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

Chapter 31.

How They Fought Again at Aldreth.

Hereward came back in fear and trembling, after all. He believed in the magic powers of the witch of Brandon; and he asked Torfrida, in his simplicity, whether she was not cunning enough to defeat her spells by counter spells.

Torfrida smiled, and shook her head.

“My knight, I have long since given up such vanities. Let us not fight evil with evil, but rather with good. Better are prayers than charms; for the former are heard in heaven above, and the latter only in the pit below. Let me and all the women of Ely go rather in procession to St. Etheldreda’s well, there above the fort at Aldreth, and pray St. Etheldreda to be with us when the day shall come, and defend her own isle and the honor of us women who have taken refuge in her holy arms.”

So all the women of Ely walked out barefoot to St. Etheldreda’s well, with Torfrida at their head clothed in sackcloth, and with fetters on her wrists and waist and ankles; which she vowed, after the strange, sudden, earnest fashion of those times, never to take off again till she saw the French host flee from Aldreth before the face of St. Etheldreda. So they prayed, while Hereward and his men worked at the forts below. And when they came back, and Torfrida was washing her feet, sore and bleeding from her pilgrimage, Hereward came in.

“You have murdered your poor soft feet, and taken nothing thereby, I fear.”

“I have. If I had walked on sharp razors all the way, I would have done it gladly, to know what I know now. As I prayed I looked out over the fen; and St. Etheldreda put a thought into my heart. But it is so terrible a one, that I fear to tell it to you. And yet it seems our only chance.”

Hereward threw himself at her feet, and prayed her to tell. At last she spoke, as one half afraid of her own words —

“Will the reeds burn, Hereward?”

Hereward kissed her feet again and again, calling her his prophetess, his savior.

“Burn! yes, like tinder, in this March wind, if the drought only holds. Pray that the drought may hold, Torfrida.”

“There, there, say no more. How hard-hearted war makes even us women! There, help me to take off this rough sackcloth, and dress myself again.”

Meanwhile William had moved his army again to Cambridge, and on to Willingham field, and there he began to throw up those “globos and montanas,” of which Leofric’s paraphraser talks, but of which now no trace remains. Then he began to rebuild his causeway, broader and stronger; and commanded all the fishermen of the Ouse to bring their boats to Cotinglade, and ferry over his materials. “Among whom came Hereward in his boat, with head and beard shaven lest he should be known, and worked diligently among the rest. But the sun did not set that day without mischief; for before Hereward went off, he finished his work by setting the whole on fire, so that it was all burnt, and some of the French killed and drowned.”

And so he went on, with stratagems and ambushes, till “after seven days’ continual fighting, they had hardly done one day’s work; save four ‘globos’ of wood, in which they intended to put their artillery. But on the eighth day they determined to attack the isle, putting in the midst of them that pythoness woman on a high place, where she might be safe freely to exercise her art.”

It was not Hereward alone who had entreated Torfrida to exercise her magic art in their behalf. But she steadily refused, and made good Abbot Thurstan support her refusal by a strict declaration, that he would have no fiends’ games played in Ely, as long as he was abbot alive on land.

Torfrida, meanwhile, grew utterly wild. Her conscience smote her, in spite of her belief that St. Etheldreda had inspired her, at the terrible resource which she had hinted to her husband, and which she knew well he would carry out with terrible success. Pictures of agony and death floated before her eyes, and kept her awake at night. She watched long hours in the church in prayer; she fasted; she disciplined her tender body with sharp pains; she tried, after the fashion of those times, to atone for her sin, if sin it was. At last she had worked herself up into a religious frenzy. She saw St. Etheldreda in the clouds, towering over the isle, menacing the French host with her virgin palm-branch. She uttered wild prophecies of ruin and defeat to the French; and then, when her frenzy collapsed, moaned secretly of ruin and defeat hereafter to themselves. But she would be bold; she would play her part; she would encourage the heroes who looked to her as one inspired, wiser and loftier than themselves.

And so it befell, that when the men marched down to Haddenham that afternoon, Torfrida rode at their head on a white charger, robed from throat to ankle in sackcloth, her fetters clanking on her limbs. But she called on the English to see in her the emblem of England, captive yet, unconquered, and to break her fetters and the worse fetters of every woman in England who was the toy and slave of the brutal invaders; and so fierce a triumph sparkled from her wild hawk-eyes that the Englishmen looked up to her weird beauty as to that of an inspired saint; and when the Normans came on to the assault there stood on a grassy mound behind the English fort a figure clothed in sackcloth, barefooted and bareheaded, with fetters shining on waist, and wrist, and ankle — her long black locks streaming in the wind, her long white arms stretched crosswise toward heaven, in imitation of Moses of old above the battle with Amalek; invoking St. Etheldreda and all the powers of Heaven, and chanting doom and defiance to the invaders.

And the English looked on her, and cried: “She is a prophetess! We will surely do some great deed this day, or die around her feet like heroes!”

And opposite to her, upon the Norman tower, the old hag of Brandon howled and gibbered with filthy gestures, calling for the thunder-storm which did not come; for all above, the sky was cloudless blue.

And the English saw and felt, though they could not speak it, dumb nation as they were, the contrast between the spirit of cruelty and darkness and the spirit of freedom and light.

So strong was the new bridge, that William trusted himself upon it on horseback, with Ivo Taillebois at his side.

William doubted the powers of the witch, and felt rather ashamed of his new helpmate; but he was confident in his bridge, and in the heavy artillery which he had placed in his four towers.

Ivo Taillebois was utterly confident in his witch, and in the bridge likewise.

William waited for the rising of the tide; and when the tide was near its height, he commanded the artillery to open, and clear the fort opposite of the English. Then with crash and twang, the balistas and catapults went off, and great stones and heavy lances hurtled through the air.

“Back!” shouted Torfrida, raised almost to madness, by fasting, self-torture, and religious frenzy. “Out of yon fort, every man. Why waste your lives under that artillery? Stand still this day, and see how the saints of Heaven shall fight for you.”

So utter was the reverence which she commanded for the moment, that every man drew back, and crowded round her feet outside the fort.

“The cowards are fleeing already. Let your men go, Sir King!” shouted Taillebois.

“On to the assault! Strike for Normandy!” shouted William.

“I fear much,” said he to himself, “that this is some stratagem of that Hereward’s. But conquered they must be.”

The evening breeze curled up the reach. The great pike splashed out from the weedy shores, and sent the white-fish flying in shoals into the low glare of the setting sun; and heeded not, stupid things, the barges packed with mailed men, which swarmed in the reeds on either side the bridge, and began to push out into the river.

The starlings swung in thousands round the reed-ronds, looking to settle in their wonted place: but dare not; and rose and swung round again, telling each other, in their manifold pipings, how all the reed-ronds teemed with mailed men. And all above, the sky was cloudless blue.

And then came a trample, a roll of many feet on the soft spongy peat, a low murmur which rose into wild shouts of “Dex Aie!” as a human tide poured along the causeway, and past the witch of Brandon Heath.

“‘Dex Aie?’” quoth William, with a sneer. “‘Debbles Aie!’ would fit better.”

“If, Sire, the powers above would have helped us, we should have been happy enough to —— But if they would not, it is not our fault if we try below,” said Ivo Taillebois.

William laughed. “It is well to have two strings to one’s bow, sir. Forward, men! forward!” shouted he, riding out to the bridge-end, under the tower.

“Forward!” shouted Ivo Taillebois.

“Forward!” shouted the hideous hag overhead. “The spirit of the well fights for you.”

“Fight for yourselves,” said William.

There was twenty yards of deep clear water between Frenchman and Englishman. Only twenty yards. Not only the arrows and arblast quarrels, but heavy hand-javelins, flew across every moment; every now and then a man toppled forward, and plunged into the blue depth among the eels and pike, to find his comrades of the summer before; then the stream was still once more. The coots and water-hens swam in and out of the reeds, and wondered what it was all about. The water-lilies flapped upon the ripple, as lonely as in the loneliest mere. But their floats were soon broken, their white cups stained with human gore. Twenty yards of deep clear water. And treasure inestimable to win by crossing it.

They thrust out baulks, canoes, pontoons; they crawled upon them like ants, and thrust out more yet beyond, heedless of their comrades, who slipped, and splashed, and sank, holding out vain hands to hands too busy to seize them. And always the old witch jabbered overhead, with her cantrips, pointing, mumming, praying for the storm; while all above, the sky was cloudless blue.

And always on the mound opposite, while darts and quarrels whistled round her head, stood Torfrida, pointing with outstretched scornful finger at the stragglers in the river, and chanting loudly, what the Frenchmen could not tell; but it made their hearts, as it was meant to do, melt like wax within them.

“They have a counter witch to yours, Ivo, it seems; and a fairer one. I am afraid the devils, especially if Asmodeus be at hand, are more likely to listen to her than to that old broomstick-rider aloft.”

“Fair is, that fair cause has, Sir King.”

“A good argument for honest men, but none for fiends. What is the fair fiend pointing at so earnestly there?”

“Somewhat among the reeds. Hark to her now! She is singing, somewhat more like an angel than a fiend, I will say for her.”

And Torfrida’s bold song, coming clear and sweet across the water, rose louder and shriller till it almost drowned the jabbering of the witch.

“She sees more there than we do.”

“I see it!” cried William, smiting his hand upon his thigh. “Par le splendeur Dex! She has been showing them where to fire the reeds; and they have done it!”

A puff of smoke; a wisp of flame; and then another and another; and a canoe shot out from the reeds on the French shore, and glided into the reeds of the island.

“The reeds are on fire, men! Have a care,” shouted Ivo.

“Silence, fool! Frighten them once, and they will leap like sheep into that gulf. Men! right about! Draw off — slowly and in order. We will attack again tomorrow.”

The cool voice of the great captain arose too late. A line of flame was leaping above the reed bed, crackling and howling before the evening breeze. The column on the causeway had seen their danger but too soon, and fled. But whither?

A shower of arrows, quarrels, javelins, fell upon the head of the column as it tried to face about and retreat, confusing it more and more. One arrow, shot by no common aim, went clean through William’s shield, and pinned it to the mailed flesh. He could not stifle a cry of pain.

“You are wounded, Sire. Ride for your life! It is worth that of a thousand of these churls,” and Ivo seized William’s bridle and dragged him, in spite of himself, through the cowering, shrieking, struggling crowd.

On came the flames, leaping and crackling, laughing and shrieking, like a live fiend. The archers and slingers In the boats cowered before it; and fell, scorched corpses, as it swept on. It reached the causeway, surged up, recoiled from the mass of human beings, then sprang over their heads and passed onwards, girding them with flame.

The reeds were burning around them; the timbers of the bridge caught fire; the peat and fagots smouldered beneath their feet. They sprang from the burning footway and plunged into the fathomless bog, covering their faces and eyes with scorched hands, and then sank in the black gurgling slime.

Ivo dragged William on, regardless of curses and prayers from his soldiery; and they reached the shore just in time to see between them and the water a long black smouldering writhing line; the morass to right and left, which had been a minute before deep reed, an open smutty pool, dotted with boatsful of shrieking and cursing men; and at the causeway-end the tower, with the flame climbing up its posts, and the witch of Brandon throwing herself desperately from the top, and falling dead upon the embers, a motionless heap of rags.

“Fool that you are! Fool that I was!” cried the great king, as he rolled off his horse at his tent door, cursing with rage and pain.

Ivo Taillebois sneaked off, sent over to Mildenhall for the second witch, and hanged her, as some small comfort to his soul. Neither did he forget to search the cabin till he found buried in a crock the bits of his own gold chain and various other treasures, for which the wretched old women had bartered their souls. All which he confiscated to his own use, as a much injured man.

The next day William withdrew his army. The men refused to face again that blood-stained pass. The English spells, they said, were stronger than theirs, or than the daring of brave men. Let William take Torfrida and burn her, as she had burned them, with reeds out of Willingham fen; then might they try to storm Ely again.

Torfrida saw them turn, flee, die in agony. Her work was done; her passion exhausted; her self-torture, and the mere weight of her fetters, which she had sustained during her passion, weighed her down; she dropped senseless on the turf, and lay in a trance for many hours.

Then she arose, and casting off her fetters and her sackcloth, was herself again: but a sadder woman till her dying day.

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