The fair Torfrida sat in an upper room of her mother’s house in St. Omer, alternately looking out of the window and at a book of mechanics. In the garden outside, the wryneck (as is his fashion in May) was calling Pi-pi-pi among the gooseberry bushes, till the cobwalls rang again. In the book was a Latin recipe for drying the poor wryneck, and using him as a philtre which should compel the love of any person desired. Mechanics, it must be understood, in those days were considered as identical with mathematics, and those again with astrology and magic; so that the old chronicler, who says that Torfrida was skilled in “the mechanic art,” uses the word in the same sense as does the author of the “History of Ramsey,” who tells us how a certain holy bishop of St. Dunstan’s party, riding down to Corfe through the forest, saw the wicked queen-mother Elfrida (her who had St. Edward stabbed at Corfe Gate) exercising her “mechanic art,” under a great tree; in plain English, performing heathen incantations; and how, when she saw that she was discovered, she tempted him to deadly sin: but when she found him proof against allurement, she had him into her bower; and there the enchantress and her ladies slew him by thrusting red-hot bodkins under his arms, so that the blessed man was martyred without any sign of wound. Of all which let every man believe as much as he list.
Torfrida had had peculiar opportunities of learning mechanics. The fairest and richest damsel in St. Omer, she had been left early by her father an orphan, to the care of a superstitious mother and of a learned uncle, the Abbot of St. Bertin. Her mother was a Provençale, one of those Arlesiennes whose dark Greek beauty still shines, like diamonds set in jet, in the doorways of the quaint old city. Gay enough in her youth, she had, like a true Southern woman, taken to superstition in her old age; and spent her days in the churches, leaving Torfrida to do and learn what she would. Her nurse, moreover, was a Lapp woman, carried off in some pirating foray, and skilled in all the sorceries for which the Lapps were famed throughout the North. Her uncle, partly from good-nature, partly from a pious hope that she might “enter religion,” and leave her wealth to the Church, had made her his pupil, and taught her the mysteries of books; and she had proved to be a strangely apt scholar. Grammar, rhetoric, Latin prose and poetry, such as were taught in those days, she mastered ere she was grown up. Then she fell upon romance, and Charlemagne and his Paladins, the heroes of Troy, Alexander and his generals, peopled her imagination. She had heard, too, of the great necromancer Virgilius (for into such the middle age transformed the poet), and, her fancy already excited by her Lapp nurse’s occult science, she began eagerly to court forbidden lore.
Forbidden, indeed, magic was by the Church in public; but as a reality, not as an imposture. Those whose consciences were tough and their faith weak, had little scruple in applying to a witch, and asking help from the powers below, when the saints above were slack to hear them. Churchmen, even, were bold enough to learn the mysteries of nature, Algebra, Judicial Astrology, and the occult powers of herbs, stones, and animals, from the Mussulman doctors of Cordova and Seville; and, like Pope Gerbert, mingle science and magic, in a fashion excusable enough in days when true inductive science did not exist.
Nature had her miraculous powers — how far good, how far evil, who could tell? The belief that God was the sole maker and ruler of the universe was confused and darkened by the cross-belief, that the material world had fallen under the dominion of Satan and his demons; that millions of spirits, good and evil in every degree, exercised continually powers over crops and cattle, mines and wells, storms and lightning, health and disease. Riches, honors, and royalties, too, were under the command of the powers of darkness. For that generation, which was but too apt to take its Bible in hand upside down, had somehow a firm faith in the word of the Devil, and believed devoutly his somewhat startling assertion, that the kingdoms of the world were his, and the glory of them; for to him they were delivered, and to whomsoever he would he gave them: while it had a proportionally weak faith in our Lord’s answer, that they were to worship and serve the Lord God alone. How far these powers extended, how far they might be counteracted, how far lawfully employed, were questions which exercised the minds of men and produced a voluminous literature for several centuries, till the search died out, for very weariness of failure, at the end of the seventeenth century.
The Abbot of St. Bertin, therefore, did not hesitate to keep in his private library more than one volume which he would not have willingly lent to the simple monks under his charge; nor to Torfrida either, had she not acquired so complete a command over the good old man, that he could deny her nothing.
So she read of Gerbert, Pope Silvester II., who had died only a generation back: how (to quote William of Malmesbury) “he learned at Seville till he surpassed Ptolemy with the astrolabe, Alcandrus in astronomy, and Julius Firmicus in judicial astrology; how he learned what the singing and flight of birds portended, and acquired the art of calling up spirits from hell; and, in short, whatever — hurtful or healthful — human curiosity had discovered, besides the lawful sciences of arithmetic and astronomy, music and geometry”; how he acquired from the Saracens the abacus (a counting table); how he escaped from the Moslem magician, his tutor, by making a compact with the foul fiend, and putting himself beyond the power of magic, by hanging himself under a wooden bridge so as to touch neither earth nor water; how he taught Robert, King of France, and Otto the Kaiser; how he made an hydraulic organ which played tunes by steam, which stood even then in the Cathedral of Rheims; how he discovered in the Campus Martius at Rome wondrous treasures, and a golden king and queen, golden courtiers and guards, all lighted by a single carbuncle, and guarded by a boy with a bent bow; who, when Gerbert’s servant stole a golden knife, shot an arrow at that carbuncle, and all was darkness, and yells of demons.
All this Torfrida had read; and read, too, how Gerbert’s brazen head had told him that he should be Pope, and not die till he had sung mass at Jerusalem; and how both had come true — the latter in mockery; for he was stricken with deadly sickness in Rome, as he sang mass at the church called Jerusalem, and died horribly, tearing himself in pieces.
Which terrible warning had as little effect on Torfrida as other terrible warnings have on young folk, who are minded to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
So Torfrida beguiled her lonely life in that dull town, looking out over dreary flats and muddy dikes, by a whole dream-world of fantastic imaginations, and was ripe and ready for any wild deed which her wild brain might suggest.
Pure she was all the while, generous and noble-hearted, and with a deep and sincere longing — as one soul in ten thousand has — after knowledge for its own sake; but ambitious exceedingly, and that not of monastic sanctity. She laughed to scorn the notion of a nunnery; and laughed to scorn equally the notion of marrying any knight, however much of a prudhomme, whom she had yet seen. Her uncle and Marquis Baldwin could have between them compelled her, as an orphan heiress, to marry whom they liked. But Torfrida had as yet bullied the Abbot and coaxed the Count successfully. Lances had been splintered, helmets split, and more than one life lost in her honor; but she had only, as the best safeguard she could devise, given some hint of encouragement to one Ascelin, a tall knight of St. Valeri, the most renowned bully of those parts, by bestowing on him a scrap of ribbon, and bidding him keep it against all comers. By this means she insured the personal chastisement of all other youths who dared to lift their eyes to her, while she by no means bound herself to her spadassin of St. Valeri. It was all very brutal, but so was the time; and what better could a poor lady do in days when no man’s life or woman’s honor was safe, unless — as too many were forced to do — she retired into a cloister, and got from the Church that peace which this world certainly could not give, and, happily, dared not take away?
The arrival of Hereward and his men had of course stirred the great current of her life, and indeed that of St. Omer, usually as stagnant as that of the dikes round its wall. Who the unknown champion was — for his name of “Naemansson” showed that he was concealing something at least — whence he had come, and what had been his previous exploits, busied all the gossips of the town. Would he and his men rise and plunder the abbey? Was not the châtelain mad in leaving young Arnulf with him all day? Madder still, in taking him out to battle against the Count of Guisnes? He might be a spy — the avant-courrier of some great invading force. He was come to spy out the nakedness of the land, and would shortly vanish, to return with Harold Hardraade of Norway, or Sweyn of Denmark, and all their hosts. Nay, was he not Harold Hardraade himself in disguise? And so forth. All which Torfrida heard, and thought within herself that, be he who he might, she should like to look on him again.
Then came the news how the very first day that he had gone out against the Count of Guisnes he had gallantly rescued a wounded man. A day or two after came fresh news of some doughty deed; and then another, and another. And when Hereward returned, after a week’s victorious fighting, all St. Omer was in the street to stare at him.
Then Torfrida heard enough, and, had it been possible, more than enough, of Hereward and his prowess.
And when they came riding in, the great Marquis at the head of them all, with Robert le Frison on one side of him, and on the other Hereward, looking “as fresh as flowers in May,” she looked down on him out of her little lattice in the gable, and loved him, once and for all, with all her heart and soul.
And Hereward looked up at her and her dark blue eyes and dark raven locks, and thought her the fairest thing that he had ever seen, and asked who she might be, and heard; and as he heard he forgot all about the Sultan’s daughter, and the Princess of Constantinople, and the Fairy of Brocheliaunde, and all the other pretty birds which were still in the bush about the wide world; and thought for many a day of naught but the pretty bird which he held — so conceited was he of his own powers of winning her — there safe in hand in St. Omer.
So he cast about to see her, and to win her love. And she cast about to see him, and win his love. But neither saw the other for a while; and it might have been better for one of them had they never seen the other again.
If Torfrida could have foreseen, and foreseen, and foreseen —— why, if she were true woman, she would have done exactly what she did, and taken the bitter with the sweet, the unknown with the known, as we all must do in life, unless we wish to live and die alone.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56