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

"I Must Serve My People"

W HEN Alfred was told of the massacre, he was cut to the heart. "It is my own men of Kent," he said. "If I could only have been with them!" Then he remembered and understood Swithin's lament when Winchester was sacked and burned, "My people, O my people!" "What can I do for my people?" the boy questioned. The thought pressed too heavily upon him. He could not be still; he must go somewhere, do something. A company was just starting for the woods to hunt; he caught up a spear and galloped after them.

It was not safe to go any distance into the forest alone, but before long Alfred had left his companions far behind him. On and on he rode. Deer sprang away before him, but his bow hung idle. Wolves howled faintly in the distance, only waiting for twilight to make their attack, but he did not even grasp his sword the more firmly. Faster and faster he went, realizing nothing of his whereabouts until between the trees he caught a glimpse of a little village. He was in no mood to meet people and receive the homage that they would pay him as their favorite prince. He checked his horse and sought a roundabout way to avoid the villagers. Only one did he meet, and that one far from the houses, an old woman wandering aimlessly about. She was bent and bowed and almost blind, but worse than all that, Alfred saw at a glance that she was afflicted with all the horrors of leprosy. The sickly white of her skin, the ghastly ravages of the disease—it was more than the young prince in his highly excited mood could bear. He spurred his horse and went on faster than ever.

"To be like that," he gasped, "to be a horror and a dread to my people! I could not bear it. Anything but that! The pain is nothing." But even as he spoke, the suffering of the disease that no one could understand or lessen came suddenly upon him. He slipped from his horse and lay on the ground only half conscious, but saying to himself over and over again:—

"Anything but that, anything but that!"

The pain disappeared as suddenly as it came, and he looked around him. He was alone. His horse was quietly feeding near by and came at his call. He was on the outskirts of the village. Not far away, at the edge of the rocky valley, was a tiny church, and into it Alfred made his way, staggering from weakness. A single priest was at the altar. The prince knelt reverently. When the prayer was over, he approached the priest.

"I am Alfred the prince," he said. "Will you send some one to care for my horse, and will you leave me here all night? I must be alone." The priest bent low before him.

"The blessing of the church be upon you, and the God of the church be with you," he said as he closed the door. The prince was alone. He flung himself before the altar.

"Anything but that," he prayed, "anything but that! My people would scorn me. I must serve my people. Any pain, any suffering, but let me help my people. Give me strength. Give me wisdom, not for myself, but for my people."

Long the prince pleaded; then he slept, soundly and sweetly, even on the hard floor before the altar.

It was morning when he awoke. The day was bright and sunny. His heart was at rest. He knew not what lay before him, but he believed that his prayer would be answered. In that night Alfred had left his boyhood behind him. He was a man, and the cares and burdens of a man were pressing nearer to him than he knew.

He rode slowly through the forest, breathing in the freshness of the early morning, stopping for a moment to enjoy the plashing and gurgling of every tiny brook, seeing every ray of sunlight that beamed softly down through the branches upon a bed of green moss, or brought out the rich golden brown of some pool lying sleepily under the trees. He felt himself a man. He knew that dangers and responsibilities lay before him, but he felt strong to encounter them.

As he rode up to the palace, his brother met him.

"I have been a little anxious about you, Alfred," he said. "It is not your wont to stay away so long."

"No, it is not," said Alfred. "I will not do it again. I did not remember that you might be alarmed," and, indeed, he had felt so full of responsibility that he had forgotten that any one might feel responsible for him.

"I was in the little village far to the west of us," he said. "I spent the night alone in the church." The king looked a little troubled but he said only:—

"Bishop Alstan has been asking for you. He wishes to see you."

"He is not ill?" asked the prince quickly.

"No, but he is very feeble. We cannot hope to have him with us long. He has done his work nobly and rest is good. Rest is good," repeated the king a little wearily, and as Alfred looked at him, he was struck by the worn look on his pale face.

"You are tired," he said. "I wish that I could help you."

"You do help me," said the king, laying his hand on the prince's shoulder, "and the thought of you rests me. It will make it easier to lay down the heavy burden when the time of freedom comes. But now go and find the bishop."

Alfred rode away a little saddened, but feeling himself even more of a man because of his older brother's trust and his rare words of affectionate confidence.

It was not the way of the soldier bishop to make long preambles to what he had to say, and after a brief welcome he began:—

"I have known your brothers, your father, and your grandfather. I have watched the sons of Ethelwulf from their childhood. King Ethelbert will not have a long life; the feeble old bishop may live longer than he. Where will the kingdom fall? Into the hands of Ethelred, trembling and uncertain as they are. I could overthrow his claims even now. Weak and worn as I am, there are strong arms ready to do my bidding; but to thrust him from the throne would be to arouse a party in his favor, and the kingdom must not be divided. No, it is best that he should be king, but the real power must rest in your hands. Do you fear to accept it?"

"I will do the best that I can for my people. What is for their good shall ever be first with me," said the prince solemnly.

"That is good," said the old man, gazing keenly into the eyes of the youth. "I believe that you will keep your word. There is a new manliness in your face, a something that I have not seen there before. You are a boy in years, but you have the heart of a man and some of the man's wisdom."

"I am enough of a man to value your advice," said Alfred. "If I should ever—if the time comes of which you speak, what ought I to do?"

"First of all," said the bishop in a low, clear voice, "you must demand of Ethelred your share of the property left by your father. If he yields it to you, matters will be easier; but I think he will not yield. He has a vague idea that in some way, if he only holds on to it, he can give more to the church. That one thought is firmly fixed in his mind, and he will not understand that to give even to the church money and lands that belong to another will bring no blessing. If he refuses, you can do no more, for you must stand together. It is a difficult position for even a man of experience. You must be the power in the kingdom, but you must act only as your brother's agent, or at least seem to do so.

"There is one word more. I have been something of a soldier in my time. There will be fighting in our land, worse than has ever been before. When our people came, they drove the Britons to the westward till they took refuge in the wildest mountain fastnesses of Wales; and I have feared lest the Danes in time soon to come drive us too from our homes to some other place, perhaps across the water to the land that is beyond the country of the Cambrians. Now that my arm is feeble, I see what we need. All that will save us is union. Two men together have the strength of three separately, but we are separated. When Kent is ravaged, we are glad it is not Wessex; and when Winchester is sacked, the men of Kent rejoice that they have escaped. That has been our mistake. You must try to make each division of your kingdom feel that what hurts any one part hurts all. Unite, if you would save your country. Unite, if you would have a country to save." The old man sank back wearied. The prince bent low and kissed his hand in farewell.

"My bishop and my soldier," he said, "of all that has been said to me I will take heed."

"The boy has the mind of a man," murmured the bishop, "for he can listen; and he has the heart of a king, for he can obey. The land is safe in his hands. Mine eyes have seen its salvation. I may depart in peace."

Ethelbert worked with a feverish eagerness to prepare his men for fighting. Night and day the forges were aglow, and at any hour the king was likely to come in upon the workmen and even to take a hand in the work himself to teach them some better way that he had learned or invented.

Ethelred paid little attention to the preparations that were going on around him. The Danes were not in sight, why then fear their coming? Perhaps they would not come at all. So he reasoned, and went on with his usual occupations, while Alfred was taking his place in aiding the king in his efforts. He had gained much that was of practical value from his reading, and he was quick to see the better way of doing a thing. The king was most grateful for the help and interest of his younger brother. He worked more eagerly than ever, till one day his over-tasked strength gave way. There was no disease, or at least none that the primitive medical skill of the time could discover. He simply grew weaker day by day, and it was not long before he, too, was laid in Sherborne Cathedral.

The grief throughout the land was most sincere, for Ethelbert was loved and respected; and while Ethelred had no enemies, all who came near him had learned to fear his weakness in important matters and his occasional obstinacy in trifles. Many looked upon the younger brother, and wished that he, even with his lack of years and of experience, might be placed upon the throne. This feeling went no further than words, however, both because Alstan's wishes were powerful among them, and because even the most restless feared the trouble that would follow division and rivalry. Yet it is hard to say what might have been the result, had not Alfred invariably discouraged any suggestion that he should take the first place. Whatever he did, he did in the name of Ethelred. "My brother, the king," was always his authority.

But the time had come when, if he obeyed the words of Alstan, he must formally demand his share of the inheritance. It must be in the presence of the king's council, and there it was that with nobles and thegns looking on he laid his claim before the king.

"King Ethelred, my brother," he said, "it is now six years since you and I willingly laid our possessions into the hand of Ethelbert that his stronger arm might guard them for us. They have now passed into your hands. It is right that I should receive what my father wished me to have; and it is only fitting that the crown prince should have lands and treasures of his own that he may the better learn to care for the larger interests that may one day come to him. I ask you for my share of the possessions left by my father."

The counselors nodded their approval, and the keen eyes of Alstan fairly shone with pleasure at the quiet dignity of the young prince's speech.

In great contrast with this was the somewhat confused reply of Ethelred. It was to the effect that some of the property had come directly from their father, some through Ethelbald and Ethelbert; that some lay in Wessex, some in Kent; that there had been changes in value because of the ravages of the Danes; that some of it was to be divided between them, while some belonged to himself alone; and that if Alfred would be content until his death, he would then leave all to him, both what belonged to them jointly and any that he, Ethelred, might afterward acquire.

The counselors looked grave. Here and there one involuntarily put his hand on his sword. There was a murmur of disapproval, but here and there was an answering murmur of satisfaction.

"The prince should have his own," whispered one.

"Better that it should stay in one man's hands," said another.

"The prince would give its revenues for the defense of the kingdom—" but Ethelred was asking the formal question:—

"Are you content?" and Alfred with one glance at the varying expressions on the faces of the counselors before him, said quietly:—

"I am content."

Wise, indeed, was Alstan in counseling peace and union between the two brothers, whatever might betide, for never was there a time when variance between members of the royal family would have wrought more of harm to the Saxons. Up to this time the Danish invaders had been roving bands of marauders, cruel because their nature and training led to cruelty, but with no special determination to torture and to kill. They burned and demolished with no particular malice toward the owners of the land that they ravaged and the property that they destroyed, but simply because they felt a fiendish delight in destruction and ruin. An invasion of a far different nature was soon to take place, one that would require all Ethelbald's strengthening of defenses, all Ethelbert's making of weapons and training of men, and all of Alfred's young strength together with a wisdom far beyond his years, before the island should become in reality England, Angleland, the land of the Angles.

For many years the name most feared by the men of northeastern England was that of Ragnar Lodbrog. He was no common marauder. His mother was a Danish princess, his father a Norwegian of high rank. He himself had sat on the throne of the Danish islands. A rival king had driven him from his kingdom, but soon had to beg for aid from the Franks against Lodbrog's increasing power, for the deposed king was worshiped by the island chieftains who had become his followers.

They had reason to look up to him. He was a king; his mother had been of royal birth; his father had risen to the highest position by his own merits. He was a man of talent, and this talent was not wholly uncultivated. Of all the Baltic countries, Denmark was nearest the Frankish kingdom, and he had received as much education as his wild nature could accept. When he set forth, therefore, on his career of piracy, his name carried with it a certain repute that attracted to him the boldest of the nobles; and it was not long before the sound of that name would make men tremble, not only on the shores of the Baltic and in England, but also in France, and perhaps even on the Mediterranean coasts.

He was a plunderer and a robber, but plundering and robbery were regarded by the Danes as a noble occupation. To stay at home, to live on the treasure of one's fathers, that was humiliation, and the son that was chosen to be the heir was looked upon with a certain pity. To go out upon the ocean and fight one's way with the sword, that was honor, that was worthy of a man descended even from the great gods themselves.

Most of the other Danish pirates gave themselves with a reckless confidence to the chances of the sea, landing wherever the winds and the waves bore them; but the exploits of Lodbrog gained a certain dignity from the fact that his invasions always had a definite object, that he set out on no journey without a definite destination. In revenge for the aid that the Franks had given to his rival, he sailed up the Seine to destroy Paris. The people heard of his coming and fled in terror. He began to demolish the city, but after he had torn down one monastery, the king bribed him with a gift of seven thousand pounds to depart.

The scene of his next exploits was to be the British islands. He was successful in ravaging parts of Scotland and Ireland; and now he planned a greater expedition than any one before him had undertaken. He would land on the coast of Northumbria, rich in convents with their accumulated treasures, and he would bring home such a load of gold and silver and jewels as never boat had carried before.

He built two great vessels, larger than any that had ever been seen in the Danish waters. From far and near, people came to look upon the wonderful things, and to predict the mighty deeds that would be done in the land of the Angles. Nobles and chieftains begged for a chance to go with him who had become the pride of their land. He might easily have been made their king if he had chosen, but he scorned the land save as a repository for his treasure; his kingdom was the sea.

The bravest men of Denmark were suppliants before him; he had only to choose. The night before they set sail there was a great feast. Bonfires blazed and flashed their light from island to island, until the narrow straits glowed with the reflection of the flame. Songs of heroes and of gods were chanted, war-poems "with a sword in every line." Last of all came the song that they believed was written by Odin himself:—

"Cattle die,

Kindred die,

We ourselves also die;

But the fair fame never dies

Of him who has earned it."

The day of their starting was wild and stormy, just such a time as the Danish pirates liked; and exulting as if the victory was already won, they passed out into the North Sea. The wind was from the east, and they had an almost straight course. All went well until they were near the land; then came conflicting winds and currents. With their light boats, they would have been at ease, but they knew nothing of navigating the unwieldy monsters that had been the pride of the Danish land. The vessels were wrecked, and they were thrown helpless upon the coast of their enemies.

In a free combat the Danes had, man for man, no superiority over the Saxons. Danish victories had been due to the quickness of their movements, to the unexpectedness of their arrivals, and to their rapidity in striking a sudden blow and then retreating before their opponents could gather together. In this instance, there was warning of their approach; they could not move so rapidly as the Saxons who knew the ground, and they had no way of retreating. It was hopeless from the first, but the proud king would not beg for mercy, and he could hardly have expected to receive it, if he had humbled himself to ask it.

Ella, king of Deira, marched against him. There was a fierce combat, for the Danes fought like men who must put all their force into one blow, and the Saxons like men who had but one chance to avenge the most bitter wrongs. Four times Lodbrog dashed through the lines of Ella; four times he was thrust back. His friends were slain one by one, and he himself was captured. One could hardly expect King Ella to be magnanimous, but the death that he decreed for his royal prisoner, the idol of Denmark, was to be thrown into a dungeon of vipers and to die in agony from their poison.

The old legend goes on to say that while Lodbrog was in Northumbria, his sons were winning victories in the south. They came home laden with treasure, and were quietly resting and making ready for another voyage when the tidings was brought them of their father's death. Two of the sons were playing chess, and they clutched the board till their hands bled. One had a knife in his hand, and he grasped the blade until, without knowing it, he had cut his fingers to the bone. One was polishing his spear, and his fingers left their impress on the hard iron. These four made the most terrible threats of vengeance. Inguar, the eldest, said nothing, but his face was fearful to look upon. In some way the scene was reported to King Ella. He smiled until the look of Inguar was described; then he trembled and said:—

"It is Inguar or no one that I fear."

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