Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Alfgar the Dane or the Second Chronicle of Aescendune by A. D. Crake

Part 2 out of 5

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.5 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

Alfgar gazed with reverence, as well as love, upon the calm features
from which the expression of pain had wholly passed; the light of the
fire, mingling strangely with that of the rising full moon, illumined
them in this their first day of nothingness, for the spirit which had
lived and dwelt in the tabernacle of clay had fled.

Yet there was a wondrous beauty still lingering over them; they seemed
etherialised--as if an angel's smile had last stirred their lines,
when the spirit went forth, and left its imprint of wonder, joy, and
awe thereon; and Alfgar instinctively turned from them to the blue
depths of heaven above, where a few stars were visible, although
dimmed by the moonlight; and he seemed to trace his beloved Bertric's
passage to the realms of bliss. A light wind made music in the upper
branches of the oaks, and it seemed to him like the rush of angels'
wings.

It had often been a sharp struggle to him, nursed in heroic times,
learned in battle songs, and of the very blood of the vikings, to
avoid the feeling that Christianity was not the religion of the brave;
now the difficulty was over, and who shall say that the first joy of
the martyr's soul was not the knowledge that his sufferings had
already borne such fruit to God!

And not only was Alfgar reconciled to the reproach of the Cross, he
was also content to be an Englishman, if not in blood, at least in
affection and sympathy as in action.

An hour passed away; the body remained affixed to the tree; the night
grew darker, and the hour approached when, under ordinary
circumstances, people retired to rest, and the band commenced its
preparations for carrying out the attack upon Aescendune.

One hope Alfgar had, and that not a faint one: he knew that the two
theows had escaped unnoticed, and that they would give warning in time
for either defence or escape; their strength at Aescendune was but
slight for the former, all the able-bodied men were absent at the seat
of war.

In the excitement of the last hour Alfgar had almost forgotten the
meeting before him, but now it occupied his thoughts fully, and he
began to expect the arrival of Anlaf each moment. He learned from the
conversation around him that he and a portion of the band had gone to
reconnoitre the position of the prey.

While Sidroc was somewhat impatiently expecting the arrival of his
coadjutor, the cry of a raven was heard; it proved to be the signal
for the party to advance, and Sidroc and his men obeyed at once.

But all their horses were left picketed by the stream, under the care
of three of the youngest warriors, and there Alfgar was left, safely
bound to a tree, for his captors could not trust him.

He was strongly, but not cruelly bound; it evidently was not intended
to hurt him, only to secure him, and he could see that one of the
warriors was especially charged to guard him.

Oh, how anxiously he strained the senses of sight and hearing for news
from the forest party! could he but have given one warning, he would
willingly have died like Bertric; all was silence--dread silence--the
sleeping woods around gave no token of their dread inmates.

An hour and a half must have passed, when a bright light, increasing
each minute in intensity, appeared through the trees--then a loud and
startling cry arose--after which all was silence.

The light seemed to increase in extent and to have two chief centres
of its brilliancy, and Alfgar guessed them to be the hall and the
priory.

But no screams of distress or agony pierced the air from two hundred
women and children, and Alfgar hoped, oh, so earnestly! that they
might have escaped, warned in time by the theows.

With this hope he was forced to rest content, as hour after hour
rolled by, and at length the footsteps of a returning party were
heard.

It proved to be only a detachment of the fifty, sent to bring horses
to be loaded with the spoil. Alfgar listened intently to gain
information, and heard enough to show that the Danes had been
disappointed in some way, probably in their thirst for blood.

"But how could they have known we were coming? We have marched through
a hundred miles of the most desolate country we could find, and have
come faster than any one could have carried the information."

Such seemed to be the substance of the complaint of the warriors on
guard, from which Alfgar felt justified in believing in the escape of
the theows, and the consequent deliverance of the people, if not of
the place.

Half the horses were taken to fetch the plunder, the other half left
where they were, for the spot was conveniently situated, and the
distance from Aescendune only about two miles.

When they had gone, Alfgar heard his guards talking together.

"What did they say, Hinguar?--not any blood?"

"No, but plenty of plunder."

"That is not enough, we want revenge. Odin and Thor will not know
their children; our spears should not be bright."

"They must have been forewarned; Eric said that they had taken away a
great many things."

"Why could we not trace them?"

"Because there is no time; we are too far from the army and fleet; we
must return immediately, before the country takes the alarm; remember
we are only fifty."

"Yes, but mounted upon the best horses, and the first warriors of our
family; we may take some plunder, and send a few Englishmen to
Niffelheim, before we get back; Anlaf would not let us stay to touch
anything as we came."

"No; all his desire was to get to this Aescendune."

"Then the lad whom we made into a target is the only victim, while our
kinsfolk's blood, shed near here, cries for vengeance."

"He died bravely."

"Yes, that is a Christian's kind of courage."

"Well, perhaps some day they will learn to fight, and then--"

"Their songs tell them of an Alfred who defeated our best warriors."

"That was long ago; if you go back far enough these English were sea
kings before they were spoiled by becoming Christians."

"Hush; I think I hear steps."

"Who comes?" cried one of the guards, challenging a newcomer.

"I, Anlaf, your chief."

And the father of Alfgar appeared on the scene.

Of average height, Anlaf possessed vast muscular powers; his sinews
stood out like tight cords, and his frame, although robust, was yet
such that there seemed no useless flesh about him. His hair was a deep
grizzled red, as also his beard, and his eyes were of the same tinge,
his nose somewhat aquiline, and his whole features, weatherworn as
they were, were those of one born to command, while they lacked the
sheer brutality of expression so conspicuous in some of his
subordinates.

Ho addressed a few words to the guards, and they led him to Alfgar.

"Cut him loose," he said.

They did so.

He looked mournfully yet sternly on the youth, who himself trembled
all over with emotion.

"Alfgar," he said, "do I indeed see my son?"

"You do, my father."

"Follow me; nay, you are wounded--lean on my arm."

Alfgar's thigh had, it will be remembered, been pierced by an arrow,
but the wound was not deep, and with his father's assistance he could
proceed. He knew where Anlaf led. At length they came upon a deserted
clearing, and there he paused until Alfgar, who could scarcely keep
up, stood by his side.

Before them the moonbeams fell upon a dark charred mass of ruins in
the centre of the space.

"This is the spot where father and son should meet again," said Anlaf
and he embraced his son.

CHAPTER VII. FATHER AND SON.

"Here, my son," said the old warrior, as he pointed out the blackened
ruins, "here stood our home, where now the screech owl haunts, and the
wolf has its den. There, where the broken shaft yet remains, was the
chamber in which thou first sawest the light, and wherein thy mother
died there, where snake and toad have their home, was the great hall.
Surely the moonbeams fall more peacefully on the spot now all has been
avenged, and the halls of the murderers have fallen in their turn. But
how didst thou escape?"

"The folk of Aescendune saved me, father."

"But how; from the burning pile?"

"Nay. I had spent the previous day with them, and returned home only
in time to find the place in flames. The enemy seized me, and would
have slain me, but Elfwyn and his brother, Father Cuthbert, delivered
me; and now thou hast slain their Bertric, and burnt both hall and
priory."

"Think not that I owe them gratitude for aught they have done. They
tampered with thy faith, I now apprehend, even before the night of St.
Brice, and perhaps drew from thee the knowledge which enabled them to
surprise so large a party in my house. But all this was to make thee
abandon the gods of thy fathers, and to inflict the worst injury they
could upon a warrior. I trust they have failed!"

"Father, I am a Christian!"

"Say not that again, boy, if thou would not have me kill thee."

"I can but say it, father. In all that touches not my faith and duty
as a Christian, I am bound to love, honour, and obey you. But our
religion forbids me to nourish revenge."

"Of what religion, pray, were they who would have slain thy father on
St. Brice's night?"

Alfgar hung his head.

"When Christians practise themselves what they teach, then we will
heed their pretensions, but not till then. Their religion is but a
cloak for their cowardice, and they put it aside as a man throws away
a useless garment when they have the chance of slaying their foes
without danger."

"There are good and bad Christians, father."

"Commend me to the bad ones then. Do not speak to me of a religion
which makes men cowards and slaves. These English were warriors once,
till the Pope and his bishops converted them, and now what are they?
cruel and treacherous as ever, only without the courage of men."

Alfgar felt the injustice of all this, and with the example of Bertric
in his mind, he cared nor for the accusation of cowardice.

"Here, then, my boy, on this spot where thou wert once cradled,
renounce all these Christian follies and superstitions, and thou shalt
go back with me to the camp of King Sweyn, where thou shalt be
received as the descendant of warrior kings, and shalt forget that
thou, the falcon, wert ever the inmate of the dovecote."

There was a time when this temptation would have been almost
irresistible, but that time was over, and after one earnest prayer for
strength from above, Alfgar replied.

"My father, if you claim my obedience, I must even go with you to your
people, but it will be to my death. I have said I am a Christian."

"And dost thou think I have found thee--thee, my only son--to part
with thee again so easily? nay, thou art and shalt be mine, and, if
not mine, then thou shalt be the grave's; for either thou shalt live
as thy ancestors have lived, a warrior and a hero, or the earth shall
cover thee and my disgrace together."

"Father, I can die."

"Thou dost not fear death then?"

"Thou hast left one behind thee--one who did not fear to die the
martyr's death."

"Dost thou mean Bertric of Aescendune?"

"I do; they slew him, cruelly, although neither he nor his have ever
dealt cruelly with thy people."

"Thy people, why not our people? art thou ashamed of thy kindred?"

"Of their cruelty and treachery."

Anlaf laughed aloud.

"Cruelty and treachery indeed! and canst thou say that here? who set
the example in this place?

"Come boy, come," he continued, "I will lead thee to those who shall
soon talk or drive all this Christian nonsense out of your young head;
meanwhile, do not disgrace yourself and me by attempting to escape."

Alfgar sighed, and accompanied his father, so inopportunely found,
back to the camp.

Arrived there, the word was given at once to mount, and the whole
party started on the return journey to the south. Alfgar cast a
longing glance behind at the spot where he knew all that was mortal of
poor Bertric was left, to be, so far as the Danes cared, the prey of
the wolf or the kite; but the young Dane knew well that, if any were
yet alive at Aescendune, the hallowed temple of the martyr would not
want its due honour.

All his heart was with his English friends; he felt that in going to
the Danish camp he was really going to his death, for although within
a few years the conversion of the Northmen took place, yet at this
period their hatred of Christianity was simply ferocious, and his
father belonged to the old heathen conservatives of his day, as did
all his kinsfolk.

"O Aescendune, once happy Aescendune!" was the thought, the bitter
thought, as each hour placed a larger barrier of space between Alfgar
and his late home; all its happy memories came freshly back upon him,
and particularly the thought of Ethelgiva, his betrothed, from whom he
was so ruthlessly torn, torn as if he left part of himself behind.

They reached the confines of the forest by daybreak. Before them
stretched an open country, where wild heaths alternated with
cornfields, and wooded hills were of frequent occurrence upon the
landscape.

All at once a signal of caution was given, and the whole party retired
again within the cover of the wood, where they could see, for they
were on an eminence, the whole district before them without being
seen.

A body of fifty English soldiers was passing on the road, which lay at
the distance of a few hundred yards only, travelling at a considerable
speed, as if they anticipated the emergency of Aescendune, and hurried
to the rescue. Alfgar knew them at once; they were Elfwyn and his
troops; oh, if they had but arrived earlier, thought he, and started
to see how completely English his sympathies were.

The Danes found it hard to repress their laughter at the thought of
the reception which awaited the travellers at home; they had no idea
of spoiling it by attacking them, although the numbers were about
equal; besides, they had got all the plunder and spoil, and a battle
would only endanger the success already obtained. So they lay in cover
until the last straggler had disappeared in the direction of
Aescendune, and then continued their course, with many a jest at the
expense of the English.

Anlaf watched his son; he knew what his feelings were, and his
thoughts were bitter as he felt that, could Alfgar have been
consulted, he would be in that English band.

That night they arrived on the banks of the Thames, near Reading, the
border of Mercia. Their passage had been quite unopposed; all the
fighting men were in Wessex; and those who had seen the Danish party
had fled with terror--they had not stopped long to plunder, but had
speared one or two unfortunate victims who fell in their way, a sight
which sickened Alfgar.

The following day they continued their march to the southeast,
sometimes hiding in woods, for the country was mainly occupied by
Ethelred's troops; sometimes pursued by larger bodies of horsemen, but
always successful in distancing them, until, at the approach of
eventide, they came in sight of the entrenched camp of the northern
host. The spot was on the northern borders of the ancient kingdom of
Sussex--the land of the Saxon Ella--a spot marvelously favoured by
nature, occupying the summit of a low hill, which commanded a wide
prospect on all sides, while itself almost impregnable when fortified,
as it was, by ditches and mounds, dug in the usual Danish fashion, for
the Danes owed much of their success to their skill in fortification.

Beautiful in time of peace was the country around, but its desolation
was sufficient to sicken the heart. Blackened ruins lay on every side
for miles; nay, they had disfigured the whole day's journey. Scarcely
a town or hall, unless strongly fortified, had they seen standing, and
this for nearly fifty miles.

Within this fortified enclosure the Northmen had collected abundance
of spoil, and there they detained many prisoners, whom they held to
ransom, putting them to death with the utmost cruelty if the money
were not forthcoming at the stipulated time.

When the party of Anlaf arrived at the northern gate, crossing the
summit of the ascent on that side, they found it open and almost
unguarded, so slight was the danger from the dispirited English--now
too accustomed to the idea of a foe in the heart of the land.

Entering, they beheld a strange scene: huts rudely constructed of the
branches of trees, intermingled sparingly with tents, were disposed at
regular intervals. In the centre, where the main streets crossed, was
the royal tent, with the raven banner floating therefrom; and there,
at that moment, was the savage tyrant Sweyn in person.

Sweyn was the son of Harold Bluetooth, who reigned in Denmark fifty
years, from A.D. 935-985, and who in his old age became a Christian
and strove to convert his subjects. But the ferocious warriors
rebelled against him, and were headed by his unnatural son, Sweyn,
who, although baptized, renounced Christianity, and fought to restore
the bloodstained worship so congenial to the heart of a sea king.
Defeated in battle, the unhappy father fled for his life, and fled in
vain, for he was either murdered or died of his wounds.

Sweyn then became king, restored idolatry, and gratified to the full
the fell instincts of his savage followers. His great object was now
not merely to plunder, but to conquer England, and all his campaigns
were so directed as to reduce province after province. Sussex and Kent
were now wholly powerless; East Anglia was little better; Wessex
trembled, for every inlet was a path for the robbers, and the turn of
Mercia drew near.

Sweyn stood at the door of his tent, leaning upon his ponderous
battle-axe; around him were two or three warriors, whose grey hairs
had not softened the look of ferocity so plainly stamped upon their
faces.

The king was not in armour, but wore a kind of close-fitting tunic,
descending to the knees, and leggings leaving the legs bare above the
knees. A rich mantle was thrown over the tunic, for it was cold.

By his side, similarly dressed, stood his son, the hopeful Canute, the
future King of England, then only in his twelfth year, but already
showing himself a true cub of the old tiger in fierceness and valour,
yet not devoid of nobler and gentler virtues, as he afterwards showed.

"Welcome, Anlaf," cried Sweyn, as he saw the party arrive; "welcome,
hast thou enjoyed thy holiday in Mercia?"

"Bravely, my king, the ravens have tasted flesh."

"No need to tell me that; thy revenge, then, is accomplished. Hast
thou found thy son?"

"He is with me, my lord, but their saints must have warned the English
of our approach. We burnt the place but the people were not in it.
Their cries would have been music in our ears."

"Perhaps St. Brice told them you were coming; the English have a
veneration for him," said Sweyn, bitterly.

They both laughed a bitter laugh, for both had suffered by the
massacre in the persons of kinsfolks.

"But is this young springal thy long-lost son? he is like thee, even
as a tame falcon is like, and yet unlike, the free wild bird."

"He is my son;" and Anlaf introduced Alfgar.

The youth made his salutations, not ungracefully, yet with an air of
reserve which the king noticed.

"I thought St. Brice had got him long ago, and feared thou wert on a
wild-goose chase."

"It is a long tale to tell now, my liege."

"Have they Christianised him?" said the king, with a sly look.

"He will soon lose that," replied Anlaf.

"Yes," said the king; "we know a way of curing the folly," when, even
as he spoke, a spasm, as of mental agony, passed over him, and he
shook like an aspen, but it was gone in a minute.

Was it the fate of his father which was thus avenged?

Every one looked aside and pretended not to notice the fact, and
Anlaf, having made his homage, retired, leading Alfgar.

"You see, my son," commenced the old warrior, as he led his recovered
boy to his own quarters, "how useless it would be for you to struggle
against the tide, such a tide as no swimmer could breast."

"If he could not swim, it would be easy to drown," said Alfgar, and
there was such a despairing utterance in his tone, that his father was
checked.

The quarters of Anlaf were in the northwestern angle of the camp; they
consisted of huts hastily constructed from the material which the
neighbouring woods supplied, and one or two tents, the best of which,
stolen property, appertained to the chieftain.

Over a wide extent of desolated land, beautiful in its general
outline, where the eye could not penetrate to details, looked the
prospect. The round gently-swelling Sussex downs rose on the southern
horizon, guarding the sea, while around them were once cultivated
fields which the foe had reaped, while quick streams wound in between
the gentle elevations, crowned with wood, and here and there the mere
spread its lake-like form. The sun was now sinking behind the huge
rounded forms of some chalk hills in the west, when the camp became
gradually illuminated by the light of numberless fires, whereat oxen
were roasted whole, and partridges and hares by the dozen, for the
Danes were voracious in their appetites.

In Anlaf's quarters one huge fire blazed for all. Alfgar seemed the
only silent member of the company; the warriors related their
successes, and boasted of their exploits, and the bards sang their
ferocious ditties, until all were tired, and the quiet moon looked
down upon the sleeping camp.

O the contrast--the calm passionless aspect of the heaven and the
human pandemonium beneath.

CHAPTER VIII. FATHER CUTHBERT'S DIARY.

St. Matthew's Day, 1006.--

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write the events of
the last few days. They have been so calamitous, so unexpected. We
have heard of such things afar off, we had prayed for our brethren in
Wessex, exposed to similar calamities, and now they have fallen upon
us personally. May God, who alone is sufficient for these things, give
us strength to bear all for His name's sake.

It was a fortnight ago, and our harvest was all gathered in. God had
blessed our increase, and our garners were full with all manner of
store; women and children had mainly been the reapers, but the Lady
Hilda herself had been present amongst them, and so had her daughter,
my niece, Ethelgiva, even sometimes labouring with their own hands.

Alfgar and Bertric had worked like common serfs, and did themselves
honour thereby, for true nobility lies not in being idle, save in the
field of battle, as the bloody Northmen vainly think.

Well, the work was over, and we had a mass of thanksgiving, after
which Bertric and Alfgar went hunting in the forest. In the evening
there was a harvest home; it was of course a strange one without the
men, who were afar off, fighting for their country, but we tried to be
thankful for mercies vouchsafed, and I and Father Adhelm were there to
bless the food.

We found a large party assembled--as many, indeed, as the hall would
contain. My sister, the Lady Hilda, was somewhat uneasy, because
Alfgar and Bertric were not yet back, but still not much alarmed, for
what harm could befall such lads in the woods? So I blessed the food
and the feast commenced.

Eating and drinking were over, and the old gleeman, striking his harp,
was beginning a song of harvest home, when in rushed the two young
theows who had gone out with Alfgar and Bertric, with the startling
intelligence that there was a band of Northmen lurking in the woods,
who had seized their young lords, and were, they thought, bent on
attacking the place.

Words of mine cannot paint the terror and dismay the tidings caused;
the scene of distress and fear is yet before my eyes as I write. One
woman rose superior to fear--the Lady Hilda; aided by her, I stilled
the tumult, and we took hasty counsel together.

Nothing could be done for the poor lads, and the preservation of the
lives of the whole population depended upon our promptitude. It was
wonderful to see how the mother stifled her agony in her own breast,
while she strove to remember that, in the absence of her lord, she was
in charge of the safety of all her people, and the mother of all. I
had already interrogated the two churls; their story was but too
evidently true; and I learned that they had discovered the footmarks
of the Northmen in crossing a ford that afterwards, while returning
hastily home, they stumbled upon them, and Alfgar and Bertric were
taken. The party were evidently awaiting the approach of night, and
were doubtless bent on attacking the castle and village.

Fifty men! and how could we resist them? The poor old gleemen
expressed their readiness to fight for the old hall, and so did even
the boys; but these accursed pagans are the very spawn of the evil
one, and fight like fiends, whom they equal in skill, so that I saw at
once there was no chance in resistance.

But there was safety in retreat and flight, and under our
circumstances no dishonour in so seeking it. So I saw the path clear
at once, and not a minute too soon.

In the depths of the forest, about ten miles from Aescendune, in the
opposite direction to that in which the enemy lay, is a solitary
valley, surrounded by such morasses and quagmires that only those who
know the paths could safely journey thither. But the valley is
fertile, and my father years ago built a substantial farm house with
outbuildings there, which has ever since been occupied by our chief
forester.

Thither I saw at once the whole party must retreat, alike from the
hall, the priory, and the village. In such a way only could they hope
to escape the wretches to whom bloodshed and cruelty are pastimes.

Yet I was deeply puzzled to understand what motive could have brought
a war party so far, and why they had passed so many flourishing homes
to come to poor secluded Aescendune. Surely, thought I, there is some
great mystery hidden in this, which time may perhaps show.

In a brief space of time, shorter, indeed, than under other
circumstances we should have conceived possible, everything was
prepared; horses were loaded with provisions and all things necessary
for immediate use. Old men and children were also mounted, who could
not otherwise travel, and we started. It was indeed painful to part
from home, and to leave all we had to the mercy of the Danes, but
"skin for skin, all that a man hath will he give for his life."

So soon as I saw the party safely away from the town, I left them
under the guidance of some ancient foresters, who knew every woodland
path, and hastened to my brethren, who had been duly forewarned, and
were awaiting my arrival. I found them prepared for immediate
departure. We had a large flat-bottomed boat on the river which washes
the monastery garden; they had placed all the sacred vessels and the
treasure of the priory therein, and had sent the novices and lay
brethren to seek their safety with the rest in the woods, only the
brethren, properly so called, remaining.

And now, ready for immediate flight, we went forth with calm
composure, which God sent us. Then, upon the brink of the stream, we
stopped and listened. No sound broke the dread silence of the night,
and we stood in perfect quiet for some minutes.

At last we heard the sound of muffled footsteps, as of those who sneak
about on the devil's work, approaching the priory, and we pushed the
boat into the stream. The moon had not yet arisen; it was quite dark.
It was the one boat near.

We knew well what they were doing--surrounding the priory to prevent
any chance of escape, supposing, of course, that their victims would
be within. This accomplished, they knocked loudly at the doors, and
receiving no answer, raised their fierce battle cry, and looked,
happily in vain, for the pallid faces they expected to see at windows
or loopholes. Then they proceeded to break the doors down with their
battle-axes. A similar din, beginning a moment before, told us that
the hall and the priory were simultaneously attacked.

We had heard enough. We let the boat drop down the stream till we
reached a small island, where we waited to see the end, praising the
Lord who had not delivered us over for a prey unto their teeth.

While we waited in suspense, we saw a fierce light flash forth from
the hall, and perceived that, having plundered it of all that was
portable, they had fired it in many places at once; and while we
looked, we saw our own once happy home share the same fate, and
emulate the hall in sending forth its volume of ruddy flame towards
the skies.

This we had waited for, and we held council, and decided that, having
no home, the brethren should depart with the sacred vessels and
treasure to the mother house at Abingdon, while I remained, as also
Father Adhelm, to minister to our afflicted flock in the woods as best
we might.

Alas for our poor priory! the foundation of Offa and Ella, once the
light of the neighbourhood! but now our candlestick is removed out of
its place.

Our minds being made up as to the course to be pursued, we rowed
quietly down the stream, fearing pursuit.

Down the stream about two hours' journey an old Roman road, leading
southward, crossed the river, where a bridge had once existed, long
since swept away by time, but there was a tolerable ford quite safe,
save in winter floods.

Hard by stood a hostelry, and thither we journeyed in our
heavily-laden bark.

The light of the conflagration grew dimmer as we rowed down the
stream, but it still lighted up the heavens with an angry glare. It
was yet deep night when we drew near the inn, and we lay awhile on our
oars, to listen for signs of pursuit; but there was nought to disturb
the dead silence of the night, so we proceeded.

All the household were buried in sleep when we knocked at the doors--a
proof that they had not observed the redness in the skies, or little
sleep, I trow, would they have taken.

We were so exhausted with the fatigues and excitement of the enemy,
that we hailed this lonely habitation as a little Zoar. It showed how
safe people were feeling in Mercia, that we could not wake the good
people for a long time, and we were getting impatient, for they seemed
like the seven holy sleepers of Ephesus, awaiting the cessation of
persecution. I wish we could all sleep like those Ephesians, and awake
in better days.

But their dogs were awake, and saluted us with a vociferous barking,
and would not allow us to land until they were driven away by the oars
which our theows used with much effect upon their hides.

At last a window was thrown open above.

"Who are you who travel at this time of night?" said a voice, which
tried to be firm.

"The poor brethren of St. Benedict from Aescendune."

"Now the saints help thy lying tongue," thus irreverently he spoke,
"do holy men travel like robbers in dead of night?"

"Look, my brother, over the tree tops, and you may learn the cause of
our wanderings; dost thou not even yet see the angry glare in the
heavens? It is from Aescendune; the Danes have burned it."

"Good lack, poor Aescendune! and the people?"

"Are all safe, we trust, in body."

"God be praised!" and the host hurried down and admitted us.

His wife hasted to light a good fire, and to prepare us a breakfast;
in short, we had fallen amongst the faithful, and we met great
hospitality, for which may God repay the worthy host, Goodman Wiglaf.

We were so fatigued in mind and body that we no sooner lay down than
we fell asleep, and slept until the sun was high in the heavens.

Wiglaf watched the river jealously to see that no foe pursued; but, as
we afterwards learned, they had other things to think of.

The road which ran across the river at this spot continued southward
into Wessex, and, so far as we could learn, was free from danger, so I
determined to send my brethren to Abingdon by easy stages along its
course, while I turned back with Father Adhelm, to share the
misfortunes of my kindred and lay brethren in the woods. So we
embraced each other and parted; and we two watched, with loving
hearts, until the glades of the forest hid our brethren, dear to us in
the Lord, from our sight, dimmed as were our eyes with tears. Then we
plucked up our courage, and turned our thoughts to those others, dear
and near to us, who had taken to the woods, where it was again our
duty to seek them.

Wiglaf rowed us back in a light skiff up the stream, not without much
protest, for he feared the Danes would surely catch us, and at every
bend of the stream he crept round, as if he expected to see a fleet of
boats sweep towards us, while he kept in the middle, as if dreading an
arrow from every bush. At length we reached the immediate
neighbourhood, over which the smoke still hung like a black pall. Here
Father Adhelm and I landed, and, giving Wiglaf our blessing, bade him
depart in peace, which the good soul flatly refused to do until
assured of our safety.

So, hiding the boat behind some bushes, we crept forward together,
till, getting through the underwood, we came to the edge of the
covert.

Before us lay the fated village, one mass of deformed and blackened
ruins, from which the dark smoke ceaselessly arose, and made the air
painful to breathe.

But there was no sign of life; no living thing seemed to breathe
there; the place seemed abandoned for ever. It was a dull day, dull as
the gloom which was upon our spirits; the very heavens seemed to have
put on funeral attire, and the chilly wind which swept over the scene
seemed quite at home.

We emerged cautiously from our cover, and soon stood where, a few days
before, the priory had risen, beautiful before God; it was but a huge
pile of blackened timber and stone; and even more conspicuous above
all other ruins, by the black smoke it still sent forth, was that
which had been the hall.

While we stood and pondered, Wiglaf suddenly started.

"I hear the tramp of men," he said.

Then I listened, and distinctly heard the footfall of men and horses.
We paused; it drew nearer. We were on the point of taking to the woods
again, when I thought I caught the sound of the word of command in the
English tongue, and the voice seemed familiar.

We advanced still cautiously amongst the ruins, until we saw fifty or
sixty horsemen cross the wooden bridge which the Danes had left
uninjured, and advance with horror-stricken faces.

They were my brother and his men.

I recognised Elfwyn amongst them. I rushed up to him, and our tears
mingled together.

"They are safe, are safe," I cried.

"Thank God!" broke from many an overcharged heart.

"But where are they? where are they?"

"Safe at the forest farm, protected by brake and morass; and now tell
me, how came you here?"

Tidings arrived at headquarters that a small party of Danes were
making an incursion into Mercia, riding as rapidly as they could, and
I obtained Edric Streorn's leave to pursue them, with great difficulty
I can tell you, and he would only allow me then to take fifty men.

"He affected to disbelieve the intelligence, and said sarcastically
that the safety of Wessex could not be neglected for Aescendune. The
Northmen would never hurt a place which had so distinguished itself on
St. Brice's day."

Here he sighed heavily.

"Elfwyn," I said, "my brother, we must not be ungrateful to God. Here
are ruins indeed, but they cover no dead bodies; all have escaped."

"No, Cuthbert, not all."

I was silent, for I thought of Bertric.

"We have buried him, Cuthbert, in God's peace, in the place he
hallowed by his blood."

I saw the tears stream down his manly cheeks. My voice grew so hoarse,
somehow, that I could not ask a question.

"I will tell you all we have seen by and by, not now. I could not bear
it;" and he covered his face with his hands.

"How did he die?" I stammered at last.

"Like St. Edmund."

I asked no more, but I hope the martyr will forgive me the tears I
shed. I know I ought to rejoice that he has gained his crown, but I
cannot yet. I shall be able some day.

"How could they find the path through the woods, Cuthbert?" asked my
brother; "how did they know the fords?"

The same question had occurred to me.

Then the words of the churl Beorn, who had been taken prisoner, as the
messenger had told us, came fresh to my mind.

"Elfwyn," said I, "do you remember Beorn?"

He looked earnestly at me.

"Did he not say that his captors asked particularly about Aescendune,
and that the name of Anlaf was mentioned, and inquiries made
concerning Alfgar?"

"He did."

"It is the curse of St. Brice's night."

"Fallen upon the innocent."

"Leave it to God," said I.

"I will try; let us go to my people."

And we arose and took the path through the woods, sorrowing for the
news we must carry, and still uncertain about the fate of Alfgar.

CHAPTER IX. THE CAMP OF THE DANES.

It was the noontide heat, and two Danish warriors reclined under the
shadow of an ancient beech, hard by the entrenched camp of the Danes,
a few days after the arrival of Alfgar therein. Their spears lay idly
on the grass, as if there were no foe to dread, and the land were
their own; they seemed deeply engrossed in conversation.

"Well, Anlaf, and when is your son going to give up his Christianity?"

"You are in a great hurry, Sidroc."

"Nay, all the camp inquires."

"They must wait."

"How long?"

"I cannot tell," said Anlaf, shifting uneasily about; "he is my only
son, the heir of a long line of warrior princes."

"To whom his life is a disgrace."

"Not altogether; he is brave."

"Would be, you mean, were he not a Christian."

"No, he is, or he would not dare cross my path as he does; death, with
which I have often threatened him, does not seem to have much terror
for him."

"Perhaps he does not know how terrible death can be made. Has he ever
heard of the rista oern {vii} (spread eagle)?"

"I should not value him much if I won him by fear. I must try other
modes."

"Only do not tarry; Sweyn himself inquires how long his obstinacy is
to be endured."

"He must not expect that every conversion can be accomplished with as
much rapidity as his own in early days."

"Better not refer to that."

"Why! he was baptized himself."

"He would slay any one who reminded him of it."

"Yes; the curse of Harold Bluetooth, they say, was not a comfortable
thing to get."

"The father was a Christian in that case, and the son returned to the
gods of his ancestors; in your case it is the opposite: the first
might be permitted, the last never."

"You would not talk in that way if he were your own son."

"Should I not? listen; I had a son, a noble, gallant boy of
fifteen--all fire and spirit--do you know how he died?"

"It was before we knew each other."

"Then I will tell you. We had been ravaging the Frankish coasts, and
the lad got a wound in his shoulder; we carried him home, for he had
fought like a wolf, and the leeches tried to cure him, but it was all
in vain; they said he would never be fit to go to battle again. Poor
Sigard! he could not bear that, and he said one day when I was trying
to cheer him, 'No, father, I shall never be able to strike a good
downright blow again, and I cannot live until I die a cow's death in
my bed; I will die as my fathers have died before me when they could
no longer fight.' I saw what he meant, but I did not like the thought,
and I tried to change the subject, but he returned to it again and
again, until at last he persuaded me to let him have his way. So we
took one of our ships, stuffed it full with things that would burn
easily, made a funereal pile on the deck, and laid him thereon in
state, with a mantle fit for a king thrown over him. Then we bade him
goodbye and a happy journey to Valhalla; he was as cheerful as if he
were going to his bridal; we tried to appear as if we were too, but it
tore my heart all the same. Then we applied the torch and cut the
cable; the wind blew fair, the bark stood out to sea. She had not got
half-a-mile from shore when the flames burst out from every crevice of
the hold; we saw them surround the pile where he lay passive; he did
not move so far as we could see, and after that all was hidden from
our sight in flame and smoke."

The old warrior was silent, and, in spite of his stoicism, Anlaf
thought a tear stood in his eye.

"So don't tell me I could not give up an only son," added Sidroc.

Anlaf made no reply, but only sighed--a sign of weakness he strove to
repress the moment he betrayed it.

They walked back together to the camp, and there they parted. Anlaf
repaired at once to his tent, and found Alfgar seated therein.

"The king wishes to know when you will be enrolled amongst his
followers."

The lad looked up sadly, yet firmly; the expression of his face,
whereon filial awe contended with yet higher feelings of duty, was
very touching. Anlaf felt it, and in his heart respected his son,
while sometimes he felt furious at his disobedience.

"Father, it is useless, you should not have brought me here, I shall
live and die a Christian."

"At all events, Alfgar, you should give more attention to all we have
said to you, and more respect to the defenders of the old belief in
which your ancestors were all content to die. What do you suppose has
become of them?"

If Alfgar had been a modern Christian, he might have said,
conscientiously enough, that he believed they would be judged by their
light, but no such compromise in belief was possible then.

"There is no salvation save in the Church," he said, sorrowfully
enough.

"Then where are they--in hell?"

Alfgar was silent.

"What was good enough for them is good enough for me, and for that
matter for you, too. I should be more comfortable there with them than
with your saints and monks; at all events, I will take my chance with
my forefathers, cannot you do the same?"

"They did not know all I do."

"All fudge and priestly pratings, begotten of idleness and dreams.
Valhalla and Niffelheim are much more reasonable; at all events they
are parts of a creed which has made its followers the masters of the
world."

"This world."

"The next may take its chance, if there is one, of which I by no means
feel sure. You are throwing away the certainty of pleasure and glory
here for an utter uncertainty; those rewards you will gain by
submission are at your feet to take up; those you will gain by a
bloody death only exist in the imaginations of priests."

"'Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, but He hath revealed them to
us by His Spirit,'" said Alfgar in a low voice.

His father was silent; the words struck him like a strain of weird
music; but he did not yield the point, save for the time, and after a
pause changed the subject.

"You have other motives than heavenly ones. You love a Christian
maiden."

"How do you know that?" said Alfgar, blushing to the temples.

"I have lain near you at night, and you talk in your dreams. Now, I
have yet another motive to put before you. You think you have cause to
love the Aescendune people, because they saved your life. I think I
have cause to hate them, because they made you a Christian. Now, if
you die in your superstition, when we invade Mercia they shall suffer
for it."

"They have suffered enough."

"Nay, only in buildings, which they will restore. I will pursue them
with unrelenting vengeance, with the death feud, till I have destroyed
the accursed race utterly."

"Father!"

"If you would save them," said Anlaf, who saw he had made an
impression, "renounce your Christianity, and I will forget
Aescendune."

Here he left the tent.

The days which followed were, it may be imagined, very uncomfortable
ones for Alfgar; but he was not destitute of occupation. It was his
father's wish that he should join the youth of the camp in athletic
and warlike exercises. This he had no objection to do, and he spent
nearly his whole time in practising the use of battle-axe, of bow, of
spear, of sword, and shield, or in managing the war horse, for the
Danes had acquired cavalry tactics on stolen horses.

Naturally quick, both of eye and hand, he learned all these things
easily, and excited the admiration and envy of his companions. They
became useful in time.

In this manner nearly a month passed away, when an incident occurred
which claims our attention.

Strolling on the earthworks which defended the camp, near the royal
quarters, Alfgar came unexpectedly upon no less a person than the king
himself, in close conversation with a stranger.

There was something in the form and manner of this stranger which even
in the brief moment conveyed recognition to the mind of our hero; and
a second glance, which was all he dared to cast, as he withdrew from
the spot, revealed to him the face of a traitor.

It was Edric Streorn.

A few hours later the chieftains were all summoned to a council in the
king's tent, and when, after a short session, they came forth, the
general order was given to break up the encampment, and move towards
the southwest for the winter, for all the resources of the country
around were exhausted.

The work was a laborious one. From the dawn of day, horses, heavily
laden, left the camp, loaded with the accumulated spoil of the year.
Anlaf himself was very busy, and it was with some real alarm that
Alfgar asked him what would happen did the English suddenly appear.

"No fear of them, boy. We have received certain intelligence that
their army is disbanded for want of provisions. They will not meet
till the spring unless we rout them up."

Alfgar knew well whence the "certain intelligence" came.

Destroying and plundering, the mighty host moved on its way, crossing
into Hampshire, and doing, as the chronicle says, "their old wont." Of
them it might be said in the words of the prophet:

"Like Eden the land at morn they find;
But they leave it a desolate waste behind."

Whenever they found a tract of country as yet unexhausted, there they
settled until they had exhausted it. The wretched inhabitants, who had
fled at their approach, perished with hunger, unless they had strength
to crawl to the far distance, where as yet bread might be found.

It was the custom of the invaders to burn all their resting places
when they left them, and to slay all captives, save such as could be
held to ransom, or a few whom they detained in slavery, till they died
a worse death from want and ill usage.

Thus they moved from spot to spot, until towards the middle of
November they reached the coast opposite the Isle of Wight, in which
unfortunate island they decided, after due consideration, to winter.

Opposite the host, across the Solent, rose the lovely and gentle hills
of the "garden of England;" but between them lay the Danish fleet, in
all its grandeur, calmly floating on the water. Each of the lofty
ships bore the ensign of its commander; some carried at the prow the
figures of lions, some of bulls, dolphins, dragons, or armed warriors,
gaudily painted or even gilded; while others bore from their mast the
ensign of voracious birds--the eagle, the raven--which appeared to
stretch their wings as the flag expanded in the wind.

The sides of the ships were also gay with bright colours, and as the
warriors embarked and hung up their bright shields, grander sight was
never seen.

But chiefly Alfgar admired the ship of Sweyn, called the "Great
Dragon." It was in the form of an enormous serpent; the sharp head
formed the prow, with hissing tongue protruding forth, and the long
tail tapered over the poop.

In this ship Anlaf himself had his place, in deference to his descent,
and Alfgar accompanied him. It may easily be imagined he would sooner
have been elsewhere.

Scarcely a fishing boat belonging to the English could be discerned:
the Danes made a desert around them.

Eight years before, in the year 998, they had wintered on the island,
and since that time had regarded it as a Danish colony. No English
remained in it save in the position of slaves, and the conquerors had
accumulated huge stores of spoil therein, while they drew their stores
of provisions from every part of the adjacent mainland.

"Is it not a grand sight, Alfgar?" exclaimed his father. "Are you not
proud of your people, the true monarchs of the sea?"

Alfgar was for the moment inclined to sympathise; but he thought of
the darker side of the picture, and was silent.

There was a higher glory far than all this, and it had left a lifelong
impression on his soul.

CHAPTER X. CARISBROOKE IN THE ELEVENTH CENTURY.

The fleet bore the troops of savage soldiery safely--too
safely--across the waters of the Solent, to the estuary formed by the
Medina, where now thousands of visitors seek health and repose, and
the towers of Osborne crown the eastern eminences. A fleet may still
generally be discerned in its waters, but a fleet of pleasure yachts;
far different were the vessels which then sought the shelter of the
lovely harbour, beautiful even then in all the adornment of nature.

There the Danes cast anchor, and the forces dispersed to their winter
quarters. The king and his favourite chieftains took up their abode at
Carisbrooke, situate about eight miles up the stream, but above the
spot where it ceases to be navigable.

Their chosen retreat was the precincts of the old castle--old even
then--for it had been once a British stronghold, commanding the route
of the Phoenician tin merchants across the island, whence its name
"Caer brooke," or the "fort on the stream."

The Romans in after ages saw the importance of the position, fortified
it yet more strongly, and made it the chief military post of the
island, which, under their protecting care, enjoyed singular peace and
prosperity--civilisation flourished, arts and letters were cultivated.
The beautiful coasts and inlets were crowded with villas, and invalids
then, as now, sought the invigorating breezes, from all parts of the
island of Britain, and even from the neighbouring province of Gaul.

The Roman power fell at last, and when the English pirates, our own
ancestors, like the Danes of our story, attacked the dismembered
provinces of the empire, its wealth and position on the coast made it
an early object of attack--happy those who fled early. The Anglo-Saxon
chronicle shall tell the story of those who remained.

"AD. 530. This year Cerdic and Cynric conquered the Isle of Wight, and
slew many people at Whitgarasbyrg" (Carisbrooke).

The conquering Cerdic died four years after, and his son Cynric gave
the island to his nephews, Stuf and Wihtgar. The latter died in 544,
and was buried in the spot he and his had reddened with blood, within
the Roman ramparts of Carisbrooke.

It is needless to say that at that early period our ancestors were
heathens, and the mode of their conquest was precisely similar to that
we are now describing under another heathen (with less excuse), Sweyn
the son of Harold.

It was a few days after the arrival of the Danes at their quarters,
and Alfgar stood on the rampart at the close of a November day; it was
St. Martin's Mass, as the festival was then called. The sun was
sinking with fading splendour behind the lofty downs in the west, and
casting his departing beams on the river, the estuary, with the fleet,
and the blue hills of Hampshire in the far distance.

Southward and westward the view was alike shut in by these lofty
downs, and eastward the hills rose again, so as to enclose the valley,
of which Carisbrooke formed the central feature.

The ramparts whereon he was standing were of Roman workmanship, built
so solidly that they had resisted every attack of man or of time;
while down below lay the ruins of a magnificent villa, once occupied
by the Roman governor of the island.

Anlaf appeared and stood beside his son.

"Alfgar," he said, "the day after tomorrow is the day of St. Brice."

He paused and looked steadfastly in the face of his son.

"And the king proposes to enrol you amongst his chosen warriors on
that day; he has marked the skill you have displayed in the mimic
contests with spear or sword, your skill as a horseman, and he wishes
to see whether in actual battle you will fulfil the promise of the
parade ground."

"And yet he knows my faith."

"Alfgar," said the old man solemnly, "you must renounce it or die; no
mercy will be shown to a Christian on St. Brice's day; that is why the
king has chosen it. Think, my son, over all I have told you; you will
decide like one who yet controls his senses, and not disgrace your
aged father."

"Father, I do think of you," said the poor lad; "at least believe
that. I do not grieve for myself. I feel I could easily die for my
faith, but I do grieve over the pain I must cause you."

The heart of the old warrior was sensibly affected by this appeal, but
not knowing the strength of Christian principle, he could not
reconcile it with facts, and he walked sadly away.

But two days, and the dread choice had to be made--the crisis in the
life of Alfgar, a crisis which has its parallel in the lives of many
around us--approached, and he had to choose between Christ and Odin,
between the death of the martyr and apostasy.

He walked to and fro upon the ramparts, after his father left him, in
the growing darkness, feebly illuminated by the light of a new moon.
Below him, in the central area, a huge fire burned, whereat the
evening meal was preparing for the royal banquet, for Sweyn and his
ferocious chieftains were about to feast together.

Escape was hopeless. Even had he not been bound by the promise given
to his father, it would have been very difficult. He felt that his
motions were watched. The island was full of foes, their fleet
occupied the Solent. No; all that was left was to die with honour.

But to bring such disgrace upon his father and his kindred! "Blood is
thicker than water," says the old proverb, and Alfgar could not, even
had he wished, ignore the ties of blood; nature pleaded too strongly.
But there was a counter-motive even there--the dying wishes of his
mother. If his father were Danish, she was both English and Christian.

Before him the alternatives were sharply defined: Apostasy, and his
ancestral honours, with all that the sword of the conqueror could
give; and on the other hand, the martyr's lingering agony, but the
hope of everlasting life after death.

He could picture the probable scene. The furious king, the scorn of
the companions with whom he had vied, nay, whom he had excelled, in
the exercises of arms, end the ignominious death, perhaps that painful
punishment known as the "spread eagle." No, they could not inflict
that on one so nobly born, the descendant of princes.

Alas! what might not Sweyn do in his wrath?

Was Christianity worth the sacrifice? Where were the absolute proofs
of its truth? If it were of God, why did He not protect His people?
The heathen Saxons had been victorious over the Christian Britons; and
now that they had become Christian, the heathen Danes were victorious
over them. Was this likely to happen if Christ were really God?

Again Odin and Frea, with their children, and the heroes sung by the
scalds, in the war songs which he heard echoing from around the fire
at that moment:

"How this one was brave,
And bartered his life
For joy in the fight;
How that one was wise,
Was true to his friends
And the dread of his foes."

Valour, wisdom, fidelity, contempt of death, hatred of meanness and
cowardice, qualities ever shining in the eyes of warlike youth.

This creed had sufficed for his ancestors for generations, as his
father had told him. Why should he be better than they? If they
trusted to the faith of Odin, might not he?

And then, if he lived, when the war was carried into Mercia, he would
save his English friends, even although forced to live unknown to
them.

"Oh! life is sweet," thought he, "sweet to one so young as I. I have
but tasted the cup; shall I throw it down not half empty?"

He was almost conquered. He had all but turned to seek his father,
when suddenly the remembrance of Bertric flashed vividly upon him.

He saw, as in a vision, the patient, brave lad enduring mortal agony
for Christ, so patiently, so calmly. Had Bertric, then, died for
nought? He felt as if the martyr were near him, to aid him in this
moment, when his faith was in peril.

"O Bertric, Bertric!" he cried, "intercede for me, pray for me."

He fell on his knees, and did not rise until the temptation was
conquered, and then he walked steadily into the great vaulted room, of
Roman construction, which served as the banqueting hall, and took his
usual place by his father's side.

Oh, how hollow the mirth and revelry that night! How he loathed the
singing, the drunken shouting, the fierce imprecation over the wine
cup--the sensuality, which now distinguished his bloodthirsty
companions. The very knives he saw used for their meals had served as
daggers to despatch the wounded or the helpless prisoner. The eyes,
now weak with debauch, had glowed with the maniacal fury of the
berserkir in the battlefield. Was this the glory of manhood? Nay,
rather of wolves and bears.

Then he looked up at Sweyn, the murderer of his father, and marvelled
that his hand was yet so steady--his head so clear. This apostate
parricide! never would he live to kiss the hand of such a man; better
die at once, while yet pure from innocent blood. This his Christianity
had taught him.

"Minstrel," cried the fierce king, "sing us some stirring song of the
days of old; plenty of the fire of the old Vikings in it."

A strange minstrel, a young gleeman, had been admitted that night--one
whose chain and robes bespoke him of the privileged class--and he sang
in a voice which thrilled all the revellers into awed silence. He sang
of the battle, of the joy of conquest, and the glories of Valhalla,
where deceased warriors drank mead from the skulls of vanquished foes.
And then he sang of the cold and snowy Niffelheim, where in regions of
eternal frost the cowardly and guilty dead mourned their weak and
wasted lives. In words of terrific force he painted their agony, where
Hela, of horrid countenance, reigned supreme; where the palace was
Anguish, Famine the board, Delay and Vain Hope the waiters, Precipice
the threshold, and Leanness the bed.

But in the innermost chamber of this awful home was the abode of
Raging Despair; and in the final verse of his terrible ode the scald
sang:

"Listen to the ceaseless wail,
Listen to the frenzied cry
Of anguish, horror, and amaze;
Would ye know from whom they come,
Tell me, warriors, would ye know?"

Here he paused, after throwing intense emphasis on the last words,
till he had concentrated the attention of all, and the king
gazed--absorbed--then he continued:

"There wave on wave of bitter woe
Overwhelms the parricide."

The king started from his seat. He was about to launch his battle-axe
through the air in search of the daring minstrel, when the same dread
expression of unutterable agony we have before mentioned passed over
his face; he trembled as an aspen, and sank, as one paralysed, into
his chair, while his glaring eyes seemed to behold some horrid
apparition unseen by all beside. The warriors now turned in their
wrath to seek the daring or unfortunate minstrel, but he was gone.

Alfgar had seen the apostate in his moment of retributive agony, and
he shuddered.

"Better death, far better," he murmured, "than a fate like this. God
keep me firm to Him."

The king had by this time recovered his usual composure, but his rage
and fury were the more awful that the outbreak was suppressed.

"Sit down, my warriors, disturb not the feast. What if your king has
been insulted in his own banquet hall? there are hands enow to avenge
him without unseemly tumult. Let us drink like the heroes in Valhalla.
Meanwhile let the minstrel be sought and brought before us, and he
shall make us sport in a different mode."

The "rista oern" whispered one in his ear.

The ferocious king nodded, and his eyes sparkled with the expected
gratification of his fierce cruelty. Meanwhile warriors were searching
all the precincts of the camp for the destined victim.

Nearly half-an-hour had passed, and the king was getting impatient,
for nearly all the chieftains were getting too drunk to appreciate the
spectacle he designed for them.

"Why do the men delay?" he cried; "let them bring in the minstrel."

Still he came not; and at length the searchers were forced, one after
the other, to confess their failure.

"It is well," said the king; "but it was the insult of a Christian,
and shall be washed out in Christian blood. Anlaf, produce thy son."

"Nay, nay, not now," cried Sidroc and others, for they saw that Sweyn
was already drunk, and consideration for Anlaf made them interfere.
"Not now; tomorrow, tomorrow."

"Nay, tonight, tonight."

"Drink first, then, and drown care," said Sidroc, and gave the brutal
tyrant a bowl of rich mead.

He drank, drank until it was empty, then fell back and reposed with an
idiotic smile superseding the ferocious expression his face had so
lately worn. Meanwhile a hand was laid upon Alfgar's shoulder, and a
keen bright eye met his own, as if to read his inmost thoughts.

"Come with me, or my father will disgrace himself."

It was Canute.

He led Alfgar forth into the courtyard.

"Thou dost not seem to fear death," said the boy prince.

"It would be welcome now."

"So some of our people sometimes say, but the motive is different;
tell me what is the secret of this Christianity?"

Just then Sidroc and Anlaf came out from the hall and saw the two
together. Sidroc seemed annoyed, and led the young prince away, while
Anlaf seized the opportunity to whisper to his son:

"My son, I can do no more for thee; I see thou wilt persist in thine
obstinacy. I release thee from thy promise given to me; escape if thou
canst, or die in the attempt; but bring not my grey hairs to contempt
on the morrow."

At this moment, Sidroc having seen Canute to the royal quarters,
returned.

"Sidroc," said Anlaf, "I cannot any longer be the jailor of my unhappy
and rebellious son. Let him be confined till the morrow. I shall ask
leave of absence from Sweyn, and now I deliver Alfgar to your care."

"I accept the charge," said Sidroc; "follow me, Alfgar, son of Anlaf."

Alfgar followed passively. He could not help looking as if to take
leave of his father; but Anlaf stood as mute and passionless as a
statue. Sidroc reached a party of the guard, and bade them confine the
prisoner in the dungeon beneath the ruined eastern tower.

"Listen to my last words, thou recreant boy; Sweyn will send for thee
early in the morning before the assembled host; it will be the day of
St. Brice; and even were he not now mad with rage, there would be no
mercy for a Christian on that day. Thou must yield, or die by the
severest torture, compared with which the death of thy late companion
under the archers' shafts was merciful. Be warned!"

CHAPTER XI. THE GLEEMAN.

It was a low dungeon, built of that brick which we still recognise as
of Roman manufacture, in the foundations of what had been the eastern
tower of the ancient fortification. The old pile had been badly
preserved by the Saxon conquerors, but it had been built of that solid
architecture which seems almost to defy the assaults of time, and
which in some cases, after fifteen centuries, preserves all its
characteristics, and promises yet to preserve them, when our frailer
erections lie crumbled in the dust.

The roof was semicircular, and composed of minute bricks, seeming to
form one solid mass; the floor of tiling, arranged in patterns, which
could still be obscurely traced by the light of the lamp left by the
charity of Sidroc to the prisoner; for the dungeon was of bad
reputation; lights had been seen there at unearthly hours, when the
outer door was fast and no inmate existed.

There were two long narrow windows at the end, unbarred, for they were
too small for the human body to pass through them; they looked upon
the valley and, river beneath, for although the dungeon was below the
level of the courtyard, it was above that of the neighbourhood.

The prisoner strode up and down the limited area, wrestling with self,
bending the will by prayer to submit to ignominy and pain, for he knew
now that his father had abandoned him, and that he had to apprehend
the worst; still he did not regret the choice he had made, and he
felt, as he prayed, peace and confidence descend like heavenly dew
upon his soul. Mechanically he cast his eyes around the cell, and
tried to trace out the pattern of the flooring, when he saw that the
central figure, around which the circles and squares converged, was
justice, with the scales, and the motto, "Fiat justitia." He knew the
meaning of the words, for Father Cuthbert had taught him some Latin,
and the conviction flashed upon him that, sooner or later, all the
wrong and evil about him would be righted by the power of a judge as
omnipotent as unerring. And this thought made him the more reconciled
to the apparent injustice of which he was the victim, and he prayed
for his father, that God would enlighten him with the true light.

"Perhaps before he dies he may yet think of me without shame."

For the shame which he unwillingly brought upon a father who was
stern, yet not unkind or void of parental love, was the bitterest
ingredient in the cup.

And so the hours rolled on, which brought the dreaded morn nearer and
nearer; and the victim, comforted by prayer, but without hope in this
world, slept, and thought no longer of the torturer's knife, or felt
the cruel anticipations which would rack the waiting mind.

And while he slept he was wakened, yet but partly wakened, by a voice
which seemed to belong to the borderland 'twixt sleep and waking.

"Alfgar, son of Anlaf, sleepest thou?"

"Surely I dream," thought he, and strove to sleep again.

"Alfgar, son of Anlaf, sleepest thou?"

Now he sat up, and beheld, or thought he beheld, a figure of one
clothed in the attire of a minstrel, in the centre of the chamber.

"Art thou yet in the flesh like me?" he cried, repressing a shudder.

"Even so, a being of like mould, subject to pain and death."

"A prisoner, then; art doomed to die?"

"No prisoner, neither art thou, if thou willest to escape."

"Thou art the gleeman who insulted Sweyn."

"Nay, who told the brutal tyrant the truth."

"And what doest thou here?"

"I am come to deliver thee."

"But how?"

"Rise up, cast on your garments."

Hardly knowing what he did, Alfgar obeyed, and when he stood face to
face with the stranger, began to lose the uneasy impression that the
being who addressed him was otherwise than mortal; for he saw by the
light of the lamp that the gleeman bore all the attributes of a living
man.

"How came you here?"

"Because I know the secrets of the prison house--knew them before the
Danes had murdered the once happy dwellers in this garden of England,
which they have made a howling wilderness; hence I escaped the wrath
of the furious parricide, whom the saints destroy, with ease, and
laughed in security at their vain efforts to take me; but we must
waste no time; it yet wants five hours to daybreak; within those five
hours we must reach the opposite shore."

"But tell me, I cannot understand, why hast thou braved the wrath of
Sweyn? why hast thou cared for me?"

"All in good time, follow me now, I bid thee by the memory of
Aescendune."

"Aescendune! surely I dream."

"Yes, of Aescendune. I have heard that thou art thence. Now waste no
more time."

More and more mystified, for he had never to his knowledge seen the
speaker before, Alfgar gazed at the gleeman.

He appeared of noble air and mien, but was evidently but a young man;
he was somewhat above the average height, and looked as though he
could wield the sword as well as the harp. But how were they to
escape?

Alfgar was not left long in doubt. The stranger took up the lamp and
walked to the farthest recess of the dungeon, where, concealed amongst
the rude carvings with which the builders had ornamented the wall, was
a rose carved in stone. The gleeman pressed it sharply, and a hidden
door sprang open, revealing a winding staircase excavated in the solid
wall.

"Upwards it leads to the banqueting hall, and you can comprehend my
escape this evening," said he; "but our path is now downwards, unless
you would like to go up and see the drunken beasts of murderers
snoring off their debauch upon the floor as they fell; oh, that it
were lawful for a Christian man to cut their throats as they lie; many
innocent lives would be saved thereby, which those brutes will live to
destroy."

"Thou art, then, a Christian?"

The gleeman crossed himself piously.

"Why not?" said he.

"I heard you sing like a scald tonight."

"It was my part, and I acted it passing well, did I not? Sweyn would
own as much; but, pardon me, I am forgetting that my daring put you in
danger."

"How did you know that?"

"I heard every word; and perhaps I might even have risked more than
this to save you."

Meanwhile they had descended nearly a hundred steps, and the
atmosphere became singularly cold and charnel-like, when they entered
a large vault, which, by the light of their torches, appeared of great
extent. Its walls were covered with uncouth representations, and
inscriptions in Latin.

"What place is this?"

"It had some connection, I believe, with the old idolatry, and that is
all I know. This passage will guide us to daylight and liberty."

Following a short and narrow passage, they emerged upon a ruined
vault, whose roof had fallen in. Climbing out with some difficulty,
and disturbing in the process hundreds of bat-mice and not a few rats,
they found themselves in the midst of some old ruins at the foot of
the acclivity whereon the fortress was built, and below them the brook
ran rapidly to join the river.

"Thanks be to God for our preservation in that den of unclean lions!"
said the gleeman; "but had they known who was amongst them, he would
have had scant chance of escape."

"May I not know?"

"Not yet. Come, we must waste no more time."

They walked swiftly down the brook. No sentinels were posted in this
direction, nor was any lookout kept.

"The danger is yet to come," said the gleeman, in a low tone.

Shortly they reached the river, and then they found a boat hidden in
the rushes, which grew tall and strong. They embarked, and Alfgar
steered, by the other's direction, straight down the stream, while he
rowed for full an hour with remarkable strength and dexterity, so that
they drew near the coast, and the cold air from the sea blew in
Alfgar's face.

Here the gleeman ceased rowing, and spoke to him in a low tone.

"Do you see those dark figures ahead?"

"I do."

"Well, they are the Danish war ships, and our hour of peril draws
near. We must drop down with the tide, which is running out strongly,
and I must steer. You can row, I suppose?"

"Yes."

"Well, get the oars ready to pull for your life, if I give the word,
but not till then. Now silence."

In perfect silence they drifted down upon the ships. Happily for them
there was no moon, and although the stars were bright, there was
little danger that their dark-painted bark would be seen at any
distance.

One great mass after another seemed to float by them; but it was the
dead hour of the night, and no sounds were heard from the sleeping
crews. They kept lax watch, because they had no foe to dread. There
was, alas! no English fleet.

One after another, until they had drifted into the centre of the
fleet, where discovery must have been instant death. There above them
rose the "Great Dragon," in all her hideous beauty, the gilded serpent
reposing on the placid waves. Her people, even at that untimely hour,
were engaged in revelry, and as they passed by the fugitives heard the
words:

"Now the warrior's cup of joy was full,
When he drank the blood of his foe,
Where the slain lay thick on the gory hill,
And torrents of blood from every rill
reddened the river below,
For Odin's hall is the Northman's heaven--"

But they heard no more, for they had drifted beyond hearing.

They had now attained the last ship, when suddenly a watchman sprang
to the side.

"Boat ahoy! Whence and where?"

"From the 'Great Dragon'--a poor gleeman and his attendant to his home
on the shore."

"Come on board then, and wake us with a song. The watch is ours, and
we will make it merry."

There was no help for it; and commending courage with a significant
look to his companion, the gleeman and Alfgar ascended. It was yet
dark, and the language and appearance of each might pass tolerably
under ordinary circumstances for the characters they had assumed.

"Now a song, and we will keep it up till daylight."

Thus pressed, the gleeman took his harp and sang an old Scandinavian
song of the first sea king who invaded England, Ragnar Lodbrok.

He told how the fierce Ragnar sailed for England, how his fleet was
wrecked, but still how, with the relics of his forces, he assaulted
Northumbria, and was taken captive by Ella the king, who threw him
into a hole filled with vipers and toads.

"Sharp the adder's tooth, but sharper
Spake the sea king to his foes,
Spake while savage brows grew darker,
As he told the countless woes
Which the bear's fierce cubs should bring
To those who slew their father and their king."

Then he described the retribution, and the lingering death of Ella
under the agonies of the "rista oern" so vividly, that every Danish
heart was filled with emulation.

"Well sung!" shouted the Danes. "Thou dost sing a song worth hearing.
Hast not taught thy son to sing likewise?"

In turn Alfgar was forced to support his assumed character. Luckily
his tenacious memory retained the words of many an old song, and the
warriors were well pleased.

"Why must thou go to shore? We will feed and guerdon thee well if thou
wilt stay with us."

"We are aweary now, and would fain return to our comrades on the
shore, but we will return by and by."

"Do so, here is thy reward;" and one of the speakers threw a gold
chain round the gleeman's neck. Gold was plentiful with the robbers.

They were allowed to return to their boat; but as they did so, many a
keen eye was fixed upon them. The dawn was already beginning to appear
in the east, and every moment was of importance.

"Thou hast borne the test well," said the gleeman, "and hast not
flinched."

"I could not in your presence."

At this moment they heard the rapid splash of a boat, manned by many
rowers, behind, and a voice shouted aloud to the men on board the ship
they had left:

"Hast seen a boat with a gleeman and harp bearer?"

"They have just left the ship."

"Follow; they are English spies. Sweyn will give the weight of their
heads in red gold."

Instantly they heard the sound of hurried voices, the lowering of
boats, the splash of numerous oars, and all nearly close behind them.
They took an oar each, and pulled with all the energy of men who pull
for life or death.

The light was gradually growing stronger, and their chance of escape
seemed feeble, when Alfgar saw before them a dense cloud of mist
rolling round the eastern promontory, and uttered a cry of joy as it
enfolded them.

"The wind is east, keep it on your right cheek, and steer straight
forward. I will take both oars," said the gleeman.

It was wonderful with what energetic force and success the gleeman
pulled until they had cleared the mist, and saw that they were in the
red light of dawn, in the midst of the Solent.

One half-mile behind them a solitary boat pursued. There appeared to
be only five men, four rowing and one steering. Other boats there
were, but wide of the mark.

"Alfgar," said the gleeman, "you will find a quiver of arrows and a
long bow at the bottom of the boat behind you."

Alfgar handed them to him.

"The points are passing sharp, and the bow is in order; take your turn
to row."

Alfgar obeyed; he could not do otherwise, the gleeman's tone of
command was so powerful, but he feared they would loss time by the
change.

"You need not hurry yourself; let them approach. They are not likely
to have brought other weapons than their swords and axes."

The boat gained on them rapidly, until it was within a hundred and
fifty yards.

"Keep just this distance if you can," said the gleeman, and drew an
arrow suddenly to its head; it whistled through the air, and the
steersman, transfixed, rose, leapt in the boat, and fell in the sea a
corpse.

"Gone to seek oysters for King Sweyn's table, I suppose," said the
gleeman.

Another steersman promptly took the place, but some yards were lost by
the pursuers.

"Slacken, we are too far for accurate aim; and we English must not
disgrace ourselves in Danish eyes."

They slackened, another arrow sped, and the foremost rower fell.
Evidently the Danes had no means of reply.

"Slacken yet more;" and before the pursuers could recover their
confusion, a third fell, then a fourth, before the unerring shafts.
The fifth was at the fearful gleeman's mercy, but he restrained
himself, now danger had vanished.

But as he did so he cried aloud:

"Dane, we give thee thy life, blood sucker though thou art. Go, and
tell King Sweyn that Edmund {viii} the Etheling, son of Ethelred
of England, has been his gleeman, and hopes he enjoyed the song which
told the doom of parricides."

CHAPTER XII. THE MONASTERY OF ABINGDON.

One of the central lights of civilisation and Christianity in the
early days of Wessex was the monastery of Abingdon. St. Birinus had
fixed the centre of his missionary labours at Dorchester, only six
miles distant, but the Abbey was the fruit of the heroic zeal of
another evangelist, upon whom his mantle fell--St. Wilfrid. After the
death of Birinus, the zeal of his successors failed to evangelise the
southeastern districts of Wessex, until, at length, came Wilfrid,
fervent in zeal, and, stationing himself at Selsey, near Chichester,
evangelised both Sussex and Wessex, sending out missionaries
like-minded with himself, even into the most inaccessible wilds.

Centwin was then king of Sussex, but various petty states were
tributary to him, and ruled by viceroys. One of these viceroys was
Cissa, whose dominions included Wiltshire and the greater part of
Berkshire {ix}. This Cissa and his nephew, Hean, founded Abingdon.
A mission was sent out from Chichester which attracted great
multitudes of the Berkshire folk. Hean was present, and heard the
preacher take for his text that verse of St. Matthew which declares
that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than
for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. These words entered into
the hearts of Hean and his sister Cilla, who was with him. They
determined to go and sell all that they had and embrace a life of
poverty. From their uncle, Cissa, they obtained grants of land,
whereon they founded monastic homes. Cilla dedicated the convent she
reared to St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, traditions of whose
life in the neighbourhood had survived the Saxon Conquest.

Hean obtained the land of which Abingdon formed the central point,
then generally known by the name Cloveshoo. He was tardy in his work
as contrasted with his sister, and Cissa died without seeing the work
for which he had given the land accomplished. Ceadwalla succeeded him
(A.D. 685), and further augmented the territory. He rebelled against
Centwin, and became king of Wessex; spending most of his life in
warfare; it was through his conquest of the island that the "Wight"
became Christian. He made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he died, after
his baptism by Pope Sergius.

Ina, his successor (A.D. 688), was so angry at the long delay in
building the monastery, that at first he revoked the grant of his
predecessors to Hean, but becoming reconciled, gave all his energy to
the work, and Cloveshoo {x}, or Abingdon, became a monastic town,
and its history commences as a house of God from Ina, about A.D.
690-700.

Important benefits were thus conferred on the whole neighbourhood;
agriculture flourished, learning increased, a sanctuary for the
oppressed was provided, and last, though not least in Ina's eyes, a
bulwark against Mercia was provided for the neighbourhood; while the
poor and the afflicted found their happiness in every way promoted by
the neighbourhood of the monastery.

Several times the monastery was in peril by reason of the wars between
Wessex and Mercia. In A. D. 752, Cuthred of Wessex defeated Ethelbald
of Mercia at Burford, hard by, and protected Abingdon from further
aggressions. Twenty-five years later the decision of war was reversed.
Offa, the great and fierce king of Mercia, defeated Cynewulf of
Wessex, at Bensington, and spoiled the land, destroying the convent of
St. Helena, founded by Cilla, and grievously robbing and oppressing
Abingdon.

But the most awful calamity it ever underwent was its destruction in
the first great Danish invasion, in the early days of King Alfred,
when it was literally levelled with the ground, only, however, to
arise in greater magnificence when the storm had passed away.

However the period of anarchy had introduced evils which required a
stern reformer, and one was found in the person of the abbot
Ethelwold, the friend of St. Dunstan, who, in conjunction with him and
Oswald, introduced the rule of St. Benedict into Abingdon,
Glastonbury, Ely, and other great houses, which, by its absolute
prohibition of monastic idleness, and its wise regulations, caused the
religious houses of that period to become the central points of
civilisation and learning in the land.

Here, at this famous monastery, we resume Father Cuthbert's Diary.

In festo St. Edmundi.

Again I resume my diary, at the great monastic house of Abingdon,
where I have rejoined my brethren. I have already told how, in company
with Elfwyn, Father Adhelm and I sought the forest farm where our
beloved ones had found refuge from the cruel oppressor. The joy of the
women and children to whom their husbands and fathers were thus
restored was very touching; all seemed willing to forget the
destruction of their homes, since they had been spared to each other,
and I, to whom, by my vows, such love is unknown, yet could but feel
how holy a thing is family affection.

Alas, there was one family where the bitterness of death had found its
way. I cannot describe the touching scene when Elfwyn told the fate of
dear Bertric. Well, they will learn by and by to thank God for him and
his example, for we doubt not he died a martyr, although we know not
the details, and, unless Alfgar yet lives, shall perhaps never know
them.

We held a long consultation upon our future movements. It was wisely
decided not to rebuild Aescendune at present, for the place where they
now are can be rendered very commodious, and is far more secure
against a foe. We do not dare to hope that we have seen the last of
our troubles; the Danes are wintering in the Wight, ready for fresh
mischief next spring and summer.

We have been able to learn nothing of Alfgar; but we think that Anlaf
probably yet lives, and that he has recovered his son; yet we cannot
imagine how he escaped on St. Brice's night.

Well, to return. We at once set to work, and erected a church of
timber, for the service of God; and I said mass in it the first Sunday
after our arrival there. It may be supposed it is not a very grand
church; but God looks at the living stones, and reads the heart.

We all had enough to do for the first few days; but within a week one
might suppose we had been living there an age. Log huts were erected
for the whole population; the old farm house, which is large and
strongly built, taking the place of the hall. One must dispense with
some comfort now.

My brother sent a portion of his men to rejoin the army, but feels
himself justified in entering at once on his winter quarters with the
remainder; in fact, since my arrival at Abingdon, the troops have all
been dismissed for the winter, and the Danes have, as I said, retired
to the Wight.

Then, leaving Father Adhelm in charge of the woodland settlement, I
determined to visit my brethren here, where I have been received with
all Christian love and hospitality by the abbot and his brethren.
Three days my journey lasted. I travelled with only two attendants,
serfs of our house; a poor prior burnt out from house and home.

Nov. 21st, 1006.--

This evening I heard heavy steps on the stairs, and methought their
tread seemed familiar, as well it might, for no sooner had the door
opened than my son Alfgar, for whom we had mourned as dead, or at
least dead to us, fell upon my neck and wept.

It was a long time before either of us was composed enough to say
much, but when we had a little recovered, the abbot who had brought
them to my rooms introduced a tall young man in gleeman's garb, as
Edmund the Etheling.

At length we all sat down to supper, but talked so much we could eat
little, and I soon learned all the news Alfgar had to tell. His tale
is wonderful; he has been indeed delivered from the mouth of the lion,
nay, from the jaws of the fierce lion; but I must set down all things
in order.

The one thing which delights me most is the way in which his faith has
stood the hard hard test to which it has been put.

But my dear nephew Bertric, Saint Bertric we must assuredly call him,
oh how it will lighten the grief of his parents and sister to know how
gloriously he died for Christ! One could envy him his crown.

And then how delighted Ethelgiva will be to learn not only that Alfgar
is alive, but to hear how true and brave he has been.

But when all these congratulations were over, and we had learned all
that Alfgar had to tell, there was evidently something on the mind of
the prince.

"Alfgar and I have a very important duty to perform," he said.

I waited, and he proceeded.

"There has been grievous treachery in our ranks. Edric Streorn has
sold us to the Danes."

"I feared as much," said I, sadly.

"I learned it at Carisbrooke, and am now on my way to Dorchester,
where my royal father has arrived, or will arrive tomorrow. I should
have gone there at once, but Alfgar learned you were here, and would
come. Besides, we need your help to fit us for appearing at court."

And, in truth, their habiliments were not very royal.

Well, Abingdon is a town of great resources, wherein all things meet
may be found.

"We will to the tradesmen tomorrow," I said, "and fit you for the
presence."

"I have yet heavier news to unfold," Edmund added, very seriously.
"The Danes purpose a winter campaign in the heart of the land, hoping
to take us unawares."

"Now the saints forbid!" said I.

"Even so; but they are not all with us. St. Brice is against us."

Book of the day: