Edwy the Fair or the First Chronicle of Aescendune:
A Tale of the Days of Saint Dunstan,
by the Rev. A. D. Crake.
It has been the aim of the Author, in a series of original tales told to the senior boys of a large school, to illustrate interesting or difficult passages of Church History by the aid of fiction. Two of these tales—"Aemilius," a tale of the Decian and Valerian persecutions; and "Evanus," a tale of the days of Constantine—he has already published, and desires gratefully to acknowledge the kindness with which they have been received.
He is thus encouraged to submit another attempt to the public, having its scene of action in our own land, although in times very dissimilar to our own; and for its object, the illustration of the struggle between the regal and ecclesiastical powers in the days of the ill-fated and ill-advised King Edwy.
Scarcely can one find a schoolboy who has not read the touching legend of Edwy and Elgiva—for it is little more than a legend in most of its details; and which of these youthful readers has not execrated the cruelty of the Churchmen who separated those unhappy lovers? While the tragical story of the fate of the hapless Elgiva has been the theme of many a poet and even historian, who has accepted the tale as if it were of as undoubted authenticity as the Reform Bill.
The writer can well remember the impression the tale made upon his youthful imagination, and the dislike, to use a mild word, with which he ever viewed the character of the great statesman and ecclesiastic of the tenth century, Dunstan, until a wider knowledge of history and a more accurate judgment came with maturer years; and testimonies to the ability and genius of that monk, who had been the moving spirit of his age, began to force themselves upon him.
Lord Macaulay has well summed up the relative positions of Church and State in that age in the following words: "It is true that the Church had been deeply corrupted by superstition, yet she retained enough of the sublime theology and benevolent morality of her early days to elevate many intellects, and to purify many hearts. That the sacerdotal order should encroach on the functions of the chief magistrate, would in our time be a great evil. But that which in an age of good government is an evil, may in an age of grossly bad government be a blessing. It is better that men should be governed by priest craft than by brute violence; by such a prelate as Dunstan, than by such a warrior as Penda."
The Church was indeed the salt of the earth, even if the salt had somewhat lost its savour; it was the only power which could step in between the tyrant and his victim, which could teach the irresponsible great—irresponsible to man—their responsibility to the great and awful Being whose creatures they were. And again, it was then the only home of civilisation and learning. It has been well said that for the learning of this age to vilify the monks and monasteries of the medieval period, is for the oak to revile the acorn from which it sprang.
The overwhelming realisation of these facts, the determination to set up the dominion of truth and justice which they held to be identical with that of the Church, as that was identical with the kingdom of God, supplies the key to the lives and characters of such men as Ambrose, Cyril, Dunstan, and Becket. They each came in collision with the civil power; but Ambrose against Justina or even Theodosius, Cyril against Orestes, Dunstan against Edwy, Becket against Henry Plantagenet—each represented, in a greater or less degree, the cause of religion, nay of humanity, against its worst foes, tyranny or moral corruption.
Yet not one of these great men was without his faults; this is only to say he was human; but more may be admitted—personal motives would mix themselves with nobler emotions. Self would assert her fatal claims, and great mistakes were sometimes made by those who would have forfeited their lives rather than have committed them, had they known what they were doing. Yet, on the whole, their cause was that of God and man, and they fought nobly. Shall we asperse their memories because they "had this treasure in earthen vessels"?
The tale itself is intended to depict what the writer believes to be the true relative positions of Edwy and the great ecclesiastic; therefore he will not attempt to deal with the subject here. It will be noticed however, that he has shorn the narrative of the dread catastrophe with which it terminated in all the histories of our childhood. Scarcely any writer has made such wise research into the history of this period as Mr. E. A. Freeman, and the author has adopted his conclusions upon this point. With him he has therefore admitted the marriage of Edwy with Elgiva, although it was an uncanonical marriage beyond all doubt, and has given her the title of queen, which she bore in a document preserved by Lappenburg. But, in agreement with the same authority, the writer feels most happy to be able to reject the story of Elgiva's supposed tragical death. All sorts of stories are told by later writers, utterly contradictory and confused, of a woman killed by the Mercians in their revolt. This could not be Elgiva, for she was not divorced till the rebellion was over; and even the sad tale that she was seized by the officers of Odo, and branded to disfigure her beauty, rests on no good authority. In spite of the reluctance with which men relinquish a touching tragedy, the calumny should be banished from the pages of historians; and it is painful to see it repeated, as if of undoubted authenticity, in a recent popular history for children by one of the greatest of modern novelists.
Edwy's character has cost the writer much thought. He has endeavoured to paint him faithfully—not so bad as all the monastic writers of the succeeding period (the only writers with few exceptions) describe him; but still such a youth as the circumstances under which he became placed would probably have made him—capable of sincere attachment, brave, and devoted to his friends, yet careless of all religious obligations; bitterly hostile to the Church, that is to Christianity, for the terms were then synonymous; and reckless of obligations, or of the sanctity of truth and justice.
His measures against St. Dunstan, as they are related in the tale, have the authority of history; although it is needless to say that the agents are in part fictitious characters. The writer's object has been to subordinate fiction to history, and never to contradict historic fact; if he has failed in this intention, it has been his misfortune rather than his fault; for he has had recourse to all such authorities as lay in his reach.[i] Especially, he is glad to find that the character he had conceived as Edwy's perfectly coincides with the description given by Palgrave in his valuable History of the Anglo-Saxons:
"Edwy was a youth of singular beauty, but vain, rash, petulant, profligate, and surrounded by a host of young courtiers, all bent on encouraging and emulating the vices of their master."
Another object of the tale has been to depict the trials and temptations, the fall and the recovery, of a lad fresh from a home full of religious influences, when thrown amidst the snares which abounded then as now. The motto, "Facilis descensus Averno," etc, epitomises the whole story.
In relating a tale of the days of St. Dunstan, the author has felt bound to give the religious colouring which actually prevailed in that day. He has found much authority and information in Johnson's Anglo-Saxon Canons, especially those of Elfric, probably contemporaneous with the tale. He has written in no controversial spirit, but with an honest desire to set forth the truth.
It may be objected that he has made all his characters speak in very modern English, and has not affected the archaisms commonly found in tales of the time. To this he would reply, that if the genuine language were preserved, it would be utterly unintelligible to modern Englishmen, and therefore he has thought it preferable to translate into the vernacular of today. The English which men spoke then was no more stilted or formal to them than ours is to us.
Although he has followed Mr. Freeman in the use of the terms English and Welsh, as far less likely to mislead than the terms Saxons and Britons, and far truer to history, yet he has not thought proper to follow the obsolete spelling of proper names; he has not, e. g., spelt Edwy, Eadwig or Elgiva, Aelfgifu. Custom has Latinised the appellations, and as he has rejected obsolete terms in conversation, he has felt it more consistent to reject these more correct, but less familiar, orthographies.
The title, "First Chronicle of Aescendune," has been adopted, because the tale here given is but the first of a series of tales which have been told, but not yet written, attaching themselves to the same family and locality at intervals of generations. Thus, the second illustrates the struggle between Edmund Ironside and Canute; the third, the Norman Conquest; etc. Their appearance in print must depend upon the indulgence extended to the present volume.
In conclusion, the writer dedicates this book with great respect to Mrs. Trevelyan, authoress of "Lectures upon the History of England;" whose first volume, years ago, first taught him to appreciate, in some degree, the character of St. Dunstan.
All Saints' School, Bloxham,
CHAPTER I. "THIS IS THE FOREST PRIMEVAL."
IT was a lovely eventide of the sunny month of May, and the declining rays of the sun penetrated the thick foliage of an old English forest, lighting up in chequered pattern the velvet sward thick with moss, and casting uncertain rays as the wind shook the boughs. Every bush seemed instinct with life, for April showers and May sun had united to force each leaf and spray into its fairest development, and the drowsy hum of countless insects told, as it saluted the ears, the tale of approaching summer.
Two boys reclined upon the mossy bank beneath an aged oak; their dress, no less than their general demeanour, denoted them to be the sons of some substantial thane. They were clad in hunting costume: leggings of skin over boots of untanned leather protected their limbs from thorn or brier, and over their under garments they wore tunics of a dull green hue, edged at the collar and cuffs with brown fur, and fastened by richly ornamented belts: their bows lay by their sides, while quivers of arrows were suspended to their girdles, and two spears, such as were used in the chase of the wild boar, lay by them on the grass. They had the same fair hair, which, untouched by the shears, hung negligently around neck and shoulder; the same blue eyes added an indescribable softness to the features; they had the same well-knit frames and agile movements, but yet there was a difference. The elder seemed possessed of greater vivacity of expression; but although each well-strung muscle indicated physical prowess, there was an uncertain expression in his glance and in the play of his features, which suggested a yielding and somewhat vacillating character; while the younger, lacking the full physical development, and somewhat of the engaging expression of his brother, had that calm and steady bearing which indicated present and future government of the passions.
"By Thor and Woden, Alfred, we shall be here all night. At what hour did that stupid churl Oscar say that the deer trooped down to drink?"
"Not till sunset, Elfric; and it wants half an hour yet; see, the sun is still high."
"I do think it is never going to set; here we have been hunting, hunting all the day, and got nothing for our pains."
"You forget the hare and the rabbit here."
"Toss them to the dogs. Here, Bran, you brute, take this hare your masters have been hunting all day, for your dinner;" and as he spoke he tossed the solitary victim of his own prowess in the chase to the huge wolfhound, which made a speedy meal upon the hare, while Alfred threw the rabbit to the other of their two canine companions.
"I would almost as soon have lost this holiday, and spent the time with Father Cuthbert, to be bored by his everlasting talk about our duties, and forced to repeat 'hic, haec, hoc,' till my head ached. What a long homily [ii] he preached us this morning—and then that long story about the saint."
"You are out of spirits. Father Cuthbert's tales are not so bad, after all you seemed to like the legend he told us the other night."
"Yes, about our ancestor Sebbald and his glorious death; there was something in that tale worth hearing; it stirred the blood—none of your moping saints, that Sebbald."
"I once heard another legend from Father Cuthbert, about the burning of Croyland Abbey, and how the abbot stood, saying mass at the altar, without flinching or even turning his head, when the Danes, having fired the place, broke into the chapel. Do you not think it wanted more bravery to do that in cold blood than to stand firm in all the excitement of a battle?"
"You are made to be a monk, Alfred, and I daresay, if you get the chance, will be a martyr, and get put in the calendar by-and-by. I suppose they will keep your relics here in the priory church, and you will be St. Alfred of Aescendune; for me, I would sooner die as the old sea kings loved to die, surrounded by heaps of slain, with my sword broken in my hand."
It was at this moment that their conversation was suddenly interrupted by a loud crashing of boughs in the adjacent underwood, a rush as of some wild beast, a loud cry in boyish tones—"Help! help! the wolf! the wolf!"
Elfric jumped up in an instant, and rushed forward heedless of danger, followed closely by his younger brother, who was scarcely less eager to render immediate assistance.
The cries for help became more and more piercing, as if some pressing danger menaced the utterer. Elfric, who, in spite of his flippant speech, was by no means destitute of keen sympathies and self devotion, hurried forward, fearless of danger, bounding through thicket and underwood, until, arriving upon a small clearing, the whole scene flashed upon him.
A huge grey wolf, wounded and bleeding, was about to rush for the second time upon a youth in hunting costume, whose broken spear, broken in the first encounter with the beast he had disturbed, seemed to deprive him of all chance of success in the desperate encounter evidently impending. His trembling limbs showed his extreme apprehension, and the sweat stood in huge drops on his forehead; his eyes were fixed upon the beast as if he were fascinated, while the shaft of his spear, presented feebly against the coming onslaught, showed that he had lost his self possession, for he neglected the bow and arrows which were slung at his side—if indeed there was time to use them.
The beast sprang, but as he did so another spear was stoutly presented to meet him, and he literally impaled himself in his eager spring on the weapon of Elfric.
Still, such was his weight that the boy fell backward beneath the mighty rush, and such the tenacity of life that, though desperately wounded, even to death, the beast sought the prostrate lad with teeth and claws, in frantic fury, until a blow from the hunting knife, which Elfric well knew how to use, laid the wolf lifeless at his side.
Breathless, but not severely injured, he rose from the ground covered with blood; his garments torn, his face reddened by exertion, and paused a moment, while he seemed to strive to repress the wild beatings of his heart, which bounded as if it would burst its prison.
But far more exhausted was the other combatant, yet scarcely so much by exertion as by fear, of which he still bore the evident traces. After a few moments he broke the silence, and his words seemed incoherent.
"Where is my horse? the beast threw me—I wish the wolves may get him —I fear you are hurt; not much, I hope; where can those serfs be? Fine vassals, to desert their master in peril. I'll have them hung. But, by St. Cuthbert, you are all covered with blood."
"'Tis that of the wolf, then, for I have scarcely a scratch: one of the beast's claws ripped up my sleeve, and the skin with it; that was all he could do before he felt the cold steel between his ribs."
"Not a moment too soon, or he would have killed you before we could interfere; why, as you rolled together, I could hardly see which was boy and which was wolf. But where's my horse? Did you see a white horse rush past you?"
"We heard a rush as of some wild animal."
"Wild enough. I was riding through the glade, and my attendants were on in front, when we stumbled on this wolf, crouched under that thicket. The horse started so violently that it threw me almost upon the monster you have killed."
Here the speaker paused, and blew impatient blasts upon a horn which had been slung round his neck. They were soon answered, and some attendants, dressed in semi-hunting costume, made their appearance with haste and confusion, which showed their apprehensions.
"Guthred! Eadmer! Why did you get so far away from me? I might have been killed. Look at this monstrous wolf; why, its teeth are dreadful. It broke my spear, and would have had me down, but for this—this youth.
"I forgot, I haven't asked to whom I am indebted. Aren't you two brothers?"
"Our father is the Thane of Aescendune. His hall is not far from here. Will you not go home with us? We have plenty of room for you and yours."
"To be sure I will. Aescendune? I have heard the name: I can't remember where. Have you horses?"
"No; we were hunting on foot, and expecting to let fly our shafts at some deer. May I ask, in return, the name of our guest?"
Before the youth could answer, one of the attendants strode forward, and with an air of importance replied, "You are about to receive the honour of a visit from the future lord of Britain, Prince Edwy."
"Keep your lips closed till I give you leave to open them, Guthred. You may leave me to announce myself.
"I shall be only too glad to go with you both; and these two huntsmen deserve to be left in the forest to the mercy of your wolves."
Somewhat startled to find that they had saved the future Basileus or King of Britain—the hope of the royal line of Cerdic—the brothers led their guest through the darkening forest until the distant light of a clearing appeared in the west, and they emerged from the shadow of the trees upon the brow of a gentle hill.
Below them lay the castle (if such it should be called) of their father the Thane of Aescendune. Utterly unlike the castellated buildings which, at a later period, formed the dwellings of the proud Norman nobility, it was a low irregular building, the lower parts of which were of stone, and the upper portions, when there was a second story, of thick timber from the forest.
A river, from which the evening mist was slowly rising, lay beyond, and supplied water to a moat which surrounded the edifice, for in those troublous times few country dwellings lacked such necessary protection. The memory of the Danish invasions was too recent; the marauders of either nation still lurked in the far recesses of the forest, and plundered the Saxon inhabitant or the Danish settler indiscriminately, as occasion served.
On the inner side of the moat a strong palisade of timber completed the defence. One portal, opening upon a drawbridge, formed the sole apparent means of ingress or egress.
Passing the drawbridge unquestioned, the boys entered the courtyard, around which the chief apartments were grouped. Before them a flight of stone steps led to the great hall where all the members of the community took their meals in common, and where, around the great fire, they wiled away the slow hours of a winter evening.
On each side of the great hall stood the bowers, as the small dormitories were called, furnished very simply for the use of the higher domestics with small round tables, common stools, and beds in recesses like boxes or cupboards. Such were commonly the only sleeping chambers, but at Aescendune, as generally in the halls of the rich, a wide staircase conducted to a gallery above, from each side of which opened sleeping and sitting apartments allotted to the use of the family. It was only in the houses of the wealthy that such an upper floor was found.
On the right hand, as they entered the courtyard, stood the private chapel of the household, where mass was said by the chaplain, to whom allusion has been already made, as the first duty of the day, and where each night generally saw the household again assembled for compline or evening prayers.[iii] On the left hand were domestic offices.
Upon the steps of his hall stood Ella, the Thane of Aescendune, the representative of a long line of warlike ancestors, who had occupied the soil since the Saxon conquest of Mercia.
He was clad in a woollen tunic reaching to the knee, over which a cloak fastened by a clasp of gold was loosely thrown; and his feet were clad in black pointed boots, while strips of painted leather were wound over red stockings from the knee to the ankle.
"You are late, my sons," he said, "and I perceive you have brought us a visitor. He is welcome."
"Father," said Elfric, in a voice somewhat expressive of awe, "it is Prince Edwy!"
The thane had in his earlier days been at court, and had known the murdered Edmund, the royal father of his guest, intimately. It was not without emotion, therefore, that he welcomed the son to his home, and saluted him with that manly yet reverential homage their relative positions required of him.
"Welcome, thrice welcome, my prince," he said, "to these humble halls." He added, with some emotion, "I could think the royal Edmund stood before me, as I knew him while yet myself a youth."
The domestics, who had assembled, gazed upon their visitor with country curiosity, yet were not wanting in rude but expressive courtesy; and soon he was conducted to the best chamber the house afforded, where change of raiment and every comfort within the reach of his host was provided, while the cooks were charged to make sumptuous additions to the approaching supper.
CHAPTER II. THE HOUSE OF AESCENDUNE.
The earlier fortunes of the house of Aescendune must here obtrude themselves upon the notice of the reader, in order that he may more easily comprehend the subsequent pages of our veritable history.
Sebbald, the remote ancestor of the family, was amongst the earliest Saxon conquerors of Mercia. He fell in battle with the Britons, or Welshmen as our ancestors called them, leaving sons valiant as their sire, to whom were given the fertile lands lying between the river Avon and the mighty midland forests, to which they gave the name "Aescendune."
They had held their own for three hundred years with varying fortunes; once or twice home and hearth were desolated by the fierce tide of Danish invasion, but the wars subsided, and the old family resumed its position, amidst the joy of their dependants and serfs, to whom they were endeared by a thousand memories of past benefits.
But a generation only had passed since the shadow of a great woe fell on the family of Aescendune.
Offa, who was then the thane, had two sons, Oswald the elder, and Ella the younger, with whom our readers are already acquainted.
The elder possessed few of the family virtues save brute courage. He was ever rebellious, even in boyhood, and arrived at man's estate in the midst of unsettled times of war and tumult. Weary of the restraints of home, he joined a band of Danish marauders, and shared their victories, enriching himself with the spoils of his own countrymen. Thus he remained an outlaw, for his father disowned him in consequence of his crime, until, fighting against his own people in the great battle of Brunanburgh, [iv] where Athelstane so gloriously conquered the allied Danes, Scots, and Welsh, he was taken prisoner.
The victor king sat in judgment upon the recreant, surrounded by his chief nobility and vassal kings. The guilt of the prisoner was evident, nay undenied, and the respect in which his sire was held alone delayed the doom of a cruel death from being pronounced upon him.
While the council yet deliberated, Offa appeared amongst them, and, like a second Brutus, took his place amongst his peers. Disclaiming all personal interest in the matter, he sternly proposed that the claims of justice should be satisfied.
Yet they hesitated to shed Oswald's blood: the alternative they adopted was perhaps not more merciful—although a common doom in those times. They selected a crazy worm-eaten boat, and sent the criminal to sea, without sail, oar, or rudder, with a loaf of bread and cruse of water, the wind blowing freshly from off the land.
Oswald was never heard of again; but after his supposed death, information was brought to his father that the outlaw had been married to a Danish woman, and had left a son—an orphan—for the mother died in childbirth.
Offa resolved to seek the boy, and to adopt him, as if in reparation for the past. The effort he had made had cost him a bitter pang, and the father's heart was well-nigh broken. For a time the inquiries were unsuccessful. It was discovered that the mother was dead, that she had died before the tragedy, but not a word could be learned respecting the boy, and many had begun to doubt his existence, when, after years had elapsed, one of the executioners of the cruel doom deposed on his deathbed that a boy of some ten summers had appeared on the beach, had called the victim "father," and had so persistently entreated to share his doom, that they had allowed him to do so, but had concealed the fact, rightly fearing blame, if not punishment. The priest who had attended his dying bed, and heard his last confession, bore the tidings to Offa at the penitent's desire.
The old thane never seemed to lift up his head again: the sacrifice his sense of duty had exacted from him had been too great for a heart naturally full of domestic affection, and he sank and died after a few months in the arms of his younger and beloved son Ella.
The foundation of the neighbouring priory and church of St. Wilfred had been the consolation of his later years, but the work was only half completed at his death. It was carried on with equal zeal by Ella, now the Thane of Aescendune.
He married Edith, the daughter of a rich thane of Wessex, and the marriage proved a most happy one.
Sincerely religious, after the fashion of their day, they honoured God with their substance, enriched the church of St. Wilfred, where the dust of the aged Offa awaited the resurrection of the just, and continued the labour of building the priory. Day after day they were constant in their attendance at mass and evensong, and strove to live as foster parents to their dependants and serfs.
The chief man in his hundred, Ella acted as reeve or magistrate, holding his court for the administration of justice each month, and giving such just judgment as became one who had the fear of God before him. No appeal was ever made from him to the ealdorman (earl) or scirgerefa (sheriff) and the wisdom and mercy of his rule were universally renowned.
His land was partly cultivated by his own theows, who were in those days slaves attached to the soil, and partly let out to free husbandmen (or ceorls) who owed their lord rent in kind or in money, and paid him, as "his men," feudal service.
Around his hospitable board the poor of the district found sustenance, while work was made for all in draining meres, mending roads, building the priory, or in the various agricultural labours of the year.
In the first year of King Edmund the lady Edith presented her lord with his first-born son, to whom in baptism they gave the name Elfric, and a year later Alfred was born, and named after the great king. One daughter, named Edgitha, completed the fruits of their happy union, and in their simple fashion they strove to train their children in the fear of the Lord.
We will now resume the thread of our story.
It was now the hour of eventide, and the time for "laying the board" drew near. From forest and field came in ceorl and theow, hanging up their weapons or agricultural implements around the lower end of the hall. Meanwhile the domestics brought in large tressels, and then huge heavy boards, which they arranged so as to form the dining table, shaped like the letter T, the upper portion being furnished with the richest dainties for the family and their guest, the lower with simpler fare for the dependents.
A wild boar caught in the forest formed the chief dish, and was placed at the upper end, while mutton and beef; dressed in various ways, flanked it on either side.
The thane, Ella, occupied the central seat at the high table: his chair, rudely carved, had borne the weight of his ancestors before him; on his left hand was seated the once lovely Edith. Age had deprived her of her youthful beauty, but not of the sweet expression which told of her gentleness and purity of heart; they had left their impress on each line of her speaking countenance; and few left her presence unimpressed with respect and esteem.
On his right hand sat Prince Edwy, "Edwy the fair" men called him, and right well he deserved the name. His face was one which inspired interest at a glance: his large blue eyes, his golden hair which floated over his shoulders, his sweet voice, his graceful bearing, all united to impress the beholders.
Elfric, Alfred, and their sister Edgitha, completed the company at the high table.
The hungry crowd of ceorls and serfs, who were, as we have said, fresh from field or forest, sat at the lower table, which was spread with huge joints of roasted meat, loaves of bread, wedges of cheese, piles of cabbage or other vegetables, rolls or coils of broiled eels, and huge pieces of boiled pork or bacon.
Around the table sat the hounds and other dogs, open jawed, waiting such good luck as they might hope to receive at the hands of their masters, while many "loaf eaters," as the serfs were called who fed at their master's table, stood with the dogs, or sat on the rush-strewn floor, for want of room at the board.
It was marvellous to see how the food disappeared, as hand after hand was stretched out to the dishes, in the absence of forks—a modern invention—and huge horns of ale helped the meat downwards.
Game, steaks of beef and venison on spits, were handed round. The choicer joints were indeed reserved for the upper board, but profusion was the rule everywhere throughout the hall, and there was probably not a serf; nay, not even a dog, whose appetite was not fully satisfied before the end of the feast.
The prince seemed thoroughly to have recovered his spirits, somewhat damped perhaps before by his adventure with the wolf; and exerted his talents to make himself agreeable. He had seen life on an extended scale, young as he was, and his anecdotes of London and the court, if a little wild, were still interesting. Elfric and Alfred listened to his somewhat random talk, with that respect boys ever pay to those who have seen more of the wide world than themselves—a respect perhaps heightened by the high rank of their princely guest, who was, however, only a month or two older than Elfric.
As they heard of the marvels of London, and of the court, home and its attractions seemed to become dim by comparison, and Elfric especially longed to share such happiness.
Their father seemed to wish to change the conversation, as he asked the prince whether he had been long in Mercia.
Edwy replied, "Nay, my host; this is almost my first day of perfect freedom, and I only left London, and my uncle the king, a few days back. Dunstan has gone down to Glastonbury, for which the Saints be thanked, and I am released for a few days from poring over the musty old manuscripts to which he dooms me."
"It is well, my prince, that you should have a preceptor so well qualified to instruct you in the arts your great ancestor King Alfred so nobly adorned."
"Ah yes, Alfred," said Edwy, yawning; "but you know we can't all be saints or heroes like him: for my part, I sometimes wish he had never lived."
The astonished looks of the company seemed to demand further explanation.
"Because it is always, 'Alfred did this,' and 'Alfred did that.' If I am tired of 'hic, haec, hoc,' I am told Alfred was never weary; if I complain of a headache, Dunstan says Alfred never complained of pain or illness, but bore all with heroic fortitude, and all the rest of it. If I want a better dinner than my respected uncle gives us on fast days in the palace, I am told Alfred never ate anything beyond a handful of parched corn on such days; if I lose my temper, I am told Alfred never lost his; and so on, till I get sick of his name; and here it greets me in the woods of Mercia."
"I crave pardon, my liege," said Ella, who hardly knew whether to smile or frown at the sarcastic petulance of his guest, who went on with a sly smile—"And now old Dunstan does not know where I am. He left me with a huge pile of books in musty Latin, or crabbed English, and I had to read this and to write that, as if I were no prince, but a scrivener, and had to get my living by my pen; but as soon as he was gone I had a headache, and persuaded my venerable uncle the king, through the physician, that I needed change of air."
"But what will Dunstan say?"
"Oh, he must fight it out with Sigebert the leech, and Sigebert knows which side his bread is buttered."
The whole tone of Edwy indicated plainly that the headache was but a pretence, but he spoke with such sly simplicity that the boys could not help joining in his contagious laughter; sympathising, doubtless, in his love of a holiday in the woods.
"Your headache is not gone yet, I trust, my prince," said Elfric.
"Why?" said Edwy, turning his eyes upon him with a smile.
"Because we have splendid woods near here for hunting, and I must have" (he whispered these words into Edwy's ear) "a headache, too."
Edwy quite understood the request conveyed in these words, and turning to the old thane requested him to allow his boys to join the sport on the morrow as a kind of bodyguard, adding some very complimentary words on the subject of Elfric's courage shown in the rescue that afternoon.
"Why, yes," said the old thane, "I have always tried to bring up the boys so as to fear neither man nor beast, and Elfric did indifferently well in the tussle. So he has earned a holiday for himself and brother, with Father Cuthbert's leave," and Ella turned to the ecclesiastic.
"They are good boys," said the priest, "only, my lord, Elfric is somewhat behind in his studies."
Elfric's looks expressed his contempt of the "studies," but he dared not express the feeling before his father.
"But I trust, my prince," said Ella, "that we shall not keep you from your duties at court. Dunstan is a severe, although a holy man."
"Oh, he is gone to have another encounter with the Evil One at Glastonbury, and is fashioning a pair of tongs for the purpose," said Edwy, alluding to the legend already current amongst the credulous populace; "and I wish," he muttered, "the Evil One would get the best of it and fly away with him. But" (in a louder tone) "he cannot return for a month, which means a month's holiday for me."
Ella could interpose no further objection, although scarcely satisfied with the programme.
The conversation here became general. It turned upon the subject of hunting and war, and the enthusiasm of young Edwy quite captivated the thane, who seemed to see Edmund, the father of the young prince, before his eyes, as he had known him in his own impetuous youth. Dear, indeed, had that prince been to Ella, both before and after his elevation to the throne, and as he heard the sweet boyish voice of Edwy, his thoughts were guided by memory to that ill-omened feast at Pucklechurch, where the vindictive outlaw Leolf had murdered his king. The sword of Ella had been amongst those which avenged the crime on the murderer, but they could not call back the vital spark which had fled. "Edmund the Magnificent," as they loved to call him, was dead. [v]
So, as Ella listened, he could hardly help condoning the wild speeches of the young prince in deference to the memory of the past.
And now they removed the festive board from the hall, while kneeling serfs offered basin and towel to the thane and his guest to wash their hands. Wine began to circulate freely in goblets of wood inlaid with gold or silver; the clinking of cups, the drinking of healths and pledges opened the revel, cupbearers poured out the wine. The glee-wood (harp) was introduced, while pipes, flutes, and soft horns accompanied its strains. So they sang—
Here Athelstane king, Of earls the lord, To warriors the ring-giver Glory world-long Had won in the strife, By edge of the sword, At Brunanburgh.
And Ella—who had stood by his father's side in that dread field where Danes, Scots, and Welshmen fled before the English sword—listened with enthusiasm, till he thought of his brother Oswald, when tears, unobserved, rolled down his cheeks.
Not so with the boys. They had no secret sorrow to hide, and they listened like those whose young blood boils at the thought of mighty deeds, and longed to imitate them. And when the gleeman finished his lengthy flight of music and poesy, they applauded him till the roof rang again.
Song followed song, legend legend, the revelry grew louder, while the lady Edith, with her daughter, retired to their bower, where they employed their needles on delicate embroidery. A representation in bright colours of the consecration of the church of St. Wilfred occupied the hands of the little Edgitha, while her mother wove sacred pictures to serve as hangings for the sanctuary of the priory church.
But soon the tolling of the bell announced that it was the compline hour, nine o'clock, and that hour was never allowed to pass unobserved at Aescendune, but formed the termination of the labour or the feast, after which it was customary for the whole household to retire, as well they might who rose with the early dawn.
Neither was it passed by on this occasion, although the boys looked very disappointed, for they would fain have listened to song or legend till midnight, if not later.
"Come, my children," said the thane; "we must rise early, so let us all commit ourselves to the keeping of God and His holy angels, and seek our pillows."
So the whole party repaired to the chapel, where the chaplain said the compline office or night song, after which Ella saluted his royal guest with reverent affection, and bestowed his paternal benediction upon his children. Then the whole party separated for the night.
The household was speedily buried in sleep, save the solitary sentinel who paced around the building. Not that danger was apprehended from any source, but precaution had become habitual in those days of turmoil. Occasionally the howl of the wolf was heard from the woods, and the sleepers half awoke, then dreamt of the chase as the night flew by.
CHAPTER III. LEAVING HOME.
The sun arose in a bright and cloudless sky on the following morning, and his first beams aroused every sleeper in the hall of Aescendune from his couch of straw, for softer material was seldom or never used for repose. Even the chamber in which the prince slept could not be called luxurious: the bed was in a box-like recess; its coverlets, worked richly by the fair hands of the ladies, who had little other occupation, covered a mattress which even modern schoolboys would call rough and uncomfortable.
The wind played with the tapestry which represented the history of Joseph and his brethren, as it found its way in through crevices in the ill-built walls. There were two or three stools over which the thane's care for his guest had caused coverlets to be thrown; a round table of rough construction stood like a tripod on three legs, upon which stood the unwonted luxury of ewer and basin, for most people had to perform their ablutions at the nearest convenient well or spring.
Leaving this chamber in good time, Prince Edwy acompanied his new friends to the priory church, where they heard mass before the sun was high in the heavens, after which they returned to the hall to take a light breakfast before they sought the attractions of the chase in the forest. Full of life they mounted their horses, and galloped in the wild exuberance of animal spirits with their dogs through the leafy arches of the forest, startling the red deer, the wolf, or the wild boar. Soon they roused a mighty individual of the latter tribe, who turned to bay, when the boys dismounted and finished the affair with their boar spears, not without some personal danger, and the loss of a couple of dogs.
Onward again they swept, past leafy glades of beech trees, where the swineherd drove his half-tame charges, or where the woodcutters plied their toil, and loaded their rude carts or hand barrows with fuel for the kitchen of the hall; past rookeries, where the birds made the air lively by their noise; over brook, through the half-dry marsh, until they came upon an old wolf; whom they followed and slew for want of better game, not without a desperate struggle, in which Elfric, ever the foremost, got a much worse scratch than on the preceding day.
But how enjoyable the sport was, how sweet to breathe the bright pure air of that May day; how grand to outstrip the wind over the yielding turf, and at last to carry home the trophies of their prowess; the scalp of the wolf, the tusks of the boar, leaving the serfs to bring in the succulent flesh of the latter, while the hawks and crows fed upon the former.
And then with what appetite they sat down to their "noon meat," taken, however, at the late hour of three, after which they wandered down to the river and angled for the trout which abounded in the clear stream.
The youthful reader will not wonder that such attractions sufficed to detain Edwy several days, during which he was continually hunting in the adjacent forests, always attended by Elfric, and sometimes by Alfred. To the elder brother he seemed to have conceived a real liking, and expressed great reluctance to part with him.
"Could you not return with me to court," he said, "and relieve the tedium of old Dunstan's society? You cannot think what pleasures London affords; it is life there indeed—it is true there are no forests like these, but then, in the winter, when the country is so dreary, the town is the place."
"My father will never consent to my leaving home," returned Elfric, who inwardly felt his heart was with the prince.
"We might overcome that. I am to have a page. You might be nominally my page, really my companion; and should I ever be king, you would find you had not served me in vain."
The idea had got such strong possession of the mind of Edwy, that he ventilated it the same night at the supper table, but met with scant encouragement. Still he did not despair; for, as he told Elfric, the influence of his royal uncle, King Edred, might be hopefully exerted on their joint behalf.
"I mean to get you to town," he said. "I shall persuade my old uncle, who is more a monk than a king, that you are dreadfully pious, attached to monkish Latin, and all that sort of thing, so that he will long to get you to town, if it is only to set an example to me."
"But if he does not find that I answer his expectations?"
"Oh, it will be too late to alter then; you will be comfortably installed in the palace; and, between you and me, he is but old and feeble, and has always had a disease of some kind. I expect he will soon die, and then who will be king save Edwy, and who in England shall be higher than his friend Elfric?"
It was a brilliant prospect, as it seemed to boys of fifteen, for such was the mature age of the speakers.
Shortly after the last conversation, an express came from the court to seek the young prince—the messenger had been long delayed from ignorance of the present abode of Edwy, who had carefully concealed the secret until he felt he could tarry no longer, fearing the wrath not only of the king, but of Dunstan, whom he dreaded yet more than his uncle.
So he and his attendants, who had, like him, found pleasant entertainment at Aescendune, bade farewell to the home where he had been so hospitably entertained: and so ended a visit, pregnant with the most important results, then utterly unforeseen and unintended, to the family he had honoured by his presence.
Some few weeks passed, and under the tuition of their chaplain, who was charged with their education, Elfric and Alfred had returned to their usual course of life.
It would seem somewhat a hard one to a lover of modern ease. They rose early, as we have already seen, and before breaking their fast went with their father and most of the household to the early mass at the monastery of St. Wilfred, returned to an early meal, and then worked hard, on ordinary occasions at their Latin, and such other studies as were pursued in that primitive age of England. The midday meal was succeeded by somewhat severe bodily exercise, generally hunting the boar or wolf which still abounded in the forests, an excitement not unattended by danger, which, however, their father would never permit them to shun. He knew full well the importance of personal courage at an age when the dangers of hunting were only initiatory to the stern duties of war, and no Englishman could shun the latter when his country called upon him to take up arms. Nor were martial exercises unknown to the boys; the bow, it is true, was somewhat neglected then in England, but the use of sword, shield, and battle-axe was daily inculcated.
"Si vis pacem," Father Cuthbert said on such occasions, "para arma."
Wearied by their exertions, whether at home or abroad, the brothers welcomed the evening social meal, and the rest which followed, when old Saxon legend or the harp of the gleeman enlivened the household fire, till compline sweetly closed the day.
Swiftly and pleasantly were passing the weeks succeeding the visit of the prince, when a royal messenger appeared, bearing a letter sealed with the king's signet. The old thane, who had passed his youth in more troublous times, and could scarcely read the Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospels, then extant, could not construe the monkish Latin in which it was King Edred's good pleasure to write.
So the chaplain, Cuthbert, read him the letter in which the king greeted his loyal and well-beloved subject, Ella of Aescendune, and begged of him, as a great favour, that he would send his eldest boy to court, to be the companion of the young prince, who had (the king said) conceived a great affection for Elfric.
"I hear," added Edred, "that your boy is a boy after his father's heart, full of love for the saints, diligent in his studies, and I trust well qualified to amend by example the somewhat giddy ways of my nephew."
Ella felt that this latter commendation might be better bestowed upon Alfred, who, although far less full of boyish spirit and energy than his brother, was far more attached to his religious duties, as also far more attentive to the wishes of his parents; but his love for Elfric blinded him to more serious defects in the character of his son, or he might have feared their development in a congenial soil.
So the father saw his boy alone, and communicated the contents of the letter. The news was indeed welcome to Elfric, who panted for travel and adventure and the freedom he fancied he should get in Edwy's society. But Ella hardly perceived this, and enlarged upon the dangers to which his son would be exposed, and tried to put before the boy all the "pros " and "cons" of the question faithfully.
"He would not keep him back," he said, "if he desired to leave home," but as he uttered the words he felt his heart very heavy, for Aescendune would lose half its brightness in losing Elfric.
But Elfric's choice was already made, and he only succeeded in repressing his delight with great difficulty, in deference to the serious aspect and words of his revered sire. But his decision, for it was left to him, was unchanged, and he stammered forth his desire to be a man, and to see the world, in words mingled with expressions of his deep love for his parents, which he was sure nothing could ever change.
Strange to say, now that the parental consent was gained, and no obstacle lay between him and the accomplishment of his ardent wish, he did not feel half so happy as he had expected to feel. Home affections seemed to increase as the hours rushed by which were to be his last in the bosom of his family; every familiar object became precious as the thought arose that it might be seen for the last time; favourites, both men and animals, had to be bidden farewell. There was the old forester, the gleeman, the warder, the gardener, the chamberlain, the cellarius, the cook (not an unimportant personage in Saxon households), the foster mother, his old nurse, and many a friend in the village. Then there were his favourite dogs, his pony, some pigeons he had reared; and all had some claim on his affection, home nurtured as he had been in a most kindly household.
But the appointed day came, the horse which was to bear him away stood at the door, another horse loaded with his personal effects stood near, for carriages were then unknown, neither would the roads have permitted their use, so changed were the times since the Roman period.
His father and mother, his brother and sister, stood without the drawbridge, where the last goodbye took place; tears started unbidden to his eyes—he was only fifteen—as he heard the parting blessing, and as his mother pressed him to her bosom.
Alfred and his sister Edith seemed almost broken hearted at the parting. But Elfric tried to bear up, and the end came.
The little cavalcade left the castle, two attendants, well armed and mounted, being his bodyguard.
Again and again he looked back; and when, after a journey of two miles, the envious woods closed in, and hid the dear familiar home from his sight, a strange sense of desolation rushed upon him, as if he were alone in the world.
The route taken by the cavalcade led them in the first place to Warwick, even then a flourishing Saxon town: this was the limit of Elfric's previous wanderings, and when they left it for the south, the whole country was strange to him.
The royal messenger had business at the cathedral city of Dorchester, at the junction of the Tame and Isis, and they did not take the more direct route by the Watling Street, the most perfect Roman road remaining. The land was but thinly peopled, forests covered the greater portion, and desolate marshes much of the remainder; thus, through alternate forest and marsh, the travellers advanced along the ruinous remains of an old Roman crossroad, which had once afforded good accommodation to travellers, but had been suffered to fall into utter ruin and decay by the neglect of their successors, our own barbarous ancestors.
Originally it had been paved with stone, and causeways had been formed over marsh and mere, but the stones had been taken away, for the road formed the most accessible quarry in the neighbourhood. Here and there, however, it was still good, surviving the wear of centuries, and even the old mileposts of iron were still existing covered with rust, with the letters denoting so many Roman miles—or thousands of paces— still legible.
A few hours' riding from Warwick brought them at the close of the day in sight of Beranbyrig (Banbury), where three centuries earlier a bloody battle had been fought, ǐ wherein success—almost for the last time —visited the British arms, and saved the Celtic race from expulsion for twenty years.
The spot was very interesting to Elfric, for here his ancestor Sebbald had fought by the side of the invading king, Cynric, the son of Cerdic, and had fallen "gloriously" on the field.
"Look," said Anlaf, the guide, "at that sloping ground which rises to the northwest. There the Welsh (Britons) stood, formed in nine strong battalions. In that hollow they placed their archers, and here their javelin men and cavalry were arranged after the old Roman fashion. Our Englishmen were all in one battalion, and charged them fiercely, when they were thrown into confusion by the cunning tricks of the Welsh, who made up in craft what they wanted in manly courage.
"Look at this brook which flows to the river, it was running with blood that evening, and our men lay piled in huge heaps where they tried to scale the hill which you see yonder."
"And did the Welsh gain the day so easily?" said Elfric, sorrowfully.
"I don't wonder; they were fighting for their lives, and even a rat will fight if you get him into a corner; besides, they had all their best men here."
"Do you know where Sebbald fell?" said Elfric, referring to his own ancestor.
"Just under this hillock, close by King Cynric, who fought like a lion to save the body, but was unable to do so. The Welsh were then gaining the day. Still, even his foes respected his valour, and gave your forefather a fair and honourable burial."
Leaving the battlefield, they entered the Saxon town, which was defended on one side by the Cherwell, on the other by a mound and palisade, with an outer ditch supplied by the river. Here they found hospitable entertainment, and left on the morrow for the town of Kirtlington.
They left Beranbyrig early, and reached the village of Sutthun (King's Sutton), where they perceived a great multitude of people collected around a well at the outskirts of the village.
"What are these people doing?" asked Elfric.
"Oh, do you not know?" replied Anlaf. "This is St. Rumbald's well," and he crossed himself piously.
"Who was St. Rumbald?" asked Elfric innocently.
"Oh, he was son of the king of Northumbria, and of his queen, the daughter of the old king Penda of Mercia, and the strange thing is that he is a saint although he only lived three days."
"How could that be?"
"Why it was a miracle, you see. On the day after his birth he was taken to Braceleam (Brackley), where he was baptized, and after his baptism he actually preached an eloquent sermon to the people. They brought him back to Sutthun next day, where he died, having first blessed this well, so that many precious gifts of healing are shown thereat. His relics were removed first to Braceleam, then to Buccingaham (Buckingham), where his shrine is venerated by the faithful. But come, you must drink of the holy water."
So they approached the spot, and, after much labour to get at the well, drank of the water, which had a brackish taste, and proceeded on their journey southward through Kirtlington, then a considerable city, although now a small village. It was their intention to pass by the cathedral city of Dorchester, where Wulfstan was then bishop, where they arrived on the second night of their journey.
It was the largest city Elfric had as yet seen, possessing several churches, of which only one now remains. The hand of the ruthless Danes had not yet been laid heavily upon it, and the magnificence of the sacred fanes, built by cunning architects from abroad, amazed the Mercian boy.
There was the tomb of the great Birinus, the apostle of Mercia, who had founded the see in the year 630 A.D., and to whose shrine multitudes of pilgrims flocked each year. But the remains of Roman greatness most astonished Elfric. The ruins of the amphitheatre situate near the river Tame were grand even in their decay, and all the imaginative faculties of the boy were aroused, as one of the most learned inhabitants described the scenes of former days, of which tradition had been preserved, the gladiatorial combats, the wild beast fights.
The heir of Aescendune found hospitality at the episcopal palace, where Wulfstan,[vii] once the turbulent Archbishop of York, held his court. The prelate seemed favourably impressed with his youthful guest, whom he dismissed with a warm commendation to Dunstan.
They left the city early in the morning, and passed through Baenesington (Benson), which having been originally taken from the Welsh by the Saxon chieftain Cuthulf, in the year 571, became the scene of the great victory of Offa, the Mercian king, over Cynewulf of Wessex in the year 777. One of Elfric's ancestors had fought on the side of Offa, and the exploits of this doughty warrior had formed the subject of a ballad often sung in the winter evenings at Aescendune, so that Elfric explored the scene with great curiosity. Inferior to Dorchester, it was still a considerable town.
Late at night they reached Reading, where they slept, and started early on the morrow for London, where they arrived on the evening of the fourth day.
CHAPTER IV. LONDON IN THE OLDEN TIME.
London, in the days of King Edred, differed widely from the stately and populous city we know in these days, and almost as widely from the elegant "Colonia Augusta," or Londinium, of the Roman period. Narrow, crooked, and unpaved lanes wound between houses, or rather lowly cottages, built of timber, and roofed with thatch, so that it is not wonderful that a conflagration was an event to be dreaded.
Evidence met the eye on every side how utterly the first Englishmen had failed to preserve the cities they had conquered, and how far inferior they were in cultivation, or rather civilisation, to the softer race they had so ruthlessly expelled; for on every side broken pedestal and shattered column appeared clumsily imbedded in the rude domestic architecture of our forefathers.
St. Paul's Cathedral rose on the hill once sacred to Diana but was wholly built within the ruins of the vast temple which had once occupied the site, and which, magnificent in decay, still surrounded it like an outwork. Further on were the wrecks of the citadel, where once the stern legionary had watched by day and night, and where Roman discipline and order had held sway, while the wall raised by Constantine, broken and imperfect, still rose on the banks of the river. Near the Ludgate was the palace of the Saxon king, and the ruins of an aqueduct overshadowed its humbler portal, while without the walls the river Fleet rolled, amidst vineyards and pleasant meadows dotted with houses, to join the mighty Thames.
Edred, the reigning king of England, was the brother of the murdered Edmund, and, in accordance with the custom of the day, had ascended the throne on the death of his brother, seeing that the two infant sons of the late king, Edwy and Edgar, were too young to reign, and the idea of hereditary right was not sufficiently developed in the minds of our forefathers to suggest the notion of a regency. It must also be remembered that, within certain limits, there was an elective power in the Witenagemot or Parliament, although generally limited in its scope to members of the royal family.
Edred was of very delicate constitution, and suffered from an inward disease which seldom allowed him an interval of rest and ease. Like so many sufferers he had found his consolation in religion, and the only crime ever laid to his charge (if it were a crime) was that he loved the Church too much. Still he had repeatedly proved that he was strong in purpose and will, and the insurgent Danes who had settled in Northumbria had owned his prowess. In the internal affairs of his kingdom he was chiefly governed by the advice of the great ecclesiastic and statesman, with whose name our readers will shortly become familiar.
Upon the morning after the arrival of Elfric in London, Edwy, the young prince, and his new companion, sat in a room on the upper floor of the palace, which had but two floors, and would have been considered in these days very deficient in architectural beauty.
The window of the room opened upon the river, and commanded a pleasant view of the woods and meadows on the Surrey side, then almost uninhabited, being completely unprotected in case of invasion, a contingency never long absent from the mind in the days of the sea kings.
A table covered with manuscripts, both in Latin and Anglo-Saxon, occupied the centre of the room, and there Elfric was seated, looking somewhat aimlessly at a Latin vocabulary, while Edwy was standing listlessly at the window. The "library," if it deserved the name, was very unlike a modern library; books were few, and yet very expensive, so that perhaps there was no fuller collection in any layman's house in the kingdom. There were Alfred's translations into Anglo-Saxon, the "Chronicle of Orosius," or the history of the World; the "History of the Venerable Bede," both in his original Latin and in English; Boethius on the "Consolations of Philosophy;" narratives from ancient mythology; extracts from the works of St. Augustine and St. Gregory; and the Apologues or Fables from Aesop.[viii]
"Oh, put those stupid books aside," exclaimed the prince; "this is your first day in town, and I mean to take a holiday; that surly old Dunstan should have left word to that effect last night."
"Will he not be here soon?"
"Yes, he is coming this morning, the old bear, to superintend my progress, and I wish him joy thereof."
"What has he given you to do?" inquired Elfric.
"Why, a wretched exercise to write out. There, you see it before you; isn't it a nuisance?"
"It is not very hard, is it?"
"Don't you think it hard? See whether you can do it!"
Elfric smiled, and wrote out the simple Latin with ease, for he had been well instructed by Father Cuthbert at Aescendune.
He had scarcely finished when a firm step was heard upon the stairs.
"Hush," said Edwy; "here comes Dunstan. Be sure you look solemn enough," and he composed his own countenance into an expression of preternatural gravity.
The door opened, and an ecclesiastic in the prime of life entered the room, one whose mien impressed the beholder with an indefinable awe.
He was dressed in the Benedictine habit, just then becoming common in England, and his features were those of a man formed by nature to command, while they reconciled the beholder to the admission of the fact by the sad yet sweet smile which frequently played on the shapely countenance. He was now in the thirtieth year of his age, having been born in the first year of King Athelstane, and had been abbot of Glastonbury for several years, although his services as counsellor to King Edred had led him to spend much of his time in town, and he had therefore accepted the general direction of the education of the heir to the throne. Such was Dunstan.
He seemed but little welcome to Edwy, and the benediction with which he greeted his pupil was but coldly received.
Not appearing to notice this, he mildly said, "You must introduce your young companion to me, my prince. Am I not right in concluding that I see before me Elfric, heir to the lands of Aescendune?"
Elfric blushed as he bent the knee to the great churchman to receive the priestly benediction with which he was greeted, but remained silent.
"Father Cuthbert, whom I knew well years agone, has told me about you, and your brother Alfred; is not that his name?"
"He is so named, my father."
"I am glad to perceive that my royal pupil has chosen so meet a companion, for Father Cuthbert speaks well of your learning. You write the Latin tongue, he tells me, with some little facility."
Elfric feared his powers had been overrated.
"I trust you have resumed your studies after your long holiday," continued Dunstan. "Youth is the season for sowing, age for reaping."
"I have had a very bad headache," said Edwy, "and have only been able to write a page of Latin. Here it is, father."
And he extended the exercise Elfric had written to the abbot, who looked at the writing for one moment, and then glanced severely at the prince. The character was very like his own, but there was a difference.
"Is this your handwriting, Prince Edwy?" he asked.
"Of course. Elfric saw me write it, did you not?"
Elfric was not used to falsehood; he could not frame his lips to say "Yes."
Dunstan observed his confusion, and he turned to the prince with a look in which contempt seemed to struggle with passive self-possession.
"I trust, Edwy," he said, "you will remember that the word of a king is said to be his bond, and so should the word of a prince be if he ever hopes to reign. I shall give Father Benedict charge to superintend your studies as usual."
He wished them a grave good morning, and left the room.
As soon as the last sound of his steps had ceased, Edwy turned sharply to Elfric—"Why did you not say yes at once? Surely you have a tongue?"
"It has never learnt to lie."
"Pooh! What is the harm of such a white lie as that would have been? If you cannot give the credit of a Latin exercise, which you happen to have written, to your future king, you must be selfish; it is my writing, if you give it me, isn't it?"
Elfric did not quite see the matter in that light, yet did not care to dispute the point; but his conscience was ill at ease, and he was glad to change the subject.
"When can we go out?" he said, for he was anxious to see the city.
"Oh, not till after the midday meal, and you must see the palace first; come now."
So they descended and traversed the various courts of the building; the dormitories, the great dining hall, the audience chambers where Edred was then receiving his subjects, who waited in the anteroom, which alone the two boys ventured to enter. Finally, after traversing several courts and passages, they reached the guardroom.
Three or four of the "hus-carles" or household guards were here on duty. But in the embrasure of the window, poring over a map, sat one of very different mien from the common soldiers, and whose air and manner, no less than his dress, proclaimed the officer.
"Redwald," said the prince, advancing to the window, "let me make you acquainted with my friend and companion, Elfric of Aescendune."
The officer started, as if with some sudden surprise, but it passed away so quickly that the beholder might fancy the start had only existed in imagination, as perhaps it did.
"This gallant warrior," said Edwy to Elfric, "is my friend and counsellor in many ways; and if he lives there shall not be a thane in England who shall stand above him. You will soon find out his value, Elfric."
"My prince is pleased to flatter his humble servant," said Redwald.
But Elfric was gazing upon the soldier with feelings he could scarcely analyse. There was something in his look and the tone of his voice which struck a hidden chord, and awoke recollections as if of a previous existence.
"Redwald," as Edwy named him, was tall and dark, with many of the characteristics of the Danish race about him. His nose was slightly aquiline, his eyes hid beneath bushy eyebrows, while his massive jaw denoted energy of character—energy which one instinctively felt was quite as likely to be exerted for evil as for good.
He was captain of the hus-carles, and had but recently entered the royal service. Few knew his lineage. He spoke the Anglo-Saxon tongue with great fluency, and bore testimonials certifying his valour and faithfulness from the court of Normandy, where the Northmen under Rollo had some half-century earlier founded a flourishing state, then ruled over by the noble Duke "Richard the Fearless."
Edwy seemed to be on intimate terms with this soldier of fortune; in fact, with all his proud anticipation of his future greatness, he was never haughty to his inferiors, perhaps we should say seldom, for we shall hereafter note exceptions to this rule. It would be a great mistake to suppose that the pomp and ceremony of our Norman kings was shared by their English predecessors: the manners and customs of the court of Edred were simplicity itself.
After a few moments of private conversation with Redwald, the boys returned to their chamber to prepare for dinner.
"You noted that man," said Edwy; "well, I don't know how I should live without him."
Elfric's looks expressed surprise.
"You will find out by and by; you have little idea how strictly we are kept here, and how much one is indebted to one's servants for the gift of liberty, especially in Lent and on fast days, when one does not get half enough to eat, and must sometimes escape the gloom and starvation of the palace."
"What else do you call it, when you get nothing but fish, fish, fish, and bread and water to help it down. My uncle is awfully religious. I can hardly stand it sometimes. He would like to spend half the day in chapel, but, happily for all the rest of us, the affairs of state are too urgent for that, so we do get a little breathing time, or else I should have to twist my mouth all of one side singing dolorous chants and tunes which are worse than a Danish war whoop, for he likes, he says, to hear the service hearty."
"But it helps you on with your Latin."
"Not much of that, for I sing anything that comes into my head; the singing men make such a noise, they can hear no one else, and I fancy they don't know what a word of the Latin prayers means."
"But isn't it irreverent—too irreverent, I mean. Father Cuthbert made me afraid to mock God, he told such stories about judgment."
"All fudge and nonsense—oh, I beg your pardon, it is all very godly and pious, and really I expect to be greatly edified by your piety in chapel. Pray, when shall you be canonised?"
Elfric could not bear ridicule, and blushed for the second time that morning. Just then the bell rang for dinner, or rather was struck with a mallet by the master of the ceremonies.
King Edred dined that day, as one might say, in the bosom of his family; only Dunstan was present, besides the boys Edwy, Edgar his younger brother, and Elfric. It was then that Elfric first saw the younger prince, a pale studious-looking boy of twelve, but with a very firm and intellectual expression of countenance. He was a great favourite with Dunstan, whom the boy, unlike his brother, regarded with the greatest respect and reverence.
The conversation was somewhat stiff; Edred spoke a few kind words to the young stranger, and then conversed in an undertone with Dunstan, the whole dinner time; the princes themselves were awed by the presence of their uncle and his spiritual guide.
But at last, like all other things, it was over, and with feelings of joy the boys broke forth from the restraint. The whole afternoon was spent in seeing the sights of London, and they all three, for Edgar accompanied them, returned to the evening meal, fatigued in body, but in high spirits. Compline in the royal chapel terminated the day, as mass had begun it.
CHAPTER V. TEMPTATION.
But a few days had passed before Elfric learned the secret of Redwald's influence over the young prince.
The household of Edred was conducted with the strictest propriety.[ix] All rose with the lark, and the first duty was to attend at the early mass in the royal chapel. Breakfast followed, and then the king on ordinary days gave the whole forenoon to business of state, and he thought it his duty to see that each member of the royal household had some definite employment, knowing that idleness was the mother of many evils. So the young princes had their tasks assigned them by their tutor, as we have already seen, and the spare hours which were saved from their studies were given to such practice in the use of the national weapons as seemed necessary to those who might hereafter lead armies, or to gymnastic exercises which strengthened nerve and muscle for a time of need.
In the afternoon they might ride or walk abroad, but a strict interdict was placed upon certain haunts where temptation might perchance be found, and they had to return by evensong, which the king generally attended in person when at home. Then, in winter, indoor recreations till compline, for it was a strict rule of the king that his nephews should not leave the palace after sundown.
He further caused their tutor, who directed their education under the supervision of Dunstan—Father Benedict—whom we have already introduced, to see that they properly discharged all the duties of public and private devotion.
But he did not see, in the excess of his zeal, that he was really destroying the prospects which were nearest his heart, and that there can be no more fatal mistake than to compel the performance of religious duties which exceed the measure of the youthful capacity or endurance.
With Edgar, who was naturally pious, the system produced no evil result; but with Edwy the effect was most sad. He had become, as we have seen, deceitful; and a character, naturally fair, was undermined to an extent which neither the king nor Dunstan suspected.
The reader may naturally ask how could Dunstan, so astute as he was, make this mistake, or at least suffer Edred to make it?
The fact was that Dunstan understood the affairs of state better than those of the heart, and although well fitted for a guide to men of sincere piety, and capable of opposing to the wicked an iron will and inflexible resolution, he did not understand the young, and seemed to have forgotten his own youth. Sincerely truthful and straightforward, he hardly knew whether to feel more disgust or surprise at Edwy's evident unfaithfulness. He little knew that unfaithfulness was only one of his failings, and not the worst.
A few nights after Elfric's arrival, when the palace gates had been shut for the night, the compline service said, the household guard posted, and the boys had retired to their sleeping apartments, he heard a low knock at his door. He opened it, and Edwy entered.
"Are you disposed for a pleasant evening, Elfric?"
"Such pleasure as there is in sleep."
"No, I do not mean that. We cannot sleep, like bears in winter, during all the hours which should be given to mirth. I am going out this evening, and I want you to go with me."
"Yes. Don't stand staring there, as if I was talking Latin or something harder; but get your shoes on again—
"No; you had better come down without shoes; it will make less noise."
"But how can we get out? I have not the least idea where you are going?"
"All in good time. We shall get out easily enough. Are you coming?"
Half fearful, yet not liking to resist the prince, and his curiosity pressing him to solve the secret, Elfric followed Edwy down the stairs to the lower hall, where Redwald was on guard. He seemed to await the lads, for he bowed at once to the prince and proceeded to the outer door, where, at an imperious signal from him, the warder threw the little inner portal open, and the three passed out.
"Is the boat ready?" said Edwy.
"It is; and trusty rowers await you."
Redwald led the way to the river's brink, and there pointed out a skiff lying at a short distance from the shore. At a signal, the men who manned it pulled in and received the two youths on board, then pulled at once out into the stream.
"How do you like an evening on the river?" said Edwy.
"It is very beautiful, and the stars are very bright tonight; but where are we going?"
"You will soon find out."
Finding his royal companion so uncommunicative, Elfric remained silent, trusting that a few minutes would unravel the mystery.
But an hour had passed, during which the boat steadily progressed up stream, before the watermen pulled in for the shore, and a dark building loomed before them in dim shadow.
"Here is the place," said Edwy. "Be ready, my men, to take us back about midnight, or a little later;" and he threw some pieces of money amongst them.
Passing through a large garden, they arrived at a porch before a stout door garnished with knobs of iron, which might bid defiance to thief or burglar.
"Whose house is this?" asked Elfric.
"Wait; you shall soon see."
The loud knocking Edwy made at the door soon brought some domestics, who, opening a small wicket, discovered the identity of their principal visitor, and immediately threw open the door.
"Thanks," said Edwy; "we were almost frozen."
Passing through a kind of atrium—for the old Roman fashion was still sometimes followed in this particular—the domestics ushered the visitors into a room brilliantly lighted by torches stuck in cressets projecting from the walls, and by huge wax candles upon a table spread for a feast. The light revealed a small but apparently select party, who seemed to await the prince: a lady, who appeared to be the mistress of the mansion; a young girl apparently about the age of Edwy, who, calling her his fair cousin, saluted her fondly; and two or three youths, whose gaudy dress and affected manners were strongly in contrast with the stern simplicity of the times.
After saluting each person with the greatest freedom, Edwy introduced his companion.
"Here is a young novice I have brought to learn the noble art of merrymaking, of wine and wassail. We have both been literally starved at the palace—I should say monastery—of Monk Edred today. It is Friday, and we have been splendidly dining upon salt fish served up on golden salvers. My goodness! the flavour of that precious cod is yet in my mouth. Food for cats, I do assure you, and served up to kings. What did you think of it, Elfric?"
Elfric was ashamed to say that it had not been so very bad after all. Truth to say his conscience was uneasy, for he had been brought up to respect the fasts of the Church, and he saw a trial awaiting him in the luscious dishes before him.
"What does it matter?" the reader may exclaim; "it is not that which goeth into the mouth which defileth a man," etc.
True, most wise critic, but it is that which goeth out; and if disobedience be not amongst the evils which defile, then Adam did not fall in Paradise when he ate the forbidden fruit. Elfric could not touch flesh on fast days without the instinctive feeling that he was doing wrong, and no one can sin against the conviction of the heart without danger.
The party now seated themselves, and without any grace or further preface the feast began. Servants appeared and served up the most exquisite dishes, of a delicacy almost unknown in England at that day, and poured rich wines into silver goblets. It was evident that wealth abounded in the family they were visiting, and that they had expended it freely for the gratification of Edwy.
Ethelgiva, the lady of the house, was of noble presence, which almost seemed to justify the claim of royal blood which was made for her. Tall and commanding, age had not bent her form, although her locks were already white. Her beauty, which must have been marvellous in her younger days, had attracted the attention of a younger son of the reigning house, and they were married at an early age, secretly, without the sanction of the king.
The fruit of their union was Elgiva, a name destined to fill a place in a sad and painful tragedy; but we are anticipating, and must crave the reader's pardon.
Bright and cheerful indeed was the fair Elgiva at this moment. Her beauty was remarkable even in a land so famed for the beauty of its daughters; and the ill-advised Edwy may be pitied, if not altogether pardoned, for his infatuation, for infatuation it was in a day when the near tie of blood between them precluded the possibility of lawful matrimony, save at the expense of a dispensation never likely to be conceded, since the temperament of men like Odo, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of Dunstan, was opposed to any relaxation of the law in the case of the great when such relaxation was unattainable by the poor and lowly.
To return to our subject:
The feast proceeded with great animation. At first Elfric hesitated when the meat was placed before him, but he withered, in his weakness, before the mocking smile of Edwy, and the sarcasm which played upon the lips of the rest of the company, who perceived his hesitation. So he yielded, and, shaking off all restraint, ate heartily.
Dish followed dish, and the wine cup circulated with great freedom. Excited as he was, Elfric could but remark the loose tone of the conversation. Subjects were freely discussed which had never found admittance either in the palace of King Edred or at Aescendune, and which, indeed, caused him to look up with surprise, remembering in whose presence he sat.
But, as is often the case in an age where opinion is severely repressed in its outward expression, and amongst those compelled against their will to observe silence on such subjects on ordinary occasions, all restraint seemed abandoned at the table of Ethelgiva. It was not that the language was coarse, but whether the conversation turned upon the restraints of the clergy, or the court, or upon the fashionable frivolities of the day—for there were frivolities and fashions even in that primitive age—there was a freedom of expression bordering upon profanity or licentiousness.
Edred was mocked as an old babbler; Dunstan was sometimes a fool, sometimes a hypocrite, sometimes even a sorcerer, although this was said sneeringly; the clergy were divided into fools and knaves; the claims of the Church—that is of Christianity—derided, and the principle freely avowed—"Enjoy life while you can, for you know not what may come after."
Excited by the wine he had drunk, Elfric became as wild in his talk as the other young men, and as the intoxicating drink mounted to his brain, seemed to think that he had just learnt how to enjoy life.
The ladies retired at last, and Edwy followed them. Elfric was on the point of rising too, but a hint from his companions restrained him. The wine cup still circulated, the conversation, now unrestrained, initiated the boy into many an evil secret he had never known earlier; and so the hours passed on, till Edwy, himself much flushed, came in and said that it was time to depart, for midnight had long been tolled from the distant towers of London.
He smiled as he saw by Elfric's bloodshot eyes and unsteady gait, as he rose, upsetting his seat, that his companion was something less master of himself than usual; he felt, it need hardly be said, no remorse, but rather regarded the whole thing as what might now be termed "a jolly lark."
"Shall you require bearers, or can you walk to the boat? I do not wonder you are ill, you have eaten too much fish today; it is a shame to make the knees weak through fasting in this style."
"I—I—am all right now."
"You will be better in the air."
So, bidding a farewell of somewhat doubtful character to his entertainers, Elfric was assisted to the boat. The air did not revive him, he felt wretchedly feverish and giddy, and could hardly tell how he reached the river.
Reach it, however, he did, and the strong arms of the watermen impelled the boat rapidly down the tide, until it reached the stairs near the palace.
Here Redwald was in waiting, and assisted them to land.
"You are very late, or rather early," he said.
"Yes," said Edwy, "but it has been a jolly evening, only poor Elfric has been ill, having of course weakened himself by fasting."
Redwald smiled such a scornful smile, and muttered some words to himself. Yet it did not seem as if he were altogether displeased at the state in which he saw Elfric. It may be added that Edwy was but little better.
"You must keep silent," said Redwald; "I believe the king and Dunstan are hearing matins in the chapel: it is the festival of some saint or other, who went to the gridiron in olden days."
The outer gate of the palace was cautiously opened, and, taking off their shoes, the youths ascended the stairs which led to their apartments as lightly as possible.
"Send the leech Sigebert to us in the morning—he must report Elfric unwell—for he will hardly get up to hear Dunstan mumble mass."
"Perhaps your royal highness had better rest also."
"And bring suspicion upon us both? No," said Edwy, "one will be enough to report ill at once; Dunstan is an old fox."
Poor Elfric could hardly get to bed, and, almost for the first time since infancy, he laid himself down without one prayer. Edwy left him in the dark, and there he lay, his head throbbing, and a burning thirst seeming to consume him.
Long before morning he was very sick, and when the bell was sounded for the early mass it need hardly be said that he was unable to rise.
Sigebert the physician, who, like Redwald, was in the confidence of the future king, Edwy, came in to see him, and asked what was the matter.
"I am very sick and ill," gasped Elfric.
"I suppose you have taken something that disagreed with you—too much fish perhaps." (with a smile).
"No—no—I do not—"
"I understand," said the leech; "you will soon be better; meanwhile, I will account for your absence at chapel. Here, take this medicine; you will find it relieve you."
And he gave Elfric a mixture which assuaged his burning thirst, and bathed his forehead with some powerful essence which refreshed him greatly, whereupon the leech departed.
Only an hour later, and Edred, hearing from the physician of Elfric's sudden illness, came in to see the boy, whose bright cheerful face and merry disposition had greatly attracted him. This was hardest of all for Elfric to bear; he had to evade the kind questions of the king, and to hear expressions of sympathy which he felt he did not deserve.
More than once he felt inclined to tell all, but the fear of the prince restrained him, and also a sense of what he thought honour, for he would not betray his companion, and he could not confess his own guilt without implicating Edwy.
Poor boy! it would have been far better for him had he done so: he had taken his first step downward.
CHAPTER VI. LOWER AND LOWER.
It becomes our painful duty to record that from the date of the feast, described in our last chapter, the character of poor Elfric underwent rapid deterioration. In the first place, the fact of his having yielded to the forbidden indulgence, and—as he felt—disgraced himself, gave Edwy, as the master of the secret, great power over him, and he never failed to use this power whenever he saw any inclination on the part of his vassal to throw off the servitude. It was not that he deliberately intended to injure Elfric, but he had come to regard virtue as either weakness or hypocrisy, at least such virtues as temperance, purity, or self restraint.
The great change which was creeping over Elfric became visible to others: he seemed to lose his bright smile; the look of boyish innocence faded from his countenance, and gave place to an expression of sullen reserve; he showed less ardour in all his sports and pastimes, became subject to fits of melancholy, and often seemed lost in thought, anxious thought, in the midst of his studies.
He seldom had the power, even if the will, to communicate with home. Mercia was in many respects an independent state, subject to the same king, but governed by a code of laws differing from those of Wessex; and it was only when a royal messenger or some chance traveller left court for the banks of the Midland Avon, that Elfric could use the art of writing, a knowledge he was singular in possessing, thanks to the wisdom of his sire.
So the home authorities knew little of the absent one, for whom they offered up many a fervent prayer, and of whom they constantly spoke and thought. And yet, so mysterious are the ways of Providence, it seemed as if these prayers were unanswered—seemed indeed, yet they were not forgotten before God.
Seemed forgotten; for Elfric was rapidly becoming reckless. Many subsequent scenes of indulgence had followed the first one, and other haunts, residences of licentious young nobles, or taverns, had been sought out by the youths, and always by Redwald's connivance.
He was Edwy's evil genius, and always seemed at hand whensoever the prince sought occasion to sin. Still, he was not at all suspected by Edred, before whom he kept up an appearance of the strictest morality— always punctual in his attendance at mass, matins, and evensong, and with a various stock of phrases of pious import ready at tongue in case of need or opportunity of using them to advantage.
To Elfric, his behaviour was always reserved, yet he seemed even more ready to lend him a helping hand downward than did the prince.
So time passed on; weeks became months; and Christmas with all its hallowed associations had passed; it had been Elfric's first Christmas away from home, and he was sad at heart, in spite of the boisterous merriment of his companions. The spring of the year 955 came on, and Lent drew near, a season to which Edwy looked forward with great dread, for, as he said, there would be nothing in the whole palace to eat until Easter, and he could not even hope to bribe the cook.
The canons of the church required all persons to make confession, and so enter upon the fast tide, having "thus purified their minds;" [x] it may, alas! be easily guessed how the guilty lads performed this duty, how enforced confession only led to their adding the sin of further deceit, and that of a deadly kind.
Thus they entered upon Lent: their abstinence was entirely compulsory, not voluntary; and although they made up for it in some degree when they could get away from the palace, yet even this was difficult, for it was positively unlawful for butchers to sell or for people to buy meat at the prohibited seasons, and the law was not easily evaded. But it was a prayerless Lent also to Elfric, for he had, alas! even discontinued his habit of daily prayer, a habit he had hitherto maintained from childhood, a habit first learned at his mother's knee.
Holy Week came, and was spent with great strictness; the king seemed to divide his whole time between the business of state and the duties of religion.
Dunstan was absent at Glastonbury, but other ecclesiastics thronged the palace, and there were few, save the guilty boys and Redwald, who seemed uninfluenced by the solemn commemoration.
But it must not be supposed that Elfric was wholly uninfluenced: after the preaching of the Passion by a poor simple monk on Good Friday, he retired to his own little room, where he wept as if his heart would break. Had Dunstan been then in town, the whole story would have been told, and much misery saved, for Elfric felt he could trust him if he could trust anybody; but unhappily Dunstan was, as we have seen, keeping Passiontide at his abbey.
Still, Elfric felt he must tell all, and submit to the advice and penance which might be imposed; and as he sat weeping over his sin that Good Friday night, with the thought that he might find pardon and peace through the Great Sacrifice so touchingly pleaded that day, he felt that the first step to amendment must lie in a full and frank confession of all; he knew he should grievously offend Edwy, and that he should lose the favour of his future king, but he could not help it.
"Why, oh why did I leave Aescendune, dear Aescendune?—fool that I was —I will go back."
And a sweet desire of home and kindred rose up before him—of his father's loving welcome, his fond mother's chaste kiss, and of the dear old woods and waters—the hallowed associations of his home life. He rose up to seek Father Benedict, determined to enter upon the path of peace at any cost, when Edwy entered.
He did not see in the gathering darkness the traces of emotion visible on poor Elfric's countenance, and he began in his usual careless way— "How are you, Elfric, my boy; glad Lent is nearly over? What a dismal time that wretched monk preached this morning!"
"Edwy, I am utterly miserable: I must tell all; I cannot live like this any longer."
"What a burst of penitence! go to confession; to be sure it looks well, and if one can only manage to get out a few tears they account him a saint; tell me the receipt."
"But, Edwy, I must tell all!"
"Not if you are wise."
"Why not? It is all in secrecy."
"No it is not; you will be required as a penance to go and tell the king all that we have done; you may do so, and I will manage to represent matters so as to throw the whole blame on you; you will be sent home in disgrace."
Poor Elfric hung down his head; the thought of his disgrace reaching home had not occurred to him.
"Come," said Edwy, "I don't want to be hard upon you. Cheer up, my man. What have you done amiss? Only enjoyed yourself as nature has guided you. Why should you think God meant us to pass through life like those miserable shavelings Edred delights to honour? Cheer up, Elfric; your bright face was never meant for that of a hypocrite. If you are so dreadfully bad, you are in a pretty numerous company; and I don't think the shavelings believe their own tales about fire and torment hereafter. They are merry enough, considering."
In short, poor Elfric's short-lived penitence was given to the winds. Edwy went alone to be shriven on the morrow.
On Easter Day they both received the Holy Communion in the royal chapel.
From that time remorse ceased to visit the heir of Aescendune, as if he had at last quenched the Spirit, and he became so utterly wild and reckless, that at last Dunstan thought it necessary to speak to him privately on the subject. It was nearly six months after Easter.
The boy entered the study set apart for the use of the great monk and statesman with a palpitating heart, but he managed to repress its beatings, and put on a perfectly unconcerned expression of countenance. He had gained in self control if in nothing else.