Hereward, the Last of the English (Hereward the Wake), by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 10.

How Hereward Won the Magic Armor.

Torfrida had special opportunities of hearing about Hereward; for young Arnulf was to her a pet and almost a foster-brother, and gladly escaped from the convent to tell her the news.

He had now had his first taste of the royal game of war. He had seen Hereward fight by day, and heard him tell stories over the camp-fire by night. Hereward’s beauty, Hereward’s prowess, Hereward’s songs, Hereward’s strange adventures and wanderings, were forever in the young boy’s mouth; and he spent hours in helping Torfrida to guess who the great unknown might be; and then went back to Hereward, and artlessly told him of his beautiful friend, and how they had talked of him, and of nothing else; and in a week or two Hereward knew all about Torfrida; and Torfrida knew — what filled her heart with joy — that Hereward was bound to no lady-love, and owned (so he had told Arnulf) no mistress save the sword on his thigh.

Whereby there had grown up in the hearts of both the man and the maid a curiosity, which easily became the parent of love.

But when Baldwin the great Marquis came to St. Omer, to receive the homage of Eustace of Guisnes, young Arnulf had run into Torfrida’s chamber in great anxiety. “Would his grandfather approve of what he had done? Would he allow his new friendship with the unknown?”

“What care I?” said Torfrida. “But if your friend wishes to have the Marquis’s favor, he would be wise to trust him, at least so far as to tell his name.”

“I have told him so. I have told him that you would tell him so.”

“I? Have you been talking to him about me?”

“Why not?”

“That is not well done, Arnulf, to talk of ladies to men whom they do not know.”

Arnulf looked up, puzzled and pained; for she spoke haughtily.

“I know naught of your new friend. He may be a low-born man, for anything that I can tell.”

“He is not! He is as noble as I am. Everything he says and does — every look — shows it.”

“You are young — as you have shown by talking of me to him. But I have given you my advice”; and she moved languidly away. “Let him tell your grandfather who he is, or remain suspected.”

The boy went away sadly.

Early the next morning he burst into Torfrida’s room as she was dressing her hair.

“How now? Are these manners for the heir of Flanders?”

“He has told all!”

“He has!” and she started and dropt her comb.

“Pick up that comb, girl. You need not go away. I have no secrets with young gentlemen.”

“I thought you would be glad to hear.”

“I? What can I want in the matter, save that your grandfather should be satisfied that you are entertaining a man worthy to be your guest?”

“And he is worthy: he has told my grandfather who he is.”

“But not you?”

“No. They say I must not know yet. But this I know, that they welcomed him, when he told them, as if he had been an earl’s son; and that he is going with my Uncle Robert against the Frieslanders.”

“And if he be an earl’s son, how comes he here, wandering with rough seamen, and hiding his honest name? He must have done something of which he is ashamed.”

“I shall tell you nothing,” said Arnulf, pouting.

“What care I? I can find out by art magic if I like.”

“I don’t believe all that. Can you find out, for instance, what he has on his throat?”

“A beard.”

“But what is under that beard?”

“A gôitre.”

“You are laughing at me.”

“Of course I am, as I shall at any one who challenges me to find out anything so silly, and so unfit.”

“I shall go.”

“Go then.” For she knew very well that he would come back again.

“Nurse,” said Torfrida to the old Lapp woman, when they were alone, “find out for me what is the name of this strange champion, and what he has beneath his beard.”

“Beneath his beard?”

“Some scar, I suppose, or secret mark. I must know. You will find out for your Torfrida, will you not, nurse?”

“I will make a charm that will bring him to you, were all the icebergs of Quenland between you and him: and then you can see for yourself.”

“No, no, no! not yet, nurse!” and Torfrida smiled. “Only find me out that one thing: that I must know.”

And yet why she wanted to know, she could not tell herself.

The old woman came back to her, ere she went to bed.

“I have found it out all, and more. I know where to get scarlet toadstools, and I put the juice in his men’s ale: they are laughing and roaring now, merry-mad every one of them.”

“But not he?”

“No, no. He is with the Marquis. But in madness comes out truth; and that long hook-nosed body-varlet of his has told us all.”

And she told Torfrida who Hereward was, and the secret mark.

“There is a cross upon his throat, beneath his chin, pricked in after their English fashion.”

Torfrida started.

“Then — then the spell will not work upon him; the Holy Cross will turn it off.”

“It must be a great Cross and a holy one that will turn off my charms,” said the old hag, with a sneer, “whatever it may do against yours. But on the back of his hand — that will be a mark to know him by — there is pricked a bear — a white bear that he slew.” And she told the story of the fairy bear; which Torfrida duly stored up in her heart.

“So he has the Cross on his throat,” thought Torfrida to herself. “Well, if it keep off my charm, it will keep off others, that is one comfort; and one knows not what fairies or witches or evil creatures he may meet with in the forests and the fens.”

The discovery of Hereward’s rank did not, doubtless, lessen Torfrida’s fancy for him. She was ambitious enough, and proud enough of her own lineage, to be full glad that her heart had strayed away — as it must needs stray somewhere — to the son of the third greatest man in England. As for his being an outlaw, that mattered little. He might be inlawed, and rich and powerful, any day in those uncertain, topsy-turvy times; and, for the present, his being a wolf’s head only made him the more interesting to her. Women like to pity their lovers. Sometimes — may all good beings reward them for it — they love merely because they pity. And Torfrida found it pleasant to pity the insolent young coxcomb, who certainly never dreamed of pitying himself.

When Hereward went home that night, he found the Abbey of St. Bertin in horrible confusion. His men were grouped outside the gate, chattering like monkeys; the porter and the monks, from inside, entreating them, vainly, to come in and go to bed quietly.

But they would not. They vowed and swore that a great gulf had opened all down the road, and that one step more would tumble them in headlong. They manifested the most affectionate solicitude for the monks, warning them, on their lives, not to step across the threshold, or they would be swallowed (as Martin, who was the maddest of the lot, phrased it) with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. In vain Hereward stormed; assured them that the supposed abyss was nothing but the gutter; proved the fact by kicking Martin over it. The men determined to believe their own eyes, and after a while fell asleep, in heaps, in the roadside, and lay there till morning, when they woke, declaring, as did the monks, that they had been all bewitched. They knew not — and happily the lower orders, both in England and on the Continent, do not yet know — the potent virtues of that strange fungus, with which Lapps and Samoiedes have, it is said, practised wonders for centuries past.

The worst of the matter was, that Martin Lightfoot, who had drank most of the poison, and had always been dreamy and uncanny, in spite of his shrewdness and humor, had, from that day forward, something very like a bee in his bonnet.

But before Count Robert and Hereward could collect sufficient troops for the invasion of Holland, another chance of being slain in fight arose, too tempting to be overlooked; namely, the annual tournament at Pont de l’Arche above Rouen, where all the noblest knights of Normandy would assemble, to win their honor and ladies’ love by hewing at each other’s sinful bodies. Thither, too, the best knights of Flanders must needs go, and with them Hereward. Though no knight, he was allowed in Flanders, as he had been in Scotland, to take his place among that honorable company. For, though he still refused the honor of knighthood, on the ground that he had, as yet, done no deed deserving thereof, he was held to have deserved it again and again, and all the more from his modesty in declining it.

So away they all went to Pont de l’Arche, a right gallant meinie: and Torfrida watched them go from the lattice window.

And when they had passed down the street, tramping and jingling and caracoling, young Arnulf ran into the house with eyes full of tears, because he was not allowed to go likewise; and with a message for Torfrida, from no other than Hereward.

“I was to tell you this and no more: that if he meets your favor in the field, he that wears it will have hard work to keep it.”

Torfrida turned pale as ashes; first with wild delight, and then with wild fear.

“Ha? — does he know who — Sir Ascelin?”

“He knows well enough. Why not? Every one knows. Are you afraid that he is not a match for that great bullock?”

“Afraid? Who said I was afraid? Sir Ascelin is no bullock either; but a courteous and gallant knight.”

“You are as pale as death, and so —”

“Never mind what I am,” said she, putting her hands over his eyes, and kissing him again and again, as a vent for her joy.

The next few days seemed years for length: but she could wait. She was sure of him now. She needed no charms. “Perhaps,” thought she, as she looked in the glass, “I was my own charm.” And, indeed, she had every fair right to say so.

At last news came.

She was sitting over her books; her mother, as usual, was praying in the churches; when the old Lapp nurse came in. A knight was at the door. His name, he said, was Siward the White, and he came from Hereward.

From Hereward! He was at least alive: he might be wounded, though; and she rushed out of the chamber into the hall, looking never more beautiful; her color heightened by the quick beating of her heart; her dark hair, worn loose and long, after the fashion of those days, streaming around her and behind her.

A handsome young man stood in the door-way, armed from head to foot.

“You are Siward, Hereward’s nephew?”

He bowed assent. She took him by the hands, and, after the fashion of those days, kissed him on the small space on either cheek, which was left bare between the nose-piece and the chain-mail.

“You are welcome. Hereward is — is alive?”

“Alive and gay, and all the more gay at being able to send to the Lady Torfrida by me something which was once hers, and now is hers once more.”

And he drew from his bosom the ribbon of the knight of St. Valeri.

She almost snatched it from his hand, in her delight at recovering her favor.

“How — where — did he get this?”

“He saw it, in the thick of the tournament, on the helm of a knight who, he knew, had vowed to maim him or take his life; and, wishing to give him a chance of fulfilling his vow, rode him down, horse and man. The knight’s Norman friends attacked us in force; and we Flemings, with Hereward at our head, beat them off, and overthrew so many, that we are almost all horsed at the Norman’s expense. Three more knights, with their horses, fell before Hereward’s lance.”

“And what of this favor?”

“He sends it to its owner. Let her say what shall be done with it.”

Torfrida was on the point of saying, “He has won it; let him wear it for my sake.” But she paused. She longed to see Hereward face to face; to speak to him, if but one word. If she allowed him to wear the favor, she must at least have the pleasure of giving it with her own hands. And she paused.

“And he is killed?”

“Who? Hereward?”

“Sir Ascelin.”

“Only bruised; but he shall be killed, if you will.”

“God forbid!”

“Then,” said Siward, mistaking her meaning, “all I have to tell Hereward is, it seems, that he has wasted his blow. He will return, therefore, to the Knight of St. Valeri his horse, and, if the Lady Torfrida chooses, the favor which he has taken by mistake from its rightful owner.” And he set his teeth, and could not prevent stamping on the ground, in evident passion. There was a tone, too, of deep disappointment in his voice, which made Torfrida look keenly at him. Why should Hereward’s nephew feel so deeply about that favor? And as she looked — could that man be the youth Siward? Young he was, but surely thirty years old at least. His face could hardly be seen, hidden by helmet and nose-piece above, and mailed up to the mouth below. But his long mustache was that of a grown man; his vast breadth of shoulder, his hard hand, his sturdy limbs — these surely belonged not to the slim youth whom she had seen from her lattice riding at Hereward’s side. And, as she looked, she saw upon his hand the bear of which her nurse had told her.

“You are deceiving me!” and she turned first deadly pale, and then crimson. “You — you are Hereward himself!”

“I? Pardon me, my lady. Ten minutes ago I should have been glad enough to have been Hereward. Now, I am thankful enough that I am only Siward; and not Hereward, who wins for himself contempt by overthrowing a knight more fortunate than he.” And he bowed, and turned away to go.

“Hereward! Hereward!” and, in her passion, she seized him by both his hands. “I know you! I know that device upon your hand. At last! at last my hero — my idol! How I have longed for this moment! How I have toiled for it, and not in vain! Good heavens! what am I saying?” And she tried, in her turn, to escape from Hereward’s mailed arms.

“Then you do not care for that man?”

“For him? Here! take my favor, wear it before all the world, and guard it as you only can; and let them all know that Torfrida is your love.”

And with hands trembling with passion, she bound the ribbon round his helm.

“Yes! I am Hereward,” he almost shouted; “the Berserker, the brain-hewer, the land-thief, the sea-thief, the feeder of wolf and raven — Aoi! Ere my beard was grown, I was a match for giants. How much more now, that I am a man whom ladies love? Many a champion has quailed before my very glance. How much more, now that I wear Torfrida’s gift? Aoi!”

Torfrida had often heard that wild battle-cry of Aoi! of which the early minstrels were so fond — with which the great poet who wrote the “Song of Roland” ends every paragraph; which has now fallen (displaced by our modern Hurrah), to be merely a sailor’s call or hunter’s cry. But she shuddered as she heard it close to her ears, and saw, from the flashing eye and dilated nostril, the temper of the man on whom she had thrown herself so utterly. She laid her hand upon his lips.

“Silence! silence for pity’s sake. Remember that you are in a maiden’s house; and think of her good fame.”

Hereward collected himself instantly, and then holding her at arm’s length, gazed upon her. “I was mad a moment. But is it not enough to make me mad to look at you?”

“Do not look at me so, I cannot bear it,” said she, hanging down her head. “You forget that I am a poor weak girl.”

“Ah! we are rough wooers, we sea-rovers. We cannot pay glozing French compliments like your knights here, who fawn on a damsel with soft words in the hall, and will kiss the dust off their queen’s feet, and die for a hair of their goddess’s eyebrow; and then if they catch her in the forest, show themselves as very ruffians as if they were Paynim Moors. We are rough, lady, we English: but those who trust us, find us true.”

“And I can trust you?” she asked, still trembling.

“On God’s cross there round your neck,” and he took her crucifix and kissed it. “You only I love, you only I will love, and you will I love in all honesty, before the angels of heaven, till we be wedded man and wife. Who but a fool would soil the flower which he means to wear before all the world?”

“I knew Hereward was noble! I knew I had not trusted him in vain!”

“I kept faith and honor with the Princess of Cornwall, when I had her at my will, and shall I not keep faith and honor with you?”

“The Princess of Cornwall?” asked Torfrida.

“Do not be jealous, fair queen. I brought her safe to her betrothed; and wedded she is, long ago. I will tell you that story some day. And now — I must go.”

“Not yet! not yet! I have something to — to show you.”

She motioned him to go up the narrow stairs, or rather ladder, which led to the upper floor, and then led him into her chamber.

A lady’s chamber was then, in days when privacy was little cared for, her usual reception room; and the bed, which stood in an alcove, was the common seat of her and her guests. But Torfrida did not ask him to sit down. She led the way onward towards a door beyond.

Hereward followed, glancing with awe at the books, parchments, and strange instruments which lay on the table and the floor.

The old Lapp nurse sat in the window, sewing busily. She looked up, and smiled meaningly. But as she saw Torfrida unlock the further door with one of the keys which hung at her girdle, she croaked out —

“Too fast! Too fast! Trust lightly, and repent heavily.”

“Trust once and for all, or never trust at all,” said Torfrida, as she opened the door.

Hereward saw within rich dresses hung on perches round the wall, and chests barred and padlocked.

“These are treasures,” said she, “which many a knight and nobleman has coveted. By cunning, by flattery, by threats of force even, have they tried to win what lies here — and Torfrida herself, too, for the sake of her wealth. But thanks to the Abbot my uncle, Torfrida is still her own mistress, and mistress of the wealth which her forefathers won by sea and land far away in the East. All here is mine — and if you be but true to me, all mine is yours. Lift the lid for me, it is too heavy for my arms.”

Hereward did so; and saw within golden cups and bracelets, horns of ivory and silver, bags of coin, and among them a mail shirt and helmet, on which he fixed at once silent and greedy eyes.

She looked at his face askance, and smiled. “Yes, these are more to Hereward’s taste than gold and jewels. And he shall have them. He shall have them as a proof that if Torfrida has set her love upon a worthy knight, she is at least worthy of him; and does not demand, without being able to give in return.”

And she took out the armor, and held it up to him.

“This Is the work of dwarfs or enchanters! This was not forged by mortal man! It must have come out of some old cavern, or dragon’s hoard!” said Hereward, in astonishment at the extreme delicacy and slightness of the mail-rings, and the richness of the gold and silver with which both hauberk and helm were inlaid.

“Enchanted it is, they say; but its maker, who can tell? My ancestor won it, and by the side of Charles Martel. Listen, and I will tell you how.

“You have heard of fair Provence, where I spent my youth; the land of the sunny south; the land of the fig and the olive, the mulberry and the rose, the tulip and the anemone, and all rich fruits and fair flowers — the land where every city is piled with temples and theatres and towers as high as heaven, which the old Romans built with their enchantments, and tormented the blessed martyrs therein.”

“Heavens, how beautiful you are!” cried Hereward, as her voice shaped itself into a song, and her eyes flashed, at the remembrance of her southern home.

Torfrida was not altogether angry at finding that he was thinking of her, and not of her words.

“Peace, and listen. You know how the Paynim held that land — the Saracens, to whom Mahound taught all the wisdom of Solomon — as they teach us in turn,” she added in a lower voice.

“And how Charles and his Paladins,” [Charles Martel and Charlemagne were perpetually confounded in the legends of the time] “drove them out, and conquered the country again for God and his mother.”

“I have heard —” but he did not take his eyes off her face.

“They were in the theatre at Arles, the Saracens, where the blessed martyr St. Trophimus had died in torments; they had set up there their idol of Mahound, and turned the place into a fortress. Charles burnt it over their heads: you see — I have seen — the blackened walls, the blood-stained marbles, to this day. Then they fled into the plain, and there they turned and fought. Under Montmajeur, by the hermit’s cell, they fought a summer’s day, till they were all slain. There was an Emir among them, black as a raven, clad in magic armor. All lances turned from it, all swords shivered on it. He rode through the press without a wound, while every stroke of his scymitar shore off a head of horse or man. Charles himself rode at him, and smote him with his hammer. They heard the blow in Avignon, full thirty miles away. The flame flashed out from the magic armor a fathom’s length, blinding all around; and when they recovered their sight, the enchanter was far away in the battle, killing as he went.

“Then Charles cried, ‘Who will stop that devil, whom no steel can wound? Help us, O blessed martyr St. Trophimus, and save the soldiers of the Cross from shame!’

“Then cried Torfrid, my forefather, ‘What use in crying to St. Trophimus? He could not help himself, when the Paynim burnt him: and how can he help us? A tough arm is worth a score of martyrs here.’

“And he rode at that Emir, and gript him in his arms. They both fell, and rolled together on the ground; but Torfrid never loosed his hold till he had crushed out his unbaptized soul and sent it to join Mahound in hell.

“Then he took his armor, and brought it home in triumph. But after a while he fell sick of a fever; and the blessed St. Trophimus appeared to him, and told him that it was a punishment for his blasphemy in the battle. So he repented, and vowed to serve the saint all his life. On which he was healed instantly, and fell to religion, and went back to Montmajeur; and there he was a hermit in the cave under the rock, and tended the graves hewn in the living stone, where his old comrades, the Paladins who were slain, sleep side by side round the church of the Holy Cross. But the armor he left here; and he laid a curse upon it, that whosoever of his descendants should lose that armor in fight, should die childless, without a son to wield a sword. And therefore it is that none of his ancestors, valiant as they have been, have dared to put this harness on their backs.”

And so ended a story, which Torfrida believed utterly, and Hereward likewise.

“And now, Hereward mine, dare you wear that magic armor, and face old Torfrid’s curse?”

“What dare I not?”

“Think. If you lose it, in you your race must end.”

“Let it end. I accept the curse.”

And he put the armor on.

But he trembled as he did it. Atheism and superstition go too often hand in hand; and godless as he was, sceptical of Providence itself, and much more of the help of saint or angel, still the curse of the old warrior, like the malice of a witch or a demon, was to him a thing possible, probable, and formidable.

She looked at him in pride and exultation.

“It is yours — the invulnerable harness! Wear it in the forefront of the battle! And if weapon wound you through it, may I, as punishment for my lie, suffer the same upon my tender body — a wound for every wound of yours, my knight!” 12

12 “Volo enim in meo tale quid nunc perpeti corpore semel, quicquid eas ferrei vel e metallo excederet.”

And after that they sat side by side, and talked of love with all honor and honesty, never heeding the old hag, who crooned to herself in her barbarian tongue —

“Quick thaw, long frost,

Quick joy, long pain,

Soon found, soon lost,

You will take your gift again.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44