Escal Vigor/Part I/Chapter I

PART THE FIRST

THE

DYKGRAVE'S RETURN

I.

On the first of June, Henry de Kehlmark, the young "Dykgrave" or Count of the Dike, the lord of the castle Escal-Vigor, entertained a numerous company, as a sort of Joyous Entry, to celebrate his home-coming to the cradle of his forefathers, at Smaragdis, the largest and richest island in one of those enchanting and heroic northern seas, the coasts of which the bays and fiords hollow out and cut up capriciously into multiform archipelagoes and deltas.

Smaragdis, or the Emerald Isle, was a dependency of the half-German, half-Celtic kingdom of Kerlingalande. At the very beginning of commercial enterprise in the west, a colony of Hanseatic merchants settled there. The Kehlmarks claimed descent from the Danish sea-kings, or Vikings. Bankers, who had in them a dash of pirates' blood, men both of knowledge and action, they followed Frederick Barbarossa in his Italian expeditions, and distinguished themselves by an inalterable devotion, the fidelity of thane to king, to the House of Hohenstaufen.

A Kehlmark had even been the favourite of Frederick II., the Sultan of Luceria, that voluptuous emperor, the most artistic of the romantic house of Swabia, who, in that brilliant southern land, lived a life energised by the deep and virile aspirations of the north. This Kehlmark perished at Beneventum with Manfred, the son of his illustrious friend.

At the date of our story, a large panel in the billiard room of Escal-Vigor still represented Conradin, the last of the Hohenstaufens, in the act of embracing Frederick of Baden before mounting with him on to the scaffold.

In the Fifteenth century, there flourished at Antwerp a Kehlmark, money-lender to kings, like the Fuggers and the Salviati, and he figured among those haughty Hanseatic merchants, whose custom it was to wend them to the Cathedral, or to the Exchange, preceded by fife and violin players.

An historic and even legendary abode, suggesting at once a German castle and an Italian palace, the castle of Escal-Vigor is situated at the western extremity of the island, at the intersection of two very lofty dikes, from whence it commands a view of the whole country.

From time immemorial the Kehlmarks had been considered as the masters and protectors of Smaragdis. The duty of guarding and keeping in repair the monumental dikes had been their's for centuries. An ancestor of Henry was credited with the erection of those enormous ramparts, which had for ever preserved the country from those inundations and sometimes total submersions, that had overwhelmed several of the sister-isles.

Once only, about the year 1400, on a wild, tempestuous night, the sea had succeeded in breaking through a part of this chain of artificial hills, and had rolled its cataclysmal waves to the very heart of the island; when, so the tradition runs, the castle of Escal-Vigor proved sufficiently spacious and well-provisioned to serve as refuge and storehouse for the entire population.

The Dykgrave sheltered his people as long as the waters covered the country, and when the flood had abated he not only repaired the dike at his own expense, but also rebuilt the cottages of his vassals. In process of time these dikes, now almost five centuries old, had assumed the appearance of natural hills. On the summit were planted thick curtains of trees, somewhat bent by the west wind. At the highest point the two ranges of hills joined together to form a sort of plateau or promontory, that jutted like a horse-spur, or ship's prow, sheer into the sea, and at the extreme end of this cape the castle stood out like a sentinel. The perpendicular dike presented to the ocean a face of granite wall and recalled those majestic rocks to be found along the Rhine, and out of which the castle crowning the summit looks as if it had been carved.

At high tide, the waves came breaking themselves in baffled rage at the foot of the buttress thrown up to check their fury. On the land side the two dikes sloped gently away, and, as they separated, their branches formed a small valley, which gradually grew larger, enclosing a magnificent park, with forests, pond and pastures. The trees, that were never pruned, spread out their wild foliage like immense fans, ever quivering in the wind like the sound of Aeolian harps. Herds of wild deer passed in their flight, like yellow flashes of lightning, amid the dense vegetation; while cows browsed on that moist and succulent herb, of an almost fluid green tint, to which the island owes its name of Emerald.

Notwithstanding the popularity of the Kehlmarks in the district, the castle had for the last twenty years remained uninhabited. The mutual affection of the young and handsome parents of the present Count had been so intense that the one could not survive the other. Henry was born there some months before their death. His paternal grandmother, who took charge of him, refused ever to set foot again in the country, to the ravages of whose inclement climate she attributed the premature death of her children. Henry, accordingly, was brought up on the continent, in the capital of the kingdom of Kerlingalande; and afterwards by the advice of physicians, he was sent to study at an international boarding-school in Switzerland.

There, at Bodemberg Castle where he passed his youth, he long wore the look of a fair, rather delicate adolescent, cursed with a tendency to anaemia and consumption; he had a reflective, somewhat intense expression of countenance, a broad, roundish forehead, cheeks the colour of a rose on the fade, whilst a precocious fire burnt in a pair of large, dark-blue coloured eyes, akin to the violet of amethyst, or the purple of the clouds and waves at sunset. His head, somewhat too massive, seemed with its weight to crush his sloping shoulders; his limbs were feeble, and his chest devoid of firmness. The weakly constitution of the little Dykgrave would have exposed him to the rough horseplay of his fellow-pupils had he not escaped this by the prestige of his intelligence, a prestige that had its effect even on the professors. All respected his need of solitude and reverie, his propensity to avoid the customary amusements, his liking to walk alone in the depths of the park, with no companion save a favourite author, or, more frequently, contenting himself with the society of his own thoughts. His ill-health still further increased his susceptibility. Headaches and intermittent fevers kept him often a-bed, isolating him for several days at a stretch.

Once, just after he had attained his fifteenth year, he was almost drowned, in an excursion on the water, a school-fellow with him having upset the boat. For several weeks he lay between life and death. Then, by a strange caprice of nature, it fell out that the very accident which had almost carried him off, brought about a salutary crisis, and produced that reaction so long desired by his grandmother, who looked upon him as her last hope and stay on earth. In agreement with the young Count's guardians, she had selected this distant school, because it Was at once a model college and a fine health residence, in the most salubrious part of Switzerland. Before being converted into a cosmopolitan academy—it was intended for young patricians of both hemispheres— Bodemberg-Schloss had been a fashionable bathing establishment, the resort of the most elegant invalids of Switzerland and Germany. Henry's grandmother had therefore naturally counted upon the healthy climate of the Aar valley, and the hygienic advantages of this educational establishment, more closely to bind to life and possibly to effect the complete regeneration of this the sole descendant of an illustrious race. For was not this idolised grandson of hers the only offspring left by her departed children, whom excess of love had early slain?

Kehlmark not only recovered his health, but found himself in possession of quite a new constitution. Not only did a rapid convalescence restore to him his former strength but, to his surprise, he saw himself growing taller, walking with a more elastic step, getting a bigger chest and harder muscles and gaining in flesh and fulness of blood. With this rejuvenescence of the body there came to Kehlmark a frankness and ingenuousness of the soul, of the warmth and tenderness of which, his over-studious and reflective mind had until then been wholly unaware.

Although he had formerly looked with contempt upon athletic exercises, he now applied himself to vigorous training, and in the end came to be quite an athlete. Far from shrinking, as before, from the risk of violent exertion, he distinguished himself by his boldness and enthusiasm. He, who in order to save himself the fatigue of a climb in the Jura, had often hidden away in the subterraneous passages, amongst the heating apparatus of the ancient bathing establishment, was now conspicuous among the most indefatigable of mountain climbers.

At the same time he remained a reader and a student, being at once a great amateur of deeds of physical prowess and of sporting games of skill, recalling in this respect the accomplished men and harmonious livers of the Renaissance.

On the death of his grandmother whom he adored, he had come back and taken up residence in his native country, a filial affection for which had clung to him from boyhood, and whose impulsive and outspoken denizens would naturally be pleasing to his frank and generous mind.

The aborigines of Smaragdis belonged to that Celtic race, from which the Bretons and the Irish have sprung. In the Sixteenth century inter-marriage with the Spaniards intensified and perpetuated the predominance of dark blood over the blond. Kehlmark knew that these islanders, who, with their swarthy and strongly-marked complexions, were very distinct from the pink-and-white skinned peoples that surrounded them, had made themselves exceptional also by the stubborn resistance they had offered to the introduction of Christian, and especially of Protestant, morals. At the time of the conversion of these countries, the barbarians of Smaragdis submitted to baptism, only as the result of a war of extermination which the Christians waged against them to avenge the death of the apostle St. Olfgar, whose martyrdom, with an accompaniment of all sorts of cannabalistic inventions, is scrupulously, and as it were professionally, depicted in frescoes adorning the parish church of Zoutbertinge, the work of a pupil of Thierry Bouts, pourtrayer of men flayed alive. The legend runs that the women of Smaragdis had particularly distinguished themselves in this butchery. They had even added outrageous indecency to ferocity, having wrought with Olfgar even as the Bacchantes had with Orpheus.

Oft-times, in the course of the ages, heresies of sensual and subversive nature had arisen in this country of fiery temperraments and unconquerable independence. In the kingdom of Kerlingalande, now become very Protestant, where strict Lutheranism reigned as the State religion, the deep-sunken and occasionally explosive impiety of the population of Smaragdis was one of the chief cares of the Consistory.

Accordingly, the bishop of the diocese, on which the island was dependent, had lately sent a militant pastor, a man right full of craft, a sectary unhealthy and bilious, named Balthus Bomberg, who was burning to distinguish himself, and who came to Smaragdis somewhat in the spirit of a crusader against a new set of Albigenses.

His christianising efforts were, without doubt, pre-destined to prove quite useless. In spite of orthodox pressure, the island preserved its original fund of licence and paganism. The heresies of the Antwerp men Tanchelin and Pierre l'Ardoisier, that five centuries earlier had agitated the neighbouring countries of Flanders and Brabant, had struck their roots deep down into Smaragdian soil and strengthened the primitive character of the people.

All sorts of traditions and customs, abhorred in the other provinces, continued here notwithstanding ecclesiastical anathemas and priestly admonitions. The annual Fair used to prove the occasion for the outbreaking of sensual riots more savage and unbridled than in Friesland, or in Zealand, well renowned for the frenzy of their festivals; and every year at this epoch it seemed that the women were dominated by much of that same sanguinary hysteria that had erstwhile inflamed the tormentresses of good Bishop Olfgar.

By that strange law of contrasts, in virtue of which extremes meet, these islanders, though devoid of any definite religion, remained superstitious and fanatical, like the natives of most countries subject to phantasmal mists and fallacious meteors. Their love of the marvellous descended to them from remote theogonies, the gloomy and fatalistic cults of Thor and Odin; but eager appetites were mingled with their fantastic imaginations, intensifying their affections as well as their aversions.