Attila by August Strindberg

With the demise of Constantine the Great, Greece, Rome, and Palestine had ceased to exist. Civilisation had passed Eastward, for Constantinople was the metropolis of Europe; and from the East, Rome, Spain, Gaul, and Germany were governed by satraps with various titles. It seemed as though the vitality of Europe had been quenched, and as though Rome had been buried, but it was only apparently so. History did not proceed in a straight line, but took circuitous paths, and therefore development seemed to be in disorder and astray. But it was not really so.

Christianity, which was about to penetrate the West, had sprung from the East, and so ancient Byzantium formed a transition stage. In Rome, which had been left to itself, for its governors dwelt in Milan and Ravenna, a new spiritual world-power was springing up, which was silently forging a new imperial crown, in order to give it to the worthiest when the time was fulfilled. The advent of this heir had already been announced by Tacitus–a new race from the North, healthy, honest, good-humoured. These were the Germans, who were to hold the Empire for a thousand years from 800 to 1815. Already, at the commencement of the fifth century, the West Goths had captured Rome, but again withdrawn; other German races had overrun Spain, Gaul, and Britain, but none of them had taken firm root in Italy. Then an entirely new race appeared upon the scene, whose origin was unknown, and the promise of possessing the land which had been given to the Germans seemed to have been revoked, for the Huns finally settled in Hungary, and exacted tribute from all the nations in the world. Round a wooden castle and a few barracks on the river Theiss, there collected a crowd of Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Germans of all kinds to do homage before a throne on which sat a savage who resembled a lump of flesh.

In the year 453 A.D. this King, after many adventures, wished to celebrate one of his numerous marriages. He had summoned the chief men of all Europe–summoned–for a King does not invite. So they came riding from North, South, East, and West.

From the west, along the bank of the Danube, just below the place where the river makes a curve at the modern Gran, came two men riding at the head of a caravan. For several days they had followed the picturesque banks of the green river, with its bulrushes and willows, and its swarms of wild duck and herons. Now they were about to leave the cool shades of the forest region, and turn eastward towards the salt desert, which stretched to the banks of the yellow Theiss.

One leader of the caravan was a well-known Roman, called Orestes; the other was Rugier, also called Edeko. He was a chief from the shores of the Baltic Sea, and had been compelled to follow Attila.

The two leaders had hitherto spoken little together, for they mistrusted each other. But as they emerged on the wide plain, which opened out as clear and bright as the surface of the sea, they seemed themselves to grow cheerful, and to lay aside all mistrust.

“Why are you going to the marriage?” asked Orestes.

“Because I cannot remain away,” answered Edeko.

“Just like myself.”

“And the Bride–the Burgundian did not dare to say ‘no’ either?”

“She? Yes, she would have dared to.”

“Then she loved this savage?”

“I did not say that.”

“Perhaps she hates him, then? A new Judith for this Holofernes?”

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“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 God.’ 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 God,’ and declares that he has found the War-God’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 grass.

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 quantities 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.

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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 principal 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.

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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 butt 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-prick will deprive the world of its ruler!”

* * * * *

Edeko and Orestes had thoroughly rested from their journey in the guest-house. At noon, when they wished to go out, they found the door bolted.

“Are we prisoners? Have we fallen into a trap?” asked the Roman.

“We have not had any food either,” answered Edeko.

Then two voices were heard without: “We will strangle them; that is the simplest way.”

“I think we had better set the house on fire; the tall one is strong.”

“And they thought we did not understand their language.”

The two prisoners, whose consciences were uneasy, were alarmed, and believed that their end was near. Then a small trap-door opened in the wall, and the fool Hamilcar showed his hideous head.

“Whether you are the devil or not,” exclaimed the Roman, “answer us some questions.”

“Speak, sirs,” said the negro.

“Are we prisoners, or why cannot we see your King?”

Prince Ellak’s head appeared at the trap-door.

“You will first see the King this evening at the feast,” said the Prince, with a malicious grimace.

“Are we to fast till then?”

“We call it so, and do it always when we have a feast before us, in order to be able to eat more.”

“Cannot we at any rate go out?”

“No,” answered the Prince with the horse-dealerlike face. “One must conform to the custom of the country.” So saying, he closed the trap-door.

“Do you think we shall get away alive?” asked Edeko.

“Who knows? Attila is composed of treachery. You do not know that once he wrote two letters, one to Dieterich, King of the West Goths, asking for an alliance against the Romans as the common enemy; and on the same day he wrote a similar letter to the Romans, in which he proposed an alliance against the West Goths. The deceit was discovered, and Attila fell between two stools.”

“He seems to be immortal, otherwise he would have been killed in battle, as he always goes at the head of his army.”

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Until evening the travelling companions remained incarcerated. At last the door was opened, and a master of the ceremonies led them into the hall where the great feast was to take place. Here there were countless seats and tables covered with the most costly cloths and drinking vessels of gold and silver. The guests were assembled, but the two travellers saw no faces that they knew; they looked in vain for the bridegroom and the bride. As they were conducted to their places, a low murmur broke out among the guests, who talked in an undertone, and asked where the great King would show himself.

Orestes and Edeko cast their eyes over the walls and ceiling without being able to see where the wonder would happen, for the childish and cunning Huns used to amuse their guests with surprises and practical jokes.

Suddenly the whole assembly stood up. The curtain which covered the wall in the background was drawn aside, and on a platform sat a little insignificant-looking man, with a table before him and a sofa beside him. On the table stood a wooden goblet. He sat quite motionless, without even moving his eyelids. Somewhat lower than he stood his chief Minister, the Greek Onegesius. He kept his eyes unwaveringly fixed on his master, who seemed to be able to converse with him through his eyes.

Attila remained in the same attitude, his legs crossed, and his right hand on the table. He gave no greeting, neither did he answer any.

“He does not see us! He only shows himself!” whispered Orestes. “He sees well!”

Onegesius received a command from the despot’s eye, and lifted his staff. A poet stepped forward with an instrument that resembled a harp and a drum combined. After he had struck the strings, and beaten the drum, he began to recite. It was a song celebrating all Attila’s feats in terms of strong exaggeration, and it would have been endless, if the assembly had not taken up the refrain and struck with their short swords on the table. The poet represented Attila’s defeat on the Catalaunian Plain as an honourable but indecisive battle. After the guests had for some time contemplated the insignificant-looking hero in his simple brown leather dress, they both felt the same irresistible reverence that all did who saw him.

There was something more than vanity in this self-conscious calm; this visible contempt for all and everything. He kept his side-face turned to the guests, and only his Minister could catch his eye.

When the panegyric was at an end, Attila raised his goblet, and, without drinking to anyone, sipped it. That was, however, the signal for a drinking orgy, and the wine was poured into gold and silver goblets, which had to be emptied at a draught, for Attila liked to see those around him intoxicated, while he remained sober.

After they had drunk for a while, the negro Hamilcar came forward and performed feats of jugglery. Then the great King rose, turned his back to the assembly, and laid down on the sofa. But in each of his movements there was majesty, and as he lay there thinking, his knees drawn up, his hands under his neck, and his eyes directed towards the ceiling, he was still imposing.

“But what about the bride and the marriage?” Orestes asked one of the Huns.

“We do not even mention our wives,” he answered, “how, then, should we show them?”

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The drinking continued, but no food was placed before the guests. At intervals the whole assembly sang, and beat upon the tables.

While the noise and excitement were at their height, the hall suddenly filled with smoke, and the building was in flames. All started up, shouted and sought to flee, but Attila’s Minister struck with his staff on the table, and the assembly broke into laughter. It was a jest for the occasion, and only some waggon-loads of hay had been kindled outside. When quiet had been restored, Attila was no more to be seen, for he had left the hall by a secret door. And now began the feast, which lasted till morning.

* * * * *

When the sun rose, Orestes was still sitting and drinking with an Avar chief. The condition of the hall was indescribable, and most of the guests were dancing outside round the fire.

“This is a wedding-feast indeed!” said Orestes. “We shall not quickly forget it. But I would gladly have spoken with the wonderful man. Can one not do that?”

“No,” answered the Avar; “he only speaks in case of need. ‘What is the use of standing,’ he asks, ‘and deceiving one another?’ He is a wise man, and not without traces of kindness and humanity. He allows no unnecessary bloodshed, does not avenge himself on a defeated foe, and is ready to forgive.”

“Has he any religion? Does he fear death?”

“He believes on his sword and his mission, and death is for him only the door to his real home. Therefore he lives here below, as though he were a guest or traveller.”

“Quite like the Christians, then?”

“It is remarkable that in Rome he received respect from Pope Leo –What’s the matter now?”

Outside there was a shouting which at first seemed to issue from the palace, but soon spread itself over the camp. Half a million of men were howling, and it sounded like weeping.

The guests hurried out, and saw all the Huns dancing, cutting their faces with knives, and shouting unintelligible words. Edeko came up and pulled Orestes away through the crowds. “Attila is dead! May Jesus Christ be praised!”

“Dead? That is Ildico’s doing!”

“No! she sat by the corpse, veiled and weeping.”

“Yes, it is she.”

“Yes, but these savages are too proud to believe that Attila could be killed by a human being!”

“How fortunate for us!” “Quick to Rome with the news. The fortune of the man who first brings it is made.”

Orestes and Edeko departed the same morning. They never forgot this wedding which had brought them together.

Later on they renewed their acquaintance, under other and still more striking circumstances. For the son of Edeko was Odovacer, who defeated the son of Orestes, who was no other than the last Emperor Romulus Augustus. Strangely enough his name was Romulus, as was that of Rome’s first King, and Augustus, as was that of the first Emperor. After his deposition, he closed his life with a pension of six thousand gold pieces, in a Campanian villa, which had formerly belonged to Lucullus.

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