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

Chapter 36.

How Alftruda Wrote to Hereward.

The weary months ran on, from summer into winter, and winter into summer again, for two years and more, and neither Torfrida nor Hereward were the better for them. Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: and a sick heart is but too apt to be a peevish one. So there were fits of despondency, jars, mutual recriminations. “If I had not taken your advice, I should not have been here.” “If I had not loved you so well, I might have been very differently off,”— and so forth. The words were wiped away the next hour, perhaps the next minute, by sacred kisses; but they had been said, and would be recollected, and perhaps said again.

Then, again, the “merry greenwood” was merry enough in the summer tide, when shaughs were green, and

“The woodwele sang, and would not cease,

Sitting upon the spray.

So loud, it wakened Robin Hood

In the greenwood where he lay.”

But it was a sad place enough, when the autumn fog crawled round the gorse, and dripped off the hollies, and choked alike the breath and the eyesight; when the air sickened with the graveyard smell of rotting leaves, and the rain-water stood in the clay holes over the poached and sloppy lawns.

It was merry enough, too, when they were in winter quarters in friendly farm-houses, as long as the bright sharp frosts lasted, and they tracked the hares and deer merrily over the frozen snows; but it was doleful enough in those same farm-houses in the howling wet weather, when wind and rain lashed in through unglazed window, and ill-made roof, and there were coughs and colds and rheumatisms, and Torfrida ached from head to foot, and once could not stand upright for a whole month together, and every cranny was stuffed up with bits of board and rags, keeping out light and air as well as wind and water; and there was little difference between the short day and the long night; and the men gambled and wrangled amid clouds of peat-reek, over draughtboards and chessmen which they had carved for themselves, and Torfrida sat stitching and sewing, making and mending, her eyes bleared with peat-smoke, her hands sore and coarse from continual labor, her cheek bronzed, her face thin and hollow, and all her beauty worn away for very trouble. Then sometimes there was not enough to eat, and every one grumbled at her; or some one’s clothes were not mended, and she was grumbled at again. And sometimes a foraging party brought home liquor, and all who could got drunk to drive dull care away; and Hereward, forgetful of all her warnings, got more than was good for him likewise; and at night she coiled herself up in her furs, cold and contemptuous; and Hereward coiled himself up, guilty and defiant, and woke her again and again with startings and wild words in his sleep. And she felt that her beauty was gone, and that he saw it; and she fancied him (perhaps it was only fancy) less tender than of yore; and then in very pride disdained to take any care of her person, and said to herself, though she dare not say it to him, that if he only loved her for her face, he did not love her at all. And because she fancied him cold at times, she was cold likewise, and grew less and less caressing, when for his sake, as well as her own, she should have grown more so day by day.

Alas for them! there are many excuses. Sorrow may be a softening medicine at last, but at first it is apt to be a hardening one; and that savage outlaw life which they were leading can never have been a wholesome one for any soul of man, and its graces must have existed only in the brains of harpers and gleemen. Away from law, from self-restraint, from refinement, from elegance, from the very sound of a church-going bell, they were sinking gradually down to the level of the coarse men and women whom they saw; the worse and not the better parts of both their characters were getting the upper hand; and it was but too possible that after a while the hero might sink into the ruffian, the lady into a slattern and a shrew.

But in justice to them be it said, that neither of them had complained of the other to any living soul. Their love had been as yet too perfect, too sacred, for them to confess to another (and thereby confess to themselves) that it could in any wise fail. They had each idolized the other, and been too proud of their idolatry to allow that their idol could crumble or decay.

And yet at last that point, too, was reached. One day they were wrangling about somewhat, as they too often wrangled, and Hereward in his temper let fall the words. “As I said to Winter the other day, you grow harder and harder upon me.”

Torfrida started and fixed on him wide, terrible, scornful eyes “So you complain of me to your boon companions?”

And she turned and went away without a word. A gulf had opened between them. They hardly spoke to each other for a week.

Hereward complained of Torfrida? What if Torfrida should complain of Hereward? But to whom? Not to the coarse women round her; her pride revolted from that thought; — and yet she longed for counsel, for sympathy — to open her heart but to one fellow-woman. She would go to the Lady Godiva at Crowland, and take counsel of her, whether there was any method (for so she put it to herself) of saving Hereward; for she saw but too clearly that he was fast forgetting all her teaching, and falling back to a point lower than that even from which she had raised him up.

To go to Crowland was not difficult. It was mid-winter. The dikes were all frozen. Hereward was out foraging in the Lincolnshire wolds. So Torfrida, taking advantage of his absence, proposed another foraging party to Crowland itself. She wanted stuff for clothes, needles, thread, what not. A dozen stout fellows volunteered at once to take her. The friendly monks of Crowland would feast them royally, and send them home heaped with all manner of good things; while as for meeting Ivo Taillebois’s men, if they had but three to one against them, there was a fair chance of killing a few, and carrying off their clothes and weapons, which would be useful. So they made a sledge, tied beef-bones underneath it, put Torfrida thereon, well wrapped in deer and fox and badger skin, and then putting on their skates, swept her over the fen to Crowland, singing like larks along the dikes.

And Torfrida went in to Godiva, and wept upon her knees; and Godiva wept likewise, and gave her such counsel as she could — how if the woman will keep the men heroic, she must keep herself not heroic only, but devout likewise; how she herself, by that one deed which had rendered her name famous then, and famous (though she never dreamt thereof) now, and it may be to the end of time — had once for all, tamed, chained, and as it were converted, the heart of her fierce young lord; and enabled her to train him in good time into the most wise, most just, most pious, of all King Edward’s earls.

And Torfrida said yes, and yes, and yes, and felt in her heart that she knew all that already. Had not she, too, taught, entreated, softened, civilized? Had not she, too, spent her life upon a man, and that man a wolf’s-head and a landless outlaw, more utterly than Godiva could ever have spent hers on one who lived lapped in luxury and wealth and power? Torfrida had done her best, and she had failed, or at least fancied in her haste that she had failed.

What she wanted was, not counsel, but love. And she clung round the Lady Godiva, till the broken and ruined widow opened all her heart to her, and took her in her arms, and fondled her as if she had been a babe. And the two women spoke few words after that, for indeed there was nothing to be said. Only at last, “My child, my child,” cried Godiva, “better for thee, body and soul, to be here with me in the house of God, than there amid evil spirits and deeds of darkness in the wild woods.”

“Not a cloister, not a cloister,” cried Torfrida, shuddering, and half struggling to get away.

“It is the only place, poor wilful child, the only place this side the grave, in which, we wretched creatures, who for our sins are women born, can find aught of rest or peace. By us sin came into the world, and Eve’s curse lies heavy on us to this day, and our desire is to our lords, and they rule over us; and when the slave can work for her master no more, what better than to crawl into the house of God, and lay down our crosses at the foot of His cross and die? You too will come here, Torfrida, some day, I know it well. You too will come here to rest.”

“Never, never,” shrieked Torfrida, “never to these horrid vaults. I will die in the fresh air! I will be buried under the green hollies; and the nightingales as they wander up from my own Provence, shall build and sing over my grave. Never, never!” murmured she to herself all the more eagerly, because something within her said that it would come to pass.

The two women went into the church to Matins, and prayed long and fervently. And at the early daybreak the party went back laden with good things and hearty blessings, and caught one of Ivo Taillebois’s men by the way, and slew him, and got off him a new suit of clothes in which the poor fellow was going courting; and so they got home safe into the Bruneswald.

But Torfrida had not found rest unto her soul. For the first time in her life since she became the bride of Hereward, she had had a confidence concerning him and unknown to him. It was to his own mother — true. And yet she felt as if she had betrayed him: but then had he not betrayed her? And to Winter of all men?

It might have been two months afterwards that Martin Lightfoot put a letter into Torfrida’s hand.

The letter was addressed to Hereward; but there was nothing strange in Martin’s bringing it to his mistress. Ever since their marriage, she had opened and generally answered the very few epistles with which her husband was troubled.

She was going to open this one as a matter of course, when glancing at the superscription she saw, or fancied she saw, that it was in a woman’s hand. She looked at it again. It was sealed plainly with a woman’s seal; and she looked up at Martin Lightfoot. She had remarked as he gave her the letter a sly significant look in his face.

“What doest thou know of this letter?” she inquired sharply.

“That it is from the Countess Alftruda, whomsoever she may be.”

A chill struck through her heart. True, Alftruda had written before, only to warn Hereward of danger to his life — and hers. She might be writing again, only for the same purpose. But still, she did not wish that either Hereward, or she, should owe Alftruda their lives, or anything. They had struggled on through weal and woe without her, for many a year. Let them do so without her still. That Alftruda had once loved Hereward she knew well. Why should she not? The wonder was to her that every woman did not love him. But she had long since gauged Alftruda’s character, and seen in it a persistence like her own, yet as she proudly hoped of a lower temper; the persistence of the base weasel, not of the noble hound: yet the creeping weasel might endure, and win, when the hound was tired out by his own gallant pace. And there was a something in the tone of Alftruda’s last letter which seemed to tell her that the weasel was still upon the scent of its game. But she was too proud to mistrust Hereward, or rather, to seem to mistrust him. And yet — how dangerous Alftruda might be as a rival, if rival she choose to be. She was up in the world now, free, rich, gay, beautiful, a favorite at Queen Matilda’s court, while she —

“How came this letter into thy hands?” asked she as carelessly as she could.

“I was in Peterborough last night,” said Martin, “concerning little matters of my own, and there came to me in the street a bonny young page with smart jacket on his back, smart cap on his head, and smiles and bows, and ‘You are one of Hereward’s men,’ quoth he.”

“‘Say that again, young jackanapes,’ said I, ‘and I’ll cut your tongue out,’ whereat he took fright and all but cried. He was very sorry, and meant no harm, but he had a letter for my master, and he heard I was one of his men.

“Who told him that?”

“Well, one of the monks, he could not justly say which, or wouldn’t, and I, thinking the letter of more importance than my own neck, ask him quietly into my friend’s house. There he pulls out this and five silver pennies, and I shall have five more if I bring an answer back: but to none than Hereward must I give it. With that I calling my friend, who is an honest woman, and nigh as strong in the arms as I am, ask her to clap her back against the door, and pull out my axe.”

“‘Now,’ said I, ‘I must know a little more about this letter Tell me, knave, who gave it thee, or I’ll split thy skull.’

“The young man cries and blubbers; and says that it is the Countess Alftruda, who is staying in the monastery, and that he is her serving man, and that it is as much as my life is worth to touch a hair of his head, and so forth — so far so good.

“Then I asked him again, who told him I was my master’s man? — and he confessed that it was Herluin the prior — he that was Lady Godiva’s chaplain of old, whom my master robbed of his money when he had the cell of Bourne years agone. Very well, quoth I to myself, that’s one more count on our score against Master Herluin. Then I asked him how Herluin and the Lady Alftruda came to know aught of each other? and he said that she had been questioning all about the monastery without Abbot Thorold’s knowledge, for one that knew Hereward and favored him well. That was all I could get from the knave, he cried so for fright. So I took his money and his letter, warning him that if be betrayed me, there were those would roast him alive before he was done with me. And so away over the town wall, and ran here five-and-twenty miles before breakfast, and thought it better as you see to give the letter to my lady first.”

“You have been officious,” said Torfrida, coldly. “’Tis addressed to your master. Take it to him. Go.”

Martin Lightfoot whistled and obeyed, while Torfrida walked away proudly and silently with a beating heart.

Again Godiva’s words came over her. Should she end in the convent of Crowland? And suspecting, fearing, imagining all sorts of baseless phantoms, she hardened her heart into a great hardness.

Martin had gone with the letter, and Torfrida never heard any more of it.

So Hereward had secrets which he would not tell to her. At last!

That, at least, was a misery which she would not confide to Lady Godiva, or to any soul on earth.

But a misery it was. Such a misery as none can delineate, save those who have endured it themselves, or had it confided to them by another. And happy are they to whom neither has befallen.

She wandered on and into the wild-wood, and sat down by a spring. She looked in it — her only mirror — at her wan, coarse face, with wild black elf-locks hanging round it, and wondered whether Alftruda, in her luxury and prosperity, was still so very beautiful. Ah, that that fountain were the fountain of Jouvence, the spring of perpetual youth, which all believed in those days to exist somewhere — how would she plunge into it, and be young and fair once more!

No! she would not! She had lived her life, and lived it well, gallantly, lovingly, heroically. She had given that man her youth, her beauty, her wealth, her wit. He should not have them a second time. He had had his will of her. If he chose to throw her away when he had done with her, to prove himself base at last, unworthy of all her care, her counsels, her training — dreadful thought! To have lived to keep that man for her own, and just when her work seemed done, to lose him! No, there was worse than that. To have lived that she might make that man a perfect knight, and just when her work seemed done, to see him lose himself!

And she wept till she could weep no more. Then she washed away her tears in that well. Had it been in Greece of old, that well would have become a sacred well thenceforth, and Torfrida’s tears have changed into forget-me-nots, and fringed its marge with azure evermore.

Then she went back, calm, all but cold: but determined not to betray herself, let him do what he would. Perhaps it was all a mistake, a fancy. At least she would not degrade him, and herself, by showing suspicion. It would be dreadful, shameful to herself, wickedly unjust to him, to accuse him, were he innocent after all.

Hereward, she remarked, was more kind to her now. But it was a kindness which she did not like. It was shy, faltering, as of a man guilty and ashamed; and she repelled it as much as she dared, and then, once or twice, returned it passionately, madly, in hopes —

But he never spoke a word of that letter.

After a dreadful month, Martin came mysteriously to her again. She trembled, for she had remarked in him lately a strange change. He had lost his usual loquacity and quaint humor; and had fallen back into that sullen taciturnity, which, so she heard, he had kept up in his youth. He, too, must know evil which he dared not tell.

“There is another letter come. It came last night,” said he.

“What is that to thee or me? My lord has his state secrets. Is it for us to pry into them? Go!”

“I thought — I thought —”

“Go, I say!”

“That your ladyship might wish for a guide to Crowland.”

“Crowland?” almost shrieked Torfrida, for the thought of Crowland had risen in her own wretched mind instantly and involuntarily. “Go, madman!”

Martin went. Torfrida paced madly up and down the farmhouse. Then she settled herself into fierce despair.

There was a noise of trampling horses outside. The men were arming and saddling, seemingly for a raid.

Hereward hurried in for his armor. When he saw Torfrida, he blushed scarlet.

“You want your arms,” said she, quietly; “let me fetch them.”

“No, never mind. I can harness myself; I am going southwest, to pay Taillebois a visit. I am in a great hurry, I shall be back in three days. Then — good-by.”

He snatched his arms off a perch, and hurried out again, dragging them on. As he passed her, he offered to kiss her; she put him back, and helped him on with his armor, while he thanked her confusedly.

“He was as glad not to kiss me, after all!”

She looked after him as he stood, his hand on his horse’s withers. How noble he looked! And a great yearning came over her. To throw her arms round his neck once, and then to stab herself, and set him free, dying, as she had lived, for him.

Two bonny boys were wrestling on the lawn, young outlaws who had grown up in the forest with ruddy cheeks and iron limbs.

“Ah, Winter!” she heard him say, “had I had such a boy as that! —”

She heard no more. She turned away, her heart dead within her. She knew all that these words implied, in days when the possession of land was everything to the free man; and the possession of a son necessary, to pass that land on in the ancestral line. Only to have a son; only to prevent the old estate passing, with an heiress, into the hands of strangers, what crimes did not men commit in those days, and find themselves excused for them by public opinion. And now — her other children (if she ever had any) had died in childhood; the little Torfrida, named after herself, was all that she had brought to Hereward; and he was the last of his house. In him the race of Leofric, of Godiva, of Earl Oslac, would become extinct; and that girl would marry — whom? Whom but some French conqueror — or at best some English outlaw. In either case Hereward would have no descendants for whom it was worth his while to labor or to fight. What wonder if he longed for a son — and not a son of hers, the barren tree — to pass his name down to future generations? It might be worth while, for that, to come in to the king, to recover his lands, to —— She saw it all now, and her heart was dead within her.

She spent that evening neither eating nor drinking, but sitting over the log embers, her head upon her hands, and thinking over all her past life and love, since she saw him, from the gable window, ride the first time into St. Omer. She went through it all, with a certain stern delight in the self-torture, deliberately day by day, year by year — all its lofty aspirations, all its blissful passages, all its deep disappointments, and found in it — so she chose to fancy in the wilfulness of her misery — nothing but cause for remorse. Self in all, vanity, and vexation of spirit; for herself she had loved him; for herself she had tried to raise him; for herself she had set her heart on man, and not on God. She had sown the wind: and behold, she had reaped the whirlwind. She could not repent; she could not pray. But oh! that she could die.

She was unjust to herself, in her great nobleness. It was not true, not half, not a tenth part true. But perhaps it was good for her that it should seem true, for that moment; that she should be emptied of all earthly things for once, if so she might be filled from above.

At last she went into the inner room to lie down and try to sleep. At her feet, under the perch where Hereward’s armor had hung, lay an open letter.

She picked it up, surprised at seeing such a thing there, and kneeling down, held it eagerly to the wax candle which was on a spike at the bed’s head.

She knew the handwriting in a moment. It was Alftruda’s.

This, then, was why Hereward had been so strangely hurried. He must have had that letter, and dropped it.

Her eye and mind took it all in, in one instant, as the lightning flash reveals a whole landscape. And then her mind became as dark as that landscape, when the flash is past.

It congratulated Hereward on having shaken himself free from the fascination of that sorceress. It said that all was settled with King William. Hereward was to come to Winchester. She had the King’s writ for his safety ready to send to him. The King would receive him as his liegeman. Alftruda would receive him as her husband. Archbishop Lanfranc had made difficulties about the dissolution of the marriage with Torfrida: but gold would do all things at Rome; and Lanfranc was her very good friend, and a reasonable man — and so forth.

Men, and beasts likewise, when stricken with a mortal wound, will run, and run on, blindly, aimless, impelled by the mere instinct of escape from intolerable agony. And so did Torfrida. Half undrest as she was, she fled forth into the forest, she knew not whither, running as one does wrapt in fire: but the fire was not without her, but within.

She cast a passing glance at the girl who lay by her, sleeping a pure and gentle sleep —

“O that thou hadst but been a boy!” Then she thought no more of her, not even of Hereward: but all of which she was conscious was a breast and brain bursting; an intolerable choking, from which she must escape.

She ran, and ran on, for miles. She knew not whether the night was light or dark, warm or cold. Her tender feet might have been ankle deep in snow. The branches over her head might have been howling in the tempest, or dripping with rain. She knew not, and heeded not. The owls hooted to each other under the staring moon, but she heard them not. The wolves glared at her from the brakes, and slunk off appalled at the white ghostly figure: but she saw them not. The deer stood at gaze in the glades till she was close upon them, and then bounded into the wood. She ran right at them, past them, heedless. She had but one thought. To flee from the agony of a soul alone in the universe with its own misery.

At last she was aware of a man close beside her. He had been following her a long way, she recollected now; but she had not feared him, even heeded him. But when he laid his hand upon her arm, she turned fiercely, but without dread.

She looked to see if it was Hereward. To meet him would be death. If it were not he, she cared not who it was. It was not Hereward; and she cried angrily, “Off! off!” and hurried on.

“But you are going the wrong way! The wrong way!” said the voice of Martin Lightfoot.

“The wrong way! Fool, which is the right way for me, save the path which leads to a land where all is forgotten?”

“To Crowland! To Crowland! To the minster! To the monks! That is the only right way for poor wretches in a world like this. The Lady Godiva told you you must go to Crowland. And now you are going. I too, I ran away from a monastery when I was young; and now I am going back. Come along!”

“You are right! Crowland, Crowland; and a nun’s cell till death. Which is the way, Martin?”

“O, a wise lady! A reasonable lady! But you will be cold before you get thither. There will be a frost ere morn. So, when I saw you run out, I caught up something to put over you.”

Torfrida shuddered, as Martin wrapped her in the white bearskin.

“No! Not that! Anything but that!” and she struggled to shake it off.

“Then you will be dead ere dawn. Folks that run wild in the forest thus, for but one night, die!”

“Would God I could die!”

“That shall be as He wills; you do not die while Martin can keep you alive. Why, you are staggering already.”

Martin caught her up in his arms, threw her over his shoulder as if she had been a child, and hurried on, in the strength of madness.

At last he stopped at a cottage door, set her down upon the turf, and knocked loudly.

“Grimkel Tolison! Grimkel, I say!”

And Martin burst the door open with his foot.

“Give me a horse, on your life,” said he to the man inside. “I am Martin, Hereward’s man, upon my master’s business.”

“What is mine is Hereward’s, God bless him,” said the man, struggling into a garment, and hurrying out to the shed.

“There is a ghost against the gate!” cried he, recoiling.

“That is my matter, not yours. Get me a horse to put the ghost upon.”

Torfrida lay against the gate-post, exhausted now; but quite unable to think. Martin lifted her on to the beast, and led her onward, holding her up again and again.

“You are tired. You had run four miles before I could make you hear me.”

“Would I had run four thousand.” And she relapsed into stupor.

They passed out of the forest, across open wolds, and at last down to the river. Martin knew of a boat there. He lifted her from the horse, turned him loose, put Torfrida into the boat, and took the oars.

She looked up, and saw the roofs of Bourne shining white in the moonlight.

And then she lifted up her voice, and shrieked three times:

“Lost! Lost! Lost!”

with such a dreadful cry, that the starlings whirred up from the reeds, and the wild-fowl rose clanging off the meres, and the watch-dogs in Bourne and Mainthorpe barked and howled, and folk told fearfully next morning how a white ghost had gone down from the forest to the fen, and wakened them with its unearthly cry.

The sun was high when they came to Crowland minster. Torfrida had neither spoken nor stirred; and Martin, who in the midst of his madness kept a strange courtesy and delicacy, had never disturbed her, save to wrap the bear-skin more closely over her.

When they came to the bank, she rose, stepped out without his help, and drawing the bear-skin closely round her, and over her head, walked straight up to the gate of the house of nuns.

All men wondered at the white ghost; but Martin walked behind her, his left finger on his lips, his right hand grasping his little axe, with such a stern and serious face, and so fierce an eye, that all drew back in silence, and let her pass.

The portress looked through the wicket.

“I am Torfrida,” said a voice of terrible calm. “I am come to see the Lady Godiva. Let me in.”

The portress opened, utterly astounded.

“Madam?” said Martin eagerly, as Torfrida entered.

“What? What?” She seemed to waken from a dream. “God bless thee, thou good and faithful servant”; and she turned again.

“Madam? Say!”

“What?”

“Shall I go back and kill him?” And he held out the little axe.

Torfrida snatched it from his grasp with a shriek, and cast it inside the convent door.

“Mother Mary and all saints!” cried the portress, “your garments are in rags, madam!”

“Never mind. Bring me garments of yours. I shall need none other till I die!” and she walked in and on.

“She is come to be a nun!” whispered the portress to the next sister, and she again to the next; and they all gabbled, and lifted up their hands and eyes, and thanked all the saints of the calendar, over the blessed and miraculous conversion of the Lady Torfrida, and the wealth which she would probably bring to the convent.

Torfrida went straight on, speaking to no one, not even to the prioress; and into Lady Godiva’s chamber.

There she dropped at the countess’s feet, and laid her head upon her knees.

“I am come, as you always told me I should do. But it has been a long way hither, and I am very tired.”

“My child! What is this? What brings you here?”

“I am doing penance for my sins.”

“And your feet all cut and bleeding.”

“Are they?” said Torfrida, vacantly. “I will tell you all about it when I wake.”

And she fell fast asleep, with her head in Godiva’s lap.

The countess did not speak or stir. She beckoned the good prioress, who had followed Torfrida in, to go away. She saw that something dreadful had happened; and prayed as she awaited the news.

Torfrida slept for a full hour. Then she woke with a start.

“Where am I? Hereward!”

Then followed a dreadful shriek, which made every nun in that quiet house shudder, and thank God that she knew nothing of those agonies of soul, which were the lot of the foolish virgins who married and were given in marriage themselves, instead of waiting with oil in their lamps for the true Bridegroom.

“I recollect all now,” said Torfrida. “Listen!” And she told the countess all, with speech so calm and clear, that Godiva was awed by the power and spirit of that marvellous woman.

But she groaned in bitterness of soul. “Anything but this. Rather death from him than treachery. This last, worst woe had God kept in his quiver for me most miserable of women. And now his bolt has fallen! Hereward! Hereward! That thy mother should wish her last child laid in his grave!”

“Not so,” said Torfrida, “it is well as it is. How better? It is his only chance for comfort, for honor, for life itself. He would have grown a — I was growing bad and foul myself in that ugly wilderness. Now he will be a knight once more among knights, and win himself fresh honor in fresh fields. Let him marry her. Why not? He can get a dispensation from the Pope, and then there will be no sin in it, you know. If the Holy Father cannot make wrong right, who can? Yes. It is very well as it is. And I am very well where I am. Women! bring me scissors, and one of your nun’s dresses. I am come to be a nun like you.”

Godiva would have stopped her. But Torfrida rose upon her knees, and calmly made a solemn vow, which, though canonically void without her husband’s consent, would, she well knew, never be disputed by any there; and as for him — “He has lost me; and forever. Torfrida never gives herself away twice.”

“There’s carnal pride in those words, my poor child,” said Godiva.

“Cruel!” said she, proudly. “When I am sacrificing myself utterly for him.”

“And thy poor girl?”

“He will let her come hither,” said Torfrida with forced calm. “He will see that it is not fit that she should grow up with — yes, he will send her to me — to us. And I shall live for her — and for you. If you will let me be your bower woman, dress you, serve you, read to you. You know that I am a pretty scholar. You will let me, mother? I may call you mother, may I not?” And Torfrida fondled the old woman’s thin hands, “For I do want so much something to love.”

“Love thy heavenly bridegroom, the only love worthy of woman!” said Godiva, as her tears fell fast on Torfrida’s head.

She gave a half-impatient toss.

“That may come, in good time. As yet it is enough to do, if I can keep down this devil here in my throat. Women, bring me the scissors.”

And Torfrida cut off her raven locks, now streaked with gray, and put on the nun’s dress, and became a nun thenceforth.

On the second day there came to Crowland Leofric the priest, and with him the poor child.

She had woke in the morning and found no mother. Leofric and the other men searched the woods round, far and wide. The girl mounted her horse, and would go with them. Then they took a bloodhound, and he led them to Grimkel’s hut. There they heard of Martin. The ghost must have been Torfrida. Then the hound brought them to the river. And they divined at once that she was gone to Crowland, to Godiva; but why, they could not guess.

Then the girl insisted, prayed, at last commanded them to take her to Crowland. And to Crowland they came.

Leofric left the girl at the nun’s house door, and went into the monastery, where he had friends enow, runaway and renegade as he was. As he came into the great court, whom should he meet but Martin Lightfoot, in a lay brother’s frock.

“Aha? And are you come home likewise? Have you renounced the Devil and this last work of his?”

“What work? What devil?” asked Leofric, who saw method in Martin’s madness. “And what do you here, in a long frock?”

“Devil? Hereward the devil. I would have killed him with my axe; but she got it from me, and threw it in among the holy sisters, and I had work to get it again. Shame on her, to spoil my chance of heaven! For I should have surely won heaven, you know, if I had killed the devil.”

After much beating, about, Leofric got from Martin the whole tragedy.

And when he heard it, he burst out weeping.

“O Hereward, Hereward! O knightly honor! O faith and troth and gratitude, and love in return for such love as might have tamed lions, and made tyrants mild! Are they all carnal vanities, works of the weak flesh, bruised reeds which break when they are leaned upon? If so, you are right, Martin, and there is naught left, but to flee from a world in which all men are liars.”

And Leofric, in the midst of Crowland Yard, tore off his belt and trusty sword, his hauberk and helm also, and letting down his monk’s frock, which he wore trussed to the mid-knee, he went to the Abbot’s lodgings, and asked to see old Ulfketyl.

“Bring him up,” said the good abbot, “for he is a valiant man and true, in spite of all his vanities; and may be he brings news of Hereward, whom God forgive.”

And when Leofric came in, he fell upon his knees, bewailing and confessing his sinful life; and begged the abbot to take him back again into Crowland minster, and lay upon him what penance he thought fit, and put him in the lowest office, because he was a man of blood; if only he might stay there, and have a sight at times of his dear Lady Torfrida, without whom he should surely die.

So Leofric was received back, in full chapter, by abbot and prior and all the monks. But when he asked them to lay a penance upon him, Ulfketyl arose from his high chair and spoke.

“Shall we, who have sat here at ease, lay a penance on this man, who has shed his blood in fifty valiant fights for us, and for St. Guthlac, and for this English land? Look at yon scars upon his head and arms. He has had sharper discipline from cold steel than we could give him here with rod; and has fasted in the wilderness more sorely, many a time, than we have fasted here.”

And all the monks agreed, that no penance should be laid on Leofric. Only that he should abstain from singing vain and carnal ballads, which turned the heads of the young brothers, and made them dream of naught but battles, and giants, and enchanters, and ladies’ love.

Hereward came back on the third day, and found his wife and daughter gone. His guilty conscience told him in the first instant why. For he went into the chamber, and there, upon the floor, lay the letter which he had looked for in vain.

No one had touched it where it lay. Perhaps no one had dared to enter the chamber. If they had, they would not have dared to meddle with writing, which they could not read, and which might contain some magic spell. Letters were very safe in those old days.

There are moods of man which no one will dare to describe, unless, like Shakespeare, he is Shakespeare, and like Shakespeare knows it not.

Therefore what Hereward thought and felt will not be told. What he did was this. He raged and blustered. He must hide his shame. He must justify himself to his knights; and much more to himself; or if not justify himself, must shift some of the blame over to the opposite side. So he raged and blustered. He had been robbed of his wife and daughter. They had been cajoled away by the monks of Crowland. What villains were those, to rob an honest man of his family while he was fighting for his country?

So he rode down to the river, and there took two great barges, and rowed away to Crowland, with forty men-at-arms.

And all the while he thought of Alftruda, as he hai seen her at Peterborough.

And of no one else?

Not so. For all the while he felt that he loved Torfrida’s little finger better than Alftruda’s whole body, and soul into the bargain.

What a long way it was to Crowland. How wearying were the hours through mere and sea. How wearying the monotonous pulse of the oars. If tobacco had been known then, Hereward would have smoked all the way, and been none the wiser, though the happier, for it; for the herb that drives away the evil spirits of anxiety, drives away also the good, though stern, spirits of remorse.

But in those days a man could only escape facts by drinking; and Hereward was too much afraid of what he should meet in Crowland, to go thither drunk.

Sometimes he hoped that Torfrida might hold her purpose, and set him free to follow his wicked will. All the lower nature in him, so long crushed under, leapt up chuckling and grinning and tumbling head over heels, and cried — Now I shall have a holiday!

Sometimes he hoped that Torfrida might come out to the shore, and settle the matter in one moment, by a glance of her great hawk’s eyes. If she would but quell him by one look; leap on board, seize the helm, and assume without a word the command of his men and him; steer them back to Bourne, and sit down beside him with a kiss, as if nothing had happened. If she would but do that, and ignore the past, would he not ignore it? Would he not forget Alftruda, and King William, and all the world, and go up with her into Sherwood, and then north to Scotland and Gospatrick, and be a man once more?

No. He would go with her to the Baltic or the Mediterranean. Constantinople and the Varangers would be the place and the men. Ay, there to escape out of that charmed ring into a new life!

No. He did not deserve such luck; and he would not get it.

She would talk it all out. She must, for she was a woman.

She would blame, argue, say dreadful words — dreadful, because true and deserved. Then she would grow angry, as women do when they are most in the right, and say too much — dreadful words, which would be untrue and undeserved. Then he should resist, recriminate. He would not stand it. He could not stand it. No. He could never face her again.

And yet if he had seen a man insult her — if he had seen her at that moment in peril of the slightest danger, the slightest bruise, he would have rushed forward like a madman, and died, saving her from that bruise. And he knew that: and with the strange self-contradiction of human nature, he soothed his own conscience by the thought that he loved her still; and that, therefore — somehow or other, he cared not to make out how — he had done her no wrong. Then he blustered again, for the benefit of his men. He would teach these monks of Crowland a lesson. He would burn the minster over their heads.

“That would be pity, seeing they are the only Englishmen left in England,” said Siward the White, his nephew, very simply.

“What is that to thee? Thou hast helped to burn Peterborough at my bidding; and thou shalt help to burn Crowland.”

“I am a free gentleman of England; and what I choose, I do. I and my brother are going to Constantinople to join the Varanger guard, and shall not burn Crowland, or let any man burn it.”

“Shall not let?”

“No,” said the young man, so quietly, that Hereward was cowed.

“I— I only meant — if they did not do right by me.”

“Do right thyself,” said Siward.

Hereward swore awfully, and laid his hand on his sword-hilt. But he did not draw it; for he thought he saw overhead a cloud which was very like the figure of St. Guthlac in Crowland window, and an awe fell upon him from above.

So they came to Crowland; and Hereward landed and beat upon the gates, and spoke high words. But the monks did not open the gates for a while. At last the gates creaked, and opened; and in the gateway stood Abbot Ulfketyl in his robes of state, and behind him Prior, and all the officers, and all the monks of the house.

“Comes Hereward in peace or in war?”

“In war!” said Hereward.

Then that true and trusty old man, who sealed his patriotism, if not with his blood — for the very Normans had not the heart to take that — still with long and bitter sorrows, lifted up his head, and said, like a valiant Dane, as his name bespoke him: “Against the traitor and the adulterer —”

“I am neither,” roared Hereward.

“Thou wouldst be, if thou couldst. Whoso looketh upon a woman to —”

“Preach me no sermons, man! Let me in to seek my wife.”

“Over my body,” said Ulfketyl, and laid himself down across the threshold.

Hereward recoiled. If he had dared to step over that sacred body, there was not a blood-stained ruffian in his crew who dared to follow him.

“Rise, rise! for God’s sake, Lord Abbot,” said he. “Whatever I am, I need not that you should disgrace me thus. Only let me see her — reason with her.”

“She has vowed herself to God, and is none of thine hence forth.”

“It is against the canons. A wrong and a robbery.”

Ulfketyl rose, grand as ever.

“Hereward Leofricsson, our joy and our glory once. Hearken to the old man who will soon go whither thine Uncle Brand is gone, and be free of Frenchmen, and of all this wicked world. When the walls of Crowland dare not shelter the wronged woman, fleeing from man’s treason to God’s faithfulness, then let the roofs of Crowland burn till the flame reaches heaven, for a sign that the children of God are as false as the children of this world, and break their faith like any belted knight.”

Hereward was silenced. His men shrunk back from him. He felt as if God, and the Mother of God, and St. Guthlac, and all the host of heaven, were shrinking back from him likewise. He turned to supplications, compromises — what else was left?

“At least you will let me have speech of her, or of my mother?”

“They must answer that, not I.”

Hereward sent in, entreating to see one, or both.

“Tell him,” said Lady Godiva, “who calls himself my son, that my sons were men of honor, and that he must have been changed at nurse.”

“Tell him,” said Torfrida, “that I have lived my life, and am dead. Dead. If he would see me, he will only see my corpse.”

“You would not slay yourself?”

“What is there that I dare not do? You do not know Torfrida. He does.”

And Hereward did; and went back again like a man stunned.

After a while there came by boat to Crowland all Torfrida’s wealth: clothes, jewels: not a shred had Hereward kept. The magic armor came with them.

Torfrida gave all to the abbey, there and then. Only the armor she wrapped up in the white bear’s skin, and sent it back to Hereward, with her blessing, and entreaty not to refuse that, her last bequest.

Hereward did not refuse, for very shame. But for very shame he never wore that armor more. For very shame he never slept again upon the white bear’s skin, on which he and his true love had lain so many a year.

And Torfrida turned herself utterly to serve the Lady Godiva, and to teach and train her child as she had never done before, while she had to love Hereward, and to work day and night, with her own fingers, for all his men. All pride, all fierceness, all care of self, had passed away from her. In penitence, humility, obedience, and gentleness, she went on; never smiling; but never weeping. Her heart was broken; and she felt it good for herself to let it break.

And Leofric the priest, and mad Martin Lightfoot, watched like two dogs for her going out and coming in; and when she went among the poor corrodiers, and nursed the sick, and taught the children, and went to and fro upon her holy errands, blessing and blessed, the two wild men had a word from her mouth, or a kiss of her hand, and were happy all the day after. For they loved her with a love mightier than ever Hereward had heaped upon her; for she had given him all: but she had given those two wild men naught but the beatific vision of a noble woman.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/hereward/chapter36.html

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