A Celebration of Women Writers

"Leo the Slave." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
From: A Book of Golden Deeds. (1864) by Charlotte M. Yonge. London: Blackie & Son, Ltd., n.d.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


A. D. 533

The Franks had fully gained possession of all the north of Gaul, except Brittany. Chlodweh had made them Christians in name, but they still remained horribly savage–and the life of the Gauls under them was wretched. The Burgundians and Visigoths who had peopled the southern and eastern provinces were far from being equally violent. They had entered on their settlements on friendly terms, and even showed considerable respect for the Roman-Gallic senators, magistrates, and higher clergy, who all remained unmolested in their dignities and riches. Thus it was that Gregory, Bishop of Langres, was a man of high rank and consideration in the Burgundian kingdom, whence the Christian Queen Clotilda had come; and even after the Burgundians had been subdued by the four sons of Chlodweh, he continued a rich and prosperous man.

After one of the many quarrels and reconciliations between these fierce brethren, there was an exchange of hostages for the observance of the terms of the treaty. These were not taken from among the Franks, who were too proud to submit to captivity, but from among the Gaulish nobles, a much more convenient arrangement to the Frankish kings, who cared for the life of a "Roman" infinitely less than even for the life of a Frank. Thus many young men of senatorial families were exchanged between the domains of Theodrik to the south, and of Hildebert to the northward, and quartered among Frankish chiefs, with whom at first they had nothing more to endure than the discomfort of living as guests with such rude and coarse barbarians. But ere long fresh quarrels broke out between Theodrik and Hildebert, and the unfortunate hostages were at once turned into slaves. Some of them ran away if they were near the frontier, but Bishop Gregory was in the utmost anxiety about his young nephew Attalus, who had been last heard of as being placed under the charge of a Frank who lived between Treves and Metz. The Bishop sent emissaries to make secret enquiries, and they brought word that the unfortunate youth had indeed been reduced to slavery, and was made to keep his master's herds of horses. Upon this the uncle again sent off his messengers with presents for the ransom of Attalus, but the Frank rejected them, saying, "One of such high race can only be redeemed for ten pounds' weight of gold."

This was beyond the Bishop's means, and while he was considering how to raise the sum, the slaves were all lamenting for their young lord, to whom they were much attached, till one of them, named Leo, the cook to the household, came to the Bishop, saying to him, "If thou wilt give me leave to go, I will deliver him from captivity." The Bishop replied that he gave free permission, and the slave set off for Treves, and there watched anxiously for an opportunity of gaining access to Attalus; but though the poor young man–no longer daintily dressed, bathed, and perfumed, but ragged and squalid–might be seen following his herds of horses, he was too well watched for any communication to be held with him. Then Leo went to a person, probably of Gallic birth, and said, "Come with me to this barbarian's house, and there sell me for a slave. Thou shalt have the money, I only ask thee to help me thus far."

Both repaired to the Frank's abode, the chief among a confused collection of clay and timber huts intended for shelter during eating and sleeping. The Frank looked at the slave, and asked him what he could do.

"I can dress whatever is eaten at lordly tables," replied Leo. "I am afraid of no rival; I only tell thee the truth when I say that if thou wouldst give a feast to the king, I would send it up in the neatest manner."

"Ha!" said the barbarian, "the Sun's day is coming–I shall invite my kinsmen and friends. Cook me such a dinner as may amaze them, and make then say, 'We saw nothing better in the king's house.'"

"Let me have plenty of poultry, and I will do according to my master's bidding," returned Leo.

Accordingly, he was purchased for twelve gold pieces, and on the Sunday (as Bishop Gregory of Tours, who tells the story, explains that the barbarians called the Lord's day) he produced a banquet after the most approved Roman fashion, much to the surprise and delight of the Franks, who had never tasted such delicacies before, and complimented their host upon them all the evening. Leo gradually became a great favourite, and was placed in authority over the other slaves, to whom he gave out their daily portions of broth and meat; but from the first he had not shown any recognition of Attalus, and had signed to him that they must be strangers to one another. A whole year had passed away in this manner, when one day Leo wandered, as if for pastime, into the plain where Attalus was watching the horses, and sitting down on the ground at some paces off, and with his back towards his young master, so that they might not be seen together, he said, "This is the time for thoughts of home! When thou hast led the horses to the stable to-night, sleep not. Be ready at the first call!"

That day the Frank lord was entertaining a large number of guests, among them his daughter's husband, a jovial young man, given to jesting. On going to rest he fancied he should be thirsty at night and called Leo to set a pitcher of hydromel by his bedside. As the slave was setting it down, the Frank looked slyly from under his eyelids, and said in joke, "Tell me, my father-in-law's trusty man, wilt not thou some night take one of those horses, and run away to thine own home?"

"Please God, it is what I mean to do this very night," answered the Gaul, so undauntedly that the Frank took it as a jest, and answered, "I shall look out that thou dost not carry off anything of mine," and then Leo left him, both laughing.

All were soon asleep, and the cook crept out to the stable, where Attalus usually slept among the horses. He was broad awake now, and ready to saddle the two swiftest; but he had no weapon except a small lance, so Leo boldly went back to his master's sleeping hut, and took down his sword and shield, but not without awaking him enough to ask who was moving. "It is I–Leo," was the answer, "I have been to call Attalus to take out the horses early. He sleeps as hard as a drunkard." The Frank went to sleep again, quite satisfied, and Leo, carrying out the weapons, soon made Attalus feel like a free man and a noble once more. They passed unseen out of the enclosure, mounted their horses, and rode along the great Roman road from Treves as far as the Meuse, but they found the bridge guarded, and were obliged to wait till night, when they cast their horses loose and swam the river, supporting themselves on boards that they found on the bank. They had as yet had no food since the supper at their master's, and were thankful to find a plum tree in the wood, with fruit, to refresh them in some degree, before they lay down for the night. The next morning they went on in the direction of Rheims, carefully listening whether there were any sounds behind, until, on the broad hard-paved causeway, they actually heard the trampling of horses. Happily a bush was near, behind which they crept, with their naked swords before them, and here the riders actually halted for a few moments to arrange their harness. Men and horses were both those they feared, and they trembled at hearing one say, "Woe is me that those rogues have made off, and have not been caught! On my salvation, if I catch them, I will have one hung and the other chopped into bits!" It was no small comfort to hear the trot of the horses resumed, and soon dying away in the distance. That same night the two faint, hungry, weary travellers, footsore and exhausted, came stumbling into Rheims, looking about for some person still awake to tell them the way to the house of the Priest Paul, a friend of Attalus' uncle. They found it just as the church bell was ringing for matins, a sound that must have seemed very like home to these members of an episcopal household. They knocked, and in the morning twilight met the Priest going to his earliest Sunday morning service.

Leo told his young master's name, and how they had escaped, and the Priest's first exclamation was a strange one: "My dream is true. This very night I saw two doves, one white and one black, who came and perched on my hand."

The good man was overjoyed, but he scrupled to give them any food, as it was contrary to the Church's rules for the fast to be broken before mass; but the travellers were half dead with hunger, and could only say, "The good Lord pardon us, for, saving the respect due to His day, we must eat something, since this is the forth day since we have touched bread or meat." The Priest upon this gave them some bread and wine, and after hiding them carefully, went to church, hoping to avert suspicion; but their master was already at Rheims, making strict search for them, and learning that Paul the Priest was a friend of the Bishop of Langres, he went to church, and there questioned him closely. But the Priest succeeded in guarding his secret, and though he incurred much danger, as the Salic law was very severe against concealers of runaway slaves, he kept Attalus and Leo for two days till the search was blown over, and their strength was restored, so that they could proceed to Langres. There they were welcomed like men risen from the dead; the Bishop wept on the neck of Attalus, and was ready to receive Leo as a slave no more, but a friend and deliverer.

A few days after Leo was solemnly led to the church. Every door was set open as a sign that he might henceforth go whithersoever he would. Bishop Gregorus took him by the hand, and, standing before the Archdeacon, declared that for the sake of the good services rendered by his slave, Leo, he set him free, and created him a Roman citizen.

Then the Archdeacon read a writing of manumission. "Whatever is done according to the Roman law is irrevocable. According to the constitution of the Emperor Constantine, of happy memory, and the edict that declares that whosoever is manumitted in church, in the presence of the bishops, priests, and deacons, shall become a Roman citizen under the protection of the Church: from this day Leo becomes a member of the city, free to go and come where he will as if he had been born of free parents. From this day forward, he is exempt from all subjection of servitude, of all duty of a freed-man, all bond of clientship. He is and shall be free, with full and entire freedom, and shall never cease to belong to the body of Roman citizens."

At the same time Leo was endowed with lands, which raised him to the rank of what the Franks called a Roman proprietor–the highest reward in the Bishop's power for the faithful devotion that had incurred such dangers in order to rescue the young Attalus from his miserable bondage.

Somewhat of the same kind of faithfulness was shown early in the nineteenth century by Ivan Simonoff, a soldier servant belonging to Major Kascambo, an officer in the Russian army, who was made prisoner by one of the wild tribes of the Caucasus. But though the soldier's attachment to his master was quite as brave and disinterested as that of the Gallic slave, yet he was far from being equally blameless in the means he employed, and if his were a golden deed at all, it was mixed with much of iron.

Major Kascambo, with a guard of fifty Cossacks, was going to take the command of the Russian outpost of Lars, one of the forts by which the Russian Czars have slowly been carrying on the aggressive warfare that has nearly absorbed into their vast dominions all the mountains between the Caspian and Black seas. On his way he was set upon by seven hundred horsemen of the savage and independent tribe of Tchetchenges. There was a sharp fight, more than half his men were killed, and he with the rest made a rampart of the carcasses of their horses, over which they were about to fire their last shots, when the Tchetchenges made a Russian deserter call out to the Cossacks that they would let them all escape provided they would give up their officer. Kascambo on this came forward and delivered himself into their hands; while the remainder of the troops galloped off. His servant, Ivan, with a mule carrying his baggage, had been hidden in a ravine, and now, instead of retreating with the Cossacks, came to join his master. All the baggage was, however, instantly seized and divided among the Tchetchenges; nothing was left but a guitar, which they threw scornfully to the Major. He would have let it lie, but Ivan picked it up, and insisted on keeping it. "Why be dispirited?" he said; "the God of the Russians is great, it is the interest of the robbers to save you, they will do you no harm."

Scouts brought word that the Russian outposts were alarmed, and that troops were assembling to rescue the officer. Upon this the seven hundred broke up into small parties, leaving only ten men on foot to conduct the prisoners, whom they forced to take off their iron-shod boots and walk barefoot over stones and thorns, till the Major was so exhausted that they were obliged to drag him by cords fastened to his belt.

After a terrible journey, the prisoners were placed in a remote village, where the Major had heavy chains fastened to his hands and feet, and another to his neck, with a huge block of oak as a clog at the other end; they half-starved him, and made him sleep on the bare ground of the hut in which he lodged. The hut belonged to a huge, fierce old man of sixty named Ibrahim, whose son had been killed in a skirmish with the Russians. This man, together with his son's widow, were continually trying to revenge themselves on their captive. The only person who showed him any kindness was his little grandson, a child of seven years old, called Mamet, who often caressed him, and brought him food by stealth. Ivan was also in the same hut, but less heavily ironed than his master, and able to attempt a few alleviations for his wretched condition. An interpreter brought the Major a sheet of paper and a reed pen, and commanded him to write to his friends that he might be ransomed for 10,000 roubles, but that, if the whole sum were not paid, he would be put to death. He obeyed, but he knew that his friends could not possibly raise such a sum, and his only hope was in the government, which had once ransomed a colonel who had fallen into the hands of the same tribe.

These Tchetchenges professed to be Mahometans, but their religion sat very loose upon them, and they were utter barbarians. One piece of respect they paid the Major's superior education was curious–they made him judge in all the disputes that arose. The houses in the village were hollowed out underground, and the walls only raised three or four feet, and then covered by a flat roof, formed of beaten clay, where the inhabitants spent much of their time. Kascambo was every now and then brought, in all his chains, to the roof of the hut, which served as a tribunal whence he was expected to dispense justice. For instance, a man had commissioned his neighbour to pay five roubles to a person in another valley, but the messenger's horse having died by the way, a claim was set up to the roubles to make up for it. Both parties collected all their friends, and a bloody quarrel was about to take place, when they agreed to refer the question to the prisoner, who was accordingly set upon his judgment seat.

"Pray," said he, "if, instead of giving you five roubles, your comrade had desired you to carry his greetings to his creditor, would not your horse have died all the same?"

"Most likely."

"Then what should you have done with the greetings? Should you have kept them in compensation? My sentence is that you should give back the roubles, and that your comrade gives you a greeting."

The whole assembly approved the decision, and the man only grumbled out, as he gave back the money, "I knew I should lose it, if that dog of a Christian meddled with it."

All this respect, however, did not avail to procure any better usage for the unfortunate judge, whose health was suffering severely under his privations. Ivan, however, had recommended himself in the same way as Leo, by his perfections as a cook, and moreover he was a capital buffoon. His fetters were sometimes taken off that he might divert the villagers by his dances and strange antics while his master played the guitar. Sometimes they sang Russian songs together to the instrument, and on these occasions the Major's hands were released that he might play on it; but one day he was unfortunately heard playing in his chains for his own amusement, and from that time he was never released from his fetters.

In the course of a year, three urgent letters had been sent; but no notice was taken of them, and Ivan began to despair of aid from home, and set himself to work. His first step was to profess himself a Mahometan. He durst not tell his master till the deed was done, and then Kascambo was infinitely shocked; but the act did not procure Ivan so much freedom as he had hoped. He was, indeed, no longer in chains, but he was evidently distrusted, and was so closely watched, that the only way in which he could communicate with his master was when they were set to sing together, when they chanted out question and answer in Russ, unsuspected, to the tune of their national airs. He was taken on an expedition against the Russians, and very nearly killed by the suspicious Tchetchenges on one side, and by the Cossacks on the other, as a deserter. He saved a young man of the tribe from drowning; but though he thus earned the friendship of the family, the rest of the villagers hated and dreaded him all the more, since he had not been able to help proving himself a man of courage, instead of the feeble buffoon he had tried to appear.

Three months after this expedition, another took place; but Ivan was not allowed even to know of it. He saw preparations making, but nothing was said to him; only one morning he found the village entirely deserted by all the young men, and as he wandered round it, the aged ones would not speak to him. A child told him that his father had meant to kill him, and on the roof of her house stood the sister of the man he had saved, making signals of great terror, and pointing towards Russia. Home he went and found that, besides old Ibrahim, his master was watched by a warrior, who had been prevented by an intermitting fever from joining the expedition. He was convinced that if the tribe returned unsuccessful, the murder of both himself and his master was certain; but he resolved not to fly alone, and as he busied himself in preparing the meal, he sung the burden of a Russian ballad, intermingled with words of encouragement for his master:–

The time is come;
  Hai Luli!
The time is come,
  Hai Luli!
Our woe is at an end,
  Hai Luli!
Or we die at once!
  Hai Luli!
To-morrow, to-morrow,
  Hai Luli!
We are off for a town,
  Hai Luli!
For a fine, fine town,
  Hai Luli!
But I name no names,
  Hai Luli!
Courage, courage, master dear,
  Hai Luli!
Never, never, despair,
  Hai Luli!
For the God of the Russians is great,
  Hai Luli!

Poor Kascambo, broken down, sick, and despairing, only muttered, "Do as you please, only hold your peace!"

Ivan's cookery incited the additional guard to eat so much supper, that he brought on a severe attack of his fever, and was obliged to go home; but old Ibrahim, instead of going to bed, sat down on a log of wood opposite the prisoner, and seemed resolved to watch him all night. The woman and child went to bed in the inner room, and Ivan signed to his master to take the guitar, and began to dance. The old man's axe was in an open cupboard at the other end of the room, and after many gambols and contortions, during which the Major could hardly control his fingers to touch the strings, Ivan succeeded in laying his hands upon it, just when the old man was bending over the fire to mend it. Then, as Ibrahim desired that the music should cease, he cut him down with a single blow, on his own hearth. And the daughter-in-law coming out to see what had happened, he slew her with the same weapon. And then, alas! in spite of the commands, entreaties, and cries of his master, he dashed into the inner room, and killed the sleeping child, lest it should give the alarm. Kascambo, utterly helpless to save, fell almost fainting upon the bloody floor, and did not cease to reproach Ivan, who was searching the old man's pockets for the key of the fetters, but it was not there, nor anywhere else in the hut, and the irons were so heavy that escape was impossible in them. Ivan at last knocked off the clog and the chains on the wrist with the axe, but he could not break the chains round the legs, and could only fasten them as close as he could to hinder them clanking. Then securing all the provisions he could carry, and putting his master into his military cloak, obtaining also a pistol and dagger, they crept out, but not on the direct road. It was February, and the ground was covered with snow. All night they walked easily, but at noon the sun so softened it that they sank in at every step, and the Major's chains rendered each motion terrible labour. It was only on the second night that Ivan, with his axe, succeeded in breaking through the fastenings, and by that time the Major's legs were so swollen and stiffened that he could not move without extreme pain. However, he was dragged on through the wild mountain paths, and then over the plains for several days more, till they were on the confines of another tribe of Tchetchenges, who were overawed by Russia, and in a sort of unwilling alliance. Here, however, a sharp storm, and a fall into the water, completely finished Kascambo's strength, and he sank down on the snow, telling Ivan to go home and explain his fate, and give his last message to his mother.

"If you perish here," said Ivan, "trust me, neither your mother nor mine will ever see me again."

He covered his master with his cloak, gave him the pistol, and walked on to a hut, where he found a Tchetchenge man, and told him that here was a means of obtaining two hundred roubles. He had only to shelter the major as a guest for three days, whilst Ivan himself went on to Mosdok, to procure the money, and bring back help for his master. The man was full of suspicion, but Ivan prevailed, and Kascambo was carried into the village nearly dying, and was very ill all the time of his servant's absence. Ivan set off for the nearest Russian station, where he found some of the Cossacks who had been present when the major was taken. All eagerly subscribed to raise the two hundred roubles, but the Colonel would not let Ivan go back alone, as he had engaged to do, and sent a guard of Cossacks. This had nearly been fatal to the Major, for as soon as his host saw the lances, he suspected treachery, and dragging his poor sick guest to the roof of the house, he tied him up to a stake, and stood over him with a pistol, shouting to Ivan, "If you come nearer, I shall blow his brains out, and I have fifty cartridges more for my enemies, and the traitor who leads them."

"No traitor!" cried Ivan. "Here are the roubles. I have kept my word!"

"Let the Cossacks go back, or I shall fire."

Kascambo himself begged the officer to retire, and Ivan went back with the detachment, and returned alone. Even then the suspicious host made him count out the roubles at a hundred paces from the house, and at once ordered him out of sight; but then went up to the roof, and asked the Major's pardon for all this rough usage.

"I shall only recollect that you were my host, and kept your word," said Kascambo.

In a few hours more, Kascambo was in safety among his brother officers. Ivan was made a non-commissioned officer, and some months after was seen by the traveller who told the story, whistling the air of Hai Luli at his former master's wedding feast. He was even then scarcely twenty years old, and peculiarly quiet and soft in manners.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom