Olaf in England
Bitter cause had folk to remember those white sails striped with blue and green, for Olaf cruised along Frankland, plundering town and village; and doubling the red granite horns of Brittany, ran down the rich sunny coast until the snow-capped mountains of Spain stretched east and west before him, like the outermost wall of the world.
"I have heard of these mountains," said Leif, son of Eric the Red, whom he had with him on that voyage. "Bear away to the south-west, and we shall come to the Long Sea, and the burning land of the Blackamoors, and Rome the Golden City of old time."
Coming at last to Italy they saw the hills green with vines and grey with olives, and a fair white city glittering on the shores of a blue bay. They dropped sails far out in the offing and planned to steal to land in the dark and capture the place at daybreak. That night they feasted on a sea of stars with a starry heaven over them; but in the dark hour before dawn, as they glided across the bay with a cautious dip of the oars, suddenly innumerable bells began to ring out along the shore—bells loud and clear, bells faint and far away; and lights gleamed out red from the darkness, in the city, on the shore, among the vineyards and olive groves, as if the whole land had sprung up from sleep. They ceased rowing, and as they hung on their oars in amazement, they heard the distant voices of people calling and answering each other.
Scared by that strange awakening, the rovers put out to sea again, little thinking it was the matin bells summoning to prayer the holy men and women whose convents were thickly scattered on the hills, that had saved the city from pillage.
They had but few such mischances, and such booty fell to their daring as had never yet been seen in Norland waters. Rich raiment there was, and silks and cloth of gold, Greek ewers and basins set with jewels, swords and gilt armour, chalices and crosses rough with gems, and caskets of carved ivory containing gold-lettered Gospels written on purple vellum.
In the third year after Maldon fight they turned their dragon-prows to the west, and as they fared homeward old Harald Blue-tooth died, so that Sweyn became sole king in Denmark. And Sweyn held a great funeral feast at which he drank to the memory of his father, and took an oath to harry England again ere the summer was over and tumble Ethelred from his throne. Then the huge ale-horns were drained to the memory of Christ, and the third rouse they gave to St. Michael. Not long thereafter Sweyn and his host got to their ships, and meeting with Olaf in the North Sea, both kings steered for England.
In many a field the harvesters toiled in the hot sun till all the corn was cut and bound in sheaves, save a patch in the centre. At last that too was cut at a stroke; the men planted their scythes upright and clashed their whetstones and the long blades thrice together. The women emptied the crumbs from their baskets; the men spilt a sup of ale on the field, drank deep, and waved their hats, cheering. Then all went singing to the farmstead, while the sparrows swung on the straggling stalks left standing for the little elves.
Scarcely had the harvest been gathered in when the Viking fleet rose like a pageant from the sea. Four-and-ninety sail, they crowded up the Thames to burn London, but it was the Latter Ladymas, and, with our Lady's help, the townsfolk beat them back. Then the rovers swarmed into creeks and river-mouths, and getting horses from burning village and farm, went plundering and man-slaying from Thanet to the Hampshire woods.
Once again Ethelred opened his treasure-chests and paid sixteen thousand pounds of silver for a hollow peace. The price of that ignominy would have bought the whole of Kent, water and weald.
So Sweyn lay at Southampton, with the West Saxons to victual his people for the winter if he were minded to stay; but Olaf was bent on a haven further west under the warm headlands of Devon. Before they parted came tidings of a mighty sea-fight in Norway. "And this matter, I think," said Sweyn, "concerns you nearly, for it is time such a man as you are should remember the old kingliness of his race."
Now the news told of a venture of the Jomsborg Vikings to wrest Norway from Hakon, the son of Earl Sigurd. With sixty ships they sped northward, plundering and slaying, and Hakon met them with one hundred and fifty in Hiorunga Bay. Then the fleets closed in the grimmest of sea-fights; but the Jomsborg vessels were the larger and taller, and so fast and fierce the Vikings shot that Hakon's men gave way. Faint hope was there of his winning in that strife; and when he saw his ships drifting loose, full of the dead and the dying, he took his little son, Erling, a lad of seven years, and sacrificed him to the fierce goddess of the Hell-grove. Black grew the heavens with storm; giant hail drove in the faces of the Vikings, the sea hissed and whitened. In the midst of the sudden tumult a woman was seen on the bows of Hakon's ship darting flashes of death from each hand. The Vikings cut their lashings and fled; some were captured, others escaped to the open sea. The earl's power was unbroken.
The land had sunken again to paganism. Hakon had brought back the dread gods of the old time, with their evil worship and cruel sacrifices. Of these things the people made little account, but as the earl grew grey, he had grown the more wicked and wanton, till there was no man or woman safe from the waywardness of his dark soul.
Thinking of these strange chances, Olaf sailed away, but ere he reached Devon great gales caught his ships and drove them far out of their course, and when the weather abated they were near the Scilly Isles, and put in there for water. Upon a rock in that wild cluster of islands dwelt a hermit, who was said to have the far-sight of things to come and to behold the lives of men as in a magic glass. Thereto he knew the speech of birds, and the island folk did not doubt but that the gulls and petrels, the terns and grey lag geese brought him the rumours of far-off lands, so that he foretold little that did not come to pass.
Many of the rovers were eager to look upon him, and to learn, if they might, what luck should befall them.
"Let us put his craft to the trial," said Olaf. "Thorolf shall take my name and go in my stead, and perchance we shall make merry over what comes of it."
Whereupon it was "Out oars!" and away to the Hermit's Rock. The seamen found the holy man seated at the mouth of his cave, and they perceived that he was tall and large of limb, but exceeding aged. They stayed their oars and called aloud, "Here comes the king to speak with thee," but they got no answer.
Thorolf leaped ashore in gold-inlaid helmet, bright sark of mail, and gold-fringed cloak of scarlet, of all the rovers the tallest and handsomest save Olaf himself. Still the hermit never moved from the stone, and it was not till the Viking stood beside him that he raised his eyes. They were blue and cold, and for the first time Thorolf knew what it was to be afraid.
"Did you think to make a mock of me?" asked the seer. "You are not the king. Yet, since you have come, I give you this warning, Be true to your king. Go back now the way you came."
Then Olaf himself, greatly wondering, came to the isle, and the hermit standing on the brink of the sea greeted him with outstretched hand, "Welcome, fair son!" and leading him to his cave, questioned him of his seafaring and of his early years.
"And this is your home?" asked Olaf, as the old man paused for a moment in thought. "A lonely spot it is for any one."
"Not so lonely as it seems to you," replied the hermit. "Where a man is, there is his angel, though mortal eyes may often see him no more than one sees the clear air. And Christ doth not forget us. Nor is the High King of heaven ever far from any of us. Here, too, be many birds, both of the sea and of the ancient land, and gentleness makes them tame. Also the seals come hither, and they have no fear."
"But a man needs the fellowship of his like."
"That is so," said the hermit, "and the folk of these isles are kindly neighbours. They come to me, and I go to them, when the heart calls;" and he showed Olaf in the depths of the cave his coracle of beast skin stretched over a wicker frame-work.
"And has this ever been your home?" then, laughing, he added quickly, "A child's question, I think."
"Nay, in my youth," replied the aged man, "I was such a one as yourself, full of delight in adventure and strife, full of the pride of strength, and the wild joy of the earth. I thought I had forgotten it all. Strange how your Norland eyes and fair hair bring back days long gone by. I remember tall men of your country. They came to London town yonder with wondrous ships and a four-year-old child; "and he told the story of Athelstan's foster-son, who came to be a great king.
"Ay, Hakon," said Olaf; "my father was kinsman of his, and ruled for him in Vikin, as I have said."
"Little it profits to recall those days of the roving eyes and the wayward heart. Fifty years hath God sustained me in these isles, a sinful man, for His high purpose. But come and see what I would show you."
The holy man led Olaf by a rugged path to the summit of his rock.
"Look around on these many isles, little and large, sown by the score on these bright waters."
Some of them were bare spires and shelves of stone on which only sea-birds could perch; others were still gaily coloured with grass and wild flowers; here and there, on the largest, blue smoke rose from the fisher-women's fires, and near them rode his own ships.
"From of old," said the hermit, "the folk have called them Scilly, the Isles of the Sun. And in truth they are the mountain peaks and plateaus of an ancient land where that bright light of the heavens was worshipped. Now it is sunken deep and lost, like a great ship gone down at sea. So say the ancient winter tales, and I believe them. Could you but raise this sunken land up from the dark gulfs, what a realm it would be for your kingship!"
Olaf gazed at the speaker in astonishment, but the holy man continued: "I know you would ask me of the hidden things that are to happen. This I will tell you. You shall come to great glory and power, and shall be a mighty king. And this shall be the work appointed to you; not to heave up valleys and mountains out of the sea, but to raise a people sunken in darkness and the worship of evil spirits. You shall make known to them the Lord Christ, whom you yourself know not yet; and that land you shall lift up to the true Sun."
Then the hermit stretched his arm towards the isles. "There lie your ships," he said; "goodlier have I never seen, with their gilded beaks and coloured shields. This token I give you that you may believe my words. You shall not sail far from this before you shall do battle. Men shall be slain on this side and that, and you sorely wounded. Yet in seven nights you shall be well again; and thereafter you shall accept the true faith and holy baptism."
It all came to pass as the aged man foretold, for out upon the high seas the rovers fell into hot contention, and Thorolf with three ships broke away from Olaf, and attacked him. Thorolf and six tall men were slain in the fight and buried in the cold sea; but Olaf, who had been stricken hard with an arrow, was taken by his men to an island where there was a great minster. As they bore him ashore on his shield, he saw the brethren come to meet him, with their abbot in white robes and cloth of gold, which glittered a long way off in the sun. They bade him welcome, and leading the way to their cloister, bound up his wound with precious balsam, so that in seven nights he was healed.
Much he communed with the Abbot Bernard and questioned him of the hermit, and of the White Christ, and the true faith. At nights, as Olaf and his people sat at their ale, the abbot told them of the life and death of God's Son on earth. Like little children they listened, and when they had heard that wondrous saga, they cried out, "We will be Christ's men," and consented to be baptised. Out of his spoil Olaf gave the abbot costly gifts, cross and chalice set with gems, rich vestments, and a golden Gospel.
Thereafter he sailed to Southampton. Sweyn Forked-beard had departed, but Elphege the bishop came from Winchester to visit him. The two rode to Andover, where Ethelred received them with much honour, and Olaf promised the king that he would never again harry England. That winter the ships were drawn up on the shore of the great haven under the Hampshire woods, and Olaf abode in peace, a Christian man in a Christian land.
All through the cold months one thought was in Olaf's mind—how he should fare to Norway, overthrow the wicked Earl Hakon, and get mastery of all the realm that had been Harald Fair Hair's. He talked over these things with Bishop Sigurd, and planned how he should take priests and monks with him, and first they should hie to Dublin and learn from the merchants and shipmen, who trafficked there in those days, what the folk were saying and doing in Norway.
So when the new spring came and fair weather, he put again to sea and came to the Green Isle. It chanced upon a day, as the ships lay off the coast, that the rovers came back from a foray with many hundred head of cattle, and among them the cows of a poor peasant. The wretched old carle hurried after them, and besought the king to have pity on his misery. "Pick out thy cattle from the drove if thou canst," said Olaf, "but we cannot be stayed by thee."
"Thy bed be in the heavens, king," said the man and turning to the dog that was with him, "Fetch them out, Vigi," he cried.
The dog was a big shaggy creature, brown and black in colour, and he ran this way and that among the horned beasts, and got the cows together.
"The brand on each of them, as thou seest, king, is the same."
"Ay," replied Olaf, "the beasts are surely thine." Then stroking the dog's head, "Wilt thou part with this wonderful Vigi?" he asked.
"To thee, king, very gladly, for thou wilt use him well."
"Great thanks," said Olaf; and drawing a coil of gold from his arm, he gave it to the old man, "Let this be a token of friendship between us."
After a sharp look at his old master's face, Vigi went readily on board, and no comrade had Olaf truer to the end than this great dog.
Now the fame of these Viking raids and the golden spoils spread over Norway; and when it was said that this Oli of Garda (for so Olaf had named himself) was of the line of the Norland kings, Earl Hakon was disquieted and took counsel of his friend, Thori Klak. "If this be the son of Tryggva," he said, "I look for hard fighting ere long, and little good to come of it. Now, Thori, to Dublin I would have you go and discover the truth in this matter. Should it prove as I misdoubt it will, make friends with this Olaf and lead him with bright hopes that, if he returns with you, the folk will surely rise against me and choose him for king. But if you cannot bring him into my hands, find a way to slay him." Olaf's uncles, too, Jostein and Karlhead, the brothers of Queen Astrid, he forced by threat of torture to go with Thori and bear out his tale.
A lucky day it seemed to Olaf when he got to Dublin and met his own kinsmen among the Norland folk. Eagerly he questioned them, and brighter omens of success could not be wished for than Thori's talk of how things had gone from bad to worse with Hakon, so that any change would be better for the people than this earl's masterful wickedness. But since the overthrow of the Jomsborg Vikings who was there daring enough to cope with him?
"Perchance a man of Harald Fair Hair's lineage," said Olaf, "and he not far away from us who are speaking here."
"That," cried Thori joyfully, "will be welcome news in Norway."
So out of Dublin Bay, and northward by the Western Isles, Olaf sailed with five ships to the realm of his kinsfolk. The plotters, in their own ship, bore him company; and as they stretched away from the Orkney Islands it was high summer.