A LFRED was not at all pleased with the appearance of the boats that were to take them across the channel and up the Seine River to Paris. Instead of being as bright and shining as they could be made, and ornamented with gold and gorgeous with banners, they were very plain and were painted a dull bluish gray.
"This isn't a pretty boat," said he to one of the noblemen.
"No, my prince," the nobleman replied, "but sometimes it is better not to be seen than to be pretty. The Danes have sharp eyes, and the sun shining on a bit of gold sends a light a long way."
"No danger of Danes in this short run," said another; "we can almost throw a stone across to the fair land of the Franks, and in weather like this, the sea will be as still as a cup of mead."
"That does not stand so very still when it's within your reach," retorted the first.
It seemed needless to think of danger now that the sky was so blue, the shores so green, and everything about them so calm and peaceful. Down the river they went, going by a passage that is now filled up between Thanet and the fields and forests of Kent. And now England was behind them, and—though no one knew it—the hope of England's greatness was at the mercy of the winds and the waves and the frail, open-decked vessel.
"It is the day of all days for the journey of a prince," said Bishop Swithin to the captain.
"It is," said the captain, "but I will not trust it. There's a look to the sky that I don't like, and I half incline to run into harbor at Dover and wait till morning."
"That would mean a day's delay," said the bishop thoughtfully.
"Better delay than danger," said the captain.
"True," said the bishop, "but the king's orders are to make the journey and return as rapidly as the comfort of the prince will permit."
The sky cleared, and the captain against his better judgment steered for the Frankish coast. Hardly were they fairly clear of the land when a strong wind came up from the south, sweeping a heavy mist before it. The boats were separated, but the best seamen of England were in charge of Alfred's vessel, and even then all would have gone well, had not the rudder suddenly given way.
"What will the Danes do to us, if they get us?" asked Alfred. More than one face paled. In the excitement of the storm every one had for the moment forgotten the even more terrible danger that they were in. The wind was driving them directly to the Danish coast, and their boat was rudderless.
"The Danes shall never get you, my prince," said the bishop; and turning aside to a tall thegn, one of the king's greatest warriors, he whispered, pointing to the short sword that hung at his side:—
"You know your duty?"
"I do," said the thegn in a fierce undertone, "but many a Dane shall see the bottom of the ocean before I save the child in that way."
"It would be the king's wish," said the bishop gravely. The thegn made no reply, but under his breath he muttered savagely:—
The men stood with folded arms. There was nothing for them to do.
The bishop lifted his eyes to heaven and began to intone the litany:—
"Lord, have mercy upon us! From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord deliver us!"
"Good Lord deliver us!" responded the others fervently; but even as they spoke, there was a sudden rift in the fog, and there before them, with a flash of sunshine coming down full upon it, was a Danish fleet.
"They have seen us," said the captain in despair. "They are coming down upon us."
The bishop drew the little prince nearer and wrapped his long cloak about them both.
"Get me a sword while I pray," he said; "and do you pray, my prince, pray for our relief; the prayers of a child go very swiftly."
The sword was brought, but the wind blew them north, and the Danes were coming nearer. The fog had lifted. The English could almost see the fierce, exultant faces of their foes. The bishop did not stir from his place. His head was uplifted, his lips moved, though no sound was heard.
Something had happened to one of the boats of the Danish fleet. It rolled like a log in the trough of the sea. It was sinking, and before the others could come to the rescue, the waters had closed over it.
"It is a miracle," cried one of the sailors, and fell on his knees.
"God's ways are always miracles," said the bishop. "Look!" and behold, the Danes, as superstitious as they were fierce, had fled like so many frightened sea-gulls. They had all sail spread, and the same south wind was quickly sweeping them toward their own coast. The English managed to make one of the benches into a rude substitute for a rudder, and although their voyage to France was slow, they met with no more dangers.
"What made the Danes' boat go down?" asked Alfred, when they were sailing safely up the Seine River.
"We prayed to God, and He made it," said the bishop.
"Would He have made our boat go down if the Danes had prayed to Him?" persisted the child.
"Bishop," said the captain, "my sister's husband knew a man who was in a boat that went down in a minute just as that one did. It was in shallow water, and the tide left the place bare, and they found that the worms had bored the planks through and through. It was soaked with water, but no one guessed what was the matter with it. It minded the rudder and the sail, but it kept going more and more slowly until all of a sudden it went down just like this."
"Even a greater miracle," said the bishop, "if the little creatures of the sea have been called upon to save us. We are grown men, our lives are fast coming to their latter days, but a little child has much before him. Alfred, my prince," he said to the child, who was closely listening, "never forget that God could have saved the Danish boat as easily as ours; and that if He chose to save you, it is because He has work for you to do when you are a man."
Soon they reached Paris, and began their journey through the land of the Franks. It was like a triumphal procession. No one knows how many men were in the company, but there were soldiers enough to make quite a retinue by themselves. Then, too, there were many priests; there were women to assist Wynfreda, or to take her place or that of her special assistants, if anything should befall one of them. Provisions must be carried. Hotels were a comfort of the distant future; kings' courts were rare, and castles and convents where so many could be entertained were not common. They could not trust to buying food along the way; and so there was a long train of packhorses and mules carrying corn and wheat and barley, some of it ground, and some to be ground as they needed it. They had dried and salted meats, beef and pork; they had ale and mead and wine, together with pigment, a heavy, sweet wine, of which they were fond. Cooks and wine-makers were with them, carpenters and smiths and men to care for the horses.
Truly, it was a gorgeous procession. First came half of the soldiers. The nobles among them wore glittering coats of mail, and had spears in their hands, while at their sides hung swords with wooden scabbards covered with leather and bound with bands of bronze. The others wore tunics of bright colors and cloaks, and they had short swords and battle-axes. After these soldiers came the bishop and his priests and the little prince, and Wynfreda with her women, and the men who had charge of the treasure, money to spend and to give away, and gifts for the Pope. Then came a brilliant company of noblemen, more soldiers, and then the long lines of servants with mules and horses laden with rich robes and provisions and fodder for the beasts.
Part of the journey was made over the old Roman roads, and here they could travel as rapidly as was possible for so large a number of people. The Romans used, first, to beat the soil, then to spread layers of flint or pebbles or sand, and then sometimes add a kind of masonry of stones or bricks fastened together with mortar. The roads were raised in the centre, and it seems as if it ought to have been easy to march over them; but there was one great disadvantage, they were as nearly straight as they could be made, and if a hill came in their way, they never went around it, but always directly over it.
Rough roads were not the worst troubles that they had to meet. Streams must be forded, sometimes gentle and winding, flowing softly through green meadows and bordered with bright flowers; but sometimes they were wild and turbulent, and dashed through the mountain gorges with a fierce, dangerous current. At such times, the bishop never trusted Alfred to any one else, but, taking the child on his own saddle-bow, he would carefully pick his way across from rock to rock. Sometimes the stream would be so deep that the horse would have to swim; and then the bishop would have ten men below him ready to rescue the prince, if the force of the current should sweep the horse down stream. After crossing such a torrent as this, the whole company would kneel down on the farther shore, and the bishop would thank God for saving them from death; and then he would chant the "Gloria," and they would go on ready to meet the next danger.
Had the company been smaller, there would have been great fear of robbers, for they had to pass through dense forests where many bands of thieves had made their home.
"The child has been in danger of robbers once," the king had said when they left home, "and please God, he shall not be this time"; and so he had given them an escort three times as large as any one would have thought was necessary.
It was a long journey, and the bishop was glad when they came to a great stone castle where they were to rest a few days; for Alfred was never strong, and the constant travel had been very tiresome for him.
It was quite a climb to the castle, for it was high up on a jutting crag far above the green meadows. It looked gray and stern and forbidding, but its doors were thrown wide open to welcome the great bishop and the little Saxon prince. It would not have been so easy to enter if they had been unwelcome guests; for first they went across a moat by a drawbridge, then through a gate in the thick wall with a strong tower on either hand; then came another moat and bridge and wall, and still another. Overhead was the heavy iron portcullis with its sharp points ready to fall upon them, had they been enemies; but at last they were inside the "keep," the home of the lord of the castle, where he and his family lived and where their richest treasures were kept.
It was a very safe place, and that meant a great deal in those stormy days; but Alfred thought it was the most gloomy house he had ever seen, for the windows were only loopholes, and the rooms were small and cheerless. The greeting was hearty, for the days were rather dull and lonely. There was great rejoicing whenever a wandering minstrel made his way up the mountain, or a priest bound on some distant mission stopped to ask for a night's entertainment. What a welcome there must have been, then, when a bishop and a prince and their long train of followers were seen winding up the narrow, rough way that led to the castle!
Alfred was delighted to find a boy not much older than himself, the youngest son of the lord of the castle. The lord's wife was English, and so little Ekhard could talk English, and the two children had a delightful time. It was all strange and mysterious to Alfred, especially the long underground passage that led far out into the forest; and he thought Ekhard a wonderful boy when he told the story of a time when the castle was attacked, and some of their men had gone through the passageway back of the besiegers and hemmed them in between themselves and the wall.
"Did you kill them?" asked Alfred of this marvelous new friend.
"We dropped hot pitch down on them and drove them into the moat," said Ekhard.
Alfred's eyes were very wide open. He had seen many strange sights since he left his own home, but this was the most amazing of all, for here was a boy not much taller than himself who had seen a real fight. How the little fellow wished that he could be so fortunate!
They sat at the long table at noonday. Part way down the table was the salt-cellar. Above it was the lord with family, his the little prince, the bishop, the priests, and the nobles. Below it were those were those of less rank. There was room for all and entertainment for all. They were still sitting at the table when there was a noise at the gate and the sound of a hunter's horn.
"A man demands speech with my lord," said one of the serving-men.
"The meal hours are sacred," said the lord. "Bid the man enter and share the meal. Afterwards, he may speak.
The man entered, but instead of taking the place that was pointed out to him, he went straight to the lord, bent lightly on one knee before him, and whispered a few words in his ear. The lord sprang to his feet, beckoned to his men at arms, and in a moment all was confusion and uproar. Every man put on a helmet or a coat of mail or whatever he happened to possess in the line of armor, seized a sword or an axe or a spear, and followed his lord.
It was all a mystery to Alfred. Not one word of all the loud talk had he understood. He sat motionless until they had dashed out of the castle gate, and he could hear the steps of their horses going at a breakneck speed down the hill. Then he turned to his friend Ekhard and asked in a frightened whisper:—
"Are the Danes coming?"
"What are Danes?" said Ekhard, a little contemptuously. "This is better than any Danes. Come, and I'll show you," and he seized him by the hand and drew him away to some winding stairs in one of the towers.
"Come, and perhaps we can see the merchants," he said.
"What merchants?" asked Alfred.
"The men that are coming from Italy to our country. They have things to sell."
"Will your father buy some?" asked Alfred.
Ekhard looked as if he thought Alfred a most ignorant young person, if he was a prince, and said:—
"Of course not. Every one that goes by our castle must pay my father. Those men haven't paid, and so he will take their goods."
"Will he kill them?" asked Alfred.
"He will if they fight," said Ekhard. "Come up, and perhaps we can see them." So the two boys, hand in hand, climbed the steep, winding stairs in one of the towers. Through the long, narrow slit in the wall, they could see afar down the valley a little company of men winding slowly along the road. To the right of them, but quite hidden from them by the spur of the mountain, was another company, the lord and his men, hurrying down the steep path to meet the merchants. The traders were soon hidden in the woods, and the lord's men too disappeared, but the two children heard faint shouts and war cries; then all was still.
"I wonder what they'll bring," said Ekhard, and went on talking, half to himself and half to Alfred. "Perhaps there'll be silk and velvet and jewels and furs. The last one had silver and glass and oil. I don't care much about that, but I hope they'll bring some cinnamon and nutmeg and wine and dried fruits."
"Why won't your father let people go by his house?" said Alfred. "My father does."
"Why, because he's the lord, and they have to pay him," said Ekhard; "but we can't see any more. Let's go down and meet them."
It seemed a long time to the impatient children before the lord and his men came up the hill. Their march was slow, for the men were on foot, and every horse was laden with booty. There were rolls of silk and fine woolen, precious stones and carved ivory, a package of stained glass for the windows of some church, and what pleased Ekhard most, a great quantity of cinnamon and cloves and figs and dates.
"That's a good load," said he to Alfred; but Alfred was thinking, and thinking very earnestly for so little a boy. He looked at the bishop, but the bishop was at the farther end of the long room. Then he went to Wynfreda.
"Didn't those things belong to the merchants?" he asked.
"Yes," said Wynfreda.
"My father wouldn't take them away," said he. "I won't when I am a man."
The hardest part of their journey was still before them, for the Alps lay between them and Rome. They were going over the Mount Cenis Pass. There were great forests of pine and fir through which they must make their way. There were bald ridges of jagged rock and deep gorges. Sometimes the road led over dreary slopes. or through dismal ravines, or over fields of snow. Sometimes it was only a tiny thread of a path winding along the edge of a precipice. The bishop looked worn and anxious, but Alfred thought it was all a delightful series of adventures. He clapped his hands with pleasure when he was carefully wrapped in an oxhide and drawn over the snow; and when they came to ledges so dizzy that the horses and mules had to be lowered with ropes to a place where there was surer footing, he thought this was almost as good as seeing a real battle, and wished he could tell Ekhard about it.
The journey was not all danger and no pleasure, not even the passage over the Alps, for a little lower down the flowers were brighter and more beautiful than Alfred had ever seen before. All along the roadside were columbines and geraniums. Harebells clung to every little over-hanging rock. Violets were in the shady nooks of the forest. The lady's-slipper was there, and down in the warm, sunny meadows below them were beds of pinks. At the edge of the snow above them was the edelweiss. It was all very beautiful, and when they came to their first bed of brilliant Alpine roses, Alfred fairly shouted with delight.
"Can't I send some to my mother?" he begged, but the bishop smiled and said:—
"You shall take her something better than roses. There are wonderful things in Rome, and you shall choose among them."
And so they went on to Rome; but outside the city three men on horseback met them.
"Is this the train of the noble prince, Alfred of England?" said they.
"It is," said the bishop.
"Then is there a message from King Ethelwulf. The bearer came at the risk of his life. He is ill, and he begs that you will come to him, for the king's business brooks no delay."