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"Then she loved this savage?"
"I did not say that."
"Perhaps she hates him, then? A new Judith for this Holofernes?"
"Who knows? The Burgundians do not love the Huns since they pillaged Worms in their last raid."
"Still it is incomprehensible how he recovered from his defeat on the Catalaunian Plain."
"Everything is incomprehensible that has to do with this man, if he is a man at all."
"You are right. He is said to have succeeded his father's brother, Rua, of whom we know nothing; he has murdered his brother Bleda. For twenty years we have had him held over us like an iron rod, and yet lately, when he was before Rome, he turned back."
"But he has promised his soldiers to give them Rome some day."
"Why did he spare Rome?"
"No one knows. No one knows anything about this man, and he himself seems to be ignorant about himself. He comes from the East, he says; that is all. People say the Huns are the offspring of witches and demons in the wilderness. If anyone asks Attila what he wants, and who he is, he answers, 'The Scourge of G.o.d.' He founds no kingdom, builds no city, but rules over all kingdoms and destroys all cities."
"To return to his bride: she is called Ildico; is she then a Christian?"
"What does Attila care? He has no religion."
"He must have one if he calls himself 'the Scourge of G.o.d,' and declares that he has found the War-G.o.d's sword."
"But he is indifferent as regards forms of religion. His chief minister, Onegesius, is a Greek and a Christian."
"What an extraordinary man he is to settle down here in a salt-plain instead of taking up his abode in Byzantium or in Rome."
"That is because it resembles his far Eastern plains--the same soil, the same plants and birds; he feels at home here."
They became silent, as the sun rose and the heat increased. The low-growing tamarisk, wormwood, and soda-bushes afforded no shade. Wild fowl and larks were the only creatures that inhabited the waste. The herds of cattle, goats, and swine had disappeared, for Attila's army of half a million had eaten them up, and his horses had not left a single edible blade of gra.s.s.
At noon the caravan came suddenly to a halt, for on the eastern horizon there was visible a town with towers and pinnacles, on the other side of a blue lake. "Are we there?" asked Edeko. "Impossible; it is still twenty miles, or three days' journey."
But the city was in sight, and the caravan quickened its pace. After half an hour the town appeared no nearer, but seemed, on the contrary, to grow more distant, to dwindle in size, and to sink out of sight.
After another half hour, it had disappeared, and the blue lake also.
"They can practise enchantment," said the Roman, "but that goes beyond everything."
"It is the Fata Morgana, or the mirage," explained the guide.
As the evening came on, the caravan halted in order to rest for the night.
On the stretch of land between Bodrog and Theiss, Attila had his standing camp, for it could not be called a town. The palace was of wood, painted in glaring colours, and resembled an enormous tent, whose style was probably borrowed from China, the land of silk. The women's house, which was set up near it, had a somewhat different form, which might have been brought by the Goths from the North, or even from Byzantium, for the house was ornamented with round wooden arches. The fittings seemed to have been stolen from all nations and lands; there were quant.i.ties of gold and silver, silk and satin curtains, Roman furniture and Grecian vessels, weapons from Gaul, and Gothic textile fabrics. It resembled a robber's abode, and such in fact it was.
Behind the palace enclosure began the camp, with its smoke-grimed tents.
A vast number of horse-dealers and horse-thieves swarmed in the streets, and there were as many horses as men there. Without the camp there grazed herds of swine, sheep, goats, and cattle--living provision for this enormous horde of men, who could only devour and destroy, but could not produce anything.
Now, on the morning of Attila's wedding day, there were moving about in this camp thousands of little men with crooked legs and broad shoulders, clothed in rat-skins and with rags tied round their calves. They looked out of their tents with curiosity, when strangers who had been invited to the marriage feast came riding up from the plain.
In the first street of tents, Attila's son and successor, Ellak, met the princ.i.p.al guests; he bade them welcome through an interpreter, and led them into the guest-house.
"Is that a prince, and are those men?" said Orestes to Edeko.
"That is a horse-dealer, and the rest are rats," answered Edeko. "They are monsters and demons, vampires, created from dreams of intoxication.
They have no faces; their eyes are holes; their voice is a rattle; their nose is that of a death's-head; and their ears are pot-handles."
"You speak truly, and it is from these half-naked savages, who have no armour and no shield, that the Roman legions have fled. They are goblins, who have been able to 'materialise' themselves."
"They will not conquer the world."
"At any rate not in this year."
Then they followed Prince Ellak, who had heard and understood every word, although he pretended not to know their language.
In the women's house sat Attila's favourite, Cercas, and sewed the bridal veil. Ildico, the beautiful Burgundian, stood at the window lost in thought and absent-minded. She had seen in Worms the hero before whom the world trembled, and she had really been captivated by the little man's majestic bearing. Herself fond of power, and self-willed, she had been enticed by the prospect of sharing power with the man before whom all and everything bowed; therefore she had given him her hand.
But she had had no correct comprehension of the manners and customs of the Huns, and had therefore imagined that her position as wife and Queen would be quite otherwise than it proved to be. Only this morning she had learnt that she could not appear at all at the marriage feast, nor share the throne, but would simply remain shut up with the other women in the women's house.
Cercas, the favourite, had explained all this with malicious joy to her rival, and the haughty Ildico was on the point of forming a resolution.
She had no friends in the palace, and could not approach the foreign princes.
Cercas was sewing, and accompanied her work with a melancholy song from her home in the far East. Ildico seemed to have collected her thoughts: "Can you lend me a needle?" she said, "I want to sew."
Cercas gave her a needle, but it was too small; she asked for a larger one, and chose the largest of all. She hid it in her bosom, and did not sew.
At that moment there appeared in the doorway a creature so abominably ugly and of such a malicious aspect, that Ildico thought he was a demon.
He was as jet-black as a negro from tropical Africa, and his head seemed to rest on his stomach, for he had no chest. He was a dwarf and humpback; his name was Hamilcar, and he was Attila's court-fool.
In those days the court-fool was generally not a wit, but a naive blockhead, who believed all that was said, and was therefore a b.u.t.t for jests. He only placed a letter in Cercas' hand, and disappeared. When Cercas had read the letter, she changed colour and seemed to become a different being. Overcome with rage, she could not speak, but sang,
"The tiger follows the lion's trail."
"Ildico, you have found a friend," she said at last. "You have a friend here in the room, here at the window, here on your breast." And she threw herself on the Burgundian maiden's breast, weeping and laughing alternately. "Give me your needle--your fine beautiful needle; I will thread it. No! I will sharpen it on steel; no, I will dip it in my perfume-flask, my own special little perfume flask, and then together we will sew up the Tiger's mouth, so that he can bite no more!"
"Let me read your letter," Ildico interrupted.
"You cannot. I will tell you what it says. He, our master, woos again for the hand of the daughter of the Emperor Valens--Honoria, and this time he has vowed to burn us all;--that he calls giving us an honourable burial."
Ildico reached out her hand as an answer, "Very well, to-night. A single needle-p.r.i.c.k will deprive the world of its ruler!"