Of all the many fair maidens of the Saxon realm none bore such fame for beauty as the charming Elfrida, daughter of the earl of Devonshire, and the rose of southern England. She had been educated in the country and had never been seen in London, but the report of her charms of face and person spread so widely that all the land became filled with the tale.
It soon reached the court and came to the ears of Edgar, the king, a youthful monarch who had an open ear for all tales of maidenly beauty. He was yet but little more than a boy, was unmarried, and a born lover. The praises of this country charmer, therefore, stirred his susceptible heart. She was nobly born, the heiress to an earldom, the very rose of English maidens,—what better consort for the throne could be found? If report spoke true, this was the maiden he should choose for wife, this fairest flower of the Saxon realm. But rumor grows apace, and common report is not to be trusted. Edgar thought it the part of discretion to make sure of the beauty of the much-lauded Elfrida before making a formal demand for her hand in marriage.
Devonshire was far away, roads few and poor in Saxon England, travel slow and wearisome, and the king had no taste for the journey to the castle of Olgar of Devon. Nor did he deem it wise to declare his intention till he made sure that the maiden was to his liking. He, therefore, spoke of his purpose to Earl Athelwold, his favorite, whom he bade to pay a visit, on some pretence, to Earl Olgar of Devonshire, to see his renowned daughter, and to bring to the court a certain account concerning her beauty.
Athelwold went to Devonshire, saw the lady, and proved faithless to his trust. Love made him a traitor, as it has made many before and since his day. So marvellously beautiful he found Elfrida that his heart fell prisoner to the most vehement love, a passion so ardent that it drove all thoughts of honor and fidelity from his soul, and he determined to have this charming lass of Devonshire for his own, despite king or commons.
Athelwold's high station had secured him a warm welcome from his brother earl. He acquitted himself of his pretended mission to Olga; basked as long as prudence permitted in the sunlight of his lady's eyes, and, almost despite himself, made manifest to Elfrida the sudden passion that had filled his soul. The maiden took it not amiss. Athelwold was young, handsome, rich, and high in station, Elfrida susceptible and ambitious, and he returned to London not without hope that he had favorably impressed the lady's heart, and filled with the faithless purpose of deceiving the king.
"You have seen and noted her, Athelwold," said Edgar, on giving him audience; "what have you to say? Has report spoken truly? Is she indeed the marvellous beauty that rumor tells, or has fame, the liar, played us one of his old tricks?"
"Not altogether; the woman is not bad looking," said Athelwold, with studied lack of enthusiasm; "but I fear that high station and a pretty face have combined to bewitch the people. Certainly, if she had been of low birth, her charms would never have been heard of outside her native village."
"Ií faith, Athelwold, you are not warm in your praise of this queen of beauty," said Edgar, with some disappointment. "Rumor, then, has lied, and she is but an every-day woman, after all?"
"Beauty has a double origin," answered Athelwold; "it lies partly in the face seen, partly in the eyes seeing. Some might go mad over this Elfrida, but to my taste London affords fairer faces. I speak but for myself. Should you see her you might think differently."
Athelwold had managed his story shrewdly; the king's ardor grew cold.
"If the matter stands thus, he that wants her may have her," said Edgar. "The diamond that fails to show its lustre in all candles is not the gem for my wearing. Confess, Athelwold, you are trying to over paint this woman; you found only an ordinary face."
"I saw nothing in it extraordinary," answered the faithless envoy. "Some might, perhaps. I can only speak for myself. As I take it, Elfrida's noble birth and her father's wealth, which will come to her as sole heiress, have had their share in painting this rose. The woman may have beauty enough for a countess; hardly enough for a queen."
"Then you should have wooed and won her yourself," said Edgar, laughing. "Such a faintly praised charmer is not for me. I leave her for a lower-born lover."
Several days passed. Athelwold had succeeded in his purpose; the king had evidently been cured of his fancy for Elfrida. The way was open for the next step in his deftly-laid scheme. He took it by turning the conversation, in a later interview, upon the Devon maiden.
"I have been thinking over your remark, that I should woo and win Elfrida myself," he said. "It seems to me not a bad idea. I must confess that the birth and fortune of the lady added no beauty to her in my eyes, as it seems to have done in those of others; yet I cannot but think that the woman would make a suitable match for me. She is an earl's daughter, and she will inherit great wealth; these are advantages which fairly compensate some lack of beauty. I have decided, therefore, sire, if I can gain your approbation, to ask Olgar for his daughter's hand. I fancy I can gain her consent if I have his."
"I shall certainly not stand in your way," said the king, pleased with the opportunity to advance his favorite's fortunes. "By all means do as you propose. I will give you letters to the earl and his lady, recommending the match. You must trust to yourself to make your way with the maiden."
"I think she is not quite displeased with me," answered Athelwold.
What followed few words may tell. The passion of love in Athelwold's heart had driven out all considerations of honor and duty, of the good faith he owed the king, and of the danger of his false and treacherous course. Warm with hope, he returned with a lover's haste to Devonshire, where he gained the approval of the earl and countess, won the hand and seemingly the heart of their beautiful daughter, and was speedily united to the lady of his love, and became for the time being the happiest man in England.
But before the honeymoon was well over, the faithless friend and subject realized that he had a difficult and dangerous part to play. He did not dare let Edgar see his wife, for fear of the instant detection of his artifice, and he employed every pretence to keep her in the country. His duties at the court brought him frequently to London, but with the skill at excuses he had formerly shown he contrived to satisfy for the time the queries of the king and the importunities of his wife, who had a natural desire to visit the capital and to shine at the king's court.
Athelwold was sailing between Scylla and Charybdis. He could scarcely escape being wrecked on the rocks of his own falsehood. The enemies who always surround a royal favorite were not long in surmising the truth, and lost no time in acquainting Edgar with their suspicions. Confirmation was not wanting. There were those in London who had seen Elfrida. The king's eyes were opened to the treacherous artifice of which he had been made the victim.
Edgar was deeply incensed, but artfully concealed his anger. Reflection, too, told him that these men were Athelwold's enemies, and that the man he had loved and trusted ought not to be condemned on the insinuations of his foes. He would satisfy himself if his favorite had played the traitor, and if so would visit him with the punishment he deserved.
"Athelwold," said Edgar, in easy tones, "I am surprised you do not bring your wife to court. Surely the woman, if she is true woman, must crave to come."
"Not she," answered Athelwold. "She loves the country well and is a pattern of the rural virtues. The woman is homely and home-loving, and I should be sorry to put new ideas in her rustic pate. Moreover, I fear my little candle would shine too poorly among your courtly stars to offer her in contrast."
"Fie on you, man! the wife of Athelwold cannot be quite a milkmaid. If you will not bring her here, then I must pay you a visit in your castle; I like you too well not to know and like your wife."
This proposition of the king filled Athelwold with terror and dismay. He grew pale, and hesitatingly sought to dissuade Edgar from his project, but in vain. The king had made up his mind, and laughingly told him that he could not rest till he had seen the homely housewife whom Athelwold was afraid to trust in court.
"I feel the honor you would do me," at length remarked the dismayed favorite. "I only ask, sire, that you let me go before you a few hours, that my castle may be properly prepared for a visit from my king."
"As you will, gossip," laughed the king. "Away with you, then; I will soon follow."
In all haste the traitor sought his castle, quaking with fear, and revolving in his mind schemes for avoiding the threatened disclosure. He could think of but one that promised success, and that depended on the love and compliance of Elfrida. He had deceived her. He must tell her the truth. With her aid his faithless action might still be concealed.
Entering his castle, he sought Elfrida and revealed to her the whole measure of his deceit, how he had won her from the king, led by his overpowering love, how he had kept her from the king's eyes, and how Edgar now, filled, he feared, with suspicion, was on his way to the castle to see her for himself.
In moving accents the wretched man appealed to her, if she had any regard for his honor and his life, to conceal from the king that fatal beauty which had lured him from his duty to his friend and monarch, and led him into endless falsehoods. He had but his love to offer as a warrant for his double faithlessness, and implored Elfrida, as she returned his affection, to lend her aid to his exculpation. If she loved him as she seemed, she would put on her homliest attire, employ the devices of the toilette to hide her fatal beauty, and assume an awkward and rustic tone and manner, that the king might be deceived.
Elfrida heard him in silence, her face scarcely concealing the indignation which burned in her soul on learning the artifice by which she had been robbed of a crown. In the end, however, she seemed moved by his entreaties and softened by his love, and promised to comply with his wishes and do her utmost to conceal her charms.
Gratified with this compliance, and full of hope that all would yet be safe, Athelwold completed his preparations for the reception of the king, and met him on his appearance with every show of honor and respect. Edgar seemed pleased by his reception, entered the castle, but was not long there before he asked to see its lady, saying merrily that she had been the loadstone that had drawn him thither, and that he was eager to behold her charming face.
"I fear I have little of beauty and grace to show you," answered Athelwold; "but she is a good wife withal, and I love her for virtues which few would call courtly."
He turned to a servant and bade him ask his mistress to come to the castle hall, where the king expected her.
Athelwold waited with hopeful eyes; the king with curious expectation. The husband knew how unattractive a toilet his wife could make if she would; Edgar was impatient to test for himself the various reports he had received concerning this wild rose of Devonshire.
The lady entered. The hope died from Athelwold's eyes; the pallor of death overspread his face. A sudden light flashed into the face of the king, a glow made up of passion and anger. For instead of the ill-dressed and awkward country housewife for whom Athelwold looked, there beamed upon all present a woman of regal beauty, clad in her richest attire, her charms of face and person set off with all the adornment that jewels and laces could bestow, her face blooming into its most engaging smile as she greeted the king.
She had deceived her trusting husband. His story of treachery had driven from her heart all the love for him that ever dwelt there. He had robbed her of a throne; she vowed revenge in her soul; it might be hers yet; with the burning instinct of ambition she had adorned herself to the utmost, hoping to punish her faithless lord and win the king.
She succeeded. While Athelwold stood by, biting his lips, striving to bring back the truant blood to his face, making hesitating remarks to his guest, and turning eyes of deadly anger on his wife, the scheming woman was using her most engaging arts of conversation and manner to win the king, and with a success greater than she knew. Edgar beheld her beauty with surprise and joy, his heart throbbing with ardent passion. She was all and more than he had been told. Athelwold had basely deceived him, and his new-born love for the wife was mingled with a fierce desire for revenge upon the husband. But the artful monarch dissembled both these passions. He was, to a certain extent, in Athelwold's power. His train was not large, and those were days in which an angry or jealous thane would not hesitate to lift his hand against a king. He, therefore, affected not to be struck with Elfrida's beauty, was gracious as usual to his host, and seemed the most agreeable of guests.
But passion was burning in his heart, the double passion of love and revenge. A day or two of this play of kingly clemency passed, then Athelwold and his guests went to hunt in the neighboring forest, and in the heat of the chase Edgar gained the opportunity he desired. He stabbed his unsuspecting host in the back, left him dead on the field, and rode back to the castle to declare his love to the suddenly-widowed wife.
Elfrida had won the game for which she had so heartlessly played. Ambition in her soul out-weighed such love as she bore for Athelwold, and she received with gracious welcome the king whose hands were still red from the murder of her late spouse. No long time passed before Edgar and Elfrida were publicly married, and the love romance which had distinguished the life of the famed beauty of Devonshire reached its consummation.
This romantic story has a sequel which tells still less favorably for the Devonshire beauty. She had compassed the murder of her husband. It was not her last crime. Edgar died when her son Ethelred was but seven years of age. The king had left another son, Edward, by his first wife, now fifteen years old. The ambitious woman plotted for the elevation of her son to the throne, hoping, doubtless, herself to reign as regent. The people favored Edward, as the rightful heir, and the nobility and clergy, who feared the imperious temper of Elfrida, determined to thwart her schemes. To put an end to the matter, Dunstan the monk, the all-powerful king-maker of that epoch, had the young prince anointed and crowned. The whole kingdom supported his act, and the hopes of Elfrida were seemingly at an end.
But she was a woman not to be easily defeated. She bided her time, and affected warm regard for the youthful king, who loved her as if he had been her own son, and displayed the most tender affection for his brother. Edward, indeed, was a character out of tone with those rude tenth-century days, when might was right, and murder was often the first step to a throne. He was of the utmost innocence of heart and amiability of manners, so pure in his own thoughts that suspicion of others found no place in his soul.
One day, four years after his accession, he was hunting in a forest in Dorsetshire, not far from Corfe-castle, where Elfrida and Ethelred lived. The chances of the chase led him to the vicinity of the castle, and, taking advantage of the opportunity to see its loved inmates, he rode away from his attendants, and in the evening twilight sounded his hunting-horn at the castle gates.
This was the opportunity which the ambitious woman had desired. The rival of her son had put himself unattended within her reach. Hastily preparing for the reception she designed to give him, she came from the castle, smiling a greeting.
"You are heartily welcome, dear king and son," she said. "Pray dismount and enter."
"Not so, dear madam," he replied. "My company will miss me, and fear I have met with some harm. I pray you give me a cup of wine, that I may drink in the saddle to you and my little brother. I would stay longer, but may not linger."
Elfrida returned for the wine, and as she did so whispered a few words to an armed man in the castle hall, one of her attendants whom she could trust. As she went on, this man slipped out in the gathering gloom and placed himself close behind the king's horse.
In a minute more Elfrida reappeared, wine cup in hand. The king took the cup and raised it to his lips, looking down with smiling face on his step mother and her son, who smiled their love-greeting back to him. At this instant the lurking villain in the rear sprang up and buried his fatal knife in the king's back.
Filled with pain and horror, Edward involuntarily dropped the cup and spurred his horse. The startled animal sprang forward, Edward clinging to his saddle for a few minutes, but soon, faint with loss of blood, falling to the earth, while one of his feet remained fast in the stirrup.
The frightened horse rushed onward, dragging him over the rough ground until death put an end to his misery. The hunters, seeking the king, found the track of his blood, and traced him till his body was discovered, sadly torn and disfigured.
Meanwhile, the child Ethelred cried out so pitifully at the frightful tragedy which had taken place before his eyes, that his heartless mother turned her rage against him. She snatched a torch from one of the attendants and beat him unmercifully for his uncontrollable emotion.
The woman a second time had won her game,—first, by compassing the murder of her husband; second, by ordering the murder of her step-son. It is pleasant to say that she profited little by the latter base deed. The people were incensed by the murder of the king, and Dunstan resolved that Ethelred should not have the throne. He offered it to Edgitha, the daughter of Edgar. But that lady wisely preferred to remain in the convent where she lived in peace; so, in default of any other heir, Ethelred was put upon the throne,—Ethelred the Unready, as he came afterwards to be known.
Elfrida at first possessed great influence over her son; but her power declined as he grew older, and in the end she retired from the court, built monasteries and performed penances, in hopes of providing a refuge for her pious soul in heaven, since all men hated her upon the earth.
As regards Edward, his tragical death so aroused the sympathy of the people that they named him the Martyr, and believed that miracles were wrought at his tomb. It cannot be said that his murder was in any sense a martyrdom, but the men of that day did not draw fine lines of distinction, and Edward the Martyr he remains.