They of Ely were now much straitened, being shut in both by land and water; and what was to be done, either by themselves or by the king, they knew not. Would William simply starve them; or at least inflict on them so perpetual a Lent — for of fish there could be no lack, even if they ate or drove away all the fowl — as would tame down their proud spirits; which a diet of fish and vegetables, from some ludicrous theory of monastic physicians, was supposed to do? 34 Or was he gathering vast armies, from they knew not whence, to try, once and for all, another assault on the island — it might be from several points at once?
34 The Cornish — the stoutest, tallest, and most prolific race of the South — live on hardly anything else but fish and vegetables.
They must send out a spy, and find out news from the outer world, if news were to be gotten. But who would go?
So asked the bishop, and the abbot, and the earls, in council in the abbot’s lodging.
Torfrida was among them. She was always among them now. She was their Alruna-wife, their Vala, their wise woman, whose counsels all received as more than human.
“I will go,” said she, rising up like a goddess on Olympus. “I will cut off my hair, and put on boy’s clothes, and smirch myself brown with walnut leaves; and I will go. I can talk their French tongue. I know their French ways; and as for a story to cover my journey and my doings, trust a woman’s wit to invent that.”
They looked at her, with delight in her courage, but with doubt.
“If William’s French grooms got hold of you, Torfrida, it would not be a little walnut brown which would hide you,” said Hereward. “It is like you to offer — worthy of you, who have no peer.”
“That she has not,” quoth churchmen and soldiers alike.
“But — to send you would be to send Hereward’s wrong half. The right half of Hereward is going; and that is, himself.”
“Uncle, uncle!” said the young earls, “send Winter, Geri, Leofwin Prat, any of your fellows: but not yourself. If we lose you, we lose our head and our king.”
And all prayed Hereward to let any man go, rather than himself.
“I am going, lords and knights; and what Hereward says he does. It is one day to Brandon. It may be two days back; for if I miscarry — as I most likely shall — I must come home round about. On the fourth day, you shall hear of me or from me. Come with me, Torfrida.”
And he strode out.
He cropped his golden locks, he cropped his golden beard; and Torfrida cried, as she cropped them, half with fear for him, half for sorrow over his shorn glories.
“I am no Samson, my lady; my strength lieth not in my locks. Now for some rascal’s clothes — as little dirty as you can get me, for fear of company.”
And Hereward put on filthy garments, and taking mare Swallow with him, got into a barge and went across the river to Soham.
He could not go down the Great Ouse, and up the Little Ouse, which was his easiest way, for the French held all the river below the isle; and, beside, to have come straight from Ely might cause suspicion. So he went down to Fordham, and crossed the Lark at Mildenhall; and just before he got to Mildenhall, he met a potter carrying pots upon a pony.
“Halt, my stout fellow,” quoth he, “and put thy pots on my mare’s back.”
“The man who wants them must fight for them,” quoth that stout churl, raising a heavy staff.
“Then here is he that will,” quoth Hereward; and, jumping off his mare, he twisted the staff out of the potter’s hands, and knocked him down therewith.
“That will teach thee to know an Englishman when thou seest him.”
“I have met my master,” quoth the churl, rubbing his head. “But dog does not eat dog; and it is hard to be robbed by an Englishman, after being robbed a dozen times by the French.”
“I will not rob thee. There is a silver penny for thy pots and thy coat — for that I must have likewise. And if thou tellest to mortal man aught about this, I will find those who will cut thee to ribbons; and if not, then turn thy horse’s head and ride back to Ely, if thou canst cross the water, and say what has befallen thee; and thou wilt find there an abbot who will give thee another penny for thy news.”
So Hereward took the pots, and the potter’s clay-greased coat, and went on through Mildenhall, “crying,” saith the chronicler, “after the manner of potters, in the English tongue, ‘Pots! pots! good pots and pans!’”
But when he got through Mildenhall, and well into the rabbit-warrens, he gave mare Swallow a kick, and went over the heath so fast northward, that his pots danced such a dance as broke half of them before he got to Brandon.
“Never mind,” quoth he, “they will think that I have sold them.” And when he neared Brandon he pulled up, sorted his pots, kept the whole ones, threw the sherds at the rabbits, and walked on into Brandon solemnly, leading the mare, and crying “Pots!”
So “semper marcida et deformis aspectu”— lean and ill-looking — was that famous mare, says the chronicler, that no one would suspect her splendid powers, or take her for anything but a potter’s nag, when she was caparisoned in proper character. Hereward felt thoroughly at home in his part; as able to play the Englishman which he was by rearing, as the Frenchman which he was by education. He was full of heart, and happy. He enjoyed the keen fresh air of the warrens; he enjoyed the ramble out of the isle, in which he had been cooped up so long; he enjoyed the fun of the thing — disguise, stratagem, adventure, danger. And so did the English, who adored him. None of Hereward’s deeds is told so carefully and lovingly; and none, doubt it not, was so often sung in after years by farm-house hearths, or in the outlaws’ lodge, as this. Robin Hood himself may have trolled out many a time, in doggrel strain, how Hereward played the potter.
And he came to Brandon, to the “king’s court,”— probably Weeting Hall, or castle, from which William could command the streams of Wissey and Little Ouse, with all their fens — and cast about for a night’s lodging, for it was dark.
Outside the town was a wretched cabin of mud and turf — such a one as Irish folk live in to this day; and Hereward said to himself, “This is bad enough to be good enough for me.”
So he knocked at the door, and knocked till it was opened, and a hideous old crone put out her head.
“Who wants to see me at this time of night?”
“Any one would, who had heard how beautiful you are. Do you want any pots?”
“Pots! What have I to do with pots, thou saucy fellow? I thought it was some one wanting a charm.” And she shut the door.
“A charm?” thought Hereward. “Maybe she can tell me news, if she be a witch. They are shrewd souls, these witches, and know more than they tell. But if I can get any news, I care not if Satan brings it in person.”
So he knocked again, till the old woman looked out once more, and bade him angrily be off.
“But I am belated here, good dame, and afraid of the French. And I will give thee the best bit of clay on my mare’s back — pot — pan — pansion — crock — jug, or what thou wilt, for a night’s lodging.”
“Have you any little jars — jars no longer than my hand?” asked she; for she used them in her trade, and had broken one of late: but to pay for one, she had neither money nor mind. So she agreed to let Hereward sleep there, for the value of two jars. “But what of that ugly brute of a horse of thine?”
“She will do well enough in the turf-shed.”
“Then thou must pay with a pannikin.”
“Ugh!” groaned Hereward; “thou drivest a hard bargain, for an Englishwoman, with a poor Englishman.”
“How knowest thou that I am English?”
“So much the better if thou art not,” thought Hereward; and bargained with her for a pannikin against a lodging for the horse in the turf-house, and a bottle of bad hay.
Then he went in, bringing his panniers with him with ostentatious care.
“Thou canst sleep there on the rushes. I have naught to give thee to eat.”
“Naught needs naught,” said Hereward; threw himself down on a bundle of rush, and in a few minutes snored loudly.
But he was never less asleep. He looked round the whole cabin; and he listened to every word.
The Devil, as usual, was a bad paymaster; for the witch’s cabin seemed only somewhat more miserable than that of other old women. The floor was mud, the rafters unceiled; the stars shone through the turf roof. The only hint of her trade was a hanging shelf, on which stood five or six little earthen jars, and a few packets of leaves. A parchment, scrawled with characters which the owner herself probably did not understand, hung against the cob wall; and a human skull — probably used only to frighten her patients — dangled from the roof-tree.
But in a corner, stuck against the wall, was something which chilled Hereward’s blood a little. A dried human hand, which he knew must have been stolen off the gallows, gripping in its fleshless fingers a candle, which he knew was made of human fat. That candle, he knew, duly lighted and carried, would enable the witch to walk unseen into any house on earth, yea, through the court of King William himself, while it drowned all men in preternatural slumber.
Hereward was very much frightened. He believed as devoutly in the powers of a witch as did then — and does now, for aught Italian literature, e permissu superiorum, shows — the Pope of Rome.
So he trembled on his rushes, and wished himself safe through that adventure, without being turned into a hare or a wolf.
“I would sooner be a wolf than a hare, of course, killing being more in my trade than being killed; but — who comes here?”
And to the first old crone, who sat winking her bleared eyes, and warming her bleared hands over a little heap of peat in the middle of the cabin, entered another crone, if possible uglier.
“Two of them! If I am not roasted and eaten this night, I am a lucky man.”
And Hereward crossed himself devoutly, and invoked St. Ethelfrida of Ely, St. Guthlac of Crowland, St. Felix of Ramsey — to whom, he recollected, he had been somewhat remiss; but, above all, St. Peter of Peterborough, whose treasures he had given to the Danes. And he argued stoutly with St. Peter and with his own conscience, that the means sanctify the end, and that he had done it all for the best.
“If thou wilt help me out of this strait, and the rest, blessed Apostle, I will give thee — I will go to Constantinople but what I will win it — a golden table twice as fine as those villains carried off, and one of the Bourne manors — Witham — or Toft — or Mainthorpe — whichever pleases thee best, in full fee; and a — and a —”
But while Hereward was casting in his mind what gewgaw further might suffice to appease the Apostle, he was recalled to business and common-sense by hearing the two old hags talk to each other in French.
His heart leapt for joy, and he forgot St. Peter utterly.
“Well, how have you sped? Have you seen the king?”
“No; but Ivo Taillebois. Eh! Who the foul fiend have you lying there?”
“Only an English brute. He cannot understand us. Talk on: only don’t wake the hog. Have you got the gold?”
Then there was a grumbling and a quarrelling, from which Hereward understood that the gold was to be shared between them.
“But it is a bit of chain. To cut it will spoil it.”
The other insisted; and he heard them chop the gold chain in two.
“And is this all?”
“I had work enough to get that. He said, No play no pay; and he would give it me after the isle was taken. But I told him my spirit was a Jewish spirit, that used to serve Solomon the Wise; and he would not serve me, much less come over the sea from Normandy, unless he smelt gold; for he loved it like any Jew.”
“And what did you tell him then?”
“That the king must go back to Aldreth again; for only from thence he would take the isle; for — and that was true enough — I dreamt I saw all the water of Aldreth full of wolves, clambering over into the island on each other’s backs.”
“That means that some of them will be drowned.”
“Let them drown. I left him to find out that part of the dream for himself. Then I told him how he must make another causeway, bigger and stronger than the last, and a tower on which I could stand and curse the English. And I promised him to bring a storm right in the faces of the English, so that they could neither fight nor see.”
“But if the storm does not come?”
“It will come. I know the signs of the sky — who better? — and the weather will break up in a week. Therefore I told him he must begin his works at once, before the rain came on; and that we would go and ask the spirit of the well to tell us the fortunate day for attacking.”
“That is my business,” said the other; “and my spirit likes the smell of gold as well as yours. Little you would have got from me, if you had not given me half the chain.”
Then the two rose.
“Let us see whether the English hog is asleep.”
One of them came and listened to Hereward’s breathing, and put her hand upon his chest. His hair stood on end; a cold sweat came over him. But he snored more loudly than ever.
The two old crones went out satisfied. Then Hereward rose, and glided after them.
They went down a meadow to a little well, which Hereward had marked as he rode thither, hung round with bits of rag and flowers, as similar “holy wells” are decorated in Ireland to this day.
He hid behind a hedge, and watched them stooping over the well, mumbling he knew not what of cantrips.
Then there was silence, and a tinkling sound as of water.
“Once — twice — thrice,” counted the witches. Nine times he counted the tinkling sound.
“The ninth day — the ninth day, and the king shall take Ely,” said one in a cracked scream, rising, and shaking her fist toward the isle.
Hereward was more than half-minded to have put his dagger — the only weapon which he had — into the two old beldames on the spot. But the fear of an outcry kept him still. He had found out already so much, that he was determined to find out more. So tomorrow he would go up to the court itself, and take what luck sent.
He slipt back to the cabin and lay down again; and as soon as he had seen the two old crones safe asleep, fell asleep himself, and was so tired that he lay till the sun was high.
“Get up!” screamed the old dame at last, kicking him, “or I shall make you give me another crock for a double night’s rest.”
He paid his lodging, put the panniers on the mare, and went on crying pots.
When he came to the outer gateway of the court he tied up the mare, and carried the crockery in on his own back boldly. The scullions saw him, and called him into the kitchen to see his crockery, without the least intention of paying for what they took.
A man of rank belonging to the court came in, and stared fixedly at Hereward.
“You are mightily like that villain Hereward, man,” quoth he.
“Anon?” asked Hereward, looking as stupid as he could.
“If it were not for his brown face and short hair, he is as like the fellow as a churl can be to a knight.”
“Bring him into the hall,” quoth another, “and let us see if any man knows him.”
Into the great hall he was brought, and stared at by knights and squires. He bent his knees, rounded his shoulders, and made himself look as mean as he could.
Ivo Taillebois and Earl Warrenne came down and had a look at him.
“Hereward!” said Ivo. “I will warrant that little slouching cur is not he. Hereward must be half as big again, if it be true that he can kill a man with one blow of his fist.”
“You may try the truth of that for yourself some day,” thought Hereward.
“Does any one here talk English? Let us question the fellow,” said Earl Warrenne.
“Hereward? Hereward? Who wants to know about that villain?” answered the potter, as soon as he was asked in English. “Would to Heaven he were here, and I could see some of you noble knights and earls paying him for me; for I owe him more than ever I shall pay myself.”
“What does he mean?”
“He came out of the isle ten days ago, nigh on to evening, and drove off a cow of mine and four sheep, which was all my living, noble knights, save these pots.”
“And where is he since?”
“In the isle, my lords, wellnigh starved, and his folk falling away from him daily from hunger and ague-fits. I doubt if there be a hundred sound men left in Ely.”
“Have you been in thither, then, villain?”
“Heaven forbid! I in Ely? I in the wolf’s den? If I went in with naught but my skin, they would have it off me before I got out again. If your lordships would but come down, and make an end of him once for all; for he is a great tyrant and terrible, and devours us poor folk like so many mites in cheese.”
“Take this babbler into the kitchen, and feed him,” quoth Earl Warrenne; and so the colloquy ended.
Into the kitchen again the potter went. The king’s luncheon was preparing; and he listened to their chatter, and picked up this at least, which was valuable to him — that the witches’ story was true; that a great attack would be made from Aldreth; that boats had been ordered up the river to Cotinglade, and pioneers and entrenching tools were to be sent on that day to the site of the old causeway.
But soon he had to take care of himself. Earl Warrenne’s commands to feed him were construed by the cook-boys and scullions into a command to make him drunk likewise. To make a laughing-stock of an Englishman was too tempting a jest to be resisted; and Hereward was drenched (says the chronicler) with wine and beer, and sorely baited and badgered. At last one rascal hit upon a notable plan.
“Pluck out the English hog’s hair and beard, and put him blindfold in the midst of his pots, and see what a smash we shall have.”
Hereward pretended not to understand the words, which were spoken in French; but when they were interpreted to him, he grew somewhat red about the ears.
Submit he would not. But if he defended himself, and made an uproar in the king’s Court, he might very likely find himself riding Odin’s horse before the hour was out. However, happily for him, the wine and beer had made him stout of heart, and when one fellow laid hold of his beard, he resisted sturdily.
The man struck him, and that hard. Hereward, hot of temper, and careless of life, struck him again, right under the ear.
The fellow dropped for dead.
Up leapt cook-boys, scullions, lécheurs (who hung about the kitchen to lécher, lick the platters), and all the foul-mouthed rascality of a great mediaeval household; and attacked Hereward cum fureis et tridentibus, with forks and flesh-hooks.
Then was Hereward aware of a great broach, or spit, before the fire; and recollecting how he had used such a one as a boy against the monks of Peterborough, was minded to use it against the cooks of Brandon; which he did so heartily, that in a few moments he had killed one, and driven the others backward in a heap.
But his case was hopeless. He was soon overpowered by numbers from outside, and dragged into the hall, to receive judgment for the mortal crime of slaying a man within the precincts of the Court.
He kept up heart. He knew that the king was there; he knew that he should most likely get justice from the king. If not, he could but discover himself, and so save his life: for that the king would kill him knowingly, he did not believe.
So he went in boldly and willingly, and up the hall, where, on the dais, stood William the Norman.
William had finished his luncheon, and was standing at the board side. A page held water in a silver basin, in which he was washing his hands. Two more knelt, and laced his long boots, for he was, as always, going a-hunting.
Then Hereward looked at the face of the great man, and felt at once that it was the face of the greatest man whom he had ever met.
“I am not that man’s match,” said he to himself. “Perhaps it will all end in being his man, and he my master.”
“Silence, knaves!” said William, “and speak one of you at a time. How came this?”
“A likely story, forsooth!” said he, when he had heard. “A poor English potter comes into my court, and murders my men under my very eyes for mere sport. I do not believe you, rascals! You, churl,” and he spoke through an English interpreter, “tell me your tale, and justice you shall have or take, as you deserve. I am the King of England, man, and I know your tongue, though I speak it not yet, more pity.”
Hereward fell on his knees.
“If you are indeed my Lord the King, then I am safe; for there is justice in you, at least so all men say.” And he told his tale, manfully.
“Splendeur Dex! but this is a far likelier story, and I believe it. Hark you, you ruffians! Here am I, trying to conciliate these English by justice and mercy whenever they will let me, and here are you outraging them, and driving them mad and desperate, just that you may get a handle against them, and thus rob the poor wretches and drive them into the forest. From the lowest to the highest — from Ivo Taillebois there down to you cook-boys — you are all at the same game. And I will stop it! The next time I hear of outrage to unarmed man or harmless woman, I will hang that culprit, were he Odo my brother himself.”
This excellent speech was enforced with oaths so strange and terrible, that Ivo Taillebois shook in his boots; and the chaplain prayed fervently that the roof might not fall in on their heads.
“Thou smilest, man?” said William, quickly, to the kneeling Hereward. “So thou understandest French?”
“A few words only, most gracious King, which we potters pick up, wandering everywhere with our wares,” said Hereward, speaking in French; for so keen was William’s eye, that he thought it safer to play no tricks with him.
Nevertheless, he made his French so execrable, that the very scullions grinned, in spite of their fear.
“Look you,” said William, “you are no common churl; you have fought too well for that. Let me see your arm.”
Hereward drew up his sleeve.
“Potters do not carry sword-scars like those; neither are they tattooed like English thanes. Hold up thy head, man, and let us see thy throat.”
Hereward, who had carefully hung down his head to prevent his throat-patterns being seen, was forced to lift it up.
“Aha! So I expected. More fair ladies’ work there. Is not this he who was said to be so like Hereward? Very good. Put him in ward till I come back from hunting. But do him no harm. For”— and William fixed on Hereward eyes of the most intense intelligence —“were he Hereward himself, I should be right glad to see Hereward safe and sound; my man at last, and earl of all between Humber and the Fens.”
But Hereward did not rise at the bait. With a face of stupid and ludicrous terror, he made reply in broken French.
“Have mercy, mercy, Lord King! Make not that fiend earl over us. Even Ivo Taillebois there would be better than he. Send him to be earl over the imps in hell, or over the wild Welsh who are worse still: but not over us, good Lord King, whom he hath polled and peeled till we are —”
“Silence!” said William, laughing, as did all round him, “Thou art a cunning rogue enough, whoever thou art. Go into limbo, and behave thyself till I come back.”
“All saints send your grace good sport, and thereby me a good deliverance,” quoth Hereward, who knew that his fate might depend on the temper in which William returned. So he was thrust into an outhouse, and there locked up.
He sat on an empty barrel, meditating on the chances of his submitting to the king after all, when the door opened, and in strode one with a drawn sword in one hand, and a pair of leg-shackles in the other.
“Hold out thy shins, fellow! Thou art not going to sit at thine ease there like an abbot, after killing one of us grooms, and bringing the rest of us into disgrace. Hold out thy legs, I say!”
“Nothing easier,” quoth Hereward, cheerfully, and held out a leg. But when the man stooped to put on the fetters, he received a kick which sent him staggering.
After which he recollected very little, at least in this world. For Hereward cut off his head with his own sword.
After which (says the chronicler) he broke away out of the house, and over garden walls and palings, hiding and running, till he got to the front gate, and leaped upon mare Swallow.
And none saw him, save one unlucky groom-boy, who stood yelling and cursing in front of the mare’s head, and went to seize the bridle.
Whereon, between the imminent danger and the bad language, Hereward’s blood rose, and he smote that unlucky groom-boy; but whether he slew him or not, the chronicler had rather not say.
Then he shook up mare Swallow, and rode for his life, with knights and squires (for the hue and cry was raised) galloping at her heels.
Who then were astonished but those knights, as they saw the ugly potter’s garron gaining on them length after length, till she and her rider had left them far behind?
Who then was proud but Hereward, as the mare tucked her great thighs under her, and swept on over heath and rabbit burrow, over rush and fen, sound ground and rotten all alike to that enormous stride, to that keen bright eye which foresaw every footfall, to that raking shoulder which picked her up again at every stagger?
Hereward laid the bridle on her neck, and let her go. Fall she could not, and tire she could not; and he half wished she might go on forever. Where could a man be better than on a good horse, with all the cares of this life blown away out of his brains by the keen air which rushed around his temples? And he galloped on, as cheery as a boy, shouting at the rabbits as they scuttled from under his feet, and laughing at the dottrel as they postured and anticked on the mole-hills.
But think he must, at last, of how to get home. For to go through Mildenhall again would not be safe, and he turned over the moors to Icklingham; and where he went after, no man can tell.
Certainly not the chronicler; for he tells how Hereward got back by the Isle of Somersham. Which is all but impossible, for Somersham is in Huntingdonshire, many a mile on the opposite side of Ely Isle.
And of all those knights that followed him, none ever saw or heard sign of him save one; and his horse came to a standstill in “the aforesaid wood,” which the chronicler says was Somersham; and he rolled off his horse, and lay breathless under a tree, looking up at his horse’s heaving flanks and wagging tail, and wondering how he should get out of that place before the English found him and made an end of him.
Then there came up to him a ragged churl, and asked him who he was, and offered to help him.
“For the sake of God and courtesy,” quoth he — his Norman pride being wellnigh beat out of him — “if thou hast seen or heard anything of Hereward, good fellow, tell me, and I will repay thee well.”
“As thou hast asked me for the sake of God and of courtesy, Sir Knight, I will tell thee. I am Hereward. And in token thereof, thou shalt give me up thy lance and sword, and take instead this sword which I carried off from the king’s court; and promise me, on the faith of a knight, to bear it back to King William; and tell him that Hereward and he have met at last, and that he had best beware of the day when they shall meet again.”
So that knight, not having recovered his wind, was fain to submit, and go home a sadder and a wiser man. And King William laughed a royal laugh, and commanded his knights that they should in no wise harm Hereward, but take him alive, and bring him in, and they should have great rewards.
Which seemed to them more easily said than done.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10