Gateway to the Classics: In the Days of Alfred the Great by Eva March Tappan
In the Days of Alfred the Great by  Eva March Tappan

Life on the Manor

E THELSWITHA was gone, and Alfred was lonely, though his nurse Hilda, who was always with him, roamed about wherever he chose to go. They were wandering idly about the place when suddenly they heard shouting and screaming. Men were striking stones together and beating bits of iron, and all the small boys of the settlement were adding to the noise in every way that they could.

"It is the bees," said Hilda. "Look! See them in the air!" And there they were flying in a dense swarm, slowly and in a vague, uncertain fashion. At last they seemed to rest on their wings almost motionless. The men drew back a little and looked at Hilda. She stepped forward, and caught up a handful of gravel in each hand. That in the left she threw over her left shoulder. Holding her right hand straight up above her head, she looked at the bees, tossed the rest of the gravel into the midst of them, and said in a kind of chanting tone:—

"Lithe and listen, my lady-bees;

Fly not far to the forest trees."

The moment that her voice was still, the noise began again louder than ever. The bees slowly settled down upon the limb of a tree in a shining, quivering mass. A hive made of braided straw was rubbed out with fresh leaves and put over them, and the swarm was safe.

"The old charms have not lost their power," said Hilda to the blacksmith.

"No, that they have not," said the blacksmith, "but they will not work for every one."

"The king's religion is the true one, of course, and we are baptized and go to his church, but the old gods are angry if we do not remember them sometimes," said Hilda. "The Christian God is good and kind, but the old gods will often work one harm, and it is just as well to say a good word to them now and then. You can say a prayer in the church afterwards."

The smith picked up the heavy tongs that he had been beating to add to the din, and went across the open place to where Alfred stood gazing curiously at the beehives.

"Will it please you, sir prince," he said, "to come to the forge? To-day I have finished my work on the king's new sword. Will you see it?"

"Yes, I will," said Alfred, and they walked down to the little valley where the forge stood. As they crossed the brook, swollen by the recent rains, Hilda hurried the little boy over the narrow foot-bridge.

"Be careful," she said, "and never look down at the water, for that is where the black nixy-man lives. He is angry when children look at him, and he snaps at them, and drags them down and eats them." So they went on till they came to the rude hut in which the smith had built his great fire on a heavy stone hearth. The sword was brought out, but Alfred was disappointed to see that it did not shine.

"My father's sword shines," he said at last.

"So will this," said the smith, "but first it must go to the gold-worker, and he will polish it and twist gold cord about the handle, and put bands of bronze about it—and perhaps he will get a wise man to cut a rune into it," he whispered to Hilda.

"The king would not be pleased," said she.

"But it might save his life," said the smith. "Did you never hear of the two kings, Jarl and Thorl, how they fought; and each was a great warrior, and at the first stroke each drove his sword clear through the body of the other? Thorl's armorer loved him, and he had secretly had a rune cut on the inside of the handle where the king would never see it; but Jarl's armorer hated him, and so there was no rune on his sword; and the men stood, each with the other's sword run clear through him. But Jarl's sword sprang out from Thorl's body, and no one ever saw it again, and the wound closed, and there was no scar. But Thorl's sword had a rune on it, and so it did not spring out of the wound. It grew heavier and heavier, and in a minute Jarl sank down and died."

Alfred and Hilda had seated themselves under a tree not far from the great rock that stood beside the little hut of the smith. Alfred said:—

"Hilda, what is a rune?"

"It's a strange mark," said Hilda. "Long ago, when the gods used to live with men, they told a few very wise men how to make these signs. The gods know what they mean, and if a man cuts them on his sword, then the gods will come to help him when he fights; but you must not tell the bishop, for the priests do not like the runes."

"Are they afraid of them? Is the runes' god stronger than their God?" asked Alfred.

"No, I suppose not," said Hilda, a little doubtfully, "but they will not let us use them."

Alfred thought a minute, and then said:—

"Was Thorl a good man?"

"Yes," said Hilda.

"If Jarl had been a good man, would not his sword have stayed in as well as Thorl's?"

"I don't know," said Hilda, a little hastily, and looked around over her shoulder, for she was not a little afraid of the evil spirits that she believed were in the air all around. Then, too, she had just seen an eagle fly by toward the left, and she knew that this was a bad sign.

"Come a little way into the forest," she said, "and we will gather flowers, and I will make you a crown, because some day you will have a crown of gold and sit on the high seat on the dais; and you will ride at the head of the fighting men when they go out to battle, and when they speak to you, they will bow down low and say, 'Hail, sir king.' "

They wandered on and on into the forest, for Hilda was thoughtless of danger except from evil spirits. At last they sat down on a mossy log to rest, and Alfred said:—

"Tell me a story about a king;" and Hilda began:—

"Once upon a time there was a king, and he was an old man—"

"Was he as old as my father?"

"Much older," said Hilda. "He was so old that he knew that he must soon die, and he told the thegns to build him a beautiful boat. They must paint it white and put a broad band of gold around it, and the sails must be of gold woven into cloth. At the bow was a pillar made of wood and gilded; and on the pillar was an image of a mighty warrior, and this warrior was a great god."

"Did he use to live with men?" asked the boy.

"Yes, but it was so long ago that no one can remember his name," said Hilda.

"Perhaps if we knew his name and cut it on all the swords, the Danes would never dare to come to the land again," said Alfred. At this, Hilda looked a little frightened, for she had been forbidden to tell the prince of the heathen gods; but the child went on:—

"How did he look? Did he look like my father?"

"No one could ever see his face without dying," said Hilda, "but his helmet covered it, so people could come near and bow down at his feet and make him presents. He had a blue banner in his right hand, and a great red rose was embroidered on it. The crest of his helmet was a cock, and on his shield was a lion with flowers around his neck."

"You haven't made my crown," said Alfred. "Make it, for I shall be a king; and tell me what this king did."

So Hilda wove a wreath of the pretty scarlet anemones and put it on the boy's head, and went on with her story.

"The king told his men to hang all around the outside of his vessel the shields that he had used, and behind every shield they were to put three spears fastened together with golden chains; and on the mast was the most beautiful shield of all, the one that the king had carried in his greatest battle, and over it was his banner, blood-red, with a bear in the centre. And at the stern of the vessel was the king's coat of mail, and it flashed like fire when the sun shone on it. Then the king bade his men to pile up a great heap of dry pine wood on the ship in front of the figure, and over that to put fir, and over that oak, and to bind it with golden chains, and to hang golden chains from the masts, and to put many jeweled rings on the prow. Men wondered what it might mean, but they must obey the king, and so when he said:—

" 'Lay me upon your shields, and carry me on board the ship,' they did so. Then he said:—

" 'Place me on top of the oaken wood, and put my sword into my right hand, and the chain from the helmet of the god into my left, and bind the helm straight for the north, and leave me.'

"The thegns obeyed with wonder and fear and great sorrow, and they left the ship and rowed for the shore; and they said afterward that they heard a sound like strange music and like the marching of soldiers a great way off, but before they had come to the shore, a strong wind arose from the south. Only one of the thegns dared to look at the vessel, and never until he was about to die did he tell what he saw. Then he said that he saw the king wave his sword. It made strange runes of fire in the air, and the wood of the pile began to smoke. Then the king pulled the golden chain that hung from the helmet and looked straight up into the face of the great figure; and the figure took the king by the hand. All at once it was twilight, and afar off there was a red glare on the waters; and then it was dark, and the thegns—"

"That's a good story, woman," said one of three men who suddenly appeared from among the rocks behind them, "but we can't wait to hear another"; and he bound the trembling Hilda fast with withes, while another caught up the prince.

"There'll be a fine ransom for him," said the man. "He's the son of some noble."

"Put me down. If I had my father's sword, I would run it straight through you," said the little boy.

"And who is your father?" asked the third man, while the others listened eagerly.

"My father is the king," said the child, "and I shall be a king some day—don't you see my crown?—and my father will kill you."

"Does he say true?" whispered one, in awe. "See the silver thread around his tunic. This game is too high for us. Fly! I hear the tread of horses," and the man set the child down carefully, and the three all slid into the dark shadows of the forest, leaving Hilda lying bound. The hoof-beats grew louder, and four of the king's hunters drew near.

"It is the prince," said one, "and where is Hilda?"

"There," said another, "and bound. Who has done this? Grant that the prince be not harmed; it would kill the king."

Hilda was quickly freed, and she and the boy were put on two of the horses, which were led by two men toward the palace.

"I'll never go back to the king with such a tale," said one.

"I will," said another, "and the heads of the thieves shall go with it. How dared they venture so near the homes of the fighters of the king!" And so the two set off, and when they returned late that night, they were a grim sight, for their clothes were dusty and torn and bloody, and they held the heads of the three robbers high in the air on the points of their spears.

"We were two, but two thegns of King Ethelwulf can well meet three thieves," said they. "We smoked them out of their cave like bees from a honey tree, and they will not bind women again." The next day the three heads were carried afar into the forest and put up each on the top of a high pole, that all the other robbers might see and take warning.

Hilda was punished severely for her carelessness, and never again was the prince left in her charge. Indeed, Queen Osburga could hardly bear to have him out of her sight for a moment; and when it was found out that Hilda had been telling him the stories that she was forbidden to tell, then the king banished her from his court and sent her to a convent a long way off.

The queen was anxious about the king in those days, for he often seemed lost in thought, and many times she saw his eyes fixed upon her and Alfred with the same look of suffering and determination that she had seen the night of the wedding; and one day when she was in one of the rooms behind the dais, she heard him pacing to and fro on the raised platform, and saying to himself:—

"It is all for my sins. I must atone—I must atone. It is a warning." His voice was so full of anguish that the queen did not venture to come in upon him then; but her heart fell, for she was sure that some terrible grief was coming to them.

As she sat in sadness and anxiety, the little prince climbed upon her knee, and said:—

"Mother, won't you tell me a story? Hilda used to."

"My fear shall not make my child sad," she thought, and she said:—

"Yes, I will tell you a story, and I will show you a story, too." And she called one of her women.

"Go to the carved oaken chest in the southeast corner of the treasure room, and bring me the manuscript that is wrapped in a blue silken cloth."

The manuscript was brought, and the child watched with the deepest interest while the queen carefully unfolded the silken wrapping. She took out a parchment that was protected by a white leather covering. At the corners were bits of gold filigree work, and in the filigree was traced in enamel, in one corner the head of a lion, in the second that of a calf, in the third a man's face, and in the fourth a flying eagle. In the centre of the cover was a bright red stone that glowed in the light of the great wood fire.

Then the cover was thrown back, and there was a single piece of parchment. It was torn in one place and a little crumpled, and one corner had been scorched in the fire. It was covered with strange signs, most of them in black, but sometimes one was larger than the rest and painted in red, and blue, and green, and gold, in brighter, clearer colors than Alfred had ever seen in silk or in woolen.

"What is it, mother?" he cried. "Did the gods—the old ones—did they give it to you? and did they tell you how to make runes?"


"What is it, mother?" he cried.

"Hush!" said his mother, looking half fearfully around and making the sign of the cross on the child's forehead. "There are no gods but our own, but there are evil spirits. We must not speak of the old gods. This is a manuscript from Canterbury."

The older sons had come into the room and pressed near to look at the treasure, Ethelbald who had stood beside his father as man by man in the last war with the Danes, Ethelbert, who was but a few years younger, and Ethelred, who was also a tall young man.

"Does it mean anything? asked Ethelred.

"Yes," said his mother. "It tells a part of a story. There must have been much more of it sometime. It was in the convent at Canterbury, and when the Danes burned it—you were a baby, Alfred—the roll was burned; but a thegn saw this piece lying half hidden under a stone where the wind had blown it. The bishop said he might bring it to me, and I had the cover made for it. This is what it says," and she repeated:—

"Once on a time it happened that we in our vessel

Ventured to ride o'er the billows, the high-dashing surges.

Full of danger to us were the paths of the ocean.

Streams of the sea beat the shores, and loud roared the breakers,

Fierce Terror rose from the breast of the sea o'er our wave-ship.

There the Almighty, glorious Creator of all men,

Was biding his time in the boat. Men trembled at heart,

Called upon God for compassion, the Lord for his mercy;

Loud wailed the crowd in the keel. Arose straightway

The Giver of joy to the angels; the billows were silenced,

The whelm of the waves and the winds was stilled at his word,

The sea was calm and the ocean-streams smooth in their limits.

There was joy in our hearts when under the circle of heaven

The winds and the waves and the terror of waters, themselves

In fear of the glorious Lord became fearful.

Wherefore the living God—'tis truth that I tell you—

Never forsakes on this earth a man in his trouble,

If only his heart is true and his courage unfailing."

The tall young man listened as eagerly as the child, but when at the end she said:—

"I will give it to any one of you who will learn to repeat it," Alfred spoke first:—

"Will you really give it to the one that will learn it?"

"Yes," said his mother, smiling, "but you are too little. Will you have it, Ethelbald?"

"Songs are good, but fighting is better, so I'll none of it;" and Ethelbert said:—

"Saying poems is for harpers, not for princes;" and Ethelred looked at the red stone on the cover rather longingly, and then at the torn and scorched sheet of parchment, and said:—

"I don't care for pieces of things. Alfred may have it." Alfred was listening eager-eyed.

"Mother, I will learn it, truly I will. The priest will say it to me, and I will learn it. Won't you let me have it?" he pleaded.

"But what would a little boy like you do with it, if you had it?" asked the queen.

"I'd send it to my sister Ethelswitha. Won't you let me take it to the priest?" he begged. The queen yielded, the parchment was rolled up, the silken covering carefully wrapped around it, and a man was sent with the child to find the priest. It was not many days before the priest came with the little prince to the queen and said:—

"My lady, the young prince can say every word of it."

So the boy was put up high on the king's seat in the great hall, and the king and the thegns and the priests and the women of the house all came in to see the wonderful thing. To sing the old ballads, that was nothing; many a man could do that; but to say off something that had come right from a wonderful piece of parchment, that was quite another matter. Some of them were not really sure that there was not some witchcraft about it, and they stood as near the middle of the hall as they could, so that if the evil spirits should come in at either end, they could get out at the other.

Nothing dangerous happened, however. The little boy said the poem, and was praised and petted very much as a child would be to-day for accomplishing some small feat. Then the precious roll was laid on a golden salver, and one of the king's favorite thegns carried it to him, and bending low on one knee, presented it to the little prince.

"And now may I carry it to Ethelswitha?" he asked eagerly.

"It shall be sent to her," said his mother, "and the thegn shall say, 'Your little brother Alfred sends you this with his love'; but Ethelswitha's home is a long way off, and I could not spare my little boy, not even for a single day."

Again there came that strange look into the eyes of the king. He drew Osburga into a room back of the dais, and said:—

"Could you spare your son to save your husband?"

"What do you mean?" Osburga asked. She felt that the mysterious trouble that she had feared was coming upon her.

"Many years ago," said the king, "I wished to become a priest. I gave it up to please my father, because he had no other son; but I vowed to make the pilgrimage to Rome as penance, because I had drawn back after I had put my hand to the plough. My duty to the kingdom, and I am sometimes afraid my love for you,—" and he put his arm tenderly about her,—" has kept me from performing my vow. A warning came. The child that I love best was in the hands of robbers. God interposed with a miracle, and he was saved; but there will not be another miracle. I must not go to Rome, the kingdom needs me. Shall I lose my soul for my broken vow, or shall I send—?"

"Don't say it, I cannot bear it," begged the queen; but the king laid his finger gently upon her lips, and said:—

"One must give that which he values most. Shall we send Alfred?"

"Not the child," sobbed the queen. "Send the older ones, not the little one. Ethelswitha is gone, and Alfred gone—I cannot bear it."

"One must give what he values most," repeated the king gravely; "and again, it was about Alfred that the warning came. Shall we leave him to be taken from us, or shall we spare him for a little while to save him to us?"

"Let me go with him," pleaded Osburga.

"And leave me alone?" the king answered. "Is it not enough to spare my best-loved son?" and as she looked up in his face, she trembled to see how pale it had become.

"No, I could not leave you," she said. "You are wise, and I am not. You must do what is right, but how can I bear it?"

The next morning there was great excitement, for every one knew that Prince Alfred was going to Rome in the care of Bishop Swithin.

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