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

Chapter 16.

How Hereward was Asked to Slay an Old Comrade.

In those days Hereward went into Bruges, to Marquis Baldwin, about his business. And as he walked in Bruges street, he met an old friend, Gilbert of Ghent.

He had grown somewhat stouter, and somewhat grayer, in the last ten years: but he was as hearty as ever; and as honest, according to his own notions of honesty.

He shook Hereward by both hands, clapt him on the back, swore with many oaths, that he had heard of his fame in all lands, that he always said that he would turn out a champion and a gallant knight, and had said it long before he killed the bear. As for killing it, it was no more than he expected, and nothing to what Hereward had done since, and would do yet.

Wherefrom Hereward opined that Gilbert had need of him.

They chatted on: Hereward asking after old friends, and sometimes after old foes, whom he had long since forgiven; for though he always avenged an injury, he never bore malice for one; a distinction less common now than then, when a man’s honor, as well as his safety, depended on his striking again, when he was struck.

“And how is little Alftruda? Big she must be now?” asked he at last.

“The fiend fly away with her — or rather, would that he had flown away with her, before ever I saw the troublesome little jade. Big? She is grown into the most beautiful lass that ever was seen — which is, what a young fellow like you cares for; and more trouble to me than all my money, which is what an old fellow like me cares for. It is partly about her that I am over here now. Fool that I was, ever to let an Etheliza 14 into my house”; and Gilbert swore a great deal.

14 A princess of the royal blood of Cerdic, and therefore of Edward the Confessor.

“How was she an Etheliza?” asked Hereward, who cared nothing about the matter. “And how came she into your house? I never could understand that, any more than how the bear came there.”

“Ah! As to the bear, I have my secrets, which I tell no one. He is dead and buried, thanks to you.”

“And I sleep on his skin every night.”

“You do, my little Champion? Well, warm is the bed that is well earned. But as for her; — see here, and I’ll tell you. She was Gospatrick’s ward and kinswoman — how, I do not rightly know. But this I know, that she comes from Uchtred, the earl whom Canute slew, and that she is heir to great estates in Northumberland.

“Gospatrick, that fought at Dunsinane?”

“Yes, not the old Thane, his uncle, whom Tosti has murdered; but Gospatrick, King Malcolm’s cousin, Dolfin’s father. Well, she was his ward. He gave me her to keep, for he wanted her out of harm’s way — the lass having a bonny dower, lands and money — till he could marry her up to one of his sons. I took her; of course I was not going to do other men’s work for naught; so I would have married her up to my poor boy, if he had but lived. But he would not live, as you know. Then I would have married her to you, and made you my heir, I tell you honestly, if you had not flown off, like a hot-headed young springald, as you were then.”

“You were very kind. But how is she an Etheliza?”

“Etheliza? Twice over. Her father was of high blood among those Saxons; and if not, are not all the Gospatricks Ethelings? Their grandmother, Uchtred’s wife, was Ethelred, Evil–Counsel’s daughter, King Edward of London’s sister; and I have heard that this girl’s grandfather was their son — but died young — or was killed with his father. Who cares?”

“Not I,” quoth Hereward.

“Well — he wants to marry her to Dolfin, his eldest son.”

“Why, Dolfin had a wife when I was at Dunsinane.”

“But she is dead since, and young Ulf, her son, murdered by Tosti last winter.”

“I know.”

“Whereon Gospatrick sends to me for the girl and her dowry. What was I to do? Give her up? Little it is, lad, that I ever gave up, after I had it once in my grip, or I should be a poorer man than I am now. Have and hold, is my rule. What should I do? What I did. I was coming hither on business of my own, so I put her on board ship, and half her dower — where the other half is, I know; and man must draw me with wild horses, before he finds out; — and came here to my kinsman, Baldwin, to see if he had any proper young fellow to whom we might marry the lass, and so go shares in her money and the family connection. Could a man do more wisely?”

“Impossible,” quoth Hereward.

“But see how a wise man is lost by fortune. When I come here, whom should I find but Dolfin himself? The dog had scent of my plan, all the way from Dolfinston there, by Peebles. He hunts me out, the hungry Scotch wolf; rides for Leith, takes ship, and is here to meet me, having accused me before Baldwin as a robber and ravisher, and offers to prove his right to the jade on my body in single combat.”

“The villain!” quoth Hereward. “There is no modesty left on earth, nor prudence either. To come here, where he might have stumbled on Tosti, who murdered his son, and I would surely do the like by him, himself. Lucky for him that Tosti is off to Norway on his own errand.”

“Modesty and prudence? None now-a-days, young sire; nor justice either, I think; for when Baldwin hears us both — and I told my story as cannily as I could — he tells me that he is very sorry for an old vassal and kinsman, and so forth — but I must either disgorge or fight.”

“Then fight,” quoth Hereward.

“‘Per se aut per campioneem,’— that’s the old law, you know.”

“Not a doubt of it.”

“Look you, Hereward. I am no coward, nor a clumsy man of my hands.”

“He is either fool or liar who says so.”

“But see. I find it hard work to hold my own in Scotland now. Folks don’t like me, or trust me; I can’t say why.”

“How unreasonable!” quoth Hereward.

“And if I kill this youth, and so have a blood-feud with Gospatrick, I have a hornet’s nest about my ears. Not only he and his sons — who are masters of Scotch Northumberland, 15— but all his cousins; King Malcolm, and Donaldbain, and, for aught I know, Harold and the Godwinssons, if he bid them take up the quarrel. And beside, that Dolfin is a big man. If you cross Scot and Saxon, you breed a very big man. If you cross again with a Dane or a Norseman, you breed a giant. His grandfather was a Scots prince, his grandmother an English Etheliza, his mother a Norse princess, as you know — and how big he is, you should remember. He weighs half as much again as I, and twice as much as you.”

15 Between Tweed and Forth.

“Butchers count by weight, and knights by courage,” quoth Hereward.

“Very well for you, who are young and active; but I take him to be a better man than that ogre of Cornwall, whom they say you killed.”

“What care I? Let him be twice as good, I’d try him.”

“Ah! I knew you were the old Hereward still. Now hearken to me. Be my champion. You owe me a service, lad. Fight that man, challenge him in open field. Kill him, as you are sure to do. Claim the lass, and win her — and then we will part her dower. And (though it is little that I care for young lasses’ fancies), to tell you truth, she never favored any man but you.”

Hereward started at the snare which had been laid for him; and then fell into a very great laughter.

“My most dear and generous host: you are the wiser, the older you grow. A plan worthy of Solomon! You are rid of Sieur Dolfin without any blame to yourself.”

“Just so.”

“While I win the lass, and, living here in Flanders, am tolerably safe from any blood-feud of the Gospatricks.”

“Just so.”

“Perfect: but there is only one small hindrance to the plan; and that is — that I am married already.”

Gilbert stopped short, and swore a great oath.

“But,” he said, after a while, “does that matter so much after all?”

“Very little, indeed, as all the world knows, if one has money enough, and power enough.”

“And you have both,” they say.

“But, still more unhappily, my money is my wife’s.”

“Peste!”

“And more unhappily still, I am so foolishly fond of her, that I would sooner have her in her smock, than any other woman with half England for a dower.”

“Then I suppose I must look out for another champion.”

“Or save yourself the trouble, by being — just as a change — an honest man.”

“I believe you are right,” said Gilbert, laughing; “but it is hard to begin so late in life.”

“And after one has had so little practice.”

“Aha! Thou art the same merry dog of a Hereward. Come along. But could we not poison this Dolfin, after all?”

To which proposal Hereward gave no encouragement.

“And now, my très beausire, may I ask you, in return, what business brings you to Flanders?”

“Have I not told you?”

“No, but I have guessed. Gilbert of Ghent is on his way to William of Normandy.”

“Well. Why not?”

“Why not? — certainly. And has brought out of Scotland a few gallant gentlemen, and stout housecarles of my acquaintance.”

Gilbert laughed.

“You may well say that. To tell you the truth, we have flitted, bag and baggage. I don’t believe that we have left a dog behind.”

“So you intend to ‘colonize’ in England, as the learned clerks would call it? To settle; to own land; and enter, like the Jews of old, into goodly houses which you builded not, farms which you tilled not, wells which you digged not, and orchards which you planted not?”

“Why, what a clerk you are! That sounds like Scripture.”

“And so it is. I heard it in a French priest’s sermon, which he preached here in St. Omer a Sunday or two back, exhorting all good Catholics, in the Pope’s name, to enter upon the barbarous land of England, tainted with the sin of Simon Magus, and expel thence the heretical priests, and so forth, promising them that they should have free leave to cut long thongs out of other men’s hides.”

Gilbert chuckled.

“You laugh. The priest did not; for after sermon I went up to him, and told him how I was an Englishman, and an outlaw, and a desperate man, who feared neither saint nor devil; and if I heard such talk as that again in St. Omer, I would so shave the speaker’s crown that he should never need razor to his dying day.”

“And what is that to me?” said Gilbert, in an uneasy, half-defiant tone; for Hereward’s tone had been more than half-defiant.

“This. That there are certain broad lands in England, which were my father’s, and are now my nephews’ and my mother’s, and some which should by right be mine. And I advise you, as a friend, not to make entry on those lands, lest Hereward in turn make entry on you. And who is he that will deliver you out of my hand?”

“God and his Saints alone, thou fiend out of the pit!” quoth Gilbert, laughing. But he was growing warm, and began to tutoyer Hereward.

“I am in earnest, Gilbert of Ghent, my good friend of old time.”

“I know thee well enough, man. Why in the name of all glory and plunder art thou not coming with us? They say William has offered thee the earldom of Northumberland.”

“He has not. And if he has, it is not his to give. And if it were, it is by right neither mine nor my nephews’, but Waltheof Siwardsson’s. Now hearken unto me; and settle it in your mind, thou and William both, that your quarrel is against none but Harold and the Godwinssons, and their men of Wessex; but that if you go to cross the Watling street, and meddle with the free Danes, who are none of Harold’s men —”

“Stay. Harold has large manors in Lincolnshire, and so has Edith his sister; and what of them, Sir Hereward?”

“That the man who touches them, even though the men on them may fight on Harold’s side, had better have put his head into a hornet’s nest. Unjustly were they seized from their true owners by Harold and his fathers; and the holders of them will owe no service to him a day longer than they can help; but will, if he fall, demand an earl of their own race, or fight to the death.”

“Best make young Waltheof earl, then.”

“Best keep thy foot out of them, and the foot of any man for whom thou carest. Now, good by. Friends we are, and friends let us be.”

“Ah, that thou wert coming to England!”

“I bide my time. Come I may, when I see fit. But whether I come as friend or foe depends on that of which I have given thee fair warning.”

So they parted for the time.

It will be seen hereafter how Gilbert took his own advice about young Waltheof, but did not take Hereward’s advice about the Lincoln manors.

In Baldwin’s hall that day Hereward met Dolfin; and when the magnificent young Scot sprang to him, embraced him, talked over old passages, complimented him on his fame, lamented that he himself had won no such honors in the field, Hereward felt much more inclined to fight for him than against him.

Presently the ladies entered from the bower inside the hall. A buzz of expectation rose from all the knights, and Alftruda’s name was whispered round.

She came in, and Hereward saw at the first glance that Gilbert had for once in his life spoken truth. So beautiful a girl he had never beheld; and as she swept down toward him he for one moment forgot Torfrida, and stood spell-bound like the rest.

Her eye caught his. If his face showed recognition, hers showed none. The remembrance of their early friendship, of her deliverance from the monster, had plainly passed away.

“Fickle, ungrateful things, these women,” thought Hereward,

She passed him close. And as she did so, she turned her head and looked him full in the face one moment, haughty and cold.

“So you could not wait for me?” said she, in a quiet whisper, and went on straight to Dolfin, who stood trembling with expectation and delight.

She put her hand into his.

“Here stands my champion,” said she.

“Say, here kneels your slave,” cried the Scot, dropping to the pavement a true Highland knee. Whereon forth shrieked a bagpipe, and Dolfin’s minstrel sang, in most melodious Gaelic —

“Strong as a horse’s hock,

shaggy as a stag’s brisket,

Is the knee of the young torrent-leaper,

the pride of the house of Crinan.

It bent not to Macbeth the accursed,

it bends not even to Malcolm the Anointed,

But it bends like a harebell — who shall blame it? —

before the breath of beauty.”

Which magnificent effusion being interpreted by Hereward for the instruction of the ladies, procured for the red-headed bard more than one handsome gift.

A sturdy voice arose out of the crowd.

“The fair lady, my Lord Count, and knights all, will need no champion as far as I am concerned. When one sees so fair a pair together, what can a knight say, in the name of all knighthood, but that the heavens have made them for each other, and that it were sin and shame to sunder them?”

The voice was that of Gilbert of Ghent, who, making a virtue of necessity, walked up to the pair, his weather-beaten countenance wreathed into what were meant for paternal smiles.

“Why did you not say as much in Scotland, and save me all this trouble?” pertinently asked the plain-spoken Scot.

“My lord prince, you owe me a debt for my caution. Without it, the poor lady had never known the whole fervency of your love; or these noble knights and yourself the whole evenness of Count Baldwin’s justice.”

Alftruda turned her head away half contemptuously; and as she did so, she let her hand drop listlessly from Dolfin’s grasp, and drew back to the other ladies.

A suspicion crossed Hereward’s mind. Did she really love the Prince? Did those strange words of hers mean that she had not yet forgotten Hereward himself?

However, he said to himself that it was no concern of his, as it certainly was not: went home to Torfrida, told her everything that had happened, laughed over it with her, and then forgot Alftruda, Dolfin, and Gilbert, in the prospect of a great campaign in Holland.

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