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

Chapter 13.

How Hereward Won Mare Swallow.

On a bench at the door of his high-roofed wooden house sat Dirk Hammerhand, the richest man in Walcheren. From within the house sounded the pleasant noise of slave-women, grinding and chatting at the handquern; from without, the pleasant noise of geese and fowls without number. And as he sat and drank his ale, and watched the herd of horses in the fen, he thought himself a happy man, and thanked his Odin and Thor that owing to his princely supplies of horses to Countess Gertrude, Robert the Frison and his Christian Franks had not harried him to the bare walls, as they would probably do ere all was over.

As he looked at the horses, some half-mile off, he saw a strange stir among them. They began whinnying and pawing round a four-footed thing in the midst, which might be a badger, or a wolf — though both were very uncommon in that pleasant isle of Walcheren; but which plainly had no business there. Whereon he took up a mighty staff, and strode over the fen to see.

He found neither wolf nor badger; but to his exceeding surprise, a long lean man, clothed in ragged horse-skins, whinnying and neighing exactly like a horse, and then stooping to eat grass like one. He advanced to do the first thing which came into his head, namely to break the man’s back with his staff, and ask him afterwards who he might be. But ere he could strike, the man or horse kicked up with his hind legs in his face, and then springing on to the said hind legs ran away with extraordinary swiftness some fifty yards; and then went down on all-fours and began grazing again.

“Beest thou man or devil?” cried Dirk, somewhat frightened.

The thing looked up. The face at least was human.

“Art thou a Christian man?” asked it in bad Frisian, intermixed with snorts and neighs.

“What’s that to thee?” growled Dirk; and began to wish a little that he was one, having heard that the sign of the cross was of great virtue in driving away fiends.

“Thou art not Christian. Thou believest in Thor and Odin? Then there is hope,”

“Hope of what?” Dirk was growing more and more frightened.

“Of her, my sister! Ah, my sister, can it be that I shall find thee at last, after ten thousand miles, and thirty years of woeful wandering?”

“I have no man’s sister here. At least, my wife’s brother was killed —”

“I speak not of a sister in a woman’s shape. Mine, alas! — O woeful prince, O more woeful princess! — eats the herb of the field somewhere in the shape of a mare, as ugly as she was once beautiful, but swifter than the swallow on the wing.”

“I’ve none such here,” quoth Dirk, thoroughly frightened, and glancing uneasily at mare Swallow.

“You have not? Alas, wretched me! It was prophesied to me, by the witch, that I should find her in the field of one who worshipped the old gods; for had she come across a holy priest, she had been a woman again, long ago. Whither must I wander afresh!” And the thing began weeping bitterly, and then ate more grass.

“I— that is — thou poor miserable creature,” said Dirk, half pitying, half wishing to turn the subject, “leave off making a beast of thyself awhile, and tell me who thou art.”

“I have made no beast of myself, most noble Earl of the Frisians, for so you doubtless are. I was made a beast of — a horse of, by an enchanter of a certain land, and my sister a mare.”

“Thou dost not say so!” quoth Dirk, who considered such an event quite possible.

“I was a prince of the county of Alboronia, which lies between Cathay and the Mountains of the Moon, as fair once as I am foul now, and only less fair than my lost sister; and, by the enchantments of a cruel magician, we became what we are.”

“But thou art not a horse, at all events?”

“Am I not? Thou knowest, then, more of me than I do of myself,”— and it ate more grass. “But hear the rest of my story. My hapless sister was sold away, with me, to a merchant; but I, breaking loose from him, fled until I bathed in a magic fountain. At once I recovered my man’s shape, and was rejoicing therein, when out of the fountain rose a fairy more beautiful than an elf, and smiled upon me with love.

“She asked me my story, and I told it. And when it was told, ‘Wretch!’ she cried, ‘and coward, who hast deserted thy sister in her need. I would have loved thee, and made thee immortal as myself; but now thou shalt wander, ugly, and eating grass, clothed in the horse-hide which has just dropped from thy limbs, till thou shalt find thy sister, and bring her to bathe, like thee, in this magic well.’”

“All good spirits help us! And you are really a prince?”

“As surely,” cried the thing, with a voice of sudden rapture, “as that mare is my sister”; and he rushed at mare Swallow. “I see, I see, my mother’s eyes, my father’s nose —”

“He must have been a chuckle-headed king that, then,” grinned Dirk to himself. “The mare’s nose is as big as a buck-basket. But how can she be a princess, man — prince, I mean? she has a foal running by her here.”

“A foal?” said the thing, solemnly. “Let me behold it. Alas, alas, my sister! Thy tyrant’s threat has come true, that thou shouldst be his bride whether thou wouldst or not. I see, I see in the features of thy son his hated lineaments.”

“Why he must be as like a horse, then, as your father. But this will not do, Master Horse-man; I know that foal’s pedigree better than I do my own.”

“Man, man, simple, though honest! Hast thou never heard of the skill of the enchanter of the East? How they transform their victims at night back again into human shape, and by day into the shape of beasts again?”

“Yes — well — I know that —”

“And do you not see how you are deluded? Every night, doubt not, that mare and foal take their human shape again; and every night, perhaps, that foul enchanter visits in your fen, perhaps in your very stable, his wretched and perhaps unwilling bride.”

“An enchanter in my stable? That is an ugly guest. But no. I’ve been into the stables fifty times, to see if that mare was safe. Mare was mare, and colt was colt, Mr. Prince, if I have eyes to see.”

“And what are eyes against enchantments? The moment you opened the door, the spell was cast over them again. You ought to thank your stars that no worse has happened yet; that the enchanter, in fleeing, has not wrung your neck as he went out, or cast a spell on you, which will fire your barns, lame your geese, give your fowls the pip, your horses the glanders, your cattle the murrain, your children the St. Vitus’ dance, your wife the creeping palsy, and yourself the chalk-stones in all your fingers.”

“The Lord have mercy on me! If the half of this be true, I will turn Christian. I will send for a priest, and be baptized tomorrow!”

“O my sister, my sister! Dost thou not know me? Dost thou answer my caresses with kicks? Or is thy heart, as well as thy body, so enchained by that cruel necromancer, that thou preferest to be his, and scornest thine own salvation, leaving me to eat grass till I die?”

“I say, Prince — I say — What would you have a man to do? I bought the mare honestly, and I have kept her well. She can’t say aught against me on that score. And whether she be princess or not, I’m loath to part with her.”

“Keep her then, and keep with her the curse of all the saints and angels. Look down, ye holy saints” (and the thing poured out a long string of saints’ names), “and avenge this catholic princess, kept in bestial durance by an unbaptized heathen! May his —”

“Don’t! don’t!” roared Dirk. “And don’t look at me like that” (for he feared the evil eye), “or I’ll brain you with my staff!”

“Fool, if I have lost a horse’s figure, I have not lost his swiftness. Ere thou couldst strike, I should have run a mile and back, to curse thee afresh.” And the thing ran round him, and fell on all-fours again, and ate grass.

“Mercy, mercy! And that is more than I ever asked yet of man. But it is hard,” growled he, “that a man should lose his money, because a rogue sells him a princess in disguise.”

“Then sell her again; sell her, as thou valuest thy life, to the first Christian man thou meetest. And yet no. What matters? Ere a month be over, the seven years’ enchantment will have passed, and she will return to her own shape, with her son, and vanish from thy farm, leaving thee to vain repentance, and so thou wilt both lose thy money and get her curse. Farewell, and my malison abide with thee!”

And the thing, without another word, ran right away, neighing as it went, leaving Dirk in a state of abject terror.

He went home. He cursed the mare, he cursed the man who sold her, he cursed the day he saw her, he cursed the day he was born. He told his story with exaggerations and confusions in plenty to all in the house; and terror fell on them likewise. No one, that evening, dare go down into the fen to drive the horses up; and Dirk got very drunk, went to bed, and trembled there all night (as did the rest of the household), expecting the enchanter to enter on a flaming fire-drake, at every howl of the wind.

The next morning, as Dirk was going about his business with a doleful face, casting stealthy glances at the fen, to see if the mysterious mare was still there, and a chance of his money still left, a man rode up to the door.

He was poorly clothed, with a long rusty sword by his side. A broad felt hat, long boots, and a haversack behind his saddle, showed him to be a traveller, seemingly a horse-dealer; for there followed him, tied head and tail, a brace of sorry nags.

“Heaven save all here,” quoth he, making the sign of the cross. “Can any good Christian give me a drink of milk?”

“Ale, if thou wilt,” said Dirk. “But what art thou, and whence?”

On any other day, he would have tried to coax his guest into trying a buffet with him for his horse and clothes; but this morning his heart was heavy with the thought of the enchanted mare, and he welcomed the chance of selling her to the stranger.

“We are not very fond of strangers about here, since these Flemings have been harrying our borders. If thou art a spy, it will be worse for thee.”

“I am neither spy nor Fleming; but a poor servant of the Lord Bishop of Utrecht’s, buying a garron or two for his lordship’s priests. As for these Flemings, may St. John Baptist save from them both me and you. Do you know of any man who has horses to sell hereabouts?”

“There are horses in the fen yonder,” quoth Dirk, who knew that churchmen were likely to give a liberal price, and pay in good silver.

“I saw them as I rode up. And a fine lot they are; but of too good a stamp for my short purse, or for my holy master’s riding — a fat priest likes a quiet nag, my master.”

“Humph. Well, if quietness is what you need, there is a mare down there, a child might ride her with a thread of wool. But as for price — and she has a colt, too, running by her.”

“Ah?” quoth the horseman. “Well, your Walcheren folk make good milk, that’s certain. A colt by her? That’s awkward. My Lord does not like young horses; and it would be troublesome, too, to take the thing along with me.”

The less anxious the dealer seemed to buy, the more anxious grew Dirk to sell; but he concealed his anxiety, and let the stranger turn away, thanking him for his drink.

“I say!” he called after him. “You might look at her as you ride past the herd.”

The stranger assented, and they went down into the fen, and looked over the precious mare, whose feats were afterwards sung by many an English fireside, or in the forest, beneath the hollins green, by such as Robin Hood and his merry men. The ugliest, as well as the swiftest, of mares, she was, say the old chroniclers; and it was not till the stranger had looked twice at her, that he forgot her great chuckle head, greyhound-flanks, and drooping hind-quarters, and began to see the great length of those same quarters — the thighs let down into the hocks, the arched loin, the extraordinary girth through the saddle, the sloping shoulder, the long arms, the flat knees, the large, well-set hoofs, and all the other points which showed her strength and speed, and justified her fame.

“She might carry a big man like you through the mud,” said he, carelessly, “but as for pace, one cannot expect that with such a chuckle head. And if one rode her through a town, the boys would call after one, ‘All head and no tail.’ Why, I can’t see her tail for her quarters, it is so ill set on.”

“Ill set on, or none,” said Dirk, testily; “don’t go to speak against her pace till you have seen it. Here, lass!”

Dirk was, in his heart, rather afraid of the princess; but he was comforted when she came up to him like a dog.

“She’s as sensible as a woman,” said he; and then grumbled to himself, “may be she knows I mean to part with her.”

“Lend me your saddle,” said he to the stranger.

The stranger did so; and Dirk mounting galloped her in a ring. There was no doubt of her powers, as soon as she began to move.

“I hope you won’t remember this against me, madam,” said Dirk, as soon as he got out of the stranger’s hearing. “I can’t do less than sell you to a Christian. And certainly I have been as good a master to you as if I’d known who you were; but if you wish to stay with me you’ve only to kick me off, and say so, and I’m yours to command.”

“Well, she can gallop a bit,” said the stranger, as Dirk pulled her up and dismounted; “but an ugly brute she is nevertheless, and such a one as I should not care to ride, for I am a gay man among the ladies. However, what is your price?”

Dirk named twice as much as he would have taken.

“Half that, you mean.” And the usual haggle began.

“Tell thee what,” said Dirk at last, “I am a man who has his fancies; and this shall be her price; half thy bid, and a box on the ear.”

The demon of covetousness had entered Dirk’s heart. What if he got the money, brained or at least disabled the stranger, and so had a chance of selling the mare a second time to some fresh comer?

“Thou art a strange fellow,” quoth the horse-dealer. “But so be it.”

Dirk chuckled. “He does not know,” thought he, “that he has to do with Dirk Hammerhand,” and he clenched his fist in anticipation of his rough joke.

“There,” quoth the stranger, counting out the money carefully, “is thy coin. And there — is thy box on the ear.”

And with a blow which rattled over the fen, he felled Dirk Hammerhand to the ground.

He lay senseless for a moment, and then looked wildly round. His jaw was broken.

“Villain!” groaned he. “It was I who was to give the buffet, not thou!”

“Art mad?” asked the stranger, as he coolly picked up the coins, which Dirk had scattered in his fall. “It is the seller’s business to take, and the buyer’s to give.”

And while Dirk roared for help in vain he leapt on mare Swallow and rode off shouting,

“Aha! Dirk Hammerhand! So you thought to knock a hole in my skull, as you have done to many a better man than yourself. He is a lucky man who never meets his match, Dirk. I shall give your love to the Enchanted Prince, my faithful serving-man, whom they call Martin Lightfoot.”

Dirk cursed the day he was born. Instead of the mare and colt, he had got the two wretched garrons which the stranger had left, and a face which made him so tender of his own teeth, that he never again offered to try a buffet with a stranger.

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