heading towards, amidst their holiest procession.The colonist strove to impede the monks their goal. Bloodshed followed: the tiny shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary that you behold on this bank, which was the procession's goal, did not escape the blood bath. As the sun rose up the whole valley offered a horrifying view.
The next dawn saw the whole valley beset by corpses, the monastery ravaged. No place was spared that shameless destruction, neither the shrine, nor the cemetery. The little roman garrison encamped hither the Danube watched, astonished, horrified, unable to react, how their former brothers committed those nameless crimes.
This uprising was followed by many others throughout the old province. The Order was annihilated.
The good Lord wept, undoubtedly, for such horrible crimes against His servants, and He punished their executioners, for He let their lands be plundered by scores of barbarians. Their families were devastated, their villages and towns ruined and in no time nothing was left of the ancient splendour of the province.
Here, on the limes, intervened His Imperial Majesty. He Himself ordered to bury the monks as our Lord demands. But, in the meantime, the wolves and the plunderers had already had a bloody feast. The officer entrusted to execute that order could nothing but let both friends and foes be buried together, undistinguished, mixed.
They say that ever since, on All Souls' Night, bells tolling are heard where there is no longer a bellfry, and the spirits of the dead, wrapt in the tatters of their shrouds, come again to life and again engage in fantastic battle, between bushes and brambles. The deers trumpet in terror, wolves howl, snakes hiss horribly, and on the following morning remains of such a singular combat are seen. Not even the most courageous soldier can stand that horrid vision, and, in these desolate provinces everyone knows that, on this night, whoever wants to keep life and wit shall stay sheltered. This is why we wished to leave it before nightfall.
Cassius's story was finished just as the entourage arrived at the end of the bridge which spans over the Danube. There they waited for the rest of the detachment to join them, and then the whole cavalcade was lost to sight as they entered the castle that stood perched on the cliffs, overlooking the Danube, and the bridge.
The scythian slaves, fair-haired and tall, pale-skinned, were just clearing the tables. The high fireplace in the castle shed a vivid light that wandered among the senators, in their bleached togae, and the leather armour of the tribunes of the legions, and the roman matrons, and the young fair-headed new patricians of the whereabouts, who were chatting in a most gay manner, gathered not far from the fireplace. The finest, scented, red wine of the nearby Upper Pannonia, flowed from gilded kraters, and at some point a huge dessert table was presented to the guests. An uncanny wind shook the leaded glass of the arch-shaped windows of the praetorium.
Only Constanze and held themselves apart from the party. Constanze’s pale blue eyes followed the undisturbed, contorted dance of the flames, far, far away from the general liveliness. Looked at her, at the smooth lines of her face, at the golden locks flowing down, like a waterfall, over her jazmyn-scented shoulders. She wore a simple opaline white greek dress, and a purple stoa over it. In those days only the imperial family were allowed to wear such purple clothes, but it was not that. He felt himself hazed, bewitched, as he had never been before. Was it the fire in her eyes? Her wit? Her candorous inocence?
An unbroken silence rested between them for some time.
The roman matrons were telling gruesome stories that, in a way or the other, had to do with the All Souls’ Night. A gloomy atmosphere seemed to pervade the whole aula, as spectres and ghosts and cobolds emerged as the main rôles. A flavour of the still ever-present old gods was still perceived at those nights. Who wasn’t, at some time, afraid of the wrath of the Olympians? And the monotonous, mournful tolling of distant bellfries invaded the whole countryside, marching with the tiresome clatter of a rotten, decayed army.
"Fair Constanze", finally exclaimed Cassius, breaking the dull silence, "what troubles your delicate temples? May I console you in any way?"
The maid made a gesture of cold indifference, as in this sudden, disdainful contraction of her lips a whole woman's character was revealed.
"I hardly believe you can, Cassius", she replied, promptly.
"But there's surely something I can do to alleviate your grief, as I'm sure there's some grief that troubles your mind"
Constanze's eyes turned to Cassius, and there was a flame in them, an indescriptible one.
"Loyalty is to me most appreciated than any other thing. I am but a young maiden, but I've known what treason means. My father was murdered when I was only a small child, not far away from these ravaged provinces, by his dearest brother. These old matrons, these loyal senators, they all are contaminated by the old illness of corruption. The whole court is pervaded to the bone by it."
"But not you. You are the last stand of what Rome once meant"
Cassius would have blushed, if he had been twenty years younger, perhaps.
"My fair Constanze, if you would consider this humble servant to be worthy of your serene beauty, I..."
The white hand was kept vertical, as though she meant the time to freeze.
"I have lost something yonder the Danube. Something that is to me dearer than life itself. It's a blue scarf my father presented me many years ago, the very day he parted for the frontier - in his final journey. But I am confident you will find it and give it back to me - on this very night - May the good Lord have arranged this signal to seal this feeling that is being born between us, in this very feast day in which every saint is commemorated?"
"You lost it - where?" Cassius rising from his seat, paling, with a mingled expression of hope and fear
"This I do not know - maybe near those ruins you told me about"
"Near the ruins" he murmured, "near the doomed temple"
"You won't tell me, Cassius, so brave a general believes those old-women's tales"
"You know, for you have heard it many times, that I am feared by all the barbarian chieftains - even the huns. The rugs your feet tread on are the spoils of the chase, the hides of the wild beasts I have killed with my own hand. There is not a man that will say that he has ever seen me shrink from danger. Ask me to march on Rome with this single cohort - I will do it at once, no matter what. On any other night I would fly for that scarf, — fly as joyously as to a festival; but to-night, this one night.... Don't you hear? The bells are tolling, and yonder the river the spirits are rising from their graves."
An almost imperceptible smile curled the lips of Constanze. The sparks rose and sank in the hearth. Once again indifferent, absent, she exclaimed:
"Oh, by no means! What folly! That countryside beyond the Danube, beset by barbarians, wild beasts - and spirits"
As she spoke this closing phrase, Cassius could not fail to understand all her bitter irony. As moved by a spring, he leapt to his feet, and abandoned the palatine aula, mute as a ghost, murmuring only to himself, as he left the room:
"Farewell, my dearest princess, farewell. If I return, it will be soon."
The old dames still told their tales of ghostly apparitions; And still, the wind blew against the leaded glass, and far away the bells tolled on.
The wind ululated, furious, through the corridors and aisles, around the battlements, through the whole castle. Cloud-rags would pass through the firmament of the bailey in a blink of an eye. Cassius, helped by a page, mounted his white horse. The saddle, of the finest damascene leather, spoils of his very first battle, reminded him every now and then of the distant times when he first fought the enemies of Rome. On that first skirmish he was granted another souvenir, this one tatooed on his skin: a bad slash on his cheek, just beneath his right eye. It was he, Cassius, who had dedicated some tense time to cinch his nervous hispanic stallion, the swiftest horse in the castle, maybe in the whole province. The whistle of the wind would not cease. Cassius's purple cloak waved to it like an ensign.
The page produced his lord's rider sword, a long blade which in other time had belonged to a goth chieftain. As the page approached him, Cassius beheld for a while the blade, bright under the moonlight, and the gilded hilt. Fair days, they were, he thought. It's a shame, that one has to die to-night. The spatha disappeared in the scabbard. A wave of his gloved hand and the page was off. He pulled the reins vigorously, the stallion reared briefly, but Cassius's firm hold stated clearly who was the master. Then the stallion calmed down, and they were departed like an arrow. Clatter of iron and leather, clash of metals, hoofs on the petrous pavement. The loyal page opened the main gate, and the legionaires of the guard shivered, as one man alone, the last of the romans abandoned the sure keep, the mighty, ancient bollwerk on All Souls' Night.
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