DEAD MAN'S PLACK
AN OLD THORN
BY W. H. HUDSON
1920 LONDON & TORONTO J. M. DENT & SONS LTD. New York: E. P. DUTTON & CO.
DEAD MAN'S PLACK:
AN OLD THORN:
DEAD MAN'S PLACK
HAWTHORN AND IVY, NEAR THE GREAT RIDGE WOOD
DEAD MAN'S PLACK
"The insect tribes of human kind" is a mode of expression we are familiar with in the poets, moralists and other superior persons, or beings, who viewing mankind from their own vast elevation see us all more or less of one size and very, very small. No doubt the comparison dates back to early, probably Pliocene, times, when some one climbed to the summit of a very tall cliff, and looking down and seeing his fellows so diminished in size as to resemble insects, not so gross as beetles perhaps but rather like emmets, he laughed in the way they laughed then at the enormous difference between his stature and theirs. Hence the time-honoured and serviceable metaphor.
Now with me, in this particular instance, it was all the other way about—from insect to man—seeing that it was when occupied in watching the small comedies and tragedies of the insect world on its stage that I stumbled by chance upon a compelling reminder of one of the greatest tragedies in England's history—greatest, that is to say, in its consequences. And this is how it happened.
One summer day, prowling in an extensive oak wood, in Hampshire, known as Harewood Forest, I discovered that it counted among its inhabitants no fewer than three species of insects of peculiar interest to me, and from that time I haunted it, going there day after day to spend long hours in pursuit of my small quarry. Not to kill and preserve their diminutive corpses in a cabinet, but solely to witness the comedy of their brilliant little lives. And as I used to take my luncheon in my pocket I fell into the habit of going to a particular spot, some opening in the dense wood with a big tree to lean against and give me shade, where after refreshing myself with food and drink I could smoke my pipe in solitude and peace. Eventually I came to prefer one spot for my midday rest in the central part of the wood, where a stone cross, slender, beautifully proportioned and about eighteen feet high, had been erected some seventy or eighty years before by the lord of the manor. On one side of the great stone block on which the cross stood there was an inscription which told that it was placed there to mark the spot known from of old as Dead Man's Plack; that, according to tradition, handed from father to son, it was just here that King Edgar slew his friend and favourite Earl Athelwold, when hunting in the forest.
I had sat there on many occasions, and had glanced from time to time at the inscription cut on the stone, once actually reading it, without having my attention drawn away from the insect world I was living in. It was not the tradition of the Saxon king nor the beauty of the cross in that green wilderness which drew me daily to the spot, but its solitariness and the little open space where I could sit in the shade and have my rest.
Then something happened. Some friends from town came down to me at the hamlet I was staying at, and one of the party, the mother of most of them, was not only older than the rest of us in years, but also in knowledge and wisdom; and at the same time she was younger than the youngest of us, since she had the curious mind, the undying interest in everything on earth—the secret, in fact, of everlasting youth. Naturally, being of this temperament, she wanted to know what I was doing and all about what I had seen, even to the minutest detail—the smallest insect—and in telling her of my days I spoke casually of the cross placed at a spot called Dead Man's Plack. This at once reminded her of something she had heard about it before, but long ago, in the seventies of last century; then presently it all came back to her, and it proved to me an interesting story.
It chanced that in that far back time she was in correspondence on certain scientific and literary subjects with a gentleman who was a native of this part of Hampshire in which we were staying, and that they got into a discussion about Freeman, the historian, during which he told her of an incident of his undergraduate days when Freeman was professor at Oxford. He attended a lecture by that man on the Mythical and Romantic Elements in Early English History, in which he stated for the guidance of all who study the past, that they must always bear in mind the inevitable passion for romance in men, especially the uneducated, and that when the student comes upon a romantic incident in early history, even when it accords with the known character of the person it relates to, he must reject it as false. Then, to rub the lesson in, he gave an account of the most flagrant of the romantic lies contained in the history of the Saxon kings. This was the story of King Edgar, and how his favourite, Earl Athelwold, deceived him as to the reputed beauty of Elfrida, and how Edgar in revenge slew Athelwold with his own hand when hunting. Then—to show how false it all was!—Edgar, the chronicles state, was at Salisbury and rode in one day to Harewood Forest and there slew Athelwold. Now, said Freeman, as Harewood Forest is in Yorkshire, Edgar could not have ridden there from Salisbury in one day, nor in two, nor in three, which was enough to show that the whole story was a fabrication.
The undergraduate, listening to the lecturer, thought the Professor was wrong owing to his ignorance of the fact that the Harewood Forest in which the deed was done was in Hampshire, within a day's ride from Salisbury, and that local tradition points to the very spot in the forest where Athelwold was slain. Accordingly he wrote to the Professor and gave him these facts. His letter was not answered; and the poor youth felt hurt, as he thought he was doing Professor Freeman a service by telling him something he didn't know. He didn't know his Professor Freeman.
This story about Freeman tickled me, because I dislike him, but if any one were to ask me why I dislike him I should probably have to answer like a woman: Because I do. Or if stretched on the rack until I could find or invent a better reason I should perhaps say it was because he was so infernally cock-sure, so convinced that he and he alone had the power of distinguishing between the true and false; also that he was so arbitrary and arrogant and ready to trample on those who doubted his infallibility.
All this, I confess, would not be much to say against him, seeing that it is nothing but the ordinary professorial or academic mind, and I suppose that the only difference between Freeman and the ruck of the professors was that he was more impulsive or articulate and had a greater facility in expressing his scorn.
Here I may mention in passing that when this lecture appeared in print in his Historical Essays he had evidently been put out a little, and also put on his mettle by that letter from an undergraduate, and had gone more deeply into the documents relating to the incident, seeing that he now relied mainly on the discrepancies in half a dozen chronicles he was able to point out to prove its falsity. His former main argument now appeared as a "small matter of detail"—a "confusion of geography" in the different versions of the old historians. But one tells us, Freeman writes, that Athelwold was killed in the Forest of Wherwell on his way to York, and then he says: "Now as Wherwell is in Hampshire, it could not be on the road to York;" and further on he says: "Now Harewood Forest in Yorkshire is certainly not the same as Wherwell in Hampshire," and so on, and on, and on, but always careful not to say that Wherwell Forest and Harewood Forest are two names for one and the same place, although now the name of Wherwell is confined to the village on the Test, where it is supposed Athelwold had his castle and lived with his wife before he was killed, and where Elfrida in her declining years, when trying to make her peace with God, came and built a Priory and took the habit herself and there finished her darkened life.
This then was how he juggled with words and documents and chronicles (his thimble-rigging), making a truth a lie or a lie a truth according as it suited a froward and prejudicate mind, to quote the expression of an older and simpler-minded historian—Sir Walter Raleigh.
Finally, to wind up the whole controversy, he says you are to take it as a positive truth that Edgar married Elfrida, and a positive falsehood that Edgar killed Athelwold. Why—seeing there is as good authority and reason for believing the one statement as the other? A foolish question! Why?—Because I, Professor or Pope Freeman, say so!
The main thing here is the effect the Freeman anecdote had on me, which was that when I went back to continue my insect-watching and rested at noon at Dead Man's Plack, the old legend would keep intruding itself on my mind, until, wishing to have done with it, I said and I swore that it was true—that the tradition preserved in the neighbourhood, that on this very spot Athelwold was slain by the king, was better than any document or history. It was an act which had been witnessed by many persons, and the memory of it preserved and handed down from father to son for thirty generations; for it must be borne in mind that the inhabitants of this district of Andover and the villages on the Test have never in the last thousand years been exterminated or expelled. And ten centuries is not so long for an event of so startling a character to persist in the memory of the people when we consider that such traditions have come down to us even from prehistoric times and have proved true. Our archaeologists, for example, after long study of the remains, cannot tell us how long ago—centuries or thousands of years—a warrior with golden armour was buried under the great cairn at Mold in Flintshire.
And now the curious part of all this matter comes in. Having taken my side in the controversy and made my pronouncement, I found that I was not yet free of it. It remained with me, but in a new way—not as an old story in old books, but as an event, or series of events, now being re-enacted before my very eyes. I actually saw and heard it all, from the very beginning to the dreadful end; and this is what I am now going to relate. But whether or not I shall in my relation be in close accord with what history tells us I know not, nor does it matter in the least. For just as the religious mystic is exempt from the study of theology and the whole body of religious doctrine, and from all the observances necessary to those who in fear and trembling are seeking their salvation, even so those who have been brought to the Gate of Remembrance are independent of written documents, chronicles and histories, and of the weary task of separating the false from the true. They have better sources of information. For I am not so vain as to imagine for one moment that without such external aid I am able to make shadows breathe, revive the dead, and know what silent mouths once said.
When, sitting at noon in the shade of an oak tree at Dead Man's Plack, I beheld Edgar, I almost ceased to wonder at the miracle that had happened in this war-mad, desolated England, where Saxon and Dane, like two infuriated bull-dogs, were everlastingly at grips, striving to tear each other's throats out, and deluging the country with blood; how, ceasing from their strife, they had all at once agreed to live in peace and unity side by side under the young king; and this seemingly unnatural state of things endured even to the end of his life, on which account he was called Edgar the Peaceful.
He was beautiful in person and had infinite charm, and these gifts, together with his kingly qualities, which have won the admiration of all men of all ages, endeared him to his people. He was but thirteen when he came to be king of united England, and small for his age, but even in these terrible times he was remarkable for his courage, both physical and moral. Withal he had a subtle mind; indeed, I think he surpassed all our kings of the past thousand years in combining so many excellent qualities. His was the wisdom of the serpent combined with the gentleness—I will not say of the dove, but rather of the cat, our little tiger on the hearthrug, the most beautiful of four-footed things, so lithe, so soft, of so affectionate a disposition, yet capable when suddenly roused to anger of striking with lightning rapidity and rending the offender's flesh with its cruel, unsheathed claws.
Consider the line he took, even as a boy! He recognised among all those who surrounded him, in his priestly adviser, the one man of so great a mind as to be capable of assisting him effectually in ruling so divided, war-loving and revengeful a people, and he allowed him practically unlimited power to do as he liked. He went even further by pretending to fall in with Dunstan's ambitions of purging the Church of the order of priests or half-priests, or canons, who were in possession of most of the religious houses in England, and were priests that married wives and owned lands and had great power. Against this monstrous state of things Edgar rose up in his simulated wrath and cried out to Archbishop Dunstan in a speech he delivered to sweep them away and purify the Church and country from such a scandal!
But Edgar himself had a volcanic heart, and to witness it in full eruption it was only necessary to convey to him the tidings of some woman of a rare loveliness; and have her he would, in spite of all laws human and divine. Thus when inflamed with passion for a beautiful nun he did not hesitate to smash the gates of a convent to drag her forth and forcibly make her his mistress. And this too was a dreadful scandal, but no great pother could be made about it, seeing that Edgar was so powerful a friend of the Church and of pure religion.
* * * * *
Now all the foregoing is contained in the histories, but in what follows I have for sole light and guide the vision that came to me at Dead Man's Plack, and have only to add to this introductory note that Edgar at the early age of twenty-two was a widower, having already had to wife Ethelfled the Fair, who was famous for her beauty, and who died shortly after giving birth to a child who lived to figure later in history as one of England's many Edwards.
Now although King Edgar had dearly loved his wife, who was also beloved by all his people on account of her sweet and gentle disposition as well as of her exceeding beauty, it was not in his nature to brood long over such a loss. He had too keen a zest for life and the many interests and pleasures it had for him ever to become a melancholy man. It was a delight to him to be king, and to perform all kingly duties and offices. Also he was happy in his friends, especially in his favourite, the Earl Athelwold, who was like him in character, a man after his own heart. They were indeed like brothers, and some of those who surrounded the king were not too well pleased to witness this close intimacy. Both were handsome men, witty, of a genial disposition, yet under a light careless manner brave and ardent, devoted to the pleasure of the chase and all other pleasures, especially to those bestowed by golden Aphrodite, their chosen saint, albeit her name did not figure in the Calendar.
Hence it was not strange, when certain reports of the wonderful beauty of a woman in the West Country were brought to Edgar's ears that his heart began to burn within him, and that by and by he opened himself to his friend on the subject. He told Athelwold that he had discovered the one woman in England fit to be Ethelfled's successor, and that he had resolved to make her his queen although he had never seen her, since she and her father had never been to court. That, however, would not deter him; there was no other woman in the land whose claims were equal to hers, seeing that she was the only daughter and part heiress of one of the greatest men in the kingdom, Ongar, Earldoman of Devon and Somerset, a man of vast possessions and great power. Yet all that was of less account to him than her fame, her personal worth, since she was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the land. It was for her beauty that he desired her, and being of an exceedingly impatient temper in any case in which beauty in a woman was concerned, he desired his friend to proceed at once to Earl Ongar in Devon with an offer of marriage to his daughter, Elfrida, from the king.
Athelwold laughed at Edgar in this his most solemn and kingly mood, and with a friend's privilege told him not to be so simple as to buy a pig in a poke. The lady, he said, had not been to court, consequently she had not been seen by those best able to judge of her reputed beauty. Her fame rested wholly on the report of the people of her own country, who were great as every one knew at blowing their own trumpets. Their red and green county was England's paradise; their men the bravest and handsomest and their women the most beautiful in the land. For his part he believed there were as good men and as fair women in Mercia and East Anglia as in the West. It would certainly be an awkward business if the king found himself bound in honour to wed with a person he did not like. Awkward because of her father's fierce pride and power. A better plan would be to send some one he could trust not to make a mistake to find out the truth of the report.
Edgar was pleased at his friend's wise caution, and praised him for his candour, which was that of a true friend, and as he was the only man he could thoroughly trust in such a matter he would send him. Accordingly, Athelwold, still much amused at Edgar's sudden wish to make an offer of marriage to a woman he had never seen, set out on his journey in great state with many attendants as befitted his person and his mission, which was ostensibly to bear greetings and loving messages from the king to some of his most important subjects in the West Country.
In this way he travelled through Wilts, Somerset and Devon, and in due time arrived at Earl Ongar's castle on the Exe.
Athelwold, who thought highly of himself, had undertaken his mission with a light heart, but now when his progress in the West had brought him to the great earldoman's castle it was borne in on him that he had put himself in a very responsible position. He was here to look at this woman with cold, critical eyes, which was easy enough; and having looked at and measured and weighed her, he would make a true report to Edgar; that too would be easy for him, since all his power and happiness in life depended on the king's continual favour. But Ongar stood between him and the woman he had come to see and take stock of with that clear unbiassed judgment which he could safely rely on. And Ongar was a proud and stern old man, jealous of his great position, who had not hesitated to say on Edgar's accession to the kingship, knowing well that his words would be reported in due time, that he refused to be one of the crowd who came flocking from all over the land to pay homage to a boy. It thus came about that neither then nor at any subsequent period had there been any personal relations between the king and this English subject, who was prouder than all the Welsh kings who had rushed at Edgar's call to make their submission.
But now when Ongar had been informed that the king's intimate friend and confidant was on his way to him with greetings and loving messages from Edgar, he was flattered, and resolved to receive him in a friendly and loyal spirit and do him all the honour in his power. For Edgar was no longer a boy: he was king over all this hitherto turbulent realm, East and West from sea to sea and from the Land's End to the Tweed, and the strange enduring peace of the times was a proof of his power.
It thus came to pass that Athelwold's mission was made smooth to him, and when they met and conversed, the fierce old Earl was so well pleased with his visitor, that all trace of the sullen hostility he had cherished towards the court passed away like the shadow of a cloud. And later, in the banqueting-room, Athelwold came face to face with the woman he had come to look at with cold, critical eyes, like one who examines a horse in the interests of a friend who desires to become its purchaser.
Down to that fatal moment the one desire of his heart was to serve his friend faithfully in this delicate business. Now, the first sight of her, the first touch of her hand, wrought a change in him, and all thought of Edgar and of the purpose of his visit vanished out of his mind. Even he, one of the great nobles of his time, the accomplished courtier and life of the court, stood silent like a person spell-bound before this woman who had been to no court, but had lived always with that sullen old man in comparative seclusion in a remote province. It was not only the beautiful dignity and graciousness with which she received him, with the exquisite beauty in the lines and colour of her face, and her hair which, if unloosed, would have covered her to the knees as with a splendid mantle. That hair of a colour comparable only to that of the sweet gale when that sweet plant is in its golden withy or catkin stage in the month of May, and is clothed with catkins as with a foliage of a deep shining red gold, that seems not a colour of earth but rather one distilled from the sun itself. Nor was it the colour of her eyes, the deep pure blue of the lungwort, that blue loveliness seen in no other flower on earth. Rather it was the light from her eyes which was like lightning that pierced and startled him; for that light, that expression, was a living spirit looking through his eyes into the depths of his soul, knowing all its strength and weakness, and in the same instant resolving to make it her own and have dominion over it.
It was only when he had escaped from the power and magic of her presence, when alone in his sleeping room, that reflection came to him and the recollection of Edgar and of his mission. And there was dismay in the thought. For the woman was his, part and parcel of his heart and soul and life; for that was what her lightning glance had said to him, and she could not be given to another. No, not to the king! Had any man, any friend, ever been placed in so terrible a position? Honour? Loyalty? To whichever side he inclined he could not escape the crime, the base betrayal and abandonment! But loyalty to the king would be the greater crime. Had not Edgar himself broken every law of God and man to gratify his passion for a woman? Not a woman like this! Never would Edgar look on her until he, Athelwold, had obeyed her and his own heart and made her his for ever! And what would come then! He would not consider it—he would perish rather than yield her to another!
That was how the question came before him, and how it was settled, during the long sleepless hours when his blood was in a fever and his brain on fire; but when day dawned and his blood grew cold and his brain was tired, the image of Edgar betrayed and in a deadly rage became insistent, and he rose desponding and in dread of the meeting to come. And no sooner did he meet her than she overcame him as on the previous day; and so it continued during the whole period of his visit, racked with passion, drawn now to this side, now to that, and when he was most resolved to have her then most furiously assaulted by loyalty, by friendship, by honour, and he was like a stag at bay fighting for his life against the hounds. And every time he met her—and the passionate words he dared not speak were like confined fire, burning him up inwardly—seeing him pale and troubled she would greet him with a smile and look which told him she knew that he was troubled in heart, that a great conflict was raging in him, also that it was on her account and was perhaps because he had already bound himself to some other woman, some great lady of the land; and now this new passion had come to him. And her smile and look were like the world-irradiating sun when it rises, and the black menacing cloud that brooded over his soul would fade and vanish, and he knew that she had again claimed him and that he was hers.
So it continued till the very moment of parting, and again as on their first meeting he stood silent and troubled before her; then in faltering words told her that the thought of her would travel and be with him; that in a little while, perhaps in a month or two, he would be rid of a great matter which had been weighing heavily on his mind, and once free he could return to Devon, if she would consent to his paying her another visit.
She replied smilingly with gracious words, with no change from that exquisite perfect dignity which was always hers; nor tremor in her speech, but only that understanding look from her eyes, which said: Yes, you shall come back to me in good time, when you have smoothed the way, to claim me for your own.
On Athelwold's return the king embraced him warmly, and was quick to observe a change in him—the thinner, paler face and appearance generally of one lately recovered from a grievous illness or who had been troubled in mind. Athelwold explained that it had been a painful visit to him, due in the first place to the anxiety he experienced of being placed in so responsible a position, and in the second place the misery it was to him to be the guest for many days of such a person as the earldoman, a man of a rough, harsh aspect and manner, who daily made himself drunk at table, after which he would grow intolerably garrulous and boastful. Then, when his host had been carried to bed by his servants, his own wakeful, troubled hours would begin. For at first he had been struck by the woman's fine, handsome presence, albeit she was not the peerless beauty she had been reported; but when he had seen her often and more closely and had conversed with her he had been disappointed. There was something lacking; she had not the softness, the charm, desirable in a woman; she had something of her parent's harshness, and his final judgment was that she was not a suitable person for the king to marry.
Edgar was a little cast down at first, but quickly recovering his genial manner, thanked his friend for having served him so well.
For several weeks following the king and the king's favourite were constantly together; and during that period Athelwold developed a peculiar sweetness and affection towards Edgar, often recalling to him their happy boyhood's days in East Anglia, when they were like brothers, and cemented the close friendship which was to last them for the whole of their lives. Finally, when it seemed to his watchful, crafty mind that Edgar had cast the whole subject of his wish to marry Elfrida into oblivion, and that the time was now ripe for carrying out his own scheme, he reopened the subject, and said that although the lady was not a suitable person to be the king's wife it would be good policy on his, Athelwold's, part, to win her on account of her position as only daughter and part heiress of Ongar, who had great power and possessions in the West. But he would not move in the matter without Edgar's consent.
Edgar, ever ready to do anything to please his friend, freely gave it, and only asked him to give an assurance that the secret object of his former visit to Devon would remain inviolate. Accordingly Athelwold took a solemn oath that it would never be revealed, and Edgar then slapped him on the back and wished him Godspeed in his wooing.
Very soon after thus smoothing the way, Athelwold returned to Devon, and was once more in the presence of the woman who had so enchanted him, with that same meaning smile on her lips and light in her eyes which had been her good-bye and her greeting, only now it said to him: You have returned as I knew you would, and I am ready to give myself to you.
From every point of view it was a suitable union, seeing that Athelwold would inherit power and great possessions from his father, Earldoman of East Anglia, and before long the marriage took place, and by and by Athelwold took his wife to Wessex, to the castle he had built for himself on his estate of Wherwell, on the Test. There they lived together, and as they had married for love they were happy.
But as the king's intimate friend and the companion of many of his frequent journeys he could not always bide with her nor be with her for any great length of time. For Edgar had a restless spirit and was exceedingly vigilant, and liked to keep a watchful eye on the different lately hostile nations of Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria, so that his journeys were frequent and long to these distant parts of his kingdom. And he also had his naval forces to inspect at frequent intervals. Thus it came about that he was often absent from her for weeks and months at a stretch. And so the time went on, and during these long absences a change would come over Elfrida; the lovely colour, the enchanting smile, the light of her eyes—the outward sign of an intense brilliant life—would fade, and with eyes cast down she would pace the floors or the paths or sit brooding in silence by the hour.
Of all this Athelwold knew nothing, since she made no complaint, and when he returned to her the light and life and brilliance would be hers again, and there was no cloud or shadow on his delight. But the cloud would come back over her when he again went away. Her only relief in her condition was to sit before a fire or when out of doors to seat herself on the bank of the stream and watch the current. For although it was still summer, the month being August, she would have a fire of logs lighted in a large chamber and sit staring at the flames by the hour, and sometimes holding her outstretched hands before the flames until they were hot, she would then press them to her lips. Or when the day was warm and bright she would be out of doors and spend hours by the river gazing at the swift crystal current below as if fascinated by the sight of the running water. It is a marvellously clear water, so that looking down on it you can see the rounded pebbles in all their various colours and markings lying at the bottom, and if there should be a trout lying there facing the current and slowly waving his tail from side to side, you could count the red spots on his side, so clear is the water. Even more did the floating water-grass hold her gaze—that bright green grass that, rooted in the bed of the stream, sends its thin blades to the surface where they float and wave like green floating hair. Stooping, she would dip a hand in the stream and watch the bright clear water running through the fingers of her white hand, then press the hand to her lips.
Then again when day declined she would quit the stream to sit before the blazing logs, staring at the flames. What am I doing here? she would murmur. And what is this my life? When I was at home in Devon I had a dream of Winchester, of Salisbury, or other great towns further away, where the men and women who are great in the land meet together, and where my eyes would perchance sometimes have the happiness to behold the king himself—my husband's close friend and companion. My waking has brought a different scene before me; this castle in the wilderness, a solitude where from an upper window I look upon leagues of forest, a haunt of wild animals. I see great birds soaring in the sky and listen to the shrill screams of kite and buzzard; and sometimes when lying awake on a still night the distant long howl of a wolf. Also, it is said, there are great stags, and roe-deer, and wild boars, and it is Athelwold's joy to hunt them and slay them with his spear. A joy too when he returns from the hunt or from a long absence to play with his beautiful wife—his caged bird of pretty feathers and a sweet song to soothe him when he is tired. But of his life at court he tells me little, and of even that little I doubt the truth. Then he leaves me and I am alone with his retainers—the crowd of serving men and women and the armed men to safeguard me. I am alone with my two friends which I have found, one out of doors, the other in—the river which runs at the bottom of the ground where I take my walks, and the fire I sit before. The two friends, companions, and lovers to whom all the secrets of my soul are confided. I love them, having no other in the world to love, and here I hold my hands before the flames until it is hot and then kiss the heat, and by the stream I kiss my wetted hands. And if I were to remain here until this life became unendurable I should consider as to which one of these two lovers I should give myself. This one I think is too ardent in his love—it would be terrible to be wrapped round in his fiery arms and feel his fiery mouth on mine. I should rather go to the other one to lie down on his pebbly bed, and give myself to him to hold me in his cool, shining arms and mix his green hair with my loosened hair. But my wish is to live and not die. Let me then wait a little longer; let me watch and listen, and perhaps some day, by and by, from his own lips, I shall capture the secret of this my caged solitary life.
And the very next day Athelwold, having just returned with the king to Salisbury, was once more with her; and the brooding cloud had vanished from her life and countenance; she was once more his passionate bride, lavishing caresses on him, listening with childish delight to every word that fell from his lips, and desiring no other life and no greater happiness than this.
It was early September, and the king with some of the nobles who were with him, after hunting the deer over against Cranbourne, returned at evening to Salisbury, and after meat with some of his intimates they sat late drinking wine and fell into a merry, boisterous mood. They spoke of Athelwold, who was not with them, and indulged in some mocking remarks about his frequent and prolonged absences from the king's company. Edgar took it in good part and smilingly replied that it had been reported to him that the earl was now wedded to a woman with a will. Also he knew that her father, the great Earldoman of Devon, had been famed for his tremendous physical strength. It was related of him that he had once been charged by a furious bull, that he had calmly waited the onset and had dealt the animal a staggering blow with his fist on its head and had then taken it up in his arms and hurled it into the river Exe. If, he concluded, the daughter had inherited something of this power it was not to be wondered at that she was able to detain her husband at home.
Loud laughter followed this pleasantry of the king's, then one of the company remarked that not a woman's will, though it might be like steel of the finest temper, nor her muscular power, would serve to change Athelwold's nature or keep him from his friend, but only a woman's exceeding beauty.
Then Edgar, seeing that he had been put upon the defence of his absent friend, and that all of them were eager to hear his next word, replied that there was no possession a man was prouder of than that of a beautiful wife; that it was more to him than his own best qualities, his greatest actions, or than titles and lands and gold. If Athelwold had indeed been so happy as to secure the most beautiful woman he would have been glad to bring her to court to exhibit her to all—friends and foes alike—for his own satisfaction and glory.
Again they greeted his speech with laughter, and one cried out: Do you believe it?
Then another, bolder still, exclaimed: It's God's truth that she is the fairest woman in the land—perhaps no fairer has been in any land since Helen of Troy. This I can swear to, he added, smiting the board with his hand, because I have it from one who saw her at her home in Devon before her marriage. One who is a better judge in such matters than I am or than any one at this table, not excepting the king, seeing that he is not only gifted with the serpent's wisdom but with that creature's cold blood as well.
Edgar heard him frowningly, then ended the discussion by rising, and silence fell on the company, for all saw that he was offended. But he was not offended with them, since they knew nothing of his and Athelwold's secret, and what they thought and felt about his friend was nothing to him. But these fatal words about Elfrida's beauty had pierced him with a sudden suspicion of his friend's treachery. And Athelwold was the man he greatly loved—the companion of all his years since their boyhood together. Had he betrayed him in this monstrous way—wounding him in his tenderest part? The very thought that such a thing might be was like a madness in him. Then he reflected—then he remembered, and said to himself: Yes, let me follow his teaching in this matter too, as in the other, and exercise caution and look before I leap. I shall look and look well and see and judge for myself.
The result was that when his boon companions next met him there was no shadow of displeasure in him; he was in a peculiarly genial mood, and so continued. And when his friend returned he embraced him and gently upbraided him for having kept away for so long a time. He begged him to remember that he was his one friend and confidant who was more than a brother to him, and that if wholly deprived of his company he would regard himself as the loneliest man in the kingdom. Then in a short time he spoke once more in the same strain, and said he had not yet sufficiently honoured his friend before the world, and that he proposed visiting him at his own castle to make the acquaintance of his wife and spend a day with him hunting the boar in Harewood Forest.
Athelwold, secretly alarmed, made a suitable reply, expressing his delight at the prospect of receiving the king, and begging him to give him a couple of days' notice before making his visit, so as to give him time to make all preparation for his entertainment.
This the king promised, and also said that this would be an informal visit to a friend, that he would go alone with some of his servants and huntsmen and ride there one day, hunt the next day and return to Salisbury on the third day. And a little later, when the day of his visit was fixed on, Athelwold returned in haste with an anxious mind to his castle.
Now his hard task and the most painful moment of his life had come. Alone with Elfrida in her chamber he cast himself down before her, and with his bowed head resting on her knees, made a clean breast of the whole damning story of the deceit he had practised towards the king in order to win her for himself. In anguish and shedding tears he implored her forgiveness, begging her to think of that irresistible power of love she had inspired in him, which would have made it worse than death to see her the wife of another—even of Edgar himself—his friend, the brother of his soul. Then he went on to speak of Edgar, who was of a sweet and lovable nature, yet capable of a deadly fury against those who offended him; and this was an offence he would take more to heart than any other; he would be implacable if he once thought that he had been wilfully deceived, and she only could now save them from certain destruction. For now it seemed to him that Edgar had conceived a suspicion that the account he had of her was not wholly true, which was that she was a handsome woman but not surpassingly beautiful as had been reputed, not graceful, not charming in manner and conversation. She could save them by justifying his description of her—by using a woman's art to lessen instead of enhancing her natural beauty, by putting away her natural charm and power to fascinate all who approached her.
Thus he pleaded, praying for mercy, even as a captive prays to his conqueror for life, and never once daring to lift his bowed head to look at her face; while she sat motionless and silent, not a word, not a sigh, escaping her; and she was like a woman carved in stone, with knees of stone on which his head rested.
Then, at length, exhausted with his passionate pleading and frightened at her silence and deadly stillness, he raised his head and looked up at her face to behold it radiant and smiling. Then, looking down lovingly into his eyes, she raised her hands to her head, and loosening the great mass of coiled tresses let them fall over him, covering his head and shoulders and back as with a splendid mantle of shining red gold. And he, the awful fear now gone, continued silently gazing up at her, absorbed in her wonderful loveliness.
Bending down she put her arms round his neck and spoke: Do you not know, O Athelwold, that I love you alone and could love no other, noble or king; that without you life would not be life to me? All you have told me endears you more to me, and all you wish me to do shall be done, though it may cause your king and friend to think meanly of you for having given your hand to one so little worthy of you.
She having thus spoken, he was ready to pour forth his gratitude in burning words, but she would not have it. No more words, she said, putting her hand on his mouth. Your anxious day is over—your burden dropped. Rest here on the couch by my side, and let me think on all there is to plan and do against to-morrow evening.
And so they were silent, and he, reclining on the cushions, watched her face and saw her smile and wondered what was passing in her mind to cause that smile. Doubtless it was something to do with the question of her disguising arts.
What had caused her to smile was a happy memory of the days with Athelwold before their marriage, when one day he came in to her with a leather bag in his hand and said: Do you, who are so beautiful yourself, love all beautiful things? And do you love the beauty of gems? And when she replied that she loved gems above all beautiful things, he poured out the contents of his bag in her lap—brilliants, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, opals, pearls in gold setting, in bracelets, necklets, pendants, rings and brooches. And when she gloated over this splendid gift, taking up gem after gem, exclaiming delightedly at its size and colour and lustre, he told her that he once knew a man who maintained that it was a mistake for a beautiful woman to wear gems. Why? she asked, would he have then wholly unadorned? No, he replied, he liked to see them wearing gold, saying that gold makes the most perfect setting for a woman's beauty, just as it does for a precious stone, and its effect is to enhance the beauty it surrounds. But the woman's beauty has its meeting and central point in the eyes, and the light and soul in them illumines the whole face. And in the stone nature simulates the eye, and although without a soul its brilliant light and colour make it the equal of the eye, and therefore when worn as an ornament it competes with the eye, and in effect lessens the beauty it is supposed to enhance. He said that gems should be worn only by women who are not beautiful, who must rely on something extraneous to attract attention, since it would be better to a homely woman that men should look at her to admire a diamond or sapphire than not to look at her at all. She had laughed and asked him who the man was who had such strange ideas, and he had replied that he had forgotten his name.
Now, recalling this incident after so long a time, it all at once flashed into her mind that Edgar was the man he had spoken of; she knew now because, always secretly watchful, she had noted that he never spoke of Edgar or heard Edgar spoken of without a slight subtle change in the expression of his face, also, if he spoke, in the tone of his voice. It was the change that comes into the face, and into the tone, when one remembers or speaks of the person most loved in all the world. And she remembered now that he had that changed expression and tone of voice, when he had spoken of the man whose name he pretended to have forgotten.
And while she sat thinking of this it grew dark in the room, the light of the fire having died down. Then presently, in the profound stillness of the room, she heard the sound of his deep, regular breathing and knew that he slept, and that it was a sweet sleep after his anxious day. Going softly to the hearth she moved the yet still glowing logs, until they sent up a sudden flame and the light fell upon the sleeper's still face. Turning, she gazed steadily at it—the face of the man who had won her; but her own face in the firelight was white and still and wore a strange expression. Now she moved noiselessly to his side and bent down as if to whisper in his ear, but suddenly drew back again and moved towards the door, then turning gazed once more at his face and murmured: No, no, even a word faintly whispered would bring him a dream, and it is better his sleep should be dreamless. For now he has had his day and it is finished, and to-morrow is mine.
On the following day Athelwold was occupied with preparations for the king's reception and for the next day's boar-hunt in the forest. At the same time he was still somewhat anxious as to his wife's more difficult part, and from time to time he came to see and consult with her. He then observed a singular change in her, both in her appearance and conduct. No longer the radiant, loving Elfrida, her beauty now had been dimmed and she was unsmiling and her manner towards him repellant. She had nothing to say to him except that she wished him to leave her alone. Accordingly he withdrew, feeling a little hurt, and at the same time admiring her extraordinary skill in disguising her natural loveliness and charm, but almost fearing that she was making too great a change in her appearance.
Thus passed the day, and in the late afternoon Edgar duly arrived, and when he had rested a little, was conducted to the banqueting-room, where the meeting with Elfrida would take place.
Then Elfrida came, and Athelwold hastened to the entrance to take her hand and conduct her to the king; then, seeing her, he stood still and stared in silent astonishment and dismay at the change he saw in her, for never before had he beheld her so beautiful, so queenly and magnificent. What did it mean—did she wish to destroy him? Seeing the state he was in she placed her hand in his, and murmured softly: I know best. And so, holding her hand, he conducted her to the king, who stood waiting to receive her. For all she had done that day to please and to deceive him had now been undone, and everything that had been possible had been done to enhance her loveliness. She had arrayed herself in a violet-coloured silk gown with a network of gold thread over the body and wide sleeves to the elbows, and rope of gold round her waist with its long ends falling to her knee. The great mass of her coiled hair was surmounted with a golden comb, and golden pendants dropped from her ears to her shoulders. Also she wore gold armlets coiled serpent-wise round her white arms from elbow to wrist. Not a gem—nothing but pale yellow gold.
Edgar himself was amazed at her loveliness, for never had he seen anything comparable to it; and when he gazed into her eyes she did not lower hers, but returned gaze for gaze, and there was that in her eyes and their strange eloquence which kindled a sudden flame of passion in his heart, and for a moment it appeared in his countenance. Then, quickly recovering himself, he greeted her graciously but with his usual kingly dignity of manner, and for the rest of the time he conversed with her and Athelwold in such a pleasant and friendly way that his host began to recover somewhat from his apprehensions. But in his heart Edgar was saying: And this is the woman that Athelwold, the close friend of all my days, from boyhood until now, the one man in the world I loved and trusted, has robbed me of!
And Athelwold at the same time was revolving in his mind the mystery of Elfrida's action. What did she mean when she whispered to him that she knew best? And why, when she wished to appear in that magnificent way before the king, had she worn nothing but gold ornaments—not one of the splendid gems of which she possessed such a store?
She had remembered something which he had forgotten.
Now when the two friends were left alone together drinking wine, Athelwold was still troubled in his mind, although his suspicion and fear were not so acute as at first, and the longer they sat talking—until the small hours—the more relieved did he feel from Edgar's manner towards him. Edgar in his cups opened his heart and was more loving and free in his speech than ever before. He loved Athelwold as he loved no one else in the world, and to see him great and happy was his first desire; and he congratulated him from his heart on having found a wife who was worthy of him and would eventually bring him, through her father, such great possessions as would make him the chief nobleman in the land. All happiness and glory to them both; and when a child was born to them he would be its godfather, and if happily by that time there was a queen, she should be its godmother.
Then he recalled their happy boyhood's days in East Anglia, that joyful time when they first hunted and had many a mishap and fell from their horses when they pursued hare and deer and bustard in the wide open stretches of sandy country; and in the autumn and winter months when they were wild-fowling in the great level flooded lands where the geese and all wild-fowl came in clouds and myriads. And now he laughed and now his eyes grew moist at the recollection of the irrecoverable glad days.
Little time was left for sleep; yet they were ready early next morning for the day's great boar-hunt in the forest, and only when the king was about to mount his horse did Elfrida make her appearance. She came out to him from the door, not richly dressed now, but in a simple white linen robe and not an ornament on her except that splendid crown of the red-gold hair on her head. And her face too was almost colourless now, and grave and still. She brought wine in a golden cup and gave it to the king, and he once more fixed his eyes on her and for some moments they continued silently gazing, each in that fixed gaze seeming to devour the secrets of the other's soul. Then she wished him a happy hunting, and he said in reply he hoped it would be the happiest hunting he had ever had. Then, after drinking the wine, he mounted his horse and rode away. And she remained standing very still, the cup in her hand, gazing after him as he rode side by side with Athelwold, until in the distance the trees hid him from her sight.
Now when they had ridden a distance of three miles or more into the heart of the forest, they came to a broad drive-like stretch of green turf, and the king cried: This is just what I have been wishing for! Come, let us give our horses a good gallop. And when they loosened the reins, the horses, glad to have a race on such a ground, instantly sprang forward; but Edgar, keeping a tight rein, was presently left twenty or thirty yards behind; then, setting spurs to his horse, he dashed forward, and on coming abreast of his companion, drew his knife and struck him in the back, dealing the blow with such a concentrated fury that the knife was buried almost to the hilt. Then violently wrenching it out, he would have struck again had not the earl, with a scream of agony, tumbled from his seat. The horse, freed from its rider, rushed on in a sudden panic, and the king's horse side by side with it. Edgar, throwing himself back and exerting his whole strength, succeeded in bringing him to a stop at a distance of fifty or sixty yards, then turning, came riding back at a furious speed.
Now when Athelwold fell, all those who were riding behind, the earl's and the king's men to the number of thirty or forty, dashed forward, and some of them, hurriedly dismounting, gathered about him as he lay groaning and writhing and pouring out his blood on the ground. But at the king's approach they drew quickly back to make way for him, and he came straight on and caused his horse to trample on the fallen man. Then pointing to him with the knife he still had in his hand, he cried: That is how I serve a false friend and traitor! Then, wiping the stained knife-blade on his horse's neck and sheathing it, he shouted: Back to Salisbury! and setting spurs to his horse, galloped off towards the Andover road.
His men immediately mounted and followed, leaving the earl's men with their master. Lifting him up, they placed him on a horse, and with a mounted man on each side to hold him up, they moved back at a walking pace towards Wherwell.
Messengers were sent ahead to inform Elfrida of what had happened, and then, an hour later, yet another messenger to tell that Athelwold, when half-way home, had breathed his last. Then at last the corpse was brought to the castle and she met it with tears and lamentations. But afterwards in her own chamber, when she had dismissed all her attendants, as she desired to weep alone, her grief changed to joy. O, glorious Edgar, she said, the time will come when you will know what I feel now, when at your feet, embracing your knees and kissing the blessed hand that with one blow has given me life and liberty. One blow and your revenge was satisfied and you had won me; I know it, I saw it all in that flame of love and fury in your eyes at our first meeting, which you permitted me to see, which, if he had seen, he would have known that he was doomed. O perfect master of dissimulation, all the more do I love and worship you for dealing with him as he dealt with you and with me; caressing him with flattering words until the moment came to strike and slay. And I love you all the more for making your horse trample on him as he lay bleeding his life out on the ground. And now you have opened the way with your knife you shall come back or call me to you when it pleases you, and for the rest of your life it will be a satisfaction to you to know that you have taken a modest woman as well as the fairest in the land for wife and queen, and your pride in me will be my happiness and glory. For men's love is little to me since Athelwold taught me to think meanly of all men, except you that slew him. And you shall be free to follow your own mind and be ever strenuous and vigilant and run after kingly pleasures, pursuing deer and wolf and beautiful women all over the land. And I shall listen to the tales of your adventures and conquests with a smile like that of a mother who sees her child playing seriously with its dolls and toys, talking to and caressing them. And in return you shall give me my desire, which is power and splendour; for these I crave, to be first and greatest, to raise up and cast down, and in all our life I shall be your help and stay in ruling this realm, so that our names may be linked together and shine in the annals of England for all time.
* * * * *
When Edgar slew Athelwold his age was twenty-two, and before he was a year older he had married Elfrida, to the rage of that great man and primate and more than premier, who, under Edgar, virtually ruled England. And in his rage, and remembering how he had dealt with a previous boy king, whose beautiful young wife he had hounded to her dreadful end, he charged Elfrida with having instigated her husband's murder, and commanded the king to put that woman away. This roused the man and passionate lover, and the tiger in the man, in Edgar, and the wise and subtle-minded ecclesiastic quickly recognised that he had set himself against one of a will more powerful and dangerous than his own. He remembered that it was Edgar, who, when he had been deprived of his abbey and driven in disgrace from the land, had recalled and made him so great, and he knew that the result of a quarrel between them would be a mighty upheaval in the land and the sweeping away of all his great reforms. And so, cursing the woman in his heart and secretly vowing vengeance on her, he was compelled in the interests of the Church to acquiesce in this fresh crime of the king.
Eight years had passed since the king's marriage with Elfrida, and the one child born to them was now seven, the darling of his parents, Ethelred the angelic child, who to the end of his long life would be praised for one thing only—his personal beauty. But Edward, his half-brother, now in his thirteenth year, was regarded by her with an almost equal affection, on account of his beauty and charm, his devotion to his step-mother, the only mother he had known, and, above all, for his love of his little half-brother. He was never happy unless he was with him, acting the part of guide and instructor as well as playfellow.
Edgar had recently completed one of his great works, the building of Corfe Castle, and now whenever he was in Wessex preferred it as a residence, since he loved best that part of England with its wide moors and hunting forests, and its neighbourhood to the sea and to Portland and Poole water. He had been absent for many weeks on a journey to Northumbria, and the last tidings of his movements were that he was on his way to the south, travelling on the Welsh border, and intended visiting the Abbot of Glastonbury before returning to Dorset. This religious house was already very great in his day; he had conferred many benefits on it, and contemplated still others.
It was summer time, a season of great heats, and Elfrida with the two little princes often went to the coast to spend a whole day in the open air by the sea. Her favourite spot was at the foot of a vast chalk down with a slight strip of woodland between its lowest slope and the beach. She was at this spot one day about noon where the trees were few and large, growing wide apart, and had settled herself on a pile of cushions placed at the roots of a big old oak tree, where from her seat she could look out over the blue expanse of water. But the hamlet and church close by on her left hand were hidden by the wood, though sounds issuing from it could be heard occasionally—shouts and bursts of laughter, and at times the music of a stringed instrument and a voice singing. These sounds came from her armed guard and other attendants who were speeding the idle hours of waiting in their own way, in eating and drinking and in games and dancing. Only two women remained to attend to her wants, and one armed man to keep watch and guard over the two boys at their play.
They were not now far off, not above fifty yards, among the big trees; but for hours past they had been away out of her sight, racing on their ponies over the great down; then bathing in the sea, Edward teaching his little brother to swim; then he had given him lessons in tree-climbing, and now, tired of all these exertions, and for variety's sake, they were amusing themselves by standing on their heads. Little Ethelred had tried and failed repeatedly, then at last, with hands and head firmly planted on the sward, he had succeeded in throwing his legs up and keeping them in a vertical position for a few seconds, this feat being loudly applauded by his young instructor.
Elfrida, who had witnessed this display from her seat, burst out laughing, then said to herself: O how I love these two beautiful boys almost with an equal love, albeit one is not mine! But Edward must be ever dear to me because of his sweetness and his love of me and, even more, his love and tender care of my darling. Yet am I not wholly free from an anxious thought of the distant future. Ah, no, let me not think of such a thing! This sweet child of a boy-father and girl-mother—the frail mother that died in her teens—he can never grow to be a proud, masterful, ambitious man—never aspire to wear his father's crown! Edgar's first-born, it is true, but not mine, and he can never be king. For Edgar and I are one; is it conceivable that he should oppose me in this—that we that are one in mind and soul shall at the last be divided and at enmity? Have we not said it an hundred times that we are one? One in all things except in passion. Yet this very coldness in me in which I differ from others is my chief strength and glory, and has made our two lives one life. And when he is tired and satiated with the common beauty and the common passions of other women he returns to me only to have his first love kindled afresh, and when in love and pity I give myself to him and am his bride afresh as when first he had my body in his arms, it is to him as if one of the immortals had stooped to a mortal, and he tells me I am the flower of womankind and of the world, that my white body is a perfect white flower, my hair a shining gold flower, my mouth a fragrant scarlet flower, and my eyes a sacred blue flower, surpassing all others in loveliness. And when I have satisfied him, and the tempest in his blood has abated, then for the rapture he has had I have mine, when, ashamed at his violence, as if it had been an insult to me, he covers his face with my hair and sheds tears of love and contrition on my breasts. O nothing can ever disunite us! Even from the first, before I ever saw him, when he was coming to me I knew that we were destined to be one. And he too knew it from the moment of seeing me, and knew that I knew it; and when he sat at meat with us and looked smilingly at the friend of his bosom and spoke merrily to him, and resolved at the same time to take his life, he knew that by so doing he would fulfil my desire, and as my knowledge of the betrayal was first, so the desire to shed that abhorred blood was in me first. Nevertheless, I cannot be free of all anxious thoughts, and fear too of my implacable enemy and traducer who from a distance watches all my movements, who reads Edgar's mind even as he would a book, and what he finds there writ by me he seeks to blot out; and thus does he ever thwart me. But though I cannot measure my strength against his, it will not always be so, seeing that he is old and I am young, with Time and Death on my side, who will like good and faithful servants bring him to the dust, so that my triumph must come. And when he is no more I shall have time to unbuild the structure he has raised with lies for stones and my name coupled with some evil deed cut in every stone. For I look ever to the future, even to the end to see this Edgar, with the light of life shining so brightly in him now, a venerable king with silver hair, his passions cool, his strength failing, leaning more heavily on me; until at last, persuaded by me, he will step down from the throne and resign his crown to our son—our Ethelred. And in him and his son after him, and in his son's sons we shall live still in their blood, and with them rule this kingdom of Edgar the Peaceful—a realm of everlasting peace.
Thus she mused, until overcome by her swift, crowding thoughts and passions, love and hate, with memories dreadful or beautiful, of her past and strivings of her mind to pierce the future, she burst into a violent storm of tears so that her frame was shaken, and covering her eyes with her hands she strove to get the better of her agitation lest her weakness should be witnessed by her attendants. But when this tempest had left her and she lifted her eyes again, it seemed to her that the burning tears which had relieved her heart had also washed away some trouble that had been like a dimness on all visible nature, and earth and sea and sky were glorified as if the sunlight flooding the world fell direct from the heavenly throne, and she sat drinking in pure delight from the sight of it and the soft, warm air she breathed.
Then, to complete her happiness, the silence that reigned around her was broken by a sweet, musical sound of a little bird that sang from the tree-top high above her head. This was the redstart, and the tree under which she sat was its singing-tree, to which it resorted many times a day to spend half an hour or so repeating its brief song at intervals of a few seconds—a small song that was like the song of the redbreast, subdued, refined and spiritualised, as of a spirit that lived within the tree.
Listening to it in that happy, tender mood which had followed her tears, she gazed up and tried to catch sight of it, but could see nothing but the deep-cut, green, translucent, clustering oak leaves showing the blue of heaven and shining like emeralds in the sunlight. O sweet, blessed little bird, she said, are you indeed a bird? I think you are a messenger sent to assure me that all my hopes and dreams of the distant days to come will be fulfilled. Sing again and again and again; I could listen for hours to that selfsame song.
But she heard it no more; the bird had flown away. Then, still listening, she caught a different sound—the loud hoof-beats of horses being ridden at furious speed towards the hamlet. Listening intently to that sound she heard, on its arrival at the hamlet, a sudden, great cry as if all the men gathered there had united their voices in one cry; and she stood up, and her women came to her, and all together stood silently gazing in that direction. Then the two boys who had been lying on the turf not far off came running to them and caught her by the hands, one on each side, and Edward, looking up at her white, still face, cried, Mother, what is it you fear? But she answered no word. Then again the sound of hoofs was heard and they knew the riders were now coming at a swift gallop to them. And in a few moments they appeared among the trees, and reining up their horses at a distance of some yards, one sprang to the ground, and advancing to the queen, made his obeisance, then told her he had been sent to inform her of Edgar's death. He had been seized by a sudden violent fever in Gloucestershire, on his way to Glastonbury, and had died after two days' illness. He had been unconscious all the time, but more than once he had cried out, On to Glastonbury! and now in obedience to that command his body was being conveyed thither for interment at the abbey.
She had no tears to shed, no word to say, nor was there any sense of grief at her loss. She had loved him—once upon a time; she had always admired him for his better qualities; even his excessive pride and ostentation had been pleasing to her; finally she had been more than tolerant of his vices or weaknesses, regarding them as matters beneath her attention. Nevertheless, in their eight years of married life they had become increasingly repugnant to her stronger and colder nature. He had degenerated, bodily and mentally, and was not now like that shining one who had come to her at Wherwell Castle, who had not hesitated to strike the blow that had set her free. The tidings of his death had all at once sprung the truth on her mind that the old love was dead, that it had indeed been long dead, and that she had actually come to despise him.
But what should she do—what be—without him! She had been his queen, loved to adoration, and he had been her shield; now she was alone, face to face with her bitter, powerful enemy. Now it seemed to her that she had been living in a beautiful peaceful land, a paradise of fruit and flowers and all delightful things; that in a moment, as by a miracle, it had turned to a waste of black ashes still hot and smoking from the desolating flames that had passed over it. But she was not one to give herself over to despondency so long as there was anything to be done. Very quickly she roused herself to action, and despatched messengers to all those powerful friends who shared her hatred of the great archbishop, and would be glad of the opportunity now offered of wresting the rule from his hands. Until now he had triumphed because he had had the king to support him even in his most arbitrary and tyrannical measures; now was the time to show a bold front, to proclaim her son as the right successor, and with herself, assisted by chosen councillors to direct her boy, the power would be in her hands, and once more, as in King Edwin's day, the great Dunstan, disgraced and denounced, would be compelled to fly from the country lest a more dreadful punishment should befall him. Finally, leaving the two little princes at Corfe Castle, she travelled to Mercia to be with and animate her powerful friends and fellow-plotters with her presence.
All their plottings and movements were known to Dunstan, and he was too quick for them. Whilst they, divided among themselves, were debating and arranging their plans, he had called together all the leading bishops and councillors of the late king, and they had agreed that Edward must be proclaimed as the first-born; and although but a boy of thirteen, the danger to the country would not be so great as it would to give the succession to a child of seven years. Accordingly Edward was proclaimed king and removed from Corfe Castle while the queen was still absent in Mercia.
For a while it looked as if this bold and prompt act on the part of Dunstan would have led to civil war; but a great majority of the nobles gave their adhesion to Edward, and Elfrida's friends soon concluded that they were not strong enough to set her boy up and try to overthrow Edward, or to divide England again between two boy kings as in Edwin and Edgar's early years.
She accordingly returned discomfited to Corfe and to her child, now always crying for his beloved brother who had been taken from him; and there was not in all England a more miserable woman than Elfrida the queen. For after this defeat she could hope no more; her power was gone past recovery—all that had made her life beautiful and glorious was gone. Now Corfe was like that other castle at Wherwell, where Earl Athelwold had kept her like a caged bird for his pleasure when he visited her; only worse, since she was eight years younger then, her beauty fresher, her heart burning with secret hopes and ambitions, and the great world where there were towns and a king, and many noble men and women gathered round him yet to be known. And all these things had come to her and were now lost—now nothing was left but bitterest regrets and hatred of all those who had failed her at the last. Hatred first of all and above all of her great triumphant enemy, and hatred of the boy king she had loved with a mother's love until now, and cherished for many years. Hatred too of herself when she recalled the part she had recently played in Mercia, where she had not disdained to practise all her fascinating arts on many persons she despised in order to bind them to her cause, and had thereby given cause to her monkish enemy to charge her with immodesty. It was with something like hatred too that she regarded her own child when he would come crying to her, begging her to take him to his beloved brother; carried away with sudden rage, she would strike and thrust him violently from her, then order her women to take him away and keep him out of her sight.
Three years had gone by, during which she had continued living alone at Corfe, still under a cloud and nursing her bitter revengeful feeling in her heart, until that fatal afternoon on the eighteenth day of March, 978.
The young king, now in his seventeenth year, had come to these favourite hunting-grounds of his late father, and was out hunting on that day. He had lost sight of his companions in a wood or thicket of thorn and furze, and galloping in search of them he came out from the wood on the further side; and there before him, not a mile away, was Corfe Castle, his old beloved home, and the home still of the two beings he loved best in the world—his step-mother and his little half-brother. And although he had been sternly warned that they were his secret enemies, that it would be dangerous to hold any intercourse with them, the sight of the castle and his craving to look again on their dear faces overcame his scruples. There would be no harm, no danger to him and no great disobedience on his part to ride to the gates and see and greet them without dismounting.
When Elfrida was told that Edward himself was at the gates calling to her and Ethelred to come out to him she became violently excited, and cried out that God himself was on her side, and had delivered the boy into her hands. She ordered her servants to go out and persuade him to come in to her, to take away his horse as soon as he had dismounted, and not to allow him to leave the castle. Then, when they returned to say the king refused to dismount and again begged them to go to him, she went to the gates, but without the boy, and greeted him joyfully, while he, glad at the meeting, bent down and embraced her and kissed her face. But when she refused to send for Ethelred, and urged him persistently to dismount and come in to see his little brother who was crying for him, he began to notice the extreme excitement which burned in her eyes and made her voice tremble, and beginning to fear some design against him, he refused again more firmly to obey her wish; then she, to gain time, sent for wine for him to drink before parting from her. And during all this time while his departure was being delayed, her people, men and women, had been coming out until, sitting on his horse, he was in the midst of a crowd, and these too all looked on him with excited faces, which increased his apprehension, so that when he had drunk the wine he all at once set spurs to his horse to break away from among them. Then she, looking at her men, cried out: Is this the way you serve me? And no sooner had the words fallen from her lips than one man bounded forward, like a hound on its quarry, and coming abreast of the horse, dealt the king a blow with his knife in the side. The next moment the horse and rider were free of the crowd and rushing away over the moor. A cry of horror had burst from the women gathered there when the blow was struck; now all were silent, watching with white, scared faces as he rode swiftly away. Then presently they saw him swerve on his horse, then fall, with his right foot still remaining caught in the stirrup, and that the panic-stricken horse was dragging him at furious speed over the rough moor.
Only then the queen spoke, and in an agitated voice told them to mount and follow; and charged them that if they overtook the horse and found that the king had been killed, to bury the body where it would not be found, so that the manner of his death should not be known.
When the men returned they reported that they had found the dead body of the king a mile away, where the horse had got free of it, and they had buried it in a thicket where it would never be discovered.
When Edward in sudden terror set spurs to his horse: when at the same moment a knife flashed out and the fatal blow was delivered, Elfrida too, like the other women witnesses in the crowd, had uttered a cry of horror. But once the deed was accomplished and the assurance received that the body had been hidden where it would never be found, the feeling experienced at the spectacle was changed to one of exultation. For now at last, after three miserable years of brooding on her defeat, she had unexpectedly triumphed, and it was as if she already had her foot set on her enemies' necks. For now her boy would be king—happily there was no other candidate in the field; now her great friends from all over the land would fly to her aid, and with them for her councillors she would practically be the ruler during the king's long minority.
Thus she exulted; then, when that first tempest of passionate excitement had abated, came a revulsion of feeling when the vivid recollections of that pitiful scene returned and would not be thrust away; when she saw again the change from affection and delight at beholding her to suspicion and fear, then terror, come into the face of the boy she had loved; when she witnessed the dreadful blow and watched him when he swerved and fell from the saddle and the frightened horse galloped wildly away dragging him over the rough moor. For now she knew that in her heart she had never hated him: the animosity had been only on the surface and was an overflow of her consuming hatred of the primate. She had always loved the boy, and now that he no longer stood in her way to power she loved him again. And she had slain him! O no, she was thankful to think she had not! His death had come about by chance. Her commands to her people had been that he was not to be allowed to leave the castle; she had resolved to detain him, to hide and hold him a captive, to persuade or in some way compel him to abdicate in his brother's favour. She could not now say just how she had intended to deal with him, but it was never her intention to murder him. Her commands had been misunderstood, and she could not be blamed for his death, however much she was to benefit by it. God would not hold her accountable.
Could she then believe that she was guiltless in God's sight? Alas! on second thoughts she dared not affirm it. She was guiltless only in the way that she had been guiltless of Athelwold's murder; had she not rejoiced at the part she had had in that act? Athelwold had deserved his fate, and she had never repented that deed, nor had Edgar. She had not dealt the fatal blow then nor now, but she had wished for Edward's death even as she had wished for Athelwold's, and it was for her the blow was struck. It was a difficult and dreadful question. She was not equal to it. Let it be put off, the pressing question now was, what would man's judgment be—how would she now stand before the world?
And now the hope came that the secret of the king's disappearance would never be known; that after a time it would be assumed that he was dead, and that his death would never be traced to her door.
A vain hope, as she quickly found! There had been too many witnesses of the deed both of the castle people and those who lived outside the gates. The news spread fast and far as if carried by winged messengers, so that it was soon known throughout the kingdom, and everywhere it was told and believed that the queen herself had dealt the fatal blow.
Not Elfrida nor any one living at that time could have foretold the effect on the people generally of this deed, described as the foulest which had been done in Saxon times. There had in fact been a thousand blacker deeds in the England of that dreadful period, but never one that touched the heart and imagination of the whole people in the same way. Furthermore, it came after a long pause, a serene interval of many years in the everlasting turmoil—the years of the reign of Edgar the Peaceful, whose early death had up till then been its one great sorrow. A time too of recovery from a state of insensibility to evil deeds; of increasing civilisation and the softening of hearts. For Edward was the child of Edgar and his child-wife, who was beautiful and beloved and died young; and he had inherited the beauty, charm, and all engaging qualities of his parents. It is true that these qualities were known at first-hand only by those who were about him; but from these the feeling inspired had been communicated to those outside in ever-widening circles until it was spread over all the land, so that there was no habitation, from the castle to the hovel, in which the name of Edward was not as music on man's lips. And we of the present generation can perhaps understand this better than those of any other in the past centuries, for having a prince and heir to the English throne of this same name so great in our annals, one as universally loved as was Edward the Second, afterwards called the Martyr, in his day.
One result of this general outburst of feeling was that all those who had been, openly or secretly, in alliance with Elfrida now hastened to dissociate themselves from her. She was told that by her own rash act in killing the king before the world she had ruined her own cause for ever.
And Dunstan was not defeated after all. He made haste to proclaim the son, the boy of ten years, king of England, and at the same time to denounce the mother as a murderess. Nor did she dare to resist him when he removed the little prince from Corfe Castle and placed him with some of his own creatures, with monks for schoolmasters and guardians, whose first lesson to him would be detestation of his mother. This lesson too had to be impressed on the public mind; and at once, in obedience to this command, every preaching monk in every chapel in the land raged against the queen, the enemy of the archbishop and of religion, the tigress in human shape, and author of the greatest crime known in the land since Cerdic's landing. No fortitude could stand against such a storm of execration. It overwhelmed her. It was, she believed, a preparation for the dreadful doom about to fall on her. This was her great enemy's day, and he would no longer be baulked of his revenge. She remembered that Edwin had died by the assassin's hand, and the awful fate of his queen Elgitha, whose too beautiful face was branded with hot irons, and who was hamstrung and left to perish in unimaginable agony. She was like the hunted roe deer hiding in a close thicket and listening, trembling, to the hunters shouting and blowing on their horns and to the baying of their dogs, seeking for her in the wood.
Could she defend herself against them in her castle? She consulted her guard as to this, with the result that most of the men secretly left her. There was nothing for her to do but wait in dreadful suspense, and thereafter she would spend many hours every day in a tower commanding a wide view of the surrounding level country to watch the road with anxious eyes. But the feared hunters came not; the sound of the cry for vengeance grew fainter and fainter until it died into silence. It was at length borne in on her that she was not to be punished—at all events, not here and by man. It came as a surprise to every one, herself included. But it had been remembered that she was Edgar's widow and the king's mother, and that her power and influence were dead. Never again would she lift her head in England. Furthermore, Dunstan was growing old; and albeit his zeal for religion, pure and undefiled as he understood it, was not abated, the cruel, ruthless instincts and temper, which had accompanied and made it effective in the great day of conflict when he was engaged in sweeping from England the sin and scandal of a married clergy, had by now burnt themselves out. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay, and he was satisfied to have no more to do with her. Let the abhorred woman answer to God for her crimes.
But now that all fear of punishment by man was over, this dreadful thought that she was answerable to God weighed more and more heavily on her. Nor could she escape by day or night from the persistent image of the murdered boy. It haunted her like a ghost in every room, and when she climbed to a tower to look out it was to see his horse rushing madly away dragging his bleeding body over the moor. Or when she went out to the gate it was still to find him there, sitting on his horse, his face lighting up with love and joy at beholding her again; then the change—the surprise, the fear, the wine-cup, the attempt to break away, her cry—the unconsidered words she had uttered—and the fatal blow! The cry that rose from all England calling on God to destroy her! would that be her torment—would it sound in her ears through all eternity?
Corfe became unendurable to her, and eventually she moved to Bere, in Dorset, where the lands were her property and she possessed a house of her own, and there for upwards of a year she resided in the strictest seclusion.
It then came out and was quickly noised abroad that the king's body had been discovered long ago—miraculously it was said—in that brake near Corfe where it had been hidden; that it had been removed to and secretly buried at Wareham, and it was also said that miracles were occurring at that spot. This caused a fresh outburst of excitement in the country; the cry of miracles roused the religious houses all over Wessex, and there was a clamour for possession of the remains. This was a question for the heads of the Church to decide, and it was eventually decreed that the monastery of Shaftesbury, founded by King Alfred, Edward's great-great-grandfather, should have the body. Shaftesbury then, in order to advertise so important an acquisition to the world, resolved to make the removal of the remains the occasion of a great ceremony, a magnificent procession bearing the sacred remains from Wareham to the distant little city on the hill, attended by representatives from religious houses all over the country and by the pious generally.
Elfrida, sitting alone in her house, brooding on her desolation, heard of all these happenings and doings with increasing excitement; then all at once resolved to take part herself in the procession. This was seemingly a strange, almost incredible departure for one of her indomitable character and so embittered against the primate, even as he was against her. But her fight with him was now ended; she was defeated, broken, deprived of everything that she valued in life; it was time to think about the life to come. Furthermore, it now came to her that this was not her own thought, but that it had been whispered to her soul by some compassionate being of a higher order, and it was suggested to her that here was an opportunity for a first step towards a reconciliation with God and man. She dared not disregard it. Once more she would appear before the world, not as the beautiful, magnificent Elfrida, the proud and powerful woman of other days, but as a humble penitent doing her bitter penance in public, one of a thousand or ten thousand humble pilgrims, clad in mean garments, riding only when overcome with fatigue, and at the last stage of that long twenty-five-mile journey casting off her shoes to climb the steep stony road on naked, bleeding feet.
This resolution, in which she was strongly supported by the local priesthood, had a mollifying effect on the people, and something like compassion began to mingle with their feelings of hatred towards her. But when it was reported to Dunstan, he fell into a rage, and imagined or pretended to believe that some sinister design was hidden under it. She was the same woman, he said, who had instigated the murder of her first husband by means of a trick of this kind. She must not be allowed to show her face again. He then despatched a stern and threatening message forbidding her to take any part in or show herself at the procession.
This came at the last moment when all her preparations had been made; but she dared not disobey. The effect was to increase her misery. It was as if the gates of mercy and deliverance, which had been opened, miraculously as she believed, had now been once more closed against her; and it was also as if her enemy had said: I have spared you the branding with hot irons and slashing of sinews with sharp knives, not out of compassion, but in order to subject you to a more terrible punishment.
Despair possessed her, which turned to sullen rage when she found that the feeling of the people around her had again become hostile, owing to the report that her non-appearance at the procession was due to the discovery by Dunstan in good time of a secret plot against the State on her part. Her house at Bere became unendurable to her; she resolved to quit it, and made choice of Salisbury as her next place of residence. It was not far to go, and she had a good house there which had not been used since Edgar's death, but was always kept ready for her occupation.
It was about the middle of the afternoon when Elfrida on horseback and attended by her mounted guard of twenty or more men, followed by a convoy of carts with her servants and luggage, arrived at Salisbury, and was surprised and disturbed at the sight of a vast concourse of people standing without the gates.
It had got abroad that she was coming to Salisbury on that day, and it was also now known throughout Wessex that she had not been allowed to attend the procession to Shaftesbury. This had excited the people, and a large part of the inhabitants of the town and the adjacent hamlets had congregated to witness her arrival.
On her approach the crowd opened out on either side to make way for her and her men, and glancing to this side and that she saw that every pair of eyes in all that vast silent crowd were fixed intently on her face.
Then came a fresh surprise when she found a mounted guard standing with drawn swords before the gates. The captain of the guard, lifting his hand, cried out to her to halt, then in a loud voice he informed her he had been ordered to turn her back from the gates. Was it then to witness this fresh insult that the people had now been brought together? Anger and apprehension struggled for mastery in her breast and choked her utterance when she attempted to speak. She could only turn to her men, and in instant response to her look they drew their swords and pressed forward as if about to force their way in. This movement on their part was greeted with a loud burst of derisive laughter from the town guard. Then from out of the middle of the crowd of lookers-on came a cry of Murderess! quickly followed by another shout of Go back, murderess, you are not wanted here! This was a signal for all the unruly spirits in the throng—all those whose delight is to trample upon the fallen—and from all sides there arose a storm of jeers and execrations, and it was as if she was in the midst of a frantic bellowing herd eager to gore and trample her to death. And these were the same people that a few short years ago would rush out from their houses to gaze with pride and delight at her, their beautiful queen, and applaud her to the echo whenever she appeared at their gates! Now, better than ever before, she realised the change of feeling towards her from affectionate loyalty to abhorrence, and drained to the last bitterest dregs the cup of shame and humiliation.
With trembling hand she turned her horse round, and bending her ashen white face low rode slowly out of the crowd, her men close to her on either side, threatening with their swords those that pressed nearest and followed in their retreat by shouts and jeers. But when well out of sight and sound of the people she dismounted and sat down on the turf to rest and consider what was to be done. By and by a mounted man was seen coming from Salisbury at a fast gallop. He came with a letter and message to the queen from an aged nobleman, one she had known in former years at court. He informed her that he owned a large house at or near Amesbury which he could not now use on account of his age and infirmities, which compelled him to remain in Salisbury. This house she might occupy for as long as she wished to remain in the neighbourhood. He had received permission from the governor of the town to offer it to her, and the only condition was that she must not return to Salisbury.
There was thus one friend left to the reviled and outcast queen—this aged dying man!
Once more she set forth with the messenger as guide, and about set of sun arrived at the house, which was to be her home for the next two to three years, in this darkest period of her life. Yet she could not have found a habitation and surroundings more perfectly suited to her wants and the mood she was in. The house, which was large enough to accommodate all her people, was on the west side of the Avon, a quarter of a mile below Amesbury and two to three hundred yards distant from the river bank, and was surrounded by enclosed land with gardens and orchards, the river itself forming the boundary on one side. Here was the perfect seclusion she desired: here she could spend her hours and days as she ever loved to do in the open air without sight of any human countenance excepting those of her own people, since now strange faces had become hateful to her. Then, again, she loved riding, and just outside of her gates was the great green expanse of the Downs, where she could spend hours on horseback without meeting or seeing a human figure except occasionally a solitary shepherd guarding his flock. So great was the attraction the Downs had for her she herself marvelled at it. It was not merely the sense of power and freedom the rider feels on a horse with the exhilarating effect of swift motion and a wide horizon. Here she had got out of the old and into a new world better suited to her changed spirit. For in that world of men and women in which she had lived until now all nature had become interfused with her own and other people's lives—passions and hopes and fears and dreams and ambitions. Now it was as if an obscuring purple mist had been blown away, leaving the prospect sharp and clear to her sight as it had never appeared before. A wide prospect, whose grateful silence was only broken by the cry or song of some wild bird. Great thickets of dwarf thorn tree and brambles and gorse, aflame with yellow flowers or dark to blackness by contrast with the pale verdure of the earth. And open reaches of elastic turf, its green suffused or sprinkled with red or blue or yellow, according to the kind of flowers proper to the season and place. The sight, too, of wild creatures: fallow deer, looking yellow in the distance when seen amid the black gorse; a flock of bustards taking to flight on her approach would rush away, their spread wings flashing silver-white in the brilliant sunshine. She was like them on her horse, borne swiftly as on wings above the earth, but always near it. Then, casting her eyes up, she would watch the soarers, the buzzards, or harriers and others, circling up from earth on broad motionless wings, bird above bird, ever rising and diminishing to fade away at last into the universal blue. Then, as if aspiring too, she would seek the highest point on some high down, and sitting on her horse survey the prospect before her—the sea of rounded hills, hills beyond hills, stretching away to the dim horizon, and over it all the vast blue dome of heaven. Sky and earth, with thorny brakes and grass and flowers and wild creatures, with birds that flew low and others soaring up into heaven—what was the secret meaning it had for her? She was like one groping for a key in a dark place. Not a human figure visible, not a sign of human occupancy on that expanse! Was this then the secret of her elation? The all-powerful, dreadful God she was at enmity with, whom she feared and fled from, was not here. He, or his spirit, was where man inhabited, in cities and other centres of population, where there were churches and monasteries.