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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I was yet bound to my splints, but with my arms
free it was but the work of a few seconds to cast off
the last of my bonds, and within five minutes after
the strand had parted I was on my feet, and rubbing
and stretching my bruised and cramped limbs into
life again. Then I felt in the darkness for the bale
that held my gear, and found it and tore it open.

How good it was to gird the sword on me again,
and to feel the cold rim of the good helm round my
hot forehead ! I was myself again, and as I slipped
Cerent's gold ring on my arm I thought that it was
almost worth the bondage to know what pleasure
can be in the winning of freedom. I forgot that I
was troubled with thirst and hunger, having touched
nothing since I broke my fast with Owen ; though,
indeed, there was little matter in that, for I had
done well at that meal with the long ride before me,
and one ought to be able to go for a day and a
night without food if need be, as a warrior.

Still, I was not yet out of the trouble. Thorgils
had gone to some place that I knew nothing of, and
I had yet to learn if there was any hope from
Evan's shore going, which might make things easier
or might not. I could hear no one moving about
the ship, so I pushed the door open for an inch or
two, and looked out into the moonlight, with my
drawn sword ready in my hand.

We were in a strange place. The ship's bows
were landward, so that as I looked aft I could see
that we lay just inside the mouth of a little cove,
whose guarding cliffs towered on either side of the


water for not less than ten-score feet above the
fringe of breakers, falling sheer to the water with
hardly so much as a jutting rock at their feet.
There was no sign of house or man at the hilltop,
so that it was plain that we were not at Tenby.

Then I was able to see that we were alongside a
sort of landing-place that was partly natural and
partly hewn and smoothed from the living rock
into a sort of wharf at the foot of the cliff. From
this landing-place a steep road, hewn with untold
labour at some ancient day, slanted sharply upward
and toward the head of the cove along the face of
the rocks, which were somewhat less steep on this
side than across the water. I could not see the top
of this road, but no doubt it was that along which
Thorgils and the princess had gone, and no doubt
also Evan thought to carry me up it before
long. I had a hope that my friend would return
too soon for that, but it was a slender one. It
was plain that he had gone too far for me to call
to him. Yet could I win clear of the ship I might
find or fight my way up after him, and that seemed
easy with only these three Welshmen against me,
and they expecting no attack.

I looked for the two who were left if I slew
Evan. One sat under the weather gunwale,
wrapped in a great cloak, and seemed to be
sleeping. The other was not far off on the landing-
place, watching Evan, who was speaking with a
dozen men at the foot of the rock-hewn road. I
suppose that the coming in of the ship had drawn
idlers from the camp I had heard of to see her, for
they all had arms of some sort.


This was bad, for it seemed certain that the
whole crowd would join with Evan in falling on
me if he called on them. If I came forth now I
had full twenty yards to cover before I reached
them from the ship's side after I had settled with
the men on watch. In that space all would be
ready for me, and they were too many for me to
cut through to the roadway. I thought too that I
heard the voices of more who came downward
toward the ship, though I could not see them
whence I was.

Then it came into my mind that if there was any
place where I could hide myself on deck I would
try to creep to it while none had their eyes on the
ship. Then Evan, as he went to the cabin to seek
me, would have to deal with me from the rear.
But that I soon saw was hopeless. The deck was
clear of lumber big enough to shelter me, and the
moonlight was almost as bright as day on every-
thing, and all the clearer for the snow that covered
all the land. So I began to turn over many other
plans in my mind, and at last it seemed that the
only thing was to wait in the cabin for the best
chance that offered. Most likely Evan would do
even as he had said, and try and get away at once,
with all he could lay hands on. If so, I thought
it would be certain that in his hurry he would bring
all these men on board in order to get his goods,
and maybe those belonging to Thorgils also, out
and away with all haste, and so I could cut through
them with a rush that must take them unawares,
and so win to the camp with none to hinder me.
There might be sentries who would stay me, but I


should be within calling distance of my friend.
Moreover, a sentry would see that I was some sort
of a leader of men, and might help me. So I
began to wish for Evan to act, for my fingers
itched to get one downward blow at him.

I had not long to wait. He finished his talk
with the men, and they all came to the ship, even
as I had hoped. But only half of them came on
board, leaving the rest alongside on the rock so
that they might help the goods over the side.
That was not all that I could have wished, but I
thought that I might get through them in the
surprise that was waiting for them. So I drew
my sword, and for want of shield wrapped the
blanket from the floor round my left arm, and stood
by for the rush.

Evan walked in a leisurely way toward the door,
talking to one of the new-comers as he came. The
rest straggled behind him.

" I wonder how my sick man fares now," he said,
and set his hand to the latch.

Then he opened the door and I shouted and
sprung forth, aiming a blow at him as I came. But
I was not clear of the low deck, and my sword
smote the beam overhead so that I missed him, and
he threw himself on the deck out of reach of a
second blow, howling. I was sorry, but I could not
stop, for I had to win to the shore and to the road

The other men shrank from me, and I went
through them easily, and so reached the shoreward
gunwale. There I was stayed, for Evan had never
ceased to cry to his fellows to stop me, and there


was a row of ready swords waiting for me. And
there were more men coming down the path,
Welshmen as I could see by their arms, and by
their white tunics which glimmered in the moon-
light. So that was closed to me, and it seemed
that here I must fight my last fight. Then as I
could not go over the side I went to the high stern
and leapt on it, half hoping that the men on shore
might not be quick enough to stay me from a leap
thence, but they were there alongside before me.
Evan was up now, and cheering on the men on deck
to attack me, but not seeming to care to lead
them. They gathered together and came aft to me
slowly, planning, as it would seem, how best to attack
me, for the steering deck on which I was raised me
four feet or so above them. The men on shore
could not reach me at all unless I got too near the
gunwale, when some of them who had spears might
easily end me.

Something alongside the ship caught my eyes,
and I glanced at it with a thought that here might
be fresh foes. But it was only the little boat that
belonged to the ship. The wind had caught her,
and was drifting her at the length of her painter
as if she wanted to cross the cove to its far side.
Perhaps the men saw that my eyes were not on
them for that moment, for they made a rush from
the deck to climb the steering platform.

Then I had a good fight for a few minutes, until
1 swept them back to their place. Two had won
to the deck beside me, and there they stayed.
Now I had a hope that the men on shore would
come round to the ship and leave the way clear for


me, but Evan called to them to bide where they
were. He had not faced me yet, and I bade him
do so, telling him that this was his affair, and
that it was nidring to risk other men's lives to save
his own skin. But even that would not bring him
on me.

Now the men whom I had seen coming down
from the cliffs' top had hurried to see what all the
shouting meant, and I saw that they were well-
armed warriors and mostly spearsmen. Evan cried
to them to come and help, and they ranged up
alongside. He told them that I was a Norseman
who had gone berserk, and must needs be slain.

" That is easily managed," said the leader. " Get
to your bows, men."

I saw half a dozen unslinging them, and I knew
that without shield I was done, and in that moment
a thought came to me. I suppose that danger
sharpens one's wits, for I saw that in the little boat
was my last chance. I had not time to draw her
to the side, and so I cut her painter, which was fast
to a cleat close to me, and as I did so the first
arrow missed my head.

Then I shouted and leapt from the high stern
straight among the crowd at Evan, felling one of
his outlaw comrades as I lit on the deck. But I
could not reach him, and in a few seconds I should
have been surrounded. So I cleared a way to the
seaward side and went overboard, amid a howl from
my foes. I thought that I should never stop sink-
ing, for I had forgotten my mail; but I came to
the surface close to the ship, and looked for the
boat. She was drifting gently away from me, and


I knew that I should have all that I could do to
reach her before the bowmen got to work again
from the ship's deck. Some one threw an axe at
me as I swam, which was waste of a good weapon,
and I hoped that it was not Thorgils' best. Strange
what thoughts come to a man when in a strait.

The water struck icy cold to me, and I felt that
I could not stand it long, but I gained on the boat
with every stroke, though it was hard work swim-
ming in my mail and with a sword in my hand.
I got rid of the blanket that was hampering my left
arm, and by that time I was far enough from the
ship for my foes to be puzzled by it The moon-
light was bright on the water, but the little waves
tossed it so that it must have been hard for them
to know which was I and which the floating stuff.
Certainly, the first arrows that were shot when the
bowmen got a chance at me from the ship or over
her were aimed at the blanket, for I heard them strike
it. Then one leapt from wave to wave past me.

I won to the boat just in time, for I could not
have held on much longer. The cold was numbing
me, and if I stopped swimming I must have sunk
with the weight of mail. None of our old summer
tricks of floating and the like were of any use with
that weight on me. The arrows were coming
thickly by that time, and I was glad to get to the
far side of the boat and rest my hand on the gun-
wale, while I managed to sheathe my sword. The
men could not see plainly where I was, and the
arrows pattered on the planks of the boat and hissed
into the water still, on the chance of hitting me.
So I thought it well to get out of range before I


tried to get on board, and so held the gunwale
with one hand and paddled on with the other, until
the arrows began to fall short, and at last ceased.
A Welshman's bow has no long range, so that I
had not far to go thus. But all the while I feared
most of all to hear the plash of oars that would tell
me that they had put off another boat in chase
of me.

A little later and I should have been helpless,
as I found when I tried to get into the boat. The
cold was terrible, and it had hold of my limbs in
spite of the swimming. It was hard work climbing
over the bows, as I must needs do unless I wanted
to capsize the light craft as I had overset a fisher's
canoe more than once, by boarding her over the
side, as we sported in the Glastonbury meres in high
summer ; but I managed it, and was all the better
for the struggle, which set the blood coursing in my
veins again. Then I got out the oars and began
to pull away from the ship, with no care for direc-
tion' so long as I could get away from her. The foe
had no boat, for they were all clustered in the ship
or close to her on the rock, and there was a deal
of noise going on among them. When I was fairly
out of their way, and I could no longer make out
their forms, I began to plan where I had best go,
and at first I thought of a little beach that I had
seen on the far side of the cove, thinking that I
could get up what seemed a gorge to the cliff's top,
and so hide inland somewhere. But when I could
see right into the gorge, I found that it was steep
and higher than I thought. My foes would be
able to meet me by the time I was at the top.


There was no other place that I could see, for none
could climb from the foot of the cliffs elsewhere,
since if he reached the rocks he would have to stay
where he leapt to them. So as there was no help
for it, I headed for the open sea. No doubt, I
thought, I should find some landing-place along the
coast before I had gone far, and meanwhile I was
getting a fair start of the enemy, who would have
to follow the windings of the cliffs if they cared to
come after me.

I pulled therefore for the eastern end of the cove,
opposite to the place where the ship lay, and so
rounded the point and was out in the open and
tossing on the waves in a way that tried my rowing
sorely, for I am but a fresh-water boatman. Lucky
it was for me that there was little sea on, or I
should have fared badly. Then I pulled eastward,
and against the tide also, but that was a thing that
I did not know. The boat was wonderfully light
and swift, and far less trouble to send along than
any other I had seen. There are no better ship-
wrights than the Norsemen, and we Saxons have
forgotten the craft.

The terrible numbness passed off as I worked,
but now the wind grew cold, and the clouds were
working up from the south-west quickly, with wind
overhead that was not felt here yet. I knew that
I must make some haven soon, or it was likely that
I should be frozen on the sea, but the great cliffs
were like walls, and at their feet was a fringe of
angry foam everywhere. I could see no hope as
yet. Far away to the east of me a great headland
seemed to bar my way, but I did not think that I


should ever reach it. And all the while I looked
to see the black forms of men on the cliffs in the
moonlight, but they did not come. That was good
at least.

Then at last my heart leapt, for I saw, as a turn
of the cliffs opened out to me, another white beach
with a cleft of the rocks running up from it, and
I thought it best to take the chance it gave me,
for I feared the blinding snow that would be here
soon, and I felt that the sea was rising. If my foes
were after me they would have been seen before
now, as they came to the edge of the cliffs to spy
me out, and anyway I dreaded them less than the
growing cold. Moreover, I thought that Evan
would hardly get many men to follow him on a
chase of what he had told them was a madman, and
a dangerous one at that. He had his goods to see
to also.

So I ran the boat into the black mouth of the
gorge, and beached her well by good chance. I
had little time to lose, but I tied her painter to a
rock at the highest fringe of tide wrack, in hopes
that she might be safe. It was so dark here that
I did not think that Evan would see her from above.
And then I began to climb up the rugged path that
led out of the gorge to the hilltops.

There were bones everywhere in it. Bones and
skulls of droves of cattle on all the strand above the
tide mark for many score yards. Their ribs stuck
out from the snow everywhere, and the sightless
eye-sockets grinned at me as I stumbled over them.
But I had no time to wonder how they came there,
for I must get to the summit before Evan and his


men reached it by their way along the cliff. I
ate handfuls of the snow and quenched my thirst
that was growing on me again, and my strength
began to come back to me as I hurried upward.
I was a better man when at last I reached the top
of the gorge than when I came ashore.



Now I halted before I lifted my head above the
skyline, and listened with a fear on me lest I should
hear the sound of running feet, and I was the more
careful because I knew that the snow which lay
white and deep on all the open land might deaden
any sounds thereof. But I heard nothing save the
wail of the wind overhead as it rose in gusts. I
wondered if Thorgils would be able to bide in this
little cove, or must needs put out to seek some
other haven. There seemed to be a swell setting
into it.

So I crept yet farther up the path, crouching
behind a point of rock, and thence I saw a dark
line on the snow that seemed to promise a road,
and that must surely lead to some house or village.
I went forward to it with all caution, and with my
head over my shoulder, as they say, but I saw no
man. This track led east and west, and was well
trodden by cattle, but there were few footprints of
men on it, so far as I could see. So I turned into
it, going ever away from the ship, and hurrying.
I had a thought that I heard shouts behind me,



but there was more wind here on the heights than
I had felt on the sea, or it was rising, and it sung
strangely round the bare points of rock that jutted
up everywhere. Maybe it was but that. Inland
I could see no sign of house or hut where I might
find food at least, but the cloud wrack had drifted
across the moon, and I could not see far now. It
was a desolate coast, all unlike our own.

Then I came to a place where the track crossed
stony ground and was lost in gathered snow. When
I was across that I had lost the road altogether,
and had only the line of the cliffs to guide me to
what shelter I could not tell. And now a few flakes
of snow fluttered round me, and I held on hopelessly,
thinking that surely I should come to some place
that would give me a lee of rock that I could creep

Then the snow swooped down on me heavily,
with a whirl and rush of wind from the sea, and I
tried to hurry yet more from the chill. Then I
was sure that I heard voices calling after me, and I
ran, not rightly knowing where to go, but judging
that the coast-line would lead me to some fishers'
village in the end. There seemed no hope from
the land I had seen.

Again the voices came nay, but there was one
voice only, and it called me by my name : " Oswald,
Oswald ! "

I stopped and listened, for I thought of Thorgils.
But the voice was silent, and again I pressed on in
the blinding snow, and at once it came, wailing :
" Oswald, Oswald ! "

It was behind me now and close at hand, and I


turned with my hand on my sword hilt. But there
was nothing. Only the snow whirled round me, and
the wind sung in the rocks. I called softly, but
there was no answer, and I was called no more as I
stood still.

" Oswald, Oswald ! "

I had turned to go on my way when it came
this time, and now I could have sworn that I
knew the voice, though whose it was I could not

" Who calls me," I cried, facing round.

Then a chill that was not of cold wind and snow
fell on me, for there was silence, and into my mind
crept the knowledge of where I had last heard that
voice. It was long years ago at Eastdean in half-
forgotten Sussex.

" Father ! " I cried," Father ! "

There was no reply, and I stood there for what
seemed a long time waiting one. I called again
and again in vain.

" It is weakness," I said to myself at last, and

At once the voice was wailing, with some wild
terror as it seemed, at my very shoulder, with its cry
of my name, and I must needs turn once more

" Oswald, Oswald ! "

My foot struck a stone as I wheeled round, and
it grated on others and seemed to stop. But as I
listened for the voice I heard a crash, and yet
another, and at last a far-off rumble that was below
my very feet, and I sprang with a cry away from
the sound, for I knew that I stood on the very brink


of some gulf. And then the snow ceased for a
moment and the moon shone out from the break in
the clouds, and I saw that my last footprint whence
the voice had made me turn was on the edge of an
awesome rift that cleft the level surface on the
downland, clean cut as by a sword stroke, right
athwart my path. Even in clear daylight I had
hardly seen that gulf until I was on its very brink,
for I could almost have leapt it, and nought marked
its edge. And in its depths I heard the crash and
thunder of prisoned waves.

I do not know that I ever felt such terror as fell
on me then. It was the terror that comes of think-
ing what might have been, after the danger is past,
and that is the worst of all. I sank down on the
snow with my knees trembling, and I clutched at
the grass that I might not feel that I must even yet
slip into that gulf that was so close, though there
was no slope of the ground toward it. Sheer and
sudden it gaped with sharp edges, as the mouth of
some monster that waited for prey.

There on the snow I believe that I should have
bided to sleep the sleep of the frozen, for I hardly
dared to move. The snow whirled round me again,
but I did not heed it, and with a great roar the
wind rose and swept up the rift with a sound as of
mighty harps, but it did not rouse me. Only my
father's voice came to me again and called me, and
I rose up shaking and followed it as it came from
time to time, until I was once more on the track
that I had lost.

There it left me, but the sadness that had been
in its tones was gone when it last came. And


surely that was the touch of no snowflake that lit on
my hand for a moment and was gone.

Now I grew stronger, and the fear of the unseen
was no longer on me, and I battled onward with
wind and snow for a long way. Thanks to the
wind, the track was kept clear of the snow, and I
did not lose it again until it led me to help that was
unlocked for.

There came the sound of a bell to me, strange
sounding indeed, but a bell nevertheless, and I knew
that somewhere close at hand was surely some home
of monks who would take me in with all kindness.
And presently the track led me nearer to the sound
of the sea, and at last bent sharply to the right and
began to go downhill, while the sound of the bell
grew plainer above the roar of nearer breakers yet.
I felt that I was passing down such a gorge as that
up which I had come from the boat, but far narrower,
for I had not gone far before I could touch the
rocky walls with either hand. Then I came to
steps, and they were steep, but below me still
sounded the bell, and the hoarse breakers were very
near at hand. I expected to see the lights of some
little fishing village every moment, but the wind that
rushed up the narrow space between the cliff walls
and brought the salt spray with it almost blinded me.

Suddenly the stairway turned so sharply that I
almost fell, and then I found my way downward
barred by what seemed a great rough-faced rock
that was right across the gorge, if one may call a
mere cleft in the cliffs so, and barred my way, while
the strange bell sounded from beyond it. But it
was sheltered under this barrier, and I felt along it


to find out where I had to climb over, thinking that
the stairway must lead up its face. But there was
no stair, and as I groped my hand came on cut
stone, and when I felt it I knew that I had come to
a doorway, for I found the woodwork, but in no way
could I find how it opened.

I kicked on it, therefore, and shouted, but it
seemed that none heard. The bell went on and
then stopped, and I thought I heard footsteps on
the far side of the barrier. They came nearer, and
then were almost at the door, paused for a moment,
and then the door was opened and the red light
from a fire flashed out on me, showing the tall form
of a man in monk's dress in its opening.

" Come in, my son," said a grave voice, speaking
Welsh, that had no wonder in it, though one could
hardly have expected to see an armed and gold-
bedecked Saxon here in the storm.

I stumbled into what I had thought a rock, and
found when my eyes grew used to the light that I
was in a house built of great stones, uncemented but
wonderfully fitted together, and warm and bright
with the driftwood fire, though I heard the spray
rattle on the roof of flat stones, and the wind howled

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 9 of 25)