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

Chapter 42.

How Hereward Got the Best of His Soul’s Price.

In those days a messenger came riding post to Bourne. The Countess Judith wished to visit the tomb of her late husband, Earl Waltheof; and asked hospitality on her road of Hereward and Alftruda.

Of course she would come with a great train, and the trouble and expense would be great. But the hospitality of those days, when money was scarce, and wine scarcer still, was unbounded, and a matter of course; and Alftruda was overjoyed. No doubt, Judith was the most unpopular person in England at that moment; called by all a traitress and a fiend. But she was an old acquaintance of Alftruda’s; she was the king’s niece; she was immensely rich, not only in manors of her own, but in manors, as Domesday-book testifies, about Lincolnshire and the counties round, which had belonged to her murdered husband — which she had too probably received as the price of her treason. So Alftruda looked to her visit as to an honor which would enable her to hold her head high among the proud Norman dames, who despised her as the wife of an Englishman.

Hereward looked on the visit in a different light. He called Judith ugly names, not undeserved; and vowed that if she entered his house by the front door he would go out at the back. “Torfrida prophesied,” he said, “that she would betray her husband, and she had done it.”

“Torfrida prophesied? Did she prophesy that I should betray you likewise?” asked Alftruda, in a tone of bitter scorn.

“No, you handsome fiend: will you do it?”

“Yes; I am a handsome fiend, am I not?” and she bridled up her magnificent beauty, and stood over him as a snake stands over a mouse.

“Yes; you are handsome — beautiful: I adore you.”

“And yet you will not do what I wish?”

“What you wish? What would I not do for you? what have I not done for you?”

“Then receive Judith. And now, go hunting, and bring me in game. I want deer, roe, fowls; anything and everything from the greatest to the smallest. Go and hunt.”

And Hereward trembled, and went.

There are flowers whose scent is so luscious that silly children will plunge their heads among them, drinking in their odor, to the exclusion of all fresh air. On a sudden sometimes comes a revulsion of the nerves. The sweet odor changes in a moment to a horrible one; and the child cannot bear for years after the scent which has once disgusted it by over-sweetness.

And so had it happened to Hereward. He did not love Alftruda now: he loathed, hated, dreaded her. And yet he could not take his eyes for a moment off her beauty. He watched every movement of her hand, to press it, obey it. He would have preferred instead of hunting, simply to sit and watch her go about the house at her work. He was spell-bound to a thing which he regarded with horror.

But he was told to go and hunt; and he went, with all his men, and sent home large supplies for the larder. And as he hunted, the free, fresh air of the forest comforted him, the free forest life came back to him, and he longed to be an outlaw once more, and hunt on forever. He would not go back yet, at least to face that Judith. So he sent back the greater part of his men with a story. He was ill; he was laid up at a farm-house far away in the forest, and begged the countess to excuse his absence. He had sent fresh supplies of game, and a goodly company of his men, knights and housecarles, who would escort her royally to Crowland.

Judith cared little for his absence; he was but an English barbarian. Alftruda was half glad to have him out of the way, lest his now sullen and uncertain temper should break out; and bowed herself to the earth before Judith, who patronized her to her heart’s content, and offered her slyly insolent condolences on being married to a barbarian. She herself could sympathize — who more?

Alftruda might have answered with scorn that she was an Adeliza, and of better English blood than Judith’s Norman blood; but she had her ends to gain, and gained them.

For Judith was pleased to be so delighted with her that she kissed her lovingly, and said with much emotion that she required a friend who would support her through her coming trial; and who better than one who herself had suffered so much? Would she accompany her to Crowland?

Alftruda was overjoyed, and away they went.

And to Crowland they came; and to the tomb in the minster, whereof men said already that the sacred corpse within worked miracles of healing.

And Judith, habited in widow’s weeds, approached the tomb, and laid on it, as a peace-offering to the manes of the dead, a splendid pall of silk and gold.

A fierce blast came howling off the fen, screeched through the minster towers, swept along the dark aisles; and then, so say the chroniclers, caught up the pall from off the tomb, and hurled it far away into a corner.

“A miracle!” cried all the monks at once; and honestly enough, like true Englishmen as they were.

“The Holy heart refuses the gift, Countess,” said old Ulfketyl in a voice of awe.

Judith covered her face with her hands, and turned away trembling, and walked out, while all looked upon her as a thing accursed.

Of her subsequent life, her folly, her wantonness, her disgrace, her poverty, her wanderings, her wretched death, let others tell.

But these Normans believed that the curse of Heaven was upon her from that day. And the best of them believed likewise that Waltheof’s murder was the reason that William, her uncle, prospered no more in life.

“Ah, saucy sir,” said Alftruda to Ulfketyl, as she went out, “there is one waiting at Peterborough now who will teach thee manners — Ingulf of Fontenelle, Abbot, in thy room.”

“Does Hereward know that?” asked Ulfketyl, looking keenly at her.

“What is that to thee?” said she, fiercely, and flung out of the minster. But Hereward did not know. There were many things abroad of which she told him nothing.

They went back and were landed at Deeping town, and making their way along the King Street, or old Roman road, to Bourne. Thereon a man met them, running. They had best stay where they were. The Frenchmen were out, and there was fighting up in Bourne.

Alftruda’s knights wanted to push on, to see after the Bourne folk; Judith’s knights wanted to push on to help the French; and the two parties were ready to fight each other. There was a great tumult. The ladies had much ado to still it.

Alftruda said that it might be but a countryman’s rumor; that, at least, it was shame to quarrel with their guests. At last it was agreed that two knights should gallop on into Bourne, and bring back news.

But those knights never came back. So the whole body moved on Bourne, and there they found out the news for themselves.

Hereward had gone home as soon as they had departed, and sat down to eat and drink. His manner was sad and strange. He drank much at the midday meal, and then lay down to sleep, setting guards as usual.

After a while he leapt up with a shriek and a shudder.

They ran to him, asking whether he was ill.

“Ill? No. Yes. Ill at heart. I have had a dream — an ugly dream. I thought that all the men I ever slew on earth came to me with their wounds all gaping, and cried at me, ‘Our luck then, thy luck now.’ Chaplain! is there not a verse somewhere — Uncle Brand said it to me on his deathbed — ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed’?”

“Surely the master is fey,” whispered Gwenoch in fear to the chaplain. “Answer him out of Scripture.”

“Text? None such that I know of,” quoth Priest Ailward, a graceless fellow who had taken Leofric’s place. “If that were the law, it would be but few honest men that would die in their beds. Let us drink, and drive girls’ fancies out of our heads.”

So they drank again; and Hereward fell asleep once more.

“It is thy turn to watch, Priest,” said Gwenoch to Ailward. “So keep the door well, for I am worn out with hunting,” and so fell asleep.

Ailward shuffled into his harness, and went to the door. The wine was heady; the sun was hot. In a few minutes he was asleep likewise.

Hereward slept, who can tell how long? But at last there was a bustle, a heavy fall; and waking with a start, he sprang up. He saw Ailward lying dead across the gate, and above him a crowd of fierce faces, some of which he knew too well. He saw Ivo Taillebois; he saw Oger; he saw his fellow-Breton, Sir Raoul de Dol; he saw Sir Ascelin; he saw Sir Aswa, Thorold’s man; he saw Sir Hugh of Evermue, his own son-in-law; and with them he saw, or seemed to see, the Ogre of Cornwall, and O’Brodar of Ivark, and Dirk Hammerhand of Walcheren, and many another old foe long underground; and in his ear rang the text — “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” And Hereward knew that his end was come.

There was no time to put on mail or helmet. He saw the old sword and shield hang on a perch, and tore them down. As he girded the sword on Winter sprang to his side.

“I have three lances — two for me and one for you, and we can hold the door against twenty.”

“Till they fire the house over our heads. Shall Hereward die like a wolf in a cave? Forward, all Hereward’s men!”

And he rushed out upon his fate. No man followed him, save Winter. The rest, disperst, unarmed, were running hither and thither helplessly.

“Brothers in arms, and brothers in Valhalla!” shouted Winter as he rushed after him.

A knight was running to and fro in the Court, shouting Hereward’s name. “Where is the villain? Wake! We have caught thee asleep at last.”

“I am out,” quoth Hereward, as the man almost stumbled against him; “and this is in.”

And through shield, hauberk, and body, as says Gaima, went Hereward’s javelin, while all drew back, confounded for the moment at that mighty stroke.

“Felons!” shouted Hereward, “your king has given me his truce; and do you dare break my house, and kill my folk? Is that your Norman law? And is this your Norman honor? — To take a man unawares over his meat? Come on, traitors all, and get what you can of a naked man; 41 you will buy it dear — Guard my back, Winter!”

41 i. e. without armor.

And he ran right at the press of knights; and the fight began.

“He gored them like a wood-wild boar,

As long as that lance might endure,”

says Gaimar.

“And when that lance did break in hand,

Full fell enough he smote with brand.”

And as he hewed on silently, with grinding teeth and hard, glittering eyes, of whom did he think? Of Alftruda?

Not so. But of that pale ghost, with great black hollow eyes, who sat in Crowland, with thin bare feet, and sackcloth on her tender limbs, watching, praying, longing, loving, uncomplaining. That ghost had been for many a month the background of all his thoughts and dreams. It was so clear before his mind’s eye now, that, unawares to himself, he shouted “Torfrida!” as he struck, and struck the harder at the sound of his old battle-cry.

And now he is all wounded and bebled; and Winter, who has fought back to back with him, has fallen on his face; and Hereward stands alone, turning from side to side, as he sweeps his sword right and left till the forest rings with the blows, but staggering as he turns. Within a ring of eleven corpses he stands. Who will go in and make the twelfth?

A knight rushes in, to fall headlong down, cloven through the helm: but Hereward’s blade snaps short, and he hurls it away as his foes rush in with a shout of joy. He tears his shield from his left arm, and with it, says Gaimar, brains two more.

But the end is come. Taillebois and Evermue are behind him now; four lances are through his back, and bear him down to his knees.

“Cut off his head, Breton!” shouted Ivo. Raoul de Dol rushed forward, sword in hand. At that cry Hereward lifted up his dying head. One stroke more ere it was all done forever.

And with a shout of “Torfrida!” which made the Bruneswald ring, he hurled the shield full in the Breton’s face, and fell forward dead.

The knights drew their lances from that terrible corpse slowly and with caution, as men who have felled a bear, yet dare not step within reach of the seemingly lifeless paw.

“The dog died hard,” said Ivo. “Lucky for us that Sir Ascelin had news of his knights being gone to Crowland. If he had had them to back him, we had not done this deed today.”

“I will make sure,” said Ascelin, as he struck off the once fair and golden head.

“Ho, Breton,” cried Ivo, “the villain is dead. Get up, man, and see for yourself. What ails him?”

But when they lifted up Raoul de Dol his brains were running down his face; and all men stood astonished at that last mighty stroke.

“That blow,” said Ascelin, “will be sung hereafter by minstrel and maiden as the last blow of the last Englishman. Knights, we have slain a better knight than ourselves. If there had been three more such men in this realm, they would have driven us and King William back again into the sea.”

So said Ascelin; those words of his, too, were sung by many a jongleur, Norman as well as English, in the times that were to come.

“Likely enough,” said Ivo; “but that is the more reason why we should set that head of his up over the hall-door, as a warning to these English churls that their last man is dead, and their last stake thrown and lost.”

So perished “the last of the English.”

It was the third day. The Normans were drinking in the hall of Bourne, casting lots among themselves who should espouse the fair Alftruda, who sat weeping within over the headless corpse; when in the afternoon a servant came in, and told them how a barge full of monks had come to the shore, and that they seemed to be monks from Crowland. Ivo Taillebois bade drive them back again into the barge with whips. But Hugh of Evermue spoke up.

“I am lord and master in Bourne this day, and if Ivo have a quarrel against St. Guthlac, I have none. This Ingulf of Fontenelle, the new abbot who has come thither since old Ulfketyl was sent to prison, is a loyal man, and a friend of King William’s, and my friend he shall be till he behaves himself as my foe. Let them come up in peace.”

Taillebois growled and cursed: but the monks came up, and into the hall; and at their head Ingulf himself, to receive whom all men rose, save Taillebois.

“I come,” said Ingulf, in most courtly French, “noble knights, to ask a boon and in the name of the Most Merciful, on behalf of a noble and unhappy lady. Let it be enough to have avenged yourself on the living. Gentlemen and Christians war not against the dead.”

“No, no, Master Abbot!” shouted Taillebois; “Waltheof is enough to keep Crowland in miracles for the present. You shall not make a martyr of another Saxon churl. He wants the barbarian’s body, knights, and you will be fools if you let him have it.”

“Churl? barbarian?” said a haughty voice; and a nun stepped forward who had stood just behind Ingulf. She was clothed entirely in black. Her bare feet were bleeding from the stones; her hand, as she lifted it, was as thin as a skeleton’s.

She threw back her veil, and showed to the knights what had been once the famous beauty of Torfrida.

But the beauty was long past away. Her hair was white as snow; her cheeks were fallen in. Her hawk-like features were all sharp and hard. Only in their hollow sockets burned still the great black eyes, so fiercely that all men turned uneasily from her gaze.

“Churl? barbarian?” she said, slowly and quietly, but with an intensity which was more terrible than rage. “Who gives such names to one who was as much better born and better bred than those who now sit here, as he was braver and more terrible than they? The base wood-cutter’s son? The upstart who would have been honored had he taken service as yon dead man’s groom?”

“Talk to me so, and my stirrup leathers shall make acquaintance with your sides,” said Taillebois.

“Keep them for your wife. Churl? Barbarian? There is not a man within this hall who is not a barbarian compared with him. Which of you touched the harp like him? Which of you, like him, could move all hearts with song? Which of you knows all tongues from Lapland to Provence? Which of you has been the joy of ladies’ bowers, the counsellor of earls and heroes, the rival of a mighty king? Which of you will compare yourself with him — whom you dared not even strike, you and your robber crew, fairly in front, but, skulked round him till he fell pecked to death by you, as Lapland Skratlings peck to death the bear. Ten years ago he swept this hall of such as you, and hung their heads upon yon gable outside; and were he alive but one five minutes again, this hall would be right cleanly swept again! Give me his body — or bear forever the name of cowards, and Torfrida’s curse.”

And she fixed her terrible eyes first on one, and then on another, calling them by name.

“Ivo Taillebois — basest of all —”

“Take the witch’s accursed eyes off me!” and he covered his face with his hands. “I shall be overlooked — planet struck. Hew the witch down! Take her away!”

“Hugh of Evermue — the dead man’s daughter is yours, and the dead man’s lands. Are not these remembrances enough of him? Are you so fond of his memory that you need his corpse likewise?”

“Give it her! Give it her!” said he, hanging down his head like a rated cur.

“Ascelin of Lincoln, once Ascelin of Ghent — there was a time when you would have done — what would you not? — for one glance of Torfrida’s eyes. — Stay. Do not deceive yourself, fair sir, Torfrida means to ask no favor of you, or of living man. But she commands you. Do the thing she bids, or with one glance of her eye she sends you childless to your grave.”

“Madam! Lady Torfrida! What is there I would not do for you? What have I done now, save avenge your great wrong?”

Torfrida made no answer, but fixed steadily on him eyes which widened every moment.

“But, madam,”— and he turned shrinking from the fancied spell — “what would you have? The — the corpse? It is in the keeping of — of another lady.”

“So?” said Torfrida, quietly. “Leave her to me”; and she swept past them all, and flung open the bower door at their backs, discovering Alftruda sitting by the dead.

The ruffians were so utterly appalled, not only by the false powers of magic, but by veritable powers of majesty and eloquence, that they let her do what she would.

“Out!” cried she, using a short and terrible epithet. “Out, siren, with fairy’s face and tail of fiend, and leave the husband with his wife!”

Alftruda looked up, shrieked; and then, with the sudden passion of a weak nature, drew a little knife, and sprang up.

Ivo made a coarse jest. The Abbot sprang in: “For the sake of all holy things, let there be no more murder here!”

Torfrida smiled, and fixed her snake’s eye upon her wretched rival.

“Out! woman, and choose thee a new husband among these French gallants, ere I blast thee from head to foot with the leprosy of Naaman the Syrian.”

Alftruda shuddered, and fled shrieking into an inner room.

“Now, knights, give me — that which hangs outside.”

Ascelin hurried out, glad to escape. In a minute he returned.

The head was already taken down. A tall lay brother, the moment he had seen it, had climbed the gable, snatched it away, and now sat in a corner of the yard, holding it on his knees, talking to it, chiding it, as if it had been alive. When men had offered to take it, he had drawn a battle-axe from under his frock, and threatened to brain all comers. And the monks had warned off Ascelin, saying that the man was mad, and had Berserk fits of superhuman strength and rage.

“He will give it me!” said Torfrida, and went out.

“Look at that gable, foolish head,” said the madman. “Ten years agone, you and I took down from thence another head. O foolish head, to get yourself at last up into that same place! Why would you not be ruled by her, you foolish golden head?”

“Martin!” said Torfrida.

“Take it and comb it, mistress, as you used to do. Comb out the golden locks again, fit to shine across the battle-field. She has let them get all tangled into elf-knots, that lazy slut within.”

Torfrida took it from his hands, dry-eyed, and went in.

Then the monks silently took up the bier, and all went forth, and down the hill toward the fen. They laid the corpse within the barge, and slowly rowed away.

And on by Porsad and by Asendyke, By winding reaches on, and shining meres Between gray reed-ronds and green alder-beds, A dirge of monks and wail of women rose In vain to Heaven for the last Englishman; Then died far off within the boundless mist, And left the Norman master of the land.

So Torfrida took the corpse home to Crowland, and buried it in the choir, near the blessed martyr St. Waltheof; after which she did not die, but lived on many years, 42 spending all day in nursing and feeding the Countess Godiva, and lying all night on Hereward’s tomb, and praying that he might find grace and mercy in that day.

42 If Ingulf can be trusted, Torfrida died about A. D. 1085.

And at last Godiva died; and they took her away and buried her with great pomp in her own minster church of Coventry.

And after that Torfrida died likewise; because she had nothing left for which to live. And they laid her in Hereward’s grave, and their dust is mingled to this day.

And Leofric the priest lived on to a good old age, and above all things he remembered the deeds and the sins of his master, and wrote them in a book, and this is what remains thereof.

But when Martin Lightfoot died, no man has said; for no man in those days took account of such poor churls and running serving-men.

And Hereward’s comrades were all scattered abroad, some maimed, some blinded, some with tongues cut out, to beg by the wayside, or crawl into convents, and then die; while their sisters and daughters, ladies born and bred, were the slaves of grooms and scullions from beyond the sea.

And so, as sang Thorkel Skallason —

“Cold heart and bloody hand

Now rule English land.” 43

43 Laing’s Heimskringla.

And after that things waxed even worse and worse, for sixty years and more; all through the reigns of the two Williams, and of Henry Beauclerc, and of Stephen; till men saw visions and portents, and thought that the foul fiend was broken loose on earth. And they whispered oftener and oftener that the soul of Hereward haunted the Bruneswald, where he loved to hunt the dun deer and the roe. And in the Bruneswald, when Henry of Poitou was made abbot, 44 men saw — let no man think lightly of the marvel which we are about to relate, for it was well known all over the country — upon the Sunday, when men sing, “Exsurge quare, O Domine,” many hunters hunting, black, and tall, and loathly, and their hounds were black and ugly with wide eyes, and they rode on black horses and black bucks. And they saw them in the very deer-park of the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods to Stamford; and the monks heard the blasts of the horns which they blew in the night. Men of truth kept watch upon them, and said that there might be well about twenty or thirty horn-blowers. This was seen and heard all that Lent until Easter, and the Norman monks of Peterborough said how it was Hereward, doomed to wander forever with Apollyon and all his crew, because he had stolen the riches of the Golden Borough: but the poor folk knew better, and said that the mighty outlaw was rejoicing in the chase, blowing his horn for Englishmen to rise against the French; and therefore it was that he was seen first on “Arise, O Lord” Sunday.

44 Anglo–Saxon Chronicle, A. D. 1127.

But they were so sore trodden down that they could never rise; for the French 45 had filled the land full of castles. They greatly oppressed the wretched people by making them work at these castles; and when the castles were finished, they filled them with devils and evil men. They took those whom they suspected of having any goods, both men and women, and they put them in prison for their gold and silver, and tortured them with pains unspeakable, for never were any martyrs tormented as these were. They hung some by their feet, and smoked them with foul smoke; some by the thumbs, or by the head, and put burning things on their feet. They put a knotted string round their heads, and twisted it till it went into the brain. They put them in dungeons wherein were adders, and snakes, and toads, and thus wore them out. Some they put into a crucet-house — that is, into a chest that was short and narrow, and they put sharp stones therein, and crushed the man so that they broke all his bones. There were hateful and grim things called Sachenteges in many of the castles, which two or three men had enough to do to carry. This Sachentege was made thus: It was fastened to a beam, having a sharp iron to go round a man’s throat and neck, so that he might no ways sit, nor lie, nor sleep, but he must bear all the iron. Many thousands they wore out with hunger. . . . They were continually levying a tax from the towns, which they called truserie, and when the wretched townsfolk had no more to give, then burnt they all the towns, so that well mightest thou walk a whole day’s journey or ever thou shouldest see a man settled in a town, or its lands tilled. . . .

45 Anglo–Saxon Chronicle, A. D. 1137.

“Then was corn dear, and flesh, and cheese, and butter, for there was none in the land. Wretched men starved with hunger. Some lived on alms who had been once rich. Some fled the country. Never was there more misery, and never heathens acted worse than these.”

For now the sons of the Church’s darlings, of the Crusaders whom the Pope had sent, beneath a gonfalon blessed by him, to destroy the liberties of England, turned, by a just retribution, upon that very Norman clergy who had abetted all their iniquities in the name of Rome. “They spared neither church nor churchyard, but took all that was valuable therein, and then burned the church and all together. Neither did they spare the lands of bishops, nor of abbots, nor of priests; but they robbed the monks and clergy, and every man plundered his neighbor as much as he could. If two or three men came riding to a town, all the townsfolk fled before them, and thought that they were robbers. The bishops and clergy were forever cursing them; but this to them was nothing, for they were all accursed and forsworn and reprobate. The earth bare no corn: you might as well have tilled the sea, for all the land was ruined by such deeds, and it was said openly that Christ and his saints slept.”

And so was avenged the blood of Harold and his brothers, of Edwin and Morcar, of Waltheof and Hereward.

And those who had the spirit of Hereward in them fled to the merry greenwood, and became bold outlaws, with Robin Hood, Scarlet, and John, Adam Bell, and Clym of the Cleugh, and William of Cloudeslee; and watched with sullen joy the Norman robbers tearing in pieces each other, and the Church who had blest their crime.

And they talked and sung of Hereward, and all his doughty deeds, over the hearth in lone farm-houses, or in the outlaw’s lodge beneath the hollins green; and all the burden of their song was, “Ah that Hereward were alive again!” for they knew not that Hereward was alive forevermore; that only his husk and shell lay mouldering there in Crowland choir; that above them, and around them, and in them, destined to raise them out of that bitter bondage, and mould them into a great nation, and the parents of still greater nations in lands as yet unknown, brooded the immortal spirit of Hereward, now purged from all earthly dross, even the spirit of Freedom, which can never die.

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