I T was a long journey to Rome, and almost as much of a distinction for a man to go there as it would be now to visit the planet Mars. There would have been great interest and excitement if the king had been going to make the pilgrimage, but for the little prince, a child of five years, to go was even more thrilling. The priests were very ready that the people should know that it was to atone for his father's deed and to keep his father's vow, that he was going; and many of them sympathized with the little fellow, and thought it very hard that he should have to go over land and sea into that great, unknown, and dangerous world.
Every one loved the king's youngest son, and every one was eager to do something for him before his departure. The spinners and weavers made for him finer linens and softer woolens than they had ever made before; the embroiderers worked most intricate borders of leaves and flowers and circles and squares and scrolls around his tunics. The tunics were made of silk or of the finest woolen, and were of the brightest colors that could be dyed. The bakers were continually sending him tiny loaves of bread made of the finest wheat, and from the brewery would often come little cups of the juice of mulberries sweetened with honey. The tenants who lived farther away could not come near the palace without bringing him nuts or grapes or apples or combs of honey. The smith who had given him his little coat of mail now made him supremely happy by the gift of a tiny sword.
"Did you put a rune on it?" asked Alfred. "You know my father's sword has a rune, and if we meet a Dane, I'm going to cut his head off just like this," and he slashed off the head of a thistle that grew by the forge.
Not only to Alfred himself did the gifts come, but Wynfreda, his nurse, who had taken the place of the thoughtless Hilda, was quite loaded down with all sorts of things for him to use on the way. One of the cooks brought a package of little hard cakes that would keep fresh for a long time, lest he should be hungry on the road and not be able to find anything to eat. Another brought a small bag of salt, because she was sure that in the strange lands over the seas they would not be able to find salt.
The keeper of the dogs quite insisted that he should take at least five or six with him; and one small boy who was a great friend of Alfred's, the son of the king's cup-bearer, came in a procession consisting of himself and a tiny, pink-eyed pig, to offer his pet as a companion for the prince on his journey, the pig all the while expressing his objections in the most energetic squeals. The carpenter brought him a whole armful of wooden toys, and a bow that was polished until it shone. The ends were carved in the shape of a horse's head, and about the horse's neck was a little collar of bronze, and where the collar was fastened, a tiny green jewel shone out.
The queen seemed almost dazed with grief at the approaching separation. She followed him about wherever he went, saying little, but watching every movement. She was continually planning something to make him more comfortable, or to amuse him on his journey. One day she said:—
"Alfred, I am going to give you a gold chain to wear around your neck, and a pretty gold jewel to hang on it. Now what shall the picture be? Shall we have Saint Cuthbert, your own saint?"
"Yes," said Alfred, "and some red roses; but I don't want a helmet. I want to see his face and not pull a chain." The poor queen was somewhat mystified, but she said:—
"I am afraid that Saint Cuthbert did not have any red roses, but he shall have them this time, if you wish."
"And the red rose was on a blue banner," he said. "I want it all blue."
"And what shall his tunic be?" Alfred thought seriously for a minute, and then said:—
"It shall be just as you choose to have it," said his mother, "and around the edge shall be written, 'Alfred had me made,' and when you come back from Rome, you shall learn how to read it."
The jewel was made, and the bishop blessed it, and the queen hung it around Alfred's neck, and before many days it was time to start. They were going as directly as they could to the river Thames, and then by boat to London. There they expected to stay for a few days and then to sail for France.
The morning came. The king was going as far as the bank of the river, so he rode first, as he had done at Ethelswitha's wedding, with Alfred on his horse before him. Then came Bishop Swithin, who was to be Alfred's especial guardian, then Wynfreda the nurse and two other women to assist her; and then came a long retinue of armed men, for the king's son must go in state.
Osburga stood in the door of the palace with Alfred clinging to her.
When the procession was ready to go, Osburga stood in the door of the palace with Alfred clinging to her. She wore a robe of deep blue richly embroidered with gold. The clasp was of gold filigree set with red stones. Her hair was fastened back with a narrow gold band, and over it and around her neck was a white wimple, or veil, of the finest linen. She wore rings and bracelets and chains, more than ever before, even at their greatest banquets. The king looked at her in surprise, and she said:—
"It comes to my heart that I shall never see my son again. He must remember me in my best." Then she lifted the little jewel on his chain, kissed it lightly, and said in a chanting tone and with a strange far-away look:—
"My people had the gift of prophecy. Sometimes to me too it comes, and my thought is full, not of the present, but of the future. Alfred, this is to remind you of me in all the years that are to come; but when it is finally lost to you, do not grieve, for then the hardest days of your life will have passed. Much will even then lie before you, but you will overcome."
Little child as he was, Alfred never forgot those words, and he never forgot his mother as she stood in the palace door in her long blue robe with the glittering jewels, and with one hand extended toward the southwest. Her face was white, and a red spot glowed on either cheek. She kissed him for the last time, and they were gone.
It was not a long ride to the bank of the Thames where it was deep enough for their light vessels. The road was hardly more than a rough track, but it led through the woods, and it was farther from home than Alfred had ever been before; and to so little a boy that was an adventure in itself.
Twice they passed by a little settlement where some noble had built his castle. There they had mead and wine and hot bread and roasted fowls, and the noble came to do homage to his king; and all the children on the place flocked around to gaze shyly at the little boy who sat fearlessly on his father's horse and who was going to the great and wonderful Rome which no one that they knew had ever seen. It was all a marvel, and after the glittering company had passed, they were not really sure that it was not a dream.
But the riders left the little villages and swept on to the banks of the Thames; and there were many boats drawn up to the shore waiting for them. These were light vessels drawing little water, and having but one sail each. On the top of the mast of the boat in which Alfred was to go was an eagle. The prow of the boat was made in the shape of a dragon with a wide-open mouth and great, fiery, red eyes. The stern was made like a dragon's tail. Everything about the boat was bright and shining, and in the middle of the sail was drawn the figure of a white horse in lines of gold. It was very beautiful, but the little prince was disappointed.
"Where are the shields?" he said, "and the spears?"
"The fighting men have them," said his father, a little puzzled.
"But there was a coat of mail on the boat and a blue banner with a red rose, and there was a god. Why isn't it all here?"
"It was one of Hilda's stories," whispered one of the men; and the king said:—
"The true God is with you here, Alfred, and will be on the boat with you, and go all the way, and bring you back to me, if—" but the king could say no more. In a moment he recovered himself and turned to the bishop.
"Bishop Swithin," he said, "I trust to you my beloved son. Care for him as for the apple of your eye. Let not a hair of his head be injured. Let but the least breath of harm come to him, and—"the king's eyes blazed—"I swear to you by all that I hold sacred that, priest and bishop and friend of my father though you are, you shall be hanged like a Dane to the nearest tree." The king sprang upon his great white horse and galloped into the forest, leaving his followers to find their way after him as best they might.
It was little more than one hundred miles to London, and with wind and current in their favor, it did not need many hours to make the journey. As long as the daylight lasted, Alfred sat at the prow of the boat on a bench made just like his father's on the dais in their own hall. It was covered with a thick, soft cloth of deep red, whose ends were fringed with tiny disks of gold. Bishop Swithin sat beside him, ready to tell him stories and to answer all his questions. On the other side was Wynfreda, his nurse, and behind them were two servants who held a canopy over their heads whenever the sun was too warm.
When the sun went down and it grew chilly, the little prince was warmly wrapped in the softest furs and taken to a sheltered place in the stern, and there he slept as soundly as if in his father's palace, until the sun was well up again, and they had been under way for several hours.
Alfred thought it was a wonderful voyage. To float along hour after hour past woods and meadows and hills that he had never seen before—this of itself was exciting enough, especially when he awoke in the morning and found that it was not all a dream; but besides this, to have the strange city of London before them—it was more than he could imagine, and as for the long journey that would come after London, he could not think of that at all. He had never seen so large a boat before, and he thought it very wonderful that the water was strong enough to hold it up. The bishop tried to explain it to him, and then said:—
"There's another way that water can hold up things. I'll tell you a riddle that a great poet named Cynewulf made a long time ago about water that grew strong."
"Was it before Ethelswitha was married?" asked Alfred.
"Yes, long before. This is the riddle; see if you can guess it.
"Wonderful deeds by the power alone
Of one that I watched as he went on his way
Were done. At his touch the water was bone."
"Can you guess it, Wynfreda?" said Alfred.
Wynfreda said "No," and the bishop said the answer was, "The frost."
There was no time for more riddles, for London was coming into view. They could see a great wall running along the river front, and going back from it up the gentle slope. Here and there was a building tall enough to peer over the top of the wall. There were many boats anchored in front of the city. At the angles of the wall were turrets for the archers, and places of shelter for the sentinels, where they were always watching, and fearing lest the Danes should return, for it was only two years since they had sacked and burned a part of the city.
They came nearer and nearer, and soon the little company of boats left the Thames and went north up the Fleet, which was then a rapid stream, flowing down not far west of the city wall. It was not so easy now, for the strong current was against them; but the rowers were strong, too, and it was not long before they were ready to land the prince and his followers near Lud Gate, a massive door in the great wall that surrounded the city.
There were many people waiting to receive them, the priests from Saint Paul's Church, that was not far away, the commanders of the soldiers who were in the various strongholds, and all the other great men of the city. Some came on foot, and some came on horseback, and a few came in heavy wagons with wide, clumsy wheels; and all of them, no matter how they had come, were eager to do honor to the son of the king. There were women whose eyes were full of tears as they looked at the tiny, blue-eyed, fair-haired child who was so far from his mother, and who was so soon to make the great journey by sea and by land; and there were crowds of boys swarming up the posts and on top of the low-roofed cottages, every one of whom wished that he was the son of the king, and was going to make a wonderful journey.
Some of the ponderous wagons had been brought to convey the prince and his nobles to the palace, for Ethelwulf had a palace in London not far from Saint Paul's Church. These were decorated with bright-colored cloth, and with flowers and green branches. The one in which Alfred was to go had a seat covered with cushions and drapings of bright blue, and built up so high that all the people could see him as he rode past. It made the boys more wildly envious than ever when they saw that he actually wore a coat of mail, and had a real sword hanging down by his side.
They were a little stolid and slow in their thinking, these Englishmen of the ninth century, but there was something in the sight of this little child that appealed to them, and aroused all their loyalty and enthusiasm; and they shouted for Alfred, and for Ethelwulf, and for Bishop Swithin, until they were hoarse, and they followed the wagons until the prince and his retinue had gone into the palace. The bishop stood on the steps a minute, and raised his hand and blessed them. Then he, too, went in, and the tired and excited little child could have the rest that he so much needed.
The palace was a little west of Saint Paul's Church and not far from the river. Around it were fields and woods; and to the westward, beyond the last straggling houses, were pastures and forests and fens and moors and commons and low-lying hills, a beautiful, restful country for tired people to look upon.
The city was made up of small houses, hardly larger than huts, that seemed to have been dropped down anywhere; of convents and churches and fortresses; of rough, tumble-down sheds, and queer little dark shops in which were benches, a table, and some simple arrangements for cooking. Whatever there was to sell was put on a shelf that projected in front of the shop. Far to the east, just within the wall, one could see a fort that was higher and larger than the rest, for there the closest watch must be kept for the enemy, and there, too, if the enemy came, must the hardest fighting be done.
The streets, so far as there were any streets, ran any way, and every building seemed to have been set down without the least regard to any other building. Then too, there were great vacant spaces, and these were gloomy enough, for here were blackened ruins of the city that used to be before the Danes had burned it. Under all this rubbish were fragments of beautiful mosaic pavement that the Romans had made centuries before.
Even then there was enough in London to interest one for a long time, but the first duty of the prince after he was thoroughly rested was to go to Saint Paul's Church with the gifts that his father had sent. The church was at the top of a hill that rose gently from the Thames River. It could hardly have been more than a very simple chapel, built perhaps of stones that may have been part of a heathen temple in the old Roman times, but now the bell rang seven times a day for Christian prayer.
This little church was very rich, for it possessed the bones of Saint Erkenwald, and wonderful were the miracles that they were said to have wrought, and generous were the gifts that pilgrims, nobles, warriors, and kings had laid on his shrine.
Saint Paul's had had a hard struggle to get these relics, for Saint Erkenwald had died when away from London, and both the clergy of Saint Paul's and the monks of Chertsey, whose abbot he had been, contended for the bones. Both parties were very much in earnest. The Londoners seized the bier and held on. The monks protested. A tempest suddenly came upon them, and there they all stood, drenched and dripping, but neither would yield. The river rose, and then they were obliged to stand still, for there was neither bridge nor boat. They might have been standing there yet, had not one of the monks begun to intone the litany; and as he sang, the river sank, and the Londoners crossed with the precious relics, the monks giving up, either because they were satisfied that Providence had settled the question, or because the Londoners were the stronger party, the story does not tell. At any rate, the bones were in Saint Paul's, and there it was that Alfred must go to carry his father's gifts, and to kneel before the shrine of the saint to say the prayers that the bishop had taught him.
And so Alfred and the bishop and the long train of followers set out for the church. The unwieldy wagons moved slowly, but Alfred would have liked to go even more slowly, for there was so much to see that was new to him. There were rough soldiers in leather tunics or in a kind of coat, or jacket, covered with scales that would protect them in battle almost as well as a coat of mail. They had heavy axes and spears and shields. Their beards were long and shaggy. Then there were half-savage men from the country, bringing great, rough carts of timber from the forests, or driving herds of oxen or swine, or carrying rude baskets of vegetables or fruit. They were stout, red-faced men who looked strong and well and ready for a good-natured wrestling match or a downright fight, as the case might be. They wore tunics of the coarsest woolen, and would stop with mouths wide open, and stare with wonder at the sight of the prince and his men with their finely wrought clothes and their jewels and banners.
The royal train went up the hill to the church, and Alfred, taught by the bishop, presented the gifts that his father had sent, seven golden vases fillet to the brim with roughly cut, but bright and shining silver coins. On the side of each one of these vases was a red stone, and below it was the inscription, "Ethelwulf the king sent me."
The service was ended. Alfred had said his prayer before Saint Erkenwald's shrine, and had gazed half fearfully on the bones of the saint. The prince and his followers left the church. There were fragments of the old Roman pavement under their feet.
"See the soldier," said Alfred suddenly, "but he isn't like my father's soldiers." The bishop looked, and there in the pavement was the figure of a soldier done in mosaic.
"That is a Roman soldier," said the bishop, "and we shall start for Rome to-morrow. Look down to the river and you will see the ships that are to take us."