The Jorsala Pilgrims
It was many a winter after the Svold sea-fight; and Gaut and Runolf were pilgrims from Iceland in Jorsala Land. They had drunk of the well at Nazareth. They had seen the snows of Hermon. By the sea of Galilee they had sat among the flowering grasses, the pink flax and the tall daisies growing over the carved stones of Capernaum. They had bathed in the sacred waters of Jordan.
In the Holy City of Jorsala they had prayed at the tomb wherein the body of the Lord was laid, and had bowed down before the wood of the cross on which He died. Upon the spot on which the Temple of King Solomon had stood there stood now a glittering dome with curtains of brocade, and within it they beheld the rock which is the oldest rock in all the world. Thereon in ancient summers did the threshers winnow the sheaves of Araunah. Beneath that rock there is a cave; and ever on the night before Easter morn may be heard the hollow voices of all the patriarchs and prophets of Israel giving thanks to God for the resurrection of the Lord. In that cave they say there is a well, which is called the Well of the Leaf, for one who went down into it found a path which led to the gates of Paradise, and he brought back a leaf plucked from the Tree of Weird, on which the destinies of men are written.
When they had seen Bethlehem—'tis a little white town on a hill, and below it lie the starry fields of the Shepherds—they desired to gaze upon the way by which Moses had led the children of Israel out of the House of Bondage, and they faced towards Gaza. Resting at fall of night by their tent fire, Gaut asked:
"Have the things on which we have looked brought thee nearer to the Lord?"
"That I scarce know," said Runolf. "It was great joy and expectation to come hither. Far have we travelled and fared hard, and perchance it should content us that we have often thought of Him. But never has it happened that a third has joined us two by the way, and that we felt our hearts burn within us while He spoke. When day has been far spent strangers have broken bread with us, but never have our eyes been opened to know Him by our fire. I had in some manner hoped that somewhere we might have felt that He was close to us. We have gone the ways He went, but if we ever touched the ground touched by His feet there was no sign to tell us of it."
"Nowhere have I seen Him," said Gaut, "not even in sleep."
"He is no longer living in this land," continued Runolf. "The wind has blown abroad the dust in which He wrote. The rain has washed the rock on which He trod. We have been looking for the shadows of a dream. Less easy has it been to feel Him beside me on the mountain or the shore than it is now to make-believe we two are now sitting on Blue Shaw Heath."
Then, after a pause, he added: "Blue Shaw Heath! Dost thou mind the ruddy moorland and the great bow of blue glacier? No fairer spot on a summer night have I seen on earth. I shall never see it again!"
"There are many weathers in a week," said Gaut, "and more in a month. What ails thee to-night?"
"I know not; such foreboding as might trouble a woman."
From Gaza, the city of sweet wells and green garths, they took the route which goes through the Desert to the Red Sea; but as the day began to decline a sudden sickness fell upon Runolf, and he could go no further. He was laid in the shadow of a tent, and Gaut sat with the sick man's head upon his knees. The Arabs came and looked at him. They saw that his face was drawn, and in his eyes was no intent to live, and one of them bethought him of the convent of holy men on the edge of the Desert, where there is ever some hakeem skilled in the virtues of herbs and balsams. They gathered about Gaut speaking eagerly all together and gesticulating towards the north-east, but he could not understand them. Then two of them mounted their horses and galloped over the shifting sands, where no man's footsteps abide.
The sun went down, and Runolf lay still, scarcely speaking at all, save to murmur his thanks when his comrade moistened his lips with wine. As the darkness fell, the Arabs kindled a fire, and little flames glimmered out far away in the Desert where the nomads had pitched their tents. Flashes of summer lightning began to play along the horizon, and some of these grew so large and dazzling that it seemed as if the heavens were opening.
All at once Runolf sat up, and grasping Gaut's hand, he pointed before him: "Look, look! Didst thou see Him? He is near us. There!"
For an instant, leagues of the Desert sprang out in the vivid flash, but Gaut saw nothing except sand and stones.
"He is close to us. I was wrong. He still lives in this land," said Runolf.
Then as yet another blaze of light expanded, "He has vanished from our sight," said Runolf; "but I have seen Him, as Peter saw Him, and John and Lazarus." And he sank back and lay in a glad stillness.
Out of the Desert came the Arab horsemen and a company of monks from the convent. They laid Runolf on a litter, and Gaut walked by his side as they bore him towards little specks of fire far away in the vast trackless night. Beyond these lights there were others; and yet again they guided their steps till they came to a rocky strath, with running water and palm-trees and olives. Here in the darkness it seemed as though they had entered into a maze of living stars, but these were fire-flies swarming among the rocks and trees.
In the cloister of the convent they were met by a man of mighty stature, aged and handsome. He bowed to Gaut with a kindly look and then leaned over his companion. He touched the sick man's face and closed his open eyes; and turning to Gaut, he asked in a gentle voice—
"You are Northmen?"
"Ay, lord; from Iceland. This is Runolf Grimason of Sheepfell by Blue Shaw Heath. My name is Gaut Ormson of Haukness."
"You have come far," said the tall man; "and to-night thy friend has fared further. No more can we help him, nor has he need we should. Be not too sorrowful for this. But now thou shalt rest and sleep, as is the privilege of sorrow. These shall watch beside thy friend, and to-morrow I will speak with thee."
On the morrow Gaut looked for the last time on Runolf, and the dead man's face seemed to have grown younger, and there was no line of disquietude in it. The brethren put a palm-branch between the dead pilgrim's hands, and laid him to rest in a tomb cut out of the rock on the strath side.
Then the kingly old man took Gaut's arm, saying, "Come now, brother, if it please thee to converse with me." He seemed to be the abbot of that house, for wheresoever he came monks and priests rose and stood ready to do him service; and he held himself so high above others that Gaut, who was no small man, scarce reached the masses of silvery hair which hung about his shoulders. He led Gaut to a fair stone house set among the palm-trees in the strath and laid fruit and bread and wine before him.
"Tell me first," he said, "whither thou wouldst go; or would it please thee to abide here and become one of us."
"Nay, I thank you, lord, but I will home again, and die among my neighbours."
"No need at all to die," replied the abbot cheerfully, "but if it be in thy mind to return home, I will give thee, when thou wilt, such furtherance as I may command."
Then having questioned him of his pilgrimage and of the men and places he had seen, "Now," said he, "good man from Iceland, tell me some news of thy home folk. Is Halfred the Skald still alive—him they called the Troublesome Poet?"
"King Olaf gave him that name," said Gaut. "He is dead, lord, these many winters. When the king fell in the Svold fight such anguish came upon him that he had no peace anywhere, but wandered restlessly as thistle-down in the wind. This, indeed, he said in one of his songs."
"Dost thou remember it, brother?"
"It ran thus," replied Gaut.
This, too, if one might repeat it, is another song he made:
A great song he made upon the Creation of the World, and that was in atonement of the transgressions of his youth when yet he worshipped the heathen spirits. He died in a wild storm on a voyage to Greenland, for a great wave dashed the boom upon him, and that killed him. His last words were a song, though I do not remember it aright. 'There is a lady,' he said, 'who will weep for me though of old I was her sorrow; yet freely would I now die, did I know that God would receive my soul.' They laid him in an oaken chest with an arm-ring of gold, a helmet, and a rich cloak. These were gifts he had of King Olaf. When they gave him to the sea, winds and waters bore him far, and the chest came ashore on the holy island of Iona; but thralls broke it open, and stealing the precious things, they cast the body into a marsh. 'Tis said that King Olaf appeared to the abbot in a vision. That I know not, but the guile of the thralls was discovered. Halfred was laid with honour in the church; of the arm-ring was made a chalice, of the cloak a cloth for the altar, and candlesticks of the helmet."
"It is strange to think of," said the abbot pacing to and fro. "And what of Kiartan?"
"He too is dead," said Gaut. "Ever he was seen to be a man fore-doomed. Folk say he loved the king's sister Ingebiorg, and when they kissed at parting 'twas a sore farewell. But Gudrun, who loved him above all the men in Iceland, brought him to his death. Bolli, his best friend, slew him, and yet loved him so that he held him in his arms till he died. The church at Burg, whither his body was borne, had been newly blest and was still hung in white. And this was a kindly chance in a hard weird, for Kiartan was the first man who kept Lent in Iceland, fasting and faring meagrely on the fruits of the earth."
"He was a goodly man," said the abbot, "and the king's sister did not need to love a nobler. But answer me this now. Is any memory of King Olaf kept green among you northern folk?"
"Ay, lord," said Gaut. "Glorious is the memory of that king, for he brought the realm to the creed of Christ."
"And what do folk say in these days of the sea-fight at Svold? I have heard that the king did not perish in that fight, but lived long after—even to the days of the kings who now rule."
"Many are the voices, and one says, and the other gainsays. Folk think that the king sank in his mail and made an end. Folk think that at the moment of the great light God took him. Folk think, too, that the king dived and swam beneath the great ships, and was carried away into safety by his Wendish friends."
"That last were more likely to happen," said the abbot, "than that he should have been caught up into Paradise. Some good, perchance, he did in his life, but he was a sinful man—even as I. Now tell me, what hast thou heard of Einar Tamberskelver? Does he still live?"
"Yea, and a mighty lord he is, and well loved."
"Greater archer than he there was not in Norway when he was young; and no man on the Dragon did more valiant deeds;" and the abbot, rising from his seat, brought from a chest a kingly belt and dagger. "These, when thou goest," he said, "I pray thee take to Einar, and greet him for me with this message, that he said a true word when he spoke of the breaking of the great bow of Norway from the king's hand."
"Very willingly," replied Gaut; and as he paused as if in doubt of something, the abbot asked him, "What is in thy thought?"
"I had a thing to say, if I might say it."
"Speak freely," said the abbot.
"Once when I was a lad I saw King Olaf. It is long ago; but changing gold for silver and the bloom of youth for the majesty of age, you, lord, remember me strangely of him. I pray you tell me whether you are not indeed King Olaf?"
"I knew the man, brother," answered the abbot, "and no one stood nearer to him than I in the last sea-fight; but I bear not his name, and I desire not his glory."
Some days thereafter, when Gaut had rested, the abbot provided him with all he needed, and gave him guides, who led him through the hills and the old Forest of Assur till he came to the sea and there found a ship for Greenland. All things were done in obedience to the abbot's word, as though he were a king in that land.
When Einar received his gift and heard his message his eyes filled with tears. "I would I had been with thee, Gaut," he said, "for this was no other than King Olaf that spoke with thee."
Now, when Edward the Confessor was king, it was his custom to read to his great men from the saga of King Olaf at Eastertide; "for," said he, "as Easter day is the greatest and most glorious of all days, so was this king the best and most illustrious of all the kings of our age." This he did ever as the feast of the Lord arisen came round.
One Easter Sunday when they had heard how the king escaped from the sea and had reached Jorsala Land, and there withdrawn to the peace of the cloister, King Edward closed the book and stood up beside the throne.
"To what we have read this day, I add this word," he said. "Pilgrims, returning from the holy places, have brought tidings of what we knew not until now. King Olaf whom we loved is dead. Pray for his soul. Suscipiat te, rex meus, Christus qui te vocavit—May Christ who called thee receive thee, my king!"