A king in the olden time ruled over a mighty nation: a proud man he must have been, any man who was king of that nation: hundreds of lords, each a prince over many people, sat about him in the council chamber, under the dim vault, that was blue like the vault of heaven, and shone with innumerable glistenings of golden stars.
North, south, east, and west spread that land of his, the sea did not stop it; his empire clomb the high mountains, and spread abroad its arms over the valleys of them; all along the sea-line shore cities set with their crowns of towers in the midst of broad bays, each fit, it seemed, to be a harbour for the navies of all the world.
Inland the pastures and cornlands lay, chequered much with climbing, over-tumbling grape vines, under the sun that crumbled their clods, and drew up the young wheat in the spring-time, under the rain that made the long grass soft and fine, under all fair fertilising influences: the streams leapt down from the mountain tops, or cleft their way through the ridged ravines; they grew great rivers, like seas each one.
The mountains were cloven, and gave forth from their scarred sides wealth of ore and splendour of marble; all things this people that King Valdemar ruled over could do; they levelled mountains, that over the smooth roads the wains might go, laden with silk and spices from the sea: they drained lakes, that the land might yield more and more, as year by year the serfs, driven like cattle, but worse fed, worse housed, died slowly, scarce knowing that they had souls; they builded them huge ships, and said that they were masters of the sea too; only, I trow the sea was an unruly subject, and often sent them back their ships cut into more pieces than the pines of them were, when the adze first fell upon them; they raised towers, and bridges, and marble palaces with endless corridors rose-scented, and cooled with welling fountains.
They sent great armies and fleets to all the points of heaven that the wind blows from, who took and burned many happy cities, wasted many fields and valleys, blotted out from the memory of men the names of nations, made their men’s lives a hopeless shame and misery to them, their women’s lives disgrace, and then came home to have flowers thrown on them in showers, to be feasted and called heroes.
Should not then their king be proud of them? Moreover they could fashion stone and brass into the shapes of men; they could write books; they knew the names of the stars, and their number; they knew what moved the passions of men in the hearts of them, and could draw you up cunningly, catalogues of virtues and vices; their wise men could prove to you that any lie was true, that any truth was false, till your head grew dizzy, and your heart sick, and you almost doubted if there were a God.
Should not then their king be proud of them? Their men were strong in body, and moved about gracefully — like dancers; and the purple-black, scented hair of their gold-clothed knights seemed to shoot out rays under the blaze of light that shone like many suns in the king’s halls. Their women’s faces were very fair in red and white, their skins fair and half-transparent like the marble of their mountains, and their voices sounded like the rising of soft music from step to step of their own white palaces.
Should not then their king be proud of such a people, who seemed to help so in carrying on the world to its consummate perfection, which they even hoped their grandchildren would see?
They could do everything but justice, and truth, and mercy; therefore God’s judgments hung over their heads, not fallen yet, but surely to fall one time or other.
For ages past they had warred against one people only, whom they could not utterly subdue; a feeble people in numbers, dwelling in the very midst of them, among the mountains; yet now they were pressing them close; acre after acre, with seas of blood to purchase each acre, had been wrested from the free people, and their end seemed drawing near; and this time the king, Valdemar, had marched to their land with a great army, to make war on them, he boasted to himself, almost for the last time.
A walled town in the free land; in that town, a house built of rough, splintery stones; and in a great low-browed room of that house, a grey-haired man pacing to and fro impatiently: ‘Will she never come?’ he says, ‘it is two hours since the sun set; news, too, of the enemy’s being in the land; how dreadful if she is taken!’ His great broad face is marked with many furrows made by the fierce restless energy of the man; but there is a wearied look on it, the look of a man who, having done his best, is yet beaten; he seemed to long to be gone and be at peace: he, the fighter in many battles, who often had seemed with his single arm to roll back the whole tide of fight, felt despairing enough now; this last invasion, he thought, must surely quite settle the matter; wave after wave, wave after wave, had broken on that dear land and been rolled back from it, and still the hungry sea pressed on; they must be finally drowned in that sea; how fearfully they had been tried for their sins. Back again to his anxiety concerning Cissela, his daughter, go his thoughts, and he still paces up and down wearily, stopping now and then to gaze intently on things which he has seen a hundred times; and the night has altogether come on.
At last the blast of a horn from outside, challenge and counter-challenge, and the wicket to the court-yard is swung open; for this house, being in a part of the city where the walls are somewhat weak, is a little fortress in itself, and is very carefully guarded. The old man’s face brightened at the sound of the new comers, and he went toward the entrance of the house where he was met by two young knights fully armed, and a maiden. ‘Thank God you are come,’ he says; but stops when he sees her face, which is quite pale, almost wild with some sorrow. ‘The saints! Cissela, what is it?’ he says. ‘Father, Eric will tell you.’ Then suddenly a clang, for Eric has thrown on the ground a richly-jewelled sword, sheathed, and sets his foot on it, crunching the pearls on the sheath; then says, flinging up his head — ‘There, father, the enemy is in the land; may that happen to every one of them! but for my part I have accounted for two already.’ ‘Son Eric, son Eric, you talk for ever about yourself; quick, tell me about Cissela instead: if you go on boasting and talking always about yourself, you will come to no good end, son, after all.’ But as he says this, he smiles nevertheless, and his eye glistens.
‘Well, father, listen — such a strange thing she tells us, not to be believed, if she did not tell us herself; the enemy has suddenly got generous, one of them at least, which is something of a disappointment to me — ah! pardon, about my self again; and that is about myself too. Well, father, what am I to do? — But Cissela, she wandered some way from her maidens, when — ah! but I never could tell a story properly, let her tell it herself; here, Cissela! — well, well, I see she is better employed, talking namely, how should I know what! with Siur in the window-seat yonder — but she told us that, as she wandered almost by herself, she presently heard shouts and saw many of the enemy’s knights riding quickly towards her; whereat she knelt only and prayed to God, who was very gracious to her; for when, as she thought, something dreadful was about to happen, the chief of the knights (a very noble-looking man, she said) rescued her, and, after he had gazed earnestly into her face, told her she might go back again to her own home, and her maids with her, if only she would tell him where she dwelt and her name; and withal he sent three knights to escort her some way toward the city; then he turned and rode away with all his knights but those three, who, when they knew that he had quite gone, she says, began to talk horribly, saying things whereof in her terror she understood the import only: then, before worse came to pass came I and slew two, as I said, and the other ran away ‘lustily with a good courage’; and that is the sword of one of the slain knights, or, as one might rather call them, rascally caitiffs.’
The old man’s thoughts seemed to have gone wandering after his son had finished; for he said nothing for some time, but at last spoke dejectedly:
‘Eric, brave son, when I was your age I too hoped, and my hopes are come to this at last; you are blind in your hopeful youth, Eric, and do not see that this king (for the king it certainly was) will crush us, and not the less surely because he is plainly not ungenerous, but rather a good, courteous knight. Alas! poor old Gunnar, broken down now and ready to die, as your country is! How often, in the olden time, thou used’st to say to thyself, as thou didst ride at the head of our glorious house, ‘this charge may finish this matter, this battle must.’ They passed away, those gallant fights, and still the foe pressed on, and hope, too, slowly ebbed away, as the boundaries of our land grew less and less: behold this is the last wave but one or two, and then for a sad farewell to name and freedom. Yet, surely the end of the world must come when we are swept off the face of the earth. God waits long, they say, before He avenges his own.’
As he was speaking, Siur and Cissela came nearer to him, and Cissela, all traces of her late terror gone from her face now, raising her lips to his bended forehead, kissed him fondly, and said, with glowing face,
Some hope or other seemed growing up in his heart, and showing through his face; and he spoke again, putting back the hair from off her face, and clasping it about with both his hands, while he stooped to kiss her.
‘God remember your mother, Cissela! Then it was no dream after all, but true perhaps, as indeed it seemed at the time; but it must come quickly, that woman’s deliverance, or not at all. When was it that I heard that old tale, that sounded even then true to my ears? for we have not been punished for nought, my son; that is not God’s way. It comes across my memory somehow, mingled in a wonderful manner with the purple of the pines on the hillside, with the fragrance of them borne from far towards me; for know, my children, that in times past, long, long past now, we did an evil deed, for our forefathers, who have been dead now, and forgiven so long ago, once mad with rage at some defeat from their enemies, fired a church, and burned therein many women who had fled thither for refuge; and from that time a curse cleaves to us. Only they say, that at the last we may be saved from utter destruction by a woman; I know not. God grant it may be so.’
Her face was pale, her lips were pale, her golden hair was pale; but not pale, it seemed, from any sinking of blood, but from gathering of intensest light from somewhere, her eyes perhaps, for they appeared to burn inwardly.
They followed the sweeping of her purple robe in silence through the low heavy-beamed passages: they entered the little chapel, dimly lighted by the moon that night, as it shone through one of the three arrow-slits of windows at the east end. There was little wealth of marble there, I trow; little time had those fighting men for stone-smoothing. Albeit, one noted many semblances of flowers even in the dim half-light, and here and there the faces of brave men, roughly cut enough, but grand, because the hand of the carver had followed his loving heart. Neither was there gold wanting to the altar and its canopy; and above the low pillars of the nave hung banners, taken from the foe by the men of that house, gallant with gold and jewels.
She walked up to the altar and took the blessed book of the Gospels from the left side of it, then knelt in prayer for a moment or two, while the three men stood behind her reverently. When she rose she made a sign to them, and from their scabbards gleamed three swords in the moonlight; then, while they held them aloft, and pointed toward the altar, she opened the book at the page whereon was painted Christ the Lord dying on the cross, pale against the gleaming gold: she said, in a firm voice, ‘Christ God, who diedst for all men, so help me, as I refuse not life, happiness, even honour, for this people whom I love.’
Then she kissed the face so pale against the gold, and knelt again.
But when she had risen, and before she could leave the space by the altar, Siur had stepped up to her, and seized her hurriedly, folding both his arms about her; she let herself be held there, her bosom against his; then he held her away from him a little space, holding her by the arms near the shoulder; then he took her hands and laid them across his shoulders, so that now she held him.
And they said nothing; what could they say? Do you know any word for what they meant?
And the father and brother stood by, looking quite awe-struck, more so they seemed than by her solemn oath. Till Siur, raising his head from where it lay, cried out aloud:
Then said Cissela: ‘May God help me in my need, as I am true to Siur.’
And the others went, and they two were left standing there alone, with no little awe over them, strange and shy as they had never yet been to each other. Cissela shuddered, and said in a quick whisper: ‘Siur, on your knees! and pray that these oaths may never clash.’
‘Can they, Cissela?’ he said.
‘O love,’ she cried, ‘you have loosed my hand; take it again, or I shall die, Siur!’
He took both her hands, he held them fast to his lips, to his forehead; he said: ‘No, God does not allow such things: truth does not lie; you are truth; this need not be prayed for.’
She said: ‘Oh, forgive me! yet — yet this old chapel is damp and cold even in the burning summer weather. O knight Siur, something strikes through me; I pray you kneel and pray.’
He looked steadily at her for a long time without answering, as if he were trying once for all to become indeed one with her; then said: ‘Yes, it is possible; in no other way could you give up everything.’
Then within a while they left the chapel, and walked as in a dream between the dazzling lights of the hall, where the knights sat now, and between those lights sat down together, dreaming still the same dream each of them; while all the knights shouted for Siur and Cissela. Even if a man had spent all his life looking for sorrowful things, even if he sought for them with all his heart and soul, and even though he had grown grey in that quest, yet would he have found nothing in all the world, or perhaps in all the stars either, so sorrowful as Cissela.
They had accepted her sacrifice after long deliberation, they had arrayed her in purple and scarlet, they had crowned her with gold wrought about with jewels, they had spread abroad the veil of her golden hair; yet now, as they led her forth in the midst of the band of knights, her brother Eric holding fast her hand, each man felt like a murderer when he beheld her face, whereon was no tear, wherein was no writhing of muscle, twitching of nerve, wherein was no sorrow-mark of her own, but only the sorrow-mark which God sent her, and which she must perforce wear.
Yet they had not caught eagerly at her offer, they had said at first almost to a man: ‘Nay, this thing shall not be, let us die altogether rather than this.’ Yet as they sat, and said this, to each man of the council came floating dim memories of that curse of the burned women, and its remedy; to many it ran rhythmically, an old song better known by the music than the words, heard once and again, long ago, when the gusty wind overmastered the chesnut-boughs and strewed the smooth sward with their star-leaves.
Withal came thoughts to each man, partly selfish, partly wise and just, concerning his own wife and children, concerning children yet unborn; thoughts too of the glory of the old name; all that had been suffered and done that the glorious free land might yet be a nation.
And the spirit of hope, never dead but sleeping only, woke up within their hearts: ‘We may yet be a people,’ they said to themselves, ‘if we can but get breathing time.’
And as they thought these things, and doubted, Siur rose up in the midst of them and said: ‘You are right in what you think, countrymen, and she is right; she is altogether good and noble; send her forth.’
Then, with one look of utter despair at her as she stood statue-like, he left the council, lest he should fall down and die in the midst of them, he said; yet he died not then, but lived for many years afterwards.
But they rose from their seats, and when they were armed, and she royally arrayed, they went with her, leading her through the dear streets, whence you always saw the great pine-shadowed mountains; she went away from all that was dear to her, to go and sit a crowned queen in the dreary marble palace, whose outer walls rose right up from the weary-hearted sea. She could not think, she durst not; she feared, if she did, that she would curse her beauty, almost curse the name of love, curse Siur, though she knew he was right, for not slaying her; she feared that she might curse God.
So she thought not at all, steeping her senses utterly in forgetfulness of the happy past, destroying all anticipation of the future: yet, as they left the city amid the tears of women, and fixed sorrowful gaze of men, she turned round once, and stretched her arms out involuntarily, like a dumb senseless thing, towards the place where she was born, and where her life grew happier day by day, and where his arms first crept round about her.
She turned away and thought, but in a cold speculative manner, how it was possible that she was bearing this sorrow; as she often before had wondered, when slight things vexed her overmuch, how people had such sorrows and lived, and almost doubted if the pain was so much greater in great sorrows than in small troubles, or whether the nobleness only was greater, the pain not sharper, but more lingering.
Halfway toward the camp the king’s people met her; and over the trampled ground, where they had fought so fiercely but a little time before, they spread breadth of golden cloth, that her feet might not touch the arms of her dead countrymen, or their brave bodies.
And so they came at last with many trumpet-blasts to the king’s tent, who stood at the door of it, to welcome his bride that was to be: a noble man truly to look on, kindly, and genial-eyed; the red blood sprang up over his face when she came near; and she looked back no more, but bowed before him almost to the ground, and would have knelt, but that he caught her in his arms and kissed her; she was pale no more now; and the king, as he gazed delightedly at her, did not notice that sorrow-mark, which was plain enough to her own people.
‘Come, Harald,’ said a beautiful golden-haired boy to one who was plainly his younger brother, ‘Come, and let us leave Robert here by the forge, and show our lady-mother this beautiful thing. Sweet master armourer, farewell.’
‘Are you going to the queen then?’ said the armourer.
‘Yea,’ said the boy, looking wonderingly at the strong craftsman’s eager face.
‘But, nay; let me look at you awhile longer, you remind me so much of one I loved long ago in my own land. Stay awhile till your other brother goes with you.’
‘Well, I will stay, and think of what you have been telling me; I do not feel as it I should ever think of anything else for long together, as long as I live.’
So he sat down again on an old battered anvil, and seemed with his bright eyes to be beholding something in the land of dreams. A gallant dream it was he dreamed; for he saw himself with his brothers and friends about him, seated on a throne, the justest king in all the earth, his people the lovingest of all people: he saw the ambassadors of the restored nation, that had been unjustly dealt with long ago; everywhere love, and peace if possible, justice and truth at all events.
Alas! he knew not that vengeance, so long delayed, must fall at last in his life-time; he knew not that it takes longer to restore that whose growth has been through age and age, than the few years of a life-time; yet was the reality good, if not as good as the dream.
Presently his twin-brother Robert woke him from that dream, calling out: ‘Now, brother Svend, are we really ready; see here! but stop, kneel first; there, now am I the Bishop.’
And he pulled his brother down on to his knees, and put on his head, where it fitted loosely enough now, hanging down from left to right, an iron crown fantastically wrought, which he himself, having just finished it, had taken out of the water, cool and dripping.
Robert and Harald laughed loud when they saw the crown hanging all askew, and the great drops rolling from it into Svend’s eyes and down his cheeks, looking like tears: not so Svend; he rose, holding the crown level on his head, holding it back, so that it pressed against his brow hard, and, first dashing the drops to right and left, caught his brother by the hand, and said:
‘Yea,’ said the other; ‘but it is a poor thing; better let Siur put it in the furnace again and make it into sword hilts.’
Thereupon they began to go, Svend holding the crown in his hand: but as they were going, Siur called out: ‘Yet will I sell my dagger at a price, Prince Svend, even as you wished at first, rather than give it you for nothing.’
‘Well, for what?’ said Svend, somewhat shortly, for he thought Siur was going back from his promise, which was ugly to him.
‘Nay, be not angry, prince,’ said the armourer, ‘only I pray you to satisfy this whim of mine; it is the first favour I have asked of you: will you ask the fair, noble lady, your mother, from Siur the smith, if she is happy now?’
‘Willingly, sweet master Siur, if it pleases you; farewell.’
And with happy young faces they went away; and when they were gone, Siur from a secret place drew out various weapons and armour, and began to work at them, having first drawn bolt and bar of his workshop carefully.
Svend, with Harald and Robert his two brethren, went their ways to the queen, and found her sitting alone in a fair court of the palace full of flowers, with a marble cloister round about it; and when she saw them coming, she rose up to meet them, her three fair sons.
Truly as that right royal woman bent over them lovingly, there seemed little need of Siur’s question.
So Svend showed her his dagger, but not the crown; and she asked many questions concerning Siur the smith, about his way of talking and his face, the colour of his hair even, till the boys wondered, she questioned them so closely, with beaming eyes and glowing cheeks, so that Svend thought he had never before seen his mother look so beautiful.
Then Svend said: ‘And, mother, don’t be angry with Siur, will you? because he sent a message to you by me.’
‘Angry!’ and straightway her soul was wandering where her body could not come, and for a moment or two she was living as before, with him close by her, in the old mountain land.
‘Well, mother, he wanted me to ask you if you were happy now.’
‘Did he, Svend, this man with brown hair, grizzled as you say it is now? Is his hair soft then, this Siur, going down on to his shoulders in waves? and his eyes, do they glow steadily, as if lighted up from his heart? and how does he speak? Did you not tell me that his words led you, whether you would or no, into dreamland? Ah well! tell him I am happy, but not so happy as we shall be, as we were. And so you, son Robert, are getting to be quite a cunning smith; but do you think you will ever beat Siur?’
‘Ah, mother, no,’ he said, ‘there is something with him that makes him seem quite infinitely beyond all other workmen I ever heard of.’
Some memory coming from that dreamland smote upon her heart more than the others; she blushed like a young girl, and said hesitatingly:
‘Does he work with his left hand, son Robert; for I have heard that some men do so?’ But in her heart she remembered how once, long ago in the old mountain country, in her father’s house, some one had said that only men who were born so, could do cunningly with the left hand; and how Siur, then quite a boy, had said, ‘Well, I will try’: and how, in a month or two, he had come to her with an armlet of silver, very curiously wrought, which he had done with his own left hand.
So Robert said: ‘Yea, mother, he works with his left hand almost as much as with his right, and sometimes I have seen him change the hammer suddenly from his right hand to his left, with a kind of half smile, as one who would say, ‘Cannot I then?’ and this more when he does smith’s work in metal than when he works in marble; and once I heard him say when he did so, ‘I wonder where my first left hand work is; ah! I bide my time.’ I wonder also, mother, what he meant by that.’
She answered no word, but shook her arm free from its broad sleeve, and something glittered on it, near her wrist, something wrought out of silver set with quaint and uncouthly-cut stones of little value.
In the council-chamber, among the lords, sat Svend with his six brethren; he chief of all in the wielding of sword or axe, in the government of people, in drawing the love of men and women to him; perfect in face and body, in wisdom and strength was Svend: next to him sat Robert, cunning in working of marble, or wood, or brass; all things could he make to look as if they lived, from the sweep of an angel’s wings down to the slipping of a little field-mouse from under the sheaves in the harvest-time. Then there was Harald, who knew concerning all the stars of heaven and flowers of earth: Richard, who drew men’s hearts from their bodies, with the words that swung to and fro in his glorious rhymes: William, to whom the air of heaven seemed a servant when the harp-strings quivered underneath his fingers: there were the two sailor-brothers, who the year before, young though they were, had come back from a long, perilous voyage, with news of an island they had found long and long away to the west, larger than any that this people knew of, but very fair and good, though uninhabited.
But now over all this noble brotherhood, with its various gifts hung one cloud of sorrow; their mother, the Peace-Queen Cissela was dead, she who had taught them truth and nobleness so well; she was never to see the beginning of the end that they would work; truly it seemed sad.
There sat the seven brothers in the council chamber, waiting for the king, speaking no word, only thinking drearily; and under the pavement of the great church Cissela lay, and by the side of her tomb stood two men, old men both, Valdemar the king, and Siur.
So the king, after that he had gazed awhile on the carven face of her he had loved well, said at last:
‘O king,’ said Siur, ‘except for a very few strokes on steel, I have done work now, having carved the queen there; I cannot do this thing for you.’
What was it sent a sharp pang of bitterest suspicion through the very heart of the poor old man? he looked steadfastly at him for a moment or two, as if he would know all secrets; he could not, he had not strength of life enough to get to the bottom of things; doubt vanished soon from his heart and his face under Siur’s pitying gaze; he said, ‘Then perhaps I shall be my own statue,’ and therewithal he sat down on the edge of the low marble tomb, and laid his right arm across her breast; he fixed his eyes on the eastern belt of windows, and sat quite motionless and silent; and he never knew that she loved him not.
But Siur, when he had gazed at him for awhile, stole away quietly, as we do when we fear to waken a sleeper; and the king never turned his head, but still sat there, never moving, scarce breathing, it seemed.
For, fronting him, against the wall were seven thrones, and behind them a cloth of samite of purple wrought with golden stars, and barred across from right to left with long bars of silver and crimson, and edged below with melancholy, fading green, like a September sunset; and opposite each throne was a glittering suit of armour wrought wonderfully in bright steel, except that on the breast of each suit was a face worked marvellously in enamel, the face of Cissela in a glory of golden hair; and the glory of that gold spread away from the breast on all sides, and ran cunningly along with the steel rings, in such a way as it is hard even to imagine: moreover, on the crest of each helm was wrought the phoenix, the never-dying bird, the only creature that knows the sun; and by each suit lay a gleaming sword terrible to look at, steel from pommel to point, but wrought along the blade in burnished gold that outflashed the gleam of the steel, was written in fantastic letters the word ‘Westward.’
So Siur gazed till he heard footsteps coming; then he turned to meet them. And Svend and his brethren sat silent in the council chamber, till they heard a great noise and clamour of the people arise through all the streets; and then they rose to see what it might be. Meanwhile on the low marble tomb, under the dim sweeping vault sat, or rather lay, the king; for, though his right arm still lay over her breast, his head had fallen forward, and rested now on the shoulder of the marble queen. There he lay, with strange confusion of his scarlet, gold-wrought robes; silent, motionless, and dead. The seven brethren stood together on a marble terrace of the royal palace, that was dotted about on the baluster of it with white statues: they were helmetted, and armed to the teeth, only over their armour great black cloaks were thrown.
Now the whole great terrace was a-sway with the crowd of nobles and princes, and others that were neither nobles or princes, but true men only; and these were helmetted and wrapped in black cloaks even as the princes were, only the crests of the princes’ helms were wrought wonderfully with that bird, the phoenix, all flaming with new power, dying because its old body is not strong enough for its new-found power: and those on that terrace who were unarmed had anxious faces, some fearful, some stormy with Devil’s rage at disappointment; but among the faces of those helmed ones, though here and there you might see a pale face, there was no fear or rage, scarcely even any anxiety, but calm, brave joy seemed to be on all.
Above the heads of all men on that terrace shone out Svend’s brave face, the golden hair flowing from out of his helmet: a smile of quiet confidence overflowing from his mighty heart, in the depths of which it was dwelling, just showed a very little on his eyes and lips.
While all the vast square, and all the windows and roofs even of the houses over against the palace, were alive with an innumerable sea of troubled raging faces, showing white, upturned from the under-sea of their many-coloured raiment; the murmur from them was like the sough of the first tempest-wind among the pines, and the gleam of spears here and there like the last few gleams of the sun through the woods when the black thunder-clouds come up over all, soon to be shone through, those woods, by the gleam of the deep lightning.
Also sometimes the murmur would swell, and from the heart of it would come a fierce, hoarse, tearing, shattering roar, strangely discordant, of ‘War! War! give us war, O king!’
Then Svend stepping forward, his arms hidden under his long cloak as they hung down quietly, the smile on his face broadening somewhat, sent from his chest a mighty, effortless voice over all the raging:
‘Hear, O ye people! War with all that is ugly and base; peace with all that is fair and good. — NO WAR with my brother’s people.’
Just then one of those unhelmetted, creeping round about stealthily to the place where Svend stood, lifted his arm and smote at him with a dagger; whereupon Svend clearing his right arm from his cloak with his left, lifted up his glittering right hand, and the traitor fell to the earth groaning with a broken jaw, for Svend had smitten him on the mouth a backward blow with his open hand.
One shouted from the crowd, ‘Ay, murderer Svend, slay our good nobles, as you poisoned the king your father, that you and your false brethren might oppress us with the memory of that Devil’s witch, your mother!’
The smile left Svend’s face and heart now, he looked very stern as he said:
‘Hear, O ye people! In years past when I was a boy my dream of dreams was ever this, how I should make you good, and because good, happy, when I should become king over you; but as year by year passed I saw my dream flitting; the deep colours of it changed, faded, grew grey in the light of coming manhood; nevertheless, God be my witness, that I have ever striven to make you just and true, hoping against hope continually; and I had even determined to bear everything and stay with you, even though you should remain unjust and liars, for the sake of the few who really love me; but now, seeing that God has made you mad, and that his vengeance will speedily fall, take heed how you cast out from you all that is good and true-hearted! Once more — which choose you — Peace or War?’
Between the good and the base, in the midst of the passionate faces and changing colours stood the great terrace, cold, and calm, and white, with its changeless statues; and for a while there was silence.
Broken through at last by a yell, and the sharp whirr of arrows, and the cling, clang, from the armour of the terrace as Prince Harald staggered through unhurt, struck by the broad point on the helmet.
‘What, War?’ shouted Svend wrathfully, and his voice sounded like a clap of thunder following the lightning flash when a tower is struck. ‘What! war? swords for Svend! round about the king, good men and true! Sons of the golden-haired, show these men WAR.’
Then all the terrace gleamed with steel, and amid the hurtling of stones and whizz of arrows they began to go westward.
The streets ran with blood, the air was filled with groans and curses, the low waves nearest the granite pier were edged with blood, because they first caught the drippings of the blood.
Then those of the people who durst stay on the pier saw the ships of Svend’s little fleet leaving one by one; for he had taken aboard those ten ships whosoever had prayed to go, even at the last moment, wounded, or dying even; better so, for in their last moments came thoughts of good things to many of them, and it was good to be among the true.
But those haughty ones left behind, sullen and untamed, but with a horrible indefinable dread on them that was worse than death, or mere pain, howsoever fierce — these saw all the ships go out of the harbour merrily with swelling sail and dashing oar, and with joyous singing of those aboard; and Svend’s was the last of all.
Whom they saw kneel down on the deck unhelmed, then all sheathed their swords that were about him; and the Prince Robert took from Svend’s hand an iron crown fantastically wrought, and placed it on his head as he knelt; then he continued kneeling still, till, as the ship drew further and further away from the harbour, all things aboard of her became indistinct.
And they never saw Svend and his brethren again.
Here ends what William the Englishman wrote; but afterwards (in the night-time) he found the book of a certain chronicler which saith:
‘In the spring-time, in May, the 550th year from the death of Svend the wonderful king, the good knights, sailing due eastward, came to a harbour of a land they knew not: wherein they saw many goodly ships, but of a strange fashion like the ships of the ancients, and destitute of any mariners: besides they saw no beacons for the guidance of seamen, nor was there any sound of bells or singing, though the city was vast, with many goodly towers and palaces. So when they landed they found that which is hardly to be believed but which is nevertheless true: for about the quays and about the streets lay many people dead, or stood, but quite without motion, and they were all white or about the colour of new-hewn freestone, yet were they not statues but real men, for they had, some of them, ghastly wounds which showed their entrails, and the structure of their flesh, and veins, and bones.
‘Moreover the streets were red and wet with blood, and the harbour waves were red with it, because it dipped in great drops slowly from the quays.
‘Then when the good knights saw this, they doubted not but that it was a fearful punishment on this people for sins of theirs; thereupon they entered into a church of that city and prayed God to pardon them; afterwards, going back to their ships, sailed away marvelling.
‘And I John who wrote this history saw all this with mine own eyes.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58