WULF THE SAXON
A Story of the Norman Conquest
By G. A. HENTY
Although the immediate results of the Battle of Hastings may have been of less importance to the world than were those of some other great battles, the struggle has, in the long run, had a greater influence upon the destiny of mankind than any other similar event that has ever taken place. That admixture of Saxon, Danish, and British races which had come to be known under the general name of English, was in most respects far behind the rest of Europe. The island was, as it had always been,—except during the rule of two or three exceptionally strong kings,—distracted by internal dissensions. Broad lines of division still separated the North from the South, and under weak Kings the powerful Earls became almost independent. The enterprise that had distinguished their Saxon and Danish ancestors seems to have died out. There was a general indisposition to change, and except in her ecclesiastical buildings, England made but little progress in civilization from the time of Alfred to that of Harold. Its insular position cut it off from taking part in that rapid advance which, beginning in Italy, was extending throughout Europe. The arrival, however, of the impetuous Norman race, securing as it did a close connection with the Continent, quickened the intellect of the people, raised their intelligence, was of inestimable benefit to the English, and played a most important part in raising England among the nations. Moreover, it has helped to produce the race that has peopled Northern America, Australia, and the south of Africa, holds possession of India, and stands forth as the greatest civilizer in the world. The Conquest of England by the Normans was achieved without even a shadow of right or justice. It was at the time an unmixed curse to England; but now we can recognize the enormous benefits that accrued when in his turn the Englishman conquered the Norman, and the foreign invaders became an integral portion of the people they had overcome. For the historical details of the story, I have only had to go to Freeman's magnificent History of the Norman Conquest of England, which I hope will be perused by all of my readers who are able to obtain it.
G. A. HENTY
I. A QUARREL
II. COUNTRY LIFE
III. AT COURT
IV. A STORM
VI. RELEASE OF THE EARL
VII. THE OATH
VIII. TROUBLE WITH WALES
IX. IN THE WELSH VALLEYS
XI. THE SECRET PASSAGE
XIII. HAROLD, THE KING
XIV. WULF'S SUSPICIONS
XV. A MEETING BY THE RIVER
XVI. A VOYAGE NORTH
XVII. AN ATTEMPT AT ASSASSINATION
XVIII. THE NORTHERN INVASION
XIX. STAMFORD BRIDGE
XX. THE LANDING OF THE FOE
XXII. THE LORD OF BRAMBER
THE LAST STAND AT HASTINGS
THE YOUNG THANE COMES BACK TO STEYNING
WULF AND HIS FOLLOWERS STORM LLEWELLYN'S STRONGHOLD
WULF LEAPT FORWARD AND CAUGHT THE UPLIFTED WRIST
WULF THE SAXON.
The great Abbey of Westminster was approaching its completion; an army of masons and labourers swarmed like bees upon and around it, and although differing widely in its massive architecture, with round Saxon windows and arches, from the edifice that was two or three generations later to be reared in its place,—to serve as a still more fitting tomb for the ashes of its pious founder,—it was a stately abbey, rivalling the most famous of the English fanes of the period.
From his palace hard by King Edward had watched with the deepest interest the erection of the minster that was the dearest object of his life. The King was surrounded by Normans, the people among whom he had lived until called from his retirement to ascend the throne of England, and whom he loved far better than those over whom he reigned. He himself still lived almost the life of a recluse. He was sincerely anxious for the good of his people, but took small pains to ensure it, his life being largely passed in religious devotions, and in watching over the rise of the abbey he had founded.
A town had risen around minster and palace, and here the workmen employed found their lodgings, while craftsmen of all descriptions administered to the wants both of these and of the nobles of Edward's court.
From one of the side doors of the palace a page, some fifteen or sixteen years of age, ran down the steps in haste. He was evidently a Saxon by his fair hair and fresh complexion, and any observer of the time would have seen that he must, therefore, be in the employment of Earl Harold, the great minister, who had for many years virtually ruled England in the name of its king.
The young page was strongly and sturdily built. His garb was an English one, but with some admixture of Norman fashions. He wore tightly-fitting leg coverings, a garment somewhat resembling a blouse of blue cloth girded in by a belt at the waist, and falling in folds to the knee. Over his shoulders hung a short mantle of orange colour with a hood. On his head was a cap with a wide brim that was turned up closely behind, and projected in a pointed shovel shape in front. In his belt was a small dagger. He wore shoes of light yellow leather fastened by bands over the insteps. As he ran down the steps of the palace he came into sharp contact with another page who had just turned the corner of the street.
"I crave your pardon, Walter Fitz-Urse," he said hurriedly, "but I was in haste and saw you not."
The other lad was as clearly Norman as the speaker was Saxon. He was perhaps a year the senior in point of age, and taller by half a head, but was of slighter build. The expression of his face differed as widely from that of the Saxon as did his swarthy complexion and dark hair, for while the latter face wore a frank and pleasant expression, that of the Norman was haughty and arrogant.
"You did it on purpose," he said angrily, "and were we not under the shadow of the palace I would chastise you as you deserve."
The smile died suddenly out from the Saxon's face. "Chastise me!" he repeated. "You would find it somewhat difficult, Master Fitz-Urse. Do you think you are talking to a Norman serf? You will please to remember you are in England; but if you are not satisfied with my apology, I will ride with you a few miles into the country, and we will then try with equal arms where the chastisement is to fall."
The Norman put his hand to his dagger, but there was an ominous growl from some men who had paused to listen to the quarrel.
"You are an insolent boor, Wulf of Steyning, and some day I will punish you as you deserve."
"Some day," the Saxon laughed, "we shall, I hope, see you and all your tribe sent across the Channel. There are few of us here who would not see your backs with pleasure."
"What is this?" an imperious voice demanded; and turning round, Wulf saw William, the Norman Bishop of London, who, followed by several monks and pages, had pushed his way through the crowd. "Walter Fitz-Urse, what means this altercation?"
"The Saxon ran against me of set purpose, my lord," Walter Fitz-Urse said, in tones of deep humility, "and because I complained he challenged me to ride with him into the country to fight, and then he said he hoped that some day all the Normans would be sent across the Channel."
"Is this so?" the prelate said sternly to Wulf; "did you thus insult not only my page, but all of us, his countrymen?"
"I ran against him by accident," Wulf said, looking up fearlessly in the prelate's face. "I apologized, though I know not that I was more in fault than he; but instead of taking my apology as one of gentle blood should do, he spoke like a churl, and threatened me with chastisement, and then I did say that I hoped he and all other Normans in the land would some day be packed across the Channel."
"Your ears ought to be slit as an insolent varlet."
"I meant no insolence, my Lord Bishop; and as to the slitting of my ears, I fancy Earl Harold, my master, would have something to say on that score."
The prelate was about to reply, but glancing at the angry faces of the growing crowd, he said coldly:
"I shall lay the matter before him. Come, Walter, enough of this. You are also somewhat to blame for not having received more courteously the apologies of this saucy page."
The crowd fell back with angry mutterings as he turned, and, followed by Walter Fitz-Urse and the ecclesiastics, made his way along the street to the principal entrance of the palace. Without waiting to watch his departure, Wulf, the Saxon page, pushed his way through the crowd, and went off at full speed to carry the message with which he had been charged.
"Our king is a good king," a squarely-built man,—whose bare arms with the knotted muscles showing through the skin, and hands begrimed with charcoal, indicated that he was a smith,—remarked to a gossip as the little crowd broke up, "but it is a grievous pity that he was brought up a Norman, still more that he was not left in peace to pass his life as a monk as he desired. He fills the land with his Normans; soon as an English bishop dies, straightway a Norman is clapped into his place. All the offices at court are filled with them, and it is seldom a word of honest English is spoken in the palace. The Norman castles are rising over the land, and his favourites divide among them the territory of every English earl or thane who incurs the king's displeasure. Were it not for Earl Harold, one might as well be under Norman sway altogether."
"Nay, nay, neighbour Ulred, matters are not so bad as that. I dare say they would have been as you say had it not been for Earl Godwin and his sons. But it was a great check that Godwin gave them when he returned after his banishment, and the Norman bishops and nobles hurried across the seas in a panic. For years now the king has left all matters in the hands of Harold, and is well content if only he can fast and pray like any monk, and give all his thoughts and treasure to the building of yonder abbey."
"We want neither a monk nor a Norman over us," the smith said roughly, "still less one who is both Norman and monk I would rather have a Dane, like Canute, who was a strong man and a firm one, than this king, who, I doubt not, is full of good intentions, and is a holy and pious monarch, but who is not strong enough for a ruler. He leaves it to another to preserve England in peace, to keep in order the great Earls of Mercia and the North, to hold the land against Harold of Norway, Sweyn, and others, and, above all, to watch the Normans across the water. A monk is well enough in a convent, but truly 'tis bad for a country to have a monk as its king."
"There have been some war-loving prelates, Ulred; men as ambitious as any of the great earls, and more dangerous, because they have learning."
"Ay, there have been great prelates," the smith agreed. "Look at Lyfing of Worcester, to whom next only to Godwin the king owed his throne. He was an Englishman first and a bishop afterwards, and was a proof, if needed, that a man can be a great churchman and a great patriot and statesman too. It was he rather than Godwin who overcame the opposition of the Danish party, and got the Witan at last to acquiesce in the choice of London and Wessex, and to give their vote to Edward.
"Well was it he did so. For had he failed we should have had as great a struggle in England as when Alfred battled against the Danes. We of London and the men of Wessex under the great Earl were bent upon being ruled by a prince of our own blood. The last two Danish kings had shown us that anything is better than being governed by the Northmen. It was Lyfing who persuaded the Earl of Mercia to side with Wessex rather than with Northumbria, but since Lyfing, what great Englishman have we had in the church? Every bishopric was granted by Edward to Norman priests, until Godwin and his sons got the upper hand after their exile. Since then most of them have been given to Germans. It would seem that the king was so set against Englishmen that only by bringing in foreigners can Harold prevent all preferment going to Normans. But what is the consequence? They say now that our church is governed from Rome, whereas before Edward's time we Englishmen did not think of taking our orders from Italy.
"There will trouble come of it all, neighbour. Perhaps not so long as Edward reigns, but at his death. There is but one of the royal race surviving, and he, like Edward, has lived all his life abroad. There can be no doubt what the choice of Englishmen will be. Harold has been our real ruler for years. He is wise and politic as well as brave, and a great general. He is our own earl, and will assuredly be chosen. Then we shall have trouble with the Normans. Already they bear themselves as if they were our masters, and they will not give up their hold without a struggle. Men say that William, their duke, makes no secret of his hope to become master of England, in which case God help us all. But that won't come as long as Harold lives and Englishmen can wield sword and battle-axe. As for myself, I have patched many a Norman suit of armour, but, by St. Swithin, I shall have far more pleasure in marring than I have ever had in mending them."
"Know you who were the boys who had that contention just now?"
"The Norman is a page of William, our Norman bishop; I know no more of him than that The other is Wulf, who is a ward and page of Earl Harold. His father was thane of Steyning in South Sussex, one of Godwin's men, and at his death two years ago Harold took the lad into his household, for he bore great affection for Gyrth, who had accompanied him in his pilgrimage to Rome, and fought by his side when he conquered the Welsh. It was there Gyrth got the wound that at last brought about his death. Wulf has been to my smithy many times, sometimes about matters of repairs to arms, but more often, I think, to see my son Osgod. He had seen him once or twice in calling at the shop, when one day Osgod, who is somewhat given to mischief, was playing at ball, and drove it into the face of a son of one of the Norman lords at court. The boy drew his dagger, and there would have been blood shed, but Wulf, who was passing at the time, and saw that the thing was a pure mishap and not the result of set intention, threw himself between them.
"There was a great fuss over it, for the boy took his tale to his father, who demanded that Osgod should be punished, and would doubtless have gained his end had not Wulf spoken to Earl Harold, who intervened in the matter and persuaded the Norman to let it drop. Since then the boys have been great friends in their way. Osgod is a year older than the young thane, and has already made up his mind to be his man when he grows up, and he has got me to agree to it, though I would rather that he had stuck to my handicraft. Still, the prospect is not a bad one. Harold will be King of England, Wulf will be a powerful thane, and will doubtless some day hold high place at court, and as he seems to have taken a real liking to Osgod, the boy may have good chances.
"Wulf will make a good fighting man one of these days. Harold sees that all his pages are well instructed in arms, and the two boys often have a bout with blunted swords when Wulf comes to my smithy; and, by my faith, though I have taught Osgod myself, and he already uses his arms well, the young thane is fully a match for him. You would hardly believe that the boy can read as well as a monk, but it is so. Earl Harold, you know, thinks a good deal of education, and has founded a college at Waltham. He persuaded Wulf's father to send him there, and, indeed, will take none as his pages unless they can read. I see not what good reading can do to most men, but doubtless for one who is at court and may hold some day a high post there, it is useful to be able to read deeds and grants of estates, instead of having to trust others' interpretation."
"I wondered to see you press forward so suddenly into the crowd, neighbour, seeing that you are a busy man, but I understand now that you had an interest in the affair."
"That had I. I was holding myself in readiness, if that Norman boy drew his dagger, to give him such a blow across the wrist with my cudgel that it would be long before he handled a weapon again. I fear Wulf has got himself into trouble. The bishop will doubtless complain to the king of the language used by one of Harold's pages, and though the earl is well able to see that no harm comes to the lad, it is likely he will send him away to his estates for a time. For he strives always to avoid quarrels and disputes, and though he will not give way a jot in matters where it seems to him that the good of the realm is concerned, he will go much farther lengths than most men would do in the way of conciliation. Look how he has borne with Tostig and with the Earls of Mercia. He seems to have no animosity in his nature, but is ready to forgive all injuries as soon as pardon is asked."
The smith was not far wrong in his opinion as to what was likely to happen. As soon as Wulf returned to the palace he was told that the earl desired his presence, and he proceeded at once to the apartment where Harold transacted public business. It was a hall of considerable size; the floor was strewed with rushes; three scribes sat at a table, and to them the earl dictated his replies and decisions on the various matters brought before him. When he saw Wulf enter he rose from his seat, and, beckoning to him to follow, pushed aside the hangings across a door leading to an apartment behind and went in. Wulf had no fear whatever of any severe consequence to himself from his quarrel with Walter Fitz-Urse, but he was ashamed that his thoughtlessness should have given the slightest trouble to the earl, for, popular as he was among all classes of men in southern England, Harold was an object of love as well as respect to his dependents, and indeed to all who came in close contact with him.
The earl was now forty-one years of age. He was very tall, and was considered the strongest man in England. His face was singularly handsome, with an expression of mingled gentleness and firmness. His bearing was courteous to all. He united a frank and straightforward manner with a polished address rare among his rough countrymen. Harold had travelled more and farther than any Englishman of his age. He had visited foreign courts and mingled with people more advanced in civilization than were those of England or Normandy, and was centuries ahead of the mass of his countrymen. He was an ardent advocate of education, a strong supporter of the national church, an upholder of the rights of all men, and although he occasionally gave way to bursts of passion, was of a singularly sweet and forgiving disposition.
King Edward was respected by his people because, coming after two utterly worthless kings, he had an earnest desire for their good, although that desire seldom led to any very active results. He was a member of their own royal house. He was deeply religious. His life was pure and simple, and although all his tastes and sympathies were with the land in which he had been brought up, Englishmen forgave him this because at least he was a Saxon, while his predecessors had been Danes. But while they respected Edward, for Harold, their real ruler, they felt a passionate admiration. He was a worthy representative of all that was best in the Saxon character. He possessed in an eminent degree the openness of nature, the frank liberality, the indomitable bravery, and the endurance of hardship that distinguished the race. He was Earl of the West Saxons, and as such had special claims to their fealty.
London, it was true, did not lie in his earldom, but in that of his brother Leofwyn, but Leofwyn and Harold were as one—true brothers in heart and in disposition. The gentleness and courtesy of manner that, although natural, had been softened and increased by Harold's contact with foreigners, was not only pardoned but admired because he was England's champion against foreigners. He had fought, and victoriously, alike against the Norwegians, the Danes of Northumbria, and the Welsh, and he struggled as sturdily, though peacefully, against Norman influence in England. Already the dread of Norman preponderance was present in the minds of Englishmen. It was no secret that in his early days Edward had held out hopes, if he had not given an actual promise, to William of Normandy that he should succeed him. Of late the king had been somewhat weaned from his Norman predilections, and had placed himself unreservedly in Harold's hands, giving to the latter all real power while he confined himself to the discharge of religious exercises, and to the supervision of the building of his abbey, varied occasionally by hunting expeditions, for he still retained a passionate love of the chase; but men knew that the warlike Duke of Normandy would not be likely to forget the promise, and that trouble might come to England from over the sea.
Harold, then, they not only regarded as their present ruler, but as their future king, and as the national leader and champion. Edward had no children. The royal house was extinct save for Edward the Atheling, who, like the present king, had lived all his life abroad, and could have no sympathy with Englishmen. There being, then, no one of the royal house available, who but Harold, the head of the great house of Godwin, the earl of the West Saxons, the virtual ruler of England, could be chosen? The English kings, although generally selected from the royal house, ruled rather by the election of the people as declared by their representatives in the Witan than by their hereditary right. The prince next in succession by blood might, at the death of the sovereign, be called king, but he was not really a monarch until elected by the Witan and formally consecrated.
It had been nine months after he had been acclaimed to the throne by the people of London that King Edward had been elected king by the Witan, and formally enthroned. Thus, then, the fact that Harold did not belong to the royal family mattered but little in the eyes of Englishmen. To them belonged the right of choosing their own monarch, and if they chose him, who was to say them nay?
Wulf felt uncomfortable as he followed the stately figure into the inner room, but he faced the Earl as the door closed behind him with as fearless a look as that with which he had stood before the haughty prelate of London. A slight smile played upon Harold's face as he looked down upon the boy.
"You are a troublesome varlet, Wulf, and the Lord Bishop has been making serious complaint of you to the king. He says that you brawled with his page, Walter Fitz-Urse; that you used insolent words against his countrymen; and that you even withstood himself. What have you to say to this?"
"The brawling was on the part of the bishop's page and not of mine, my lord. I was running out to carry the message with which you charged me to Ernulf of Dover when I ran against Fitz-Urse. That was not my fault, but a pure mischance, nevertheless I expressed my regret in fitting terms. Instead of accepting them, he spoke insolently, talked of chastising me, and put his hand on the hilt of his dagger. Then, my lord, I grew angry too. Why should I, the page of Earl Harold, submit to be thus contemptuously spoken to by this young Norman, who is but the page of an upstart bishop, and whom, if your lordship will give permission, I would right willingly fight, with swords or any other weapons. Doubtless, in my anger, I did not speak respectfully of Walter's countrymen, and for this I am sorry, since it has been the ground of complaint and of trouble to you."
"In fact, Wulf, you spoke as a quarrelsome boy and not as the page of one who has the cares of this kingdom on his shoulders, and whose great desire is to keep peace between all parties," the earl put in gravely.
For the first time Wulf hung his head:
"I was wrong, my lord."
"You were wrong, Wulf; it is not good always to say what we think; and you, as my page, should bear in mind that here at court it behoves you to behave and to speak not as a headstrong boy, but as one whose words may, rightly or wrongly, be considered as an echo of those you may have heard from me. And now to the third charge, that you withstood the prelate; a matter that, in the king's eyes, is a very serious one."
"The bishop would give ear to nought I had to say. He listened to his own page's account and not to mine, and when I said in my defence that though I did use the words about the Normans, I did so merely as one boy quarrelling with the other, he said I ought to have my ears slit. Surely, my lord, a free-born thane is not to be spoken to even by a Norman bishop as if he were a Norman serf. I only replied that before there was any slitting of ears your lordship would have a say in the matter. So far, I admit, I did withstand the bishop, and I see not how I could have made other reply."
"It would have been better to have held your peace altogether, Wulf."
"It would, my lord, but it would also surely have been better had the bishop abstained from talking about slitting ears."
"That would have been better also, but two wrongs do not make a right. I was present when the bishop made his complaint, and upon my inquiring more into the matter, his version was somewhat similar to yours. I then pointed out to him that if holy bishops lost their tempers and used threats that were beyond their power to carry into effect, they must not be too severe upon boys who forget the respect due to their office. Nevertheless, I admitted that you were wrong, and I promised the king, who was perhaps more disturbed by this incident than there was any occasion for, that I would take you to task seriously, and that to avoid any further brawl between you and young Fitz-Urse, you should for a time be sent away from court. I did this on the agreement that the bishop should, on his part, admonish Walter Fitz-Urse against discourteous behaviour and unseemly brawling, and had I known that he had put his hand on his dagger, I would have gone further. Have you any witnesses that he did so?"
"Yes, my lord; I saw the smith Ulred among those standing by, and doubtless he would see the action."
"That is well," Harold said. "I shall acquaint the bishop with the fact when I tell him that I have ordered you to leave for your estate at Steyning, and that if his page denies it, I have witnesses to prove the truth of your assertions. I think in that case he will be glad to drop the matter, for were I to mention the fact to the king, he, who has a horror of the drawing of weapons, would order Walter Fitz-Urse to be sent back to Normandy. So your exile is not likely to be of long duration. You understand, Wulf, that I am not seriously angered with you in this matter. You are but a boy, and one cannot expect that you will behave as a prudent man; but remember, lad, even a boy's words may do mischief, especially when placed as you are. There may come a time when you shall show by deeds and not by words your feelings against the Normans, but till then bear yourself prudently. We Saxons are over given to hasty words, and this is a fault. I myself, as all men know, have no love for the Normans, but no one has heard me speak against them. The king loves them, as is but natural, seeing that he was brought up amongst them, and I have not withstood his wishes in the matter, trying only that a certain amount of preferment in the land should be bestowed upon those who are its owners and not strangers to it and its tongue. You will ride this afternoon for Steyning, Wulf, but I hope it will not be long before you are back again. If I had my own way in the matter, I should think that sufficient had already been said and done in so trifling a matter as a boys' quarrel; but as it has been brought before our king by a bishop, it is in the king's eyes a serious business, for assuredly he himself would have borne a reproof from William of London more meekly than you did, and having therefore become a church matter, it is altogether beyond my power to interfere. At any rate, a short sojourn on your estate will do you no harm; it is sometime since you were there, and it is a good thing that the lord of the soil should be well known by those over whom he is placed."
Wulf bowed deeply and withdrew. The prospect of a visit for a few weeks or even months to Steyning was not a terrible one. It was some years since he had stayed there for any time. He had been two years at Waltham, and since his father's death had been for the most part with Harold, and the thought of an unrestricted life and of spending his time as he chose, hunting and hawking, and going about among his tenants, was by no means unpleasant. He was quite satisfied that Harold was not seriously angered with him, and for anything else he cared little.
As he understood that his duties as a page were at present at an end, he thought he would first call upon Ulred the smith, to ask him if he had seen Walter Fitz-Urse handle his dagger, and also to tell Osgod that he was going away for a time. He found the smith at work.
"Good morning, Master Wulf; though this is not the first time I have seen you today, for I was at hand when you had that quarrel with the Norman page."
"Yes, I caught sight of your face, Ulred. It was about that I have come to you. The bishop has made complaint against me to the king, and Earl Harold has ordered me to go down to Steyning for a time. Of course I acted wrongly in speaking as I did to the bishop, but so far as Walter Fitz-Urse is concerned I maintain that I did no wrong. I told my lord as much, and that the Norman put hand upon his dagger. The earl said that if I could prove that it would benefit my case. I told him that I had seen you close by, but that I did not know whether you saw the page do it."
"Assuredly I did," the smith replied, "and had my cudgel in readiness to tap him on the wrist if he had drawn his dagger. I would testify the same before King Edward himself."
"Thank you, Ulred, I will tell my lord so."
"I am sorry you are to be sent away from court. That is a bad job, Master Wulf, and Osgod here will miss you greatly."
"That shall I," the lad said. "Could you not take me down with you, young master? You could teach me there how to comport myself as your squire, so that when the time comes that you need one, I should know my duties. Besides, you could practise on me with sword and battle-axe."
"I could not do much in the way of teaching you, Osgod, seeing as yet I am myself but a learner, but I should be glad, in truth, to have you with me, and it would be good for me to keep up my practice in arms. I shall feel almost like a stranger there, and should like to have one I know with me. I could ask Earl Harold to let me have a horse for you from his stables, where he has two or three score doing nothing."
"With your favour, sir, I would rather trust to my own feet. I am a stout walker, and though I shall not be able to keep up with you, I think that each night I can get to the hostelrie where you may put up; but, if not, it matters little, I can make my way after you and join you there—that is, if my father will give me permission to go."
"You may as well go sooner as later," the smith said. "Since you have taken into your head that you will be Master Wulf's man, I see not that it will benefit you remaining in the forge. You know enough now to mend a broken rivet and to do such repairs to helm and armour as may be needed on an expedition; therefore, if the young thane is minded to take you I have naught to say against it."
"Then so shall it be," Wulf said, "I shall see my Lord Harold before I start, and will tell him that you are minded to be my man, and that I am minded so to take you. He will not object, I am sure, but it were best to ask him, since, when I return to court, I shall have you about me."
"When do you start, Master Wulf?"
"I am ordered to go to-day; therefore, as soon as I have seen the earl again I shall be off."
"Where will you sleep to-night?"
"I shall ride to Guildford this afternoon."
"Then you had better lay aside your hammer at once, Osgod," the smith said, "and don fresh clothes, and make your best suit into a bundle and start without delay; it is but ten o'clock, and you may be at Guildford before sunset. 'Tis but thirty miles, and eight hours' walking will take you there. If the young thane tells you that Lord Harold makes objection to his taking you, you can turn your face backward to-morrow and no harm will be done."
"I shall overtake you before you are half-way, Osgod, and can then take you up behind me on my horse; and now I will go back to the palace. I may have to wait some time before I can see Earl Harold. From sunrise to sunset he has but a few moments to himself, and I shall have to watch my time to get a word with him."
It was not, indeed, until two o'clock in the afternoon that Wulf had a chance of speaking to the duke. Then, seeing that he was for the moment alone, he entered the room and stood with bowed head waiting for Harold to address him.
"So you have come to say good-bye, Wulf," the latter said kindly; "it is best so, boy. A time in the country will do you good, and there will be much for you to do down there. I have ordered two of my men to be in readiness to mount and ride with you, for I would not that you should go unattended. One of them will bear a message from me and a letter under my hand to the steward, and will tell him that although you will, of course, remain as my ward until you come of age, you are in all respects to be treated as if you were already my sworn man, and thane. It would be well if you could gather among your tenants twenty stout men as house-carls. The steward is ordered to pay to you whatever moneys you may require, and to account for them to me when he sends me in his checkers. These house-carls will, of course, be paid. There must be ample store of armour at Steyning for them, for your father was followed by forty house-carls when he went with me to the Welsh wars. One of the men who goes with you is a stout man-at-arms and is one of my own house-carls; he will remain with you and will instruct your men in arms and teach them to fight shoulder to shoulder. There may be bad times ere long, and it is upon trained troops and not upon hasty levies that we must most depend. In time I trust you will be able to place fifty such men in the field, but at present twenty will suffice. Have you aught to say to me before you go?"
"Yes, my lord; first, to thank you for your kindness, and to say that I will carry out your instructions; secondly, to tell you that Ulred the smith saw Walter Fitz-Urse handle his dagger, and was standing ready to knock it from his hand did he draw it. Lastly, that Ulred's son Osgod, who is a stout lad a year older than myself, and for his age well accustomed to arms, desires to be sworn as my man and to serve me in hall and in field. I like him much and have almost daily practised with him in arms, and I should be glad to have him with me if you see no objection."
"Not at all, Wulf; it is well that a man should have at his side one in whom he can altogether trust, be he of gentle blood or simple man-at-arms."
"Then I may take him down with me, my lord?"
"Yes, if it pleases you. Can he ride?"
"Not as yet, my lord, I will see that he is instructed down at Steyning. He started to walk this morning, understanding that if you refused him permission to be my man he would at once return. We shall overtake him on the road."
"Bid one of your escort take him up behind," the earl said, "I like his spirit. See that he is fittingly apparelled. You shall hear from me ere long."
Half an hour later Wulf mounted, and with his two followers rode from Westminster.
Far from being depressed, Wulf felt his spirits rise as he rode away on his banishment from court, for instead of feeling it a disgrace he regarded it as a step forward in life. Earl Harold could certainly, had he been so inclined, have smoothed down the angry prelate, and could have retained him at court; but by the way he had spoken, Wulf was convinced that the earl let him go because he thought that it was good for him to be away. For four years he had been under tutelage, first at Waltham, and then at the court. In the last position his life had indeed been a pleasant one, for as one of Harold's pages he had mixed with all the noble youths of the court, and had had a place at every festive gathering. Still, he had been but a page, and treated as a boy. Now he was to go forth, and to learn his duties as his father's successor.
Harold's steward, who had since the thane's death acted as the earl's agent in the management of the estate, would instruct him doubtless in his civil duties, while the soldier who rode behind him would teach him how to lead men in battle, and how to make the fighting force of the estate efficient. Beyond these duties his time would be his own. He would have responsibilities, but they would be the responsibilities of a thane towards his tenants, and not of a page towards his master. He was going away a boy, but if it pleased Harold that he should remain away for two years he would return a thane. A young one, indeed, but one who had learned the duties of his station, and who, if needs be, could take his place in the field of battle at the head of his followers. For, even putting aside the Normans, from whom the earl seemed to think the greatest danger would come, there was never any long cessation of fighting in England.
There were the Welsh, who were always turbulent; the Danes of Northumbria, who were still a distinct people, although throughout the rest of England their identity was fast being merged into that of the Saxons. There were the Norsemen, still ready to take every opportunity of interfering in the affairs of England, or, if none offered, to plunder and harry the coast. There were the earls of Mercia, who bore no great love to the house of Godwin, and who resented the ascendency of the West Saxons. Lastly, there was Harold's brother Tostig, a fiery and turbulent noble, now Earl of Northumbria, who was jealous of Harold, ever ready to join in plots, and in close alliance with Norway already; he had several times withstood the royal authority, and would assuredly again become a fomenter of trouble should he see a favourable opportunity. At the king's death, if not before, that opportunity would be sure to present itself. Harold would be certainly chosen king by the people of London and by the West Saxons, but almost as certainly would his claim be disputed by the earls of Mercia on one hand, and by Tostig and the Danes on the other. Wulf was sure, therefore, that the work spent in preparing his tenants to take the field when called upon to do so, would not be wasted.
Full of these thoughts he rode for some miles from Westminster without addressing himself to the two men behind him; then, bethinking him that these were trusted followers of the earl, and had been specially told off by him to accompany and stay with him, he called them up to his side. Wulf had donned a riding suit instead of court attire, which, in deference to the king's partiality for the Normans, was, even among the staunchest opposers of the foreigners, a compromise between Saxon and Norman fashions. He now wore a tunic of a bright green cloth, girded in at the waist and reaching only to the knee. Over this was worn a garment closely resembling the Roman toga, though somewhat less ample. The folds in front fell below the waist, but it was looped up at each shoulder by a brooch, leaving the arms bare. His legs were clad in tightly-fitting trousers, and his feet in somewhat high shoes. On his head he wore a cap in shape closely resembling the Phrygian bonnet. He was armed with a dagger, and a short sword, which hung by a leather strap, two or three inches long, from his belt. The outer garment had a hood which could in bad weather be drawn over the head.
The man who was the bearer of Harold's orders to the steward wore a civilian dress, not unlike that of Wulf's. He occupied the position of a confidential scribe to Harold. The other wore the garb of a soldier. He was clothed from head to foot in a tight fitting leather suit, upon which were sewn iron rings overlapping each other, and strongly resembling in appearance the chain-armour of later days. His casque, with a curtain of leather similarly covered and affording a protection to the neck, cheeks, and throat, hung from his saddle-bow, and he wore a cap with a long projecting peak, while a cloak was thrown over his shoulders and fell almost to his feet.
"I am afraid you will find it but dull time with me, Leof," Wulf said as they came up abreast of him, "for the earl says that he has charged you to remain with me at Steyning."
"I shall not be sorry for that," the soldier said bluntly, "for I shall be right glad to be away from these Normans who fill every place at court and swagger there as if Englishmen were but dirt under their feet. Moreover, I love not London nor its ways, and shall be glad to be down again among honest country folk, though I would still rather be following my lord the earl in the field."
"And you, Master Gurth, will your stay down at Steyning be a long one?"
"No, indeed. I have but to bear my master's wishes and instructions to the steward, and to stay for a few days to see that they are carried out according to his desires. I am not like Leof, for I prefer life in London, where one meets with learned monks and others, can obtain sometimes the use of a choice manuscript, and can hear the news from beyond the seas, whereas in the country there is nought to talk about save beeves and sheep. I like the journey well enough, though I would that the animal I bestrode were more gentle in his paces. He has for the last half-hour been fretting on the rein to place himself by the side of yours. Horses are well enough for nobles and fighting men, but for a peaceful scrivener like myself a chair makes a far more comfortable seat."
The soldier gave a contemptuous grunt, and Wulf laughed. "It is well that we have not all the same tastes, but for my part a seat in a chair tires me more than one in a saddle, and I am never more happy than when galloping briskly along," and he shook the reins, a signal which the horse had been expecting for a considerable time, and at once responded to by breaking into a canter.
"Stay you, I pray, Master Wulf," the scrivener cried in great tribulation as his horse followed the example of its companion. "Even if the animal does not break my neck he will jolt the life out of me. I pray you curb him in if you would not see me prone in the dust; and if I am disabled, who is to carry the earl's message to the steward?"
Wulf reined in his horse. "Pardon me, good Gurth. I had forgotten that you are not accustomed to journey on horseback. I was scarce conscious, indeed, that I touched my horse, but he is used to travel more rapidly, and was so eager to be off at the slightest hint that I was willing that he should do so. We will try and journey soberly for the rest of the distance."
Osgod was overtaken, plodding steadily along the road, fifteen miles from town. Leof took him up on his horse, and they reached Guildford just as the sun was setting. The inn, which stood in the principal street of the town, was a low building built with a massive framework filled in with bricks. The ground-floor was occupied by a single room. At one end was the great fireplace where, over a pile of blazing logs, were hung many cauldrons and pots. Round the room ran a raised bench some six feet wide on which the guests disposed themselves for sleep at night; rough tables and benches occupied the rest of the room. Some twenty or thirty travellers were seated at these. Few were eating, but the greater portion had horns of beer or mead before them. As Wulf and his companions entered, after giving over their horses to one of the helpers, the host, seeing by his attire that he was of condition above the ordinary, came forward and led him to the end of the room nearest the fire, where the floor was raised a foot and a half above the general level, forming a sort of dais where travellers of distinction could take their meals apart from the rest of the guests. Leof was now spokesman.
"We will have supper, and of your best, master host, for we have ridden from London. We are in the service of Earl Harold, and are riding with this young thane, Wulf of Steyning."
The name of Earl Harold was sufficient to gain for them the best attentions of their host, and in twenty minutes supper was served, consisting of trout broiled over the fire, swine's flesh, and a stew of fowls and smoked bacon flavoured with herbs. Wulf took the head of the table, and the other three sat a short distance below him. The dishes were handed round, and each with his dagger cut off his portion and ate it on his wooden platter with the assistance of dagger and fingers only, for the utility of forks was at that time a matter undreamt of. After the meal was over, the host brought a ewer of water with a napkin, and each dipped his fingers into the water, an operation necessary even for the most dainty feeder. Presently a glee singer came in, and for an hour amused the guests with songs, for the most part of a patriotic character.
Wulf was then conducted by the host to a small chamber upstairs, where there was the luxury of a bed stuffed with straw. The rest of the travellers, including Wulf's companions, merely wrapped themselves in their cloaks and lay down on the raised bench which ran round the room.
On the afternoon of the third day the party arrived at Steyning. It was four years since Wulf had been at home, and he gave a shout of pleasure as his eye fell on the long low house with its background of trees, and touching his horse with his heel he left his companions behind and galloped towards the door. An old servitor came out.
"Why, Cedric, do you not know me? I am Wulf, whom you first taught to play single-stick and to draw a bow."
"Why, surely it is my young master," Cedric said, taking the hand that Wulf held out to him and placing it to his lips; "this is a glad day indeed for us all. We have longed sorely for a sight of you, for though I say nought against Master Egbert the steward, who is well liked by all, it is not the same as having our lord with us. You have come to stay, I trust."
"For a time at any rate, Cedric. Earl Harold wishes me to learn my duties as a thane and to fit myself to lead my people in the field if it be necessary."
"I trust that it never will be so," Cedric said, "but as we fought under your father so will we all be ready to fight under you should it be needful. The men of Steyning were never backward when there was fighting to be done, and in my young days there was no lack of that, though we have had quiet times since King Edward came to the throne."
The house was not built for the purpose of resistance, for, unlike the Normans, the Saxons did not deem it necessary to convert their houses into castles. It was, however, massively framed, the windows on the ground-floor were barred, the door was strong and solid, and after nightfall none could come in or go out without the knowledge and consent of the master. Wulf's companions came up just as the steward himself appeared at the door. He knew both Gurth and Leof, having himself been in the service of Harold before being deputed by him to manage the estates of Steyning during the earl's guardianship of its thane.
"The earl sends his greetings to you, Egbert," Gurth said, and he has sent us hither with the young thane, who, as the letter I bring from the earl will inform you, has come down to take up his position as lord here, and to learn from you all things connected with his estate."
"Welcome to Steyning, thane," the steward said, doffing his cap; "it is well that you should be here. I have done my best to carry out the earl's commands to keep all things in readiness for your coming, and to be just and fair to the tenants, seeing that they pay their dues, and yet not pressing too hardly upon them if things go not well with them; but it is always best that the master should be in his own place, and right willingly do I give over my authority to you."
"The authority has been in good hands, I know well," Wulf said," and right heartily do I thank you for having so well filled my place; but I would not take up my thaneship as yet I am but a boy, and have to learn my duties from you, and shall account myself but as your pupil. I know something of the ways of court, but nothing at all of those of the country, and it will be long before I am fit to take the control of things into my own hands."
They had by this time entered the great hall which formed the common room of the establishment. Its arrangement was similar to that of the room at the inn, with its raised dais for the master, his family, and guests, while the rest of the room was devoted to the retainers and servants. The cooking, however, was carried on in a room apart. There were two fireplaces, one upon the dais and the other in the body of the hall. On the walls hung trophies of the chase and arms of all sorts. The wooden roof was supported by massive beams, and with the exception of the trophies on the walls there was no attempt at decoration of any kind. During the residence of the family at the house, however, the hangings of tapestry, the work of generations of dames of Steyning, their daughters and maids, hung upon the walls round the dais.
The news quickly spread of the arrival of the young thane, and a score of men and eight or ten women and maids flocked into the hall to welcome him, and as he stood on the dais each in turn came forward to kiss his hand and salute him.
"I think my first order must be," he said to the steward, "that a cask of your best ale be broached."
"That shall be done at once," Egbert replied; "there is never a lack of drink here, but the best is none too good for the occasion. And who is this youth with you?" he went on when he had given the necessary orders, pointing to Osgod, who was standing somewhat shyly apart.
"He is my friend, and is going to be my body attendant and squire," Wulf said. "He, like myself, knows nothing as yet of his duties, but that he will be faithful and trusty I know full well, and the earl himself said that I did wisely to bring him with me."
"I will myself instruct him in his duties," Egbert said, "which indeed are not hard to learn by one of willing mind. He will stand behind you at table, will hand you your cup and take your orders. In the old times it would have been his duty to see that you were not struck down by a traitorous blow while you drank, but those days are passed. When in the field he will carry your helmet till you need to put it on; will keep close to you in the fight and guard you with his shield from arrows, and with his sword from attacks from behind; he will carry your banner, and see that as long as he has strength to hold it, it floats fairly out as a rallying point for your men. In the field indeed his duties are numerous, but at home in peace, beyond seeing that your arms are bright and clean, and that your orders are carried out properly, he will have but little to do. It is well that you brought him with you, for otherwise you would have had to choose one of the sons of your tenants, and the choice would have been a difficult one, for each would have desired the honour, and whichever you chose there would have been sore jealousy among the others."
The next day there was a great gathering in the hall. The whole of the tenants attended, and took the oath to be Wulf's men, as they had been those of his father, to obey his orders, and to follow him in the field with the due number of men according to the size of their holdings; while Wulf on his part swore to protect them from all wrong and oppression, to be a just master, calling upon them only for such service as he was entitled to demand, and exacting no feus or payments beyond those customary. A bullock had been killed, and after the ceremony was over all present sat down to a banquet at which much ale was drunk and feasting went on till nightfall.
The next morning Wulf, accompanied by Leof and Egbert, rode round the estate, choosing among the sons of the tenants thirty stout young men willing to enrol themselves as house-carls, receiving a regular rate of pay, and ready at all times to give service under arms, and to remain in the field as long as they might be required, whereas the general levy could only be kept under arms for a limited time. He had already gone into the matter with Leof, who pointed out that, as at present he had no wish to keep up any show or to have a body of armed men in the house, it would suffice if the men were exercised every day for a month, and after that merely practised with sword and battle-axe for two or three hours once a week. On these terms he had no difficulty in obtaining considerably more than the number he asked for, and finally fifty men were enrolled.
For those carls helmets were bought and coats of ringed armour made, and for a month they exercised daily. Of manoeuvring there was little indeed. The Saxons and Danes alike fought in line, with but room enough between them to swing their battle-axes. Each carried a spear as well as an axe, and when repelling the assault of an enemy closed up so that their shields well-nigh touched each other. Their exercise was generally either to engage in combats between chosen pairs, or, dividing into two parties, to fight line against line with blunted poles for spears and with stout cudgels for axes. Leof in these combats acted as judge, decided which side had gained the victory, praised the skilful, and chided the careless and sluggish. He gave lessons in the use of the sword and battle-axe to Wulf and Osgod, sometimes pitting them against each other, sometimes fighting himself against Wulf, and teaching Osgod how to assist his master by covering him with his shield.
Sometimes he would order three or four of the men to shoot with blunted arrows at Wulf, whom he taught to catch them on his shield or to sever the shafts with a blow of his sword, while Osgod standing by helped to cover him when two or three arrows flew at him together. This was a daily exercise, and even after the month's regular work was over some of the men came up every day to shoot, until Wulf had attained such coolness and skill that he could in the great majority of cases cut the shafts in two with his sword.
But the whole day was by no means given up to warlike exercises. Wulf rode out with the steward inspecting the houses and farms, learning what there was to be learned of the rude processes of agriculture, investigating the complaints of the depredations committed by errant herds of swine or by neighbours' cattle and sheep, seeing what was required in the repairs of farmhouses, and learning from Egbert to discriminate between those who were unable to pay their dues owing to misfortune, illness, or murrain among the animals, and those whose Josses were due to their own sloth or carelessness. Upon these visits, too, the arms of the tenants were inspected to ascertain that they could properly fulfil their service if summoned to take the field.
The lands embraced by Wulf's feof were of considerable extent, reaching down to the sea, where they were some eight miles broad, and running back twelve miles beyond Steyning. Several small hamlets lay within it, and in case of war he could summon more than three hundred men to his banner. Several of the neighbouring thanes rode in as soon as they heard that Wulf had returned to fill his father's place at Steyning, and these visits were duly returned. But accustomed as Wulf had been to the orderliness of the court of the ascetic King Edward the rude manners and nightly revelry of these rough thanes by no means pleased him, so that he was glad when the visits were over, and he could remain quietly at home, where he was not without frequent guests.
The most regular of his visitors was the prior of the monastery at Bramber, which had been founded by the piety of one of Wulf's ancestors. The prior had, though Wulf was ignorant of it, received a letter from Earl Harold asking him to befriend Wulf, to encourage him to keep up the studies he had followed at Waltham, and to see that he did not fall into the drinking habit so common among the Saxons. The priest was well fitted for the mission. He was by no means a strict disciplinarian, but the monastery had the reputation of being one of the best managed in Sussex, and among the monks were many of good blood. He was passionately fond of art, and encouraged its exercise among the monks, so that the illuminated missals of Bramber were highly prized, and added largely to the revenues of the monastery.
The prior had been one of the monks at Waltham, and owed his elevation to the influence of Earl Harold with the late thane of Steyning. He was well taught in all the learning of the day, and having been for a time at Westminster, knew more of court life than the majority of the priors of isolated monasteries, and could suit his conversation to his hearer. Harold had said in his letter, "The lad has good parts. He is somewhat full of mischief, and has got into a scrape here by a quarrel with a Norman page, and by failing somewhat in the respect due to William of London, who took his compatriot's part with too much zeal. But Wulf is shrewd, and benefited greatly by his stay at Waltham, and both for the lad's own sake and for my friendship with the good thane, his father, I would fain that he grew up not only a sturdy Englishman, as to which I have no manner of doubt, but one who may some day play his part at court, and be a worthy friend and counsellor of an English king. Therefore I pray you, father, to keep an eye on the lad, and spare him what time you can from your duties. Tell him not that I have written to you, for it is the nature of youth to be averse to anything that looks like guardianship."
Such a request from Earl Harold was regarded by the prior as an order, and a few days after Wulf was installed at Steyning the prior rode over on his palfrey, accompanied only by the almoner of the convent.
"Peace to you, my son," he said, as Wulf bowed respectfully to him," I have called not only as the prior of the monastery founded by the piety of one of the thanes of Steyning, but to welcome one who was a pupil at Earl Harold's college of Waltham, in which I at one time was a preceptor. Not when you were there, for I was installed here just before your good father's death."
"I left there two years since," Wulf said, "in order to be one of Earl Harold's pages; but I have not forgotten my reading, for the earl insists that his pages give two hours a day to study."
"Tis a good rule," the prior said, "for learning is like a weapon, it soon becomes rusted when thrown aside. You will, I hope, continue the habit."
"I should wish to do so, father, but there are no manuscripts here."
"In that at least I can supply your wants," the prior said. "My monastery has a good library, and it will be quite at your service, and also my advice in any matters that may concern you. My almoner here, brother John, knows pretty well the circumstances of most of your people, and may be able to tell you where your alms may be well bestowed, and where they would do more harm than good. The worthless are ever the most importunate, and for every honest man in need there are twenty rogues abegging."
The ice once broken, the prior came over frequently. His conversation was bright and interesting. He himself was engaged in writing a history of the Saxon and Danish monarchs from the times of Alfred, and had stores of anecdotes of people and events of whom Wulf had before heard only vague traditions from the wandering singers and story-tellers who travelled the country, and were welcome guests in every household. As Wulf was urged by the prior to come over whenever time hung on his hands, his visits to the monastery were naturally very much more frequent than those of the prior to Steyning. Sometimes he would sit in the private apartment of the prior, but more often he spent his time studying the rare manuscripts, or watching the monks at their work of copying and illuminating. If he went in the evening he generally sat in the refectory, where the monks for the most part spent their evening in talk and harmless amusement, for the strict rules and discipline that prevailed in monastic establishments on the Continent had been unknown up to that time in England, although some of the Norman bishops were doing their best to introduce them into the establishments in their dioceses,—a proceeding that caused great discontent, and was strongly opposed by the English monks. These had, hitherto, regarded monastic life as one of work for the good of the poor, and as affording for those who wished it a tranquil retirement from the trials of the world. Moreover, it offered special attractions to those of quiet and studious tastes, since the monasteries provided the architects and the painters, the teachers and the writers, and it was here alone that learning was maintained and fostered. Consequently, at Bramber there was none of that monastic asceticism that prevailed abroad, and later became the rule in England also.
During the day the monks had their pursuits according to their tastes. There were those who worked in the copying and painting room. There were some who drew plans for churches or the dwellings of the wealthy, and who sometimes went out and superintended the carrying out of their designs. Some were in charge of the garden, where the work was chiefly done by the lay servitors, and where the herbs and simples were grown that were used in the concoction of the medicines distributed among the sick, and highly prized throughout the country round. Two or three were skilled in music, and these taught and conducted the choir, while two acted as teachers to youths, the sons of thanes and others, who, moved by the ardour with which their earl advocated learning, intrusted their sons to the monks for education. Then when the day's work was done, and vespers sung in the chapel, the monks gathered in the refectory. The conversation was of a bright and varied description, and as Wulf moved about from group to group he listened to the talk with far greater pleasure than he had ever derived from that at court, and largely increased his knowledge in many respects.
National matters were discussed with keen interest, for the monks were all English, and viewed with bitter hostility the elevation of foreigners to the chief dignities of the church, not only because they were foreigners, but because they introduced innovations of all kinds, and sought to reduce the Church of England to subjection to Rome, whereas previously it had been wholly independent of Papal authority. In secular matters, too, there were dangers that threatened the tranquillity of the country. Chief among these were the turbulence and ambition of Tostig, and the menace to the kingdom by his extensive earldom of Northumbria with its alien Danish population, which was rendered more serious by his alliance with the kings of Norway.
Then, too, it was doubtful whether the great central earldom of Mercia could be relied upon to act cordially with the West Saxons; Griffith of Wales was still restless and turbulent; and lastly, there was the ever-present menace of the Norman duke. Had England been united it could have laughed at the pretensions of the Duke of Normandy; but with Northumbria ready at any moment to break into civil war, and with Mercia doubtful, the claim of Normandy, however shadowy and indefensible, could not but be considered as a grave element of danger.
Listening to the talk of the monks Wulf learned much more as to the actual situation than he had done in the court of the Normanized king, and his feelings of patriotism became more and more developed and strengthened, while he applied himself with even greater ardour to his military exercises, as he recognized more fully the necessity that might arise for every West Saxon to be ready to take his place in the line of battle. The evenings that he spent at home were by no means dull. It was only in considerable towns that there were inns for the accommodation of travellers. Everywhere else these were dependent upon hospitality, and no door was ever closed in their faces. It was seldom that less than five or six travellers rested for the night at Steyning, and often that number was largely exceeded. Besides the wayfarers there were the professional wanderers, the minstrels, the story-tellers, and occasionally a troupe of buffoons.
All these were welcome, for they brought the news from without; the last rumours in London concerning the quarrels of the earls; the movements of the Danish ships that were harrying the coast, and those of the vessels Earl Harold despatched to cope with them; the prices of wool and hides in the chief markets; and even reports of what was happening beyond the seas. Leaving the dais, Wulf would go down and listen to the talk of the travellers, or, when they were of a degree above the common, have them up beside him, and question them as to their journeyings, the places they had visited, and the personages they had seen. Thus his hours were fully occupied from morning until night. He found far less time than he had expected for sport, and although he occasionally went out with his falcons or hunted the stag in the forest, which covered a wide extent of country beyond the hills, it was but seldom that he could find leisure for these amusements.
"It seems to me that you are always doing something, Wulf," Osgod said one day. "It is not at all the sort of life I should have thought a young thane would live. Why, you work many more hours a day than I did in my father's forge. It is either books, or the affairs of the tenants, or visiting the monastery all day when you are not at work with your sword exercises. When I have done with my work with Leof I like to lie down in the sun and take it quietly, and I cannot understand how you can be for ever on foot."
"I have so many things to do, Osgod; there is so much to learn, and I do not wish to grow up a mere beer swiller like Edmund of Angmering or Ethelred of Arundel. Their lives are, as far as I can see, no whit higher or more worthy than that of their own serfs, from whom they differ only that they eat more, drink more, and sleep on softer beds. Earl Harold expects better things than that of me, and I want to make myself worthy of being one of those in whom he can place confidence and on whom he can depend in case of trouble. I have heard him say how bad it is for England that our thanes are, in learning and culture, so far behind the nobles of other countries, and that if England is ever to take her place among great nations it must be by her thanes first raising themselves to the level of the nobles abroad, who are the counsellors of their kings. I can never hope to be anything like Earl Harold, who is the wisest and greatest of Englishmen, but I do hope so to fit myself that some day he may think me worthy of trust and confidence."
"Well, master," Osgod said lazily, "every one to his liking. I hope to be a good soldier and your true servant, but as for all this thinking and learning it would weary me to death."
Two months after Wulf had gone down to Steyning one of Harold's men brought a short letter from the earl himself. "I am glad to hear, Wulf," it began, "from my steward, Egbert, that you are applying yourself so heartily to your work. I have also good accounts of you from the Prior of Bramber, who sometimes writes to me. He is a good and wise man, as well as a learned one, and I am right glad to hear that you are spending your time so well. I told you that you should hear if there was any alteration in your affair. Some change was made as soon as you had left; for, two days later, meeting William of London in the presence of the king, I told him that I had inquired further into the matter, and had found that you were by no means the aggressor in the quarrel with young Fitz-Urse, for that he had fingered his dagger, and would doubtless have drawn it had there not been many bystanders. I also said that, with all respect to the bishop, it would have been better had he not inclined his ears solely to the tale of his page, and that under the circumstances it was scarcely wonderful that, being but a boy, you had defended yourself when you were, as you deemed, unjustly accused.
"The prelate sent at once for his page, who stoutly denied that he had touched the hilt of his dagger, but I too had sent off for Ulred, the armourer, and he brought with him a gossip who had also been present. I asked the king's permission to introduce them, and they entirely confirmed your story. Fitz-Urse exclaimed that it was a Saxon plot to do him harm, and I could see that the bishop was of the same opinion; but the king, who is ever anxious to do justice, declared at once that he was sure that the two craftsmen were but speaking the truth. He sternly rebuked Fitz-Urse as a liar, and signified to the bishop that he would do well to punish him severely by sending him back to Normandy, for that he would not tolerate his presence at court—an order which the bishop obeyed with very bad grace. But at any rate the lad was sent away by a ship a week later.
"After the bishop had left the audience-chamber the king said that he was afraid he had acted with harshness to you, as it seemed that the fault was by no means wholly on your side, and that I could at once recall you if I wished to do so. I thanked his majesty dutifully, but said I thought it were best in all ways that for a time you should remain away from court. In the first place, you deserved some punishment for your want of respect for the bishop, to whom you should have submitted yourself, even if you had thought him unjust. In the second place, as Fitz-Urse had been sent away, it would create an animosity against you on the part of his countrymen at court were you to reappear at once; and lastly, that I considered it would be to your benefit to pass at least some months on your estates, learning your duties as thane, and making the acquaintance of your people. Therefore, I wished you to continue at Steyning. It will assuredly be pleasant for you to know that you are no longer to be considered as being there in consequence of having fallen under the king's displeasure, but simply because it is my wish that you should for a time dwell among your people, and fit yourself to be a wise lord to them."
Wulf was much pleased at the receipt of this letter, partly because the fact that he had been sent away in disgrace stung him, and he had felt obliged frankly to acknowledge to the neighbouring thanes that he had been sent down on account of a quarrel with a Norman page; but chiefly because it showed the kindly interest that Harold felt in him, and that although absent he had still thought of him.
It was nigh ten months before he heard again. During that time he had grown a good deal, and although he would never be tall, his frame had so widened out that it was evident he would grow into an exceptionally powerful man.
At sixteen he was still a boy, and although his position at Steyning, where, although still under the nominal tutelage of the earl's steward, he was practically lord and master, accustomed to play the part of host within its walls, and that of feudal lord over the wide estates, had given him the habits of authority and the bearing of one who respected himself, the merry expression of his face, aided by a slight upward turn of his nose, showed that in other respects he was unchanged. He had learned with his weapons all that Leof could teach him. He could wield a light battle-axe, and with his sword could turn aside or sever an arrow however sharply shot at him, provided that he had time to mark its flight. With a quarter-staff he was a match for any youth on the estate, and he could hurl a dart with unerring aim.
Osgod had sprung up into a powerful young fellow, taller than his master by well-nigh a head, and his equal in exercises requiring strength rather than quickness and skill. His duties at table had been delegated to another, for there was a certain clumsiness in Osgod's strength that no teaching could correct; and in his eagerness to serve his master he so frequently spilled the contents of a cup, or upset a platter, that even Egbert acknowledged that it was hopeless to attempt to make a skilful servitor of him.
The earl's second letter contained only the words:
"Come up to London as soon as you receive this. Leave Egbert in charge of everything as before."
Although the time had not seemed long, and his occupations were so varied that he had never felt dull since he had come down, Wulf was delighted to receive the summons. He had, unconsciously to himself, begun to feel restless, and to wonder whether Earl Harold had altogether forgotten his existence.
"We are going back to London, Osgod," he shouted.
"I am right glad of it," the young giant said, stretching his arms lazily. "I am grievously tired of the country, and had it not been that nothing would induce me to leave your service, I have thought sometimes that I would gladly be back again in my father's smithy, hammering away on hot iron. I used to think it would be the grandest thing possible to have nothing to do, but I have found that one can have too much of a good thing. Certainly I am glad to be going back, but I am not sure whether it won't be worse at court than it is here."
"Perhaps we may not be staying there," Wulf said encouragingly. "Maybe the earl is going to start on some expedition; though we have heard of no trouble, either in the North or in Wales. But even if I stay at court, Osgod, you will often be able to be away, and can spend some hours a day at the smithy, where, if you like, you can take off your smock and belabour iron to your heart's content. I should say you would be a rare help to your father, for, as Leof says, for a downright solid blow there are not many men who could surpass you."
Osgod laughed. "Leof has not forgiven that blow I dealt him a month ago, when I flattened in his helmet with my blunted axe and stretched him senseless on the ground; in faith, I meant not to hit so hard, but he had been taunting me with my slowness, and seeing an opening for a blow at his head I could not resist it, and struck, as he was always telling me to do, quickly."
"You well-nigh killed him," Wulf said, shaking his head; "he has not taken an axe in his hand since, at least not with either of us. He said to me the first time I invited him to a bout, it was high time a man should give up teaching when he came to be struck senseless by a boy."
"Not much of a boy," Osgod replied, "seeing that I stand over six feet high, and got my muscles hardened early at the forge. However, he bears me no ill-will; all he ever said to me on the matter was, 'I am glad to see that you can shake off your sluggishness sometimes, Osgod; I should have been less earnest in my advice to you to strike more quickly if I had thought that you were going to do it at my expense. Keep those blows for your master's enemies, lad. If you deal them to his friends you will lessen their number.'"
"Have my horse brought round at once, Osgod, have the wallets packed, and be ready to start in an hour's time. I cannot go without riding over to say good-bye to the prior and some of the monks. Do you, when you have packed, follow me; it is not greatly out of the way, and I shall meet you on the road. A short half-hour will suffice for me there."
"So Harold has sent for you, Wulf?" the prior said, when the young thane told him that he was on the point of starting for London. "'Tis as well. Come back when you may, you will now be fit to rule at Steyning, and to rule well, but I foresee that we are likely to have you but seldom down here. You are in good train to rise high among Englishmen. You already possess the favour of Earl Harold, who is, in all respects but name, King of England. You possess far more learning than most young men of your rank, and as Harold rightly thinks much of such knowledge, you are likely, if you live, to learn more. But better than this, so far as your prospects are concerned in the troubled times that may be coming, you are quick witted and ready. I hear that you are already very proficient in arms, and a match for most grown men. Best of all, so far as your future happiness is concerned, you have a kind heart and a good disposition. You could scarce be a page of Earl Harold's and not be a true Englishman and patriot; therefore, my son, I think that I can predict a bright and honourable future for you if Harold lives and reigns King of England. Be steadfast and firm, lad. Act ever in what your heart tells you is the right; be neither hasty nor quarrelsome. But,"—he broke off with a smile, "you have had one lesson that way already. Now I will detain you no longer. Pax vobiscum, may God keep and guard you! If opportunity offer, and a messenger comes this way, write me a few lines; news of you will be always welcome at Bramber."
Leaving the prior, Wulf paid a hurried visit to the chambers where the monks were engaged in their various avocations, and then started at a canter and met Osgod coming along with a sumpter-horse carrying the wallets, a store of provisions for the way, and Wulf's arms and armour fastened to the crupper of his saddle.
"You have done well, Osgod," Wulf said as he turned his horse, and at a quieter pace proceeded beside him. "I forgot to give you any directions or to speak about your bringing a pack-horse with you, but I am glad you thought of it, for our steeds would have been heavily burdened had all that baggage been divided between them."
"We go back more heavily laden than we came," Osgod remarked. "My wardrobe was then of the scantiest, and your own has been considerably added to since we came here. Truly, Wulf, I feel that I have changed mightily in this year, and can scarce believe that it is but a twelvemonth back since I flung down my hammer and started on my tramp to Guildford with a change of clothes dangling from the end of my cudgel. I was glad when you and your party overtook me, for I was badly scared once or twice when I met a rough fellow or two on the way, though, fortunately, they did not deem me worth robbing. We could give a good account of four or five of such knaves now."
"There has been a change indeed, Osgod, and in me as much as in you, though I have not shot up into such huge proportions. I was a page then, and had learned but to obey. I am a boy still, but I have begun to learn to rule; at any rate, to rule myself. I have not conquered my fault of hastiness altogether."
Osgod smiled broadly.
"You are quick in temper still, Wulf. You remember it was but yesterday that you rated me soundly because I had fed your hawks early, and they were too lazy to fly when you wanted them."
"Well, it was annoying," Wulf laughed; "and you deserved rating, since you have been told over and over again that the hawks were not to be fed early in the morning. Besides, the rating did you no harm."
"None at all, master. I know that you mean not what you say, and hard words break no bones. I should have thought no more of it had you yourself not remarked that you were still somewhat hasty of temper."
"I was wrong, Osgod," Wulf said, holding out his hand, "but you know that I love you, and that though your carelessness and forgetfulness chafe me sorely at times, I mean not what I say."
"I know it, master, and I would not have you other than you are. I suppose it is the thickness of my skull that prevents me from taking in all that I am told, and perhaps if I had more to do I might do it better. I shall be able to play my part when it comes to hard blows, and you must remember that no one can excel in all things. A staghound is trusty and sure when on the chase, but he could not be taught to fetch and to carry and to perform all sorts of tricks such as were done by the little mongrel cur that danced to the order of the mountebank the other evening. My father always said I was a fool, and that, though for a piece of rough hammering I was by no means amiss, I should never learn the real intricacies of repairing fine armour. Everything has its good, you see, Master Wulf; for had my father thought better of me in his trade, I doubt if he would ever have given me leave to quit it, and go as your man."
"I have no doubt that is so, Osgod, and heartily glad am I that you showed no genius for smith's work. Nature evidently intended you to damage casques and armour rather than to repair them. You have not got all my clothes with you," he added, as he looked round at the led horse.
"No indeed, Wulf," Osgod said, "nor a quarter of them, for in truth your wardrobe has grown prodigiously since we came here. I had to talk it over with Egbert, having but little faith in my own wits. He advised me to take the two suits that were most fitted for court, saying that if he heard you were going to remain there he would send on the rest in charge of a couple of well-armed men."
"That is the best plan, doubtless," Wulf agreed. "My hawking suit and some of the others would be useless to me at court, and it would have been folly to have burdened ourselves with them if we are likely to return hither shortly."
"Where shall we stop to-night?" Osgod asked.
"At the monastery of the Grey Friars, where we put up on our way from London. It will not be a long ride, but we started late. To-morrow we shall of course make a long day's journey to Guildford. I don't know what travellers would do were it not for the priories."
"Sleep in the woods, Wulf, and be none the worse for it. For myself, I would rather lie on the sward with a blazing fire and the greenwood overhead, than sleep on the cold stones in a monk's kitchen, especially if it happened to be a fast-day and one had gone to rest on a well-nigh empty stomach."
"It is never so bad as that," Wulf laughed; "as a rule, however much the monks may fast, they entertain their guests well."
"If it is an English monastery they do," Osgod admitted, "but not where there is a Norman prior, with his new-fangled notions, and his vigils and fasts and flagellations. If I ever become a monk, which I trust is not likely, I will take care to enter a Saxon house, where a man may laugh without its being held to be a deadly sin, and can sleep honestly without being wakened up half a dozen times by the chapel bell."
"You would assuredly make but a bad monk, Osgod, and come what will I do not think you will ever take to that vocation. But let us urge on our horses to a better pace, or the kitchen will be closed, and there will be but a poor chance of supper when we reach the priory."
"Well, Osgod," Wulf asked the next morning as they rode on their way, "how did you fare last night?"
"Well enough as to the eating, there was a haunch of cold venison that a king needn't have grumbled at, but truly my bones ache now with the hardness of my couch. Couch! there was but the barest handful of rushes on the cold stone floor, and I woke a score of times feeling as if my bones were coming through the skin."
"You have been spoilt, Osgod, by a year of sleeping softly I marked more than once how thickly the rushes were strewn in that corner in which you always slept. How will it be when you have to stand the hardships of a soldier's life?"
"I can sleep well on the ground with my cloak round me," Osgod said steadily, "and if the place be hard you have but to take up a sod under your hip-bone and another under your shoulder, and you need not envy one who sleeps on a straw bed. As to cold and wet, I have never tried sleeping out of doors, but I doubt not that I can stand it as well as another. As to eating and drinking, they say that Earl Harold always looks closely after his men, and holds that if soldiers are to fight well they must be fed well. At any rate, Master Wulf, I shall be better off than you will, for I have never been accustomed, as you have, to such luxuries as a straw bed; and I doubt whether you ever went hungry to bed as I have done many and many a time, for in the days when my father hoped to make an armourer of me I was sent off supperless whenever I bungled a job or neglected his instructions. I wonder what the earl can want you for in such haste?"
"I do not suppose he wants me in any haste at all. He may have spoken to the king about me, and when Edward again spoke of my returning he would simply send for me to come at once."
Such indeed proved to be the case. When he waited on Harold as soon as he arrived the latter held out his hand; "I am glad to see you back again, Wulf. A year of country air and exercise has done wonders for you, and though you are not as tall as you might be, you have truly widened out into fair proportions, and should be able to swing a battle-axe of full weight. Thinking it was time for you to return here, I spoke to the king, who was in high good-humour, for he had been mightily pleased that morning at some of the figures the monks have wrought in stone for the adornment of his Church of St. Peter; therefore he not only consented to your return, but chided me gently for not having called you up to town before. 'The matter had altogether slipped my mind,' he said; 'I told you that he might return directly it was shown that it was the bishop's page who was in fault, and from that day I have never thought of it.'
"I told the king that I had purposely kept silence, for I thought the day had come when you should learn your duties down there instead of dawdling away your time at court. You need not put on a page's attire any more. You will remain here as my ward, and I have had so good an account from the good prior of Bramber that in a short time I shall be able to receive your oath as Thane of Steyning. You will attend me to court this evening as one of my gentlemen, and I will then present you to the king, whom it is well that you should thank for having pardoned you. I hear from the prior that the varlet you took down with you has grown into a big man, and is well-nigh as tall as I am already. He must have lodging with my followers while you are here."
Finding that he was to remain for the present at Westminster, Wulf sent off a messenger at once to request Egbert to forward the rest of his clothes immediately. That evening the earl took him into a chamber, where the king was seated surrounded by a few of his favourites.
"This is Wulf of Steyning, my lord king," Harold said, "the youth who was unfortunate enough to incur your royal displeasure a year since, and who has upon your order returned from his estates. I have had excellent accounts of him from my good friend the prior of Bramber, who speaks well alike of his love of study and his attention to the affairs of his estate. I have also heard from other hands of his progress in military exercises, and that he bids fair to become a valiant and skilful soldier of your majesty. He has prayed me to express his thanks to your majesty for having pardoned him, and having authorized me to enrol him again in the ranks of my followers here."
The king nodded pleasantly in answer to the deep bow that Wulf made. "I was somewhat hasty in your matter," he said graciously, "and dealt out somewhat hard measure to you, but doubtless, as Earl Harold said, your stay in the country has been for your good, and I am glad to hear that the worthy prior of Bramber speaks so well of you."
The earl gave a little nod to Wulf, and the latter, gathering that his case was concluded, and that he could now go at once, retired with another deep obeisance.
Leaving the palace he made his way to the armourer's, whither he had sent Osgod as soon as they arrived. The smith doffed his cap as he entered. "I am right glad to see you back again, young master. My son gave me a rare surprise, for truly when he walked in I did not know him again, not having had him in my thoughts or having heard of his arrival. The varlet saw that I did not know him, and said, 'Canst mend me a broken dagger, master armourer?'
"'That can I,' I answered, and would have said more, when a laugh came from his great mouth that well-nigh shook the house, and I knew that it was my son, though the note was deeper than his used to be, and was, as I told him, more like the bellow of a bull than the laugh of a young fellow of eighteen. His mother looked in from behind the shop and said, 'Surely that must have been Osgod's laugh.' 'It was,' I said, 'and there he stands before you. The impudent rascal has topped me by over half a head, though I am a fair height myself.' Then she carried him away, and I saw no more of him until I had finished my work. Since supper he has been telling me somewhat of what he has been doing down with you, which, as far as I can learn, amounts to nothing, save the exercising of his arms and the devouring of victuals."
"He did all there was to do, Ulred, except that he could not bring that long body and those loose arms of his to offer me cup or platter without risk to my garments, and even Egbert was forced to agree that he should never be able to make a courtly servant of him; but save in that matter Osgod has got on right well. He has always been ready when I wanted him, and prepared at once to start with me either on foot or horseback whenever I wished to go out. He is growing into a mighty man-at-arms, and well-nigh broke the skull as well as the casque of the captain and teacher of my house carls. Another two years, if he goes on as he has done and we go into battle again, no thane in the land will have a stouter body-guard."
"Are you going to stay in London, Master Wulf?"
"Yes; that is, while the earl is here. When he is away hunting or attending to the affairs of the state I suppose I shall go with him. Osgod of course will go with me. While here I shall have but little use for his services, and he can be at home most part of the day."
"Then I trust you will soon be off," the smith said bluntly, "for to have a youth six feet and a hand in height hanging about doing nothing would set all the men thinking it well that they too should be idle. Osgod was always ready enough for a talk, though I do not say he could not work when it was necessary, but now that he is in your worship's service and under no orders of mine, his tongue will never cease wagging."
"Oh, I am ready to work a bit, father. I know how long it took me to hammer out a bar before, and I shall be curious to find out in what time I can do it now."
"I doubt you will spoil more than you make, Osgod. Still, I too shall be curious to see how many strokes you can give with the big hammer, and how quickly you can beat a bar into a blade."
The stay in town was, however, of short duration, for four days later the earl told him that he was going down to his house at Bosham, and that he was to accompany him.
"'Tis three months since I was away from London," he said. "The king is going down into Hereford to hunt, and I am therefore free for a while, as there are no matters of state that press at present, though I fear that ere very long the Welsh will be up again. I hear that their King Griffith, not content with the beating he had a short time since, is again preparing for war. Still it may be some time before the storm bursts, and I am longing to be down again among the green woods or afloat on the water."