"T HE king's business brooks no delay," said the bishop to himself, as with the three men for guides he rode through the streets of the city to the abiding place of the king's messenger.
"A greeting to you, Wulfric," said the bishop, "bold and trusty thegn of my king that I know you to be. What brings you into so sad a plight?" for the thegn lay on his bed and was evidently in great distress. Drops of perspiration stood on his forehead, and his face was drawn with suffering.
"Think not of me," said the thegn. "Do not lose a moment. I fear that it is already too late. Osburga, the wife of our king, is dying. Take the prince to her. With that message am I sent."
"But what has come to the queen?" asked the bishop. "Is it the grief from the parting?"
"Yes," said the thegn. "She pined for the prince, and faded so rapidly that the king sent me to intercept you and give his command that you bring back the child to his mother."
"Where is your guard?" asked the bishop. "You are alone?"
"I came alone," answered the thegn. "My mother was one of the Franks. I know the language of the peoples through whose lands one must pass. I told the king that I could make my way faster if I was alone, that I knew footpaths and secret ways through the mountains where one man might go, but not an armed troop."
"And to bring a child to his mother, you have come alone where we scarcely ventured with a great guard of armed men?"
"It was the will of the king," said the thegn simply, "and all would have been well, had I not—and I was but a few miles from your road—if I had only not been taken by robbers, I should have met you; but that was many days ago. They held me for a ransom. I begged for only a few hours to meet you and give you my message, but they laughed me to scorn. I could not wait for the ransom; the king's business brooks no delay. I escaped. They caught me and tortured me and left me for dead. I made my way here, I know not how, and our own Saxons in Rome have cared for me most tenderly. I shall die, but tell my king that I was faithful to my trust."
The bishop's eyes were full. He bent low and kissed the thegn's hand.
"My bishop!" the suffering man gasped in protest.
"To-morrow I shall come to you again," said the bishop. "The prince cannot travel without rest. The king must not lose both wife and child."
Scarcely was the bishop again on the street when there was a great clattering of hoofs. He turned, and there was a company of riders with the familiar Saxon dress and weapons. The bishop's heart sank.
"If it was well with her," he thought, "there would be no message."
The foremost of the riders dismounted, bowed himself low before his bishop, and presented a bit of parchment in a strong leather case. It read:—
"Ethelwulf the king sends greeting to Swithin his bishop, and bids him know that Osburga, the wife of the king, is dead; and that it is the king's will that Alfred the prince tarry in Rome until the king come to him."
The bishop was a good man of business as well as a prelate, and it was but a short time before the prince was comfortably established for a longer stay than they had planned. Not until he had had many days of rest did the bishop give him the message from his father. Then very tenderly he told him that when he went home his mother would not be there to meet him.
"But I was going to carry her the prettiest gift in Rome," said he, his great blue eyes filling with tears, "and now she won't have it."
"You can pray for her," said the bishop, taking the child into his arms, "and that is better than any gift in all Rome."
"But I wanted to carry her something," said the little boy, and in spite of all the tender care and sympathy of the bishop and Wynfreda, the little Saxon prince was that night the saddest, loneliest child in Rome.
The Saxons were nominally guests of the Pope, Leo IV, and very soon came the first interview with him. Leo was much pleased with the little boy who quietly did just what he was told to in the formal ceremony of his reception; and he was far more pleased when the child, after a long look straight into his eyes, came up to him fearlessly and laid his little hand in that of Pope.
"That is a child with the soul of a prince," said the Pope. "Some day he will be a king, it needs no prophet to foretell that there will turbulent days in that stormy, harassed land of the Saxons. Perhaps he will not wear his crown until long after I am gone, but no hand save mine shall anoint him with the holy oil." And so holy oil was brought, for Leo was not a man of delays and postponements, and the child was anointed and blessed. Then the Pope said, touching the jewel that hung at Alfred's throat:—
"And what is this? Is it a relic?"
"It is my Saint Cuthbert," said the boy. "My mother gave it to me, and I was going to carry her the prettiest thing in all Rome; but now I can't, because she is dead." The Pope laid his hand tenderly on the child's head.
"The Saxon prince comes nearer to my heart than any other child has ever done," he said. "He has his sponsors in baptism, but he shall have one more. I hereby adopt him as my own spiritual son. I give him the blessing of the Father of the Church, and I give him the kiss of the tired old warrior whose heart he has warmed with his childish trust," and the Pope bent down and kissed the boy gently on the forehead.
Very little of this speech had Alfred understood, for it had all been in Latin, but he had many questions to ask about it, and Bishop Swithin tried to make him comprehend the meaning of the ceremony. The next morning he asked to be taken again to see "my Pope," as he persisted in calling the warrior pontiff, but a council of bishops was to be held in Rome, and it was quite a long time before the Pope could be free to see his little friend.
Month after month passed on, and Ethelwulf did not come. He had hoped to start at once, but one trouble after another in his kingdom prevented him from leaving it. Meanwhile there was much to see in this great city of Rome, the very centre of art and learning, and the months passed swiftly. Soon after their arrival, Alfred had noticed some men heavily chained who were working on the rebuilding of the fortifications.
"My father's men do not wear chains," he said. "Why do these men?"
The bishop explained to him that just as the Danes troubled England, so the Saracens, a people who lived across the sea, had troubled Rome.
"They tore down the holy churches of Saint Peter and Saint Paul," he said, "and robbed them. The sacred pictures they ran through with their knives. The precious stones were torn from the altar, and the golden images and consecrated dishes were carried away to serve in the land of the heathen."
"When the Danes came, my father and Ethelbald fought them and drove them away," said Alfred. "Why didn't my Pope drive them away?"
"He was not Pope then," said the bishop, "but just as soon as he became Pope, and knew that they were coming again, he built those two great towers that you can see from the window, one on each bank of the Tiber, and he stretched a heavy iron chain between them, so that the fleet of the heathen Saracens could not come up the river. Then he repaired the walls and put up new watch-towers. Before long the Saracen fleet came, and the Pope's fleet went out to meet them, and there was a great fight."
"We didn't fight when we saw the Danes," said Alfred.
"No," said the bishop. "We had prayed to God, and He had sent the little worms of the sea to aid us. The Pope's people, too, had prayed, and while they were fighting, a strong wind arose, and the boats of the heathen were separated. Some of them were dashed on the rocks, and all the men were drowned; and some of the men in the other boats were cast away on little islands where there was nothing to eat, and they starved to death; and many were driven on this coast and were taken prisoners, and they are the men whom you saw in chains. They tried to overthrow the Holy City, and now it is their strength that is being used to rebuild it and to fortify it so that no one shall ever be able to come against it again."
"Is it where the high walls are that they are building?" asked Alfred.
"Yes," said the bishop, "in the Vatican quarter. They call it the Leonine City, because the name of your Pope is Leo. He has consecrated it to heaven so that no wicked Saracens can ever prevail against it. A little while before we came, he walked around the wall with many bishops and all the Roman clergy, and sprinkled it with holy water. They were barefooted and had ashes on their heads. At each of the three gates they stopped and prayed that heaven would bless the city, and save it from the heathen men who hated it. Then, because they wished everybody in Rome to be as happy as they were, they gave away great sums of money to the people that were there. To-morrow you shall go again to see the new church of Saint Peter that is within the high walls."
But when the next day came, a messenger arrived from King Ethelwulf, bidding Swithin return at once to England. The king was sad from the loss of his wife, and longed to see his youngest and best-beloved son. Had he read the will of heaven aright, he wondered? Ought he to have sent the child to Rome to keep his father's vow, even to save the boy from fancied danger? Was the death of his wife a punishment for his neglect of duty? He was anxious and restless. He would send for Swithin and the child to return to England, and he would be separated no more from his son, but would take Alfred with him and make his pilgrimage to Rome even at this late day; and so it was, that instead of going to Saint Peter's Church, Alfred started on the long journey across the mountains. The Pope had for many weeks been too ill to see him, so that his little friend could give him no farewell.
It was a lonely time. The bishop was troubled. He was a brave man, and a man of resources, but the care of a delicate child on a second long and dangerous journey was no light matter, and the great responsibilities that awaited his arrival in England were enough to make the most self-reliant man serious. He was much relieved when, before they had travelled many hours, a second messenger from the king met him.
"It is better," said the king, "for me to wait than for the prince to make the journey twice. I bid you leave him in a place of safety to await my coming, and do you make all haste to England."
And so Alfred was left with Wynfreda and a strong guard of nobles, to wait for his father and to make a still longer visit in Rome.
Swithin pushed on to England, and found King Ethelwulf eagerly awaiting his arrival.
"My wife is gone, my child is across the sea and the land," said he sadly. "I have done my best. The country is no longer troubled by the Danish heathen. Surely now I may give up the kingdom to younger hands, and spend my last years in Rome, as did two of my ancestors."
This was what Swithin had feared. He must look for the good of the church rather than for the happiness of the king. If Ethelwulf gave up his kingdom, it would go into the hands of Ethelbald, who was strong, self-willed, and the only one of the king's sons whom the bishop had never been able to influence. Ethelbald cared nothing for the church, and under him it would have neither gifts nor protection. Swithin thought rapidly. Only the most perfect frankness would influence this man, who, hesitating and sometimes weak as he was in matters relating to the government of his kingdom, was never weak or hesitating in matters relating to truth.
"My king," he said, "the kingdom is free from the enemy, but is the church free from her foes? The church in Rome is cared for and protected, but does not the church in England still need your care? Will you spend your life in Rome that the church may give to you? or will you remain in England that you may give to the church? I counsel that you make the pilgrimage, and so free your soul from the shadow of a vow, and then return to aid the church in the country where God has placed you, and among the duties that he has laid upon you."
As the bishop counseled, so it was. In the presence of Swithin and another bishop, Ethelwulf signed a charter freeing one-tenth of his lands from royal tribute and devoting them to the service of the church, and set out eagerly for Rome. The king of the Franks received him with the greatest honors, and would have gladly kept his royal guest for months, but Ethelwulf was too anxious to reach Rome and to meet his favorite son again to be willing to delay. He pressed on, and the Frankish king could do nothing more than to give him his royal escort to the boundary of the kingdom.
Alfred had come a day's journey to meet him, and now a second time the little prince entered Rome, and this time with his father.
"I want to show you my Pope," were the little boy's first words as they entered the city; but the city was draped with black, for the warrior Pope who had defended it so bravely and wisely against its enemies was dead, and every one mourned for him, none more sincerely than the little Saxon boy and his father.
A few days later, a priest was quietly praying in his church, when he was interrupted by the news that he had been chosen as the successor of Leo IV. He begged with tears to be released.
"The charge is too much for me," he said. "I am not equal to it. I am not worthy," but in spite of all his protests, he was carried to the Lateran Church and set on the throne; and so it was that Ethelwulf and his son became guests of Benedict III instead of Alfred's friend, Leo IV.
Ethelwulf's generosity, if nothing more, would have made him a most welcome visitor, for he brought to the Pope gifts that were indeed worthy of a king. There was a crown of pure gold, four pounds in weight, a sword with golden hilt, dishes of gold and of silver set with jewels, many priestly vestments, among them costly stoles with borders of gold and purple, and robes of white samite heavily embroidered with gold and with jewels.
One whole year he spent in Rome, and there seemed to be no limit to his benefactions. He gave gold and silver to Saint Peter's Church, and made generous presents to both clergy and nobles and to the common people. Accustomed as the Romans were to the lavishness of royal pilgrims and to their presence in the Roman streets, these former visitors were quite outshone by this sovereign of a far-away country, who could not speak their language, and whose very name they could not pronounce.
There had been in Rome for many years a school to educate Saxon priests, but this had been burned. Ethelwulf rebuilt it and endowed it. He was not satisfied with his present gifts, but promised one hundred marks a year to the Pope, and the same sum to the church of Saint Peter, and also to Saint Paul's, to provide oil for the lamps for Easter even and Easter morning.
This church of Saint Peter was the jewel of Rome. Protected by the mighty walls of the Leonine City, forty feet in height, it was a treasure-house of all that was rich and costly. Leo had covered the altar with plates of gold, flashing and flaming with precious stones. A silver crucifix was set with amethysts and diamonds, and a golden cross with pearls, opals, and emeralds. There were priceless vases and censers and chalices set with many jewels. There were lamps hung by silver chains ending in golden balls, and there were reading desks of wrought silver. Heavy tapestry in dim, rich colors hung at the doors and on the columns. The priests had vestments of silk and of purple velvet embroidered with gold thread and blazing with precious stones. Ethelwulf, as well as Alfred, had been accustomed to nothing more grand than the English cathedral at Winchester, and this, with the river flowing gently down the valley, the woods all around the little town, and the green hills looking down upon it, seemed like a quiet country chapel in comparison with the magnificence of Saint Peter's in its rich setting of the great Roman city with its towers and churches and monasteries, and its hills crowned with lordly castles.
It was a happy year for the king. He was free from the cares of a turbulent kingdom, which had always been irksome to him. He could spend long hours at his prayers in the churches richly adorned with the gifts of believers, until he could almost fancy that he had at last entered upon the convent life for which he had longed, and forget that he must ever again take up the duties of his kingdom.
But Bishop Swithin was sending him messages that the country needed its king, and at last he reluctantly turned his steps northward to find himself at the Frankish court. Its glitter and its gayeties were at first almost a shock to his highly wrought feelings; but after a little, the very contrast aroused and interested him, and yielding to the urgent invitation of Charles the Bald, he lingered month after month. Next to Rome, this Frankish capital, with the influence of Charlemagne still upon it, was the centre of all culture and the home of all magnificence.
Alfred had hoped to find a little boy like Ekhard, but he forgot his disappointment when he met the king's eldest daughter. She was just about the age that Ethelswitha had been at her marriage. The little brother had missed his sister sorely, and he could almost fancy in meeting Judith that Ethelswitha had come back to him, only she had been quiet and gentle, while this Judith was never twice the same. Sometimes she would put on all the airs of a great lady and insist upon his imitating the manners of some dignified courtier, and then in the midst of all the mock formality, she would suddenly seize his hand, gather up her long skirts, and away they would run down the corridors in a merry race. Even more wonderful than Ekhard, the boy that had seen a battle, was this fascinating Judith, always changing, never twice in the same mood, but always kind to him.
While Alfred was so happy, his father was troubled, for he knew in the bottom of his heart that he ought to return to his kingdom. The Danes had spent the winter on the island of Sheppey, and the country needed its king. Still he delayed to leave this stately court, many of whose ways were so congenial to him. Into the midst of his meditating came one day his little son, who had evidently been meditating too in his small way. He began:—
"Father, I like Judith."
"Yes," said the king, rather absently, "she seems to be a merry, agreeable young girl."
"Shall we go home to Wessex again after we have been here longer?" The king started; the child seemed to have read his thoughts.
"Yes," he said slowly.
"Then can't Judith go too? Will you ask her father?"
Like most people who waver and hesitate over lesser affairs, Ethelwulf often decided weighty matters with a rather astonishing haste. Ever since he left England he had dreaded to return to the lonely palace from which he had fled. Would it not be easier to return if he could take with him this merry, lighthearted young girl? Before nightfall he had asked the Frankish king for the hand of his daughter in marriage.