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The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Last of the Vikings, by John Bowling

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Title: The Last of the Vikings

Author: John Bowling

Release Date: May 7, 2011 [eBook #36054]

Language: English

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THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS.

BY JOHN BOWLING

AUTHOR OF "BRAILSFORD: A TALE OF WEST RIDING LIFE," ETC.

 

 

 

LONDON:

SIMPKIN, MARSHALL, HAMILTON, KENT & CO.

LEEDS: HENRY WALKER, BRIGGATE.

Printed by Hazell, Watson, & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury


SAXON AND VIKING. "THE CURSE OF SKULD BE UPON THEE, TRAITOR!"


CONTENTS.

NOTE.
CHAPTER I. ETHEL
CHAPTER II. STORM CLOUDS
CHAPTER III. TRAITORS IN COUNCIL
CHAPTER IV. DEFEAT
CHAPTER V. DESPERATE RESOLVES
CHAPTER VI. BARON VIGNEAU
CHAPTER VII. ALICE DE MONTFORT
CHAPTER VIII. VILLAINS PLOTTING
CHAPTER IX. VILLAINS OUTWITTED
CHAPTER X. A FRUITLESS EMBASSY
CHAPTER XI. OSWALD'S DEFENCE OF HIS CASTLE
CHAPTER XII. ALICE DE MONTFORT SETS FREE THE SAXON CHIEFTAIN
CHAPTER XIII. BARON VIGNEAU BALKED OF HIS REVENGE
CHAPTER XIV. THE SAXON CHIEFTAIN CONFRONTS DE MONTFORT
CHAPTER XV. OUTLAWS AND WOLFSHEADS
CHAPTER XVI. SIGURD THE VIKING
CHAPTER XVII. EVIL COUNSELLORS
CHAPTER XVIII. LOVE IS STRONGER THAN HATE
CHAPTER XIX. ALICE DE MONTFORT AND THE SAXON CHIEFTAIN
CHAPTER XX. WAR'S VICISSITUDES
CHAPTER XXI. VIKING CHIEF AND SAXON MAIDEN
CHAPTER XXII. A VIKING'S LOVE
CHAPTER XXIII. A VILLAIN DEMANDS HIS WAGES
CHAPTER XXIV. THE TRYST
CHAPTER XXV. BADGER CRACKS THE NORMAN'S PATE
CHAPTER XXVI. SAXON AND VIKING AT THE SWORD'S POINT
CHAPTER XXVII. JEANNETTE AND WULFHERE; OR LOVE'S COMEDIES
CHAPTER XXVIII. A GRIM TEMPLE, A GRIM PRIEST, AND A SAD HEART
CHAPTER XXIX. EDGAR ATHELING
CHAPTER XXX. PRINCE AND PARASITE
CHAPTER XXXI. PRINCE AND VIKING
CHAPTER XXXII. BADGER ON THE ALERT
CHAPTER XXXIII. DOG ROBS DOG
CHAPTER XXXIV. WILD DARING OF SIGURD THE VIKING
CHAPTER XXXV. THE SAXON DEVIL AND THE WICKED ABBOT
CHAPTER XXXVI. LOVERS PLOTTING
CHAPTER XXXVII. THE JOUST: SAXON AND NORMAN
CHAPTER XXXVIII. THE SAXONS' REVENGE
CHAPTER XXXIX. BEWARE THE VIKING
CHAPTER XL. THE HOUR BEFORE THE DAWN
CHAPTER XLI. NOBILITY IN CONTRAST
CHAPTER XLII. VIKINGS ALL! AN OLD TIME SAGA
CHAPTER XLIII. THE CONQUEROR CONQUERED
CHAPTER XLIV. THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS
CHAPTER XLV. SUNSHINE HAS ITS SHADOWS

BY JOHN BOWLING


LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

SAXON AND VIKING. "THE CURSE OF SKULD BE UPON THEE, TRAITOR!"

ALICE DE MONTFORT SETS FREE THE SAXON CHIEFTAIN.

THE SAXON CHIEFTAIN CONFRONTS DE MONTFORT.


NOTE.

From "Smith's History of Old Yorkshire" we learn that one Arthur Clapham in the year 1066 was possessed of several hides of land near Lambeth in Surrey, and also of the domain of Clapham in Yorkshire. But by opposing the Conqueror he lost his lands in the South of England. He then fled into the wilds of Craven in Yorkshire, and built a stronghold, on the brow of Ingleboro', (the remains of which are still visible) and he founded the village of Clapham in the valley beneath. In 1068, however, the said Arthur by marrying a daughter of Robert, Earl of Northumberland, was restored to the confidence and favour of William, and had lands granted to him in Lonsdale.


(From the Monastic Chronicles of ——.)


CHAPTER I.

ETHEL.

"Be just and fear not.
Let all thou aim'st at be thy country's,
Thy God's, and truth's."
Shakespeare.

I, Adhelm, Abbot of this monastery of ——, being eye-witness, and likewise participator in the unhappy times my beloved country was subjected to, in consequence of the Norman Conquest and the troublous times which followed, it occurred to me to make a record of these things after the example of the beloved Bede, whose "Chronicles" are so justly esteemed by those who are concerned in the history of our ancient race.

I would have it known, then, by all those who are interested in the matter, that this ancient monastery was founded by that wise and good king, Alfred, who assigned unto it, for revenue, one hundred and twenty hides of land; all of which was well wooded and watered, being fertile and free. That is, with sack and sock, toll and team, and infang-thief. It pleased him also, in furtherance of his purpose, to lay charges upon certain thegns and nobles, who had lands adjacent to this monastery assigned to them by him, that they should annually pay to the monastery for the maintenance of the brotherhood, and for the purpose of defraying the cost of its extensive charities and hospitalities, one hundred and fifty loads of wood, and twenty-five loads of faggots; together with thirty-five tuns of pure ale; seventy beasts, ready for slaughter; twelve hundred loaves; fifty-six measures of Welsh ale; sixteen butts of wine; six horses; and one hundred and thirty pounds, ten shillings, of money. Now, as to all other matters, such as the particulars of lands and farms, church and cloister, granges, Abbot's and Prior's lodgings, which may be of interest to some, but which are not material to this narrative; I refer all such to our carticularies, in which all these particulars were carefully noted by our sacristan. Enough, however, has now been said to show that in the merely worldly point of view, this monastery was, when in peaceful enjoyment of its emoluments, a foundation of no mean order. In consequence also of its bounties it attracted palmers, minstrels, newsbearers, from all parts of the kingdom. Thus I had exceptional opportunities of learning how the kingdom fared.


Adown the valley one bright September morning, in the year 1066, was speeding Ethel, the only daughter of the Danish thane Beowulf, who is lord of the domain of Rivenwood, and whose hall looks down from the wooded heights in the distance like a grim sentinel. This fair girl Ethel was probably not more than fifteen years of age—just at the juncture where coy and blushing maidenhood, with its unconscious assumptions of grace and dignity, joins issue with the freer and bolder manners of girlhood, and when the wholesome, innocent, and graceful blending is wholly interesting, and often most piquant. Most piquant indeed, at all events, was this graceful specimen of budding womanhood. Her brow was open and expressive, her countenance somewhat broad, in sympathy with her manner of life; the free, unfettered, and merry out-of-door life of sylvan England. Her blue eyes glanced, and sparkled, and glowed, betokening a mind responsive and alert as the falcon which perched upon her embroidered leathern gauntlet. Her nose was perfectly straight, but had just so much of an upward trend as to indicate the point positive, and the attitude—"beware all." Upon her head she wore a sort of cap of blue silk, broad at the crown and drooping over the broad scarlet band with which it was bound. In the front of this head-dress stood erect a couple of eagles' feathers; whilst from underneath it the flaxen curls, like the fetterless things they were, burst luxuriantly, and circled across her forehead and over her ears; and though the wanton tresses were captured again at the back of her head, yet they burst away again and ran riot over her shoulders and down to her girdle. Of jewellery, she wore a handsome gold torc which encircled her neck, on which, and on the pendants attached thereto, were skilfully engraved strange mystical runic devices. She wore a mantle trimmed with fur, which on this occasion flowed loosely down her back, leaving free her arms, but which, at needs be, became a cloak covering the upper parts of her body entirely. Her under dress was of woollen material and tight-fitting, whilst her sandals had a stout sole of leather with toe-piece and overstraps of prepared deer skin. Accompanying this fair girl was a favourite maid, and one of her father's housecarles who filled the office of ranger and provider for the household, in the matters of fish and game. At his heels there followed a couple of dogs, whilst on his left arm there perched a falcon with all his furniture on. On Ethel's arm also there perched another falcon, ready for flight.

"Let the dogs go now, Bretwul, for we should have good sport hereabouts, and have a capital view of it too, on this hillside," said the maiden.

At a word of encouragement from Bretwul the dogs, with wagging tails, immediately clapped nose to ground, and commenced threading in and out amongst the gorse and brushwood to start the game. Presently a loud fluttering of wings and a scream, sent the hawks into a violent agitation, and a handsome-plumaged pheasant took to wing. Ethel immediately whipped off the hood of her hawk, and quick almost as a flash of lightning it covered the helpless quarry. Then down it swooped, and a struggling mass of feathers and mingled plumage came fluttering to the ground.

"Oh, that is wretchedly poor, Bretwul!" exclaimed Ethel impatiently. "I like a good long chase which puts master Grey-eye thoroughly upon his mettle. Such sluggard creatures as that one are poor sport. Come, let us climb higher, for amid yon gorse and bracken on the hill we shall meet with partridge, moorfowl, or perhaps, better still, a woodcock. Then we shall test the mettle of little Grey-eye." So together they clambered through the brackened steep, until they reached the fringe of the heather which crowned the brow of the hill. Soon they espied a covey of grouse racing along before them stealthily amid the cover; but promptly these sprang aloft with whirring sound of wing, and loud, peculiar cries. Ethel again unhoods her favourite falcon, Grey-eye, and flings him towards the game. But the falcon has another matter in hand than that of bringing down a sluggard pheasant; for moorfowl, when fairly on the wing, scud along like the wind. Immediately also when they perceived the enemy in pursuit they changed their tactics, and, quitting the mountain side, made a dart for the valley, where shelter was to be had. Plump and heavy, the descent suits them more than the falcon; and with impetuous whirl they rush along with incredible speed. It seems as though the hawk will never head them! The valley is reached, and the moorfowl, flying low, are hidden from view by the tops of the trees; but the hawk can be seen scudding along above them.

"Oh, my poor Grey-eye, you are beaten this time, I do believe!" cried Ethel. But just at that moment there was an arrow-like swoop. "Bravo!" she shouted. "He has struck his quarry, for he never swoops to miss! Come along, Bretwul, or he will gorge himself, and then he will fly no more to-day, the greedy little glutton!" Then away she raced down the rough declivity, leaving her maid panting and trembling far behind.

"There she goes! there she goes! Plague on the girl!" ejaculated Bretwul. "Did ever mortal see such a girl? She's like a two-year-old filly that has never had bit in mouth or harness to back; and if she throw out a splint or strain a fetlock, why then the old thane will cozen my back with a cudgel, and call me a lazy lout of a churl. Come along, Eadburgh, my buxom lass, I have finished my wattled cote in the dell yonder, and if we come well out of this, we'll get the girl to wheedle the master for us, and then it will be done in a twinkling; for he's ready enough when Dame Ethel lays on the butter." So together they stumbled after their mistress with might and main.

But the girl mood was uppermost in the damsel now, and away she flew down the hill with her long hair streaming behind her, giving never a thought to man or maid. She came to a halt, however, when she reached the spot where apparently Grey-eye had made his swoop. But not a trace of either falcon or victim was to be seen. In vain she blew a tiny silver whistle with which she was wont to call her hawks. There was no response. "The greedy fellow is gorging himself I doubt not, Bretwul," cried Ethel impatiently. "If you feed him before flying he is too lazy to exert himself, and if he hunt on an empty stomach he must needs turn glutton after this fashion."

At that moment the clear blast of a hunter's horn in the distance broke upon the ears of the three seekers, and Ethel, hastily turning in the direction, exclaimed, "Oh, dear me! Eadburgh, straighten my hair for me, quick. Do I look a gowk? Do be quick! Straighten my cloak out. Those gallant gentlemen are returning who would not let me take part in the boar hunt because I was a girl, honest Beowulf was pleased to say. But Master Oswald was no better, though he has spent so much time about the court, and, I am told, carried off the Queen's favour at the tilt ground at Westminster, and that too against the picked squires of Normandy. I suppose I was only a girl in his eyes too, though he was not pleased to say it, like Beowulf. Never mind, I will let them see I can amuse myself, and find good sport too, without them."

Presently a couple of horsemen issued from the forest, clad in hunters' attire, with a green baldric over their shoulders and down to their waists, from which was suspended a hunter's horn. These two were quickly followed by a retinue of rangers, serving men, and hounds, with the weapons of the chase—boar spears, javelins, and short swords; whilst over the backs of a couple of horses were thrown the carcasses of a pair of wild boar, the fruit of their morning's chase.

No sooner did these young chieftains set eyes on Ethel than the countenance of the younger of them was wreathed in smiles, and snatching his bugle from his belt he blew a mocking blast in the ear of the damsel; then, in the blandest of tones, and with an assumption of mock gallantry, he saluted the maiden: "Bon matin, madame. Are you taking a little gentle exercise in company of your maid?" and he doffed his hunter's bonnet and made a most pretentious bow.

"I beg your pardon, gallant sir," retorted Ethel, with a gracious inclination, parodying with inimitable grace and humour his mock gallantry, "but if it please you, sir, I am not taking a little gentle exercise in company of my maid, I am hawking, as you may easily see if you care to."

"Oh, I see quite easily, madame. So you determined to have a little sport all to yourself because we disdained the company of a lady at our boar hunt?" said the young man, with a twinkle in his eye.

"You have hit it quite wonderfully, sir; which is very remarkable. We take note of your behaviour, for, although we do not go to court, we hear about your pranking it about with grand Norman dames and knights errant, and we expected something quite different from you than from Beowulf here. But I have lost my hawk hereabouts, so make amends for your past conduct. Get down, brother Beowulf; and you too, sir; you have travelled in France, so show your chivalry and your gallantry by getting down and helping me seek my hawk."

"I bow most humbly to your imperious commands, noble lady," said Oswald again, doffing his bonnet in mock humility.

Meanwhile, honest Beowulf sat almost dumbfounded whilst this passage of wit was proceeding, though he only dimly comprehended what this new-fangled jargon meant; but his choler was rising rapidly during the process. "Now, drop it fooling, you two!" he at length broke out. "You, Ethel, would imitate Master Oswald and be off to court too, for all your japes and jokes about his pranking and parading it with the grand folks, if we did not tie a clog about your neck for you. I know very well what passes in that jay's noddle of yours, though you think I'm a numskull, Mistress Ethel."

This outburst of sturdy Beowulf's was greeted by the pair with a shout of hilarious laughter.

"Now don't make asses of yourselves," grunted brother Beowulf. "Whereabouts did you lose your hawk, Ethel?"

"Why, hereabouts, Beowulf. Did you not hear me? He was pursuing moorfowl from the hill, and he appeared to strike his quarry just in this place."

"If that be so, I warrant the headlong flight of the stricken bird would carry them much farther down the slope," said Oswald.

"A bright idea, I do declare, Master Oswald," exclaimed Ethel. "We never thought of that, Bretwul. You will gain some repute for wit, neighbour Oswald, if you brighten up like this."

"I am much obliged for your condescension, lady; I feel highly honoured and greatly flattered by your compliment;" and again he made pretence of a low obeisance.

"Oh, don't take it too seriously, sir; but we will take your hint, nevertheless." So the party extended their search, and presently they discovered the falcon and his prey beneath a tree—the hawk having improved the time by stripping the bird of its plumage, and gorging himself with the flesh and blood of his victim.

"There, you greedy creature," exclaimed Ethel, as she set eyes on the falcon. "You will fly no more to-day, I suppose, you glutton! I think you had better hood him at once, Bretwul, and take him home; and I will join this party of gallants—by their permission, of course—and if they should now deem it quite safe for a lady to do so."

So the two young chieftains and Ethel headed the company, and steadily they pressed homeward to the rough and primitive, but nevertheless hospitable hall of Beowulf the Dane.


CHAPTER II.

STORM CLOUDS.

"Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news
Hath but a losing office; and his tongue
Sounds ever after as a sullen bell,
Remembered knolling a departed friend."
Shakespeare.

"Whilst the cooks are busy with our spoil, Beowulf, I propose we practise at the joust," said Oswald. "Rumour hath it this Count William, of Normandy, is collecting an army in order to eject our rightful Saxon king, Harold, from the throne, and ere long we may have these Norman knights tilting through the ranks of our simple yeomen, who are unused to this method of warfare; and King Harold and his brothers would be pleased to have sturdy comrades who would be a match for the Norman at his own weapons," remarked Oswald.

"Leave the joust to Norman fops, say I, neighbour Oswald, and their tilting methods to our hardy pikemen, who will know how to deal with them, never fear. The honest Saxon broadsword is a match for any weapon, I warrant you. As for this new-fangled Norman joust, as they call it, why I despise it. Playing at war, with women looking on, and waving their 'kerchiefs, and simpering, and whimpering about—bah! I wonder you'll meddle with such stuff, neighbour!" growled Beowulf contemptuously.

"Thank you, Beowulf, for your compliments, but if I am permitted to witness your feat of arms, I'll endeavour not to 'simper and whimper about' if it annoys you. But you men folk can find nothing better to do than play at war, I know, and therefore I rule it shall be with both the broadsword and lance," said Ethel.

"Agreed!" cried Oswald; "and our fair cousin Ethel shall be queen of beauty à la joute."

"Mind you don't make a fool or a dolt of yourself, neighbour Oswald, with your Norman fooleries. But I'll humour you in your folly for the sake of a bout with the broadsword, in honest Saxon fashion," growled Beowulf.

When they reached the hall the two young men retired to the armoury, and presently reappeared clad in complete armour, several lances being borne by the housecarles. The pair then sprang into their saddles, and Oswald, partly to joke his opponent, careened round in a circle, mimicking the gallantry of the Normans, displaying the paces of his charger and his skill in horsemanship. As he passed Ethel, in mock seriousness he dipped the point of his lance in salutation of her as queen of beauty. Ethel endeavoured to disguise it, but the crimson blushes suffused her countenance for an instant; but there was a quick revolt of maidenly dignity; her eye flashed, and her foot beat the ground impatiently, as she exclaimed under her breath,—"I presume he thinks I am but a child to tease and joke."

Presently the pair took up a position some twenty paces apart, and prepared to charge. Ethel, fearful of her brother's temper, which was most uncertain, cried to them, "Will you remember this is but play, and see you two don't come to blows in good earnest? for I know by experience that brother Beowulf flies into a rage with me if I poke fun at him, and what he will do if you poke him in the ribs with that ugly weapon, Master Oswald, I know not."

"Go to, wench, your tongue is too ready! You would be better seen superintending the wenches who are roasting hogsflesh, than wagging your tongue in the presence of men." Then, turning to his friend and comrade Oswald, he said, "Now, sir, are you ready? Let us be done with this Norman folly as soon as maybe."

So they laid their lances in rest, and prepared to tilt. Oswald was much more tall and lithe than his opponent, and much more skilful in the handling of his charger. Indeed, it seemed almost as though one mind animated the pair. Beowulf was rather older, bulkier in build, and better set up, being twenty-three. But he cherished a deep-rooted aversion and contempt of the Norman leaven which had been stealing over the land during the late reign of Edward the Confessor, and his pet aversion was the mode of warfare current amongst Norman gentlemen; and so he never practised it, except on occasions like the present.

"Now, sirs," iterated Ethel, still fearful, "and especially you, Beowulf, don't get mad and knock each other's heads off, I tell you again!"

"Hold your tongue, chattering magpie, and go inside as I bid you! That is where petticoated jades like you should be when weapons are about," said Beowulf. "Now, come on, sir. If we listen to her she'll prate like a half-fed fowl by the hour together."

So the tilt commenced, and continued for some time, more in play than in dead earnest, Oswald showing his superior skill by striking Beowulf how and where he pleased, at the same time handling his horse so perfectly that Beowulf found no opportunity of striking him squarely. The rough knocks which he receives, and his want of skill, are most exasperating to Beowulf, especially so when at last by a skilful manœuvre Oswald flings his charger's flank round, bringing his head broadside on of his opponent, and then ignominiously tilts him out of his saddle to the ground. Beowulf sprang to his feet, mad with rage, and shouted,—

"Come down from that perch! I'll soon give you quits with a better weapon!" and away he marched for a couple of broadswords.

Forgetting her dignity in her anxiety over Beowulf's temper, Ethel tripped up to Oswald and with girlish freedom grasped his arm. "Now, Master Oswald, you have driven Beowulf mad, as I thought you would. If I may use his not very complimentary term, I would say, Will you, to please a jade like me, take care to come off second best in this sword-play, if it be only to mollify him? for if you don't I am afraid he will be quite furious."

Oswald laughed and stroked the fair hair of the maiden as he remarked, "It is well advised, my bright-eyed little dame; I do believe that fair face is index to a kindly and wholesome mother-wit."

Presently Beowulf returned with a couple of broadswords, but his temper had abated nothing in the interval. The quick-witted and irrepressible Ethel noticed this at once, and she banteringly called out to him, "Now, brother Beowulf, remember this is only sword-play. Don't go and cut Master Oswald's head off!"

"What! you are still there, are you, jade? I saw you titter when Master Oswald pushed me out of the saddle. When I've dealt with him, I'll give you a taste of an ash sapling, since you won't mend your manners when told."

Ethel burst into a most provoking, merry laugh. "Thank you, brother Beowulf, for your good intentions; but haven't I told you many times before, that ash sapling hasn't grown yet?"

"Go to, you chit, you provoke me past endurance!" and he made for her in an ungovernable rage; but Ethel turned and fled like a gazelle, and Beowulf knew by past experience that to catch the fleet-footed maiden was a hopeless task, so he returned to his sword-play.

The diversion of Beowulf's wrath, however, did good, and especially as Oswald took Ethel's hint, and was clearly second best. So Beowulf's good humour was completely restored when Ethel pronounced Oswald victor at the joust, and Beowulf at sword-play. Then Ethel grasped Beowulf's arm, and they adjourned to the hall.

"How shocking of you, brother Beowulf, to talk of using an ash sapling to a young lady! You quite humiliated me in Master Oswald's eyes."

"Now go to, Ethel! If you don't give up teasing me I shall do something to you I shall have to repent of some time."

"Oh, no, you won't, brother Beowulf, I know better than that," said Ethel, with true sisterly affection.

The castle, or what is more correct, the hall of the Thane Beowulf made no pretension to architectural style or beauty. It was like its master, rough, but stout and of massive build. One saw the stoutness of its walls by a glance at its deep mullion windows, and its massive doors, formed of double layers of oak, securely fastened and strengthened by iron bands and bolts. In the large hall there was set a long table down the centre, loaded with viands and large jugs of ale. Down each side of the hall also there were side tables, where the housecarles and villeins fed. But the centre table was reserved for guests, and the more favoured retainers of the thane. A glance round the hall told at once that Beowulf still held by the heathenish customs which his viking ancestors brought over with them. For, conspicuous everywhere, upon wood and stone and vessels, were carved the characters and devices of their superstition, known as runes. Here and there also there looked down upon the banqueters the carved images of Thor and Woden.

On the thane's right hand sat his daughter Ethel, who, since the death of her mother many years ago, had become a greatly privileged object of his affection. On his left sat Oswald, son of a Saxon chieftain who had extensive lands in a neighbouring valley. At the foot of the table sat his son, who took his own name of Beowulf.

"I hear you have been out hawking to-day, Ethel girl," said the grizzled old thane, turning to his daughter.

"Yes, father, brother Beowulf said it wasn't fitting for a girl like me to go to the boar hunt, and Master Oswald then, to his shame, never spoke a word in my favour, so I must needs perforce stay at home. Therefore I went out hawking; for brother Beowulf kindly allows that."

"Ha, ha!" giggled the old thane gleefully; "thou art a wild slip of a girl; too much wit for honest Beowulf. But curb thy tongue," he continued, stroking her fair hair. "He means thee well. He is honest, is Beowulf, and brave too. He will do! He will do! Like his old father maybe, not overloaded with wit, but honest, and never turned back on friend or foe."

The banquet proceeded in very hearty fashion, which atoned for its roughness. But there seldom sat at the thane's table any guest afflicted with a squeamish appetite. So beef, venison, pork, and sundries, along with wheaten cake and ale, disappeared at an alarming rate.

Whilst the banquet was proceeding, one of the housecarles drew near and whispered to the thane that Saxon runners had arrived with messages from the king which permitted no delay.

"Have them ushered in. Kings will be obeyed," said the thane; "and truly, if they rule well, honest men will never be slack to obey."

So these messengers were ushered in, and the thane addressed them: "What be your message, gallant fellows, that will not tarry till we have fed, and ye yourselves have tasted our hospitality? Speak out, men! we have no secrets here!"

"If it please you, worthy thane, the king hath sent round the war arrow, and summons all loyal gentlemen, together with their men-at-arms, to repair to him at York instantly; for the Danes be landed in the Humber under King Hardrada. Also, Count William, of Normandy, hath prepared him a fleet of vessels, a thousand in number, and threatens an invasion of the southern coasts."

"Ye bear a sorry message, my worthy fellows, truly, but ye have only done your errand. But if two overladen mountain torrents join their forces in one pent-up little burn, there follows desolation in their wake. A sorry day for merry England, this, gentlemen—north and south together distraught."

Then, addressing his guests and retainers, he said, "My guests are their own masters in this matter. But the men of my household—my son, my retainers and vassals—most of us come of viking stock; and it may be sorry work to march against these Danes. But we live on the land, and we must defend the land."

Immediately a wild shout of approval greeted that saying.

"Further, these greedy plunderers will treat us as Saxons, nor spare aught we have of goods or cattle; or even our lives. So in this quarrel we are Saxons, and we will prove it at the sword's point."

This also was greeted with shouts of approval. So the feast came abruptly to an end. The guests withdrew, to meet again within a week to do battle with the Danes at Stanford Bridge, since known as Battle-bridge, and from thence to Hastings' bloody field.


CHAPTER III.

TRAITORS IN COUNCIL.

"Treason doth never prosper. What's the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason."
Epigram.

We pass over the details of the sturdy struggle and victory over the Danes at Battle-bridge, and the disastrous defeat of Hastings, except just to note that the young chieftain Oswald left his father dead on the battle-field. The next three years were ones of immunity from the rapacity of the Normans, so far as we were concerned, for they never ventured so far north. But in the year 1069, whilst William was absent in Normandy, there was a powerful conspiracy entered into for the purpose of wresting the kingdom from him. The Danes landed in the Humber. The Saxons rallied throughout the North. York was taken, and its garrison of three thousand Normans put to the sword.

Immediately after the wonderful successes which attended the insurrectionary movement, the leaders of the rebellion hastily called together at York what was known as a "Thing," or council. All the leaders of note were summoned. A somewhat motley company they were, their aims being far from identical, and the elements of disruption and disunion were on the surface. All of them were excessively elated and flushed with the complete and wonderful victories achieved—I am sorry to say, also, very much demoralised by them. The Danish leaders in particular were so, for they had taken much spoil, plundering friend or foe pretty much as they listed—plunder being, in fact, their sole reason for taking part in the movement. Very conspicuous, both by their dress and demeanour, were these Danish leaders. They were deeply bronzed and hardy-looking, rough and fierce as warrior seamen who had been wont all their lives to do battle with foes on land, and often with the fiercer and still more deadly foe of old ocean. They carried daggers at their belts, and heavy swords dangled by their sides. The young chieftain Oswald, whom we have already introduced to the readers, was there. The few years of stress and struggle since last we met him had had a marked effect upon him. He had stood by Harold's side at Stanford Bridge, and marched with him to Hastings, and stood in the forefront of that historic "wedge" of sturdy Saxons, who defied the utmost efforts of William's horse and foot to dislodge them. The playfulness of youth had given place to the stern thoughtfulness of manhood; whilst the tall figure had broadened in sturdy proportions. He was of commanding presence, young, handsome, and daring, yet wise as any elder, known intimately by me, and a very great favourite with me also, and destined to figure prominently in these records. By his side, as a near neighbour, as well as a compatriot, sat the young Thane Beowulf—aforementioned—of another lineage, but still identified with the Saxon cause, being native born, though by his father's side a descendant of the Danes who settled in the north of England three generations earlier. Other leaders also there were, of whom it is not necessary to speak, as they occupy no further place in these pages.

At the appointed hour Waltheof, the leader of the Saxon forces, entered. He was a man gifted by nature with the physical proportions which attract attention. But there was a hesitancy, irresolution, and lack of force depicted in his countenance, and a wariness and suspicion about his small, shrinking grey eyes, that were the reverse of reassuring. Accompanying Waltheof was a Norman knight at whose appearance many sprang to their feet in amazement. Seeing which, Waltheof introduced the Norman to the company.

"Worthy thanes and nobles," said he, "this gallant Norman is Baron Vigneau, one of William's bravest knights, who has been assigned some lands bordering on the Fen country, and had tacked on to the beggarly gift, the duty of defending that coast against our allies the Danes, as well as to assist in keeping in check our brave countryman Hereward. A weighty charge, I warrant, for such a beggar's dole of barren acres. This gallant knight comes as emissary of a still more famous Norman, the Count de Montfort, whose lance wrought such havoc in our ranks at Hastings. Count de Montfort has good and weighty reasons against the king, or his councillors, for the base ingratitude with which his services have been rewarded; and he offers to join hands with us, and will lead into the field seventeen knights, fully equipped and accoutred, together with three hundred of foot; all of them men-at-arms, trained and stout. This worthy knight, Baron Vigneau, of whose prowess also I have ample proof, is bearer of letters—which I have carefully examined—from the Count de Montfort, duly signed and sealed, and bearing ample evidence of good faith. Under the circumstances, I have taken the liberty to introduce this worthy knight to our council."

This speech was received by many in blank astonishment, and there was loud and angry murmuring amongst the company, but no one seemed willing to voice the discontent. Oswald, however, sprang to his feet and said, "Noble sir, no doubt the credentials presented by this Norman knight are such as meet with your approval, but I would respectfully urge that no one should sit at our Council who has not attested his fidelity to our cause by services rendered in the field of battle; for when this is the case we have pledges which cannot be shaken off at pleasure."

"A plague on your impudence, boy! You are too ready of the tongue! Let the elders speak if they have any objections to make!—but I am not in the habit of having my conduct called in question by a mere youth; and what is sufficient for me must be sufficient for such as you, and without cavil. What say our Danish allies? No objection, I see. Then let us proceed to business." So saying, he took his place at the head of the board, and the bulky Norman slid into a back seat.

The question to deliberate upon was how to prosecute the war so auspiciously begun. The Council, however, proceeded to discuss the question in a very unpromising fashion, the discussion being characterised by a good deal of blatant braggadocio, and accompanied by a very free use of the wine-cup.

The chief of the Danes reared aloft his stalwart form and said,—

"My lord, we Danes are wanting to know when we are to make a move south? We have wasted four good days in drivel and talk, when we should have been making good our vantage. We might by this time have sacked Shepfield, Leacaster, and Birmingam, where they tell me the gold-smiths', armourers', and weavers' crafts are flourishing, and where, to boot, the Normans have built themselves many pretty house places full of dainty stuff. All of which we might have pouched whilst this dog's whelp is abroad!"

"Worthy thane," replied Waltheof, "we are waiting for Malcolm of Scotland and the young Prince Atheling, for we expect the Saxons of the south will rally to the standard of the Prince. We also have to remember that the Normans are more thickly posted farther south, and we must therefore have all our forces up."

"Tut, tut! Cowardice is at the bottom of it all, as I thought. But what care we for the Norman dogs? and what care we for a baby prince who cannot be brought to the fray? We want the spoils, and there is none to be had cowering here like a fox in his hole. If we are not to move south at once, why then we take the tide the morn's even, and leave you to face the bear when he comes to his lair as best you can."

At this juncture the attention of every member of the council was suddenly arrested by the advent of a messenger who suddenly burst into the room, with the perspiration pouring off him by reason of the hot haste with which he had ridden.

"How now, fellow! what news hast thou which calls for such haste?" said Waltheof.

"My lords," exclaimed the messenger, "I have ridden all speed to make known unto you that the Norman is back again in England, and that he is rapidly marching northwards at the head of an army; he being not more than two days' march to the south."

If a thunderbolt had dashed into the room instead of this messenger, the effect could not have been greater. Waltheof turned pale as death, and peered nervously about the room, as though he expected to be instantly confronted by the dreaded presence of the king. Several also rose from their seats and promptly slid out of the room in dismay at the tidings. The Danish rovers were not slow to note this arrant cowardice, and one of them immediately jumped to his feet in fierce exasperation at this conduct, and sneeringly shouted, "Ha, ha! the Saxon caitiffs are slinking off at the mention of this dog of a Norman! Never mind, let the cowards go. I pledge me a health to the Danish warriors, who will dare to fight the cowardly Saxons' battle for them; but we'll see to't that the Danish war-ships shall bear away the spoil," and as he spoke he gulped down a huge draught of wine.

"Excuse me, worthy thane," said Oswald, the young Saxon chieftain, starting to his feet at these taunts; "let me tell you the Saxons have their virtues, and valour too, not one whit behind that of your countrymen."

"Whew! Virtues say you?" bawled the quarrelsome and half-drunken Dane. "Aye, marry! Saxons can preach you a homily with any shaveling priest in the land, or simper as chastely as any wench. Virtues! Ha, ha! Ho, ho! Maugre! Virtues by the bushel, I warrant you, sirs. Marry, anything, in fact, but fight. Ha, ha! Virtues! Thou hast well said it, and aptly too, young suckling! If I were a Saxon I'd don my mother's petticoats."

"Hear me, thane," retorted Oswald, repressing with great difficulty the rising choler. "You are our ally, and that shall be some excuse for your unseemly mouthing; but hark you to this for a moment. Your memory does not seem quite long enough to remember Battle-bridge and the precious figure cut by your countrymen on that occasion against the Saxon; and yet it is not more than four years agone. Hark you to this also, friend; I warrant you will find, ere this war be done, that Saxons can fight as bravely as any Dane that ever wielded sword."

But the Dane persisted in his irritating and quarrelsome jesting. "Saxons fight?" he bawled, "Why, come, that is a joke, anyhow! I say, young Milkfed, tell me, if you can, what of this? How comes it to pass that either Norman or Dane, or even the tricky Scot, come when they list to crow on the Saxons' dunghill? How comes it also, my valiant Saxon cub, that you should ask us to come and help you fight this dog of a Norman? Read me that riddle, can you, boy? You besought us to come and help you, and here we are. I wish you joy of it. You'll be well rid when we go; for if we get not Norman booty, I warrant we will have Saxon, if we skin every Saxon churl in the island for it. What think you to that, young Sixfoot, eh?"

The altercation seemed likely to develop into a serious quarrel, but at this juncture a Danish messenger crept slily into the room, and, nudging his leader's elbow, whispered something in his ear, at which he jumped to his feet and turned to his comrade, and between them a brief and excited conversation was carried on in an undertone; the result being that immediately the pair hurriedly withdrew from the room. Oswald, who had been watching these Danes with a suspicious eye, immediately turned to the leader, Waltheof; but he beheld with astonishment that the leader's chair was empty; Waltheof, amid the clamour of voices, having noiselessly slipped out of the room.

"Ah, ah! what now?" he ejaculated, leaping to his feet and dragging his comrade Beowulf to the door. "There is something ominous in all this, Beowulf. It bodes no good to the Saxon cause, mark me."

"What is it, think you, Oswald, that breeds this fear and distrust in the breasts of our leaders?"

"I know not, Beowulf, but, by the rood! I cannot believe that the mere mention of the Norman's name breeds this cowardice and panic in the breasts of our leaders. 'Tis not fear that has overtaken these Danes, mark me, but something more potent. They are at best but hirelings, and are as treacherous as the foul fiend. They will not scruple to betray us for a paltry bribe if it be offered; and this Norman is astute enough to know that they have their price."

"That is not the extent of the mischief, Oswald. I marked this Waltheof closely, and I like not his looks at all. The coward's blood forsook his cheek instantly at the mention of the Norman's name. I warrant him a coward and traitor at heart, or I know not a coward when I see him."

"What is to be done, Beowulf!"

"We must stand to it like men. We know our duty, and to turn tail like a whipped hound ere we have seen this Norman's face would be worse than cowardice."

"Then we must place ourselves at the head of our men forthwith; for if any idle rumours reach their ears, I would not answer for it. Indeed, if William be within striking distance we must bestir ourselves, for if he find us unprepared, he knows well how to push his vantage against an unready foe."

Thus this ill-starred Council came to an end, and it left the Saxons as a rope of sand, without cohesion, without any definite plan of attack or of defence—a ready prey for a wily and daring commander. In bitter dejection, and with forebodings of impending disaster, one by one the members passed out, each one to pursue his own course.

When the Saxon members of the Council had one and all left the room, then uprose the bulky and sinister-looking figure of the Norman emissary, from a seat in a shaded corner, where, unobserved, he had been quietly taking note of the wretched divisions of the Saxon Council. As he came forward he burst into a hoarse and derisive laugh, and exclaimed, "Here's a go anyhow—ha, ha! A precious revolt it is! A man would be an ass to pin his fortunes to a quarrelsome rabble like this. Why, I warrant me they would cut one another's throats at a word! And then how the bubble burst up at the mere mention of the Conqueror's name! But where are my precious letters?" said he, fumbling in his doublet for something, and eventually pulling out a packet carefully folded with a silken band, and sealed in several places by a huge seal with the crest and quarterings of the famous Count De Montfort. "Ha, ha, my precious!" said he, turning the missive over and eyeing it with savage delight. "I'm glad I kept possession of you. You are a treasure! I'll not part with you yet awhile," and he carefully thrust the letter back again within his doublet. "Ha, ha!" said he, scowling demoniacally, "De Montfort will finger that missive no more until he makes good his bargain with me. I'll have his proud daughter as the price of this, or we'll see what will come to pass. I have my own belt to buckle as well as De Montfort; and I'll do it now after my own humour. I'll no longer dangle like a moonstruck suitor at my lady's skirts, and wag my tail like any spaniel if I should chance to get a word or a smile. I have been meek and humble long enough; but now Vigneau shall be first, for I have got him! Trapped, by ——! He thought he would play the traitor, did he? fool and dolt that he is! One would have thought him wiser than to do his treason second-hand. He makes pretence of wisdom, but he acts the fool at times as roundly as any clown. But I'll no more of this anyhow. I do believe the Saxon clowns have scurried off to their holes like a parcel of rats already. I must be off too, for if the tanner's son should catch me at my present business, it will go bad with my hide I'm feared; and I should like to keep my skin whole a little longer, come what may. Ho, ho!" said he, bursting again into hoarse laughter. "I wonder what Odo or Fitz-Osborne would give to know of this little freak of De Montfort's! The wily Odo has ousted him from William's councils already, and if he had possession of this"—thumping his chest where the missive lay—"he'd have De Montfort's head in a trice. Enough! that will do for me." So saying, he vanished from the hall.

Meanwhile, the second messenger, at whose communication the Danish sea-rovers had vanished from the Council, proved to be an emissary of the wily Conqueror—his purpose being to negotiate with the Danes, and with Waltheof, conditions on which they would retire from the fray. Scarcely were they outside than he said to these Danes,—

"My master offers to you five hundred ounces of beaten gold, and a free passage for your vessels, together with such plunder as you can wrest from the Saxons."

"Five hundred ounces of gold is a sorry price for a wealthy king like your master to offer for such a service," said one of the Danes. "But come now, if your master will make it one thousand ounces, to be delivered over by sunset to-morrow; together with our plunder, and such as we can further gather; why then, within twenty-four hours our vessels shall be ploughing the northern seas for home."

"Done!" said the messenger. "My hand on it. The gold shall be delivered over to you by sunset to-morrow, as you say."

No sooner was this bargain made than the spy turned his attention to Waltheof, a man treacherous by instinct, and cowardly by nature. It is scarcely necessary to say, he grasped only too eagerly at the promised free pardon, coupled as it was with large grants of land and estates. With the Saxon forces thus weakened and demoralised, William knew the remnant of this powerful conspiracy would be crushed with the utmost ease by him.


CHAPTER IV.

DEFEAT.

"What though the field be lost?
All is not lost."
Paradise Lost.

Oswald the Saxon, and Beowulf the Saxon Dane, passed out into the night, and continued their course beyond the gates of the city, which were so broken down that they served no longer the purpose for which they were erected. The walls also for considerable distances were thrown down, and in a state of disrepair. The insurrectionary forces had determined to push forward in the king's absence, but in the meantime they were halting, waiting for Malcolm of Scotland, and for further counsel. They were encamped some miles away on the banks of the river running between York and the head of the estuary of the Humber, where the Danish war-vessels were anchored. The Danes held the head of the estuary, throwing out their forces Yorkward, but encamped sufficiently near to cover their vessels, in the event of an attack upon them. Waltheof, the leader and commander-in-chief of the Saxon forces, occupied a central position, having under his command the bulk of the rebels; whilst Oswald, Beowulf, and others, occupied the right wing, which to a certain extent covered the city. On the news of William's landing, the bridges were thrown down, but in many places the river was fordable, during dry weather, both for man and horse. But to effect this in the face of sturdy enemies was a most formidable task, and the Saxons were sufficiently numerous to guard the river effectually wherever it was fordable.

Early in the morning, after the breaking up of the council of war, the scouts brought in the intelligence that William had arrived within six miles, and ere nightfall the pennants of the Normans were flying within sight of the Saxon forces.

Very little of that night was spent by Oswald in rest. Twice he patrolled the whole length of the river under his command, visiting and cheering every outpost. But judge how great was his consternation, and that of his forces also, when, with the dawning of the morning, the fraction of the Saxons commanded by him were made painfully aware of the fact that the Normans had passed the river, unopposed, in the night; and worse than that, there began to be ominous rumours that this had arisen through the treachery of Waltheof—that he, having been bribed by the Conqueror, had left the remnant to their fate. In these straits time was precious, for the Normans were advancing up the river, doubling up the Saxon outposts, and throwing them back on the main body. Hastily a council of war was called, and not a few, in face of the danger and the hopelessness of their cause in the midst of such treachery, were for dispersing without a blow; but Oswald, addressing them, said,—

"I fear it is too true that there is treachery in our ranks; but as yet we know not its extent. If Waltheof has succumbed to William's bribes, there are still the Danes, who will be able to harass the rear of our enemy. Hourly, also, we are expecting Malcolm of Scotland and the Atheling, so that we need not despair. Let us make a bold stand; the battle is by no means lost if the Danes stand firm. Now, with our handful of men it is utterly impossible to meet the Normans in the open country; for they will double our left flank easily and surround us. But on the fringe of yonder dense wood, with our line extended under cover of the thicket, and where the enemy's horse will be absolutely useless—where also our men will be quite in their element and be able to ply their long bows with deadly effect, and their spears or swords at close quarters—we shall surely avoid, in any case, the wholesale slaughter of our men; and we shall administer a severe check to William's march."

The force of this sage advice was seen at once by the leaders, and the forces accordingly retired to the wood in their rear, and took up their fighting attitude just within its shelter. The Saxons, who were brave individually, were still undisciplined and incapable of acting together with precision in the open; but they were wonderfully heartened by this movement, which gave them shelter from the onslaughts of the enemy's horse—a mode of warfare which has at all times had a demoralising effect upon untrained soldiers. So, having their right flank resting on the river, and in consequence shielded from any flank movement there, they threw out their left considerably, so as to prevent, if possible, any over-lapping by the Normans. They were the better able to do this, seeing that the enemy's horse were totally unable to charge through their attenuated lines; the jungle being an effectual barrier to this. Oswald arranged his men in two fighting lines. The foremost ranks, with spear and sword, were to resist the advance of the Normans. The second were bowmen, who were to cover the front ranks by letting fly their arrows in the faces of the foe; a most ingenious and effective expedient. To Beowulf he entrusted the command of the left wing, with instructions to in no case permit the Normans to outflank them, but, if necessary, to double in the left flank also, until it rested on the river.

Scarcely had Oswald time to make this careful disposition of his men ere the vanguard of the Normans were upon them. But a shower of arrows from the Saxons at close quarters thoroughly disconcerted them. So fiercely were they met, and by a force whose numbers they had no means of gauging, that they deemed it prudent to retire beyond bowshot until the remainder of the forces advanced to their support. Then came a more determined assault on the Saxons' position. But, from behind trees and shrubs, the concealed defenders drave their short spears through each assailant, or clave them with their short Saxon swords or battle-axes. Oswald and others, who were clad in armour, boldly fronted them in every gap, making great havoc in the ranks of the men-at-arms, or singling out the Norman leaders and engaging them.

In the midst of the fray, one noteworthy incident occurred. Oswald, to his amazement, saw the burly Norman, Vigneau, who had come with professions of help, now fighting fiercely against them. Immediately his blood was fired, and pressing steadily towards him, eventually they met face to face.

"Ah, treacherous villain!" said Oswald. "This is your friendship for our cause, is it? I have a particular message for tricksters and sneaking traitors like you."

"Come on, varlet of a Saxon, and don't stand prating like some gowky wench, and I'll quickly give thee thy quietus," said Vigneau savagely.

Instantly there ensued a most desperate encounter between these two powerful combatants. Each of them, however, wore a suit of armour, and carried a shield, and each one was most skilful in the use of his weapons, so that, desperate and determined as they both were, no conclusive blow resulted. But whilst the duel progressed, the general body of the Normans made steady progress, in spite of the valour of the Saxons, and speedily Oswald was quite surrounded, though totally oblivious of the fact. One stalwart Saxon, however, who had fought by Oswald's side—by name Wulfhere—saw the imminent danger in which his leader was placed, and he rushed to his rescue, quickly cleaving his way through; and seizing Oswald, he exclaimed,—

"Master, you will be cut off if you don't keep in fighting line with us!"

This fierce reminder awoke Oswald to the peril of his position, and he said to his antagonist, "Another time, villain, will come, when I hope we may effectually finish this quarrel."

"Sooner and better, churl; but for the present your better plan is to run away," retorted Vigneau.

In the meantime, although the Saxons had extended their lines to the utmost limits which the sparsity of their men would permit, the Normans surged round and completely overlapped them. So Beowulf was compelled to initiate the movement ordered by Oswald, and the left wing was gradually doubled back until it also converged on the river; and thus the line of battle was in the form of a semicircle. The Saxons fought with desperation, disputing every inch of the ground, and strewing the ground, yard by yard, with the Norman slain. The masterly skill with which their ground had been chosen and their defence planned, gave them great advantage, and enabled them to maintain the unequal contest for nearly an hour. But ultimately the quivers of the archers were emptied of every shaft, and the battle could no longer be maintained with advantage, but would probably end in complete massacre. So Oswald selected a spot where the river was fordable; then, he and a hundred stalwart Saxons stood shoulder to shoulder, keeping the enemy at bay whilst the rank and file crossed the stream. Then, gradually narrowing their own circle until every one had taken the river, the last half-dozen, with their faces to the foe, fought their way across.

When they had reached the opposite side, the order was given for dispersal, and the gallant band melted away, and severally, or in bands, sought their distant homes. Thus ended in total failure, through cowardice and treachery, what at one time seemed, in its very marked success, a conspiracy that would ultimately wrest the kingdom from the usurper.


CHAPTER V.

DESPERATE RESOLVES.

"Cowards die many times before their death
The valiant never taste of death but once."
Shakespeare.

"The Saxon cause is lost, Wulfhere, by base-hearted cowardice and treachery," said Oswald, turning to the stalwart "freeman" already introduced to the reader. "Look to the rear, though I think the Normans have had such a taste of our quality that there will be no pursuit for the present; but henceforth we may look to it, for there will be—unless I greatly misjudge the Norman king—a bitter revenge exacted from us, and untempered in the least degree by mercy. We have our broadswords left to us, and we have proved this day that they have a keen edge and bite as sharp as ever. We have a few bowmen, also, who can shoot straight; but for our shelter I fear me we shall have but the dense forest, and the rugged hills of our native Craven for our defence. But they are a defence familiar to us, and no battering-ram or assault of besiegers will avail our foe. Let them drive the wolf to bay if they dare, and they shall find he has sharp teeth. Well, to me, Wulfhere, a life of valorous freedom is better than servile slavery and degraded serfdom."

"I join you there, my lord. A ceorl born, a ceorl for ever. That is my charter. I will maintain it to the death," said Wulfhere.

The conclusions of Oswald, with regard to the revenge which the Normans would exact, proved only too true. Like a conflagration, the sanguinary, mercenary host spread themselves over the northern part of the kingdom, and desolation and death spread their ghastly wings over the land. William's aim evidently was to decimate the population, and thus make any further revolt utterly impossible.

I forbear, however, to enter into the details of the wholesale slaughter which followed after the Saxons were put to the rout at York, in mercy to the reader.

So, at the word of command, the followers of Oswald moved away from the fatal field, with celerity, but in perfect order. The close of the second day brought them home again. Bitterly sad our hearts were at the tidings they brought us, and at sight of the thinned ranks of stout and hardy yeomen who went out from us on this last desperate venture. The Earl addressed the following words to them, as we stood together in the monastery grounds: "My trusty followers, my faithful friends,—We have probably not more than forty-eight hours before we shall be face to face again with the hated Norman foe—on our own lands, and at the thresholds of our own homes. Do not let us, because of this short respite, close our eyes to what will inevitably follow. Neither age nor sex will be spared, though we should crawl at their feet, and grovel in the dust. The only thing these Normans will respect is the broadsword, as it flashes at their breast, or the arrow, glancing unerringly through the branches of the trees in the forest fastnesses. I advise you to take to the hills; the caves will form in some respects a shelter for your wives and little ones. Carry your cattle along with you to the hills and mountain gorges. Your corn, your cooking utensils—in short, everything of value and of service—take along with you. There are men here from every corner of our domain. Tell your neighbours, and make haste; even the minutes are precious. I shall contrive, if I live, to protect you for the present, and until my castle is taken you will be absolutely safe."

As the men moved slowly away to their homes in the distant hamlets, bearers of the sorrowful news, the Earl turned to Wulfhere.

"Well, Wulfhere, my resolve is taken. I shall not cower before, or servilely beg for freedom at the hands of the proudest Norman of them all. Further, I shall not fly over sea, and sell my sword to a foreign potentate. Yonder, in the distance, I can descry the turrets of my castle. I was born there, and I shall defend it to the last; and when driven from it, it will still be a joy to sit on the hillsides and gaze upon the old home. There are likewise these followers of mine, who have followed me everywhere and blindly done my bidding. It were dastardly conduct to give them over now to sanguinary massacre. When, as a boy, with falcon on my arm and hound at my heel, I hied me o'er these lands, my faithful yeomen welcomed me everywhere, and their good wives brought out their daintiest morsel and their sweetest mead. We shall stand or fall together. Who knows? The Saxon star may some day be in the ascendant again, and we may push the Normans from our shores. What sayest thou, Wulfhere?"

"Your purpose, my lord, if I understand you aright, is to defend the castle so long as you can, and then try to hold the Normans at bay by means of the shelter which the woods and the hills afford."

"That is my present purpose. I can scarcely hope to hold the castle, except for a little while, but I may thus materially check the desolating march of the Normans. But ultimately I look to the woods and the hills for permanent safety. We are more fortunate than our countrymen in other parts of the kingdom. If we look to the north we see the stately Hanging-brow mountain, lifting itself to the sky and girdled with the clouds, and those dense woods, which, like a vast army clambering up its sides, will fight for us in our onslaught, and shield us in our flight. The waters also shed on its brow by the clouds which nestle well-nigh perpetually on its shoulders, and go leaping down its sides with the fierceness of a cataract, have ploughed into the mountain's seamy sides gorges impassable to untrained feet. Look, to the east a few miles we have the scarcely less remarkable Weirdburn hills. To the south, Baldby heights. Think also of the dense woods which everywhere abound in this Craven of ours. Then, like myself, you will see that in no other part of the land has Nature so combined to shelter the friendless and protect the oppressed. Further, we are quite two hundred and fifty miles from London. Though the Normans will come very surely to despoil the land, William will speedily draw off his forces, and we shall have but to cope with the Norman who usurps my lands and castle, holding it probably with a slender garrison. For the present we are unequal to the task of contending in open warfare with our foe. We will contend with him with the most effective weapons we possess; and these are cunning and evasion. There shall be no solid front presented to him at which he can aim an effective blow. But when the Normans have overrun the land, and the bulk of them gone hence, then we will present a bolder front, and assert our right to share the land, and cultivate the soil."

"What do you purpose in this dire emergency, reverend Father?" said he, turning to me. "Have you any purpose of defending the Abbey?"

"No, my lord," said I; "we are the disciples of the Prince of Peace, and we must follow His example. And indeed, carnal weapons would not protect us if we were minded to use them, and this sacred edifice would suffer irreparably by our resistance. Perhaps these untamed and bloody men may have some regard for the sanctity of these walls. We will throw open our gates to receive them. Those of our servants and followers who prefer to trust to the woods and the hills, as you advise, are free to do so. Those who prefer to stay—together with any unhappy fugitives who have fled hither for shelter—will join the monks in prayers and supplications, in the sanctuary. Perhaps God will give us favour in the eyes of our enemies."

"Give us your blessing, Father," said Oswald, falling on his knees and meekly uncovering his head, all his followers humbly following his example.

"Adieu, my son," said I, laying my hand upon his head. "May the God of our fathers nerve thy arm for the protection of thy humbler fellows, and give thee wisdom and discretion in this terrible day of thy country's visitation!"

With tearful eyes I watched the receding form of this noble Saxon. No carnal offspring could be dearer to an earthly parent than he to me. I had watched over him from infancy, educated him, travelled with him in many foreign lands; and I hoped he would be a great leader in statesmanship, in learning, and in all the arts of peace. Now, alas! I fear circumstance will make him a man of war, and a stern leader of bloody and desperate men.


CHAPTER VI.

BARON VIGNEAU.

"All is lost save honour."

Early on the morrow, strange rumours and stories, which made the blood curdle, were brought to the monastery by refugees from far and near. Both gentle and simple fled hither, being buoyed up by the widespread, but in this case delusive notion, that sanctuary walls would be sacredly respected. Amongst the number was the lovely daughter of the worthy Thane Beowulf, who, along with his son, had been slain in resisting the advance of the Normans. My heart sank within me as I looked upon her great beauty, realising with painful vividness how helpless and impotent I was to protect her—well knowing that lust and rapine, let loose, would not be awed or restrained even by the sanctity of the Church.

I had commanded the monks, with all refugees, to repair to the chapel for prayer, whilst I at the first summons repaired to the gate with some of the housecarles and lay brothers, and commanded the gates to be thrown open, when in poured a motley crowd of soldiers and men-at-arms, evidently bent on plunder, and totally uncontrolled by any sort of discipline. The crowd surged by me and carried me along, deriding my entreaties to be heard. One leader, in complete armour, and whom I afterwards ascertained to be Baron Vigneau, I appealed to in vain. He rudely pushed me aside with an oath, bidding me say my prayers to the devil, for he would soon have me and my monkish crew.

One party made a dash for the northern extremity of the enclosure, where were the outbuildings, in which our cattle, sheep and goats, and numerous attendants were housed. These servants, however, made their exit, with all speed, from the northern gate, as they saw the Normans enter at the south. One, Badger as he was called by his companions, who was keeper of the hounds and hawks—a mighty hunter, who kept our larder well stocked with venison, and fish, and game of every kind—held his ground. A sly rogue was Badger—so called from his propensity for hunting these animals and clothing himself in their skins. For hunting, hawking, and fishing, he was a prodigy. He was well-nigh fleet as a hare, and could swim like an otter; and had wherewithal so sly a humour, and such shrewdness, that he was a great favourite with me, and I had taken pains to add such instruction as I thought would be serviceable to him. The reader will pardon me this digression. But this Badger was such an active agent in the subsequent troublous times, and served the Saxon cause so well, both by his matchless cunning and his rare valour, that I have taken the trouble to introduce the reader to him at such great length. A most grotesque figure he presented on this fateful morning, clothed as he was from head to foot in skins.

"Hilloa!" roared one trooper to another, as they set eyes upon him. "What the deuce kind of an animal is this?"

"The foul fiend, or one of his imps, by Moses!" rejoined the other.

"Who are you, Satan?" said the first one, riding up to him and giving him a hearty thwack across the shoulders with the flat of his sword; at which Badger set up a most hypocritical howl. "Stash that, will you, you lump of hog's-flesh, or I'll make pork of you in a twinkling! Where are your cronies? Have you buried them, you old grave-digger?"

"Oh, hang him, Jaques!" chimed in the other impatiently. "Don't bother with the slobbering clown! But I've a notion it is a dry shop in this quarter; you had better get back again to the jolly friars, if you would have venison pasties and old ale. But I'm going to have a look round, and see if they have left a hack or two better than mine. They haven't left a worse, I'm blowed! I don't believe he is a horse. He's only a shadow and a half; the wind was just going to carry him off when I took him: so I committed no robbery when I stole him. I vow it's only my weight which keeps him in this world at all. Gee up, old marrow-bones! Your old backbone will do to shave the monks with. I wonder I'm not split up the middle by this. I verily believe my trunk is shorter by a good six inches than my legs, and I've only been perched on your old razor-rig these three days. Heigh-up! Jaques," continued he, suddenly wheeling round, "if you find a tap of good old ale before I get back, hold on to it till I come! I'm as thirsty as a sponge that hasn't had a soaking for twenty years. I could suck up half a hogshead easily. My soul is oozing away through the pores in my body, and all for lack of moisture."

Meanwhile, the monks, together with numerous refugees, chiefly women, were gathered in the church, vainly trusting to the sanctity of the place for protection. I had no faith in this, however, and had taken the precaution to have our most valuable and costly treasures of silver and gold and books conveyed to the sacristy, a barrel-vaulted apartment near the south transept, led down to by a flight of stone steps, which were cunningly covered over by the flagging of the floor. This had been designed expressly for the hiding of our valuables when a raid was anticipated by the Scots or Danes.

Many of the Normans, I noticed, made at once for the church. No doubt they fancied the richest booty would there be found. They rudely burst open the doors, and I pressed in with them. At once the fierce and undisciplined soldiery commenced to break and plunder everything. I advanced towards the leader, Vigneau, and prostrated myself before him to beg for mercy for the refugees. Alas! He furiously spurned me with his heavy boot, and cried to his men, "Ho, men! here are a lot of scurvy monks! Kill the rats in their hole!" Prompt to obey, the soldiers let fly a volley of arrows amongst the helpless throng huddled about the altar steps, and wounded many of them. Unhappily, Vigneau at that moment espied the lovely Ethel crouching amongst them. "Stay, men!" he shouted. "By Jupiter, here's the loveliest Saxon wench my eyes have seen. You may take the gold and silver baubles and melt them into zechins. Here's my share of the plunder!" Immediately he seized Ethel and dragged her from the steps of the high altar. "Nay, nay, wench," said he, "never be so shy! Thou wert intended for better company than simpering monks and friars. Damnation!" he roared, suddenly releasing her, staggering back a pace or two and staring aghast at her; for she had sprung at him and driven with all her force at his chest a small dagger she held in her hand. The dagger rattled upon his mailed chest, but left him scathless. Still she stood confronting him, like a panther at bay.

"By Jove!" he roared, as soon as he had recovered from his astonishment. "Here's mettle anyhow! I little thought there was so much spirit behind that pretty face. All the better however, for milk and water is no good even in a wench. Here goes for another embrace, my bantam!" So saying, he seized her with his mailed hands, and wrested the dagger from her, pitching it across the church. Then he literally tucked her under his arm, all the while roaring with laughter at her frantic but ineffectual efforts to release herself, and away he marched down the aisle of the church. I seized his arm, and was imploring him to have pity, when he called to a rough-looking soldier. "Here, fellow, run this shaveling priest through with thy sword, quick!" I gave myself up for a dead man, for I felt that I could not let him carry off Ethel, when suddenly there was a hush of voices, and looking round I beheld a Norman lady, of majestic port and bearing, pressing forward towards us, whilst close behind her there followed a score of armed men. I perceived at once that she was a lady of rank by her rich apparel and jewelled head-dress. She was also of surpassing loveliness and commanding figure. As she beheld the brutal Norman, I saw the fire flash in her rich dark eyes, as with quick step she marched boldly up to him and accosted him in words almost of fire. "I think this is another evidence, Baron, of your base and unchivalrous regard for the distressed of my sex, by the brutal way in which you are treating this helpless Saxon lady! You afford me ample opportunities of testing your gallantry, and better opportunities, too, than listening to your false and honeyed words, which you are pleased to pour into my ears."

"These are but Saxon varlets, Alice; and Saxon varlets, whether male or female, are not fitting objects of chivalry to a Norman knight."

"Chivalry is for the oppressed and weak of any nation. So be pleased to release this lady, and cease harrying these holy and unresisting men."

"Take care what you are at, madame!" savagely hissed the Baron, between his teeth, "or your meddlesome interference with business which does not concern you will be at your peril. Mark that, ma grande dame!"

"Let go the arm of this lady, I say, and leave this sanctuary at once, or I shall report your conduct to the Count forthwith."

"Tell the Count, madame, if he dare, to look in the wolf's mouth and count his teeth, and he'll not do it twice, you may mark that!"

He let go of Ethel, however, and, muttering savagely many fierce oaths, he strode out of the church, followed very reluctantly by his men.

"Jules Reynard," said the lady, addressing the leader of her men, "do your best to protect this holy place, and the lives of these monks." Jules Reynard acquiesced by a low obeisance. "Lady," she said, addressing Ethel, "I grieve very much at the rude treatment and mishandling you have been subjected to at the hands of these savage men. If you like to accept my protection, I think I can protect you from further annoyance and insult."

"I thank you, madame," said Ethel, "but this cannot be. Your people have burnt my home, basely slaughtered my father and my brother, and I prefer, whether living or dying, to company with my own people."

The Norman lady heaved a deep sigh. "Alas! I daresay it is but too true, and I can well understand your feelings; but I will strive to be a sister to you, if you will come with me."

"Say no more, lady; this cannot be."

"Well, then, we must part. But, mark me—though it is hard to say it of one's people—look for no compassion at the hands of my people, and beware especially of him from whom you have just escaped, for 'his tender mercies are cruel.'"

"I look for no compassion at the hands of the Normans, nor will I seek it or suffer it. The hands that are red with my kinsmen's blood, cannot be grasped in amity by me. There is a deep and bloody barrier betwixt me and thee, which a lifetime cannot erase," said Ethel bitterly.

"Alas! alas! Nevertheless, adieu, lady; we may meet again. If I can befriend you in any way, how gladly will I do it, to the very utmost of my power!" With that she hastily left the chapel—as I learnt afterwards, to try and stay as much as possible the fierce bloodshed and rapine of the soldiery. But it is needless to say her efforts were to little purpose, for though she managed to have them cleared out of the sanctuary, ere long they were back again, and, like greedy hawks, they pounced upon everything, no matter how sacred the purpose to which articles of value were devoted. They carried off the silver table of the high altar, the silver cups, dalmatics, censers of silver; in fact, everything ornamented with silver or gold. Speedily the whole of our possessions were at their mercy, excepting the things I had secreted as aforesaid. To complete this sad day's work, when nothing more of value could be had, they turned their attention to our cellarer's store of wines and ale, and the rest of the day, and the night also, was spent in drunkenness and carousing. The whole of the night was spent by the monks in prayer and fasting, whilst for the most part our refugees were glad to escape to the woods, being thankful if only they could do so with their lives. A sad day's work this for the sanctuary which had taken generations to bring it to its high state of usefulness and piety!


CHAPTER VII.

ALICE DE MONTFORT.

"And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With old odd ends, stol'n out of holy writ,
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil."
Shakespeare.

My readers, I am sure, will pardon me for passing over the bitter sufferings and humiliation I and the members of our Order had to endure, and the still more harrowing cruelties and bloodshed heaped upon the common people, who, despite the Earl's advice, still clung to their homes and their patches of land.

We therefore proceed to follow the fortunes of certain characters who are the central figures in our history. In reality the history of our time was made by the important actors, the common people playing a very ignoble part, and being little better than chattels and instruments of the leaders' wills.

The Normans overran the adjacent country like a flood let loose, leaving desolation behind them. Indeed, if the Saxons had not fled before, and secreted themselves, their wives, their children, and their cattle, there would have been nothing but annihilation and utter extermination. The main body of the Normans swarmed forwards like locusts as soon as they had devastated one part. But the castle of the youthful Ealdorman Oswald could not be taken without siege operations. Its splendid situation and rich lands attracted the cupidity of the De Montfort already mentioned, and he sat down before it with the determination to take possession of it and the splendid domain belonging thereto.

Carefully De Montfort reconnoitred the castle from all points, and though it had no pretension to invulnerability, yet it was plain to him that some days must elapse before he would be sufficiently prepared to venture an assault upon it.

In the meantime, however, he despatched heralds to summon Oswald to surrender. The Saxon paced the walls, clad in complete armour, and in person directed the labours of the housecarles who laboured at strengthening and repairing the fortifications; whilst a score or so of his choicest bowmen, with well-stocked quivers, were set apart for the defence of those who toiled.

The heralds, three in number, rode up to the walls, and, after blowing a blast from their bugles, they accosted Oswald thus:—

"What ho, there, Saxon!"

To which Oswald responded,—

"What ho, there! What message have ye from your master?—I perceive ye are messengers."

"Our master, the valiant Count de Montfort, of great renown and valour, giveth thee summons to deliver up to him, within the space of twenty-four hours, without let or hindrance, this castle, with the appurtenances thereof."

"What conditions doth your master tender if we yield to his wishes, and without resistance obey his summons?"

"De Montfort hath given us this message: 'Yield thee forthwith without conditions, and trust to our clemency.' Defiance of our summons is torture and death."

"Tell your master that we have too many illustrations of his clemency, and that of Norman tyrants generally, to put any trust or reliance in his word. If he would fain have possession of this castle, tell him he must first take it, for we put no faith in his professions of clemency; and that we defy him and his myrmidons to wrest this castle from us."

These were brave words, and intended to inspire his own followers; but no one knew better than he where victory must inevitably rest. Many times had he told over the number of the Norman tents pitched little more than a bowshot away. With sinking heart he had noted the masses of archers and men-at-arms who swarmed around the camp by day. In the stillness of night he had crept within earshot of wary sentinels in company of Wulfhere the freeman, in the hope that some chance, or some overweening confidence on the part of the enemy, might afford the opportunity for some desperate deed of valour. But de Montfort was far too wise and experienced a soldier to permit negligence or over-confidence to prevail. The pickets at all points were thickly posted and kept on the alert by patrols.

The tents of the Count de Montfort and his daughter, Lady Alice de Montfort, were pitched on a knoll in the centre of the encampment, which was sufficiently elevated to overlook every other tent and beyond them on every side. The tents of the maids and personal attendants were situated to the rear, and were intercommunicable by a covered way. The entrance to Lady Alice's tent was hung with richly embroidered curtains, whilst costly figured velvet carpets from the looms of Rouen were spread over the soft carpet of nature. As already stated, Lady Alice had been affianced to Baron Vigneau by her father, for the most ignoble reason of policy and personal ambition, Alice's wishes or preferences not being consulted in the least. But a union more abhorrent to her feelings could not possibly be imagined.

Indeed, to one much less refined and gentle than Alice, this union would have been most distasteful. Vigneau was at once drunken, licentious, and boorish, his habits being such as befitted the company of the besotted and brutal troopers whom he led, rather than that of one of the gentlest ladies of Normandy. True, he had won for himself a large measure of fame on the battle-field, and in the lists at tournaments. He had undoubtedly a large measure of reckless valour, and enormous physical strength; but he was utterly destitute of that chivalry and knightly courtesy which was reckoned only second to personal prowess. His chief recommendation in De Montfort's eyes was that he commanded a "free company" of mercenaries as reckless and blood-thirsty as himself. De Montfort cherished a lofty ambition: he aspired to, and in fact held, an exalted position in the estimation of William; and this he well knew was due in great part to the number of lances in his retinue, and the men-at-arms who followed his standard.

Need we say that Alice scorned this hateful yoke; for the warm current of romance which ran in her southern blood demanded a nobler and courtlier knight than Vigneau as the object of her love. Through a vista in the noble line of beeches and oaks which studded the park she had a full view of the castle and its defenders, and she shuddered as she contemplated the impending carnage and bloodshed which hovered over the camp and the castle alike. Thus, often as she sat in her tent did she watch the mailed Saxon chief, as he paced his walls and directed the housecarles as they laboured at the fortifications—far too often, indeed, for her peace of mind; for the contrast between Oswald's mien and Vigneau's was most glaring. Then the fact that Oswald was fighting against fearful odds, and for dear life, awoke the keenest interest in him, whilst the stories current in the camp of his prowess threw around him a glamour most piquant.

Often Alice would turn to her favourite maid and confidante, Jeannette, for confirmation of her thoughts.

"Methinks he is a comely knight, this Saxon, and valiant withal. Jeannette, how sayest thou? is it not so?"

"He is a comely knight, my lady, and brave too, the fighting men say."

"Didst thou notice, when he removed his visor to answer the Count's summons, his handsome visage? 'Twas, I thought, so like the statue of Mars in the old home in Normandy. The same curly locks; the same inflexible cast of features, as though ready to front a host. Didst thou notice this, Jeannette?"

"I marked it much, my lady."

"Yet, didst thou notice, there was a nobility about the open brow which bespeaks a magnanimity which wondrously beseemeth brave men?"

"I noticed all this, my lady."

"Ah me, Jeannette, I read those old romances in my father's hall, and listened to the stories of Christian knights and warriors told me by the good sisters of St. Justin's, until I came to think that all knights and soldierly men must be brave to avenge the oppressed, and magnanimous to the fallen and the weak, scorning to wreak vengeance upon helpless men and women. I thought all brave men must be at least chivalrous to my sex. I thought all brave men must be virtuous, too; for how could they be brave to conquer their enemies, and yet be the slaves of their own over-grown lusts like this Baron Vigneau?"

"These are evil times, lady. I much fear me that nothing good thrives now; and the Baron may not be much worse than others, though I go in daily fear of him. His gloating eyes are ever upon me, and once he caught me in his arms. But let him beware! I carry that in my bosom will teach him a lesson he will not need to learn over again!" and she displayed the flashing blade of a small stiletto.

"Listen, Jeannette! I saw the Baron lay hold upon a young and beautiful lady, who had found shelter with the monks down at the abbey. I heard his lascivious, gloating words, and I looked into his greedy eyes, and his steely gaze made me shudder as though it were the gaze of a serpent. I hate him, but I fear him beyond expression!"

"Hush, lady! Perhaps you will think better of him when these horrid times have passed."

"Never, Jeannette! My heart's revolt is complete. Let death come, and welcome, but never wedlock with him. He is but a huge mountain of evil-smelling carrion. I shall hie me to Normandy, and there in my books I'll find a worthy knight, all brave and pure, and I'll wed him in imagination. But I will never share my young life with a knight besotted and cruel as Vigneau."

"Hush, lady. He comes to your tent. Shall I retire?"

"No, no! Stay by me, Jeannette. I shall feign sickness; let me lean my head upon you."

Baron Vigneau unceremoniously brushed aside the curtains and stalked into the tent. His gait was unsteady, and his eyes bloodshot; unmistakable evidences of a recent debauch.

"What, Alice, how is this?" said he, taking her hand in his. But it involuntarily shrank from his grasp. "What! aren't we friends yet? I did but drag the fair Saxon from among those monkish scoundrels to save her life."

"You seemed loth to part with her, Baron."

"Well, well, we'll take a goose till we can get our swan. But no great harm would have been done. They're jolly fellows, those monks, and know what's what, I warrant. The wench wouldn't have suffered, exchanging sniffling priests for a valiant knight."

Alice shuddered, and made haste to change the subject.

"What says the Saxon knight to your latest summons?"

"'Saxon whelp,' is much more like it, I trow. Well, he struts himself upon his trumpery battlements like a valiant scarecrow. I would he were a true knight and worthy of my prowess, I would challenge him to single combat, and you should see how he would fare when matched with Norman valour. But let him boast himself a day or two until we get our gear ready; then, if he does not get a short shrift in the mêlée, we'll have a little sport with him and make him dance to the music these Saxons like least best."

"Have you offered him honourable terms?"

"Honourable terms to a dog of a Saxon! He'll get the same terms as other Saxons, a sudden exit at the sword's point, or a slower process but a rougher passage. I am hoping we shall see sport yet."

Alice shuddered, for she knew too well that instruments of torture were meant; and she well knew that the Baron would not only use them, but would derive positive pleasure in watching the agonies of his victim.

"I don't care about such practices; they are hideous and barbarous. What good it can do to massacre and torture helpless men and women I can't tell; indeed, I cannot help despising those who indulge in such detestable things."

"You have been trained in too gentle a school to relish these rough times, Alice. We must exterminate these Saxon pests, especially the leaders, and those who have spirit in them. The churls may serve some useful purpose, when we have knocked their freemen manners out of them. But they will need to be well knocked about, and ground into shape."

"When will it all end? And if this castle is taken is it to be our resting-place? I am aweary of being dragged at the heels of a soldiery thirsting like wild beasts for blood and plunder."

"Ha, ha! Softly, softly, my sweet one! This is to be the end of it for us. Then comes love and downy pillows—eh, my queen, is it not so?" said he, endeavouring to chuck her under the chin.

Alice hastily fled, followed by her maid; for, sickening as was Vigneau's general conversation, his amorous advances begat in her an overpowering disgust.

A horrible scowl spread itself over Vigneau's base countenance, and he stood as though petrified with rage. Then his tongue gave vent to this pent-up storm, and, with a volley of oaths and threatenings, he strode out of the tent, demoniacal hatred of his betrothed raging in his heart.


CHAPTER VIII.

VILLAINS PLOTTING.

"And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan's stithy."
Shakespeare.

The same day, a little before nightfall, Baron Vigneau strode across the greensward to the spot where his own followers were bivouacking beneath some huge beech trees. "Pierre," said he, calling to a stalwart and villainous-looking soldier, who was engaged in a noisy chaffering with some comrades, "I have a dainty bit of work for you, Pierre. Just such a commission as you love next best to swilling old Saxon ale."

"What is it your lordship has in the wind now? It has some connection with wine or wenches, I stake my rosary on it."

"Thou had better throw thy rosary into the first ditch thou comes across; for if thou tell thy beads in proportion to thy sins, thou can find no time for anything else; and if thou do penance for half thy sins, and be d—d for the other half, why, marry, thou might as well be d—d for the whole. But I warrant that the end of thee in any case, villain; so there's an end on't. But I want none of thy scurvy impudence, mark me! I want thy ears, and the best discretion thou hast. I have a delicate mission for thee to perform—a mission well suited to thy tender and susceptible disposition."

"Many thanks for your lordship's highly valued appreciation. But truly, when I quit my sins I'll have to quit your service; for how a saint will manage the devil's business I cannot tell. Indifferently well, I fancy."

"Silence, sirrah, or I'll crop thy ears! Listen to me! Down at the monastery there is a Saxon wench—a gem of the first water. None of your bare-legged slotch-puddles, with a figure as shapely as an ill-made wine-butt. She is a genuine offshoot of the Saxon nobility, I am told. I want thee to do a little delicate negotiation for me, such as thou art justly famous for. If thou do it well, thou shalt rise even higher in my esteem."

"Ah, I see; a delicate mission truly!"

"Stop the wagging of thy tongue, knave, and take heed to what I say. This is not the daughter of a villainous churl, bred and reared on a midden, take note. So I will have this business done accordingly."

"Ah, I comprehend it all. This is potter's ware, that must not be soiled in transit. All damage and defacement must be reserved for your respectable self."

"Just so! Don't poke thy villainous phiz—which reminds me of a keg of wine gone sour—beneath her hood for kisses on thy own account. I'll have none of it! Just do thine errand as a Christian should, and——"

"Christian, forsooth, I think you said just now, Baron?"

"Eh? Stop thy chatter, dog, when I am speaking! Thy tongue will cut thy throat some day, villain, if thou sharpen it a little more, now mark that! Thou art getting much too ready with thy scurvy impudence. Just attend to me and shut thy mouth. I have these further instructions for thee. This business, understand, must be done in the dark, and thy tongue must not wag of it—or any of thy comrades' either, mark me. Her ladyship, over yonder," said he, jerking his thumb over his left shoulder in the direction of Alice's tent, "tosses her head a little too much for my stomach already, and she has worked herself up into a devil of a fume, just because I took a fancy to this same wench a little time ago. So let there be no hullaballoo over it, mind that. I know what I'm about," said he, with a brutal chuckle. "When your game's afield you must tread softly, that's my point, but when it's bagged—ha, ha! you may skin it anyhow you please. So, so! wait awhile; my turn will come by-and-by, and when I get the bit within her teeth—well, never mind that just now. There's no need to tell all one's mind to a scurvy trooper," he muttered, under his breath. "There, now thou knows thy business; but don't bring her to the camp, and don't get drunk and bungle the whole thing."

Pierre was both a ready and a capable tool of the Baron's, and indispensable to him in the life of brutality and villainy which he led. So promptly he set about selecting some half a dozen of his comrades to assist him in carrying out his master's behests. As the shadows of evening began to gather about the camp, they mounted their horses and stole away from the encampment at a brisk trot, reaching the monastery just as the evening twilight had deepened into the sombre gloom of night. "Let us dismount here," said Pierre, "and leave our horses outside the grounds; for the less row there is in this business the better it will suit the Baron. I suppose as usual it will be a screeching affair, and if we do not be careful we shall have the whole brood of pious gentry at our heels in a trice." So, hastily dismounting and leaving their horses in charge of one of their number, they strode up to the entrance gates, which they found in charge of two of the Norman soldiery, by whom they were promptly admitted.

"I say, Jaques," said Pierre, addressing one of the guard, "can you tell us whereabouts this Saxon wench called Ethel may be found?"

"You will find her in the monks' quarters sure enough," said Jaques; "but I would advise you to get one of the kitchen scullions to lead the way for you; that will be your best plan."

So, stealthily wheeling round the main building, they entered the refectory kitchen, where they found several of the meaner lay brothers occupied in the menial tasks of that department, whilst a number of half-starved and ragged mendicants sat round the spacious hall, drinking the small ale and munching the bacon and bread with which they had been provided. With abject consternation and fear they beheld the advent of these troopers; but Pierre immediately laid hold of one of them.

"Varlet," said he, "where is the Saxon wench Ethel to be found?"

The Saxon, clown as he was, took in the situation at once, and tried, by affecting even greater silliness than his clownish looks betokened, to evade the question. Pierre whipped out his sword and, grasping him by the throat, said,—

"None of thy lying, churl! Lead the way. I'll follow; and if thou mislead me I'll run my sword through thy body in a twinkling. Stop here, two of you men, and see these skulking villains do not make a hubbub. Let the others follow me. Now march, hound!" said he, giving the Saxon a vicious prod with the point of his sword. The Saxon led the way with much greater alacrity of body than of mind, but it did the business effectively, for they quickly reached Ethel's room.

"Now for it!" said Pierre. "Diplomacy will ruffle this pretty bird's feathers the least, so I'll oil my tongue for the occasion. But have you the cloak ready, men?"

"Aye, aye! all's ready!"

Pierre knocked at the door, and without further ceremony entered. But no sooner did Ethel set eyes on his unsavoury visage than she knew that mischief was meant, and she started to her feet and slid her hand into her bosom.

Pierre doffed his helmet, and assuming a bland and hypocritical tone, said that "he had been commissioned by the Norman lady who had showed her a kindness the other day, to bid the Saxon lady come to her in the Norman camp, where she would be protected and cared for with every regard to her noble extraction and gentle blood."

But Ethel was not deceived. There is a subtle force in the tones of sincerity which the most accomplished liar can never successfully simulate. We are far oftener convinced by this indefinable something in a man's eye, and in his tones, than by the words he utters. When we have flung away this quality of candour and truthfulness, liar and knave will ring out in our utterances, though we use the utmost art of a magician to hide it. Ethel saw through this ruse, though she dare not show it. So she manœuvred to gain time.

"If you will kindly wait until morning, I shall have a little time to prepare. Some of the servants will find you comfortable quarters for the night. If you call me early I shall be ready."

"I dare not disobey my lady's orders, who has sent horses and an escort. I will wait a few minutes for you. But my lady requested me to ask you to come right away, for her ladyship's ample wardrobe would be at your service."

"I will acquaint the Abbot first, as I am afraid he will be much distressed if I depart without his knowledge. I shall be but a few minutes."

"I am sorry I cannot allow this. My orders are very explicit, and I must obey. If I have to use force to execute them, I shall be sorry; but I must ask you to accompany us forthwith," said Pierre, dropping into his usual menacing and rasping tone of voice, and advancing towards Ethel.

"Yes, villain, I am not deceived by you, nor by any of your villainous crew!" said Ethel, drawing from her bosom a brightly shining blade and springing at him like a wild cat. Instantly half a dozen strong hands were laid upon her, the dagger was wrested from her, and a soldier's cloak muffled thickly over her face to stifle her screams. Then Pierre gathered her up in his strong arms and bore her, struggling, along the passage, and over the greensward, and through the entrance gates.

Immediately the Normans' backs were turned the news spread, I being apprised at once of the outrage which had been done. As I stumbled along in the darkness I met with Badger, who, with a stout cudgel in his hand, and bow-and-arrows slung over his shoulders, was rushing eagerly to the fray.

"Ah, is that your Grace?" said he. "Where are those Norman carrion? Have they cleared the ground?"

"I am afraid they have got clear away. Is not that the clatter of their horses' hoofs I hear beyond the walls?"

"It is, without a doubt. I'll track them as easily as a hound tracks a deer."

"Go after them, Badger, and see what becomes of the maiden. I will away to the Norman camp. If I can get speech of the fair Norman perhaps these men may be made to disgorge their prey. But, Badger, be not too ready with those carnal weapons, for it will greatly exasperate them; and remember they that take the sword shall perish with the sword."

"The application must be for the Normans, Father, for I take but my bow and my quiver, and just a splinter of timber. But if I tickle not their flanks with a shaft or two before the night is out, why then the witches of Addergyll may take me for a dolt and a coward."

So saying, he glided off like an arrow; but I saw in the darkness that he went not by the way of the entrance, but to an oaken tree which grew near the wall, and, hastily climbing it, he slid along a branch which overran the wall, and from thence I heard him drop to the ground without.


CHAPTER IX.

VILLAINS OUTWITTED.

"Drunk? and speak parrot? and squabble? swear? and discourse fustian with one's own shadow?"—Shakespeare.


In the meantime, the darkness had gathered quickly and deepened into night. This was greatly intensified along the forest path by the lofty and overhanging branches of the trees. The road also had its twists and turns innumerable, here to avoid a massive tree, and there to avoid a huge boulder; and it was little better than a cattle path at any time, and totally impassable, even to the rude Saxon carts, except at broad daylight. In these circumstances Pierre and party moved with extreme difficulty, having frequently to stop to make sure of the road, their oaths and execrations in the meantime resounding through the wood. But Badger, who was as familiar with the forest as the deer which roamed in it, sped swiftly and noiselessly after them, catching up with them quickly. "Ah, ah!" said he, as he caught sight of the black and moving mass in front of him; "one good Saxon is equal to the half-dozen of you here, my hearties! Some of you will have a cold bed in the damp grass to-night for your pains, or else my shafts will go mightily astray!" Then, sticking his thorn cudgel in his belt, he took his bow from his back and adjusted an arrow, and then he crept stealthily near to them. Raising his bow, he drew the arrow to its head; then he withdrew it. "My fingers," said he, "are in a hurry to make a cur of a Norman the less in the world. But where is the use in bagging one of their carrion carcasses and losing the game? To kill a Norman is a luxury; but I must rescue Ethel. Let me see whether my purpose cannot be served best by joining my wits to my weapons. There are three couples—two abreast; and Ethel is in charge of the centre one to the right. I can send a shaft in the nape of the last one's neck. That is one certain. Then there will be a stampede probably: I may get another one. Shall I get the villain who has charge of Ethel? Can't make sure; and if I do, Ethel will come to the ground with him, and perhaps be badly bruised. Well, some risk will have to be taken, for I am but one." So saying, he stole nearer to them. Suddenly, ahead of the party, there was a wide opening in the tops of the trees directly in the line of vision, the outlines of the figures in front showing boldly against the starlit sky. "Now is my time," said Badger, planting his foot firmly, and drawing back the string until it touched his shoulder—when suddenly a hurried footfall in the path behind him arrested his attention, and he darted into the thicket, keeping his arrow in position. When the runner drew near, Badger sprang forward and faced the new-comer, with his shaft still in position. "Who's this?" said he. "Speak, or I'll let fly my shaft!"

"Steady, Badger," said the stranger. "Don't shoot a friend."

"Well timed, Bretwul, I have just been wishing for a Saxon or two! What has brought you?"

"The very purpose that brought you here. I heard of that Norman's attempt to carry off my young mistress, and I knew the wolf, having scented prey like that, would never drop the trail until he ran it down. I watched the abbey night by night, in the hope of frustrating his purpose; but the villain has got clear off with her."

"Not quite so fast, comrade. If you had been a minute or two later, my shafts would have overtaken one or more of them. But it is better as it is, for two of us will make a better fight of it than one. But enough of this; they are not two hundred yards ahead of us. There are six horsemen, and the second horseman at the right side has charge of Ethel. Now, how are we to effect a rescue?"

So the pair debated the matter as they followed on the heels of the party.

"Well, Bretwul," said Badger, "as I was telling you, I was just going to try a rough-and-ready method when your footsteps arrested me. I knew it to be a risky venture, but I little expected any help in the business. Now I am inclined to think a more favourable opportunity will turn up by-and-by."

"Well, I am inclined to think so myself, Badger. There is the risk that the game would carry the shaft, unless it were hit very squarely; and the odds are the other way in the darkness. Any failure would make it bad for the young mistress, it is certain."

"That we must prevent, if possible. But now, what are the chances? These Normans have no strong place near in which they can shut her. I can promise you they'll not dare to carry her to the camp; there is a lady there who rescued her before, and was desperate savage with the brute who offered her violence then. But they will find a place elsewhere; probably leave her for the night in charge of half their number."

"There's reason in it, Badger. Anyway, it is better to wait awhile, and see if some better chance is forthcoming."

So the pair continued to dog the steps of their adversaries, until, emerging from the wood, they struck across an open glade, or clearing, in the forest, formerly cultivated by a Saxon yeoman. Soon they reached the fringe of the forest again, where, embowered within its shelter, was the house of this Saxon; but it was deserted and plundered of everything. Here they dismounted, Pierre lifting Ethel down and carrying her into the house. The cloak was removed, and, lighting a torch, its flickering blaze made visible a two-roomed dwelling, rude and damp in its tenantless condition. The inner room was doorless, and the outer door was thrown back and dilapidated. The floors were of earth trodden hard. There was a rude attempt at a fireplace in the first room; it was built entirely of rough, unhewn stone, whilst its huge, gaping chimney was such, that a man would have had no difficulty in ascending it. Into the inner room Pierre led, or dragged, Ethel; then he fetched a rough stone from the fireplace for her to sit upon.

"Now, fair one," said he, "this is rather a cold place to call home, but we'll soon make it a bit more comfortable. I can see no further advantage in lying in this matter—and I keep a conscience, and don't make a practice of lying for nothing—so I may as well tell you at once that my master admires that pretty face of yours. It is a weakness he has. The more fool he; for it spoils his chances of higher game. Well, that's a riddle you need not puzzle out. But my master is a knight renowned for valour, and for some other things not recommended by the worthy Order of Cistercians, or indeed any strict Orders of the pious gentry. That, of course, is neither here nor there. But my master, when he hears of your distress, is bound, I believe, by his oath, to succour you; and he is well able to do so. It is the highest wisdom on your part to be friends with him. But heigho! no more of that! A fig for doing another man's wooing; 'tis worse than carving for another's eating!"

Happily, much of this jargon was perfectly unintelligible to Ethel.

"Here, men," said he, turning to his comrades in the other room. "One of you must mount guard inside the house, and another outside. We will to camp, and return soon with both eatables and drinkables; so make the best of a bad bargain for a little while. Come, men, let us cut the tail off this business as quickly as we can." So saying, they mounted their horses, and, leading the disengaged ones, their forms were speedily lost in the darkness.

"My fingers itch most dreadfully to try the effect of a shaft upon the carcass of the big lubberly villain who leads the party," said Badger, raising his bow with the arrow directed towards the hazy forms disappearing in the night.

"Stay, Badger!" said Bretwul, laying his hand on him. "The game's in the net; don't rend it."

"Aye, aye. The fool acts on the thought as it is made, but the wise man when it is weighed. But as surely as the gallows nods when the rogue goes by, so his time will come!"

"Well, Badger, what is to be the next move? We must get to business whilst our chance lasts."

"Right, Bretwul. Well, we shall have to work round from the rear of the house, and we shall thus get close on them if we move stealthily. I doubt not but we can brain the one outside before he knows where he is; then, two to one is more than the other will be prepared for."

So saying, the pair stole to the rear of the house, and crept round by the gable, until Badger peered round the corner at the fellow on duty outside. Fortunately, he had his back to them, and was talking through the open door to his comrade within.

"Are you ready, Bretwul?" said Badger, in a whisper to his companion, who followed closely at his heels.

Bretwul made no reply, but brandished his Saxon broadsword aloft in token of his readiness. Then, with the agility of a panther, Badger sprang round the corner of the hovel, and, delivering a powerful blow with his cudgel upon the back of the Norman's head, he felled him in insensibility to the ground, whilst another spring quick as lightning landed him within grappling distance of the other Norman. He also, it is needless to say, was quite unprepared for any attack, and had barely time to spring to his feet and raise his arm to ward off Badger's first stroke, which sent him staggering against the wall; and Bretwul being in close attendance at that instant, with a sweep of his sword effectually cut short all further resistance. Then, returning to the door where the other soldier was lying prostrate, he quickly finished the work of revenge.

Meanwhile, Ethel from within witnessed the scuffling going on, but without comprehending in the least the import of it; she improved the opportunity for flight which the struggle afforded her, by bounding through the open door, and fled like a Will-o'-the-wisp across the open glade in a frantic effort to gain the shelter of the forest, whilst her rescuers followed full chase in her wake. Very quickly, however, Badger's nimble feet caught up to her; when, to her infinite relief, she discovered that they were faithful friends, who had risked much to free her from the custody of the brutal Norman troopers.

Whilst this was transpiring, Pierre and the remainder of his troop stumbled along through the darkness of the forest, all unconscious that their footsteps had been dogged, and their evil purposes frustrated, just when they thought they had been crowned with perfect success.

"This has been neatly done, men," said Pierre. "Now, I wonder what the Baron will do for us in the shape of reward!"

"Well, I guess none of our pouches will burst with gold pieces, Pierre. I expected better pay or more plunder when I took service, I promise you; but his scurvy humours are even worse than his pay. Why don't you take the lead? The whole company is ready for a new master."

"Hold hard a bit. There are others who are getting as tired of his humours as yourself; and if you hear the clash of steel between us you need not be very much surprised, for my temper is none of the smoothest, and he may play the bully some day until nothing will settle it but cold steel."

When they reached the camp, Pierre alone carried the news to his master. No sooner, however, had he put his head within the tent than he gave a grunt of infinite disgust as he set eyes upon the Baron; for he was far gone in his cups.

"Hilloa, Pierre! What now, you scowling villain! What has brought you?" he bawled, with drunken incoherency; but, drunk as he was, he had noticed Pierre's disgust.

"We have executed your order, Baron," Pierre replied.

"Executed my order? Who? What have they done?"

"The commission you gave me about the Saxon lady down at the monastery."

"The wench that all the pother's about?"

"Yes, the same."

"Ah, I remember. Have you got her, Pierre?"

"Yes, as snug as anybody could wish. Not a whisper has got abroad."

"Bravo, Pierre! You are a gentleman. Pierre, do you hear? You are a gentleman, or a thief, I don't care which," giving a drunken chuckle. "Drink, Pierre," said he, handing him a flagon of wine with a trembling hand.

Pierre took the goblet and drained it to the last drop.

Vigneau took it again, and looked into it for a moment with maudlin pensiveness, as though he could scarcely realise that it was really the bottom he gazed at. But the quarrelsome humour in him was never so rampant as when he was in his cups.

"There's a pint of good Rhenish gone, Pierre. Gone, too, into a stomach that must be about rotted out with Saxon ale by this time."

"Well, we'll bring them round with soothing draughts of Rhenish, master."

"Eh, dog? Not with mine, Pierre. With swill if you like, Pierre! Swill will do for a hog like you, Pierre! Eh! Do you hear me? Swill will do for you!" said the Baron, becoming quarrelsome with drunken excitement.

Fortunately, Pierre was sober, or matters would speedily have become serious. Checking the rising choler, he said,—

"What is to be done with this Saxon—Ethel, as she is called?"

"What do you know about Ethel, eh? Have you got her, scurvy villain? I say, have you got her? Answer me that."

"I told you we had, not a minute since."

"Eh? Then speak civilly, varlet! Do you know who I am? D—— me, I allow thy tongue too much licence. I'll not have such impudence from a scurvy trooper as I've taken lately. I'll teach you I'm a gentleman. Now mark me, Pierre. Keep a civil distance. I'll not have it," and he began fumbling for the hilt of his sword.

"Pshaw!" said Pierre, assuming both a look and a tone of disgust.

"Eh, churl, what now?" roared Vigneau, in a towering rage, with great effort staggering to his feet, and after prolonged exertion getting out his sword, and lunging furiously at Pierre. But the act was too much for him. Lurching head foremost, the sword's point came ignominiously to the ground with his weight upon it, to prevent his falling flat. The result was, his great weight forced it a foot into the ground, from which his utmost efforts failed to extricate it, Pierre, meanwhile, vanishing from the tent with a horse-laugh. Vigneau dropped into his seat and stared vacantly at the point where Pierre had vanished, then at the sword standing upright in the ground. But his efforts to recall what it was all about were a total failure. Slowly his bleared eyes closed, and soon after he slid from his seat to the ground, to sleep off the effects of the night's debauch.

"The Baron is drunk and quarrelsome as usual to-night," said Pierre to his comrades, as he issued from the tent. "Nothing can be done with him till morning, and if he be not in a pleasanter humour in the morning, and come down handsome for us, you will have to be led by another, I trow. Well, we'll finish the business we have begun. Let us take victuals and a few other things down yonder. It will be a little more like a habitation, and not so like a sty."


CHAPTER X.

A FRUITLESS EMBASSY.

"A bold, bad man."—Spenser.


To return to myself. I paced to and fro in the abbey grounds in anguish and suspense, waiting for Badger's return, yet almost dreading it, lest he should bring ill news. But midnight passed, and the small hours of the morning came on, with no tidings of Ethel. I feared for her personal safety, and I feared also the effects upon her mind. For I must state here, for the benefit of the reader, that Ethel's surroundings had been such as to strongly imbue her mind with the heathenish beliefs of her ancestors. Her father came of an old viking stock, and rigidly adhered to the superstitions of his forefathers. He had likewise given to Ethel a large measure of his stern and aggressive temperament, and had striven to instil into her mind his own religious beliefs. I had seen also at times the strange flashing of the fierce fire within her, when deeply stirred. Yet I saw there were elements of gentleness and delicacy in her composition, inherited in all probability from her mother, who was Saxon, and a devout Christian. With my whole energy I had striven, at the request of her dying mother, to train her in the Christian faith: but my opportunities had been of a most desultory nature. Then when I began to hope that my work would be accomplished, this terrible invasion occurred. Thus efforts to show her how the fierce passions and reckless bloodshedding of the Norsemen—her father's ancestors—were cruel and heathenish, and their religion a gross superstition, were frustrated by this war of usurpation inflicted upon us by a Christian nation, with the approbation and blessing of the Pope, whilst at the head of their army they carried sacred banners and holy relics of saints. Thus the Christian religion was made to sanction bloodshed and massacre, unsparing and fiendish in its extent and in its mercilessness. In the train of these professedly Christian soldiery also, there followed nameless horrors and offences, which outdid the excesses of Norseman and Dane tenfold. But, worse than all, her father and her two brothers had been massacred—their home levelled—and she, having to fly to the shelter of the sanctuary, only found that the sanctuary was no sanctuary to her, and no protection against violence and brutality. It is utterly impossible to imagine any one more completely shorn of every prop and stay than she was; and I feared much also for her faith. I knew that there was that in her which would not permit her to tamely submit to indignities. But where would her revolt end?

Well, feeling that it would be better to be doing something to effect her rescue than to be absorbed in these painful cogitations, I decided I would start at once for the Norman camp. It was a long and a weary tramp in the darkness through the forest, but still, I hoped, by patient plodding forward, I should reach the camp by daylight. Happily I found I had not overrated my powers. As I drew near, I was challenged by the outpost. There was a considerable parleying, and a determination evinced to prevent my farther advance. But my sacred calling, coupled with the fact that I was unarmed, and that it was now broad daylight, ultimately prevailed, and I was conducted to a tent not far from the one occupied by Lady Alice de Montfort, with whom, after some time, I received an audience, and whom we will in future call Alice. To her I related all that I knew of the outrage, with such description of the persons taking part in it as I had been able to gather. From my description of the leader, she had no difficulty in identifying Pierre as the man.

"Well, Father, I may as well tell you at the outset, that this is what I expected. I warned this Saxon lady of the risks she ran by staying at the monastery, but I could not persuade her to accept my protection."

"She has been a great sufferer, gracious madame," I replied, "during these wars; and she was, no doubt, greatly afraid. Probably, also, she was greatly averse to joining your camp; though it was unquestionably a generous offer on your part."

"Well, reverend Father, I am not saying this to excuse my inaction now, but I assure you from what I know, and what I suspect of the participants in this outrage, that it would have been far easier to keep the prey from the jaws of the lion than it will be to force his den and wrest it from him. I will do my utmost, I assure you. Jeannette," said she, turning to her maid, "let our guest have some refreshment, for he will be weary and faint, I am sure." So saying, she departed I know not where.

She returned in the course of half an hour; but she gave me little hope of success, though she said the Count, her father, had gone out in quest of the persons whom he suspected. She was most gracious to me, and asked most anxiously as to whether we were treated properly by the soldiers quartered upon us. I suspected very strongly that the comparative immunity from personal molestation we had hitherto enjoyed arose in great part from her goodwill and protection. She asked many questions with regard to our books; to our endowments; especially to the great relief we had been able to extend to the poor, and to strangers. I was highly impressed, not only with the charms of her person, but with her highly cultivated mind, and gracious demeanour.

I hastened my departure with as little delay as decency would permit; for to tell the truth, I was driven back upon my first hopes, that Badger's cunning and prowess would be equal to the emergency. I was thus extremely anxious to get me back to the monastery, that I might learn how he had fared. So I hurried over the open plain, and gat me into the forest as quickly as I could. For in very deed I felt myself anything but safe, as I noticed jealous eyes watching me narrowly. But I had scarcely entered the forest when I found myself in the presence of the ungodly Norman who had desecrated the sanctuary, and endeavoured to carry off Ethel—whom, also, I strongly suspected of being at the bottom of this latest outrage. I involuntarily crossed myself, and uttered a prayer for help, for I felt instinctively that I had myself in very truth fallen into the jaws of the lion.

"Well, shaveling," said he, "thou hast said thy prayers, I perceive. Thou hast done well to be prepared, lest the devil should get thee. What has been thy errand to the camp so early? Be explicit and prompt, or thou wilt rue it."

"I have had particular business there, my lord."

"I knew that already, dolt! Let us have details. With whom hast thou had business?"

"With Lady de Montfort."

"So I thought. What was the matter that disturbed your saintly bosom, old smooth-pate? Out with it!"

"There has been an outrage committed upon us, and one of our refugees carried off by force from the monastery."

"Ah! that was terrible! So you first despatched a posse of your bog-trotting Saxon churls to murder two of my men; then you dragged your battered old shins through the woods, to raise a hullaballoo at the camp. It was well done. Now, what shall I give you for your trouble? I think a broken neck is about your deserts."

So, without more ado, he laid violent hands upon me, and tore my cloak from my back. Then he tried to strangle me; but I had been stout of limb, and agile as any of my fellows, when I was young, so I resisted with all my might. I was delighted to find, in spite of the disadvantage of a score of years, he was more blown than I was. Eventually, I was able to slip from his grasp, and immediately took to my heels. He was younger, but stout and bulky; and I found in this point, also, I was greatly his superior, and quickly increased the distance between us. So he gave up the chase, and permitted me for the time being to go in peace. For this wonderful deliverance I gave God thanks.


CHAPTER XI.

OSWALD'S DEFENCE OF HIS CASTLE.

"Cry 'Havock!' and let slip the dogs of war."—Shakespeare.


In the meantime, the Normans had made diligent preparation for an assault on the castle. Now the castle could not be described as a very formidable stronghold, or one designed to withstand a regular siege. It had been built mainly to resist the incursions of the Scots, who periodically raided in force into these parts, their purpose being plunder and cattle-lifting. They overran the country quickly, getting them back as speedily as possible, before the Saxons had time to concentrate, so that no very great powers of resistance were needed to repel them, or weary them. Occasionally also the Danes carried fire and sword to our parts; but since the conquest of Northumbria and the north of England generally, by Halfdane, and the settlement of so many of his followers in the land, we had not been afflicted much with their incursions in this part of the kingdom, during my lifetime. Thus, the strength of the castle being sufficient for our hereditary foes, it still was not such as would be likely to long resist the experienced and numerous foes now pitched before it. The castle itself stood on an eminence; was built of good solid masonry, with a battlemented tower rising from its centre, but without any special design. It was strengthened by a wall which ran completely round, forming a spacious enclosure, in which cattle could be speedily and safely housed in cases of emergency. This wall was lofty and fairly proportioned, but its great length made it difficult to man by the handful of Saxon defenders. It is well also to note that, as in the case of nearly all the strongholds of the land, it was provided with a secret passage, known only to the trusted followers of Oswald—a passage which could be entered by the initiated at a certain place in the circular stair which led to the turret. This underground passage had an emerging place, carefully concealed in a dense wood some distance away.

In a very few days the Normans had prepared themselves with scaling ladders, and had cut long poles from the forest for the purpose of pushing the defenders from the wall. Mantelets were prepared of boards fastened together, behind which the attacking parties could advance on the defenders, without exposing themselves to the arrows and javelins which would be hurled at them. The leaders also had pavises, or large shields, which covered the person from head to foot. The time had now come when the assault might be made, it was believed, with impunity, so the Norman forces were put into battle array, a small number only being appointed to the task of protecting the women and the camp.

It was a fine sight to see these disciplined men as they moved to the attack in orderly array. Everything bore evidence to the fact that the plan of attack, and the marshalling and disposition of the forces, was the work of a competent general, one who was well versed in the art of war.

The Norman bowmen were thrown out in companies on either flank, for the protection of the forces who were to conduct the assault, and also for the purpose of distracting and harassing the defenders as they strove to repel the attack of the besiegers.

It needed little military knowledge to see that the issue could not be doubtful. The meagre band of Saxons, stretched in thin line over the extent of wall, could never hold it against the multitude who swarmed to the attack. Oswald alone, of all the Saxons, was fully equipped for the resistance of the clouds of barbed arrows about to be poured amongst them. His second in command, Wulfhere, was partly clad in a light coat of mail; but, for the most part, leathern jerkins were the only protection they had. Had it been an attack in the open, in which the forces were equal, these rough Saxons would have given a good account of themselves. Any one of them could have been depended upon to bring down a stag at a hundred paces. Whilst, if it had been a hand-to-hand struggle with their broadswords, or their pikes, they would have fought with the ferocity of tigers. But here they were outnumbered by ten to one, and so circumstanced that they could not hurl themselves upon their adversaries, and by sheer bravery strike terror into their ranks. They must wait to be attacked, and for every arrow they shot, and for every javelin they flung, there would be half a dozen returned.

Vigneau, Reynard, Jules Reynard and other leaders, were grouped together with De Montfort, who gave orders for successive movements of the besiegers, as though, with the prevision which comes of a carefully matured plan, he could see every act of the stirring drama about to be enacted.

Now the order for assault is given. The attacking party, with their mantelets mounted on rude wheels, steadily advance across the plain, the archers disposing themselves to the right and left in advance of the main body, giving the attacking forces the form of a crescent. The archers, dodging adroitly beneath the trees, were able to get near the wall, thus threatening to put the defenders between a cross fire. The Saxons, with bow in hand and pike at their feet, but without a shout or the wasting of a single arrow, stood grimly awaiting the onset. The Norman archers commenced the attack by letting fly a volley of arrows, but at too great a distance to be effective. Some of them fell short, and the others were easily dodged by the Saxons, who, as yet, had no pressing call upon their attention. But now the attacking party draw near, and, as they do so, they become more exposed. At a signal from Oswald a stinging volley of arrows from the Saxons come hissing amongst them with galling effect. At this the pace of the besiegers is quickened, and their archers are quickly within distance to do deadly execution with their arrows.

The Saxons, too, find it necessary to let go their bows, and grasp their javelins and spears to deal with foes in close contact, who by this time have begun to scale the wall. The foremost Normans were met with a merciless slaughter, and it is probable that never a Norman that day would have kept a foothold on the wall had it not been for the support of their archers. These, being now at close quarters, pour their arrows in pitiless showers into the ranks of the defenders, and many a stout Saxon falls with dozens of these barbed messengers of death in his body. Where the attack is hottest, the Saxons reel and stagger, a foothold on the wall is gained, and the Normans are swarming upon it. Oswald immediately dashes to the spot and his battle-axe descends in thunder strokes. Right and left the Normans are beaten down before him; and, with a shout, the Saxons signal the wall clear again.

But the respite is brief, for quickly Oswald's attention is directed elsewhere by the loud shouts of the Normans. He turns a hurried glance thitherward, only to see that the Normans there have gained a foothold on the wall, and are rapidly overbearing his handful of men, though Wulfhere manfully stems the tide, and deals out to the Normans many a deadly blow. In a moment, Oswald also is on the spot to the rescue, and once more the tide of victory smiles upon the Saxon cause. Again it is only for a brief span, for like an oncoming and resistless tide the Normans surge upon the wall, and beat back the slender ranks of the Saxons. One advantage, however, the Saxons now reap; the combatants are so mingled in one deadly hand-to-hand struggle, that the Norman archers dare not let fly their shafts, and can only stand, and, with bated breath, watch the sanguinary struggle.

In the distance yonder, and at the entrance to the tent, there stand Alice and her maid Jeannette, who shudderingly watch the carnage proceed. Oswald and Wulfhere are now fighting back to back, with shield on arm, and having exchanged their axes for their broadswords. Together they cleave down the ranks of the enemy, until like sheep they quail before these stalwart Saxons.

"What matchless valour this pair of Saxon chieftains display, Jeannette! If ever heroism and valour deserved to win a battle, surely this is the time!"

"How frightened our men-at-arms seem to be!" said Jeannette. "Do you see how frantically the Baron raves there at the foot of the wall, and shouts at the men? He boasts him of his valour. Why does he not mount the wall and face this Saxon?"

"What human lives are being sacrificed! 'Tis most dreadful! May God send us peace quickly!" murmured Alice, shading her eyes at the spectacle before her. "These are our people, Jeannette, but I must confess my sympathies are with the Saxons. This leader, too, defends his home with the courage of a hero. God grant he may not fall into the hands of our men alive, or he will be tortured with fiendish brutality for this day's work!"

The struggle still proceeds with gathering intensity and fierceness. Baron Vigneau, indeed, as Jeannette had described him, does rave and gesticulate frantically. "Down with him! Now, men, rush on him two or three together! Close with him! Push him from the wall! Hurl something at him!" But nevertheless he makes no effort to mount the wall himself.

De Montfort also stands there nervously directing the attack. "Here, man," said he, to a stalwart soldier by his side, "heave up this long pole and aim a blow at the Saxon." The man heaves up the pole, and, with a run and a powerful blow, he struck Oswald on the head. The blow completely staggers the Saxon; for a moment or two he hovers on the edge of the wall endeavouring to recover his balance; but, alas! it is all in vain, and he drops, with his heavy harness on, down into the castle yard a dozen feet or more.

At this untoward event the Saxons, in a perfect panic, rush for the drawbridge thrown across to the wall from one of the barbicans, and intended as a means of retreat by Oswald in the last resort. But the Normans have intercepted them and cut them off from this, and the custodians, seeing that this would be seized by the Normans, immediately withdraw it. Then the Saxons wildly leap from the wall, and for dear life's sake, rush like hunted hares, for the neighbouring thicket.

For a little while attention is distracted from the fallen chieftain by the efforts of the Normans to cut off these flying Saxons. But down there in the castle yard lies Oswald, stunned, bleeding, and insensible; helpless to fight or to fly. Wulfhere witnesses the helpless condition of his leader, and down he leaps and lifts him up and detaches his visor. As he does so, a deep sob escapes from the parted lips of Oswald; but there is no further sign of life or returning consciousness.

Whilst this has been transpiring, the attention of the Normans has been distracted from the leaders by the necessity to clear the walls of the few Saxons who, disdaining to seek safety in flight, die fighting most determinedly at their posts. Now, however, the Normans turn their attention to the two Saxon leaders entrapped within the castle yard. Immediately they send up a yell of fiendish delight, as they behold the almost frantic efforts of Wulfhere to arouse his unconscious master, and restore him to his senses.

But 'twas in vain. Oswald's head had been rudely jammed by the steel helmet in the shock of falling; and it was soon apparent to Wulfhere that the brief respite was now exhausted, without bringing any signs of returning consciousness. He threw his left arm around the waist of his helpless chieftain, and drew him, harness and all, upon his hip, and, grasping his broadsword in his right hand, he made with all the speed he could command for the door of the castle, hoping by this manœuvre to gain time.

But the stalwart and muscular form of Oswald, encumbered as it was by heavy armour, made progress painfully slow. In the meantime, the Normans reversed their scaling ladders and slid down into the quadrangle, and came trooping after the fugitives. Wulfhere saw his task was hopeless, and with a cry of pain like a wounded deer he dropped his helpless burthen on the greensward, and, furious as some wild beast, sprang at the yelling foe, cutting down the foremost at a blow. Following up the others, who quailed before him, he quickly laid half a dozen corpses in a ghastly circle round his master. But there was no end to the stream of furious assailants who were fast surrounding him. "'Tis in vain!" he pitifully exclaimed. "Oh, had I here but a score of stout men to make a rampart of steel, we would defy the yelling crew! God forgive me for this coward's act, my master! I would gladly die with you, but I know I shall better do your will by reserving my worthless life for service to your followers."

So saying, he bounded over the prostrate form of Oswald, and across the sward, mounting the half-dozen steps at the terrace entrance at a spring, and dashing through the open door.

The Normans followed him in concert; but when it became a question of single file to pass the portal, without knowing whether Wulfhere was lurking within, why then they in "honour preferred one another," with the result that they one and all ceased following Wulfhere, and courageously returned to help their fellows to heap indignities upon the prostrate Earl.

Meanwhile, the gates had been burst open and the Norman soldiers, camp followers and all, had pressed into the enclosure, Alice and Jeannette, with the women, bringing up the rear.

"Whatever are they clambering and yelling so about, Jeannette? Is it the dead chieftain?"

"I think so, my lady. They are like wolves worrying their prey."

"It is a pity so brave a man should perish. If he be not dead I will beseech my father for his life; though I am afraid it will be to little purpose."

"See, my lady, he is not dead; he is standing up."

Oswald had recovered consciousness, and, stripped of his helmet, looked around, though deathly pale and half-dazed.

"Do not kill him, men!" roared Vigneau. "We'll have some sport to-morrow, and then you may cut his throat if he survives."

"Do you hear what that beast in human form is saying, Jeannette?"

"It is horrible, my lady. Let us go away; I am quite sickened."

"Stay a minute, Jeannette. Let us have a good look at him. How pale he is! But look at his noble countenance—handsome and expressive as a hero's should be! Such countenances have men only who live temperately and think purely. Contrast, Jeannette, the blotched and bleared countenance of Vigneau. There is a tell-tale and an index at once to the beastly life and foul imagination. How my heart revolts at the sight of him! I would prefer the touch of a vampire."

Meanwhile, Wulfhere threaded his way by a path familiar to him, until he reached the foot of the circular stair which led to the turret, ascending which, and watching through a loophole, he heard the command to spare Oswald's life until the morrow.

"Thank Heaven! Whilst there is life there is hope. If a desperate effort to rescue him will succeed, I count upon a few daring spirits to venture it."

But the tramp of heavy feet resounding through the corridors warned him to delay no longer. Turning his face towards a farther ascent, he ran his hand along the wall in the darkness until the feel of a certain stone arrested his attention, applying his strength to which, it slowly revolved, disclosing an aperture into which a man might drop.

Into this aperture Wulfhere disappeared; and the stone revolved to its place again.


CHAPTER XII.

ALICE DE MONTFORT SETS FREE THE SAXON CHIEFTAIN.

"O woman! lovely woman! nature made thee
To temper man; we had been brutes without you."
Otway.

It was only by the exercise of the utmost energy that the soldiery and camp followers of the Normans were prevented from looting the castle. They were somewhat appeased by an unlimited supply of ale from the cellars, and promises of money. Bonfires were lit in the enclosure, and carcasses of sheep and oxen roasted thereat, the whole resolving itself into a grand carousal of drinking, singing, and rough jollity. A certain number of the better class were admitted to the castle, where the same kind of thing was repeated in much the same fashion.

In the large hall the leaders feasted and drank with little more of refinement and seemliness than the vulgar people, except that they drank wine and mead.

"Well, Captain Reynard!" said the Count. "Is all well?"

"All well, sire; the gates secured, the place explored, and, I think I may add, the Saxons so thoroughly routed and cowed that they will have little stomach for more fighting yet awhile."

"That may be; but I fancy we should be found very unprepared if they dared venture an attempt to rescue their leader."

"You may depend upon me, Count, to keep a sharp look-out; I shall not close my eyes in sleep until the sun rises to-morrow. But I have no fear the Saxons will attempt a rescue. As I said, they are so thoroughly beaten, and the remnant so glad to be able to escape with their lives, that they will venture no more."

An exceedingly busy and anxious time was spent by Alice and her maids in their efforts to protect the domestics left in charge from the drunken frolics of both officers and men-at-arms. This would have been a task utterly beyond their powers but for the watchful eye and stern discipline of the Count, who, despising the drunken excesses of his lieutenants, with ceaseless care and watchfulness kept watch and ward within and without the castle.

Alice and Jeannette, too, with the curiosity of their sex, and with ever-increasing interest, explored the rooms of the castle, marvelling greatly at the many tokens of taste and refinement manifested therein, and which they little expected to find in the castle of a Saxon chieftain.

Said Alice, "My interest grows strangely from day to day, Jeannette, in this Saxon chieftain. I see no evidence of the boorishness I have always associated with the lives of the Barons of England. Now also that he is in such sore distress, and hath so sad a fate before him, my heart grieves sorely for him."

"Yes, my lady, I cannot help thinking that these Saxons would despise the beastly orgies proceeding under this roof, and outside."

"Yes, Jeannette; but what will it be on the morrow, when this Saxon is given over to their cruelty? It makes my blood curdle! Would I knew how to set him free! My heart tells me it would be an act of mercy done to my own people as well as to him; for to spare my people the humiliation and degradation of the morrow's inhumanity were indeed a good deed, whether they would appreciate it or not."

"My lady, if you wish it, I warrant we can do it. I know how to set about it. Paul Lazaire mounts guard, and I can coax the simpleton into obeying me. I declare if I had to bid him stand on his head he would do it."

"But, Jeannette, that would probably get Paul into trouble. Perhaps it would cost him his life. That would not do."

"Well, if you will not let me manage Paul, I cannot tell how to help you."

"But cannot we manage it without implicating Paul. I could make a sleeping draught which would put him to rest speedily."

"Oh, that would be fine, my lady! Just the very thing! Put it in some mulled ale, and I will dose him."

"But how then, Jeannette? Have we courage to open the prison doors? I am afraid our nerves would fail us down in those damp and ghostly cells."

"Not at all, my lady. I will go; my heart will not fail me, for it would just suit me to do it."

"Well, it sounds strange we should thus plot to deceive our people; but my heart prompts me to do this deed, come what may."

"Yes, let us do it; but, as I said, let it be mulled ale, for I declare ale is never too muddy for them, and they will drink it, no matter what stuff you put in it."

"But how shall we convey it to him when it is made? That is our next difficulty, Jeannette."

"Oh, I'll convey it, never fear for me, lady. The little soft is fool enough to think I admire him. It will be such fun! I shall almost burst with laughter when he gulps it down. I'll take him a tit-bit also, for his supper. The simpleton will be overjoyed, and I expect he'll begin maundering something about love," and Jeannette clapped her hands and skipped about gleefully. This was a matter that just jumped with her madcap humour, and her high spirits could any time carry her through a frolic of this sort; but when fairly cornered, her nerves were subject to complete collapse, and she became as helpless as any bird before the swoop of a hawk, unable to do anything but cower and helplessly flutter.

"Really, Jeannette, I think you treat this poor fellow rather too badly," said Alice.

"It's only a joke, my lady. I like to tease him, he amuses me so!"

"Well, get him some supper, then, and I will make him some mulled ale. For this once, at least, we must ignore our consciences; but indeed, I almost think the end will justify the means, for this worthy Saxon deserves some better fate than the one awaiting him, and I care not if I permit the claims of humanity and of chivalry to triumph, even though it be at the expense of my own people, of whose cruelty and greed I am heartily ashamed."

The evening hours were advancing rapidly towards the twelfth. Much of the clamour of the early hours of the night was effectually hushed in the drunken slumbers of both officers and men, and at the dread hour the attempt at rescue was to be made; so Jeannette, fortifying herself for her humorous but somewhat daring feat, tripped boldly along the corridors, torch in hand, bearing the repast prepared for her would-be lover.

"There, you false man, that is a great deal too good for you!" she said, accosting Paul Lazaire, who was mounting guard over the cell in which Oswald was confined, and who, in great trepidation and fear, shrank before the ghostly advent of an unknown and muffled visitant at the dread hour of night.

"Oh! goodness me, my pretty Jeannette, is it you? I was quite startled. I thought it was a ghost, and I declare it's an angel."

"You thought it was that ugly Saxon wench I caught you kissing, you false man! That is what you thought."

"Tush, tush, Jeannette! Whenever will you forget that? You know I love only you. Give me a kiss, and let us be friends. I vow I will never look at another Saxon wench as long as I live."

"Now, get off with you, if you please. You make a mistake if you think I am going to be kissed by you, when you are so fond of kissing any dirty hussy you meet."

"Now, don't, my fiery little wife! This is too bad—too bad for anything, Jeannette! You never have done with it."

"Don't you imagine you will have me for a wife unless you mend your manners very greatly. You shall have that dirty hussy of a Saxon for a wife, and I will have Jaques Leroux. He is a smarter man than you are, any day; and if I but put up my finger to him, he will run after me."

"You don't mean it, Jeannette! Now, don't be cruel! You might just as well say that you love me, for I know you do at heart, and you are only teasing me, as usual. I know you wouldn't have brought me this nice supper if you hadn't thought something of me. Now, isn't it so, Jeannette? Just give me a kiss, and say you forgive me for that Saxon wench, and then I shall be happy;" and Paul endeavoured gallantly to plant a kiss on Jeannette's rosy cheek.

"Here, get off, will you, or else I'll scratch you!" said Jeannette, violently pushing Paul away. "I'm not going to go shares with a dirty Saxon. Mark that, Paul Lazaire! You will have to mend your manners before you kiss me, I can tell you that much!"

"There you go again, Jeannette. You never will forget about that Saxon wench, I do believe; and you know it was only a joke."

"Now, just get your supper, and give up fooling, will you? or your ale will be cold, and I shall go away and leave you," was the very irresponsive reply of the dame.

Paul was really madly in love with Jeannette, but still he had to spare a considerable amount of affection for the steaming tankard of mulled ale and the victuals, which she had brought him. So he raised the tankard to his lips, and gave a hearty drink.

"Bravo, Jeannette!" said he, smacking his lips. "What a lovely brew it is to be sure! How it warms the pit of my stomach! You'll make me a happy man some day, I do declare, Jeannette."

"Now you are fooling again!" said Jeannette, giggling most immoderately at the gusto with which, unsuspectingly, he swallowed the potion. "Now, get your supper. I cannot spend the whole night with you here. So be quick, or I shall be missed."

Thus exhorted, Paul fell on the victuals with right good will, and drained to the dregs the tankard of spiced ale, all the while interspersing his feeding by casting pitiful glances at Jeannette, which made that mercurial young damsel giggle more immoderately still.

"Don't go, Jeannette," said he beseechingly, as Jeannette was about to turn away. "It is a long time to the next watch, and you can't imagine how creepy I feel in this passage, with that fearful Saxon inside clanking his irons, and tearing about, and not a soul within call if he should break loose."

"Is that the cell in which he is confined?"

"Yes, but he is very quiet just now. Perhaps he hears us talking; but I can hear him tugging at the chains sometimes as though he would tear the place down. He makes me feel as if next moment he'd burst open the door, and murder me. He is a most desperate fellow. You should have seen how he fought on that wall; and there was another one who escaped, a fearful man, too, at his weapons."

"Oh, I saw them, and I noticed how frightened you all were into the bargain. But are those the keys you have at your girdle?"

"Yes; this is the one for the door, and this other one for the manacles," said Paul, holding up a pair of rusty keys to Jeannette's view. "I wish the watch was over," he added, shuddering, "or I had un bon camarade."

"Eh, bien! bon nuit, mon bonhomme," said Jeannette, gathering up the empty tankard, and flitting along the lonesome corridors back again to her mistress, who was waiting with feverish impatience for her return.

"What news have you, Jeannette? Did all go well?"

"Beautiful, my lady. He drank the ale, and praised it finely. I knew he would do that, for those horrid men always praise ale. But the wonder to me is that the beastly stuff did not turn his stomach."

"Did you see the cell, then, in which the Saxon is confined?"

"Yes; and Paul showed me which is the key for the door, and which is for the manacles; for he is chained fast to the wall, it appears."

"Oh, dear, I wish it was over, for I tremble from head to foot. It is a desperate enterprise, and would be both rash and indelicate if the mercifulness of it did not demand the sacrifice. Dost thou fear to venture it, Jeannette?"

"Not a bit, my lady; I like to outwit those men folk, for they count us nothing, and it will be such a joke to see their blank looks in the morning! And won't the Baron rage and swear at the men-at-arms?"

"Oh, do hush, you foolish child, it is far too serious to jest about. I wish your courage and lightheartedness may not fail you before our task is accomplished! If a merciful Heaven do not help us, I fear me we shall never accomplish our purpose."

"Let us make vow to Notre Dame, before we venture, that we will repeat fifty Aves and Credos if she help us, and give twenty silver pennies to the holy Father at the next gathering of the Romescot."[1]

"Well, we will see about that; but we had better get ready, for the draught will soon take effect upon this sweetheart of yours."

"Stuff, my lady! He is a little finikin fellow, and simple to boot. I do but tease him. He amuses me so much I really cannot help joking him."

Ere long these two frail women stole along the lonesome passages, having fortified themselves as best they could for their task. Alice was dreadfully nervous, but determined of purpose. Jeannette, however, was jaunty enough at starting, and had it been the congenial task of tricking poor Paul Lazaire, her volatile temperament would have carried her through; but she soon began to manifest, by many hysterical starts, that this dramatic adventure, which might become a tragedy, was telling powerfully upon her nerves.

They soon reached the place, however, where, as they anticipated, Paul was found in a state of blissful insensibility to either friend or foe. He had speedily felt the soothing effect of the drug, and had sat down with his back to the wall. But he had quickly slidden from that position and was now lying flat along, in a sound sleep, and breathing heavily.

"Oh, dear!" almost shrieked Jeannette, as she witnessed Paul's insensible condition. "He's not dead, is he, my lady?"

"No, he is not, you simpleton! Now let us be quick, Jeannette! Reach the keys from his girdle. May Heaven help us!" said Alice, devoutly crossing herself. But she dared not give utterance to her fears in presence of her maid, whose condition was plainly visible to her.

Jeannette snatched the keys from Paul's girdle, and Alice thrust the clumsy piece of metal into the door; but she had to apply her utmost strength ere the rusty bolt shot back with a loud snap. Then, applying her strength to the heavy oaken door, it recoiled slowly on its rusty hinges, with a horrid, creaking noise which grated fearfully on the excited nerves of the pair. Immediately, as the torch's flickering light fell dimly across the cell, their eyes fell upon the captive chief, who was chained to the wall by heavy chains, but nevertheless stood erect, with distended nostrils, clenched hands, and threatening attitude. He was evidently expecting a midnight assassin, and though manacled and bound hand and foot, he would fight it out to the end. Alice started back, trembling violently, as she beheld the fierce attitude of Oswald; and the last spark of Jeannette's courage disappeared, for, with a shriek, she clutched the arm of her mistress and tried to drag her away.

"Hush, Jeannette! Be still," cried Alice beseechingly; "we shall be discovered if you do not be quiet."

The scene was a graphic one truly. The two timid women stood on the threshold of the cell, cowed by the savage attitude of the captive, and afraid to advance a step, though bent on doing a deed of mercy. Oswald also was strangely bewildered at the sight of such gentle visitors; for, as the torch was held aloft, the uncertain light revealed to him the forms of two timid and graceful women, and one of them, at least, bearing evidence of gentle blood and gentle manners. His muscles relaxed and his manacled hands fell to his side, and the heavy irons clanked horribly in the vaulted cell. This still further terrified the visitors, and Jeannette, whose nerves were at their utmost tension, with a shriek involuntarily bounded over the sleeping form of Paul Lazaire, and fled like the wind along the corridors, leaving her mistress alone with the captive chieftain. The awful silence was broken by Oswald, who said, "Be not afraid, gentle lady. I was expecting some red-handed murderer and the cold steel; but methinks so fair a messenger should bear a message of mercy."

"We have at least a merciful intent, Saxon. We saw your brave defence of the castle, and we would fain set you free if we can, for we know the brutal designs of some of our people, and we would save our own people from dishonour, and you from a cruel death."

"Ah! then pity still exists in the breast of woman! I thought the world was emptied of such things."

"This can never be, sir knight, whilst honour and chivalry inspire the deeds of knights and warriors; for such can never fail to inspire the sympathies of us weak women."

"Will you dare, then, fair lady, to carry out your beneficent purpose, and give me my liberty again, enemy though I be to thy people?"

"I have counted all costs, sir knight; and I dare, if so be that my woman's strength can effect it."

"Here is my right hand, then. Ten thousand blessings on your woman's heart if you can set it free once more!"

As he spoke he stretched out his right arm, loaded with the heavy and rusty fetters.

Alice boldly advanced and thrust the key into the lock, but her utmost strength was insufficient to force back the catch, whilst Oswald's fetters prevented him from reaching one hand with the other. Alice unloosed from her shoulders a collarette of rich lace, and wrapped it round the rusty key, the angles of which hurt her hand. Then, applying again her utmost strength, happily she succeeded in forcing back the stubborn bolt, and thus liberating Oswald's right hand.


ALICE DE MONTFORT SETS FREE THE SAXON CHIEFTAIN.


"Thank Heaven for a limb at liberty! My good right hand, too," said he, stretching it to its utmost length for very joy. "Give me the key, now, fair lady, for I can myself undo the rest." Soon, one by one, the fetters were stripped off from his cramped and lacerated limbs, and he bounded from them free. Falling on his knees before Alice, he seized her hand and pressed it to his lips, exclaiming, "Tell me the name of my benefactress, lady, for it shall be enshrined in my memory for ever."

"I am Alice de Montfort, and that was my maid," said Alice timidly, and blushing crimson.

"Alice de Montfort!" said Oswald, starting to his feet as one bewildered at the avowal. Then, seizing the other trembling hand, he passionately exclaimed, "Nay, never blush, lady! So noble a name, so fair a form, and so generous a deed are worthily associated."

"Alas! I fear me, sir knight, some men, if they knew that I thus acted falsely to my father and to my people, would despise me; but I have learnt to despise the opinions of men, when the cause of humanity and of chivalry claims my feeble help. We noticed your brave defence of your home, and the evil fortune which befel you; and we two weak women were overtaken with pity, which is our woman's weakness. Thus we have ventured this deed. I would you should accept it as some atonement for the violence and greed of my people. But tarry not, sir knight, I beseech you, lest this act be marred ere it be accomplished."

"How can I express my gratitude to you, gentle lady, for adventuring so much in order that you might give me my life! But I would that the curse of Heaven may be upon me as an ingrate, if I forget, even for an hour, the debt I owe to you, and, if opportunity serve, I return not with interest to thee and thine this act of mercy done to me in my extremity. But the time is urgent, as you say. So adieu, lady."

"Stay, sir knight; there is one other point—how will you make good your escape? Had you not better go with us to our women's quarters? Then we may devise with greater leisure some further means to ensure your escape."

"If you will but lend me your cloak, lady, to disguise my form, I know this castle's resources, and I shall not fail to make my escape. As a token of this, I will leave the cloak at the foot of the stair leading to the tower. Adieu, lady! We shall meet again under happier auspices."

So saying, he bounded from the dungeon and disappeared in the darkness.


CHAPTER XIII.

BARON VIGNEAU BAULKED OF HIS REVENGE.

"Midnight brought on the dusky hour,
Friendliest to sleep and silence."
Milton.

The pall of darkness is spread over the face of Nature, and the bold outlines of the mountains are shrouded in its embrace. Under cover of the darkness, a cordon of vigilant and daring sentinels are closing in upon the castle and its carousing inmates. One stealthy figure glides peeringly from tree to tree amongst the clump of towering chestnuts, until he reaches one near the wall, when, throwing his legs around it, and catching hold of the tough and sinewy shoots in the bole, he mounts aloft, and perches daringly amid the branches of the tree, watching the remnant of the Normans who still are able to keep up the orgie. But most of them are now fast in the arms of a sodden sleep.

Another figure, on hands and knees, with snake-like motion has left the thicket of laurel, hazels, and flowering currants at the foot of the slope in front, and wriggles his way up the rising ground on which the castle is built, until he comes daringly close to the wall; whilst the short, sharp scream of the night-owl, issuing from first one point and then another, tells that concerted action is afoot. The secret of it is, that Wulfhere has rallied a band of the hardiest Saxons, if needs be, to dare a desperate deed of rescue on behalf of their captive chieftain. Many a fierce Saxon, with naked sword and eagerly listening ear, is lurking around, ready for any deed that may be required of him.

Wulfhere and a trusty comrade are standing together at the foot of a gigantic oak in an adjoining wood. The capacious trunk tells that for many centuries it has looked down upon its contemporaries. The decayed and verdureless branches, clustered around its centre, tell also that the process of decay has been progressing for a longer span of time than is permitted in the life of mortals. If we ascend it for a few yards we shall find that, just where its stout limbs divide themselves from the bole, a yawning cavern has taken the place of its once stout heart, into which a man would find no difficulty in descending.

"I think there are none of the enemy on the alert, and we may venture," said Wulfhere to his companion. So saying, he mounted the tree and disappeared in the recess, and, sliding down until he reached the ground, he quietly removed some leaves and other débris; then there was visible a trap-door, which he raised, revealing a flight of steps, which he descended, followed by his companion. Drawing forth a horn lantern, with tinder-box and flint, he struck a light, and the pair began slowly marching along in the direction of the castle. But they had not proceeded very far before they were saluted by a familiar voice.

"What ho, Wulfhere! what are you venturing?"

After the first violent consternation, Wulfhere found his tongue.

"We essayed a rescue, my lord, but you have saved us the trouble. How is this? We scarcely hoped to find you alive at this time, much less a free man."

"A miracle, Wulfhere! I account it a miracle, for I am as one given back from the dead. But more anon. Let us haste for the present, for I tremble lest it should turn out that it is but a dream, and that there will follow a horrid awakening."

The trio quickly retraced their steps, and stood together in the wood, Wulfhere uttering a series of peculiar calls well known to every Saxon comprising the band of rescuers. Quickly, one by one, they rallied to the spot; and when they saw their chieftain safe and well their demonstrations of joy were most exuberant—almost frantic—many of them dancing round him like satyrs in the dim light of the wood, each and all most anxiously demanding by what strange chance he had obtained his liberty. As they hastily retreated to the hills, Oswald briefly related to his followers the circumstances of his release by two Norman women, who at dead of night had boldly opened the prison door and unfettered him—Oswald carefully laying upon his followers the injunction that no harm should be done to the Norman women, and that special regard should be paid to the Norman lady, daughter of Count de Montfort. He also enjoined upon them the strictest secrecy as to the agents who had taken part in it.


Early on the morrow there was a grand muster of the Norman men-at-arms in the castle yard. Many of them who had taken part in the assault on the castle were not followers of the Count, but mercenaries, who were eager for further advance in quest of plunder. To this multitude who had fought for him, and stayed their hand from plunder and burning, at his request, a liberal donative of gold was distributed; and presently three-fourths of the soldiery shouldered arms and marched northwards to swell the ranks of the desolating host which carried fire and sword throughout the north of England, and to the borders of Scotland. Blood-curdling were the dreadful scenes of slaughter that were enacted; not less than two hundred thousand Saxons perishing in that ruthless massacre.

Alice and Jeannette were astir betimes in the morning also; in fact, Alice had not closed her eyes during that night of suspense. With considerable daring, in the morning she and Jeannette passed from room to room, from basement to roof, in search of evidence that the Saxon had made good his escape, starting and trembling violently as the wild shouts of the men fell upon their ears, lest it should be but the herald of Oswald's recapture.

"There remains but the tower, Jeannette," said Alice, after they had explored, as best they could, the various rooms of the castle. So towards the dismal winding stair of the tower they hastened, and there in the semi-darkness they came across the cloak which Alice had lent the fugitive. Then Alice remembered the parting words of the Saxon,—that 'she would find the cloak at the bottom of the stair.' Slowly they scrambled up these stairs, often-times having literally to grope their way. When they reached the top they peered anxiously around, but no trace of Oswald was to be seen. Looking over the battlements, they beheld Vigneau, Pierre, and a number of men making preparation for what they considered a morning's sport. Some had fenced round a small enclosure, and others had kindled a large fire, in which were heating pincers and long iron spikes wherewith they purposed torturing the Saxon chieftain. Vigneau, casting a glance up at the castle, perceived Alice and Jeannette peering over the battlements and watching the fiendish preparations.

"Pierre," said Vigneau, "do you see la grande dame watching us? We shall find her sport soon the mawkish damsel will sicken at, I warrant. I would like to tie her to the spot and make her look on whether she will or no."

"You will win no gracious smiles by this work, I doubt, my lord; it would have been better done farther away," said Pierre.

"I neither care for her smiles nor her tears. I have got the hook in her gills and I'll land her in my own fashion, and she may struggle and flounder as she will. I can bring her ladyship or her precious sire to their knees as I like. You shall see presently. But come along, bring half a dozen of your men with you; we'll have Samson up now."

So away they hastened to the cells to fetch their prisoner.

"Jeannette," said Alice, "I am ready to faint! Do you think the Saxon has escaped? I fear he could never scale that horrid wall; and if he be but hiding on the roof or in the cells he will be surely caught."

"If I could push these huge stones upon the Baron's head I would do it freely," said Jeannette.

Just at that moment a wild shout came pealing up the stair.

"Oh, Jeannette," said Alice, "let me sit down! They have found him, I fear! This is sickening!"

Just at that moment a soldier was seen to dash from the door of the castle and fly across the enclosure and through the gate. This was the sentinel who had taken Paul Lazaire's place; and who, as soon as he found the prisoner gone had himself fled for life and was seen no more.

Speedily a hue and cry was raised. The castle was searched within and without with the utmost minuteness. Vigneau's violence and rage were fearful, and his demeanour that of a wild beast baulked of his prey.

It is needless to say that I was well-nigh overjoyed when Badger brought me the wonderful news of Oswald's deliverance. I gave God praise, for truly it was little less than a miracle. Badger, by some means or other, seemed to be constantly in possession of all information as regarded the movements of the Normans as well as the Saxons. Truly, he seemed ever on the alert. By night he was constantly in conference with the outlaws. Marvellously, also, he gained the goodwill of the Normans, and he became a repository of all their secrets. Unfortunately for us, Vigneau and his men quartered themselves at the abbey; and, fearful for Ethel's safety, I made Badger the bearer of the following letter to Oswald, who had, I was pleased to hear, found a retreat which promised some prospect of immunity from molestation; and, as I said, I had become most nervously anxious for the welfare of Ethel now that Vigneau had taken up his abode so near to her retreat.

"To the most noble and valiant Ealdorman Oswald, greeting.—Having been assured by yourself that you purpose devoting your great wisdom and undoubted valour to the most worthy cause of protecting and succouring your unfortunate and distressed countrymen, in these most perilous times, I would fain bring to your notice that most evil times have befallen the house of your late neighbour, the Thane Beowulf, in that his lands, like your own, have become forfeit. But, what is even more distressing, he, along with his son, has been slain whilst endeavouring to prevent the spoliation of their possessions by the Normans. His lovely and accomplished daughter Ethel had fled to these cloisters for safety; but inasmuch as this most holy sanctuary is involved in the general ruin, being seized by violent hands, and remains at this present in possession and under the control of beings who are little better than fiends—men who have no regard for sacred things, and who in their cruelty and lust spare neither age nor sex—violent hands have been laid upon Ethel, but happily she hath been delivered out of their hands as a 'bird from the fowler,' by the combined address and valour of the bearer of this message. Unfortunately there is no place of safety for her, for the remnant of her father's housecarles and fiefs are a scattered band, and outlaws. She hath for the present, however, found a temporary place of shelter in the dwelling of one of her father's rangers, who hath a rude abode in 'Hooded Crow's Gyll.' But this is at best a precarious refuge, for, as soon as the Normans muster courage to explore the forest, she will inevitably fall into their hands again. If thou canst befriend this orphaned one, the God of the friendless and distressed bless thee! If thou canst offer her a more secure shelter, the bearer of this missive—whom doubtless thou wilt know—may be safely trusted to guide thee to the herdsman's hut. Most sorrowfully I salute thee.

"Adhelm, Abbot,
"Monastery of ——. [symbol: cross]

This epistle duly reached Oswald, who, as I surmised, lost no time in setting about a rescue. Calling Wulfhere, three horses were quickly saddled—one for Oswald, one for Wulfhere, and one for Badger, who was to act as guide.

"Lead the way," said the Earl; "and keep by the hills as far as possible, for the Normans as yet have had no time to spare from their eating, drinking, and plundering, to explore the hill country, and, I doubt not, we shall go unmolested."

With these directions, the three horsemen started off, keeping to the hills, where their vision could sweep the valleys and lowlands with so much accuracy that it would have been impossible for an enemy to come at any time within a couple of miles of steep climbing without being perceived. A little more than an hour's ride brought them to the point from whence they must strike the forest and lowlands. They paused for a minute or two, calmly surveying the hillsides, and minutely scrutinising every object which had any indefiniteness or uncertainty about it. But the curlews swept the long circle of the hills, uttering their plaintive cries, and the hawks glided over the tops of the trees, or darted in and out amongst them to start their prey into the open, or, on poised wing, they rested motionless in the air, scanning with keen vision the ground beneath them, and ready to pounce like a flash upon any luckless mouse or tiny rabbit that had ventured on an excursion from its hole.

"The presence of man—or, at least, of men—is not here," said Oswald, "or these shy denizens of the solitudes of Nature would betray it by their unrest. Lead on, Badger; we shall not be molested, I trust."

So Badger struck out for the lowlands at a rapid pace, presently plunging into the head of the wood which ran up the valley some half-mile beyond the unbroken forest. In the bottom of this valley or gorge, a water-course was speeding away from the hills, occasionally leaping over falls of several yards. But, amongst the unsolvable mysteries of Nature, trout in goodly numbers had penetrated beyond them, and in every pool or temporary resting-place of the waters, these enterprising denizens of the flood abounded. The three followed a rough path by this water-course for a considerable distance, until it merged in the well-nigh interminable forest.

Suddenly Badger diverged from the path, and, dismounting, led his horse through the thicket, putting aside the branches as he passed. Presently a rude dwelling became visible, with a little clearing around it. This was the spot where the herdsman, or, more properly speaking, the ranger, dwelt. It was a rough and primitive sort of building, made of wood. Stout oak limbs, deeply inserted into the ground, and from which the bark had been removed, formed the main supports, whilst the arched roof and interspaces of the sides were interlaced in most fantastic shapes by smaller branches of the oak, all carefully peeled. Upon this framework of oaken branches the roof and sides were dexterously thatched by heather from the neighbouring moor, and over all a rude daubing of mud and lime mixed; the whole making a rude, but, nevertheless, a warm and dry abode. Around the entrance there was a few yards paved with smooth limestone pebbles gathered from the neighbouring brook. Amid these were interspersed most fantastically the knuckle-bones of deer, sheep, wolves, and other animals. Grotesque and whimsical all this seemed, but it jumped with the fancy of the architect, who was literally a child of the forest. Badger, as he drew nigh, heard hasty scuffling of feet and barricading of the door. But when he gave a knock all was as still as death in a moment.

"Hillo, within there!" shouted Badger. "There is nothing but good Saxons here."

The ranger's wife recognised at once the voice of Badger, and undid the door; and the three entered, leaving their horses standing together. Ethel, meanwhile, was listening within in great trepidation, but when she discovered that their unexpected visitants were Saxon, she emerged from an inner room. As her eyes rested upon Oswald, who had removed his helmet, the burning blushes mounted in a deep crimson glow to her face and neck, and she cast an anxiously nervous look at her disarranged toilette.

"Ah!" said Oswald, taking her hand and raising it to his lips, "is this the sweet little Ethel who used to watch us rough boys play at the joust, and fence with our broadswords?—whom we used to accompany through the Bruneswald on her hawking expeditions? Why, how you have grown, too! To be sure, these terrible times have left no opportunities for neighbourly amenities. Why, 'tis three years since I last set eyes upon you. Ah, I know 'tis very sad," said he, as he saw the tears start into her eyes; "but dry those eyes, timid one, we will endeavour to find a covert where you may hide; and we will put about it a girdle of steel, and woe shall be to the Norman who obtrudes his hated presence near."

But these gentle words only seemed to open the floodgates still wider, and the frail frame of the fair girl quivered with emotion. Recently she had passed through sufferings, privations, terrors innumerable; but as she looked upon the mailed warrior before her, it seemed as though a very tower of refuge had been found. The most casual observer would have been powerfully impressed by the striking contrast in these two human beings—Ethel, with her fair complexion, deep blue eyes, and rich tresses of fair hair falling with unkempt gracefulness over her shoulders, being a picture of maidenly grace, and an ideal high-born Saxon maiden; whilst the Earl's tall, muscular frame, well-shapen head, and curly locks, seemed like a modern Hercules made for the times, and equipped by Nature to play a conspicuous part in a troublous epoch,—times, in which personal prowess, dauntless courage, and a commanding presence were essential qualities in one who aspired to be a leader of men.

We can scarcely wonder that there should be a touch of more than wonted gentleness in the tone of his voice, as he spoke to this fair and sorrowing maiden.

"We heard of your misfortunes, fair one," said Oswald, "and we have come to offer you such succour as a dispossessed Saxon can still offer. I fear me it will be but a rude shelter for so gentle a guest. It may be precarious, and subject to alarms, too; but I warrant it shall have a measure of safety, if you will accept of it."

"Thank you, my lord. Alas! that is all that I have to offer for your great kindness. I will gladly accept your offer, and I will try not to be altogether a burden to you."

"Now, my worthy dame," said Oswald, addressing the ranger's wife, "you have done a good deed in sheltering this lady."

"We have but done our duty. She is our lawful mistress. We have fed on her father's bounty, and enjoyed his protection, and the sorrow is to see her brought to this pass."

"Where is thy husband?"

"He is adown the Gyll on the watch."

"Canst thou call him?"

"Presently, my lord, if you wish to see him."

"Yes, let us see his face. We may be able to befriend him, and he us."

The woman reached from the side of the dwelling a small whistle, made from a branch of the plaintain tree, and, going to the door, she blew a low and peculiar note, then listened for a second; but there was no response. Then a little louder she blew the same note. Immediately there came trembling through the wood a response.

"He will be here soon," said the woman, coming back to the dwelling.

Presently, the ranger pressed through the bushes into the enclosure; in one hand a dish of fine trout dangled on a string, and in the other hand a pheasant. But there was no mark of surprise on Bretwul's countenance as he beheld his visitors.

"How now, friend. Thou art not alarmed, I see," said Oswald.

"No; I have one eye for the hills, and another for the dales, and I know a Saxon any gait, and my old comrade Badger in any guise."

"So thou hast busied thyself in securing these dainties for thy mistress, I presume?"

"Yes, I have sent one of my trusty shafts after this dainty bird, and I have poked under a few stones in the brook for these trout. Here," said he, throwing his quiver on the floor, "are a score of cloth-yard shafts, and every one a trusty friend, and never fails. I have taken great pains in the rearing of them. I have tried them all at a mark, and I have all their peculiarities logged up in my brain-pan. I have taken the swerve out of them, as nearly as I can, by paring their heads, and twisting their tails; but they have all a mind of their own at the finish. But I know their minds as well as they know themselves, and I can allow, to a shadow, what they require and I can shoot a Norman's eye out at fourscore paces with any of them. Look, also; all these heads have been made by Sweyn, the Sheffield armourer; all of them forked ye see, and make a dainty little slit between a Norman's ribs as they enter; but gramercy! getting them out, there's the rub! I have been watching for many a day down the Gyll, for the Normans have been getting bold, ransacking the forest in quest of Saxon refugees. A slice of luck, and a crumb of comfort, has fallen to me this morning."

"Oh! Hast thou had some of them within reach of thy cloth-yard shafts, then, this morning?"

"Marry, that I have! and I have tickled one or two of them with a long stick; but they didn't laugh, mark you."

"Oh, then, we'll have thy story, Bretwul, for we are all anxious to hear how they like messages from our woodsmen."

"Well, it came about thus. There is a little path from the valley leads up to our cot. 'Twas worn, before these dogs came, be assured, for we shall make no further tracks, yet awhile. As I was out this morning, on the rough side of my cottage—that is, the side turned to the foe—and on the look-out for them, three or four of these Normans had come across the track, and, of course, they naturally thought there would be something at the end on't. Well, there was something in the middle that satisfied them. No sooner did I see them coming, than I says to myself, 'Come on, my bucks! I've got something warm for you, and you can have it for nothing but love.' I planted myself in the bush not forty paces away, and I selected my choicest shaft. This is him," said he, pulling one out of the quiver, still red with blood. "I'd trust my life on this shaft, master, for he never fails. Well; on they came, and I gave him all the strength of my arm, and plump in the throat my arrow struck the foremost Norman, and he dropped in the path. Gramercy! His fellows didn't even stop to say to him, 'Are you much hurt?' or even to inquire if there was any more of the same sort about; but they turned tail, master, if you believe me, and they ran—why, Badger here couldn't have overhauled them, and he's the nimblest fellow in these parts. Well, I says to myself, 'I should not like you to go empty away, any of you, if I can help it.' So I lodged another of my shafts pretty securely, I warrant, in the buttocks of the last one, and the fellow never halted for a moment to inquire what it was, but he carried off my shaft. I suppose they will be busy now inviting it to come out; but, depend upon it, it will hold its own as closely as any Norman could stick to a Saxon's goods. I've lost a good shaft over him, but it will tickle him for many a day yet; and he'll want nobody to scratch the place, either. There, marry! it's bad manners to stand prating before my betters, but a bit of news of this sort I like, either to hear or tell it."

"It is news good either to hear or tell," said Oswald, "and we shall be glad to hear more of thy stories when thou hast any as good as this. But prithee, my good fellow, what is this bundle of shafts in the corner?"

"These, master, are my youngsters, and they haven't quite finished their schooling. They are trusty shafts enough when you come to close quarters, but, like an unbroken colt, a trifle skittish when accurate work has to be done. I'll make them steady goers by-and-bye. Wife haven't you a drink of mead or a bite of anything for our guests? This is Oswald, our only chieftain in these parts. Don't you remember his coming to the hall and playing joust and broadsword with Master Beowulf? A stout rogue he was, too, in those days. This is Wulfhere, Folkfree and Sacless (lawful freeman); Badger, too, a merry fellow—like myself, though, thrall and bondman, but as trusty a knave, I trow, as breathes."

"I like thy mettle, Bretwul, if such be thy name; but what dost thou purpose to do? Wilt thou stay here and take thy luck single-handed, or dost thou intend to make terms with the Normans, and accept such mercies as they may bestow?"

"'Down with the Normans,' is the Saxon's good word now, and it has been mine from the first. The Bruneswald, and the company of the merry outlaws who range it, would suit me best; but hopping about in the woods, like a squirrel from tree to tree, does not suit the womenfolk and my toddlers. But shift I must now; after to-day's business there will be no staying here. I left yon fellow across the path as a sort of warning to trespassers, but it won't act long, for the Normans will come again in larger numbers, and the game will soon be up."

"Maybe thou hast heard that we have made a stand on the hills yonder?"

"Ay, ay! that I have, master."

"If thou likest to bring thy wife to Tarnghyll, where we are sheltering for the present, she and the little ones will be much safer, and thy wife Eadburgh will be useful to Lady Ethel. By-the-bye, thou hast a brace of falcons and some fishing gear, I see; and I warrant there is a ferret or two in that hutch outside. Every man to his craft, and marry, thine is a serviceable one just now. If thou wilt do thine office for thy mistress and the rest of us, why then bring thy tackle, and thou shalt ply thy craft for us, and be assured we shall not grumble if thou waste an occasional shaft upon the buttocks of any bold or prying Norman. Hast thou any of thy comrades, servants of the worthy Thane Beowulf, hiding hereabouts who are willing to take a new master? If there are, bring them along with thee, for any one sturdy enough to despise the Norman yoke, and anxious to loose a shaft in defence of the Saxon's cause, will be heartily welcomed, for we purpose a venture in which a man who can shoot straight will do us good service."

"That will be blithe news, I trow, for there are a number of the housecarles of the worthy Thane, my late master, who are casting about for something more settled-like than the wolf's-head life of the forest. In truth, there will be a merry gathering of stout outlaws at the hermit's cave on Crowfell at nightfall. I would be keen to carry your message to this trysting. At our last gathering the talk ran much on your defence of the castle, and some of these are forest men and outlaws who range the woods as far south as Sherwood. Anyway, I warrant me the natives of these parts will hear the news with rare glee, for a dalesman likes to keep in the shadow of his hills and fells. Stout men at a push you'll find them, and ready to stand to their weapons with the best, and as slippery as eels when they must shift for themselves. Say the word, and I'll see it runs through these parts like a heather-fire in a stiff breeze."

"Good! Bretwul, stir up these fellows, the more the merrier, for we are not going to play hide-and-seek with these Normans, and the stouter the mustering the better we can deal with them."

Bretwul's wife set before the visitors a stout repast—spoils of the chase and the flood—for Bretwul was an adept at his vocation. The visitors also were well supplied with hunger-sauce, and they did rare justice to it.

"Well, Badger," said Oswald, "you seem to have taken such a liking to your new friends that you could not bear parting with them on any terms, so we must leave you behind, and wish them joy of their friend."

"Gramercy, master, it is true! I am such a simple fellow that I can wag a paw with these Normans in all meekness and humility; but I have a snare or two set on my own account, and the game always finds its way fellward. Leave me alone, I'll wriggle through it somehow; and, by our Lady, I've had no broken bones thus far."

So Oswald, Wulfhere, and Ethel sped them on their way—Ethel being accommodated with the spare horse.

"Come, Ethel, my girl, you must dry those eyes, for I shall take note each day, be assured, to see how the sunshine comes back again to your countenance," said Oswald, pleasantly.

"I am afraid I shall prove to be a great burden, and very little of a help to you in your struggles."

"Oh, yes; you will be just such a burden as the wild flowers, as little tending and as fragrant and beautiful as they."

Ethel blushed scarlet, and made haste to change the subject. "Do you think, my lord, this Norman Count is bent on exterminating all Saxons who do not yield them vassals to him?"

"Nay, Ethel girl, why this formality? I used to be Master Oswald; I pray you let the honest Saxon name suffice. I cannot tell what De Montfort intends, but I fear he will let nothing slip that he can by any means grasp; but I have determined I will know the best or the worst of his intentions. I shall open negotiations with him, and ascertain, if possible, if he purposes we shall dwell in peace and as freemen."

"But you will not venture so far as to put yourself in his power? I pray you, trust them not, for they are insatiable in their cruelty," said Ethel anxiously.

"No fear, Ethel, of my putting myself in his power. Having once tasted the horrors of captivity I shall not risk its repetition rashly; but I have a plan, and I shall speak with him face to face. I may tell you, despite the many reasons we have for undying hatred and no compromise, I have a deep-rooted conviction that for the present, at all events, a truce on reasonable and honourable terms will be immeasurably best for the Saxon cause."

"The land is undoubtedly prostrate, and time is urgently needed ere it can rally once more," said Ethel.


CHAPTER XIV.

THE SAXON CHIEFTAIN CONFRONTS DE MONTFORT.

"Then crouch no more on suppliant knee,
But scorn with scorn outbrave;
A Briton even in love should be
A subject, not a slave."
Wordsworth.

Count de Montfort and his daughter Alice were seated together one evening in what was known as the crimson parlour, a comfortable and somewhat elegant room for the period. It was wainscoted in dark oak, with carpets and hangings of richly-figured crimson cloth from the looms of Avignon. They were enjoying a temporary respite from the incessant bustle and turmoil which had been their daily accompaniment since the day they first occupied the Saxon chieftain's patrimony. Even here, their quiet was unpleasantly disturbed by the roystering merriment of their followers in the distant kitchen, who stoutly maintained their freedom to carouse and drink pretty much as they listed. I take the liberty here to introduce the reader to a more intimate acquaintance with the Count and his beautiful and accomplished daughter. The Count was considerably past middle life, probably not less than fifty-five. His sunburnt countenance, and the stern lines about his mouth and forehead, told eloquently the tale of a soldier's life. For the habits of a rough and unscrupulous life had lent a grim and unfeeling hardness to a visage which had strong evidence of force and character depicted in it. There was also palpable evidence of a spirit ill at ease and clouded with doubt, which made him irritable sometimes to a degree positively cruel to friend or foe. His once jet-black locks were silvering rapidly; but his tall form had lost none of its erectness, and his haughty and imperious demeanour proclaimed him a man used to ruling arbitrarily, and little accustomed to brooking opposition, or the frustrating of his purposes. His daughter, Lady Alice de Montfort, was extremely like him in general appearance. Tall and elegant in carriage, her profuse raven tresses were gathered in silken bands, and from thence fell over her shoulders well-nigh to her girdle. Her face was pale; her features regular, as though chiselled. A pair of lustrous dark eyes glowed from between darker lashes, proclaiming her southern extraction. She was indeed a model of queenly beauty. Like many of her countrywomen of exalted station, her youth had been spent in the seclusion of the convent, where alone an education worthy of the name could be obtained. This secluded life—despite her fiery extraction—had toned down her disposition; whilst the culture and refinement had made her a typical example of the romance and troubadour spirit of song, which we Saxons knew to be developed in the maidens of sunny France. For her, the rough life of the Norman occupation, with its scenes of blood and cruelty, was a daily horror.

"Alice," began the Count, "I told you some time ago that I had affianced you to Baron Vigneau. He has followed my fortunes, and lent the prowess of himself and his mercenaries in furthering my interests, in return for which he was to receive your hand in marriage; and I gave him my solemn promise to that effect. His recent conduct has not pleased me, and his addiction to the wine-cup has become inordinate. But I lay the fault of this to the rough times we have had, and I doubt not when peaceful times come again he will become a sober and a virtuous Norman Baron. Anyway, I gave him my promise, and he has fulfilled the obligation. He now presses for the fulfilment of this promise. Much time has already been allowed you to prepare, so I would have you bethink yourself when it can be redeemed. As you know, it rests solely with yourself as to when this event shall be, and my pledges made good. I pray you despise him not, for though he is a landless mercenary, he is brave, and has powerful friends."

"Father, this marriage is most distasteful—I may say, most abhorrent to me. The Baron is a man I cannot possibly love; and if my fortune is what he would have, let him take it and welcome—I care not if I am penniless, if I have my liberty. Nay, I would much rather take the veil if I have no other choice than to marry him."

"Alice, this cannot be; I cannot break my promise. Once for all let me tell you I dare not. This man has obtained a fatal advantage over me, and it is a question of life and death for me. Listen!" said he, rising and pacing the room with quick nervous tread. "Fool that I was, when this last insurrection of the Saxons broke out I was deeply smarting under the rebuffs I had received at the hands of my mortal enemies Odo and Fitz-Osborne, and the base ingratitude of William. I counted the forces of the rebels, and noted their wonderful successes; and foolishly imagining the Danes and Scots would stand firm, I thought that William's time had come at last. Madman that I was! to think ought could thwart the iron will and marvellous resource. But I had many things to be revenged upon, and I was blinded by it. I thought, now is the time. But worst of all, in sheer madness and infatuation I entrusted letters—deadly compromising letters—to this Vigneau for the leaders of the insurrection. These letters Vigneau never delivered, and he now holds them over my head, the villain! and threatens to divulge the whole thing to William. If he does this, I know well, with the enemies I have at court, that nothing will appease the self-willed tyrant but my head. These letters contain such ample proof of my treasonous intentions that my life literally hangs in the balance if I cannot gratify Vigneau. Fool and dolt that I was to place myself in the power of so unscrupulous a villain!

"I have told you this much that you may think less hardly of me. But the thing is absolute and irrevocable. I can no longer put him off by my excuses on your behalf, for he becomes clamorous and threatening. There is nothing further to gain, I perceive, by remonstrances and promises, so the sooner this marriage takes place the better; for I am hopelessly involved in the toils of this snake."

A dead silence of some minutes followed this, and a sickening sensation almost to fainting crept over Alice. How long the death-like stillness would have lasted I know not, but just at that juncture, in silence profound, the massive oaken door swung back unbidden, and a snatch of a Bacchanalian chorus pealed along the corridors and burst unbidden on the ears of father and daughter. But the rising temper of the Count at this ill-timed jollity and carousing gave way on the instant to profound astonishment and alarm, as Oswald the Saxon, armed with shield and buckler, with his drawn sword in his hand, strode into the room; whilst the dim form of an armed accomplice was visible for a moment in the darkness ere the door swung back to its place, shutting out the sounds of revelry and riot, and the three were alone together. The Count sprang to his feet, whipped out his sword, and savagely stood at bay, awaiting the onslaught of the sturdy Saxon. Alice also sprang to her feet with a startled cry, and a strange panic seized her. Had this Saxon, who owed his life to her, sought this interview with murderous intent? His appearance betokened it most surely, and she began to upbraid herself most keenly.

"Quiet you, lady," said Oswald, with a low obeisance, and in tones which belied the warlike attitude and arms which he bore. "I have none but peaceable intentions, gentle lady, though in these times we must be prepared for any eventualities. I hope you will let this excuse my weapons and my untimely visit."

"What doest thou here, Saxon? and how darest thou intrude thyself so recklessly?" said the Count.


THE SAXON CHIEFTAIN CONFRONTS DE MONTFORT.


"As to intrusion, noble sir, you will pardon me, but my father built this castle, and I was born here, and inherited it from him; so I would fain point out, if you will allow me, that I am not the intruder. You have usurped my lands, appropriated my home, and slain my vassals; whilst I am homeless, landless, and an outlaw."

"Lucky, too, art thou, Saxon, to escape with thy life, and wondrous venturesome withal, in thrusting thy neck a second time into the halter."

"I have not come to bandy threats, but it is not my neck that is in the halter just now, and if thou wert not shielded by a protector more potent than thy armed minions thy life would soon be forfeit—mark that, Norman! and be a little more merciful."

"Thou liest, Saxon dog! I fear thee not, nor any Saxon boor in the land!" said the Count, brandishing his sword, whilst Alice rushed frantically between them.

"Excuse my hastiness, fair lady," said Oswald, "and permit me to say that I have not come to shed blood, but the reverse; I am come to solicit a truce, an honourable truce, and to treat for a cessation of hostilities and hatred; and I would fain you should be umpire between us this night, gentle lady."

"What truce dost thou expect, Saxon?" said the Count. "There can but be one truce between the conqueror and a foe routed and beaten; and that is, that he should lay down his arms unconditionally and accept the clemency of the conqueror."

"That is a condition which we shall not accept. We shall maintain our liberty at all hazards, and the Norman had better beware of harassing desperate men."

"If thy arrogance were equalled by thy power, Saxon, thou wouldst do great things. But be thou well assured that I will root every mother's son of you out of your holes in the mountains within a month, if there is not unconditional surrender. But if thou and thy vassals return, and accept these terms, ye shall be entitled to my protection as my vassals and villeins. For thyself, if thou subscribe the oath of fealty, I will assign to thee certain lands, which thou shalt atone for by such services rendered to me as I please, as thy feudal lord."

"Excuse me, noble sir; but these are impossible terms. In the first place, I am not going to submit to be a grovelling feudatory, wearing clumsy brogues and a vassal's collar, coming cringingly to thee for permission to make a journey or shoot a stag—to ask humbly if I may keep a dog; catch a fish; or marry a wife! I am not going to hold the stirrup for beggarly Norman adventurers, and say, Your most humble servant, By your leave, puissant sir, Crave your pardon, my lord, and all the rest of servile rigmarole, being afraid to breathe the breath of heaven, or tread mother earth; or say that I am a man; content to be numbered with thy cattle, or thy goods and chattels, and be spoken of as the loutish Saxon clown. Never! Let that be understood once for all. No drop of vassal's blood courses through my veins. No part of a vassal's spirit animates me. I have not looked upon the face of any man, Saxon or Norman, that I fear, and I will be vassal to no man. Leave me alone, with the handful of Saxons who follow me. Thou hast my lands and my home—take them as the spoils of war, but be content. There is land enough, and thou mayest leave us in peace. We will not come nigh thee, but be content to till a little land for sustenance; and we may be of service as thy allies. Probably many of the serfs will be willing to return to their lands and to vassalage; and all who are willing may do so freely."

"Thou hast come to dictate terms, not to supplicate them, Saxon. Dost thou think it probable I shall tolerate a petty Saxon chieftain holding sway close to my doors? or harbour on my lands a brood of villeins who will render the service of fear to me and that of fealty to the Saxon near, so that in any pinch they will treacherously fail me? Thou hast a low estimate of my wisdom, truly. But listen once for all, Saxon; if there be not immediate surrender I will hunt you from your holes in the hills, as I have already said, within a month, and few will escape me—mark that!"

"Father," said Alice, "you do this noble Saxon grievous wrong in rejecting so rudely his amicable overtures. You may surely mingle mercy with your designs. I myself will be bond, these Saxons will reciprocate any acts of generosity done to them. Besides, consider this: you saw the forms of armed men at the door just now. They have stayed their hand when it was at the throat of their victims, and they may do so again."

"Tush! tush! you speak like a school-girl. These boorish Saxons will count mercy as weakness; so no more of it."

"Many thanks, lady," interposed Oswald. "Gentle means are strongest when we deal with human beings, whether they be gentle or simple. But adieu! If my mission fails, the responsibility rests not with me, for I have now offered peace—a peace which is abject in its terms." So saying, he turned and struck the oaken door with the pommel of his sword, which on the instant sprung open and as quickly-closed behind him, whilst the massive bolt was shot from the outside.

The Count sprang to the door, and tried to force it open, but to no purpose. "Jules! Jules!" roared he. "What ho there! Treachery!" But the only response he received to his frantic cries was the fragment of a rollicking song and chorus, trolled more lustily than musically by rough voices in the distant kitchen, the substance of which ran something like the following:—

"Old Bacchus was a merry dog,
And kept good company;
He loved good wine and a jovial song,
So his days sped merrily.
Chorus.—Ho, comrades all, we'll drink and sing,
So pass the bowl along.
If a better cask the morrow bring,
We'll greet it with a song."

"What ho there, you drunken brutes! What ho, Jules!" shouted the Count, frantic with rage. But again the response was in a similar strain:—

"We're freemen all, but have our liege,
For William is our lord;
We've wine and ale and venison
To crown our festive board.
Chorus.—Ho, comrades, all," etc.

"What ho there!" roared the Count, more lustily than ever, and furiously beating the door with an oaken footstool. But all in vain, the song ran its course oblivious of all beside, and with, if possible, an increase in its roystering loudness:—

"No foemen can our arms withstand,
The Saxons are our scorn.
We'll drink and laugh, and sing at eve,
And chase them in the morn.
Chorus.—Ho, comrades all," etc.

CHAPTER XV.

OUTLAWS AND WOLFSHEADS.

"To be forewarned is to be forearmed."
Proverbial Saying.

Count de Montfort, the born autocrat, it may be inferred, was not the man to permit any remnant of the conquered Saxons to assume an independent authority, or to defy him in his exercise of unlimited power. Nor did he relish the fearless tone in which Oswald had addressed him. Such an affront must not be tolerated for a moment; so he determined to organise an expedition which should explore the hills and root out any incipient rebellion which might be afoot. It is needless to say that the mysterious escape and reappearance of Oswald also caused increased vigilance in guarding the castle to be resorted to.

Now Badger had manifested a wonderful tact in ingratiating himself with the rough Norman troopers. It was much more common to see him sallying forth cheek by jowl with some of these, fishing, hawking, or boar-hunting, than to see him companying with his Saxon comrades. But there was method in it all, for he was always possessed of their plans and purposes; and when he communicated to me this determination of theirs we made haste to apprise our countrymen of it. That night Badger quietly issued from the postern gate of the Abbey, leading his mountain pony Shaggy, and followed by his faithful wolf-hound Grizzly. Every light was extinguished. Not a sound fell on the stillness of the night air, saving the horrid braying of a stag in the distant wood, and the screeching of owlets as they fluttered amid the branches of the trees in quest of prey. No sooner had they passed through the gate at the northern extremity of the Abbey's ground than Badger mounted Shaggy's back, and they steadily threaded their way through the forest, making as quickly as possible for the hill country. Steady riding for half an hour brought them to the first spur of the mountain, when Badger threw himself from the pony's back, and led the way at a brisk walk. Soon they reached the top of this lower promontory, when, again mounting Shaggy, they dashed along, sending the rabbits by hundreds scurrying away to their holes. But Badger steadily forged ahead towards the huge eminences, which seemed to rise out of utter darkness, and throw their black and ominous outlines against the starlit sky. Half an hour's more riding and patient climbing, and he neared the top. Choosing as the easiest path a deflection between two peaks, he was proceeding at a rapid pace, when, of a sudden, two men on horseback came bearing down upon him like a whirlwind, and drew up in front of him with swords drawn. "Saxon or Norman?" sang out one of them in a tone of inquiry.

"Saxon!" shouted Badger. "Down with the Normans!"

As the well-known voice was heard, the swords were sheathed, and the two horsemen greeted him with a loud laugh.

"Why, you are living yet, then, Badger!" said one. "We have been calculating your chances; and we had come to the conclusion you would be killed and eaten by this time. You would be worth money, Badger, for your skins alone, this cold weather."

"Better shed every extra skin, Badger, or you'll lose your own, I'm thinking," said the other.

"Yes, his skins are valuable, but his carcase is good for nothing. Badgers are just carrion, and nothing more."

"We are right glad to see you, however," said the pair. And indeed they seemed inclined to hug him in the exuberance of their delight.

"Well, and Shaggy's living too! What next, and next. These Normans are becoming most merciful," again broke out the first one.

"Yes, yes," retorted the second one, "that's right enough. But they aren't human beings either of them, or they'd have been murdered before this."

"What news, Badger? I declare he's gone in a trance. Have they burnt the castle down? Are they murdering everybody?"

"They'll have a mighty job to murder some of you," retorted Badger, finding his tongue at last, "unless they could fly. You take mighty good care of your skins. And i' faith, you've only one to take care of. But I wager that will be whole at the finish, unless you should happen to tumble and break your neck with running away."

"Hold there!" said the pair, bursting into a loud laugh at Badger's retort. "When the time comes we shall be amongst the first at the Normans' throats."

"All in good time, my hearties. They are coming in the morning to disturb your roosts, so there will be a chance for you; but come along, I can't stand here, I must see Oswald forthwith about this matter."

"This is our station for the night, Badger. This valley would almost certainly be selected for a night attack, or day attack either, for the matter of that. So we must watch until daybreak."

"Oh, come along, I know everything is perfectly quiet. Not a Norman astir, I will be bond for it. You will be useful, so come along."

"If you will take the responsibility, Badger."

"That I will readily, so come along."

Then the pair turned their horses' heads round, and joined Badger in his errand. As they sped across the moor they heard to the right of them a fierce baying; and presently some half-dozen wolves came bearing down upon them. The horses began to tremble in every limb, and show evidences of bolting. So the three dismounted, and stood at the horses' heads with Grizzly fiercely growling in front. This seemed to reassure the horses; but as the wolves drew near they were evidently mistaken in their prey, for they turned tail and fled. But Grizzly with a terrific growl dashed after them, throwing himself on the haunches of the hindmost, and rolling him over. Then, seizing him by the throat, he would speedily have made an end of him, if the horsemen had not come up and dispatched him with their swords. The monster turned out to be a large gaunt dog wolf, who would have been an ugly customer for an unarmed man to meet when the pinch of hunger was upon him.

"I hope they've got the sheep, and cattle, and swine all trim and tight, or I'm feared they'll be missing some of them in the morning, with these beasts prowling about," remarked one horseman.

"They're getting too plentiful to be at all pleasant. There's been little time for wolf-hunting since these Normans came; they are getting bold too, and are beginning to pack," remarked the second horseman.

"I wish they were the worst foes we had to deal with," said Badger; "I should be a happier man by a good deal. But these dastardly Normans, I fear me we shall never more shake them off. The villainous brood are swarming all over the land, and there will soon be never a patch of soil that a Saxon can call his own. We shall all either have to be slaves or feed on the wind ere long."

"Not me, Badger," said one. "I have neither child nor chick, and a freeman I'll be at all costs. The limestone caves and the greenwood shall make me shelter. As for feeding on air, I'll not want something more substantial if any Norman this side Baldley Heights or Whernside Fell has a sheep in the fold or an ox in the stall."

"Well, don't be downhearted, comrades," said Badger. "When the wind shifts, the cloud lifts. It's a broad ford that can't be bridged. The strongest bow soonest relaxes, and the spent arrow falls lightly. Our time will come, for these Normans are not Viking rovers, but like fat living, and that breeds laziness; and we shall be able to shake ourselves down comfortably if we can't push them out of the bed."

Whilst this conversation was proceeding the three were rapidly pressing on, Badger having by this time put eight or ten miles between himself and the Norman foe. But in the vast distance before them there seemed to loom an unending stretch of moorland, vast and drear and dark. In the pale moonlight the mists could be seen climbing the heights, or creeping lazily along the hollows, where damp and bogs abounded. Like huge repositories of old-world histories these grim old hills seemed—dwarfing human nature into nothingness in their presence—"everlasting hills," broad-based and firm; defying the storms of winter, and bathing their heads in the golden sunshine of summer; unmoved amid the changes, transformations, and fierce race struggles which were being fought out with relentless cruelty around their base; and offering a cold, unsympathetic shelter to fugitives flying to them for safety.

"Keep to the left, Badger. We must keep on the outskirts of that vapour, or we shall be speedily up to the knees in a bog. We have not far to go. Do you see the tops of those fir-trees just peeping over those boulders? That is our headquarters, and Oswald will be there."

Presently the persons of two scouts could be seen moving amid the stones, and evidently reconnoitring the new-comers. A low, shrill whistle is given by one of them, and is answered by Badger's friends; at which signal they drew near to interview the strangers. Then it was seen that the tops of the fir trees were but the outermost ring of a dense wood, which lined the sides of a mammoth ravine, with a still lake of water, or tarn, lying placidly in its hollow.

"Is Oswald here to-night?" was the first inquiry.

"Yes. What news?"

"All right so far; but there will be a lively time to-morrow. Badger, here, has brought the news. Let him have speech with the Earl forthwith."

So the three dismounted, and began slowly to thread their way by a path, winding and difficult, with branches hanging low, and brushwood closing up, so as to make progress impossible except in single file. By-and-bye the bottom is reached, and before them there stands—what was totally concealed from any one skirting the wood on the outside—a spacious one-storied building near the head of the tarn. As they drew near, a fierce growling of a watch-dog was heard, and a challenge was addressed to them by some one hid from view by the dense brushwood. The answer being satisfactory the horses were tied to the trees, and the stranger led them by a winding path to the rear of the dwelling. A gentle tap being given to the door, a woman's voice challenges the visitors; but soon the bolts are withdrawn, and the party enters what was evidently the kitchen quarters.

"Has the Earl retired?" said Bretwul to his wife.

"Yes, long ago. There has not been a sound in the house these two hours."

After consulting together it was deemed a matter of sufficient importance to summon Oswald, and to him Badger briefly related the news which had brought him.

Then ensued a council of war, some advocating evasive tactics. But this brought them face to face with the fact that the Normans were all aware that they were hiding not far away, and they would be sure to persevere until they had unearthed them. So it was decided that a lesson in retaliation was necessary. Word was sent round at once for all cattle and non-fighters to keep especially close, also for the able-bodied men to meet the Earl at daylight at the cave on Deepdale Head.

Badger's errand being now accomplished, he led his pony to the clear. There mounting, and accompanied by Grizzly, the return journey commenced at a steady trot, which was never broken until the monastery was reached; and soon each one was at rest. He had thus given a timely warning to the outlawed Saxons, from which it will be seen they were not slow to profit.


CHAPTER XVI.

SIGURD THE VIKING.

"Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear 't that the opposed may beware of thee."
Shakespeare.

Hanging-Brow Scaur, to which allusion has been made, is a huge peak towering high above the Pennine Range, out of which it springs. A rude cultivation obtains to its very summit—such a cultivation as the bleak winds and perpetual cold permit. Ere the advent of the Normans small mountain sheep with the single lamb at their heels had swarmed over its hoary sides, browsing amid its moistureless grass, nipping the fresh shoots during the summer time, and retreating to the lowlands at the advent of winter. The husbandman who reared his humble dwelling beneath its shoulders had frequent need to beware the cold north wind, the drifted snow, and not unfrequently the rushing avalanche. A sluggish, unromantic life was lived, and a precarious livelihood obtained by these hill-folk. The woods ran up the gorges to the foot of the loftiest peak. Coming downwards they spread over the tops of the lower hills until, from gorge to gorge, the forest trees join hands, and an unbroken forest sweeps downwards, gathering density and luxuriousness until it sweeps over the valleys and up the sides of the hills beyond. Inexpressibly lovely especially are these wooded gorges in the summertime, when the fragrant breath of foliage and flower, of moss and lichen, is in the nostril, when the music of rushing cataract and waterfall is in the ear. Buoyant and bracing as an elixir of life is the cool air on these mountain-sides, when the hot breath of July is enervating the dwellers in the valley below. How delightful was my task at this season to carry the consolations of my office to the lonely scattered folk on the hills! How often have I felt my heart expand with lowly adoration when, from the lofty summit of Hanging-brow, I have turned my gaze westward, and far away in the distance my sweep of vision has taken in the coast-line of the Irish sea; whilst north, and east, and south there lay before me a mighty vista of hill and dale and rugged peak! Then, how lovely the magnificent stretch of forest too!—a rich unbroken canopy of green, many-tinted and beautiful, the oak, the ash, the elm, and many others blending their various tints in the lowlands; whilst the fir, the pine, and the mountain-ash belted the forest in the higher reaches. The fleet-footed red-deer might be seen threading their way through the tangled undergrowth, or browsing amid the boulders in the clear, keeping ever a wary eye on the stealthy hunter. Sly Reynard here abounded, and might be seen gliding warily along; and occasionally his fiercer cousin the wolf prowled in fierce loneliness; whilst ceaselessly the woods rang with the songs of her feathered denizens. Birds of rare plumage, too, and shy, such as the jay, the magpie, the thrush, the curlew, the wood-pigeon, with many specimens of the hawk family, were here; whilst the golden eagle wheeled in airy flight round the crown, or moodily perched on some boulder, while his mate patiently hatched her young in the fissures of the rocks, which, steep and high, lined the pathway of the descending waters. But on this eventful day, as the sun reared its blood-red visage above the horizon, and kissed the mountain peak into a ruddy twilight, two Saxon warriors, with broadswords by their sides and battle-axes at their girdles, rounded the peak on the side which overlooked the castle and broad fertile acres which had been comparatively cleared around it. Just the dimmest outlines of this scene were visible; but as the sun mounted higher in the heavens, and his rays swept down from the hills into the lowest valleys, the whole landscape was spread in beauty before them. The castle's noble proportions, here and there also the river's sinuous course, as it threaded in and out amongst the trees, could be seen; whilst farther down the valley the gorgeous masonry of the Abbey peeped through the tops of the trees. With rapt vision, but with very sad hearts, the pair stood together, and watched the marvellous transformation taking place before them.

"Was ever man called to yield so fair a possession before, Wulfhere?" said the chieftain to his comrade.

"Well, truly it is a fair spot—finer, I think, than ever I thought it before. But it may be yours again, and I may get my little patrimony also. So let us not despair."

"Well, we know not what may happen, but it seems very unlikely at present. But come, we will go over the summit and consider our plan for the stronghold. It will be some time yet ere our enemies are astir, I dare say. The scouts will bring us timely word."

So the pair climbed to the summit, and again considered their plans for the fortress which had already been decided upon. Now the summit was a remarkably level plateau of five or six acres in extent. Round the outer edge of this plateau the ground sank away steep and suddenly for fifty yards, and it was only by the utmost exertions that a man could scramble up this last steep brow. The pair walked around the outer fringe together.

"Well," said Oswald, "the hand of man could never have raised so impregnable a rampart, and if gallantly manned it can never be carried by assault. There is but one danger: we may be starved out, for the provisioning of it is most difficult with our scanty resources."

"It is as you say, my lord, matchless as a site for defence; for the provisioning we must make strenuous efforts whilst the respite lasts; and if we can by any means give them this day such a taste of our quality as we ought to, they will never, unless greatly reinforced, attempt to force our stronghold."

"How bountiful, Wulfhere, nature has been in providing material for building. Stones ready to our hand and inexhaustible in quantity, and timber near to hand also."

At this juncture a horseman was seen coming over the mile of gently rising ground which stretched away from the forest.

"He bears a message," said Oswald; "come, we will descend and meet him."

By the time they had scrambled to the bottom of the declivity the horseman drew near, bringing the news that evidently something more than usual was afoot, by the number of men who were actively mustering at so early an hour of the morning; this thing being quite an unusual one with the Normans, who loved to carouse well into the night, and then sleep off the effects in the morning.

"Well we may be sure, if these besotted louts are moving thus early, that there is something which has stirred the hornet's nest, so we will to our rendezvous." Then turning to the scout, he said, "You know the cave at Deepdale Head?"

"Aye, aye, I know it well!"

"You will find us there from now: keep us well informed, you and your comrades, so that we may make our dispositions."

Then the two rapidly descended until they came to the head of a deep gorge, where was one of the many limestone caves to be found in the district. It had an obscure and unpretentious entrance; but once well within it, it assumed lofty proportions, and ran away into many cavities roomy and weird. In past times no one would have dared to enter its gloomy precincts, as it was considered to be the abode of pixies, witch-hags, and the powers of evil and darkness generally. But now these superstitious and ignorant people had dared to force the abode of evil spirits, rather than face the still more cruel and hated Norman.

Gathered around the entrance to this cave, and sitting on the hillside were a number of men all armed, and evidently anticipating a conflict with the enemy. They were a very miscellaneous company, some of them being fierce, ragged, wild and most unsavoury looking. At the head of some ten or fifteen was one Sigurd, who had been a chieftain in Lakesland, some fifty miles distant; but so desperate had been his conflict with the Normans, and so incessant his attacks and so daring in character, that the Normans had found it necessary to put in motion numerous forces to capture or slay this man and his desperate band. This they had not been able to do; but so incessant had their harrying been, that he had been driven from his native hills, with the result that this opportune moment he was found swelling the ranks of Oswald's men.

"Your coming is timely, Jarl," said Oswald. "Men who can wield a sword, or fling a javelin, as I perceive you and these hardy warriors can, are doubly welcome at this pinch."

"You are right, master, I am Viking every inch of me; these men are skalds every one also, so we need not tell you we like the ring of steel. Give us a corner where there is room to fight and none to fly, for we like it best."

Just then another horseman hot with haste arrived with the tidings that the Normans had divided themselves into two bands, and were ascending by the water-courses. This was as Oswald had anticipated, for these water-courses alone afforded what by compliment could be considered continuous paths, the forest being very dense and tangled, and a hopeless labyrinth. Now the Normans had made the somewhat common but, nevertheless, often fatal mistake, of underrating the enemy—or rather the hunted fugitives they sought. It had never occurred to them for a moment that the Saxons would present a bold front, and even dare an issue with them in force. They regarded the matter with a very light heart; although they had had a taste of Oswald's prowess, they believed that he had but few to stand by him. They little thought as they scrambled jauntily along up the gorge with no precautions against an ambush, or sudden assault, that they were forcing the hiding places of desperate men, who, when hard driven were capable of desperate deeds.

By-and-by the scouts came in bringing definite information as to numbers, and the routes the Normans were pursuing. They had, as already said, divided themselves into two parties; each one purposing to thoroughly scour one of the two paths along the water-courses, and intending to join together again when the hills should be reached.

Now Sigurd, of whom more anon, had command of one company of the Saxon forces at the head of one of the ravines, and he was duly apprised of the number of Normans he would have to contend with. Oswald with Wulfhere as second in command, had charge of the other contingent, and they slowly drew away down the ravine to a spot which had been selected by Oswald for the attack. The most numerous company of the Normans struck the water-course which Oswald defended. The stream had there reached the valley where the mighty slit in the mountains down which it boisterously tumbled had broadened into a lovely dell, green as an emerald, and studded with flowers. Here the waters moved placidly along; but the innumerable foam-caps which slowly sailed away on its bosom, bore ample evidence of its tumultuous descent from the mountains. Here the Normans drew together and took council with regard to their further movements. Eventually they took the left bank, and with long and attenuated ranks they commenced the ascent. All this was duly noted, and nimble feet carried each several movement speedily to the waiting Saxons.

The place selected by Oswald was where the limestone rock seemed to be shorn down with a perpendicular face to the bed of the stream. On the opposite side Wulfhere with a company of archers were ambushed. The steep and lofty face of the rocks precluded any possibility of their being dislodged, whilst the position of the Norman foe across the ravine would expose them mercilessly to their shafts. Oswald, with some dozen of the stoutest of his followers, barred the path at a point where it took an upward trend, and a huge boulder blocked the vision of the approaching foe. He had also thrown forward a party of men up the steep and wooded ravine side, in advance of himself, who were completely obscured by the trees. These were, at the signal, to roll down the boulders and huge stones which abounded in the rough and scraggy hillside. The position and the method of attack were matchlessly planned. If these desperate Saxons only stood each one unflinchingly to his post, victory was certain, for the enemy was entrapped, and flight alone could save them.

"Wulfhere," said Oswald, "you understand my plan, I think. The path on our side is so narrow and rough, the enemy will be obliged to move pretty nearly in single file. Your men must hide in the brushwood until I give the signal; then pour into them volleys of arrows. If they should be seized with panic, which assuredly they will, and beat a headlong retreat, then rush down, and meet them at the neck of the gorge and cut off their retreat. Remember, battle-axes are best for the thicket, and broadswords for the open. Strike swiftly, strike hard, and victory is certain."

So Wulfhere crossed the stream with his men, and clambered up the steep bank on the opposite side. Then abreast, but on each side the stream, the two companies marched downwards. Presently they reached the spot selected for the attack. The disposition of the men was quickly effected. Then Wulfhere, keeping in the shelter of the trees, advanced to the brink of the precipice, where his position commanded a view of the enemy, who were swarming forward. From thence he could easily hold converse across the chasm with Oswald, who, with battle-axe firmly grasped in his right hand, and bronze shield on his left, like a fierce lion was grimly waiting for his prey; behind him, a dozen stout yeomen, who from their youth had been taught to wield either weapons of war or implements of husbandry, men who had proved their valour against both Norman and Dane on many occasions. As the enemy drew near, their numbers and every movement was minutely described to Oswald, until they drew so near that further parleying must cease. Then Wulfhere retired a few steps into the thicket where his men were lurking, with arrows affixed, ready for the fray. Meanwhile, the loud oaths, coarse laughter, and unchecked speech of the Normans told plainly the feelings of contempt they entertained for the foe, and the little apprehension they had of the onslaught awaiting them. Soon their scrambling footsteps drew quite close, amid a death-like stillness in the ranks of the lurking foe. The Saxon war-cry, "Ahoi!" in thunderous tones burst from the lips of Oswald and his men. "Ahoi!" shouted Wulfhere's men. "Ahoi!" shouted the men ambushed aloft. At that instant also, a dozen arrows with deadly aim came hissing across the defile; down also came the boulders from aloft, leaping with gathering velocity into the ranks of the foe, whilst Oswald dashed from behind the boulder, and closed with the Norman leader. Their gleaming eyes met for a second; the Norman dealt a hurried forceless blow with his sword, which the Saxon received on his shield; then his ponderous battle-axe came crashing down with irresistible force. The Norman interposed his shield, but the axe bore it down and, glancing therefrom, came full upon his cranium, tearing away his helmet, and felling him through the shrubs down into the water-course in the bottom of the glen. As the Normans witnessed the overthrow of their leader, they were completely panic-stricken, and helplessly huddled together like sheep, unable to strike a blow. The Saxon dominated the path in front, cutting down the foremost with marvellous celerity; whilst on one flank the deadly arrows were being poured into them, and on the other flank the huge stones clashed through their ranks and decimated their numbers. This hesitancy lasted but for a minute or two; very speedily the discomfiture became an abject panic, and each one for himself made a rush for the valley. The Saxons followed them swiftly, relentlessly, and cut them off in numbers, as they impetuously rushed away towards the valley and the castle. At a signal from Oswald, the Saxons ceased their harrying of the scattered and flying foe, and with swift footsteps they regained the head of the gorge and over the shoulder of the hills, to the help of their comrades, who barred the advance of the second band of Normans.

Now, whilst Oswald, with sagacity and conspicuous valour, had routed one contingent of the Normans, the sturdy Viking Sigurd, with a dozen of his own reckless and desperate band, reinforced by less than a score of Oswald's followers, pressed eagerly on to the fray with the other band of Normans. Sigurd possessed none of the qualities of generalship, beyond a desperate and headlong valour, which always bore him into the thickest of the fight. His personal strength was prodigious, and no other man could wield his ponderous sword; in a rough and desperate struggle where strength and valour were everything, and skill of little avail, he had no equal in all Northumbria. His own followers, too, in thicket warfare, with their short but heavy swords in one hand, and a long, gleaming knife or dagger in the other, were unrivalled in such an encounter as the one they challenged to-day. In Oswald's struggle, the place and plan of attack had more to do with the complete demoralisation of the Normans, than the desperate valour with which it was carried out. In Sigurd's case, it is true, the surprise, the thicket, and the rough and precipitous ground, were stout allies of his. But otherwise, everything depended on the vigour and valour of himself and men. Now Pierre led this second company, and he was a sturdy rogue who had to be reckoned with when it came to a tussle with weapons; and any one who counted on Pierre succumbing to panic or to fear would be grievously mistaken.

On, however, the Normans pressed, like their routed compatriots, never dreaming that the Saxons would be prepared for them; and, as a matter of fact, despising them, in any case. Right into the ambush they marched, recklessly and unheeding. Instantly the Saxon war-cry rends the air, and the wood is alive with men who frantically hurl themselves upon the astonished foe. The Normans stagger and reel at the fierce onset, and some fly, coward-like, without striking a blow. But the presence of mind and personal bravery of Pierre stands them in good stead at this juncture. In stentorian tones he shouted, "Notre Dame! Have at the dogs! Follow me!" And whipping out his sword he headed the onset, laying about him lustily and encouraging his men. But the burly Viking, Sigurd, finds none to withstand him, and he makes sad havoc amongst the men-at-arms, who quail and cower before him; whilst his followers, like mountain goats, dart from behind trees and boulders, dealing stealthy and effective strokes, completely nonplussing the Normans with their organised methods. Pierre quickly perceives, however, that they number five to one of the Saxons; and, if the burly Viking's arm can be arrested for ten minutes, victory will come speedily. There is none but he to do it. So boldly he dashes off on the instant and confronts the giant. No mean foeman is Pierre in point of physical strength and courage; but, when to that was added his superb skill in handling his weapon, he is not to be trifled with, even by so doughty a foe as Sigurd.

"Ha, ha!" roared the Viking chief, as he witnessed the temerity of this Norman in courting battle with him, and with reckless vigour he smites at Pierre. But the Norman plies shield and sword in defence, and dexterously shifts his ground to get an advantage. In swift succession the thunder-strokes fall, and gleams of fire dart from Pierre's shield and sword as he parries the blows. Scathless, however, he endures the ordeal.

"Bravo, Pierre!" his comrades shouted. "Hold him in play a little while, and we will make short work of these churls."

Truly everything points to this conclusion, for the Normans have gathered courage wonderfully, and by sheer numbers the Saxons are being rapidly overborne. At the instant, however, the Saxon battle-cry, Ahoi! Ahoi! Ahoi! wakes the echoes in the hills, and Oswald and his men dash into the flanks of the Normans. The effect is electrical. Panic-stricken, they fly before the onrush of the avenging Saxons. The retreat was a regular stampede; and Pierre and his men, along with the stragglers from the first company, rushed into the castle yard breathless with haste, never having made attempt to rally.

De Montfort and Vigneau, who had received the former troop with rage and dismay, were little less than frantic at this double disaster and ignoble defeat.

"Pierre, you scurvy villain, what is this? I wish thou hadst left thy ugly carcase with those Saxon dogs yonder, ere thou disgraced thy calling thus!" roared Vigneau at his henchman.

"You will take care that fat carcase of yours is put in no manner of danger, master!" rasped out Pierre, in fierce retort.

"How now, villain!" said Vigneau, drawing his sword and advancing on Pierre. "I'll put a stop to thy unmannerly insolence, dog!"

"Stand back!" said Pierre fiercely, and whipping out his sword. "You will have to take your chance, mark me, if you put not up that weapon. I'll have no more of your bullying! My weapon is as good as yours any day, whether I have won my spurs or no."

"Stop that!" said De Montfort, authoritatively, and stepping between them. "How is this, Pierre? What has happened?"

"Treachery, my lord! The Saxons were well advised of our purpose, depend upon it, for they were prepared for us, lying in ambush to receive us. But in spite of this we should have worsted them; but when we were just getting the mastery, the Saxon Oswald and fifty others dashed into our rear and demoralised us entirely. A burly monster, huge as a bull, led the first company. Look at my shield! cut through in several places by his weapons. Depend upon it, we were betrayed by some one; they were evidently awaiting us, everything prepared."

Wonderfully elated and heartened these Saxons were at the day's successes; for this was the first encounter since the Normans' disastrous march through the north when, matching force with force, they had gained so signal a victory. The fame and prowess of Oswald spread like wildfire amongst the hunted refugees, who were lurking, like beasts of the forest, in any hiding-place they could find. Salutary also was the lesson the arrogant and vindictive oppressors learnt, for both their respect and their fears were marvellously increased by it.


CHAPTER XVII.

EVIL COUNSELLORS.

"All good to me is lost.
Evil, be thou my good."
Milton.

Great was the chagrin and rage manifested by Vigneau, Count de Montfort, and the Normans generally, at this unexpected rebuff; and increased cruelties and indignities were heaped upon the hapless and degraded Saxons who had accepted the yoke of villeinage. Indeed, the lives of these Saxons were of no account whatever; and the honour of the Saxon women was at the mercy of besotted and degraded Norman troopers. Very few indeed were there amongst the Saxons who had not grievous cause to cherish the most deadly hatred against these ruthless oppressors and usurpers, the Normans.

It was too much to expect that, amid the general confiscation, the monastery should continue to be governed by myself, and that monks of Saxon origin should minister to the poor and the sick, and have control of our endowments. So, as I had expected, one fateful day, my office was taken from me and bestowed upon a Norman Father, who, with a number of monks, had followed at the heels of the conquerors, and were as greedy for the emoluments of the Church, as their brethren-in-arms were for the possessions of the Saxon laymen. So one Father Vigneau, who was a brother of Baron Vigneau, became our Abbot, and degradation and much oppression was meted out to us Saxons, with the object of driving us forth to other shelter, or to become mendicant friars or mere hedge priests. Some of my subordinates went forth, like Abraham, to seek a country. Some cast in their lot with their outlawed countrymen, and, I am sorry to say, not unfrequently became as great adepts at the wielding of carnal weapons as they were at saying Mass or burying the dead. But I had so many ties, and such affection for my flock, that I resolved to stay and bear the heavy yoke; counting it no small honour to be found worthy to suffer like my Master.

I was also greatly fortified in this my resolve by the friendship and help which I received at the hands of Alice De Montfort, who proved to be a real friend, not only to myself, but to all who were in suffering and distress.

Our new Abbot, I found, had not been trained to the service of the Church, but had been, at one time, a soldier by profession. Latterly he had taken to the Church, as I suspect because he found the sacred calling less arduous, and could be made to serve his inordinate desire for idleness and good living. His god was indeed his belly, and his life loose and irregular to great excess. He was a man of florid countenance, and much too pursy for a man whose first duty was to crucify the flesh. His garments, also, ill became a man in the sacred office he had assumed. He was an exceedingly vain man, and loved to adorn his person, and affect the airs and swaggering gait of a young gallant. By his side he constantly dangled a sword, and under his monk's robes he usually wore a coat of link-mail—which, I suspected, arose from a cowardly fear of assassination; for, despite his swaggering deportment, I ever found him to be an arrant coward, and, like every coward, relentless and cruel, loving to oppress and to insult those whose position made it easy for him so to do.

Amongst the monks who came with him I found not one truly holy and devoted man. Most of them were so ignorant as to be totally unable to read the sacred books in the Latin tongue. These men, like their superior, lived loose, irregular lives; habitually neglecting prayers, fasting, and abstinence from carnal indulgences. Indeed, of most of them, if it had not been for their dress they could not have been distinguished from the riotous and disorderly soldiery.

Our new Abbot and his brother, Baron Vigneau, were spending the night together, indulging in one of those nightly carousals which were a disgrace and a crying scandal to our ancient and holy monastery, which had earned itself a good repute by the piety and learning of the brotherhood, and by the wise and charitable administration of the princely revenues which appertained to it. Never had it been known, in times past, that any palmer, or wandering minstrel, had been turned away from its hospitable doors, unhoused and unfed; and any distressed or suffering peasant was sure to have sympathy in trouble, and relief in want. But since the advent of the Normans, its revenues were dissipated by rioting and drunkenness, chambering and wantonness, and in entertaining Norman riff-raff and debauching Saxons, who were willing to sell themselves for the gluttonous eating and drinking to which they were treated. In vain it was for us Saxons to preach virtue and chastity to the poor peasantry, whose cattle, implements of husbandry, and homes, had been destroyed, and who could not till the ground, knowing that they would be despoiled of their harvest. The poor were at best half starved, and subjected to most gross and cruel treatment.

To-night, however, more than ordinarily weighty matters were being discussed over their wine by the brothers.

"What progress, then, have you made in the matter?" said the Abbot.

"Well, I have, by a most determined effort, forced the Count, much against his will, to name a day for the fulfilment of his promise. But the jade, his daughter, takes high ground, and I fancy to get her nose to the grindstone will be no easy task."

"I suppose it is the old excuse the vixen makes?"

"Yes; my tongue is not smooth enough, and my manners do not suit her dainty notions. She's in a precious dudgeon just now over a Saxon wench I took a fancy to; and she's as flighty as a two-year-old filly, and as proud as Lucifer. In fact, she gets more stately and arrogant from day to day. Never mind!" said he, bringing his fist down upon the table. "I'll take her ladyship down a peg or two by-and-bye. I scarcely know whether I love or hate her most, now. She's got a pretty face and figure, or I'd as soon try steel upon her as wed her."

"Well, I must confess she's a very handsome wench, brother—not a finer in Britain; but I never see her without feeling that I would give something to humble her pride. You think the Count would be out of it if he knew how to get, do you?"

"Not a shadow of a doubt of it. He would murder me at a minute's notice, if he could get possession of those letters I told you about. But he knows you are fully informed about them, and of his treachery to William, and he dare not resort to violence until he knows how to secure the letters by his effort. I have come to the conclusion to hand them over to you; they will be safer than in my possession."

"They contain conclusive evidence of his treachery, don't they?"

"No mistake about that. They are in his own handwriting, and sealed with his own crest and coat-of-arms. They make offer upon certain considerations, to sell his influence and his men to the Saxons during William's absence. He was also fool enough to give me a written promise of his daughter's hand, in consideration of my fidelity to him. Nothing in the world could be clearer and straighter than the whole thing. He sees now pretty clearly that his game is up; but I'll show him that my game is not up, or likely to be, until he hands over his stately daughter."

"He must have greatly miscalculated the odds when he put his head into a noose like that."

"Yes; he's not played many false cards in his life, but that was one, and he will lose his head by it if he does not play up square with the remainder. I'll promise him that much at least."

"What cause had he to quarrel with the king?"

"Oh, jealousy. He prides himself upon the services he has rendered to William, and he expected in consequence to be high in the king's favour, and in his council. He expected to have some fat lands too, near to London. William, however, did not think so highly of his services, or else he had been prejudiced against him by some courtezan, which is more probable. Anyhow, no sooner was William firmly seated on the throne than he gave De Montfort the cold shoulder. He made Odo, Lanfranc, and Fitz-Osborne his chosen counsellors.

"Now, a mortal feud existed between Odo and De Montfort, and he quickly got the cold side of his master's favours. He had given to him a paltry estate in the Fen country, where he had that Saxon devil, Hereward, hanging on to his skirts, and foraging all over his possessions, whenever hunger drove him from his infernal den in the marshes. The slight which he received rankled, I can promise you; and when the insurrection broke out whilst William was in Normandy, and when the Saxons took York, and put to the sword the garrison of three thousand Normans, with the Danes swarming into the Humber ripe for plunder, and the Atheling trooping in from Scotland—why, the cunning of the wily one was at fault for once. He thought the thing would succeed; and succeed it would have done, sure enough, if it had not been levelled against that devil's own favourite, William. He sent me with letters to Waltheof and the others, offering to put his men into the field on condition that he received ample reward. He hoped no doubt, also, that he would get a little revenge upon his enemies at Court.

"When I got to York I was not foolish enough to rush into the thing until I saw how matters looked. I had a bit of respect for my own neck, whether I had for De Montfort's or not. If he was willing to risk his head to gratify his spite, the prospect was not alluring enough for me. Well, I did not like the look of Waltheof, and whilst I waited, William hurried across the Channel, and, with a stroke of matchless craft, he bought off the rascally Danes. The double-dyed traitor and coward, Waltheof, very soon succumbed to the same influences; and away also went the Atheling, full speed, for Scotland. I saw the thing was burst up. A few of the smaller chieftains, like this Saxon Oswald, held their ground and fought it out; but it was a nine days' wonder, and nothing more.

"Well, I thought I would try a cast of my own net. I had followed the fortunes of De Montfort to very little profit as yet. I had thought by following the fortunes of a leader like him, I should get a tolerably fair share of the spoils; and I had an understanding that I should have the hand of his daughter. But, I had already begun to notice that the damsel was not made altogether of pleasant humours, and probably she would require a good deal of persuading to complete the bargain. So I told him I had handed the letters to a brother of mine who was in the Church, and held in favour by Lanfranc; and, brother, that accounts for your being installed in such a snug crib as this. I flaunt these letters, metaphorically speaking, pretty regularly before him, to keep him to the mark. The operation makes him wince; but, whether he likes it or not, it will be done, and to greater purpose, I can assure you, if his word is not made good shortly, and his friskish daughter brought to her senses."

"Well, take the letters," said the Baron, tossing them across to his brother. "Pour out a flagon of good old sack; preaching is dry throat-work. I say, what has become of that pretty Saxon wench I found here at first? Have you any idea? I had no notion they bred cattle of that quality amongst these louts of Saxons. You have not seen anything of her about, have you, since you came?"

"No. I heard of that little stroke of yours, but I've not seen the wench at all; but I have a notion that old Saxon snake, Adhelm, knows all about it. I would have made an end of him long before this, but that minx Alice has taken him under her protection. I would take an oath he's in league with those rats on the hill, and he is making mischief among our own brotherhood! One fellow, who has half the brains of the monastery, has given utterance to sundry remonstrances which I shall not tolerate; and I find that he and Adhelm are very friendly."

"Well, take care of the letters anyhow; I shall feel safer when they are out of my custody."


CHAPTER XVIII.

LOVE IS STRONGER THAN HATE.

"True love's the gift which God has given
To man alone beneath the heaven:
It is the secret sympathy,
The silver link, the silken tie,
Which heart to heart, and mind to mind,
In body and in soul can bind."
Scott.

It is a lovely morning in August; the hush of perfect restfulness is in the air. The cattle have retired from the heat and glare of the sun, and are quietly chewing the cud beneath the sheltering foliage of the plantain trees; whilst here and there, through the long vistas between the trees, may be seen a tall stag with two or three hinds at his heels, venturing within sight of the haunts of men, as though timidly inviting man's protection against the foes of the forest. This lovely morning has tempted forth from the castle the two females who are directing their steps to a rustic house on the banks of the river, where there are housed a couple of boats. One boat is of delicate trim and dainty workmanship. The oars are small and carefully made, the handles having a rich silken covering, showing they are intended for delicate hands to wield.

This is Alice's favourite recreation, and dearly she loves to have a quiet hour on the still bosom of the river, with Jeannette to row, and she, book in hand, to sit and read or sit and muse in quiet rapture as she gazes on the noble scenery around. The dip and plash of the oars, as Jeannette beats up against the current, is as the soothing tones of delicate music. Then to float slowly and in perfect stillness down stream, beneath the tall trees that line the banks, where busy insects dance and sing, and where the trout leap to catch their prey; to catch the scents from the wooded bank, where breathing shrub, and plant, and flower, and tree, load the air with their perfumed exhalations. Truly to the lover of Nature the smell of a wood is "as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed!" On this day everything seems exceptionally lovely, and, slowly as Jeannette is pulling, the confines of the park are quickly overpassed, and the castle is cut off from view by embowering woods.

"We are already past the limits of the park, my lady," said Jeannette. "Shall I put the boat about now, and drift back with the stream?"

"Oh, no, not just yet, Jeannette. Let us go a little farther to-day. It is such a charming morning, and I have been longing for a great while to explore a little more of this delightful river."

"But you are forgetting the Count's express commands, my lady. You know he bade us be very careful not to go beyond sight of the castle."

"Never fear, Jeannette. I think we may safely venture a little farther. You know we have never so much as seen any human being in these excursions."

"No, my lady; but you know what horrid, wild people these Saxons are; and they may be lurking in the woods and shoot their arrows at us, and wound or kill us before the least help could reach us."

"I don't think we have any enemies amongst the Saxons, Jeannette. You and I, at least, do not merit their vengeance, and I am quite prepared to trust them."

"But it is really dangerous, my lady," remonstrated the maid. "And Paul Lazaire has told me that they really kill and eat people, do these horrid Saxons!"

"Fie, fie, Jeannette! What a coward you are, and a simpleton to boot, to believe all the silly tales you hear about the Saxons! Look how exquisitely lovely the river is ahead of us. Pull a little farther up stream."

Truly it was as Alice said, exquisitely lovely. The huge mountains on either side spread out their bases down to the water's edge, whilst deep, dense woods clothed the river's brink with well-nigh impenetrable depths of undergrowths and foliage. The huge trees on either side spread out their long arms across the river as though anxious to shake hands with their giant neighbours on the opposite bank. Ahead, each bend of the river through the tortuous hills was obscured from view; and it looked in the distance as though it was issuing from the bowels of the mountain promontory in front, through a thick bower of foliage, whilst here and there, as they voyaged on, the bare and frowning limestone crags jutted out through the slender covering of the green fir-tree tops which vainly strove to hide them—lonesome, fearsome, and grand, the solitude all around. The strange wildness and grandeur of the scene stirred the soul of Alice to its very depths, and it is needless to say she was perfectly oblivious to everything save the sweet voice of Nature.

As the boat and its occupants moved slowly up stream, numbers of water-hens rushed off into the impenetrable recesses of foliage and undergrowths, or dived hurriedly beneath the roots of trees or overhanging embankment.

Yonder in the distance, in the bared and tortuous roots of a huge tree overhanging the water, an otter is sitting, warily watching his finny prey disporting themselves beneath; but at sight of these unwelcome visitors he drops from the root of the tree on which he sits, with hasty plunge, leaving no trace of his whereabouts saving the streaming headline in the water indicating the direction in which he hastes for safety.

Fearlessly also, ahead, a flock of wild-duck are floating regally on the limpid waters, unconscious of danger, and gabbling in utmost glee and content; but at this unlooked-for intrusion they set up a startled cry, take hurriedly to wing, and are quickly lost in the distance.

Looking carefully, also, at the entrance of yon water-course, which comes tumbling over its rocky bed from the hills, a heron stands pensively watching for any incautious trout that, quitting the deep waters, comes to the lips of the mountain stream for food; but, disturbed, he utters a scream, and spreading out his long wings, with low and measured beat mounts into the air, probably to rest not until the far-away sea-coast is reached.

Kingfishers too—haunters of quiet river-stretches—in coats of the loveliest green and gold, flit over the bosom of the water with quiet assurance. Snipe, also, in goodly numbers, with swift, arrow-like flight, dart ahead up stream, or, rising high over the tops of the trees, circle back again to the rear of the boat.

Alice is in raptures, and Jeannette's cautions and remonstrances alike, fall on ears which are preoccupied with other sounds, and are quite deaf to everything but the peaceful harmonies of nature.

"Look, Jeannette, at those fine hazel nuts, which hang in ripe and ruddy clusters there! Pull to the side at once, and let us gather them!"

Jeannette's caution is completely upset at this tempting sight, and the order is scarcely given ere it is executed. Eagerly the pair stand up in the boat to reach the brown clusters, totally oblivious and regardless of danger and molestation. Presently, with increasing boldness, they fasten the boat's chain round the bole of a tree, and clamber upon the bank. With nimble feet and nimble fingers they rush from tree to tree, stripping them of their dainty burden, and coming again and again with their hands full of nuts, and showering them into the bottom of the boat.

But they would not have been so content and composed had they but known that two pairs of Saxon eyes had been watching intently the progress up stream of the frail bark, and the fair Norman women who occupied it. One, at least, has determined, if chance offers, he will have a word of thanks with them for his deliverance. These Saxons are Oswald and his almost inseparable comrade, Wulfhere. So the two slowly push aside the foliage and, unnoticed, emerge in close proximity to the eager nutters. Jeannette utters a scream, and narrowly escapes an attack of hysterics.

"Calm your fears, ladies," said Oswald. "We are too much your debtors to wish you ill. Allow me, fair lady, to tender to you on this, the first opportunity I have had, my undying gratitude for the life you so magnanimously gave me a while ago. Though we Saxons, I am afraid, must appear to you as rude and uncivilised islanders, I assure you we are not insensible to, or ungrateful for, any favours bestowed upon us—much less such favours as you have conferred on myself."

"Sir Knight," said Alice, much assured by the sincere and courteous tone in which the valiant and virtuous Saxon chieftain had addressed her, "we did but do what pity and admiration combined moved us to. Heaven made us two weak women, and we played a woman's part. But we have not repented in that we did an act prompted by those intuitions of mercy which are our woman's heritage."

"I am made a life-long debtor, fair lady, for that womanly act, and I trust I may find opportunity to repay so generous a loan."

"I am glad we have met a Saxon who is our debtor, or we should have fared badly for our boldness this morning."

"My people, lady, will not injure a hair of your head, nor permit any one else to do so. You may roam at will; far or near, you are perfectly safe."

"This river scenery is perfectly enchanting, Sir Knight. If I may presume upon the friendship and goodwill of your people, I should like to explore it thoroughly?"

"The river, lady, becomes even finer as you push into the solitudes. If that craft were not so frail, we two would give you a merry spin for a mile or two. Indeed, if you dare trust yourself with a Saxon, let me pull you up stream. I think I can promise you a rare treat. Wulfhere, my comrade, will take care of your maid until we return."

"I dare venture. It would not be knightly conduct to betray a woman's confidence. But will it be safe to leave Jeannette?"

"Perfectly! Wulfhere and the hound are a pair of faithful and valiant defenders."

"No, no!" almost shrieked Jeannette. "You must not go! You will be killed and eaten! I have heard for certain that these horrid Saxons eat people!"

"Nonsense, Jeannette! Don't be foolish, and don't listen to such silly tales!"

"Oh, dear! I shall be eaten if you aren't! Holy Mother protect me!" said she, crossing herself; and, pulling her rosary out of her bosom, she began counting her beads most violently.

"Come, my pretty," said Wulfhere, in his blandest tones. "If I were a cannibal I wouldn't eat you. Sit on this fallen tree; I and the hound will keep a respectful distance." So saying, he retreated half a dozen paces from her, and began putting the dog through some capers.

"If you eat Jeannette, Wulfhere, I shall call you to account when I come back," said Oswald laughingly, as the boat sped away.

In the meantime, Jeannette sat rocking herself in great distress, watching the receding boat, and telling her beads at a great pace, whilst Wulfhere continued his play with the hound, quite oblivious—or apparently oblivious—of the tearful maiden. But nothing to this pretty Frenchwoman was so insupportable as to be ignored. So, after bemoaning her distressing circumstances without finding any special calamity happening, she began casting furtive glances at her Saxon comrade, and she gradually dropped her cries and tears, at his nonchalant behaviour, and her beads began to pass much more slowly through her fingers. To her coquettish fancy there was something piquant in the indifference of this stalwart Saxon. Her curiosity was excited, and this speedily passed into admiration for the muscular limbs and well-developed frame of Wulfhere. For it is not in the disposition of many daughters of Eve—much less in such as this coquettish Frenchwoman was—to look upon such a fine piece of muscular anatomy as Wulfhere's, without falling into admiration of it. This did not pass unmarked by him, despite the hypocritical indifference which he had assumed. Presently he turned his gaze upon Jeannette, and a good-humoured grin spread over his features, developing into a broad smile, as he ventured to break the silence.

"I say, pretty one, you'll not run away whilst I'm gathering a few sticks to make the fire with, will you, eh?"

"Fire!" exclaimed Jeannette, clutching her beads, which had dropped into her lap. "What do you want a fire for?"

"Want a fire for! Why, I couldn't think of eating you raw!" and he twirled on his heel, to laugh.

Jeannette uttered an inimitable little scream. "You horrid man, I shall jump into the water if you stir! I'm sure I shall!" Then, bursting into a little laugh, all the more bewitching as it came, rainbow-like, betwixt smiles and tears, she said, "You are trying to frighten me, I know; but all the same you Saxons do eat people. I've heard it said hundreds of times. And once, as we came along, we saw a pile of bones, and Paul Lazaire said they were the bones of people whom the Saxons had eaten. So you see we know all about you."

"Oh, but that's all fudge, pretty one. You shall be my sweetheart, and then you'll soon learn quite different."

"But I'm not going to be your sweetheart. So you see. I wouldn't have any one for a sweetheart with hair and beard as long as yours. Normans have more sense than to wear horrid beards."

"Oh, but you shall cut my hair, and trim my beard; and I would try to look like a little Norman ninny of five feet six. Then you wouldn't be frightened in the least, would you?"

Jeannette thought to herself she would rather take him as he was, though she kept the matter to herself. The upshot of the whole was this: Wulfhere found himself sitting by her side on the fallen tree, with the hound in front, and neither party very anxious for the return of the boat and its occupants.

"So they say we eat such as you, do they, sweetheart?"

"Yes, they do. And they don't call me 'Sweetheart,' either. And don't you think I don't know you, for I saw you fighting on that wall."

"Well, don't be offended now; but what do they call you?"

"They call me Jeannette—and that's nothing to you."

"Oh dear, no! nothing whatever. And do they really say that we eat such as you?"

"Yes, they do! And it's quite true besides! for everybody says so."

"Well, that's dreadful, anyhow. And how many do you suppose I shall have eaten like you?"

"You wouldn't have to eat one like me. If you did, Paul Lazaire would kill you for it."

"Paul Lazaire? Oh, I suppose Paul Lazaire will be a sweetheart of yours. Is that so, Jeannette dear?"

"Yes, he is my sweetheart. But I'm not going to marry him for all that! So you see."

"No, I wouldn't have him, I'm sure. Tell him you have got a better now—a Saxon."

"Fancy! That is fine, to be sure! Don't you think it! I'm not going to have a husband at all. They are horrid things, for they are never happy but when they are swilling ale. Just to think of my marrying a Saxon! That would be fine indeed!"

"Really now, my pretty Jeannette, I really am over head and ears in love with you; and if you were my wife, why, I should take great care of you."

"Wife, to be sure! The wife of a Saxon? Just think of it! I suppose I should have to run about in the woods all day, clothed in sheepskins; then I suppose I should have to creep into a hole in the earth at night. That would be nice, wouldn't it?"

Wulfhere burst into a horse-laugh. "Perhaps you would prefer sleeping up a tree to creeping into a hole, would you?"

"I'm not going to do either. Besides, I daresay you have got a Saxon wife somewhere, for you are all deceitful—Norman and Saxon alike."

"Nonsense, Jeannette! I have no wife, or sweetheart either, and I have made up my mind now, that my wife shall be Norman—just such a wife as yourself, Jeannette."

"Why, what would such a giant as you want a wife like me for?"

"Why? Well, I can hardly answer that question, I declare. But something must be put down to your pretty face, something to your slender waist, and a good deal to something I can't explain; but I never felt anything like it before, for no sooner did I set eyes upon that pretty face of yours than I felt I should like to kiss it."

"Oh, you horrid, naughty man!" said Jeannette, slipping her slender hand into Wulfhere's huge paw, and unconsciously hitching closer to him on the log, "to try and deceive me with such nonsense! I know you are deceiving me! Why, where should we live? I don't know where you live now. I should die if I had to live in the woods, and had no home. I should like a home of my own, where I could play my guitar and spin my wool, and make you some better garments than those coarse ones you wear."

"Oh, you shall not be my wife until I can find you a home, and protect you! We shall probably have to teach the Normans another lesson or two. Then they will listen to reason. When we have got a settlement of our own, then you shall be my wife, Jeannette."

"Oh, but I dare not! I should be frightened to live amongst the Saxons. But you wouldn't harm a little woman like me? That would be cowardly."

"I think it would, Jeannette," said Wulfhere, passing his arm around her slim waist, drawing her to him, and planting a kiss on her sunny cheek. "When I go to war I should like a sturdier foe to wreak my vengeance on."

"But would you be a serf, and wear one of those horrid iron collars the serfs wear? I shouldn't like a husband who was a bondman."

"No, my pretty one, I have never been a bondman; and, what is more, I never shall. I am a Saxon freeman."

"A 'freeman'? What is a 'freeman'?"

"A freeman is one who tills his own land, and is no man's vassal or bondman. I shall remain a freeman, and my sons shall be freemen after me."

At this juncture the hound gave a start, and threw back his head, at the same time giving utterance to a low, fierce growl. Presently a footstep is heard, not approaching stealthily, but crashing through the trees and underwood. Wulfhere springs to his feet; his bow is unslung, and an arrow affixed in a moment. The hound also starts to his feet, his eyeballs glitter, and the veins of his neck and body are distended almost to bursting. The low branches are put aside, and the burly form of Sigurd, the dispossessed viking chieftain, emerges before them. His lowering brow and impetuous manner tell but too plainly that there is a tempest raging within him.

"Wulfhere," said he, "what does this mean?"

"What does what mean, my lord?"

"Why, the drivelling folly I have witnessed for the last half hour or more! Fitter stuff for a Norman libertine than for a Saxon freeman, and one who makes pretence of valour!"

"I am at a loss to know what you mean, my lord."

"I mean? Why, I mean that whilst I and others of thy countrymen are lurking near the haunts of these French dogs, that we may have revenge upon them, thou and thy master are toying and fooling with their women. But enough of this! Make an end of this woman, and an end of thy folly at a blow, and thou hast then made amends."

"Indeed I shall do no such thing. This maiden and her noble mistress gave my chief his life, and it will be woe to the man who dares injure either the one or the other."

"What care I for thy master's scruples? These Normans owe us satisfaction for a thousand Saxon lives they have taken. So stand aside; I'll do my own business."

"Indeed you will do no such thing, until you have disposed of me;" and Wulfhere threw himself boldly in front of Sigurd.

"Ah, art thou insolent into the bargain, dog? I will chastise thy bravado out of thee if thou stand not aside;" and he grasped the hilt of his sword.

Wulfhere, seeing the movement, and having no sword, sprang upon him and dealt him a stinging blow with his clenched fist. So violently was this given that, sturdy as he was, Sigurd reeled back several paces.

"Ah, is that it, my buck? Then I'll have thee with thine own weapon, for I do not need to take any advantage of a varlet like thyself!"

So saying, he rushed on Wulfhere, with intent to come to close quarters. But Wulfhere knew well the great personal strength of his bulky antagonist, so he dodged with great agility every effort Sigurd made to grapple with him. And he did not fail to deal him repeatedly heavy blows with his clenched fists. This so exasperated Sigurd that he was as furious as a mad bull, and for a considerable time it seemed to be a battle between brute force and agility, the balance being much in favour of the more agile. Unfortunately, a trip on the part of Wulfhere, over the root of a tree, gave Sigurd the chance he had been vainly striving for. Ere he could recover himself, Sigurd gripped him in his powerful embrace, and gathering him up as though he were a child, he hurled him to the ground, exclaiming, "Now I will kill thee, churl!" and he grasped him by the throat. The hound, which had been dancing round the combatants during the fray, with many furious and irresolute darts at Sigurd, seeing Wulfhere in such desperate straits, sprang upon Sigurd, and buried his teeth in the fleshy part of his arm.


CHAPTER XIX.

ALICE DE MONTFORT AND THE SAXON CHIEFTAIN.

"Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind."
Shakespeare.

The boat containing Oswald and Alice, impelled by the strong arms of the Saxon chieftain, sped along swiftly through the magnificent scenery.

"Now, lady, what think you? Did I speak truly when I praised the scenery?"

"Yes. Truly it would be an earthly paradise if it were not for the greed and cruelty of man. I think it richer and grander in these leafy solitudes than anything I have seen; or else it is because it fits my taste so wondrously."

"Yes. I cannot say, lady, that I hope you and your people will long enjoy the new home you have found, for I confess to you I cherish most ardent desires to be its lord again; though I think I can renounce my hopes, and well-nigh welcome exile if you are to be its mistress, and I may be permitted to look with unsinning eyes upon a form which has become even dearer to me than freedom and home. I doubt me, however, this latter wish may not be, for I hear some Norman knight claims your hand."

"My father has affianced me to one of the knights of his retinue; but this betrothal is without my consent, if I may be so bold as to confess it to a stranger. Indeed, I care not to disguise the fact that it is a most hateful alliance, and most abhorrent to me. I shall much prefer, if I may be permitted, to retire to a convent in my native land, rather than wed a man so incapable of inspiring either my love or my respect as this Baron Vigneau."

"I am afraid it is I who am too bold, in intruding in so delicate a matter, and one so remote from my concerns. But I would fain think, and hope, that the Count will not press a loveless marriage upon you; to do such violence to your affections would be cruel."

"My father is a soldier, Sir Knight, seared and blunted by his calling, and sentiment has little place in his nature. Latterly, also, I have noticed moroseness of disposition creeping over him; and upon this question he is more stern and peremptory than ever he was wont to be, and I lose heart and hope. Indeed, I am in sore straits. And your intrusion—if intrusion it be—I recognise is dictated by sympathy; and I stand much in need of this."

"I would I could convey to you, lady, in adequate terms—terms in which I should not be presumptuous—how honoured I should be if I could serve you in any way whatever. My resources, my men—nay, believe me, lady, for exaggeration would be most gross—my life is at your disposal, fully and unreservedly."

"I would fain accept of you as an ally and a friend, for I stand alone, and have not even a confidante, saving my maid, and I find the iron wills of my father and Vigneau completely bear me down; and if I escape from the toils of Vigneau, some stronger arm will have to interpose a rescue."

"I am but a Saxon outlaw, lady, a wolfshead, landless, penniless, and hunted; but if you can bethink you how I may serve you, my arm is strong, and my sword's edge unblunted. If time but tarry a while, I am confident something may be done to set you free from the life-long misery of a union with Vigneau; and I know enough of him to convince me that there is no community of taste or of disposition between you. I dare not say more, for my presumptuous heart runs riot with my understanding, and I may say things most unbefitting my present desperate estate."

"Make no apology, worthy knight," said Alice, blushing scarlet, then pale and trembling, "for your worldly misfortunes. A knight despoiled, but not disgraced, has no need to humble himself to me. Gold and lands are at best but an accident, but virtue and nobility of character are the slow growth of virtuous thinking and noble endeavour. And which, think you, valiant Saxon, are most highly valued by a simple maiden like myself? You are my debtor, you say; then here is an enterprise will tax your wisdom—I fear your prowess also. Doughty knights have in past times, it is said, effected wonderful deliverances for maidens in distress. Is it only the language of romance? I will not affectedly profess that I do not understand your language; but there is a challenge for you. If lightly won, Sir Knight, I may be lightly worn."

Now this high-born maiden was cultured, virtuous, womanly, and, moreover, she was young—a matter to be taken note of, for maidens then do not often dilute the gift of the heart with worldly considerations; but only few men are capable of winning such love. Does it require great tact, address, astuteness—such as men employ to catch some young colt, unbroken, shy, and suspicious? No. Whenever such love is won, it is won easily, without laying of siege, or clever generalship; in fact, astuteness, or tactics of any sort, are fatal to success. It is not a bargain, a huckstering quid pro quo. It is an inspiration, an intuition. It is a rush of all that is holiest, truest, tenderest, and trustful in woman towards the man who is capable of inspiring it, and of setting free the abounding wealth of a woman's heart. What conditions does it demand? Well, these are essentials: it asks for broad and ample strength to lean upon without misgiving. It demands an integrity that may be trusted to the uttermost, beyond the bounds where prudence, discretion, and kindred virtues cry halt. It asks the frankness and transparency of soul where nothing is hidden, and where there are no dark corners, suspicious and unreadable, suggestive of things to be disguised with care. When these qualities are present, they are luminously visible to a woman's intuitions, and the citadel of her heart is won easily and without capitulation terms. There are more hearts won at short notice than cynics would allow; but it is the spontaneous embrace of the divine that is in us, and alas! there is little of the divine in most mortals.

As the foregoing words fell from the lips of Alice, Oswald started forward as though electrified, and laid his hand on the hilt of his sword.

"Believe me, lady," said he, "I never dared to dream such a cup of blessedness would be held to my lips; and I assure you I needed no other stimulus than the debt of gratitude I owe to you for my deliverance from death, in order to brave anything and everything for you. But if there be hope, however remote, of winning a place in your affections, as my desperate estate has already moved your compassion, and that some day, in happier circumstances, I may even dare to ask you to be my bride, such an inpiration will nerve my arm and brace my energies, so that difficulties shall be most desperate if I overcome them not."

"I fear me, Sir Knight, if you undertake so desperate an enterprise as this, with success, it will require matchless skill and daring, coupled with deadliest peril. I fear, also, it will have to be a sharp sword that severs so unholy and hated a bond."

Alice hesitated a moment, as though feelings of delicacy forbade farther advances; then, although the blushes on her countenance deepened, she said,—

"Having confided so much of the story of my sorrows—I fear at the peril of my modesty—may I venture farther confidence?"

"I dare not ask you for confidences you hesitate to give, fair lady, for I am deeply conscious my worthiness to receive them has not been put to the proof. Consult your own heart in this, for it is your best and safest guide."

"I think I may safely venture everything, and trust you, Saxon, even to the uttermost and with all my heart. This involves my father's secret, and his deadly peril also, for this Vigneau has obtained a fatal ascendency over him. He holds documents most compromising to my father, in addition to the promise given long ago; and which my father might possibly have revoked with impunity had not Vigneau obtained possession of these treasonable documents. These he uses with brutal terrorism to enforce his claim to my hand. In an unhappy moment my father entered into negotiations with the leaders of the late Saxon rebellion, and he made use of Baron Vigneau as his intermediary. The Baron never delivered those letters, but with brutal cunning he still holds them, and he uses them with deadly effect to enforce his claims."

"Ah! I have a distinct remembrance of this," said Oswald, as the memorable scene at the Council, in York, presented itself to his mind. "I remember too well this traitor entering our assembly, under pretext of joining our ranks in opposition to the king; and I remember well, also, I met him face to face in combat next day, and 'tis a quarrel still unsettled, but which may be fought to the bitter end some day. Take heart, lady; some means will assuredly be devised for circumventing the purposes of this unscrupulous braggart, Vigneau. But if this should not be accomplished by human agency, I would fain think and hope, if the wisdom and the valour of man should fail, a kindly Providence has in store a happier lot for one so fair, so virtuous, and so good. Let us foster hopes of brighter days; these are troublous times, and one revolution of Fortune's wheel may bring momentous changes. Perhaps the asperities and hatreds of race, engendered by these cruel wars, may be soothed and healed again, and Saxon and Norman may be blended in one united people."

"Alas! can this ever be? My people seem drunk with greed and blood, and thy people given to fierce reprisals."

"This reconciliation does not seem as though it were near, truly, lady. Our peasantry have been massacred by scores. The more spirited of them have taken to outlawry, and would as soon take the life of a Norman as the life of a stag. We have also chieftains amongst us who have lost all, and live only for revenge; fierce and implacable, they cherish mad schemes of re-conquest, which are utterly futile. But all the same, it will be woe to the man who argues for peace in the Saxon witan in the presence of these implacable men."

"Is there anything I can do to soothe these hatreds?"

"You have begun well, and it seems marvellous to report, your deeds of mercy and kindness are being talked about through the countryside where Saxons meet together. These acts of kindness make for peace with mightier force than deeds of arms or years of a rule of force."

"But what is to be the solution of this race difficulty? Some of our people speak and act as though there were no solution but the extermination of all those who offer any resistance to their being reduced to villeinage the most abject."

"In a policy of force there is no other conclusion. If you were to take yonder sapling and tie its head down to earth, there would be unceasing resistance to the ignoble bond. And why? Because the Creator made it to be free, to rear its head aloft, contemporaneous with its fellows. The human spirit loves its freedom even better than yon sapling, and its resistance to all tyranny is eternal. Force may fetter it, but perpetual force will be necessary to keep it fettered. Mark me, lady, it is easier to talk of extermination than to effect it. I command at present a band of men who are the pick of my race for valour, who will defy thy people with impunity, and are capable of striking fierce blows of revenge in every unguarded moment. If ever the hour of thy nation's weakness should come, terrible will be the revenge, if some strong hand curb not the wild spirit."

"This unholy strife between our peoples is madness. How may we avert it?" said Alice.

"I confess, lady, that but a little while ago I had no feelings but those of undying hatred to thy race. But as I lay in that dungeon beneath the castle, an angel in human form, by an act of pure mercy, gave me liberty and life. 'Twas wonderful! The cold, frozen blood at my heart turned, at a stroke, to warmth. I felt that there is a passion of the human heart more potent than hatred, and some obligations more binding than an oath. Let those who do not love strife, but love mercy, work for mercy and reconciliation; and I think I see the day when there shall be such a blending of races that each shall be strengthened by the other."

"I shall welcome the day, Sir Knight. But had we not better return? Jeannette, I am afraid, will be in great trouble."

"I am not a knight, lady; we Saxons are slow at learning the language of chivalry. If it be not presumptuous to ask it, call me Oswald; 'twill bring us so much nearer."

"Then if you have not learnt the language of chivalry, you will be the better able to call me Alice. Is it agreed?"

"With all my heart, Alice. It is a compact. Let me again assure you that you and your maid are perfectly safe in the woods or anywhere, so far as my followers and vassals are concerned. There is just one thing I would caution you about," said he, with a twinkle in his eye. "One Saxon has a very great admiration for the very spots which you are likely to choose; and I warn you, if he see a certain light in his lady's eyes, never more look for peace."

"Really this does sound like the language of our Norman gallants, after all. But come, now, if you are really heart-hungry, just a crumb of comfort will sustain you; for our Norman ballads declare very loudly that valorous knights for their lady-loves will do and dare, or suffer and wait,—well, really, without going through the list, it is wonderful what valiant knights will do for love and chivalry—in books. I used to see the said valiant knights in books, but latterly I have been face to face with the reality; and alas! I find them most devoted to wine and ale, and incontinence. So, Sir Knight,—for such I will call you once more—he who wins Alice de Montfort will have a knightlier soul than this."

"Well, I will not sound a trumpet before me, as the hypocrites do, so no more of this. Let time declare it. But did you learn how I made my escape from the castle that fateful night?"

"No. Pray tell me now? I am most curious to know it."

"Wait a little. But let me tell you I can enter the castle when I like. If you wish an interview with me at any time, you need but make some signal from the tower, and at nightfall I will meet you there whenever you wish."

"But can you come with perfect safety?"

"With absolute safety."

"Then that shall be our trysting-place, to which I will summon my Saxon ally when good news stirs—but I fear me more often when my sad heart needs cheering. But I sorely fear your coming there will be full of peril. Could I not meet you elsewhere?"

"Courage, dear one! and take no thought for me. Let your heart be stout, for the future is luminous with hope."

As the boat rounded a bend in the river, Oswald beheld the fierce struggle going on between the two Saxons, and, with an exclamation of pain, he gave two or three lusty strokes which sent the boat flying amongst the trees which lined the embankment. Hastily springing upon the bank, he tore Sigurd from the prostrate form of Wulfhere.

"Jarl!" said he, "how is this? Making war upon your friends! This will not do, mark me!"

"And how is this?" retorted Sigurd fiercely. "You and this chicken-hearted slave making love to deadly enemies. This will not do, mark that!"

"Enough, enough!" said Oswald, gathering up the prostrate form of Jeannette, who was in a dead swoon. He lifted her into the boat and dashed a few drops of cold water in her face. "There, now," said he, "she is all right." And in a whisper he said to Alice, "Pull away, dearest. Remember the tryst, and be not dismayed. This man is a scion of the untamed Vikings who linger in the land. I shall know how to deal with him."

Oswald watched the boat and its occupants glide away, and waving a last adieu he turned to his companions, and said, "Let us go. Sigurd," he continued, in tones of severity, "this fierce quarrel bodes no good to the Saxon cause."

"Does this dawdling with Norman women bode some good to the Saxon cause? I wot Viking, or Dane, or old-time Saxon would not have warred like this. Are we going to avenge ourselves upon our enemies by simpering to their women? My ancestors have conquered with the sword, and I will thrust through any Norman I can—aye, and their women, too! To spare the dam to suckle cubs will not do for me!"

"Sigurd, mark me, thy fierce, implacable temper will hurt the Saxon cause more than ever thy sword will aid it. Kindly understand that I am lord in these parts, and my will shall be law. If thou art not satisfied, well, thou had better return to thy own domain of Lakesland, and make war according to thy own notions. If thou succeed better than us, well, then we may copy thy methods; but here we will have no slaying of defenceless women and children. As for these two in particular, they gave me my life, and whoever injures a hair of their heads is my mortal foe. Let that suffice, Jarl."

"Tut, tut! Fine, no doubt; but I like not such modes of warfare, and if I cannot be allowed to spill Norman blood whenever I can, I'll none of it."

"I have my own plans for the protection of my people and for the amelioration of their lot, and I think it is the best. As for thy methods, and the hopes thou hast of driving out the Normans, I regard them as worse than madness, and they will end in the annihilation of the Saxon race. So be pleased to interfere no more with my plans," said Oswald.


CHAPTER XX.

WAR'S VICISSITUDES.

"Hope tells a flattering tale,
Delusive, vain, and hollow.
Ah! let not hope prevail,
Lest disappointment follow."
Miss Wrother.

The desperate repulse which the Normans received at the hands of the Saxon outlaws, made them exceedingly chary of attempting again the extermination of them. This afforded a welcome respite to the fugitives, particularly to the women and children. But the vigilance of their sentinels was never permitted to be relaxed. The retreat to which Ethel had been conveyed was thus free from alarms, and lacked nothing in picturesqueness and beauty. Oswald had taken care that it should be furnished with some comfort and taste, for he had been wont in summertime to spend often many days, and even weeks, in this secluded and lovely spot. To Ethel, this home in the mountains was dearly welcome. During the day she busied herself with the books of history, travel, and romance which Oswald loved; and at even her countenance brightened at his cheery words and pleasant greetings. But for some days a strange feeling of anxiety and foreboding had clouded her happiness; for more than a week Oswald had not so much as paid a hurried visit to his favourite rendezvous.

"Your master has not been here for more than a week, Bretwul," said she one day, when her anxiety for tidings could no longer be resisted. "Do you know what detains him? I fear me he has fallen into the hands of the Normans."

"He will not fall into the hands of the Normans so easily, lady. If he does it will only be his body, though I am afraid he ventures on some desperate enterprises."

"Whither has he gone, Bretwul? Know you?"

"I know not for certainty, lady, but I have belief he has gone with one Sigurd, lord of Lakesland, for he has disappeared and taken his wild-cat crew with him. Good riddance, I trow! and may my eyes never look upon such starved, ill-clad, unsavoury mortals again!"

"Who is this Sigurd you speak of, Bretwul?"

"He is lord of the Lakes, but has had served out to him the same treatment as every other Saxon chieftain has had; first wholesale butchery of his followers, then death, or flight and exile, for himself."

"What has he been doing here?"

"He has been hunted, harassed, and driven from one hiding-place to another, until he had but a handful of followers left. Then he sought respite in flight, and has been for a little while with us here, he and a dozen of his housecarles. Now he hears the Norman army has gone south, so he would fain return to the fray, and has craved the assistance of the Earl and a dozen stout retainers, in return for the services he rendered us."

"I had a dream last night, Bretwul. I saw Oswald fighting desperately with Norman foes, and then he was surrounded by them and sorely wounded. Then I saw him borne by rough hands to a cave in the mountain side, and I saw him swiftly bleeding to death, and no one there knew how to staunch his wounds or cool his feverish brow; and I heard him cry 'Ethel!' And as I stretched out my hands to help, I awoke."

"It was but a dream, lady. Do not let your mind run on such thoughts as these. You are looking pale and ill. My master will be angry when he returns, if he knows I told you of his purpose."

"Can we not go to-night? I do not care to spend my time in idleness and ease while he thus braves danger and death for his country. By hard riding we can reach Lakesland ere the sun is up, and I am sure I can be of service."

"Beshrew me if I dare budge a stone-throw from this place until he gives the word! I like not lying to rust, like the Earl's old swords hung there, in idleness; but I would rather not face him after disobeying orders."

"But he may be wounded, and no one near to nurse him but these rough men, whilst I am worse than useless here, with nothing to do but burden others!"

"Set your fears at rest, lady. These rough men know how to lay a splintered bone, or close a wound, like any practised leech. But if you let your mind run on these things you will be miserable. I have no fear for him. The Normans will find their match, I trow, and give him a wide berth. I have seen them cut down churls like myself with vigorous strokes, and strike halting blows at him, through sheer terror at his appearance."

"But they are many to one, and better armed, and he will be overborne by the numbers of them. I am sure I could be of service, and I should like to be near; I don't mind the rough life at all. Saddle us a pair of horses, and let us start to-night."

"I warrant the Earl would slit my ears if I dared do any such thing! But these are idle fears. I forget me, though; I have a message from the Abbot Adhelm. But, by our Lady! he is no longer abbot, but a humble friar, with no more power in his own abbey than any scullion priest. He was a worthy Father, and never turned a lean dog of a Saxon away without crumbs and comfort. But, among the other bad things these Normans have brought, are a lot of swag-bellied monks, who broach more ale-casks than they say prayers; and, by the Mass! they drink the ale, too, for there is never a drop, or a taste of venison, to bestow on a famishing palmer, or starving yeoman. I wish I could stick a nettle under their tails and make them trot, the whole brood of them. The Church will never make much out of my prayers, beshrew me! but I would with right good will rid her of these shaveling carrion who have come swarming at the heels of the fighting men."

"But you said you had a message from Adhelm, did you not, Bretwul?"

"Aye, aye, lady!" said Bretwul, highly gratified at the diversion he had effected. "When my tongue is set a-wagging, it is as long as my dog's when he is dead beat in chasing a hare; there's no hauling it in. Well, Adhelm has found some pity in a wolf's den. Whoever would have looked for a she-wolf having compassion on the sheep?"

"I have not the slightest idea what you are talking about Bretwul."

"Marry, no! there's no sense in an ass's braying; but bringing him to the end on't is another matter. Well, gramercy! this fire-eating Norman count has got a daughter who belies her own father."

"Belies her own father? What may that mean?"

"Aye, marry, it's true enough—belies her own father. I take the liberty to dodge about a bit amongst the churls who have submitted to these Normans, to see what encouragement there may be to feed at the same trough as these broken-spirited cattle. Well, an iron collar about my neck is an ornament I don't covet, and kicks and cuffs always did bruise my flesh, and, what is even more painful, they bruise my mind; so a Norman serf I will not be. But they tell me this count has a daughter who has compassion, and visits them, carrying dainties to such as are sick. Adhelm also and she are great friends, and he says she occupies herself much in this sort of work."

This colloquy was cut short by a sharp knock at the door and the hurried entrance of one of the Earl's retainers.

"Bretwul!" said he; but, his eye alighting on Ethel, he suddenly paused. "I crave your pardon," said he, hastily doffing his cap. "Matters of importance, which stand not on ceremony, have brought me."

"What are they, my man?" said Ethel, eager and apprehensive.

"The Earl is slightly unwell," said the stranger, noticing Bretwul's cautioning gesture; "and I have ridden hard to request that a bed may be prepared."

"My dream! my dream!" almost shrieked Ethel, starting from her seat. "He is not dead yet! Say he is not dead?"

"Calm yourself, lady," said Bretwul, giving the stranger another significant look.

"No, no, lady; a mere scratch. A few weeks of your nursing will set him on his feet as sound as a rock. But you will make ready, Bretwul? They are not far behind."


CHAPTER XXI.

VIKING CHIEF AND SAXON MAIDEN.

"He beheld
A vision, and adored the thing he saw."
Wordsworth.

Ere long, the hum of voices and the scrambling sound of approaching footsteps were heard. Then hurried orders, given in an undertone, muffled footsteps, as of persons bearing a burden, accompanied by a low, deep groan, broke upon the anxious ear of Ethel, who was listening with nerves in a state of utmost tension and alarm. These sounds gradually abated as the party retired to a more distant room, and doors were softly closed behind. By-and-bye her anxious suspense was abated by the entrance of Bretwul and his wife, accompanied by Sigurd, the lord of Lakesland. A cold tremor ran through her blood as her eyes rested for the first time upon the burly figure of the stranger; and she tried to evade the rivetted gaze which he turned upon her, by turning to Bretwul.

"I think the Earl is much worse than the messenger would have us believe, Bretwul. Can I go to him? I may be of use. I have some skill in nursing, thanks to my instructions and the terrible times upon which our land has fallen."

"Do not be alarmed," said Sigurd, trying to infuse as much of gentleness as he could into the gruff tones which issued from the deep, broad chest. "Oswald is put to bed, and his wound is a mere nothing—a flesh-wound, which ought to have healed itself; but his body has been pampered and daintily housed, and the merest cuts tell on such. The wound has cankered and brought on a touch of fever. Pity that men, who ought to know better, swathe their limbs, and pamper their bodies, and live in cunningly decorated houses, and spend their time toying with such finikin things as these"—pointing to sundry books and musical instruments. "Women's things, and baby's toys!"

"I think I had better go with you, Eadburgh," said Ethel, anything but assured by the unsympathetic words of the strange visitant.

This was just what Eadburgh was anxious to say; and the two immediately disappeared.

"Be seated, my lord," said Bretwul to Sigurd, "and I will find some eatables. I doubt not you are well-nigh famished."

"Aye, aye. We have ridden eight hours continuously in the darkness, and you well say we are famishing."

No sooner had the door closed behind Bretwul than Sigurd's astonishment at the vision his eyes had just seen, found vent.

"What is this I have looked upon?" he murmured to himself. "Some inhabitant of Valhalla, where our gods and heroes have gone? Surely our priests have told me of nothing so fair as she, even there! I would covet a hero's grave this very hour, and the dark beyond, if they who dwell there get them wives so fair as she."

Here, let me, for the further information of the reader, say that this Sigurd, or "lord of Lakesland," as he was known, whom we have met with before in these pages, was a typical example of many a Norse chieftain who still held sway in the land, ruling their followers after the manner of the rude past; and the important part which he plays in these "Chronicles" calls for a more elaborate introduction than we have yet accorded him. He was a man who rivetted the gaze at once, but it was a fascination, and not a delight, to the beholder. Men could not forbear to look, but they far oftener turned away from him with a shudder and a sense of relief than otherwise. When Halfdane, the viking marauder, pounced down upon Northumbria, and the north of England generally, he divided a great part of the lands of the Saxons amongst his followers; and they, settling amongst the Angles, intermarried with them; and thus, in the course of time, the two became almost one people. But in some districts there were clearly defined lines of separateness. Sigurd, in unbroken line, was a descendant of one "Rollo, the Ganger" (or walker). Wonderful traditions lingered amongst the people of the height and build of this warrior: such fragmentary histories, or folk-lore, declared that he was compelled to walk because no horse could bear his weight. Hence his name, the "Ganger," or walker.

As this Sigurd was in body and physical proportions, so he was in mind. He was rough, rude in manners, tastes, and pursuits, but strong in the sturdy virtues of honesty and chastity, his Viking heritage. In the case of Oswald notably, and of Ethel, and many others of our Saxon chieftains and chieftainesses, some measure of education had been sought after and prized. Contact also with the Normans, who in goodly numbers dwelt in England during our late King Edward's lifetime, had done much to modify the vulgar tastes and habits of the English. But in the case of Sigurd, the undiluted primitiveness of the marauding Norseman, untainted and uninfluenced by the undoubted advance the world was making, was embodied. He never travelled beyond the rugged hills and weird gorges of his domain, unless it were to meet the hardy robbers from over the Scottish border. To fish in the glorious lakes; to hunt in the stretching forests and dense woods; to excel in the rude games of wrestling, archery, putting the stone, and many other games which constituted the sole recreations of vulgar churls, was his delight. He had little sympathy and little intercourse with those members of his class who were awaking to the presence of, and yielding to, the civilising influences which were beginning to be felt in England, by its increasing contact with the continent of Europe. Still, there was a rugged honesty about this man altogether admirable. He loved deeply and faithfully; but he hated just as fiercely and implacably. He was a man of great, even gross extremes, magnificent in energy and force of character. Happy was the man who shared his affection; but woe be to the man who incurred his hatred. This first interview with Ethel had a distinctly repellent influence upon her; her very blood seemed to freeze under his ardent gaze. It seemed to her that she was face to face with one of the unlovable gods or heroes, their sagas, or wise men, were never tired of glorifying. The sense of shrinking and dread which Ethel experienced at this first meeting might have been intensified by her anxiety with regard to Oswald; but Sigurd was quick to notice the involuntary start, the shrinking from him, and it cut him deeply, and to the quick.

When the door was closed he stood for some minutes like one petrified, blankly staring at the closed door through which the fair vision had disappeared. The form and features of the beautiful Saxon floated indistinctly before his vision. "She shrank from me!" he fiercely ejaculated, but the tones were half a groan as well. "Why this ill-disguised dread of me?" he murmured. He slowly surveyed himself from head to foot in the vain endeavour to discover what it was about him which so startled and repelled Ethel. Then he strode across the room and stood before a mirror which hung from the wall in an elaborately wrought frame—an article he had never used before, and seldom met with, and which he faced now with a scowl of contempt upon his face. His head and face were faithfully reflected, and some of his muscular frame. His visage was bronzed and brown, his beard unshaven and unkempt, whilst from underneath his helmet there escaped masses of hair of an unlovely red colour. "Ah!" he ejaculated, "I should better win me a bride as my fierce Viking ancestors won theirs, with their swords, getting them as the spoil of war, or winning them at Holmganga (duel), where valour and prowess in arms were recognised. Any Norman gallant with a well-trimmed beard would put me to the rout as wives are won in these degenerate days! Any Saxon with a smattering of clerk's gear and book-learning, would have me on the hip. One who could play at joust with foppish Norman gallants, or lilt his heel to the sound of music, would be preferred before me. Yet, what is there ails these sturdy limbs of mine? Sturdy limbs counted for much in the days of our ancestors; but now every dainty girl shrinks at them with contempt, as marks of boorishness. Why should this girl shrink from me so? Hist to me, Viking," said he, apostrophising himself, "and tell me this. Why should this fair Saxon thus unhinge me? Why should I care for blue eyes, flaxen tresses, and a sylph-like form? Viking warriors were not mothered by girls like this. Then clearly, if Viking warriors cannot be mothered by such, Viking warriors should not be wived by them. A wife of brawny build, with hardihood enough to be a sea-king's consort, and nurse me warrior sons, would surely mate me best. My home will have to be the rugged hills where the eagle hath his eyrie, or the dense forest where prowls the wolf, and where the lordly red deer roam at will. Yet I do believe this fair Saxon hath bewitched me; she is comely beyond aught my eyes have seen before. But what of that? 'Tis despisable—maudlin! Yet those blue eyes of hers, and that comeliness of form, is quite new to me. Those maidens of brawny build, and bold, unwomanly features—I never bethought me to love them yet. Ah! I have been ever ready to fight the bold, but I never could love it; 'tis the gentleness and maidenly grace of this Saxon maiden hath done it. Her speech is gentle, and her manner is coy and shy, and nothing forward. Out upon me for a dotard!" said he savagely. "I'll no more on't! I will not sleep under this roof; 'tis enervating! I'll get me out upon the heath, where I can hear the sough of the night winds, and listen to the night-birds' screech. 'Twill bring me back my Viking's mood, and scare away this flimsy dream of love. How could I mate with a timid dove, except I shed my talons! A Viking sleek and pursy, well fed, and ease-loving!—a monstrosity I should be! The door of Valhalla would be closed against me. The gods and heroes in the land beyond the deep sea, whose company I hope to join at death, would disown me. My boast and pride, my Viking's race, would fitly come to end with me."

Meanwhile Ethel, accompanied by Eadburgh and Bretwul, repaired to the room where Oswald had been laid at rest. Some knowledge of medicine and the art of healing, happily, was possessed by all Saxon gentlewomen. Also there were a few amongst the serfs, who were the lowest class of the peasantry, that had some knowledge of herbs, potions, poultices, bandages, and simple remedies and expedients, which were frequently very effective, though sometimes mistaken.

Oswald smiled a pleasant smile as they entered; but it required no great skill or discernment to see that he was weak and suffering. The hectic flush upon his countenance, and the short, hurried breathing told but too plainly that the wound and the weakness were not the worst foes that had fastened on him. He could not fail to note the dismay and alarm depicted on the pale and anxious face of Ethel.

"Ethel, girl," said he, putting as much pleasantness into his tone of voice as he could command, "never let that sweet face wear so sad a look. The case is not so bad as that—nothing worse than a mere flesh-wound; but the damp and exposure on those mountain sides, and that long and horrid home-coming on horseback, has taken the life out of me."

But in spite of his efforts to be cheerful, he could not suppress a groan and a painful contortion of his face.

"Bretwul," said he, uncovering his shoulder, "for mercy's sake undo those bandages! My arm swells, and they screw me tight as a vice, and give me a sickening pain."

Ethel, however, advanced, and with firm and nimble fingers undid the clumsy bandages, cleaning and washing the festering wound wonderfully gently, but resolutely, and without faltering. Without faltering or hesitancy also, she bathed and salved, lotioned and bandaged it again. Oswald, with the passiveness of a tired child, submitted to it all.

"Ah!" said he, "now I've got a chance."

But this done, Ethel's culinary arts were called into requisition, and delicacies from the mere, the flock, or the chase succeeded each other with tempting regularity.

"If the wound could have had but a week's start of the fever, I should have been hopeful," said she to Eadburgh.

But this was not to be, for next day Oswald became restless, with occasional wanderings of the mind, and this was speedily followed by a total relapse. Never for a moment, by night or by day, except for the most necessary things, did Ethel quit his side; and never was there a moment, by night or day, but either Bretwul or Wulfhere watched by his bed. And when the fever was at its height, it was as much as the two strong men could do to hold him in his bed.

During this season of mental aberration, he would be at one time engaged in mortal strife with his hated rival Vigneau. Anon, he was over seas with Alice de Montfort, a refugee in a foreign land. Then the graphic scene enacted in the dungeon beneath the castle, where Alice, torch in hand, and alone, saved him out of the hands of her own countrymen, and gave him liberty and life, was acted over again, with intense realism of voice and gesture.

Frequently he recoiled, with horror depicted in his countenance, as Ethel gently smoothed his pillow, or moistened his parched lips. Then he would call vehemently for the fair Norman with the dark eyes and raven tresses.

Ethel heard all this with agony at heart, and often the tear, unbidden, dropped upon the coverlet as she bent over him. Often she would murmur to herself,—

"He thinks not of me. I am but a Saxon girl, to pet and speak gently to. Would he were harsh and forbidding, like this stranger! But he is what he is, and God made me a woman, and I will bear this burden, as too oft a woman must; for he will never know, and that will make it bearable."

So for many weary days and nights the resolute struggle of life and death for victory went on, and the weary, anxious watchers looked on, helpless, except to pray and hope that favouring Providence would give the victory as they wished.

At last the crisis passed. Thanks to the wonderful physique and recuperative faculties of the patient, combined with the ceaseless care and patient nursing of the Saxon maiden, the strong man vanquished, and cast off the malignant foe. Then commenced the slow rallying from the utter prostration, and the gradual regaining of strength.


CHAPTER XXII.

A VIKING'S LOVE.

"Love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave."—Song of Solomon, viii. 6.


During the time that Oswald was recovering from the prostration consequent upon the fever, he and Wulfhere drew carefully a plan for the fortress already determined upon. Every detail was gone carefully over and elaborated. In the meantime, also, messengers were despatched far and near, and artificers and handicraftsmen rallied to the work. Speedily the foundations were dug, and the outer walls encircling the summit began to rise steadily and rapidly before the persistent and energetic labours of the Saxon refugees. Each one wrought with a will, knowing that life and freedom depended upon their ability to raise a fortress strong enough to defy their enemies.

Ere the Normans were aware of what was going on, a rampart had been erected, which was soon to develop into a stronghold, impregnable, and secure against assault. This first line of defence having been raised, vigorous attention was given to the interior. Wells were dug, stables were built, habitations also sprang up as by magic. Women and children hurried into it, bringing everything they had saved from the desolation of the past. Cattle were driven into it at night, and emerged in the morning to feed around its shoulders, pushing their way in sheer audacity down into the green valleys, for there were always bands of sturdy outlaws in the woods between them and danger—outlaws, who snared game, which literally swarmed in the woods, or cut their timber for their bows and arrows. For these men the Normans were no match in the solitudes which were familiar to them, and they soon learnt to have a semi-friendliness with them, and to court relationships with the hill-men, all of which decidedly made for peace. But to a tacit acknowledgment of these outlaws the Norman leaders were bitterly opposed. De Montfort feared that this thing would grow until it became a menace to his own position, though he remembered most vividly the words used by Oswald on that memorable night when he confronted him in his own house as though he had dropped from the clouds, when, in burning words, the Saxon told him that they wished to be at peace, but would assert their right to pasturage, and to freedom. De Montfort also feared the effect this thing would have upon William, if once he learnt that his subject was conniving at an incipient rebellion, which might ultimately threaten the peace of the kingdom. So, what between the pleadings of his daughter Alice for peace towards the harassed Saxons, and the sharp lesson they had taught him once before, that they were an enemy not to be trifled with on ground of their own choosing, the days and weeks sped on in delays and hesitation as to how this defiance on the part of a handful of desperate men, who defended themselves with such vigour when attacked, should be met; seeing also that they were, upon the whole, non-aggressive and peace-loving when left alone to the pursuit of peaceful avocations.

The Saxons encamped were, nevertheless, a strange and motley company, and nothing less than the sagacity, watchfulness, and marvellous forbearance of Oswald, coupled with the matchless valour and firmness which he displayed, would have served to restrain the undisciplined and heterogeneous company over whom he ruled. There was a moiety of desperate and blood-thirsty men who were almost incapable of restraint, and who were so blinded by their hatred of the Normans that motives of prudence or of policy were most hateful to them, and Oswald's efforts to enforce self-restraint upon his own followers, and to cultivate friendly relations with the enemy, were gall and wormwood.

Sigurd was the acknowledged leader of these, and they, by their dense ignorance and superstitions, fittingly represented the dark heathenism, and plunder, and bloodshed, characteristics of their Norse ancestors. They were utterly unable to realise the fact, which Oswald saw most distinctly, that all hope of wresting the kingdom from the Normans by force of arms was an idle dream, unless the Normans should be involved in a struggle with other foes. They clung to their heathenish religion, encouraged by their grim old priest Olaf, who, periodically quitting his cave in an adjacent valley, haunted the settlement like a hyena on the scent of blood, and found little difficulty in stirring up the ferocious passions of his followers, often to the verge of open revolt and mutiny. Oswald surveyed the situation with the eye of a statesman; but the reconciling of these turbulent factions to his ideal was a task which required the utmost efforts of wisdom and valour too, and which perpetually threatened the peace of the camp.

These desperate complications were further intensified into a private and personal cause of enmity and hatred on Sigurd's part—as we shall presently see—by reason of his strange and fierce love for the fair Saxon, Ethel. Despite his passionate endeavours to cast out the deep impression made upon him at his first interview with Ethel, we need scarcely say such efforts were utterly vain and futile. She was a beloved and familiar figure to every one in the little colony, and he was necessarily brought frequently into intercourse with her; and day by day he became more deeply involved. The love of the fierce Viking had this quality in common with more ordinary mortals; it was like a quagmire, in which, being once fairly entangled, the more he struggled to get free of it the deeper he sank, until all hope of extrication therefrom became perfectly impossible.

"Ethel, girl," said he, addressing her one day with the bluntness which was a characteristic of his whole nature and disposition; and his love-making was of a piece with his whole disposition, "I have no skill in the art of making love, or, what is pretty much the same thing, a make-believe of love, and I much fear me my rough manners and rough-hewn limbs commend me not to fair maidens like thyself. But since I saw thee first, feelings have been kindled in my breast which I thought were dead, and utterly out of place in these times. But scorn me not, Ethel. Thou art as surely of Viking extraction on thy father's side as I am; and though I have no gentle manners, there is no honied falseness in my nature, and perhaps through thy gentle influence I may come to love the ways of peace."

This confession of love on the part of Sigurd was the very thing Ethel had been dreading to hear; and her confusion and sickness of heart were pitiably manifest.

"Alas! my lord," said she, "these are times when the funeral rites for our dead are more opportune than the marriage rites. I could not think of wedlock in times like these, when children born may well-nigh curse the day when they first saw the light."

"But I will carry thee to the court of Malcolm of Scotland, where thou shalt dwell in safety. My sword will receive a hearty welcome by him. Then, if peace should come, we may return to our own land."

"My lord, you know not what you ask. These are not times for love. With my country laid desolate, and my people scattered, I can indulge no affection but for these."

"My love for my country is as great as thine, and wedlock between us two need not diminish our love for our country."

"Say no more, my lord. You know not what you ask. 'Tis painful to me, for I am not free to love."

Sigurd started as if stung by a serpent.

"Ah! what a dolt I must be, not to see it! How could a maiden come in contact with him, and not love him. Well, Ethel, Sigurd would throw no shadow across thy path. Happy be thy love, and its consummation timely!"

"My lord, I have no lover!" said Ethel, hastily leaving the room.

Sigurd slowly paced the room, in profound meditation. The memorable occasion when he found Oswald and Wulfhere in the company of the two Norman women passed in review before his mental vision, and its significance laid hold upon his mind as it had never done before.

"Can it be," said he, "that he should be insensible to such a treasure, and should add to his culpable blindness the base treachery of seeking an alliance with the Norman supplanter?"

The thought of this stirred his passions into fury, and he nervously grasped the hilt of his sword, as though he meditated vengeance on some foe. "I will watch this thing, and if it be as I fear I will no longer ally myself with him; but woe be to him if my arm be stronger than his, for so base a betrayal can only be washed out in blood!"

So saying, he sallied forth, pacing round the fortifications in quest of Oswald, where he learnt that he and Wulfhere had betaken themselves towards the valley. Away he sped him, intent on probing this matter to the bottom; and instinctively his footsteps turned toward the spot where once before his ire had been roused at the conduct of the two he sought.


CHAPTER XXIII.

A VILLAIN DEMANDS HIS WAGES.

"Oh pilot! 'tis a fearful night;
There's danger on the deep."
The Pilot.

Count De Montfort strolled leisurely to and fro on the rising ground in front of the castle, rapt in admiration of the fine scenery and noble woods which environed it on all its sides. Then he turned to take a leisurely survey of the massive proportions of the castle, and, with a veteran soldier's instincts, fell to a planning of additional fortifications, so as to increase its impregnability. Whilst thus engaged, a figure seen in the distance, caused the complacent smile to vanish from his countenance, and his visage grew dark with a frown. The intruder was none other than Baron Vigneau, who, after salutations, said,—

"When may I expect the fulfilment of the promise made to me at York, Count? Lady Alice has now had some months of preparation, and now the time has come when our nuptials should be celebrated."

"Well, what says the lady, Baron? If you have her consent there need be no further delay. I have no opposition to offer, though, as Alice's father, and wishing her happiness, I am bound to say I wish you would eschew the wine-cup. I note with pain and concern this most unwholesome habit grows apace."

"Tut, tut, Count! Many thanks for your homily! But to the point in hand. I have no recollection that the lady's consent had aught to do with the bargain. Soldiers usually dispense with ceremonies of that description, and, by your consent, we will still consider it apart from her ladyship's wishes or whims. 'Twas, I think, a part of the wages of services rendered."

"But, as a soldier and a knight, making professions of gallantry and the rest of it, you would not think of forcing a lady's hand? Surely you have opportunities of winning her as a soldier should. I have expressly stated that such are my wishes. What more can you expect of me?"

"Finely spoken no doubt! But I would remind you of a matter which you know well enough without a reminder, that I have not the manners of a simpering gallant, nor am I used to chanting love-songs beneath my lady's window. I am a soldier, a blunt and unpolished one maybe. Alice has been thoroughly well spoiled, that is plain enough, by prating nuns and her convent life. Her head has been filled with their silly notions of romance, and religious scruples. My rough life does not fit me for playing the part of a dangling fop, or uttering canting lies about religion. Bah!"

"I cannot force my daughter into this marriage, Baron. Win her if you can," said the Count peremptorily.

"A bargain is a bargain, force or no force, and I'll have it kept. Any canting parade of virtue will not go down with me; I'm too familiar with your antecedents. If this promise is not ratified promptly, I'll straight away to the king and expose your foul conspiracy, and I shall have the pleasure of seeing your head dangling from the gate within a week. Then the haughty wench, your daughter, will rue the day she vented her scorn on me."

"Cowardly villain!" said the Count. "Come with me to yonder copse, and I'll measure steel with you."

"Not quite so fast, master. I keep my mettle for other purposes. We'll try steel as a last resort. But in the meantime, I'd rather have your daughter than your blood; and nothing prevents but the lack of your commands. Let these be forthcoming, and all is well; but I'll not be trifled with, mark me!"

So saying, he strode away, leaving De Montfort beside himself with rage and fear.

The same evening, as he and Alice sat together, he said,—

"Alice, I told you some time ago that I had betrothed you to Baron Vigneau, and I told you some other matters connected therewith, which I trust you have not forgotten. He has been claiming the fulfilment of my promise, and becomes very wroth and threatening. I trust you are prepared now to accept him at once."

"I cannot say that I am, father; the acquaintance I had with him in Normandy before the wars caused me to form but a poor opinion of him. I find that the life he has been leading since the wars began has brutalised him. His sottish habits, also, have become most outrageous. If you wish me to marry, let me make my choice. Or, better still, let me stay with you in singleness. You need some one to keep house for you, I'm sure."

"Alice, I told you I had betrothed you to Vigneau, which is a matter binding upon my honour; and 'tis a debt you must discharge. The Baron is not worse than many others whose life has been cast in these troublous times. He is also famous at the joust; his deeds of arms, also, and his personal prowess, are known throughout the land. Pray what would you have in a husband?"

"Father, I have no feelings but of abhorrence for him. If I may, I would very much prefer retiring to a convent, as I have said before, to spending my life with one so besotted and utterly lost to human feeling. If this will relieve you of your bond, pray give me permission, and I will prefer no other request."

"Alice, it does not suit me that you should retire to a convent, or do anything but obey me. Let me tell you, once for all, these mock heroics, these school-girl sentiments and bookish whims, cannot be tolerated. Your mother was betrothed to me by her parents, who never thought of asking her consent. I tell you once for all, this marriage shall be consummated this day three months. So let this suffice."

Alice retired to her room well-nigh heart-broken at her father's harshness and the hateful prospect of a union with Vigneau. She laid her face in her hands and sobbed most distressingly, defying Jeannette's utmost efforts to console her.

"What shall I do, Jeannette? I shall never wed Vigneau! I shall be sweetly sleeping in that still pool beneath the hazel trees, where we met the Saxon the other day, on the morning that Vigneau claims me for his bride."

"Hush, my lady! don't say that. Let us go again in the morning. Perhaps we may meet those Saxons again, and they will advise us what to do."

Jeannette dared not give utterance to the thing that was uppermost in her own mind. But as a simple matter of fact, the well-developed manhood of Wulfhere the Saxon had never been wholly absent from the waking thoughts of this coquettish damsel since that romantic interview she had had with him, when her ears tingled with a newborn delight, as she listened to his flattery in the wood by the riverside. She was, as a matter of fact, ready for any desperate enterprise or expedient that would result in another interview.

"We will, Jeannette. Perhaps we shall see the Saxon knight again. I had been taught to believe these Saxon chieftains were loutish boors. But I can assure you I found him anything but that."

"Yes, lady; and the other chieftain, who was with me, was a very handsome man, and spoke so pleasantly to me. I have heard, too, lady, they have built a fortress on the mountains. He asked me to be his wife, but I thought we should have to run wild in the woods, and sleep in caves; but if they have a fortress to live in, I would run away and be his wife, if you would run away with the other chieftain."

Alice smiled, in spite of herself, at Jeannette's willingness, evidently, to take Wulfhere pretty much on trust. But, nevertheless, the morrow found them wending their way to the river, where, getting out the boat, they pulled away up stream.

"I wonder if the Saxon, will see us, Jeannette?"

"If he should come, he will be sure to have his comrade with him. Don't you think he will?"

"I think you are in love with that tall bondman of the Saxon chieftain's, Jeannette."

"He is not a bondman of any one's my lady, for he told me so himself. He is a Saxon freeman."

"A 'freeman,' Jeannette. What does that mean, prithee?"

"A freeman is next to a knight, I believe; at least, they have lands of their own."

"Oh, is that so? Well, we shall soon reach the spot where we landed before. Shall we get out of the boat, think you?"

"I think we had better not, my lady, until we see them. What should we do if that fierce Saxon should catch us?"

"The Saxon earl told me his people would not harm us—any of them; but we must not be overbold. We are now completely out of sight of the castle; let us pull gently, and keep a sharp look-out."

So steadily they glided underneath the long arms of the trees, sending the water-hens scurrying away into the thick recesses of foliage, or diving beneath the surface, and coming up again on the other side with a plash; whilst the snipe and lovely kingfishers, on fleet wing, skimmed over the surface into the solitudes ahead.

"Surely," said Alice, "this is a slice out of Paradise."

"Yes," said Jeannette; "it is lovely. And that's the fallen tree where the Saxon and I sat together."

"Not the Saxon, Jeannette; his follower, you mean."

"Oh, but I don't think he is merely a follower, my lady. I believe they are equal; leastways, he is only a little lower in rank."

It is, perhaps, needless to say that since Oswald's recovery, scarcely had a sunny day passed when the placid bosom of the river had not been anxiously scanned by the other two persons most interested in a second meeting with these fair Norman women. It is scarcely necessary to say also that two stalwart individuals had seen the slim boat gliding slowly up the stream, and, for the last quarter of an hour, had been rapidly clearing the distance which separated them from it. We may also say, without exaggeration, that these frail women met these stalwart Saxons with much less of perturbation than when they last met; though if we were to say that there were no fluttering of hearts, and no crimson blushes mounting to the face and neck, and no trembling of limbs, as they reached out their hands to be helped on to the embankment; or if we were to say that Jeannette did not utter a little scream, and clutch Wulfhere most tenaciously, as the boat gave a treacherous lurch as she stepped from it; we should not be faithful chroniclers. Again Wulfhere and Jeannette sat on the fallen tree and watched by the boat; whilst Oswald and Alice sauntered by the river's side, and Alice told her tale of coming disaster. We know she did not resist as Oswald's arm lovingly encircled her, and he bade her be of good cheer. In low, earnest tones they talked of all that lay in their hearts; and Oswald was able to convince her that the dark cloud ahead would be found to have a silver lining. It was truly passing strange that this high-born lady should yield herself so unreservedly to this Saxon. There was no reason, or prudence, or wisdom in it possibly. But the divine instinct of love, which is born in—not acquired—but born in and indigenous to every pure and unsullied woman's heart, ventured, with sheer and utter abandonment, to give her heart to him. The same instinct which revolted in utter abhorrence at the thought of contact with the brutal Norman, drove her irresistibly to the sheltering arms of the pure-minded and valorous Saxon. They laid their plans for further interviews, all the while unconscious that eyes, glistening with fury, were peering through the brushwood, and mad hate was rankling in the breast of an unseen foe, who scarce could forbear to rush in and execute vengeance on the spot.


CHAPTER XXIV.

THE TRYST.

"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea.
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me."
Gray.

From the flagstaff on the tower of the castle was to be seen for a little while at midday a pennant, with long streamers fluttering in the breeze. There was no one on the tower at the time but Alice. What is the significance of this? Nothing, apparently, but a freak of fancy. But any one sufficiently observant would notice that Alice takes her stand on the north side of the tower, and, leaning her elbows on the battlements, looks long and eagerly towards yonder grim mountain looming blackly in the hazy distance, whose scarred limestone precipices seem fearful to look upon. But presently there became visible to any one possessed of strong, keen vision, a dark speck of something which had sprung into sight against the clear background of heaven's blue. It seemed perfectly motionless in the air, and might be some bird of prey hovering on poised wing, and watching for its prey. But it was no bird of prey. Alice gave an exclamation of surprise.

"He sees it," she said; "he will be here to-night. Speed away laggard hours that separate me from him! There is music in his voice, and refuge in his strong arms and loving heart!"

She piously uttered a prayer to the saints to guide him. But perhaps, wise one, that prayer was breathed into the idle April breeze—a contribution of nothingness—an impalpable seedling, flung out of a needy human soul, but deposited nowhere, and having fruition never—I trow not, for prayers, like curses, have an assured harvest, and are as surely reaped by the sowers, no inspired vision being requisite to see it done from day to day.

The laggard hours quickly passed, and the lingering twilight deepened into sombre night. The thrushes which carolled to each other from tree to tree as the deepening gloom gathered about them, as though loth to say good-bye to the joyous day, had long since sought their resting-place for the night. Standing beside the old oak in the wood might be seen the form of Oswald, listening intently for sound of human voice or human footfall. Nothing disturbs the silent night air that gives uneasy thoughts to the listener, though there are many sounds distinctly audible to one so familiar with nature, and the woods are most alive now that man has gone to his rest. There is the hurried pattering here and there and everywhere, of game and vermin, or the unhurried crawl of the urchin as he issues from his bed in quest of food. Overhead the bats are flitting in and out amongst the branches of the trees, followed by the heavy beat of the owlet's wing, whose eyes, catlike, are gleaming like live coals in the darkness. In the distance the sharp yelp of the fox proclaims Reynard also to be abroad and busy.

None of these sounds give uneasiness to Oswald. On the contrary, they are to him most reassuring. He turns his gaze towards the tower, the outlines of which are clearly marked against the starlit sky. Soon he sees a dark figure move towards the battlements, and peer over on the side on which he stands. Perhaps some sentinel keeps watch from the lonely heights whilst his comrades below are resting in peace. No; that is no sentinel, for the figure waves something to and fro for a moment or two, then slowly sinks behind the battlements. On witnessing the signal, Oswald quickly mounts the tree, and disappears in its cavernous recesses. The journey along the underground passage is quickly traversed, and he emerges on the battlements, and the muffled figure is folded in his arms, and a loving kiss is implanted on her cheek.

"What ails you, Alice, dear? No ill news, I trust?"

"Alas! I have only ill news for you, dearest, and I know you are hard beset without my adding other troubles to your perplexities."

"Hush, darling! Never think your needs add to my perplexities. I never feel so like surmounting everything as when I think I live for you; to champion your cause against all comers, and flaunt defiance in the face of your enemies."

"I fear the championing of my cause will bring you into deadly peril, perhaps to death."

"If it does, dearest, you gave me my life when an ignominious death awaited me. If I die in defence of you, well, I am willing, aye, more than willing. But let us not cherish thoughts like these, for I think a merciful Providence will always reserve a blessing for one like you; so let us have faith, and never doubt the future. I am full of faith and hope. Come, tell me what new trouble distracts and disturbs your mind."

Then they sat together on an abutment, and Alice, nestling close to her virtuous knight, told of the new complications which had arisen.

"My father has been very wroth to-day, chiding me roughly because I make not preparations for my nuptials, and threatening my marriage to Vigneau by force."

"He is still determined, then, to press on this hateful and heathenish alliance?"

"Yes; but judge him not too harshly, dearest. I am well assured he loves me dearly, in spite of this seeming harshness. I have seen again and again a frown on his brow, and heard bitter words break from his lips at the intrusion of Vigneau. I am satisfied that if it were not for the hateful power he wields over my father, I should not be forced into this alliance. But Vigneau claims my hand as the price of peace."

"You still hate this man, and abhor a union with him, Alice, dear? Is it not so?"

"I loathe him with my whole heart, and would rather die a hundred deaths than marry him. But what it may be my duty to do, for my father's sake, I know not."

"And will it come to this, that, as the price of peace, you are to be offered to this devil incarnate—to one whose hands are red with the blood of murdered men and women, and whose life is one coarse round of brutal indulgence?"

"The prospect is most sickening. But what can I do in an extremity like this?"

"Rest assured, my love, you will not do that," said Oswald, drawing his sword. "Here is a trusty friend which will cut this Gordian knot, if it be not unloosed by more peaceable means. This Vigneau owes his villainous life a hundred times told, for the foul crimes he has committed, and is committing from day to day, upon my helpless countrymen. The sword has been hanging over him a long time, and it will fall before he claims you as his bride. Though he live to stand at the altar with you, he shall not compass his vile ends, for I will confront him there; and rest assured I will make sure of him if it be the last stroke my trusty sword shall ever make. Drive the matter to the utmost verge of delay, and if relief come not in the meantime, it will come ere the extremity. But come now, let us think of other things, for this matter, I see, sits like a grievous nightmare upon your spirits. I am pleased to be able to report upon the forward state of the fortress on the hill."

"But, alas! I have ill news for you with regard to that matter. It was partly on that account I summoned you from the hills to-night."

"What is it, dearest? Come, unburthen your mind of all troublesome matters. I can assure you, nevertheless, that we are now very indifferent as to what steps may be taken."

"But I am afraid this will be serious. The king is now at York with a large contingent of his men-at-arms, and a number of mercenaries, intent on quelling any attempts at insurrection on the part of the Saxons. One of his Bodes[2] arrived here this morning, asking for all information with regard to the attitude of your people. My father is having a parchment writing made out, with full particulars of your doings, and asking for help to reduce your fortress, and slay your rebellious followers. I fear me if William exerts himself he will not desist, until he has captured your stronghold; and he will give no quarter to those who try to thwart him."

"This is, indeed, serious news, and we must move heaven and earth to prevent this despatch reaching its destination. Do you know when the messenger will depart?"

"The day after to-morrow, I heard my father say. See, I have here a copy of the despatch. I drew it up at father's dictation."

"Many thanks, my dear. We must devise some expedient to meet this emergency. I think I know a sly rogue who will, either by hook or crook, circumvent the king's messenger. But no time must be lost. Give me a parting kiss. Ah! get you to bed, you trembling puss, and may sweet sleep enfold you in his gentle arms! Adieu, adieu, for a little while."


CHAPTER XXV.

BADGER CRACKS THE NORMAN'S PATE.

"Those who in quarrels interpose
Must often wipe a bloody nose."
The Mastiffs.

A few miles down the valley from the Norman headquarters at the castle, and following the trend of the river—because there was on its banks to be found a path, or track, very irregular, it is true, but which was made to serve the purposes of pedestrians, and which was little frequented—a Norman runner, or messenger, the bearer of De Montfort's despatch to the Conqueror, was steadily pressing on towards his destination. He had had a sharp walk along a road none of the best, and the springiness was beginning to disappear from his tread. He carried a sword by his side. Over his shoulder there was fastened a wallet containing provisions, and a long bow with a small quiver of arrows. In his right hand he carried a quarterstaff, which he used as a walking-stick. This latter weapon was much affected by the Normans, they having learnt its use from the Saxons, and it was now inseparable from their rough games and amusements, it being singularly adapted to call forth the powers of strength and dexterity of the wielders of it, whilst its vigorous application seldom resulted in anything worse than bruises and ruffled tempers. Ahead of this Norman, and quite unobserved by him, there was patiently lying in wait a remarkable being, who was quietly peering over the top of a knoll which commanded a view of a turning in the road. His dress plainly proclaimed him to be a child of the forest and the chase, his weird and outlandish appearance being simply indescribable. He sprang to his feet with remarkable agility as the form of the Norman runner rounded the corner into view. He fell into the path, and affected to journey as the stranger did, though as yet the Norman had not got a glimpse of him. As he went slowly trudging along, he burst into a merry ditty, trolling it right lustily. The burden of his doggerel ran something like the following:—

"My song is of a palmer bold,
Who footed it o'er the lea.
A monkish buck to him stepp'd up,
'What's the news, my man?' quoth he.
"'Bad news! Why, wine is getting scarce,
And venison, too, I trow.
And this I know the Normans vow;
They are eat and drunk by you.
"'And paunches measuring a cloth-yard's girth,
They tap them with lance or spear;
For good old sack is kept in stock
By such, the Normans swear.'
"'Then take my bottle, thou palmer bold,
My venison pasty too.
I'll fast and pray, and hair-shirt wear,
As a pious monk should do.'"

The strange singer affected to be totally oblivious of the approach of the Norman, for he accompanied his song by a vigorous twirling of his quarterstaff, ever and anon flinging it into the air and catching it again. So he kept trudging along all the while, as merrily as a cricket. He was apparently greatly startled when the Norman accosted him in the following unceremonious fashion:—

"Hilloa, old weazen-face! you appear to be in a wonderfully merry mood this morning. What is't makes you wag your tail at such a rate this morning, eh?"

"I give you good morning, fair sir. My obedience to your honour. Give me a moment; you quite startle me. What was your honour saying to me?"

"What is it makes you so merry, pray?"

"Why, it is better to be merry than sad; and, begging your pardon for being so bold, but I have that about me would make a man merry if he had a foot in the grave."

"Oh, aye, that is it makes you so merry, old bogskipper, is it? I thought you were going sweethearting."

"Marry, no! Did you ever see as old a dog as I am amuse himself by catching his tail. Mark me, I have in my wallet good barley-bread, and a stout collop of venison; and in my case I have a stiff supply of old Flemish wine," said he, tapping a huge leathern bottle he carried. "So I will be merry while it lasts, anyhow."

"I warrant, too, you have had that snout of yours to the neck of that bottle pretty frequently, old fellow, eh?"

"Thou art in error, friend; grossly in error. Such words are a grave reflection upon my character for sobriety. But it is only fair to say that I have smelt at it occasionally as I came along; but I never drink except I'm thirsty, begging your pardon, fair sir—only when I'm thirsty."

"Thirsty, eh? And how oft does that sensation come on? Not a week between, I'll go bond."

"No, I grant you this much. I always seem to have a parched sensation at the pit of my stomach when wine or ale is about; and I have noticed this frequently, good wine seems to go straight to the spot. It is a very soothing medicine if it be applied regularly, and pretty oft, so as to keep my stomach nice and moist."

"Well, I think you might ask a thirsty comrade to have a taste of your wine, anyhow, old sucker. 'Tis a very small favour, that."

"Not so fast, my buck; don't jump your fence afore you come to't! First fee your priest, then have your shriving. How should I know whether thou beest a comrade or no. Dost thou see, to give good wine to a bad fellow were to waste good liquor, and there is no sin in the calendar half so bad as to waste good liquor. Marry, 'twere mortal sin."

"Ho, ho, my master's all! Dost thou know, old fellow, when an ass kicks his heels he inquires for the cudgel. Come, now, what if I lay siege to thy weazen carcase, and carry off thy bottle, and flay thy carcase for thee into the bargain. How then?"

"Easy there, my hearty!" said the stranger, twirling lustily his staff. "I trow I would flatten thy crown with my staff ere thou take my bottle; though 'twere pity truly to flatten thee any more above thy shoulders, for, gramercy! I take it thou would be welcome where flats are wanted."

"I perceive thou art a stout rogue enough when driven to a push, and saucy into the bargain. But I can stop thy brag, my cock-a-loup, pretty handy, I doubt not."

"That may be, or that may not be, which signifies nothing. But just let me point out to thee, by way of caution, that my staff is harder than thy pate, anyhow. So, in a friendly sort of way, I would advise thee to take no unnecessary risks."

"Risks, eh? Ha, ha, ha! And from such a swag-belly as thou art! There are not many risks, I flatter me."

"Very well, then; since thou wilt not be advised, take thy staff for a friendly bout," said the Saxon, unstrapping his wallet and leathern bottle, and laying them on the ground. "If I crack thy pate, thou shalt have half my wine; and marry, if thou crack mine thou shalt have the whole, for I love a bout with the staff almost as well as I like Flemish wine."

Now the Norman prided himself upon his prowess with the staff. He was also a span taller than the Saxon. The uncouth garments of the latter, also, made him appear as though much beyond the time of youth, and so disguised his stout limbs that the Norman could scarcely conceal his contempt for such an opponent. So he readily accepted the challenge, and at once the pair were toe to toe, and dealing blow or parry with right good will. The Saxon did not appear to very great advantage at the commencement of the fray. Frequently he received slight blows here and there, at which the Norman was visibly elated, and he led the attack with much vigour, and equal recklessness. The Saxon seemed to shrink from the onset, but there was a sly humour lurking about his wicked grey eye which was very ominous. Eventually taking a mild blow, without parrying, from his foe, the Saxon put a giant's strength into his arm, and like a thunderbolt his staff came down with a crash upon the Norman's skull, cutting open his head, and knocking him senseless on the ground.

"Poor fellow!" said Badger, for it was he. "You don't know how sorry I feel to have to give you a crack like this; but less would hardly do the business."

He quickly undid the Norman's doublet, and took from an inside pocket the sealed message from De Montfort. Then he deposited a similar one in its place. Next, he went down to the river and steeped a cloth in the water, then gently bathed the Norman's head, and staunched the bleeding, also carefully drawing the hair over it to hide the wound as much as possible. He next poured down his throat some of the Flemish wine he carried. The Norman slowly opened his eyes, and stared about him with a dazed, unmeaning look.

"All right, my gallant fellow," said Badger. "Here you are. Have another taste of my bottle."

The Norman took a good long pull, which seemed to revive him considerably. By degrees the whole scene came back to his stunned senses, and mechanically he put up his hand to his head, and felt the wound.

"You hound!" said he. "You've cracked my skull!"

"Not a bit of it, my hearty! Your skull is not so easy to crack. The skin is peeled a little, that is all, and a day or two will put it right again."

"I trow not, nor a week or two either. You villain! You meant to brain me, I do believe!"

"Not a bit of it, comrade. Why, if I meant you harm, what so easy whilst you have been lying here? The fact is, you beat me black and blue. My limbs will be sore for many a day after this. It was the first time I had touched you; and you were so eager to knock me out of it that you left your head unguarded. Why, man, you had the best of it up to the last stroke."

By touching up the Norman's vanity by such artful speeches, and by pouring good wine down his throat, the pair were speedily on good terms, and they parted the best of friends, Badger chuckling to his heart's content as he struck off on a short cut for the hills.

In the meantime, Oswald waited anxiously at an appointed place for the coming of Badger, profoundly hoping that his mission would be successful. He knew that, excepting some untoward accident had happened, Badger would hang on to the heels of his man until, by either fair or foul means, he secured the despatches. But he himself had prepared for drastic means, if stratagem had failed. For failure to intercept the message would probably mean disaster to the little Saxon colony on the hill. His mind, however, was greatly relieved as he beheld Badger in the distance with beaming countenance, hurrying towards him.

"Well, I'm glad to see you, Badger. How has the business gone? No miscarriage, I hope?"

Badger made no reply, but, quickly hauling out the parchment from his bosom, he handed it to Oswald.

"I trust this will make better answer than I can muster, my lord."

Oswald took the parchment, and quickly tore it open, and ran his eyes over its contents.

"All right, Badger. How came you by it? Does the messenger know that you have relieved him of his message?"

"He has not the slightest idea. He trudged off, after carefully ascertaining, as he thought, that his packet was safe."

"You are the slyest rogue in the world, Badger, I do declare. Come, let us hear the news, how you came by this paper?"

So, as the pair journeyed on together, Badger, in high glee, told how he had circumvented the Norman, and sent him on his journey with a cracked skull into the bargain, all of which Oswald highly relished.


CHAPTER XXVI.

SAXON AND VIKING AT THE SWORD'S POINT.

"Who overcomes
By force hath overcome but half his foe."
Milton..

The burning and rankling feeling of hatred and contempt engendered in the breast of Sigurd against Oswald (as the result of his spying a second time upon the Saxon chieftain and Alice de Montfort) was of such a consuming nature that he must needs force himself into the presence of Ethel at the very first opportunity. In tones fierce and rancorous, he told her the story of Oswald's secret and unprincipled love—as he considered it—for the fair Norman.

"Ethel, girl," said he, "I have dogged this renegade myself, and know of a truth that he holds illicit intercourse with this dark-eyed Norman hussy, and that he keeps tryst with her o' nights when honest men are abed, deceiving Saxon and Norman alike."

"What have I to do with this, my lord? I pray you pursue this matter no farther," said Ethel.

"All honest men, whether Saxon or Norse, have to do with traitors to their country. This deceiver professes undying enmity against our common foe, but does not hesitate to betray his country and the Saxon cause to win a smile from this temptress."

"My lord," said Ethel, in firm tones, "I cannot listen to your harsh judgments of him. He is our chosen leader, and I do not hesitate to say in your hearing, he is our only possible leader. He is sagacious as brave, and if he cannot rally our scattered and dispirited people, then our cause is hopeless. I do not believe he is a renegade, as you say. He is no traitor to his country, but her most valorous and faithful defender."

"I tell thee, girl, he is in league with this siren! I know of what I speak! How can he prostrate himself before her without despising and betraying his own people?"

"My lord, what is this to me? If he loves this fair Norman, it is not to be wondered at; she gave him his life. She is surpassingly beautiful; and she is virtuous and good as well. Listen, my lord, to what the palmers tell us of her benefactions, and her kindness to those in distress."

"She supplanted thee, girl, dost thou think of that? She hath stolen what of right should be thine—what would have been thine, but for her! How canst thou find excuses for this she-wolf and her base paramour?"

"My lord, such words are an affront to me. A Saxon maiden does not need to go a-begging for a lover."

"Ethel, thou dost tantalise me! Thou art blind. Thy love for him doth make thee mad! But I will be avenged on them both, whether thou approve of it or not."

"My lord," said Ethel, drawing herself to her full height, whilst her eyes flashed fire, "who told you I loved him? Are you going to make a palmer's song about me, and sing it through the whole camp? I will not have you assuming what I have not told you. Let me tell you, once for all, a Saxon girl will love where she pleases, and only where she pleases. Your references are an insult to me!"

This was said with all the energy she could command. Then, rising, she passed hastily from the room. But scarcely had she closed the door behind her when her strength failed, and she sank exhausted into a seat.

"Mercy on us!" shrieked Eadburgh, rushing off for a mug of cold water, and dashing it over her face with her fingers. "Whatever is the matter? That loutish fellow has been making love again, I'll warrant! He'll drive the poor body clean mad if he does not let her alone. Such a great mountain of flesh would frighten anybody, let alone a wee bit of a lady-like creature as my mistress."

Sigurd, we need not say, was still further maddened by this additional repulse, and in a rage which would brook no further control, he hurried off in quest of Oswald, whom he found superintending the efforts of the workmen. Oswald saw that he was greatly agitated and evidently in a terrible passion.

"A word in thine ear," he hissed fiercely to Oswald, as he passed.

Oswald followed him until they were beyond the hearing of others.

"What is thy business this morning, pray?" said Oswald, who saw quite plainly that a rupture was imminent.

"My errand is to unmask a traitor, and either make an honest man of him, or else make an end of him."

"If thou hast business of such import as this—and thy looks betoken it—it were best to speak plainly, and come to the point at once."

"My business is with thee, for thou art a renegade, and a trickster; dancing attendance on a Norman woman, and bartering thy country's cause and thy people's liberties, to win a smile from a trumpery Norman jade. Now thou hast it in plain terms."

"Thou liest, Jarl. And once more thy madness passes the bounds of toleration. Let me tell thee I will have no more ebullitions of thy ungovernable temper, or any more of thy intriguing and sowing of discord amongst my people. So be pleased at once to betake thyself to thy own domain, or anywhere thou likest, so that thou cross my path no more. There thou art at liberty to act thine own part without let or hindrance."

"Ah, finely spoken, no doubt! and smoothly as any Norman courtier could mouth it! Thou hast the trick of it, truly. But thou mayest save thy fine speeches, and lisp them to thy lady-love, for they win not upon me. I will tell thee further,—to put a few leagues of honest Saxon soil between thee and me will not heal our differences. Nor will I try such a remedy unless more wholesome methods fail me."

"There are no differences between us, saving such as are hatched in thy muddy brain, Jarl; and what may be the methods of healing them which thou hintest at, I know not. But I see that madman's look in thy eye, with which I am too familiar, and I opine that mischief, aye, deadly mischief, is designed by thee, if thy ability to work mischief fail thee not."

"The curse of Skuld be upon thee, traitor! Thou hast guessed rightly, so draw at once and stand upon thy guard, or I will run thee through with as little compunction as I would a dog," said the Viking, wildly brandishing his sword, and advancing on Oswald.

Whilst this war of words was proceeding, the whole camp was thoroughly aroused, and curious eyes from every nook and corner anxiously peered out to see what this fateful altercation would lead to. But when weapons were unsheathed, the churls eagerly thronged about their respective chieftains in feverish excitement. Oswald would fain have settled this quarrel without appeal to arms; or if that could not be, then he would have preferred it apart from the clamour and partizanship of the camp. Sigurd's unbridled rage, however, put this out of the question. Being, therefore, forced into this appeal to the sword, he unsheathed his weapon; and the two broadswords, in the grip of two as powerful antagonists as the sea-encircled lands of Britain contained, came together like the shock of lances in knightly charge.

Oswald, unlike his opponent, was perfectly cool, though not by any means blind or indifferent to the momentous issues involved in this life-and-death struggle. He knew that any yielding, or declining of the combat, either in the interest of peace, or for any other reason, meant the loss of supremacy in the camp. He knew also that Sigurd meant it to be to the death. Now, Oswald fell little short of Sigurd in sheer brute strength and force; and in coolness of temper, agility, and skill, he was much more than a match for his opponent. He saw clearly also that this was to be no child's play, but dead earnest. The look in the black and louring visage of Sigurd, and the unmitigated ferocity of his onslaught, told more plainly than words that he, at least, would give no quarter. Oswald fought a purely defensive battle, having no desire to injure his foeman, but steadily parrying, with masterly skill, the thundering blows of Sigurd, steadily giving ground before his eager and impetuous onslaught. None knew better than he, however, that vital exhaustion must follow quickly on the heels of such dire rage; and it soon became very evident to him that the pace was telling upon his adversary. The rush and eagerness of his attack, and the consuming passion within him, told their tale very speedily, for the perspiration poured from him in streams, and his countenance became deadly pale. This was soon followed by a palpable weakening of the strength of his wrist; and Oswald, watching carefully every stroke of his adversary, awaited his chance. Soon it came; and with one powerful blow he sent the weapon from Sigurd's grasp. Then, in a climax of senseless rage at losing his weapon, Sigurd rushed on Oswald, in the vain endeavour to close with him. But Oswald, turning the flat of his sword, dealt him a powerful blow on the head with its broadside, which knocked him senseless and bleeding to the ground. He quickly rose to his feet again, however.

"There," said Oswald, coolly sheathing his weapon, "take thy sword. I have given thee thy life. Be advised, and cross my path no more whilst thou art in thy present mood, for, Saxon or no Saxon, there will be but one more passage-at-arms between me and thee; and thou mayest fare worse at our next meeting."

"I offer thee no thanks for thy clemency, nor do I abate one jot of my hatred of thee and of thy womanish philandering with Norman wenches, when thy countrymen's blood cries aloud for vengeance. I warn thee to take heed lest, next time we meet, fortune may not be on thy side." So, with a scowl, he hurried off.

Oswald remained for a long time with folded arms and bowed head, pacing to and fro on the sward, in anxious and troubled thought, which found vent in audible words.

"Too well I understand that foul menace, and well I understand the untamed and implacable nature of this foe in my own household. When our forefathers broke upon this land, wild and daring, counting human life as nothing, and ruthlessly trampling underfoot their fallen enemies, none more fierce and cruel in all the savage crews were there than he. But this is the question to be settled: were those old days of heathenish rites and savage valour the prime days of our race? Our forefathers braved all hazards, and they were a conquering people. What are we? Are we not abjectly ground down—a subject race, and serfs of a braver people? Is this lingering type of our ancient race in the right? What are books; and music; and chivalry? What is this lately born love of mercy, and justice, and righteousness? Tell me, is it merely a debilitating southern wind come this way, transforming heroes into effeminate dreamers, and weaklings? Can I be again a Saxon of the old type?—for I must make my choice here, and now. A Viking, with savage instincts, and implacable, undying hatred of my enemies; indulging in ruthless butchery and indiscriminate massacre of helpless women and children. Can I see eye to eye with this man? This question I must settle once for all!"

He took a turn, in deep mental conflict.

"No!" said he, with concentrated energy; "it cannot be, come what may. I abominate his savagery! I despise his ignorance, and his boorish habits! He and I can never be one in aim and action. Then, I owe my life to this fair Norman; such a debt upon my honour calls aloud for a full requital. Besides all this," said he, whilst his broad chest heaved with the powerful emotions which stirred within him, "waking I hear continually the music of her voice, and I see the love-light in her dark eye. Sleeping I commune with her, and I dream of days of peace and happiness to come. The die is cast, and my path is marked out for me! Perilous it is in very truth, with Norman foes destitute of mercy, and, added to them, a foe in this mad Norseman, cruel and revengeful as death. I will follow the light! Let God judge between me and this people he hath given me to defend."


CHAPTER XXVII.

JEANNETTE AND WULFHERE, OR LOVE'S COMEDIES.

"Loving she is, and tractable, though wild;
And innocence hath privilege in her
To dignify arch looks and laughing eyes,
And feats of cunning...."
Wordsworth.

Lest it should be imagined that our coquettish little Frenchwoman, Jeannette, had been perfectly quiescent all this time, we proceed to give particulars of some little exploits in which she acted an important part. Hers was not the disposition to act the rôle of a lay figure, it will be easily imagined. No. To be engaged in some little romance on her own account was as essential to her existence as the breath of her nostrils; and the more romantic and unconventional the part she played, the keener the zest with which she entered into it. She had managed to subsist on a little flirtation with Paul Lazaire when nothing better presented itself; but now, the tall and handsome Saxon, Wulfhere, had fired her inflammable little heart with such a passion as she had never experienced before. Her scanty knowledge of Saxon heraldry and Saxon customs, coupled with Wulfhere's constant comradeship with the great Saxon earl, had caused her to think highly of this doughty Saxon lover of hers. It must be confessed, too, that Wulfhere's fine presence, his undoubted valour, and the unflagging goodnature and ready wit with which he alternately bantered, flattered, or caressed her, quite carried her by storm; and over head and ears in love, at a stroke almost, went this born coquette.

Right skilfully had she woven many a Cupid's net for others, and, with tantalising inconsistency, frowned to-day and smiled to-morrow upon her hapless victims. The truth was, none hitherto had fired her imperious imagination sufficiently. But at last Cupid had transfixed her unmistakably; and Jeannette was not the one to stand on ceremony, or be a slave to petty prudencies. Not she, indeed!

To have a brush with the chapter of accidents, to set wise heads and slanderous tongues a-wagging; added piquancy to the romance, and was quite to her liking. Hate has its plots and counterplots, its subterfuges and scheming, its dogged persistence in malevolence; but love also has its expedients, its inventions, its circumlocutions, which, for ingenuity, and for that final grace of all plotters—audacity, will circumvent its hateful opposite any day. Love also has this final advantage; it dares to be found out, and is never a whit abashed when its devices are discovered.

Upon Wulfhere, too, the advent of this pretty and coquettish little dame had burst like a revelation. The saucy pertness, the mischief and merriment which glanced in her sparkling eye, the feminine gracefulness of form and figure, the pretty devices with which she was wont to adorn herself, and set off her charms, and the sheer abandon with which she rushed into this love affair with him, completely carried him away, and he was speedily as helpless as a slave in her hands. The contrast between this dainty Frenchwoman, and the Saxon women of the lower orders was simply inexpressible, and Wulfhere, in his Saxon simplicity, was charmed beyond measure.

Upon poor Paul Lazaire the altered demeanour of Jeannette towards himself operated somewhat hardly. Being quite in the dark as to the existence of a new disturbing factor, he was wont to obtrude his presence as heretofore upon Jeannette. But alas! Jeannette had now lost the little interest which aforetime she had manifested in Paul. She had, in past time, deigned occasionally to bestow a smile, amid her many frowns, on his pretensions; and this occasional smile and ray of sunshine had refreshed him, and given him hope. Now, alas! the smiles had all vanished, whilst the frowns deepened in intensity, and were frequently accompanied by a perky toss of the head, and little scornful speeches. 'Tis just like poor human nature, though, the world over; when once enmeshed in Cupid's net, the shaking-off process makes one cling the tighter, and it made poor Paul more and more desperate in his endeavours to win a smile from his lady-love. It had become, however, not only unpleasant to Jeannette, but vastly inconvenient, too, to have her footsteps dogged as she sauntered through the woods, or by the river's side, as any one who has had experience of these things will easily understand. No matter, if Paul caught a glimpse of Jeannette's golden hair as she slid away at still eventide for a quiet walk in the woods, why, poor short-sighted mortal, he was sure to consider his presence and protection indispensable; and though he had had latterly some very unpleasant experiences of the fact that Jeannette neither considered his presence indispensable nor agreeable, yet he persevered most desperately.

Seeing this infatuation on Paul's part, it had occurred to another participator in these sylvan tête-à-têtes that more drastic expedients would have to be resorted to in order to disillusionise him. So a slight rebuff was administered to poor Paul, which had the happy effect of somewhat disenchanting him.

It was at the still eventide. Jeannette had laid aside the duties of the day, and had ascended to the tower. Why? Well, perhaps to see the sunset. It was somewhat strange, but somehow, like her mistress, she had acquired the habit of reconnoitring at odd hours from the tower of the castle. Probably she and Alice had confidences in these matters. But, be that as it may, a very hasty survey of the beauties of nature on this occasion made her hurry off for a closer scrutiny. Paul's vigilant eye espied the fair form making for the path by the river's side, and, on the assumption that "faint heart never won fair lady," he would venture again. So he started off in pursuit. It must be confessed he did not approach this imperious fair one without many tremblings and forebodings. The keen edge of her saucy tongue had greatly dismayed him in many a wordy tussle lately, and it had begun dimly to dawn upon him that this waspish habit had something of dislike for him. Poor fellow! These very quakings of heart presaged coming trouble and defeat. 'Twas in his case pretty much as the old saw has it:—

"Tender-handed touch a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains."

Never, my dear Paul, should you have approached a saucy, perky dame like this, in the character and with the attitude of a milksop. "Buxom dames will have a buxom wooing." "He who goes trembling will come back shambling."

"My dear Jeannette," began Paul, most humbly, as he caught up to her, "I wonder how you dare venture in these woods alone."

"Humph! I dare do anything I like to. And pray what have you got to do with it, Master Lazaire? I didn't invite you, I know!"

"Well, I thought you ought to have some protection, and I would accompany you if you didn't mind."

"But I do mind; so get off with you to that Saxon hussy I caught you kissing. You may tell her to wash her face, and comb her hair; and if she could tighten the bands about her skirts to make herself a waist, it would greatly improve her appearance. But she is good enough for you, anyway. So be off with you!"

"I never speak to those Saxon wenches. I love you alone, Jeannette; you know that well enough. But you seem now as though you hated to see me."

"I know I caught you kissing a Saxon wench, and a precious dirty one too. I know that well enough, Paul Lazaire. And I'll not have you following me at all. So be off, you softhead, and don't be told again!"

This style of rebuff was more than poor Paul had calculated upon, dubious though he had been, and his temper was considerably ruffled in consequence. His eye assumed an unnatural fierceness as he took in the lonely surroundings of the forest, and desperate resolves were quickly forming in his breast. Jeannette all the while kept her eye steadily fixed on a certain trysting-place, a little ahead, and her nimble feet were on the lilt ready for flight if necessary.

Paul laid his hand on her shoulder somewhat roughly, and said,—

"Stop a bit, ma grande dame. You give yourself too many airs for me altogether."

Jeannette shook him off and at the same time dealt him a stinging slap in the face; then she took to her heels like a deer, with Paul in hot pursuit, in an ungovernable rage.

"Voulez vous slap me in the face, vous renarde? Vous serez taught different when I catch you!"

Just as he was about to lay hands on the fugitive, out sprang Wulfhere from the thicket, and seizing Paul by the throat, he well nigh shook the life out of him.

"You villain!" said Wulfhere. "You assault defenceless women, do you, you undersized little imp? I'll screw your neck round before I've done with you! It is well I was near, you wretch, you!"—the sentences and the shakings alternating with equal vigour, until poor Paul scarcely knew whether he was on his head or his heels. During this operation, Wulfhere was steadily backing him to the river's brink, which, having reached, he gathered him up and pitched him in, head foremost. Paul came floundering out again, like a half-drowned rat.

"There!" said Wulfhere, catching him again by the scruff of the neck; "you may thank your stars I haven't drowned you altogether. Now be off with you;" administering at the same time a hearty kick to the baser parts of Paul's anatomy, which considerably accelerated his retreat.

Paul was not slow to take advantage of this privilege, and he quickly put a safe distance between himself and the Saxon. Suddenly, however, it occurred to him that he was possessed of a sword. Whipping it out savagely he turned to make a tremendous lunge at the foe, when, oh horrors! he was just in time to see in the distance the long arm of the Saxon fondly entwining the slender waist of Jeannette, and the perky little face, all smiles and blushes, upturned to receive a spanking kiss from the "beast of a Saxon!"

"Le diable!!" he screamed with rage, whilst the veins of his face and neck were distended almost to bursting. Off he started in pursuit, sword in hand, and bent on executing summary vengeance on the perfidious pair. Just at that moment, however, the Saxon gave a backward glance over his shoulder, and this had the effect of bringing Paul to a stand instantly. No; he decided, upon second thoughts, that he would not slay them himself, but bring a troop down upon them promptly. So he turned again and rushed off towards the castle for reinforcements. But having time on the way to become fully sensible of the pickle he was in, and of the very inglorious part he had played in this encounter, he decided otherwise. Discretion would be the better part of valour; for if his comrades but set eyes on him in his present state, or heard the story of this exploit, his peace was gone for ever. So he decided, upon mature reflection, to say nothing about it for the present, but nurse his wrath for some more favourable opportunity of wreaking vengeance upon them both.


CHAPTER XXVIII.

A GRIM TEMPLE, A GRIM PRIEST, AND A SAD HEART.

"When true hearts lie wither'd
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?"
Moore.

Ethel, deeply muffled and disguised, passed through the little postern-gate of the fortress. A word in the ear of the sentinel who paced to and fro before it on guard, secured instant obedience. Ethel's position in the fortress was thoroughly understood by all. Her self-denial, her patience, and her burning patriotism, were well known in this camp of Saxon outlaws. The readiness with which she undertook positions involving fatigue and privation, for the cause, was a constant inspiration to the common people. They watched her come and go with veneration—almost with awe and superstition. They whispered one to another of her strange journeyings by night and day; and many regarded this young chieftainess as a special favourite of the gods. As she glided through the gate in the early morning hours, the sentinel thrust his head forth and watched her swiftly descend the slope, like a ghost in the darkness. When her form was no longer visible, he closed the door, and secured it with bolt and bar.

"Whatever can she be after so early in the morning, and before the day dawns? There's something very uncanny about her, tramping over hill and dale by night and day like any wolfshead, or wicca-hag.[3] I saw the fiery lights in the heavens two hours ago. I wonder what it all means. I almost wish I was safely out in the Bruneswald, where I could hop about like a bird from tree to tree, and where never a Norman could corner one. This being cooped up like a rabbit in a hole I don't relish. I like room to ply my heels. Howsomever, I'll stick, and stand my chance, for the women can't be whisked through the air; and the children, too, they must have a nest." So the sentinel continued his watch, and ruminated on these things.

Meanwhile, Ethel sped with quick step over the rugged limestone hills, flying before the fastly pursuing dawn like a fugitive who dreaded his revealing power. Ever and anon she turned to measure with her eye the distance she had traversed. The shadowy outlines of the fortress she left behind began to take shape in the distance, and she quickened her pace. "I shall soon be beyond the reach of vision," she muttered to herself. "I would not have Oswald know my errand to-day for worlds. My mind is dark, I know not what I do; but my hope dies, and my heart breaks. Perhaps the Norseman's gods may help me, for the Christian's God fails me. 'Tis a dread alternative; but I would know, if I could, what Fate has decreed for me."

For three weary hours she sped over dreary moors and scraggy, precipitous valleys, which were often little better than ravines. Presently she turned into a declivity running between two banked-up, precipitous sides. A little ahead, the two sides curved inwards and came together, and to all appearance this strange gorge came to an end. Ethel marched forward with unfaltering step, evidently straight at the blunt face of the joined limestone rock. But when she reached the extremity, there became visible, what at a very short distance could not be seen, an obscure opening behind a jagged projection of rock. It might be, to all appearance, merely an entrance to a fox's or wolf's den. Into this opening, however, Ethel crept, without halt or questionings of any kind. Presently the narrow entrance became larger, and she stood upright, but continued to descend a rough and precipitous path, until she reached a level piece of ground. Looking up—the place was simply a stupendous slit in the limestone rock, broadening downwards into a considerable area. The trees and shrubs growing at the top interlocked from side to side, and the light came streaming through a network of branches. Desolate and awe-inspiring was the place. At the farther end were two mounds of earth, or tumuli, where the grim priests of Thor and Woden were sleeping the long sleep of death—lives which had been literally burnt out by the fierce fires of fanaticism, and savage asceticism. Ethel paused to look around, but everything was still as death; she shuddered and drew her cloak tighter about her.

"The last time I came to this spot my father brought me. I feel his untamed Norseman blood stir within me. The fierce gods of war and revenge and death his Viking ancestors and he worshipped, I dare to consult to-day. 'Tis a cruel necessity, and jars my woman's instincts—I feel it petrifies my heart with unlovely savagery; but the followers of this Christ have slain my people with a wicked and unsparing slaughter. They differ in no way in their wanton cruelty to Norseman and Dane. Their women, too, with their fair faces, dainty fingers, and courtly manners, have stolen the heart of Oswald, and I am slighted and disdained; nothing in my beauty—and suitors of noble lineage have sought me ere now for my beauty; nothing in my rank—and it is but yesterday that I might have stood amongst the proudest of the land. No; I am a withered leaf, battered, bruised, and trampled upon. My love is unrequited! My misfortunes are compassionated, but that soothes not my wounded spirit, and is but a hateful substitute for the love I crave. Alas! nothing avails me, for I am only a heathen woman and an outcast. So, hard driven by my misfortunes and my wounded love, I will consult the gods of my father. The Norseman's gods may help me perhaps. Yet," said she, pausing for a moment, whilst her breast heaved with strange and powerful emotions which struggled for the mastery within her, "my mother was Christian and Saxon. She was a follower of this Christ. She was gentle, and taught me to pray to Him. I remember it well, though I was but a child. 'Our Father which art in heaven.' Ah, that is wonderfully soothing to me, and not like the prayers I was taught to offer to Thor and Odin. But my mother could not have known this Jesus; for if He was merciful and gentle, why do His blood-thirsty followers delight in treachery and bloodshed. 'Twas a part of my cruel fate that she should die in my infancy, for had she lived I might have learned of her more perfectly. O ye gods!" said she, wringing her hands in agony above her head, and looking up to the vaulted roof with tear-blinded eyes and with agonised entreaty,—"have pity on me in my friendlessness!"

Then she sped on with a quick, determined tread. Down each side of this weird retreat there were standing out, like grim, ghostly sentinels in the uncertain light, a long line of runic stones, on which were carved many strange devices; rude figures of uncouth and unearthly animals and reptiles. She had been taught that these strange hieroglyphics and signs had marvellous potency for good or ill. They could cause passionate love, or undying hatred, in the breasts of those over whom their spell was thrown. Indeed, the power of life and death was wielded by them. Strange supernatural agencies and powers were their messengers, and did their bidding. Starting from the rock, or planted here and there, were many of the ominous rowan trees, or witch-wood. The hemlock and the nightshade clustered together, and the nodding cypress dropped sombrely over the runic stones beneath them. Ethel glanced nervously round, but not a living thing was visible; not a sound broke the death-like silence of the place. Quickly gliding beneath the drooping branches of one of the cypress trees, she fell on her knees before the frowning pillar of stone. She had knelt there before by the side of her father, who had remained heathen to the last. But to kneel alone, in this very vestibule of the Place of Darkness, and to pour out her passionate entreaties to powers which she knew were the Powers of Darkness, strange to mercy, and which had but the attributes of fiends; the ordeal was terrible indeed. With feelings tumultuous and frenzied, she apostrophised the weird and forbidding emblem before her.

"O ye gods of my fathers, whether ye be Powers of Light or of Darkness I know not. Pity my ignorance, and my apostasy, for I have turned to this Jesus whom the Christians worship, and He has failed me, and turned my joy into mourning. My father and my brother have been slain by the followers of this Jesus. My home is made desolate, and I flee for life and honour from these Christian fiends. There is one also who might have been my lover, who is bravest amongst the brave, and most chivalrous amongst the chivalrous; who is gentle as a sunbeam, and tender as my own lost mother, yet strong as any tower in the storm. He is lost to me through the subtle arts of their women. My life has become to me but a living torment. Can ye turn again the heart of Oswald to me? 'Tis said ye can turn even hatred into love. I know it is unmaidenly to plead for a love I cannot inspire, but I can bear this burden no longer alone, and I would ye could give me favour in his eyes, or give me a long home in one of these sepulchral mounds."

She started to her feet with a shriek, as a deep voice saluted her from behind,—

"Waes hael, Viking's daughter!"

She hastily turned, and behold there stood before her Olaf, the aged priest of this Vikings' temple, to whom for a couple of generations the heathenism and savagery of the countryside had repaired for ghostly consolation, and into whose ears had been poured the secrets of fierce loves and fiercer hatreds of these descendants of the Norsemen. He had been the grim dispenser of dark and mystic rites and potent spells to weirdly savage and credulous votaries. A strange being surely to claim a place in times so advanced as these! He was a living embodiment and personification of a bygone era, and so totally destitute of all humanising instincts that he might have slid down the ages, glacier-like, from prehistoric times—when men dwelt in caves, and gnawed the flesh from the bones of their prey like wild beasts—without ever having come in contact with the outermost fringe of civilisation; a Viking of the Vikings in savagery and blood. His head was uncovered, and his long and matted grey hair fell over his shoulders. His form was shrunken and racked with rheumatic pains, from his long exposure and unlovely life. Long, deep furrows ploughed his face, and the long, powerful, and uncleanly teeth stood away from the shrunken cheeks, whilst his sunken eyes gleamed like the eyes of some savage beast of prey. He was a visible and concentrated embodiment of the war spirit in its unrelieved and unredeemed essentials. No touch of pen or pencil, however graphic, could depict, in all his hideous grimness, this stranded relic of a bygone age of savage lawlessness and force, who seemed to be but half a dozen removes from the tooth-and-claw methods of wild beasts.

"Ha! ye are come at last, are ye?" he hoarsely croaked. "Ye are come now, when ye find that this strange God, this Christ of whom the Christians speak, has proved to be no God, and cannot save ye! But the gods of your fathers have given ye over to desolation because ye have forsaken them. Ha, ha, ha! I could laugh at ye now! Ye despised the old priest, did ye not? ha, ha, ha!"

As the harsh, grating voice of the priest fell upon her ears, Ethel almost cowered in terror before him. At sight of her terror, the old priest somewhat relented his fierceness.

"Hist to me," said he. "Ye are a Viking's daughter, after all, and come of a stock whose deeds our Sagas tell of, though the Christian taint has mixed too freely with your father's blood. It does my old tired bones good, nevertheless, to see ye come back again to me once more. I have been very lonely and forsaken, for my fellow priests are all lying beneath these mounds. I buried the last myself not a month agone. See! the mound is newly heaped. I shall soon be gone also, and there will be never a priest at hand to give me back into the arms of mother earth, to reveal to ye the dark mysteries of Valhalla, or to call from the land of the dead the Sein-lœca,[4] to speak with you. Viking's daughter, are ye now aweary of following this strange God of the Christians?"

"Alas! I know not what to do, priest! I am as desolate and forsaken as ye are. I would have the heart of Oswald, the Saxon chieftain, turned towards me. If ye have any charm that will give me favour in his eyes, I covet it, priest."

"Ah, but this Oswald is Christian; ye do not well in seeking thus to further dilute the Viking blood that flows in your veins. Is there no hardy Norseman ye can mate with? and I can help ye."

"None, father! I gave my heart to this valiant Saxon long ago; but alas! a Norman woman has won his love, and when he comes into my presence now, I see that there is always a far-away look in his eye, and I know he is looking in imagination upon the dark-haired Norman he loves more than me. He shuns his couch to keep nightly tryst with her. I have dogged his steps, and watched them in the starlight nights, pacing the battlements of the castle in loving converse, and in loving embrace. He is kind and gentle to me, but there is none of the subtle tones of love so dear to us women when once our heart is won. Men say I am fair; but have ye any charm to make me fair to him? It matters not what men may say, or what the multitude may say. There is but one man in all the world, and if I am not fair to him, why then the sun goes down on all my hopes, and leaves naught behind but the long black shadows of despair! Ah! I fear me, priest, it is in my spirit! There is no charm for him in the passion and frenzy, the fire and restlessness, of my Viking spirit. This voluptuous southern maiden, with her courtly manners and her gentle speech, has touched a chord in his heart which never responds to the Saxon maiden!"

"Girl, ye are no Saxon maiden! ye are a Viking's daughter! I claim ye for the old race that has swept every sea, and made the Viking name a terror to all lands. I will not have ye despise the fierce spirit of your race that lives in ye! Listen. I know a Viking of the old stock, a true descendant of our heroes whose mighty deeds our Sagas tell. He hath a passion for ye deep and fierce, and pure as a Viking's love should be. 'Tis Sigurd of Lakesland, who was here but yestere'en. Let me plight your troth with him, and there shall spring a progeny like unto our forefathers, who will sweep the infamous Norman brood into the sea, and make the cowardly Saxon cower at the feet of the Norseman, as in the days gone by."

"Ye speak, priest, as though a maiden's heart were like a willow bush, to veer about as any idle wind may blow, or so gross a thing that it may be huckstered for a consideration, or be cast as a mere makeweight into the scale of policy. Never dream, priest, that this is a possible remedy; for I have nothing to offer Sigurd or any other. If ye cannot tell me that I shall be Oswald's bride, then I will be wedded to my people, and I will serve my country till death comes to free me."

"A curse on the evil times I have lived to see, girl!" said the priest savagely. "This simpering sentiment is not like the love of a Viking maiden at all! The sturdiest and fiercest warrior was wont to be the choice of our maidens in the old days. What charm would ye have? There is but one charm will serve the Viking cause in love or war. It never failed them, in the past, and will not fail them now if 'tis wielded fearlessly."

"What is this spell—this charm ye speak of? Tell it me at once!" said Ethel eagerly.

The priest slowly withdrew from his bosom a bright-bladed dagger, at sight of which Ethel shuddered and drew back.

The priest scowled, and said angrily, "If ye shrink at this ye are not fit to be a Viking's daughter. This will serve you if ye are resolute, for 'tis easy to get an audience of this Norman that hath bewitched Oswald, and then it were easy to plunge this dagger into her heart; and what then were thy hated rival? Take the blade in thy hand, nor shrink from it; the touch of steel will fire thy heart, and purge away the accursed leaven of effeminacy which is creeping over our Viking race. There is a magic in the touch of cold steel; my fingers tingle as I feel it. It has served the Viking's cause as nothing else could do for a thousand years."

As he spoke he pressed the fearsome weapon into her unwilling hand.

"But how then, priest, when I have taken the life of this innocent lady? Will that bring back the heart of Oswald? Nay, he will loathe me then, and I shall be as a 'daughter of perdition' unto him."

"Idle scruples, daughter!" said the priest, testy and irritable. "Who shall tell him it was your hand did this deed? Be resolute, and fear not; the Vikings' gods will help ye if ye be bold."

"But after I have done this deed, priest, and if Oswald should never know it was I that did this foul, this desperate deed, I can never rid me of the loathsome memory, nor the clinging horror, of blood-guiltiness. What after that? when self-respect, womanhood—nay, when the last shred of my humanity is gone—what would remain that were worth the having? What should I be, and how could I look to mate with his upright and chivalrous nature? What daily horror would be mine! for each look of his unsuspecting eye would damn me! Nay, priest, take back this dagger, for such means as these can never help me. My innocence is my heaven, and I will keep it while I may; for when this is lost, then all is lost. I thought ye might have gentler means."

At this the old priest fairly roared with impotent rage.

"Avast!" he cried. "'Tis this Christ hath done it all! Why do ye come to the Vikings' gods until ye have renounced Him? How can I summon spirits from Valhalla to your help, or send the wicca-hag skirling on the wind to ply her sorceries on Oswald, that his heart may be turned to ye, if ye are Christian?"

Then, dropping into a gentler and more persuasive tone, as he saw Ethel fairly cowering in terror before him, he said,—

"Go, Viking's daughter. Ye know my heart is sore for ye and for my race; but it must be either Odin or Jesus. Go renounce this Christ, and then I can help ye. Nay, nay! keep the dagger, for it hath wondrous virtue in it. It was with this dagger that Thore Hund slew the Christian renegade Olaf Haraldssen on the bloody field of Sticklarstad, and Odin proved himself a mightier than this Christ. It shall be so again, for the Viking race shall be a terror to all lands. Why should ye be fearful and afraid? Why should ye hesitate and shrink at this act of revenge? Surely ye have suffered enough at the hands of this accursed race. How can ye be so scrupulous, when ye think of the vengeance ye owe these Norman tyrants and usurpers for a father and brother slaughtered, for your sadness, and your homelessness? Think of the love this Norman woman hath stolen from ye. Nurse these thoughts, and be courageous, Viking's daughter."

Ethel slowly climbed from the weird retreat, where for generations these savage priests of Thor and Odin had exercised a dread and mystic sway over the descendants of the Norsemen conquerors, who in past times had swooped down on Northumbria, peopling it with rough and hardy warriors; and still the barbarous rites and crude beliefs held extensive sway, in spite of the leavening influences of the Saxons' Christ. Ethel had entered this nature's temple with dim hopes that by some exercise of supernatural powers the heart of Oswald might be influenced so as to turn to her; and if not this, that she might know the worst. Alas! the sad heart and the wounded love had met with no amelioration of its sadness and despair; but the dormant passion and frenzy which ran in her Viking blood had been stirred in its lethargy into a madness of revenge, the extent and power of which she had never felt before.

"What is to be the end of this?" she said to herself, as she sped over the wild hills. "Either I must conquer or be crushed. There is no middle course; either it is hell or heaven. I cannot cast off or change my love; that is given unreservedly and beyond recall. This Viking, Sigurd, is a warrior true as steel, and his love is as sincere and true. But what of that? To wed him were a suggestion most gross, and impossible as gross. How could I crouch beside the ingle of an untamed Viking husband, and in all unloveliness mother a rude progeny, and blur out, in the grossness and savagery of it, the vision of better things, and of the nobler love I have seen? Question. Shall I tamely submit to the usurpation of a love that might have been mine, but of which I have been despoiled by a Norman woman? Or shall I fling to the winds my Christian trammels and scruples, and, Viking-like, take the Viking's remedy?" and she drew forth from her bosom the unlovely and murderous weapon the priest had given her. "The priest said this was my only remedy. 'Tis a grim alternative. But why should I suffer this for a love too readily given? I never told my heart to dote on Oswald. 'Twas a wild freak of affection I could not bridle; and I cannot undo it now, so that change is impossible. It was without effort of mine, also, that he has filled my eye so fully that I cannot see another. Shall I tamely suffer this eclipse at the hands of this southern woman? This priest tells me what a Viking woman would do, and surely, if foul wrongs call for fierce revenge, then I should not timidly shrink from this avenging act. Madness and despair nerve my arm and steel my heart, and I will act as a Viking woman would act!"

But just at that moment, as the fierce spirit of revenge assumed the mastery, there flitted before her mental vision a scene of long ago, when, as a child, she knelt at her mother's knee, and heard the wondrous story of the Redeemer's mercifulness and love for his enemies. The revulsion of feeling was instant and overpowering. Stretching her clenched hands heavenwards, she shrieked, in an agony of prayer, "Jesu, God of mercy, help!"

Overwrought nature could bear no more, and she sank in insensibility to the ground, her fair countenance convulsed with agony. Speedily, however, the shadows of despair gave place to a placid smile of sweet content. Again she was a child, and her mother's form was bending over her, but wondrously ennobled and beautified; and she spoke words of comfort and of hope. "Daughter, be of good courage, and remember the words of the Master that I taught you: 'Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest'; 'Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.'" Then, with a smile angelic in its sweetness, the heavenly vision faded away.

Slowly Ethel staggered to her feet, for her physical strength was exhausted; but the look of blank despair had passed away, and her countenance was transfigured until it shone like the countenance of a saint of God. And drawing the dagger from her bosom she hurled it over a precipice, shuddering as she did so. Then she slowly turned her footsteps towards the fortress on the hill.


CHAPTER XXIX.

EDGAR ATHELING.

"Oh how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes' favours!"
Shakespeare.

Sigurd, after the rebuff he had received at the hands of Oswald, sped him on his way to Scotland, aflame with a wrath which was about equally divided between Oswald and the Normans. He was accompanied by some half-dozen of his followers. And there, at the court of Malcolm of Scotland, he laid before the Prince Atheling his scheme for the recovery of the kingdom.

Now, Prince Edgar was a weak, voluptuous prince, who spent his days in dissipation, and surrounded by foreign parasites; but he was universally acknowledged to be the legitimate heir to the throne of England. Every one who knew him intimately had little hope of his ever winning it by force of arms, or of his worthily filling it, if it should ever be wrested from the grasp of the astute William. The Conqueror well knew the weakness of this princeling, and with consummate policy he kept him well supplied with money, knowing that if he had the means to gratify his vicious and effeminate disposition, he would not be easily moved to undertake any dangerous or arduous enterprise.

But the Atheling, like all weak and vacillating natures, could be false or fickle to his master William at very short notice. He was capable also, in a vain and feeble sort of way, of grasping at the English sceptre, for no better or nobler motive than the desire to gratify his childish vanity, and to further indulge his voluptuous and sensual habits.

There was nothing in common between the fierce and fiery descendant of the Vikings, Sigurd, and this weathercock of princely descent. Sigurd was as valorous and uncompromising as the Atheling was ease-loving and cowardly. Still, it was quite easy for this enthusiast to infuse into the Prince's mind most exaggerated ideas of the rally of the Saxons under Oswald, and to lead him to believe that the prospect of regaining the throne of England was easy of achievement. He also managed to fan into a flame the petty jealousies of which the prince was capable, by representing to him that Oswald was intent on asserting his own claims to the kingdom.

It was a matter of profound surprise to us, and not a little consternation also, when scarcely a month had elapsed from the date of Sigurd's expulsion from the camp, to find that Saxon runners everywhere throughout the kingdom were conveying the Prince's summons to all Saxon leaders, outlaws, and ecclesiastics, together with a certain number of freemen, and churls, who, according to Saxon laws, had the right to attend these parliaments, or witans, of the nation. The witan was summoned to meet in Lakesland, one of the wildest and most inaccessible parts of Northumbria. Oswald and I were summoned, and a number of those who owned Oswald's chieftainship.

We weighed carefully this matter, and we could not rid ourselves of the apprehension that Sigurd somehow was at the bottom of it, seeing that the bodes who bare these summonses were followers of the Jarl.

Personally, I was much averse to the project, being unable to see what good could come of it, in our present feeble and distracted state. But Oswald considered it desirable that we should obey this summons as loyal Saxons. Accordingly, a company of us, under the leadership of Oswald, started for this rendezvous amid the Lakes. We were compelled to use the utmost secrecy in our movements, and travel by night, as the Normans were still thickly posted throughout the north. It would certainly have been most dangerous to travel by day, even with so small a company as ours. We were practically but two days march from the place of rendezvous. So we started after nightfall on the first day, and, by steadily pressing on, we covered one-half the distance, arriving ere it was daylight at a place of refuge evidently well known to our leader, but which came as a revelation to me, for we came upon a band of Saxons near to an inlet of the sea, which ran into a thickly wooded headland. Here were a company of hardy men, partly fisherman, and partly traders and freebooters, who owned a vessel capable of carrying a considerable cargo; which bare sometimes Saxon refugees to foreign lands, at other times engaged in peaceful trading with distant ports, and had frequently been employed by armed bands of Saxons for the purpose of making swift descents upon their foes in various parts of the kingdom. From this source I found that wines and breadstuffs, as well as munitions of war, had systematically been supplied to the Saxon outlaws. I was told voyages were frequently made, not only to Ireland and Scotland, but even to ports on the Mediterranean sea.

Here we rested for the day, and at nightfall we went aboard this vessel; and, the wind being favourable, in a couple of hours they ran us across the bay of Morcam, landing us in sight of the Westmoreland hills, and certainly saving us more than a twenty miles' trudge. We were now within some eight miles of our destination, and still had the most of the night before us. Our sailor friends were able to tell us, also, that there was no encampment of Normans within many miles of our route; so we continued our march for an hour or two at a steady pace, without the slightest alarm or molestation. At last, our path lay through a narrow pass or defile in the mountains, and we were rapidly drawing near to the rendezvous. We now found it necessary to move with the utmost caution, for the path was rugged and narrow, and there was an eeriness about the place which was suggestive of anything uncanny. Huge boulders frequently confronted us, looming up out of the darkness so suddenly as quite to take my breath away. Oswald and I were a trifle ahead of the others, and were discussing to ourselves as to what could be the purpose of the Prince, in summoning at so unpropitious a time the Saxon witan.

"Does the Prince intend to take up arms, think you, my lord?" said I to Oswald.

"I expect little from the Atheling, Father, of that sort of thing. He is fickle, cowardly, and dissolute into the bargain. He dallied at the court of Malcolm at our last effort at York, until the cause was lost; and he sped him back again, and never stayed to strike a single blow. I am afraid some hare-brained purpose moves him, or some petty ambition which is unworthy of a prince, and which he will not back with any force of character, or any persistence. He will simply provoke a revolt which cannot be successful, whilst at the very first repulse he will vanish, and leave his unhappy followers to the relentless extermination policy of William."

"You have no faith in revolt, I think?"

"None whatever. It is absolutely hopeless. If we had but had a leader at York, brave and skilful as our last King Harold, and one who could have united us, the thing was half assured. But now Saxon graves hold prisoner for ever the flower of our people; and to attempt to offer an organised opposition to the Norman forces—why, it were sheer madness. The only two points in the kingdom where any show of resistance is made, is our own little colony, and in Lincolnshire, where Hereward still precariously holds out."

"But does not the Prince know this, think you? Or is he incapable of grasping the situation?"

"The Prince, I have already intimated, is not a factor worth considering for a moment. I very strongly suspect that Sigurd is at the bottom of this. He, I believe, has stirred the Prince up either to ambition or to jealousy, and I should not wonder if I were arraigned as traitor as a preliminary to some madcap exploit of Sigurd's. Do not be in the least surprised if this gathering ends in dire mischief and disunion."

"What is that?" we both exclaimed in a breath, as we saw the figure of a man dart from behind a huge boulder, and swiftly run along the pass ahead of us.

"I like not that," said Oswald. "He has no friendly motive, I warrant;" and he at once drew his sword, and called Wulfhere. "Your Grace had better take second rank," said he to me. Then, halting a moment till the company drew near, he addressed them.

"Men, have all your weapons ready."

Immediately every swordsman's blade gleamed in the darkness, and every archer's bow was unslung, and an arrow affixed.

"Rear guard!" said he, in an undertone.

"Aye, aye!" responded two gruff voices, which I knew to be Badger's and Bretwul's.

"Beware! and be ready; and keep close up. Now, men, let us move steadily forward."

So we pressed slowly and steadily forward, Oswald and Wulfhere passing no boulder or obstruction without first carefully peering behind it to see if any foe ambushed there. Suddenly there was a halt, the sword of Oswald was uplifted, and I could descry a muffled human figure standing in the centre of the path.

"Who art thou?" said Oswald. "Speak, or I will cleave thee from head to foot."

"Listen!" said the figure. "I am the shadow of a vanishing race. When Saxon hates Saxon and is greedier than greedy hawk for Saxon's blood; and when Saxon loves Norman habits, and makes friends of the hated oppressor; what hope is there of a restoration of the old race! If the Fates have decreed it, well—'tis enough. I only ask for a grave in some lonely spot, where the groans of my people will not disturb my long repose. But beware, Saxons! there are fierce enemies abroad—Saxon, too. Beware! The would-be avenger has a sharp sword, and will not stay his hand. So beware! the swoop of the eagle is swift and strong, and his talons are sharp."

With that, the strange figure turned and fled along the pass with the speed of a mountain roe.

"That is a strange visitant," I said. "The voice might be the voice of a woman. I almost fancied I had heard it before."

"In any case, it is the voice of a friend. The warning is unmistakable; the enemy to be dreaded is Saxon also," said Oswald.

I began to wish most devoutly that the night were past. My nerves were quite unstrung, and the yelp of a fox, or wolf, in the vicinity, the flap-flap, of the night-owl's wing, or the scurrying footsteps of the rabbits, set me in a violent tremble. Oswald headed the party forward, though I would most gladly have called a halt, and waited for the clay. We quickly found that our troubles were not yet past, for not a quarter of a mile had been traversed since our last visitant, when suddenly, and without warning, we were beset behind and before by armed men, who hurled themselves upon us with the fury of wild beasts. Oswald had only time to raise his shield to save himself from the furious stroke of some powerful enemy. Before I had time to realise it, friend and foe were laying about them with the fury of madmen. No sooner did I grasp the situation than immediately I rushed to the front, though it was at the imminent peril of my life. Lifting up the sacred emblem of my office, I cried,—

"Peace! In God's name, I charge peace!"

At the sight of the blessed cross the assailants recoiled a pace or two.

"Who are you?" I cried. "Saxon or Norman?"

"They are Saxon," said Oswald. "I know well who aimed the blows at my life. 'Tis Sigurd, one professing to be of our nation."

"I am not of thy nation, dastardly renegade, dancing attendance upon Norman wenches, and warring in silken hose."

"If I warred with as little sense and as little skill as thyself, I should soon be as impotent as thou art, and have never a Saxon left me to lead to battle."

"Sigurd," said I, in as authoritative tone as I could command, and still holding up the emblem of peace and goodwill to men, "I charge you, in God's name, that you call off your men, and cease this fratricidal strife."

"What care I, monk," said he fiercely, "for thy God? He is the God of cowards, and not of warriors."

But having breathed out this defiance, he gathered up a wounded comrade who had felt the keenness of Wulfhere's sword, and, without uttering another word, he headed his men for the hills.

"Now, my lord," said I, "what is to be done? This, I fear, is only a precursor of trouble and discord at our witan. I would you were willing even now to beat a retreat, nor take further risks to yourself and men, in so bootless an errand.

"The Prince professedly has summoned me, and I would not draw back until fully assured that mutual council is profitless," said Oswald.

"Let me go forward, my lord, and meet the Prince. I think my sacred office will protect me. If I think good will come of this gathering, I will communicate with you."

"No, Father; no man shall ever say I failed to respond to the call of my Prince, despisable though I believe him to be. Nor will my duty to my race and to my country permit me to stand aloof from this witan, for God knows we have need both of council and of all the wisdom left to us. But, nevertheless, I have no faith in this gathering. The Prince, I doubt me, is an indolent sensualist, and, like all weak-minded men, most easily provoked into jealousy. The ominous figure we have just met is deeply involved in this scheme, I am now sure. A sturdy, valorous man, and a foeman of direst sort, but utterly incapable of moderation. He cherishes a mortal hatred of me, and I now know that I shall take my life in my hand when I enter the council; but that is a risk which gives me no uneasiness. So let us advance, for the light, I see, is breaking over the tops of the mountains, and very soon we shall have the day."

So, nerving ourselves for any contingency, we continued our march. This had now become much pleasanter, and infinitely easier, in consequence of the approach of day.

By-and-by we drew aside into a sheltered dell, in order to partake of our morning meal, which we despatched as hastily as possible, in order that we might reach the rendezvous early. We had not journeyed far, however, before we were accosted by a man, who emerged from behind a heap of stones at the head of the pass, and surveyed us narrowly.

"Saxons?" said he.

"Aye, Saxons all," we replied.

"What say ye?"

"Down with the Normans!" we replied.

"Right," said he. "Down with the Normans!" Then he gave us sundry directions as to the nearest route to the place of meeting. We found this route to be again somewhat difficult; for such a stern, wild country it is difficult to imagine, much more to describe. We again entered a narrow defile between two frowning and rugged hills, and in a little while this defile opened out into a magnificent, amphitheatre-like vale, enclosed with lofty peaks and rugged hills on every hand, whilst below us there lay a magnificent sheet of water in the centre of the valley, with thick woods running around it; the bald and boulder-strewn hills towering high above all, most imposing in their rugged grandeur and might. Underneath them, the valley was most bewitching in the loveliness of its umbrageous woods. As outlets to this beautiful valley, there were but the pass we had descended, and another narrow defile at the foot of the lake, where the water made its exit. Involuntarily we came to halt. Indeed, the prospect before us was at once so wild, and yet so charming, that we could not but stand and gaze, enchanted with the scene.

"Now, Father," said Oswald, "what think you of Lakesland?"

"Well," said I, "lovely as our beloved Craven is, it pales before this magnificent country."

"Yes; and the strength of it! Had Sigurd but a tithe of moderation and self-restraint, there are no Norman forces in this Northumberland that could drive him out."

Well, we resumed our march by rounding the head of the lake by a difficult and tangled forest path. This done, we continued our journey down the opposite side of the valley and along the side of the lake, until eventually we were taken in hand by one of a group of men, evidently set for the purpose, and by him we were conducted to a yeoman's dwelling, embowered in trees of massive girth on all sides. The habitation was similar to the rough but substantial dwellings we were all familiar with. There were some considerable outbuildings and an enclosure carefully fenced round by a lofty wall, and evidently intended for the protection of the sheep and cattle at night, during the winter months; for the wolves were wont to pack, sometimes in considerable numbers, and become very daring and vicious, when the pinch of hunger was upon them.

As soon as we entered this enclosure, we found there was assembled already a goodly company of men of various grades, all of them armed to the teeth. Many of them were evidently Saxons who had held considerable positions in the land prior to the coming of the Normans, though now evidently much broken. The scared and suspicious looks with which they scrutinised every new-comer, told plainly that they were much used to treachery, and familiar with double-dealing. There were also numbers who were clearly men of war. The look of defiance on their countenances, and the well-stocked quivers over their shoulders, told plainly they were chiefs of the bold outlaws who lived by the might of their trusty swords, and their long bows. No one could misunderstand their fierce and daring attitude.

There were some also who, by their armour, had evidently learned something of the methods of war pursued by the Normans. Indeed, as we have said, before the coming of William, large numbers of the Normans had thronged the court of the pious Edward, and Saxon noblemen in goodly numbers had practised the joust at tournaments, adopting Norman weapons, affecting a budding errantry, and talking Norman French. There was here also a goodly number of the humbler ranks; for, according to old Saxon law, not only freemen, but even villeins and churls had the right of representatives at the witanagemot, or council. Oswald immediately joined himself to a company of these men of knightly appearance, many of whom he knew, having fought side by side with them at York.

Sigurd I quickly espied, standing with another group of the old stock, rude, unlettered, and primitive in habit and dress. I could easily see, without seeming to notice or observe them narrowly, that these men viewed with no favourable eye what they were wont to call the pranking of Norman manners and dress on the part of Oswald and the others I have spoken of. It was plainly to be seen, also, that Sigurd had done something to inflame their minds against Oswald, for they eyed him savagely and suspiciously.

I proceeded, however, at once to the house place, to make my obedience to Prince Edgar, who, with certain of his personal friends, awaited the assembling of the members of the witan. The Prince was dressed in a rich velvet dress, with elaborate fringing of silk, and for a head-dress the hat and feather worn by Norman courtiers. He was also accompanied by a Norman favourite, a most truculent parasite, of a vain and dissipated appearance, and, as I thought, a very unsuitable companion for a prince who preferred claims to the Saxon throne.

Elaborate arrangements had evidently been made for display, and for the comfort and luxury of the Prince. He was accompanied by his cook, his valet, and several serving-men; whilst he had, with infinite trouble to the servants, brought with him wines, and delicacies, and dainties, which were to me no good augury, and which, do as I would, I could not but despise in one who made pretence of so desperate an enterprise as the overthrow of the Norman rule in England. For, view it as we might, a most desperate enterprise it most surely was.

At the appointed hour for the council to begin, a chair was brought out of doors, and placed in such a position that its occupant could command a view of the whole company. Over this chair a richly-embroidered cover was thrown, and the Prince immediately took possession of it; whilst the Norman favourite came behind, and ostentatiously placed a crown upon his head. This burlesque of royalty was expected to produce a shout of loyal enthusiasm from the assembled company; but, with the exception of his own followers, not a whisper of applause greeted it, though the marks of derision on the countenances of many of the Saxons were open and undisguised.

Now, as the senior ecclesiastic present, it became my lot to read what the Prince was pleased to call the "Royal Proclamation," calling this meeting of the witan, which being done, the Prince next addressed the company. In pompous and affected tones he said,—

"Reverend fathers, valiant knights and liegemen, I have called together my faithful witan to consider the state of our unhappy country, and what may best be done for the recovery of my rights as the lawful King of England. To this end I seek your advice; and not only so, but I further lay my commands upon you, as my faithful subjects, liegemen, and vassals, to help me in this enterprise. To this end I would further insist that it is necessary that you should lay aside all purposes of individual self-assertion, and join yourselves and your forces to the general movement. Now, whilst speaking on this head, I may say, with shame and regret, it has been reported to me that sundry knights, of whom I expected better things, are not true to our cause, but are acting without regard to the claims of myself as the lawful King of England, and are setting up a separate authority; warring according to methods not sanctioned by me or my faithful witan. I hear there are those who are willing to forfeit their allegiance to me, and, for their own personal ends, going even so far as to seek a servile alliance with our foes, to the betrayal of the Saxon cause. Now let it be known to you that I claim the undivided allegiance of all Saxons, and that I purpose with rigour to punish all traitors to my cause and to my kingdom. I have been too long slighted and set at naught by my lieges and vassals, and I would know what of it? There are loyal men and true in your ranks, I know, who despise and hate such factious conduct as much as I do myself; and I call upon all who can bear testimony to this flagrant disloyalty on the part of certain of my subjects, to stand forth and declare it at this council, for I purpose with utmost rigour to punish all factionists and traitors who are cringingly seeking alliances with the Norman foe."

At this invitation Sigurd stepped from the ranks, and said,—

"Puissant Prince, if it be your will, I have a charge to make against Oswald the Ealdorman, son of Ulfson, who is now present. As he well knows, I have made this charge to his face, that he has built a fortress for himself and all such churls and freemen as are willing to acknowledge his chieftainship. I charge him also with speaking slightingly of your Highness's valour, and your ability to regain your rightful throne. I charge him also with endeavouring to enter into cowardly alliance with the Norman foe—promising, if certain meagre concessions be made to him, he will withhold his followers from rebellion, and all endeavours to resist the Normans. I charge him with attempting to gain a dishonourable alliance with the house of De Montfort. Which several charges I have attempted to make good at the sword's point. And I call upon him now to answer for it with his life, as all traitors and trucemakers should."

"If Oswald the Ealdorman be present, I call upon him to make such answer as best he can against the charges preferred by our valiant and trusty knight, Sigurd the Saxon Dane, who, by his fealty to us and his zeal for the Saxon cause, has won our hearty trust and confidence."

At this summons Oswald stepped forth a pace or two, and, removing his helmet and visor, said, in firm and unfaltering tones,—

"Sire, may I be bold enough to ask if this is the purpose for which valiant knights and lieges have been summoned from far and near?"

"Silence, dog! and answer the charges made against thee! Then we shall consider the weightier matters appertaining to our realm. But we will have an answer to these charges."

"The charges, sire, made against me by the Jarl, are the creation of his own heated brain; and the reason he has brought them hither is because he failed ignobly to make them good with his weapons. I decline altogether to wrangle out with him this petty personal quarrel in presence of this assembly. If we are to consider matters of greater moment, matters which concern our country and the present desperate state of the Saxon cause, then I am prepared to offer my poor services, either in this council or in face of our common foe."

"Well said, Sir Knight!" cried a gruff voice, which belonged to the leader of a party of knights who had entered the enclosure during the foregoing dialogue, and whose seedy and travel-stained garments, and rusty arms and accoutrements, bore ample token of much exposure and much rough usage.

"Sirrah!" shouted the Prince, waxing wroth at the bold front and fearless language of Oswald, "dost thou presume to answer thy King after this fashion? By my halidame, if this continues there will be never a scurvy clown in my kingdom who will not think he may beard his Prince with impunity. But I will know whither all this is tending. I have long had my eye upon that boorish and untamed son of Earl Leofric, whom men call Hereward, who is carrying on warfare in the Fen country—palpably for his own ends and his own glory, for he never so much as acknowledges my sovereignty or sends his dutiful submission to me. Now thou dost presume to imitate the conduct of the braggart Hereward, and must needs collect an army for thy own personal advantage, and not for the glory of thy Prince. Men of my faithful witan, I call upon you to note this, for I have determined I will rid the Saxon cause of all such disloyal traitors."

"'Tis pity, sire," said Oswald, in tones in which anger and contempt were mingled, "that you never thought it worth your while to collect an army for yourself, or at least to place yourself at the head of one collected for you. We would fain see what kind of stuff our Prince is made of. Will you tell this witan, Prince, where you were when so many good lives were lost at York in your cause?"

"Well spoken, sir!" shouted the gruff voice, with even more emphasis than before.

"Dost thou call in question my valour, villain!" roared the Prince. "By our Lady, I'll have no more of thy effrontery, dog! Disarm him, loyal knights!"

Immediately half a dozen of the Saxon leaders sprang forward at the bidding of the Prince; but they quailed before Oswald as they saw the broadsword whipped from its scabbard, and perform a swift circle in the air.

"Here's to thee, with all my heart, Sir Knight! I like thy metal!" said the stranger knight, as he sprang to Oswald's side, brandishing a huge sword; whilst his followers quickly ranged themselves on the same side, ready for the fray.

"Treason! treason!" almost screamed the Prince, in abject terror, starting from his seat and preparing to beat a retreat.

I gently laid my hand on his shoulder, and said, "Have patience, sire. These men mean no harm, only they are not wont to receive such harsh rebukes."

This seemed to reassure him, for, addressing the unknown knight, he said,—

"Who art thou who thus boldly takes sides with this traitor to my cause?"

The stranger made no answer, but slowly removed his headgear. Immediately a score of voices shouted, "The Wake! the Wake! 'Tis Hereward!"

"Yes," said Hereward. "I am the Wake, whom thou hast been cowardly charging with treason. Hark! Dost thou think Hereward is going to peril life and limb, or waste precious lives, to set such a dolt on the throne of England as thou hast proved thyself this day; and on the former occasion, when we met at York, for instance? Marry, no! A niddering who flies for his life at the first approach of danger is not fit to wield a sceptre in these lands. A Prince who fosters faction, and is pettishly jealous of braver men than himself, had better turn monk; a shaven crown would better become thee than the Crown of England."

"By the blessed Virgin, I vow I will humble thy pride, dog, ere I have done with thee! I will not be bullied in my own witan, though thou be a son of Earl Leofric!"

"Ah, well," said Hereward, with a sneer, "thou art of the wrong metal thyself, but if thou hast a knight brave enough to cross a sword on thy behalf, let him stand forth, and I will oblige him with a bout; 'twould be a little diversion in this fool's errand of ours."

"I will champion the Prince, braggart; with a curse on thee for thy base-hearted treachery to thy wife Torfrida!" shouted the brave and choleric Sigurd, rushing forward and brandishing his sword in the face of Hereward.

Instantly there was such a clamour of voices, clash of swords, and dire confusion, in the arena, that I was terrified at this tumult of fierce and angry passions. Oswald and I rushed in between these fierce combatants and called aloud for peace, which with the utmost difficulty we obtained. Seeing the strange state of frenzy in which most present were, I urgently requested that all further discussion should cease for the day.


CHAPTER XXX.

PRINCE AND PARASITE.

"Eternal smiles his emptiness betray,
As shallow streams run dimpling all the way."
Pope.

"I say, Alred!" exclaimed the Atheling to the Norman parasite who had accompanied him hither, as they sat drinking wine the same evening, "what sayest thou to the baiting thy Prince has had to-day? I have no stomach for more. Malediction on them!"

"Heyday, so say I! Scrambling over moor and bog hither was bad enough, but parleying with quarrelsome thanes and with vulgar braggart churls such as these, I would not endure with a kingdom thrown into the bargain. Your Majesty probably thinks different."

"Whew! Not I, Alred! These garlic-bred swine have no more regard for the person of a prince than for a scurvy villein. A malediction on them! They would pick my bones within a week, were I to attempt to rule them. By the bye, that huge Danish boor stood by me. I wish he had been at the bottom of the sea, for all that, when he enticed me on this fool's errand. What is the lout's name? Sigurd?"

"The same, my lord. But be advised, for at bottom he's as loutish and as snarling as the very worst of them, and I would not trust my head in his jaws for a moment; for as we passed him but yesterday, in our courtly attire, I heard him under his breath snorting and grumbling like a boar with a spear between his ribs. The churl! Would he have his Prince dress like a scurvy swineherd?"

"Beshrew me, Alred, I never could make pretence of ruling such unwashen clowns. And then, into the bargain, every snarling villein elects to be king over his own starveling crew, and there would be a king for every rood of land in England. I'll no more of it, Alred! I thank Heaven my skin is whole to go back to Scotland with."

"A wise resolve, I swear. Make further oath of fealty to William, and take his subsidies. Then heigho! for a jolly life at the court of Malcolm! or, what is better still, to Rouen, where summer's sun tarries longer, and winter's frosts pinch not the daintiest fingers. There dark-eyed beauties are kinder, and easier in the wooing. That is Alred's philosophy. Canst thou gainsay the wisdom of it, my Prince?"

"Alred, thou know'st well the joints of my armour; thou hast pierced a vulnerable spot. I vow thou hast waked one pleasant memory, sweet Alred; and there is but one sunny spot in this dreary wilderness of insubordination and braggadocia."

"What is it, my Prince? Has some nymph awoke the tender passion of love in thy breast?"

"Rightly guessed, Alred! Did'st thou mark the fair Saxon, whose fiery zeal for our cause has been so marked. I did not fail to notice she marked me much and often, and I flatter myself her admiration extends not only to our cause, but also to our royal person. How sayest thou? By our Lady, a prize like that would be some recompense for our sickening and intolerable journey over the wretched moors atween us and Scotland."

"Thou hast the eye of an eagle, puissant Prince, or, to be more correct, the eye of a vulture. I had hoped this pretty bird would fall to my net. But alas! thy eye has seen this comely virgin, and I am undone, I trow. Why, I have already pranked myself before her with some success; but now I shall lose my quarry."

"Come, come, my jackal! don't despise thine office. Why, man, I never grudge thy picking the bones, when our royal self hath fed."

"Small thanks is enow for what is left when your gorge rises at it,—with my humble submission."

"Enough, enough! Canst thou get speech of her? Thou canst bear a message which should be gratefully received. Tell her her Prince would like to tender her his special thanks for her great zeal and devotion to his cause; and invite her hither."

"Have a care, my Prince, and bait your hook daintily. Think you you will catch your fish with the bare hook? By all the saints, I tell you I saw forked lightning playing about her eyes when I incautiously gave play to a little premature pleasantry. Nothing but an imperturbable and brazen countenance prevented my being transfixed with a thunderbolt. It would be better to make a great show of bravery, and talk of plans for the recovery of the kingdom; throwing in battles, sieges, and valorous hotch-potch of that sort, by the bushel. You will have to tie this filly with a pretty long tether, or you are undone, for she's high-spirited and mettlesome enough for anything."

"Good, my ambassador-in-chief; thy wisdom never fails. Would I had my kingdom, sweet Alred, if 'twere only that I might make thee lord high chancellor! To be forewarned is to be forearmed: the net shall be a silken one. But now not another word, for expectancy is on tiptoe. Do thine errand, and I will bestow on thee further tokens of my regard if good luck go with thee."

"Pardon me, sire! If I am qualified to be lord high chancellor, I am qualified to give a little further advice in this matter."

"What is it, Alred? Prithee, come to the point at once: none of thy sermons. When I am king thou shalt be court preacher, if thou affect that office; but spare me now, an' thou lovest me."

"Well, here it is. When fair maids of this quality have favours to grant, mark me, they will have it done daintily. Faugh! What do you take her for? Don't trust to second-hand dealings too much. Vulgar eyes looking on at it! Pshaw! What a stomach you credit her with! Listen. This must be a grand passion; you are entranced, bewitched, dying for very love of the matchless queen of your heart! Mark me, pitch your notes high if you would have this pretty bird come fluttering to your bower. Why, canst thou not rhyme a maudlin verse or two? Come, cudgel thy brains, and I will help thee with a stave; here are writing materials."

"Ha, ha, ha! I like thy notions. Come, thou shalt draw us up a rhyme, such as the gallant knights of Normandy address to their lady-loves. By my soul, I am three parts Norman, and the other part is not Saxon. So I'll superscribe no screeching Saxon verse. I declare 'tis a language which is a cross between the screech of a witch and the grunt of a hog. Something elegant, or I'll none of it, mark me, Alred."

"Well, it shall be something lofty, I warrant, as becomes a prince. So here goes:—

"Fair maid of the flaxen hair,
And eyes of the heavenly blue,"——

"Bravo! Ha, ha, ha! Go it, sweet Alred? 'Tis fine! I'll sing that at my lady's tent door. Get me thy guitar."

"Pray don't interrupt me, my King. The poetic fire is burning; don't let us miss the glow of it.

"Fair maid of the flaxen hair,
And eyes of the heavenly blue,
Whose graces bewitchingly rare
Have sweetly enchanted my view.
"Oh! haste to thy Prince ever true,
Whose adored one ever thou art.
Thy presence shall sweetly renew
The joy to my languishing heart."

"Bravo! By my soul, Alred, I swear 'tis fine! 'Twould fetch St. Elizabeth from her pedestal."

"Well, if it will do, draw us up your proposal atop of it, sire, and I'll try its effect upon this dainty bird of a Saxon."

"Nay, marry! not I, Alred. I'll not spoil thy elegant rhyme by adding to't my bungling prose. Finish up thy letter handsomely, as 'tis begun, and I'll affix my seal."

"By our Lady, I'll promise many things, then, which thou wilt not perform, I warrant. Here it is; listen to't,—

"'Fair Saxon,—Thy Prince is entranced, bewitched, by thy incomparable loveliness. My throne, my kingdom, were nothing compared with thee. Come to me; I vow to make thee the proudest dame in England. Fly to the arms of your impatient, expectant lover,

"'Edgar the Atheling.'

"Now affix your sign-manual, sire. I warrant this would make the hearts of half the damsels at the court of Malcolm frantic with delight. Mark me, this falcon will strike his quarry quick; if not, I vow I will not fly another this side Martinmas. Wish me luck, and a share in the spoil anon, my Prince."

So saying, Alred buttoned up his doublet, buckled on his sword, and, with the rakish air of an unprincipled Norman gallant, he swaggered off to the tent of Ethel. There, after many foppish grimaces, and much foolish adulation, he delivered the missive into her hands; adding to it suggestions and explanations which Ethel scarce comprehended, and we cannot chronicle.


CHAPTER XXXI.

PRINCE AND VIKING.

"This hand, to tyrants ever sworn the foe,
For freedom only deals the deadly blow;
Then sheathes in calm repose the vengeful blade,
For gentle peace in freedom's hallowed shade."
John Quincy Adams.

My vespers were done, and I was bethinking me of retiring to rest, when I heard the plaintive voice of Ethel beseeching me to let her come within my tent. I had scarce time to reply when the poor child came rushing into my tent, bathed in tears, and in great distress. I soothed her as best I could. Then I gently inquired as to the cause of her grief, when, without answering me, she thrust into my hand the letter of the Prince. "I scarce know what he means," she said, burying her face in her hands.

I read the letter with a burning sense of shame and indignation, and my heart ached for this poor child who, in the purity of her patriotism and her unquenchable love for her country and the Saxon cause, had braved this rough journey and its exposure, in the hope that her woman's devotion might nerve the arms of the remnant of Saxon leaders still left to the cause. But this ghastly unmasking of a Prince who was false, fickle, shameless, and altogether worthless, was a cruel wound to her—a wound that would fester and rankle, but was destined never to heal again. She quietly lifted her tear-stained face, and timidly inquired, "Is it as I feared, Father?"

"Alas! my child," said I, "'tis a vile, dishonouring missive, and altogether without excuse. To come from a prince, and from a would-be king also—'tis sad to think of it."

"My country! my unhappy country! what will become of thee?" was the heart-broken exclamation as she fell at my feet, her long, fair hair falling in dishevelled tresses around.

"Comfort thee, my poor child," said I, though I scarce had heart or hope for anything. I endeavoured to calm her with such soothing, hopeful words as I had at command; but I saw that words were in vain.

"Father," said she, "my life is a weary burden. My people's woes are breaking my heart. I had vainly hoped that our scattered and hunted people might have been rallied by the presence amongst them of their Prince—that factions would have come together, and a bold stand might have been made for liberty; but to find my Prince so poor in valour and so rich in all cowardly and licentious feeling—so bereft of honour and chivalry as to offer dishonourable proposals to a forlorn and wretched girl like myself—this is more than I can bear. I have watched and prayed these two nights, hoping that favouring Heaven would smile upon us again, and upon this council. But as I watched in lonely vigil, I could hear no answering voice, saving the soughing of the night-winds in the passes of these lonely hills; and they seemed to bear no message to me, saving a message of desolation and death. Is there any rest, any joy, for one like me in life, Father? Surely the grave is the only hope for me!"

"My poor child," said I, "let us not think of death until He who gave us life shall say 'It is enough.' Let us obey, and submit to the chastening hand of our Father in heaven. Perhaps we err greatly in cherishing thoughts of resistance and of bloodshed. Let us rejoice that there is a kingdom which is stable, and which shall know no end; whose Prince is the Prince of Peace. Angels are its heralds, and saints its warriors. Love and mercy are the twin pillars of our Prince's throne; and gentle hands and loving hearts may battle for His supremacy. 'Tis a Kingdom in which torn and bleeding hearts may find the herb called heartsease, and sweet content. Into this Kingdom let us press, my child, and for it let us contend, for the kingdoms of this world are fickle, and built up on fraud and wrong; and they will ultimately shrivel up and pass away like the mists of the morning, and be no more."

"I fear me, Father, that the fierce war-spirit of my ancestors reigns in my heart. I am more than half heathen, it seems to me. I have been hoping for revenge for a murdered father and brother, and for a ravished country. They tell me the fair Torfrida, forsaken by her lord, this Hereward, has taken shelter in the monastery of Crowland. Shall I join her there? This fierce agitation is more than I can bear."

"What does thy heart say, Ethel?"

"My heart is not to be trusted, Father, for 'tis wayward and wilful, and there is strong need for some curb, some overmastering restraint, to crush its fierce revolt."

"Thine, I fear, Ethel, is not the nature to bear easily the constraints of the cloister, unless it were first schooled by the iron rod of discipline. Listen to nature's own prompting; I fancy it declares strongly for the freer life of the camp and the field. There is scope for activity, and I think a fair measure of protection, where Oswald is. On his virtue, wisdom, and valour, much depends, and I believe he will be equal to winning many privileges for us."

"Father, may I confide a maiden's secret to thee? I love him whom thou hast named. 'Twere heaven, indeed, to share his toils and privations—nay, even to be near him. But 'tis agony, and soon I fear it will be sin. His heart has fallen captive to a Norman lady who saved his life, and I know he cannot be mine. Advise me, Father, in this sore strait, I beseech you."

"Thy love is unknown to him, my child, is it not?"

"He knows not; I could not bear it for one hour if he knew it."

"'Tis a hard lesson, my poor child, but thou mayest have to learn that the essence of love is sacrifice. The human heart will not be hindered here, but will raise its own altar, free of all dictation. Alas! full oft it must offer itself, and be both priest and victim. Many are the sad hearts that here have offered sacrifice before thy day. Alas! many here will offer a hopeless, heart-consuming sacrifice when thou art gone. If it should be that there is demanded of thee a painful act of self-renouncement, strength and fortitude are always given us when we are minded to do a brave deed. I shall be near, my child; let us await what Providence has in store for us calmly. Lie down upon my couch, and rest. I will lay this matter before our people, and I will not be long."

I immediately gathered up the letter, which had fallen at my feet, and betook myself to the yeoman's dwelling-house, and knocked at the door. There was immediately a hush of voices, and some one under his breath said, "Who knocks?" "Adhelm," said I. My voice was well known to many who were inside, and the door was opened without more ado. Gathered here, evidently in secret conclave, were Sigurd and a number of the followers of the Prince. Their lowering brows told me plainly that mischief was brewing; nevertheless, I determined to execute my purpose, come what might. The Prince said,—

"What wouldest thou have with us, reverend Father? We are now discussing purposes of bloodshed, unfitted, I fear, for saintly ears. But if thou wilt be brief, our royal pleasure shall be at thy service."

"I am afraid my message is one which can scarcely be welcome to your Highness's ears; nevertheless, it is enjoined upon a bishop that he be found faithful."

"Well, be faithful an' thou wilt, Bishop; but let not thy exordium be drawn out any longer than is necessary. So to the point without further prevarication, an' it please you."

"Well, to the point then, Prince," said I. "I hold in my hands an epistle, which purports to have come from your Highness, and is addressed to the Saxon maiden, Ethel. I would fain know if it is indeed from yourself."

"What have I to do to answer thy impertinent questions, priest?" said he, snatching the letter from my hands.

"Since it is so, and as I feared, I have to denounce thee, Prince, as becomes my office; and I say fearlessly that the offering of dishonouring proposals such as these to a virtuous and gentle maiden, is an act of unblushing infamy, and I disown thee and thy cause."

"I am a thousand times thy debtor, dog of a priest, if thou wilt rid me of thy presence, and of all such eavesdropping carrion, who worm themselves into the secrets of silly wenches, to the annoyance of their betters."

"Stay a moment, sire," said Sigurd, who was evidently in a towering rage. "I would know further of this matter. If thou hast offered an insult to this girl, to this Ethel, I have something to say to thee, as well as this priest. Let me see that letter," said he, striving to take it from the Prince's hand; but the Prince hastily drew back, and attempted to tear it in pieces. Sigurd instantly grasped him with his iron fists, and wrung the letter from him as though he were a child; then, handing it to me, he said, "Read it for us, priest. I have no scholar's gear."

I took the epistle and read it in the hearing of the assembled company. When I had finished it, Sigurd drew his sword, and stalking up to the Prince, he said,—

"I will cut thy craven soul from thy craven body for offering this insult to the daughter of Beowulf."

Half a dozen hands, however, immediately grasped him, and kept him from his purpose; but, standing like a tiger at bay, his words coming hissing through his foaming lips with tumultuous rage, he shouted,—

"I disown thee, too, dastardly villain, for I perceive there is not a drop of honest blood, either Saxon or Skald, in thy craven body! Get thee gone quickly, for I warn thee to pollute no longer Saxon soil with thy loathsome, cowardly presence. And beware, too! for if to-morrow's sun finds thee within reach of my arm, I will avenge this insult in thy coward's blood."

I confess I could not but look with admiration on this sturdy descendant of the Viking rovers. Though he was rough and uncouth as the wild hills of Westmoreland, over which he had hunted and fought from his youth, yet he loved the beautiful Ethel with a love as deep and pure as a mother's—a love so utterly unselfish that he would willingly renounce his hope and his claim, nor murmur if Ethel's love should find its requital in the love of Oswald. But he was beside himself with rage when he found that this fair Saxon, whose love was of priceless value to him, should be deemed a fitting object of this princeling's insults. It is needless to say that this unprincipled act alienated finally the small remnant of Saxons who hitherto had hoped to see Edgar occupy the throne, last filled by the valorous Harold.


CHAPTER XXXII.

BADGER ON THE ALERT.

"A thing of shreds and patches."
Shakespeare.

After the incidents narrated in the foregoing chapter, there followed a scene of complete disorder. Many of those who were well affected towards the Prince and his cause, fell away from him, and quitted the dwelling with Sigurd and myself; and speedily the Atheling was left quite alone, saving his personal friends, who had journeyed with him from Scotland, and who were mostly foreigners.

Whilst this had been transpiring, most of the camp was wrapped in profound slumber. The followers and housecarles who had accompanied their masters, had found resting-places in the outhouses, amid the hay and bracken which had been accumulated for the fodder and bedding of the cattle during the winter months. But Badger was ill at ease amid it all. Some presentiment of evil disturbed his slumbers, and he turned uneasily again and again; finally he sprang bolt upright, and grasped his sword, at the same time giving Wulfhere a rough shake, which thoroughly roused him also on the instant.

"What is the matter, Badger? Anything amiss?"

"Hush! there are men astir in the camp. I warrant there is some mischief abroad, and I'll know the bottom of it."

At that moment two men entered stealthily at the farther end, where the horses were stalled. Wulfhere and Badger drew their swords, and instinctively ran their fingers down the blades in the darkness. The movements of the two men were plainly visible to the watchers, for the moonlight streaming in through the open door showed their outline very distinctly as they moved to and fro. Immediately the men began to saddle several horses belonging to the Prince, and then they led them out.

"There is a move of some sort, Wulfhere, and I warrant mischief is in it, for there are snakes about. A murrain on them! I am determined to know what it means. You stay here," said Badger—he, at the same time, stealing noiselessly out at the opposite end of the building.

As soon as he reached the open air, he saw, across the enclosure, that there were lights in the dwelling; so he nimbly dodged round, keeping in the shadow of the buildings, until he reached the rear of the house. There, peering through a crazy, patched window, he not only saw what was going on inside, but he overheard this conversation between the Atheling and his favourite Alred:—

"My stomach will stand no more on't, sweet Alred. Such a ruffian, boorish crew are not fit company for a prince. Then I believe that huge, over-grown Norse clown would carry out his threat, and take my life in a moment, if he got the chance. Curses on them all! Upon my soul, I wish the Normans would swoop down upon them, and cut the vile hogs into mincemeat."

"Bravo, Prince! That is a Heaven-sent suggestion, upon my soul!" interjected Alred. "I match you against any one of the seven sages. Whew! it just jumps with my humour. The Normans are in force, too, not more than half a dozen miles away. What a tour-de-force to bring the Normans down upon them by the morning! 'Twould be a stroke of policy William could not excel. Ah! look here—speaking of William: he would load you with favours, and replenish your royal treasury bountifully; then, heigho! there would always be a flowing bowl of Rhenish, or good Canary, and the sweet blue eyes of my lady-love would sparkle again. A fig for a kingdom, and the toiling and moiling of it! Give me the jolly life where care sits lightly, and my own sweet will can be indulged. To Rouen, say I again, with William's goodwill and his gold pieces!"

"Let us away, Alred! Upon my soul, revenge is sweet. You say right, too; when one does a service for William, there follow royal gifts enow. I would rather have a double purpose than a bootless errand, any day? Where are the churls who are saddling the horses?"

Having overheard this speech, Badger darted back to his comrade, who was awaiting his return impatiently.

"Heigho, Wulfhere! this princeling plots mischief. He will betray the camp, the hound, I do believe. Come along; let us dog his footsteps."

So the pair sallied out of the enclosure in the wake of the Prince, his parasites, and several serving-men. The party slowly threaded their way through the woods and entered a narrow defile between precipitous hills on either side; all the while being steadily followed by the two Saxons. Suddenly, on one side, the mountain range came to an abrupt termination, ending in a bold promontory running up to a point. At this juncture the valley broadened out into magnificent proportions, and a spacious lake of water gleamed in the darkness. Turning to the left, they skirted the lake for a couple of miles or more. Suddenly, however, they were confronted by a pair of Norman sentries, who challenged the party, and some time was spent in pourparlers; then one of the sentries accompanied them to the Norman encampment, not more than a quarter of a mile away, the lurid light of their fires making visible some portions of the Norman quarters.

Wulfhere and Badger were obliged to come to a halt, for the remaining sentry barred their further progress, even if they dared come nearer the encampment of the enemy. They waited and watched until they saw the forms of the Prince and his followers come within the circle of light thrown off by the blazing wood fires.

"Now," said Wulfhere, "there is nothing more to be done, Badger, I think. Let us go back now, and promptly warn our friends."

"Hold there, Wulfhere; there is something more to be done. Get thee back, and do thine errand. I have a little further business here, I can see. Tell the Earl I shall be rounding the great Nab's Head about break of day."

"What hast thou in the wind, Badger? Thou wilt be hazarding one prank too many some of these days."

"Never fear, comrade, I know my way about, whether it be light or dark. Besides, my business is such as would disgrace a half-bred knight like thyself. Dost thou see, Grizzly here, and myself, have no dignity to uphold? so we may do anything either boldly or slily, as it suits our humour, if it only brings grist to the mill. Well, now be off. There is no time to talk, for it only hinders business. Come, Grizzly," said Badger, addressing his hound as soon as the form of Wulfhere was lost to view. "You know, Grizzly, you and I are not supposed to be above borrowing a few head of cattle, or to be too proud to do our own droving, at a pinch."

The fact was, the lynx eyes of Badger had espied a herd of cattle lying together under the trees by the side of the lake, although the darkness was so deep that none but keen eyes would have detected their presence. He had seen them at once, and instantly his nimble brain began revolving some scheme for carrying them off.

"The cackling and talking has come to naught, as it mostly does," said he grunting to himself; "but beshrew me if I like a bootless errand. I'll try a cast of my own net, whether there is aught to it or not."

Now there was but one formidable obstacle in the way, and that was the solitary sentinel who still stood at his post, and who continued slowly pacing to and fro in a limited space.

Badger turned to the hound and addressed him, for he was in the habit of having sundry conferences with his favourite, who had partnered him in many a daring exploit.

"Well, Grizzly, what is to be done now? Eh, sir? We must have yon cattle, Grizzly, come fair or come foul. There is this scurvy Norman in the way. What are we to do with him? I think we can dispose of him somehow or other. What say you?"

Grizzly answered by a vigorous attempt to lick Badger's chops.

"Eh, sir? I don't doubt but we can finish him off easily enough, you and I together, Grizzly. But what will our Abbot say? Are you aware, sir, that you and I have a sacred calling—that we belong to the monastic order? Don't you remember the many sermons we have from our Abbot, on loving our enemies? I don't quite see the turn of the wit in the case of these Norman dogs, somehow or other. No doubt it is sound doctrine enough, but bad to practise. Well, let that pass. I have a feeling, though, I would rather not brain this fellow, if another turn will serve as well. Now it would certainly ease my mind to do it if I caught him, flagrante delicto, flagrante delicto. Grizzly, did you note, that is the monk that is speaking? You see I can mouth my Latin when it pleases me, Grizzly. There is many a scurvy monk knows less. But I say, Grizzly, I fancy the fellow's knees are knocking together already with fear at being left alone, and that is very suggestive. Let us try playing ghost with him."

So saying, Badger divested himself of his upper garments, leaving his shoulders and the upper parts of his body exposed. Then he took the garments and tied them deftly about the shoulders of Grizzly, giving him a most strange and uncouth appearance. Having done this, and without exposing themselves to view, Badger commenced to give forth, in a low tone, the most dismal groans, and varying this by most piercing shrieks of pain.

The Norman turned a terrified gaze in the direction from whence these strange noises came, evidently in great trepidation and fear. Then he darted off a few paces, as though about to beat a hasty retreat. This was enough. Badger saw at once that the ruse would answer. So, without more ado, he dropped down on all fours, and, accompanied by the dog, each of them presenting a most unearthly and fantastic appearance, they started off in the direction of the sentinel, the groans and shrieking of Badger deepening, and becoming most diabolical in tone and intensity.

The Norman for one moment turned a scared gaze on the advancing figures, which appeared to him to be none other than the Saxon devil Zernebock, of which many Normans went in mortal dread. Then, with the speed of the wind, he took to his heels and dashed off towards the camp. Quick as thought, Badger freed the dog from his trammels, and bade him fetch the cattle. In a very few minutes he was making off, all speed, with the herd.


CHAPTER XXXIII.

DOG ROBS DOG.

"I am but a gatherer and disposer of other men's stuff."
Sir Henry Wotton.

Badger, with his valuable plunder, had four good hours start ere daybreak, which was as early as the Normans would be likely to discover their loss. It was slow and tedious work driving cattle through the passes, and the wooded country, and the most that he could hope for in the way of start would be eight or ten miles. But there was considerable probability that the enemy would plan a night attack upon the Saxons, and in that case, if the loss was discovered by those remaining in camp, they would be quite unprepared for pursuit; and if no start could be made by them before the return of the expedition, then he would have his prize safely aboard the schooner.

In the meantime, Wulfhere, summarily dismissed by his comrade, returned to the Saxon camp, ruminating upon the strange vagaries of Badger's wit. He nothing doubted but that some sufficient purpose, if not some daring exploit, dictated his erratic movements. When he reached the encampment, he lost no time in rousing his chieftain, Oswald. After a brief consultation, they decided at once to rouse the whole camp. Then a council of war was held by the leaders. Hereward and Sigurd were for forming an ambush, and trying a brush with the foe; but the more prudent were very doubtful about the success of such a movement, seeing the Normans were far more numerous than they. Ultimately, it was decided not to risk an engagement. So hasty preparations were made, and in less than an hour's time the camp was broken up, and each party chose its own route for retreat.

"Wulfhere," said Oswald, when we had collected our little party, and had started home. "I miss Badger. Is he on before?"

"Well, I almost think he will be, my lord, though I left him lurking within a bowshot of a Norman sentinel, and within sight of their camp fires. What he had in his head I know not. Some crank, I warrant, by means of which he will get the best of the enemy."

"He will be venturing too far, I doubt, some day, and he will find he has got his head in a noose which all his ingenuity will not enable him to slip."

"No fear, my lord. It will take all the wit in the Norman camp to put him in a corner where there is not room enough for him to wriggle out. There is something in that old pate of his which will make him a match for them all, and something to spare. I have an opinion he will circumvent grim Death with some dodge or other."

"Well, he will know that we shall be bound homewards, I suppose, and he will follow when it suits his humour to do so."

"Nay, I fancy he will be ahead of us even now. He gave me instructions that he would be rounding the Great Nab's head at daybreak, so we may hope to meet with him ere long."

Thus we kept steadily pressing on through the darkness, and ere long the beams of the morning sun shot up athwart the eastern sky, and our march became much more easy and pleasant. By-and-by we rounded the bluff promontory indicated by Badger, and known as the "Great Nab's head;" and shortly we espied Badger, and his comrade Grizzly, seated most contentedly on a mossy bank, Badger regaling himself with a hunch of bread, and salt beef, whilst Grizzly, foraging for himself, was putting the finishing touches to a rabbit he had killed.

"Well, Badger," said the Earl, "alive and well, I see. What exploit have you been perpetrating? Reconnoitring the Norman camp, eh?"

"Reconnoitring, my lord? Mercy on us, no!—if that means sitting on a boulder like a moulting fowl, and gazing at nothing in particular. I never reconnoitre; that means can anything be done. I always know something can be done if one sets about it."

"Very good philosophy, Badger—well to the point. What have you been doing, then? What is the trick this time? and have you been found out for once in a way?"

"Just come with me, my lord, and we'll see."

So saying, he led us over the shoulder of the hill, revealing to us a lovely little dell where there was a stream of fresh water and an abundance of fresh green herbage. Here, also, were about twenty head of cattle browsing lustily.

"There, my lord. I thought we should have a bootless errand, for the wagging of tongues and the cackling of geese I never could understand; they are both pointless, and equally profitable. I never was a great hand at crooning since I was a baby, so I give that business up. But I owe a grudge to the Normans, and I borrowed these few cattle from them. They will be of service, I trow, on the top of the hill. And if you find you don't need them, why, there's no harm done—send them back again."

"Well, every man wields his own staff best, Badger. You do credit to yours. But I think we had better be moving, or the Normans may fetch them before they get to their journey's end."

"Quite ready, my lord. We can now reach the boat without another halt, if the Normans do not dock our tails in the meantime. Come, Grizzly, the drover's trade is a thriving trade in these times. The thieving Scot and the robber Dane have turned over their business to honester men. I never dreamed it was so respectable and well-spoken a trade as I find it to be now."

So saying, Badger and his hound set about collecting the beasts, and soon we were able to resume our march with as much celerity as we could command. Everybody seemed anxious to hear Badger's recital of his exploit, which he told us with much grim humour, and evidently much inward relish.

We were able to reach our destination without molestation from the enemy, their energies being fully occupied by other matters until we had got clear away. It was thought desirable not to embark until nightfall, unless we were compelled to do so; for it was more than probable, had we put out to sea, the movements of the vessel would have been observed by the enemy. A gangway, however, was laid ready for emergencies, whilst scouts were posted at points of observation, thus making it impossible for us to be surprised. During the day, the cattle were permitted to graze in the wood near, and when the shades of night gathered about us, they were driven aboard, and we weighed anchor and stood across the bay. Ultimately we reached our destination without mishap, though we had, in consequence of our cattle, to travel with the utmost circumspection.


CHAPTER XXXIV.

WILD DARING OF SIGURD THE VIKING.

"When Greeks joined Greeks, then was the tug of war."
Nathaniel Lee.

It was a most grievous disappointment to Sigurd when the Saxon leaders finally decided not to attack the Normans, and thus checkmate them as they sought to capture the Saxons whilst in council. When he saw that there was no hope of the Saxons uniting in this, he appealed most importunately to Hereward to join him, but in vain. When everything failed, so insatiate was his thirst for vengeance that he determined to attack them single-handed, trusting to his prowess, and his familiarity with the passes and the mountain retreats, to secure for himself immunity from capture.

"If I had but a dozen of my hardy mountaineers, I would lead these Normans a dance before this day was done!" he muttered, as he saw the remnant of the Saxons departing. His hatred of the Normans had so eaten into his soul, that every opportunity to attack them was a favourable one, and he was ready for any scheme of wild daring if only Norman blood could be spilled. So, alone, he grimly and resolutely strode up the pass, until he reached a spot he deemed suitable for his purpose. Boulders and bushes intermingled thickly on one side; on the other was a precipice—a sheer drop of twenty feet into a trout-stream, which threaded its way amid limestone boulders.

Behind him the gaunt, gloomy mountains shot up far away, their lower parts covered thickly with bracken, bushes, and boulders; behind and amid which a retreating figure need never be exposed for more than a second at a time. Looking around for a second or two, he gave a grunt of satisfaction, and then he climbed a few yards from the path, and laid himself down amid the bracken and deep grass, with his broad sword unsheathed and laid by his side, ready for the fray. Thus he waited for the oncoming Norman soldiery. For more than an hour he lay thus in ambush, with wild and turbulent passions fermenting in his breast, and a wild look in his eyes—reason for the moment dethroned by this one overmastering passion.

Presently on the still night air was borne the sound of stealthy footsteps. Sigurd bounded to his feet as the first sounds broke upon his ear. He fixed tightly his helmet, closed his visor, and adjusted his coat of link-mail, which had swung a little awry. Then, grasping his powerful broadsword, he made a vigorous lunge at an invisible foe, and then, with a grunt of satisfaction, he took his stand behind a massive boulder, flanked on the side next the advancing foe with a thick network of shrubs, through which, however, he could watch the movements of the Normans. The darkness was ebbing away fast. Already the morning's sun had smitten the head of mighty Helvellyn in the distance, and bathed his kingly head in a halo of golden glory; but substantial remains of laggard night still hung moodily about the bottom of the pass, as though nature, in shame and sadness, would fain cast her mantle over this mad strife of men, and over the deed about to be enacted before her eyes. Slowly, with hushed voices and stealthy tread, on came the unsuspecting foe. The head of the column threaded its way past the lurking-place. Sigurd clenched his sword with an impatient grip, for the sight of Norman foemen, within reach of his sword, was well nigh more than he could resist. On they passed, all unconscious that a human tiger was lurking near and making ready for his spring. File after file of the Normans strode on, mostly afoot, but some were leading their horses. Now the rear men are abreast. A second more, their backs are seen. A spring and a blow, and the hindmost Norman is cloven to the waist, and drops with scarce a groan. There is a wild shriek, and consternation is rampant amongst the rearmost ranks.

Sigurd, in mad rage, hacks and hews at the panic-stricken crew, cutting down man after man with terrific celerity, whilst some, in their efforts to escape his onslaught, fall over the precipice. Presently the Normans discover that but one solitary Saxon attacks them. A shout goes up, "The mad Saxon! Cut him down! Down with him! Run him through!" Immediately a hundred swords are whipped from their scabbards, and a united rush is directed towards him. Sigurd sees his chance is gone; he dashes along the path in swift retreat, followed by the yelling foe. Presently he darts from the path and makes for the hills, tearing through bracken, furze, and brushwood, and leaping boulders with an agility none but a mountaineer and a hunter who had been wont all his life to go swinging over these mountain sides, until the sinews of his legs had become like thongs of steel, could make pretence to imitate. Presently he turns to glance at the crew behind, and he laughs a savage laugh as he sees them huddling together like sheep at the bottom of the pass, some afraid to follow, and all of them conscious of the hopelessness of it. With an exclamation of contempt, he catches up a fragment of rock and hurls it with terrific energy amongst them, striking one of them on the shoulder, and knocking him to the ground with a broken shoulder-blade. Then, with a hysterical laugh, and a fierce brandish aloft of his sword, he dashes off again towards the summit. With wondering gaze the Normans watch him scaling, ridge after ridge, the beetling brow of the hill far above them, like a stag bounding from the hunter. Presently he darts over the topmost ridge, and is lost to view. He halts in a tiny hollow of the mountain's brow, and, pulling out his sword, dripping with gore, he wipes it on the sward.

"Aha!" he cried, apostrophising the fearsome weapon; "One more taste of blood! Norman blood, too. I love to see Norman blood. It drips, too; that means more will soon be shed."[5] Then, running his hand along its edge, he exclaimed, "Nothing blunted, my trusty friend Tyrfing,[6] ready as ever for the fray!" he shouted in frenzy, and commenced to hack and hew as though in deadly conflict with an invisible foe, the perspiration pouring off him in streams. But human nature, though it be never so strong, has its limits. This frenzied, this almost maniacal outburst, was followed by complete physical exhaustion. Like a stone, he dropped flat upon the ground, and there he lay without motion or any sign of existence whatever for a full hour or more. Had the Normans but known of the wild drama being enacted beyond the brow of the mountain, it would have been a fatal day to Sigurd, for the Normans had had so many tastes of his prowess, and of his mad daring, that they would have given large treasure to have this dreaded foe within their power. But this was not destined to be the last time when he should strike terror into their ranks when they least suspected him.

The sun had performed a considerable part of his day's journey when Sigurd began to manifest signs of returning consciousness. First there were sundry stretchings of the muscles, followed by a momentary unclosing of the eyelids. Then he sat up and gazed around, as though bewildered with his surroundings. By-and-by he seemed to recover a recollection of the incidents preceding the stupor he had been passing through. By an effort he rose to his feet, and staggered rather than walked to a cool spring of water, which, born of the clouds which constantly encircled these lofty peaks, was hurrying away with musical ripple to the lowlands. He drank a hearty draught of the ice-cold water; then he bathed his throbbing temples with it. Sitting down then, and taking from a wallet slung behind him a substantial piece of roast kid's flesh and a hunch of bread, he ate a hearty meal, and washed it down with another copious draught of water. Much refreshed by this, he next mounted to the topmost ridge. There, lying at full length, he ran his eye most minutely over every inch of the valleys on either side, carefully noting every suspicious object that came within the sweep of his vision. Then, with equal care, he searched the adjacent hills. The Normans he could see hurrying to and fro near their camp, some five miles away. But apparently there was nothing at all menacing to his position.

Rising to his feet, he strode along the ridge for a mile or two, then commenced to descend for another mile or two, in an oblique direction, until he disappeared from view in a dense wood, which covered the lower reaches of the valley on either side. Holding a downward course, and pushing aside the brushwood, he came ultimately to a stream of water, which, with one gigantic leap, started from its rocky bed and leaped unimpeded full eighty feet, falling into a deep, surging pool, where the waters, finding a level, flowed sluggishly away. The vast amphitheatre appeared to have been worn away by this leap of the waters, and by the crumbling away of the softer shale below, which had undermined and brought down the rocks from above.

This untamed warrior stood on the brink of the precipice with folded arms. There was something in the scene which consorted with his rude and rugged nature, and wonderfully soothed his warring passions. The daws, with cawing clamorousness, flew to and fro across the abyss, and crept into the crevices of the rock where their nests were. The swallows skimmed along the surface of the waters, ever and anon darting upwards to some skilfully made nest of baked clay, clinging to the rocky sides, and from which little black heads were anxiously peeping, and twittering lustily. Bird life here seemed to have found a veritable paradise, and they literally thronged bush and tree, and rock and bank, everywhere. Sigurd stood gazing down the ravine through an interminable labyrinth of foliage-laden trees. Here was a grand solitude such as his soul loved, and he regarded every tree in the forest as a personal friend. Presently he turned to one side of this abyss, and steadfastly regarded three stones which were laid side by side for a moment or two; then he altered the position of one of them, and immediately dropped down on to a shelving rock, and from that to another, and so on, until he had descended a considerable distance. Then suddenly he disappeared on hands and knees into an aperture of the rock which was completely hidden from the view of any one standing above. As soon as this portal was passed, he found himself in a spacious cavern, where evidently men were wont to resort, for there were many things denoting human occupation. Sigurd hastily threw off his armour and reared his sword, with the belt appended, against the rock. Then he threw himself upon a couch of dried bracken and grass, and was soon fast asleep.

Presently two wild-looking men appeared on the scene. One carried a brace of rabbits, and the other had over his shoulder a young fawn; whilst at their heels there followed a couple of fierce-looking hounds. They looked at the three stones, and one of them exclaimed,—

"The Jarl is here!"

"Doubtful luck that," growled the other.

They, however, changed the position of the other two stones, and then they followed their chieftain to his retreat. No sooner did they enter than one prepared to light a fire, and the other to skin and dress the animals they had brought. As soon as this was done, a huge iron pot was suspended on cross-poles over the fire, with about a gallon of water. In this were thrown a couple of haunches of venison with the rabbits. Then one of them turned to a vessel in which a quantity of corn was steeping in water. Two or three pounds of this, along with some savoury herbs and roots, and a quantity of salt, were deposited in the pot. Then the pair sat down to await the cooking of this substantial and savoury mess. Whilst this was being done, Sigurd slept soundly, and the pair carried on a conversation in a low tone, and interspersing their talk with sundry nods and motions towards the sleeping chieftain.

"There will be stirring times again, now, I warrant," said one.

"Yes; plenty of blood-letting, and plenty of scurrying over the mountains with the Normans at our heels," said the other.

"There will soon be none of us left, either for fight or aught else. There has been a desperate thinning going on."

"Well, it won't be a cow's death, anyhow, and that is some comfort for us."

Soon the boiling-pot began to send forth a most savoury and appetising smell, to these half-famished men.

"Wake the Jarl," said one to the other; "he must first break his fast."

So one of them gave Sigurd a rough shaking, and he presently sat up and rubbed his eyes; then he saluted his men.

"Skalds, how fare ye?"

"The hawks have not been so much abroad of late, so we have fared tolerably."

"But ye'll soon have to be on the alert, for the old eagle has been playing havoc with the hawks down in the pass yonder; a dozen of them at least will swoop upon their prey no more. But I'll taste your stew. Hot victuals have not been plentiful lately. Where are your comrades?"

"Scattered a good deal. There are a dozen lurking among the pikes. Some, the family men, have snug quarters near Deepwaters."

"Make signals for them. We have been idle long enough. We must bestir ourselves, for the Norman gets a tighter grip upon us every day we are idle."


CHAPTER XXXV.

THE SAXON DEVIL AND THE WICKED ABBOT.

"When night
Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine."
Milton.

Most humiliating and distressing to us Saxon monks was the state of lax morality in which these foreign monks lived. One of the worst vices imported into England by the Normans was that of uncleanness, a vice practically unknown amongst Saxons, and looked upon by them with great abhorrence. This was an offence, too, which the hardy Norsemen regarded with loathing. Fierce and blood-thirsty as they were, seduction, adultery, and the violation of the sanctity of blood-relationship, they detested. Amongst the Normans, not only the wild troopers, but the monks also, lived loose, irregular lives; and the chief and vilest offender, in this respect, was our new Abbot. Many were the outrages perpetrated by this man. Night by night, under cover of the darkness, he issued from the Monastery with lascivious intent, often accompanying his outrages by crime and bloodshed if he met with opposition. In vain I sought the assistance of Alice, who entreated the Count, her father; but he was either powerless, or cynical and indifferent—probably both. Sometimes a fierce check was given to these scoundrels by a sudden outburst of rage and revenge on the part of the Saxons; but for the most part, the Saxons who meekly submitted to serfdom were the most abject of their race, being often so broken in spirit that they submitted to unfathomable indignities, rather than face the consequences of opposition. Indeed, any display of spirit, and any act of retaliation or revenge, was sure to be followed by the most cruel vindictiveness, and most sweeping punishment. I stay to note one act of retaliation done to our Abbot by Badger, on one occasion, when the Abbot was bent on carrying his unscrupulous violence to the cottage of one of the serfs. I note it because of its comicality, as well as its effectiveness in punishing the vicious priest.

Now the Abbot, though it will scarcely be believed, was, in spite of his turbulent wickedness, a most abjectly superstitious man, as indeed most ignorant and wicked people are. Of this fact Badger, who was a most observant and shrewd judge of character, quickly became aware; and, taking advantage of this weakness, he used it to teach the Abbot a most valuable and salutary lesson. One of the serfs had frequently made most doleful complaints to Badger of the violation of the sanctities of his home by this man. Now Badger most cordially hated the Abbot, as indeed any one who knew the man could not fail to do; and on the other hand, his sympathies, either openly or veiled, were always extended to his countrymen, and he frequently wrought substantial amelioration in their lot. Badger turned this matter over in his mind, and at last hit upon a plan which he conceived would have the desired effect if successfully carried out. So, making use of his old expedient, he decked himself most fantastically as the Saxon "Zernebock" or devil. He expended much skill and ingenuity in the manufacture of some wondrously grotesque apparel, introducing a pair of horns and a tail after the orthodox fashion. In addition to this, he had also decked out one of the most savage of his hounds in a most fantastic garb, and, so disguised and ludicrously tricked out, they sallied forth at eventime, intent on frustrating the Abbot's vile intentions. Having selected their place of ambush, they patiently lay in wait for the object of their enterprise, bent both on terrifying and worrying him into a relinquishment of his devilish purpose.

The night selected as fitting for Badger's enterprise was moonless and somewhat dark, especially so within the added shade of the forest. Having selected a suitable place, Badger lay quietly in wait until he heard the approaching footsteps of the Abbot; then he strode into the path with the hound by his side, and together they fronted the object of their quest. Great was the consternation of the Abbot when he confronted this awful apparition. His knees smote together, and his teeth chattered in his head, as the awful voice of the fiend accosted him in angry tones.

"Abbot, I know thy errand; I am the Saxon devil 'Zernebock,' and this is my Hel-hound. I have come to kill thee, and my hound will tear thee in pieces, for thy cup of wickedness is now full; I give thee, therefore, two minutes in which to prepare for death."

So saying, the fiend uplifted a mighty sword, which seemed to the Abbot to tower almost to the height of the trees. It was a wooden one, but the night was too dark for this to be perceived, even if the victim had not been too terror-stricken to note it.

In a terrible fright he fell on his knees and began to call upon all the saints to protect him, writhing and groaning piteously.

"Silence!" said the fiend in still more awful tones. "Thou must die! I have been waiting long for permission to slay thee! The saints will not protect thee any longer, for thou hast professed to be a holy man, and thou art bent this night on an errand of wickedness, and I have permission to kill thee at last. Thy life is now in my hands. Art thou ready?" again roared the fiend in savage tones, whilst the hound, seeing the threatening attitude of his master, waxed furious, snarling and growling savagely, and making many half-executed attempts to fly at the Abbot, which half a word of encouragement from the fiend would have completed. "Speak!" said the fiend, "thy time is now expired."

And the uplifted sword began most ominously to sway to and fro, as though about to fall.

"Have mercy on me, fiend!" screamed the Abbot, "and I will make a vow to thee that I will repent me of my sins, and I will cease from fleshly lusts! I will set about mortifying my flesh this very night! I vow to abstain from meats and strong drink for the space of twelve months if thou wilt have mercy on me."

"Silence when I bid thee!" again roared the fiend. "I know thee for a hypocrite, and thou wilt not abide thy vow. Art thou ready? Quick! bow thy head, so that I cut it off clean."

Quick as thought in this dire strait the Abbot sprang to his feet, and fled with miraculous energy for one so stout and pursy.

"Hist! hist!" said the fiend to his hound.

There was a fierce growl and a few long, slouching strides, and the hound grasped the Abbot's nether parts in his powerful jaws; and with a yell of pain his reverence fell prone upon his face, writhing, groaning, wriggling, and yelling, as though ten thousand fiends clutched him. But the hound clung to him like a vice, chawing his struggling prey the more lustily as he tried to shake him off. At last the fiend called off his hound; but at the same time he lifted his sword over the prostrate Abbot.

"It is no use thy attempting to fly; thy doom is come, and I am here to kill thee. Choose at once whether thou wilt be torn in pieces by my hound or slain by my fiery sword; there is no escape for thee."

"Have mercy, fiend!" groaned the Abbot piteously; "thy hound hath well-nigh killed me already. His teeth are red hot, as thou well knowest. I shall surely die now, after the savage manner he hath torn me. In mercy leave me the little time left me for repentance. Think of my poor soul."

"I am the foul fiend, and there is no mercy now for thee. Thy soul is forfeited and given into my hands; but what of thy body? decide quick! Shall I kill thee, or wilt thou be devoured by my hound?"

Just at that moment, however, the fiend was interrupted, for footsteps and voices were heard approaching, and presently a couple of troopers, attracted by the terrible howling of the Abbot, drew near. As they did so the fiend and his hound promptly disappeared in the wood.

As these troopers timidly and fearfully advanced to the spot, to their consternation they beheld the Abbot lying flat along, and bellowing like any bull of Bashan, and calling upon the saints to come to help him. At once he was recognised by the pair.

"Ho, your reverence! what is this? What ails you?"

"Now the saints be praised! the foul fiend is fled; the Blessed Virgin hath sent me help, but too tardily, for I am surely done for. The mischief is ended, and I shall surely die. Had ye tarried but one minute more, my poor body would have been devoured also."

"What is it, your reverence! Have you been attacked by wolves?"

"Alas! I have been set upon by the wolf of hell; I have met face to face in this very spot the foul fiend. 'Twas the Saxon devil Zernebock, for he spoke Saxon. He and his furious Hel-hound hath set upon me together. The fiend was about to kill me with his fiery sword when ye drew near so opportunely; and his hound hath torn me dreadfully. His teeth were red hot, and he spouted fire out of his fearful mouth. Can ye lift me up? for I hardly know whether he hath left me any legs to stand upon. Oh! not there! not there! did I not tell you he had torn me fearfully behind. Lift me by the shoulder, but do not touch me behind. Steady, ye maudlin villains! did I not tell ye to be steady?" he roared most savagely.

"I think your reverence had better let me go for help; my comrade will stand by ye till I come again," remarked one trooper.

"Stay ye where ye are, villain! Ye do not stir from me, either of ye, not a yard! If the fiend come again the other one will run also, and I shall be slain and devoured. Lift me up, ye lazy louts! ye are well able."

By dint of tugging and lifting, eventually they set the Abbot on his legs; but he could not bear to walk, neither could he bear to be carried; and he would not be left for a moment. Slowly he made an effort to shamble along, but every step was torture to him, and he swore at the two troopers as roundly as in his extremity he had prayed to the saints. It was a most painful and protracted home-coming to all of them; for the Abbot clutched his deliverers most tenaciously, terrified almost into frenzy if there was a rustle in the bushes, and conjured up visions of the fiend and his hound in every object that met his gaze; whilst all the while he vented upon the two his spleen and rage, sometimes for their clumsiness and want of sympathy, and at other times for their having been so long in coming to his aid.

With infinite trouble they at last reached the Abbey, and the Abbot was put to bed; but when there he was obliged to lie upon his stomach, for the hound had severely mauled him behind. Two of the monks were set apart to nurse him by night, and two by day. The rest of the monks were commanded to spend so many hours of each day in prayers and in invocations, whilst penances and fasting were imposed upon all.

In time, by dint of careful nursing, the Abbot was restored. But he could not so easily forget the painful lesson he had learnt; and as he still firmly believed that it was indeed the Saxon devil Zernebock and his Hel-hound that had set upon him, he never dared venture abroad after dark until he had banished the fiend from the adjacent woods.

Then ensued the most comical part of the whole affair. A procession of the monks to the place of adventure was organised. One headed the solemn procession bearing a crucifix on which our blessed Lord was impaled. Others followed next in order bearing the sacred relics, most of which had been brought from Normandy, and consisted of bones of eminent saints of the order, also a shred of the garment of our Saviour, the identical one for which the soldiers cast lots. One carried a front tooth of the apostle Peter, said to have been broken out at the last supper of our Lord; and another had a small vial containing a portion of the tears which Peter shed at the denial, when "he went out and wept bitterly"; the last had possession of a pair of straps or leathern thongs, said to have been used to fasten the sandals of the Apostle John when he dwelt in the lonely isle of Patmos. But most laughable it was to see Badger and several of the lay brothers of the monastery following behind, with large ewers containing holy water, with which the monks plentifully besprinkled the path and its surroundings; all the while chanting psalms and repeating prayers for the exorcism of the devil and all evil spirits that haunted the woods.

One can imagine the uncontrollable delight with which Badger assisted at this solemn function. And I confess when he told me the whole story I could not help but laugh most immoderately, though such levity scarcely became my office, especially when I remembered that our sacred things had been associated with so ridiculous an exploit. Though I can scarcely undertake to excuse the deception practised upon this occasion, yet it had a most salutary effect upon the Abbot, for seldom after that incident did he venture, under cover of the night, to prosecute his villainies; though, like most vile and wicked persons, he found other means of giving rein to his lusts, which were infamous and cruel.


CHAPTER XXXVI.

LOVERS PLOTTING.

"Good-night, good-night; parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good-night, till it be morrow."
Shakespeare.

The day appointed for Alice's ill-starred nuptials draws near with ill-omened celerity. Anxious consultations and meetings at the trysting-place with her Saxon lover become most frequent as the fatal day approaches. To-night, as she climbs the rough stone stairs which lead to the tower, her heart seems to grow lighter in the toilsome ascent. When she reaches the top night has already asserted its sway over the face of nature, and deep silence broods solemnly everywhere around. On the turret she paces to and fro in deep meditation, whilst occasionally she steps upon the stone platform and peers anxiously towards the adjacent wood, and waves her handkerchief. But the night is dark, and she knows not whether any one is there to heed her signal. Then she steps down and listens at the head of the stair for the sound of the welcome footsteps. Though this most serious and portentous crisis in her life is approaching, and dark-browed Fate seems from day to day to frown more darkly upon her path, and though she recognises most vividly the perilousness of the enterprise which Oswald is entering upon for her deliverance, yet to-night none but pleasant thoughts dance through her mind, and ever and anon also pleasant smiles persist in wreathing her countenance in sweet hopefulness, for she conjures up some pleasing dream of a possible escape from the dreaded union designed for her. But the wonderful secret of this hopeful spirit is this: her champion, the Saxon chieftain, will be here to-night. Here it must be confessed was the chief inspiration of those pleasant thoughts and pleasant smiles. When he was nigh fear and doubt and dismay never oppressed her. But alas! this buoyancy of hopefulness was just as surely followed by cruel depression of spirit, and a dread sense of loneliness and helplessness, when he was far away—when the hated presence of Vigneau was obtruded upon her especially. Worst of all, as the appointed time of marriage drew near, he presumed more and more to thrust himself upon her; and she must needs hide, as best she could, the feelings of abhorrence and deep loathing with which she regarded him. She had come to see the futility of resistance, and of manifesting dislike to him; for she had no hope that he would abate one jot of his determination to force the fulfilment of this marriage contract.

Presently, as she listens, a feeble grating sound strikes her ear, and she strains anxiously to hear further. Soon a distinct sound of movement in the winding stair is heard. She rushes to the spot where the steps reach the platform of the tower, and anxiously peers into the dark beneath. One moment more and Oswald clasps her to his heart.

"Ah, you lonely watcher," said he, tremulous with emotion. "How long have you been waiting here alone? are you not afraid to watch here in the darkness?"

"I am not afraid to-night, dearest. I am only a woman, you know, with a woman's weakness; but I have always fortitude enough to dare anything for you. Why should I be afraid of darkness, which is only God's coverlet, drawn with infinite gentleness over tired and sleeping nature?"

"Ah! there is a good angel watching over you, Alice dear, whether 'tis dark or light, and whether I am near or far. So be of good courage."

"I have faith in God, and I have faith in my Saxon lover; but alas! my heart fails me often as the fateful day draws nigh. Sometimes I am almost paralysed with fear, lest some cruel fate should, after all, doom me to a hated meeting of Vigneau at the altar; but I have a little friend which I keep sharp and bright, and there is a step beyond which I go no farther with him."

"Hush, dearest! such thoughts are cruel; that dreadful alternative you will never resort to. Vigneau, in his gross attempt to force your hand, in the face of earth and heaven, will rush upon a fate he recks not of, but which he richly merits. No more of this, dearest; this hour we will dedicate to more welcome topics. So a truce to all unpleasant thoughts. How does the question of questions wear apace? Have you become more reconciled to my project?"

"Dearest, do not think me foolish; but since you intimated your intention of appearing in the lists, I have been engaged in a little enterprise of my own. I have still my forebodings that you will be discovered if you venture to enter the lists of the tournament, without some more effectual disguise than you seem to possess. So, excuse me, I have been taxing my poor woman's wit in the matter. Would it be wrong to practise a little ruse upon my father, think you? I have a cousin, who, some years ago, joined the ranks of the king of Spain, and has gone to war with him against the Moors in the south. He is much commended by the king of Spain for his valour. If we could dare to convey to my father a message that this knight would be present at the festival, and take part in the joust and feat of arms, you yourself might then assume this disguise. You would, I think, pass easily for this valiant southern knight, providing you could arrive opportunely, so as to preclude as much as possible previous intercourse. Your followers also might be prepared to enact their part. It would disarm suspicion effectively, I think."

"Ah! to be sure, set love a-plotting and the thing is done at once."

"Nonsense! you jest with me. Now listen! I have already set about embroidering you handsome trappings for your horse, with quaint, southern devices, which I learnt under the tuition of the good sisters of the convent. Now, don't laugh, you think it a mad whim, I can see."

"Nay, nay! my Lady Suspicion," said Oswald, stooping and kissing her, and giving her a tighter squeeze. "I almost begin to fear you as I think of the dark plots you are capable of weaving. I never for a moment dreamed I had found such a subtle schemer. Now, go on; you have got your finger on the weak point in the plot. I certainly feared the ordeal of exposure on the field myself; and you have been taxing your 'poor woman's wit,' and have anticipated my one difficulty. Now for the rest, dearest."

"Come down with me to my room. All is perfectly quiet."

So together they descended the winding stair, and sought Alice's room. Here she and Jeannette had been deftly plying their fingers in embroidering most quaint devices upon the trappings of the horses of the knight and his esquire, and a couple of men-at-arms. Oswald's were most gorgeously embroidered with silk and gold, upon the finest Bayeaux cloth, by the fingers of Alice alone. Most beautiful and chaste was the workmanship, for she had lavished not only her skill, but her love in the equipment of her champion. The figures were so quaint, the design so original, and the whole so rich in quality, that no prince could hope to ride with more tasteful and imposing housings for his steed. Jeannette also had done her best, it can easily be imagined, to equip her valiant squire like his master.

Oswald took the garments in his hands.

"Well, dearest," said he, "no one will expect a boorish Saxon outlaw to appear like a Norman prince, that is certain; and I dare warrant no curious eyes will penetrate a disguise so complete as you are preparing. Love is not blind in this case, Alice dear, I avouch it; but it has the gift of prevision also. There remains but one condition to give point and consummation to this, and it is that your valiant cousin shall prove himself worthy of such a lady love. But, darling, can you answer this question,—if Vigneau should be overthrown ignominiously, will the spoils of war, the fair queen of this high festival, be the lawful prize of the victor? Now, beware! if you escape the toils of Vigneau, there is another ominous figure hovering near, who is ready to pounce down upon you and carry you off."

"So, I suppose, like an unhappy maiden, I may sing—

"'Then woe is me! a bride I'll be,
Whether I will or no;
For 'tis a law of chivalry—
Victors will have it so.'

"Well, if only the 'fair queen' may have the option of choice, I think in that case the Norman cousin will have it. But do not cherish any vain hopes; I am sure that Vigneau will gulp down his humiliation, if he cannot avenge it; and there is no hope of his relinquishing any claims to myself, though I believe malignant hatred is the only feeling he cherishes towards me."

"It were an easy matter to sweep him out of the way; that would be an easy task; but here comes in a tax upon my conscience, for in spite of the fact that he richly merits it, to compass his overthrow in cold blood is abhorrent to my feelings. If I should worst him in the encounter, he will probably claim satisfaction, and if he does not, but persists in his determination to claim you as his bride, then, in accordance with the laws of chivalry, I also will claim your hand, and challenge him to mortal combat. So, honour and my conscience will be appeased. May Heaven nerve the arm that battles for the right!"

"I am afraid the complications will not end even if Heaven rid us of the Baron, for his brother at the Abbey is fully conversant with my father's ill-starred confidence."

"Well, enough, dearest; one step at once. Are there many knights expected in this tourney?"

"I scarcely think there will be many. My father is very half-hearted in the matter, and you may be sure he has no encouragement from myself. The fewer who are witness of my humiliation the better."

"Well, I am sure that so far as Vigneau is concerned, the feebler the opponents the better he will like it; I daresay, though, he counts upon an easy conquest in any case. Well, now, dearest, don't be discouraged; I must be away, but I shall look daily for the signal. May happier days soon dawn for you, and for this unhappy country. Au revoir, darling."

So saying, with a parting kiss Oswald sped him for the home on the hills.


CHAPTER XXXVII.

THE JOUST, SAXON AND NORMAN.

"The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded."—Burke.


The time had now come about on which De Montfort had promised his daughter to Vigneau. As was the wont invariably of the Normans, the ceremony must be preceded by the usual festivities, the most marked of which was the tournament, or feat of arms. During the reign of our late king Edward, this was one of the things in which the idle and dissolute Norman nobility who came over in swarms spent their time. To my very great sorrow and disappointment, the Saxon nobility copied only too slavishly this vain and foolish propensity, many of the Saxons being quite a match for the most skilful of the Normans. For some weeks before the marriage festivities were to begin, messengers had been sent out to the various Norman encampments situate within a reasonable distance; and many knights were expected to take part in the joust. The place which was selected for this spectacle was near to the castle, and well adapted for the humbler people, who never failed to gather in considerable numbers. The tournament would take place in a considerable hollow, with green hillsides and dense copses around, where a multitude might witness the wondrous pageantry and the struggle for the honours of the day. The central arena, where the knights were to contend, was a spacious enclosure, railed round to the height of about four feet, having two means of entrance and exit, one at each side, directly opposite each other, the one used as an entrance solely. There knights, squires, marshals, judges, etc., were to enter in all the panoply of war and glittering accoutrements. The other opening was used exclusively for purposes of exit. Here discomfited knights, disabled horses, and others who wished to retire might emerge. To the right of the main entrance was a raised platform, covered with rich tapestry, and capable of seating some fifty persons. Upon this platform was a dais, or raised central platform of small dimensions, on which the throne, an elegantly upholstered chair, was placed, and designed for the occupation of the "Queen of Beauty." The crowd were kept waiting considerably after the appointed time, in anticipation of an expected knight from over the sea; from whom a messenger had been sent, announcing his intention of taking part in this knightly fray. Eventually, however, Count de Montfort, amid a flourish of trumpets, issued from the gates of the castle, with his daughter leaning upon his arm, followed by two of her maids and a formidable retinue of invited guests, amongst whom was the Abbot Vigneau, and one or two other ecclesiastics, and a number of Norman guests. De Montfort escorted his daughter to the throne, and Jeannette occupied a seat to the right of her. Most fascinatingly lovely was Alice as she sat in the place of honour, with the victor's chaplet by her side. Pale, nervous, and anxious, but a veritable queen withal she looked—her lustrous dark eyes, and masses of dark wavy hair flowing in graceful undulations over her shoulders, and down to her girdle; her head crowned with a coronet of beautiful flowers, and one solitary gem in the centre. All eyes were upon her. Men of gentle blood marvelled at her surpassing loveliness. Norman men-at-arms and Saxon churls turned dazed and dreamy eyes towards her, with a persistent gaze as of fascination. Most of those present, whether gentle or simple, knew well the manner of man her betrothed was; for Vigneau was notorious in the camp and the cot for his gross villainy; and most knew, or surmised, that to-morrow's nuptial tie would be to her a most hateful tie, and a most unhappy union.

Jeannette sat close to her mistress; but no dark cloud frowned ominously over her as over her mistress. Volatile and mercurial to a degree, she never courted trouble, or recognised his unwelcome visage until it was thrust upon her; though, like most natures of a like temperament, when once fairly cornered, as we have seen, the collapse was pitiable and complete. There, however, she sat, perfectly self-possessed, with an irrepressible flutter of expectation in her heart and unfaltering confidence in her star, which was the wonderful and valorous Wulfhere, whom that day she should see companying with knights and men of renown. There was more than a wonted animation in her eye, and the roses on her cheek had taken a deeper and a rosier tint. All agog with the pleasing promptings of her fluttering little heart, she ran her eyes along the ranks of the common people who lined the enclosure, or stood together in groups, discussing the merits of the combatants who were to take part, and the spectacle which every one looked forward to with such zest. But Saxon and Norman alike of inferior station were to her contemptible; and as her eyes fell upon Paul Lazaire, who with despondent gaze looked at her, she could not restrain a saucy and coquettish smirk of laughter, which Paul, who thought she never looked half so lovely before, put a favourable construction upon, and was greatly comforted.

"Jeannette," said Alice, turning to her anxiously, "I fear the day will be disastrous, and the Saxon knight will be discovered. That would be most fearful; I don't think I could survive it."

"Don't be alarmed, my lady; I am not in the least. Wulfhere and the Earl will be a match for them all, I'm sure."

"But, Jeannette, what could a single knight do, contending with so many foes?"

"One knight truly would not do much; but you forget, my lady, that he is sure to be accompanied by his valiant squire."

"But a solitary esquire would not be of much use. If the Earl be discovered, he would be surrounded and cut to pieces."

"Never fear, my lady, you will see Wulfhere will protect him. He'll soon make an end of a score of this beer-drinking crew."

"Really, Jeannette," said Alice, smiling in spite of herself, "you have a good deal of faith in this Wulfhere."

"Why should I not? He is as pretty a man, and just as valiant as his leader, and I never intend to halt for want of faith, or starve for want of hope. Besides, don't you know there has been given to me an omen?—and I have noticed that they always come true if you have faith in them."

"Oh, indeed! Pray, what is the omen you have had, Jeannette?"

"Well, last night when I went to bed it was not quite dark, and I have a little window in my room which overlooks a certain spot in the wood which I shall not tell you about, for it is my tryste."

"Your tryste, Jeannette? I am afraid you will never cease your coquetry and foolishness. But your omen, Jeannette?"

"Well, I was telling you. It was not dark when I went to bed, so I sat down in front of this window which faces the place where the Saxon and I meet."

"The Saxon, Jeannette?"

"Yes, my lady, the Saxon Wulfhere. Well, in front of the window I told my beads for a full hour or more."

"Told your beads, Jeannette I Why, was that to Wulfhere, or to our Blessed Lady?"

"To our Lady, of course, though I was thinking about Wulfhere. But I said my aves and paters to our Blessed Lady most dutifully. Then, when I went to bed, I put my beads under my pillow as usual, and I soon fell asleep. Then I dreamed such a strange and wonderful dream. I dreamt that I was walking through the woods all alone, when I was startled by a horrid, howling noise behind me, and, turning round, I beheld a number of fierce wolves pursuing me. I ran for my life, but they ran faster than I did, and just as the first one was about to grasp me with its fearful teeth, who should come to my rescue but Wulfhere. I sprang into his arms, and just as he clasped me safely the wolves all turned tail and ran off into the wood as though they had been whipped, for they ran as fast as they could scamper, and howled fearfully. Then I saw there was a holy man with Wulfhere, with whitened beard, and bearing a crucifix with our Blessed Lord thereon. This holy man took my rosary from my hand, and he placed it around my neck. Then he took my hand and joined it with Wulfhere's. After this, Wulfhere kissed me and placed a ring on my finger, and I was his wife. Then the holy man placed his hands on us as we kneeled before him, and he gave us his blessing. But, wonderful to tell, in the morning when I awoke, I knew it had all taken place as I dreamed; for I found the rosary was indeed around my neck, though I am almost certain I put it under my pillow the night before. I also felt most distinctly Wulfhere's kiss upon my cheek; and, when I looked in the glass, sure enough there was a little rosy spot around this little dimple on my cheek where he kissed me."

Jeannette's invaluable optimism and unflagging hopefulness, though simple almost to the verge of childishness, did much to fortify Alice for the trying ordeal before her. In spite of her anxiety, she laughed outright at the recital of Jeannette's dream. Presently, at the sound of the trumpet the castle gates were again thrown open, and forth issued a gaily dressed cavalcade; heralds, marshals, judges, leading the way, and followed by eight or ten knights armed cap-à-pié, each one being attended by his esquire. Alice scrutinised closely each knight as they severally filed past her, and dipped the point of their lances in salutation.

"The Saxon is not here. Some accident, I fear, has happened," she tremulously whispered to Jeannette.

"Don't agitate yourself, my lady; they will not fail us. Wulfhere said I should see his face this day; but I was to be careful not to show my recognition of him, or I should probably betray them."

Now the scene presented an animated appearance, as the knights and their esquires ranged themselves on opposite sides of the enclosure, whilst the heralds, marshals, and judges rode between the ranks, examining the points of each combatant's lance, to see that each one was blunt, and such as was allowed by the laws of the tourney.

Meanwhile, Norman soldiers crowd round the enclosure, whilst here and there groups of Saxons are wedged amongst them. Some half-dozen Saxon churls have been stood together on the outskirts of the crowd for some time, engaged in eager conversation. A careful observer would perceive that, despite their cowed and woe-begone appearance, they have some common purpose in view. They each of them carry a quarter staff,—not a formidable weapon, it is true; but no formidable weapon would be permitted them. At one end of those staves they have deftly inserted stout steel goads, which no casual observer would detect. I was first attracted to this group, in particular, by having observed them obey certain signals given by their leader. But my eyes turned on all occasions naturally and sympathetically to the Saxon portion of the crowd; and the result of my diligent scrutiny of this little band was quickened by my discovery of the fact that the leader was none other than Badger. Presently they divide themselves into couples and take their stand equidistant from each other, along with the spectators who line the enclosure. Soon, by dint of pushing and wriggling, they force their way close to the railings' side.

Now, at a signal the trumpet again sounds, and a marshal rides into the centre of the arena, and reads the proclamation and rules of the tourney. Just at that moment, however, a piercing blast from a horn in the distance makes the greenwood ring again. Immediately from the leafy bower there emerges a knight tall of stature, and mail-clad from head to foot. On his shield he bears a device of the rising sun on a field vert, and as the rays of the midday sun smite upon his helmet and breast-plate, the refulgence thereof is as of molten gold. He rode a handsome charger, whose trappings and housings were richly embroidered and resplendent with many strange devices. In close attendance rode his squire, bearing his lance and shield; he also was of brawny and athletic build, like his master. He had on a helmet with harness of link mail. His face and hands, which were uncovered, seemed deeply tanned, as though they had been subjected to long exposure in some sunny clime. Behind the knight and his esquire there rode a couple of men-at-arms, bronzed and brown as the squire.

It was soon buzzed about amidst the crowd that this was the foreign knight for whose advent the tourney had been delayed a full hour. The knight and his squire were admitted into the enclosure at once; but the couple of men-at-arms stood without. There was a brief consultation with the stewards in the Norman tongue, and the explanations were evidently satisfactory, for the knight rode on. And as he passed the dais, where sat the Queen of Beauty, he dipped the point of his lance and bowed low.

The crimson flood mounted to Alice's face and neck, as she, with great nervousness, acknowledged the salute. This momentary flush, followed by, if possible, a still deeper pallor and greater agitation, did not escape the notice of our Abbot, who turned keen and scrutinising glances, first on the knight, and then on Alice. He was suspicions as usual. Could it be possible that there was some love entanglement between these two which boded evil to his brother the Baron? Hitherto, none had appeared in the lists, saving knights who would probably be easily overthrown by Vigneau. Though this was but a joust of courtesy, yet the ignominy of being unhorsed, he knew, would exasperate his brother into desperation. This knight of commanding stature, and of warlike appearance and renown, introduced an element of grave uncertainty into the day's contest. There was, further, the gravest suspicion that this stranger knight was imported on purpose to frustrate his brother's union with Alice, a union which, he knew, was cordially detested by both father and daughter. The Baron also, suspicious by disposition, with lowering brow glared upon the stranger from behind his visor, and hated him at sight.

Not that he feared being overthrown, for his self-confidence was unlimited. His great weight and personal strength and skill had borne him to victory in many a famous joust in times past, and he was contemptuous of any rival he might chance to meet. But a knight young, handsome, and well-appointed as this stranger, might yet, with De Montfort's connivance, wrest the prize from his grasp. He swore a deep oath under his breath, and grasped his lance with a keener clutch. Clearly he meant mischief.

The preliminaries being now over, the knights wheeled into line and faced each other, ready for the signal to charge, their squires being in close attendance behind. Vigneau and the stranger knight found themselves opposed by antagonists much smaller in stature, and indifferently horsed. The trumpeter stood at the head of the lists, bugle in hand, ready to sound the onset at a signal from De Montfort. Excitement was visibly expressed in every countenance, the clamour of voices having given place to a hushed suspense, which was painful and sickening to Alice; though she saw that Vigneau and the "Knight of the Sun" would not antagonise each other in the first shock. Now the trumpet sends forth a shrill blast, and on the instant spurs are driven into each charger's side, and, with a snort of pain, they dash across the sward. There is a loud shock, and a confused and struggling mass of men and horses. Vigneau had thrown the whole weight and strength of himself and a powerful horse upon a feeble opponent, and both man and horse rolled over together before him. Then, with a contemptuous oath, he wheeled again to his place, utterly regardless of his fallen antagonist, whose horse had kicked him severely in its plunges to regain its feet. The "Knight of the Sun," on the other hand, rode steadily at his opponent, and seemed rather to push him over the horse's croup than to strike him with unmeasured force. Immediately, also, he sprang to the ground and chivalrously assisted the fallen knight to rise, exclaiming, as he did so,—

"None the worse, I trust, Sir Knight?"

"Only my pride hurt a little," was the reply; "but it was gallantly done and by a worthier knight, so I yield my steed and wish you further success; which you will have, I trow, whether I wish it or not, or I am no judge of your mettle."

"Take your horse, Sir Knight, I have no need of him, for there is a better in the lists, I perceive," said the stranger.

"You have my hearty wishes in the winning of it, if they will do you any good. Just a word in your ear, nevertheless," said he, drawing close to the "Knight of the Sun," and uttering in an undertone, whilst he professed to be adjusting his sword-belt, "You are a stranger, Sir Knight, but I have known Vigneau a round dozen years at least, so let me warn you. Beware your man, and doubly so if you throw him. His ugly carcase is charged with venom from head to foot, and no treacherous villainy will be too mean, in order to compass his revenge."

"Thanks for your good wishes, and I will not neglect your advice; but if he be wise, he will look to himself or he will rue it."

At the blast of the bugle, the knights who had proved victorious wheeled into line again; one pair had failed to unhorse each other; but evidently they were not consumed with a desire to try further their prowess in the mimic war, for both of them retired from the fray. So there were but four knights called upon to take part in the next encounter and brave again the fortunes of war. The stranger knight was now brought side by side with Vigneau, who surveyed him from head to foot, then turned sneeringly away, growling to himself, "If length of limb counted for anything, why, then, he would be formidable enough."

At the signal calling for the ready, each lance was laid in rest, and each knight braced himself afresh. Springing again at the call to the charge, the turf flew from the horses' hoofs, and the shock, in more than one instance, was enough to throw the horses on their haunches. The "Knight of the Sun" and Vigneau were again victorious; but the latter had met a doughtier opponent than he had bargained for, for he had received a vigorous and well-aimed blow at the pit of his stomach, discomposing most unpleasantly its contents, and causing his head to swim with sickly qualms. He recovered his balance quickly, however, much more quickly than he recovered from the fury of his temper; for, as he faced about to meet the "Knight of the Sun," he poured out a volley of fierce oaths at Pierre, who was too slow in his attentions to him. The tall squire of the stranger dismounted and ran his eyes over the trappings of his master's steed, tightening a girth here and there, and whispering to his master as he did so, "He is strong and heavy; it were better policy to dodge his blow, I think, for he is unmistakably clumsy and slow."

"That is the very thing I have been turning over in my mind, and I think I will try it. Hand me a shorter lance, will you?"

The squire immediately reached him a lance shorter by some feet; and the bugle sounded again for the ready amid breathless silence. The whole scene floated dimly before the sickened gaze of Alice, who was but half conscious of what was passing in the lists; though she realised with painful vividness that Vigneau and the stranger were now opposed to each other. Jeannette put her arm around her mistress and held a small silver flask of rich scents to her nose, whispering gently to her,—

"Courage, lady! all goes well, never fear. The stranger will be the victor."

Now the combatants brace themselves for the final charge and for victory. The "Knight of the Sun" grasps his short lance with sinews of iron, whilst his gaze is intent upon the weapon of his antagonist. The signal is given, and the chargers bound like an avalanche across the intervening space. There is a quick swerve of the stranger's body, and Vigneau's lance passes like a flash over the mailed arm of the knight, a clear miss. Righting himself as deftly as he had swerved, and without permitting the point of his lance to deviate one iota from its mark, he closed in a deadly shock with the bulky Norman. The lance he held was so short that they seemed almost to rush into each other's arms; but the point was direct for his antagonist's chest. Vigneau, with an oath at the failure of his stroke, let go his lance, and aimed a blow with his clenched fist at his antagonist; but his act of blind fury was utterly futile and vain; with unerring aim the stranger struck him full on his steel breast-plate. There was a loud crash of tearing girths, and Vigneau rolled ignominiously to the ground amid a motley heap of horses, harness, and trappings.

Alice's head dropped on Jeannette's shoulder as she faintly asked, "Who's victor, Jeannette?"

"The stranger, lady; courage, courage! Vigneau is ignominiously overthrown."

"Thank God!" she ejaculated feebly, and her eyes closed in insensibility.

All eyes were now turned with a strange fascination towards the two antagonists, for Vigneau sprang to his feet, drew his broadsword, and brandishing it in the air like a demon, shouted "Joûte à l'outrance! Come on, varlet! it is to the death!"

The Abbot rushed into the arena, vainly endeavouring to restrain the blind fury of his brother; but with an oath the Baron threw him off, and rushed at his antagonist, who by this time had dismounted and stood on his guard. Fiercely exasperated, Vigneau rained blow upon blow, with the fury of a madman, whilst the stranger contented himself with coolly parrying or receiving on his shield the frantic blows of his assailant. The volcano-like rage of Vigneau quickly expended itself uselessly; soon limp, and spent, and utterly blown, he aimed a last blow with greatly diminished force. The stranger received it on his shield, whilst with concentrated energy he sprang upon Vigneau; his broadsword divided the air like lightning, and descended on the nape of Vigneau's neck, cutting clean through his armour, and well-nigh severing his head from his body. Vigneau threw up his arms wildly in the air as he dropped into his brother's arms, and shrieked frantically in his death agony, "The Saxon! 'Tis the Saxon!"

The cry acted like magic upon the whole multitude. Men sprang into the arena shouting madly to each other they knew not what. Horses reared and snorted, and plunged in dire confusion. The ruse also so consummately planned by Badger, in case of any hitch or exposure, was vigorously acted out. On the instant he and his comrades leaped into the arena, and deftly dodged in and out amongst the horses, and vigorously applied their goads to their flanks and sides, increasing the disorder and confusion a hundredfold.

Meantime, whilst the vengeful and sanguinary combat between the champions had been going on, the stranger's squire had seized the reins of Vigneau's charger as the spoil of the victor; but Pierre sprang at him in fierce resistance, and immediately the two squires also became engaged in a passage of arms as fiercely and as determinedly as their masters. Promptly Badger gave Wulfhere a vigorous push, which separated the pair. Then in a low tone, but unmistakably in earnest, he said, "Zounds, man! what are you doing? and where are your eyes? Can you not see there is not a moment to lose? Do you not see the Norman has detected your master? Fly, man, quick! or you're a dead man, and Oswald also."

Wulfhere, thus suddenly awakened to the peril of the situation, promptly took Badger's advice and vaulted into his saddle. But his blood was up, and as he did so, he turned to Pierre, and said,—

"I'll take care we meet again, villain, never fear. Then we will see whether aught will save thee from the fate which has befallen thy master, and which has been dogging thy heels this many a day."

Oswald, the stranger knight, also by this time fully comprehended the peril of the situation, and that if they would save their lives flight was their only resource. So promptly he sprang into the saddle, and immediately made for the gate, followed by Wulfhere. The two men-at-arms without the arena had been watching the movements of Oswald and Wulfhere with feverish anxiety, irresolute whether to rush in to effect a rescue or not. But no sooner did they see them make for the entrance than they pushed their horses amid the spectators, and vigorously plying the flats of their swords upon the shoulders of the churls who thronged and choked the way, they quickly cleared a passage; whilst Badger and his party continued to maintain a state of dire confusion in the enclosure. As soon as the entrance was passed the safety of the Saxons was assured, and at once falling into the rear of their leader, they dashed across the plain, and were lost in the woods ere any one comprehended for certain what strange things had happened.

Then the Abbot Vigneau strode up to De Montfort, the veins of his neck standing out with rage and his face livid with passion, and he hoarsely shouted,—

"I arraign thee traitor to thy king! and I will have thy head for this treacherous act! I tell thee if thou hast successfully conspired to murder my brother, I myself hold the letters thou wouldest give thy right hand to possess! I will use them to the full, nor rest till thou hast atoned with thy blood for thy treachery!"

Meantime, the scene which followed baffled description. The assembled company could not comprehend the charges made by Vigneau, and were bewildered at the tragic ending of what was designed for a day's festivities.

The condition of Alice was pitiable in the extreme. With returning consciousness she had seen the fiendish attitude of the Abbot as he fronted her father. She had heard the wild threats of vengeance, and a dim sense of uttermost calamity, hanging over her and her father, sent her back again into a swoon. I roused Jeannette and her companion from the state of helplessness into which they seemed to have relapsed, and, under my directions, Alice was carried to her room and laid upon her couch, whilst such restoratives as were at hand were applied to stimulate the laggard consciousness, which seemed as though it would never return.


CHAPTER XXXVIII.

THE SAXON'S REVENGE.

"E'en these, when of their ill-got spoils possess'd,
Find sure tormentors in the guilty breast."
Homer.

The same night, following the tragic ending of the tournament, and about two hours after Curfew had rung out its warning to churls, housecarles, and Saxons, all and sundry, who should be caught abroad after the bell had voiced the hour, there were seated in the Abbot's room two individuals engaged in a most earnest conversation. The look of deadly malignity on their countenances, and the low, fierce oaths with which they frequently emphasised their speech, was palpable evidence that they plotted mischief. Though one of them had partially divested himself of his attire, there was that about his dress which betokened that it was strangely out of keeping with the language he was using, and the business he was engaged in. The other was dressed in soldier's attire, and in the sturdy figure we easily recognise Pierre, confidante and willing tool of Baron Vigneau, and the sharer in most of his villainous exploits. The Abbot's room was spacious and lofty, and he had had it hung with costly silken hangings, and rich Turkish carpets covered the floor. The furniture also was of carved oak, delicate in workmanship, and of priceless value; for many handicraftsmen of great skill and experience came over with the Normans, or followed in the wake of the soldiery. On an exquisitely carved cabinet had been hastily thrust the remains of a substantial repast of boiled capon and venison cutlets; whilst on the table between them were two silver tankards containing good Rhenish wine, and from which libations, copious and frequent, were poured down two throats which it seemed impossible to effectually slake. Several letters on parchment, with the massive seal of De Montfort impressed upon them, were lying on the table betwixt them, the contents of which had been duly read over to Pierre by the Abbot; and the following conversation was proceeding:—

"No doubt," said the Abbot, "the whole thing was arranged by the cunning old fox De Montfort and his daughter. The make-believe of a foreign cousin was a ruse to prevent the exposure of the Saxon villain. His advent, also, was so timed that not the slightest opportunity was given to any one to see through his disguise; and he spoke the Norman language well."

"Well, I have often wondered at De Montfort's leniency to those Saxon wolves on the hills. He professed to send for help to William when he was at York last; but there has been no help forthcoming," said Pierre.

"I don't believe he ever sent such message; but the devil himself is not more cunning than De Montfort, and, unless we act promptly, he'll circumvent us."

"Well, what's the business? Are you going to make use of those letters, and have him brought to book promptly?"

"That is it. What I wish, is that you, Pierre, should take this matter in hand; for it must be done by some one with sufficient courage and determination. I should like you to proceed forthwith to the court of his Majesty William, and lay before him these damning proofs of De Montfort's treachery. If you will undertake this, I confidently anticipate that within three months the traitor's head will be suspended over the gates of his castle. That done, I shall urge my suit for the possession of his forfeited lands, with well-assured success. Then, trust me, I will humble the pride of his haughty and scornful daughter. She shall know promptly, for I will teach her, that though Vigneau is dead, Vigneau still lives. I love her, and I hate her, and when she is in my power I will have my fill of both love and hate, mark me! I will have quits for all I owe her, for she has not only compassed the death of my brother, but she has thwarted me here constantly, by taking under her protection that old hypocrite Adhelm (meaning myself). I'll be revenged on both of them at a blow, mark me, Pierre!"

"Humph! This sounds well and good, your Reverence, no doubt, from your standpoint; but, if you will excuse me, I didn't see very clearly at what point Pierre came in when these good things were to be distributed. Now, it appears that I shall figure very prominently in the work of scotching this snake. So, so! well and good, revenge may be very sweet to you, and maybe it will be sweet to me; I'll not deny I like the flavour of it, but, after that, what additional? I shall want either the skin or the carcase, certainly, if I shoot the deer; if not, why, marry, I'll never bruise my shins in the chase. So, will you please point out where this thing is to be profitable to me? Devil's work, you know, should be well paid, for we must scorch for it by-and-bye, must we not, eh?"

"Thou shalt have everything I am able to bestow, Pierre; and thou shalt find that in my exalted position my powers of promotion will be equal to thy deserts. How sayest thou? wilt thou try the monk's calling? Nothing easier! I was a soldier ere I donned the hair shirt, eh! and took to mortifying the flesh, as thou well knowest I have done most rigidly at all times."

"Marry, 'tis quite true, the devil himself would vouch for it; and a merry jest it is. And now, after your Reverence's example, there's no saying, but we may expect the devil himself to turn monk some day; and, in faith, by copying your Reverence closely, he'd make more sinners in't, than he would by his old tricks;" and Pierre laughed most immoderately.

"Thou hadst ever a sharp tongue, Pierre, and little regard for thy betters; but I absolve thee. Nevertheless, I advise thee to the holy calling also. Then what could hinder me bestowing upon thee my Abbot's office? The best of all things would be at thy command—ease, wine, wenches, and a jolly fat trencher at all times. I warrant thee there is no life so merry and so bountiful as the command of a good fat monastery."

"Bravo!" shouted Pierre, who was immensely tickled by the Abbot's suggestion; and, bursting again into a roar of laughter, he cried, "well, this is too rich for anything! Pierre turned Saint; ha, ha, ha! 'Twould be after the most godly example of your Grace, I trow. Ha, ha! good! I'll wash it down, anyhow;" and he raised the tankard to his lips, and cried, "Drink to't, your Reverence. Here's to Saint Pierre of pious memory;" and promptly he drained the tankard to the bottom; then, bringing it down again with a bang upon the table, he fairly roared with laughter.

"Thou art an ass, Pierre! An arrant ass!" said the Abbot, who was considerably nettled at the freedom with which Pierre made a jest of him and his office. "Canst thou not see that after the Baron's death De Montfort will soon be quit of us if we cannot checkmate him? To jest under the gallows, and end it by swinging on them, is fool's work."

"Well, well, I'll turn the matter over carefully, I think," said Pierre a little more soberly. "Your Grace has done it, and I think there is something in it. I don't know how the sneaking method of doing things, after the dare-devil manner familiar to me, will suit my stomach. I have always liked the chase better than the game, and I confess I would rather fight it through, come what may.

"But," said he, bursting into a loud guffaw, as the ludicrousness of his turning monk thrust itself upon him, and relapsing again into the jocularity and bitter sarcastic tone familiar to him,—

"Now that you recommend it so strongly, I think I will retire from active duties, and grow fat and wheezy like yourself. Anyhow, it stands to reason, the bigger the paunch the more good sack wine it will hold, and that is an item. True, too, a lazy life and a lascivious appetite are bound to go together. Less force to labour, and more to lechery; that's the sum of it. I think I come to't, your Reverence. Beshrew me! what would any man have? for if he lust lustily, and be a jolly trencherman to boot, with his fill provided to him, what can he wish for more? My hand on it, your Reverence! I'll undertake the venture. It is a mad hazard, but I like it none the worse for that!"

"Then when wilt thou start on thine errand, Pierre? Time is precious. The Count knows I have possession of those letters, and, mark me, he will circumvent us if he can."

"Line my pocket with gold pieces and I'll start at cock crowing, and De Montfort may catch me if he can, when once I get the start of him."

Slowly at that instant the door opened behind them, and Oswald, Wulfhere and a couple of attendants, armed to the teeth, entered, and closed the door behind them, whilst one stout yeoman set his back against it. The countenance of Vigneau fell on the instant as though a sword had pierced him, and he became livid as death. Hastily clutching at the letters lying on the table, he endeavoured to thrust them into a recess of the cabinet, and he fairly cowered in abject terror before these strange visitants. On the contrary, Pierre whipped out his broadsword, and fiercely stood at bay; his savage valour being in striking contrast to the crouching cowardice of the Abbot.

"Give place, master," said Wulfhere, advancing on Pierre; "this fellow is mine. You have already had your revenge. Now, blood-thirsty villain," said he, addressing Pierre, "I told thee, did I not, that the time would come when thou shouldest answer to me for thy cruelties and murders? the time has come now; and thou canst no longer shirk the fate that has long awaited thee."

"Did I ever shirk meeting thee, or any churlish Saxon in Britain? Give me fair play, and I'll give thee a speedy passage to the devil, sirrah!" said Pierre savagely, striding towards Wulfhere.

So the two stood upon their guard. The Abbot shrinking in mortal terror in one corner, whilst Oswald and his followers looked on in anxious suspense; for they knew well the strength and brutal valour of Pierre, who was ever foremost in any fray, and equally an adept at either stroke or thrust. Wulfhere also was second to none amongst the Saxon outlaws in skill and strength, or personal bravery. Toe to toe for a moment they stood eyeing each other with lips set, and mortal enmity in their eyes. Then stroke and thrust and parry followed each other in rapid succession. The rapid advancing or retiring, as each one gave or received a stroke, by these powerful gladiators, wrought the spectators to such a pitch of excitement that they held their breath almost to suffocation. But the climax came in a totally unexpected manner. Wulfhere drove at his antagonist a powerful sweep of his sword, but Pierre effectually interposed his sword and parried the blow. Such was the force of the blow, however, that the treacherous weapon flew in two, the point striking the opposite side of the room, and the hilt, with half the broken blade, remaining in Wulfhere's hand. Ere Oswald could interpose between them, Pierre shouted,—

"Aha! Now I have you!" and rushed in with a furious lunge at Wulfhere's body.

The words were true enough, but not in the sense in which Pierre had uttered them; for with lightning-like agility Wulfhere sprang aside, and the glittering weapon slid harmlessly into the empty air beyond him. So confident, however, had Pierre been of the helplessness of his opponent, and so confident of the deadliness of his thrust, that he took no precaution whatever of his own body. The eager rush also of his own onslaught, coupled with the force with which Wulfhere drove the broken blade at him, caused it to pass clean through his body, and, with a groan and a half-uttered oath, he fell forward on his face, dead.

The Abbot, as he witnessed the close of the tragic scene, literally crawled to the feet of Oswald, begging piteously for mercy. One of the men-at-arms who accompanied Oswald, advanced upon him, and said,—

"Leave him to me, master. Now, dastardly fiend!" said he, addressing the Abbot, "there has come a reckoning day even for you. You remember the little cot out yonder befouled by your infamous presence. You know the boy murdered by you in cold blood, and waiting to be avenged until this hour. The time has come at last."

"Have mercy upon me," moaned the Abbot, "and I will recompense you liberally. Take this gold chain," said he, removing a massive gold chain from his neck, "it is very valuable, and I will give thee more."

"If you think a gold chain will recompense me for my dead child, base hound, you are greatly mistaken. His blood cries for vengeance, and I will exact it now."

As he spoke he raised his sword, and at a blow he severed the Abbot's head from his body.

"This is most ghastly work," said Oswald, "and to be done within the sacred precincts of this edifice it is most deplorable. But surely iniquities such as these men have constantly and unblushingly perpetrated call for most drastic remedies. Men, gather up these bodies, and bury them deep in the woods before the dawn."

The two men-at-arms called in some of their fellows who were watching in the corridors outside, and, swathing the bodies in the Abbot's robes, they hurried along the corridors and out of the grounds, bearing their ghastly burden to secret burial in the forest.

Oswald and Wulfhere remained behind engaged in diligent search.

"There are certain documents possessed by this man which are of vast importance to some one I would like to serve," said Oswald. "We must find them, if possible, ere we quit this place. I saw the Abbot hastily remove some papers as we entered, as though he was exceedingly anxious to conceal them. I strongly suspect they are the letters I would fain lay hands upon."

So saying, he advanced to the cabinet, and throwing it open, almost immediately drew forth the letters which had well-nigh had such dire effects upon the life and happiness of Alice De Montfort. Oswald gave an exclamation of pleased surprise as the seal of De Montfort caught his eye, and, hastily unfolding them, he eagerly ran over their contents one by one, and, as he gathered their import, he said to Wulfhere,—

"These are indeed a treasure more precious than gold. They bear evidence of one fatal mistake on the part of one whose astuteness is otherwise marvellous; and they have been an instrument of terror to the author of them for a long time. Now this dread secret will henceforth be sealed for ever. Sealed it is in the death of those who knew and used it so unscrupulously; and it will soon be sealed in the destruction of these documents."

So he hastily thrust them into his bosom, and they continued their search. But nothing further that had any bearing upon the subject could be found.

"Our work in this place is evidently at an end for the present," said Oswald. "So let us be gone, for I would finish this day's work. I wot there are some who at this moment are in terrible suspense, and are awaiting in well-nigh mortal terror for the further development of this tragedy. So let us away, the night is still young, and there is a voice eagerly calling for me."


CHAPTER XXXIX.

BEWARE THE VIKING.

"O'er bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet, pursues his way,
And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies."
Milton.

We left Sigurd and his two followers in the cave in the mountains. Sigurd, as usual, was restless and eager for further attacks upon the Normans. So, early next morning, one of his men, in obedience to his commands, climbed to the top of the mountain for the purpose of signalling the scattered band, who, since the departure of their leader, with the wounded chieftain Oswald—narrated previously—had been in hiding in small companies, or singly, with their wives and children. This messenger laboriously scaled peak after peak until he mounted the loftiest eminence of all; from whence, far away in the hazy distance, summit after summit towered heavenwards, with scarred weird valleys lying between them, and the placid wood-encircled lakes in goodly number shining like burnished silver, looking up to heaven, reflecting sun and cloud in their still depths. The man, ignorant, unlettered, and uncultured as he was, felt the mighty inspiration; and he stood passively for a few minutes surveying the scene lying before him. Then slowly he turned upon his heel until he had faced every point of the compass, taking in the mighty distances within the circle of these mountain sentinels, with the magnificent and inspiring solitudes around on every hand. The cool mountain breeze stirred his long, unkempt locks and beard; and the air, pure as the unsullied breath of heaven, like an inspiration thrilled through his lungs, and poured its vitalising energy through every vein in his body. Not a sound, however, broke from his lips betokening any sense of admiration or appreciation of what he looked upon. Only some half-articulated guttural sounds betokened intense inward satisfaction. But now, in a moment, quick as thought, his brawny arms unfolded from across his broad chest, and a fierce fire of rage kindled in his eye; a savage expression also escaped his lips, for the deep baying of a hound broke upon his ear, and turning, he saw down in the valley yonder, Norman soldiers putting bloodhounds on the trail of his chieftain, Sigurd. Instantly, without staying to rear aloft the beacon, which was to speak to comrades hiding in distant valleys or on the distant hills, he darted over the shoulder of the hill, and with long, fleet strides, seemed almost to fly towards the cave, where, in hiding, he had left his master. On reaching the cave he hurriedly explained to Sigurd the position of affairs. With a savage exclamation the chieftain said,—

"Ha! they hunt me with dogs again, as though I were a wolf or a hog. Well, let them beware! the wild boar of the mountains will find them more sport than will be pleasant, as he has done many times before! I suppose it will be a long race, for these Norman sleuthhounds are sure of scent, and will not be easily shaken off! Forward ye up the burn; we will go over the head, for there is a trap laid for them up yonder. From thence we go down into Deepdale, keeping along round the head of Ulleswater. Ye will get a good start, and may take it easy."

"What will ye do, Jarl? If ye mean to attack these Norman dogs, we would rather stand by you and share the risk."

"I shall be ruled by fate. Skuld, the Viking's friend, has me in his keeping; I shall not be slain; but one thing I must do, I must show myself to them, so as to divert the scent from this place. We must not let the hounds lead them to our lair here, for it is a snug port in a storm, and we shall need it for rest many times yet, I fear. When I have showed myself to them, I shall follow after you. As ye scale the summit ye may look out; if I need you I will signal, but it is not likely."

Buckling on their swords alone, so as to be lightly equipped, the two men followed the water-course which marked the dividing line betwixt the hills on either side, and which, in its turn, was flanked on each hand by the dense wood stretching for more than a mile further up the burn, until the inhospitable Zone was reached, where tree and shrub were pinched and stunted into barrenness by the chill mountain air, and where shelter only could be obtained by the innumerable and gigantic limestone boulders, which grimly stood sentinel over the leaping and tumbling waters. Sigurd hastily stowed away some provisions in a leathern case, which he strapped over his shoulders. Then, buckling on his belt, from which his broadsword was suspended, he crept from his hiding-place and strode upwards through the tangled undergrowth, making for the clear on the mountain side. His purpose, as we have already said, being to throw the hounds off the old scent which led to the cave overlooking the tarn, and to draw them directly after himself; for he was very little dismayed at the prospect, so confident was he of his own power to keep them at a safe distance, and weary out, if need be, the Norman band. Having cleared the wood, he climbed up the hillside for a little way, scanning carefully the course along which the enemy must come. All was quiet as yet, so he sat him down to await events. He had not long to wait in this position, however, ere the cry of the hounds and the shouting of men smote upon his ear, and he started to his feet. Yonder in the distance, and coming along the mountain side, he espied a couple of men, each leading a hound, and a company of thirty or forty Norman men-at-arms followed after. Climbing upon a knoll, professedly to survey the party, but in reality to attract attention to himself, he stood for a moment, a conspicuous figure on the barren hillside, and speedily he was seen by the Normans, who set up a great shout of exultation as they beheld the burly figure of their dire foe so nearly in their power. Sigurd waved his sword defiantly in their faces, and then turned and sped him after his men, towards the valley's head. Eagerly the Normans followed after, having Sigurd almost constantly in view; and, as they deemed, soon to be run down and captured.

As they followed after Sigurd up the valley it grew gradually into a most desolate and awe-inspiring solitude. All along the mountain summits the limestone rocks jutted out clear of every vestige of verdure—bare, bold, ominous, and frowning. The slow, but persistent disintegrating influences of climate and atmosphere had, through the centuries, slowly diminished their beetling heads; and all adown their scraggy sides layer upon layer of rocky fragments testified most eloquently that rugged and strong as were these rocky eminences, there was a despoiler strong enough even to cope with their might; whilst in the bottom of the glen were huge rocks lying where Nature's invisible fingers had toppled them from the summit. Few living things haunted the place. Yonder, over the crest of the mountain, a pair of golden eagles were wheeling in circles, delighting in the strength of their matchless pinions. Here and there a rabbit might be seen stealing in and out amongst the boulders. Several carrion crows, with hoarse croak, flitted from boulder to boulder in ominous expectation of coming carnage. Rich and plentiful had been their fare since the coming of the Normans, and, with true instinct, these flying Saxons and pursuing Normans, they knew, were prophetic of gratification to their base appetites.

On the Normans came, their following after being greatly expedited by a constant sight of the quarry. For there was no need to be careful, or anxious lest their hounds lost the trail. Sigurd was not a quarter of a mile ahead, but in consequence of the ascent, and the rough ground to be traversed, it represented a good start. He was also a much more powerful and skilful mountaineer than they were, and with the utmost ease he held the distance. As they progressed the ascent became steeper and steeper, wilder and more rugged. Frequently they lost sight of the Viking chief, as he disappeared behind huge boulders or frowning rocks, only to see him reappear again on some promontory still higher, from which he would watch them for a minute or two as they struggled after him, the savage defiances he shouted falling easily upon their ear. Nearer and nearer, however, they came towards the head of this rugged and water-furrowed gorge. Running along the topmost ridge of the hill on either side of the cleft, down which the water rushed, was a long line of steep beetling crags, bare, jutting, verdureless rocks, well-nigh impossible to scale, and involving a wide circuit to outflank. The waters, through countless generations, with unceasing rush and swirl, had shorn these flinty limestone rocks asunder in one steep slit from top to bottom; and to track the "mad Saxon"—as Sigurd was called by the Normans—through this weird crevice, was to penetrate a mere fissure between steep and overhanging rocks on either side, and so full of twists that the path was frequently completely hidden a couple of yards in advance. The Saxon knew his ground well.

Not so these Normans; but, enough for them, their foe was a flying foe, and they were numerous and consequently valorous. Ignoring completely the many lessons of personal valour and mad daring this man had taught them in the past, without pause they boldly followed after, the hounds foaming at the mouth and tugging at the leash. 'Twas a fearsome gap to enter, and they had not proceeded far when a jutting crag projected, and the waters were compelled to make a circuit in order to flow round it. With a deep bay, and an eager plunge in the turbid, rushing waters—for he scented blood—the hound which led the party dashed past the projection, eagerly dragging the Norman who followed after and held him. But a blow of Sigurd's sword cut the hound clean in two, and a second blow clave the Norman who held him. With a great shriek, a terror-stricken cry, and without pretence of defence, they turned in an eager scrambling retreat, each caring only for himself, and leaving the rearmost to the mercy of the savage giant who followed after. When they reached the open ground, where in numbers they could assail their foe, no foe was in sight. Sigurd had exhausted his opportunity and was gone. Who now would be first to enter again, and force this wild man from his lair? Alas! not one! There was, however, no time to lose, and the Normans were consumed with impotent rage. So some of them hurried round by the end of the crags, whilst some scaled the face of the cliff, each and all endeavouring, with utmost speed, to come upon the rocks above. This was done eventually, and, swarming to the brink of the rift, many heads endeavoured cautiously to peep over and down into the water-course, intensely hoping, but almost fearing, to set eyes upon their foe. But no Saxon was to be seen. They then rushed along the sides of the fissure, peeping down as they ran, and making sure that their victim was safely entrapped in his lair after all. But there was not a trace of him. On and on they rushed, over-lapping each other in turns, until, eventually, they came to the very summit, where the water-course had completely run out into a mere hollow, a deep, spongy marsh or bog. Hastily overtopping the hill, they eagerly looked down into the valley beyond. With wild execrations of rage they beheld the object of their direst hatred and fear moving down the mountain side with long, swinging strides, nearly a mile ahead, and immediately he disappeared in a dense wood, which seemed to stretch out its sheltering arms to the fugitive.

Sigurd was now joined by his two comrades, and together they pushed on for two or three miles through the forest, eventually rounding the head of Lake Ulleswater, and patiently climbing the steep headland on the opposite side of the lake. Here they halted for a while to rest and eat; but they were soon again roused to action by the voices of men and hound persistently following after. For the Normans were enraged, and, with the remaining hound, they continued mile after mile to track their arch enemy. Sigurd and his men, at a steady trot, continued to lead the chase, covering another five or six miles down the side of the lake without halting.

"Shall we keep up the race until we weary them out, Jarl?" remarked one of the men to Sigurd.

"No, I have another purpose in view; but this long race, with the taste of steel in the middle of it, will do them good."

"Ye do not purpose making for the cave, Jarl, do ye? There are not half a dozen men there, and we are no match for this company. Then there are the women and children to be thought of."

"No, that will not do at present. The boat will be safely moored at the foot of Hawks' Cliff, will it not, think ye?"

"Yes, I doubt not," was the reply. "I see now, Jarl. It is very good. To slip the noose so deftly when the Normans think to hang us is well thought of."

On for a little while the three continued, until coming to the rendezvous known to them as Hawks' Cliff—stupendous rocks shorn down with well-nigh a perpendicular face and overhanging the lake. Down these rocks, which required a cool head, deft feet, and a knowledge of the giddy path, these three swiftly descended, until the water was reached, where a boat was found snugly moored beneath the sheltering arms of the trees which fringed the water's edge. Into this boat the three stepped, and as the pursuers drew near they pulled away from the shore, making for the opposite side of the lake. Here was a masterly manœuvre, completely foiling the enemy. For whether they went round by the bottom of the lake, or retraced their steps by the head, it meant a start of ten or twelve miles to the fugitives; and with the day wearing on, and the pursuers wearied and fagged, the chase was manifestly closed for the day, with one more futile attempt to destroy this redoubtable enemy, who unweariedly persisted in exacting bloody tribute from their ranks, disdaining every overture of reconciliation, and defying their utmost efforts to subdue him.


CHAPTER XL.

THE HOUR BEFORE THE DAWN.

"What outward form and feature are
He guesseth but in part;
But what within is good and fair
He seeth with the heart."
Coleridge.

Through the woods with sure-footed fleetness their powerful horses bore Oswald and Wulfhere on the fateful night of their visit to the monastery. Matters of most momentous importance to Oswald at least, as well as to Alice and the Count her father, called for urgency, and would brook no delay. Presently the pair stood together in the wood, hard by the place of the mysterious passage. "Hold the horses, Wulfhere, and await my return; our rest will be more welcome, and much sweeter when we have brought peace unto others, and disburthened our minds of the momentous issues following on this day's work." So saying, he swung himself aloft, and speedily disappeared in the cavernous recesses of the giant oak.

Meanwhile, on the turret a lonely figure paced round and round its battlemented heights in the shivering cold, but all unconscious, and insensible to its chilling influences. It was Alice De Montfort who waited and watched in the loneliness of the night, hoping, yet despairing of hearing the welcome voice, or seeing the welcome form of her Saxon lover. Ever and anon, as she paced to and fro, she lifted up her tear-stained eyes in voiceless prayer to the heavens above her; but the driving clouds as they scudded across the face of the sky, seemed to shut out hope, and all response from the vaulted blue, toward which she looked for succour and for comfort. Then in mute agony she turned from the Omnipotent, whose form she could not see; and whose voice she could not hear, but who, though as yet there was no token, had nevertheless heard her prayer ere it was uttered, and in His own way was sending fleet messengers of hope.

Was there hope and help in man? She mounted the parapet and peered long and anxiously over the bastions into the cheerless night, listening with strained attention for sound of voice or human footfall. But the teeth of the driving wind bit with piteous severity her wan cheek, and she sank down again beneath the shelter of the wall.

"Will he come to-night?" she yearningly asked of the empty air.

Her faint heart gave the answer to the question.

"No, he is a fugitive and a hunted Saxon; a wolfshead and an outlaw; and after this day's vengeance he must hide himself as best he can. But I love him all the more for that, for he is brave and true, and I will gladly share poverty and exile with him. What would I not give this moment to know that he is safe? to feel the grasp of his strong arm; to hear his voice, resolute as a hero's should be, yet withal so tender, that a little babe would be hushed to sleep by its gentleness, as though 'twere a mother's lullaby. How danger seems to fly from me, and dark, overhanging fate is fronted by silver-winged hope when he is nigh! But, alas! vain are all my hopes, for he comes not. Perhaps already the traitorous minions have avenged themselves in his blood, and I shall never see him more. I must fain get me to my chamber and weep, and pray the night away, in the hope that with to-morrow's light there may come some tidings of him. Just one last look from the bastion ere I descend."

So saying, she rose to her feet. Ah! a footstep on the stone stair arrests her attention. Some spy upon her movements—she is discovered! Her heart beats feverishly, and she sinks to the ground with the day's carnage flitting indistinctly before her mental vision. Ah! what is that? The tall form of the Saxon chieftain is outlined in the dim light, and with a cry of uncontrollable delight, and with supernatural energy she bounds across the intervening space, and flings herself into his strong arms in sweet insensibility.

"You are my own now, sweetheart," said Oswald, folding her to his breast, and imprinting a kiss upon her cold brow. "You anxious one; whatever have you been doing? watching in this chill night air all alone, and so scantily clad too."

The ears into which he uttered his loving words were deaf; and the eyes into which he vainly strove to look were closed.

"Poor child," said he, "this is too bad."

Then he folded her tightly in his arms and rested his warm cheek against hers. Her eyes slowly unclosed, and for a moment she gazed up into his face. Then slowly they closed again, and a sweet smile passed over her features, the revulsion of feeling from despair to the joy of hope was delicious. Like a little child waking in agony from some horrid dream, and finding its mother's form bending over it, and forthwith dropping once more into sleep, and peace, and rest.

For a minute or two she was perfectly passive, whilst the new joy seemed to be saturating her whole being.

"I am so glad you have come," she said, rousing herself. "I was filled with most dreadful forebodings of disaster to you, to my father, and to all of us. Excuse my silence, but the joy was so great I could do nothing but quietly drink it in. This horrid day has nearly killed me. Even now I am more afraid of the future. After you fled the Abbot boldly charged my father with disloyalty, and with having planned the day's slaughter of his brother. His rage and his threatenings were dreadful to hear, for he vowed that he would forthwith lay the matter before the king."

"Fear not, dearest, the worst is past. Everything has this day been purged away in blood. I care not to think about it, much less to talk about it. But after all, only the barest justice has been done, and I know of nothing that calls for repentance. Has the Count retired to rest?"

"No. I fear there will be little rest for him to-night. I left him some time ago pacing his room in despair, and revolving in his mind various plans for frustrating the malicious intentions of the Abbot."

"Other hands have already frustrated the evil designs of that most wicked and loathsome representative of the Church. The avenger has met him face to face, and he is no more. Come, let us go down to the Count. I am the bearer of news which will make him look kindly upon even a Saxon outlaw. Come with me, one telling of the story will suffice."

So together they descended the turret stair and sought De Montfort's room. Alice gave a gentle knock upon the heavy oaken door, but there was no response. Then she gently pushed open the door, and the pair entered together. The Count was sat with his elbows on the oaken table, his face buried in his hands, and totally oblivious of their entrance.

"Father!" said Alice gently.

The Count gave a start and raised his head, and immediately started to his feet at the spectacle which met his sight; for the stalwart Saxon once more stood before him: his astonishment being still more inflamed, as he witnessed his fair daughter lovingly clinging to the outlawed chieftain's arm, and radiant with smiles.

"Alice!"

"Father, give this noble Saxon a hearty welcome, for he richly merits it. A long time since I unwittingly gave him my heart, or rather he took it, and he has proved himself our bravest and truest friend. He is bearer also to-night, I believe, of most welcome news."

So saying, she led her Saxon lover to the Count, and Oswald, dropping on one knee, said,—

"Noble sir, your lovely daughter some time ago, in pure pity, gave me my life. On the night of the taking of this castle she opened the prison doors, and with her own hands undid my shackles——"

"Alice, I little thought that it was your doing!"

"Wait, father, till you hear this noble Saxon's story, and you will chide me no more for that act of mercy."

"Noble sir," said Oswald, "we Saxons never permit a debt of honour to go unrequited. I have endeavoured as best I could to discharge the debt of honour so nobly laid upon me; but the fair creditor has taken possession of my heart. I cannot eject her, if I would; and I would not, if I could, eject so lovely and so winsome a tenant."

"Pray be seated, Saxon; I confess I do not understand the language used by either you or my daughter, nor do I know how far it is permissible for me to hold friendly intercourse with one whom my king expects me to be at deadly enmity with. But Saxon or not, you deported yourself to-day as a brave man and a true knight should do. The disguise was well planned and complete, and your advent timely. It was most daring, but what its purpose was I am at a loss to know."

"Its purpose was to rid you and yours of a most deadly viper, and to rid our race of a blood-thirsty tyrant."

"I divine thou knowest more of my concerns than it is meet a stranger should. But, be that as it may, I know not whether I am indebted to thee or not, for one viper laid low has given birth to others, whose venom I dread even more, and whom I have no means of appeasing.

"It is better I should explain, sire. It is true I became possessed of your secret, but the gratitude I owed to your daughter for the life given back to me from the jaws of death, as well as for the love I bore her, also for the fierce retribution I and my people owed to the brothers Vigneau, for numberless cruelties and outrages dealt out to our people, caused me to watch with scrupulous care, that I might serve you and yours and rid my people of a deadly terror. I have news for you, sire. Not only is Baron Vigneau dead, but also the Abbot, his brother, has fallen by the avenging hand of an outraged countryman of mine, and has been carried to his burial in the silent woods. Furthermore, here are the fatal letters," said Oswald, drawing them from his bosom and handing them to the Count.

"No living man, save ourselves, I believe, is aware of the nature of them, so it is easy to end their potency for mischief."

At the sight of the fatal letters which had for so long a time hung over him like the sword of Damocles, the countenance of the Count lighted up as though it were by magic, and, reading them over carefully, one by one, he ejaculated, "Thank God!" Then rising from his seat he walked to the huge fireplace, in which were the smouldering remains of a wood fire, and he dropped them into the embers, and watched the quick flame as it sped up the chimney. After this he most carefully raked over the filmy remains a pile of burning charcoal; then he returned to the table, and turned a satisfied and kindly look upon Oswald.

"Did I understand you to say, Saxon, that the Abbot was dead also?"

"Yes, sire, I knew well that the work was but half done and the deliverance half accomplished whilst the Abbot lived. I knew also that the least delay would be fatal, so I and a few followers made bold to force an entrance to the monastery, where we found the Abbot in close consultation with one Pierre, whom doubtless you have met."

"Yes, yes, Pierre—I know him well—a brave man, but an arrant villain withal. I trust he is not acquainted with this foolish act of mine."

"We found the Abbot communicating the whole matter to him, and by bribes and promises inciting him to proceed at once to London, and lay the letters before William. He hoped to bring down upon you the King's vengeance, and then to possess himself of your lands and possessions."

"And what of Pierre? then, is he at large, and in possession of this information?"

"No, sire. The stalwart fellow who acted the part of squire to me in the tournament had cause of quarrel with him personally, as well as a long catalogue of crimes against our people to avenge. He challenged Pierre, and single-handed, and in fair fight slew him; so he also is no more."

"Saxon, 'tis well done, whilst I have been moping and irresolute how to act, you have planned and executed. It is well done, as I have said, and I am a life-long debtor to you. But what is this betwixt yourself and my daughter? I am bewildered. Alice, are you two lovers?"

"Yes, father."

"And this thing has been going on for some time evidently, and under my very nose, and I as blind as a bat. This is passing strange; I confess, almost with shame, my obtuseness."

Alice rose from her seat, threw her arms about her father's neck, and affectionately imprinted a kiss upon his cheek, saying,

"Forgive us, father; we meant you no wrong, and we dared not confess until the circumstances were favourable; but all the while have we been carefully planning how we might extricate you from the power of your enemy."

"I have nothing to forgive, truly, you silly child. But was it wise to turn your heart adrift like a rudderless boat on a tempestuous sea, and leave the errant winds to drive it into port whenever they listed. A kindly providence, however, has watched over you, and you deserved it. Blindly, humanly speaking, your love has been placed, but it has been well placed, in the keeping of a brave man and true, though he be not of our race. But whither will all this tend, and how will imperious William receive the tidings—that the daughter of De Montfort has a Saxon lover?"

"Father, let us have patience and faith; all fear of disaster is now removed. This valiant Saxon lover of mine can wait the pleasure of our liege lord; and I—my happiness is so complete, I scarcely know whether I shall be, happiest as a lover or a wife. There remains much to be done, and I doubt not but William will know how to estimate the value of an ally and friend, who is at once wise and brave, even though he be a Saxon."


CHAPTER XLI.

NOBILITY IN CONTRAST.

"Shall show us how divine a thing
A woman may be made."
Wordsworth.

After the stirring episode which ended in the removal from the scene of the brothers Vigneau, and their henchman Pierre, the relationship between the outlawed Saxons and the Normans,—as it related to the domains owned by De Montfort and those contiguous,—became much more amicable and peaceful. The Saxon colony on the mountains boldly advanced to the valley, and took up without molestation the tilling of the soil. The sturdy outlaws whose home had been the greenwood, and their sustenance the chase and plunder, now many of them returned to the peaceful calling they had pursued before the Normans drave them from their homes, and the plots of ground they lived upon. Intercourse between the races became regular and uninterrupted; intermarrying being of frequent occurrence. The Norman lost in great measure his haughty and overbearing manner, and the Saxon hatred of the Norman accordingly abated. The language also began to be a compound of Saxon and Norman, for each nation was driven by the exigencies of combined intercourse to learn a little of the other's language; and before my eyes daily did I witness the interblending of peoples. This was a joy to me, to Oswald, and to Alice; and indeed no one who thoroughly grasped the situation could ever again look for the overthrow of the Normans; and whilst there were wild, untamed, and irreconcilable Saxons, who fomented strife and rebellion, and on the other hand Normans proud, overbearing and cruel, yet there were to me palpable signs that the two races would eventually become one people, to their mutual advantage.

Happy am I also to relate that, through the interposition of Alice, and the kindness and confidence of De Montfort, I was once more restored to the rule of this monastery, and with its privileges and emoluments but little curtailed. Thus was I able to do much towards the reconciling of these two peoples. Thankful also I am to relate that, amid the multitude of claims upon me, I yet had strength and leisure sufficient to write these chronicles.

The kind reader I hope will pardon me this digression, and the little egotism I have indulged in, and I will proceed once more with this history.

De Montfort made no attempt to ignore the deep obligations that Oswald had laid him under; nor did he attempt to interfere with the plighted troth of these two lovers. Still many misgivings arose in his mind, with regard to the attitude his sovereign would assume towards this union. He knew well that if William disapproved of it, his will would have to be law. He debated long with himself the question, whether it would be best to first obtain William's consent to the marriage, or boldly solve the difficulty by uniting the pair and then presenting them to the king. The bolder course was finally adopted, and the day of the nuptials fixed. By the unanimous wish of all concerned, it was determined that the marriage should be celebrated without pomp and wholesale merriment, as was so often the case; but that there should be the rustic games and rural sports so dear to the common people.

So accordingly on the eventful morning the bridal party wended their way through the forest to this sanctuary, which we had decorated for the occasion. As the party passed through the forest with light hearts and joyous, there were others to whom these nuptials had most tragic results. Secreted in the thicket and watching the party go by was one, to whom every note of the joyous bells rang out a knell. Secreted also in another part was one to whom this nuptial act was infamous, and basest treachery; and like a wild beast he waited for an opportunity to spring upon the pair, and with one more wild deed of revenge to accentuate his undying hatred towards the Norman usurper. Soon after the party passed on their way and came near to the Abbey gates, Ethel, muffled and disguised as a peasant woman, stepped from the thicket from which she had watched the party go by, and slowly followed them. But she had not proceeded very far, ere some movement in the thicket attracted her attention, and turning more attentively to observe, she espied Sigurd's stealthy figure gliding amongst the trees with his naked sword in his hand, and evidently dogging the footsteps of the bridal party. A few fleet footsteps brought her abreast of him.

"My lord!" she said, addressing him, "what does this mean?"

"Ethel, is that you? I little thought to see you here," said he, ignoring altogether the question addressed to him.

"I am here, and opportunely my lord, too, if your attitude does not deceive me. What means that naked sword when there are no enemies present?"

"Do you not know," he said in low fierce tones, "what deed is to be done to-day? Oswald completes his infamy by wedding this Norman woman, and I will kill him before this day is done, or henceforth ye shall brand me a coward."

"My lord," said Ethel placing herself before him, "what madness is this that you purpose? Put up that sword, and mark me well! if any evil befall him, and if you dare to injure him or his bride, either now or henceforth, you make of me a mortal enemy, and I will not rest until your crime be punished."

"Ethel, 'tis ye are mad! or else your love at sight of this would be turned to mortal hatred! Would I had not met you this day, then would I have wiped out this stain from the Saxon race."

The power wielded by this beautiful Saxon woman over this untamed warrior was unbounded, and bore eloquent testimony to the depth and purity of his love for her; for without another word of remonstrance he sheathed his sword, and strode away into the depths of the forest.

Then Ethel pursued her journey, following the bridal party into the chapel, and sitting down, quite unnoticed, amid a motley throng of peasant women and Saxon churls, who had gathered to witness the nuptials. The marriage ceremony was designed to be carried out with great privacy, nevertheless there were a few Normans of note gathered there to witness it. There were also some Saxons, who had claim to honoured names and substantial estates, were it not for the greed of these usurpers; but most of these were now at best but fief-holders of their conquerors, and with cowed and brow-beaten looks, they were content to herd with their still more degraded countrymen.

It was manifest to any careful observer also that, amid the few Normans gathered, there was great disapprobation of the rite about to be celebrated; and as the tall muscular Saxon, who had maintained his independence and defied them all, advanced to the altar, they could not forget that the glamour of this man's name had given heart to the Saxons, and that, on innumerable occasions, he had vigorously interposed himself between these tyrants and the objects of their tyranny. To see him now standing side by side with one of the noblest, and one of the most beautiful of their race, was to them bitter as gall. And I could hear distinctly ominous muttering, and the handling of weapons. This, I must confess, was what I had dreaded, and others also, I found, had foreseen it; for at that moment Wulfhere and a sturdy band of Saxons, armed to the teeth, entered the chapel, and boldly took their stand near to the bridal party. At this the exasperation of the Normans was increased, but nevertheless they were distinctly overawed by it, and no further demonstrations of disapproval were made.

Ere the marriage ceremony was completed, and as the monks chaunted the Benedicite, Ethel glided noiselessly from her place in the chapel, and hurried from the grounds. As soon as she was clear of them she turned into an unfrequented path, which led to the heart of the forest. Sigurd had been secreted near, watching for her return, and immediately she was obscured from the gaze of others he joined her.

"Has this Saxon traitor completed his dishonour, by wedding a daughter of the Norman tyrant?" said he.

"Oswald has wedded the fair Norman, and I bestow my blessing on them, for 'tis the herald of peace to our downtrodden race, and an augury of the coming union of our people and the Norman."

"My curses on him and the coward brood of Saxons, who have betrayed their country and, by their submission to the tyrant usurper, have helped to rivet the fetters of bondage upon our race for generations to come!"

"My lord, this is most distasteful to me. I will hear no more of it. You are utterly incapable of understanding them or their motives, it is plain; so desist, once for all, from your unreasoning hatred."

"Whither go ye now, Ethel? and may I go with ye?" said Sigurd humbly.

"I am bound for the Monastery of Crowland, my lord."

"Monastery of Crowland! Never say it, girl! What do ye mean? Ye cannot go there, Ethel! Say ye will not go there, Ethel!" he shrieked, in agonised tones.

"It is quite true, my lord," said Ethel firmly.

"It cannot be, Ethel! Ye' cannot leave us thus! We are undone if ye leave us! Say ye will not go to Crowland! anywhere but there! I thought ye would now forget my fierce and boorish habits, and be my wife. Oswald is wedded, and ye cannot be his. What hinders ye from being my wife? I will be anything ye ask of me, Ethel! I am quite broken now; my spirit is broken. I will make my peace with the Normans, and wear a serf's collar, and let them whip me, cuff me—anything! only say ye will not leave me," he pleaded piteously.

"Alas! my lord, that can never be! My love is dead, and will never more have resurrection in this world. I have no capacity for a new affection. A maiden's heart can be won but once. Do not importune me, my lord, further. The end has come; 'tis a new epoch, and in it there is no place for you and me, and 'tis best we should quietly vanish from the scene."

"Is there no hope, Ethel, that ye will be my bride? Ye'll maybe change some day. I can wait twenty years, if ye bid me."

"There is no hope, my lord. There can be but one other change for me, and that will be when I don the cerements of the tomb."

"No hope, Ethel? No hope?" he slowly and painfully ejaculated, as though each word was a dagger thrust at his heart. "Then I am lost!"

Slowly he drew himself up, expanded his broad chest, and threw abroad his brawny arms, as though about to grapple with an enemy.

"Then," said he, "I'll have a sweet revenge on the Norman foe. I'll give my blood again to the soil I love so well, and get me a warrior's grave. Then, welcome Valhalla! Odin! Odin! Norseman's god!" he cried; "I am coming soon to join the hero spirits, awaiting me in the land beyond the dark and troubled sea."

His head drooped upon his chest, and he covered his face with his hands, whilst his whole frame quivered with emotion. It was the cry of a blind faith, but it was the cry of the soul, and it grappled him to the loving heart of infinite mercy.

Ethel trembled violently at the bitterness of soul displayed by this noble Viking, and the unbidden tears coursed down her cheeks in sympathy with his sorrow.

"Adieu, my lord! May God have mercy upon you," she said in broken and tender accents.

"Nay, Ethel! I'll go with you, I would like to see the door close upon you safe, if it must be. 'Tis not fitting ye should take this journey alone. These Norman dogs are abroad everywhere, and 'tis full of peril for ye to journey alone; they will not respect ye as I do. These Normans have no respect for such as you."

"I am sorry to say I cannot permit this, my lord. It would be both at your peril and my own. Do you not know what a heavy price these Normans have put upon your head?"

"Ah! they have made me a wolfshead truly, but they have not done with me yet, Ethel; not done with me, they will find! Broken in spirit, as I am, I do not fear them; nor do I care what price they have put upon my head. I have nothing to live for, but I will die like a Viking. If it will be a peril to you if I go with you, well, let it be so; but 'tis bitter parting, Ethel."

"Do not fear on my account, my lord. The Abbot Adhelm has made arrangement for two of the monks to bear me company; and their sacred office and my vow will protect both them and myself from the violence of the Normans."

"Shall I never see ye more, Ethel? Never more? Won't ye come sometimes just to have a look at the old hills again? and I'll meet ye, and we'll see how the world fares with you and me. Promise me ye'll come sometimes, Ethel, and let me look upon your sweet face. I've nought to live for but you!"

Ethel was deeply moved at Sigurd's importunity, but she said,—

"My lord, I cannot hope to meet you any more on earth; but I will venture to hope and pray that, when our God, who is a God infinite in mercy and compassion, shall strike the balance betwixt right and wrong, between high ideals and a grovelling ambition—in short, when He shall 'judge the world in righteousness,' He will find that the recording angel has made many an entry to your account, and blurred out many a fault with his tears; and that after all it will be found that your erring but sturdy virtues outweigh by far your many faults, and the limitations of your life. Then we shall meet again beyond the grave, where we shall see eye to eye, and 'where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.' Once more adieu, my lord!" So saying, she sped on her way.

Sigurd stood silently watching her retreating form until she disappeared from view, and for several minutes he still stood gazing after her like one bereft, whilst his massive frame was shaken with powerful emotions. Then slowly he muttered to himself: "The sun is set upon all my hopes; my day is done, and all is lost, save love of country and revenge. I cannot, like this Oswald, bend and crouch. A Viking once a Viking for ever." Then, turning round, he crashed into the forest.


CHAPTER XLII.

VIKINGS ALL! AN OLD TIME SAGA.

"Sonorous metal, blowing martial sounds;
At which the universal host upsent
A shout, that tore hell's concave, and beyond
Frighted the reign of Chaos and old Night."
Milton.

Not many months after the foregoing, Sigurd, followed by a score of his wild Vikings, sought the cave of the priest Olaf, and they received of the old priest a very hearty but a very grim welcome.

"Welcome, Jarl! welcome, skalds! all of ye. Ye are the bonniest warriors I have seen for many a day," he croaked. Truly the sunken eyes of the gnarled old Viking sparkled with strange delight, at the sight of so many hardy-looking warriors. He went round to every man of them, and felt severally the stoutness of their limbs, examined their weapons, capering gleefully at the old-style weapons he was so familiar with, and grunting and muttering gibberish all the time of his inspection. Such a display of force, unmistakably of the old stock, seemed almost to make him young again; and he mumbled snatches of old time sagas, and weird folk-talk of bygone generations.

Truly they were a desperate, and a desperate-looking band,—wild, daring, and uncouth; having all the instincts of wild beasts,—recking nothing of life, unless it were accompanied by some wild triumph over their enemies, and caring nothing for death; for it meant to them an entrance into Valhalla, the Viking's heaven.

"Priest," said Sigurd, "have ye any message of forth-telling for us? We are hotly pursued by these foreign dogs; they have hunted us out of our mountain fastnesses, and now they tread on our heels closely. They are encamped for the night in a neighbouring valley, and we cannot shake them off, for they are tracking us with sleuthhounds. Shall we give them battle to-night? Our stomachs are empty, and we shall be sore pressed on the morrow."

"Skalds, tarry ye here a little while and eat, and I will inquire for ye. Skuld is our friend, and he rules all man slaying. He will hear me this night, and if he ride with you to battle, woe will be to these Normans—ye shall sweep them before ye. We will set up the Skaldstong[7] also, presently, and invoke our ancient god Odin, that he may send his 'Maidens of Victory,' the 'Valkyrias,' and if they help, what shall hurt ye? Ye shall hurl your enemies to the ground and slay them every one. Come into my cave, the night falls in."

So saying, the old priest led the way into a spacious cavern, which opened out from the vast cleft where they stood. To the right of the cave a wood fire was burning low, and along the edge of it there were a number of natural seats, formed by ledges of the rock. Olaf bade his visitors be seated, then he lighted several torches at the fire, and suspended them against the rocky sides of the cave. In their flickering and fitful light the cave presented a very weird appearance. Here and there the white and jagged surfaces of the limestone rock seemed like human figures standing in the shadows, whilst the dark recesses threw them out like sentinels on guard.

Evidently it was a great occasion for the priest Olaf,—his ghostly office had fallen greatly into disuse of late years, to his great grief and chagrin. But troublous times had come, and men, unable to cope with their enemies, came now humbly to him for aid in their dire distress; and as he rambled about the cave, his mumbling, muttering and chanting never ceased. First he ransacked the cave for food for these famishing guests, and whilst they were eating he mended his fire. Then, from a stone coffin in one of the recesses, he fetched the whitened bones of some famous chieftain who had led them in the olden time. These he proceeded to fasten around his neck and body. Next he fetched from another recess a long pole with runes carved upon it. This he erected, and made it to stand by inserting its lower end in a hole evidently prepared for it. This was the "Skaldstong" or Imprecation pole: its use being to invoke the curses of Odin upon their enemies, and to invoke the help of the "Valkyrias," whom warriors often saw riding on fiery steeds to their help.

All this time Olaf never ceased the horrid chant, or song. Strange gibberish indeed—sometimes running into metric verse, which he chanted in a rude sing-song voice—at other times it was wild imprecations and interjections, which he flung out with frenzied gestures, and in thrilling tones and loud.

Whilst this proceeding was confined to himself, it acted with electrical effect upon these wild men. Slowly at first, then with accelerated pace, they were worked up into a strange frenzy; first giving utterance to low passionate interjections, then, as the infection became more feverish, they seemed completely carried away,—shouting, starting to their feet, and brandishing their swords, as though in deadly combat. Ere long every man, Sigurd included, was in a state of overwhelming excitement, capering round the Skaldstong, holding aloft their weapons in the air, and making the cave ring again with their shouts and shrieking.

The following is a sample of the rude and uncouth song which Olaf chaunted:—

"Odin, the Norse god,
Skaldstong we rear;
Curse us the foe near,
Cold-ribbed[8] and foul.
Nithing[9] is the Saxon,
Marrowless his bones;
JŚtun,[10] we call thee,
Loose us the watch-dogs.
Snarls the fierce wolf,
Creeping light[11] bearing;
Gyg, woman of JŚtnar,
Haste on before;
Gird on the Hel-shoes,[12]
Freeze up the blood.
Terror-full and shaking,
The sallowy kite hovers;
The wolf digs his fangs,
Drinks up the blood.
Skuld[13] has gotten him
VedrfŚlnir's[14] prey;
Told o'er the corpses
Fattened with gore.
Water sprinkled heroes,
Nornir hath life fated;
Valkyrias hath guarded,
Shout for the prey."

Gibberish it seems to modern ears; but upon these rude men,—with grossly over-grown superstitions, and dwarfish reasoning faculties,—this song, jerked out in frenzied exclamations and fanatical intensity, the effect was electrical and intensely contagious.

Whilst the excitement was at its height, above the din the priest's voice was heard as he shouted,—

"Skalds, hoi! I scent the battle; I smell the blood of the Normans. "Gyg,[15]" the woman of JŚtun race, has gone before ye, to confound the foe. Scalds, hoi! Arise! scatter your enemies!"

As he said this he handed to every man a small piece of wood, with runes carved upon it, and each one hid it under his garment. It was a sure protection against wounds and death. Then, catching up an image of Thor and carrying it before him, he cried,—

"Follow me."

So saying, he led the way, followed by Sigurd and the rest in a state of intense excitement. Together they scrambled out on the limestone hills above them. It was quite dark, saving as the boisterous wind sent the broken and ominous-looking clouds scurrying before it, across the face of the heavens, and permitting the stars to look down to earth. The elements seemed, indeed, to have caught the fierce infection, for the wind howled and whistled against the huge boulders, and the bare limestone precipices on the hillside; and it soughed and roared through the woods below, rocking and tossing the tree-tops until they seemed possessed by the furies. The fierce band of men responded in savage glee to this tempest of the elements; every man amongst them believing that this fierce raging of nature was the work of the supernatural agencies invoked, and already hastening to help them in this work of revenge. The old priest's vigour and animation was marvellous: he seemed to have shaken off the infirmities of age; the wild fanatic spirit within achieving a complete triumph over the weak and shattered body. He led the band at a brisk pace, chanting as he went the same weird song. Ere long, the downward trend which they had followed led them within sight of the Norman camp fires, at the sight of which they could not resist the impulse to shout and savagely brandish their swords. But the state of the elements was such that scarcely any liberties of that sort would betray them.

The Normans were encamped in an open glade, with the wood all around them and within twenty yards of their camp fires. Previous bitter experience, however, had taught them extreme caution. Two or three sentinels paced to and fro, and several fierce dogs lay curled up in the glow of the fire. Besides this, every sleeper, as he lay wrapped in the arms of peaceful sleep, grasped the hilt of his sword.

Presently one of the dogs raised his head and listened, then he started to his feet with a fierce growl.

"What is the matter, Gripper?" said one of the sentinels stooping and patting him on the head. "'Tis only the shrieking of the wind amid the trees."

The dog listened intently with his eyes on the wood, and gave one or two impatient snarls as though somewhat appeased, but not satisfied.

"Lie down again, sir," said the sentinel, again patting him.

The dog very reluctantly obeyed this command, stretching himself again with a low, fierce growl, and placing his nose between his forepaws, whilst his eyes shone in the darkness, and rolled from side to side most ominously. Not a minute had elapsed before he sprang to his feet again; this time sending forth a loud, fierce bay, which woke the echoes and effectually roused every sleeper in the camp. Immediately the dog sprang towards the adjacent thicket with savage fierceness. But just as quickly he beat a cowardly retreat with his tail between his legs, like a whipped spaniel, for he had fronted the weird and unearthly form of the priest Olaf bearing the image of Thor before him, and the bones of the dead hero dangling from his neck and girdle.

With a savage yell and impetuous rush the Vikings burst into the centre of the camp, sending up their fierce war cry—Skalds hoi!—to the utter terror and bewilderment of the half-awakened Normans. Like infuriated demons they laid about them with terrible effect; and as the Normans realised the position, many of them sprang forward on the instant, sword in hand, only to recoil abashed with terror as they faced the weird form of the old priest, who, without weapon, or implement of war of any kind, headed the fierce onslaught. In their terror and superstition they thought that the devil himself fought for the Vikings, and they gave back in mortal terror. Meantime their assailants made good use of these moments of abject consternation of their enemies, yelling frantically, and cutting down the Normans wholesale; they themselves being thoroughly possessed with the belief that the supernatural powers fought for them. The onslaught was so furious that the Normans staggered and reeled before them, and hovered for a moment on the verge of an utter rout and stampede. But one Norman in this desperate strait broke the spell, for he sprang towards Olaf shouting,—

"Witch or devil, have at thee! I'll try cold steel upon thy pate," and with a blow he cleft the skull of the old priest.

The effect of this was magical, the Normans sent up a shout which made the greenwood ring again, and the echoes in the distant hills to send back long reverberations.

Now the Normans laid about them with vigour, and to some purpose. They outnumbered the Saxon by two or three to one, but fully one-third had been cut down ere they had courage to face the foe. Now the battle raged with more equal fortunes. Blow upon blow, no quarter, no mercy given or taken. At a terrible pace the ranks of each party dwindled, and ere long Sigurd alone of the Saxons was left to do battle with three of the Normans. A giant he was in strength compared with his antagonists. Better equipped also he was for defence, for he wore a coat of mail, and on his head a spiked helmet, with a shield of bronze upon his arm. But his antagonists wilily beset him behind and before. With a spring and a blow he cut down the man who fronted him; but whilst doing it, one of the others cut a deep gash in his thigh from behind, and the third drave the point of his sword between two of his ribs. Furiously Sigurd turned upon them, and with a blow cut down another of his assailants. But again a cowardly stroke from behind severed the sinews of his left arm, and his shield dropped immediately from the powerless limb. So these two alone remained of two stalwart bands of men, who a quarter of an hour ago revelled in the pride of health and vigour. Sigurd was fearfully wounded, with a deadly faint coming over him from pain and loss of blood. He still, however, retained his sword arm unimpaired. Had the Norman fought an evasive battle, time was in his favour, and the burly giant would have been helplessly at his mercy. But the Norman was not sufficiently alive to this fact, though he knew Sigurd was deeply wounded. On he came, furiously attacking his man, and the battle was ended, for with one sweep of his long broadsword Sigurd cut him down. Then for a moment he swayed to and fro, with strength all gone. Next, he staggered forward a step or two, rolling his eyes around as though in quest of further foemen. Stumbling eventually over the corpse of a fallen enemy, he fell forward amid a heap of mangled corpses; and, with a deep groan, consciousness was gone.


CHAPTER XLIII.

THE CONQUEROR CONQUERED.

"Proceed my son! this youthful shame expel:
An honest business never blush to tell."
Homer.

Not many days were permitted to elapse after the marriage of Oswald and Alice, ere De Montfort, accompanied by his Saxon son-in-law, proceeded to London. The Count knew well that, if the resentment of William was once aroused, it would be a difficult matter to appease him. He was well aware also of the fact that there were Norman neighbours, who were exasperated at his conduct in bestowing his daughter upon a Saxon rebel; even though that rebel had but maintained a defensive attitude, and used his influence to calm the fierce passions which had been aroused in this strife of races. They knew he had effectually barred them in the barbarous policy on which they were bent; for which they gave him no thanks. If these malcontents but got the ear of the Conqueror, grievous complications might possibly ensue.

When De Montfort reached London the king was at Winchester; so to that place he and Oswald at once repaired. They proceeded to the castle together, but De Montfort alone sought an audience of the king.

It should here be stated that Northumbria, as the north of England generally was termed, was a grievous thorn in the side of William. To keep in check this people, and to suppress the ferocious outbursts of the downtrodden Saxons which were constantly taking place, was a most harassing and costly business; so he was keenly anxious to have reliable information and advice, with regard to the turbulent north. Thus De Montfort was welcomed heartily. As fortune would have it, Odo, who was De Montfort's chief enemy, was away in Normandy, and there was nothing, consequently, but the jealousy of Fitz-Osborne, that was likely to interfere with the success of his suit; and this nobleman alone was present at the audience which De Montfort had with the king.

The Count was ushered into the audience chamber without delay. There, the king occupied a chair of state in the centre of the wall opposite to the entrance, with a richly embroidered canopy above his head, and side hangings drooping to the wall and floor on either side.

As De Montfort prostrated himself to the floor, the king rose from his seat and, bidding him rise, shook him by the hand.

"Ye did well for our cause at Hastings, De Montfort, and should not be forgotten by us; but how comes it we have had so little of your presence at court since then? I trow ye have been over busy scaring Saxon rooks from their nests, and preparing yourself a roost in them. 'Tis an occupation my valiants knights have much busied themselves in since that day. Natheless, I mind me I have set my scribes to make a book, so I may know where all the fat manors lie; my liegemen and barons know their business well enough, and are going scot free of taxes; whilst the king has got nothing yet but hard blows and a beggar's dole. Howsomever, I will hear thy plaint. Thou would'st have more lands, or royal warrant for what thou hast already grabbed, I suppose; for that is the usual thing."

"I crave your pardon, sire, but it is not for lands I ask, for I fought my way into savage Northumbria, and ventured to lay hold of a tolerable demesne there, and——"

"'Twill be passing fair, I warrant, De Montfort, if thou think it tolerable. Fat, fertile, and ample. Well, proceed! proceed! I make a note of it thou didst not deem it necessary to say to thy king, May I? But no matter, that has come to be a mere formality."

"My purpose, sire, if your majesty will hear me, is to report the state of the land and its prospects; as well as to acquaint your majesty with an alliance which I have formed with one of the ablest of the Saxon chieftains of the north."

"By my halidame, De Montfort! hast thou ventured to form an alliance too, with the Saxon dogs? Truly thou art over bold. Much too bold. I think also thou hast forgotten the example of the countryman who warmed the snake by the fire. I'll none of this setting at nought of my authority, De Montfort, mark me!"

"Hear me patiently, your majesty," said De Montfort, alarmed at William's testiness. "I have brought this Saxon to court, and he will, if permitted, make oath of fealty to your majesty, and there is no Saxon leader north of the Humber whose influence is so great as his."

"Aye, aye! make oath of fealty readily enough! like the rest of them, and with as much honesty also. Truly, he matches thy boldness, De Montfort, in venturing hither after the tumult which has taken place at Durham. Natheless, we will see him, we will see him nevertheless; for such boldness is catching. But if he be advised, he will be somewhat careful how he deport himself, for he ventures into the jaws of the lion; and some of these Saxon boors are too loud of the mouth, and think it fine to 'beard' me, as they call it. Thou hast brought him hither thou sayest?"

"Yes, sire, he awaits your majesty's pleasure."

"Let him be ready, and we will call him presently, when we have considered the matter for a little while."

So De Montfort vanished from the presence chamber, and the king grasped Fitz-Osborne's arm, and together they paced the room in earnest conversation.

"What thinkest thou Fitz-Osborne, of this conduct of De Montfort? I would our brother Odo, who is now in Normandy, were here; for he hath somewhat against the Count, though I know not of a certainty what it is. I have myself heard some whisper of his playing fast and loose in his loyalty to me, but nothing of it has ever come to head. Knowest thou ought of this?"

"H—m!" said Fitz-Osborne warily, and craftily, "there are whispers about, as your majesty says, but I would advise your majesty to hear him and his Saxon ally, as he calls him. Northumbria is a wild part, and if he can, through this Saxon caitiff, exercise any substantial influence over that part of the country, it may be worth while to use him for the purpose; but I would not trust overmuch to either."

As a matter of fact, Fitz-Osborne was pleased at the prospect of having De Montfort removed so far from the councils of the king; for he was jealous of the ascendency he had acquired, and feared greatly any division of the royal favour.

"Thou sayest right. Tis best to hear the whole matter; though 'tis characterised by too much boldness to be to my liking. However, if there be a fox in the bag he cannot help but stink; and thou hast a sharp nose, Fitz-Osborne, and will smell him out promptly, I warrant."

So the king ordered the suppliants to be brought in.

William still clung to the arm of Fitz-Osborne when De Montfort was ushered in, followed by Oswald; and together they stood at the entrance, awaiting the king's command to advance. But no sooner did William set eyes on Oswald than he convulsively clutched the arm he held, and hoarsely whispered, "Notre Dame! What is this, Fitz-Osborne? 'Tis Harold come to life again! Did we not find his corpse at Hastings?"

"Be calm, Your Majesty. This is a much younger man than Harold, though he belikes him wonderfully."

The king calmly surveyed Oswald for a minute or two, and his composure returned. Then he motioned De Montfort to draw near, and the Count and Oswald advanced together, and bent their knees before the conqueror, De Montfort saying,—

"If it please Your Majesty, this loyal subject of yours is Oswald, Saxon Ealdorman, son of Ealdorman Ulfson, chieftains of Northumbria under Saxon rule."

"Rise, De Montfort," said William.

Then he motioned them to a seat opposite to his chair of state, which he resumed.

"Saxon," said he, addressing Oswald, "thou hast come, I understand, to make oath of fealty to me, and to swear in presence of myself and my chamberlain to be my faithful liegeman unto death."

"I have come with that purpose, sire, if it be your royal pleasure."

"If thou art minded to be both hypocrite and knave, first swearing fealty to me, and then proceeding straightway to stir up my subjects to rebellion, thou wilt have many illustrious examples before thee, truly. How long hast thou been of thy present mind? 'Tis a late-found repentance, I warrant me! Didst thou oppose me at Hastings?"

"I did oppose Your Majesty at Hastings, I confess."

"At York, also, I doubt not, if thou art minded to confess it, Saxon!"

"I opposed Your Majesty at York, too," said Oswald fearlessly.

"Tut, tut, dog!" said William, grinding his teeth vehemently, and grasping the hilt of his sword. "A very promising liegeman, truly, De Montfort!" turning savagely to the Count. Then addressing Oswald, he said, "Thou art to the fore, I perceive, when half a chance offers to overthrow my authority, and to kill my men, Saxon dog! How comes this whining for peace now? Thou hast had the Norman grip upon thy throat, I opine. 'Tis that has changed thy mind."

"I fear not the Norman, sire, for, if needs be, I am prepared to die for my country; but I have duly weighed the whole matter, and I recognise the futility of further resistance. I have also steadily, and for some time, counselled peace in our witan. If Your Majesty is pleased to extend your royal clemency to me, you will find me a loyal subject."

The frank and fearless tone and bearing of the Saxon chieftain evidently impressed the king, for he surveyed Oswald steadily for a minute or two, measuring him from head to foot, and studying his face as though he would read him through and through. Then addressing De Montfort, said,—

"Wait in the ante-room; we will consider this."

No sooner had the pair retired, than William started from his seat, and grasping Fitz-Osborne's arm, he exclaimed,—

"By the splendour of God![16] this Saxon is a pretty fellow, Fitz-Osborne! Got character in him! A demon, I warrant me, as an enemy, but to be sought after as a friend. Didst thou mark how he stood up like a man to me? By the holy rood! he looked me in the face without wincing, and there was none of that hypocritical whine in his tone, which I hate above all. Didst notice also how he out with the truth boldly, in a please God and dare the devil sort of way that I like? If he be really friendly disposed, we will conciliate him by all that lies in our power. How sayest thou, Fitz-Osborne?"

"He looks like a man who could be of service if he be minded to do so. Though, I confess it, there is an independence about him, which would be better if it were taken out of him. He looks as though he could make mischief. But I would question De Montfort further about this alliance he speaks of. It would be better if we had further light."

"Gramercy! Fitz-Osborne, I forgot about this alliance altogether. Call De Montfort alone!" said he, addressing one of the attendants.

When the Count again entered the room the king said,—

"What is this alliance thou hast formed with this Saxon, De Montfort?"

"I drove him, sire, in the first instance from his castle; but he built himself a stronghold on one of our mountains, from which the force I had at hand utterly failed to dislodge him; it is a wild and mountainous part, sire."

"Then thou shouldest have applied to me for help, and not have permitted a nest of vermin to thrive under thy nose."

"I crave Your Majesty's pardon; but, if you can call it to mind, I communicated with you at York the last time you came north, and then set forth fully the position of this Saxon and his followers."

"But thou asked no help! I remember it well; thou didst say how peaceably disposed this man was; and that he might safely be left alone."

"I think Your Majesty slightly mistakes the tenor of my message. Nevertheless, friendly intercourse was opened between us. He visited me at the castle with overtures of peace, which he has loyally kept. He is also at this present time at deadly feud with another Saxon chieftain, one Sigurd; because he refused to join an organised insurrection. Also in a secret assembly of the Saxon witan, which was summoned and presided over by the Atheling, he boldly advocated peace."

"Hold there! Thou saidst the Atheling summoned an assembly of the Saxon witan? My despatches say that the Prince gave secret information to my forces of this traitorous assembly, and protested his loyalty; and he is now at Rouen at my charges."

"True, Your Majesty, he did; but not until this Oswald denounced him as a coward to his face, and declared that he was unfit to reign in England. Many others then, following this Oswald's lead, declared they would not follow such a prince. Then, in the darkness, he sneaked away to a neighbouring encampment of Normans and gave information."

"Hearest thou this, Fitz-Osborne? By the splendour of God! But we must know more of this. But no matter," said he with an impatient gesture. "Proceed. What further about this alliance which thou hast formed with the Saxon?"

"We have dwelt together in a neighbourly way, having little trouble with the numerous bands of outlaws ranging the bruneswald; for his authority is acknowledged as far south as Sherwood Forest. If it please Your Majesty, I have likewise given him my daughter in marriage."

"Gramercy! De Montfort; but thou shouldst be king! Thou dost act right royally! I lose my breath discoursing with thee! Is this the lovely Alice we admired so much, now years agone, thou hast given him then?"

"My only daughter, Alice, Your Majesty."

"Were there none of my barons thou couldst have bestowed the hand of thy daughter upon? Dost thou not know I claim to be consulted in such matters?"

"'Twas a love match, Your Majesty. These two plighted their troth in true romance fashion, without consulting me. I was satisfied, however, that it would greatly strengthen Your Majesty's authority in the north of England."

"Tut, tut! Ha! that was deftly put, De Montfort; but I have too many of my knights, who make loud professions of strengthening my authority, whilst all the while they deliberately set it at naught. A precious loyalty it is. Now wait a little while, till thou hearest our commands."

"Now Fitz-Osborne, the cat is out of the bag! what thinkest thou? De Montfort is a wily dog, and has not told the whole story, I warrant me. I like not this setting me at naught in my own kingdom; 'tis passing strange, but I like this Oswald, Saxon though he be, better than my own countryman. I like the look of him, and I think good will come out of him. What sayest thou?"

"If this Saxon can be depended upon, it will do good doubtless, sire. His Norman wife, too, should influence him aright."

"So think I, Fitz-Osborne. Call De Montfort and the Saxon."

On the entrance of the pair, William said,—

"De Montfort, thy conduct has been most irregular, but, I condone it on conditions, which I will name presently." "Saxon," said he, addressing Oswald, "I congratulate thee on winning one of our most accomplished Norman maidens. I am further, upon a consideration of the whole matter, disposed to trust thee; and upon thy taking the oath of fealty, I will confer upon thee lands ample for thy needs. De Montfort, I create thee Earl of Northumberland; upon thee and thy Saxon son-in-law, I lay my charges for the welfare of that province. If ye do well, well will come of it; but I will have you beware, for if I find you unfaithful, I will root you out of the land, root and branch." So saying, with an imperious wave of his hand he dismissed them from his presence.


CHAPTER XLIV.

THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS.

"An old man broken with the storms of state,
Is come to lay his weary bones among ye;
Give him a little earth for charity!"
Shakespeare.

One chill December morning, as certain lay brothers of the monastery of Crowland were engaged gathering faggots in the woods to feed the fires of the Abbey, they came across a strange-looking figure, sitting on a fallen tree and leaning heavily against another. His cheeks were blanched like the snow, and his long red hair and beard was falling unkempt and matted over his shoulders and chest. He seemed sadly worn and helpless, with strength utterly exhausted; but beneath his shaggy eyebrows his eyes glowed with a strange, unnatural light. Beside him sat a half-starved hound whining piteously, and licking the cold and emaciated fingers of his master. The churls gazed upon the stranger in abject terror, thinking him to be some satyr or spirit of the wood, who would surely work them ill; but as the figure beckoned them feebly to approach nearer, with much trembling and irresolution they drew near enough to hear his voice.

"Can you tell me if I am near the monastery of Crowland?" said he feebly.

"You are not many bowshots from thence," they replied.

"Can you tell me whether Ethel the Saxon, daughter of Beowulf, dwells there?"

"Torfrida, wife of Hereward, and Godiva, wife of Leofric, are here; and there is a younger one called Ethel, with the flaxen hair. She is a holy woman, much given to penances and fasting, and she is very good to the poor; is it her you seek?"

"I have come a long way to seek this Ethel, and I am sorely wounded and very faint. Could ye, for love or charity, carry me in your bullock cart, for I have no further strength, and must perish shortly if ye leave me here."

So, assured by the evident helplessness of this strange being, the churls came a little nearer, and asked him some further questions concerning his strange quest. Eventually, they unloaded their rude cart of its burden of wood; then they hastily pulled some tall grass, and scraped together some dead leaves. Of these they made a rough sort of bed to ease the jolting of the rude cart over the rough ground. With much difficulty they lifted the stranger in, for he was of burly build, though sorely wasted. Then, slowly and tediously, through the windings of the forest, they returned to the Abbey. Nourishments and cordials were administered to him, his untended wounds were washed and dressed, and he was put to bed.

"Ye are very kind to me, but have ye not a maiden called Ethel here? Let me but speak with Ethel, daughter of the Saxon thane, Beowulf," pleaded the stranger.

"Be patient, stranger," said Torfrida, who bent tenderly over him, moistening his parched lips. "Ethel is on an errand of mercy to the sick poor."

"Ah! ye know not how I love this Ethel—things might have been different if Ethel had not left me."

As soon as Ethel returned from her mission, she was informed that a wounded stranger had come from far in quest of her. Immediately she hastened to the bedside of the sick one, wondering, and tremulous with agitation, and with many strange misgivings of heart.

It was as she feared—there lay Sigurd in pain and great weakness, his broad frame shattered and wasted almost to skin and bone. It was palpable also, that the fierce, restless spirit was hopelessly and rapidly consuming the small remnant of vitality still spared to him. His eyes were deeply sunken, and shining with unnatural light, telling but too plainly that another grim and unwelcome visitor was lurking near, and that no human skill could long keep him at bay.

Ethel sat down beside him in her convent habit. What a transformation was here! Sigurd uttered a deep groan when he set eyes on her. The long flaxen locks, once the crown and glory of her youth, were cut short, and the remnant hidden by her hood. The blue eyes, so tender and expressive, and the fine, regular features were still there. The soft, fair skin was a shade paler, and the short time which had elapsed had palpably aged her, or else it was the cloister habit which made her seem so much older. One thin hand was immediately grasped by the worn and attenuated fingers of Sigurd, as he looked up most reverently into her face. This fair Saxon had long been to him St. Ethel, and her form was enshrined in his heart. He proceeded to question her in serious tones.

"I am well nigh hunted to death, as you see, Ethel—dead beat—dead beat at last. What think ye, Ethel; shall I get well?"

Ethel shook her head.

"I am afraid not in this world, my lord."

He responded with a low groan.

"But I can't be spared now, Ethel; the old cause is desperate now, and sorely in need of me. What will become of my oppressed countrymen, with never a leader to look to?"

"God alone knows, my lord, but all things are in His hand; and I trust that through this fiery ordeal, and through the long struggle, He will bring profit to the nation. Already signs are manifest that the hatred of William is abating, and Saxons here and there are being received into favour."

"Ah! Saxons being received into favour by the tyrant usurper! Then, I wot the renegade Oswald, and sycophants and timeservers generally, will thrive. My curses on the cowardly brood!"

"Call them not renegade, my lord, neither curse them. Oswald will best serve his countrymen by frankly accepting what was inevitable in any case."

"Nothing was inevitable, if he had but had the mind to stand by his country. We would have followed him anywhere, for there was none of us with a head to command like he had; and he wielded a powerful sword. No other man ever got the better of me in single combat, and I could have worshipped him had he stood by us. 'Twas the Norman woman bewitched him, and I hate him for saving his coward's skin and betraying his country, because a dark-eyed siren and temptress beckoned him."

"My lord, no more of this! He was the wisest amongst us, and saw farthest; and if you and others had been guided by him, there would have been less of Saxon blood shed. I think I see clearly in this revolution the hand of a wiser and a mightier than he—One who has seen fit to cast your Viking hardihood and valour, and stern, severe virtues, and the Saxons' milder traits, along with Norman chivalry and refinement, into the eternal crucible. You and I and ours, it is true, may lose our identity; but all that is best will reappear in the ages to come."

"Ye speak in riddles, Ethel. Do ye think the Viking race will lose its identity? Never!" said he, with fierce emphasis. "Vikings, who have sailed every sea and conquered everywhere, to be swallowed up by this womanish people—never! This will not do! Get me my sword, Ethel; if I but feel it I shall be strong again."

"The sword is resting in its scabbard, my lord. It has long since drunk in its fill of blood—let it rest for ever."

"Why have ye taken my sword from me, Ethel? I can wield it yet. I tell thee, Ethel"—making a vain effort to raise himself—"there's marrow in the Viking race yet, and we shall sweep the seas again as of old! I will not lie here. Let me to the Bruneswald; I have men left yet, and we'll make a fight for it to the end!"

"My lord, you will never handle sword again. The Viking's cause—the reign of force—has received its mortal wound. 'Twill linger probably through centuries of darkness, and amid the twilight of the days still later; for men, benighted men, here and there, will give it a spasmodic and fitful revival; but never more in the ages of the world will the gaunt and hateful reign of force be paramount."

"Ethel! Ethel! Ye embitter my death. What will ye have, girl? Are our gods dead, think ye? Where are our Sagas? Bethink ye, there is the Viking race beyond the North Sea, and they'll come again; and do ye think these sleek and well-fed Normans will drive them out? The hardy warriors from the mountains and fiords over the fierce sea are coming. Hist!" he shouted, half delirious, "do ye hear their shouts? Will ye reach me my sword, Ethel? I must be up and meet them!" Then he sank back exhausted once more. "Tut, tut, we deserve this for our folly. What am I doing; going to die in a bed? The sea is the Viking's home. Why did we ever take to land, except for plunder? Accursed ease and effeminacy have undone us. But we'll to the sea again. Wait awhile, Ethel; ye shall see who will be masters."

"Calm yourself, my lord, and think of other things, for time is short. The Viking's gods are dead if ye ask me, or what is more true, they never had an existence, and were only the creation of a wild and barbarous fancy."

Sigurd looked at her steadily.

"Oh, ye are a Christian now, Ethel! Ye should not have left the old faith; ye take the heart out of me; ye should have stood by the old faith, then we should have met again in Valhalla, you and I. Ye know not how ye make the Viking's death hard to bear: ye take my staff from me as I ford the stream."

"We shall never meet in Valhalla, my lord! but we may meet again in the kingdom of our God."

"Not me, Ethel! ye do not mean that I may go to the Christian's heaven—bethink you what I am."

"Yes, you may go, my lord. I am not without hopes that even you may be found there. Certain you shall, if you are willing."

"Will you be there, Ethel?"

"Through the mercy of God I hope to be there."

"But ye say He is a Prince of Peace?"

"Yes, He is the Prince of Peace."

"Ye know I am a Viking; what could I do in the Christian's heaven? Should I have my trusty sword?"

"No, my lord, you would need no sword there, for hatred, oppression, and wrong, are unknown in heaven."

"Will ye be my bride then, Ethel?"

"They neither marry, nor are given in marriage, my lord."

"Should I be near you, Ethel, always?"

"I should like to be near you, if I may, my lord."

"Ah, then I would like to go to the Christian's heaven if I might be near you. There will be no Normans there, will there, Ethel?"

"Yes, my lord, I hope there will be Normans there also."

"Norman's there! Ah! that would spoil it, Ethel. What would a Skald like me do with my heart on fire with hatred of these Normans? It will not do, Ethel! It will not do! The Christian's heaven will not do for the Viking!"

"But our God will give you a new heart. He takes our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh, so that we love our enemies."

Sigurd responded with a deep groan. "But Ethel, girl, what madness is this? I should not be a Viking! what should I be, then? Should I wear silks, and strut about in feathers and fringeing and be a flabby courtezan? If so, I think I would prefer the Viking's Valhalla, after all; it suits the Viking best. Why won't ye go with me, Ethel, girl? Let the Norman and the slaves of Saxons have their heaven. Perhaps ye think I should drag ye over the wild hills, or through the greenwood; but I would be gentle to ye. Ye little know how I love ye, Ethel."

"My lord, your mind is very dark; I will send a priest who will instruct you in these things."

"I want never a priest, Ethel; ye can tell me best. Do ye know, Ethel, the old priest Olaf is dead? What evils have befallen our race! I fear ye prophesy rightly; the end is indeed come."

"I have no news, my lord; but I expected this."

"Yes, he is dead; he would drag his crazy limbs after us in our last struggle with the Normans; he said the gods would protect him, for he had a charmed life, and that they would fight for us and give us the victory; but we were outnumbered, my followers were all slain to a man; but the Normans were also, for I cut down the last of them. Olaf, our old priest, was also hacked to death by the enemy."

"He was the last priest of the old heathen line, and he will have no successor. The old heathenism is gone for ever, my lord."

Sigurd groaned deeply, and called in frantic tones upon the spirits of Valhalla. "Odin! Norseman's god! Can't ye help us in this pinch? can't ye help us, I say?" Then with a deep groan he sank back in complete exhaustion.

"Calm yourself, my lord, or I must leave you," said Ethel. "But Sigurd heard her not, his eyes were closed and he was evidently spent. With a feverish start, however, he opened his eyes again, and sought eagerly for the loved form of Ethel.

"Ah, I thought ye had left me. The end has come, Ethel; I shall not get well again, but I have one request; let me be buried near the sea, for I know the Vikings will come again, and I'll hear their shouts of victory and the shock of their onslaught; and, Ethel, let me be mound laid, mound laid, mark me, Ethel! then they'll know 'tis a Viking chief's grave, and the Skalds will sing of my exploits. Ethel, have my sword also laid under my head, ready, my trusty sword 'Tyrfing,' (foe-hater), we must not be parted. It's very dark, Ethel." Slowly his eyes closed, and for a little while he lay quiet; then he started up and shouted. "Down with the Normans! Ho, men! carry me out of the cave; I cannot breathe here." After this fashion for a little while the fitful struggle continued, and then in quietness the contest ended; and the last of the Vikings closed his eyes with the loved form of Ethel bending over him.


CHAPTER XLV.

SUNSHINE HAS ITS SHADOWS.

"Man's love is of a man's life a thing apart,
'Tis woman's whole existence."
Byron.

We must now make an end for the present of our extracts from these somewhat interesting chronicles. Sigurd, when we last saw him, was lying in the arms of death, overborne by many wounds and hard circumstances. He closed life's fitful career, clasping tightly the hand of Ethel; and his great wish anent his burial was conscientiously carried out by her. Saxon hands bore him by stealthy night-marches to a silent spot where the fierce North Sea waves break upon the lonely Fen-country shore. They dug for him a grave overlooking a wind-sheltered bay, where ofttimes the Viking rovers had anchored their vessels of war, and from thence burst like an avalanche over the country, sweeping it bare of its cattle and its treasures. They dug deep his grave and laid his trusty sword beneath his head; and Ethel was there—a sincere mourner at his burial. Then they heaped the mound high, as Vikings were wont to bury their chiefs, and as Sigurd wished it. Now, silently he awaits the great awakening, and not without hope; for, according to his light, he had a great ideal, and with rare courage, unselfishness, and devotion he struggled to accomplish what was beyond him, and that which the march of the ages had decreed should come to an end, but which should never be forgotten so long as men long to know what races were the important factors in the history-making peoples of the world.

It is scarcely necessary to say that Oswald's being received into favour by the king, had a most beneficial effect upon the Saxon portion of the population; and it did much to mitigate the rigours of that race ascendency which the Normans strove to maintain. Our part of the country began gradually to assume the wonted appearance of cultivation it had worn prior to the troublous times of the Conquest. The lazy and overbearing manners of the conquerors received a salutary check, and Norman men-at-arms gradually settled down to peaceful occupations. Wulfhere, the stalwart freeman, resumed possession of his ancient patrimony, and in company of his charming little wife, Jeannette, was more than content. Soon there began to play about his doors stout-limbed youngsters, who, for enterprise and daring, bid fair to contribute vigorously to the perpetuation of the stalwart race of freemen, which had been such an important factor in English history for many generations prior to the Norman Conquest.

The only other incident we need mention happened many years after the events recorded in these pages.

One bright autumnal day, several of the children of Oswald were at play in the woods near the castle, alternating their play by gathering the walnuts and chestnuts which had fallen from the trees, or pelting the squirrels as they leaped from tree to tree overhead, happy as only children can be, when surrounded by bounteous and beautiful nature. Suddenly there emerged from the thicket a woman, in the habiliments worn by those who had renounced the world and devoted their lives to the service of the church. The children were somewhat startled at the advent of this strange figure; but her sweet face and winning smile completely reassured them. She went up to the eldest boy and asked him his name. "Oswald" was the reply. Then she took from her neck a beautiful crucifix of gold, chastely and tastefully engraved, and to which was attached a gold chain. This chain she put around his neck, depositing the crucifix in his bosom. Then she removed his cap from his head, displaying a profusion of curly locks, saying as she did so, "God bless thee, my son!" Next she turned to the other children, inquiring their names, and kissing and blessing them also. This done, she turned from them, and stood gazing upon the castle in the distance for a minute or two; then, as abruptly as she came, she disappeared in the wood, and was seen no more. The children hastened home to show to their parents the beautiful crucifix the stranger woman had given them, and to relate the strange incident. Oswald pondered over the matter a long time, but with the strange obtuseness which had marked the whole of his intercourse with the beautiful Saxon, Ethel, he was utterly unable to identify the strange visitant with any one he had known or remembered. A shade of sorrow and sadness passed over Alice's face; and a tear trembled on her eyelid, and fell unobserved to the ground. But she hinted not at the personality of the stranger, though she understood the sad mystery, and comprehended the tragedy which had been slowly and painfully enacted through the years, in which a noble and virtuous woman's love had been crucified.

THE END.


[1] Peter's pence.

[2] Messengers.

[3] Witch.

[4] Apparition.

[5] It was a Norse superstition that if the blood flowed, more would soon be shed.

[6] The foe hater.

[7] Imprecation pole.

[8] Cold-hearted.

[9] Coward.

[10] Race of gods.

[11] Lantern.

[12] The dead were fitted with Hel-shoes.

[13] Ruler of man-slaying.

[14] fabled Hawk.

[15] Witch.

[16] William's favourite oath.


BRAILSFORD:

A Tale of West Riding Life.

By JOHN BOWLING.

"'Brailsford' is a capital book, and, to those who can master the Yorkshire dialect, it will give a great deal of pleasure. The excellent teaching it contains makes it a most suitable book for a Sunday School Library. If it once gets into a library, I feel sure it will be in great demand. It is a thorough boy's book, and I wish every boy could read it."—Rev. Charles Garrett.

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"'Brailsford,' by John Bowling, is a tale of West Riding life, written with animation and a keenly observant eye to various phases of character that manifest themselves in rural districts. There is much humorous dialogue in the book, bringing out several traits of Yorkshire life excellently. There are, moreover, pathetic passages in this story, and the author does not fail to inculcate some useful and noble lessons."—Methodist Times.

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