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

Chapter 19.

How Hereward Cleared Bourne of Frenchmen.

It may have been well, a week after, that Hereward rode from the direction of Boston, with Martin running at his heels.

As Hereward rode along the summer wold the summer sun sank low, till just before it went down he came to an island of small enclosed fields, high banks, elm-trees, and a farm inside; one of those most ancient holdings of the South and East Counts, still to be distinguished, by their huge banks and dikes full of hedgerow timber, from the more modern corn-lands outside, which were in Hereward’s time mostly common pasture-lands.

“This should be Azerdun,” said he; “and there inside, as I live, stands Azer getting in his crops. But who has he with him?”

With the old man were some half-dozen men of his own rank; some helping the serfs with might and main; one or two standing on the top of the banks, as if on the lookout; but all armed cap-à-pie.

“His friends are helping him to get them in,” quoth Martin, “for fear of the rascally Normans. A pleasant and peaceable country we have come back to.”

“And a very strong fortress are they holding,” said Hereward, “against either Norman horsemen or Norman arrows. How to dislodge those six fellows without six times their number, I do not see. It is well to recollect that.”

And so he did; and turned to use again and again, in after years, the strategetic capabilities of an old-fashioned English farm.

Hereward spurred his horse up to the nearest gate, and was instantly confronted by a little fair-haired man, as broad as he was tall, who heaved up a long “twybill,” or double axe, and bade him, across the gate, go to a certain place.

“Little Winter, little Winter, my chuck, my darling, my mad fellow, my brother-inarms, my brother in robbery and murder, are you grown so honest in your old age that you will not know Hereward the wolfs-head?”

“Hereward!” shrieked the doughty little man. “I took you for an accursed Norman in those outlandish clothes;” and lifting up no little voice, he shouted —

“Hereward is back, and Martin Lightfoot at his heels!”

The gate was thrown open, and Hereward all but pulled off his horse. He was clapped on the back, turned round and round, admired from head to foot, shouted at by old companions of his boyhood, naughty young housecarles of his old troop, now settled down into honest thriving yeomen, hard working and hard fighting, who had heard again and again, with pride, of his doughty doings over sea. There was Winter, and Gwenoch, and Gery, Hereward’s cousin — ancestor, it may be, of the ancient and honorable house of that name, and of those parts; and Duti and Outi, the two valiant twins; and Ulfard the White, and others, some of whose names, and those of their sons, still stand in Domesday-book.

“And what,” asked Hereward, after the first congratulations were over, “of my mother? What of the folk at Bourne?”

All looked each at the other, and were silent.

“You are too late, young lord,” said Azer.

“Too late?”

“The Norman”— Azer called him what most men called him then —“has given it to a man of Gilbert of Ghent’s — his butler, groom, cook, for aught I know.”

“To Gilbert’s man? And my mother?”

“God help your mother, and your young brother, too. We only know that three days ago some five-and-twenty French marched into the place.”

“And you did not stop them?”

“Young sir, who are we to stop an army? We have enough to keep our own. Gilbert, let alone the villain Ivo of Spalding, can send a hundred men down on us in four-and-twenty hours.”

“Then I,” said Hereward in a voice of thunder, “will find the way to send two hundred down on him”; and turning his horse from the gate, he rode away furiously towards Bourne.

He turned back as suddenly, and galloped into the field.

“Lads! old comrades! will you stand by me if I need you? Will you follow Hereward, as hundreds have followed him already, if he will only go before?”

“We will, we will.”

“I shall be back ere morning. What you have to do, I will tell you then.”

“Stop and eat, but for a quarter of an hour.”

Then Hereward swore a great oath, by oak and ash and thorn, that he would neither eat bread nor drink water while there was a Norman left in Bourne.

“A little ale, then, if no water,” said Azer.

Hereward laughed, and rode away,

“You will not go single-handed against all those ruffians,” shouted the old man after him. “Saddle, lads, and go with him, some of you, for very shame’s sake.”

But when they galloped after Hereward, he sent them back. He did not know yet, he said, what he would do. Better that they should gather their forces, and see what men they could afford him, in case of open battle. And he rode swiftly on.

When he came within the lands of Bourne it was dark.

“So much the better,” thought Hereward. “I have no wish to see the old place till I have somewhat cleaned it out.”

He rode slowly into the long street between the overhanging gables. At the upper end he could see the high garden walls of his mother’s house, and rising over them the great hall, its narrow windows all ablaze with light. With a bitter growl he rode on, trying to recollect a house where he could safely lodge. Martin pointed one out.

“Old Viking Surturbrand, the housecarle, did live there, and maybe lives there still.”

“We will try.” And Martin knocked at the door.

The wicket was opened, but not the door; and through the wicket window a surly voice asked who was there.

“Who lives here?”

“Perry, son of Surturbrand. Who art thou who askest?”

“An honest gentleman and his servant, looking for a night’s lodging.”

“This is no place for honest folk.”

“As for that, we don’t wish to be more honest than you would have us; but lodging we will pay for, freely and well.”

“We want none of your money”; and the wicket was shut.

Martin pulled out his axe, and drove the panel in.

“What are you doing? We shall rouse the town,” said Hereward.

“Let be; these are no French, but honest English, and like one all the better for a little horse-play.”

“What didst do that for?” asked the surly voice again. “Were it not for those rascal Frenchmen up above, I would come out and split thy skull for thee.”

“If there be Frenchmen up above,” said Martin, in a voice of feigned terror, “take us in for the love of the Virgin and all the saints, or murdered we shall be ere morning light.”

“You have no call to stay in the town, man, unless you like.”

Hereward rode close to the wicket, and said in a low voice, “I am a nobleman of Flanders, good sir, and a sworn foe to all French. My horse is weary, and cannot make a step forward; and if you be a Christian man, you will take me in and let me go off safe ere morning light.”

“From Flanders?” And the man turned and seemed to consult those within. At length the door was slowly opened, and Perry appeared, his double axe over his shoulder.

“If you be from Flanders, come in for mercy; but be quick, ere those Frenchmen get wind of you.”

Hereward went in. Five or six men were standing round the long table, upon which they had just laid down their double axes and javelins. More than one countenance Hereward recognized at once. Over the peat-fire in the chimney-corner sat a very old man, his hands upon his knees, as he warmed his bare feet at the embers. He started up at the noise, and Hereward saw at once that it was old Surturbrand, and that he was blind.

“Who is it? Is Hereward come?” asked he, with the dull, dreamy voice of age.

“Not Hereward, father,” said some one, “but a knight from Flanders.”

The old man dropped his head upon his breast again with a querulous whine, while Hereward’s heart beat high at hearing his own name. At all events he was among friends; and approaching the table he unbuckled his sword and laid it down among the other weapons. “At least,” said he, “I shall have no need of thee as long as I am here among honest men.”

“What shall I do with my master’s horse?” asked Martin. “He can’t stand in the street to be stolen by drunken French horseboys.”

“Bring him in at the front door, and out at the back,” said Perry. “Fine times these, when a man dare not open his own yard-gate.”

“You seem to be all besieged here,” said Hereward. “How is this?”

“Besieged we are,” said the man; and then, partly to turn the subject off, “Will it please you to eat, noble sir?”

Hereward ate and drank: while his hosts eyed him, not without some lingering suspicion, but still with admiration and some respect. His splendid armor and weapons, as well as the golden locks which fell far below his shoulders, and conveniently hid a face which he did not wish yet to have recognized, showed him to be a man of the highest rank; while the palm of his small hand, as hard and bony as any woodman’s, proclaimed him to be no novice of a fighting man. The strong Flemish accent which both he and Martin Lightfoot had assumed prevented the honest Englishmen from piercing his disguise. They watched him, while he in turn watched them, struck by their uneasy looks and sullen silence.

“We are a dull company,” said he after a while, courteously enough. “We used to be told in Flanders that there were none such stout drinkers and none such jolly singers as you gallant men of the Danelagh here.”

“Dull times make dull company,” said one, “and no offence to you, Sir Knight.”

“Are you such a stranger,” asked Perry, “that you do not know what has happened in this town during the last three days?”

“No good, I will warrant, if you have Frenchmen in it.”

“Why was not Hereward here?” wailed the old man in the corner. “It never would have happened if he had been in the town.”

“What?” asked Hereward, trying to command himself.

“What has happened,” said Perry, “makes a free Englishman’s blood boil to tell of. Here, Sir Knight, three days ago, comes in this Frenchman with some twenty ruffians of his own, and more of one Taillebois’s, too, to see him safe; says that this new king, this base-born Frenchman, has given away all Earl Morcar’s lands, and that Bourne is his; kills a man or two; upsets the women; gets drunk, ruffles, and roisters; breaks into my lady’s bower, calling her to give up her keys, and when she gives them, will have all her jewels too. She faces them like a brave Princess, and two of the hounds lay hold of her, and say that she shall ride through Bourne as she rode through Coventry. The boy Godwin — he that was the great Earl’s godson, our last hope, the last of our house — draws sword on them; and he, a boy of sixteen summers, kills them both out of hand. The rest set on him, cut his head off, and there it sticks on the gable spike of the hall to this hour. And do you ask, after that, why free Englishmen are dull company?”

“And our turn will come next,” growled somebody. “The turn will go all round; no man’s life or land, wife or daughters, will be safe soon for these accursed Frenchmen, unless, as the old man says, Hereward comes back.”

Once again the old man wailed out of the chimney-corner: “Why did they ever send Hereward away? I warned the good Earl, I warned my good lady, many a time, to let him sow his wild oats and be done with them; or they might need him some day when they could not find him! He was a lad! He was a lad!” and again he whined, and sank into silence.

Hereward heard all this dry-eyed, hardening his heart into a great resolve. “This is a dark story,” said he calmly, “and it would behoove me as a gentleman to succor this distressed lady, did I but know how. Tell me what I can do now, and I will do it.”

“Your health!” cried one. “You speak like a true knight.”

“And he looks the man to keep his word, I’ll warrant him,” spoke another.

“He does,” said Perry, shaking his head; “but if anything could have been done, sir, be sure we would have done it: but all our armed men are scattered up and down the country, each taking care, as is natural, of his own cattle and his own women. There are not ten men-at-arms in Bourne this night; and, what is worse, sir, as you know, who seem to have known war as well as me, there is no man to lead them.”

Here Hereward was on the point of saying, “And what if I led you?”— On the point too of discovering himself: but he stopped short.

Was it fair to involve this little knot of gallant fellows in what might be a hopeless struggle, and have all Bourne burned over their heads ere morning by the ruffian Frenchmen? No; his mother’s quarrel was his own private quarrel. He would go alone and see the strength of the enemy; and after that, may be, he would raise the country on them: or — and half a dozen plans suggested themselves to his crafty brain as he sat brooding and scheming: then, as always, utterly self-confident.

He was startled by a burst of noise outside — music, laughter, and shouts.

“There,” said Perry, bitterly, “are those Frenchmen, dancing and singing in the hall with my Lord Godwin’s head above them!” And curses bitter and deep went round the room. They sat sullen and silent it may be for an hour or more; only moving when, at some fresh outbreak of revelry, the old man started from his doze and asked if that was Hereward coming.

“And who is this Hereward of whom you speak?” said Hereward at last.

“We thought you might know him, Sir Knight, if you come from Flanders, as you say you do,” said three or four voices in a surprised and surly tone.

“Certainly I know such a man, if he be Hereward the wolf’s-head, Hereward the outlaw, as they call him. And a good soldier he is, though he be not yet made a knight; and married, too, to a rich and fair lady. I served under this Hereward a few months ago in the Friesland War, and know no man whom I would sooner follow.”

“Nor I neither,” chimed in Martin Lightfoot from the other end of the table.

“Nor we,” cried all the men-at-arms at once, each vying with the other in extravagant stories of their hero’s prowess, and in asking the knight of Flanders whether they were true or not.

To avoid offending them, Hereward was forced to confess to a great many deeds which he had never done: but he was right glad to find that his fame had reached his native place, and that he could count on the men if he needed them.

“But who is this Hereward,” said he, “that he should have to do with your town here?”

Half a dozen voices at once told him his own story.

“I always heard,” said he, dryly, “that that gentleman was of some very noble kin; and I will surely tell him all that has befallen here as soon as I return to Flanders.”

At last they grew sleepy, and the men went out and brought in bundles of sweet rush, and spread them against the wall, and prepared to lie down, each his weapon by his side. And when they were lain down, Hereward beckoned to him Perry and Martin Lightfoot, and went out into the back yard, under the pretence of seeing to his horse.

“Perry Surturbrandsson,” said he, “you seem to be an honest man, as we in foreign parts hold all the Danelagh to be. Now it is fixed in my mind to go up, and my servant, to your hall, and see what those French upstarts are about. Will you trust me to go, without my fleeing back here if I am found out, or in any way bringing you to harm by mixing you up in my private matters? And will you, if I do not come back, keep for your own the horse which is in your stable, and give moreover this purse and this ring to your lady, if you can find means to see her face to face; and say thus to her — that he that sent that purse and ring may be found, if he be alive, at St. Omer, or with Baldwin, Count of Flanders; and that if he be dead, as he is like enough to be, his trade being naught but war, she will still find at St. Omer a home and wealth and friends, till these evil times be overpast?”

As Hereward had spoken with some slight emotion, he had dropped unawares his assumed Flemish accent, and had spoken in broad burly Lincolnshire; and therefore it was that Perry, who had been staring at him by the moonlight all the while, said, when he was done, tremblingly —

“Either you are Hereward, or you are his fetch. You speak like Hereward, you look like Hereward. Just what Hereward would be now, you are. You are my lord, and you cannot deny it.”

“Perry, if you know me, speak of me to no living soul, save to your lady my mother; and let me and my serving-man go free out of your yard-gate. If I ask you before morning to open it again to me, you will know that there is not a Frenchman left in the Hall of Bourne.”

Perry threw his arms around him, and embraced him silently.

“Get me only,” said Hereward, “some long woman’s gear and black mantle, if you can, to cover this bright armor of mine.”

Perry went off in silence as one stunned — brought the mantle, and let them out of the yard-gate. In ten minutes more, the two slipping in by well-known paths, stood under the gable of the great hall. Not a soul was stirring outside. The serfs were all cowering in their huts like so many rabbits in their burrows, listening in fear to the revelry of their new tyrants. The night was dark: but not so dark but that Hereward could see between him and the sky his brother’s long locks floating in the breeze.

“That I must have down, at least,” said he, in a low voice.

“Then here is wherewithal,” said Martin Lightfoot, as he stumbled over something. “The drunken villains have left the ladder in the yard.”

Hereward got up the ladder, took down the head and wrapped it in the cloak, and ere he did so kissed the cold forehead. How he had hated that boy! Well, at least he had never wilfully harmed him — or the boy him either, for that matter. And now he had died like a man, killing his foe. He was of the true old blood after all. And Hereward felt that he would have given all that he had, save his wife or his sword-hand, to have that boy alive again, to pet him, and train him, and teach him to fight at his side.

Then he slipped round to one of the narrow unshuttered windows and looked in. The hall was in a wasteful blaze of light — a whole month’s candles burning in one night. The table was covered with all his father’s choicest plate; the wine was running waste upon the floor; the men were lolling at the table in every stage of drunkenness; the loose women, camp-followers, and such like, almost as drunk as their masters; and at the table head, most drunk of all, sat, in Earl Leofric’s seat, the new Lord of Bourne.

Hereward could scarce believe his eyes. He was none other than Gilbert of Ghent’s stout Flemish cook, whom he had seen many a time in Scotland. Hereward turned from the window in disgust; but looked again as he heard words which roused his anger still more.

For in the open space nearest the door stood a gleeman, a dancing, harping, foul-mouthed fellow, who was showing off ape’s tricks, jesting against the English, and shuffling about in mockeries of English dancing. At some particularly coarse jest of his, the new Lord of Bourne burst into a roar of admiration.

“Ask what thou wilt, fellow, and thou shalt have it. Thou wilt find me a better master to thee than ever was Morcar, the English barbarian.”

The scoundrel, say the old chroniclers, made a request concerning Hereward’s family which cannot be printed here.

Hereward ground his teeth. “If thou livest till morning light,” said he, “I will not.”

The last brutality awoke some better feeling in one of the girls — a large coarse Fleming, who sat by the new lord’s side. “Fine words,” said she, scornfully enough, “for the sweepings of Norman and Flemish kennels. You forget that you left one of this very Leofric’s sons behind in Flanders, who would besom all out if he was here before the morning’s dawn.”

“Hereward?” cried the cook, striking her down with a drunken blow; “the scoundrel who stole the money which the Frisians sent to Count Baldwin, and gave it to his own troops? We are safe enough from him at all events; he dare not show his face on this side the Alps, for fear of the gallows.”

Hereward had heard enough. He slipped down from the window to Martin, and led him round the house.

“Now then, down with the ladder quick, and dash in the door. I go in; stay thou outside. If any man passes me, see that he pass not thee.”

Martin chuckled a ghostly laugh as he helped the ladder down. In another moment the door was burst in, and Hereward stood upon the threshold. He gave one war-shout — his own terrible name — and then rushed forward. As he passed the gleeman, he gave him one stroke across the loins; the wretch fell shrieking.

And then began a murder, grim and great. They fought with ale-cups, with knives, with benches: but, drunken and unarmed, they were hewn down like sheep. Fourteen Normans, says the chronicler, were in the hall when Hereward burst in. When the sun rose there were fourteen heads upon the gable. Escape had been impossible. Martin had laid the ladder across the door; and the few who escaped the master’s terrible sword, stumbled over it, to be brained by the man’s not less terrible axe.

Then Hereward took up his brother’s head, and went in to his mother.

The women in the bower opened to him. They had seen all that passed from the gallery above, which, as usual, hidden by a curtain, enabled the women to watch unseen what passed in the hall below.

The Lady Godiva sat crouched together, all but alone — for her bower-maidens had fled or been carried off long since — upon a low stool beside a long dark thing covered with a pall. So utterly crushed was she, that she did not even lift up her head as Hereward entered.

He placed his ghastly burden reverently beneath the pall, and then went and knelt before his mother.

For a while neither spoke a word. Then the Lady Godiva suddenly drew back her hood, and dropping on her knees, threw her arms round Hereward’s neck, and wept till she could weep no more.

“Blessed strong arms,” sobbed she at last, “around me! To feel something left in the world to protect me; something left in the world which loves me.”

“You forgive me, mother?”

“You forgive me? It was I, I who was in fault — I, who should have cherished you, my strongest, my bravest, my noblest — now my all.”

“No, it was all my fault; and on my head is all this misery. If I had been here, as I ought to have been, all this might have never happened.”

“You would only have been murdered too. No: thank God you were away; or God would have taken you with the rest. His arm is bared against me, and His face turned away from me. All in vain, in vain! Vain to have washed my hands in innocency, and worshipped Him night and day. Vain to have builded minsters in his honor, and heaped the shrines of his saints with gold. Vain to have fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and washed the feet of His poor, that I might atone for my own sins, and the sins of my house. This is His answer. He has taken me up, and dashed me down: and naught is left but, like Job, to abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes — of I know not what.”

“God has not deserted you. See, He has sent you me!” said Hereward, wondering to find himself, of all men on earth, preaching consolation.

“Yes, I have you! Hold me. Love me. Let me feel that one thing loves me upon earth. I want love; I must have it: and if God, and His mother, and all the saints, refuse their love, I must turn to the creature, and ask it to love me, but for a day.”

“For ever, mother.”

“You will not leave me?”

“If I do, I come back, to finish what I have begun.”

“More blood? O God! Hereward, not that! Let us return good for evil. Let us take up our crosses. Let us humble ourselves under God’s hand, and flee into some convent, and there die praying for our country and our kin.”

“Men must work, while women pray. I will take you to a minster — to Peterborough.”

“No, not to Peterborough!”

“But my Uncle Brand is abbot there, they tell me, now this four years; and that rogue Herluin, prior in his place.”

“He is dying — dying of a broken heart, like me. And the Frenchman has given his abbey to one Thorold, the tyrant of Malmesbury — a Frenchman like himself. No, take me where I shall never see a French face. Take me to Crowland — and him with me — where I shall see naught but English faces, and hear English chants, and die a free Englishwoman under St. Guthlac’s wings.”

“Ah!” said Hereward, bitterly, “St. Guthlac is a right Englishman, and will have some sort of fellow-feeling for us; while St. Peter, of course, is somewhat too fond of Rome and those Italian monks. Well — blood is thicker than water; so I hardly blame the blessed Apostle.”

“Do not talk so, Hereward.”

“Much the saints have done for us, mother, that we are to be so very respectful to their high mightinesses. I fear, if this Frenchman goes on with his plan of thrusting his monks into our abbeys, I shall have to do more even for St. Guthlac than ever he did for me. Do not say more, mother. This night has made Hereward a new man. Now, prepare”— and she knew what he meant —“and gather all your treasures; and we will start for Crowland tomorrow afternoon.”

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