I T was bright and sunny. The sky was blue and cloudless, and the birds were flitting about merrily from tree to tree. After the many days of fog and dampness, the green of the leaves and the grass shone out fresher and clearer than ever. The cattle were lying in the shade of the trees, and the sheep were nibbling busily in the upland pastures. The river flowed on with cheery little murmurs of content as it rippled over the stones under Swithin's bridge. Here and there a slender stream of red dropped sullenly into the sparkling waters, but the river flowed on, caring as little for the drops of blood as if they had been but the reflection of some of the crimson flowers that bent over the tranquil pools where the sunny water slipped into some curve of the shore under the willows for a little visit before making its great journey to the sea.
In the midst of the beauty and the brightness lay the remains of what had been the town of Winchester. Desolation and ruin were everywhere. Houses were torn down and burned. Wherever one looked was fire or smouldering brands. The dead lay where they fell, some in their own doorways where they had died in helpless defense of their homes, some even in their beds where the Danes had cut them down with no chance for even one blow in return. Some lay in the streets where they had fallen fighting bravely and hopelessly for their town and their people. Here lay the body of a woman who had been killed by a Danish sword as she tried to save her child. The baby lay dead not far from its mother, gashed in many places where the Danes had tossed it on their spears in their fiendish sport.
Happy were those that had fallen, for the living, maimed and wounded, were moaning piteously in their sorrow and agony. Horses, tortured in wanton brutality and left to die, roamed wildly up and down the streets, and sometimes one would hear that rare, almost human cry of the suffering creature. Here and there a dog, perhaps bleeding and whining with pain, but always faithful, was slowly dragging himself about, sniffing at one dead body and then at another, lifting up his head with a long howl of disappointment and grief, as he failed to find the master whom he was seeking.
This was the work of the Danes in the few hours of their onslaught upon the defenseless town. The cathedral stood apparently uninjured, though in front of its door had been some of the hardest fighting, for the Saxons had not yielded without a struggle, hopeless as it was from the very beginning.
The Danes had forced their way into the church, singing wild songs of Odin and Thor. The heavy doors had made a few minutes' delay, which the priests had seized to try to hide away some of their treasures.
"Bring out your gold! Bring out your jewels!" cried the Danes. The priests were silent. Weapons of defense there were none. They could only suffer and die.
"Bring out your books of magic!" cried Weland. Not a priest moved.
"Let us take them home for slaves," said one.
"Never," said another, "they will pray to their gods against us. See!" for the priests were murmuring fervent prayers, their eyes turned up to heaven.
"You think you see your god coming? You shall not see him if he comes," cried the first, as with a stroke of his sword he blinded the one that was nearest. There was a mad shriek of delight from a distant corner. The robbers had found the golden vessels and the jewels, and the vestments embroidered with silk and adorned with precious stones. One of the Danes sprang upon the altar and seized the golden pyx wherein lay the consecrated wafer. In an instant, the priest that was nearest felled him with his naked fist. Still clutching the pyx, he rolled down the steps to the floor of the chancel. The holy bread fell from its place. The priest, with a hasty prayer, put it reverently between his lips. All this was done in a moment. It was the signal for a general massacre, and in a few minutes every priest lay dead on the floor of his cathedral.
The Danes roamed at will through the building, piling up the treasures in a great heap; then loading themselves with gold and silver vessels, golden chains, jeweled vases, and embroidered robes, they made their way out, singing songs of defiance of all men save their leader and of all gods save their own.
There was no one to resist them as they sped toward the place a little way down the river where they had left their boats concealed under the overhanging branches. The woods rang with wild songs of the glory of their exploits. Loaded down as they were, they soon had to delay their steps and wend their way more slowly through the forest, but they were safe from all attack; why should they hasten? They would be on their vessels that were waiting at the mouth of the river long before any word could go to the king and a force be sent to oppose them. So they went their way with minds at ease to the place where they had left their boats. With a howl of rage and amazement, they saw that the boats were gone.
Now, while the Danes were coming up the river, it happened that a young lad who lived not far from Winchester was passing a very restless night. The one thing for which he cared was hunting, and he was happy whether he was pursuing deer or wolves or foxes, or even such small game as hares. There was no one else in Winchester that knew the woods as well as he. Every little by-path was as familiar to him as his own town. For many miles around, there was hardly a spot where he could not have been set down by night or day and have found his way home with perfect ease. Now this lad had invented a rabbit-trap that he was sure would be better than those of his companions; and as the night passed on, he grew more and more impatient to see what its success had been on this, its first trial.
When daybreak was not more than an hour or two distant, this lad slipped out of the house and made his way through the dark and gloomy woods to his traps. He found them readily and was just about to whistle his delight at finding them full, when he fancied that he saw heavy, moving shadows between him and the less dense darkness of the river. He stood motionless. His ear, trained by his outdoor life to catch the least sound, heard even the light tread of the invaders on the dry twigs. He heard a whispered command. Softly he swung himself up into a tree and clung to it, hardly daring to breathe, until the long line of men had gone far beyond his sight and hearing. His life in the woods had made him quickwitted. The Danes had taken the shortest route to the town, and there was no way to give warning. All that he could do was to find the ealderman of the district and trust that men could come in time, if not to save the little town, at least to avenge it.
As he slipped noiselessly from his perch in the tree, the thought occurred to him that there was one other thing that he could do. He made his way to the river, it might have been at the peril of his life, for he did not know that the Danes had not left a guard; but no sound was heard, and no one rose up out of the gray darkness to confront him. The night was a shade lighter, and he could see the dim mass of a boat, another, and another. Still fearful that any sound might betray him, he dropped silently into the stream, his hunting-knife between his teeth, and swam to one boat and another, cutting each one adrift. Then he shook himself dry like a great water-dog, and started for Osric, ealderman of Hants.
The boy's knowledge of the country served him well. Where others would have walked, he ran; where others would have slowly picked their way down the steep hillside, he leaped from rock to rock. He had no fear of anything in the world, saving only the Danes. The thought of them spurred him on, and in half the time that any one else would have needed, he was at the manor of Osric, the chief man of Hants, so exhausted that he could hardly gasp out:—
Such a message as that needed little explanation. A horseman was on his way to Ethelwulf, ealderman of Berkshire, and another to King Ethelbert, even before the boy could tell any more of his story.
Fate favored the avengers, for as Osric's men drew near the mouth of the river, only half of the robber band were near them, floating leisurely down the stream, while the others were working their way painfully through the forest.
When the Danes examined the river banks more closely, they found that part of their boats had been caught in the reeds and the low branches that overhung the water. These were easily recovered by their owners. Those who came to them first crowded in with their treasures till the boats sank to the water's edge. It was evident that some of the party would float comfortably to their vessels; others must work their way through the tangled wilderness, bearing the loads that taxed even their strength, accustomed as they were to brief fights, but not to long-enduring labors. A quarrel arose. Some of the murderers were killed in the strife. Those that were stronger seized the boats and floated away, leaving the others to come to the mouth of the river as best they could.
All this time Osric and his men were coming down upon them as fast as horses could carry them, and not far behind the soldiers of Hants were the men of Ethelwulf, and a little farther back was King Ethelbert himself with many men.
Alfred had begged earnestly to go with the fighting men.
"I could help, Ethelbert," he pleaded, "I am sure I could. You know I shot that raven on the wing yesterday."
"To fight Danes one needs other weapons than bows and arrows," said Ethelbert kindly, as he hurriedly fastened on his armor, "and fighting robbers and murderers is not for boys, but for strong men."
"But it was a boy who brought the news. He did something for his people," said Alfred, but Ethelred shook his head and rode away with his men.
Alfred went disconsolately out to his friend the blacksmith.
"You needn't make me any sword," said he. "I'm only a boy, and they think I'm nothing; but you know I am strong. I always throw the others at the wrestling, and I can run faster and leap further than any one else. I know I could have helped."
The smith looked silently at the well-knit but slender frame of the boy. Then he took from the further corner of his smithy a heavy battle-axe.
"This is what the Danes fight with," said he. "Can you lift it?" Alfred tried in vain. "Could you wrestle with men who can use that? or could you strike with a sword ten times as heavy as yours? Learn how to use weapons now, and by and by strength will come."
"I'm sure I could have done something, though," said Alfred, and he wandered about in a very gloomy mood. Bishop Swithin discovered him where he had thrown himself on the grass under a tree, and in a moment guessed what was the trouble.
"It is hard for both of us," he said quietly. "Why, can't you go if you want to?" asked the boy looking up quickly.
"No. It is possible that our men may not get the better of the Danes, and that they may press on even into the heart of Wessex. I have promised King Ethelbert to stay here with his helpless children to aid and advise if need comes."
"But you can do something," said Alfred, "and I can do nothing. I cannot even go to try."
"And do you think that I do not want to go to my poor people in Winchester?" said the bishop. "Oh, if I could only have been with them to try to defend them and to die with them if I failed!"
Alfred was not really comforted, however, until the triumphant return of the king, when he learned that all the fighting had been over before they could reach the scene of action.
"Never before had a king such brave thegns," exclaimed Ethelbert in an outburst of generous admiration. "Osric knew only too well that it was too late to do any good in Winchester, and he set off at full speed for the mouth of the river. It was rashness itself, for he expected to meet the whole company of the robbers. As it was, the Danes separated, no one knows why, not far below Winchester. Their boats were loaded down with treasure from the cathedral"—here Swithin groaned involuntarily—"and even their skill could hardly keep them afloat. Osric's men gave them a storm of spears, the boats capsized, and almost in a moment many a death in the town had been avenged."
"Did any of them get away?" asked Alfred.
"What few were left alive ran for their ships. They waded and swam, throwing off their swords and battle-axes in their flight, and reached their boats; but hidden in them were the rest of Osric's men, and as the Danes climbed up over the side, a blow from a sword or an axe put an end to them, and every one of those that came by boat was killed."
"And those that came by land," said Swithin; "what became of them?"
"They seem to have come slowly through the forest," said the king, "but no one knows why, for it is not the custom of the Danes to come in vessels too large to go up any stream, nor is it their wont to divide a company in this way. God favored us, that is all I can say," said the king reverently. "The other party came out from the forest into the open just as Ethelwulf's men came in sight. Our men on the ships could see that the Danes far outnumbered the Saxons, so they sprang overboard and hastened ashore to help in the fight. This was even more bloody than the other, for the Danes had seen some signs of battle, and were not so unprepared as were the first party. They fought bravely at first, but in the midst of the fighting a strange thing happened. The wind had blown a roll of manuscript to the feet of their leader. He stepped on it, slipped, and fell. In a moment he recovered himself, but Osric says that he never saw such a look of fear and horror on any one's face. What could it mean?"
"The Danes fear that evil spirits live in books," said Swithin.
"They fled like sheep," said Ethelbert, "and when our party came in sight, those that were alive had scrambled into their vessels and were gone."
"And now I must go to my suffering people," said Swithin, rising eagerly.
"Swift horses and an escort shall be ready for you at any moment," said the king; and added as he pressed the hand of the old man:—
"The one happy thing about this terrible time is that you were here with us and are safe."
"Thank you, my king," said the bishop brokenly; "but my people, O my people!"
Months went on and the Danes made no other attempt to invade the land of the West Saxons. Ethelbert was occupied with manifold cares, but he did not forget his little brother, for he, as well as Ethelbald, had ideas of how a prince should be trained. Boys in noble families were taught as a matter of course to serve their elders, to be courteous and obedient. He must learn to play on the harp, for a noble who could not play was looked upon as a boor. Alfred begged to be taught to read Latin more perfectly, but this seemed utterly useless to Ethelbert, and, too, there was no one to teach him. Books were written in Latin, but there was almost no one to read what few were in the kingdom. The service of the church was in Latin, but though the priests pronounced the words, few had a very definite idea of their meaning. So Alfred learned little of books, but he did learn hunting and hawking, how to catch birds in snares, how to lie flat in the bottom of his boat hidden under branches of trees till he was near enough to the wild birds to shoot them with his bow and arrow. He learned to wrestle and run and leap, and how to use spear and shield and sword and battle-axe; and a few months before he was fourteen, Ethelbert allowed him to go on his first boar-hunt.
The hunters met in the great open space in front of the palace door. They were on horseback, and most of them wore green tunics and many had small caps. They all carried spears. The dogs were leaping around them, and Alfred was as delighted as they, for ever since the days when his father's thegn had dashed through the forest with him on the front of his saddle and had killed a wild pig, he had longed to go on a hunt.
At last the signal was given. Into the woods they rushed. The huntsmen blew their horns, the dogs bayed, and the horses sprang forward.
"They have found him," was the shout, as a deep peculiar tone came from the dogs, and on the riders rushed more wildly than ever.
"My prince, my prince," shouted Beortric, who had been intrusted with the care of Alfred, for the excited boy was far ahead of the others.
"The prince will be killed," he cried, and urged on his horse. Far ahead of them was a little open space, and there they could see the young prince, his little cap fallen from his head, and his long yellow hair tossing in the sunshine, as he charged upon the boar again and again. The furious beast dashed at the horse that bore the prince. The horse sprang to one side, the boy's spear fell from his hand, and he himself rose in his stirrups, then seemed to totter. Beortric and the others were pressing wildly on. Beortric shut his eyes that he might not see the death of his prince, and rode on madly. But there were wild shouts of applause. The fearless boy had swung himself lightly from his horse's back into the branches of a great oak, and was crying:—
"A spear! Give me a spear!" The dogs were down below him. The boar was at bay, but was growing weaker at every course. The hunters sprang forward with their spears leveled.
"Hold!" shouted Beortric, "it is the prince's quarry. Give him a spear, he shall kill the boar," and in a few minutes the boy was standing flushed and happy, with his spear in his hand, and the great dead boar lying beside him.
There was much rejoicing when the tired, dusty company road home, dragging the boar. King Ethelbert gave a great feast in honor of the prince's first exploit. There were chickens and fish and eels, and hot cakes made of wheaten flour, and wine and ale and morat and pigment. There was venison and pork and beef and hares and mutton, but the great dish was the roasted flesh of the boar that Alfred had killed. When this was brought in and put at the head of the table, the harpers sang a song, praising the deed of the little prince. Ethelbert put a knife into the boy's hand and showed him how to make the first cut. For hours the feasting went on, but in the midst of it a message came from Winchester:—
"Swithin, the bishop, is sick unto death, and would fain see the sons of Ethelwulf before he dies." In a moment the reveling ceased; horses were brought, and in the early gray of the morning the king and his brothers set forth to say farewell to the good bishop who had been the true friend of their father and of his father before him. Long before they came to Winchester, a second messenger came crying:—
"Hasten, if you would see him alive." They hurried on at full speed, but it was almost too late. The bishop recognized the sons of his old friend, but he could not speak. He clasped feebly the hand of each of the three brothers in his own, and died holding Alfred's hand and with his eyes full of affection fixed upon the boy's face.
It was a sad journey back to Wantage. The bishop had been buried as in his humbleness of spirit he had requested, not in the church, but outside it, between the church and the belfry tower, where the drippings from the eaves might fall upon it, and where it might be trodden on by passers-by. Here in the cathedral lay his old friend, King Egbert, and Egbert's son, Ethelwulf, who had been scarcely less dear to him. There was the little stone bridge that he had built, repaired after the ravages of the Danes, and already the people were telling stories of the miracles that had been wrought upon it, that a poor woman had slipped and broken a basketful of eggs, and the bishop had restored them at a touch. Then they recalled his custom of going barefooted when he was called upon to dedicate a church, and of going in the night lest the people should gather around him to do him honor, as was their wont.
Slowly and sadly the brothers went on their homeward way. Their long train followed, and there was not one among them that did not mourn sincerely for the dead bishop.