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

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I sighed, and so did they. The very remembrance of that day is
sickening.

"We have heard," said the abbot, "that the king will arrive tomorrow
at Dorchester; we will send you thither in the morning. Meanwhile, my
sons, you do not eat and drink as I would have you. Remember you need
to sustain exhausted nature."

That was indeed true. They had travelled fast, and had fasted by the
way, of necessity.

"Well, Alfgar, we will tomorrow to the king," said Edmund, after they
had eaten and drunken; "he must surely listen to us now."

"He appears to love this wicked Edric," said the abbot sorrowfully.

"Far better than his own flesh and blood," replied Edmund.

"My son," said the abbot, "rest here this night in our poor house;
tomorrow we will find you both horses and fitting apparel, and ye
shall go meetly to the king, who is the guest of the bishop."

"I shall not be sorry, father, to see the inside of my chamber," said
the young prince; for he is yet young, although so wise and
valiant--not more than a year or two older than Alfgar.

The compline bell rang.

"I will go with you to thank God first for our deliverance, and to pay
my vows to Him," said Edmund; "then to bed."

After compline, Edmund went from the chapel to bed. Alfgar would not
retire. He came to my cell; there he talked with me for a full hour.
His affection moves me greatly. He has evidently found a real friend
in Prince Edmund, who has delivered him from a cruel death, and who
wants to attach him permanently to his service. Meanwhile Alfgar is
all haste to return to Aescendune and Ethelgiva, before any further
steps are taken.

Saturday, Nov. 22d, 1006.--

After we had arrayed the Etheling and Alfgar this morning, I decided
to accompany them on their road to Dorchester, for it happened that I
had arranged to say mass and preach tomorrow at the little church of
St. Michael at Clifton, the residence of my sister Bertha and her
husband Herstan. It lies on a cliff over the Thames, on the way to the
cathedral city, whence its name, "the town on the cliff."

So we started, the Etheling, Alfgar, and I, after the chapter mass at
nine. We crossed the fine timber bridge over the Isis, then kept the
causeway over the marshes, till, crossing an arm of the main stream,
we ascended a hill and passed through the open country.

On the north the country is richly wooded. There lies the chase of
Neweham, abounding in deer, with a few wolves yet lingering in its
recesses, and forming sport for the ceorls.

In the neighbourhood of a great monastery the roads are always good,
and waggons can travel easily and smoothly from Abingdon to
Dorchester. So, being well mounted, we were only the best part of an
hour in reaching Clifton.

The river here makes a sudden bend to the east, after running for some
time almost due north, and at the bend the steep cliff rises whereon
the little church and my brother Herstan's hall is built, with a few
cottages below and around occupied by his theows.

We went first to the church and offered our devotions. From the
elevated ground whereon it stands, the cathedral of Dorchester and the
Synodune hills formed conspicuous objects.

Then we turned to the hall, and met a reception such as warmed the
heart. When we had refreshed ourselves, I had to tell Bertha all the
strange events which have recently happened at Aescendune; of the
destruction of her old home, but of the well being of all her friends;
yes, of all, for we know that he has won the martyr's crown.

Some natural tears she dropped; but I think she soon came to see all
things in their right light, as we try to do.

Soon after our arrival, Herstan sent a messenger to Dorchester to
learn at what hour the king was expected; and the answer was returned,
that they expected him in time for the banquet at the episcopal palace
this evening. So Edmund and Alfgar consented to pass the day quietly
at Cliffton.

CHAPTER XIII. THE CITY OF DORCHESTER.

Dorchester was at this period the most important city of the Midland
counties, for it was the seat of the great bishopric which extended
its sway over nearly the whole of Mercia.

Here the apostle of Wessex, Birinus, had converted and baptized
Cynegils, king of that country, Oswald, the saintly king of
Northumbria, being present, and receiving him fresh from the
regenerating waters as his adopted son. Here, the next year, Cuichelm,
his brother, was baptized, and from this centre Christianity was
widely diffused. The good bishop died in the year 650, and was buried
amongst the people he loved, but many years later his relics were
translated to Winchester. But the tale went forth that the cunning
canons of Dorchester had given them another body than that of the
saint, and their shrine was the object of veneration equally with the
rival shrine at Winchester.

Dorchester became successively the seat of two great bishoprics--the
one West Saxon, the other Mercian. The first, founded by Birinus, when
Wessex extended far north of the Thames, was divided seventy years
later into two sees--Winchester and Sherburne. For some years the city
was without bishops, owing to its insecure position during the strife
between Wessex and Mercia, but later it appears as the seat of the
great Mercian bishopric, retaining its jurisdiction until after the
Norman conquest, when the see was transferred to Lincoln. Therefore
Dorchester long enjoyed a wide celebrity and greater influence, than
the city, Oxenford, which, lying at a distance of ten miles, was
destined to supersede it eventually.

The day was closing on an evening of November 1006, and the sun was
sinking across the level country beyond the walls, when the people of
Dorchester might have been seen crowding the roads which led from the
eastern gate towards Bensington and Wallingford; the wooden bridge by
which the road crossed the Tame was covered with human beings, and
every eye was eagerly directed along the great high road. The huge
cathedral church towered above the masses, rude in architecture, yet
still impressive in its proportions, while another church, scarcely
smaller in its dimensions, rose from the banks lower down the stream,
below the bridge, and the wooden steeple of a third was visible above
the roofs of the houses in the western part of the city.

But, as in every other city which had once been Roman, the relics of
departed greatness contrasted painfully (at least we should think so)
with the humbler architecture around. The majesty of the churches was
indeed (as a contemporary wrote) great, but thatched roofs consorted
ill with the remains of shattered column and pedestal, and with the
fragmentary ruins of the grand amphitheatre, which were yet partly
visible, although the stones which had been brought from Bath to build
it had been employed largely in church architecture.

The light of day was rapidly fading; a light breeze brought down the
remaining leaves from the trees, or whirled them about in all
directions; winter was plainly about to assume the mastery of the
scene, as was evident from the clothing the people wore, the thick fur
and warm woollen cloaks which covered their light tunics.

At length the sound of approaching cavalry was heard, and the cry "The
King! the King!" was raised, and cheers were given by the multitude.
It was observable, almost at a glance, that they proceeded from the
young and giddy, and that their elders refrained from joining in the
cry.

About a hundred horsemen, gaily caparisoned, appeared, and in the
midst, with equal numbers of his guard preceding and following, rode
Ethelred the king. He was of middle stature and not uncomely, but
there was a look of vacillation about his face, which would have
struck even an indifferent physiognomist, while his thin lips, which
he was constantly biting (when he was not biting his nails), seemed to
indicate a tendency towards cruelty.

But by his side rode one, whose restless eyes seemed to wander to each
individual of the crowd in turn, while power and malice seemed equally
conspicuous in his glance. Little changed since we last beheld him
rode the traitor, for so all but the king accounted him, Edric
Streorn.

Amidst the shouts of the populace, who loved to look on the display,
the Bishop Ednoth {xi} and the chief magistrates of the city
received the monarch and his councillor in front of the church of Sts.
Peter and Paul, and escorted him through the streets to the palace,
which stood in what was then a central position, on the spot now
called Bishop's Court. It was spacious, built around a quadrangular
courtyard, with cloisters surrounding the lowest storey and the smooth
shaven lawn, in the centre of which a granite cross was upraised. A
gateway opened in the southern side and led to the inner court, and
the cloisters opened from either side upon it.

On the opposite side of the quadrangle was the great hall where synods
were held, and where, on state occasions, such as a royal visit, the
banquet was prepared.

Here, after the king had availed himself of the bath, and his
attendants had divested themselves of their travel-stained attire, the
throne of the king was placed at the head of the board, and a seat for
the bishop on his right hand, and for Edric on his left.

Ethelred took his place; upon his head a thin circlet of gold confined
his flowing locks already becoming scant, but, as their natural colour
was light, not otherwise showing signs of age: he was only in his
fortieth year. His tunic was finely embroidered in colours around the
neck, and was below of spotless white, secured by a belt richly
gilded, whereon was a sheath for the dagger or knife, which was used
for all occasions, whether in battle or in meal time, the haft being
inlaid with precious stones. Over the tunic a rich purple mantle was
lightly thrown, and his slippers were of dark cloth, relieved by white
wool; the tunic descended to his heels.

The attire of Edric was similar in shape, but of different colour; his
tunic was of green, edged with brown fur, his mantle of dark cloth,
and his belt of embossed leather. There was a studied humility in it
all, as if he shunned all comparison with the king.

Ednoth said grace, and the chanters responded. The canons of the
cathedral, the priests of the other churches, the sheriff of the
county, the reeve of the borough, the burgesses, all had their places,
and the banquet began; huge joints being carried round to each
individual, from which, with his dagger, he cut what he fancied and
deposited it on his plate; then wine, ale, and mead were poured
foaming into metal tankards, and lighter delicacies followed. There
was no delay; no one cared to talk until he had satisfied his
appetite.

The king, as a matter of course, opened the conversation, when the
edge of desire was gone.

"Have the levies who served in the war all been disbanded, Sheriff?"

"The last returned from the garrisons in Sussex a week ago, and are
all hoping for a quiet winter in the bosom of their families."

"Have they lost many of their number? Did the people of this hundred
suffer greatly in the war which Sweyn forced upon us?"

"Not very many; still there has been a little mourning, and much
anticipation of future evil," replied the bishop.

"That is needless," said Edric; "they may all prepare to keep their
Christmas with good cheer. The Danes are sleeping, hibernating like
bears in their winter caves."

"While they are so near as the Wight, who can rest in peace?" said
Ednoth.

"The Wight! it must be a hundred miles from here; the Danes have never
reached any spot so far from the coast as this."

"Yet there is an uneasy belief that they will attack the inland
districts now that they have exhausted the districts on the coast, and
that we must be prepared to suffer as our brethren have done."

"Before they leave their retreat again we shall be ready to meet them;
our levies will be better trained and more numerous."

"A curse seemed upon all our exertions this last year," said Ednoth,
sorrowfully. "We were defending our hearths and our homes, yet we were
everywhere outmanoeuvred and beaten. It could not have been worse had
we had spies and traitors in command."

The king slightly coloured, for he resented all imputations on his
favourite, and was about to make a sharp reply, when a voice which
made him start, replied:

"Quite right, reverend father! as you say, success was impossible
while spies and traitors commanded our forces."

All looked up in amazement; two guests had entered unbidden, and the
king, the bishop, and Edric recognised Prince Edmund.

"The unseemly interruption is a sufficient introduction to the
company. I need not, my friends, present to you my turbulent son
Edmund, or the attendant he has picked up."

"No need whatsoever, if you will first allow us to explain the reasons
of our presence here. We have somewhat startling news from the enemy."

"The enemy, by my last advices, lies quiet in the Isle of Wight," said
Edric.

"I will not dispute your knowledge, my lord Edric," replied the
Prince, "considering the intimacy you stand on with Sweyn."

"Intimacy! I would sooner own intimacy with the Evil One."

"You might own that, too, without much exaggeration, since the good
bishop will bear me witness that he is the father of lies."

"Edmund, this is unbearable," said the king.

"Pardon, my father and liege, but truth will out."

The company sat in amazement, while the hand of Edric played
convulsively with the hilt of his dagger; meanwhile Edmund ate, and
gave to Alfgar, ere he spake again.

"Stay, Edric," whispered the king; "thou art my Edric. I was never
false to thee, nor will I be now; did I not, for thy sake, look over
the death of Elfhelm of Shrewsbury, and put out the eyes of his sons?
canst thou not trust me now?"

Thus strengthened, Edric remained, and uneasy whispers passed around
the assembly.

At last Edmund looked up.

"When the flesh is weak through toil and fasting, speech is not
eloquent, but now listen, all Englishmen true, and I will speak out."

He told his tale, how he had conceived suspicions that the Danes
intended a winter descent; how he had risked his life (in the
exuberance of youthful daring) to ascertain the truth; how, trusting
to his knowledge of Carisbrooke, wherein he had spent many pleasant
days in his boyhood, he had ventured amongst the Danes as a gleeman,
in imitation of Alfred of old; how there he had assisted, unsuspected,
at a meeting of the council in the great hall, and heard it decided to
invade England, and finally how he had escaped. And then he continued:

"And in that council I heard that the Danes had a secret friend in the
English army, who ever gave them due warning of our movements, and who
caused all the miscarriage of our last campaign. Stand forth, Edric
Streorn, for thou art the man, and my sword shall prove it, if need
be."

"Edmund, thou ravest," cried the king; "produce thy witnesses."

"Alfgar, son of Anlaf, answer; whom didst thou espy talking with
Sweyn?"

"Edric Streorn."

"How didst know him?"

"Because he threatened my life on St. Brice's night, and I had often
seen him while dwelling in Mercia."

"A Dane witnessing against a free-born Englishman? Can it be endured?"
cried Ethelred. "What, here, my royal guard!--here! here! your King is
insulted--insulted, and by his son and his son's minions."

The guard rushed in, their weapons in their hands.

"Seize my son, the false Edmund."

"Here I am," quietly said the hero of the English army, for such he
was, although not recognised as such by the government of his father.
"Here I am; what Englishman will bind me?"

The men stood as if paralysed.

"Will you not obey?" shouted the weak Ethelred, and stamped in
impotent anger on the floor.

But they would not--they could not touch Edmund.

Edric whispered in the king's ear.

"I was wrong," said the king; "retire, guards.

"Edmund, come with me; tell me what you have seen. I will hear you,
and judge between you and my Edric--judge fairly."

"Wait till my return, Alfgar."

Alfgar waited. No one spoke to him; all the company seemed utterly
bewildered, as well they might be until, after the expiration of an
hour, during which time Ednoth had left the hall, and the company
broke up by degrees, an officer of the court came and whispered in his
ear that Edmund awaited him without the gates.

He left the table at once, and proceeded beyond the precincts of the
palace, following his guide.

"Where is the prince?"

"He has had a stormy interview with his father, and has just left him,
refusing to lodge in the palace, to sleep without the precincts. I am
to conduct you thither."

Leaving the palace, they were passing through some thick shrubbery,
when all at once two strong men sprang upon Alfgar. At the same moment
his attendant turned round and assisted his foes. He struggled, but he
was easily overpowered, when his captors led him away, until, passing
a postern gate in the western wall of the town, they crossed an
embankment, and came upon the river. There they placed him on board a
small boat, and rowed rapidly down the stream.

In the space of a few minutes they ran the boat ashore in the midst of
dense woods which fringed the farther bank, and there they forced him
to land, and led him upwards until, deep in the woods, they came upon
an old timbered house. They knocked at the door, which was speedily
opened by a man of gigantic stature and ruffianly countenance, by
whose side snarled a mastiff as repulsive as he.

"Here, Higbald, we have brought thee a prisoner from our lord."

The wretch looked upon Alfgar with the eyes of an ogre bent on
devouring a captive, and then said:

"The chamber where blind Cuthred was slaughtered looks out on the
woods behind where no one passes, and it is strong; it will be better
for you to take him there."

And he drew aside to let them pass.

"Here, Wolf" said the uncouth gaoler, "smell him, and see you have to
guard him."

The dog seemed to comprehend. He smelt around the prisoner, then
displayed his huge fangs, and growled, as if to tell Alfgar what his
fate would be if he tried to escape.

The poor lad turned to his captors who had brought him there, for they
seemed more humane than his new gaoler.

"For pity's sake, tell me why I am brought here--what crime I have
committed."

No reply.

"At least bear a message to one who will think I have deserted him in
his need."

Again they were silent.

They had ascended a rough staircase. At the summit a passage led past
two or three doors to one made of the strongest plank, and
strengthened with iron.

They opened it, thrust him in, showed him, by the light of their
torches, a bed of straw in the corner.

"There you can lie and sleep as peacefully as at Carisbrooke," said
one of his guards.

"And let me tell you," added Higbald, "that it will be certain death
to try to get away; for if you could escape me, my dog Wolf, who
prowls about by day and night, would tear you in pieces before any one
could help you. He has killed half-a-dozen men in his day."

Like a poor wounded deer which retires to his thicket to die, Alfgar
threw himself down upon the bed of straw. His reflections were very,
very bitter.

"What would Edmund think of him?"

"He will know I am faithful. He will not think that the lad whose life
he saved has deserted him. He will search till he find me even here."

Thus in alternate hope and despair he sank at last to sleep--nature
had its way--even as the criminal has slept on the rack.

CHAPTER XIV. THE SON AND THE FAVOURITE.

A stormy scene had meanwhile taken place in an interior chamber of the
palace of the bishop, which had been metamorphosed into a council
chamber for the king. There were present Ethelred himself, his
irrepressible son, the traitor Edric, the bishop, the sheriff of the
shire, and the reeve of the borough, with the captain of the
hus-carles, or royal guard.

"We all need Divine guidance at this moment," said Edric, clasping his
hands meekly; "would you, my lord and king, ask the bishop to open our
proceedings with especial prayer for the grace of meekness."

"Hypocrite!" said Edmund, with a sound like the gnashing of teeth.

The bishop, however, said the form generally used at the meetings of
council, but omitted to notice the special suggestion of Edric.

"The case before us," said the king, "is a difficult and trying one,
but one which we must discharge in our bounden duty towards our
subjects. Perhaps it is well that the accusation so often urged by
backbiters against our faithful subject Edric should--"

"Your majesty begs the question when you call that coward 'faithful.'"

"Silence, Edmund," said the king, sternly, "you are hardly yet of age,
yet you dare to interrupt me. I was going to say that it is a good
thing the accusation should at length be plainly made, and not spoken
in a corner by men who are afraid to speak out."

"Lest they should get the reward of Elfhelm of Shrewsbury," added
Edmund.

The bishop here interposed.

"Prince, remember that God has said, 'Honour thy father.'"

"Has he not somewhere also said, 'Parents, provoke not your children
to anger'?"

"God judge between you, then," said the bishop, "but I warn you that
you appear the greater transgressor."

"Meanwhile," said Edric, "I feel like a man who is being put unjustly
to the torture. What is the accusation against me?--let it be stated
in plain words."

"That just after the army disbanded in October, you visited the camp
of Sweyn, and gave him to understand that the country was at his
mercy, opposition being removed."

"What day of the month?"

"I do not know the exact day."

"Perhaps it was in the Greek calends," said Edric.

"I do not know when the Greek calends are, nor do I want to; my mother
spent her time, I thank God, in teaching me to speak the truth, and to
be true to my country, and not in teaching me outlandish gibberish."

"Still," said the bishop, "it is important to learn the day."

"Alfgar can perhaps inform you, but one day must have been much like
another to him in the Danish camp."

"His statement would need verification," said Ednoth.

"He is as true and brave as any man here."

"Of course, all Danes are true and brave," said Edric.

"He is a Christian."

"Yes; I think he became one on St. Brice's day," suggested Edric.

"To save his life, no doubt," said the sheriff.

Meanwhile Ethelred had changed colour, and Edric cried out:

"Have we not forgotten in whose presence we are? The king, who was
quite ignorant of the mistaken zeal which misinterpreted his wishes
that day, cannot bear to be reminded of it. He is all too merciful and
gentle for such days as ours."

"I suppose he put on mourning for Elfhelm," whispered Edmund in the
bishop's ear.

"Forget not that he is your father."

"We are wasting time," said the king. "Edric, what is your answer to
this accusation?"

"That when the army disbanded I went on pilgrimage to the shrine of
St. Joseph at Glastonbury, and can produce, in the time requisite for
a messenger to go and return, an attestation to that effect. Here," he
said, putting his hand to his bosom, and drawing out a reliquary, "is
a holy thorn plucked from St. Joseph's tree."

"Art thou not ashamed, my son, to have brought such a charge against
the venerator of the Saints, one of the few in whom faith yet lives?"

"No, for I do not believe he was ever there at all."

"Witness the holy thorn."

"Thorns may be plucked in bushels round Dorchester or any other
place."

"It is a question of pure testimony," said the bishop.

"It is," added the sheriff and the reeve.

"Then, may I produce my witness?" said Edmund.

"Certainly," said the king.

"By all means," added Edric.

The bishop called an attendant, and ordered him to fetch Alfgar.

"Before he enters I must remind you all," said Edric, "that the word
of a Dane is to be opposed to that of a Christian."

"I have already said that Alfgar is a Christian."

But Edric had already, by his adroit suggestion about St. Brice's day,
predisposed the company to doubt the genuineness of Alfgar's
conversion.

A long pause succeeded, which no one seemed to care to break. Ethelred
was anxious for his favourite; the traitor himself was studying how to
meet the accusation; the Prince was furious, and was striving in vain
to repress his surging passions, the others were perplexed.

The messenger returned after a time to say that Alfgar had left the
palace.

"Left the palace!" said Edmund.

"About half-an-hour since."

"There is some vile treason here," said Edmund.

"Treason! on whose part?" said Edric.

"Thine, villain."

"I am glad you think so, for you give me an opportunity of
demonstrating to the court how unreasonable your hatred makes you, and
how unjust. I have not left the king's presence since your first
appearance."

"It is true," said Ethelred.

Edmund was completely baffled.

"It appears to me," said the king, "that he fears the discovery of his
villainy, and has taken himself off. I will offer a fitting reward to
the man who shall produce him; meanwhile, it is useless to continue
this scene."

"Wait at least a few minutes," said Edmund, and went forth himself.

Vainly he sought through all the courts of the palace--once he thought
Alfgar, whose fidelity he never suffered himself to doubt, might be in
the chapel, and went there in vain.

At last he found a servitor who had seen him go with some men into the
city, and hurried forth in search of him. He passed through all the
streets inflaming the curiosity of the watchmen; the darkness (for
there were very few lamps or lights of any kind, in those days, for
public use) was intense, a drizzling rain was falling, and at length,
weary, wet, and dispirited, he returned to the palace, and found that
the council, tired of waiting, had at length broken up.

The bishop offered him hospitality, evidently sympathising with his
distress, and once suggested a doubt of the fidelity of his page, but
Edmund repelled it instantly.

"He is true as life," he said.

"But the king himself is witness that Edric has not left his
presence."

"If not, he has plenty of villains about him to anticipate his orders,
vile as Godwin, port-hund of Shrewsbury. Depend upon it they have
murdered him, but if so, I will have vengeance, such vengeance--I will
challenge the villain Edric to single combat."

"The Church would forbid it."

"Do you then sympathise with the hypocrite?"

"Alas, my son! who can read the heart of man? I know not what to
think."

"But you could read the history of the last campaign. A fool might--I
beg pardon--were not all our plans known beforehand? Did not all our
enterprises fail? Were not all our ambushes anticipated? Did we not
fall into all theirs? If they had had a prophet like Elisha, who told
the king of Israel all Benhadad said in his council chamber, they
couldn't have managed better. Can you explain this?"

"No, my son."

"Then I can, for I heard Sweyn say that they had a friend in the
English camp."

"Then you actually put your head in the lion's mouth, prince?" and the
good bishop, purposely to relieve the prince's mind, drew out from him
all the story of his late adventures.

Deep was the distrust which Ednoth himself entertained of the
fair-speaking Edric, yet he would not encourage the Etheling in
further ill-timed opposition to his father.

So at last Edmund slept, and trusted that with the morn he should find
Alfgar; but the morn came, and all his inquiries were vain.

The chamber in which Alfgar was confined contained a box-like recess
for the straw bed, a chair, and a rough table, and these were all the
comforts at his disposal, but they were enough for one in that hardy
age. It was very strongly built, not a loose plank about it, although
the wind found its way through numerous crevices, to the slight
discomfort of the inmate.

But not one hour of sleep could Alfgar take all that night. What would
the Etheling think of him? was his constant thought, he who had saved
his life at the risk of his (the Etheling's) own. Must he not think
that the lad whose life he had saved had been false to him? and this
thought was agony to the faithful and true heart of the prisoner.

He scarcely doubted for one moment into whose hands he had
fallen--that he was in Edric Streorn's power. The only thing he could
not quite comprehend was, why they had thought it worth while to
imprison him, when murder would seem the more convenient mode of
removing an unpleasant witness.

Early on the following day he heard some people approach the door of
the house, and heard them admitted. Shortly afterwards a firm step
ascended the stair, and the door opened.

Edric Streorn stood before him.

The captor eyed his captive with a look of conscious pride, and said
with some complacence, "You see, and perhaps repent, your rashness in
the accusation you made."

"It was true."

"I do not think it worth my while to deny it here; but what of
that?--I am an Englishman by birth, but (let us say) a Dane by choice.
You are a Dane by the fortune of birth, but an Englishman by choice;
the worse choice, you will find, of the two."

Alfgar felt confused.

"But I did not come here to exchange compliments with you, nor to
prove, as to the fools you have chosen to serve, that I was on
pilgrimage at the time you name. I have a direct purpose in detaining
you here, for I have lately seen Sweyn."

"Traitor!"

"I thought we had agreed that we could not throw stones at each other
on that account. Well, the gentle Sweyn has taken your evasion very
much to heart, and earnestly desires to repossess himself of your
person; but for this, my easiest plan would have been to rid myself of
so troublesome a witness in a more speedy manner, and you might ere
this have fed the fishes of the Thames.

"Therefore," he continued, "unless you can satisfy me of two or three
points, I shall deliver you to Sweyn."

Alfgar thought at first that this was simply an idle threat, since it
would be almost impossible to convey him secretly through the country
to the Isle of Wight. Edric understood his thoughts.

"You forget," he said, "that Sweyn will shortly be here; your friend,
the Etheling, may have told you that, if you did not know it before;
he is telling it to everybody, but no one believes him. Only think, no
one will believe that Sweyn could be so audacious, and they think
that, listening behind walls and in cupboards, the Etheling, perhaps,
drank too much of what he found there--and that was all. Well, when
Sweyn comes, he may, if he will, make a public example to all
apostates in your honoured person; meanwhile Edmund thinks you have
deserted him."

No torturer ever seemed to take a keener pleasure in the throes of his
victim, than Edric in the mental agony he kindled in the breast of his
unhappy prisoner.

"But I said I might release you, or at least mitigate your fate, on
one condition, that you answer me a plain question directly and
plainly. Under what name does Edmund travel, and what disguise, and
does he purpose to trust himself in the Danish camp again? Where is he
at present residing? he has disappeared from the palace."

"Monster!" said Alfgar, "you tempt like Satan. Away, and leave me to
my fate."

"You will think better of it by and by when confinement upon bread and
water has tamed you. I will come once more, but it will be the last
time; and, mark you, should your people be defeated--the Danes I
mean--still your escape would not necessarily follow; the house might
take fire, it is of timber, and would soon burn down; a sad misfortune
it would be.

"Good morning. I am going to mass with the king; shall I say a Pater
and an Ave for you, since you are prevented from being there. The
saints have you in their holy keeping!"

His manner throughout had been like that of a cat playing with a
mouse, and there was quite a gratified smile upon his lips as he went.

Strange to say, Alfgar felt less miserable after he was gone. The
wickedness of Edric seemed so great, his hypocrisy so unblushing, that
in his simple faith Alfgar could not believe that he would be allowed
to succeed. Many a holy text in the Psalms came to his mind, and
seemed to assure him of Divine protection.

"I myself have seen the ungodly in great power; and flourishing like a
green bay tree.

"I went by, and, lo! he was gone; I sought him, but his place could
nowhere be found.

"Seek innocency, and take heed to the thing that is right: for that
shall bring a man peace at the last."

"So, come what will," said he, "I will trust in Him and never will I
save my life by uttering one word which might betray the innocent."

In this manner days lengthened into weeks. He tried in vain to open
any intercourse with his ferocious jailor, whose ward was sometimes
shared by a comrade, when there was much ungodly revelry below, and
snatches of Danish war songs mingled with profane oaths. The deep,
deep bay of the mastiff sometimes gave warning of the advent of a
stranger, or of the step heard from the distance, in the still deep
night; but this was all that Alfgar could learn of the outer world,
from which he was banished at so critical a moment.

CHAPTER XV. FATHER CUTHBERT'S DIARY AT CLIFFTON.

SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT.--

The evening, after the Vesper service in the church was over, and
darkness had closed in, we all sat down to our evening meal. The doors
were shut to keep out the storm, and I had already said grace, when
the Etheling suddenly appeared.

His manner struck us all. He looked wild and agitated, and his first
words cast a chill over us.

"Where is Alfgar?"

"Is he not with you, what has happened?" said I and Herstan, speaking
in the same breath.

"No, I have lost him. I had hoped to find him here; they must have
murdered him," he cried.

"Murdered him?"

"Yes, he was too dangerous to Edric to be suffered to live. I might
have foreseen it; and they have put him out of the way by cowardly
assassination," insisted the Etheling.

There was too much reason in his words.

"Besides," said he, "if he were well and uninjured, would he not have
come here, where he was sure of a welcome?"

"I will go to Dorchester at once," said Herstan.

"It is useless," said Edmund; but my brother, having learnt all that
the prince could tell him, mounted and rode into the town.

Meanwhile Edmund evidently needed our care; we found he had not eaten
all day.

"I have risked my life for my country," he said, "and now that I bring
tidings which ought to circulate through the land like the wind, and
rouse every man to action, I am disbelieved. Nay, it is hinted that I
drank too much Danish wine and mead, and misunderstood what I heard. I
could brain the man who dared say so to my face. I could--and would.
Meanwhile no steps are taken, no levies called out; but I will myself
alarm the country. The innocent blood shall not be on my head."

"Surely they must heed your warning," said we all together.

"Not they. The fox, Edric, pretended that it was all moonshine."

"But did you not expose his treachery?" asked I.

"I tried to do so; but he pulled out a bit of some hedge, which he
said was a holy thorn from St. Joseph's tree at Glastonbury, and that
he was there on pilgrimage when Alfgar saw him--saw him, mark you--at
the Danish camp on the borders of Sussex; and I saw men, I won't
mention names, who had more than once taken reward to slay the
innocent, look as if they would go down on their knees to this holy
thorn, which wasn't a holy thorn at all, but plucked from some hedge
hard at hand. Did not Edric mock them in his heart! I should like to
strangle him."

How I thought of those who tithed mint and rue, and all manner of
herbs, and passed over justice, mercy, and the love of God.

So, in unavailing complaints, midnight drew on, and we heard the sound
of my brother's horse.

He soon entered the room. We saw at a glance that he had laboured in
vain, and spent his strength for nought.

"No one has seen him," he said.

"Have you asked many people?" we inquired.

"Yes, scores. The sheriff, the bishop, the watchmen, the
tradesfolk--no one has seen or heard aught. I will go again tomorrow."

"Meanwhile, do the people know what passed at the banquet last night?"

"No; it has all been kept quiet," was the reply.

We could do no more, and all retired to rest. I have sat up to say my
mattins and finish this diary. It is now nearly the third hour of the
morn, and--

Monday Night, 23d Nov. 1006.--

I had written as far as the word "and," when I was alarmed by a loud
cry from the chamber next my own, which was occupied by the Etheling.
I rose, and knocked at the door, but, receiving no answer, opened it
and went in.

I saw at once that the prince was delirious; the fever, which I had
marked in his eyes and manner, but which he struggled against, had at
length overcome his brave spirit.

Just as I entered the room, bearing my torch, he sprang out of bed.

"There is a snake under my pillow."

I tried to soothe him.

"It is Edric; he is turned into a snake, and is trying to sting me.
Kill him! kill him!"

I got him into bed with some difficulty, and sat by him, after giving
him a composing draught--for I never travel without a few simples at
hand, in case of sickness amongst those to whom I minister.

He slept at last, but it was evident to me that exposure and
excitement had grievously injured his health, and that he was in
danger of prolonged sickness. Ever and anon he raved in his sleep
about Sweyn, Edric, his father, and Alfgar, mixing them up in his mind
most strangely: but the object of his abhorrence was ever Edric, while
he spoke of Alfgar, "poor Alfgar!" as a father might speak of a son.

I watched by him all through the night, and in the morning he was
evidently too ill to rise. His mind became clear for a short time, and
yet his memory was so confused that he scarcely comprehended where he
was, or how he got here.

So my return to Abingdon is indefinitely delayed, for Herstan and my
sister both insist on my staying till he is out of danger, if God
will; and indeed I know no one else to whose care I could willingly
commit him.

We think it best not to let his father or Edric know where he is, for
we know how his death would rejoice the latter, and the wish is often
father to the action. A little would turn the scale now.

Herstan has gone into Dorchester again to inquire about Alfgar, and to
ascertain whether any action has been taken consequent upon Edmund's
intelligence from Carisbrooke.

Saturday.--Vigil of St. Andrew, and Eve of Advent Sunday.--

All this week I have been watching by the sickbed of the Etheling.

I hope the crisis is past, but he is still very weak. He has been
delirious nearly the whole time, and today has but a confused idea of
things around him.

All our inquiries about Alfgar have been fruitless, but there was one
circumstance which we learned, which seemed to me to bear some
reference to the matter.

The ferryman, whose hut is situate at the bend of the river below the
Synodune hills, where people cross for Wittenham, says that late on
the night in question a boat with four people passed down the river,
and that it struck him that one only rowed, while two of the rest
seemed guarding the fourth passenger. He did not know the boat, yet he
thought he knew every boat on the river.

This he has told to Herstan and others, but no further discovery has
ensued.

But another important matter has claimed our attention. The king left
on Monday without making any efforts to profit by the Etheling's
discovery at Carisbrooke; but we could not in conscience let the
matter rest. So Herstan and I went on to Dorchester on Wednesday, and
I obtained an audience of the bishop, while he sought the sheriff.

The bishop received me very kindly, and talked to me a great deal a
bout the happy days of Dunstan, when peace and plenty ruled
everywhere; but I led the conversation to the point I aimed at, and
told him frankly how alarmed we were at Abingdon about Edmund's
tidings.

"And so was I," said he, "and I have persuaded the king to place
guards and watchers all through the coasts opposite the Wight, and
with Edric's aid we elaborated a goodly plan."

"Indeed," said I, "but I wish Edric had nought to do with it."

"So did I at first, but I feel convinced that the young Dane who
vanished so suspiciously must have deceived the prince concerning the
presence of Edric in the Danish camp, and that we have no sufficient
reason for thinking him such a child of hell as he would be could he
betray his country thus cruelly. It would be Satanic wickedness. He
is, I believe, a bad and untrustworthy man, but not quite so bad as
all that."

I tried to explain my reasons for being of a contrary opinion, and
asked what was the plan.

"Advanced guards have been placed all along the coasts of Hampshire,
beacons prepared on every hill, with constant attendants, so that the
Danes would find their coming blazed over the country at once."

"But if so, what men have we to oppose to them?"

"The sheriff has promised that the levies shall appear in case of
need."

"Does he realise the danger?"

"I hardly think he believes in it; but the beacons will give
sufficient warning."

"Who has arranged the guards and chosen the sites for the beacons?"

"Edric, of course, as general of the forces under the king."

I could say no more--it was useless--but I felt very sick at heart.
After the noon meat I left the palace, and found my brother ready to
depart for home. His interview had been the counterpart of mine.
Neither had he succeeded in convincing the sheriff that there was any
danger to be apprehended.

Well, all we can do is to prepare ourselves for the worst. I find that
no tidings have been sent by any authority to the men of this estate
to hold themselves in readiness for sudden alarm. I wonder whether the
same remissness prevails elsewhere. No one expects danger. The Danes,
they say, never fight in winter.

Advent Sunday, 1006.--

My patient was able to sit up for a short time today, but his weakness
is very pitiable to behold, and he dares not leave his room. He
inquired very earnestly after Alfgar, and I found great difficulty in
persuading him to commit the matter to God, which is all that we can
do; for although the river has been dragged, the country searched, no
tidings have yet been obtained, and we can only believe that the poor
lad has been secretly murdered and buried, or that he has been sent
away out of the country.

"I had a strange dream about him," said Edmund. "I thought that it was
midnight of Christmas Eve, and that I was attending mass, when, just
as the words were sung by the choir, 'Pax in terra,' the scene
suddenly changed, and I stood in the dark on the chalk hills which
overlook the Solent; by my side was a beacon ready laid for firing. I
thought next I saw the Solent covered with the warships of the Danes,
who were advancing towards the English shore, and that I tried to fire
the beacon, but all in vain, for the wood was wet through, and would
not burn.

"Then I had a strange sense of woe and desolation, for my country was
in danger, and I could not even warn her. All at once I heard steps
rushing towards me, and Alfgar appeared bearing a lighted torch. He
thrust it into the pile, and it fired at once. Other beacon fires
answered it, and the country was aroused. Then I awoke."

Saturday, December 5th, 1006.--

The week has again been spent mainly at Clifton. The prince is better,
but only able to rise a few hours each day, and I fear a relapse would
be fatal.

On Wednesday I visited Abingdon, and had a long conference with the
abbot about the neglected warning Edmund had given; but he seemed to
think that the beacon fires and the guards placed near the sea coast
secure us sufficiently. Like all the world, he thinks that the
Etheling has exaggerated the danger.

I have written a full account of all things to my brother at
Aescendune. Father Adhelm is still there ministering to the flock.

Saturday, December 12th, 1006.--

The week has passed monotonously enough. The Etheling is now able to
leave his room, but the stormy weather, with its torrents of rain,
makes it impossible for him to leave the house. The river has
overflowed its banks; all the country around is like a lake. We
console him by telling him that all has been done which is possible,
both to warn the people and learn the fate of Alfgar. He tries to look
contented, but if he knew how little has really been done, and that
that little has been in Edric's hands, he would not be so contented.

Saturday, December 19th, 1006.--

A very severe frost has set in this week, and there has been much
snow; the whole country is decked in her winter braveries for
Christmas. O that it may pass in peace, as the birthday of the Prince
of Peace should pass!

I intend to spend it at Clifton, after which I shall return to my
flock at Aescendune.

Edmund has been out today, but the sharp air hurt his lungs, which
have been grievously inflamed, and he was forced to return early.

He has been so patient for one of his temperament, so grateful for
attention shown him, one would hardly think the lion could be such a
lamb. He intends to receive the Blessed Sacrament of the Body and
Blood of Christ on Christmas day in the little church of St. Michael
here, and then he will leave for London in the course of the week.

We have heard nothing of Alfgar--we fear there is no hope; but the
prince clings to it, and says his dream will come true, and that
Alfgar has yet a great work to do.

Christmas Eve, 1006.--

O happy happy Christmastide! All griefs seem hushed and all joys
sanctified by the blessed mystery of the Incarnation. O that Mary's
blessed Son, the Prince of Peace, may indeed bring us peace on earth,
and good will towards men!

The weather is beautiful. The stars shine as brightly tonight as if
they were the lights about His throne; the very earth has decked
herself in her clear and spotless robe of snow in His honour. As for
the dear ones who were with us last Christmas--Bertric, Alfgar (for I
fear he is gone where I hope he keeps a happier Christmas)--they have
left the heart less lonely, for if we miss them on earth they seem to
attract us to heaven, which is yet more like home when we think of the
loved and the lost who await us there.

We sing a midnight mass in an hour in the little church, another
tomorrow at dawn, a third in the full daylight. All the good people
here will communicate, and the evening will be given up to such
merrymaking as is befitting amongst Christians. All the ceorls and
serfs will be at the Hall, and the prince will share the
entertainment. Herstan and Bertha have been very busy preparing for
it, as also their children, Hermann, Ostryth, and Aelfleda.

But I must go and assist in decking the church for the midnight
festivity.

CHAPTER XVI. THE FEAST OF CHRISTMAS.

Alfgar had completely lost the reckoning of times and days since his
imprisonment, but he felt that weeks must have passed away, and that
the critical period foretold by Edmund must be near, so he listened
anxiously for any intelligence from the world without.

At last the weather became very cold, and being without a fire, his
sufferings were great, until his ferocious gaoler, finding him quite
stiffened, brought up a brazier of coals, which saved his prisoner's
life, while it filled the room with smoke, which could only escape by
the crevices in walls and roof, for to open a window would have been
as bad as to dispense with the fire, such was the state of the outer
air.

It was what we call an old-fashioned Christmas, in all its glory and
severity--a thing easy enough to bear, nay to enjoy, when men have
warm fires and plenty of food, but hard enough to endure where these
are absent.

At last Alfgar could but conclude it was Christmastide, for Higbald
was joined by two comrades, and they sang and rioted below in a way
which showed that they had got plenty of intoxicating drink, and were
making free with it.

In the evening of the day Higbald brought him up his supper,
staggering as he did so, and with it he brought in a bowl of hot mead.

"Drink," he said, "and drown care. It is Yuletide, and drink thou must
and shalt."

Alfgar drank moderately, for sooth to say it was invigorating and
welcome that cold day, but Higbald finished the bowl then and there,
and then staggering down, drew the outer bolt in such a way that it
missed the staple, which fact he was too drunk to perceive.

Alfgar watched the action with eager eyes. It was the first time there
had been even a chance of escape.

Meanwhile the evening sped by; and the noisy crew below quarrelled and
sang, drank and shouted, while the bright moonlight--brighter as it
was reflected from the snow of that December night--stole over the
scene.

Not till then did Alfgar pass silently through the open door, and
listen at the head of the staircase. Before him was the outer door,
the key in the lock. The question was--Could he reach it unobserved by
men or mastiff?

Liberty was worth the attempt. He descended the stairs softly. At the
bottom he looked around. The door was fastened which led into the
large hall where the gaolers were drinking. He advanced to the outer
portal, when he heard the growl of the dog from behind the inner door.

The moment was critical. Evidently his masters did not comprehend the
action of the too faithful brute, for they cursed and swore at it.
Even then it growled, and the drunken fools--drunken they must have
been indeed--threw some heavy missile at it, which caused it to yelp
and cease its growling.

Just then something flashed in the ray of moonlight which stole in
through an aperture over the door.

It was a sharp double-edged sword.

He grasped it with eagerness. It was now a case of liberty or death.
He knew how to wield it full well.

Stealthily he turned the key and the door stood open. Still his
captors sang, and he caught the words:

"When we cannot get blood we can drink the red wine,
The Sea King sang in his might;
For it maddens the brain, it gives strength to the arm,
And kindles the soul in the fight."

Now he was on the outer side of the door, and he shut it, and then
locked it and tossed the key into the snow.

But which way was he to go? He could not make out the locality, but it
was evident that the hill rose above him, and he knew that from its
summit he could discern the bearings of places, so he resolved to
ascend.

It was now about nine at night, an hour when our ancestors generally
retired to rest. All Alfgar's desire and hope--O how joyful a
hope!--was to see from the hill the bearings of Clifton, and to
descend, with all the speed in his power, towards it. He might arrive
before they had retired to rest. So he ran eagerly forward. The moon
was bright, and the snow reflected so much light that locomotion was
easy.

And now he became conscious that there was a strange gleam along the
snow on his left hand--a strange red gleam, which grew stronger and
stronger as he advanced. It seemed above and below--to redden the
skies, the frozen treetops with their glittering snow wreaths, and the
smooth surface beneath alike.

Redder and redder as he ascended, until he suddenly emerged upon the
open hill. Before him were earthworks, which had been thrown up in
olden wars, before Englishman or Dane had trodden these coasts. He
scrambled into a deep hollow filled with snow, then out again, and up
to the summit, when he saw the cause of the illumination.

Before him the whole country to the southeast seemed in flames.
Village after village gave forth its baleful light; and even while he
gazed the fiery flood burst forth in spots hitherto dark. He stood as
one transfixed, until the wind brought with it a strange and fearful
cry, as if the exultation of fiends were mingled with the despairing
cry of perishing human beings.

He knew whence it came by the red light slowly stealing beyond the
next hill, and the fiery tongues of flame which rose heavenward,
although the houses were hidden by the ground.

It was from Wallingford, a town three miles below Dorchester. He knew,
too, where he was himself; and the one impulse which rushed upon him
was to hasten to Clifton, where he trusted he might find Edmund, or,
at least, hear of him in this dread emergency. He saw the village
lying beneath in the distance, and turned to rush downward, entering
the wood in a different direction.

But what sound is that which makes him start and pause?

It is the bay of the mastiff. He is pursued. He clasps his sword with
desperate tenacity, in which a foe might read his doom, and rushes on,
crushing through the brushwood.

Again the bay of the hound.

Onward, onward, he tramples through bush and bramble, until he sees
his progress suddenly arrested by the dark-flowing river.

He coasts along its banks, keeping up stream. The bay of the dog seems
close at hand, and the trampling of human feet accompanies it.

All at once he comes upon a road descending to the brink, and sees a
ferry boat at the foot of the descent. He rushes towards it and
enters. The pole is in the boat. He unlooses the chain, but with
difficulty, and precious moments are lost. He hears the panting of the
ferocious beast just as he pushes the boat, with vigorous thrust, out
into the stream.

The dog, followed closely by the men, is on the bank. The men curse
and swear, but the dog plunges into the chilly stream, which, being
swollen, has too rapid a current to freeze. Alfgar sees the brute
swimming after the boat; he ceases to use the pole, but takes his
sword, kneels on the stern of the boat, and waits for the mastiff. It
gains the boat, and tries to mount, when the keen steel is driven
between the forepaws to its very heart. One loud howl, and it floats
down the stream, dyeing the waters with its life-blood.

"Cursed Dane!" shouts Higbald. "thou shalt pay with thy own life
blood."

"When you catch me; and even then you must fight for it. Meanwhile, if
you be an Englishman, warn the good people of Dorchester that the
Danes are upon them. Your Edric has betrayed them."

Reaching the other shore, Alfgar finds smooth meadows all covered with
snow. He knows his way now. A little higher up he strikes the main
road which leads to Clifton, and rushes on past field and grove, past
hedgerow and forest. Behind him the heavens are growing angry with
lurid light, before him the earth lies in stillness and silence; the
moonbeams slumbering on placid river, glittering on frozen pool, or
silvering happy homesteads--happy hitherto. He sees the lights in the
hall of Herstan yet burning, and casting their reflection abroad. He
is at the foot of the ascent leading up to it. One minute more and--

. . . . . .

Christmas day was almost over when the population of Herstan's village
of Clifton obeyed the summons with alacrity to spend the evening in
the hall in feasting and merriment. They had all duly performed the
religious duties of the day, and had been greatly edified by the
homily of Father Cuthbert at mass; and now innocent mirth was to close
the hallowed day--mirth which they well believed was not alien to the
birthday of Him who once sanctified the marriage festivities at Cana
by His first miracle.

So thither flocked the young and the old: the wood rangers and hunters
from the forests of Newenham, where Herstan had right of wood cutting;
the men who wove baskets and hurdles of osier work from the river
banks; the theows who cultivated the home farm; the ceorls who rented
a hide of land here and a hide there--all, the grandfather and the
grandson, accepted the invitation to feast. The rich and the poor met
together, for God was the Maker of them all.

The huge Yule log burnt upon the hearth as it had done since it was
lighted the night before; a profusion of torches turned night into
day; the tables groaned with the weight of the good cheer; in short,
all was there which could express joy and thanksgiving.

The supper was over; the wild boar roasted whole, the huge joints of
mutton and beef, the made dishes, the various preparations of milk,
had disappeared, the cheerful cup was handed round; after which the
tables were removed, the gleemen sang their Christmas carols, and all
went merry as a "marriage bell."

Father Cuthbert, seated in a corner near the Yule log, with his
brother-in-law and the Etheling, forgot all his apprehensions, and
shared in the universal joy around him; if his thoughts were sometimes
with those who had once made Christmas bright to him--if he thought
of the bright-haired Bertric, who had been the soul of last Yuletide
festivity at Aescendune, or of the desolated home there, he dismissed
the subject from his mind at once, and suffered no hint to drop which
could dim the mirth of his fellow guests.

Meanwhile, one of those whom he strove in vain to forget for the time
drew nearer and nearer; a haggard figure, wan and worn by painful
imprisonment, the garments dishevelled, the hair matted, the whole
figure wild with excitement, he drew near the outer gate.

He heard the song of joy and peace within as he paused one moment
before blowing the horn which hung at the outer gate.

Peace! Peace!
The whole wide world rejoiceth now,
Let war and discord cease;
Christ reigneth from the manger,
Away with strife and danger;
Our God, before whom angels bow,
Each taught this lesson by his birth,
Good will to men, and peace on earth.
Peace! Peace!
Hark, through the silent air
Angelic songs declare
God comes on earth to dwell
O hear the heavenly chorus swell,
Good will to men,
And on earth, peace.

He could bear it no longer, the contrast was too painful, he must
break the sweet charm, the hallowed song, for the sky was reddening
yet more luridly behind him, and each moment he expected to see
Dorchester burst forth into flames. O what a Christmas night!

He blew the horn, and had to blow it again and again before he was
heard.

At length a solitary serf came to the gate:

"Who is there?"

"A messenger for the Etheling; is Prince Edmund with you? I would see
him."

"All are welcome tonight, but I fear you will find the Etheling
ill-disposed to leave the feast."

"Let me in."

Astonished at the tone of the request, the porter reluctantly
complied, first looking around.

"Why, thou art wild and breathless; is aught amiss?"

"Step out and look over the hills; what dost thou see?"

"Why, the heaven is in fire; is it the northern lights?"

"Southern, you mean; the Danes are upon us."

Staggered by the tidings, the man no longer opposed his entrance, and
Alfgar staggered into the hall, forgetting that he was come amongst
them like one risen from the dead.

He entered the hall at first unnoticed, but the merry laughter and
cheerful conversation withered before his presence, as of one who came
to blast it.

Father Cuthbert and Edmund, amongst others, turned round to see what
caused the lull, and started from their seats as they beheld at the
end of the room Alfgar, his face pale as one risen from the dead, his
black locks hanging dishevelled around his neck, his garments torn,
his whole person disordered. At first they really believed he had
returned from the tomb.

They hesitated, but for one moment in speechless surprise, then rushed
forward.

"Alfgar!" cried the Prince.

"My son!" cried Father Cuthbert, "whence hast thou come? dost thou yet
live?"

"Father; Prince; I live to warn you--the Danes, the Danes!" and he
sank fainting into the arms of Herstan.

"Surely he raves," said they all.

The porter here ventured to speak.

"My lord, please go to the front of the house and look over the
water."

Father Cuthbert and Edmund at once left the hall, followed by several
others.

The mansion was seated on a considerable elevation; below them rolled
the Isis; across the river a couple of miles of flat meadow land lay
between them and the Synodune hills, and beyond the lessening range of
those hills, on the southeast, they looked, and behold the smoke of
the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.

CHAPTER XVII. FOR HEARTH AND HOME.

The inhabitants of Clifton stood on the terrace in front of the hall,
gazing upon the fiery horizon, wrapped in emotions of surprise and
alarm. Living as they did in an unsettled age, and far more prepared
than we should be for such a contingency, yet the sense of the rapid
approach of a cruel and remorseless foe struck terror into many
hearts.

But they had one amongst them to whom warfare and strife were a second
nature--one in whom the qualities which form the hero were very fully
developed. He gazed with sadness, but without fear, at the coming
storm, and to their late patient the inmates of the hall turned for
advice and aid in their dread emergency.

"What shall we do?" asked Herstan, gazing with indescribable feelings
at those who clung to him for support.

"The case is clear as the day," said the prince. "The storm I foretold
in vain has broken over the land, and the levies are not ready to meet
it. Listen; you may hear the sounds of alarm from Dorchester even
here. They see their danger."

The tolling of the alarm bells, the sound of distant shouts, the
blowing of trumpets rolled in a confused flood of noise across the
intervening space--a distance of between two and three miles--and
manifested the intense alarm of the city, so cruelly aroused from
dreams of peace.

"But what shall we do?"

"Defend the place if attacked; it is well adapted for defence. You
have the river on one side, and a cliff no Dane could scale in the
face of our battle-axes; on the other side, your earthworks and
palisades keep the foe at a distance from the main building. How many
able-bodied men are present now?"

"Happily we have all our force; the feast has brought them all here.
There would be from sixty to seventy men, besides a score of boys."

"And how are you provided with weapons?"

"Each man has a battle-axe, and there are scores of spears in the
armoury."

"And arrows?"

"Whole sheaves of them; and as good yew bows as were ever bent."

"Come, we shall do; and now about provisions?"

"You see we have bounteous fare now, but it would not last many days."

"Many days we shall not want it--many days? Why, the levies must all
be out within twenty-four hours, and the Danes are not strong enough
to maintain themselves here. It is but a raid; but they might all have
been taken or slain had my father but believed me. As it is, they have
shed much innocent blood by this time."

"You think, then, our buildings are capable of defence?"

"Assuredly; it would be madness to sacrifice such a position. If the
Danes are about in the neighbourhood, it would be far more dangerous
to expose your helpless ones without the fortifications. Have you all
your people here, or are there a few sick?"

"A few sick, only."

"Let them be sought at once; the heathen will be revelling like fiends
about the country. For the present I think Dorchester and Abingdon
safe. Wallingford, if I may judge by the light over the hills, has
utterly fallen. They were probably taken unawares; and their defences
were never good. Now we must at once to work."

"Prince, you have more experience of war than I; you will be our
commander."

"I accept the post. To tell the truth, it will be a treat for me after
the illness and confinement I have gone through; the thought of the
struggle makes me feel myself again."

And so this strangely constituted man went forth and spoke to the
assembled multitude, who stood passively gazing at the distant
conflagration.

"Now, Englishmen, a few words to you all. We shall have, I hope, to
fight these Danes; and for the honour of our country must even quit
ourselves like men. Why should not the Englishman be a match for the
Dane? ay, more than a match for the cutthroat heathen? Here we stand
on a rock with our defence secure; and here we will live or die in
defence of our women and children. What say you all?"

"We will live or die with you."

"Well said, men. Now, one good hearty cheer; no, stop, I should like
them to be caught in their own traps. I know their plan. If they find
the good people of Dorchester are awake, as the noise shows, they will
swarm all over the neighbourhood like wasps after honey, to plunder
the isolated houses and farms, and carry off all they can; and this
place is too conspicuous--too much of a city on a hill--to be hidden.
Well, we will be ready for them. Now, first of all, we must set our
outposts around to give us due warning of their approach; and then
every man must arm himself as best he can, and let me see what figure
you can all make."

He was interrupted by a childish voice, and saw Herstan's little son,
a boy of twelve years, touching his garment, and looking at him with
unfeigned admiration.

"May I not fight the Danes, Prince?"

"No, you are too young; you must go and take care of your mother and
sisters."

"I don't want to be shut up with the women. I have killed a wolf. I
shot him with my bow in Newenham wood."

"Well, we will see by and by, my brave boy. We shall have work for
all; go and arm with the rest.

"Well, Alfgar?"

"Let my post be near you."

"You will fight in this quarrel, then?"

"Yes; to save Christian blood."

"Then I adopt you as an Englishman--Dane no longer. I know your
courage and coolness, and will employ it where it is wanted. Now, you
know the place; come and place the outposts where they can retire
easily."

The small sally port, as it would have been called in later times, was
opened, and two men were in each case posted together all round the
building, under cover of trees, at convenient distances. The trees
immediately around the house had been cut down a few weeks earlier, by
order of Herstan, who saw they might afford cover to an enemy, in case
the prince's prophecies were fulfilled, as proved now to be the case.

The building was large and irregular, and had been added to at various
times, the hall, looking over the river, forming its most conspicuous
portion; but it had not originally been built for purposes of defence,
and could not have endured the Danish assault for a moment, but for
external defences, utterly independent of the building, which had been
recently added; a mound, surmounted by crossed palisades, skilfully
strengthened by osier bands, and a deep outer ditch, now full of snow,
surrounded the building on three sides. The fourth was defended by the
river, which, being full owing to the late rains, rushed impetuously
along below.

"Alfgar," said Edmund, "ask Father Cuthbert to see that all the
helpless ones--women and children--are safely shut up in an inner
apartment, where no Danish arrow can find them."

This was accomplished, and Father Cuthbert cheered them all with his
calm placid manner; reassuring this one and cheering that, seeming
quite insensible to fear himself: one moment all sympathy, then all
brightness, his presence was invaluable in the crisis.

"And now," said Edmund, "to the stables; the horses and cattle must be
turned loose tonight, or the Danes will burn them in their barns and
sheds."

The farm buildings lay some little distance without, and the Etheling
and Alfgar, with two or three farm servants, carried out the task
hastily but effectually. Duties were meanwhile assigned to all the
able-bodied women and boys: some provided buckets and ladders, that,
in case the Danes attempted to kindle a flame, they might attempt in
vain; others tore up lint and prepared bandages for the wounded, while
others passed into the upper apartments to see that no lights remained
which could direct the aim of the foe.

The night had somewhat changed its character while all these things
were going on; clouds obscured the moon, and light flakes of snow
commenced to fall. The wind began to moan, as if a storm were at hand.

Alfgar visited the outposts while Edmund assigned their several
stations to the men, who were now armed in readiness for the defence.
When the former reached the post on the river's bank lower down, he
saw that the sentinel had thrown himself ear to the earth, and was
listening intently; he imitated his example.

A deep dull sound from the distance was heard, and Alfgar recognised
the tread of an approaching host.

"Let us withdraw," he said.

They fell back quietly; Alfgar, passing rapidly round, warned all the
other sentinels, and when all had entered, the gates were closed; all
was done in profound silence.

Then Edmund caused the men to fit their arrows to the string, and to
lie upon the inward slope of the earthworks, so as to be invisible; he
placed all the rest of the men at the windows and loopholes of the
building. Similarly prepared, Edmund, with Alfgar and young Hermann by
his side, waited at the window commanding the gateway, when the Lady
Bertha came up to them.

"Has not Father Cuthbert returned?"

"Returned?"

"Yes, he went to the church to bring in the sacred vessels and
vestments."

Alfgar rose instantly.

"I will go and seek him," he cried.

"Then pass out by the postern gate, on the angle nearest the church; I
fear the danger is great, but he must be told that the foe is near, or
he may fall into their hands."

Alfgar left the hall and passed to an angle of the defences where a
little gate led out towards the church; the bridge had been removed,
and he had absolutely to descend into the ditch amongst the deep snow.

Emerging, he crossed the burial yard, and found the good father
returning heavily laden with the precious vessels and other objects he
had been able to save.

"Father," he said; "the enemy is near."

"Indeed! so soon?"

"We must enter by the postern gate."

"I could hardly cross the snow burdened as I am; is it unsafe to try
the other gate? I hear no sound, see no symptom of danger."

They paused; all was so quiet that Alfgar yielded, and they passed
round the mansion. The drawbridge was up, and no danger seemed near;
the trees were in deep shadow, for the clouds, obscuring the moon,
made the night very dark.

Alfgar gave the signal, and the drawbridge was lowered; but they had
scarcely set foot upon it when dark figures rushed from the shadows
behind them. The bridge, which they both had passed, was actually
rising, when the foremost Dane leapt upon it, but was rewarded by a
blow from the battle-axe of Alfgar, which sent him tumbling into the
snow; two or three others leapt forward and clung to the edge of the
bridge, but fell into the ditch like the first; the two fugitives
entered, and the gate was closed.

Then the awful war cry of the Danes arose from earth to heaven,
chilling the very blood and, disdaining all further concealment, the
murderous warriors rushed forward, doubtless expecting to find the
place almost undefended, and to carry the defences at a rush.

But they were soon fatally undeceived, for so perfect had been
Edmund's arrangements, that a storm of arrows burst from all parts of
the building and embankment, laying nearly half the assailants dying
or wounded on the ground.

Still the survivors threw themselves into the ditch, and strove in
vain to pass the palisades, which projected over their heads, and
which were vigorously defended by spear and battle-axe.

But in one place a gigantic warrior succeeded in hewing an aperture
with his axe, wielded by giant strength, and all might have been lost
had not Edmund perceived it, and rushed to its defence, collecting by
his shout half-a-dozen followers. Several Danes strove to pass the
breach; one was already through, and Edmund attacked him; meanwhile
two others had crept through, but were cut off from their fellows, for
the English rallied in front and presented an impenetrable barrier
with their spears, while from the windows above the arrows rained upon
the assailants.

Edmund's axe had found its victim; Herstan, who was by his side, had
engaged and wounded the second; and, meanwhile, Alfgar, who was
glaring about him for a foe, discovered the third, whose aspects and
form were at once recognised by him.

"What! you, Higbald!" he cried.

"You shall escape no more," cried his late gaoler, and brought his axe
down with a mighty rush. Alfgar leapt nimbly aside, and before his
bulky but clumsy antagonist could recover his guard, passed his keen
sword beneath the left arm, through the body, and the giant staggered
and fell, a bloody foam rising to his lips, as he quivered in the
agonies of death.

All was again silent. The Danes, discomfited for the moment, having
lost half their number, had retired, probably waiting for
reinforcements, and the victor addressed Edmund.

"Look," he cried; "this man is a servant of Edric Streorn."

"Is it true, fellow?" said Edmund sternly.

"What if it is? I am dying now, and it cannot matter to me."

The last words were interrupted by a convulsive struggle.

"Art thou an Englishman or a Dane?" said the Etheling, bending over
the dying ruffian in his anxiety to learn the whole truth.

"What is that to thee?"

"Much, if thou wouldst escape death."

"Escape death! I cannot. Neither wilt thou escape Edric Streorn, and I
shall not die unavenged. Ah! young springal, thou wilt not escape
again. To think that thy puny hand should give Higbald his death blow!
Ah, I am choked!"

Alfgar's sword had pierced his lungs, and a gush of blood rushing to
the mouth stopped the breath of Higbald for ever.

"I have brought the foe upon you. We are tracked," said Alfgar. "Edric
and the Danes are in alliance."

"But they have not taken this place yet; neither shall they, by God's
help! Ha! was that lightning? Nay, it is winter."

A sudden burst of fiery light illuminated the scene, and the defenders
looked forth, in spite of their danger, from their fortifications. The
little church of St. Michael burst forth into billowing eddies of
smoke and flame.

"This is a grievous sight, to see the place we had dedicated to God
destroyed by the bloody heathen. O that He would stretch forth His
hand as in the days of old!"

"Would I had but two hundred men; I would fall upon the villains in
the rear, and leave not one," said Edmund.

"Look--the farm buildings!" cried little Hermann.

"The poor horses and oxen!" cried the Lady Bertha.

"They are safe," said Edmund. "You may hear the trampling of hoofs
even now. The fools of Danes are hunting them in all directions. I do
not think they will catch many."

Lights appeared in two or three places, and soon it became evident
that the ruthless foe had gained their object, as the barns and
stables lit up in all directions, and the manor house was surrounded
by the double conflagration, so that every object was as distinctly
visible as in open daylight.

"To your buckets! Pour water upon the roof; and, archers, look out for
the enemy; keep him as far off as you can."

The boys and women were speedily on the roof pouring water in all
directions, in case the wind should deposit the burning brands upon
the structure. Meanwhile flights of arrows came from the distance, and
settled around them; but they were spent before arrival in most cases,
for the defenders kept the ground clear for a large circle around by
their well-sustained discharges. Not a few dead bodies lying in the
glare of the fire testified to their deadly skill.

The flames passed from stable to barn, and barn to shed. The
triumphant cries of the Danes added to the horror of the scene, heard
as they were amidst the continuous roaring of the flames. Crash,
crash, went roof after roof, the fall of the little church on the
opposite side first leading the awful chorus. Life seemed the penalty
of either Englishman or Dane who dared to trust his person within the
circle of light.

The Lady Bertha was comforting her two little girls, Ostryth and
Alfreda, where they sat, cowering and terrified, in their own little
bedchamber, the window so barricaded that no arrow could enter, but
yet not sufficiently to keep out the glare of the flames.

"Mother, how light it is!" said the little Ostryth; "how dreadfully
bright!"

"It will soon be darker again."

"But is it fire? Are they burning the house?"

"No, dearest. They have set the farm on fire. It cannot hurt us."

"But the horses, and my poor little pony?"

"Are safe, dearest one. The Etheling went and let them all loose."

"Oh! how good of him. I am so glad."

"Mother, let Hermann come and sit with us!"

"Nay, he will out to the fight. He is a boy, and must learn to be a
soldier."

"Oh, but he will get hurt, perhaps killed."

"Courage, dear child; remember how often I have told you how God helps
those who trust in Him. Say your prayers, your Pater and Credo, and
ask God to take care of dear father and Hermann."

"Mother!" said a voice. She locked up and saw Hermann, his forehead
covered with blood.

"It is nothing, mother," said the spirited lad, as he wiped the blood
away; "at least only the scratch of an arrow while I was on the roof.
Father wishes you to send all the women who are strong enough to help
to carry water from the river. The well is dry, and the men cannot be
spared from the embankment. We expect another attack, and there are
great patches of blazing straw flying about in the wind."

She spoke a few words to the women, and all but two or three, who were
too weak or ill, went forth to the work. One kiss she imprinted
eagerly on his brow, and dismissed him back to his perilous task
without allowing herself one sigh.

"Now, dear ones," she said to the little girls, "keep quiet till
mother comes back. I must go."

"O mother, do not leave us!"

But she could not listen to the earnest pleadings, for she felt that
where other women exposed themselves, she too must go, and cheer by
her example.

A long line, reaching to the brink of the river, was soon formed, and
buckets were being passed from hand to hand. A loud cry, and a boy in
the line fell from an arrow, which retained just sufficient strength
to pierce his heart. Herstan and Father Cuthbert carried the corpse
reverently within, the father remembering that but that morning he had
fed with the Bread of Life, at the altar of St. Michael, this poor
lad, so soon to be called to meet the Judge who had entertained him as
a guest at His holy Table that Christmas morn. Two or three others
were soon wounded, but not seriously, and when a supply of water ready
for all emergencies had been collected on the roof, the dangerous duty
was over.

Pale and collected, the Lady Bertha was returning to her children,
when she passed the corpse. One moment, and the thought struck her
that it was Hermann, and the mother's heart gave a great leap.
Tremblingly she put aside the cloth with which they had veiled it, and
was undeceived. Repressing her feelings, she was again by the side of
her little girls, when the fearful cries of the assailants once more
rang through the air.

"Stand to your post! Quit yourselves like men! Be firm!" shouted the
stentorian voice of Edmund.

Onward came the Danes, in three parties, to attack the three sides of
the building. The arrows diminished their numbers, but stayed them
not. They left a struggling dark line upon the ground, but the wounded
had to care for themselves. Edmund rushed to command the defence at
the gate, leaving Alfgar to superintend that upon the right hand, and
Herstan on the left. They had but one moment, and they were in the
thick of the conflict.

Shouts mingled with shrieks. Sword, battle-axe, and spear did their
deadly work through and above the palisade; arrows rained down from
the roof and windows on the assailants, women and boys doing their
part in that manner, while the men did theirs with battle-axe and
sword on the bulwarks. In one or two places the palisade threatened to
give way, and at last three or four stakes were dragged out in one
spot, blow after blow of the axe was spent upon the yielding fabric,
and a breach was effected.

The Etheling perceived it, and rushed to the scene just as two or
three of the English, less used to arms, were yielding before the
ponderous weapons of the Danes. Throwing himself into the breach, his
practised arm made a desert around him. Of immense muscular strength,
his blows came down like the fabled hammer of Thor, crushing helmet
and breastplate alike before the well-tempered steel of his favourite
weapon. The foe were driven back, and for one moment he stood in the
breach alone.

Then and then only was he recognised.

"The gleeman! the false gleeman the Etheling Edmund!" in various
energetic cries, attested his fame, and the hatred of his foes.

"Yes, dogs, ye know me, and the prize ye have to win. Back, drunkards
and cannibals, back to your royal parricide with the gleeman's
greetings, and tell him Hela is waiting for him and his friend the
accursed Edric."

A shower of arrows was the only answer, but they missed the joints,
and rattled harmlessly from the well-tempered armour which Edmund
wore. Still the position was critical, and Alfgar, with gentle
violence, persuaded him to descend from his perilous position.

Here the attack was foiled, and foiled so decidedly, that the ditch
was actually half filled with corpses. Cries of distress arose from
the opposite side, but Edmund's arm restored the balance there, so
great was the influence of one man, and so great the power of physical
force in the desperate conflicts of that day.

Foiled at every point, the invaders were driven from the embankment.
It was evident that they had miscalculated the forces of the
defenders, and that they had advanced beyond their main body in
insufficient strength to take the place by assault. Could they have
supplied the place of the fallen by fresh men, until they had wearied
the defenders out, they would have succeeded, but they were evidently
not in strength to do this so they slowly yielded, until the deadly
struggle ceased, and silence resumed her empire, while the besieged
repaired the damage the defences had sustained.

"They have retired," said Herstan, wiping the sweat from his brow and
the blood from his axe.

"Ay," said Edmund, "they will not now take the place by assault--they
are not more than two to one, considering the losses they have
sustained. They have lost twice as many as we. If we were a little
stronger I would head a sally.

"Ah! what was that?"

A globe of fire traversing the arc of a circle, rose from beyond the
embers of the barns, and, sailing through the air, fell upon the roof,
which, owing to the intense heat from the conflagration which had
raged around, was in a very dry and inflammable state. Another, then
another followed, and Edmund cried aloud:

"Pass up the water to the roof, to the roof. We shall need all our
hands now!"

He rushed up himself, but charged Herstan to remain below, and see
that, whatever happened, the defences were not forsaken for one
moment.

The defenders on the roof were prompt with their remedy; and no sooner
did a flaming brand arrive than it was extinguished, provided it fell
in a spot easy of access. But at length some of the deadly missiles
fell where they could not be immediately reached, and one of these
eluded the observation of the besieged until they saw a sheet of flame
curl over the eaves beneath the roof, and play upon the surface of the
huge beams above, until they suddenly started into flame. Water was
dashed upon it, but only partially extinguished the destroying
element, which broke out in fresh places until the defenders became
desperate. And now flight after flight of arrows fell amongst them,
and many wounds were received, while the smoke and flame seemed to
find fresh fuel each moment, and to need all the energies of the
English.

It was at this inauspicious moment that the Danes charged the
palisades again with deadly fury, while the attention of all was drawn
to the flames; so fierce was the attack, that it was necessary once
more to concentrate all the strength of the besieged to repel them;
and the fire gained in strength, roared and hissed in its fury,
seizing for its prey the whole roof of the eastern wing of the
building.

And now the Danish archers, drawing nearer, sent fresh flights of
arrows on those who were labouring on the house top, and, killing
several, drove the others away. The condition of the English was
rapidly getting desperate.

Edmund threw himself into the strife, and drove the foe back from the
breach they had previously made, but even his valour could not restore
confidence.

"All is lost! all is lost!" cried some panic-stricken trembler, as he
saw the flames spread.

"To the river, to the river, to the boats!" cried others.

"Nay, nay," shouted Edmund, "we are not conquered yet; we can defend
ourselves till daylight, or we can depart in order. Alfgar, bid the
women and children prepare to leave the hall as the fire spreads; and
you, Herstan, see that if the worst comes to the worst, the retreat to
the river is made in order. We will defend the place if necessary till
the last man, and cover your retreat; but all is not lost yet. Take a
dozen stout men, mount the roof, the fire is not lower down; let them
destroy the burning portion with their axes; let the women stand
behind with the water.

"Archers, keep the Danes back. See those brutes there aiming at your
wives on the roof; bring them down; make them keep their distance.
Guard well the palisades."

But, although his orders were obeyed, the Danes grew bolder; the men
could not work on the roof in the midst of the arrows. The women and
children, emerging terror-struck from the hall, made every father's
heart sink within him.

Edmund cried aloud:

"To the gate, to the gate! the villains have got the drawbridge down."

He rushed to the spot himself, and found that some adventurous Dane

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