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

Chapter 15.

How Earl Tosti Godwinsson Came to St. Omer.

The winter passed in sweet madness; and for the first time in her life, Torfrida regretted the lengthening of the days, and the flowering of the primroses, and the return of the now needless wryneck; for they warned her that Hereward must forth again, to the wars in Scaldmariland, which had broken out again, as was to be expected, as soon as Count Robert and his bride had turned their backs.

And Hereward, likewise, for the first time in his life, was loath to go to war. He was, doubtless, rich enough in this world’s goods. Torfrida herself was rich, and seems to have had the disposal of her own property, for her mother is not mentioned in connection therewith. Hereward seems to have dwelt in her house at St. Omer as long as he remained in Flanders. He had probably amassed some treasure of his own by the simple, but then most aristocratic, method of plunder. He had, too, probably, grants of land in Holland from the Frison, the rents whereof were not paid as regularly as might be. Moreover, as “Magister Militum,” (“Master of the Knights,”) he had, it is likely, pay as well as honor. And he approved himself worthy of his good fortune. He kept forty gallant housecarles in his hall all the winter, and Torfrida and her lasses made and mended their clothes. He gave large gifts to the Abbey of St. Bertin; and had masses sung for the souls of all whom he had slain, according to a rough list which he furnished — bidding the monks not to be chary of two or three masses extra at times, as his memory was short, and he might have sent more souls to purgatory than he had recollected. He gave great alms at his door to all the poor. He befriended, especially, all shipwrecked and needy mariners, feeding and clothing them, and begging their freedom as a gift from Baldwin. He feasted the knights of the neighborhood, who since his baresark campaign, had all vowed him the most gallant of warriors, and since his accession of wealth, the most courteous of gentlemen; and so all went merrily, as it is written, “As long as thou doest well unto thyself, men will speak well of thee.”

So he would have fain stayed at home at St. Omer; but he was Robert’s man, and his good friend likewise; and to the wars he must go forth once more; and for eight or nine weary months Torfrida was alone: but very happy, for a certain reason of her own.

At last the short November days came round; and a joyful woman was fair Torfrida, when Martin Lightfoot ran into the hall, and throwing himself down on the rushes like a dog, announced that Hereward and his men would be home before noon, and then fell fast asleep.

There was bustling to and fro of her and her maids; decking of the hall in the best hangings; strewing of fresh rushes, to the dislodgement of Martin; setting out of square tables, and stoops and mugs thereon; cooking of victuals, broaching of casks; and above all, for Hereward’s self, heating of much water, and setting out, in the inner chamber, of the great bath-tub and bath-sheet, which was the special delight of a hero fresh from the war.

And by midday the streets of St. Omer rang with clank and tramp and trumpet-blare, and in marched Hereward and all his men, and swung round through the gateway into the court, where Torfrida stood to welcome them, as fair as day, a silver stirrup-cup in her hand. And while the men were taking off their harness and dressing their horses, she and Hereward went in together, and either took such joy of the other, that a year’s parting was forgot in a minute’s meeting.

“Now,” cried she, in a tone half of triumph, half of tenderness, “look there!”

“A cradle? And a baby?”

“Your baby.”

“Is it a boy?” asked Hereward, who saw in his mind’s eye a thing which would grow and broaden at his knee year by year, and learn from him to ride, to shoot, to fight. “Happy for him if he does not learn worse from me,” thought Hereward, with a sudden movement of humility and contrition, which was surely marked in heaven; for Torfrida marked it on earth.

But she mistook its meaning.

“Do not be vexed. It is a girl.”

“Never mind!” as if it was a calamity over which he was bound to comfort the mother. “If she is half as beautiful as you look at this moment, what splintering of lances there will be about her! How jolly, to see the lads hewing at each other, while our daughter sits in the pavilion, as Queen of Love!”

Torfrida laughed. “You think of nothing but fighting, bear of the North Seas.”

“Every one to his trade. Well, yes, I am glad that it is a girl.”

“I thought you seemed vexed. Why did you cross yourself?”

“Because I thought to myself, how unfit I was to bring up a boy to be such a knight as — as you would have him; how likely I was, ere all was over, to make him as great a ruffian as myself.”

“Hereward! Hereward!” and she threw her arms round his neck for the tenth time. “Blessed be you for those words! Those are the fears which never come true, for they bring down from heaven the grace of God, to guard the humble and contrite heart from that which it fears.”

“Ah, Torfrida, I wish I were as good as you!”

“Now — my joy and my life, my hero and my scald — I have great news for you, as well as a little baby. News from England.”

“You, and a baby over and above, are worth all England to me.”

“But listen: Edward the king is dead!”

“Then there is one fool less on earth; and one saint more, I suppose, in heaven.”

“And Harold Godwinsson is king in his stead. And he has married your niece Aldytha, and sworn friendship with her brothers.”

“I expected no less. Well, every dog has his day.”

“And his will be a short one. William of Normandy has sworn to drive him out.”

“Then he will do it. And so the poor little Swan-neck is packed into a convent, that the houses of Godwin and Leofric may rush into each other’s arms, and perish together! Fools, fools, fools! I will hear no more of such a mad world. My queen, tell me about your sweet self. What is all this to me? Am I not a wolf’s head, and a landless man?”

“O my king, have not the stars told me that you will be an earl and a ruler of men, when all your foes are wolves’ heads as you are now? And the weird is coming true already. Tosti Godwinsson is in the town at this moment, an outlaw and a wolf’s head himself.”

Hereward laughed a great laugh.

“Aha! Every man to his right place at last. Tell me about that, for it will amuse me. I have heard naught of him since he sent the king his Hereford thralls’ arms and legs in the pickle-barrels; to show him, he said, that there was plenty of cold meat on his royal demesnes.”

“You have not heard, then, how he murdered in his own chamber at York, Gamel Ormsson and Ulf Dolfinsson?”

“That poor little lad? Well, a gracious youth was Tosti, ever since he went to kill his brother Harold with teeth and claws, like a wolf; and as he grows in years, he grows in grace. But what said Ulf’s father and the Gospatricks?”

“Dolfin and young Gospatrick were I know not where. But old Gospatrick came down to Westminster, to demand law for his grandnephew’s blood.”

“A silly thing of the old Thane, to walk into the wolf’s den.”

“And so he found. He was stabbed there, three days after Christmas-tide, and men say that Queen Edith did it, for love of Tosti, her brother. Then Dolfin and young Gospatrick took to the sea, and away to Scotland: and so Tosti rid himself of all the good blood in the North, except young Waltheof Siwardsson, whose turn, I fear, will come next.”

“How comes he here, then?”

“The Northern men rose at that, killed his servant at York, took all his treasures, and marched down to Northampton, plundering and burning. They would have marched on London town, if Harold had not met them there from the king. There they cried out against Tosti, and all his taxes, and his murders, and his changing Canute’s laws, and would have young Morcar for their earl. A tyrant they would not endure. Free they were born and bred, they said, and free they would live and die. Harold must needs do justice, even on his own brother.”

“Especially when he knows that that brother is his worst foe.”

“Harold is a better man than you take him for, my Hereward. But be that as it may, Morcar is earl, and Tosti outlawed, and here in St. Omer, with wife and child.”

“My nephew Earl of Northumbria! As I might have been, if I had been a wiser man.”

“If you had, you would never have found me.”

“True, my queen! They say Heaven tempers the wind to the shorn lamb; but it tempers it too, sometimes, to the hobbled ass; and so it has done by me. And so the rogues have fallen out, and honest men may come by their own. For, as the Northern men have done by one brother, so will the Eastern men do by the other. Let Harold see how many of those fat Lincolnshire manors, which he has seized into his own hands, he holds by this day twelve months. But what is all this to me, my queen, while you and I can kiss, and laugh the world to scorn?”

“This to you, beloved, that, great as you are, Torfrida must have you greater still; and out of all this coil and confusion you may win something, if you be wise.”

“Sweet lips, be still, and let us love instead of plotting.”

“And this, too — you shall not stop my mouth — that Harold Godwinsson has sent a letter to you.”

“Harold Godwinsson is my very good lord,” sneered Hereward.

“And this it said, with such praises and courtesies concerning you, as made thy wife’s heart beat high with pride: ‘If Hereward Leofricsson will come home to England, he shall have his rights in law again, and his manors in Lincolnshire, and a thanes-ship in East Anglia, and manors for his men-at-arms; and if that be not enough, he shall have an earldom, as soon as there is one to give.’”

“And what says to that, Torfrida, Hereward’s queen?”

“You will not be angry if I answered the letter for you?”

“If you answered it one way — no. If another — yes.”

Torfrida trembled. Then she looked Hereward full in the face with her keen clear eyes.

“Now shall I see whether I have given myself to Hereward in vain, body and soul, or whether I have trained him to be my true and perfect knight.”

“You answered, then,” said Hereward, “thus —”

“Say on,” said she, turning her face away again.

“Hereward Leofricsson tells Harold Godwinsson that he is his equal, and not his man; and that he will never put his hands between the hands of a son of Godwin. An Etheling born, a king of the house of Cerdic, outlawed him from his right, and none but an Etheling born shall give him his right again.”

“I said it, I said it. Those were my very words!” and Torfrida burst into tears, while Hereward kissed her, almost fawned upon her, calling her his queen, his saga-wife, his guardian angel.

“I was sorely tempted,” sobbed she. “Sorely. To see you, rich and proud, upon your own lands, an earl may be — may be, I thought at whiles, a king. But it could not be. It did not stand with honor, my hero — not with honor.”

“Not with honor. Get me gay garments out of the chest, and let us go in royally, and royally feast my jolly riders.”

“Stay awhile,” said she, kissing his head as she combed and curled his long golden locks; and her own raven ones, hardly more beautiful, fell over them and mingled with them. “Stay awhile, my pride. There is another spell in the wind, stirred up by devil or witch-wife, and it comes from Tosti Godwinsson.”

“Tosti, the cold-meat butcher? What has he to say to me?”

“This — ‘If Hereward will come with me to William of Normandy, and help us against Harold, the perjured, then will William do for him all that Harold would have done, and more beside.’”

“And what answered Torfrida?”

“It was not so said to me that I could answer. I had it by a side-wind, through the Countess Judith.” 13

13 Tosti’s wife, Earl Baldwin’s daughter, sister of Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife.

“And she had it from her sister, Matilda.”

“And she, of course, from Duke William himself.”

“And what would you have answered, if you had answered, pretty one?”

“Nay, I know not. I cannot be always queen. You must be king sometimes.”

Torfrida did not say that this latter offer had been a much sorer temptation than the former.

“And has not the base-born Frenchman enough knights of his own, that he needs the help of an outlaw like me?”

“He asks for help from all the ends of the earth. He has sent that Lanfranc to the Pope; and there is talk of a sacred banner, and a crusade against England.”

“The monks are with him, then?” said Hereward. “That is one more count in their score. But I am no monk. I have shorn many a crown, but I have kept my own hair as yet, you see.”

“I do see,” said she, playing with his locks. “But — but he wants you. He has sent for Angevins, Poitevins, Bretons, Flemings — promising lands, rank, money, what not. Tosti is recruiting for him here in Flanders now. He will soon be off to the Orkneys, I suspect, or to Sweyn in Denmark, after Vikings.”

“Here? Has Baldwin promised him men?”

“What could the good old man do? He could not refuse his own son-in-law. This, at least, I know, that a messenger has gone off to Scotland, to Gilbert of Ghent, to bring or send any bold Flemings who may prefer fat England to lean Scotland.”

“Lands, rank, money, eh? So he intends that the war should pay itself — out of English purses. What answer would you have me make to that, wife mine?”

“The Duke is a terrible man. What if he conquers? And conquer he will.”

“Is that written in your stars?”

“It is, I fear. And if he have the Pope’s blessing, and the Pope’s banner — Dare we resist the Holy Father?”

“Holy step-father, you mean; for a step-father he seems to prove to merry England. But do you really believe that an old man down in Italy can make a bit of rag conquer by saying a few prayers at it? If I am to believe in a magic flag, give me Harold Hardraade’s Landcyda, at least, with Harold and his Norsemen behind it.”

“William’s French are as good as those Norsemen, man for man; and horsed withal, Hereward.”

“That may be,” said he, half testily, with a curse on the tanner’s grandson and his French popinjays, “and our Englishmen are as good as any two Norsemen, as the Norse themselves say.” He could not divine, and Torfrida hardly liked to explain to him the glamour which the Duke of Normandy had cast over her, as the representative of chivalry, learning, civilization, a new and nobler life for men than the world had yet seen; one which seemed to connect the young races of Europe with the wisdom of the ancients and the magic glories of old Imperial Rome.

“You are not fair to that man,” said she, after a while. “Hereward, Hereward, have I not told you how, though body be strong, mind is stronger? That is what that man knows; and therefore he has prospered. Therefore his realms are full of wise scholars, and thriving schools, and fair minsters, and his men are sober, and wise, and learned like clerks —”

“And false like clerks, as he is himself. Schoolcraft and honesty never went yet together, Torfrida —”

“Not in me?”

“You are not a clerk, you are a woman, and more, you are an elf, a goddess; there is none like you. But hearken to me. This man is false. All the world knows it.”

“He promises, they say, to govern England justly as King Edward’s heir, according to the old laws and liberties of the realm.”

“Of course. If he does not come as the old monk’s heir, how does he come at all? If he does not promise our — their, I mean, for I am no Englishman — laws and liberties, who will join him? But his riders and hirelings will not fight for nothing. They must be paid with English land, and English land they will have, for they will be his men, whoever else are not. They will be his darlings, his housecarles, his hawks to sit on his fist and fly at his game; and English bones will be picked clean to feed them. And you would have me help to do that, Torfrida? Is that the honor of which you spoke so boldly to Harold Godwinsson?”

Torfrida was silent. To have brought Hereward under the influence of William was an old dream of hers. And yet she was proud at the dream being broken thus. And so she said:

“You are right. It is better for you — it is better than to be William’s darling, and the greatest earl in his court — to feel that you are still an Englishman. Promise me but one thing, that you will make no fierce or desperate answer to the Duke.”

“And why not answer the tanner as he deserves?”

“Because my art, and my heart too, tells me that your fortunes and his are linked together. I have studied my tables, but they would not answer. Then I cast lots in Virgilius —”

“And what found you there?” asked he, anxiously.

“I opened at the lines —

‘Pacem me exanimis et Martis sorte peremptis

Oratis? Equidem et vivis concedere vellem.’”

“And what means that?”

“That you may have to pray him to pity the slain; and have for answer, that their lands may be yours if you will but make peace with him. At least, do not break hopelessly with that man. Above all, never use that word concerning him which you used just now; the word which he never forgives. Remember what he did to them of Alençon, when they hung raw hides over the wall, and cried, ‘Plenty of work for the tanner!’”

“Let him pick out the prisoners’ eyes, and chop off their hands, and shoot them into the town from mangonels — he must go far and thrive well ere I give him a chance of doing that by me.”

“Hereward, Hereward, my own! Boast not, but fear God. Who knows, in such a world as this, to what end we may come? Night after night I am haunted with spectres, eyeless, handless —”

“This is cold comfort for a man just out of hard fighting in the ague-fens!”

She threw her arms round him, and held him as if she would never let him go.

“When you die, I die. And you will not die: you will be great and glorious, and your name will be sung by scald and minstrel through many a land, far and wide. Only be not rash. Be not high-minded. Promise me to answer this man wisely. The more crafty he is, the more crafty must you be likewise.”

“Let us tell this mighty hero, then,” said Hereward — trying to laugh away her fears, and perhaps his own — “that while he has the Holy Father on his side, he can need no help from a poor sinful worm like me.”

“Hereward, Hereward!”

“Why, is there aught about hides in that?”

“I want — I want an answer which may not cut off all hope in case of the worst.”

“Then let us say boldly, ‘On the day that William is King of all England, Hereward will come and put his hands between his, and be his man.’”

That message was sent to William at Rouen. He laughed —

“It is a fair challenge from a valiant man. The day shall come when I will claim it.”

Tosti and Hereward passed that winter in St. Omer, living in the same street, passing each other day by day, and never spoke a word one to the other.

Robert the Frison heard of it, and tried to persuade Hereward.

“Let him purge himself of the murder of Ulf, the boy, son of my friend Dolfin; and after that, of Gamel, son of Orm; and after that, again, of Gospatrick, my father’s friend, whom his sister slew for his sake; and then an honest man may talk with him. Were he not my good lord’s brother-in-law, as he is, more’s the pity, I would challenge him to fight à l’outrance, with any weapons he might choose.”

“Heaven protect him in that case,” quoth Robert the Frison.

“As it is, I will keep the peace. And I will see that my men keep the peace, though there are Scarborough and Bamborough lads among them, who long to cut his throat upon the streets. But more I will not do.”

So Tosti sulked through the winter at St. Omer, and then went off to get help from Sweyn, of Denmark, and failing that, from Harold Hardraade of Norway. But how he sped there must be read in the words of a cunninger saga-man than this chronicler, even in those of the “Icelandic Homer,” Snorro Sturleson.

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