A month after the fight, there came into the camp at Cambridge, riding on a good horse, himself fat and well-liking, none other than Sir Dade.
Boisterously he was received, as one alive from the dead; and questioned as to his adventures and sufferings.
“Adventures I have had, and strange ones; but for sufferings, instead of fetter-galls, I bring back, as you see, a new suit of clothes; instead of an empty and starved stomach, a surfeit from good victuals and good liquor; and whereas I went into Ely on foot, I came out on a fast hackney.”
So into William’s tent he went; and there he told his tale.
“So, Dade, my friend?” quoth the Duke, in high good humor, for he loved Dade, “you seem to have been in good company?”
“Never in better, Sire, save in your presence. Of the earls and knights in Ely, all I can say is, God’s pity that they are rebels, for more gallant and courteous knights or more perfect warriors never saw I, neither in Normandy nor at Constantinople, among the Varangers themselves.”
“Eh! and what are the names of these gallants; for you have used your eyes and ears, of course?”
“Edwin and Morcar, the earls — two fine young lads.”
“I know it. Go on”; and a shade passed over William’s brow, as he thought of his own falsehood, and his fair Constance, weeping in vain for the fair bridegroom whom he had promised to her.
“Siward Barn, as they call him, the boy Orgar, and Thurkill Barn. Those are the knights. Egelwin, bishop of Durham, is there too; and besides them all, and above them all, Hereward. The like of that knight I may have seen. His better saw I never.”
“Sir fool!” said Earl Warrenne, who had not yet — small blame to him — forgotten his brother’s death. “They have soused thy brains with their muddy ale, till thou knowest not friend from foe. What! hast thou to come hither praising up to the King’s Majesty such an outlawed villain as that, with whom no honest knight would keep company?”
“If you, Earl Warrenne, ever found Dade drunk or lying, it is more than the King here has done.”
“Let him speak, Earl,” said William. “I have not an honester man in my camp; and he speaks for my information, not for yours.”
“Then for yours will I speak, Sir King. These men treated me knightly, and sent me away without ransom.”
“They had an eye to their own profit, it seems,” grumbled the Earl.
“But force me they did to swear on the holy Gospels that I should tell your Majesty the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And I keep my oath,” quoth Dade.
“Go on, then, without fear or favor. Are there any other men of note in the island!”
“Are they in want of provisions?”
“Look how they have fattened me.”
“What do they complain of?”
“I will tell you, Sir King. The monks, like many more, took fright at the coming over of our French men of God to set right all their filthy, barbarous ways; and that is why they threw Ely open to the rebels.”
“I will be even with the sots,” quoth William.
“However, they think that danger blown over just now; for they have a story among them, which, as my Lord the King never heard before, he may as well hear now.”
“How your Majesty should have sent across the sea a whole shipload of French monks.”
“That have I, and will more, till I reduce these swine into something like obedience to his Holiness of Rome.”
“Ah, but your Majesty has not heard how one Bruman, a valiant English knight, was sailing on the sea and caught those monks. Whereon he tied a great sack to the ship’s head, and cut the bottom out, and made every one of those monks get into that sack and so fall through into the sea; whereby he rid the monks of Ely of their rivals.”
“Pish! why tell me such an old-wives’ fable, knight?”
“Because the monks believe that old-wives’ fable, and are stout-hearted and stiff-necked accordingly.”
“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” said William’s chaplain, a pupil and friend of Lanfranc; “and if these men of Belial drowned every man of God in Normandy, ten would spring up in their places to convert this benighted and besotted land of Simonites and Balaamites, whose priests, like the brutes which perish, scruple not to defile themselves and the service of the altar with things which they impudently call their wives.”
“We know that, good chaplain,” quoth William, impatiently. He had enough of that language from Lanfranc himself; and, moreover, was thinking more of the Isle of Ely than of the celibacy of the clergy.
“Well, Sir Dade?”
“So they have got together all their kin; for among these monks every one is kin to a Thane, or Knight, or even an Earl. And there they are, brother by brother, cousin by cousin, knee to knee, and back to back, like a pack of wolves, and that in a hold which you will not enter yet awhile.”
“Does my friend Dade doubt his Duke’s skill at last?”
“Sir Duke — Sir King I mean now, for King you are and deserve to be — I know what you can do. I remember how we took England at one blow on Senlac field; but see you here, Sir King. How will you take an island where four kings such as you (if the world would hold four such at once) could not stop one churl from ploughing the land, or one bird-catcher from setting lime-twigs?”
“And what if I cannot stop the bird-catchers? Do they expect to lime Frenchmen as easily as sparrows?”
“Sparrows! It is not sparrows that I have been fattening on this last month. I tell you, Sire, I have seen wild-fowl alone in that island enough to feed them all the year round. I was there in the moulting-time, and saw them take — one day one hundred, one two hundred; and once, as I am a belted knight, a thousand duck out of one single mere. There is a wood there, with herons sprawling about the tree-tops — I did not think there were so many in the world — and fish for Lent and Fridays in every puddle and leat, pike and perch, tench and eels, on every old-wife’s table; while the knights think scorn of anything worse than smelts and burbot.”
“Splendeur Dex!” quoth William, who, Norman-like, did not dislike a good dinner. “I must keep Lent in Ely before I die.”
“Then you had best make peace with the burbot-eating knights, my lord.”
“But have they flesh-meat?”
“The isle is half of it a garden — richer land, they say, is none in these realms, and I believe it; but, besides that, there is a deer-park there with a thousand head in it, red and fallow; and plenty of swine in woods, and sheep, and cattle; and if they fail, there are plenty more to be got, they know where.”
“They know where? Do you, Sir Knight?” asked William, keenly.
“Out of every little Island in their fens, for forty miles on end. There are the herds fattening themselves on the richest pastures in the land, and no man needing to herd them, for they are all safe among dikes and meres.”
“I will make my boats sweep their fens clear of every head —”
“Take care, my Lord King, lest never a boat come back from that errand. With their narrow flat-bottomed punts, cut out of a single log, and their leaping-poles, wherewith they fly over dikes of thirty feet in width — they can ambuscade in those reed-beds and alder-beds, kill whom they will, and then flee away through the marsh like so many horse-flies. And if not, one trick have they left, which they never try save when driven into a corner; but from that, may all saints save us!”
“Firing the reeds.”
“And destroying their own cover?”
“True: therefore they will only do it in despair.”
“Then to despair will I drive them, and try their worst. So these monks are as stout rebels as the earls?”
“I only say what I saw. At the hall-table there dined each day maybe some fifty belted knights, with every one a monk next to him; and at the high table the abbot, and the three earls, and Hereward and his lady, and Thurkill Barn. And behind each knight, and each monk likewise, hung against the wall lance and shield, helmet and hauberk, sword and axe.”
“To monk as well as knight?”
“As I am a knight myself; and were as well used, too, for aught I saw. The monks took turns with the knights as sentries, and as foragers, too; and the knights themselves told me openly, the monks were as good men as they.”
“As wicked, you mean,” groaned the chaplain. “O, accursed and bloodthirsty race, why does not the earth open and swallow you, with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram?”
“They would not mind,” quoth Dade. “They are born and bred in the bottomless pit already. They would jump over, or flounder out, as they do to their own bogs every day.”
“You speak irreverently, my friend,” quoth William.
“Ask those who are in camp, and not me. As for whither they went, or how, the English were not likely to tell me. All I know is, that I saw fresh cattle come every few days, and fresh farms burnt, too, on the Norfolk side. There were farms burning last night only, between here and Cambridge. Ask your sentinels on the Rech-dike how that came about!”
“I can answer that,” quoth a voice from the other end of the tent. “I was on the Rech-dike last night, close down to the fen — worse luck and shame for me.”
“Answer, then!” quoth William, with one of his horrible oaths, glad to have some one on whom he could turn his rage and disappointment.
“There came seven men in a boat up from Ely yestereven, and five of them were monks; they came up from Burwell fen, and plundered and burnt Burwell town.”
“And where were all you mighty men of war?”
“Ten of us ran down to stop them, with Richard, Earl Osbern’s nephew, at their head. The villains got to the top of the Rech-dike, and made a stand, and before we could get to them —”
“Thy men had run, of course.”
“They were every one dead or wounded, save Richard; and he was fighting single-handed with an Englishman, while the other six stood around, and looked on.”
“Then they fought fairly?” said William.
“As fairly, to do them justice, as if they had been Frenchmen, and not English churls. As we came down along the dike, a little man of them steps between the two, and strikes down their swords as if they had been two reeds. ‘Come!’ cries he, ‘enough of this. You are two prudhommes well matched, and you can fight out this any other day’; and away he and his men go down the dike-end to the water.”
“Leaving Richard safe?”
“Wounded a little — but safe enough.”
“We followed them to the boat as hard as we could; killed one with a javelin, and caught another.”
“Knightly done!” and William swore an awful oath, “and worthy of valiant Frenchmen. These English set you the example of chivalry by letting your comrade fight his own battle fairly, instead of setting on him all together; and you repay them by hunting them down with darts, because you dare not go within sword’s-stroke of better men than yourselves. Go. I am ashamed of you. No, stay. Where is your prisoner? For, Splendeur Dex! I will send him back safe and sound in return for Dade, to tell the knights of Ely that if they know so well the courtesies of war, William of Rouen does too.”
“The prisoner, Sire,” quoth the knight, trembling, “is — is —”
“You have not murdered him?”
“Heaven forbid! but —”
“He broke his bonds and escaped?”
“Gnawed them through, Sire, as we suppose, and escaped through the mire in the dark, after the fashion of these accursed frogs of Girvians.”
“But did he tell you naught ere he bade you good morning?”
“He told as the names of all the seven. He that beat down the swords was Hereward himself.”
“I thought as much. When shall I have that fellow at my side?”
“He that fought Richard was one Wenoch.”
“I have heard of him.”
“He that we slew was Siward, a monk.”
“More shame to you.”
“He that we took was Azer the Hardy, a monk of Nicole — Licole,”— the Normans could never say Lincoln.
“And the rest were Thurstan the Younger; Leofric the Deacon, Hereward’s minstrel; and Boter, the traitor monk of St. Edmund’s.”
“And if I catch them,” quoth William, “I will make an abbot of every one of them.”
“Sire?” quoth the chaplain, in a deprecating tone.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10