Charles W. (Charles Watts) Whistler.

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

. (page 2 of 25)
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 2 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

me of 'my mistake.

" I am not cold overmuch," he answered. " Let
us run and warm me."

Then he ran until we came to the top of a hill
whence the last glimmer of the sea over Selsea was
plain before him, and there I asked him to set me
down lest I tired him.

" Nay, but you keep me warm," he said. " Tell
me, are there oak trees as one goes seaward ? "

" Ay, many and great ones in some places."

Then he ran down the hill, and the sway of his
even stride lulled me so that I dozed a little. I
roused when he stayed suddenly.


" Sit here, Oswald, for a moment, and fear nought
while I rest me," he said in a strange voice. We
were half-way up a long slope and among fresh
trees. Then he lifted me and set me on the curved
arm of a great oak tree, some eight feet from the
ground, asking me if I was safe there. And when
I laughed and answered that I was, he set his back
against the trunk, and drew his heavy seax, putting
his staff alongside him, where he could reach it at
once if it was needed. It was light enough, with
the clear frosty starlight on the snow.

Then I heard the swift patter of feet over the
crisp surface, and the grey beast came and halted
suddenly not three yards from us, and on his
haunches he sat up and howled, and I heard the
answering yells in no long space of time coming
whence we had come. His eyes glowed green with
a strange light of their own as he stared at my
friend, and for a moment I looked to see him come
fawning to his master's feet.

Suddenly he gathered himself together, and
sprung silently at the throat of the man who waited
him, and there was a flash of the keen steel, and a
sound as of the cleaving of soft wood, and the beast
was in a twitching heap at the man's feet. I knew
what it was at last, yet I could say nothing. The
wolf was quite dead, with its head cleft.

Swiftly my friend hewed the great head from the
trunk and tore one of the leather cross garterings
from his leg, and so leapt at a branch which hung
above him and pulled it down. Then he bound the
head to its end with the thong and let it go, so
that it dangled a fathom and a half above him, and


p. 26.


then he lifted me from my place and ran as I had
not thought any man could run, until he stayed at
the brow of the hill for sheer want of breath.

Behind us at that moment rose the sound as
of hungry dogs that fight over the food in their
kennels, and my friend laughed under his breath

" That will be a wild dance beneath the tree
anon," he said, as if to himself.

Then he said to me, " Are you frayed, bairn ? " as
he ran on again.

" No," I answered. " You can smite well,

" Needs must, sometime," he said. " Now, little
one, have you a mother waiting you at home ? "

" No. Only father and old nurse."

" Nor brother or sister ? "

" None at all," I said.

" An only child, and his father lonely," the man
said. "Well, I will chance it while the trees last.
The head will stay them awhile, maybe."

Now he went swiftly across the rolling woodlands,
and again I slept in his arms, but uneasily and with
a haunting fear in my dreaming that I should wake
to see the wild eyes of the wolf glaring across the
snow on us again. So it happens that all I know
of the rest of that flight from Woden's pack has
been told me by others, so that I can say little

The howls of the pack as they stayed to fall on
the carcass of their fellow, after their wont, died
away behind us, and before they were heard again
my friend had come across a half-frozen brook, and


for a furlong or more had crashed and waded
through its ice and water that our trail might be
lost in it. Then he lit on the path that a sounder
of wild swine had made through the snow on either
side of it as they crossed it, and that he followed,
in hopes that the foe would leave us to chase
the more accustomed quarry. From that he leapt
aside presently with a wondrous leap and struck off
away from it. He would leave nothing untried,
though indeed by this time he had reason to think
that the pack had lost us at the brook, for he heard
no more of them.

So at last he came within sound of some far-off
shouts of those who were seeking me, and he
guessed well what those shouts meant, and turned in
their direction. Had he not heard them I do not
know what place of refuge, save the trees, he would
have found that night, for he was then passing across
the valley that winds down to our home.

So it happened that when at last he saw the red
light from the door of our hall gleaming across the
snow, for it had been left open that perchance I
might see it, he was close to the place, and he came
into the courtyard inside the stockading without
meeting any one, for he came from the side on which
the village is not.

There I woke as the house-dogs barked, and at
first it was with a cry of fear lest the wolves were
on us again ; but the fear passed as I saw my father
come quickly into the light of the doorway, and
heard his voice as he stilled the dogs and cried to
ask if the boy was found.

" Ay, Thane, he is here, and safe," my friend


answered, and he set me down in the midst of the
court, while the dogs leapt and fawned round me.

Then I ran to the arms that were held out for me,
forgetting for the moment the one who had brought
me back to them, and left him standing there.

Then the man who had saved me turned after one
long look at that meeting, and I think that he was
going his way in silence, content with that he had
done, but my father saw it and called to him

" Friend, stay, for I have not thanked you, and I
hold that there is reward due to you for what you
have brought back to me."

" It was a chance meeting, Thane, and I am glad to
have been of use. No need to speak of reward, for it
is indeed enough to have seen the boy home safely."'

"Why, then," said my father, "I cannot have a
stranger pass my hall at this time in the evening, when
it is too late to reach the town in safety. Here you
must at least lodge for the night, or Eastdean will
be shamed. Your voice tells me that you are a
stranger, but maybe you have your men waiting for
you at hand ? There will be room for them also."

For there was that in the tones of the voice of
this man which told my father that here he had no
common wanderer.

" I am alone," my friend said. " But your men
seek the little one even yet in the forest. Will you
not call them in ? "

My father looked at the man for a moment,
and smiled. " Ay, I forgot in my joy. They are
well-nigh as anxious as I have been."

Then he took down the great horn that hung by
the door, and wound the homing call that brings all


within its hearing back to the hall, and its hoarse
echoes went across the silent woods until it was
answered by the other horns that passed on the
message until the last sounds came but faintly to us.
I heard men cheering also, for they knew by the
token that all was well. My father had me in his
arms all this time, standing in the door.

" There would have been sorrow enough had he
been lost indeed," my father said. " He is the last
of the old line, and the fathers of those men whom
you hear have followed his fathers since the days of
Ella. Come in, and they will thank you also.
Where did you find him ? "

Then as he turned and went into the hall the light
flashed red on my jerkin suddenly, and he cried,
" Here is blood on his clothing ! Is he hurt ? "

" No," I said stoutly ; " maybe it is the blood of
the stoat I slew, or else it has come off the shepherd's
sleeves. He hewed off the wolf's head and hung it
on the tree."

Then my father understood what my peril had
been even that which he and all the village had
feared for me, and his face paled, and he held out
his hand to the man, drawing in his breath sharply.

" Woden ! " he cried, " what is this, friend ? Are
you hurt, yourself? For the wolf must be slain ere
his head can be hefted, as we say."

" No hurt to any but the wolf," the man said, smil-
ing a little. " We did but meet with one who called
the pack on us. So I even hung his head on a tree,
that the pack when it came might stay to leap at
it. They were all we had to fear, and maybe that
saved us."


" I marvel that you are not even now in the tree,
yourself with the boy."

"Nay, but the frost is cruel, and he would have been
sorely feared with the leaping and howls of the beasts.
There were always trees at hand as we fled, if needs
were to take to them. It was in my mind that it
were best to try to get him home, or near it."

Then said my father, gripping the hand that met
his : " There is more that I would say, but I cannot
set thoughts into words well. Only, I know that I
have a man before me. Tell me your name, that
neither I nor the boy may ever forget it."

" Here, in the Saxon lands, men call me Owen the
Briton," he answered simply.

" I thought your voice had somewhat of the Welsh
tone," my father said. " And your English is of
Mercia. I have heard that there are Britons in the
fenland there."

" I am of West Wales, Thane, but I have bided
long in Mercia."

Then came my old nurse, and there were words
enough for the time. Her eyes were red with
weeping, but it was all that my father could do to
prevent her scolding me soundly then and there for
the fright I had given her. But she set a great
bowl of bread and milk before me, and the men
began to come in at that time, and they stood in a
ring round me and watched me eat it as if they had
never seen me before, while my father spoke aside of
the flight to Owen on the high place. But concern-
ing his own story my father asked the stranger no
more until he chose to open the matter himself.

After supper there was all the tale to be told, and


when that was done the Welshman slept before the
hall fire with the house-carles, but my father had me
with him in the closed chamber beyond the high
seat, for it seemed that he would not let me go
beyond his sight again yet.

Now, that is how Owen came to me at first, and
the first thing therefore that I owe to him is nothing
less than life itself. And from that time we have
been, as I have said, together in all things.

On the next morning my father made his guest
take him back over the ground we had crossed
together, for no fresh snow had fallen, and the foot-
prints were plain to be followed almost from the gate
of the hall stockade. So they came at last to the
tree, and on it the head hung yet, but the body was
clean gone. All round the tree the snow was
reddened and trampled by the fierce beasts who
leapt to reach the head, and the marks of their
clawing was on the trunk, where they had tried to
climb it. From the footmarks it seemed that there
were eight or nine of them. Three great ones had
left the head and followed us presently as far as the
brook, half a mile away.

After that the two men went on to the place
where Owen had found me, and there my father,
judging from the dress and loneliness of the Briton
that he might be able to help him somewhat, said :
" I do not know what your plans may be, but is
there any reason why you should not bide here and
help me tend the life you have kept for me ? "

Then answered Owen : " You know nought of me,
Thane. For all you ken, I may be but an outlaw
who is fleeing from justice."


" Do I know nought about you ? I think that
last night and what I have seen to-day have told
me much, and I have been held as a good judge of
a man. If so be that you were an outlaw, which I
do not think, what you have done is enough to inlaw
you again with any honest man even had you
taken a life, for you have saved one. Did I know
you were an outlaw I would see to your pardon.
But maybe you are on a journey that may not be
hindered ? "

Now Owen was silent for a little, and there came
a shadow over his face as he answered, slowly and
with his eyes on the far sea

" No man's man am I, and I am but drifting west-
ward again at random. Yet I can say in all truth,
that I am no wanderer for ill reason in any wise. I
will tell you, Thane, here and alone, that there are
foes in my home for whose passing, in one way or
another, I must needs wait. Even now I was on
my way to Bosham, where they tell me are Western
monks with whom I might bide for a time, if not
altogether. I was lost in the forest last night."

Now my father saw that some heavy sorrow of no
common sort lay beneath the quiet words of the man
before him, and he forbore to ask him more. Also,
he deemed that in the Welsh land he would surely
rank as a thane, for his ways and words bespoke more
than his dress would tell. Therefore he said

" Wait here with us for a while at least. There
will be no more welcome guest."

" Let me be of some use, rather," Owen answered.
" If I bide with you, Thane, and I thank you for
the offer, let it be as I have bided elsewhere from


time to time as one of the household, not as an
idle guest, if it were but to help the woodmen in the

" Why, that will be well. I need a forester, and
it is plain that you are a master of woodcraft. Let
it be so. Yet I must tell you one thing fairly, and
that is, that I am what you would call a heathen.
I know that you are a good Christian man, for I
saw you sign your holy sign before you ate last night
and this morning. Yet I do not hate Christians."

" I had heard that all Sussex was turned to the
faith," Owen said.

"If one says that all the men have gone to
market, one knows that here and there one is
excepted for good reason. It is not for a thane
of the line of Woden to give up the faith of his
fathers idly. I do not know what may be in the
days to come, but here in the Andredsweald some
dozen of us will not leave the old gods. It was
the bidding of Ethelwalch the king that we should
do so, but that is not a matter wherein a king may
meddle, as it seems to us."

" I do not know why I should not bide with you,
Thane, if so be that there is no hindrance to my

"That there will be none. Why, the most of
my folk are Christian enough. And if a man of
the Britons did not honour his old faith it would
be as strange as if I honoured not that of my
fathers. I have no quarrel with the faith of any
man, either king or thrall."

"Then I will be your forester, Thane, for such
time as I may, and I thank you."


" Nay, but the thanks are all on my side,"
answered my father. " Now I shall know that the
boy will have one with whom he may live all day
in the woods if he will, and I shall be content."

So Owen bided with us, half as honoured guest
and half as forester, and as time went on he was
well loved by all who knew him, for he was ever
the same to each man about the place. As for me,
it was the best day that could have dawned when
he found me in the woods as a lost child. And
that my father said also.



OUR Sussex was the last land in all England that
was heathen. I suppose that the last heathen
thanes in Sussex were those whose manors lay in
the Andredsweald, as did ours. Most of these
thanes had held aloof from the faith because at the
first coming of good Bishop Wilfrith, some twelve
years ago, those who had hearkened to him were
mostly thralls and freemen of the lower ranks, and
they would not follow their lead. Yet of these
there were some, like my father, who had no hatred,
to say the least, of the Christian and his creed, and
did but need the words of one who could speak
rightly to them to turn altogether from the Asir.

Maybe the only man who was at this time really
fierce against the faith was Erpwald, the thane of
Wisborough, some half-score miles from us north-
wards across the forest. He had been the priest
of Woden in the old days, and indeed held himself
so even now, though secretly, for fear of Ina the
Wessex king, who ruled our land well and strongly.
This Erpwald was no very good neighbour of ours,
as it happened, for he and my father had some old



feud concerning forest rights and the like which he
had taken to heart more than there was any
occasion for, seeing that it was but such a matter as
most thanes have, unless they are unusually lucky,
in a place where boundaries are none. It is likely
enough that but for the easy ways of my father,
who gave in to him so far as he could, this feud
would have been of trouble some time ago, for as
the power of Erpwald, as priest, waned he seemed to
look more for power in other ways. Yet in the end
both the matter of the faith and the matter of the
feud seemed to work together in some way that
brought trouble enough on our house, which must
be told ; for it set Owen and me out into the
world together for a time, and because of it there
befell many happenings thereafter which have not
all been sad in their ending. Owen had been with
us for a year and a half when what I am going to
tell came to pass, and in that time my father had
come to look on him rather as a brother than as a
guest, and the thought that he might leave him at
any time was one which he did not like to keep in
his mind.

That being so, it was not at all surprising that in
this summer my father had at last borne witness
that he wished to become a Christian altogether,
and so it had come to pass that he and Owen and I
used to ride to Bosham, the little seacoast village
beyond Chichester town, to speak with Dicul, the
good old Irish priest, who yet bided there rather
than in the new monastery which Wilfrith built at
Selsea, until we were taught all that was needful,
and the time came when we should be baptized.


That my father would have done here at East-
dean, that all his people, who were Christians before
him, should see and rejoice. Yet it was not an easy
matter for him as it had been for them, for now he
would stand alone among his fellows, the heathen
thanes ; and most of all Erpwald the priest would be
wrath with him for leaving that which he had held
so long. He must meet these men often enough,
and he knew that they would have biting words to
hurl at him, but that thought did not stay him for
a moment. It was more than likely that one or
two more would follow him when once the old
circle was broken.

So on a certain day Dicul rode over from
Bosham on his mule, and early on the next morning
he set up a little wooden cross by the spring above
the hall, and there my father and I and Stuf, the
head man of the house-carles, who had bided in the
old faith for love of my father, were baptized, Owen
and one of the village freemen standing sponsors
for us, and that was a wondrous day to us all, as I
think. For when all was done my father gave
their freedom to all our thralls, for the sake of the
freedom that had been given him, and he promised
that here, where he and they had been freed, a
church should be built of good forest oak, after
the woodcutting of the winter to come.

Then Dicul went his way homewards, with one
of our men to lead his mule and carry some few
presents for his people to Bosham, and after he was
gone we had a quiet feasting in our hall until the
light was gone. And even as our feasting ended
there came in a swineherd from the forest with word


that from the northward there came a strong band
of armed men through the forest, and he held it
right that my father should be warned thereof, for
he feared they were some banded outlaws, seeing
that there was peace in the land. That was no
unlikely thing at all, for our forests shelter many,
and game being plentiful they live there well enough,
if not altogether at ease. As a rule they gave little
trouble to us, and at times in the winter we would
even have men who were said to be outlaws from
far off working in the woods for us. Yet now and
then some leader would rise among them and gather
them into bands which waxed bold to harry cattle
and even houses, so that there might be^ truth in
what the swineherd told. Nevertheless my father
thought of little danger but to the herds, and so had
them driven into the sheds from the home fields,
and set the men their watches as he had more than
once done before in like alarms.

Presently I was awakened, for I had gone to rest
before ,the message came, by the hoarse call of a
horn and the savage barking of the dogs. I heard
the hall doors shut and open once or twice as
men passed in and out, and in the hall was the
rattle of weapons as the men took them from their
places on the walls, but I heard no voices raised
more than usual. Then I got out of my bed and
tried to open the sliding doors that would let me
out on the high place from my father's chamber,
where I always slept now, but I could not move
them. So I went back to my place and listened.

What was happening I must tell, therefore, as
Owen has told me, for I saw nothing to speak of.


As the horn was blown, one of the men who had
been on guard came into the hall hastily and spoke
to my father.

" The house is beset, Lord. Stuf blew the horn
and bade me tell you. There are men all round
the stockade."

" Outlaws ? "

The man shook his head.

" We think not, Lord. But it is dark, and we
cannot fairly see them. We heard them call one
' Thane.' Nor are there any outland voices among
them, as there would be were they outlaws."

Then my father armed himself in haste and went
out. The night was very dark, and it was raining
a little. Stuf had shut the stockade gates, which
were strong enough, and had reared a ladder
against the timbers that he might look over.

Close to the ladder stood Owen, armed also, for
he had been out to see that all was quiet and that
the men were on guard.

" There are men everywhere," he said. " I would
we had some light."

" Heave a torch on the strawstack," my father
answered ; " there will be enough then."

The stack was outside the stockade, and some
twenty yards from its corner. One of the men ran
to the hall and brought a torch from its socket on
the wall, and handed it to Stuf, who threw it fairly
on the stack top, from the ladder. It blazed up
fiercely as it went through the air, and from the
men who beset us there rose a howl as they saw it.
Several ran and tried to reach it with their spears,
but they were not in time. The first damp straws


of the thatch hissed for a moment, dried, and
burst into flame, and then nought could stop the
burning. The red flames gathered brightness every
moment, lighting up two sides of the stockading,
in the midst of which the hall stood. Then an
arrow clicked on Stufs helm, and he came down
into shelter.

" This is a strange affair, Master," he said. " I
have seen three men whom I know well among

' Who are they ? "

" Wisborough men freemen of Erpwald's."

My father and Owen looked at one another.
Words my father knew he should have to put up
with, after to-day, from Erpwald, but this seemed
token of more than words only.

Then came the blast of a horn from outside, and
a strange voice shouted that the thane must come
and speak with those who called him. So my
father went to the gate and answered from
within ,it

" Here am I. What is all the trouble ? "

" Open the gate, and you shall know."

" Not so, Thane," cried one of our men, who was
peering through the timbers of the stockade. " Now
that I can see, I have counted full fifty men, and
they are waiting as if to rush in."

Then said my father : " Maybe we will open the
gate when we are sure you are friends. One may
be forgiven for doubting that when you come thus
at midnight to a peaceful house."

" We are friends or not, as you choose, Aldred,"
the voice answered. " I am Erpwald, Woden's


priest, and I am here to stay wrong to the Asir of
which I have heard."

" I will not pretend not to know what you mean,
Erpwald," answered my father. "But this, as it
seems to me, is a matter that concerns me most
of all."

" If it concerns not Woden's priest, whom shall it
concern ? " answered Erpwald. " It is true, then,
that you have left the Asir to follow the way of the
thralls, led aside by that Welshman you have with
you ? "

" It is true enough that I am a Christian," said
my father steadily. " As for leaving the Asir, that

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 2 of 25)