St Elfleda's Ale
Near Glastonbury, in the tenth century, dwelt Elfleda, niece of King Athelstan of England. A widow, though still young and beautiful, and of royal blood, she spent her days in seclusion and solitude, devoting herself to prayer and charities. She lived in her castle with but two retainers, an aged man and his aged wife, in all the simplicity of a recluse, because giving as she did of her substance she had little left for more than her own barest needs. What then was her perturbation when in the late afternoon of an autumn day, as she returned from visits to the sick and needy of the far town, she was met by her servant with the news that during her absence King Athelstan and his retinue had arrived at the gate and requested admittance and entertainment. They had spent the long day hunting in the neighbouring forest, and the King had bethought him that his niece Elfleda lived hard by, so to her roof he had unhesitatingly repaired, seeking rest and refreshment for himself and all his weary, hungry, thirsty crew.
"And what have ye done for the King's comfort?" asked Elfleda.
"Cedric has made a blaze in the hall, faggots we have in plenty by good fortune—I gathered them yesterday—and a few logs Cedric had hewn against the winter's need. Before the fire they are all seated or lying, they and their hounds, and they rest awaiting your coming and that of food and drink."
"And what have we to give them?"
"A few fowls, and there is a young porker which Cedric has killed and I am even now roasting, and a moiety of oaten bread we have."
"But to drink—what have we to give them to drink?"
"Ah—there indeed I am of small counsel; we have scarce a drop of aught but water, and none but the dogs will swallow that, as we well know. There is one little keg of Cedric's ale in the vault, but there is small use in setting that before them, for it is well-nigh dry. Alas—what's to be done!"
"Bid Cedric take up the little keg and set it in the hall," said Elfleda.
"But, honoured mistress, there would not be enough to fill all their horns once, even though the little barrel were full," wailed the woman, "and, as it is, I doubt if it would fill the King's tankard!"
"Bid him bring it, none the less, and let none know I am returned."
Leaving the mystified servant to carryout her bidding, Elfleda repaired to her oratory. Falling on her knees before the image of the Blessed Virgin, her patron and protector, she prayed with a lively faith, much fervour, and some haste.
"Oh, Holy Mother of God, whose Son did once furnish wine for the wedding at Cana, thou dost see my plight. What shall I do? It grows late, Athelstan and his men have waited long and must have ale. Time presses.
"Thou Queen of Heaven, who canst do all things, come to the aid of thy most humble handmaiden, who asks thee for ale!
"Gracious Lady, dispenser of all good gifts, give me ale!
"Friend of the needy and protector of the distressed, who wast thyself once a housewife, intercede for me that I may have ale!
"Spotless, immaculate, and glorious Virgin, let me have ale—and yet more ale—abundance of ale!"
Meanwhile, in the hall below, according to his lady's bidding, Cedric had brought in the small, light cask, and set it down unobtrusively in an ill-lighted corner, hoping against hope that it might escape detection, at least for a while. He soon knew his hopes to have been vain. Like falcons on their quarry the apparently drowsy retinue of the King pounced upon the cask. Its small size gave them a moment's pause; then, with the thought that a little was better than no ale at all, or that undoubtedly more casks would presently be forthcoming, they fell to.
A brimming tankard was filled for the King, but when the next was about to be drawn a feeble driblet was the sole reply to their tapping.
Consternation first, then dismay, and lastly a very lively discontent filled the atmosphere; growls and low curses grew in number and volume till Cedric thought it well to seek refuge beyond the massive hall door, when of a sudden out gushed the ale, foaming, bubbling, and gurgling from the spout, and, oh, ale—such ale, such blessed, mellow, spicy ale!
Throughout that night it never ran dry—and Athelstan and his hard-drinking, deep-drinking crew had all that even they could wish for.