The next place in which Hereward appeared was far away on the southwest, upon the Cornish shore. How he came there, or after how long, the chronicles do not say. All that shall be told is, that he went into port on board a merchant ship carrying wine, and intending to bring back tin. The merchants had told him of one Alef, a valiant regulus or kinglet of those parts, who was indeed a distant connection of Hereward himself, having married, as did so many of the Celtic princes, the daughter of a Danish sea-rover, of Siward’s blood. They told him also that the kinglet increased his wealth, not only by the sale of tin and of red cattle, but by a certain amount of autumnal piracy in company with his Danish brothers-in-law from Dublin and Waterford; and Hereward, who believed, with most Englishmen of the East Country, that Cornwall still produced a fair crop of giants, some of them with two and even three heads, had hopes that Alef might show him some adventure worthy of his sword. He sailed in, therefore, over a rolling bar, between jagged points of black rock, and up a tide river which wandered away inland, like a land-locked lake, between high green walls of oak and ash, till they saw at the head of the tide Alef’s town, nestling in a glen which sloped towards the southern sun. They discovered, besides, two ships drawn up upon the beach, whose long lines and snake-heads, beside the stoat carved on the beak-head of one and the adder on that of the other, bore witness to the piratical habits of their owner. The merchants, it seemed, were well known to the Cornishmen on shore, and Hereward went up with them unopposed; past the ugly dikes and muddy leats, where Alef’s slaves were streaming the gravel for tin ore; through rich alluvial pastures spotted with red cattle, and up to Alef’s town. Earthworks and stockades surrounded a little church of ancient stone, and a cluster of granite cabins thatched with turf, in which the slaves abode, and in the centre of all a vast stone barn, with low walls and high sloping roof, which contained Alef’s family, treasures, fighting tail, horses, cattle, and pigs. They entered at one end between the pigsties, passed on through the cow-stalls, then through the stables, and saw before them, dim through the reek of thick peat-smoke, a long oaken table, at which sat huge dark-haired Cornishmen, with here and there among them the yellow head of a Norseman, who were Alef’s following or fighting men. Boiled meat was there in plenty, barley cakes, and ale. At the head of the table, on a high-backed settle, was Alef himself, a jolly giant, who was just setting to work to drink himself stupid with mead made from narcotic heather honey. By his side sat a lovely dark-haired girl, with great gold torcs upon her throat and wrists, and a great gold brooch fastening a shawl which had plainly come from the looms of Spain or of the East, and next to her again, feeding her with titbits cut off with his own dagger, and laid on barley cake instead of a plate, sat a more gigantic personage even than Alef, the biggest man that Hereward had ever seen, with high cheek bones, and small ferret eyes, looking out from a greasy mass of bright red hair and beard.
No questions were asked of the new-comers. They set themselves down in silence in empty places, and, according to the laws of the good old Cornish hospitality, were allowed to eat and drink their fill before they spoke a word.
“Welcome here again, friend,” said Alef at last, in good enough Danish, calling the eldest merchant by name. “Do you bring wine?”
The merchant nodded.
“And you want tin?”
The merchant nodded again, and lifting his cup drank Alef’s health, following it up by a coarse joke in Cornish, which raised a laugh all round.
The Norse trader of those days, it must be remembered, was none of the cringing and effeminate chapmen who figure in the stories of the Middle Ages. A free Norse or Dane, himself often of noble blood, he fought as willingly as he bought; and held his own as an equal, whether at the court of a Cornish kinglet or at that of the Great Kaiser of the Greeks.
“And you, fair sir,” said Alef, looking keenly at Hereward, “by what name shall I call you, and what service can I do for you? You look more like an earl’s son than a merchant, and are come here surely for other things besides tin.”
“Health to King Alef,” said Hereward, raising the cup. “Who I am I will tell to none but Alef’s self; but an earl’s son I am, though an outlaw and a rover. My lands are the breadth of my boot-sole. My plough is my sword. My treasure is my good right hand. Nothing I have, and nothing I need, save to serve noble kings and earls, and win me a champion’s fame. If you have battles to fight, tell me, that I may fight them for you. If you have none, thank God for his peace; and let me eat and drink, and go in peace.”
“King Alef needs neither man nor boy to fight his battle as long as Ironhook sits in his hall.”
It was the red-bearded giant who spoke in a broken tongue, part Scotch, part Cornish, part Danish, which Hereward could hardly understand; but that the ogre intended to insult him he understood well enough.
Hereward had hoped to find giants in Cornwall: and behold he had found one at once; though rather, to judge from his looks, a Pictish than a Cornish giant; and, true to his reckless determination to defy and fight every man and beast who was willing to defy and fight him, he turned on his elbow and stared at Ironhook in scorn, meditating some speech which might provoke the hoped-for quarrel.
As he did so his eye happily caught that of the fair Princess. She was watching him with a strange look, admiring, warning, imploring; and when she saw that he noticed her, she laid her finger on her lip in token of silence, crossed herself devoutly, and then laid her finger on her lips again, as if beseeching him to be patient and silent in the name of Him who answered not again.
Hereward, as is well seen, wanted not for quick wit, or for chivalrous feeling. He had observed the rough devotion of the giant to the Lady. He had observed, too, that she shrank from it; that she turned away with loathing when he offered her his own cup, while he answered by a dark and deadly scowl.
Was there an adventure here? Was she in duress either from this Ironhook or from her father, or from both? Did she need Hereward’s help? If so, she was so lovely that he could not refuse it. And on the chance, he swallowed down his high stomach, and answered blandly enough —
“One could see without eyes, noble sir, that you were worth any ten common men; but as every one has not like you the luck of so lovely a lady by your side, I thought that perchance you might hand over some of your lesser quarrels to one like me, who has not yet seen so much good fighting as yourself, and enjoy yourself in pleasant company at home, as I should surely do in your place.”
The Princess shuddered and turned pale; then looked at Hereward and smiled her thanks. Ironhook laughed a savage laugh.
Hereward’s jest being translated into Cornish for the benefit of the company, was highly approved by all; and good humor being restored, every man got drunk save Hereward, who found the mead too sweet and sickening.
After which those who could go to bed went to bed, not as in England, 6 among the rushes on the floor, but in the bunks or berths of wattle which stood two or three tiers high along the wall.
6 Cornwall was not then considered part of England.
The next morning as Hereward went out to wash his face and hands in the brook below (he being the only man in the house who did so), Martin Lightfoot followed him.
“What is it, Martin? Hast thou had too much of that sweet mead last night that thou must come out to cool thy head too?”
“I came out for two reasons — first, to see fair play, in case that Ironhook should come to wash his ugly visage, and find you on all fours over the brook — you understand? And next, to tell you what I heard last night among the maids.”
“And what did you hear?”
“Fine adventures, if we can but compass them. You saw that lady with the carrot-headed fellow? — I saw that you saw. Well, if you will believe me, that man has no more gentle blood than I have — has no more right to sit on the settle than I. He is a No-man’s son, a Pict from Galloway, who came down with a pirate crew and has made himself the master of this drunken old Prince, and the darling of all his housecarles, and now will needs be his son-in-law whether he will or not.”
“I thought as much,” said Hereward; “but how didst thou find out this?”
“I went out and sat with the knaves and the maids, and listened to their harp-playing, and harp they can, these Cornish, like very elves; and then I, too, sang songs and told them stories, for I can talk their tongue somewhat, till they all blest me for a right good fellow. And then I fell to praising up old Ironhook to the women.”
“Praising him up, man?”
“Ay, just because I suspected him; for the women are so contrary, that if you speak evil of a man they will surely speak good of him; but if you will only speak good of him, then you will hear all the evil of him he ever has done, and more beside. And this I heard; that the King’s daughter cannot abide him, and would as lief marry a seal.”
“One did not need to be told that,” said Hereward, “as long as one has eyes in one’s head. I will kill the fellow, and carry her off, ere four-and-twenty hours be past.”
“Softly, softly, my young master. You need to be told something that your eyes would not tell you, and that is, that the poor lass is betrothed already to a son of old King Ranald the Ostman, of Waterford, son of old King Sigtryg, who ruled there when I was a boy.”
“He is a kinsman of mine, then,” said Hereward. “All the more reason that I should kill this ruffian.”
“If you can,” said Martin Lightfoot.
“If I can?” retorted Hereward, fiercely.
“Well, well, wilful heart must have its way; only take my counsel: speak to the poor young lady first, and see what she will tell you, lest you only make bad worse, and bring down her father and his men on her as well as you.”
Hereward agreed, and resolved to watch his opportunity of speaking to the princess.
As they went in to the morning meal they met Alef. He was in high good humor with Hereward; and all the more so when Hereward told him his name, and how he was the son of Leofric.
“I will warrant you are,” he said, “by the gray head you carry on green shoulders. No discreeter man, they say, in these isles than the old earl.”
“You speak truth, sir,” said Hereward, “though he be no father of mine now; for of Leofric it is said in King Edward’s court, that if a man ask counsel of him, it is as though he had asked it of the oracles of God.”
“Then you are his true son, young man. I saw how you kept the peace with Ironhook, and I owe you thanks for it; for though he is my good friend, and will be my son-in-law erelong, yet a quarrel with him is more than I can abide just now, and I should not like to have seen my guest and my kinsman slain in my house.”
Hereward would have said that he thought there was no fear of that; but he prudently held his tongue, and having an end to gain, listened instead of talking.
“Twenty years ago, of course, I could have thrashed him as easily as —; but now I am getting old and shaky, and the man has been a great help in need. Six kings of these parts has he killed for me, who drove off my cattle, and stopped my tin works, and plundered my monks’ cells too, which is worse, while I was away sailing the seas; and he is a right good fellow at heart, though he be a little rough. So be friends with him as long as you stay here, and if I can do you a service I will.”
They went in to their morning meal, at which Hereward resolved to keep the peace which he longed to break, and therefore, as was to be expected, broke.
For during the meal the fair lady, with no worse intention, perhaps, than that of teasing her tyrant, fell to open praises of Hereward’s fair face and golden hair; and being insulted therefore by the Ironhook, retaliated by observations about his personal appearance, which were more common in the eleventh century than they happily are now. He, to comfort himself, drank deep of the French wine which had just been brought and broached, and then went out into the court-yard, where, in the midst of his admiring fellow-ruffians, he enacted a scene as ludicrous as it was pitiable. All the childish vanity of the savage boiled over. He strutted, he shouted, he tossed about his huge limbs, he called for a harper, and challenged all around to dance, sing, leap, fight, do anything against him: meeting with nothing but admiring silence, he danced himself out of breath, and then began boasting once more of his fights, his cruelties, his butcheries, his impossible escapes and victories; till at last, as luck would have it, he espied Hereward, and poured out a stream of abuse against Englishmen and English courage.
“Englishmen,” he said, “were naught. Had he not slain three of them himself with one blow?”
“Of your mouth, I suppose,” quoth Hereward, who saw that the quarrel must come, and was glad to have it done and over.
“Of my mouth?” roared Ironhook; “of my sword, man!”
“Of your mouth,” said Hereward. “Of your brain were they begotten, of the breath of your mouth they were born, and by the breath of your mouth you can slay them again as often as you choose.”
The joke, as it has been handed down to us by the old chroniclers, seems clumsy enough; but it sent the princess, say they, into shrieks of laughter.
“Were it not that my Lord Alef was here,” shouted Ironhook, “I would kill you out of hand.”
“Promise to fight fair, and do your worst. The more fairly you fight, the more honor you will win,” said Hereward.
Whereupon the two were parted for the while.
Two hours afterwards, Hereward, completely armed with helmet and mail shirt, sword and javelin, hurried across the great court-yard, with Martin Lightfoot at his heels, towards the little church upon the knoll above. The two wild men entered into the cool darkness, and saw before them, by the light of a tiny lamp, the crucifix over the altar, and beneath it that which was then believed to be the body of Him who made heaven and earth. They stopped, trembling, for a moment, bowed themselves before that, to them, perpetual miracle, and then hurried on to a low doorway to the right, inside which dwelt Alef’s chaplain, one of those good Celtic priests who were supposed to represent a Christianity more ancient than, and all but independent of, the then all-absorbing Church of Rome.
The cell was such a one as a convict would now disdain to inhabit. A low lean-to roof; the slates and rafters unceiled; the stone walls and floor unplastered; ill-lighted by a hand-broad window, unglazed, and closed with a shutter at night. A truss of straw and a rug, the priest’s bed, lay in a corner. The only other furniture was a large oak chest, containing the holy vessels and vestments and a few old books. It stood directly under the window for the sake of light, for it served the good priest for both table and chair; and on it he was sitting reading in his book at that minute, the sunshine and the wind streaming in behind his head, doing no good to his rheumatism of thirty years’ standing.
“Is there a priest here?” asked Hereward, hurriedly.
The old man looked up, shook his head, and answered in Cornish.
“Speak to him in Latin, Martin! May be he will understand that.”
Martin spoke. “My lord, here, wants a priest to shrive him, and that quickly. He is going to fight the great tyrant Ironhook, as you call him.”
“Ironhook?” answered the priest in good Latin enough. “And he so young! God help him, he is a dead man! What is this — a fresh soul sent to its account by the hands of that man of Belial? Cannot he entreat him — can he not make peace, and save his young life? He is but a stripling, and that man, like Goliath of old, a man of war from his youth up.”
“And my master,” said Martin Lightfoot, proudly, “is like young David — one that can face a giant and kill him; for he has slain, like David, his lion and his bear ere now. At least, he is one that will neither make peace, nor entreat the face of living man. So shrive him quickly, Master Priest, and let him be gone to his work.”
Poor Martin Lightfoot spoke thus bravely only to keep up his spirits and his young lord’s; for, in spite of his confidence in Hereward’s prowess, he had given him up for a lost man: and the tears ran down his rugged cheeks, as the old priest, rising up and seizing Hereward’s two hands in his, besought him, with the passionate and graceful eloquence of his race, to have mercy upon his own youth.
Hereward understood his meaning, though not his words.
“Tell him,” he said to Martin, “that fight I must, and tell him that shrive me he must, and that quickly. Tell him how the fellow met me in the wood below just now, and would have slain me there, unarmed as I was; and how, when I told him it was a shame to strike a naked man, he told me he would give me but one hour’s grace to go back, on the faith of a gentleman, for my armor and weapons, and meet him there again, to die by his hand. So shrive me quick, Sir Priest.”
Hereward knelt down. Martin Lightfoot knelt down by him, and with a trembling voice began to interpret for him.
“What does he say?” asked Hereward, as the priest murmured something to himself.
“He said,” quoth Martin, now fairly blubbering, “that, fair and young as you are, your shrift should be as short and as clean as David’s.”
Hereward was touched. “Anything but that,” said he, smiting on his breast, “Mea culpa — mea culpa — mea maxima culpa.”
“Tell him how I robbed my father.”
The priest groaned as Martin did so.
“And how I mocked at my mother, and left her in a rage, without ever a kind word between us. And how I have slain I know not how many men in battle, though that, I trust, need not lay heavily on my soul, seeing that I killed them all in fair fight.”
Again the priest groaned.
“And how I robbed a certain priest of his money and gave it away to my housecarles.”
Here the priest groaned more bitterly still.
“O my son! my son! where hast thou found time to lay all these burdens on thy young soul?”
“It will take less time,” said Martin, bluntly, “for you to take the burdens off again.”
“But I dare not absolve him for robbing a priest. Heaven Help him! He must go to the bishop for that. He is more fit to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem than to battle.”
“He has no time,” quoth Martin, “for bishops or Jerusalem.”
“Tell him,” says Hereward, “that in this purse is all I have, that in it he will find sixty silver pennies, beside two strange coins of gold.”
“Sir Priest,” said Martin Lightfoot, taking the purse from Hereward, and keeping it in his own hand, “there are in this bag moneys.”
Martin had no mind to let the priest into the secret of the state of their finances.
“And tell him,” continued Hereward, “that if I fall in this battle I give him all that money, that he may part it among the poor for the good of my soul.”
“Pish!” said Martin to his lord; “that is paying him for having you killed. You should pay him for keeping you alive.” And without waiting for the answer, he spoke in Latin —
“And if he comes back safe from this battle, he will give you ten pennies for yourself and your church, Priest, and therefore expects you to pray your very loudest while he is gone.”
“I will pray, I will pray,” said the holy man; “I will wrestle in prayer. Ah that he could slay the wicked, and reward the proud according to his deservings! Ah that he could rid me and my master, and my young lady, of this son of Belial — this devourer of widows and orphans — this slayer of the poor and needy, who fills this place with innocent blood — him of whom it is written, ‘They stretch forth their mouth unto the heaven, and their tongue goeth through the world. Therefore fall the people unto them, and thereout suck they no small advantage.’ I will shrive him, shrive him of all save robbing the priest, and for that he must go to the bishop, if he live; and if not, the Lord have mercy on his soul.”
And so, weeping and trembling, the good old man pronounced the words of absolution.
Hereward rose, thanked him, and then hurried out in silence.
“You will pray your very loudest, Priest,” said Martin, as he followed his young lord.
“I will, I will,” quoth he, and kneeling down began to chant that noble seventy-third Psalm, “Quam bonus Israel,” which he had just so fitly quoted.
“Thou gavest him the bag, Martin?” said Hereward, as they hurried on.
“You are not dead yet. ‘No pay, no play,’ is as good a rule for priest as for layman.”
“Now then, Martin Lightfoot, good-bye. Come not with me. It must never be said, even slanderously, that I brought two into the field against one; and if I die, Martin —”
“You won’t die!” said Lightfoot, shutting his teeth.
“If I die, go back to my people somehow, and tell them that I died like a true earl’s son.”
Hereward held out his hand; Martin fell on his knees and kissed it; watched him with set teeth till he disappeared in the wood; and then started forward and entered the bushes at a different spot.
“I must be nigh at hand to see fair play,” he muttered to himself, “in case any of his ruffians be hanging about. Fair play I’ll see, and fair play I’ll give, too, for the sake of my lord’s honor, though I be bitterly loath to do it. So many times as I have been a villain when it was of no use, why mayn’t I be one now, when it would serve the purpose indeed? Why did we ever come into this accursed place? But one thing I will do,” said he, as he ensconced himself under a thick holly, whence he could see the meeting of the combatants upon an open lawn some twenty yards away; “if that big bull-calf kills my master, and I do not jump on his back and pick his brains out with this trusty steel of mine, may my right arm —”
And Martin Lightfoot swore a fearful oath, which need not here be written.
The priest had just finished his chant of the seventy-third Psalm, and had betaken himself in his spiritual warfare, as it was then called, to the equally apposite fifty-second, “Quid gloriaris?”
“Why boastest thou thyself, thou tyrant, that thou canst do mischief, whereas the goodness of God endureth yet daily?”
“Father! father!” cried a soft voice in the doorway, “where are you?”
And in hurried the Princess.
“Hide this,” she said, breathless, drawing from beneath her mantle a huge sword; “hide it, where no one dare touch it, under the altar behind the holy rood: no place too secret.”
“What is it?” asked the priest, springing up from his knees.
“His sword — the Ogre’s — his magic sword, which kills whomsoever it strikes. I coaxed the wretch to let me have it last night when he was tipsy, for fear he should quarrel with the young stranger; and I have kept it from him ever since by one excuse or another; and now he has sent one of his ruffians in for it, saying, that if I do not give it up at once he will come back and kill me.”
“He dare not do that,” said the priest.
“What is there that he dare not?” said she. “Hide it at once; I know that he wants it to fight with this Hereward.”
“If he wants it for that,” said the priest, “it is too late; for half an hour is past since Hereward went to meet him.”
“And you let him go? You did not persuade him, stop him? You let him go hence to his death?”
In vain the good man expostulated and explained that it was no fault of his.
“You must come with me this instant to my father — to them; they must be parted. They shall be parted. If you dare not, I dare. I will throw myself between them, and he that strikes the other shall strike me.”
And she hurried the priest out of the house, down the knoll, and across the yard. There they found others on the same errand. The news that a battle was toward had soon spread, and the men-at-arms were hurrying down to the fight; kept back, however, by Alef, who strode along at their head.
Alef was sorely perplexed in mind. He had taken, as all honest men did, a great liking to Hereward. Moreover, he was his kinsman and his guest. Save him he would if he could but how to save him without mortally offending his tyrant Ironhook he could not see. At least he would exert what little power he had, and prevent, if possible, his men-at-arms from helping their darling leader against the hapless lad.
Alef’s perplexity was much increased when his daughter bounded towards him, seizing him by the arm, and hurried him on, showing by look and word which of the combatants she favored, so plainly that the ruffians behind broke into scornful murmurs. They burst through the bushes. Martin Lightfoot, happily, heard them coming, and had just time to slip away noiselessly, like a rabbit, to the other part of the cover.
The combat seemed at the first glance to be one between a grown man and a child, so unequal was the size of the combatants. But the second look showed that the advantage was by no means with Ironhook. Stumbling to and fro with the broken shaft of a javelin sticking in his thigh, he vainly tried to seize and crush Hereward in his enormous arms. Hereward, bleeding, but still active and upright, broke away, and sprang round him, watching for an opportunity to strike a deadly blow. The housecarles rushed forward with yells. Alef shouted to the combatants to desist; but ere the party could reach them, Hereward’s opportunity had come. Ironhook, after a fruitless lunge, stumbled forward. Hereward leapt aside, and spying an unguarded spot below the corslet, drove his sword deep into the giant’s body, and rolled him over upon the sward. Then arose shouts of fury.
“Foul play!” cried one.
And others taking up the cry, called out, “Sorcery!” and “Treason!”
Hereward stood over Ironhook as he lay writhing and foaming on the ground.
“Killed by a boy at last!” groaned he. “If I had but had my own sword — my Brain-biter which that witch stole from me but last night!”— and amid foul curses and bitter tears of shame his mortal spirit fled to its doom.
The housecarles rushed in on Hereward, who had enough to do to keep them at arm’s length by long sweeps of his sword.
Alef entreated, threatened, promised a fair trial if the men would give fair play; when, to complete the confusion, the Princess threw herself upon the corpse, shrieking and tearing her hair; and to Hereward’s surprise and disgust, bewailed the prowess and the virtues of the dead, calling upon all present to avenge his murder.
Hereward vowed inwardly that he would never again trust woman’s fancy or fight in woman’s quarrel. He was now nigh at his wits’ end; the housecarles had closed round him in a ring with the intention of seizing him; and however well he might defend his front, he might be crippled at any moment from behind: but in the very nick of time Martin Lightfoot burst through the crowd, set himself heel to heel with his master, and broke out, not with threats, but with a good-humored laugh.
“Here is a pretty coil about a red-headed brute of a Pict! Danes, Ostmen,” he cried, “are you not ashamed to call such a fellow your lord, when you have such a true earl’s son as this to lead you if you will?”
The Ostmen in the company looked at each other. Martin Lightfoot saw that his appeal to the antipathies of race had told, and followed it up by a string of witticisms upon the Pictish nation in general, of which the only two fit for modern ears to be set down were the two old stories, that the Picts had feet so large that they used to lie upon their backs and hold up their legs to shelter them from the sun; and that when killed, they could not fall down, but died as they were, all standing.
“So that the only foul play I can see is, that my master shoved the fellow over after he had stabbed him, instead of leaving him to stand upright there, like one of your Cornish Dolmens, till his flesh should fall off his bones.”
Hereward saw the effect of Martin’s words, and burst out in Danish likewise.
“Look at me!” he said; “I am Hereward the outlaw, I am the champion, I am the Berserker, I am the Viking, I am the land thief, the sea thief, the ravager of the world, the bear-slayer, the ogre-killer, the raven-fattener, the darling of the wolf, the curse of the widow. Touch me, and I will give you to the raven and to the wolf, as I have this ogre. Be my men, and follow me over the swan’s road, over the whale’s bath, over the long-snake’s leap, to the land where the sea meets the sun, and golden apples hang on every tree; and we will freight our ships with Moorish maidens, and the gold of Cadiz and Algiers.”
“Hark to the Viking! Hark to the right earl’s son!” shouted some of the Danes, whose blood had been stirred many a time before by such wild words, and on whom Hereward’s youth and beauty had their due effect. And now the counsels of the ruffians being divided, the old priest gained courage to step in. Let them deliver Hereward and his serving man into his custody. He would bring them forth on the morrow, and there should be full investigation and fair trial. And so Hereward and Martin, who both refused stoutly to give up their arms, were marched back into the town, locked in the little church, and left to their meditations.
Hereward sat down on the pavement and cursed the Princess. Martin Lightfoot took off his master’s corslet, and, as well as the darkness would allow, bound up his wounds, which happily were not severe.
“Were I you,” said he at last, “I should keep my curses till I saw the end of this adventure.”
“Has not the girl betrayed me shamefully?”
“Not she. I saw her warn you, as far as looks could do, not to quarrel with the man.”
“That was because she did not know me. Little she thought that I could —”
“Don’t hollo till you are out of the wood. This is a night for praying rather than boasting.”
“She cannot really love that wretch,” said Hereward, after a pause. “You saw how she mocked him.”
“Women are strange things, and often tease most where they love most.”
“But such a misbegotten savage.”
“Women are strange things, say I, and with some a big fellow is a pretty fellow, be he uglier than seven Ironhooks. Still, just because women are strange things, have patience, say I.”
The lock creaked, and the old priest came in. Martin leapt to the open door; but it was slammed in his face by men outside with scornful laughter.
The priest took Hereward’s head in his hands, wept over him, blessed him for having slain Goliath like young David, and then set food and drink before the two; but he answered Martin’s questions only with sighs and shakings of the head.
“Let us eat and drink, then,” said Martin, “and after that you, my lord, sleep off your wounds while I watch the door. I have no fancy for these fellows taking us unawares at night.”
Martin lay quietly across the door till the small hours, listening to every sound, till the key creaked once more in the lock. He started at the sound, and seizing the person who entered round the neck, whispered, “One word, and you are dead.”
“Do not hurt me,” half shrieked a stifled voice; and Martin Lightfoot, to his surprise, found that he had grasped no armed man, but the slight frame of a young girl.
“I am the Princess,” she whispered; “let me in.”
“A very pretty hostage for us,” thought Martin, and letting her go seized the key, locking the door in the inside.
“Take me to your master,” she cried, and Martin led her up the church wondering, but half suspecting some further trap.
“You have a dagger in your hand,” said he, holding her wrist.
“I have. If I had meant to use it, it would have been used first on you. Take it, if you like.”
She hurried up to Hereward, who lay sleeping quietly on the altar-steps; knelt by him, wrung his hands, called him her champion, her deliverer.
“I am not well awake yet,” said he, coldly, “and don’t know whether this may not be a dream, as more that I have seen and heard seems to be.”
“It is no dream. I am true. I was always true to you. Have I not put myself in your power? Am I not come here to deliver you, my deliverer?”
“The tears which you shed over your ogre’s corpse seem to have dried quickly enough.”
“Cruel! What else could I do? You heard him accuse me to those ruffians of having stolen his sword. My life, my father’s life, were not safe a moment, had I not dissembled, and done the thing I loathed. Ah!” she went on, bitterly, “you men, who rule the world and us by cruel steel, you forget that we poor women have but one weapon left wherewith to hold our own, and that is cunning; and are driven by you day after day to tell the lie which we detest.”
“Then you really stole his sword?”
“And hid it here, for your sake!” and she drew the weapon from behind the altar.
“Take it. It is yours now. It is magical. Whoever smites with it, need never smite again. Now, quick, you must be gone. But promise one thing before you go.”
“If I leave this land safe, I will do it, be it what it may. Why not come with me, lady, and see it done?”
She laughed. “Vain boy, do you think that I love you well enough for that?”
“I have won you, and why should I not keep you?” said Hereward, sullenly.
“Do you not know that I am betrothed to your kinsman? And — though that you cannot know — that I love your kinsman?”
“So I have all the blows, and none of the spoil.”
“Tush! you have the glory,-and the sword — and the chance, if you will do my bidding, of being called by all ladies a true and gentle knight, who cared not for his own pleasure, but for deeds of chivalry. Go to my betrothed — to Waterford over the sea. Take him this ring, and tell him by that token to come and claim me soon, lest he run the danger of losing me a second time, and lose me then forever; for I am in hard case here, and were it not for my father’s sake, perhaps I might be weak enough, in spite of what men might say, to flee with you to your kinsman across the sea.”
“Trust me and come,” said Hereward, whose young blood kindled with a sudden nobleness — “trust me, and I will treat you like my sister, like my queen. By the holy rood above I will swear to be true to you.”
“I do trust you, but it cannot be. Here is money for you in plenty to hire a passage if you need: it is no shame to take it from me. And now one thing more. Here is a cord — you must bind the hands and feet of the old priest inside, and then you must bind mine likewise.”
“Never,” quoth Hereward.
“It must be. How else can I explain your having got the key? I made them give me the key on the pretence that with one who had most cause to hate you, it would be safe; and when they come and find us in the morning I shall tell them how I came here to stab you with my own hands — you must lay the dagger by me — and how you and your man fell upon us and bound us, and you escaped. Ah! Mary Mother,” continued the maiden with a sigh, “when shall we poor weak women have no more need of lying?”
She lay down, and Hereward, in spite of himself, gently bound her hands and feet, kissing them as he bound them.
“I shall do well here upon the altar steps,” said she. “How can I spend my time better till the morning light than to lie here and pray?”
The old priest, who was plainly in the plot, submitted meekly to the same fate; and Hereward and Martin Lightfoot stole out, locking the door, but leaving the key in it outside. To scramble over the old earthwork was an easy matter; and in a few minutes they were hurrying down the valley to the sea, with a fresh breeze blowing behind them from the north.
“Did I not tell you, my lord,” said Martin Lightfoot, “to keep your curses till you had seen the end of this adventure?”
Hereward was silent. His brain was still whirling from the adventures of the day, and his heart was very deeply touched. His shrift of the morning, hurried and formal as it had been, had softened him. His danger — for he felt how he had been face to face with death — had softened him likewise; and he repented somewhat of his vainglorious and bloodthirsty boasting over a fallen foe, as he began to see that there was a purpose more noble in life than ranging land and sea, a ruffian among ruffians, seeking for glory amid blood and flame. The idea of chivalry, of succoring the weak and the opprest, of keeping faith and honor not merely towards men who could avenge themselves, but towards women who could not; the dim dawn of purity, gentleness, and the conquest of his own fierce passions — all these had taken root in his heart during his adventure with the fair Cornish girl. The seed was sown. Would it he cut down again by the bitter blasts of the rough fighting world, or would it grow and bear the noble fruit of “gentle very perfect knighthood”?
They reached the ship, clambered on hoard without ceremony, at the risk of being taken and killed as robbers, and told their case. The merchants had not completed their cargo of tin. Hereward offered to make up their loss to them if they would set sail at once; and they, feeling that the place would be for some time to come too hot to hold them, and being also in high delight, like honest Ostmen, with Hereward’s prowess, agreed to sail straight for Waterford, and complete their cargo there. But the tide was out. It was three full hours before the ship could float; and for three full hours they waited in fear and trembling, expecting the Cornishmen to be down upon them in a body every moment, under which wholesome fear some on board prayed fervently who had never been known to pray before.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10