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

Chapter 2.

How Hereward Slew the Bear.

Of Hereward’s doings for the next few months naught is known. He may very likely have joined Siward in the Scotch war. He may have looked, wondering, for the first time in his life, upon the bones of the old world, where they rise at Dunkeld out of the lowlands of the Tay; and have trembled lest the black crags of Birnam should topple on his head with all their pines. He may have marched down from that famous leaguer with the Gospatricks and Dolfins, and the rest of the kindred of Crinan (abthane or abbot — let antiquaries decide) — of Dunkeld, and of Duncan, and of Siward, and of the outraged Sibilla. He may have helped himself to bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, “on the day of the Seven Sleepers,” and heard Siward, when his son Asbiorn’s corpse was carried into camp, 5 ask only, “Has he all his wounds in front?” He may have seen old Siward, after Macbeth’s defeat (not death, as Shakespeare relates the story), go back to Northumbria “with such booty as no man had obtained before,”— a proof, if the fact be fact, that the Scotch lowlands were not, in the eleventh century, the poor and barbarous country which some have reported them to have been.

5 Shakespeare makes young Siward his son. He, too, was slain in the battle: but he was Siward’s nephew.

All this is not only possible, but probable enough, the dates considered: the chroniclers, however, are silent. They only say that Hereward was in those days beyond Northumberland with Gisebert of Ghent.

Gisebert, Gislebert, Gilbert, Guibert, Goisbricht, of Ghent, who afterwards owned, by chance of war, many a fair manor about Lincoln city, was one of those valiant Flemings who settled along the east and northeast coast of Scotland in the eleventh century. They fought with the Celtic princes, and then married with their daughters; got to themselves lands “by the title-deed of the sword”; and so became — the famous “Freskin the Fleming” especially — the ancestors of the finest aristocracy, both physically and intellectually, in the world. They had their connections, moreover, with the Norman court of Rouen, through the Duchess Matilda, daughter of their old Seigneur, Baldwin, Marquis of Flanders; their connections, too, with the English Court, through Countess Judith, wife of Earl Tosti Godwinsson, another daughter of Baldwin’s. Their friendship was sought, their enmity feared, far and wide throughout the north. They seem to have been civilizers and cultivators and traders — with the instinct of true Flemings — as well as conquerors; they were in those very days bringing to order and tillage the rich lands of the north-east, from the Frith of Moray to that of Forth; and forming a rampart for Scotland against the invasions of Sweyn, Hardraade, and all the wild Vikings of the northern seas.

Amongst them, in those days, Gilbert of Ghent seems to have been a notable personage, to judge from the great house which he kept, and the milites tyrones, or squires in training for the honor of knighthood, who fed at his table. Where he lived, the chroniclers report not. To them the country “ultra Northumbriam,” beyond the Forth, was as Russia or Cathay, where

“Geographers on pathless downs

Put elephants for want of towns.”

As indeed it was to that French map-maker who, as late as the middle of the eighteenth century (not having been to Aberdeen or Elgin), leaves all the country north of the Tay a blank, with the inscription: “Terre inculte et sauvage, habitée par les Higlanders.

Wherever Gilbert lived, however, he heard that Hereward was outlawed, and sent for him, says the story. And there he lived, doubtless happily enough, fighting Highlanders and hunting deer, so that as yet the pains and penalties of exile did not press very hardly upon him. The handsome, petulant, good-humored lad had become in a few weeks the darling of Gilbert’s ladies, and the envy of all his knights and gentlemen. Hereward the singer, harp-player, dancer, Hereward the rider and hunter, was in all mouths; but he himself was discontented at having as yet fallen in with no adventure worthy of a man, and looked curiously and longingly at the menagerie of wild beasts enclosed in strong wooden cages, which Gilbert kept in one corner of the great court-yard, not for any scientific purposes, but to try with them, at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, the mettle of the young gentlemen who were candidates for the honor of knighthood. But after looking over the bulls and stags, wolves and bears, Hereward settled it in his mind that there was none worthy of his steel, save one huge white bear, whom no man had yet dared to face, and whom Hereward, indeed, had never seen, hidden as he was all day within the old oven-shaped Pict’s house of stone, which had been turned into his den. There was a mystery about the uncanny brute which charmed Hereward. He was said to be half-human, perhaps wholly human; to be the son of the Fairy Bear, near kinsman, if not uncle or cousin, of Siward Digre. He had, like his fairy father, iron claws; he had human intellect, and understood human speech, and the arts of war — at least so all in the place believed, and not as absurdly as at first sight seems.

For the brown bear, and much more the white, was, among the Northern nations, in himself a creature magical and superhuman. “He is God’s dog,” whispered the Lapp, and called him “the old man in the fur cloak,” afraid to use his right name, even inside the tent, for fear of his overhearing and avenging the insult. “He has twelve men’s strength, and eleven men’s wit,” sang the Norseman, and prided himself accordingly, like a true Norseman, on outwitting and slaying the enchanted monster.

Terrible was the brown bear: but more terrible “the white sea-deer,” as the Saxons called him; the hound of Hrymir, the whale’s bane, the seal’s dread, the rider of the iceberg, the sailor of the floe, who ranged for his prey under the six months’ night, lighted by Surtur’s fires, even to the gates of Muspelheim. To slay him was a feat worthy of Beowulf’s self; and the greatest wonder, perhaps, among all the wealth of Crowland, was the twelve white bear-skins which lay before the altars, the gift of the great Canute. How Gilbert had obtained his white bear, and why he kept him there in durance vile, was a mystery over which men shook their heads. Again and again Hereward asked his host to let him try his strength against the monster of the North. Again and again the shrieks of the ladies, and Gilbert’s own pity for the stripling youth, brought a refusal. But Hereward settled it in his heart, nevertheless, that somehow or other, when Christmas time came round, he would extract from Gilbert, drunk or sober, leave to fight that bear; and then either make himself a name, or die like a man.

Meanwhile Hereward made a friend. Among all the ladies of Gilbert’s household, however kind they were inclined to be to him, he took a fancy but to one — and that was to a little girl of eight years old. Alftruda was her name. He liked to amuse himself with this child, without, as he fancied, any danger of falling in love; for already his dreams of love were of the highest and most fantastic; and an Emir’s daughter, or a Princess of Constantinople, were the very lowest game at which he meant to fly. Alftruda was beautiful, too, exceedingly, and precocious, and, it may be, vain enough to repay his attentions in good earnest. Moreover she was English as he was, and royal likewise; a relation of Elfgiva, daughter of Ethelred, once King of England, who, as all know, married Uchtred, prince of Northumberland and grandfather of Gospatrick, Earl of Northumberland, and ancestor of all the Dunbars. Between the English lad then and the English maiden grew up in a few weeks an innocent friendship, which had almost become more than friendship, through the intervention of the Fairy Bear.

For as Hereward was coming in one afternoon from hunting, hawk on fist, with Martin Lightfoot trotting behind, crane and heron, duck and hare, slung over his shoulder, on reaching the court-yard gates he was aware of screams and shouts within, tumult and terror among man and beast. Hereward tried to force his horse in at the gate. The beast stopped and turned, snorting with fear; and no wonder; for in the midst of the court-yard stood the Fairy Bear; his white mane bristled up till he seemed twice as big as any of the sober brown bears which Hereward yet had seen: his long snake neck and cruel visage wreathed about in search of prey. A dead horse, its back broken by a single blow of the paw, and two or three writhing dogs, showed that the beast had turned (like too many of his human kindred) “Berserker.” The court-yard was utterly empty: but from the ladies’ bower came shrieks and shouts, not only of women, but of men; and knocking at the bower door, adding her screams to those inside, was a little white figure, which Hereward recognized as Alftruda’s. They had barricaded themselves inside, leaving the child out; and now dared not open the door, as the bear swung and rolled towards it, looking savagely right and left for a fresh victim.

Hereward leaped from his horse, and, drawing his sword, rushed forward with a shout which made the bear turn round.

He looked once back at the child; then round again at Hereward: and, making up his mind to take the largest morsel first, made straight at him with a growl which there was no mistaking.

He was within two paces; then he rose on his hind legs, a head and shoulders taller than Hereward, and lifted the iron talons high in air. Hereward knew that there was but one spot at which to strike; and he struck true and strong, before the iron paw could fall, right on the muzzle of the monster.

He heard the dull crash of the steel; he felt the sword jammed tight. He shut his eyes for an instant, fearing lest, as in dreams, his blow had come to naught; lest his sword had turned aside, or melted like water in his hand, and the next moment would find him crushed to earth, blinded and stunned. Something tugged at his sword. He opened his eyes, and saw the huge carcass bend, reel, roll slowly over to one side dead, tearing out of his hand the sword, which was firmly fixed into the skull.

Hereward stood awhile staring at the beast like a man astonished at what he himself had done. He had had his first adventure, and he had conquered. He was now a champion in his own right — a hero of the heroes — one who might take rank, if he went on, beside Beowulf, Frotho, Ragnar Lodbrog, or Harald Hardraade. He had done this deed. What was there after this which he might not do? And he stood there in the fulness of his pride, defiant of earth and heaven, while in his heart arose the thought of that old Viking who cried, in the pride of his godlessness: “I never on earth met him whom I feared, and why should I fear Him in heaven? If I met Odin, I would fight with Odin. If Odin were the stronger, he would slay me; if I were the stronger, I would slay him.” And there he stood, staring, and dreaming over renown to come — a true pattern of the half-savage hero of those rough times, capable of all vices except cowardice, and capable, too, of all virtues save humility.

“Do you not see,” said Martin Lightfoot’s voice, close by, “that there is a fair lady trying to thank you, while you are so rude or so proud that you will not vouchsafe her one look?”

It was true. Little Alftruda had been clinging to him for five minutes past. He took the child up in his arms and kissed her with pure kisses, which for a moment softened his hard heart; then, setting her down, he turned to Martin.

“I have done it, Martin.”

“Yes, you have done it; I spied you. What will the old folks at home say to this?”

“What care I?”

Martin Lightfoot shook his head, and drew out his knife.

“What is that for?” said Hereward.

“When the master kills the game, the knave can but skin it. We may sleep warm under this fur in many a cold night by sea and moor.”

“Nay,” said Hereward, laughing; “when the master kills the game he must first carry it home. Let us take him and set him up against the bower door there, to astonish the brave knights inside.” And stooping down, he attempted to lift the huge carcass; but in vain. At last, with Martin’s help, he got it fairly on his shoulders, and the two dragged their burden to the bower and dashed it against the door, shouting with all their might to those within to open it.

Windows, it must be remembered, were in those days so few and far between that the folks inside had remained quite unaware of what was going on without.

The door was opened cautiously enough; and out looked, to the shame of knighthood, be it said, two or three knights who had taken shelter in the bower with the ladies. Whatever they were going to say the ladies forestalled, for, rushing out across the prostrate bear, they overwhelmed Hereward with praises, thanks, and, after the straightforward custom of those days, with substantial kisses.

“You must be knighted at once,” cried they. “You have knighted yourself by that single blow.”

“A pity, then,” said one of the knights to the others, “that he had not given that accolade to himself, instead of to the bear.”

“Unless some means are found,” said another, “of taking down this boy’s conceit, life will soon be not worth having here.”

“Either he must take ship,” said a third, “and look for adventures elsewhere, or I must.”

Martin Lightfoot heard those words; and knowing that envy and hatred, like all other vices in those rough-hewn times, were apt to take very startling and unmistakeable shapes, kept his eye accordingly on those three knights.

“He must be knighted — he shall be knighted, as soon as Sir Gilbert comes home,” said all the ladies in chorus.

“I should be sorry to think,” said Hereward, with the blundering mock humility of a self-conceited boy, “that I had done anything worthy of such an honor. I hope to win my spurs by greater feats than these.”

A burst of laughter from the knights and gentlemen followed.

“How loud the young bantam crows after his first little scuffle!”

“Hark to him! What will he do next? Eat a dragon? Fly to the moon? Marry the Sophy of Egypt’s daughter?”

This last touched Hereward to the quick, for it was just what he thought of doing; and his blood, heated enough already, beat quicker, as some one cried, with the evident intent of picking a quarrel:

“That was meant for us. If the man who killed the bear has not earned knighthood, what must we be, who have not killed him? You understand his meaning, gentlemen — don’t forget it!”

Hereward looked down, and setting his foot on the bear’s head, wrenched out of it the sword which he had left till now, with pardonable pride, fast set in the skull.

Martin Lightfoot, for his part, drew stealthily from his bosom the little magic axe, keeping his eye on the brain-pan of the last speaker.

The lady of the house cried “Shame!” and ordered the knights away with haughty words and gestures, which, because they were so well deserved, only made the quarrel more deadly.

Then she commanded Hereward to sheathe his sword.

He did so; and turning to the knights, said with all courtesy: “You mistake me, sirs. You were where brave knights should be, within the beleaguered fortress, defending the ladies. Had you remained outside, and been eaten by the bear, what must have befallen them, had he burst open the door? As for this little lass, whom you left outside, she is too young to requite knight’s prowess by lady’s love; and therefore beneath your attention, and only fit for the care of a boy like me.” And taking up Alftruda in his arms, he carried her in and disappeared.

Who now but Hereward was in all men’s mouths? The minstrels made ballads on him; the lasses sang his praises (says the chronicler) as they danced upon the green. Gilbert’s lady would need give him the seat, and all the honors, of a belted knight, though knight he was none. And daily and weekly the valiant lad grew and hardened into a valiant man, and a courteous one withal, giving no offence himself, and not over-ready to take offence at other men.

The knights were civil enough to him, the ladies more than civil; he hunted, he wrestled, he tilted; he was promised a chance of fighting for glory, as soon as a Highland chief should declare war against Gilbert, or drive off his cattle — an event which (and small blame to the Highland chiefs) happened every six months.

No one was so well content with himself as Hereward; and therefore he fancied that the world must be equally content with him, and he was much disconcerted when Martin drew him aside one day, and whispered: “If I were my lord, I should wear a mail shirt under my coat tomorrow out hunting.”

“What?”

“The arrow that can go through a deer’s bladebone can go through a man’s.”

“Who should harm me?”

“Any man of the dozen who eat at the same table.”

“What have I done to them? If I had my laugh at them, they had their laugh at me; and we are quits.”

“There is another score, my lord, which you have forgotten, and that is all on your side.”

“Eh?”

“You killed the bear. Do you expect them to forgive you that, till they have repaid you with interest?”

“Pish!”

“You do not want for wit, my lord. Use it, and think. What right has a little boy like you to come here, killing bears which grown men cannot kill? What can you expect but just punishment for your insolence — say, a lance between your shoulders while you stoop to drink, as Sigfried had for daring to tame Brunhild? And more, what right have you to come here, and so win the hearts of the ladies, that the lady of all the ladies should say, ‘If aught happen to my poor boy — and he cannot live long — I would adopt Hereward for my own son, and show his mother what a fool some folks think her?’ So, my lord, put on your mail shirt tomorrow, and take care of narrow ways, and sharp corners. For tomorrow it will be tried, that I know, before my Lord Gilbert comes back from the Highlands; but by whom I know not, and care little, seeing that there are half a dozen in the house who would be glad enough of the chance.”

Hereward took his advice, and rode out with three or four knights the next morning into the fir-forest; not afraid, but angry and sad. He was not yet old enough to estimate the virulence of envy, to take ingratitude and treachery for granted. He was to learn the lesson then, as a wholesome chastener to the pride of success. He was to learn it again in later years, as an additional bitterness in the humiliation of defeat; and find out, as does many a man, that if he once fall, or seem to fall, a hundred curs spring up to bark at him, who dared not open their mouths while he was on his legs.

So they rode into the forest, and parted, each with his footman and his dogs, in search of boar and deer; and each had his sport without meeting again for some two hours or more.

Hereward and Martin came at last to a narrow gully, a murderous place enough. Huge fir-trees roofed it in, and made a night of noon. High banks of earth and great boulders walled it in right and left for twenty feet above. The track, what with pack-horses’ feet, and what with the wear and tear of five hundred years’ rain-fall, was a rut three feet deep and two feet broad, in which no horse could turn. Any other day Hereward would have cantered down it with merely a tightened rein. Today he turned to Martin and said —

“A very fit and proper place for this same treason, unless you have been drinking beer and thinking beer.”

But Martin was nowhere to be seen.

A pebble thrown from the right bank struck him, and he looked up. Martin’s face was peering through the heather overhead, his finger on his lips. Then he pointed cautiously, first up the pass, then down.

Hereward felt that his sword was loose in the sheath, and then gripped his lance, with a heart beating, but not with fear.

The next moment he heard the rattle of a horse’s hoofs behind him; looked back; and saw a knight charging desperately down the gully, his bow in hand, and arrow drawn to the head.

To turn was impossible. To stop, even to walk on, was to be ridden over and hurled to the ground helplessly. To gain the mouth of the gully, and then turn on his pursuer, was his only chance. For the first and almost the last time in his life, he struck spurs into his horse, and ran away. As he went, an arrow struck him sharply in the back, piercing the corslet, but hardly entering the flesh. As he neared the mouth, two other knights crashed their horses through the brushwood from right and left, and stood awaiting him, their spears ready to strike. He was caught in a trap. A shield might have saved him; but he had none.

He did not flinch. Dropping his reins, and driving in the spurs once more, he met them in full shock. With his left hand he hurled aside the left-hand lance, with his right he hurled his own with all his force at the right-hand foe, and saw it pass clean through the felon’s chest, while his lance-point dropped, and passed harmlessly behind his knee.

So much for lances in front. But the knight behind? Would not his sword the next moment be through his brain?

There was a clatter, a crash, and looking back Hereward saw horse and man rolling in the rut, and rolling with them Martin Lightfoot. He had already pinned the felon knight’s head against the steep bank, and, with uplifted axe, was meditating a pick at his face which would have stopped alike his love-making and his fighting.

“Hold thy hand,” shouted Hereward. “Let us see who he is; and remember that he is at least a knight.”

“But one that will ride no more today. I finished his horse’s going as I rolled down the bank.”

It was true. He had broken the poor beast’s leg with a blow of the axe, and they had to kill the horse out of pity ere they left.

Martin dragged his prisoner forward.

“You?” cried Hereward. “And I saved your life three days ago!”

The knight answered nothing.

“You will have to walk home. Let that be punishment enough for you,” and he turned.

“He will have to ride in a woodman’s cart, if he have the luck to find one.”

The third knight had fled, and after him the dead man’s horse. Hereward and his man rode home in peace, and the third knight, after trying vainly to walk a mile or two, fell and lay, and was fain to fulfil Martin’s prophecy, and be brought home in a cart, to carry for years after, like Sir Lancelot, the nickname of the Chevalier de la Charette.

And so was Hereward avenged of his enemies. Judicial, even private, inquiry into the matter there was none. That gentlemen should meet in the forest and commit, or try to commit, murder on each other’s bodies, was far too common a mishap in the ages of faith to stir up more than an extra gossiping and cackling among the women, and an extra cursing and threatening among the men; and as the former were all but unanimously on Hereward’s side, his plain and honest story was taken as it stood.

“And now, fair lady,” said Hereward to his hostess, “I must thank you for all your hospitality, and bid you farewell forever and a day.”

She wept, and entreated him only to stay till her lord came back; but Hereward was firm.

“You, lady, and your good lord will I ever love; and at your service my sword shall ever be: but not here. Ill blood I will not make. Among traitors I will not dwell. I have killed two of them, and shall have to kill two of their kinsmen next, and then two more, till you have no knights left; and pity that would be. No; the world is wide, and there are plenty of good fellows in it who will welcome me without forcing me to wear mail under my coat out hunting.”

And he armed himself cap-à-pié, and rode away. Great was the weeping in the bower, and great the chuckling in the hall: but never saw they Hereward again upon the Scottish shore.

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