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

Chapter 12.

How Hereward Turned Berserk.

Torfrida’s heart misgave her that first night as to the effects of her exceeding frankness. Her pride in the first place was somewhat wounded; she had dreamed of a knight who would worship her as his queen, hang on her smile, die at her frown; and she had meant to bring Hereward to her feet as such a slave, in boundless gratitude; but had he not rather held his own, and brought her to his feet, by assuming her devotion as his right? And if he assumed that, how far could she trust him not to abuse his claim? Was he quite as perfect, seen close, as seen afar off? And now that the intoxication of that meeting had passed off, she began to remember more than one little fault which she would have gladly seen mended. Certain roughnesses of manner which contrasted unfavorably with the polish (merely external though it was) of the Flemish and Norman knights; a boastful self-sufficiency, too, which bordered on the ludicrous at whiles even in her partial eyes; which would be a matter of open laughter to the knights of the Court. Besides, if they laughed at him, they would laugh at her for choosing him. And then wounded vanity came in to help wounded pride; and she sat over the cold embers till almost dawn of day, her head between her hands, musing sadly, and half wishing that the irrevocable yesterday had never come.

But when, after a few months, Hereward returned from his first campaign in Holland, covered with glory and renown, all smiles, and beauty, and health, and good-humor, and gratitude for the magic armor which had preserved him unhurt, then Torfrida forgot all her fears, and thought herself the happiest maid alive for four-and-twenty hours at least.

And then came back, and after that again and again, the old fears. Gradually she found out that the sneers which she had heard at English barbarians were not altogether without ground.

Not only had her lover’s life been passed among half-brutal and wild adventurers; but, like the rest of his nation, he had never felt the influence of that classic civilization without which good manners seem, even to this day, almost beyond the reach of the white man. Those among whom she had been brought up, whether soldiers or clerks, were probably no nobler or purer at heart — she would gladly have believed them far less so — than Hereward; but the merest varnish of Roman civilization had given a charm to their manners, a wideness of range to their thoughts, which Hereward had not.

Especially when he had taken too much to drink — which he did, after the Danish fashion, far oftener than the rest of Baldwin’s men — he grew rude, boastful, quarrelsome. He would chant his own doughty deeds, and “gab,” as the Norman word was, in painful earnest, while they gabbed only in sport, and outvied each other in impossible fanfaronades, simply to laugh down a fashion which was held inconsistent with the modesty of a true knight. Bitter it was to her to hear him announcing to the company, not for the first or second time, how he had slain the Cornish giant, whose height increased by a foot at least every time he was mentioned; and then to hear him answered by some smart, smooth-shaven youth, who, with as much mimicry of his manner as he dared to assume, boasted of having slain in Araby a giant with two heads, and taken out of his two mouths the two halves of the princess whom he was devouring, which being joined together afterwards by the prayers of a holy hermit, were delivered back safe and sound to her father the King of Antioch. And more bitter still, to hear Hereward angrily dispute the story, unaware (at least at first) that he was being laughed at.

Then she grew sometimes cold, sometimes contemptuous, sometimes altogether fierce; and shed bitter tears in secret, when she was complimented on the modesty of her young savage.

But she was a brave maiden; and what was more, she loved him with all her heart. Else why endure bitter words for his sake? And she set herself to teach and train the wild outlaw into her ideal of a very perfect knight.

She talked to him of modesty and humility, the root of all virtues; of chivalry and self-sacrifice; of respect to the weak, and mercy to the fallen; of devotion to God, and awe of His commandments. She set before him the example of ancient heroes and philosophers, of saints and martyrs; and as much awed him by her learning as by the new world of higher and purer morality which was opened for the first time to the wandering Viking.

And he drank it all in. Taught by a woman who loved him, he could listen to humiliating truths, which he would have sneered at, had they come from the lips of a hermit or a priest. Often he rebelled; often he broke loose, and made her angry, and himself ashamed: but the spell was on him — a far surer, as well as purer spell than any love-potion of which foolish Torfrida had ever dreamed — the only spell which can really civilize man — that of woman’s tact and woman’s purity.

But there were relapses, as was natural. The wine at Robert the Frison’s table was often too good; and then Hereward’s tongue was loosed, and Torfrida justly indignant. And one evening there came a very serious relapse, and out of which arose a strange adventure.

For one day the Great Marquis sent for his son to Bruges, ere he set out for another campaign in Holland; and made him a great feast, to which he invited Torfrida and her mother. For Adela of France, the Queen Countess, had heard so much of Torfrida’s beauty, that she must needs have her as one of her bower-maidens; and her mother, who was an old friend of Adela’s, of course was highly honored by such a promotion for her daughter.

So they went to Bruges, and Hereward and his men went of course; and they feasted and harped and sang; and the saying was fulfilled —

“’Tis merry in the hall

When beards wag all.”

But the only beard which wagged in that hall was Hereward’s; for the Flemings, like the Normans, prided themselves on their civilized and smooth-shaven chins, and laughed (behind his back) at Hereward, who prided himself on keeping his beautiful English beard, with locks of gold which, like his long golden hair, were combed and curled daily, after the fashion of the Anglo–Danes.

But Hereward’s beard began to wag somewhat too fast, as he sat by Torfrida’s side, when some knight near began to tell of a wonderful mare, called Swallow, which was to be found in one of the islands of the Scheldt, and was famous through all the country round; insinuating, moreover, that Hereward might as well have brought that mare home with him as a trophy.

Hereward answered, in his boasting vein, that he would bring home that mare, or aught else that he had a liking to.

“You will find it not so easy. Her owner, they say, is a mighty strong churl of a horse-breeder, Dirk Hammerhand by name; and as for cutting his throat, that you must not do; for he has been loyal to Countess Gertrude, and sent her horses whenever she needed.”

“One may pick a fair quarrel with him nevertheless.”

“Then you must bide such a buffet as you never abode before. They say his arm has seven men’s strength; and whosoever visits him, he challenges to give and take a blow; but every man that has taken a blow as yet has never needed another.”

“Hereward will have need of his magic head-piece, if he tries that adventure,” quoth another.

“Ay,” retorted the first speaker; “but the helmet may stand the rap well enough, and yet the brains inside be the worse.”

“Not a doubt. I knew a man once, who was so strong, that he would shake a nut till the kernel went to powder, and yet never break the shell.”

“That is a lie!” quoth Hereward. And so it was, and told purposely to make him expose himself.

Whereon high words followed, which Torfrida tried in vain to stop. Hereward was flushed with ire and scorn.

“Magic armor, forsooth!” cried he at last. “What care I for armor or for magic? I will wager to you”—“my armor,” he was on the point of saying, but he checked himself in time —“any horse in my stable, that I go in my shirt to Scaldmariland, and bring back that mare single-handed.”

“Hark to the Englishman. He has turned Berserk at last, like his forefathers. You will surely start in a pair of hose as well, or the ladies will be shamed.”

And so forth, till Torfrida was purple with shame, and wished herself fathoms deep; and Adela of France called sternly from the head of the table to ask what the wrangling meant.

“It is only the English Berserker, the Lady Torfrida’s champion,” said some one, in his most courteous tone, “who is not yet as well acquainted with the customs of knighthood as that fair lady hopes to make him hereafter.”

“Torfrida’s champion?” asked Adela, in a tone of surprise, if not scorn.

“If any knight quarrels with my Hereward, he quarrels with Robert himself!” thundered Count Robert. “Silence!”

And so the matter was hushed up.

The banquet ended; and they walked out into the garden to cool their heads, and play at games, and dance.

Torfrida avoided Hereward: but he, with the foolish pertinacity of a man who knows he has had too much wine, and yet pretends to himself that he has not, would follow her, and speak to her.

She turned away more than once. At last she was forced to speak to him.

“So! You have made me a laughing-stock to these knights. You have scorned at my gifts. You have said — and before these men, too — that you need neither helm nor hauberk. Give me them back, then, Berserker as you are, and go sleep off your wine.”

“That will I,” laughed Hereward boisterously.

“You are tipsy,” said she, “and do not know what you say.”

“You are angry, and do not know what you say. Hearken proud lass. I will take care of one thing, and that is, that you shall speak the truth.”

“Did I not say that you were tipsy?”

“Pish! You said that I was a Berserker. And truth you shall speak; for baresark I go tomorrow to the war, and baresark I win that mare or die.”

“That will be very fit for you.”

And the two turned haughtily from each other.

Ere Torfrida went to bed that night, there was a violent knocking. Angry as she was, she was yet anxious enough to hurry out of her chamber, and open the door herself.

Martin Lightfoot stood there with a large leather case, which he flung at her feet somewhat unceremoniously.

“There is some gear of yours,” said he, as it clanged and rattled on the floor.

“What do you mean, man?”

“Only that my master bid me say that he cares as little for his own life as you do.” And he turned away.

She caught him by the arm:—

“What is the meaning of this? What is in this mail?”

“You should know best. If young folks cannot be content when they are well off, they will go farther and fare worse,” says Martin Lightfoot. And he slipt from her grasp and fled into the night.

She took the mail to her room and opened it. It contained the magic armor.

All her anger was melted away. She cried; she blamed herself. He would be killed; his blood would be on her head. She would have carried it back to him with her own hands; she would have entreated him on her knees to take it back. But how face the courtiers? and how find him? Very probably, too, he was by that time hopelessly drunk. And at that thought she drew herself into herself, and trying to harden her heart again, went to bed, but not to sleep; and bitterly she cried as she thought over the old hag’s croon:—

“Quick joy, long pain,

You will take your gift again.”

It might have been five o’clock the next morning when the clarion rang down the street. She sprang up and drest herself quickly; but never more carefully or gayly. She heard the tramp of horse-hoofs. He was moving a-field early, indeed. Should she go to the window to bid him farewell? Should she hide herself in just anger?

She looked out stealthily through the blind of the little window in the gable. There rode down the street Robert le Frison in full armor, and behind him, knight after knight, a wall of shining steel. But by his side rode one bare-headed, his long yellow curls floating over his shoulders. His boots had golden spurs, a gilt belt held up his sword; but his only dress was a silk shirt and silk hose. He laughed and sang, and made his horse caracol, and tossed his lance in the air, and caught it by the point, like Taillefer at Hastings, as he passed under the window.

She threw open the blind, careless of all appearances. She would have called to him: but the words choked her; and what should she say?

He looked up boldly, and smiled.

“Farewell, fair lady mine. Drunk I was last night: but not so drunk as to forget a promise.”

And he rode on, while Torfrida rushed away and broke into wild weeping.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56