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

Chapter 14.

How Hereward Rode into Bruges Like a Beggarman.

The spring and summer had passed, and the autumn was almost over, when great news came to the Court of Bruges, where Torfrida was now a bower-maiden.

The Hollanders had been beaten till they submitted; at least for the present. There was peace, at least for the present, through all the isles of Scheldt; and more than all, the lovely Countess Gertrude had resolved to reward her champion by giving him her hand, and the guardianship of her lands and the infant son.

And Hereward?

From him, or of him, there was no word. That he was alive and fighting, was all the messenger could say.

Then Robert came back to Bruges, with a gallant retinue, leading home his bride. And there met him his father and mother, and his brother of Mons, and Richilda the beautiful and terrible sorceress — who had not yet stained her soul with those fearful crimes which she had expiated by fearful penances in after years, when young Arnoul, the son for whom she had sold her soul, lay dead through the very crimes by which she had meant to make him a mighty prince. And Torfrida went out with them to meet Count Robert, and looked for Hereward, till her eyes were ready to fall out of her head. But Hereward was not with them.

“He must be left behind, commanding the army,” thought she. “But he might have sent one word!”

There was a great feast that day, of course; and Torfrida sat thereat: but she could not eat. Nevertheless she was too proud to let the knights know what was in her heart; so she chatted and laughed as gayly as the rest, watching always for any word of Hereward. But none mentioned his name.

The feast was long; the ladies did not rise till nigh bedtime; and then the men drank on.

They went up to the Queen–Countess’s chamber; where a solemn undressing of that royal lady usually took place.

The etiquette was this. The Queen–Countess sat in her chair of state in the midst, till her shoes were taken off, and her hair dressed for the night. Right and left of her, according to their degrees, sat the other great ladies; and behind each of them, where they could find places, the maidens.

It was Torfrida’s turn to take off the royal shoes; and she advanced into the middle of the semicircle, slippers in hand.

“Stop there!” said the Countess–Queen.

Whereat Torfrida stopped, very much frightened.

“Countesses and ladies,” said the mistress. “There are, in Provence and the South, what I wish there were here in Flanders — Courts of Love, at which all offenders against the sacred laws of Venus and Cupid are tried by an assembly of their peers, and punished according to their deserts.”

Torfrida turned scarlet.

“I know not why we, countesses and ladies, should have less knowledge of the laws of love than those gayer dames of the South, whose blood runs — to judge by her dark hair — in the veins of yon fair maid.”

There was a silence. Torfrida was the most beautiful woman in the room; more beautiful than even Richilda the terrible: and therefore there were few but were glad to see her — as it seemed — in trouble.

Torfrida’s mother began whimpering, and praying to six or seven saints at once. But nobody marked her — possibly not even the saints; being preoccupied with Torfrida.

“I hear, fair maid — for that you are that I will do you the justice to confess — that you are old enough to be married this four years since.”

Torfrida stood like a stone, frightened out of her wits, plentiful as they were.

“Why are you not married?”

There was, of course, no answer.

“I hear that knights have fought for you; lost their lives for you.”

“I did not bid them,” gasped Torfrida, longing that the floor would open, and swallow up the Queen–Countess and all her kin and followers, as it did for the enemies of the blessed Saint Dunstan, while he was arguing with them in an upper room at Calne.

“And that the knight of St. Valeri, to whom you gave your favor, now lies languishing of wounds got in your cause.”

“I— I did not bid him fight,” gasped Torfrida, now wishing that the floor would open and swallow up herself.

“And that he who overthrew the knight of St. Valeri — to whom you gave that favor, and more —”

“I gave him nothing a maiden might not give,” cried Torfrida, so fiercely that the Queen–Countess recoiled somewhat.

“I never said that you did, girl. Your love you gave him. Can you deny that?”

Torfrida laughed bitterly: her Southern blood was rising.

“I put my love out to nurse, instead of weaning it, as many a maiden has done before me. When my love cried for hunger and cold, I took it back again to my own bosom: and whether it has lived or died there, is no one’s matter but my own.”

“Hunger and cold? I hear that him to whom you gave your love you drove out to the cold, bidding him go fight in his bare shirt, if he wished to win your love.”

“I did not. He angered me — he —” and Torfrida found herself in the act of accusing Hereward.

She stopped instantly.

“What more, Majesty? If this be true, what more may not be true of such a one as I? I submit myself to your royal grace.”

“She has confessed. What punishment, ladies, does she deserve? Or, rather, what punishment would her cousins of Provence inflict, did we send her southward, to be judged by their Courts of Love?”

One lady said one thing, one another. Some spoke cruelly, some worse than cruelly; for they were coarse ages, the ages of faith; and ladies said things then in open company which gentlemen would be ashamed to say in private now.

“Marry her to a fool,” said Richilda, at last, bitterly.

“That is too common a misfortune,” answered the lady of France. “If we did no more to her, she might grow as proud as her betters.”

Adela knew that her daughter-in-law considered her husband a fool; and was somewhat of the same opinion, though she hated Richilda.

“No,” said she; “we will do more. We will marry her to the first man who enters the castle.”

Torfrida looked at her mistress to see if she were mad. But the Countess–Queen was serene and sane. Then Torfrida’s southern heat and northern courage burst forth.

“You — marry — me — to —” said she, slowly, with eyes so fierce, and lips so vivid, that Richilda herself quailed.

There was a noise of shouting and laughing in the court below, which made all turn and listen.

The next moment a serving-man came in, puzzled and inclined to laugh.

“May it please your Majesty, here is the strangest adventure. There is ridden into the castle-yard a beggar-man, with scarce a shirt to his back, on a great ugly mare, with a foal running by her, and a fool behind him, carrying lance and shield. And he says that he is come to fight any knight of the Court, ragged as he stands, for the fairest lady in the Court, be she who she may, if she have not a wedded husband already.”

“And what says my Lord Marquis?”

“That it is a fair challenge, and a good adventure; and that fight he shall, if any man will answer his defiance.”

“And I say, tell my Lord the Marquis, that fight he shall not: for he shall have the fairest maiden in this Court for the trouble of carrying her away; and that I, Adela of France, will give her to him. So let that beggar dismount, and be brought up hither to me.”

There was silence again. Torfrida looked round her once more, to see whether or not she was dreaming, and whether there was one human being to whom she could appeal. Her mother sat praying and weeping in a corner. Torfrida looked at her with one glance of scorn, which she confessed and repented, with bitter tears, many a year after, in a foreign land; and then turned to bay with the spirit of her old Paladin ancestor, who choked the Emir at Mont Majeur.

Married to a beggar! It was a strange accident; and an ugly one; and a great cruelty and wrong. But it was not impossible, hardly improbable, in days when the caprice of the strong created accidents, and when cruelty and wrong went for nothing, even with very kindly honest folk. So Torfrida faced the danger, as she would have faced that of a kicking horse, or a flooded ford; and like the nut-brown bride,

“She pulled out a little penknife,

That was both keen and sharp.”

and considered that the beggar-man could wear no armor, and that she wore none either. For if she succeeded in slaying that beggar-man, she might need to slay herself after, to avoid being — according to the fashion of those days — burnt alive.

So when the arras was drawn back, and that beggar-man came into the room, instead of shrieking, fainting, hiding, or turning, she made three steps straight toward him, looking him in the face like a wild-cat at bay. Then she threw up her arms; and fell upon his neck.

It was Hereward himself. Filthy, ragged: but Hereward.

His shirt was brown with gore, and torn with wounds; and through its rents showed more than one hardly healed scar. His hair and beard was all in elf-locks; and one heavy cut across the head had shorn not only hair, but brain-pan, very close. Moreover, any nose, save that of Love, might have required perfume.

But Hereward it was; and regardless of all beholders, she lay upon his neck, and never stirred nor spoke.

“I call you to witness, ladies,” cried the Queen–Countess, “that I am guiltless. She has given herself to this beggar-man of her own free will. What say you?” And she turned to Torfrida’s mother.

Torfrida’s mother only prayed and whimpered.

“Countesses and Ladies,” said the Queen–Countess, “there will he two weddings tomorrow. The first will be that of my son Robert and my pretty Lady Gertrude here. The second will be that of my pretty Torfrida and Hereward.”

“And the second bride,” said the Countess Gertrude, rising and taking Torfrida in her arms, “will be ten times prettier than the first. There, sir, I have done all you asked of me. Now go and wash yourself.”

“Hereward,” said Torfrida, a week after, “and did you really never change your shirt all that time?”

“Never. I kept my promise.”

“But it must have been very nasty.”

“Well, I bathed now and then.”

“But it must have been very cold.”

“I am warm enough now.”

“But did you never comb your hair, neither?”

“Well, I won’t say that. Travellers find strange bed-fellows. But I had half a mind never to do it at all, just to spite you.”

“And what matter would it have been to me?”

“O, none. It is only a Danish fashion we have of keeping clean.”

“Clean! You were dirty enough when you came home. How silly you were! If you had sent me but one word!”

“You would have fancied me beaten, and scolded me all over again. I know your ways now, Torfrida.”

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