In the Days of Athelney
Seven years did the monks of Lindisfarne wander over Old Northumbria with the body of St. Cuthbert. In the wildest tracts of that wide land of fell and forest there was no spot the saint in life had ever seen to which they did not bring him in his shrine; and further still they bore him than he had ever travelled.
Evil was the day that brought about that long and strange wayfaring with the holy dead. For after Halfdene had sacked and burned the priory of Tynemouth, he and his Danish sea-wolves swept northward, harrying the unprotected coast. But swiftly as they sped, dismay and fear flew faster; and before the dragon-prows dashed into the bay at Lindisfarne, the little brotherhood, carrying in tears the shrine of their beloved saint, had escaped along the ridge of sand left bare between isle and mainland at ebb of the tide, and gathering their churls and tenants, with the flocks and herds of the abbey, had fled for refuge to the high moorland.
One brother alone, who had been bidden to stay and watch, saw the sea-wolves leap ashore in their ring-shirts and iron-winged helms, and beheld that noble abbey and its stately church pillaged and reduced to ashes.
Think now of those houseless fugitives in the bitter weather of the early spring. It is night, and you can trace but dimly the dark outlines of the wild heath, rolling away, waste beyond waste, under the icy stars. Out on the eastern knolls men keep watch to seaward. Dogs guard the sheep and cattle huddled among the gorse and broom. Down in a hollow, sheltered from view, fires are burning; and around these the poor folk—men and women, with their children and their old people—lie close for warmth. Under a leafless ash-tree rests the precious shrine, and beside it Bishop Eardulf and Eadred, the gentle Abbot of Carlisle, sleep for sorrow, when they sleep at all.
The cold wind moans; the keen stars shift over-head. The little children cry, and are hushed to sleep again. The watch is changed; the turf grows stiff and whitens with frost. Away yonder in the holy island the ruins are still smouldering, and the sea-wolves carouse on the long-ships in the bay. O Cuthbert, servant of God, how long wilt thou suffer these things and make no sign?
The saint lies in his coffin, but not as one who has been dead well-nigh two hundred years. Lifelike he lies, and comely in alb of linen and golden stole; his face ruddy, rather long; his brown hair and slight beard sprinkled with silver; his feet sandalled. Mortality and time have left him without blemish. A breath of God, and he would arise, unchanged in form and feature as though he had trod these hills but yesterday. The head of Oswald the king and relics of Aidan and Venerable Bede lie beside him in his coffin. These are crumbling into dust, but Cuthbert only slumbers. So his people think of him, resting in his shrine.
On the morrow began that long wayfaring.
And first, seven stalwart laymen were chosen to bear the coffin, and with it that great book of the Gospels which Bilfrid cased in gold and silver work inlaid with gems, and which was so fair writ and illuminated with such beauty that even to this day it is held a marvel. The names of five of these staunch comrades remain—Hunred and Stitheard, Edmund and Franco and Eilaf; and long after Cuthbert had been laid in the peace of the great church on the wooded cliffs above the Wear, their goodly service was the boast of their descendants.
But as for the rest, saving only Abbot Eadred and Eardulf the Bishop, there is no remembrance at all. They have all gone—drifted like leaves, scattered like mist; the names of husband and wife and little children and lovers, once so dear, are now clean forgotten. How many they went forth, by what roads and wild tracks they journeyed, how they were turned hither and thither in a land overrun with fire and sword no one can tell. Churches and crosses marked in later days the spots where they had rested little or long, with their hallowed burden; and these were dotted over the wide shires, from Melrose and Kirkcudbright (which is Cuthbert's Kirk) to the rocks and tarns between Coniston and Windermere, and from Ribble waters and Lytham sands to the deep woods of the squirrels of Craike.
I see them passing as in a dream. I see their faces, I hear their voices as in a dream. Their faces are brown, and worn, and rugged, but their eyes are bright with courage. Their hymns float over the springs of Tyne; the shepherd hears them on the Furness fells. They live in tents and caves; their fires burn on ancient hearths, on the broken Roman Wall; they sleep among the purple heather and in huts of green boughs. Now I lose them in the smoke of the autumn rains; now snow lies deep, and the midnight skies are aglow with the Northern Lights. To-day a little child dies; they will never again weep over its cairn on the waste. To-morrow an aged man will drop, and they will dig his grave in the trampled garth of a ruined church.
I see them on the Cumbrian shore. In England, alas! they have no more hope, they say, to live peacefully. Beyond the seas are the green hills of Erin, where the sun shines, and they dream of a fair cloister where at last their saint may rest. But the winds rise, and the white surf beats them back to land.
Over this ravaged countryside famine has fallen, and deadly sickness. The barns are empty, the fields are unplanted. The wanderers are worn out; they can go no further. And St. Cuthbert gives no help. Some lie down and die; others steal away into the hills, to live in such fashion as they may.
Even the strength of the bearers has failed. But one of them sees in the brightness of sleep such a spot as they may have passed with little notice; and thither friendly strangers beckon him. At sunrise he and his fellows come to the place. 'Tis a death-stricken farm. In the wood hard by a roan horse runs up whinnying, and nuzzles them for loneliness. In the sheds they find harness, and a light dray whereon they may place the shrine. In the deserted house a little meal has been left in the meal-kist. Thus once again they turn with better cheer into new ways.
Now it was in the third year of the wandering that Alfred the King lay in the marshes of Athelney. May-time it was, apple-bloom on the tree and the cuckoos calling; but black care sat by the hearth in the little island bulwark. Never yet had the king's fortunes fallen so low, or he been cast into such straits.
Upon a certain night, as he sat at board with his scant companionship of trusty thegns, he saw how heavy and dismayed they showed. And saying within himself, "Keep me, good Lord, on the sunny side of despair, for if I too lose heart all is lost," he cast about for some brave tale of other days to lighten their spirits.
Then, taking his little son upon his knee, "Stout kinsman," said he, "I would have you know that far away towards the rising sun lie the two halves of the world, East and West, and narrow seas race between them. Upon the eastern side Darius was in old time King of Kings and lord over many nations—Assyrians, Medes, Persians, and an innumerable people. But upon the western side Athens, a city resplendent with temples and houses of white stone, sat on a hill by the shore; a blue bay before it, and behind it the mountain Hymettus which glows at sundown with a wondrous violet light. And that, it may be, was why Athens was by-named the City of the Violet Crown.
"Now upon the eastern side were rich cities of the Greeks along the Ionian shore; and when the King of Kings would have brought these to serfdom, the men of Athens sailed on twenty ships to aid their kinsfolk, and marching inland they burned down his city of Sardis for the king, and got them back to sea with their spoil.
"Wild as fire in dry reeds was Darius. He called the slave who fanned him at his meat. 'While Athens stands,' he said, 'do thou repeat three times each day, Master, remember the Athenians!' To all the states of Hellas heralds were out demanding earth and water in token of submission, 'For under the wide heavens,' said the king, 'we are the lord and givers of these.' Many of the Greek cities cried craven and paid the tribute; but at Athens the herald was flung into a pit, at Sparta he was cast into a well, while the people jeered, 'Earth and water! take there as much as Darius needs!'
"And three times, day after day, the slave who waved the fan of peacock's feathers repeated his cry, until at length a mighty host was gathered, and six hundred long-ships—great triremes that whitened the seas with sounding oars—bore into the west, and every ship carried fetters and chains for the men of Hellas. The Cyclades were wasted, the island cities destroyed, and landing on Euba the Persians laid siege to Eretria.
"Then was Athens distracted between the wisdom of valour and the folly of dismay. But when Eretria fell the councillors of Athens sent for the swift runner Pheidippides; and when he came before the archons sitting in their marble seats, with golden grasshoppers in their hair, they saw how tall and slim he stood, deep-chested, lean as a hound, with light, sinewy limbs, sandaled shapely feet, and eager eyes that seemed to drink distance in. And they smiled for pleasure in his goodliness.
"'Thou art our fleetest,' said one of the grave men; how long to Sparta?'
"''Tis fifty leagues, and over mountains; but starting now, and Hermes helping'—for Hermes, kinsman, was one of their gods, and his shoes were winged—'surely I may catch the gleam of the Brazen House in the morning that follows to-morrow.'
"'To Sparta, then! And thus shalt thou say on coming into presence of the magistrates: "O Lacedemonians, the men of Athens entreat you to assist them, and not to suffer the most ancient city among the Greeks to fall into bondage to barbarians. Eretria is already reduced to slavery, and Hellas has become weaker by the loss of a renowned city." But do thou, young man, rejoice in thy strength, and if ever thou hast run swiftly, make now still better speed for Athens.'
"Then was it up and away for Pheidippides, a pebble closed in each hand, and the lithe body poised upon feet supple and springy as a yew bow. Through the passes of Ęgaleos he sped; round the sweet-wooded bay by the sacred road to Eleusis; past Megara, and along the Evil Staircase hung on the face of the Scironic cliffs. Orchards, villages, temples, tombs, statues of gods and goddesses fleeted by; but the great mountains seemed to go with him, moving with slow might, loath to part from him, and then, as it were, passing him on, one to the next—a man to befriend for the sake of Athens.
"So running and running, resting a while to eat and drink, stopping to sleep, his steady pace carried him into the south within gladsome vision of the sea. Next, away to westward he swerved, entered the narrow defiles, climbed through the rocks and sombre pines over the mountain masses, until at last there, in the morning sun, were the snowy domes of Taygetus, there the streams of Eurotas flowing in a land of corn, and the Brazen House of Sparta, the goal of the fifty leagues, gleamed over the orange groves.
"'O Lacedemonians, the men of Athens entreat you.'
"Did the fall of Eretria bring a flush to the Spartan faces? Was the pride of Sparta stung with a thought of the conquest of Hellas? Nay, but in their scornful lips and the furtive eyes of those who heard him he read hatred of Athens, envy of her glory, and malicious joy at her danger.
"His heart was hot within him, and hotter still it burned when they gave their answer: 'Can Sparta be stone when Athens is suppliant? Tell your archons this: When the moon rises full on the mountains Sparta takes the field. Sooner it may not be, for such is our old-time observance of law. Till then we wait in patience, reverencing the gods.'
"'I have heard,' he said; 'I remember; give me leave to depart with your answer.'
"A moment he paused to tighten his belt; he waved aside the offer of food and rest; speeding fleeter than ever he reached the Eurotas, and on the bank of the river he loosened his sandals and washed the dust of Sparta from his feet. And 'O you gods,' he cried as he fell into the measured tread of the fifty-league runner, 'to you, when our own kind fail us, we come at the end.'
"Crossing the plain, he ascended the track of barren stone on the flank of Parthenon. There in the desolate gorges, where the mother-rock was rifted and scattered, he heard himself called by name. He turned, and gasped as he saw in a cleft of the mountain Pan the earth-god, in form half-man and half-goat. But the awful being looked graciously upon him and bade him draw near.
"'Why,' he asked, 'has Athens alone of the cities in Hellas no thought of me who wish her well? Not once or twice in times gone by have I been friendly to her, and so will I be again. Already I hear far off the plunging of ships and the shouting of the sailors; but bid Athens mark how, when the thin line of battle wavers and breaks in the fennel meadows, Pan will hold his place with her bravest. And thou,' said the god with a grave smile, 'thou hast run well for Athens, shalt fight well for Athens, and shalt not go without reward.'
"Before Pheidippides was aware, the earth-god vanished and was one again with soil and stone, and nothing remained but the cleft in the mountain where he had sat.
"So, while Sparta waited for the full moon, the men of Athens took their stand at the head of the only road by which the Persians could advance on the city. Here the mountains drew back in a crescent from the sea, and left the green plain of Marathon, where the fennel flowered; and at each end of the crescent deep swamps filled the space between the road and the sea. They chose their ground on the rise at the foot of the mountains, and extended their formation across the breadth of the plain. There were neither horsemen nor archers. Their strength was massed in the wings; but their numbers scarce sufficed to fill the shallow ranks in the centre. The fate of Hellas depended that day on ten thousand men, and a gallant eight hundred sent by Platęa in grateful remembrance of help received from Athens.
"Along the shore the invaders swarmed from the great ships; and spearmen, archers, and slingers, chariots and cavalry fell into dreadful array, one hundred and ten thousand strong.
"For a moment Athens looked into the face of Asia, and then such a thing was done as men had never seen in the wars of the world. At a signal given, the whole Greek line, raising its cry of battle, swept down the rise at a run. North and south, the heavy wings shattered the Persian front, and rolled back horse and man into the marshes and the sea. But the centre wavered, broke, fled, but raffled, and as the rays of the setting sun streamed into the faces of the enemy, a rustic armed with a ploughshare stood in the broken line, and held a thousand at bay. More than a mortal man he seemed, and when the day was won he vanished, as Pan had vanished in the cleft of the mountain.
"Such was Marathon fight. Seven of the great ships burning lighted the Persian fleet to sea. More than six thousand of the enemy fell. Athens lost one hundred and ninety men.
"Once again the runner of runners plied his speed, bearing these tidings to Athens: 'Pan fought for us; Hellas is free.'
"Six-and-twenty miles, by the road the Persians never should come, Pheidippides flew, reached the glorious city at dusk, and panted out his message. Then his breath failed, his heart stopped. To die with those words on his lips—what better reward than that could life bestow?"
"What a fight was that!" "What a runner!" "What a god to help!" rang through the hall as Alfred finished his story.
"Little kinsman," said the king, "call Athelney Athens, and we too have a God who in times gone by has often been friendly to us; ay, and so will He be again!"
As the king lay awake that night thinking of many things, the place was filled with a soft shining, and a man stood near him in an alb of white linen and a golden stole. His face was ruddy and somewhat long, and his brown hair and slight beard were sprinkled with silver. Starting from his pillow, the king cried out, "Stand! who art thou?" The tall man told him his name and why he had come; and he bade him free his mind from too much care, and go forth strong-hearted, for in six days he should overcome his enemies. "And this shall be the sign. Rise up early and blow thine horn thrice, and three hundred men shall come to thee, harnessed for battle."
In the morning King Alfred rose and sailed to the land. Three times he blew his horn; and thrice he was answered, and the friend of his heart, Ethelnoth the Ealdorman, came to him through the fens with three hundred men at his back. Breathless then was the running and riding east and west. The beacon was lit on the edge of Selwood Forest, and the men of Hampshire, the men of Wiltshire, the men of Somerset flocked to Egbert's Stone.
Three days thereafter the king won the crowning battle of Ethandune. At the turning-point of the fight his standard-bearer was slain, but the standard was caught and held aloft by a tall man in a white alb and golden stole. Some said this was St. Neot, the king's kinsman, but I say St. Cuthbert.