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

The Rival Heirs being the Third and Last Chronicle of Aescendune by A. D. Crake

Part 2 out of 6

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.6 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.

Woe is me! I had better have trusted to his mercy and borne my
fitting punishment; but, as Satan tempted me, I fled to the great
city, where men are crowded together thick as bees in swarming
time, to hide myself amongst many. There I was like to starve, and
none gave me to eat, when a Jew who saw my distress, took pity on
me and gave me shelter.

"His name was Abraham of Toledo, a city far off over the salt sea,
whence he had come to our English shores in the hope of gain; and
he was mighty in magic arts and in compounding of deadly drugs to
slay, or medicines to make alive. I became his servant, for I had
nought else to do, and I blew his forge when he mixed strange
metals, swept his chamber, mixed his medicines as ordered, and did
all an ignorant man might do at his master's bidding."

"The wretch! he should be burnt," said the prior, who, like most
Englishmen of his day, confounded all such researches with the
black art; "didst thou ever see the devil there?"

"I did, indeed!"--the prior started--"but it was a Norman fiend,
and his name Hugo of Aescendune."

"How!" Wilfred exclaimed, as he started violently.

"Silence, dear son, thou shalt soon hear," said Father Elphege.
"Summon thy courage."

"One evening I was mixing some drugs in my master's laboratory, in
a recess hidden from the rest of the room by a curtain, which
happened to be drawn, when my master entered the room in company
with a stranger.

"'Here, then, is the drug you seek; but it will be very costly--men
must pay dear for vengeance,' said Abraham of Toledo.

"'It may not be vengeance, but an obstacle which I wish to remove
from my path.'

"'That liquid was distilled by myself from many strange plants in
far-off Araby; I may never replace it, and it is worth many pieces
of gold.'

"'Thou shalt have them if thou wilt swear, thou dog of a Jew, that
it possesses all the qualities thou hast said. If it fails, look to
thyself; I am not one to be played with.'

"'The victim who takes but one drop daily shall decline and die
within the half of a year; in half that time if the dose be
doubled; a quarter if quadrupled.'

"'And no one shall detect the cause?'

"'Call the most learned physicians ye Christians have (dolts are
they all), and they shall call it a natural death--consumption--so
gradually shall the patient wear away.'

"'I will trust thee; here is the gold.'

"I had seen the man's face through the curtain; but no sooner was
he gone than my master descended the stairs, calling for me. I
managed to reach him without raising his suspicion, and he pointed
out the figure of his visitor receding in the distant gloom of the

"'Follow and learn who he is.'

"I followed and dogged him to his lodging--it was the present lord
of Aescendune.

"I knew of his marriage--I felt sure whom he wanted to destroy; yet
I did not dare show myself at Aescendune, even to save so innocent
a life--the life of so sweet and good a lady as she had ever been.
But at length disease--an incurable disease--seized me, and the
dread of approaching death and judgment has brought me to tell what
it freezes my heart to say--all too late to save, but not perhaps
to avenge--I tell thee thy mother was poisoned, O Wilfred of

"Tell me what would be the signs of the drug?"

"If dropped in water, it would, although colourless, impart a blue
tinge to the liquid."

Wilfred hid his face in his hands and sobbed aloud.

"Dost thou forgive me?" said the dying thrall.

"Thou mightest have saved her, yet I do forgive thee."

"I might; it was my sin, and she was my liege lady, the gentlest
and kindest."

"Thou art forgiven; but oh! my father! who shall do justice on the
murderer, the poisoner?"

"That is thy task; the son must avenge his mother's blood, and do
justice on the murderer. Listen, Wilfred: Dost thou remember Bishop
Geoffrey of Coutances?"

"Well," said the poor boy, "he married them; but he, too, is a
Norman--they are all alike."

"Nay, there be wise and good men amongst them, and this bishop is
one. Thou shalt seek him, for he is now in Oxford: thou shalt start
this very night, and tomorrow thou mayest reach him. I will give
thee the written confession of this most unhappy but penitent
Beorn, and the bishop will hear thee, and justice shall yet be
done. But thou must depart at once, or he will have left the city.
I will give thee food, and my palfrey shall be at thy service in an
hour's time. And now, my child, while the food is preparing, go and
pray at thy mother's tomb, and ask for grace to seek justice, not
revenge; for it is not fitting the murderer should lord it longer
over thy people and thee!"

And in another minute the unhappy lad was prostrate before his
mother's tomb: all other thoughts had gone from him--Etienne,
Pierre, and the rest were forgotten--he was absorbed in the thought
of his parent's wrongs, and in the awful responsibility that
knowledge had thrust upon him {ix}.


Far to the south of the demesne of Aescendune stretched a wild
expanse of woodland, giving shelter to numberless beasts of chase,
and well known to our young hero, Wilfred.

It was traversed by one of those vestiges of old times, the Roman
roads, and along this ancient trackway the poor lad, eager as the
avenger of blood in old times, spurred the good prior's palfrey,
which had never borne so impatient a rider before.

Onward, through the starry night, now on the open heath, now buried
in the deep shadow of ancient trees, now in the darkness of the
valley, then on the upland: here, startling the timid deer; there,
startled himself, as the solitary wolf, not yet extinct in those
ancient forests, glared at him from bush or brake--so Wilfred rode

It was summer time, and the sun rose early; welcome was its light
to our traveller, who rode on, trusting soon to reach a monastic
house in the neighbourhood of Banbury, where a few poor English
monks, not yet dispossessed by the Norman intruders, served God in
their vocation, according to their light, and offered hospitality
to the wayfarer.

To these poor monks Wilfred had been commended by the good prior of
Aescendune, and with them he purposed to rest all day, for it was
not safe to travel before nightfall without a Norman passport. For
Norman riders, soldiers of fortune, infested all the highways, and
they would certainly require Wilfred, or any other English
traveller, to show cause for being on the road, and, in default of
such cause, would render very rough usage.

It was now drawing near the third hour of the day, and Wilfred had
already spied his resting place from the summit of a hill. In spite
of his woes, too, he wanted his breakfast, and was already
speculating on the state of the monastic larder, when the road
entered a small wood.

It was not a straight road at all, and the rider could not see a
hundred yards before him, when suddenly a troop of horse came round
a curve at a smart trot, and were upon him before he could escape
their notice.

"Whom have we here?" exclaimed the leader.

Wilfred knew him; it was that same Count Eustace de Blois, who had
rescued him from danger on the field of Senlac, and taken him to
the tent of the Conqueror.

His first impulse was to tell Count Eustace everything and to claim
his protection. Then he remembered that this Eustace was the friend
of his stepfather, and the distrust--not to say hatred--he was
beginning to feel to all Normans overcame, unhappily it may be, the
first generous impulse of confidence.

"It is I, Wilfred of Aescendune," he coldly replied.

"So I see," said the Norman, "and marvel to meet thee alone and
unattended on the highway, so far from home. Thou hast thy father's

"I have no father," said Wilfred, in a tone which at once betrayed
that something was amiss.

"Stepfather, of course, I would say, and I judge from thy reply
that all is not well. Wilt thou not tell me what is wrong?"

"My errand is urgent, and I only crave permission to continue my
road in peace."

"You are more likely to continue it in pieces, when so many outlaws
and cutthroats are about, and my duty will not suffer thee to go
farther till I know that thou hast thy father's, that is, the
baron's permission."

Wilfred's only reply was to set spurs to his horse, and to try to
escape by flight from his troublesome interrogator; but although he
did succeed in clearing the party, his poor palfrey was tired, and
the Norman horses were fresh, so the attempt was made in vain; he
was pursued and brought back to Eustace de Blois.

"Why didst thou attempt to escape?" said that noble, grimly. "I
fear that thou art playing the truant--against thine own interests,
and must take thee with me whither I am bound, which happeneth to
be Aescendune."

"Nay, I pray thee suffer me to proceed; life and death hang upon my

"Confide in me then, and tell me all."

But Wilfred could not; in his then frame of mind, he could not
confide the story of his mother's woes to a Norman--to his fevered
mind one of the intruders was as bad as another--as well bring a
complaint before one wolf that another wolf had eaten a lamb.

"I cannot," was his reply; "it would be useless if I did."

"Why? I have befriended thee once."

"Art thou not a Norman?"

"Ah! I see where the shoe pinches," replied Eustace; "thou hast
found some traitors who have been instilling rebellion into thy
youthful ears. Well, if they are found, they shall ere long lack
tongues wherewith to prate, and for the present thou must return
home with me. Wilt thou go as a freeman or as a prisoner?"

"You have the power and must use it."

"Wilt thou promise not to attempt an escape?"


"Then I must perforce pass a band from one leg to another, beneath
the belly of thy steed, or thou mayst leave thy tired palfrey and
ride behind me with a strap binding thee to my belt. Which dost
thou choose?"

"Do as it pleaseth thee."

There was a sad, heart-broken tone in Wilfred's voice, in spite of
the defiance of his words, which interested the Norman count, who
was not, as we have before seen, all steel; and during the journey
which Wilfred made as a captive, Eustace made sundry attempts to
win the poor youth's confidence, but all in vain.

Riding all day, Wilfred retraced in this ignominious manner the
road he had so eagerly traversed under the veil of night; and at
length, towards sunset, they came in sight of the priory, the
bridge, and the castle of Aescendune.

"I think I may cut these bonds now, and thou needest not be seen to
return in the guise of a captive. Once more, tell me all; I will be
thy mediator with thy father."

"Father!" repeated Wilfred with an expression indicative of
something deeper yet than scorn or hatred, but he said no more.

The blast of trumpets from the approaching troop aroused the
inmates of the castle, and they flocked to their battlements to
behold the pennon of Eustace de Blois, familiar to them on many a
hard-fought field of old.

Immediately there was bustling and saddling, and a troop of horse
issued over the drawbridge to greet the coming guest. Foremost
amongst them was the grim stepfather, and by his side rode Etienne.

Imagine their surprise when they recognised Wilfred in the train of
their visitor; we can hardly paint fitly the scornful looks of
Etienne, or the grimness of the stepfather.

But there was etiquette to be consulted--a most important element
in the days of chivalry--and no question was asked until all the
customary salutations had been made.

"I see my son Wilfred has been the first to welcome thee; may I ask
where he met thee on the road?" asked Hugo, of Eustace.

"Many a long mile from here; I will tell thee more anon."

"Did he return of his own free will?" thought the baron, but
politeness forced him to wait his guest's own time for the dialogue
which he felt awaited him.

Meanwhile Etienne had regaled Wilfred with a succession of scornful
glances, which, strange to say, did not affect the latter
much--deeper emotions had swallowed up the minor ones, and he could
disdain the imputation of cowardice, although he could not but feel
that his attempted flight would be ascribed by every one to fear of
the combat, which had been offered to, and accepted by him, and
from which he could not otherwise have saved himself.

They dismounted within the courtyard, and Hugo made a certain
communication to the seneschal. The latter came up to Wilfred as he
stood listlessly in the crowd, the object of many a scornful

"The baron, your father, bids you to follow me."

The old retainer led the way up a staircase. On the third floor
there was a chamber with a small loophole to serve as window,
through which nothing larger than a cat could pass. There was
furniture--a rough table and chair, a rude bed, and mattress of

"You are to remain here until my lord comes to release you."

The prisoner entered the chamber, and threw himself wearily on the
bed, the door slammed with a heavy sound behind him, the steps of
the gaoler (was he any better?) died away in the distance, and all
was still, save a faint murmur from the courtyard below, or from
the great hall, where the banquet was even now served.

Hours passed away, and a light step was heard approaching--it was
certainly not the baron's. Soon a voice was heard through the
crevices of the rough planks which formed the door.

"Wilfred, art thou here?"

"I am. Is it thou, Pierre?"

"It is. Why didst thou flee the combat? Thou hast disgraced
thyself, and me, too, as thy friend."

"I cannot tell thee."

"Was it not fear, then?"

"It was not."

"Then at least vouchsafe some explanation, that I may justify thee
to the others."

"I cannot."

"Thou wilt not."

"If thou wilt have it so."

"Farewell, then; I can be no friend to a coward."

And the speaker departed: Wilfred counted his steps as he went down
the stairs. One pang of boyish pride--wounded pride--but it was
soon lost in the deeper woe.

A few more minutes and the warder brought the lad his supper. He
ate it, and then, wearied out--he had had no rest during the
previous night as the reader is aware, and had been in the saddle
for twenty hours--wearied out, he slept.

And while he slept the door softly opened, and the baron entered.
At the first glance he saw the lad was fast asleep, as his heavy
and regular breathing indicated. He did not awake him, but gazed
upon the features of the boy he had so deeply injured, with an
expression wherein there was no lingering remorse, but simply a
deep and deadly hatred. At length he was about to awake the
sleeper, when he saw the end of a packet of parchment protrude from
the breast of the tunic. The baron drew it softly out.

It was the letter of Father Elphege to the Bishop of Coutances.

The baron was scholar enough to read it--few Normans were so, and
fewer English nobles; but he was an exception. He read and knew
all; he read, and blanched a deadly white as he did so; his knees
shook together, and a cold sweat covered his face.

It was known, then; to how many? Probably only to the prior and
Wilfred, for it was but a dying confession of yesterday, as he
gathered from the letter.

A sudden resolution came upon him; he did not awake the sleeper,
but retired to digest it at his ease in the security of his own

It was but little sleep the baron took that night. Hour after hour
the sentinel heard him pacing to and fro. Had any one seen him, he
would have judged that Hugo was passing through a terrible mental

"No, I cannot do it," he said, as if to some unseen prompter.

"It is the only way; crush all thine enemies at once, let not even
a dog survive to bark at thee."

"But what would the world say?"

"The world need not know, if thou contrivest well."

"But such secrets will out--a bird of the air would carry the
matter, if none else did."

"Such are the bogies with which nurses frighten children. Art thou
not a man and a Norman?"

"But the poor monks--if they were but soldiers."

"The less crime if they perish--they are fitter to die; and they
are but English swine, like their neighbours, of whom thou hast
slain so many."

So, through the long hours did the Prince of Darkness commune with
his destined prey. There are periods of temptation which none know
in their intensity, save such as have by long habit encouraged the
Evil One to tempt them--who have swallowed bait after bait, until
they can digest a very large hook at last.

At length, just as the dawn was reddening the skies, the baron
threw himself upon his pallet and slept, not the sleep of the
innocent, for his features moved convulsively again and again, and
sometimes it seemed as if he were contending with some fearful
adversary in his dreams.

But no angel of good stood near his couch; long since had continual
indulgence in evil driven his guardian away, and Satan had all his
own way.

The sounds of life and activity were many about the castle, and
still Hugo arose not, until the third or fourth hour. Then he
swallowed hastily a cup of generous Gascon wine, and a crust of
toasted bread, steeped in the liquor; after which he mounted his
favourite steed, a high horse of great spirit, not to say
viciousness, which none save himself cared to ride, and galloped
furiously for hours through the forest, startling the timid deer
and her fawn from many a brake.

It was evening when he returned: Wilfred had not yet been released.

Count Eustace had departed, not until he had sought an interview
with Wilfred, in his prison chamber, which turned out to be a
fruitless one; for, terrified although he was at the loss of his
letter, the youth kept his secret.

It was a pity that he did so. Many a sad page yet to be written
might have been saved. But was it unnatural that the poor orphan
should feel an invincible reluctance to claim Norman aid? yet the
Bishop of Coutances was Norman.

At length, supper being ready, Hugo came in and took his usual
place at the head of the high table. All trace of his mental
struggles was gone.

"Bring my son Wilfred down to the hall."

The attendants hasted, and soon reappeared with the English heir of

He was calm and composed--that unhappy youth; he looked the baron
straight in the face, he did not honour Etienne or any one else
with a single glance; but waited to be questioned.

"Wilfred of Aescendune," said his stepfather, "why didst thou
absent thyself yesterday, and traverse dangerous roads without

No answer.

"Didst thou fly because thou fearedst the combat, which thine own
unmannerly insolence had brought upon thee?"


It was the only word Wilfred spoke, and that with emphasis. Etienne

"Perhaps thou mightest not have fled hadst thou known that the
combat would have been a mere form. I had instructed the marshal of
the lists to prevent deadly results."

Again Etienne cast a look at his companions, which seemed to give
the lie to these words.

"Wilt thou promise to make no further attempt to leave the demesne
without permission if thou art released from superveillance?"

"No," once more.

"Then I will no longer retain the charge of thee. Thou shalt go and
do penance at the priory of thy sainted namesake, till thou dost
come to a better mind. I will send thee after supper, and give
fitting charge to Father Elphege."

Wilfred was forced to sit down during the meal, but he ate nothing.

When it was ended, the baron called old Osbert the seneschal and
gave his instructions. They led the youth away; he did not return
the baron's half-ironical salutation, but departed with his guards
in silence.

High was the wassail in the castle that night, and many casks of
wine were broached; at length all sought their couches and slept

But in the middle of the night many sleepers were aroused by the
cry of FIRE! yet so heavy with wine were they, that few arose; hut
most heard it as a man hears some sound in his sleep, which he half
suspects to belong to dreamland, and turns again to his pillow.

Imagine the surprise with which such men (including Etienne,
Pierre, and the other late companions of the unhappy Wilfred)
learned that the monastery had caught fire accidentally in the
night, and that so sudden had been the conflagration that none had

None! No; so far as men could discover. The priory built by Offa of
Aescendune was a heap of smoking embers, and monks were there none,
neither had any heard aught of the English heir of Aescendune.

The poor English who yet remained in the village were weeping over
their lost friends, and the very Norman men-at-arms were hushed in
the presence of their sorrow.

The shades of evening fell upon the desolate ruins, but nought had
occurred to alleviate the calamity: all seemed to have perished
unaided in the suddenness of their destruction--a thing
improbable--unheard of--yet so it was.

All seemed over--the English brethren and their guest blotted out
from the earth. And none looked more contented than Baron Hugo.


If the Conqueror had really intended to govern the English justly,
like his great predecessor Canute, circumstances over which he had
small control were against him; when he committed himself to an
unjust war of aggression against an unoffending people, for if
Harold had given him offence, England had given none, he entered
upon a course of evil in which he could not pause.

Canute was a heathen during his darkest and bloodiest days; when he
became a Christian, his worst deeds lay behind him, and the whole
course of his reign was a progress from evil to good, the scene
brightening each day. This, our Second Chronicle sufficiently

But William had no such excuse; he bore a high reputation for
piety--as piety was understood in his day, before the invasion of
England--he was, says a contemporary author, "a diligent student of
Scripture, a devout communicant, and a model to prelates and

But after ambition led him to stain his soul with the blood shed at
Senlac, his career was one upon which the clouds gathered more
thickly each day; his Norman followers clamoured for their promised
rewards, and he yielded to this temptation, and spoiled Englishmen,
thane after thane, to satisfy this greed, until the once wealthy
lords of the soil were driven to beg their bread, or to work as
slaves on the land they had once owned.

Early in 1067 William returned to celebrate his triumph in
Normandy, and while he was absent the government of the conquered
country was committed to his half brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux,
and William Fitz-Osborne. These rulers heard no cry for redress on
the part of the poor English, scorned their complaints, and
repulsed them with severity, as if they wished by provoking
rebellion to justify further confiscations and exactions; in short,
they made it impossible for the Conqueror to pursue his policy of
conciliation. Rebellions arose and were stifled in fire and blood,
and henceforth there was simply a reign of terror for the
conquered; on one side insolence and pride, on the other, misery
and despair.

Many of the English fled to the woods for refuge, and were hunted
down, when their tyrants could accomplish their wishes, like beasts
of prey, stigmatised with the title of "robbers" or "outlaws."
Such, as we have seen, was the case at Aescendune; and after the
supposed death of Wilfred, no bounds were set to the cruelties and
oppressions of Hugo and his satellites; their dungeons were full,
their torture chamber in constant use, so long as there were
Englishmen to suffer oppression and wrong.

Autumn, the autumn of 1068, came with all its wealth of golden
store; the crops were safely housed in the barns, the orchards were
laden with fruit, the woods had put on those brilliant hues with
which they prepare for the sleep of winter--never so fair as when
they assume the garb of decay.

Wilfred of Aescendune was gone. His tragical fate had aroused
little sympathy amongst his Norman companions, hardened as they
were by familiarity with scenes of violence; the burning of the
abbey and the fiery fate of its inmates had been but a nine days'
wonder. Etienne and his fellow pages spoke of their lost companion
with little regard to the maxim, "nihil nisi bonum de mortuis," and
seemed, indeed, to think that he was well out of the way.

There were few English left to mourn him: the baron would trust
none in the castle, and the churls and thralls of the village had
perished or taken refuge in the greenwoods, which lay, like a sea
of verdure, to the north of the domain of Aescendune, where it was
shrewdly suspected they might be found, enjoying the freedom of the
forests, and making free with the red deer.

It was a primeval forest, wherein were trees which had witnessed
old Druids, silver knife in hand, cutting the mistletoe, or which
had stood in the vigour of youth when Caesar's legionaries had
hunted those same Druids to their last retreats. Giant oaks cast
their huge limbs abroad, and entwined in matrimonial love with the
silver beech; timid deer with their fawns wantoned in the shade
beneath, or wild swine munched the acorns. Here were slow sedgy
streams, now illumined, as by a ray of light, when some monster of
the inland waters flashed along after his scaly prey, or stirred by
a sudden plunge as the otter sprang from the bank. Sometimes the
brock took an airing abroad, and the wolf came to look after his
interests and see what he could snatch.

While, in the upper regions, amidst that sea of leaves, whole
tribes of birds, long since vanished from England, carried on their
aerial business, and now and then the eagle made a swoop amongst
them, and then there was a grand scattering.

Many a lonely pool there was, where the kingfisher had never seen
the face of man; many a bushel, not to say waggon load, of nuts
rotted for want of modern schoolboys to gather them; many an acre
of blackberries wasted their sweetness on the desert air.

Now and then came the horn of the hunter, waking up the echoes,
then the loud murmur of hounds, then the rush and clamour of the
chase swept by, and all was quiet again, even as it is said to be
in the solitudes of the Black Forest, when the Wild Huntsman has

But there was a lonelier and yet wilder region, where the sound of
the hunter's horn only penetrated in faint vibrations from the far

This region was a deep and entangled morass, which had only been
explored by the veteran hunter of former days, or by the hunted
outlaw of the present. Streams had overflown their banks, the water
had stagnated, rank foliage had arisen, and giant trees rotted in
swamp and slime.

The Normans had never penetrated into this wilderness of slimy
desolation, although, of course, they had again and again reached
its borders and found bogs of bottomless depth, quagmires which
would suck one out of sight in a few minutes, and at nightfall
legions of evil spirits, as they thought them--for after dark these
sloughs were alive with Jack-o'-lanterns, which men believed to be
the souls of unbaptized infants.

In former Chronicles we have described the old hall of Aescendune,
as it stood in Anglo-Saxon days; it was then rather a home, a kind
of "moated grange," than a fortress.

But when Hugo the Norman took possession, he could not endure to
live in a house incapable of standing a regular siege. And well he
might have such feelings, when he remembered that he lived in the
midst of a subject population, to whom his tyranny had rendered him
and his men-at-arms hateful.

So he sent at once for Ralph of Evreux, a skilful architect, whose
line lay in the raising of castles and such like, who knew how to
dig the dungeon and embattle the keep, and into his hands he
committed the rebuilding of the castle of Aescendune.

All was bustle and activity. The poor thralls of the estate were
"worked to death;" stone had to be brought from an immense
distance, for wood might burn if subjected to fiery arrows; the
moat was deepened and water let in from the river; towers were
placed at each angle, furnished with loopholes for archers; and
over the entrance was a ponderous arch, with grate for raining down
fiery missiles, and portcullis to bar all approach to the inner
quadrangle, which was comparatively unchanged.

In short, the whole place was so thoroughly strengthened, that the
cruel baron might laugh to scorn any attempts of the unhappy
English to storm it, should they ever reach such a pitch of daring.

Below the castle walls the new priory was rapidly rising from the
ruins of the olden structure. It was to be dedicated to St.
Denys--for the Normans did not believe in any English saints--and
then it was to be inhabited by a colony of monks from the diocese
of Coutances-outre-mer.

This was to take place in order to please Bishop Geoffrey, who had
made some inconvenient inquiries into the circumstances connected
with the burning of the old abbey and the death of Wilfred.

But no awkward circumstances came to light; if there had been any
foul play, the actors therein kept their own counsel.

An incident which happened about this time caused no little

It was an October evening; the inmates of the castle (now properly
so called) were assembled at supper in the great hall, after a long
day's hunting of the wild boar.

In the middle of the meal, Pierre de Morlaix, who had tarried in
the forest, entered, looking as pale as a ghost and very excited in
manner, as if some extraordinary event had upset the balance of his
mind. It was not without a very apparent effort that, remembering
the composure of demeanour exacted by the feudal system from all
pages, he repressed his excitement and took his usual place.

The baron, however, had marked his discomposure, and was curious to
know its cause.

"Is aught amiss, Pierre?" he asked.

Pierre stammered, hesitated, then replied that there was nothing
amiss, only that he believed he had seen a ghost, or something very
much like one.

Dead silence fell on all, for the belief in ghosts was universal in
that age, as also in witchcraft and sorcery.

"A ghost, silly boy; what ghost? Thy fancy hath converted some
white cow into a spectre, in the uncertain light of the evening."

"Nay, I saw him too plainly."

"Saw whom?"


There was a pause--a dead pause, indeed; the baron changed colour
and appeared to attempt to hide the perturbation of his spirit.

"Speak out, my son," said the chaplain, "such things are sometimes
permitted by Heaven."

"Father, I was leaving the woods by the path which opens upon the
summit of the hill, above the blasted oak, when I saw Wilfred, as
when alive, standing on the summit, gazing upon the castle. He was
between me and the evening light, so, although it was getting dark,
I could not mistake him. He was deadly pale, and there was a look
on his face I had never seen in life as he turned round and faced

"Well! didst thou speak?"

"I dared not; my limbs shook and the hair of my head
arose--fearfulness and trembling seized hold of me."

Etienne sneered just a little, yet probably he would not have
behaved better, only he might not have owned his fear.

"Well, did he disappear?"

"I looked again, and I thought he retreated into the woods, for he
was gone."

"Did he seem to see you?"

"He did not speak."

"Well," said the chaplain, "we will say a mass for him tomorrow, to
quiet his disturbed spirit, and he will, perhaps, vex us no more,
poor lad."

Etienne and Louis were very anxious to hear all the details of
Pierre's ghostly encounter, and questioned him very closely. The
former vowed he would have challenged the spectre; he did not fear
Wilfred living, nor would he fear him dead.

The whole conversation at the castle hearth that night was about
ghosts, demons, witches, warlocks, vampires, werewolves, and
such-like; and about two hours before midnight our young Normans
went to bed pleasantly terrified.

It was All Saints' Day, the day appointed for the consecration of
the new Priory of St. Deny's. The monks from Coutances had arrived.
The bishop of that diocese, already known to our readers, had
reached Aescendune to perform the ceremony, by permission of the
Bishop of Worcester, the sainted Wulfstan, in whose jurisdiction
the priory lay; and there was a grand gathering of Norman barons
and their retainers.

Strange it was that the same Epistle and Gospel which still serve
in the English Prayer Book for that day should have been read in
the ears of the Norman warriors--that they should have heard the
Beatitudes in the Gospel:

"Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called the children of God:
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy:"

--and then gone forth to work out their own righteousness in the
manner peculiar to their nation. Well, perhaps there are not
wanting similar examples of inconsistency in the nineteenth

So, with all the pomp of ecclesiastical ceremony, with gorgeous
vestments, lighted tapers, and clouds of incense, the new building
was dedicated to God.

And then, while the preparations for the evening banquet in the
hall were being made by the menials of the kitchen, the guests had
a grand tournament on the open mead in front of the castle, where
they did not study how to perform works of mercy.

We have not space to tell who won the prizes in this famous passage
of arms--who was unhorsed--whom the fair ladies crowned--save that
the young Etienne (now in his eighteenth year) distinguished
himself in every trial of skill or courage, unhorsed three youths
successively who opposed him, bore off the suspended ring--while
riding at full speed--on the top of his lance, and received the
garland from the hands of the fair Countess of Warwick, who
presided as Queen of the Jousts, amidst the applause of all
present, who declared that so brave and knightly a youth ought to
have his spurs at once.

He looked, indeed, handsome and brave, that typical Norman youth,
as he advanced with becoming modesty to kneel and receive the token
of his valour and success; his gallant demeanour and bright
eyes--albeit he was somewhat olive in complexion--did great
execution amongst the ladies, and they congratulated Hugo of
Malville and Aescendune upon his hopeful son and heir. No one
thought of poor Wilfred, save perhaps to reflect that he was well
out of the way.

The bishop and his clergy departed to the priory, but the greater
number of the laity remained for the evening banquet at the hall,
served with all the magnificence for which the Normans were so
renowned, while the prior and his brethren entertained the
ecclesiastics at a more sober repast.

The hall was filled by an assemblage of lords and ladies, arrayed
in such gorgeous apparel that it would need a far better milliner
than the writer to describe it; all the colours of the rainbow were
there, and the men had their share of the gaudy hues as well as the
women. Hugo was quite a sight, as he sat upon a dais, at the head
of the table, with his hopeful son--the hero of the day--on his

And then the viands--there was venison dressed a dozen different
ways, beef and mutton, chine and haunch of the wild boar:
peacocks--feathers and all, the feathers not roasted but stuck in
their proper places after the poor bird left the oven--very
beautiful, but very tough was this piece de resistance. There were
all sorts of gravies, all kinds of soups.

Then the fish--the turbot, the salmon, and the perch, chub, trout,
and eel from the inland streams. Pike had not yet appeared in our
waters--they were a later importation--and other fish were more
plentiful in consequence.

Then the pastry--the castles in pie crust, with fruity warriors to
man their battlements--how should aught but cook describe them

For awhile there was no conversation, save an occasional
interjectional exclamation--"How good this fish!" "How tender this
fowl!" Wines of Gascony and Burgundy were circulating freely, and
were as usual brightening the eyes, quickening the tongue, and
stimulating the palate.

But when appetite was satisfied, then began the buzz of
conversation to arise, then the gleemen tuned their harps to sing
the praises of Norman warriors; nor did the toasts linger, nor was
the drinking of many healths absent.

Amongst the singers--men of many songs--those of wealth and rank
occasionally took turn; but there was no brighter voice or sweeter
song than that of Louis de Marmontier, the third of our trio of
pages. He had distinguished himself that day in the lists,
following closely in the steps of Etienne, and now he seemed likely
to win the prize for minstrelsy, as he sang the song of Rollo,
accompanying himself with thrilling chords on the harp, whose
strings had never uttered sweeter notes.

All at once, just when the attention of every one was fixed on the
singer, a startling interruption occurred, and the strings ceased
to vibrate.

A man, whose head was streaming with blood, whose features were
pale and ghastly, and who seemed scarcely able to support his
fainting limbs, was approaching the high dais, upon which reclined
his lord.

The song ceased--the cry was heard--"Help! my lord; they are
burning Yew Tree Farm, and I only am escaped to tell thee."

Suddenly he trembled, staggered, and fell. They raised him up, but
he was gone, his tale half untold. An arrow had pierced his breast,
and he had spent his dying strength in a desperate attempt to reach
his lord.

What had happened?

The horn was at this moment heard from the battlements, and its
burden was "FIRE."

Hugo turned pale, in spite of his prowess, then cried out--"To
horse! to horse!"

So crying, he rushed from the table, mounted his favourite steed,
and, followed by such as could keep pace with him--there were not
many--rode in the direction of the blaze, which was illuminating
the northern sky.

Onward! onward! ride the Normans! Onward through bush or brake, or
copse, or quagmire. Onward, till the clearing is reached, where the
English Lords of Aescendune built Yew Farm.

When they arrived at the spot, Hugo and his Normans paused in

For there, in the midst of the clearing, the farm buildings, one
and all, stood enveloped in flames. It was plain, at first sight,
that they must have been set on fire in many places at once, for in
no other way could the flames have taken such complete and uniform

But where were the inhabitants?

Not a living soul appeared, and the intense heat of the flames
forbade closer observation.

And as they stood and gazed helplessly upon the conflagration, the
remembrance of the burning of the Monastery came to many minds, and
they wondered at the similarity of the circumstances.

"Was this the hand of God?"

At length roof after roof fell in with hideous din. The Normans
waited about the spot and explored the neighbourhood, hoping to
find, lighted by the lurid flame of the fire, that Roger and his
labourers had found shelter somewhere. They searched in vain--they
found no one.

Slowly and sadly the party returned homewards to attend to their
duties but early next morning the baron and a chosen band rode to
the scene again.

Thick clouds of smoke ascended to the skies; a pungent smell
overpowered all the sweet odours of the forest; blackened beams and
stones, cracked and shivered by the heat, lay all around.

What had caused the fire? Could it have been accidental?

They soon decided that it could not.

Two things seemed conclusive on this point--the first, the
simultaneous outbreak in all parts of the buildings; the second,
the fact that no one had escaped, save the man who bore the news,
and died, his story but half told.

But what had been the fate of the rest? Had they been shut in the
buildings, and so left to die as the flames reached them?

The terrible conviction that such had been the case became general;
but at the same time the similarity of the circumstances with those
under which the Monastery had been burnt would necessitate a like
conclusion in that case also; and if so, who had then been the

There were those amongst the retainers of Baron Hugo who could have
answered this question, but they were all puzzled concerning the
latter conflagration, for they knew of no gathering of their
conquered foes, and they imagined they were acquainted with every
nook of the forest, save the impenetrable morass in its centre.

On the morrow there was to have been a great hunt; but instead of
the chase of beasts, the more exciting one of men was now
substituted--the "murderers" should be hunted out, cost what it
might--"The vermin should be extirpated."

The majority of the guests had departed the previous night, but
many yet remained, the guests of Hugo, and with some of the wisest
and most valiant of these he was taking counsel the following
morning how best to track the outlaws, who had dared to commit this
insolent deed, when Etienne appeared to announce that several of
their people had not returned home from the fire, and amongst them
his own fellow page, the minstrel of the previous night, Louis de

"We will find them; perchance they yet linger there. Bid a troop of
horse be ready."

They mounted, rode, arrived on the scene, and found no one there.
Then they separated in all directions, two or three in each group,
to find their missing comrades.

Etienne and Pierre, with a dozen men at arms--for the baron would
not let them go forth less strongly attended--were eager in the
search, for they loved their companion, and were very anxious about
his safety.

Midway between the castle and the burnt farm, slightly out of the
track, was a huge oak, and around it a slight space clear of
undergrowth. A brook ran close by--a stream of sweet sparkling
water--and Etienne rode thither to give the horses drink, when, as
he approached, he saw the form of a youth leaning down, as if
drinking, and thought he knew the dress.

He approached eagerly. Yes, it was Louis; but he did not stir.
Etienne dismounted and discovered the fact he had already
anticipated: his young companion was dead: an arrow, evidently shot
close at hand, had pierced his chest. The poor lad had but slight
defensive armour--a light cuirass thrown on at the first alarm.

He had fallen and been left for dead, but had evidently afterwards
dragged himself to the brook, in the agony of thirst, and had died
while attempting to drink.

They placed the body reverently on the moss at the foot of the
tree, and for a time were silent. The remembrance of his activity
and gaiety on the previous day, and of his sweet minstrelsy on the
very eve of his voice being hushed for ever, came sadly to their
minds. At length Etienne broke the silence.

"Draw forth the arrow," he said.

They drew it forth and gave it him, bloodstained as it was: he
looked closely upon it.

"This is an arrow from the same quiver as that which killed
Gislebert; it is of English make, such as those clumsy louts use."

It was indeed a heavy, broad shaft, quite unlike the slender,
tapering arrows of Norman workmanship, adapted for a long flight,
in days when a furlong was considered a boy's distance.

"Our own serfs turn upon us. Well, they will rue it ere long; a
short shrift and a long rope will be their portion."

"Ah! I remember noticing such in the quiver of the young thrall
Eadwin," said Pierre--"he whose hand you sought to cut off for

They said no more on that occasion, but pursued in silence the
train of thought suggested.

It was a strange gathering that night at the castle; for corpse
after corpse was borne in from the woods to receive Christian
burial at the priory, all killed by arrows, and those arrows--which
the slayers had not troubled to remove, as if they disdained
reprisals--all of the clumsy sort used by the "aborigines"


The winter of the year 1068 was setting in with great severity,
sharp winds from the north and east had already stripped the faded
leaves from the trees of the forest, and the heavens were
frequently veiled by dark masses of cloud, from whence fast-falling
snow ever and anon descended.

The winter opened drearily for the inhabitants of Aescendune, for
the "mystery of the forest" was yet unsolved; none knew whence
those incendiaries had issued who had given Yew Farm, with all its
inmates, to the vengeful flames; but that this latter conflagration
was in some way connected with the earlier destruction of St.
Wilfred's Priory seemed not unlikely to most men.

Hugo de Malville cum Aescendune was not the man to sit calmly on
the battlements of his newly-built towers and survey the
destruction of his property, although he was not free from a
terrible dread that his sins were finding him out, at which times
he was like a haunted man who sees spectres, invisible to the world

Well did he surmise from whom the deadly provocation came, the loss
of his farm, the death of a noble lad committed to his care; not to
mention the loss of some common men, who could easily be replaced:
for there were ever fresh swarms of Normans, French, and Bretons
pouring into poor old England, as though it were some newly
discovered and uninhabited land.

The aggressors, he doubted not, were the outlaws his tyranny had
driven to the forests, the forerunners of the Robin Hoods and
Little Johns of later days, whose exploits against the Norman race
awoke the enthusiasm of so many minstrels and ballad makers

But all his efforts were in vain: neither men nor dogs could track
the fugitives, although all the woods were explored, save only that
impassable Dismal Swamp, where all seemed rottenness and slime, and
where it could scarcely be imagined aught human could live.

Day after day the vengeful baron ranged the woods with his dogs and
men-at-arms, but all in vain.

Neither would Etienne forbear his woodland sports, although the
stragglers in the forest were constantly cut off by their unseen
foe; but in his hunts, accompanied by Pierre, his sole surviving
companion, he sought more eagerly for the tracks of men than of
beasts, and vowed he would some day avenge poor Louis.

Brave although the Normans were, they hesitated to remain in the
outlying cottages and farms which were yet untouched by the
destroyer, and therefore, by their lord's permission, concentrated
their forces in and around the castle, where they kept diligent
watch, as men who held their lives in their hands, and shunned the
woods after nightfall.

For night after night the fatal fires blazed, now at one extremity
of the domain, now at another, until there threatened to be very
little left to burn, unless some prompt and decisive measures were
taken; but superstitious fears united with natural ones to assist
the unseen enemy, by paralysing the courage of the hitherto
invincible Norman.

This state of things could be endured no longer; and the baron sent
embassies to the neighbouring barons to beg their aid against a
combination of outlaws united against law and society, who had
burnt his farms and slain his retainers, and whom, owing to his
limited numbers, he had yet failed to exterminate.

The Normans clung together; hence their power--as the weakness of
the poor English was disunion--and favourable replies being
received, a day was appointed for a general search to be made in
the forest by the barons living near its borders.

It came at last--a day in November, when the sun seemed making a
last effort to prevail against coming winter. The wind was fresh
and bracing, and nature appeared bright and cheerful, on that
long-to-be-remembered morning.

Early in the morn, just after sunrise, Bernard de Torci, Gilbert
d'Aubyn, Eustace de Senville, and a large body of their retainers,
arrived at the castle. They found the men of Aescendune prepared to
receive them, and the leaders entered the council chamber of their

There they perfected their plans--the forest was divided into
portions, and a district assigned to each leader to be subdivided
and thoroughly explored. All human tracks were to be followed up by
the help of the hounds, and prisoners, when taken, to be sent,
under guard, to the castle, there to be rigorously examined, if
necessary by torture.

The only part of the scheme presenting any real difficulty was the
morass in the centre of the forest, already known to our readers.
Hugo believed it impenetrable, and that no human being could live
within its area; but he sent for his chief huntsman, and examined
him before his fellow nobles.

He found that old Ralph regarded the Dismal Swamp, as they called
the morass, as utterly uninhabitable and impassable; he had never
heard any sounds of life from within; he thought the place haunted;
it abounded in quagmires, and corpse lights and baleful fires were
seen on its waters at night.

The man was dismissed, and it was decided, that the borders of the
morass should be explored, although with little hope of finding any
trace of the foe; but should such be found, it was not to be
neglected, the more especially if the search were conducted
elsewhere in vain.

The northern part of the forest fell to Hugo's share, and was
subdivided by him between his chief retainers. Every nook was to be
investigated, and signals were arranged whereby all the hunters
could be assembled together in case of need.

The work was a very arduous one, for the portion assigned to the
retainers of Aescendune alone, occupied a circuit of some fifteen
miles, bounded on the east by a stream which ran into the Avon, on
the north by a well-defined range of wooded hills.

This was the most important section of all, for what faint
indications had been gained of the whereabouts of the foe, all
pointed in this direction.

The men-at-arms were divided into five distinct bands, lightly
armed, because of the distance they had to travel, and Etienne
claimed and obtained the command of one party.

However, the baron, while he had no doubt of his son's valour,
grievously doubted his discretion, and added to the party Ralph,
his chief forester, strictly charging Etienne in any difficulty to
be guided by his advice--directions which the young heir received
with a toss of the head, which spoke volumes for his submission.

They entered the forest--a gallant array, each party numbering
about twenty, and there were nearly twenty of such bands; but when
they divided and again subdivided, and each took their different
routes, they appeared lost in the vastness of the forest, and in a
very few minutes every band was so isolated that they heard no
sounds indicating that any save themselves were in the wood.

We will leave all other parties to their fate, and confine our
attention to that commanded by Etienne, which, indeed, was destined
to surpass all the others in the results accomplished, and in their
influence on the future destinies of all the personages in our

They proceeded fully five miles from home before their real task
began. Perhaps the reader will wonder how they could know their own
destined region in so pathless a wilderness, but it was part of the
training they had received as hunters to find their way in the
lonely woods; and there were signs innumerable which told them
where they were, and in what direction they were going. Etienne
alone, could guide his men while day lasted, as well as a pilot
could steer a ship in a well-known archipelago, and in Ralph he had
a tower of strength.

Every landmark was known--the course of every stream; each tree, by
the direction in which it threw its boughs and by the mosses at the
foot of its trunk, told the points of the compass.

Yet there were probably, in so large an extent of country, many
wild glens and deep fastnesses hitherto untraversed, and these had
to be discovered and explored.

Straight through the territory assigned to them marched our little
band; keen-nosed dogs went first, secured by leashes, that the game
they continually aroused might not lead them astray; men followed
who, like American Indians, looked for "trails" in every soft
surface of ground, and along the banks of each stream of sweet
water, where men might come to drink, but by noon they had
traversed the whole extent of their territory in a straight line,
and discovered nothing. Once, indeed, they thought they were on the
scent of man; but they had crossed the trail of a wild boar and
could not restrain themselves from following it up, the scent was
so fresh, and herein they wasted much time, but succeeded in
killing their boar; and Etienne at once proposed that, since it was
midday, they should light a fire and dine upon its flesh.

The forester, old Ralph, objected that the smoke would reveal their
presence, and frustrate the object of their expedition; but the
young noble replied so rudely that the old man withdrew his

The fire was kindled, the smoke arose high above the tree tops in
the clear atmosphere, and soon the poor boar was dissected, and the
choicest parts of his flesh held on spits. 'Twas somewhat fresh,
but none the worse, thought the roasters, for that.

The glade in which they were seated, through which the little brook
foamed and tumbled, was surrounded by magnificent old oaks, some
with hollow trunks, others with branches gnarled and twisted in a
thousand fantastic shapes, some yet retained a portion of their
leaves--brown and sere, one or two were enveloped with ivy, and
here and there the mistletoe could be seen, thick and verdant. It
was a spot the Druids must have delighted to haunt in the times
gone by, and one a painter might like to hap upon now in his
woodland strolls.

Some fallen logs were close by the stream, and upon these one party
placed the viands, or seated their own comely forms, while others
piled fresh sticks upon the fire, and held out the fizzing meat on
spits--full of enjoyment of the hour, and utterly careless of

Pierre was seated on one of the fallen trees; Etienne was playing
with the dogs, now only two in number, when the elder of them
lifted its nose in the air, and then began to growl ominously.

"The dog begins to be uneasy," said old Ralph.

"Another wild boar, probably."

"Had we not better appoint a sentinel or two? we might be taken by
surprise in this glade."

"Ralph, where hast thou left thy manhood? Art thou afraid of these

"They were not shadows who burnt our farms."

"I wish they had some substance, then we might get hold of them."

"May I appoint men to keep watch?"

"It is not necessary," replied Etienne, quite wilfully, for he had
determined not to be advised.

The meal was now prepared, and the whole party gathered round the
fire, arranging the logs so as to form seats. They were soon eating
with the zest of men who have had the advantage of forest air, when
they were disturbed by another growl from the older dog.

Ralph looked uneasily round.

"He smells another boar, but one is enough for our dinner," said
Etienne, and they turned again to their meal.

Suddenly one of their number, a woodman named Gilbert, leapt up
with a wild cry, and then fell down in their midst dead.

An arrow had pierced his heart.

The Normans rose aghast at this sudden intrusion of death, and
gazed wildly around.

But all was yet silent, no war cry followed this deadly act of
hostility--the woods seemed asleep.

"To cover," cried Ralph the forester, assuming instinctively the
command; "let your own arrows be ready for these lurking cowards."

And the Normans, sheltering themselves behind the trunks of the
trees, stood, their arrows fitted to the string, to await the onset
they momentarily expected.

But it did not take place, and after a trying pause of some
minutes, Etienne, who had quite recovered his audacity, and who was
a little nettled at being, as it were, superseded in the command
for the moment, shouted:

"Keep your eyes open and search the cover, the miscreants have
probably fled, but we may put the dogs on the track."

The obedient vassals obeyed, not without some hesitation, for they
felt that the moment of exposure might be that of death. Still they
were forced to undergo the risk, and they searched the immediate
neighbourhood, omitting no precautions that experience in woodland
warfare suggested.

But all their search was in vain.

"Shall we blow the horn and summon further assistance?" said Ralph.

"No, we shall but recall the other parties from their duties," said
Etienne, not wisely, for the cause was sufficient--they were at
least in the neighbourhood of the foe whom all panted to discover;
but he was angry with the old forester, and would receive no

The dogs, although they ran hither and thither, their noses to the
ground, seemed as much in fault as the men, and after an hour had
passed in this vain attempt to track the invisible foe, Etienne
gave orders to abandon the spot and resume their appointed task,
for they had yet to explore a square mile or two of forest--those
nearest the morass.

But here Ralph ventured a remonstrance; the day was far spent, they
had but an hour or two of daylight, and there were heavy clouds in
the northeast, which seemed to indicate a snowstorm; he thought
"they had better return towards home as fast as they could, and
finish their work on the morrow."

"If thou fearest for thyself, I give thee leave to return, old man;
for me, I will stay here till my duty is accomplished, and so will
all who value their fealty."

"It is the first time one of thy house has ever thus spoken to me,
my young lord."

"Let it be the last time then," said the proud youth; "it depends
but upon thyself; and now lead the way--our path is westward.
Examine the ground closely; we know we are in the neighbourhood of
the foe."

They obeyed, and an hour passed away without any further alarm,
when the dogs recommenced their warning growls.

The men appeared terrified: they knew what had followed those
warnings before, and their light jerkins of untanned leather were
not proof against arrows. They directed their keenest glances into
the forest.

The tall trees rose like the pillars of a cathedral, supporting the
fretwork of branches on every side; here and there some monarch of
the woods had fallen, and was now covered over with ivy; but no
other shelter seemed at hand which might conceal a foe, save some
little undergrowth here and there.

But the most serious thing was the hour; the day was fast
declining; the clouds which floated above them were fast assuming
those roseate tints which they receive from the setting sun; while
behind them vast masses, which looked black by contrast with the
glowing west, were slowly obscuring the heavens, and the winds were
heard moaning more and more loudly as each minute passed.

There was hardly a member of the band who did not share Ralph's
uneasiness, and who would not have given much to find himself safe
in the castle; but their wilful young leader was still unmoved--it
must be owned that his courage bordered on foolhardiness.

At length the darkness came, as with a rush, upon them; the black
clouds were overhead; some feathery flakes of snow blew about
them--precursors of the coming storm. Their work was still
unaccomplished, but Etienne at length heeded the murmurs of the
party, and calling them together, for they had dispersed to look
after the signs they hoped to find, said:

"I fear we must leave our work unfinished--we can see no longer,
and may as well return home."

"My lord, would it please thee to number the party? we should be

"Count them thyself," he said.


"We left one behind us where we rested, but where are the rest?"
said Ralph.

"It is useless to search for them now--it is so dark, the hour is
late--we must return tomorrow."

"Perhaps," said the old forester, sorrowfully, "but we are in a
forest infested by these English fiends, perhaps by real demons.
There are many who affirm as much, and there is not a man here who
might not profitably give up a year of his life to be just five
miles nearer home."

The old man took the office of guide upon himself, naturally, as
the most experienced in woodcraft, and for a mile or two led with
confidence; but at length the darkness became intense, and the
guide paused.

The night was indeed terrible; it was as black as ink--they could
scarce see the uplifted hand when held before the face; while, to
add to their discomfort, the snow, now they had changed their
course, blew into their faces; the wind had risen and moaned in
hollow gusts amidst the tree tops. Its wailings seemed like
prognostications of coming evil.

It was at this juncture Ralph was forced to confess he could no
longer feel certain of the track.

"Let us trust to the dogs," said he; "they have an instinct better
than our reason. Let them have long leashes, and go as freely as
possible; we shall easily follow them, and, please God, shall reach
home in time."

"There is a better guide," replied Etienne, as they all suddenly
saw a solitary light, as from a man carrying a torch, arise before
them in the darkness, and glide gently on into the depths of the


We must once more use the privilege of an author, and transport our
readers from the distant forest to Aescendune, speedily as the
Genius of the Lamp transported the palace of Aladdin.

The November evening was setting in drearily, the fast-fading
gleams of daylight were disappearing amidst thickly-falling
snow--it was the hour when tired mortals shut doors and windows,
turn instinctively to the cheerful hearth, and while they hear the
wind roar without, thank God they are sheltered from its blasts;
and perhaps think with some pity of poor homeless wanderers, in
pathless forests, or on dismal moors.

Troop after troop, the wearied and dispirited Normans returned from
their fruitless chase, till all were safely housed, save one
unhappy band. First came the wicked old baron himself, with all his
twenty retainers, safe and sound, then Bernard de Torci, who had
won to himself an English wife and the manor of Wylmcotte; then
Gilbert D'Aubyn of Bearleigh. One after another the troops came in
from the outer darkness, white with snow, and shook their mantles
and jerkins in the guard chamber within the entrance archway, after
which their leaders repaired to the bathroom--for, in their way,
the Norman warriors were luxurious--and afterwards, perfumed and
anointed, donned the festal robes in which they hoped to dazzle the
eyes of the fair, if such were to be found in the Castle of

The hour appointed for the banquet was the first hour of the
night--six in the evening we should now call it--and the Majordomo
sought his lord.

He found him risen from the bath and vested in flowing robes of
richest texture, with an ermine mantle around his shoulders.

"The banquet is ready, my lord, but the guests have not all

"Has my son returned?"

"He has not come back yet, my lord. Shall I delay the banquet?"

"Are all the others in?"

"Sir Eustace de Senville has not yet come from the forest."

"Let it be delayed half an hour."

The old servant shook his head--the roast meats were done to a
turn, and he feared the reputation of the ten cooks, who had toiled
the long afternoon before the fires, might suffer.

The baron paced impatiently up and down his chamber.

There is some redeeming feature in the hearts of the worst of us:
even Lady Macbeth could not herself slay King Duncan, "he looked so
like her father," and the one weak point in the armour of proof--of
selfishness, we should say--which encrusted Hugo de Malville, was
his love for his son.

Etienne was to him as the apple of his eye; and little wonder--the
qualities which, we doubt not, nay, we trust, disfigure that
amiable youth in the minds of our gentle readers--his pride, his
carelessness for the bodily or mental sufferings of others--all
these things were nought to the Norman noble, he loved to see his
son stark and fierce, and smiled as he heard of deeds which better
men would have sternly refused to condone.

He almost longed for war--for some rebellion on the part of the
English--that Etienne might flesh his sword and win his spurs, and,
as we see, that wish, at least, was gratified.

But it was this very love for his own son which had made the old
baron so unloving a stepfather to Wilfred, in whom he could only
see the rival of his boy, and both mother and son were obstacles to
be removed--the old sinner did not sin for himself, it must be

Half an hour passed. Sir Eustace, the last who arrived that night,
came in, and the baron, to the great relief of the cooks, descended
to the hall.

Still he was far too proud and jealous of his dignity to show his
anxiety in voice or mien. He descended calmly to the banquet, the
chaplain blessed the food, and the tired and hungry nobles fell to
at the high table, while their retainers feasted below.

It was a bright and dazzling scene: at the head of the hall sat the
Baron and his chief guests upon a platform. Above it hung trophies
of war or the chase--arms borne in many a conflict, swords, spears,
arrows--to each of which some legend was attached; the antlers of
the giant stag, the tusk of the wild boar, the head and bill of
some long-necked heron.

Below, at right angles to the high table, were three other tables,
not fixtures, but composed of boards spread over trestles, and
covered with coarse white cloths. At these sat the retainers, the
men whose rank did not entitle them to sit at the high table, to
the number of some three hundred--there was not an Englishman
amongst them.

All day long the cooks and their menials had groaned before the
huge fires, where they roasted deer, sheep, oxen, swine, and the
like, and now they bore the joints in procession around the tables,
and the guests cut off--with the knives which hung at their
girdles, and which, perchance, had been more than once stained by
the blood of their foes--such portion of the meat as they fancied,
transferred it to their trenchers, and ate it without the aid of
forks; nevertheless there were napkins whereon to wipe their hands
when they had done.

The leaders sat at the high table--the leaders of each of the
numerous bands which had scoured the forest; one, and only one, was
absent, and he was, as our readers know, Etienne, son of Hugo.

Naught was said until hunger and thirst were appeased--until basins
were brought round with scented water, in which our lords washed
their fingers, and after waving them gracefully in the air, dried
them with the delicate napkins with which they were girded: and
rich wines were poured into goblets of gold and silver; then Hugo
asked, from his seat upon the dais:

"What success has gladdened our arms today? Doubtless some of our
knights have news for us."

"I have seen no foe, save the wild boar and a stray wolf, although
I have tramped the forest from the rising to the setting sun," said
Sir Bernard.

"Nor I," "nor I," said one after the other around the table.

The old man, Eustace de Senville, was silent till all had spoken;
then, like Nestor of old, wise, and qualified by age to act as
counsellor, he let fall his weighty words, which fell from his lips
like the flakes of thick falling snow without.

"My lot hath been different," he said; "it fell to me to explore
the quarter of the forest next to that assigned to the son of our
host. We had already completed our task, and were on the point of
returning homewards, for the sun was already low, when we heard the
blast of a horn appealing to us for aid."

"From what quarter?" said the baron.

"That assigned to your son. We at once hastened to render help,
and, after some fruitless search, heard the horn once more, and,
guided by its sound, reached a spot where the groans of one in pain
fell upon our ear, amidst the increasing darkness of the forest. We
found the victim, his horn by his side, dead--pierced through by an
arrow. The life had been ebbing when, hearing our signals, he had
striven with his last breath to summon us that he might not die
alone, and, indeed, his face looked as one who had died in awful
fear with some gruesome sight before his eyes."

"To what party did he belong?"

"He wore the badge of Aescendune, he was short of stature, one
shoulder somewhat higher than the other, and he wore this belt,
which we have brought home in hopes he may be known thereby."

The baron took the belt, with hands which shook in spite of all his
efforts at composure, and knew it to belong to one Torquelle, who
had been in attendance on his son.

"Etienne hath found foes," he said in a voice which he strove to
render calm.

"A light snow had begun to fall," continued the speaker, "the sun
was already very low, and it was dusk in the woods, when our dogs
began to growl. Dimly in the shade we saw three or four beings
creeping forward, as if studying the ground carefully. We watched
them with fear, doubting if they were of this world."


"They had horns, and tails, and huge ears."

"They say the wood is haunted by wood demons."

"Then thou wert afraid to follow?"

"We dare fight men, we fear none who breathe; but we shrink from
Satan and his hosts. Still we sent a flight of arrows, and they

"Was the distance near enough to do execution?"

"Scarcely, had they been men; it mattered not if they were what
they appeared to be."

Strange to say, the idea that the foe had been masquerading for the
purpose of frightening them, never struck our Normans.

"When they had gone, we approached the spot," continued the aged
knight of Senville, "and found foot marks in the snow, which, from
the previous fall, lay lightly on the ground, for the storm of
tonight had hardly set in. There were marks of one of our parties,
and we saw by torchlight strange footprints, as if they had been
tracked by two or three daring foes--we thought we distinguished
hoof marks."

A terrible silence fell upon the whole assembly, as the idea that
they had been contending with demons, and not with mortals, fell
upon them, and perhaps the bravest would have hesitated to enter
the forest that night, however dire the need.

The baron knew this; yet when supper was over, when the hour of
retiring to rest had arrived, and still there were no signs of his
son, he selected a band of trusty warriors, who, in spite of the
story of the demons, which Eustace's men had made known throughout
the castle, would not be untrue to their lord.

And with these men, while all the rest slept, he penetrated the
forest, and with torches and horns made night hideous, until cold
and fatigue drove him home, his heart heavier than before, his
desire unaccomplished.

He threw himself upon his couch, only to be haunted by dreadful
dreams, in which he saw his son surrounded by the demons of Sir
Eustace's tale, and in every other variety of danger or distress,
like the constantly shifting scenes of a modern theatre.

And in all these dreams the "Dismal Swamp" played a prominent part.

Day broke at last, cold but bright; the first beams of the sun
gladdened the castle, reflected keenly from the white ground, the
trees hung with frozen snow, which had broken many branches to the
ground--the winter seemed to have come in good earnest.

Early in the day, a hundred men, well armed and mounted, led by the
baron, again entered the forest. They reached, in due course, the
part of the wood assigned to Etienne on the previous day.

The snow had effaced all tracks, but Sir Eustace speedily found the
spot where he had left the dead man, and there was the corpse,
stiff and frozen, but it was evident that the knight's description
given the previous evening was all too correct. The man had died in
great horror and anguish; the arrow yet remained in his body. It
was, as in the earlier cases, one of English make--a clumsy shaft,
unlike the polished Norman workmanship.

"We must search the whole district," said the baron; "but we had
better keep together."

Every one shared this opinion.

It was the unknown danger that troubled them, the thought that
supernatural powers were arrayed against them, that the English had
called the fiends to their aid, which terrified these hardened

If the English had, indeed, sought by ghostly disguise to affright
their foes, they had well succeeded.

It was late in the morning before the glade was reached where our
party had rested, and the body of the man first slain was
discovered, and the whole band gathered around it.

Like the others, he had fallen by an English arrow.

The fear that all their friends had thus fallen became general, and
expressed itself in their countenances. The baron was livid.

There was no possibility of tracing the party, the snow had covered
the footsteps; but evidence was soon found in the fragments of
food--the remains of the carcase of the wild boar--to show that
this had been the midday rest, and that here the very beginning of
hostilities had taken place.

They returned thence to the spot where Torquelle was slain. Fear
and trembling seized many of the baron's warriors as they gazed
upon those distorted features--fear, mingled with dread--so
mysterious were the circumstances. They buried the body as decently
as time permitted, and continued their course until they came upon
another corpse slain in like manner.

Horror increased: at every stage the baron feared to find the dead
body of his son. They still pursued the same line: it led to the
edge of the Dismal Swamp, and there it ended.

They stood gazing upon that desolate wilderness.

"No human being could penetrate there," said Sir Bernard.


Hugo advanced, dismounting for the purpose, but sank almost
directly in a quagmire covered with snow, and was drawn out with

"No, the place is enchanted."

"Guarded by fiends."


Cries as of men and dogs came across the waste.

"They are the demons of the pit, who would lead us into the

"They sound like human voices."

"Come what will, if hard frost will but freeze the ground, we will
search the place," said the baron. "Come, my men, we can do no
more; let us return--it is near nightfall."

This welcome order was obeyed by all the Normans with the greatest
alacrity, for they dreaded the approach of night, and the terrors
of the forest, which had already proved so fatal to their

No further mishap befell them; weary and footsore they reached the
castle, but the heaviest heart amongst them was that of Hugo.


The reader will remember that we left Etienne of Aescendune cum
Malville and his band in a most critical moment--lost in a
wilderness full of enemies of unknown number and uncertain
position; but with a gleam of comfort in the shape of a light which
had arisen out of the gloom before them.

"It is one of the rascals carrying a torch. Let loose the dogs; if
they but seize him, we can extort the whole truth; then we shall
know what to do."

Ralph immediately slipped the older and fiercer hound, and tried to
set him on the destined prey; but to his astonishment the beast
bounded forward but a few yards, then returned with its tail
between its legs and whined piteously.

"Are we all bewitched?" exclaimed Etienne.

"Witches and warlocks are said to abound in these woods, and many
other works of Satan also."

"The light goes steadily onwards: it is a man carrying a torch; let
us follow him up."

They followed rapidly, the torch going smoothly on before them,
when all at once the whole party fell into a miry slough up to
their waists.

The deceitful light danced about in a joyous manner, as if it were
mocking them, and then went out and left them all in utter
darkness, struggling vainly in the mud and slime.

"Where are we?" said Pierre, piteously.

"In the Dismal Swamp," said Ralph.

"Amongst toads and snakes," cried another.

At this moment half-a-dozen lights appeared in various directions.

"Good heavens, the place is alive with marsh fires."

"They are what the English call Jack-o'-lanterns."

"They are ignes fatui," said Pierre.

"They are the souls of unbaptized babies," said Ralph. "Let us try
to return to the firm ground we have left."

More easily said than done. Our unfortunate Normans struggled
vainly in the darkness and in the mire, uttering piteous
exclamations--cold and frozen, and mocked ever and anon by some
blazing light. Many a vow did they make to our Lady of Sorrows, and
to St. Erroutt, St. Gervaise, St. Denys, and every other Norman
saint, till somebody suggested that the English saints might know
more about the morass, and they condescended to appeal to St. Chad
(mighty in those parts), beseeching his help in their distress.

Suddenly a piercing cry told that one was being swallowed up in
some quicksand; but they could give no aid, and only shudder in

At that moment Etienne caught hold of the loose leash by which one
of the dogs was secured.

"Let us follow the dogs," he said; "they always scent out firm

There was now, happily for them, more light; it had long since
ceased to snow, and the stars came out brightly.

"See," said Pierre, "the moon is rising; we shall have it quite
light soon."

"Would it had risen earlier," croaked Ralph.

The dogs, their noses to the ground, went on bravely, winding in
and out between quagmire and rotting herbage. Had the light been
brighter, our Normans would have perceived the impressions of
numerous footmarks of men on the path they were taking--the dogs
were at last on the scent they had sought all day, whether for weal
or for woe.

At length the path suddenly ascended a bank, and the light through
the tree tops showed that they were approaching a clearing.

They ascended cautiously, and from the summit of the short ascent
looked out upon an elevated tableland in the midst of the morass.
Before them, encircled by a little brook, which shortly afterwards
swelled the waters of the morass, stood a large rustic dwelling,
overgrown with ivy; and not far distant rose many houses or
huts--in fact, to their no small amazement, they beheld a village,
and one, too, that no individual amongst them had ever seen or
heard of before.

"'Tis the very nest of vipers we have sought all day," said

"And have found to our undoing," lamented Ralph.

"See, there is light behind that shutter, I will creep up and look
in," said Etienne; "rest you all here."

There was no glass in common use in those days, and, save when horn
was employed, people--the poor at least--had to choose, even in the
daytime, between darkness and warmth; for when they let in the
light, they let in the weather.

Looking through the chinks in the shutters, Etienne gazed inside.

It was the farmhouse occupied by a former lord, Elfwyn of
Aescendune, during the Danish invasions, as recorded in a former
Chronicle, and was larger and more commodious than usual in those
days. There were several smaller houses, or rather huts, around;
but if they had inmates, they were all silent--perhaps asleep, for
the hour was late.

Beside a fire, kindled beneath a large open chimney, such as were
then in use in the bettermost houses--for the poor were content
with a hole in the roof--sat a youth of some sixteen years of age,
busily attending to a large pot over the fire, from which, from
time to time, savoury fumes ascended, the odour of which gladdened
even the olfactory organs of our young Norman aristocrat.

Etienne knew him: it was Eadwin, the son of Wilfred's old nurse,
for whom he had an ancient grudge, which he at once resolved to

He summoned Ralph and the rest who had escaped the morass--they
were only ten in number, the others had succumbed to the horrors of
that fearful night.

Yet even so, the impulses of pride and cruelty were not subdued in
the heart of Etienne, son of Hugo.

"The English robbers have left their haunt for a time; doubtless
they were the fellows who passed us in the forest, and there is but
one boy left in charge, of whom I know something; we will seize him
and learn the truth."

"Suppose they come back while we tarry here?"

"We will set a watch to warn us in good time."

Etienne stepped lightly to the door; it was actually unbarred, so
secure did the English feel in this hitherto inaccessible retreat,
and his hand was on the shoulder of his intended victim before he
had taken the alarm. He turned round and started violently as he
recognised his ancient enemies, then made a vain attempt to gain
the door, which was immediately and easily frustrated.

"Nay, thou young oaf, thou canst not escape. Dost thou not know thy
own lords? Thou art a runaway thrall, and thy life is forfeited;
but if thou wilt but use thy tongue, thou mayest perchance save it
and escape lightly. Tell me--Who are the people who live here? Who
is their leader? How many there be? Where they are now?"

The young dweller in the woods had by this time recovered his self
possession. He was a mere lad, yet endued with manly courage which
fitted him to endure nobly for the sake of those whom he loved.

"Thou art not my true lord, and never wast; neither will I answer
thy questions, though thou slay me."

"Then thou mayst prepare for death."

"They live who may avenge me."

"We will chance that. Stand yonder, against the wall, stretch out
thine arms, or they shall be stretched for thee.

"Tie him, my men, to that post--" pointing, as he spoke, to one of
the uprights which supported the roof, and which was partially
detached from the wooden wall--"and extend his arms to the posts on
either side."

Conscious that resistance was hopeless, Eadwin submitted quietly to
be bound, listening nevertheless so eagerly for sounds from without
that Ralph marked his strained attention; Etienne was intent upon
his designed cruelty.

"Once more, wilt thou answer me?" he said.

"No," said his victim, quietly and firmly.

"Then thou must suffer. Thou shalt die as thy St. Edmund did--fit
death it was, too, for a beggarly English saint. I ask thee for the
last time."

No reply. Etienne bade the men stand aside, and then, taking his
stand at the other end of the room, which may have been twenty feet
long, took accurate aim and shot an arrow through the muscle of the
right arm.

"Wilt thou speak?"

Beads of sweat stood upon the brow; but the lips found strength yet
to answer--once more the bolt flew, and the left arm was pierced in

"Wilt thou answer my questions now?

"The rebels and fools, thy countrymen, have been amusing themselves
by shooting at us all day; methinks the tables are turned now."

He shot again and wounded his victim in the shoulder. The whole
frame trembled; the lips moved, as if in prayer.

"Let me shoot this time," said Pierre, "if he will not answer."

"Take the bow then; hit the other shoulder."

Pierre took very accurate aim, and shot right through the heart.
One convulsive throb, and the body hang by the cords dead, and past
the reach of suffering.

"Thou fool!" said Etienne, forgetting his customary courtesy to his
equals, "thou hast spoilt all--we may never learn the truth now."

"He was too brave a lad to be tortured," said Pierre, upon whom the
patient courage of the sufferer had made a very deep impression,
"so I gave him the coup de grace."

"My lord, had we not better depart? These English may return at any
moment; tomorrow we may come with all the force at our command."

"We will sup first at all events. That soup smells good; it will
put a little warmth into our bodies, and it is worth a little risk
to have the chance of drying our clothes at this fire."

So they left the body of poor Eadwin where it had fallen, and being
now spent with hunger, they poured the soup into basins and ate it

Suddenly the door was burst open, the room was filled with their
foes--uplifted weapons, deadly blows, cries, curses in English and
French--in short, such a melee ensued that it passes all our power
to describe it. The fire was kicked over the place--blood hissed as
it ran over the floor and met the hot embers--the torches were
speedily extinguished or converted into weapons--men rolled over
and over in deadly strife, seeking where to plant the dagger or
knife--they throttled each other, or dashed hostile heads against
the floor--they tore the hair or beard as they struck beneath, not
with the fist, but the knife--on rolled the strife--the very
building shook--till there was a sudden lull, and in a few more
minutes it was peace.

A dozen Englishmen stood upright amidst prostrate corpses, many
streaming with blood; while many bodies lay on the floor, eight of
which were discovered, when the lights were rekindled, to be

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest