“I can sleep no longer. I will look out at the night,” he said.
A faint moon had arisen, and lent an uncertain light to the outlines of hill, crag, and moorland, while it gilded the cornice above, where the wind seemed to linger and moan over departed greatness. The Druidical worship of olden days, the deluded worshippers now turned into dust, and the cruel rites of their bloodstained worship, older even than those of the ruined temple, rose before his imagination, until fancy seemed to people the silent wastes before him with those who had once crowded round that circle of misshapen stones which stood out vividly on the verge of the plain.
He felt that nameless fear which such thoughts excite so strongly, that he sought the company of the sentinel whom they had posted to guard their slumbers, and found not one but two at the post.
“Oswy and Anlac! both watching?”
“It was too lonesome for one,” said Oswy.
“Have you seen or heard aught amiss?”
“Yes. About an hour ago, there were cries such as men make when they die in torture, smothered by other sounds like the beating of drums, blowing of horns, and I know not what.”
“You were surely dreaming?”
“No; it came from yonder circle of stones, and a light like that of a great fire seemed to shine around.”
Alfred made no reply; but he remembered that they had talked of the Druidical rites the night before, and thought that the idea had taken such hold upon the minds of his followers as to suggest the sounds to their fancy. Still he watched with them till the first red streak of day appeared in the east.
Early in the morning our travellers arose and took their way through an open country which abounded with British and Roman remains; no fewer than three entrenched camps, once fortifying the frontier of the Dobuni, lying within sight or hard by the road, which, skirting the summit of the watershed between the Thames and the Avon, afforded magnificent views.
About an hour after starting they came upon a singular monument of Druidical times, consisting of sixty huge stones arranged in a circular form, with an entrance at the northeast, while a single rock or large stone, the largest of all, stood apart from the circle, as if looking down into the valley beneath.[xix]
“What can be the origin of this circle?” said Alfred.
“It belongs to the old days of heathenesse; before the Welsh were conquered by the Romans, perhaps before our Blessed Lord came into the world, these stones were placed as you now see them,” replied Father Cuthbert.
“What purpose could they serve?”
“For their devil worship, I suppose; you see those five stones which stand at some little distance?”
“They are the Five Whispering Knights,” said Oswy.
“They are the remains of a cromlech or altar whereon they offered their sons and daughters unto devils, and shed innocent blood, wherefore the Lord brought the Romans upon them.”