Charles W. (Charles Watts) Whistler.

A prince of Cornwall : a story of Glastonbury and the West in the days of Ina of Wessex online

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made no secret of his devotion. He minded me of


a great faithful stupid dog, whose trust was bound-
less and whose love was worth having. One could
lead him anywhere, but he was true Sussex he
would not be driven an inch.

So Elfrida had a hopeless slave at her beck and
call, and by and by I was on the old footing, and
we used to make much of my vow of service to her.

" I would that I had made that vow," Erpwald
said once.

" It is not too late now," answered the ealdorman,
with his great laugh ; " but I do not think it is

After me went Erpwald when he was not at the
ealdorman's, and Ina told me that he was glad to
see that I harboured no thought of revenge.

" Presently you will want to go to Eastdean tc
see that your father's grave is well honoured, and
this friendliness will help you," he said. " And for
his friend such a man as Erpwald will do much.
The church at Eastdean will be no poor one, and
you will help him choose the place. We could not
have asked him to do anything that has pleased
him more."

One thing I feared was that when he found out
who I was he would be ill at ease with me, and I
asked the king to tell him in the way that seemed
best to his wisdom, lest the knowledge should come
by chance from some one else.

So he did that, and in a day or two Erpwald
came to me and told me that he knew at last who
I was, and we had a long talk together. It was in
his mind to try to make me take the lands again,
and I had hard work to make him believe that I


was in earnest when I said that I did not want
them. And at the end I made him happy by
telling him that the king would let me go to
Eastdean with him before long, so that we could
see to things together.

" Well," he said, " this is all very pleasant for
me, and it is common saying that you will be some
sort of prince in West Wales before long ; but I
shall ever feel that my family owes yours more than
I can repay."

After that he was a little uneasy with me for a
time, but it soon wore off, and we used to talk of
our ride to Eastdean often enough. And then
happened a thing that set me back into trouble
about Owen again. I had had many messages
from him, as may be supposed, and in all of them
he said that there was no sign of danger, or even
of plotting against him.

One of my men brought me a written message
one evening. A thrall had left it at the gate for
me. And when I asked from whom it came I had
the same answer that was given me when that other
writing warned me not to sleep in the moonlight,
for it was said to come from a priest whom I

So when I glanced at the writing I was not
surprised to see that it was the same, though the
sight of it gave me a cold shudder. Somewhat
the same also was the form in which the message

" To Oswald, son of Owen.- It is not good to
take wine from the hand of a Briton."


Now, I had some reason to believe that Mara
had written the first note, as she seemed the only
possible person to warn us of the plots of her kin,
and that was a very plain warning to Owen rather
than to myself, as it seemed. So I thought this
might come from the same hand, and be meant for
him also, and that all the more that there was not
a stranger left in Glastonbury, now that the feasting
was over, much less a Welshman. But Owen had
none but Welsh round him, and it seemed to say
that there was some plot among them again.
Maybe he would know who was meant by the
" Briton." Men have nicknames that seem foolish
to any but those who are in the jest of them. We
used to call Erpwald the " Saxon " sometimes, be-
cause he was not of Wessex, although we were as
much Saxon as he, or more so, according to our
own pride.

I went straight down the street to the house of
a man whom I knew well, an honest franklin who
had a good horse and knew the border country
from end to end, and I bade him ride with all speed
to Owen at Norton with the paper. He was to
give it into his own hand, and I made shift to scrawl
a few words on the outside of it that he might shew
to my friend the captain of the guard, and so win
speedier entry to the palace. I did not send one
of my own men, because he would have been known
as coming from me, while this man was often in
Norton about cattle and the like, and none would
wonder at seeing him. I was easier when I saw
him mount and ride away, but I was ill content
until the morning came and brought him back with


tidings that all was well, and that Owen would be
on his guard.

Also, the franklin was to tell me that Cerent's
court went to Isca, which we call Exeter, in two
days' time, and that Owen would fain see me
before he went westward, if I could come to him.
There seemed to be difficulty in persuading Cerent
to let him return to our court, even for a day

Whereon I went to Ina and told him of this new
trouble, and he bade me go. He thought that some
fresh plot was being hatched in Exeter, but both
he and I wondered that the warning was not sent
direct to my foster-father, rather than in this round-
about way through my hands. He said the same
thing to me that Howel had spoken when I parted
from him.

" These plotters ',vill not think twice about strik-
ing at Owen through you, if it seems the only way to
reach him. And you mind that the princess told
you .to have a care for yourself. Evan said that if
strife was stirred up between us and Cerent they
would be glad. If they slew you, my Thane, it is
likely that there would be trouble, unless Cerent is
as wrath as I should be."

So I went with a few guards and spent the day
and night with Owen at Norton. I knew it was
the last chance I should have of seeing him for a
long time, but we talked of the coming summer,
promising ourselves that journey together to see
Howel. I told him how things went with Elfrida
and me, and he did not seem to wonder much, nor
to think it of any consequence. He laughed at me,


and told me to get over it as soon as I could, and
that was all.

But this last warning he could no more understand
than I. It was his thought that it was meant for
me rather than himself.

"You will have to take heed to any Welshman
you meet," he said, "and as you are warned that
should be no very difficult matter. No Briton can
ever pretend to be a Saxon."

I do not think that there is more to be said of
that meeting, though indeed I would willingly dwell
on it. Mayhap it will be plain why I would do so
presently, for I left him bright and happy in his old
place, with nought but the distance from the foster-
son whom he loved to trouble him.

But when I rode away again the sorrow of that
parting fell heavily on me, and I could not shake
it off. It seemed to me that I would not see Owen
again, though why it so seemed I could not tell.
If I had any thought of danger to myself I should
have cared little, so it was not that. I wonder if
one can feel " fey " for another man if he is dear to
you as no other can be ?



IN the coming week, after I had thus taken leave of
Owen, my friend Herewald, the ealdorman, would
have a hunting party before we all left him and
Glastonbury for Winchester, and so it came to pass
that on the appointed day a dozen of us rode with
a train of men and hounds after us along the west-
ward slopes of the Mendips in the direction of
Cheddar, rousing the red deer from the warm
woodlands of the combes where they love to hide.
We had the slow-hounds with us, and that, as it
seems to me, is better sport than with the swift
gaze-hounds I rode after on the Welsh hills with
Eric. It is good to hear the deep notes of them
as they light on the scent of the quarry in the
covers, and to see them puzzle out a lost line in
the open, and to ride with the crash and music
of the full pack ahead of one in the ears, as the
deer doubles no longer, but trusts to speed for

Those who were with us were friends of mine and
of the ealdorman, and there were three ladies in
the party one of these being, of course, Elfrida.



Erpwald was in close attendance on her, a. matter
which was taken for granted by every one
at this time. He was to go with the court to
Winchester, and thence he and I would ride to

So we hunted through the forenoon, taking one
deer, and then rode onward until we came to the
place where the great Cheddar gorge cleaves the Men-
dips across from summit to base, sheer and terrible.
The village lies at the foot of the gorge on the
western side of the hills, half sheltered between the
first cliffs of the vast chasm, but on the hillside
above is a deep cover that climbs upward to the
summit, and it was said that a good deer had been
harboured there. So presently, while the hounds
were drawing this wood below us, I and Elfrida
and Erpwald found ourselves together and waiting
on the hilltop at the edge of the gorge. I was
almost sorry to make a third in that little party,
but Erpwald knew nothing of the country, and
Elfrida had no more skill in matters of time and
place and distance than most ladies, which is not
saying much, in all truth, though I hardly should
dare to set it down, save by way of giving a reason
for my presence with so well contented a party of

Now, if there is one who has not seen this
Cheddar gorge, I will say that it is as if the
mighty hills had been broken across as a boy
breaks a long loaf, or as if some giant had hewn
a narrow gap with the roughest pick that ever was
handled. Our forefathers held that Woden had
indeed hewn it so, and we have tales that the


evil one himself cleft it in a night, and that the
rocky islands of Steep and Flat Holme, yonder
in the mid channel, are the rubbish which he
hewed thence and cast there. Maybe the over-
hanging cliffs are full four hundred feet high from
the little white track which winds at their foot,
and from clifftop to clifftop is but a short bowshot.
From where we waited one could look sheer down
on the track below us, and a man who was coming
slowly along it seemed like a rat in its run, so far off
did he appear. At least, so said Erpwald, who
looked over, riding to the very edge. I had no wish
to do so, having been there before, and not alto-
gether liking it. Then he wanted Elfrida to look
over also, and that frightened her, and so we rode
back and forth a little, for the wind was keen on the
hill, listening for sound of horn or hound in the cover.
One reason why we were so near the edge of the
cliffs was that Erpwald had not seen the place before,
and had heard much of it ; and another was that
as no - deer could cross the gorge we should be sure
to have the hunt before us when one broke. There
are tales of hunted deer, ay, and of huntsmen also,
going over the cliffs at full speed, but that is likely
only when the pace has been hot and the danger
is forgotten. I had no mind, either, to see some
of Herewald's young hounds cast themselves over
in eagerness if they chose to follow, as young ones
will, the scent of some hill fox who had his lair
among the rocks and knew paths to safety on the
face of the cliffs, so that was yet another reason
why we were in that place, and I tell this because
it is likely that some one may ask how it was that


I suffered my friends to bide in so perilous a spot,
seeing what happened presently.

It was not long before those two forgot me, and
rode side by side talking. Maybe I forgot them,
for the last time I was on the clifftops was across
the channel, and I minded the two with whom I
rode then Howel and Nona. Then suddenly the
ringing of the horn roused us, and Erpwald came
toward me, thinking that, of course, Elfrida was close
after him, but with his eyes too intently watching
the place where I had said a deer was most likely
to break cover to notice much else. I was some
twenty paces farther from the edge than they. The
horses pricked up their ears at the well-known
sound, and stood with lifted heads watching as
eagerly as we.

Then there came a little cry from Elfrida as she
bade her horse stand, and I heard it trampling
sharply, as if restive, behind us. I turned in my
saddle to see what was amiss, and what I saw made
my blood run cold, and the sweat broke out on my
forehead in a moment.

With the sound of the horn and the moving away
of Erpwald the horse had waxed restive, as horses
will at a cover side when the time to move on seems
near. I think that it had probably reared a little
and that she had tried to check it, for now it was
backing slowly and uneasily toward the edge of that
awesome cliff that was but ten paces from its heels.
Even now the girl was backing him yet more in her
efforts to make him stand still, and I dared not
make a move to catch the bridle lest he should
swing round at once from me and go over.


p. 251.


" Spur him, Elfrida. Let his head go, and spur
him," I said as quietly as I could, but so that
she must needs hear. It was all that I could

She spurred him, and then as he made a little
leap forward, checked him, and that was yet worse.
Then I saw Erpwald, with an ashy face, dismount
and go hastily toward the edge behind her, sidelong,
and I swung my horse away from him, so that by
chance hers might follow me out of danger. But
that was useless. The brute was yet backing, and
his heels were almost on the brink. It seemed that
his rider did not know how near she was.

" Get off!" I said hoarsely." Get off at once."

Then she knew, but could only turn and look.
The hinder hoofs lost hold on the rocky edge as the
horse made its first slip backward, and even as the
loosened stones rattled down, and it lurched with
one leg hanging over the gulf, Erpwald leapt for-
ward and tore Elfrida from the saddle, and half
threw her toward me. I do not remember when
I dismounted, but I was there and grasped her
hand and dragged her back out of the way of the
lashing fore-feet.

Then Erpwald was gone. The horse struggled
wildly in one last effort to save itself, and swept my
friend over with it. There was a rattle of stones,
a silence, and then a dull crash in the depths

One moment later and all three would have gone.
I heard the shout of the man on the track below,
and I wondered in a dull way if he had been killed
also. And now I had Elfrida to tend, for she had


fainted. What she had seen I could not tell, but I
hoped that at least she knew nought before Erpwald
went. It was as if she had lost consciousness when
he reached her, for I saw the hand on the rein
loosen helplessly. I carried her back from the cliff,
and tried to bring her to herself, vainly, though
indeed I almost wished that she might remain as
she was until we were back in Glastonbury. Then
I wound my horn again and again to bring some
to my help, and I tried not to think of that which
surely lay crushed on the road below. There could
be no hope for either man or horse.

Then came the sound of swift hoofs, and there
was the ealdorman and one or two others, coming
in all haste to know what the urgent call betokened,
but by the time that he had dismounted and asked
if there was any hurt to his daughter I could only
gasp and point downward. My mouth was dry
and parched, and I did not know how to put into
words the thing that had happened ; but he saw that
Elfrida's horse was not there, and that Erpwald's ran
loose with mine, and he guessed.

" Over the cliff? " he said, whispering, and I

" Go and look," he gasped, and he knelt down
and took Elfrida from me.

The two who were with him were trying to
catch the loose horses, and we were alone for the
moment. So I crept to the edge and looked over,
fearing what I should see. But I saw nothing but
the bare track winding there, and I remembered
that the cliff overhung.

Then, as I scanned every rock and cranny below


me a man came out from under the overhang at
the foot of the cliff and looked up. For a moment
my heart leapt, for I thought it was Erpwald. But
it was only the traveller we had seen, and he must
have been looking at what had rolled into the hollow
that hid it from me. He glanced up and caught
sight of me.

" How did it happen ? " he called up to me.

" Dead ? " I called back, with a terror of what I
knew would be his answer.

Then he laughed at me.

" Do you expect a horse to be leather all through,
Master ? Of course he is. Saddle and all smashed
to bits."

Then a dull anger took me that he thought of
the horse only, as it seemed, unless he was mazed
as I was with it all.

" The man the man," I said.

" There is no man here, Master. Did one fall ? "
he said in a new voice, and he crossed to the other
side of, the gorge and scanned the face of the cliff.
" He is not to be seen," he said. " Maybe he has
caught yonder."

He pointed to a ledge that was plain enough to
me, but nowhere near the place whence the fall
was. There were no ledges to be seen as I looked
straight down, and I knew that this place was
the most sheer fall along all the length of the

Now three more of our party came up, and at
once they rode down to the village and so round to
where the man stood. It seemed a long time before
they were there and talking to him.


" Ho, Oswald ! "

Their voices came cheerfully enough, and I looked
down at them.

" There seem to be clefts here and there, and in
one of those he must needs be," they said. " We
are going to the village to get a cragsman with a
rope, and will be with you anon."

There was at least hope in that, and I watched
them ride swiftly away. The ravens were gathering
fast now, knowing that what fell from above must
needs be their prey, and two great eagles were
wheeling high overhead, waiting. I heard the kites
screaming to one another from above the eagles,
and from the woods came the call of the buzzards.
They knew more than I.

Now the ealdorman could not bring Elfrida
round, and he thought it best to take her hence.
So he had her lifted to him on his horse, and went
slowly and carefully down the hill toward the
village with her. I had told him all that had
happened by this time, and I was to bring word
presently to him of how the search went. So I and
those two friends who had first come sat there on
the clifftop waiting in silence for the coming of the
man with his ropes. All that could be said had
been said.

Here and there on the face of the cliff some
yew-trees had managed to find a holding, and their
boughs were broken by the passage of the horse at
least through them. But there were no shreds of
clothing on them, as if Erpwald had reached
them. That might be because the weightier
horse fell first. It seemed to me in that moment


of the fall that he was between the horse and
the cliff as he went over the edge, for the fore-
feet of the horse struck his legs and threw him
backward, and the last thing that I minded was
seeing his head against the horse's mane in some
way. That last glimpse will bide with me until I
forget all things.

It seemed very long before our friends came back
with the ropes. Backwards and forwards in front
of us flew untiringly two ravens, now flying across
the gorge, and then again almost brushing us with
their wings as they swept up the face of the cliff
from below. We thought they had a nest some-
where close at hand, for it was their time.

" If Erpwald were dead," I said presently, " those
birds would not be so restless. It is hard to think
that they know where he is and how he fares ; but at
least they tell us that he is not yet prey for them."

Backward and forward they swept, until my eyes
grew dazed with watching them, and then suddenly
they both croaked their alarm note, wheeled quickly
away from the cliff's face, and fled across the gorge
and were gone. Then was a rattle of stones, and a
shout from some one in the track below, and I
started and saw a head slowly rising above the
edge of the cliff, as if its owner had climbed up
to us. White and streaked with blood was the
face, but it was not crushed or marred, and it was

" Lend me a hand," he said, as we stared at him,
as one needs must stare at one who comes back as
it were from the grave. " My head swims even yet."

I grasped his hand and helped him to the grass,


and once there he stood upright and shook himself,
looking round in an astonished way as he did so.

" No broken bones," he said. " Where is Elfrida ?
Is she all right? I was rough with her, I fear, but
I could not help it. Could I have managed
otherwise ? "

" In no way better," I said, finding my tongue at
length. " She has gone to the village. But where
have you been ! "

" In a long hole just over here," he answered.
" But how long has she been gone ? "

" How long do you think that you have been in
your hole ? "

"A few minutes. It cannot be long. Yet it
must have been longer than I thought, for the
shadows are changed."

It was a full hour and a half since he fell, but I
did not say so, lest it should be some sort of shock
to him. So I bade him sit down while I saw to a
cut there was on his head the only sign of hurt
that he had.

" I thought that I was done for at first," he

" So thought I, until we found that you were not
at the bottom. Even now some of us have gone
for ropes that we might search the cliff for you.
We could not see you anywhere, and there does
not seem to be any ledge here that could catch

" Why, you could have touched me with a spear
all the time, if you had known where to thrust it.
I think I fainted, or somewhat foolish of the sort.
My head hit the rock as I went over. Also the


horse ground me between it and the cliff, so that
all my breath went. But that pushed me into
the hole, and I will not grumble. At least, I think
that was it, but I cannot be sure. My senses

He began to laugh, but suddenly turned to me
with a new look on his face. " Oh, but was Elfrida
feared for me ? What did she think ? "

" She saw nought of it," I said. " I believe that
she had fainted with terror when you laid hold of
her. The ealdorman came and took her to the
village, and I do not suppose she knows that you
have been lost"

" That is well," he said, with his great sigh.
" Look over and see my hole."

I did not care to look over again, and, moreover,
knew that I could not see it. I mind every jutting
stone and twisted yew that is on the cliff there, to
this day. However, one of the others went a little
to one side, where Erpwald had appeared, and
swung himself to the tiny ledge that had given him
foothold as he came up, and so looked at the place.
There was a long cleft between two layers of rock
which went back into the cliffs face for some depth,
with a little backward slope that had saved the
helpless man from rolling out again, and there was
a raven's nest at one end of it. One may see that
cleft from below and across the gorge if one knows
where to look, but not by any means from above,
by reason of the overhang of the brink. It was
plain that, as he thought, the horse's body, or maybe
its shoulder, thrust him into the cleft, but it was
well that he was senseless and so could not struggle,


or he would have surely missed it. It is his saying
that he had no trouble in getting into the place, but
more in climbing out.

Now we called the good news to some of our
people and the villagers who were on the road
below, and they broke into cheers as they heard it.
They could hardly believe that the man they had
seen on the edge just now was Erpwald himself.
Then we went down to the village, meeting the men
with the ropes half-way, and so came to the first
houses of the street, where the ealdorman was
standing outside one of the better sort. He came
to meet us, and I never saw anything like the look
on his face when he saw Erpwald and heard his
cheerful greeting. I told him how things ended.

" I have given a lot of trouble, as it seems,"
Erpwald said humbly ; " but I could not help

" Trouble ! " said the ealdorman. " Had it not been
for you there would have been nought but trouble
for me all the rest of my life."

He took Erpwald's hand as he spoke and pressed

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Online LibraryCharles W. (Charles Watts) WhistlerA prince of Cornwall : a story of Glastonbury and the West in the days of Ina of Wessex → online text (page 15 of 25)