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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flew at me. That stroke must have been the
man's bane, because to reach me thus he had
thrown his arm across his chest, and so had fallen
on his weapon.

Then I was going, I think, though indeed I
hardly know what I did at that moment, but the
king stayed me, laughing.

" Do not think that I am going to let you off the
cup, though. Now you shall pledge me, and if
you have any vow to make which is fitting for a
thane, make it and let us all hear it. But you have
also the lady to think of in your words."

Then there was a little rustle at the door which
was on the high place, and the queen returned with
some of her ladies, hearing that all was seemly
again, and she stood smiling at these last words.
But Elfrida was not with her, and I was glad, else
I had been more mazed yet. So I plucked up


heart and took the cup from the hand of the king,
trying to collect my thoughts into some sort of
fitting words.

" Drinc hael Cyning" I said, while my voice
shook. " Here do I vow before all the Saints and
before this company that I will do my best to
prove myself worthy of this honour that has been
set on me ! "

" Why, Oswald," said the queen, " that is no sort
of vow such as you should make, for we know that
already, and you have proved it now if never before.
And you have forgotten Elfrida."

Now, I thought to myself that the last thing
that I was ever likely to do was to forget that
maiden, and with that a thought came into my
head, and as the queen was smiling at me, and
every one was waiting, I grew desperate, and must
needs out with it.

" Now, I cannot do better than this," I said,
finding my courage all of a sudden. " Here do
I add to my vow that so long as my life shall last
I will not again forget the Lady Elfrida. Nor
will I be content until I am held worthy by her
to to guard her all the rest of my days."

With that I drained the cup, and while the
thanes laughed and cheered all round me, and Ina
smiled as if well pleased enough, the queen set her
hand on my arm, smiling also, and said

" That was well said, my thane, but for one turn
of the words. Why did you not tell us plainly
that you mean to win her? We all know what
you mean."

Then I went to my place, and I glanced at


Herewald, to see how he would take all this.
Somewhat seemed to have amused him mightily,
and his eyes brimmed with a jest as he looked at
me. Presently, when men forgot me in listening to
the vow Ina made, that he would add somewhat to
the new Church in thankfulness for this escape, the
ealdorman came near me and whispered

" You are a cautious youth, Oswald , for I never
heard a man turn a hint from a lady better in my
life. Nevertheless, if you are not careful, Ethel-
burga will wed you to Elfrida for all your

He laughed again, and said no more. But I was
looking at Owen, who seemed to have some thoughts
of his own that were troubling him sorely. He
smiled and nodded, indeed, when he caught my eye,
but then he grew grave again directly, and after-
wards his horn stood before him on the table
untasted, and his look seemed far away, though
round him men sang and all was merry.

However, as one may suppose, the merriment was
not what it should have been, and none wondered
much when Ina rose and left the table with a few
pleasant parting words. He was never one to bide
long at a feast, and he knew, maybe, that the
house-carles and younger men would be more at
ease when his presence was no longer felt by them.
With him went Owen and the ealdorman, and
Nunna, at some sign of his, and after they went
I had to stand no little banter concerning my vow,
as may be supposed. I was not sorry when a page
came and bade me join the king in his own
chamber, though it was all good-natured and in no


sort of unkindness. I will not say that I did not
enjoy it either. So I went as I was bidden, and
found that some sort of council was being held,
and that those four were looking grave over it.
I supposed they had some errand for me at first,
but in no long time I knew that what was on hand
was nought more or less than the beginning of
parting between Owen and me.

I will make little of all that was said, though it
was a long matter, and heavy in the telling, and
maybe tangled here and there to me as I listened.
1 think that Ina understood that trouble fell on me
as I heard all, for he looked kindly on me from
his great chair, while Nunna sat on the table and
was silent, stroking his beard, as if thinking. But
Owen drew me to the settle by him, and bade me
hearken while the king told me the tale I had to

Then I heard how Owen, my foster-father, was
indeed a prince of the old Cornish line that came
from Arthur, and how his cousins, Morgan and
Dewi, had plotted to oust him from his place
at the right hand of Cerent the king, and had
succeeded only too well, so that he had had to
fly. It matters not what their lies concerning him
had been, nor do I think that Owen knew all that
had been said against him, but Cerent had banished
him, and so he had wandered to Mercia, and thence
after a year or two to Sussex, having heard of the
Irish monks of the old Western Church at Bosham.
So he had met with me, and thus he and I had
come to Ina's court together.

And as I heard all, I knew that it had been for


my sake that he was content to serve as a simple
forester at Eastdean, for Ina told me that across
the Severn among the other princes of the old
Welsh lands he would have been more than
welcome. I could say nothing, but I set my hand
on his and left it there, and he smiled at me, and
grasped it.

" And now," said Ina, " your hand has in some
sort avenged the old wrong, for you have brought
about the end of Morgan, who was Owen's foe.
But this is a matter we need to hear more con-
cerning. Do you bring us that stranger that he
may tell us what he knows."

I went to the hall again, and found him easily
enough, for all men were looking at him. He was
in the midst of the hall, juggling in marvellous
wise with a heavy woodman's axe, which he played
with as if it were a straw for lightness. Even as I
entered from the door on the high place he was
whirling it for a mighty stroke which seemed meant
to cleave a horn cup which he had set on a stool
before him, and I wondered. But he stayed the
stroke as suddenly as if his great arms had been
turned to steel, so that the axe edge rested on the
rim of the vessel without so much as notching it,
and at that all the onlookers cheered him.

" Now it may be known," said he, smiling
broadly, " why men call me Thorgils the axeman."

Then he threw the unhandy weapon into the air
whirling, and caught it as it came to hand again, so
that it balanced on his palm, and so he held it as I
went to him, and told him the king would speak
with him.


Whereon he threw the axe at the doorpost, so
that it stuck there, and laughed at the new shout
of applause, and so turned down his sleeves and
bade me lead him where I would.

He made a stiff, outlandish salute as he stood
before Ina, and the king returned it.

" I have sent for you now, friend, rather than
wait for morning," he said, " for it seems to me that
we have business that must be seen to with the first
light. Will you tell us what you know of this man
who has been slain ? I think you are no Welshman
of Cornwall."

" I am Thorgils the Norseman of Watchet, king,"
he answered. " Thorgils the axeman, men call me,
by reason of some skill with that weapon which
your folk seem to hold in no repute, which is a pity.
Shipmaster am I by trade, and I am here to seek
for cargo, that I may make one more voyage this
winter with the more profit, having to cross to
Dyfed, beyond the narrow sea, though it is late in
the year."

" I thought you might be a Dane from Tenby."

" The Welsh folk know the difference between us
by this time," Thorgils said, with a little laugh.
" They call them ' black heathen ' and us ' white
heathen,' though I don't know that they love us
better than they do them. By grace of Gerent
the king, to be politic, or by grace of axeplay, to
speak the truth, we have a little port of our own
here on this side the water, at the end of the
Quantocks, where we seek to bide peaceably with all
men as traders."

" Ay ! I have heard of your town," said Ina.


" Now, can tell us how Morgan and his brother came
to be in company with outlaws ? "

" He fell out with Cerent over us, to begin with.
I went with our chiefs to Exeter when we first came
seeking a home, to promise tribute if we were left
in peace in the place we had chosen. Cerent was
willing enough, but Morgan, who claims some sort
of right over the Devon end of the kingdom, was
against our biding at all, and there were words.
However, Cerent and we had our way, and so we
thought to hear no more of the matter. But the
next thing was that Morgan gathered a force and
tried to turn us out on his own account, and had
the worst of the affair. That angered Cerent, for
he lost some good men outside our stockades. And
then other things cropped up between them. I
have heard that the old king found out old lies told
by Morgan concerning Owen the prince, whom men
hope to see again, but I know little of that. Any-
way, Morgan and his brother fled, and this is the
end thereof. We heard too that he plotted to take
the throne, and it is likely."

" Thanks, friend," Ina said. " That is a plain
tale, and all we need to know. But what say men
of Owen, whom you spoke of? Is it known that he
lives ? "

" Oh ay. They say that you know more of
him than any one. Men have seen him here at
Glastonbury. Moreover, Cerent came to Norton,
just across the Quantocks, yesterday, and it is
thought that he wants to send a message to you
asking after him. There will be joy in West Wales
if he goes back to the right hand of the king, for


one would think that he was a fairy prince by the
way he is spoken of."

Thereat Ina smiled at Owen, and Thorgils saw
it, and knew what was meant in a moment. He
turned to Owen with a quick look, and said

" True enough, Prince, but I did not know that I
spoke of a listener. On my word, if you do go back,
you will have hard work to live up to what is
expected of you. Maybe what is more to the point
is this, that Morgan has more friends than enough,
and it is likely that they will stick at little to
avenge him. Howbeit," he added with a quaint
smile, " it shall not be said that Thorgils missed a
chance. Prince, if you do go back to Cerent you will
be his right hand, as they say. Therefore I will
ask you at once to have us Norsemen in favour, so
far as we need any. Somewhat is due to the
bearer of tidings, by all custom."

Ina laughed, and even Owen smiled at the ready
Norseman, but Herewald the ealdorman and I
wondered at him, for he spoke as to equals, with
no sort of fear of the king on him, which was
not altogether the way of men who stood before

Then said Owen quietly

" Friend, I think there is a favour I may ask you,
rather. I have bided away from my uncle, King
Gerent, because I would not return to him unasked,
being somewhat proud, maybe. But now it seems
to King Ina and myself that needs must I go to
him to take the news of this death of Morgan
myself. It is a matter that might easily turn to a


cause of war between Wessex and West Wales,
for if the man tried to slay our king in his own
court, it may also be told that here was slain
a prince of Dyvnaint. There is full need that
the truth should reach the king before rumour
makes the matter over great. You have seen all,
and are known to the Welsh court as a friend.
Come with me, therefore, to-morrow and tell the

" That I will, Prince," Thorgils said. " You will
be welcome ; but as I warn you, there will be need
for care."

" You know somewhat of the ways of the Welsh
court," said Ina.

" Needs must, Lord King. I am a shipmaster,
and every trader I carry across the sea, sometimes
to South Wales, and sometimes to Bristol, and
betimes so far as to Ireland, tells me all he has
learned. It were churlish not to listen, and then
we need warning against such attacks as that of
Morgan. Moreover, one likes somewhat to talk

" That is plain enough," said Nunna, laughing.

" Maybe I do talk too much," answered the
Norseman. " It is a failing in my family. But my
sister is worse than I."

Then the king laughed again, and so dismissed
the shipman, and presently Owen bade me make
all preparation for riding to Norton on the morrow
early. Ina would have us take a strong guard, and
I should bring them back, either with or without
Owen, as things went.

But little sleep had I that night, for I knew too


well that from henceforth my life and that of my
foster-father must lie apart, and how far sundered we
might be I could not tell. There was no love of
the Saxon in West Wales, nor of the Welshman in



GERE NT, the king of the West Welsh, as we called
him, ruled over all the land of Devon and Cornwall,
from the fens of the Tone and Parrett Rivers to the
Land's End. Only those wide fens, across which he
could not go, had kept our great King Kenwalch
from pushing Wessex yet westward, and along their
line had been our frontier since his days until, not
long before Ina came to the throne, Kentwine
crossed them to the north and cleared the
marauding Welsh of the Quantock hills and forests
from the river to the sea, setting honest Saxon
franklins here and there in the new-won land, to
keep it for him. It was out of those deep wooded
hills that Morgan had come on the raid that ended
so badly for his brother and himself, for the wasted
country was yet a sort of no-man's land, where out-
laws found easy harbourage, coming mostly from
the Welsh side. It would not need much to set the
tide of war moving westward again, now that our
men knew the fenland as well as ever the British
learned the secrets of the paths.

Now that the time seemed to have come for him



to leave Ina, Owen feared most of all that the long
peace would end, for that would mean the rending
of old friendships and certain parting from me.
How much longer the peace would last was very
doubtful, and men said that it was only the wisdom
of Aldhelm that had kept it so well, and now he
was dead. It was not so long since that a west
Welshman would not so much as eat with a Saxon,
so great was the hatred they had for us, though that
had worn off more or less. Maybe it would have
passed altogether but that there were the differences
between the ways of the two Churches which were
always cropping up and making things bitter again,
and those were the troubles that Aldhelm, whom
Gerent honoured, had most tried to smooth away
with some sort of success. Yet it was well known
that many of the Welsh priests and people were
sorely against peace with the men who followed the
way of Austin of Canterbury.

As for me, I almost wondered that Ina seemed so
ready to part with Owen, but presently I saw that
if Gerent owned him again, my foster-father would
be a link between the two kingdoms, which would
make for peace in every way. But for all that, in
my own heart was a sort of half hope that in spite
of what the Norseman had heard, Owen would not
be welcomed back to the west, else I should lose
him altogether. There was no intercourse between
our courts, now that Aldhelm was gone.

But in the morning, when I came to say some of
this to Owen, he smiled at me, and said

" Wait, Oswald. Time enough for trouble when
it comes. Maybe you and I will be back here this


evening, and if not, I hope that my staying with my
uncle will mean peace between our lands. Let it
be so till we have seen what may be our fortune at

So I tried to let the trouble pass, and indeed at
the morning meal I had my new rank to think of,
for my comrades would not forget it, nor would they
let me do so. The first man to greet me as thane
was Thorgils the Norseman, too, and he went with
me to see to choosing men and horses for our
journey, and I was glad of his gossip, for it kept me
from thinking overmuch of the heavier things that
had kept me waking.

He would guide us across the hills to Norton,
where Gerent was ; for though we knew somewhat of
the Quantocks, beyond them we did not go. The
palace where the king lay was an ancient Roman
stronghold, and had belonged to Morgan, who was
dead ; and though Thorgils had heard that Gerent
was there to seek Owen, it was more likely that he
had come to see that the outlawed brothers did not
gather any force against him in their own place. It
was many a year since he had been so near our

Presently Thorgils would go down the town to the
inn where he had bestowed his horse, and I went
with him, having an hour left before we started,
rather than face any more banter concerning my
thanedom. It was almost in my mind to go
to the ealdorman's house to ask after Elfrida, but
I forbore, being shy, I suppose, and so left the
Norseman to join us presently, and went back
to the king's hall by a short cut from the village,


whereby I had a meeting which was unlocked for

That way was a sort of stolen short cut across
the king's orchard, which some of us used at times
in coming from village to hall, for it lay between the
two on the south side of the hall where the ground
sloped sunwards. And as I leapt over the fence I
was aware of a lady who was gathering some of the
ruddy crab apples from the ground under their bare
tree, for the hot ale of the wassail bowl, doubtless,
for we leave them out to mellow with the frost thus.
She did not heed me as I came over the soft snow,
and when she did at last look up I saw that she
was Elfrida. Just for a moment I wished that I
had gone round by the road, but there was no
escape for me now, for she had seen me. So I
unbonneted and went to meet her.

There was a little flush on her face when she saw
me, but it was not altogether one of pleasure, for
when I wished her good-morrow, all that I had in
return was a cold little bow and the few words that
needs must be spoken in answer. Whereat I felt
somewhat foolish ; but it did not seem to me that I
had done aught to deserve quite so much coldness,
not being a stranger by any means. So I would
even try to find the way to a better understanding,
and I thought that maybe the sight of me had
brought back some of the terror of last night.

" Now, I hope that the rough doings of the feast
have not been troublous to you, Lady Elfrida," I
said, trying with as good a grace as I could not to
see her cold looks.

I saw that she did indeed shrink a little from


them as I spoke, even in the passing thought. But
she answered

" Such things are best forgotten as soon as may
be. I do not wish to hear more of them."

" Nevertheless," I answered, " there are some who
will not forget them, and I fear that you must needs
be ready to hear of your part in them pretty often."

" Ay," she said somewhat bitterly, " I suppose
that I am the talk of the whole place now."

"If so, there would be many who would be glad
to be spoken of as you must needs be. There is
nought but praise for you."

Then she turned on me, and the trouble was plain
enough in a moment.

" But for yourself, Thane, there would have been
nought that I could not have put up with. But
little thought for me was there when you made me
the jest of your idle comrades over that foolish cup
of the king's."

That was a new way of looking at the matter, in
all truth. I supposed that a vow of fealty to any
lady would have been taken by her as somewhat on
which to pride herself maybe, from whomsoever it
came. Which seemed to be foolishness in this fresh
light. Still, it came to me that her anger was not
altogether fair, for I was the one who had to stand
the jesting, and not one of my honest comrades
so much as mentioned her name lightly in any

" That was no jest ol mine, Elfrida," I said gravely
enough. "If there is any jest at all that will come
from my oath, it will be that I have been foolish
enough to vow fealty to one who despises me. The


last thing that I would do is anything that might
hurt you. And my vow stands fast, whether you
scorn me or not, for if it was made in a moment, it
is not as if I had not had long years to think on in
which we have been good friends enough."

" Ay," she said, turning from me and reaching
some apples that yet hung on a sheltered bough,
" I have heard the terms of that vow from my
father, more than once. You can keep it without

" Have I your leave to try to keep it ? "

"You have had full leave to be a good friend of
ours all these years, as you say, and I do not see
that the vow binds you to more. No one thinks
that you are likely to forget last night, or any one
who took part in that cruel business. And if a
friend will not help to guard a lady well, he would
be just nidring, no more or less."

Then she took up her basket, which was pretty
full and no burden for a lady, for she had picked
fast and heedlessly as she spoke to me, and so turned

" Nay, but surely you know that there was more
than that meant," I said lamely.

" No need to have haled my name into the matter
at all," she said. And then, seeing that my eyes
went to the basket, she smiled a little, and held it to
me with both hands.

" Well, if you meant some new sort of service,
you can begin by carrying this for me. I am going
to the queen's bower."

I took it without a word, and we went silently
together to the door that led to the queen's end of


the hall. There she stayed for a moment with her
hand on the latch. But she had only a question to
ask me

" Do you go with your father to the Welsh king's
court, as it is said that he will go shortly ? "

" We start together in an hour's time or there-
about," I answered, wondering.

" Well then, take this to mind you of your vow,"
she said, and threw a little bronze brooch, gilt and
set with bright enamel, into the basket, and so fled
into the house, leaving me on the doorstep with the

I set them down there, and had a mind to leave
the brooch also. However, on second thoughts I
took it, and went my way in a puzzled state of mind.
It certainly seemed that Elfrida was desperately
angry with me for reasons which were not easy to
fathom, and yet she had given me this that is, if
to have a thing thrown at one is to have it given.
But I was not going to quarrel with the manner of
a gift from Elfrida, and so I went on with it in my
hand, and as I turned the corner into a fresh path
I also ran into the abbot of the new minster, who
was on his way to speak with Owen before he set
out. He had been a great friend of Bishop
Aldhelm's, and I had known him well since the old
days of Malmesbury.

" So Oswald," he cried, M I have been looking for
you, that I might wish you all good in your thane-
ship. Why, some of us are proud of you. And I,
having known you since you were a child, feel as if
I had some sort of a share in your honours. But
what is amiss? One would look to see you the


gayest of the gay, and it seems as if the world had
gone awry with you."

Now, the abbot was just the friend to whom I
could tell my present trouble without fear of being
mocked, for he was wont to stand to us boys of the
court as the good friend who would help us out of
a scrape if he could, and make us feel ashamed
thereof in private afterward, in all kindliness. So I
told him what was on my mind, for he was at the
feast last night.

" It is all that vow of mine," I said. " I have just
met Elfrida, and she is angry with me for naming
her at all."

" Unfair," said the abbot. " You could not have
helped it, seeing that you were bidden to do so."

I had forgotten that, and it was possible that
Elfrida did not know it. So I said that I did not
look 'for quite the scorn I had met with, at all
events. Whereon the abbot stayed in his walk and
asked more, trying to look grave as he heard me,
and soon he had all the story.

" So you carried the basket like any thrall, and
had my Yuletide gift to her in payment," he said,

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 5 of 25)