Hereward, The Last of the English
Part 7 out of 10
Earl Osbiorn shrunk back, appalled and trembling.
"Aha!" said Hereward without looking round. "I never thought there would
be loose stones in the roof. Here! Up here, Vikings, Berserker, and
sea-cocks all! Here, Jutlanders, Jomsburgers, Letts, Finns, witches' sons
and devils' sons all! Here!" cried he, while Osbiorn profited by that
moment to thrust an especially brilliant jewel into his boot. "Here is
gold, here is the dwarfs work! Come up and take your Polotaswarf! You
would not get a richer out of the Kaiser's treasury. Here, wolves and
ravens, eat gold, drink gold, roll in gold, and know that Hereward is a
man of his word, and pays his soldiers' wages royally!"
They rushed up the narrow stair, trampling each other to death, and thrust
Hereward and the Earl, choking, into a corner. The room was so full for a
few moments, that some died in it. Hereward and Osbiorn, protected by
their strong armor, forced their way to the narrow window, and breathed
through it, looking out upon the sea of flame below.
"That was an unlucky blow," said Hereward, "that fell upon my head."
"Very unlucky. I saw it coming, but had no time to warn you. Why do you
hold my wrist?"
"Men's daggers are apt to get loose at such times as these."
"What do you mean?" and Earl Osbiorn went from him, and into the now
thinning press. Soon only a few remained, to search, by the glare of the
flames, for what their fellows might have overlooked.
"Now the play is played out," said Hereward, "we may as well go down, and
to our ships."
Some drunken ruffians would have burnt the church for mere mischief. But
Osbiorn, as well as Hereward, stopped that. And gradually they got the men
down to the ships; some drunk, some struggling under plunder; some cursing
and quarrelling because nothing had fallen to their lot. It was a hideous
scene; but one to which Hereward, as well as Osbiorn, was too well
accustomed to see aught in it save an hour's inevitable trouble in getting
the men on board.
The monks had all fled. Only Leofwin the Long was left, and he lay sick in
the infirmary. Whether he was burned therein, or saved by Hereward's men,
is not told.
And so was the Golden Borough sacked and burnt. Now then, whither?
The Danes were to go to Ely and join the army there. Hereward would march
on to Stamford; secure that town if he could; then to Huntingdon, to
secure it likewise; and on to Ely afterwards.
"You will not leave me among these savages?" said Alftruda.
"Heaven forbid! You shall come with me as far as Stamford, and then I will
set you on your way."
"My way?" said Alftruda, in a bitter and hopeless tone.
Hereward mounted her on a good horse, and rode beside her, looking--and he
well knew it--a very perfect knight. Soon they began to talk. What had
brought Alftruda to Peterborough, of all places on earth?
"A woman's fortune. Because I am rich,--and some say fair,--I am a puppet,
and a slave, a prey. I was going back to my,--to Dolfin."
"Have you been away from him, then?"
"What! Do you not know?"
"How should I know, lady?"
"Yes, most true. How should Hereward know anything about Alftruda? But I
will tell you. Maybe you may not care to hear?"
"About you? Anything. I have often longed to know how,--what you were
"Is it possible? Is there one human being left on earth who cares to hear
about Alftruda? Then listen. You know when Gospatrick fled to Scotland his
sons went with him. Young Gospatrick, Waltheof, [Footnote: This Waltheof
Gospatricksson must not be confounded with Waltheof Siwardsson, the young
Earl. He became a wild border chieftain, then Baron of Atterdale, and then
gave Atterdale to his sister Queen Ethelreda, and turned monk, and at last
Abbot, of Crowland: crawling home, poor fellow, like many another, to die
in peace in the sanctuary of the Danes.] and he,--Dolfin. Ethelreda, his
girl, went too,--and she is to marry, they say, Duncan, Malcolm's eldest
son by Ingebiorg. So Gospatrick will find himself, some day, father-in-law
of the King of Scots."
"I will warrant him to find his nest well lined, wherever he be. But of
"I refused to go. I could not face again that bleak black North.
Beside--but that is no concern of Hereward's--"
Hereward was on the point of saying, "Can anything concern you, and not be
interesting to me?"
But she went on,--
"I refused, and--"
"And he misused you?" asked he, fiercely.
"Better if he had. Better if he had tied me to his stirrup, and scourged
me along into Scotland, than have left me to new dangers and to old
Alftruda did not answer; but went on,--
"He told me, in his lofty Scots' fashion, that I was free to do what I
list. That he had long since seen that I cared not for him; and that he
would find many a fairer lady in his own land."
"There he lied. So you did not care for him? He is a noble knight."
"What is that to me? Women's hearts are not to be bought and sold with
their bodies, as I was sold. Care for him? I care for no creature upon
earth. Once I cared for Hereward, like a silly child. Now I care not even
Hereward was sorry to hear that. Men are vainer than women, just as
peacocks are vainer than peahens; and Hereward was--alas for him!--a
specially vain man. Of course, for him to fall in love with Alftruda would
have been a shameful sin,--he would not have committed it for all the
treasures of Constantinople; but it was a not unpleasant thought that
Alftruda should fall in love with him. But he only said, tenderly and
"Alas, poor lady!"
"Poor lady. Too true, that last. For whither am I going now? Back to that
man once more."
"To my master, like a runaway slave. I went down south to Queen Matilda. I
knew her well, and she was kind to me, as she is to all things that
breathe. But now that Gospatrick is come into the king's grace again, and
has bought the earldom of Northumbria, from Tweed to Tyne--"
"Bought the earldom?"
"That has he; and paid for it right heavily."
"Traitor and fool! He will not keep it seven years. The Frenchman will
pick a quarrel with him, and cheat him out of earldom and money too."
The which William did, within three years.
"May it be so! But when he came into the king's grace, he must needs
demand me back in his son's name."
"What does Dolfin want with you?"
"His father wants my money, and stipulated for it with the king. And
beside, I suppose I am a pretty plaything enough still."
"You? You are divine, perfect. Dolfin is right. How could a man who had
once enjoyed you live without you?"
Alftruda laughed,--a laugh full of meaning; but what that meaning was,
Hereward could not divine.
"So now," she said, "what Hereward has to do, as a true and courteous
knight, is to give Alftruda safe conduct, and, if he can, a guard; and to
deliver her up loyally and knightly to his old friend and fellow-warrior,
Dolfin Gospatricksson, earl of whatever he can lay hold of for the current
"Are you in earnest?"
Alftruda laughed one of her strange laughs, looking straight before her.
Indeed, she had never looked Hereward in the face during the whole ride.
"What are those open holes? Graves?"
"They are Barnack stone-quarries, which Alfgar my brother gave to
"So? That is pity. I thought they had been graves; and then you might have
covered me up in one of them, and left me to sleep in peace."
"What can I do for you, Alftruda, my old play-fellow: Alftruda, whom I
saved from the bear?"
"If she had foreseen the second monster into whose jaws she was to fall,
she would have prayed you to hold that terrible hand of yours, which never
since, men say, has struck without victory and renown. You won your first
honor for my sake. But who am I now, that you should turn out of your
glorious path for me?"
"I will do anything,--anything. But why miscall this noble prince a
"If he were fairer than St. John, more wise than Solomon, and more valiant
than King William, he is to me a monster; for I loathe him, and I know not
why. But do your duty as a knight, sir. Convey the lawful wife to her
"What cares an outlaw for law, in a land where law is dead and gone? I
will do what I--what you like. Come with me to Torfrida at Bourne; and let
me see the man who dares try to take you out of my hand."
Alftruda laughed again.
"No, no. I should interrupt the little doves in their nest. Beside, the
billing and cooing might make me envious. And I, alas! who carry misery
with me round the land, might make your Torfrida jealous."
Hereward was of the same opinion, and rode silent and thoughtful through
the great woods which are now the noble park of Burghley.
"I have found it!" said he at last. "Why not go to Gilbert of Ghent, at
"Gilbert? Why should he befriend me?"
"He will do that, or anything else, which is for his own profit."
"Profit? All the world seems determined to make profit out of me. I
presume you would, if I had come with you to Bourne."
"I do not doubt it. This is a very wild sea to swim in; and a man must be
forgiven, if he catches at every bit of drift-timber."
"Selfishness, selfishness everywhere;--and I suppose you expect to gain by
sending me to Gilbert of Ghent?"
"I shall gain nothing, Alftruda, save the thought that you are not so far
from me--from us--but that we can hear of you,--send succor to you if you
Alftruda was silent. At last--
"And you think that Gilbert would not be afraid of angering the king?"
"He would not anger the king. Gilbert's friendship is more important to
William, at this moment, than that of a dozen Gospatricks. He holds
Lincoln town, and with it the key of Waltheof's earldom: and things may
happen, Alftruda--I tell you; but if you tell Gilbert, may Hereward's
curse be on you!"
"Not that! Any man's curse save yours!" said she in so passionate a voice
that a thrill of fire ran through Hereward. And he recollected her scoff
at Bruges,--"So he could not wait for me?" And a storm of evil thoughts
swept through him. "Would to heaven!" said he to himself, crushing them
gallantly down, "I had never thought of Lincoln. But there is no other
But he did not tell Alftruda, as he meant to do, that she might see him
soon in Lincoln Castle as its conqueror and lord. He half hoped that when
that day came, Alftruda might be somewhere else.
"Gilbert can say," he went on, steadying himself again, "that you feared
to go north on account of the disturbed state of the country; and that, as
you had given yourself up to him of your own accord, he thought it wisest
to detain you, as a hostage for Dolfin's allegiance."
"He shall say so. I will make him say so."
"So be it, Now, here we are at Stamford town; and I must to my trade. Do
you like to see fighting, Alftruda,--the man's game, the royal game, the
only game worth a thought on earth? For you are like to see a little in
the next ten minutes."
"I should like to see you fight. They tell me none is so swift and
terrible in the battle as Hereward. How can you be otherwise, who slew the
bear,--when we were two happy children together? But shall I be safe?"
"Safe? of course," said Hereward, who longed, peacock-like, to show off
his prowess before a lady who was--there was no denying it--far more
beautiful than even Torfrida.
But he had no opportunity to show off his prowess. For as he galloped in
over Stamford Bridge, Abbot Thorold galloped out at the opposite end of
the town through Casterton, and up the Roman road to Grantham.
After whom Hereward sent Alftruda (for he heard that Thorold was going to
Gilbert at Lincoln) with a guard of knights, bidding them do him no harm,
but say that Hereward knew him to be a _preux chevalier_ and lover of
fair ladies; that he had sent him a right fair one to bear him company to
Lincoln, and hoped that he would sing to her on the way the song of
And Alftruda, who knew Thorold, went willingly, since it could no better
After which, according to Gaimar, Hereward tarried three days at Stamford,
laying a heavy tribute on the burgesses for harboring Thorold and his
Normans; and also surprised at a drinking-bout a certain special enemy of
his, and chased him from room to room sword in hand, till he took refuge
shamefully in an outhouse, and begged his life. And when his knights came
back from Grantham, he marched to Bourne.
"The next night," says Leofric the deacon, or rather the monk who
paraphrased his saga in Latin prose,--"Hereward saw in his dreams a man
standing by him of inestimable beauty, old of years, terrible of
countenance, in all the raiment of his body more splendid than all things
which he had ever seen, or conceived in his mind; who threatened him with
a great club which he carried in his hand, and with a fearful doom, that
he should take back to his church all that had been carried off the night
before, and have them restored utterly, each in its place, if he wished to
provide for the salvation of his soul, and escape on the spot a pitiable
death. But when awakened, he was seized with a divine terror, and restored
in the same hour all that he took away, and so departed, going onward with
all his men."
So says Leofric, wishing, as may be well believed, to advance the glory of
St. Peter, and purge his master's name from the stain of sacrilege.
Beside, the monks of Peterborough, no doubt, had no wish that the world
should spy out their nakedness, and become aware that the Golden Borough
was stript of all its gold.
Nevertheless, truth will out. Golden Borough was Golden Borough no more.
The treasures were never restored; they went to sea with the Danes, and
were scattered far and wide,--to Norway, to Ireland, to Denmark; "all the
spoils," says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "which reached the latter
country, being the pallium and some of the shrines and crosses; and many
of the other treasures they brought to one of the king's towns, and laid
them up in the church. But one night, through their carelessness and
drunkenness, the church was burned, with all that was therein. Thus was
the minster of Peterborough burned and pillaged. May Almighty God have
pity on it in His great mercy."
Hereward, when blamed for the deed, said always that he did it "because of
his allegiance to the monastery." Rather than that the treasures gathered
by Danish monks should fall into the hands of the French robbers, let them
be given to their own Danish kinsmen, in payment for their help to English
But some of the treasure, at least, he must have surely given back, it so
appeased the angry shade of St. Peter. For on that night, when marching
past Stamford, they lost their way. "To whom, when they had lost their
way, a certain wonder happened, and a miracle, if it can be said that such
would be worked in favor of men of blood. For while in the wild night and
dark they wandered in the wood, a huge wolf met them, wagging his tail
like a tame dog, and went before them on a path. And they, taking the gray
beast in the darkness for a white dog, cheered on each other to follow him
to his farm, which ought to be hard by. And in the silence of the
midnight, that they might see their way, suddenly candles appeared,
burning, and clinging to the lances of all the knights,--not very bright,
however; but like those which the folk call _candelae nympharum_,--wills
of the wisp. But none could pull them off, or altogether extinguish them,
or throw them from their hands. And thus they saw their way, and went on,
although astonished out of mind, with the wolf leading them, until day
dawned, and they saw, to their great astonishment, that he was a wolf. And
as they questioned among themselves about what had befallen, the wolf and
the candles disappeared, and they came whither they had been minded,--
beyond Stamford town,--thanking God, and wondering at what had happened."
After which Hereward took Torfrida, and his child, and all he had, and
took ship at Bardeney, and went for Ely. Which when Earl Warrenne heard,
he laid wait for him, seemingly near Southery: but got nothing thereby,
according to Leofric, but the pleasure of giving and taking a great deal
of bad language; and (after his men had refused, reasonably enough, to
swim the Ouse and attack Hereward) an arrow, which Hereward, "_modicum
se inclinans_," stooping forward, says Leofric,--who probably saw the
deed,--shot at him across the Ouse, as the Earl stood cursing on the top
of the dike. Which arrow flew so stout and strong, that though it sprang
back from Earl Warrenne's hauberk, it knocked him almost senseless off his
horse, and forced him to defer his purpose of avenging Sir Frederic his
After which Hereward threw himself into Ely, and assumed, by consent of
all, the command of the English who were therein.
HOW THEY HELD A GREAT MEETING IN THE HALL OF ELY
There sat round the hall of Ely all the magnates of the East land and East
sea. The Abbot on his high seat; and on a seat higher than his, prepared
specially, Sweyn Ulfsson, King of Denmark and England. By them sat the
Bishops, Egelwin the Englishman and Christiern the Dane; Osbiorn, the
young Earls Edwin and Morcar, and Sweyn's two sons; and, it may be, the
sons of Tosti Godwinsson, and Arkill the great Thane, and Hereward
himself. Below them were knights, Vikings, captains, great holders from
Denmark, and the Prior and inferior officers of Ely minster. And at the
bottom of the misty hall, on the other side of the column of blue vapor
which went trembling up from the great heap of burning turf amidst, were
housecarles, monks, wild men from the Baltic shores, crowded together to
hear what was done in that parliament of their betters.
They spoke like free Danes; the betters from the upper end of the hall,
but every man as he chose. They were in full Thing; in parliament, as
their forefathers had been wont to be for countless ages. Their House of
Lords and their House of Commons were not yet defined from each other: but
they knew the rules of the house, the courtesies of debate; and, by
practice of free speech, had educated themselves to bear and forbear, like
But the speaking was loud and earnest, often angry, that day. "What was to
be done?" was the question before the house.
"That depended," said Sweyn, the wise and prudent king, "on what could be
done by the English to co-operate with them." And what that was has been
"When Tosti Godwinsson, ye Bishops, Earls, Knights, and Holders, came to
me five years ago, and bade me come and take the kingdom of England, I
answered him, that I had not wit enough to do the deeds which Canute my
uncle did; and so sat still in peace. I little thought that I should have
lost in five years so much of those small wits which I confessed to, that
I should come after all to take England, and find two kings in it already,
both more to the English mind than me. While William the Frenchman is king
by the sword, and Edgar the Englishman king by proclamation of Danish
Earls and Thanes, there seems no room here for Sweyn Ulfsson."
"We will make room for you! We will make a rid road from here to
Winchester!" shouted the holders and knights.
"It is too late. What say you, Hereward Leofricsson, who go for a wise man
Hereward rose, and spoke gracefully, earnestly, eloquently; but he could
not deny Sweyn's plain words.
"Sir Hereward beats about the bush," said Earl Osbiorn, rising when
Hereward sat down. "None knows better than he that all is over. Earl Edwin
and Earl Morcar, who should have helped us along Watling Street, are here
fugitives. Earl Gospatrick and Earl Waltheof are William's men now, soon
to raise the landsfolk against us. We had better go home, before we have
eaten up the monks of Ely."
Then Hereward rose again, and without an openly insulting word, poured
forth his scorn and rage upon Osbiorn. Why had he not kept to the
agreement which he and Countess Gyda had made with him through Tosti's
sons? Why had he wasted time and men from Dover to Norwich, instead of
coming straight into the fens, and marching inland to succor Morcar and
Edwin? Osbiorn had ruined the plan, and he only, if it was ruined.
"And who was I, to obey Hereward?" asked Osbiorn, fiercely.
"And who wert thou, to disobey me?" asked Sweyn, in a terrible voice.
"Hereward is right. We shall see what thou sayest to all this, in full
Thing at home in Denmark."
Then Edwin rose, entreating peace. "They were beaten. The hand of God was
against them. Why should they struggle any more? Or, if they struggled on,
why should they involve the Danes in their own ruin?"
Then holder after holder rose, and spoke rough Danish common sense. They
had come hither to win England. They had found it won already. Let them
take what they had got from Peterborough, and go.
Then Winter sprang up. "Take the pay, and sail off with it, without having
done the work? That would be a noble tale to carry home to your fair wives
in Jutland. I shall not call you niddering, being a man of peace, as all
know." Whereat all laughed; for the doughty little man had not a hand's
breadth on head or arm without its scar. "But if your ladies call you so,
you must have a shrewd answer to give, beside knocking them down."
Sweyn spoke without rising: "The good knight forgets that this expedition
has cost Denmark already nigh as much as Harold Hardraade's cost Norway.
It is hard upon the Danes, If they are to go away empty-handed as well as
"The King has right!" cried Hereward. "Let them take the plunder of
Peterborough as pay for what they have done, and what beside they would
have done if Osbiorn the Earl--Nay, men of England, let us be just!--what
they would have done if there had been heart and wit, one mind and one
purpose, in England. The Danes have done their best. They have shown
themselves what they are, our blood and kin. I know that some talk of
treason, of bribes. Let us have no more such vain and foul suspicions.
They came as our friends; and as our friends let them go, and leave us to
fight out our own quarrel to the last drop of blood."
"Would God!" said Sweyn, "thou wouldest go too, thou good knight. Here,
earls and gentlemen of England! Sweyn Ulfsson offers to every one of you,
who will come to Denmark with him, shelter and hospitality till better
times shall come."
Then arose a mixed cry. Some would go, some would not. Some of the Danes
took the proposal cordially; some feared bringing among themselves men who
would needs want land, of which there was none to give. If the English
came, they must go up the Baltic, and conquer fresh lands for themselves
from heathen Letts and Finns.
Then Hereward rose again, and spoke so nobly and so well, that all ears
They were Englishmen; and they would rather die in their own merry England
than conquer new kingdoms in the cold northeast. They were sworn, the
leaders of them, to die or conquer, fighting the accursed Frenchman. They
were bound to St. Peter, and to St. Guthlac, and to St. Felix of Ramsey,
and St. Etheldreda the holy virgin, beneath whose roof they stood, to
defend against Frenchmen the saints of England whom they despised and
blasphemed, whose servants they cast out, thrust into prison, and
murdered, that they might bring in Frenchmen from Normandy, Italians from
the Pope of Rome. Sweyn Ulfsson spoke as became him, as a prudent and a
generous prince; the man who alone of all kings defied and fought the
great Hardraade till neither could fight more; the true nephew of Canute
the king of kings: and they thanked him: but they would live and die
And every Englishman shouted, "Hereward has right! We will live and die
fighting the French!"
And Sweyn Ulfsson rose again, and said with a great oath, "That if there
had been three such men as Hereward in England, all would have gone well."
Hereward laughed. "Thou art wrong for once, wise king. We have failed,
just because there were a dozen men in England as good as me, every man
wanting his own way; and too many cooks have spoiled the broth. What we
wanted is, not a dozen men like me, but one like thee, to take us all by
the back of the neck and shake us soundly, and say, 'Do that, or die!'"
And so, after much talk, the meeting broke up. And when it broke up, there
came to Hereward in the hall a noble-looking man of his own age, and put
his hand within his, and said,--
"Do you not know me, Hereward Leofricsson?"
"I know thee not, good knight, more pity; but by thy dress and carriage,
thou shouldest be a true Viking's son."
"I am Sigtryg Ranaldsson, now King of Waterford. And my wife said to me,
'If there be treachery or faint-heartedness, remember this,--that Hereward
Leofricsson slew the Ogre, and Hannibal of Gweek likewise, and brought me
safe to thee. And, therefore, if thou provest false to him, niddering thou
art; and no niddering is spouse of mine.'"
"Thou art Sigtryg Ranaldsson?" cried Hereward, clasping him in his arms,
as the scenes of his wild youth rushed across his mind. "Better is old
wine than new, and old friends likewise."
"And I, and my five ships, are thine to death. Let who will go back."
"They must go," said Hereward, half-peevishly. "Sweyn has right, and
Osbiorn too. The game is played out. Sweep the chessmen off the board, as
Earl Ulf did by Canute the king."
"And lost his life thereby. I shall stand by, and see thee play the last
"And lose thy life equally."
"What matter? I heard thee sing,--
'A bed-death, a priest death,
A straw death, a cow death,
Such death likes not me!'
Nor likes it me either, Hereward Leofricsson."
So the Danes sailed away: but Sigtryg Ranaldsson and his five ships
Hereward went to the minster tower, and watched the Ouse flashing with
countless oars northward toward Southrey Fen. And when they were all out
of sight, he went back, and lay down on his bed and wept,--once and for
all. Then he arose, and went down into the hall to abbots and monks, and
earls and knights, and was the boldest, cheeriest, wittiest of them all.
"They say," quoth he to Torfrida that night, "that some men have gray
heads on green shoulders. I have a gray heart in a green body."
"And my heart is growing very gray, too," said Torfrida.
"Certainly not thy head." And he played with her raven locks.
"That may come, too; and too soon."
For, indeed, they were in very evil case.
HOW THEY FOUGHT AT ALDRETH.
When William heard that the Danes were gone, he marched on Ely, as on an
Ivo Taillebois came with him, hungry after those Spalding lands, the rents
whereof Hereward had been taking for his men for now twelve months.
William de Warrenne was there, vowed to revenge the death of Sir Frederic,
his brother. Ralph Guader was there, flushed with his success at Norwich.
And with them all the Frenchmen of the east, who had been either expelled
from their lands, or were in fear of expulsion.
With them, too, was a great army of mercenaries, ruffians from all France
and Flanders, hired to fight for a certain term, on the chance of plunder
or of fiefs in land. Their brains were all aflame with the tales of
inestimable riches hidden in Ely. There were there the jewels of all the
monasteries round; there were the treasures of all the fugitive English
nobles; there were there--what was there not? And they grumbled, when
William halted them and hutted them at Cambridge, and began to feel
cautiously the strength of the place,--which must be strong, or Hereward
and the English would not have made it their camp of refuge.
Perhaps he rode up to Madingley windmill, and saw fifteen miles away,
clear against the sky, the long line of what seemed naught but a low
upland park, with the minster tower among the trees; and between him and
them, a rich champaign of grass, over which it was easy enough to march
all the armies of Europe; and thought Ely an easy place to take. But men
told him that between him and those trees lay a black abyss of mud and
peat and reeds, Haddenham fen and Smithy fen, with the deep sullen West
water or "Ald-reche" of the Ouse winding through them. The old Roman road
was sunk and gone long since under the bog, whether by English neglect, or
whether (as some think) by actual and bodily sinking of the whole land.
The narrowest space between dry land and dry land was a full half-mile;
and how to cross that half-mile, no man knew.
What were the approaches on the west? There were none. Beyond Earith,
where now run the great washes of the Bedford Level, was a howling
wilderness of meres, seas, reed-ronds, and floating alder-beds, through
which only the fen-men wandered, with leaping-pole and log canoe.
What in the east? The dry land neared the island on that side. And it may
be that William rowed round by Burwell to Fordham and Soham, and thought
of attempting the island by way of Barraway, and saw beneath him a
labyrinth of islands, meres, fens, with the Ouse, now increased by the
volume of the Cam, lying deep and broad between Barraway and
Thetford-in-the-Isle; and saw, too, that a disaster in that labyrinth
might be a destruction.
So he determined on the near and straight path, through Long Stratton and
Willingham, down the old bridle-way from Willingham ploughed field,--every
village there, and in the isle likewise, had and has still its "field," or
ancient clearing of ploughed land,--and then to try that terrible
half-mile, with the courage and wit of a general to whom human lives were
as those of the gnats under the hedge.
So all his host camped themselves in Willingham field, by the old
earthwork which men now call Belsar's Hills; and down the bridle-way
poured countless men, bearing timber and fagots cut from all the hills,
that they might bridge the black half-mile.
They made a narrow, firm path through the reeds, and down to the brink of
the Ouse, if brink it could be called, where the water, rising and falling
a foot or two each tide, covered the floating peat for many yards before
it sunk into a brown depth of bottomless slime. They would make a bottom
for themselves by driving piles.
The piles would not hold; and they began to make a floating bridge with
long beams, says Leofric, and blown-up cattle-hides to float them.
Soon they made a floating sow, and thrust it on before them as they worked
across the stream; for they were getting under shot from the island.
Meanwhile the besieged had not been idle. They had thrown up, says
Leofric, a turf rampart on the island shore, and _antemuralia et
propugnacula,_--doubtless overhanging "hoardings," or scaffolds, through
the floor of which they could shower down missiles. And so they awaited
the attack, contenting themselves with gliding in and out of the reeds in
their canoes, and annoying the builders with arrows and cross-bow bolts.
At last the bridge was finished, and the sow safe across the West water,
and thrust in, as far as it would float, among the reeds on the high tide.
They in the fort could touch it with a pole.
The English would have destroyed it if they could. But Hereward bade them
leave it alone. He had watched all their work, and made up his mind to the
"The rats have set a trap for themselves," he said to his men, "and we
shall be fools to break it up till the rats are safe inside."
So there the huge sow lay, black and silent, showing nothing to the enemy
but a side of strong plank, covered with hide to prevent its being burned.
It lay there for three hours, and Hereward let it lie.
He had never been so cheerful, so confident. "Play the man this day, every
one of you, and ere nightfall you will have taught the Norman once more
the lesson of York. He seems to have forgotten that. It is me to remind
him of it."
And he looked to his bow and to his arrows, and prepared to play the man
himself,--as was the fashion in those old days, when a general proved his
worth by hitting harder and more surely than any of his men.
At last the army was in motion, and Willingham field opposite was like a
crawling ants' nest. Brigade after brigade moved down to the reed beds,
and the assault began.
And now advanced along the causeway and along the bridge a dark column of
men, surmounted by glittering steel. Knights in complete mail, footmen in
leather coats and quilted jerkins; at first orderly enough, each under the
banner of his lord; but more and more mingled and crowded as they hurried
forward, each eager for his selfish share of the inestimable treasures of
Ely. They pushed along the bridge. The mass became more and more crowded;
men stumbled over each other, and fell off into the mire and the water,
calling vainly for help, while their comrades hurried on unheeding, in the
mad thirst for spoil.
On they came in thousands; and fresh thousands streamed out of the fields,
as if the whole army intended to pour itself into the isle at once.
"They are numberless," said Torfrida, in a serious and astonished voice,
as she stood by Hereward's side.
"Would they were!" said Hereward. "Let them come on, thick and threefold.
The more their numbers the fatter will the fish below be before to-morrow
morning. Look there, already!"
And already the bridge was swaying, and sinking beneath their weight. The
men in places were ankle deep in water. They rushed on all the more
eagerly, and filled the sow, and swarmed up to its roof.
Then, what with its own weight, what with the weight of the laden
bridge,--which dragged upon it from behind,--the huge sow began to tilt
backwards, and slide down the slimy bank.
The men on the top tried vainly to keep their footing, to hurl grapnels
into the rampart, to shoot off their quarrels and arrows.
"You must be quick, Frenchmen," shouted Hereward in derision, "if you mean
to come on board here."
The Normans knew that well; and as Hereward spoke two panels in the front
of the sow creaked on their hinges, and dropped landward, forming two
draw-bridges, over which reeled to the attack a close body of knights,
mingled with soldiers bearing scaling ladders.
They recoiled. Between the ends of the draw-bridges and the foot of the
rampart was some two fathoms' depth of black ooze. The catastrophe which
Hereward had foreseen was come, and a shout of derision arose from the
unseen defenders above.
"Come on,--leap it like men! Send back for your horses, knights, and ride
them at it like bold huntsmen!"
The front rank could not but rush on: for the pressure behind forced them
forward, whether they would or not. In a moment they were wallowing waist
deep, trampled on, and disappearing under their struggling comrades, who
disappeared in their turn.
"Look, Torfrida! If they plant their scaling ladders, it will be on a
foundation of their comrades' corpses."
Torfrida gave one glance through the openings of the hoarding, upon the
writhing mass below, and turned away in horror. The men were not so
merciful. Down between the hoarding-beams rained stones, javelins, arrows,
increasing the agony and death. The scaling ladders would not stand in the
mire. If they had stood a moment, the struggles of the dying would have
thrown them down; and still fresh victims pressed on from behind, shouting
"Dex Aie! On to the gold of Ely!" And still the sow, under the weight,
slipped further and further back into the stream, and the foul gulf
widened between besiegers and besieged.
At last one scaling ladder was planted upon the bodies of the dead, and
hooked firmly on the gunwale of the hoarding. Ere it could be hurled off
again by the English, it was so crowded with men that even Hereward's
strength was insufficient to lift it off. He stood at the top, ready to
hew down the first comer; and he hewed him down.
But the Normans were not to be daunted. Man after man dropped dead from
the ladder top,--man after man took his place; sometimes two at a time;
sometimes scrambling over each other's backs.
The English, even in the insolence of victory, cheered them with honest
admiration. "You are fellows worth fighting, you French!"
"So we are," shouted a knight, the first and last who crossed that
parapet; for, thrusting Hereward back with a blow of his sword-hilt, he
staggered past him over the hoarding, and fell on his knees.
A dozen men were upon him; but he was up again and shouting,--
"To me, men-at-arms! A Dade! a Dade!" But no man answered.
"Yield!" quoth Hereward.
Sir Dade answered by a blow on Hereward's helmet, which felled the chief
to his knees, and broke the sword into twenty splinters.
"Well hit," said Hereward, as he rose. "Don't touch him, men! this is my
quarrel now. Yield, sir! you have done enough for your honor. It is
madness to throw away your life."
The knight looked round on the fierce ring of faces, in the midst of which
he stood alone.
"To none but Hereward."
"Hereward am I."
"Ah," said the knight, "had I but hit a little harder!"
"You would have broke your sword into more splinters. My armor is
enchanted. So yield like a reasonable and valiant man."
"What care I?" said the knight, stepping on to the earthwork, and sitting
down quietly. "I vowed to St. Mary and King William that into Ely I would
get this day; and in Ely I am; so I have done my work."
"And now you shall taste--as such a gallant knight deserves--the
hospitality of Ely."
It was Torfrida who spoke.
"My husband's prisoners are mine; and I, when I find them such
_prudhommes_ as you are, have no lighter chains for them than that
which a lady's bower can afford."
Sir Dade was going to make an equally courteous answer, when over and
above the shouts and curses of the combatants rose a yell so keen, so
dreadful, as made all hurry forward to the rampart.
That which Hereward had foreseen was come at last. The bridge, strained
more and more by its living burden, and by the falling tide, had
parted,--not at the Ely end, where the sliding of the sow took off the
pressure,--but at the end nearest the camp. One sideway roll it gave, and
then, turning over, engulfed in that foul stream the flower of Norman
chivalry; leaving a line--a full quarter of a mile in length--of wretches
drowning in the dark water, or, more hideous still, in the bottomless
slime of peat and mud.
Thousands are said to have perished. Their armor and weapons were found at
times, by delvers and dikers, for centuries after; are found at times unto
this day, beneath the rich drained cornfields which now fill up that black
half-mile, or in the bed of the narrow brook to which the Westwater,
robbed of its streams by the Bedford Level, has dwindled down at last.
William, they say, struck his tents and departed forthwith, "groaning from
deep grief of heart;" and so ended the first battle of Aldreth.
HOW SIR DADE BROUGHT NEWS FROM ELY.
A month after the fight, there came into the camp at Cambridge, riding on
a good horse, himself fat and well-liking, none other than Sir Dade.
Boisterously he was received, as one alive from the dead; and questioned
as to his adventures and sufferings.
"Adventures I have had, and strange ones; but for sufferings, instead of
fetter-galls, I bring back, as you see, a new suit of clothes; instead of
an empty and starved stomach, a surfeit from good victuals and good
liquor; and whereas I went into Ely on foot, I came out on a fast
So into William's tent he went; and there he told his tale.
"So, Dade, my friend?" quoth the Duke, in high good humor, for he loved
Dade, "you seem to have been in good company?"
"Never in better, Sire, save in your presence. Of the earls and knights in
Ely, all I can say is, God's pity that they are rebels, for more gallant
and courteous knights or more perfect warriors never saw I, neither in
Normandy nor at Constantinople, among the Varangers themselves."
"Eh! and what are the names of these gallants; for you have used your eyes
and ears, of course?"
"Edwin and Morcar, the earls,--two fine young lads."
"I know it. Go on"; and a shade passed over William's brow, as he thought
of his own falsehood, and his fair Constance, weeping in vain for the fair
bridegroom whom he had promised to her.
"Siward Barn, as they call him, the boy Orgar, and Thurkill Barn. Those
are the knights. Egelwin, bishop of Durham, is there too; and besides them
all, and above them all, Hereward. The like of that knight I may have
seen. His better saw I never."
"Sir fool!" said Earl Warrenne, who had not yet--small blame to
him--forgotten his brother's death. "They have soused thy brains with
their muddy ale, till thou knowest not friend from foe. What! hast thou to
come hither praising up to the King's Majesty such an outlawed villain as
that, with whom no honest knight would keep company?"
"If you, Earl Warrenne, ever found Dade drunk or lying, it is more than
the King here has done."
"Let him speak, Earl," said William. "I have not an honester man in my
camp; and he speaks for my information, not for yours."
"Then for yours will I speak, Sir King. These men treated me knightly, and
sent me away without ransom."
"They had an eye to their own profit, it seems," grumbled the Earl.
"But force me they did to swear on the holy Gospels that I should tell
your Majesty the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And I
keep my oath," quoth Dade.
"Go on, then, without fear or favor. Are there any other men of note in
"Are they in want of provisions?"
"Look how they have fattened me."
"What do they complain of?"
"I will tell you, Sir King. The monks, like many more, took fright at the
coming over of our French men of God to set right all their filthy,
barbarous ways; and that is why they threw Ely open to the rebels."
"I will be even with the sots," quoth William.
"However, they think that danger blown over just now; for they have a
story among them, which, as my Lord the King never heard before, he may as
well hear now."
"How your Majesty should have sent across the sea a whole shipload of
"That have I, and will more, till I reduce these swine into something like
obedience to his Holiness of Rome."
"Ah, but your Majesty has not heard how one Bruman, a valiant English
knight, was sailing on the sea and caught those monks. Whereon he tied a
great sack to the ship's head, and cut the bottom out, and made every one
of those monks get into that sack and so fall through into the sea;
whereby he rid the monks of Ely of their rivals."
"Pish! why tell me such an old-wives' fable, knight?"
"Because the monks believe that old-wives' fable, and are stout-hearted
and stiff-necked accordingly."
"The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church," said William's chaplain,
a pupil and friend of Lanfranc; "and if these men of Belial drowned every
man of God in Normandy, ten would spring up in their places to convert
this benighted and besotted land of Simonites and Balaamites, whose
priests, like the brutes which perish, scruple not to defile themselves
and the service of the altar with things which they impudently call their
"We know that, good chaplain," quoth William, impatiently. He had enough
of that language from Lanfranc himself; and, moreover, was thinking more
of the Isle of Ely than of the celibacy of the clergy.
"Well, Sir Dade?"
"So they have got together all their kin; for among these monks every one
is kin to a Thane, or Knight, or even an Earl. And there they are, brother
by brother, cousin by cousin, knee to knee, and back to back, like a pack
of wolves, and that in a hold which you will not enter yet awhile."
"Does my friend Dade doubt his Duke's skill at last?"
"Sir Duke,--Sir King I mean now, for King you are and deserve to be,--I
know what you can do. I remember how we took England at one blow on Senlac
field; but see you here, Sir King. How will you take an island where four
kings such as you (if the world would hold four such at once) could not
stop one churl from ploughing the land, or one bird-catcher from setting
"And what if I cannot stop the bird-catchers? Do they expect to lime
Frenchmen as easily as sparrows?"
"Sparrows! It is not sparrows that I have been fattening on this last
month. I tell you, Sire, I have seen wild-fowl alone in that island enough
to feed them all the year round. I was there in the moulting-time, and saw
them take,--one day one hundred, one two hundred; and once, as I am a
belted knight, a thousand duck out of one single mere. There is a wood
there, with herons sprawling about the tree-tops,--I did not think there
were so many in the world,--and fish for Lent and Fridays in every puddle
and leat, pike and perch, tench and eels, on every old-wife's table; while
the knights think scorn of anything worse than smelts and burbot."
"Splendeur Dex!" quoth William, who, Norman-like, did not dislike a good
dinner. "I must keep Lent in Ely before I die."
"Then you had best make peace with the burbot-eating knights, my lord."
"But have they flesh-meat?"
"The isle is half of it a garden,--richer land, they say, is none in these
realms, and I believe it; but, besides that, there is a deer-park there
with a thousand head in it, red and fallow; and plenty of swine in woods,
and sheep, and cattle; and if they fail, there are plenty more to be got,
they know where."
"They know where? Do you, Sir Knight?" asked William, keenly.
"Out of every little Island in their fens, for forty miles on end. There
are the herds fattening themselves on the richest pastures in the land,
and no man needing to herd them, for they are all safe among dikes and
"I will make my boats sweep their fens clear of every head--"
"Take care, my Lord King, lest never a boat come back from that errand.
With their narrow flat-bottomed punts, cut out of a single log, and their
leaping-poles, wherewith they fly over dikes of thirty feet in
width,--they can ambuscade in those reed-beds and alder-beds, kill whom
they will, and then flee away through the marsh like so many horse-flies.
And if not, one trick have they left, which they never try save when
driven into a corner; but from that, may all saints save us!"
"Firing the reeds."
"And destroying their own cover?"
"True: therefore they will only do it in despair."
"Then to despair will I drive them, and try their worst. So these monks
are as stout rebels as the earls?"
"I only say what I saw. At the hall-table there dined each day maybe some
fifty belted knights, with every one a monk next to him; and at the high
table the abbot, and the three earls, and Hereward and his lady, and
Thurkill Barn. And behind each knight, and each monk likewise, hung
against the wall lance and shield, helmet and hauberk, sword and axe."
"To monk as well as knight?"
"As I am a knight myself; and were as well used, too, for aught I saw. The
monks took turns with the knights as sentries, and as foragers, too; and
the knights themselves told me openly, the monks were as good men as
"As wicked, you mean," groaned the chaplain. "O, accursed and bloodthirsty
race, why does not the earth open and swallow you, with Korah, Dathan, and
"They would not mind," quoth Dade. "They are born and bred in the
bottomless pit already. They would jump over, or flounder out, as they do
to their own bogs every day."
"You speak irreverently, my friend," quoth William.
"Ask those who are in camp, and not me. As for whither they went, or how,
the English were not likely to tell me. All I know is, that I saw fresh
cattle come every few days, and fresh farms burnt, too, on the Norfolk
side. There were farms burning last night only, between here and
Cambridge. Ask your sentinels on the Rech-dike how that came about!"
"I can answer that," quoth a voice from the other end of the tent. "I was
on the Rech-dike last night, close down to the fen,--worse luck and shame
"Answer, then!" quoth William, with one of his horrible oaths, glad to
have some one on whom he could turn his rage and disappointment.
"There came seven men in a boat up from Ely yestereven, and five of them
were monks; they came up from Burwell fen, and plundered and burnt Burwell
"And where were all you mighty men of war?"
"Ten of us ran down to stop them, with Richard, Earl Osbern's nephew, at
their head. The villains got to the top of the Rech-dike, and made a
stand, and before we could get to them--"
"Thy men had run, of course."
"They were every one dead or wounded, save Richard; and he was fighting
single-handed with an Englishman, while the other six stood around, and
"Then they fought fairly?" said William.
"As fairly, to do them justice, as if they had been Frenchmen, and not
English churls. As we came down along the dike, a little man of them steps
between the two, and strikes down their swords as if they had been two
reeds. 'Come!' cries he, 'enough of this. You are two _prudhommes_ well
matched, and you can fight out this any other day'; and away he and his
men go down the dike-end to the water."
"Leaving Richard safe?"
"Wounded a little,--but safe enough."
"We followed them to the boat as hard as we could; killed one with a
javelin, and caught another."
"Knightly done!" and William swore an awful oath, "and worthy of valiant
Frenchmen. These English set you the example of chivalry by letting your
comrade fight his own battle fairly, instead of setting on him all
together; and you repay them by hunting them down with darts, because you
dare not go within sword's-stroke of better men than yourselves. Go. I am
ashamed of you. No, stay. Where is your prisoner? For, Splendeur Dex! I
will send him back safe and sound in return for Dade, to tell the knights
of Ely that if they know so well the courtesies of war, William of Rouen
"The prisoner, Sire," quoth the knight, trembling, "is--is--"
"You have not murdered him?"
"Heaven forbid! but--"
"He broke his bonds and escaped?"
"Gnawed them through, Sire, as we suppose, and escaped through the mire in
the dark, after the fashion of these accursed frogs of Girvians."
"But did he tell you naught ere he bade you good morning?"
"He told as the names of all the seven. He that beat down the swords was
"I thought as much. When shall I have that fellow at my side?"
"He that fought Richard was one Wenoch."
"I have heard of him."
"He that we slew was Siward, a monk."
"More shame to you."
"He that we took was Azer the Hardy, a monk of Nicole--Licole,"--the
Normans could never say Lincoln.
"And the rest were Thurstan the Younger; Leofric the Deacon, Hereward's
minstrel; and Boter, the traitor monk of St. Edmund's."
"And if I catch them," quoth William, "I will make an abbot of every one
"Sire?" quoth the chaplain, in a deprecating tone.
HOW HEREWARD PLAYED THE POTTER; AND HOW HE CHEATED THE KING.
They of Ely were now much straitened, being shut in both by land and
water; and what was to be done, either by themselves or by the king, they
knew not. Would William simply starve them; or at least inflict on them so
perpetual a Lent,--for of fish there could be no lack, even if they ate or
drove away all the fowl,--as would tame down their proud spirits; which a
diet of fish and vegetables, from some ludicrous theory of monastic
physicians, was supposed to do? [Footnote: The Cornish--the stoutest,
tallest, and most prolific race of the South--live on hardly anything else
but fish and vegetables.] Or was he gathering vast armies, from they knew
not whence, to try, once and for all, another assault on the island,--it
might be from several points at once?
They must send out a spy, and find out news from the outer world, if news
were to be gotten. But who would go?
So asked the bishop, and the abbot, and the earls, in council in the
Torfrida was among them. She was always among them now. She was their
Alruna-wife, their Vala, their wise woman, whose counsels all received as
more than human.
"I will go," said she, rising up like a goddess on Olympus. "I will cut
off my hair, and put on boy's clothes, and smirch myself brown with walnut
leaves; and I will go. I can talk their French tongue. I know their French
ways; and as for a story to cover my journey and my doings, trust a
woman's wit to invent that."
They looked at her, with delight in her courage, but with doubt.
"If William's French grooms got hold of you, Torfrida, it would not be a
little walnut brown which would hide you," said Hereward. "It is like you
to offer,--worthy of you, who have no peer."
"That she has not," quoth churchmen and soldiers alike.
"But--to send you would be to send Hereward's wrong half. The right half
of Hereward is going; and that is, himself."
"Uncle, uncle!" said the young earls, "send Winter, Geri, Leofwin Prat,
any of your fellows: but not yourself. If we lose you, we lose our head
and our king."
And all prayed Hereward to let any man go, rather than himself.
"I am going, lords and knights; and what Hereward says he does. It is one
day to Brandon. It may be two days back; for if I miscarry,--as I most
likely shall,--I must come home round about. On the fourth day, you shall
hear of me or from me. Come with me, Torfrida."
And he strode out.
He cropped his golden locks, he cropped his golden beard; and Torfrida
cried, as she cropped them, half with fear for him, half for sorrow over
his shorn glories.
"I am no Samson, my lady; my strength lieth not in my locks. Now for some
rascal's clothes,--as little dirty as you can get me, for fear of
And Hereward put on filthy garments, and taking mare Swallow with him, got
into a barge and went across the river to Soham.
He could not go down the Great Ouse, and up the Little Ouse, which was his
easiest way, for the French held all the river below the isle; and,
beside, to have come straight from Ely might cause suspicion. So he went
down to Fordham, and crossed the Lark at Mildenhall; and just before he
got to Mildenhall, he met a potter carrying pots upon a pony.
"Halt, my stout fellow," quoth he, "and put thy pots on my mare's back."
"The man who wants them must fight for them," quoth that stout churl,
raising a heavy staff.
"Then here is he that will," quoth Hereward; and, jumping off his mare, he
twisted the staff out of the potter's hands, and knocked him down
"That will teach thee to know an Englishman when thou seest him."
"I have met my master," quoth the churl, rubbing his head. "But dog does
not eat dog; and it is hard to be robbed by an Englishman, after being
robbed a dozen times by the French."
"I will not rob thee. There is a silver penny for thy pots and thy
coat,--for that I must have likewise. And if thou tellest to mortal man
aught about this, I will find those who will cut thee to ribbons; and if
not, then turn thy horse's head and ride back to Ely, if thou canst cross
the water, and say what has befallen thee; and thou wilt find there an
abbot who will give thee another penny for thy news."
So Hereward took the pots, and the potter's clay-greased coat, and went on
through Mildenhall, "crying," saith the chronicler, "after the manner of
potters, in the English tongue, 'Pots! pots! good pots and pans!'"
But when he got through Mildenhall, and well into the rabbit-warrens, he
gave mare Swallow a kick, and went over the heath so fast northward, that
his pots danced such a dance as broke half of them before he got to
"Never mind," quoth he, "they will think that I have sold them." And when
he neared Brandon he pulled up, sorted his pots, kept the whole ones,
threw the sherds at the rabbits, and walked on into Brandon solemnly,
leading the mare, and crying "Pots!"
So "semper marcida et deformis aspectu"--lean and ill-looking--was that
famous mare, says the chronicler, that no one would suspect her splendid
powers, or take her for anything but a potter's nag, when she was
caparisoned in proper character. Hereward felt thoroughly at home in his
part; as able to play the Englishman which he was by rearing, as the
Frenchman which he was by education. He was full of heart, and happy. He
enjoyed the keen fresh air of the warrens; he enjoyed the ramble out of
the isle, in which he had been cooped up so long; he enjoyed the fun of
the thing,--disguise, stratagem, adventure, danger. And so did the
English, who adored him. None of Hereward's deeds is told so carefully and
lovingly; and none, doubt it not, was so often sung in after years by
farm-house hearths, or in the outlaws' lodge, as this. Robin Hood himself
may have trolled out many a time, in doggrel strain, how Hereward played
And he came to Brandon, to the "king's court,"--probably Weeting Hall, or
castle, from which William could command the streams of Wissey and Little
Ouse, with all their fens,--and cast about for a night's lodging, for it
Outside the town was a wretched cabin of mud and turf,--such a one as
Irish folk live in to this day; and Hereward said to himself, "This is bad
enough to be good enough for me."
So he knocked at the door, and knocked till it was opened, and a hideous
old crone put out her head.
"Who wants to see me at this time of night?"
"Any one would, who had heard how beautiful you are. Do you want any
"Pots! What have I to do with pots, thou saucy fellow? I thought it was
some one wanting a charm." And she shut the door.
"A charm?" thought Hereward. "Maybe she can tell me
news, if she be a witch. They are shrewd souls, these witches, and know
more than they tell. But if I can get any news, I care not if Satan brings
it in person."
So he knocked again, till the old woman looked out once more, and bade him
angrily be off.
"But I am belated here, good dame, and afraid of the French. And I will
give thee the best bit of clay on my mare's back,--pot,--pan,--pansion,--
crock,--jug, or what thou wilt, for a night's lodging."
"Have you any little jars,--jars no longer than my hand?" asked she; for
she used them in her trade, and had broken one of late: but to pay for
one, she had neither money nor mind. So she agreed to let Hereward sleep
there, for the value of two jars. "But what of that ugly brute of a horse
"She will do well enough in the turf-shed."
"Then thou must pay with a pannikin."
"Ugh!" groaned Hereward; "thou drivest a hard bargain, for an
Englishwoman, with a poor Englishman."
"How knowest thou that I am English?"
"So much the better if thou art not," thought Hereward; and bargained with
her for a pannikin against a lodging for the horse in the turf-house, and
a bottle of bad hay.
Then he went in, bringing his panniers with him with ostentatious care.
"Thou canst sleep there on the rushes. I have naught to give thee to eat."
"Naught needs naught," said Hereward; threw himself down on a bundle of
rush, and in a few minutes snored loudly.
But he was never less asleep. He looked round the whole cabin; and he
listened to every word.
The Devil, as usual, was a bad paymaster; for the witch's cabin seemed
only somewhat more miserable than that of other old women. The floor was
mud, the rafters unceiled; the stars shone through the turf roof. The only
hint of her trade was a hanging shelf, on which stood five or six little
earthen jars, and a few packets of leaves. A parchment, scrawled with
characters which the owner herself probably did not understand, hung
against the cob wall; and a human skull--probably used only to frighten
her patients--dangled from the roof-tree.
But in a corner, stuck against the wall, was something which chilled
Hereward's blood a little. A dried human hand, which he knew must have
been stolen off the gallows, gripping in its fleshless fingers a candle,
which he knew was made of human fat. That candle, he knew, duly lighted
and carried, would enable the witch to walk unseen into any house on
earth, yea, through the court of King William himself, while it drowned
all men in preternatural slumber.
Hereward was very much frightened. He believed as devoutly in the powers
of a witch as did then--and does now, for aught Italian literature, _e
permissu superiorum_, shows--the Pope of Rome.
So he trembled on his rushes, and wished himself safe through that
adventure, without being turned into a hare or a wolf.
"I would sooner be a wolf than a hare, of course, killing being more in my
trade than being killed; but--who comes here?"
And to the first old crone, who sat winking her bleared eyes, and warming
her bleared hands over a little heap of peat in the middle of the cabin,
entered another crone, if possible uglier.
"Two of them! If I am not roasted and eaten this night, I am a lucky man."
And Hereward crossed himself devoutly, and invoked St. Ethelfrida of Ely,
St. Guthlac of Crowland, St. Felix of Ramsey,--to whom, he recollected, he
had been somewhat remiss; but, above all, St. Peter of Peterborough, whose
treasures he had given to the Danes. And he argued stoutly with St. Peter
and with his own conscience, that the means sanctify the end, and that he
had done it all for the best.
"If thou wilt help me out of this strait, and the rest, blessed Apostle, I
will give thee--I will go to Constantinople but what I will win it--a
golden table twice as fine as those villains carried off, and one of the
Bourne manors--Witham--or Toft--or Mainthorpe--whichever pleases thee
best, in full fee; and a--and a--"
But while Hereward was casting in his mind what gewgaw further might
suffice to appease the Apostle, he was recalled to business and
common-sense by hearing the two old hags talk to each other in French.
His heart leapt for joy, and he forgot St. Peter utterly.
"Well, how have you sped? Have you seen the king?"
"No; but Ivo Taillebois. Eh! Who the foul fiend have you lying there?"
"Only an English brute. He cannot understand us. Talk on: only don't wake
the hog. Have you got the gold?"
Then there was a grumbling and a quarrelling, from which Hereward
understood that the gold was to be shared between them.
"But it is a bit of chain. To cut it will spoil it."
The other insisted; and he heard them chop the gold chain in two.
"And is this all?"
"I had work enough to get that. He said, No play no pay; and he would give
it me after the isle was taken. But I told him my spirit was a Jewish
spirit, that used to serve Solomon the Wise; and he would not serve me,
much less come over the sea from Normandy, unless he smelt gold; for he
loved it like any Jew."
"And what did you tell him then?"
"That the king must go back to Aldreth again; for only from thence he
would take the isle; for--and that was true enough--I dreamt I saw all the
water of Aldreth full of wolves, clambering over into the island on each
"That means that some of them will be drowned."
"Let them drown. I left him to find out that part of the dream for
himself. Then I told him how he must make another causeway, bigger and
stronger than the last, and a tower on which I could stand and curse the
English. And I promised him to bring a storm right in the faces of the
English, so that they could neither fight nor see."
"But if the storm does not come?"
"It will come. I know the signs of the sky,--who better?--and the weather
will break up in a week. Therefore I told him he must begin his works at
once, before the rain came on; and that we would go and ask the spirit of
the well to tell us the fortunate day for attacking."
"That is my business," said the other; "and my spirit likes the smell of
gold as well as yours. Little you would have got from me, if you had not
given me half the chain."
Then the two rose.
"Let us see whether the English hog is asleep."
One of them came and listened to Hereward's breathing, and put her hand
upon his chest. His hair stood on end; a cold sweat came over him. But he
snored more loudly than ever.
The two old crones went out satisfied. Then Hereward rose, and glided
They went down a meadow to a little well, which Hereward had marked as he
rode thither, hung round with bits of rag and flowers, as similar "holy
wells" are decorated in Ireland to this day.
He hid behind a hedge, and watched them stooping over the well, mumbling
he knew not what of cantrips.
Then there was silence, and a tinkling sound as of water.
"Once--twice--thrice," counted the witches. Nine times he counted the
"The ninth day,--the ninth day, and the king shall take Ely," said one in
a cracked scream, rising, and shaking her fist toward the isle.
Hereward was more than half-minded to have put his dagger--the only weapon
which he had--into the two old beldames on the spot. But the fear of an
outcry kept him still. He had found out already so much, that he was
determined to find out more. So to-morrow he would go up to the court
itself, and take what luck sent.
He slipt back to the cabin and lay down again; and as soon as he had seen
the two old crones safe asleep, fell asleep himself, and was so tired that
he lay till the sun was high.
"Get up!" screamed the old dame at last, kicking him, "or I shall make you
give me another crock for a double night's rest."
He paid his lodging, put the panniers on the mare, and went on crying
When he came to the outer gateway of the court he tied up the mare, and
carried the crockery in on his own back boldly. The scullions saw him, and
called him into the kitchen to see his crockery, without the least
intention of paying for what they took.
A man of rank belonging to the court came in, and stared fixedly at
"You are mightily like that villain Hereward, man," quoth he.
"Anon?" asked Hereward, looking as stupid as he could.
"If it were not for his brown face and short hair, he is as like the
fellow as a churl can be to a knight."
"Bring him into the hall," quoth another, "and let us see if any man knows
Into the great hall he was brought, and stared at by knights and squires.
He bent his knees, rounded his shoulders, and made himself look as mean as
Ivo Taillebois and Earl Warrenne came down and had a look at him.
"Hereward!" said Ivo. "I will warrant that little slouching cur is not he.
Hereward must be half as big again, if it be true that he can kill a man
with one blow of his fist."
"You may try the truth of that for yourself some day," thought Hereward.
"Does any one here talk English? Let us question the fellow," said Earl
"Hereward? Hereward? Who wants to know about that villain?" answered the
potter, as soon as he was asked in English. "Would to Heaven he were here,
and I could see some of you noble knights and earls paying him for me; for
I owe him more than ever I shall pay myself."
"What does he mean?"
"He came out of the isle ten days ago, nigh on to evening, and drove off a
cow of mine and four sheep, which was all my living, noble knights, save
"And where is he since?"
"In the isle, my lords, wellnigh starved, and his folk falling away from
him daily from hunger and ague-fits. I doubt if there be a hundred sound
men left in Ely."
"Have you been in thither, then, villain?"
"Heaven forbid! I in Ely? I in the wolf's den? If I went in with naught
but my skin, they would have it off me before I got out again. If your
lordships would but come down, and make an end of him once for all; for he
is a great tyrant and terrible, and devours us poor folk like so many
mites in cheese."
"Take this babbler into the kitchen, and feed him," quoth Earl Warrenne;
and so the colloquy ended.
Into the kitchen again the potter went. The king's luncheon was preparing;
and he listened to their chatter, and picked up this at least, which was
valuable to him,--that the witches' story was true; that a great attack
would be made from Aldreth; that boats had been ordered up the river to
Cotinglade, and pioneers and entrenching tools were to be sent on that day
to the site of the old causeway.
But soon he had to take care of himself. Earl Warrenne's commands to feed
him were construed by the cook-boys and scullions into a command to make
him drunk likewise. To make a laughing-stock of an Englishman was too
tempting a jest to be resisted; and Hereward was drenched (says the
chronicler) with wine and beer, and sorely baited and badgered. At last
one rascal hit upon a notable plan.
"Pluck out the English hog's hair and beard, and put him blindfold in the
midst of his pots, and see what a smash we shall have."
Hereward pretended not to understand the words, which were spoken in
French; but when they were interpreted to him, he grew somewhat red about
Submit he would not. But if he defended himself, and made an uproar in the
king's Court, he might very likely find himself riding Odin's horse before
the hour was out. However, happily for him, the wine and beer had made him
stout of heart, and when one fellow laid hold of his beard, he resisted
The man struck him, and that hard. Hereward, hot of temper, and careless
of life, struck him again, right under the ear.
The fellow dropped for dead.
Up leapt cook-boys, scullions, _lecheurs_ (who hung about the kitchen
to _lecher,_ lick the platters), and all the foul-mouthed rascality
of a great mediaeval household; and attacked Hereward _cum fureis et
tridentibus,_ with forks and flesh-hooks.
Then was Hereward aware of a great broach, or spit, before the fire; and
recollecting how he had used such a one as a boy against the monks of
Peterborough, was minded to use it against the cooks of Brandon; which he
did so heartily, that in a few moments he had killed one, and driven the
others backward in a heap.
But his case was hopeless. He was soon overpowered by numbers from
outside, and dragged into the hall, to receive judgment for the mortal
crime of slaying a man within the precincts of the Court.
He kept up heart. He knew that the king was there; he knew that he should
most likely get justice from the king. If not, he could but discover
himself, and so save his life: for that the king would kill him knowingly,
he did not believe.
So he went in boldly and willingly, and up the hall, where, on the dais,
stood William the Norman.
William had finished his luncheon, and was standing at the board side. A
page held water in a silver basin, in which he was washing his hands. Two
more knelt, and laced his long boots, for he was, as always, going
Then Hereward looked at the face of the great man, and felt at once that
it was the face of the greatest man whom he had ever met.
"I am not that man's match," said he to himself. "Perhaps it will all end
in being his man, and he my master."
"Silence, knaves!" said William, "and speak one of you at a time. How came
"A likely story, forsooth!" said he, when he had heard. "A poor English
potter comes into my court, and murders my men under my very eyes for mere
sport. I do not believe you, rascals! You, churl," and he spoke through an
English interpreter, "tell me your tale, and justice you shall have or
take, as you deserve. I am the King of England, man, and I know your
tongue, though I speak it not yet, more pity."
Hereward fell on his knees.
"If you are indeed my Lord the King, then I am safe; for there is justice
in you, at least so all men say." And he told his tale, manfully.
"Splendeur Dex! but this is a far likelier story, and I believe it. Hark
you, you ruffians! Here am I, trying to conciliate these English by
justice and mercy whenever they will let me, and here are you outraging
them, and driving them mad and desperate, just that you may get a handle
against them, and thus rob the poor wretches and drive them into the
forest. From the lowest to the highest,--from Ivo Taillebois there down to
you cook-boys,--you are all at the same game. And I will stop it! The next
time I hear of outrage to unarmed man or harmless woman, I will hang that
culprit, were he Odo my brother himself."
This excellent speech was enforced with oaths so strange and terrible,
that Ivo Taillebois shook in his boots; and the chaplain prayed fervently
that the roof might not fall in on their heads.
"Thou smilest, man?" said William, quickly, to the kneeling Hereward. "So
thou understandest French?"
"A few words only, most gracious King, which we potters pick up, wandering
everywhere with our wares," said Hereward, speaking in French; for so keen
was William's eye, that he thought it safer to play no tricks with him.
Nevertheless, he made his French so execrable, that the very scullions
grinned, in spite of their fear.
"Look you," said William, "you are no common churl; you have fought too
well for that. Let me see your arm."
Hereward drew up his sleeve.
"Potters do not carry sword-scars like those; neither are they tattooed
like English thanes. Hold up thy head, man, and let us see thy throat."
Hereward, who had carefully hung down his head to prevent his
throat-patterns being seen, was forced to lift it up.
"Aha! So I expected. More fair ladies' work there. Is not this he who was
said to be so like Hereward? Very good. Put him in ward till I come back
from hunting. But do him no harm. For"--and William fixed on Hereward eyes
of the most intense intelligence--"were he Hereward himself, I should be
right glad to see Hereward safe and sound; my man at last, and earl of all
between Humber and the Fens."
But Hereward did not rise at the bait. With a face of stupid and ludicrous
terror, he made reply in broken French.
"Have mercy, mercy, Lord King! Make not that fiend earl over us. Even Ivo
Taillebois there would be better than he. Send him to be earl over the
imps in hell, or over the wild Welsh who are worse still: but not over us,
good Lord King, whom he hath polled and peeled till we are--"
"Silence!" said William, laughing, as did all round him, "Thou art a
cunning rogue enough, whoever thou art. Go into limbo, and behave thyself
till I come back."
"All saints send your grace good sport, and thereby me a good
deliverance," quoth Hereward, who knew that his fate might depend on the
temper in which William returned. So he was thrust into an outhouse, and
there locked up.
He sat on an empty barrel, meditating on the chances of his submitting to
the king after all, when the door opened, and in strode one with a drawn
sword in one hand, and a pair of leg-shackles in the other.
"Hold out thy shins, fellow! Thou art not going to sit at thine ease there
like an abbot, after killing one of us grooms, and bringing the rest of us
into disgrace. Hold out thy legs, I say!"
"Nothing easier," quoth Hereward, cheerfully, and held out a leg. But when
the man stooped to put on the fetters, he received a kick which sent him
After which he recollected very little, at least in this world. For
Hereward cut off his head with his own sword.
After which (says the chronicler) he broke away out of the house, and over
garden walls and palings, hiding and running, till he got to the front
gate, and leaped upon mare Swallow.
And none saw him, save one unlucky groom-boy, who stood yelling and
cursing in front of the mare's head, and went to seize the bridle.
Whereon, between the imminent danger and the bad language, Hereward's
blood rose, and he smote that unlucky groom-boy; but whether he slew him
or not, the chronicler had rather not say.
Then he shook up mare Swallow, and rode for his life, with knights and
squires (for the hue and cry was raised) galloping at her heels.
Who then were astonished but those knights, as they saw the ugly potter's
garron gaining on them length after length, till she and her rider had
left them far behind?
Who then was proud but Hereward, as the mare tucked her great thighs under
her, and swept on over heath and rabbit burrow, over rush and fen, sound
ground and rotten all alike to that enormous stride, to that keen bright
eye which foresaw every footfall, to that raking shoulder which picked her
up again at every stagger?
Hereward laid the bridle on her neck, and let her go. Fall she could not,
and tire she could not; and he half wished she might go on forever. Where
could a man be better than on a good horse, with all the cares of this
life blown away out of his brains by the keen air which rushed around his
temples? And he galloped on, as cheery as a boy, shouting at the rabbits
as they scuttled from under his feet, and laughing at the dottrel as they
postured and anticked on the mole-hills.
But think he must, at last, of how to get home. For to go through
Mildenhall again would not be safe, and he turned over the moors to
Icklingham; and where he went after, no man can tell.
Certainly not the chronicler; for he tells how Hereward got back by the
Isle of Somersham. Which is all but impossible, for Somersham is in
Huntingdonshire, many a mile on the opposite side of Ely Isle.
And of all those knights that followed him, none ever saw or heard sign of
him save one; and his horse came to a standstill in "the aforesaid wood,"
which the chronicler says was Somersham; and he rolled off his horse, and
lay breathless under a tree, looking up at his horse's heaving flanks and
wagging tail, and wondering how he should get out of that place before the
English found him and made an end of him.
Then there came up to him a ragged churl, and asked him who he was, and
offered to help him.
"For the sake of God and courtesy," quoth he,--his Norman pride being
wellnigh beat out of him,--"if thou hast seen or heard anything of
Hereward, good fellow, tell me, and I will repay thee well."
"As thou hast asked me for the sake of God and of courtesy, Sir Knight, I
will tell thee. I am Hereward. And in token thereof, thou shalt give me up
thy lance and sword, and take instead this sword which I carried off from
the king's court; and promise me, on the faith of a knight, to bear it
back to King William; and tell him that Hereward and he have met at last,
and that he had best beware of the day when they shall meet again."
So that knight, not having recovered his wind, was fain to submit, and go
home a sadder and a wiser man. And King William laughed a royal laugh, and
commanded his knights that they should in no wise harm Hereward, but take
him alive, and bring him in, and they should have great rewards.
Which seemed to them more easily said than done.
HOW THEY FOUGHT AGAIN AT ALDRETH.
Hereward came back in fear and trembling, after all. He believed in the
magic powers of the witch of Brandon; and he asked Torfrida, in his
simplicity, whether she was not cunning enough to defeat her spells by
Torfrida smiled, and shook her head.
"My knight, I have long since given up such vanities. Let us not fight
evil with evil, but rather with good. Better are prayers than charms; for
the former are heard in heaven above, and the latter only in the pit
below. Let me and all the women of Ely go rather in procession to St.
Etheldreda's well, there above the fort at Aldreth, and pray St.
Etheldreda to be with us when the day shall come, and defend her own isle
and the honor of us women who have taken refuge in her holy arms."
So all the women of Ely walked out barefoot to St. Etheldreda's well, with
Torfrida at their head clothed in sackcloth, and with fetters on her
wrists and waist and ankles; which she vowed, after the strange, sudden,
earnest fashion of those times, never to take off again till she saw the
French host flee from Aldreth before the face of St. Etheldreda. So they
prayed, while Hereward and his men worked at the forts below. And when
they came back, and Torfrida was washing her feet, sore and bleeding from
her pilgrimage, Hereward came in.
"You have murdered your poor soft feet, and taken nothing thereby, I
"I have. If I had walked on sharp razors all the way, I would have done it
gladly, to know what I know now. As I prayed I looked out over the fen;
and St. Etheldreda put a thought into my heart. But it is so terrible a
one, that I fear to tell it to you. And yet it seems our only chance."
Hereward threw himself at her feet, and prayed her to tell. At last she
spoke, as one half afraid of her own words,--
"Will the reeds burn, Hereward?"
Hereward kissed her feet again and again, calling her his prophetess, his
"Burn! yes, like tinder, in this March wind, if the drought only holds.
Pray that the drought may hold, Torfrida."
"There, there, say no more. How hard-hearted war makes even us women!
There, help me to take off this rough sackcloth, and dress myself again."
Meanwhile William had moved his army again to Cambridge, and on to
Willingham field, and there he began to throw up those "globos and
montanas," of which Leofric's paraphraser talks, but of which now no trace
remains. Then he began to rebuild his causeway, broader and stronger; and
commanded all the fishermen of the Ouse to bring their boats to
Cotinglade, and ferry over his materials. "Among whom came Hereward in his
boat, with head and beard shaven lest he should be known, and worked
diligently among the rest. But the sun did not set that day without
mischief; for before Hereward went off, he finished his work by setting
the whole on fire, so that it was all burnt, and some of the French killed
And so he went on, with stratagems and ambushes, till "after seven days'
continual fighting, they had hardly done one day's work; save four
'globos' of wood, in which they intended to put their artillery. But on
the eighth day they determined to attack the isle, putting in the midst of
them that pythoness woman on a high place, where she might be safe freely
to exercise her art."
It was not Hereward alone who had entreated Torfrida to exercise her magic
art in their behalf. But she steadily refused, and made good Abbot
Thurstan support her refusal by a strict declaration, that he would have
no fiends' games played in Ely, as long as he was abbot alive on land.
Torfrida, meanwhile, grew utterly wild. Her conscience smote her, in spite
of her belief that St. Etheldreda had inspired her, at the terrible
resource which she had hinted to her husband, and which she knew well he
would carry out with terrible success. Pictures of agony and death floated
before her eyes, and kept her awake at night. She watched long hours in
the church in prayer; she fasted; she disciplined her tender body with
sharp pains; she tried, after the fashion of those times, to atone for her
sin, if sin it was. At last she had worked herself up into a religious
frenzy. She saw St. Etheldreda in the clouds, towering over the isle,
menacing the French host with her virgin palm-branch. She uttered wild
prophecies of ruin and defeat to the French; and then, when her frenzy
collapsed, moaned secretly of ruin and defeat hereafter to themselves. But
she would be bold; she would play her part; she would encourage the heroes
who looked to her as one inspired, wiser and loftier than themselves.
And so it befell, that when the men marched down to Haddenham that
afternoon, Torfrida rode at their head on a white charger, robed from
throat to ankle in sackcloth, her fetters clanking on her limbs. But she
called on the English to see in her the emblem of England, captive yet,
unconquered, and to break her fetters and the worse fetters of every woman
in England who was the toy and slave of the brutal invaders; and so fierce
a triumph sparkled from her wild hawk-eyes that the Englishmen looked up
to her weird beauty as to that of an inspired saint; and when the Normans
came on to the assault there stood on a grassy mound behind the English
fort a figure clothed in sackcloth, barefooted and bareheaded, with
fetters shining on waist, and wrist, and ankle,--her long black locks
streaming in the wind, her long white arms stretched crosswise toward
heaven, in imitation of Moses of old above the battle with Amalek;
invoking St. Etheldreda and all the powers of Heaven, and chanting doom
and defiance to the invaders.
And the English looked on her, and cried: "She is a prophetess! We will
surely do some great deed this day, or die around her feet like heroes!"
And opposite to her, upon the Norman tower, the old hag of Brandon howled
and gibbered with filthy gestures, calling for the thunder-storm which did
not come; for all above, the sky was cloudless blue.
And the English saw and felt, though they could not speak it, dumb nation
as they were, the contrast between the spirit of cruelty and darkness and
the spirit of freedom and light.
So strong was the new bridge, that William trusted himself upon it on
horseback, with Ivo Taillebois at his side.
William doubted the powers of the witch, and felt rather ashamed of his
new helpmate; but he was confident in his bridge, and in the heavy
artillery which he had placed in his four towers.
Ivo Taillebois was utterly confident in his witch, and in the bridge
William waited for the rising of the tide; and when the tide was near its
height, he commanded the artillery to open, and clear the fort opposite of
the English. Then with crash and twang, the balistas and catapults went
off, and great stones and heavy lances hurtled through the air.
"Back!" shouted Torfrida, raised almost to madness, by fasting,
self-torture, and religious frenzy. "Out of yon fort, every man. Why waste
your lives under that artillery? Stand still this day, and see how the
saints of Heaven shall fight for you."
So utter was the reverence which she commanded for the moment, that every
man drew back, and crowded round her feet outside the fort.
"The cowards are fleeing already. Let your men go, Sir King!" shouted
"On to the assault! Strike for Normandy!" shouted William.
"I fear much," said he to himself, "that this is some stratagem of that
Hereward's. But conquered they must be."
The evening breeze curled up the reach. The great pike splashed out from
the weedy shores, and sent the white-fish flying in shoals into the low
glare of the setting sun; and heeded not, stupid things, the barges packed
with mailed men, which swarmed in the reeds on either side the bridge, and
began to push out into the river.
The starlings swung in thousands round the reed-ronds, looking to settle
in their wonted place: but dare not; and rose and swung round again,
telling each other, in their manifold pipings, how all the reed-ronds
teemed with mailed men. And all above, the sky was cloudless blue.
And then came a trample, a roll of many feet on the soft spongy peat, a
low murmur which rose into wild shouts of "Dex Aie!" as a human tide
poured along the causeway, and past the witch of Brandon Heath.
"'Dex Aie?'" quoth William, with a sneer. "'Debbles Aie!' would fit
"If, Sire, the powers above would have helped us, we should have been
happy enough to----But if they would not, it is not our fault if we try
below," said Ivo Taillebois.
William laughed. "It is well to have two strings to one's bow, sir.
Forward, men! forward!" shouted he, riding out to the bridge-end, under
"Forward!" shouted Ivo Taillebois.
"Forward!" shouted the hideous hag overhead. "The spirit of the well
fights for you."
"Fight for yourselves," said William.
There was twenty yards of deep clear water between Frenchman and
Englishman. Only twenty yards. Not only the arrows and arblast quarrels,
but heavy hand-javelins, flew across every moment; every now and then a
man toppled forward, and plunged into the blue depth among the eels and
pike, to find his comrades of the summer before; then the stream was still
once more. The coots and water-hens swam in and out of the reeds, and
wondered what it was all about. The water-lilies flapped upon the ripple,
as lonely as in the loneliest mere. But their floats were soon broken,
their white cups stained with human gore. Twenty yards of deep clear
water. And treasure inestimable to win by crossing it.
They thrust out baulks, canoes, pontoons; they crawled upon them like
ants, and thrust out more yet beyond, heedless of their comrades, who
slipped, and splashed, and sank, holding out vain hands to hands too busy
to seize them. And always the old witch jabbered overhead, with her
cantrips, pointing, mumming, praying for the storm; while all above, the
sky was cloudless blue.
And always on the mound opposite, while darts and quarrels whistled round
her head, stood Torfrida, pointing with outstretched scornful finger at
the stragglers in the river, and chanting loudly, what the Frenchmen could
not tell; but it made their hearts, as it was meant to do, melt like wax
"They have a counter witch to yours, Ivo, it seems; and a fairer one. I am
afraid the devils, especially if Asmodeus be at hand, are more likely to
listen to her than to that old broomstick-rider aloft."
"Fair is, that fair cause has, Sir King."
"A good argument for honest men, but none for fiends. What is the fair
fiend pointing at so earnestly there?"
"Somewhat among the reeds. Hark to her now! She is singing, somewhat more
like an angel than a fiend, I will say for her."
And Torfrida's bold song, coming clear and sweet across the water, rose
louder and shriller till it almost drowned the jabbering of the witch.
"She sees more there than we do."
"I see it!" cried William, smiting his hand upon his thigh. "Par le
splendeur Dex! She has been showing them where to fire the reeds; and they
have done it!"
A puff of smoke; a wisp of flame; and then another and another; and a
canoe shot out from the reeds on the French shore, and glided into the
reeds of the island.
"The reeds are on fire, men! Have a care," shouted Ivo.
"Silence, fool! Frighten them once, and they will leap like sheep into
that gulf. Men! right about! Draw off,--slowly and in order. We will
attack again to-morrow."
The cool voice of the great captain arose too late. A line of flame was
leaping above the reed bed, crackling and howling before the evening
breeze. The column on the causeway had seen their danger but too soon, and
fled. But whither?
A shower of arrows, quarrels, javelins, fell upon the head of the column
as it tried to face about and retreat, confusing it more and more. One
arrow, shot by no common aim, went clean through William's shield, and
pinned it to the mailed flesh. He could not stifle a cry of pain.
"You are wounded, Sire. Ride for your life! It is worth that of a thousand
of these churls," and Ivo seized William's bridle and dragged him, in
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