In the course of that winter died good Abbot Brand. Hereward went over to see him, and found him mumbling to himself texts of Isaiah, and confessing the sins of his people.
“‘Woe to the vineyard that bringeth forth wild grapes. Woe to those that join house to house, and field to field,’— like us, and the Godwinssons, and every man that could, till we ‘stood alone in the land.’ ‘Many houses, great and fair, shall be without inhabitants.’ It is all foretold in Holy Writ, Hereward, my son. ‘Woe to those who rise early to fill themselves with strong drink, and the tabret and harp are in their feasts; but they regard not the works of the Lord.’ ‘Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge.’ Ah, those Frenchmen have knowledge, and too much of it; while we have brains filled with ale instead of justice. ‘Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure’; and all go down into it, one by one. And dost thou think thou shalt escape, Hereward, thou stout-hearted?”
“I neither know nor care; but this I know, that whithersoever I go, I shall go sword in hand.”
“‘They that take the sword shall perish by the sword,’” said Brand, and blessed Hereward, and died.
A week after came news that Thorold of Malmesbury was coming to take the Abbey of Peterborough, and had got as far as Stamford, with a right royal train.
Then Hereward sent Abbot Thorold word, that if he or his Frenchmen put foot into Peterborough, he, Hereward, would burn it over their heads. And that if he rode a mile beyond Stamford town, he should walk back into it barefoot in his shirt.
Whereon Thorold abode at Stamford, and kept up his spirits by singing the songs of Roland — which some say he himself composed.
A week after that, and the Danes were come.
A mighty fleet, with Sweyn Ulfsson at their head, went up the Ouse toward Ely. Another, with Osbiorn at their head, having joined them off the mouth of the Humber, sailed (it seems) up the Nene. All the chivalry of Denmark and Ireland was come. And with it, all the chivalry and the unchivalry of the Baltic shores. Vikings from Jomsburg and Arkona, Gottlanders from Wisby; and with them savages from Esthonia, Finns from Äland, Letts who still offered in the forests of Rugen, human victims to the four-headed Swantowit; foul hordes in sheep-skins and primeval filth, who might have been scented from Hunstanton Cliff ever since their ships had rounded the Skaw.
Hereward hurried to them with all his men. He was anxious, of course, to prevent their plundering the landsfolk as they went — and that the savages from the Baltic shore would certainly do, if they could, however reasonable the Danes, Orkneymen, and Irish Ostmen might be.
Food, of course, they must take where they could find it; but outrages were not a necessary, though a too common, adjunct to the process of emptying a farmer’s granaries.
He found the Danes in a dangerous mood, sulky, and disgusted, as they had good right to be. They had gone to the Humber, and found nothing but ruin; the land waste; the French holding both the shores of the Humber; and Osbiorn cowering in Humber-mouth, hardly able to feed his men. They had come to conquer England, and nothing was left for them to conquer, but a few peat-bogs. Then they would have what there was in them. Every one knew that gold grew up in England out of the ground, wherever a monk put his foot. And they would plunder Crowland. Their forefathers had done it, and had fared none the worse. English gold they would have, if they could not get fat English manors.
“No! not Crowland!” said Hereward; “any place but Crowland, endowed and honored by Canute the Great — Crowland, whose abbot was a Danish nobleman, whose monks were Danes to a man, of their own flesh and blood. Canute’s soul would rise up in Valhalla and curse them, if they took the value of a penny from St. Guthlac. St. Guthlac was their good friend. He would send them bread, meat, ale, all they needed. But woe to the man who set foot upon his ground.”
Hereward sent off messengers to Crowland, warning all to be ready to escape into the fens; and entreating Ulfketyl to empty his storehouses into his barges, and send food to the Danes, ere a day was past. And Ulfketyl worked hard and well, till a string of barges wound its way through the fens, laden with beeves and bread, and ale-barrels in plenty, and with monks too, who welcomed the Danes as their brethren, talked to them in their own tongue, blessed them in St. Guthlac’s name as the saviors of England, and went home again, chanting so sweetly their thanks to Heaven for their safety, that the wild Vikings were awed, and agreed that St. Guthlac’s men were wise folk and open-hearted, and that it was a shame to do them harm.
But plunder they must have.
“And plunder you shall have!” said Hereward, as a sudden thought struck him. “I will show you the way to the Golden Borough — the richest minster in England; and all the treasures of the Golden Borough shall be yours, if you will treat Englishmen as friends, and spare the people of the fens.”
It was a great crime in the eyes of men of that time. A great crime, taken simply, in Hereward’s own eyes. But necessity knows no law. Something the Danes must have, and ought to have; and St. Peter’s gold was better in their purses than in that of Thorold and his French monks.
So he led them across the fens and side rivers, till they came into the old Nene, which men call Catwater and Muscal now.
As he passed Nomanslandhirne, and the mouth of the Crowland river, he trembled, and trusted that the Danes did not know that they were within three miles of St. Guthlac’s sanctuary. But they went on ignorant, and up the Muscal till they saw St. Peter’s towers on the wooded rise, and behind them the great forest which now is Milton Park.
There were two parties in Peterborough minster: a smaller faction of stout-hearted English, a larger one who favored William and the French customs, with Prior Herluin at their head. Herluin wanted not for foresight, and he knew that evil was coming on him. He knew that the Danes were in the fen. He knew that Hereward was with them. He knew that they had come to Crowland. Hereward could never mean to let them sack it. Peterborough must be their point. And Herluin set his teeth, like a bold man determined to abide the worst, and barred and barricaded every gate and door.
That night a hapless churchwarden, Ywar was his name, might have been seen galloping through Milton and Castor Hanglands, and on by Barnack quarries over Southorpe heath, with saddlebags of huge size stuffed with “gospels, mass-robes, cassocks, and other garments, and such other small things as he could carry away.” And he came before day to Stamford, where Abbot Thorold lay at his ease in his inn with his hommes d’armes asleep in the hall.
And the churchwarden knocked them up, and drew Abbot Thorold’s curtains with a face such as his who
“drew Priam’s curtains in the dead of night,
And would have told him, half his Troy was burned”;
and told Abbot Thorold that the monks of Peterborough had sent him; and that unless he saddled and rode his best that night, with his meinie of men-at-arms, his Golden Borough would be even as Troy town by morning light.
“A moi, hommes d’armes!” shouted Thorold, as he used to shout whenever he wanted to scourge his wretched English monks at Malmesbury into some French fashion.
The men leaped up, and poured in, growling.
“Take me this monk, and kick him into the street for waking me with such news.”
“But, gracious lord, the outlaws will surely burn Peterborough; and folks said that you were a mighty man of war”
“So I am; but if I were Roland, Oliver, and Turpin rolled into one, how am I to fight Hereward and the Danes with forty men-at-arms? Answer me that, thou dunder-headed English porker. Kick him out.”
And Ywar was kicked into the cold, while Thorold raged up and down his chamber in mantle and slippers, wringing his hands over the treasure of the Golden Borough, snatched from his fingers just as he was closing them upon it.
That night the monks of Peterborough prayed in the minster till the long hours passed into the short. The poor corrodiers, and other servants of the monastery, fled from the town outside into the Milton woods. The monks prayed on inside till an hour after matin. When the first flush of the summer’s dawn began to show in the northeastern sky, they heard mingling with their own chant another chant, which Peterborough had not heard since it was Medehampstead, three hundred years ago — the terrible Yuch-hey-saa-saa-saa — the war-song of the Vikings of the north.
Their chant stopped of itself. With blanched faces and trembling knees they fled, regardless of all discipline, up into the minster tower, and from the leads looked out northeastward on the fen.
The first rays of the summer sun were just streaming over the vast sheet of emerald, and glittering upon the winding river; and on a winding line, too, seemingly endless, of scarlet coats and shields, black hulls, gilded poops and vanes and beak-heads, and the flash and foam of innumerable oars.
And nearer and louder came the oar-roll, like thunder working up from the northeast; and mingled with it that grim yet laughing Heysaa, which bespoke in its very note the revelry of slaughter.
The ships had all their sails on deck. But as they came nearer, the monks could see the banners of the two foremost vessels.
The one was the red and white of the terrible Dannebrog. The other, the scarcely less terrible white bear of Hereward.
“He will burn the minster! He has vowed to do it. As a child he vowed, and he must do it. In this very minster the fiend entered into him and possessed him; and to this minster has the fiend brought him back to do his will. Satan, my brethren, having a special spite (as must needs be) against St. Peter, rock and pillar of the Holy Church, chose out and inspired this man, even from his mother’s womb, that he might be the foe and robber of St. Peter, and the hater of all who, like my humility, honor him, and strive to bring this English land into due obedience to that blessed apostle. Bring forth the relics, my brethren. Bring forth, above all things, those filings of St. Peter’s own chains — the special glory of our monastery, and perhaps its safeguard this day.”
Some such bombast would any monk of those days have talked in like case. And yet, so strange a thing is man, he might have been withal, like Herluin, a shrewd and valiant man.
They brought out all the relics. They brought out the filings themselves, in a box of gold. They held them out over the walls at the ships, and called on all the saints to whom they belonged. But they stopped that line of scarlet, black, and gold as much as their spiritual descendants stop the lava-stream of Vesuvius, when they hold out similar matters at them, with a hope unchanged by the experience of eight hundred years. The Heysaa rose louder and nearer. The Danes were coming. And they came.
And all the while a thousand skylarks rose from off the fen, and chanted their own chant aloft, as if appealing to Heaven against that which man’s greed and man’s rage and man’s superstition had made of this fair earth of God.
The relics had been brought out. But, as they would not work, the only thing to be done was to put them back again and hide them safe, lest they should bow down like Bel and stoop like Nebo, and be carried, like them, into captivity themselves, being worth a very large sum of money in the eyes of the more Christian part of the Danish host.
Then to hide the treasures as well as they could; which (says the Anglo–Saxon Chronicle) they hid somewhere in the steeple.
The Danes were landing now. The shout which they gave, as they leaped on shore, made the hearts of the poor monks sink low. Would they be murdered, as well as robbed? Perhaps not — probably not. Hereward would see to that. And some wanted to capitulate.
Herluin would not hear of it. They were safe enough. St. Peter’s relic might not have worked a miracle on the spot; but it must have done something. St. Peter had been appealed to on his honor, and on his honor he must surely take the matter up. At all events, the walls and gates were strong, and the Danes had no artillery. Let them howl and rage round the holy place, till Abbot Thorold and the Frenchmen of the country rose and drove them to their ships.
In that last thought the cunning Norman was not so far wrong. The Danes pushed up through the little town, and to the minster gates: but entrance was impossible; and they prowled round and round like raging wolves about a winter steading; but found no crack of entry.
Prior Herluin grew bold; and coming to the leads of the gateway tower, looked over cautiously, and holding up a certain most sacred emblem — not to be profaned in these pages — cursed them in the name of his whole Pantheon.
“Aha, Herluin! Are you there?” asked a short, square man in gay armor. “Have you forgotten the peat-stack outside Bolldyke Gate, and how you bade light it under me thirty years since?”
“Thou art Winter?” and the Prior uttered what would be considered, from any but a churchman’s lips, a blasphemous and bloodthirsty curse; but which was, as their writings sufficiently testify, merely one of the lawful weapons or “arts” of those Christians who were “forbidden to fight,”— the other weapon or art being that of lying.
“Aha! That goes like rain off a duck’s back to one who has been a minster scholar in his time. You! Danes! Ostmen! down! If you shoot at that man I’ll cut your heads off. He is the oldest foe I have in the world, and the only one who ever hit me without my hitting him again; and nobody shall touch him but me. So down bows, I say.”
The Danes — humorous all of them — saw that there was a jest toward, and perhaps some earnest too, and joined in jeering the Prior.
Herluin had ducked his head behind the parapet; not from cowardice, but simply because he had on no mail, and might be shot any moment. But when he heard Winter forbid them to touch him, he lifted up his head, and gave his old pupil as good as he brought.
With his sharp, swift Norman priest’s tongue he sneered, he jeered, he scolded, he argued; and then threatened, suddenly changing his tone, in words of real eloquence. He appealed to the superstitions of his hearers. He threatened them with supernatural vengeance.
Some of them began to slink away frightened. St. Peter was an ill man to have a blood feud with.
Winter stood, laughing and jeering again, for full ten minutes. At last: “I asked, and you have not answered: have you forgotten the peat-stack outside Bolldyke Gate? For if you have, Hereward has not. He has piled it against the gate, and it should be burnt through by this time. Go and see.”
Herluin disappeared with a curse.
“Now, you sea-cocks,” said Winter, springing up, “we’ll to the Bolldyke Gate, and all start fair.”
The Bolldyke Gate was on fire; and more, so were the suburbs. There was no time to save them, as Hereward would gladly have done, for the sake of the poor corrodiers. They must go — on to the Bolldyke Gate. Who cared to put out flames behind him, with all the treasures of Golden Borough before him? In a few minutes all the town was alight. In a few minutes more, the monastery likewise.
A fire is detestable enough at all times, but most detestable by day. At night it is customary, a work of darkness which lights up the dark, picturesque, magnificent, with a fitness Tartarean and diabolic. But under a glaring sun, amid green fields and blue skies, all its wickedness is revealed without its beauty. You see its works, and little more. The flame is hardly noticed. All that is seen is a canker eating up God’s works, cracking the bones of its prey — for that horrible cracking is uglier than all stage-scene glares — cruelly and shamelessly under the very eye of the great, honest, kindly sun.
And that felt Hereward, as he saw Peterborough burn. He could not put his thoughts into words, as men of this day can: so much the better for him, perhaps. But he felt all the more intensely — as did men of his day — the things he could not speak. All he said was aside to Winter —
“It is a dark job. I wish it had been done in the dark.” And Winter knew what he meant.
Then the men rushed into the Bolldyke Gate, while Hereward and Winter stood and looked with their men, whom they kept close together, waiting their commands. The Danes and their allies cared not for the great glowing heap of peat. They cared not for each other, hardly for themselves. They rushed into the gap; they thrust the glowing heap inward through the gateway with their lances; they thrust each other down into it, and trampled over them to fall themselves, rising scorched and withered, and yet struggling on toward the gold of the Golden Borough. One savage Lett caught another round the waist, and hurled him bodily into the fire, crying in his wild tongue:—
“You will make a good stepping-stone for me.”
“That is not fair,” quoth Hereward, and clove him to the chine.
It was wild work. But the Golden Borough was won.
“We must in now and save the monks,” said Hereward, and dashed over the embers.
He was only just in time. In the midst of the great court were all the monks, huddled together like a flock of sheep, some kneeling, most weeping bitterly, after the fashion of monks.
Only Herluin stood in front of them, at bay, a lofty crucifix in his hand. He had no mind to weep. But with a face of calm and bitter wrath, he preferred words of peace and entreaty. They were what the time needed. Therefore they should be given. To-morrow he would write to Bishop Egelsin, to excommunicate with bell, book, and candle, to the lowest pit of Tartarus, all who had done the deed.
But today he spoke them fair. However, his fair speeches profited little, not being understood by a horde of Letts and Finns, who howled and bayed at him, and tried to tear the crucifix from his hands; but feared “the white Christ.”
They were already gaining courage from their own yells; in a moment more blood would have been shed, and then a general massacre must have ensued.
Hereward saw it, and shouting, “After me, Hereward’s men! a bear! a bear!” swung Letts and Finns right and left like corn-sheaves, and stood face to face with Herluin.
An angry Finn smote him on the hind-head full with a stone axe. He staggered, and then looked round and laughed.
“Fool! hast thou not heard that Hereward’s armor was forged by dwarfs in the mountain-bowels? Off, and hunt for gold, or it will be all gone.”
The Finn, who was astonished at getting no more from his blow than a few sparks, and expected instant death in return, took the hint and vanished jabbering, as did his fellows.
“Now, Herluin, the Frenchman!” said Hereward.
“Now, Hereward, the robber of saints!” said Herluin.
It was a fine sight. The soldier and the churchman, the Englishman and the Frenchman, the man of the then world, and the man of the then Church, pitted fairly, face to face.
Hereward tried, for one moment, to stare down Herluin. But those terrible eye-glances, before which Vikings had quailed, turned off harmless from the more terrible glance of the man who believed himself backed by the Maker of the universe, and all the hierarchy of heaven.
A sharp, unlovely face it was: though, like many a great churchman’s face of those days, it was neither thin nor haggard; but rather round, sleek, of a puffy and unwholesome paleness. But there was a thin lip above a broad square jaw, which showed that Herluin was neither fool nor coward.
“A robber and a child of Belial thou hast been from thy cradle; and a robber and a child of Belial thou art now. Dare thy last iniquity, and slay the servants of St. Peter on St. Peter’s altar, with thy worthy comrades, the heathen Saracens 31, and set up Mahound with them in the holy place.”
31 The Danes were continually mistaken, by Norman churchmen, for Saracens, and the Saracens considered to be idolaters. A maumee, or idol, means a Mahomet.
Hereward laughed so jolly a laugh, that the Prior was taken aback.
“Slay St. Peter’s rats? I kill men, not monks. There shall not a hair of your head be touched. Here! Hereward’s men! march these traitors and their French Prior safe out of the walls, and into Milton Woods, to look after their poor corrodiers, and comfort their souls, after they have ruined their bodies by their treason!”
“Out of this place I stir not. Here I am, and here I will live or die, as St. Peter shall send aid.”
But as he spoke, he was precipitated rudely forward, and hurried almost into Hereward’s arms. The whole body of monks, when they heard Hereward’s words, cared to hear no more, but desperate between fear and joy, rushed forward, bearing away their Prior in the midst.
“So go the rats out of Peterborough, and so is my dream fulfilled. Now for the treasure, and then to Ely.”
But Herluin burst himself clear of the frantic mob of monks, and turned back on Hereward.
“Thou wast dubbed knight in that church!”
“I know it, man; and that church and the relics of the saints in it are safe, therefore. Hereward gives his word.”
“That — but not that only, if thou art a true knight, as thou holdest, Englishman.”
Hereward growled savagely, and made an ugly step toward Herluin. That was a point which he would not have questioned.
“Then behave as a knight, and save, save,”— as the monks dragged him away — “save the hospice! There are women — ladies there!” shouted he, as he was borne off.
They never met again on earth; but both comforted themselves in after years, that two old enemies’ last deed in common had been one of mercy.
Hereward uttered a cry of horror. If the wild Letts, even the Jomsburgers, had got in, all was lost. He rushed to the door. It was not yet burst: but a bench, swung by strong arms, was battering it in fast.
“Winter! Geri! Siwards! To me, Hereward’s men! Stand back, fellows. Here are friends here inside. If you do not, I’ll cut you down.”
But in vain. The door was burst, and in poured the savage mob. Hereward, unable to stop them, headed them, or pretended to do so, with five or six of his own men round him, and went into the hall.
On the rushes lay some half-dozen grooms. They were butchered instantly, simply because they were there. Hereward saw, but could not prevent. He ran as hard as he could to the foot of the wooden stair which led to the upper floor.
“Guard the stair-foot, Winter!” and he ran up.
Two women cowered upon the floor, shrieking and praying with hands clasped over their heads. He saw that the arms of one of them were of the most exquisite whiteness, and judging her to be the lady, bent over her. “Lady! you are safe. I will protect you. I am Hereward.”
She sprang up, and threw herself with a scream into his arms.
“Hereward! Hereward! Save me. I am-”
“Alftruda!” said Hereward.
It was Alftruda; if possible more beautiful than ever.
“I have got you!” she cried. “I am safe now. Take me away — out of this horrible place! Take me into the woods — anywhere. Only do not let me be burnt here — stifled like a rat. Give me air! Give me water!” And she clung to him so madly, that Hereward, as he held her in his arms, and gazed on her extraordinary beauty, forgot Torfrida for the second time.
But there was no time to indulge in evil thoughts, even had any crossed his mind. He caught her in his arms, and commanding the maid to follow, hurried down the stair.
Winter and the Siwards were defending the foot with swinging blades. The savages were howling round like curs about a bull; and when Hereward appeared above with the women, there was a loud yell of rage and envy.
He should not have the women to himself — they would share the plunder equally — was shouted in half a dozen barbarous dialects.
“Have you left any valuables in the chamber?” whispered he to Alftruda.
“Yes, jewels — robes. Let them have all, only save me!”
“Let me pass!” roared Hereward. “There is rich booty in the room above, and you may have it as these ladies’ ransom. Them you do not touch. Back, I say, let me pass!”
And he rushed forward. Winter and the housecarles formed round him and the women, and hurried down the hall, while the savages hurried up the ladder, to quarrel over their spoil.
They were out in the court-yard, and safe for the moment. But whither should he take her?
“To Earl Osbiorn,” said one of the Siwards. But how to find him?
“There is Bishop Christiern!” And the Bishop was caught and stopped.
“This is an evil day’s work, Sir Hereward.”
“Then help to mend it by taking care of these ladies, like a man of God.” And he explained the case.
“You may come safely with me, my poor lambs,” said the Bishop. “I am glad to find something to do fit for a churchman. To me, my housecarles.”
But they were all off plundering.
“We will stand by you and the ladies, and see you safe down to the ships,” said Winter, and so they went off.
Hereward would gladly have gone with them, as Alftruda piteously entreated him. But he heard his name called on every side in angry tones.
“Who wants Hereward?”
“Earl Osbiorn — here he is.”
“Those scoundrel monks have hidden all the altar furniture. If you wish to save them from being tortured to death, you had best find it.”
Hereward ran with him into the Cathedral. It was a hideous sight; torn books and vestments; broken tabernacle work; foul savages swarming in and out of every dark aisle and cloister, like wolves in search of prey; five or six ruffians aloft upon the rood screen; one tearing the golden crown from the head of the crucifix, another the golden footstool from its feet. 32
32 The crucifix was probably of the Greek pattern, in which the figure stood upon a flat slab, projecting from the cross.
As Hereward came up, crucifix and man fell together, crashing upon the pavement, amid shouts of brutal laughter.
He hurried past them, shuddering, into the choir. The altar was bare, the golden pallium which covered it, gone.
“It may be in the crypt below. I suppose the monks keep their relics there,” said Osbiorn.
“No! Not there. Do not touch the relics! Would you have the curse of all the saints? Stay! I know an old hiding-place. It may be there. Up into the steeple with me.”
And in a chamber in the steeple they found the golden pall, and treasures countless and wonderful.
“We had better keep the knowledge of this to ourselves awhile,” said Earl Osbiorn, looking with greedy eyes on a heap of wealth such as he had never beheld before.
“Not we! Hereward is a man of his word, and we will share and share alike.” And he turned and went down the narrow winding stair.
Earl Osbiorn gave one look at his turned back; an evil spirit of covetousness came over him; and he smote Hereward full and strong upon the hind-head.
The sword turned upon the magic helm, and the sparks flashed out bright and wide.
Earl Osbiorn shrunk back, appalled and trembling.
“Aha!” said Hereward without looking round. “I never thought there would be loose stones in the roof. Here! Up here, Vikings, Berserker, and sea-cocks all! Here, Jutlanders, Jomsburgers, Letts, Finns, witches’ sons and devils’ sons all! Here!” cried he, while Osbiorn profited by that moment to thrust an especially brilliant jewel into his boot. “Here is gold, here is the dwarfs work! Come up and take your Polotaswarf! You would not get a richer out of the Kaiser’s treasury. Here, wolves and ravens, eat gold, drink gold, roll in gold, and know that Hereward is a man of his word, and pays his soldiers’ wages royally!”
They rushed up the narrow stair, trampling each other to death, and thrust Hereward and the Earl, choking, into a corner. The room was so full for a few moments, that some died in it. Hereward and Osbiorn, protected by their strong armor, forced their way to the narrow window, and breathed through it, looking out upon the sea of flame below.
“That was an unlucky blow,” said Hereward, “that fell upon my head.”
“Very unlucky. I saw it coming, but had no time to warn you. Why do you hold my wrist?”
“Men’s daggers are apt to get loose at such times as these.”
“What do you mean?” and Earl Osbiorn went from him, and into the now thinning press. Soon only a few remained, to search, by the glare of the flames, for what their fellows might have overlooked.
“Now the play is played out,” said Hereward, “we may as well go down, and to our ships.”
Some drunken ruffians would have burnt the church for mere mischief. But Osbiorn, as well as Hereward, stopped that. And gradually they got the men down to the ships; some drunk, some struggling under plunder; some cursing and quarrelling because nothing had fallen to their lot. It was a hideous scene; but one to which Hereward, as well as Osbiorn, was too well accustomed to see aught in it save an hour’s inevitable trouble in getting the men on board.
The monks had all fled. Only Leofwin the Long was left, and he lay sick in the infirmary. Whether he was burned therein, or saved by Hereward’s men, is not told.
And so was the Golden Borough sacked and burnt. Now then, whither?
The Danes were to go to Ely and join the army there. Hereward would march on to Stamford; secure that town if he could; then to Huntingdon, to secure it likewise; and on to Ely afterwards.
“You will not leave me among these savages?” said Alftruda.
“Heaven forbid! You shall come with me as far as Stamford, and then I will set you on your way.”
“My way?” said Alftruda, in a bitter and hopeless tone.
Hereward mounted her on a good horse, and rode beside her, looking — and he well knew it — a very perfect knight. Soon they began to talk. What had brought Alftruda to Peterborough, of all places on earth?
“A woman’s fortune. Because I am rich — and some say fair — I am a puppet, and a slave, a prey. I was going back to my — to Dolfin.”
“Have you been away from him, then?”
“What! Do you not know?”
“How should I know, lady?”
“Yes, most true. How should Hereward know anything about Alftruda? But I will tell you. Maybe you may not care to hear?”
“About you? Anything. I have often longed to know how — what you were doing.”
“Is it possible? Is there one human being left on earth who cares to hear about Alftruda? Then listen. You know when Gospatrick fled to Scotland his sons went with him. Young Gospatrick, Waltheof, 33 and he — Dolfin. Ethelreda, his girl, went too — and she is to marry, they say, Duncan, Malcolm’s eldest son by Ingebiorg. So Gospatrick will find himself, some day, father-in-law of the King of Scots.”
33 This Waltheof Gospatricksson must not be confounded with Waltheof Siwardsson, the young Earl. He became a wild border chieftain, then Baron of Atterdale, and then gave Atterdale to his sister Queen Ethelreda, and turned monk, and at last Abbot, of Crowland: crawling home, poor fellow, like many another, to die in peace in the sanctuary of the Danes.
“I will warrant him to find his nest well lined, wherever he be. But of yourself?”
“I refused to go. I could not face again that bleak black North. Beside — but that is no concern of Hereward’s —”
Hereward was on the point of saying, “Can anything concern you, and not be interesting to me?”
But she went on —
“I refused, and —”
“And he misused you?” asked he, fiercely.
“Better if he had. Better if he had tied me to his stirrup, and scourged me along into Scotland, than have left me to new dangers and to old temptations.”
Alftruda did not answer; but went on —
“He told me, in his lofty Scots’ fashion, that I was free to do what I list. That he had long since seen that I cared not for him; and that he would find many a fairer lady in his own land.”
“There he lied. So you did not care for him? He is a noble knight.”
“What is that to me? Women’s hearts are not to be bought and sold with their bodies, as I was sold. Care for him? I care for no creature upon earth. Once I cared for Hereward, like a silly child. Now I care not even for him.”
Hereward was sorry to hear that. Men are vainer than women, just as peacocks are vainer than peahens; and Hereward was — alas for him! — a specially vain man. Of course, for him to fall in love with Alftruda would have been a shameful sin — he would not have committed it for all the treasures of Constantinople; but it was a not unpleasant thought that Alftruda should fall in love with him. But he only said, tenderly and courteously —
“Alas, poor lady!”
“Poor lady. Too true, that last. For whither am I going now? Back to that man once more.”
“To my master, like a runaway slave. I went down south to Queen Matilda. I knew her well, and she was kind to me, as she is to all things that breathe. But now that Gospatrick is come into the king’s grace again, and has bought the earldom of Northumbria, from Tweed to Tyne —”
“Bought the earldom?”
“That has he; and paid for it right heavily.”
“Traitor and fool! He will not keep it seven years. The Frenchman will pick a quarrel with him, and cheat him out of earldom and money too.”
The which William did, within three years.
“May it be so! But when he came into the king’s grace, he must needs demand me back in his son’s name.”
“What does Dolfin want with you?”
“His father wants my money, and stipulated for it with the king. And beside, I suppose I am a pretty plaything enough still.”
“You? You are divine, perfect. Dolfin is right. How could a man who had once enjoyed you live without you?”
Alftruda laughed — a laugh full of meaning; but what that meaning was, Hereward could not divine.
“So now,” she said, “what Hereward has to do, as a true and courteous knight, is to give Alftruda safe conduct, and, if he can, a guard; and to deliver her up loyally and knightly to his old friend and fellow-warrior, Dolfin Gospatricksson, earl of whatever he can lay hold of for the current month.”
“Are you in earnest?”
Alftruda laughed one of her strange laughs, looking straight before her. Indeed, she had never looked Hereward in the face during the whole ride.
“What are those open holes? Graves?”
“They are Barnack stone-quarries, which Alfgar my brother gave to Crowland.”
“So? That is pity. I thought they had been graves; and then you might have covered me up in one of them, and left me to sleep in peace.”
“What can I do for you, Alftruda, my old play-fellow: Alftruda, whom I saved from the bear?”
“If she had foreseen the second monster into whose jaws she was to fall, she would have prayed you to hold that terrible hand of yours, which never since, men say, has struck without victory and renown. You won your first honor for my sake. But who am I now, that you should turn out of your glorious path for me?”
“I will do anything — anything. But why miscall this noble prince a monster?”
“If he were fairer than St. John, more wise than Solomon, and more valiant than King William, he is to me a monster; for I loathe him, and I know not why. But do your duty as a knight, sir. Convey the lawful wife to her lawful spouse.”
“What cares an outlaw for law, in a land where law is dead and gone? I will do what I— what you like. Come with me to Torfrida at Bourne; and let me see the man who dares try to take you out of my hand.”
Alftruda laughed again.
“No, no. I should interrupt the little doves in their nest. Beside, the billing and cooing might make me envious. And I, alas! who carry misery with me round the land, might make your Torfrida jealous.”
Hereward was of the same opinion, and rode silent and thoughtful through the great woods which are now the noble park of Burghley.
“I have found it!” said he at last. “Why not go to Gilbert of Ghent, at Lincoln?”
“Gilbert? Why should he befriend me?”
“He will do that, or anything else, which is for his own profit.”
“Profit? All the world seems determined to make profit out of me. I presume you would, if I had come with you to Bourne.”
“I do not doubt it. This is a very wild sea to swim in; and a man must be forgiven, if he catches at every bit of drift-timber.”
“Selfishness, selfishness everywhere; — and I suppose you expect to gain by sending me to Gilbert of Ghent?”
“I shall gain nothing, Alftruda, save the thought that you are not so far from me — from us — but that we can hear of you — send succor to you if you need.”
Alftruda was silent. At last —
“And you think that Gilbert would not be afraid of angering the king?”
“He would not anger the king. Gilbert’s friendship is more important to William, at this moment, than that of a dozen Gospatricks. He holds Lincoln town, and with it the key of Waltheof’s earldom: and things may happen, Alftruda — I tell you; but if you tell Gilbert, may Hereward’s curse be on you!”
“Not that! Any man’s curse save yours!” said she in so passionate a voice that a thrill of fire ran through Hereward. And he recollected her scoff at Bruges — “So he could not wait for me?” And a storm of evil thoughts swept through him. “Would to heaven!” said he to himself, crushing them gallantly down, “I had never thought of Lincoln. But there is no other plan.”
But he did not tell Alftruda, as he meant to do, that she might see him soon in Lincoln Castle as its conqueror and lord. He half hoped that when that day came, Alftruda might be somewhere else.
“Gilbert can say,” he went on, steadying himself again, “that you feared to go north on account of the disturbed state of the country; and that, as you had given yourself up to him of your own accord, he thought it wisest to detain you, as a hostage for Dolfin’s allegiance.”
“He shall say so. I will make him say so.”
“So be it, Now, here we are at Stamford town; and I must to my trade. Do you like to see fighting, Alftruda — the man’s game, the royal game, the only game worth a thought on earth? For you are like to see a little in the next ten minutes.”
“I should like to see you fight. They tell me none is so swift and terrible in the battle as Hereward. How can you be otherwise, who slew the bear — when we were two happy children together? But shall I be safe?”
“Safe? of course,” said Hereward, who longed, peacock-like, to show off his prowess before a lady who was — there was no denying it — far more beautiful than even Torfrida.
But he had no opportunity to show off his prowess. For as he galloped in over Stamford Bridge, Abbot Thorold galloped out at the opposite end of the town through Casterton, and up the Roman road to Grantham.
After whom Hereward sent Alftruda (for he heard that Thorold was going to Gilbert at Lincoln) with a guard of knights, bidding them do him no harm, but say that Hereward knew him to be a preux chevalier and lover of fair ladies; that he had sent him a right fair one to bear him company to Lincoln, and hoped that he would sing to her on the way the song of Roland.
And Alftruda, who knew Thorold, went willingly, since it could no better be.
After which, according to Gaimar, Hereward tarried three days at Stamford, laying a heavy tribute on the burgesses for harboring Thorold and his Normans; and also surprised at a drinking-bout a certain special enemy of his, and chased him from room to room sword in hand, till he took refuge shamefully in an outhouse, and begged his life. And when his knights came back from Grantham, he marched to Bourne.
“The next night,” says Leofric the deacon, or rather the monk who paraphrased his saga in Latin prose — “Hereward saw in his dreams a man standing by him of inestimable beauty, old of years, terrible of countenance, in all the raiment of his body more splendid than all things which he had ever seen, or conceived in his mind; who threatened him with a great club which he carried in his hand, and with a fearful doom, that he should take back to his church all that had been carried off the night before, and have them restored utterly, each in its place, if he wished to provide for the salvation of his soul, and escape on the spot a pitiable death. But when awakened, he was seized with a divine terror, and restored in the same hour all that he took away, and so departed, going onward with all his men.”
So says Leofric, wishing, as may be well believed, to advance the glory of St. Peter, and purge his master’s name from the stain of sacrilege. Beside, the monks of Peterborough, no doubt, had no wish that the world should spy out their nakedness, and become aware that the Golden Borough was stript of all its gold.
Nevertheless, truth will out. Golden Borough was Golden Borough no more. The treasures were never restored; they went to sea with the Danes, and were scattered far and wide — to Norway, to Ireland, to Denmark; “all the spoils,” says the Anglo–Saxon Chronicle, “which reached the latter country, being the pallium and some of the shrines and crosses; and many of the other treasures they brought to one of the king’s towns, and laid them up in the church. But one night, through their carelessness and drunkenness, the church was burned, with all that was therein. Thus was the minster of Peterborough burned and pillaged. May Almighty God have pity on it in His great mercy.”
Hereward, when blamed for the deed, said always that he did it “because of his allegiance to the monastery.” Rather than that the treasures gathered by Danish monks should fall into the hands of the French robbers, let them be given to their own Danish kinsmen, in payment for their help to English liberty.
But some of the treasure, at least, he must have surely given back, it so appeased the angry shade of St. Peter. For on that night, when marching past Stamford, they lost their way. “To whom, when they had lost their way, a certain wonder happened, and a miracle, if it can be said that such would be worked in favor of men of blood. For while in the wild night and dark they wandered in the wood, a huge wolf met them, wagging his tail like a tame dog, and went before them on a path. And they, taking the gray beast in the darkness for a white dog, cheered on each other to follow him to his farm, which ought to be hard by. And in the silence of the midnight, that they might see their way, suddenly candles appeared, burning, and clinging to the lances of all the knights — not very bright, however; but like those which the folk call candelae nympharum — wills of the wisp. But none could pull them off, or altogether extinguish them, or throw them from their hands. And thus they saw their way, and went on, although astonished out of mind, with the wolf leading them, until day dawned, and they saw, to their great astonishment, that he was a wolf. And as they questioned among themselves about what had befallen, the wolf and the candles disappeared, and they came whither they had been minded — beyond Stamford town — thanking God, and wondering at what had happened.”
After which Hereward took Torfrida, and his child, and all he had, and took ship at Bardeney, and went for Ely. Which when Earl Warrenne heard, he laid wait for him, seemingly near Southery: but got nothing thereby, according to Leofric, but the pleasure of giving and taking a great deal of bad language; and (after his men had refused, reasonably enough, to swim the Ouse and attack Hereward) an arrow, which Hereward, “modicum se inclinans,” stooping forward, says Leofric — who probably saw the deed — shot at him across the Ouse, as the Earl stood cursing on the top of the dike. Which arrow flew so stout and strong, that though it sprang back from Earl Warrenne’s hauberk, it knocked him almost senseless off his horse, and forced him to defer his purpose of avenging Sir Frederic his brother.
After which Hereward threw himself into Ely, and assumed, by consent of all, the command of the English who were therein.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56