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

Chapter 40.

How Hereward Began to Get His Soul’s Price.

And now behold Hereward at home again, fat with the wages of sin, and not knowing that they are death.

He is once more “Dominus de Brunune cum Marisco,” (Lord of Bourne with the fen), “with all returns and liberties and all other things adjacent to the same vill which are now held as a barony from the Lord King of England.” He has a fair young wife, and with her farms and manors, even richer than his own. He is still young, hearty, wise by experience, high in the king’s favor, and deservedly so.

Why should he not begin life again?

Why not? Unless it be true that the wages of sin are, not a new life, but death.

And yet he has his troubles. Hardly a Norman knight or baron round but has a blood-feud against him, for a kinsman slain. Sir Aswart, Thorold the abbot’s man, was not likely to forgive him for turning him out of the three Mainthorpe manors, which he had comfortably held for two years past, and sending him back to lounge in the abbot’s hall at Peterborough, without a yard of land he could call his own. Sir Ascelin was not likely to forgive him for marrying Alftruda, whom he had intended to marry himself. Ivo Taillebois was not likely to forgive him for existing within a hundred miles of Spalding, any more than the wolf would forgive the lamb for fouling the water below him. Beside, had he (Ivo) not married Hereward’s niece? and what more grievous offence could Hereward commit, than to be her uncle, reminding Ivo of his own low birth by his nobility, and too likely to take Lucia’s part, whenever it should please Ivo to beat or kick her? Only “Gilbert of Ghent,” the pious and illustrious earl, sent messages of congratulation and friendship to Hereward, it being his custom to sail with the wind, and worship the rising sun — till it should decline again.

But more: hardly one of the Normans round, but, in the conceit of their skin-deep yesterday’s civilization, look on Hereward as a barbarian Englishman, who has his throat tattooed, and wears a short coat, and prefers — the churl — to talk English in his own hall, though he can talk as good French as they when he is with them, beside three or four barbarian tongues if he has need.

But more still: if they are not likely to bestow their love on Hereward, Hereward is not likely to win love from them of his own will. He is peevish, and wrathful, often insolent and quarrelsome; and small blame to him. The Normans are invaders and tyrants, who have no business there, and should not be there, if he had his way. And they and he can no more amalgamate than fire and water. Moreover, he is a very great man, or has been such once, and he thinks himself one still. He has been accustomed to command men, whole armies; and he will no more treat these Normans as his equals, than they will treat him as such. His own son-in-law, Hugh of Evermue, has to take hard words — thoroughly well deserved, it may be; but all the more unpleasant for that reason.

The truth was, that Hereward’s heart was gnawed with shame and remorse; and therefore he fancied, and not without reason, that all men pointed at him the finger of scorn.

He had done a bad, base, accursed deed. And he knew it. Once in his life — for his other sins were but the sins of his age — the Father of men seems (if the chroniclers say truth) to have put before this splendid barbarian good and evil, saying, Choose! And he knew that the evil was evil, and chose it nevertheless.

Eight hundred years after, a still greater genius and general had the same choice — as far as human cases of conscience can be alike — put before him. And he chose as Hereward chose.

But as with Napoleon and Josephine, so it was with Hereward and Torfrida. Neither throve after.

It was not punished by miracle. What sin is? It worked out its own punishment; that which it merited, deserved, or earned, by its own labor. No man could commit such a sin without shaking his whole character to the root. Hereward tried to persuade himself that his was not shaken; that he was the same Hereward as ever. But he could not deceive himself long. His conscience was evil. He was discontented with all mankind, and with himself most of all. He tried to be good — as good as he chose to be. If he had done wrong in one thing, he might make up for it in others; but he could not.

All his higher instincts fell from him one by one. He did not like to think of good and noble things; he dared not think of them. He felt, not at first, but as the months rolled on, that he was a changed man; that God had left him. His old bad habits began to return to him. Gradually he sank back into the very vices from which Torfrida had raised him sixteen years before, He took to drinking again, to dull the malady of thought; he excused himself to himself; he wished to forget his defeats, his disappointment, the ruin of his country, the splendid past which lay behind him like a dream. True: but he wished to forget likewise Torfrida fasting and weeping in Crowland. He could not bear the sight of Crowland tower on the far green horizon, the sound of Crowland bells booming over the flat on the south-wind. He never rode down into the fens; he never went to see his daughter at Deeping, because Crowland lay that way. He went up into the old Bruneswald, hunted all day long through the glades where he and his merry men had done their doughty deeds, and came home in the evening to get drunk.

Then he lost his sleep. He sent down to Crowland, to Leofric the priest, that he might come to him, and sing his sagas of the old heroes, that he might get rest. But Leofric sent back for answer that he would not come.

That night Alftruda heard him by her side in the still hours, weeping silently to himself. She caressed him: but he gave no heed to her.

“I believe,” said she bitterly at last, “that you love Torfrida still better than you do me.”

And Hereward answered, like Mahomet in like case, “That do I, by heaven. She believed in me when no one else in the world did.”

And the vain, hard Alftruda answered angrily; and there was many a fierce quarrel between them after that.

With his love of drinking, his love of boasting came back. Because he could do no more great deeds — or rather had not the spirit left in him to do more — he must needs, like a worn-out old man, babble of the great deeds which he had done; insult and defy his Norman neighbors; often talk what might be easily caricatured into treason against King William himself.

There were great excuses for his follies, as there are for those of every beaten man; but Hereward was spent. He had lived his life, and had no more life which he could live; for every man, it would seem, brings into the world with him a certain capacity, a certain amount of vital force, in body and in soul; and when that is used up, the man must sink down into some sort of second childhood, and end, like Hereward, very much where he began; unless the grace of God shall lift him up above the capacity of the mere flesh, into a life literally new, ever-renewing, ever-expanding, and eternal.

But the grace of God had gone away from Hereward, as it goes away from all men who are unfaithful to their wives.

It was very pitiable. Let no man judge him. Life, to most, is very hard work. There are those who endure to the end, and are saved; there are those, again, who do not endure: upon whose souls may God have mercy.

So Hereward soon became as intolerable to his Norman neighbors as they were intolerable to him.

Whereon, according to the simple fashion of those primitive times, they sought about for some one who would pick a quarrel with Hereward, and slay him in fair fight. But an Archibald Bell-the-Cat was not to be found on every hedge.

But it befell that Oger the Breton, he who had Morcar’s lands round Bourne, came up to see after his lands, and to visit his friend and fellow-robber, Ivo Taillebois.

Ivo thought the hot-headed Breton, who had already insulted Hereward with impunity at Winchester, the fittest man for his purpose; and asked him, over his cups, whether he had settled with that English ruffian about the Docton land?

Now, King William had judged that Hereward and Oger should hold that land between them, as he and Toli had done. But when “two dogs,” as Ivo said, “have hold of the same bone, it is hard if they cannot get a snap at each other’s noses.”

Oger agreed to that opinion; and riding into Bourne, made inquisition into the doings at Docton. And — scandalous injustice! — he found that an old woman had sent six hens to Hereward, whereof she should have kept three for him.

So he sent to demand formally of Hereward those three hens; and was unpleasantly disappointed when Hereward, instead of offering to fight him, sent him them in an hour, and a lusty young cock into the bargain, with this message — That he hoped they might increase and multiply; for it was a shame of an honest Englishman if he did not help a poor Breton churl to eat roast fowls for the first time in his life, after feeding on nothing better than furze-toppings, like his own ponies.

To which Oger, who, like a true Breton, believed himself descended from King Arthur, Sir Tristram, and half the knights of the Round Table, replied that his blood was to that of Hereward as wine to peat-water; and that Bretons used furze-toppings only to scourge the backs of insolent barbarians.

To which Hereward replied, that there were gnats enough pestering him in the fens already, and that one more was of no consequence.

Wherefrom the Breton judged, as at Winchester, that Hereward had no lust to fight.

The next day he met Hereward going out to hunt, and was confirmed in his opinion when Hereward lifted his cap to him most courteously, saying that he was not aware before that his neighbor was a gentleman of such high blood.

“Blood? Better at least than thine, thou bare-legged Saxon, who has dared to call me churl. So you must needs have your throat cut? I took you for a wiser man.”

“Many have taken me for that which I am not. If you will harness yourself, I will do the same; and we will ride up into the Bruneswald, and settle this matter in peace.”

“Three men on each side to see fair play,” said the Breton.

And up into the Bruneswald they rode; and fought long without advantage on either side.

Hereward was not the man which he had been. His nerve was gone, as well as his conscience; and all the dash and fury of his old onslaughts gone therewith.

He grew tired of the fight, not in body, but in mind; and more than once drew back.

“Let us stop this child’s play,” said he, according to the chronicler; “what need have we to fight here all day about nothing?”

Whereat the Breton fancied him already more than half-beaten, and attacked more furiously than ever. He would be the first man on earth who ever had had the better of the great outlaw. He would win himself eternal glory, as the champion of all England.

But he had mistaken his man, and his indomitable English pluck. “It was Hereward’s fashion, in fight and war,” says the chronicler, “always to ply the man most at the last.” And so found the Breton; for Hereward suddenly lost patience, and rushing on him with one of his old shouts, hewed at him again and again, as if his arm would never tire.

Oger gave back, would he or not. In a few moments his sword-arm dropt to his side, cut half through.

“Have you had enough, Sir Tristram the younger?” quoth Hereward, wiping his sword, and walking moodily away.

Oger went out of Bourne with his arm in a sling, and took counsel with Ivo Taillebois. Whereon they two mounted, and rode to Lincoln, and took counsel with Gilbert of Ghent.

The fruit of which was this. That a fortnight after Gilbert rode into Bourne with a great meinie, full a hundred strong, and with him the sheriff and the king’s writ, and arrested Hereward on a charge of speaking evil of the king, breaking his peace, compassing the death of his faithful lieges, and various other wicked, traitorous, and diabolical acts.

Hereward was minded at first to fight and die. But Gilbert, who — to do him justice — wished no harm to his ancient squire, reasoned with him. Why should he destroy not only himself, but perhaps his people likewise? Why should he throw away his last chance? The king was not so angry as he seemed; and if Hereward would but be reasonable, the matter might be arranged. As it was, he was not to be put to strong prison. He was to be in the custody of Robert of Herepol, Châtelain of Bedford, who, Hereward knew, was a reasonable and courteous man. The king had asked him, Gilbert, to take charge of Hereward.

“And what said you?”

“That I had rather have in my pocket the seven devils that came out of St. Mary Magdalene; and that I would not have thee within ten miles of Lincoln town, to be Earl of all the Danelagh. So I begged him to send thee to Sir Robert, just because I knew him to be a mild and gracious man.”

A year before, Hereward would have scorned the proposal; and probably, by one of his famous stratagems, escaped there and then out of the midst of all Gilbert’s men. But his spirit was broken; indeed, so was the spirit of every Englishman; and he mounted his horse sullenly, and rode alongside of Gilbert, unarmed for the first time for many a year.

“You had better have taken me,” said Sir Ascelin aside to the weeping Alftruda.

“I? helpless wretch that I am! What shall I do for my own safety, now he is gone?”

“Let me come and provide for it.”

“Out! wretch! traitor!” cried she.

“There is nothing very traitorous in succoring distressed ladies,” said Ascelin. “If I can be of the least service to Alftruda the peerless, let her but send, and I fly to do her bidding.”

So they rode off.

Hereward went through Cambridge and Potton like a man stunned, and spoke never a word. He could not even think, till he heard the key turned on him in a room — not a small or doleful one — in Bedford keep, and found an iron shackle on his leg, fastened to the stone bench on which he sat.

Robert of Herepol had meant to leave his prisoner loose. But there were those in Gilbert’s train who told him, and with truth, that if he did so, no man’s life would be safe. That to brain the jailer with his own keys, and then twist out of his bowels a line wherewith to let himself down from the top of the castle, would be not only easy, but amusing, to the famous “Wake.”

So Robert consented to fetter him so far, but no further; and begged his pardon again and again as he did it, pleading the painful necessities of his office.

But Hereward heard him not. He sat in stupefied despair. A great black cloud had covered all heaven and earth, and entered into his brain through every sense, till his mind, as he said afterwards, was like hell, with the fire gone out.

A jailer came in, he knew not how long after, bringing a good meal, and wine. He came cautiously toward the prisoner, and when still beyond the length of his chain, set the food down, and thrust it toward him with a stick, lest Hereward should leap on him and wring his neck.

But Hereward never even saw him or the food. He sat there all day, all night, and nearly all the next day, and hardly moved hand or foot. The jailer told Sir Robert in the evening that he thought the man was mad, and would die.

So good Sir Robert went up to him, and spoke kindly and hopefully. But all Hereward answered was, that he was very well. That he wanted nothing. That he had always heard well of Sir Robert. That he should like to get a little sleep: but that sleep would not come.

The next day Sir Robert came again early, and found him sitting in the same place.

“He was very well,” he said. “How could he be otherwise? He was just where he ought to be. A man could not be better than in his right place.”

Whereon Sir Robert gave him up for mad.

Then he bethought of sending him a harp, knowing the fame of Hereward’s music and singing. “And when he saw the harp,” the jailer said, “he wept; but bade take the thing away. And so sat still where he was.”

In this state of dull despair he remained for many weeks. At last he woke up.

There passed through and by Bedford large bodies of troops, going as it were to and from battle. The clank of arms stirred Hereward’s heart as of old, and he sent to Sir Robert to ask what was toward.

Sir Robert, “the venerable man,” came to him joyfully and at once, glad to speak to an illustrious captive, whom he looked on as an injured man; and told him news enough.

Taillebois’s warning about Ralph Guader and Waltheof had not been needless. Ralph, as the most influential of the Bretons, was on no good terms with the Normans, save with one, and that one of the most powerful — Fitz–Osbern, Earl of Hereford. His sister Ralph was to have married; but William, for reasons unknown, forbade the match. The two great earls celebrated the wedding in spite of William, and asked Waltheof as a guest. And at Exning, between the fen and Newmarket Heath —

“Was that bride-ale

Which was man’s bale.”

For there was matured the plot which Ivo and others had long seen brewing. William had made himself hateful to all men by his cruelties and tyrannies; and indeed his government was growing more unrighteous day by day. Let them drive him out of England, and part the land between them. Two should be dukes, the third king paramount.

“Waltheof, I presume, plotted drunk, and repented sober, when too late. The wittol! He should have been a monk.”

“Repented he has, if ever he was guilty. For he fled to Archbishop Lanfranc, and confessed to him so much, that Lanfranc declares him innocent, and has sent him on to William in Normandy.”

“O kind priest! true priest! To send his sheep into the wolf’s mouth.”

“You forget, dear sire, that William is our king.”

“I can hardly forget that, with this pretty ring upon my ankle. But after my experience of how he has kept faith with me, what can I expect for Waltheof the wittol, save that which I have foretold many a time?”

“As for you, dear sire, the king has been misinformed concerning you. I have sent messengers to reason with him again and again; but as long as Taillebois, Warrenne, and Robert Malet had his ear, of what use were my poor words?”

“And what said they?”

“That there would be no peace in England if you were loose.”

“They lied. I am no boy, like Waltheof. I know when the game is played out. And it is played out now. The Frenchman is master, and I know it well. Were I loose tomorrow, and as great a fool as Waltheof, what could I do, with, it may be, some forty knights and a hundred men-at-arms, against all William’s armies? But how goes on this fool’s rebellion? If I had been loose I might have helped to crush it in the bud.”

“And you would have done that against Waltheof?”

“Why not against him? He is but bringing more misery on England. Tell that to William. Tell him that if he sets me free, I will be the first to attack Waltheof, or whom he will. There are no English left to fight against,” said he, bitterly, “for Waltheof is none now.”

“He shall know your words when he returns to England.”

“What, is he abroad, and all this evil going on?”

“In Normandy. But the English have risen for the King in Herefordshire, and beaten Earl Roger; and Odo of Bayeux and Bishop Mowbray are on their way to Cambridge, where they hope to give a good account of Earl Ralph; and that the English may help them there.”

“And they shall! They hate Ralph Guader as much as I do. Can you send a message for me?”

“Whither?”

“To Bourne in the Bruneswald; and say to Hereward’s men, wherever they are, Let them rise and arm, if they love Hereward, and down to Cambridge, to be the foremost at Bishop Odo’s side against Ralph Guader, or Waltheof himself. Send! send! O that I were free!”

“Would to Heaven thou wert free, my gallant sir!” said the good man.

From that day Hereward woke up somewhat. He was still a broken man, querulous, peevish; but the hope of freedom and the hope of battle woke him up. If he could but get to his men! But his melancholy returned. His men — some of them at least — went down to Odo at Cambridge, and did good service. Guader was utterly routed, and escaped to Norwich, and thence to Brittany — his home. The bishops punished their prisoners, the rebel Normans, with horrible mutilations.

“The wolves are beginning to eat each other,” said Hereward to himself. But it was a sickening thought to him, that his men had been fighting and he not at their head.

After a while there came to Bedford Castle two witty knaves. One was a cook, who “came to buy milk,” says the chronicler; the other seemingly a gleeman. They told stories, jested, harped, sang, drank, and pleased much the garrison and Sir Robert, who let them hang about the place.

They asked next, whether it were true that the famous Hereward was there? If so, might a man have a look at him?

The jailer said that many men might have gone to see him, so easy was Sir Robert to him. But he would have no man; and none dare enter save Sir Robert and he, for fear of their lives. But he would ask him of Herepol.

The good knight of Herepol said, “Let the rogues go in; they may amuse the poor man.”

So they went in, and as soon as they went, he knew them. One was Martin Lightfoot, the other Leofric the Unlucky.

“Who sent you?” asked he surlily, turning his face away.

“She.”

“Who?”

“We know but one she, and she is at Crowland.”

“She sent you? and wherefore?”

“That we might sing to you, and make you merry.”

Hereward answered them with a terrible word, and turned his face to the wall, groaning, and then bade them sternly to go.

So they went, for the time.

The jailer told this to Sir Robert, who saw all, being a kind-hearted man.

“From his poor first wife, eh? Well, there can be no harm in that. Nor if they came from this Lady Alftruda either, for that matter; let them go in and out when they will.”

“But they may be spies and traitors.”

“Then we can but hang them.”

Robert of Herepol, it would appear from the chronicle, did not much care whether they were spies or not.

So the men went to and fro, and often sat with Hereward. But he forbade them sternly to mention Torfrida’s name.

Alftruda sent to him meanwhile, again and again, messages of passionate love and sorrow, and he listened to them as sullenly as he did to his two servants, and sent no answer back. And so sat more weary months, in the very prison, it may be in the very room, in which John Bunyan sat nigh six hundred years after: but in a very different frame of mind.

One day Sir Robert was going up the stairs with another knight, and met the two coming down. He was talking to that knight earnestly, indignantly: and somehow, as he passed Leofric and Martin he thought fit to raise his voice, as if in a great wrath.

“Shame to all honor and chivalry! good saints in heaven, what a thing is human fortune! That this man, who had once a gallant army at his back, should be at this moment going like a sheep to the slaughter, to Buckingham Castle, at the mercy of his worst enemy, Ivo Taillebois, of all men in the world. If there were a dozen knights left of all those whom he used to heap with wealth and honor, worthy the name of knights, they would catch us between here and Stratford, and make a free man of their lord.”

So spake — or words to that effect, according to the Latin chronicler, who must have got them from Leofric himself — the good knight of Herepol.

“Hillo, knaves!” said he, seeing the two, “are you here eavesdropping? out of the castle this instant, on your lives.”

Which hint those two witty knaves took on the spot.

A few days after, Hereward was travelling toward Buckingham, chained upon a horse, with Sir Robert and his men, and a goodly company of knights belonging to Ivo. Ivo, as the story runs, seems to have arranged with Ralph Pagnel at Buckingham to put him into the keeping of a creature of his own. And how easy it was to put out a man’s eyes, or starve him to death, in a Norman keep, none knew better than Hereward.

But he was past fear or sorrow. A dull heavy cloud of despair had settled down upon his soul. Black with sin, his heart could not pray. He had hardened himself against all heaven and earth, and thought, when he thought at all, only of his wrongs: but never of his sins.

They passed through a forest, seemingly somewhere near what is Newport Pagnel, named after Ralph, his would-be jailer.

Suddenly from the trees dashed out a body of knights, and at their head the white-bear banner, in Ranald of Ramsey’s hand.

“Halt!” shouted Sir Robert; “we are past the half-way stone. Earl Ivo’s and Earl Ralph’s men are answerable now for the prisoner.”

“Treason!” shouted Ivo’s men, and one would have struck Hereward through with his lance; but Winter was too quick for him, and bore him from his saddle; and then dragged Hereward out of the fight.

The Normans, surprised while their helmets were hanging at their saddles, and their arms not ready for battle, were scattered at once. But they returned to the attack, confident in their own numbers.

They were over confident. Hereward’s fetters were knocked off; and he was horsed and armed, and, mad with freedom and battle, fighting like himself once more.

Only as he rode to and fro, thrusting and hewing, he shouted to his men to spare Sir Robert, and all his meinie, crying that he was the savior of his life; and when the fight was over, and all Ivo’s and Ralph’s men who were not slain had ridden for their lives into Stratford, he shook hands with that venerable knight, giving him innumerable thanks and courtesies for his honorable keeping; and begged him to speak well of him to the king.

And so these two parted in peace, and Hereward was a free man.

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