It was too hot to run about in the open, so Dan asked their friend, old Hobden, to take their own dinghy from the pond and put her on the brook at the bottom of the garden. Her painted name was the Daisy, but for exploring expeditions she was the Golden Hind or the Long Serpent, or some such suitable name. Dan hiked and howked with a boat-hook (the brook was too narrow for sculls), and Una punted with a piece of hop-pole. When they came to a very shallow place (the Golden Hind drew quite three inches of water) they disembarked and scuffled her over the gravel by her tow-rope, and when they reached the overgrown banks beyond the garden they pulled themselves up stream by the low branches.
That day they intended to discover the North Cape like ‘Othere, the old sea-captain,’ in the book of verses which Una had brought with her; but on account of the heat they changed it to a voyage up the Amazon and the sources of the Nile. Even on the shaded water the air was hot and heavy with drowsy scents, while outside, through breaks in the trees, the sunshine burned the pasture like fire. The kingfisher was asleep on his watching-branch, and the blackbirds scarcely took the trouble to dive into the next bush. Dragon-flies wheeling and clashing were the only things at work, except the moor-hens and a big Red Admiral who flapped down out of the sunshine for a drink.
When they reached Otter Pool the Golden Hind grounded comfortably on a shallow, and they lay beneath a roof of close green, watching the water trickle over the floodgates down the mossy brick chute from the mill-stream to the brook. A big trout — the children knew him well — rolled head and shoulders at some fly that sailed round the bend, while once in just so often the brook rose a fraction of an inch against all the wet pebbles, and they watched the slow draw and shiver of a breath of air through the tree-tops. Then the little voices of the slipping water began again.
‘It’s like the shadows talking, isn’t it?’ said Una. She had given up trying to read. Dan lay over the bows, trailing his hands in the current. They heard feet on the gravel-bar that runs half across the pool and saw Sir Richard Dalyngridge standing over them.
‘Was yours a dangerous voyage?’ he asked, smiling.
‘She bumped a lot, sir,’ said Dan. ‘There’s hardly any water this summer.’
‘Ah, the brook was deeper and wider when my children played at Danish pirates. Are you pirate-folk?’
‘Oh, no. We gave up being pirates years ago,’ explained Una. ‘We’re nearly always explorers now. Sailing round the world, you know.’
‘Round?’ said Sir Richard. He sat him in the comfortable crotch of the old ash-root on the bank. ‘How can it be round?’
‘Wasn’t it in your books?’ Dan suggested. He had been doing geography at his last lesson.
‘I can neither write nor read,’ he replied. ‘Canst thou read, child?’
‘Yes,’ said Dan, ‘barring the very long words.’
‘Wonderful! Read to me, that I may hear for myself.’
Dan flushed, but opened the book and began — gabbling a little — at ‘The Discoverer of the North Cape.’
‘Othere, the old sea captain,
Who dwelt in Helgoland,
To Alfred, lover of truth,
Brought a snow-white walrus tooth,
That he held in his right hand.’
‘But — but — this I know! This is an old song! This I have heard sung! This is a miracle,’ Sir Richard interrupted. ‘Nay, do not stop!’ He leaned forward, and the shadows of the leaves slipped and slid upon his chain-mail.
‘I ploughed the land with horses,
But my heart was ill at ease,
For the old sea-faring men
Came to me now and then
With their Sagas of the Seas.’
His hand fell on the hilt of the great sword. ‘This is truth,’ he cried, ‘for so did it happen to me,’ and he beat time delightedly to the tramp of verse after verse.
‘“And now the land,” said Othere,
“Bent southward suddenly,
And I followed the curving shore,
And ever southward bore
Into a nameless sea.”’
‘A nameless sea!’ he repeated. ‘So did I— so did Hugh and I.’
‘Where did you go? Tell us,’ said Una.
‘Wait. Let me hear all first.’ So Dan read to the poem’s very end.
‘Good,’ said the knight. ‘That is Othere’s tale — even as I have heard the men in the Dane ships sing it. Not in those same valiant words, but something like to them.’
‘Have you ever explored North?’ Dan shut the book.
‘Nay. My venture was South. Farther South than any man has fared, Hugh and I went down with Witta and his heathen.’ He jerked the tall sword forward, and leaned on it with both hands; but his eyes looked long past them.
‘I thought you always lived here,’ said Una, timidly.
‘Yes; while my Lady Ælueva lived. But she died. She died. Then, my eldest son being a man, I asked De Aquila’s leave that he should hold the Manor while I went on some journey or pilgrimage — to forget. De Aquila, whom the Second William had made Warden of Pevensey in Earl Mortain’s place, was very old then, but still he rode his tall, roan horses, and in the saddle he looked like a little white falcon. When Hugh, at Dallington over yonder, heard what I did, he sent for my second son, whom being unmarried he had ever looked upon as his own child, and, by De Aquila’s leave, gave him the Manor of Dallington to hold till he should return. Then Hugh came with me.’
‘When did this happen?’ said Dan.
‘That I can answer to the very day, for as we rode with De Aquila by Pevensey — have I said that he was Lord of Pevensey and of the Honour of the Eagle? — to the Bordeaux ship that fetched him his wines yearly out of France, a Marsh man ran to us crying that he had seen a great black goat which bore on his back the body of the King, and that the goat had spoken to him. On that same day Red William our King, the Conqueror’s son, died of a secret arrow while he hunted in a forest. “This is a cross matter,” said De Aquila, “to meet on the threshold of a journey. If Red William be dead I may have to fight for my lands. Wait a little.”
‘My Lady being dead, I cared nothing for signs and omens, nor Hugh either. We took that wine-ship to go to Bordeaux; but the wind failed while we were yet in sight of Pevensey; a thick mist hid us, and we drifted with the tide along the cliffs to the west. Our company was, for the most part, merchants returning to France, and we were laden with wool and there were three couple of tall hunting-dogs chained to the rail. Their master was a knight of Artois. His name I never learned, but his shield bore gold pieces on a red ground, and he limped much as I do, from a wound which he had got in his youth at Mantes siege. He served the Duke of Burgundy against the Moors in Spain, and was returning to that war with his dogs. He sang us strange Moorish songs that first night, and half persuaded us to go with him. I was on pilgrimage to forget — which is what no pilgrimage brings. I think I would have gone, but. . . .
‘Look you how the life and fortune of man changes! Towards morning a Dane ship, rowing silently, struck against us in the mist, and while we rolled hither and yon Hugh, leaning over the rail, fell outboard. I leaped after him, and we two tumbled aboard the Dane, and were caught and bound ere we could rise. Our own ship was swallowed up in the mist. I judge the Knight of the Gold Pieces muzzled his dogs with his cloak, lest they should give tongue and betray the merchants, for I heard their baying suddenly stop.
‘We lay bound among the benches till morning, when the Danes dragged us to the high deck by the steering-place, and their captain — Witta, he was called — turned us over with his foot. Bracelets of gold from elbow to armpit he wore, and his red hair was long as a woman’s, and came down in plaited locks on his shoulder. He was stout, with bowed legs and long arms. He spoiled us of all we had, but when he laid hand on Hugh’s sword and saw the runes on the blade hastily he thrust it back. Yet his covetousness overcame him and he tried again and again, and the third time the Sword sang loud and angrily, so that the rowers leaned on their oars to listen. Here they all spoke together, screaming like gulls, and a Yellow Man, such as I have never seen, came to the high deck and cut our bonds. He was yellow — not from sickness, but by nature. Yellow as honey, and his eyes stood endwise in his head.’
‘How do you mean?’ said Una, her chin on her hand.
‘Thus,’ said Sir Richard. He put a finger to the corner of each eye, and pushed it up till his eyes narrowed to slits.
‘Why, you look just like a Chinaman!’ cried Dan. ‘Was the man a Chinaman?’
‘I know not what that may be. Witta had found him half dead among ice on the shores of Muscovy. We thought he was a devil. He crawled before us and brought food in a silver dish which these sea-wolves had robbed from some rich abbey, and Witta with his own hands gave us wine. He spoke a little in French, a little in South Saxon, and much in the Northman’s tongue. We asked him to set us ashore, promising to pay him better ransom than he would get price if he sold us to the Moors — as once befell a knight of my acquaintance sailing from Flushing.
‘“Not by my father Guthrum’s head,” said he. “The Gods sent ye into my ship for a luck-offering.”
‘At this I quaked, for I knew it was still the Dane’s custom to sacrifice captives to their gods for fair weather.
‘“A plague on thy four long bones!” said Hugh. “What profit canst thou make of poor old pilgrims that can neither work nor fight?”
‘“Gods forbid I should fight against thee, poor Pilgrim with the Singing Sword,” said he. “Come with us and be poor no more. Thy teeth are far apart, which is a sure sign thou wilt travel and grow rich.”
‘“What if we will not come?” said Hugh.
‘“Swim to England or France,” said Witta. “We are midway between the two. Unless ye choose to drown yourselves no hair of your head will be harmed here aboard. We think ye bring us luck, and I myself know the runes on that Sword are good.” He turned and bade them hoist sail.
‘Hereafter all made way for us as we walked about the ship, and the ship was full of wonders.’
‘What was she like?’ said Dan.
‘Long, low, and narrow, bearing one mast with a red sail, and rowed by fifteen oars a side,’ the knight answered. ‘At her bows was a deck under which men might lie, and at her stern another shut off by a painted door from the rowers’ benches. Here Hugh and I slept, with Witta and the Yellow Man, upon tapestries as soft as wool. I remember’— he laughed to himself —‘when first we entered there a loud voice cried, “Out swords! Out swords! Kill, kill!” Seeing us start Witta laughed, and showed us it was but a great-beaked grey bird with a red tail. He sat her on his shoulder, and she called for bread and wine hoarsely, and prayed him to kiss her. Yet she was no more than a silly bird. But — ye knew this?’ He looked at their smiling faces.
‘We weren’t laughing at you,’ said Una. ‘That must have been a parrot. It’s just what Pollies do.’
‘So we learned later. But here is another marvel. The Yellow Man, whose name was Kitai, had with him a brown box. In the box was a blue bowl with red marks upon the rim, and within the bowl, hanging from a fine thread, was a piece of iron no thicker than that grass stem, and as long, maybe, as my spur, but straight. In this iron, said Witta, abode an Evil Spirit which Kitai, the Yellow Man, had brought by Art Magic out of his own country that lay three years’ journey southward. The Evil Spirit strove day and night to return to his country, and therefore, look you, the iron needle pointed continually to the South.’
‘South?’ said Dan, suddenly, and put his hand into his pocket.
‘With my own eyes I saw it. Every day and all day long, though the ship rolled, though the sun and the moon and the stars were hid, this blind Spirit in the iron knew whither it would go, and strained to the South. Witta called it the Wise Iron, because it showed him his way across the unknowable seas.’ Again Sir Richard looked keenly at the children. ‘How think ye? Was it sorcery?’
‘Was it anything like this?’ Dan fished out his old brass pocket-compass, that generally lived with his knife and key-ring. ‘The glass has got cracked, but the needle waggles all right, sir.’
The knight drew a long breath of wonder. ‘Yes, yes. The Wise Iron shook and swung in just this fashion. Now it is still. Now it points to the South.’
‘North,’ said Dan.
‘Nay, South! There is the South,’ said Sir Richard. Then they both laughed, for naturally when one end of a straight compass-needle points to the North, the other must point to the South.
‘Té,’ said Sir Richard, clicking his tongue. ‘There can be no sorcery if a child carries it. Wherefore does it point South — or North?’
‘Father says that nobody knows,’ said Una.
Sir Richard looked relieved. ‘Then it may still be magic. It was magic to us. And so we voyaged. When the wind served we hoisted sail, and lay all up along the windward rail, our shields on our backs to break the spray. When it failed, they rowed with long oars; the Yellow Man sat by the Wise Iron, and Witta steered. At first I feared the great white-flowering waves, but as I saw how wisely Witta led his ship among them I grew bolder. Hugh liked it well from the first. My skill is not upon the water; and rocks, and whirlpools such as we saw by the West Isles of France, where an oar caught on a rock and broke, are much against my stomach. We sailed South across a stormy sea, where by moonlight, between clouds, we saw a Flanders ship roll clean over and sink. Again, though Hugh laboured with Witta all night, I lay under the deck with the Talking Bird, and cared not whether I lived or died. There is a sickness of the sea which, for three days, is pure death! When we next saw land Witta said it was Spain, and we stood out to sea. That coast was full of ships busy in the Duke’s war against the Moors, and we feared to be hanged by the Duke’s men or sold into slavery by the Moors. So we put into a small harbour which Witta knew. At night men came down with loaded mules, and Witta exchanged amber out of the North against little wedges of iron and packets of beads in earthen pots. The pots he put under the decks, and the wedges of iron he laid on the bottom of the ship after he had cast out the stones and shingle which till then had been our ballast. Wine, too, he bought for lumps of sweet-smelling grey amber — a little morsel no bigger than a thumbnail purchased a cask of wine. But I speak like a merchant.’
‘No, no! Tell us what you had to eat,’ cried Dan.
‘Meat dried in the sun, and dried fish and ground beans, Witta took in; and corded frails of a certain sweet, soft fruit, which the Moors use, which is like paste of figs, but with thin, long stones. Aha! Dates is the name.
‘“Now,” said Witta, when the ship was loaded, “I counsel you strangers, to pray to your gods, for from here on our road is No Man’s road.” He and his men killed a black goat for sacrifice on the bows; and the Yellow Man brought out a small, smiling image of dull-green glass and burned incense before it. Hugh and I commended ourselves to God, and Saint Bartholomew, and Our Lady of the Assumption, who was specially dear to my Lady. We were not young, but I think no shame to say, when as we drove out of that secret harbour at sunrise over a still sea, we two rejoiced and sang as did the knights of old when they followed our great Duke to England. Yet was our leader an heathen pirate; all our proud fleet but one galley perilously overloaded; for guidance we leaned on a pagan sorcerer; and our port was beyond the world’s end. Witta told us that his father Guthrum had once in his life rowed along the shores of Africa to a land where naked men sold gold for iron and beads. There had he bought much gold, and no few elephants’ teeth, and thither by help of the Wise Iron would Witta go. Witta feared nothing — except to be poor.
‘“My father told me,” said Witta, “that a great Shoal runs three days’ sail out from that land, and south of the shoal lies a Forest which grows in the sea. South and east of the Forest my father came to a place where the men hid gold in their hair; but all that country, he said, was full of Devils who lived in trees, and tore folk limb from limb. How think ye?”
‘“Gold or no gold,” said Hugh, fingering his sword, “it is a joyous venture. Have at these devils of thine, Witta!”
‘“Venture!” said Witta, sourly. “I am only a poor sea-thief. I do not set my life adrift on a plank for joy, or the venture. Once I beach ship again at Stavanger, and feel the wife’s arms round my neck, I’ll seek no more ventures. A ship is heavier care than a wife or cattle.”
‘He leaped down among the rowers, chiding them for their little strength and their great stomachs. Yet Witta was a wolf in fight, and a very fox in cunning.
‘We were driven South by a storm, and for three days and three nights he took the stern-oar and threddled the longship through the sea. When it rose beyond measure he brake a pot of whale’s oil upon the water, which wonderfully smoothed it, and in that anointed patch he turned her head to the wind and threw out oars at the end of a rope, to make, he said, an anchor at which we lay rolling sorely, but dry. This craft his father Guthrum had shown him. He knew, too, all the Leech–Book of Bald, who was a wise doctor, and he knew the Ship–Book of Hlaf the Woman, who robbed Egypt. He knew all the care of a ship.
‘After the storm we saw a mountain whose top was covered with snow and pierced the clouds. The grasses under this mountain, boiled and eaten, are a good cure for soreness of the gums and swelled ankles. We lay there eight days, till men in skins threw stones at us. When the heat increased Witta spread a cloth on bent sticks above the rowers, for the wind failed between the Island of the Mountain and the shore of Africa, which is east of it. That shore is sandy, and we rowed along it within three bowshots. Here we saw whales, and fish in the shape of shields, but longer than our ship. Some slept, some opened their mouths at us, and some danced on the hot waters. The water was hot to the hand, and the sky was hidden by hot, grey mists, out of which blew a fine dust that whitened our hair and beards of a morning. Here, too, were fish that flew in the air like birds. They would fall on the laps of the rowers, and when we went ashore we would roast and eat them.’
The knight paused to see if the children doubted him, but they only nodded and said, ‘Go on.’
‘The yellow land lay on our left, the grey sea on our right. Knight though I was, I pulled my oar amongst the rowers. I caught seaweed and dried it, and stuffed it between the pots of beads lest they should break. Knighthood is for the land. At sea, look you, a man is but a spurless rider on a bridleless horse. I learned to make strong knots in ropes — yes, and to join two ropes end to end, so that even Witta could scarcely see where they had been married. But Hugh had tenfold more sea-cunning than I. Witta gave him charge of the rowers of the left side. Thorkild of Borkum, a man with a broken nose, that wore a Norman steel cap, had the rowers of the right, and each side rowed and sang against the other. They saw that no man was idle. Truly, as Hugh said, and Witta would laugh at him, a ship is all more care than a Manor.
‘How? Thus. There was water to fetch from the shore when we could find it, as well as wild fruit and grasses, and sand for scrubbing of the decks and benches to keep them sweet. Also we hauled the ship out on low islands and emptied all her gear, even to the iron wedges, and burned off the weed, that had grown on her, with torches of rush, and smoked below the decks with rushes dampened in salt water, as Hlaf the Woman orders in her Ship–Book. Once when we were thus stripped, and the ship lay propped on her keel, the bird cried, “Out swords!” as though she saw an enemy. Witta vowed he would wring her neck.’
‘Poor Polly! Did he?’ said Una.
‘Nay. She was the ship’s bird. She could call all the rowers by name. . . . Those were good days — for a wifeless man — with Witta and his heathen — beyond the world’s end. . . . After many weeks we came on the Great Shoal which stretched, as Witta’s father had said, far out to sea. We skirted it till we were giddy with the sight and dizzy with the sound of bars and breakers; and when we reached land again we found a naked black people dwelling among woods, who for one wedge of iron loaded us with fruits and grasses and eggs. Witta scratched his head at them in sign he would buy gold. They had no gold, but they understood the sign (all the gold-traders hide their gold in their thick hair), for they pointed along the coast. They beat, too, on their chests with their clenched hands, and that, if we had known it, was an evil sign.’
‘What did it mean?’ said Dan.
‘Patience. Ye shall hear. We followed the coast eastward sixteen days (counting time by sword-cuts on the helm-rail) till we came to the Forest in the Sea. Trees grew out of mud, arched upon lean and high roots, and many muddy water-ways ran allwhither into darkness under the trees. Here we lost the sun. We followed the winding channels between the trees, and where we could not row we laid hold of the crusted roots and hauled ourselves along. The water was foul, and great glittering flies tormented us. Morning and evening a blue mist covered the mud, which bred fevers. Four of our rowers sickened, and were bound to their benches, lest they should leap overboard and be eaten by the monsters of the mud. The Yellow Man lay sick beside the Wise Iron, rolling his head and talking in his own tongue. Only the Bird throve. She sat on Witta’s shoulder and screamed in that noisome, silent darkness. Yes; I think it was the silence we feared.’
He paused to listen to the comfortable home noises of the brook.
‘When we had lost count of time among those black gullies and swashes, we heard, as it were, a drum beat far off, and following it we broke into a broad, brown river by a hut in a clearing among fields of pumkins. We thanked God to see the sun again. The people of the village gave the good welcome, and Witta scratched his head at them (for gold), and showed them our iron and beads. They ran to the bank — we were still in the ship — and pointed to our swords and bows, for always when near shore we lay armed. Soon they fetched store of gold in bars and in dust from their huts, and some great blackened elephant teeth. These they piled on the bank, as though to tempt us, and made signs of dealing blows in battle, and pointed up to the tree tops, and to the forest behind. Their captain or chief sorcerer then beat on his chest with his fists, and gnashed his teeth.
‘Said Thorkild of Borkum: “Do they mean we must fight for all this gear?” and he half drew his sword.
‘“Nay,” said Hugh. “I think they ask us to league against some enemy.”
‘“I like this not,” said Witta, of a sudden. “Back into midstream.”
‘So we did, and sat still all, watching the black folk and the gold they piled on the bank. Again we heard drums beat in the forest, and the people fled to their huts, leaving the gold unguarded.
‘Then Hugh, at the bows, pointed without speech, and we saw a great Devil come out of the forest. He shaded his brows with his hand, and moistened his pink tongue between his lips — thus.’
‘A Devil!’ said Dan, delightfully horrified.
‘Yea. Taller than a man; covered with reddish hair. When he had well regarded our ship, he beat on his chest with his fists till it sounded like rolling drums, and came to the bank swinging all his body between his long arms, and gnashed his teeth at us. Hugh loosed arrow, and pierced him through the throat. He fell roaring, and three other Devils ran out of the forest and hauled him into a tall tree out of sight. Anon they cast down the blood-stained arrow, and lamented together among the leaves. Witta saw the gold on the bank; he was loath to leave it. “Sirs,” said he (no man had spoken till then), “yonder is that we have come so far and so painfully to find, laid out to our very hand. Let us row in while these Devils bewail themselves, and at least bear off what we may.”
‘Bold as a wolf, cunning as a fox was Witta! He set four archers on the foredeck to shoot the Devils if they should leap from the tree, which was close to the bank. He manned ten oars a side, and bade them watch his hand to row in or back out, and so coaxed he them toward the bank. But none would set foot ashore, though the gold was within ten paces. No man is hasty to his hanging. They whimpered at their oars like beaten hounds, and Witta bit his fingers for rage.
‘Said Hugh of a sudden, “Hark!” At first we thought it was the buzzing of the glittering flies on the water, but it grew loud and fierce, so that all men heard.’
‘What?’ said Dan and Una.
‘It was the sword.’ Sir Richard patted the smooth hilt. ‘It sang as a Dane sings before battle. “I go,” said Hugh, and he leaped from the bows and fell among the gold. I was afraid to my four bones’ marrow, but for shame’s sake I followed, and Thorkild of Borkum leaped after me. None other came. “Blame me not,” cried Witta behind us, “I must abide by my ship.” We three had no time to blame or praise. We stooped to the gold and threw it back over our shoulders, one hand on our swords and one eye on the tree, which nigh overhung us.
‘I know not how the Devils leaped down, or how the fight began. I heard Hugh cry: “Out! out!” as though he were at Santlache again; I saw Thorkild’s steel cap smitten off his head by a great hairy hand, and I felt an arrow from the ship whistle past my ear. They say that till Witta took his sword to the rowers he could not bring his ship in shore; and each one of the four archers said afterwards that he alone had pierced the Devil that fought me. I do not know. I went to it in my mail-shirt, which saved my skin. With long-sword and belt-dagger I fought for the life against a Devil whose very feet were hands, and who whirled me back and forth like a dead branch. He had me by the waist, my arms to my side, when an arrow from the ship pierced him between the shoulders, and he loosened grip. I passed my sword twice through him, and he crutched himself away between his long arms, coughing and moaning. Next, as I remember, I saw Thorkild of Borkum bareheaded and smiling, leaping up and down before a Devil that leaped and gnashed his teeth. Then Hugh passed, his sword shifted to his left hand, and I wondered why I had not known that Hugh was a left-handed man; and thereafter I remembered nothing till I felt spray on my face, and we were in sunshine on the open sea. That was twenty days after.’
‘What had happened? Did Hugh die?’ the children asked.
‘Never was such a fight fought by christened man,’ said Sir Richard. ‘An arrow from the ship had saved me from my Devil, and Thorkild of Borkum had given back before his Devil, till the bowmen on the ship could shoot it all full of arrows from near by; but Hugh’s Devil was cunning, and had kept behind trees, where no arrow could reach. Body to body there, by stark strength of sword and hand, had Hugh slain him, and, dying, the Thing had clenched his teeth on the sword. Judge what teeth they were!’
Sir Richard turned the sword again that the children might see the two great chiselled gouges on either side of the blade.
‘Those same teeth met in Hugh’s right arm and side,’ Sir Richard went on. ‘I? Oh, I had no more than a broken foot and a fever. Thorkild’s ear was bitten, but Hugh’s arm and side clean withered away. I saw him where he lay along, sucking a fruit in his left hand. His flesh was wasted off his bones, his hair was patched with white, and his hand was blue-veined like a woman’s. He put his left hand round my neck and whispered, “Take my sword. It has been thine since Hastings, O, my brother, but I can never hold hilt again.” We lay there on the high deck talking of Santlache and, I think, of every day since Santlache, and it came so that we both wept. I was weak, and he little more than a shadow.
‘“Nay — nay,” said Witta, at the helm-rail. “Gold is a good right arm to any man. Look — look at the gold!” He bade Thorkild show us the gold and the elephants’ teeth, as though we had been children. He had brought away all the gold on the bank, and twice as much more, that the people of the village gave him for slaying the Devils. They worshipped us as gods, Thorkild told me: it was one of their old women healed up Hugh’s poor arm.’
‘How much gold did you get?’ asked Dan.
‘How can I say? Where we came out with wedges of iron under the rowers’ feet we returned with wedges of gold hidden beneath planks. There was dust of gold in packages where we slept; and along the side and crosswise under the benches we lashed the blackened elephants’ teeth.
‘“I had sooner have my right arm,” said Hugh, when he had seen all.
‘“Ahai! That was my fault,” said Witta. “I should have taken ransom and landed you in France when first you came aboard, ten months ago.”
‘“It is over-late now,” said Hugh, laughing.
‘Witta plucked at his long shoulder-lock. “But think!” said he. “If I had let ye go — which I swear I would never have done, for I love ye more than brothers — if I had let ye go, by now ye might have been horribly slain by some mere Moor in the Duke of Burgundy’s war, or ye might have been murdered by land-thieves, or ye might have died of the plague at an inn. Think of this and do not blame me overmuch, Hugh. See! I will only take a half of the gold.”
‘“I blame thee not at all, Witta,” said Hugh. “It was a joyous venture, and we thirty-five here have done what never men have done. If I live till England, I will build me a stout keep over Dallington out of my share.”
‘“I will buy cattle and amber and warm red cloth for the wife,” said Witta, “and I will hold all the land at the head of Stavanger Fiord. Many will fight for me now. But first we must turn North, and with this honest treasure aboard I pray we meet no pirate ships.”
‘We did not laugh. We were careful. We were afraid lest we should lose one grain of our gold for which we had fought Devils.
‘“Where is the Sorcerer?” said I, for Witta was looking at the Wise Iron in the box, and I could not see the Yellow Man.
‘“He has gone to his own country,” said he. “He rose up in the night while we were beating out of that forest in the mud, and said that he could see it behind the trees. He leaped out on to the mud, and did not answer when we called; so we called no more. He left the Wise Iron, which is all that I care for — and see, the Spirit still points to the South!”
‘We were troubled for fear that the Wise Iron should fail us now that its Yellow Man had gone, and when we saw the Spirit still served us we grew afraid of too strong winds, and of shoals, and of careless leaping fish, and of all the people on all the shores where we landed.’
‘Why?’ said Dan.
‘Because of the gold — because of our gold. Gold changes men altogether. Thorkild of Borkum did not change. He laughed at Witta for his fears, and at us for our counselling Witta to furl sail when the ship pitched at all.
‘“Better be drowned out of hand,” said Thorkild of Borkum, “than go tied to a deck-load of yellow dust.”
‘He was a landless man, and had been slave to some King in the East. He would have beaten out the gold into deep bands to put round the oars, and round the prow.
‘Yet, though he vexed himself for the gold, Witta waited upon Hugh like a woman, lending him his shoulder when the ship rolled, and tying of ropes from side to side that Hugh might hold by them. But for Hugh, he said — and so did all his men — they would never have won the gold. I remember Witta made a little, thin gold ring for our Bird to swing in. Three months we rowed and sailed and went ashore for fruits or to clean the ship. When we saw wild horsemen, riding among sand-dunes, flourishing spears we knew we were on the Moors’ coast, and stood over north to Spain; and a strong south-west wind bore us in ten days to a coast of high red rocks, where we heard a hunting-horn blow among the yellow gorse and knew it was England.
‘“Now find ye Pevensey yourselves,” said Witta. “I love not these narrow ship-filled seas.”
‘He set the dried, salted head of the Devil, which Hugh had killed, high on our prow, and all boats fled from us. Yet, for our gold’s sake, we were more afraid than they. We crept along the coast by night till we came to the chalk cliffs, and so east to Pevensey. Witta would not come ashore with us, though Hugh promised him wine at Dallington enough to swim in. He was on fire to see his wife, and ran into the Marsh after sunset, and there he left us and our share of gold, and backed out on the same tide. He made no promise; he swore no oath; he looked for no thanks; but to Hugh, an armless man, and to me, an old cripple whom he could have flung into the sea, he passed over wedge upon wedge, packet upon packet of gold and dust of gold, and only ceased when we would take no more. As he stooped from the rail to bid us farewell he stripped off his right-arm bracelets and put them all on Hugh’s left, and he kissed Hugh on the cheek. I think when Thorkild of Borkum bade the rowers give way we were near weeping. It is true that Witta was an heathen and a pirate; true it is he held us by force many months in his ship, but I loved that bow-legged, blue-eyed man for his great boldness, his cunning, his skill, and, beyond all, for his simplicity.’
‘Did he get home all right?’ said Dan.
‘I never knew. We saw him hoist sail under the moon-track and stand away. I have prayed that he found his wife and the children.’
‘And what did you do?’
‘We waited on the Marsh till the day. Then I sat by the gold, all tied in an old sail, while Hugh went to Pevensey, and De Aquila sent us horses.’
Sir Richard crossed hands on his sword-hilt, and stared down stream through the soft warm shadows.
‘A whole shipload of gold!’ said Una, looking at the little Golden Hind. ‘But I’m glad I didn’t see the Devils.’
‘I don’t believe they were Devils,’ Dan whispered back.
‘Eh?’ said Sir Richard. ‘Witta’s father warned him they were unquestionable Devils. One must believe one’s father, and not one’s children. What were my Devils, then?’
Dan flushed all over. ‘I— I only thought,’ he stammered; ‘I’ve got a book called The Gorilla Hunters — it’s a continuation of Coral Island, sir — and it says there that the gorillas (they’re big monkeys, you know) were always chewing iron up.’
‘Not always,’ said Una. ‘Only twice.’ They had been reading The Gorilla Hunters in the orchard.
‘Well, anyhow, they always drummed on their chests, like Sir Richard’s did, before they went for people. And they built houses in trees, too.’
‘Ha!’ Sir Richard opened his eyes. ‘Houses like flat nests did our Devils make, where their imps lay and looked at us. I did not see them (I was sick after the fight), but Witta told me and, lo, ye know it also? Wonderful! Were our Devils only nest-building apes? Is there no sorcery left in the world?’
‘I don’t know,’ answered Dan, uncomfortably. ‘I’ve seen a man take rabbits out of a hat, and he told us we could see how he did it, if we watched hard. And we did.’
‘But we didn’t,’ said Una sighing. ‘Oh! there’s Puck!’
The little fellow, brown and smiling, peered between two stems of an ash, nodded, and slid down the bank into the cool beside them.
‘No sorcery, Sir Richard?’ he laughed, and blew on a full dandelion head he had picked.
‘They tell me that Witta’s Wise Iron was a toy. The boy carries such an Iron with him. They tell me our Devils were apes, called gorillas!’ said Sir Richard, indignantly.
‘That is the sorcery of books,’ said Puck. ‘I warned thee they were wise children. All people can be wise by reading of books.’
‘But are the books true?’ Sir Richard frowned. ‘I like not all this reading and writing.’
‘Ye-es,’ said Puck, holding the naked dandelion head at arm’s length. ‘But if we hang all fellows who write falsely, why did De Aquila not begin with Gilbert, the Clerk? He was false enough.’
‘Poor false Gilbert. Yet in his fashion, he was bold,’ said Sir Richard.
‘What did he do?’ said Dan.
‘He wrote,’ said Sir Richard. ‘Is the tale meet for children, think you?’ He looked at Puck; but, ‘Tell us! Tell us!’ cried Dan and Una together.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10