William Morris Archive


Chap. I— By the River.

“All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of love,
And feed his sacred flame.”— Coleridge

Long ago there was a land, never mind where or when, a fair country and good to live in, rich with wealth of golden corn, beautiful with many woods, watered by great rivers, and pleasant trickling streams; moreover, one extremity of it was bounded by the washing of the purple waves, and the other by the solemn watchfulness of the purple mountains.

In a fair lowland valley of this good land sat a maiden, one summer morning early, working with her needle, while she thought of other matters as women use. She was the daughter of a mere peasant, tiller of the kind soil, fisher in the silver waters of the river that flowed down past his cottage to the far-off city; he lived from day to day seeing few people, the one or two neighbours who lived in the cottages hard by, the priest of the little hamlet, now and then an artizan travelling in search of work; except, indeed, when he went to the wars; for he was a fighting man, as were all the people of that country, when need was. His wife was dead these five years, and his daughter alone lived with him; yet she, though of such lowly parentage, was very beautiful; nor merely so, but grand and queen-like also; such a woman as might inspire a whole people to any deed of wise daring for her love.

What thoughts were hers, as she sat working on that summer morning, the song of birds all about her, and the
lapping of the low, green river waves on the white sand sounding fresh and pleasantly as the west wind blew them toward her? What thoughts? Good thoughts, surely. For the land wherein she dwelt—so fair a land, so small a land, had never ceased to be desired by the tyrant kings who bore rule round about. Always had they made war against it; never had they conquered, though sometimes they were seemingly victorious in a scattered fight here and there, through sheer force of numbers; for the dwellers in that good land were of a different race to the lazy, slavish people who dwelt about them. Many a song Gertha could sing you of how, long, and long ago, they came from a land far over the sea, where the snow-laden pine-forests, weird halls of strange things, hang over the frozen waters for leagues, and leagues, and leagues along the coasts that were the cradles of mighty nations. Sailing over the sea then, long ago, with their ships all a-blaze with the steel that the heroes carried, they came to this land with their wives and children, and here made desperate war with the wild beasts, with savage swamps, dragon-inhabited, daring famine, and death in all ugly shapes.

And they grew and grew, for God favoured them; and those who dwelt nearest to the “Savage Land,” as it used to be called, grew more and more like the strangers, and their good rule spread; and they had a mighty faith withal that they should one day ring [404] the world, going westward ever till they reached their old home in the east, left now so far behind.

Judge, therefore, whether the tyrant kings feared these free, brave men! Judge whether, growing more and more cruel as they grew more and more fearful, they strained the chain over the miserable millions of their subjects so that with many it grew intolerable, and was broken asunder; so that, both in well-doing and in wrong-doing, God’s kingdom spread.

Think what armies went up against the good land; what plains and valleys were sown with swords and spears and helmets, and the bones of valiant men; and from being nameless once, only thought of as the place where such and such a tree grew very plenteous, where such a river ran, became now to be remembered to all time, nor to be forgotten in eternity.

Think of the desperate fights, in treacherous slippery fords, where the round stones rolled and shifted beneath the hurried trampling of men, fighting for life, and more than life, amid the plash of the reddened waters in the raw, gusty twilight of the February mornings; or in close woods, little lighted up by the low sun just going to sink when the clouds looked thunderous in the summer evenings; or with shouts from crag to crag of the great slate-cliffs, with wrathful thundering of rocks down into the thronged pass below, with unavailing arrow-flights, because arrows cannot pierce the mountains, or leap about among the clefts of the rocks where the mountaineers stand, fiercely joyous.

Think too of the many heads, old and young, beautiful and mean, wept over, not joyously indeed; nay, who knows with what agony, yet at least with love unflecked by any wandering mote of the memory of shame or shrinking; think of the many who, though they fought not at all with spear or sword, yet did, indeed, bear the brunt of many a battle, in patiently waiting through heart-sickening watchings, yet never losing hope, in patiently bearing unutterable misery of separation, yet never losing faith.

Had not Gertha then enough to think of, as she sat working hard by where the water lapped the white sand? For this people were so drawn together that through the love they bore to one another sprung terrible deeds of heroism, any one of which would be enough for a life-time’s thought; almost every man of that nation was a hero and a fit companion for the angels; and the glory of their fathers, and how themselves might do deeds that would not shame them, were the things that the men thought of always; and the women, for their part, looked to become wives to brave men, mothers to brave sons.

So now Gertha was singing rough spirit-stirring songs of the deeds of old, and thinking of them too with all her heart as she sung. Why she, weak woman as she was, had not she seen the enemies’ ships hauled up on the island bank yonder, and burned there? Were not the charred logs, which once, painted red and black, used to carry terror to the peaceful, slothful people of the islands, mouldering there yet, grown over by the long clinging briony? Did not her eyes flash, her brow and cheeks flush with triumph, her heart swell and heave beneath her breast, when the war-music grew nearer and louder every moment; and when she saw at last the little band of her dear countrymen hemming in the dejected prisoners, the white red-crossed banner floating over all, blessing all alike, knight, and sailor, and husbandman; and when she saw, too, her own dear, dear father, brave among the bravest, marching there with bright eyes, and lips curled with joyous triumphant indignation, though the blood that he was marked withal did not come from his enemies’ veins only? Did she not then sing, joyously and loud-ringing, remembering these things [405] and many others, while the west wind was joyous about her too, whispering to her softly many things concerning the land of promise?

She sung about a king who lived long ago, a man wise and brave beyond all others, slain treacherously in a hunting party by emissaries of the enemy, and slain at the height of his wisdom and good rule; and this was one of the songs that his people had embalmed his memory withal. So, as she sung, behold, the blowing of horns, and trampling as of horse, just as her voice rang clear with,

“The King rode out in the morning early,
Went riding to hunting over the grass;
Ere the dew fell again that was then bright and pearly,
O me!—what a sorrow had come to pass!”

And a great company rode past going to hunt indeed, riding slowly, between her and the river, so that she saw them all clearly enough, the two noble knights especially, who rode at the head of them; one very grand and noble, young withal, yet looking as if he were made to burst asunder the thickest circles of the battle, to gather together from the most hopeless routs men enough to face the foe, and go back fighting, to roll back the line of fight when it wavered, to give strength to all warriors’ hearts: fancy such an one, so wise, yet so beautiful, that he moved like the moving of music; such tenderness looked from his eyes, so lovingly the morning sun and the sweet morning haze touched the waves of his golden hair, as they rode on happily. He that rode beside him was smaller and slenderer, smaller both in body and face, and it seemed in mind and heart also; there was a troubled restless look about his eyes; his thin lips were drawn inward tightly, as if he were striving to keep down words which he ought not to speak, or else sometimes very strangely, this look would change, the eyes would glance about no more, yet look more eager and strangely anxious than ever; the thin lips would part somewhat, as if he were striving to say something which would not leave his heart; but the great man’s eyes were large and serene, his lips full, his forehead clear, broad, and white; his companion was sallow, his forehead lower and rather narrow, his whole face drawn into wrinkles that came not by age, for he was no older than the other.

They past as they had come, and when the last note of their horns had died away, Gertha went about her household duties; yet all that day, whatever she might do, however much she tried to beat the phantom down, that stately man with the golden hair floated always before her eyes.

*         *       *         *         *         *

Evening now, the sun was down, the hunt had swept away past the cottage again, though not within sight of it, and the two knights having lost their companions were riding on slowly, their tired horses hanging down their heads.

“Sire, where are we going to?” said the small dark man; “I mean to say where past that beech-tree? the low swinging boughs of which will hit you about the end of the nose, I should think: Ah! his head goes down, somewhat in good time; he has escaped the beech-bough.”

But the other answered no word, for he did not hear his friend speak, he was singing softly to himself:

“The King rode out in the morning early,
Went riding to hunting over the grass;
Ere the dew fell again that was then bright and pearly,
O me!—what a sorrow had come to pass!”

He sung this twice or thrice with his head sunk down toward the saddlebow, while the other knight gazed at him with a sad half smile, half sneer on his lips and eyes; then with a sigh he turned him about and said, “Pardon, Leuchnar, you said something I did not hear; my mind was not in this wood, but somewhere else, I know not [406] where. Leuchnar, we shall not find the hunt to-night; let us, let us seek rest at that cottage that we passed this morning; it seems to be the only house near.”

“Yea, my Lord Olaf,” said Leuchnar, smiling again in that bitter way, when he saw in spite of the twilight, both of the sunken sun and of the thick beech-wood, a great blush come over Olaf’s face.

“Yea, for why should we not?” and as he said this, he fairly burst out into strange explosive laughter, that did not sound merry, yet was not repulsive, but sad only; for Leuchnar was thinking of the ways of man, and found much to amuse him therein; yet his laughter sounded sad in spite of himself, for he was not one who was made to laugh, somehow; but what specially made him laugh now was this, that neither of them had forgotten that hour in the morning, and the maiden sitting alone near the river: each of them, as they burst through the greenest glades of the forest, with cry of hound and sound of horn, had, according to his faith, visions of a dark-haired maiden, sitting and singing, her eyes raised and fixed on one of them; also both wished to go there again, and accordingly had been sad laggards in the hunt, and had lost themselves, not very unwillingly, perhaps; yet now neither liked to confess his longing to the other; Leuchnar would not even do so to himself, and for these reasons he laughed, and his laugh sounded strange and sad.

But Olaf knew that he was in love, and all day long he had been nursing that love delightedly; he blushed yet more at Leuchnar’s laugh, for these two seldom needed to tell each other their thoughts in so many words, and certainly not this time. He bowed his head downwards in his confusion so low, that his gold curls, falling forward, mingled with the full black of his horse’s mane, and growled out therefrom:

“You are a strange fellow, Leuchnar, though a good one; but we will go.”

“Yea, to the peasant’s cottage, my lord,” said Leuchnar, with his head raised, his eyes set straight forward, and his lips curled into something much more like a sneer than a smile; thereat Olaf with a spring sat upright in his saddle, and glanced quickly on either side of him, as though something had stung him unawares; afterwards they both turned their horses’ heads aside, and rode slowly in the direction of the cottage, Leuchnar singing in a harsh voice, “The King rode out in the morning early,”—“though the dew has fallen again,” he muttered; whereat Olaf gave an uneasy side glance at him.

And soon they heard again the lapping of the river waves on the sand of the silver bay, only lower than before, because the wind had fallen. Then presently they drew rein before the cottage door, when the moon was already growing golden. Sigurd, Gertha’s father, came to the door, and courteously held the stirrups of the knights while they dismounted, and they entered, and sat down to such fare as the peasant had, and Gertha served them. But they prayed her so to sit down, that at last it seemed discourteous to refuse them, and she sat down timidly.

Then said Sigurd, when they had eaten enough, “I pray you tell me, fair knights, what news there is from the city, if you come from thence; for there is a rumour of war hereabout, only uncertain as yet.”

“Nay, at the city,” Leuchnar said, “there is certain news concerning one war, and even beside this, rumours of a great conspiracy between the surrounding rulers of slaves. The Emperor says that this valley always belonged to him; though, indeed, he was not very anxious for it when poisonous swamps spread out on both sides of the river here; or rather his ancestors laid no claim to it; but now, at all events, he is coming to take his own, if he can [407] get it; coming by way (it is his only way, poor fellow!) of the mountain passes. Only, my lord Adolf is off to meet him with ten thousand men, and they are going to try the matter by arbitrement in this fashion; marry, that if the valley belongs to the Emperor, he must know the way to it, and accordingly shall have it if he gets through the mountains in any other way than as a prisoner or dead corpse.”

Sigurd and Olaf laughed grimly at Leuchnar’s conceit, and Gertha’s eyes flashed; while both the knights watched her without seeing how matters went with each other. “Then,” said Sigurd again, “Concerning the young king, fair knights, what is he?” Olaf’s eyes twinkled at the question, and Leuchnar seeing that he wanted to answer, let him do so, watching him the while with a quaint amused look on his face. “Why,” said Olaf, “he is counted brave and wise, and being young, will, I hope, live long; but he is very ugly.” Here he turned, and looked at his friend with a smile. Sigurd started and seemed disappointed, but Gertha turned very pale, and rose from her seat suddenly, nor would she sit down again all that evening.

Then Olaf saw that she knew he was the king, and somehow did not feel inclined to laugh any more, but grew stately and solemn, and rather silent too; but Leuchnar talked much with Gertha, and he seemed to her to be very wise; yet she remembered not what he said, scarcely heard it indeed, for was not the KING by her; the king of all that dear people; yet, above all, whether the other were so or not, herking?

Poor maid! she felt it was so hopeless; nay, she said to herself, “Even if he were to say he loved me, I should be obliged to deny my love; for what would all the people say, that the king of so great a nation should marry a peasant girl, without learning or wealth, or wisdom, with nothing but a pretty face? Ah! we must be apart always in this world.”

And Olaf, the king, said, “So Leuchnar loves her—and I love her. Well, it will change his life, I think; let him have her; poor fellow! he has not got many to love him. Besides, she is a peasant’s daughter; I am a great king. Yet is she nobler than I am, for all my kingship. Alas, I fear the people, not for myself, but for her; they will not understand her nobility; they will only see that which comes uppermost, her seeming wisdom, her seeming goodness, which, perchance, will not show to be so much greater than other women’s, as the queen’s ought to do. Then withal to her, if, perchance, at any time I am not quite sufficient to fill her heart, will come a weariness of our palace life, a longing for old places, old habits; then sorrow, then death, through years and years of tired pining, fought against, bravely indeed, but always a terrible weight to such an one as she is. Yet, if I knew she loved me, all this ought to be put aside; and yet, why should she love me? And, if she does not love me now, what hope is there; for how can we see each other any more, living such different far apart lives? But for Leuchnar this is otherwise; he may come and go often. Then he is wiser; ah! how much wiser than I am; can think and talk quite wonderfully, while I am but a mere fighting man; how it would change his life too, when he found any one to love him infinitely, to think his thoughts, be one with him, as people say. Yes, let Leuchnar have her.”

Those three so seeming-calm! what stormy passions, wild longings, passed through their hearts that evening! Leuchnar seeming-genial with his good friendly talk, his stories of brave deeds, told as if his heart were quite in them; speaking so much more like other men than his wont was; yet saying to himself, “She must see that I love her; when since I can remember have I talked so?” Poor fellow; how should she know that? his voice was to her as the voices of a dream, or perhaps [408] rather like grand music when it wakes a man; for, verily the glory of his tales got quite separated from him, and in some dim way floated in a glory round about Olaf, as far as Gertha was concerned. She heard his name, the hero of every deed, which that far-distant knight, Leuchnar, less present than his own tales, was telling of; whenever danger clung about the brave in those tales, her heart beat for fear of her golden-haired, broad-foreheaded hero; she wondered often, as her heart wandered even from those tales, why she did not fall down before him and win his love or die. How then could she think of Leuchnar? Yet Olaf did think of him, saw well through all his talking what he was thinking of; and, for his own part, though he did not talk aloud, and though even what he said to himself had to do with that subject dearest to him, yet none the less even to himself choked down fiery longings, hardly, very hardly to be restrained.

He tried hard to throw himself into Leuchnar’s heart, to think of the loneliness of the man, and his wonderful power of concentrating every thought, every least spark of passion, on some one thing; he remembered how in the years past he had clutched so eagerly at knowledge; how that knowledge had overmastered him, made him more and more lonely year by year; made him despise others because they did not KNOW; he remembered, with a certain pang, how Leuchnar even despised him for one time; yes, he could bear just then to recal all the bitter memories of that time; how he saw it creeping over his friend; how he saw it struggled against, yet still gaining, gaining so surely; he called to mind that day, when Leuchnar spoke his scorn out openly, bitterly despising his own pride and himself the while; he remembered how Leuchnar came back to him afterwards, when knowledge failed him; and yet how it was never the same between them as it had been; he remembered then many a fight wherein they rode side by side together, Leuchnar as brave as he, yet ever with that weight of self-scorn upon him, that made him despise even his bravery; while Olaf rejoiced in his own, reverenced that of others; then he remembered how he was made king, how the love of his countrymen became from that time much more of a passion, true love, than it had been; and through all these things he tried to be Leuchnar, as it were; not such a hard thing for him; for, through his unselfishness, he had gained that mighty power of sympathy for others, which no fiercest passion can altogether put aside, even for the time. So he, too, had his thoughts, not easily to be read by others, not to be expressed by himself.

So the night passed; and they went to rest, or what seemed so, till they were wakened very early in the morning by the sound of a trumpet ringing all about the wooded river-shore; the knights and Sigurd rose and went forth from the cottage, knowing the trumpet to be a friendly one; and presently there met them a band of knights fully armed, who drew rein when they saw them.

“King Olaf,” said their leader, an old, white-haired knight, “thank God we have found you! When we reached the palace last night, after having lost you, there were waiting for us ambassadors, bringing with them declarations of war from the three Dukes and King Borrace; so now, I pray you, quick back again! I have sent all about for men, but the time presses, and there is a credible report that King Borrace has already begun his march toward the plain; as for the three Dukes, (whom may the Lord confound!) Lord Hugh’s army will account for them, at any rate to hold them in check till we have beaten King Borrace; but for him we must march presently, if we mean to catch him; only come King Olaf, and all will be well.”

[409] Then knelt Sigurd before the King, as he stood with eyes flashing, and cheek flushing, thinking how God’s foes were hastening on to their destruction; yet for all his joy he longed to see Gertha, perhaps for the last time; for she was not there, neither did she come at Sigurd’s call.

So the King smiled sorrowfully when Sigurd made excuse for her, saying that she feared so great a man as the King; he could not help wishing she loved him, even though he meant to give her up: so he said; he could not

acknowledge to the full what a difference her love would make to him.

Then would he have given Sigurd presents of money and jewels, but Sigurd would not take them; only at the last, being constrained, he took the King’s dagger, hilted with curiously wrought steel.

Then they all rode away together; Barulf, the old man, by the King’s side, and talking eagerly with him concerning the coming wars; but Leuchnar fell into the rear, and said no word to any.

Chap. II.— Leuchnar’s Ride.

Then for some days each man wroug ht his best, that they might meet the invaders as they ought; yet through all the work Leuchnar seemed very restless and uneasy, falling into staring fits, and starting from them suddenly; but the king was calm and cheerful outwardly, whatever passion strove to fever him.

But one day when he was resting, leaning out of a window of the palace that was almost hidden by the heaped jasmine and clematis, he heard horse-hoofs, and presently saw Leuchnar, his sallow face drawn into one frown of eagerness, well mounted, lightly armed, just going to ride away, Olaf well knew whither.

A fierce pang shot through to Olaf’s heart; he felt dizzied and confused; through the clematis stems and curled tendrils, through the mist rising from his own heart, he dimly saw Leuchnar gather himself together, raise his bridle-hand, and bend forward as his horse sprung up to the gallop; he felt sick, his strong hands trembled; and through the whirling of his brain, and the buzzing in his ears, he heard himself shout out: “Good speed, Sir Leuchnar, with your wooing!”

That was enough; his heart sank, and his passion grew cool for the second, when he saw how fearfully Leuchnar’s face changed at the well-understood words: troubled before as it had been, what was it now, when suddenly all the conscience of the man showed in that small spot of clay, his face?

He turned his horse, and rode back swiftly; Olaf waited for him there, scarce knowing what he did at first; yet within a little, something, thoughts of approaching death perhaps, had steadied his brain, and kept his passion back: he heard soon the quick footsteps of some one striding far, and walked quietly toward the door, where he met Leuchnar, his teeth set, his lips a little open, that his hard-drawn breathings might not choke him, his black eyes fixed forward and shining grimly from under his heavy brows like pent-house roofs.

Olaf took him by the arm and gripped him hard; but he tore it away fiercely; he flung himself down before Olaf’s feet.

“King Olaf,” he said passionately, “I will not go, I will stay here then, if you look at me like that—with your broad white forehead and golden locks—you!—I will die here if I cannot live till I meet the enemy.”

Olaf stooped to raise him up, but he drew farther back from him; then said, still kneeling:

“No word—no word yet, king, from you—was it not enough, Olaf, that you [410] should take care of me, and love me in the days before you were king—me, a lonely discontented man, a black spot in the clear whiteness of the most loving people of the earth? was it not enough that, on the day when all the people shouted for Olaf, calling him the wisest and the best, you, with the crown yet on your head, the holy oil not dry there, should take me by the hand, and say to all the knights and all the people, whom you loved so, whom I (God help me!) loved not; ‘behold Leuchnar, my friend, who has given me all the wisdom I ever had?’ Ah, king! had you looked on me at that moment and seen even then my curling lips saying to my false heart, ‘I am so much wiser than these simple ones!’—but your clear eyes only looked straight forward, glancing over the heads of the people that was dear to you, despised by me. Was it not enough, King Olaf, that you, as the days passed, still keeping me the nearest to you, still asking me concerning everything, should be beginning to thaw my hard heart and to shake my faith in the faithlessness of Adam’s sons? were not these things enough, that you also, first of all finding pretences to mar the nobleness of your sacrifice even to your own heart, should give your love up to me, not as I do now to you, noisily, but quietly, without a word spoken; then afterwards, when you saw with what base eagerness I caught at that love given up by you, and fearing terrible things for my wretched soul if this went on, stopped me, like my guardian angel, just now when I was sneaking off like a thief in the night, and perhaps now—God help me! God help me!—have perhaps even made me do one thing in the whole course of my life which it is good to have done in His eyes?”

Then, as he knelt there, like a man before the presence of God, the king spoke slowly, with humble face indeed, and tearfully, but almost smiling, because all things seemed so clear to him in a moment of prophetic vision.

“Dear Knight, your words seem like a bitter satire to me; for I did not call you back just now for your salvation, but because my selfish passion (think of a selfish king, Leuchnar; what a misery!) my passion carried me away: O, forgive me! for indeed I wish you to have her; think now, how many cares, and joys too, I have in tending this people that God has given me; I am sure that I shall not be quite unhappy for long, whatever happens; sometimes, perhaps, when I am weary, sometimes in the dead night, sometimes in the dying autumn, I shall have thoughts of her; but they will never be unbearable, because no power in earth or heaven can keep me from loving her: it will be no shame to you either, Leuchnar; do you not remember, in past days, how, when we talked of this matter, you have often said, (wherein even then I scarce agreed with you,) that the love of man and woman should go before everything, before all friendship, all duty, all honour even? you thought so then; can you doubt now?” He ceased, and said no word for a little; then spoke doubtfully.

“And yet, and yet—are we not as men who reckon, as they say, without their host? What will Gertha say? ought we not to know before this great battle is fought, from which, perchance, neither of us will come alive? and we march to-morrow, and I may not leave the council and my work here: wherefore, dear Leuchnar, I pray you on your allegiance mount again and ride quickly away to that cottage, and ask her if she—loves you—and if—if—Leuchnar, we may be near to death; whatever happens we must be brothers—so God speed you on your wooing.”

Leuchnar had risen while the king was speaking, and stood before him till he ceased with head sunk down on his breast; then raised his face, radiant now with a certain joy, to Olaf’s; he spoke no word, as though that joy, or [411] something else, confused and hurrying, that went with it, was too great for him; but, bending, kissed the king’s hand and departed.

Then Olaf again leaned from the window and watched him go by again swiftly, till the sound of the horse-hoofs had died away: then he turned toward the council chamber, thinking:

“His face was not like the face of a man who is going to do what he thinks wrong: I fear lest he go as my ambassador—nay, do I fear? Yet surely that will be the best way to speed his own wooing—O, Gertha! Gertha!—perhaps the sword will cut this knot so close wound up together now; yet I will not pray for that, only that Leuchnar may live.”

Then presently he was in the midst of his lords. Oh what a weary ride that was of Leuchnar’s! It was early morning when he started, high noon by the time he drew rein at the cottage door; and that joy which at first he had in his noble deed faded from off his face as the sun rose higher, even as the dew did from off the face of the meadows, and when he dismounted at that house of Sigurd’s, his face was woful and ghastly to look on.

He knocked at the door, then entered when no one answered: he said out aloud, though he saw no one there, as if he distrusted his power to repeat that lesson got by heart with such pain: “I bear a message to the Lady Gertha.”

Only the cool duskiness of the heavy-shadowed oak beams met his eye, only the echo of his own hollow voice, and the chirp of the sparrows, the scream of the swifts,—met his ear.

For Gertha was not within; but from the wood she had seen the glimmer of his arms in the hot noontide, and came down, stately and slow, unmoved to look on, but her heart of hearts wavering within her with hope and fear and ecstasy of love: perhaps (O poor heart, what wild hope!) it might be the king.

She met him just at the door from whence he had turned to seek her: he durst not meet her eyes, those grand fire-orbs that had pierced him through and through that other day; if he had looked up at her face he would have seen the disappointment, the sickness of hope deferred, showing somewhat there in spite of her efforts to keep the appearance of it back.

He, with his face turned away, said, in a hard voice as before, “I bear a message for the Lady Gertha.” No blush coloured her pale cheeks, no start or trembling went through her grand form; she still held that flower in her hand, holding it with queenly sway, for it fitted in her hand like a sceptre: she said gently, “If you want Lady Gertha, you must go elsewhere, my lord; I am Sigurd the husbandman’s daughter.”

“But you are Gertha that we heard sing that day,” he said fiercely, and turning his eager eyes suddenly on her.

“Yea,” she said, trembling a little now, and turning even paler; for she saw how matters went with him, and feared, not any violence from him, for she soon read him through and through, but rather that he should fall down dead before her, his passion rent his heart so.

“Gertha, Olaf the king says, Will you be queen?” he said, still looking hungrily at her.

The crimson blood rushed up over her face, then went to her heart again, leaving her very lips grey. She paused a moment, with her arms stretched straight down, and her hands clenched: she said, without looking up:

“Tell him, ‘No;’ I am too lowly, not wise enough, I should shame him; I will not be queen—But”—

What wild passions rushed through poor Leuchnar’s heart! how he fought with that Devil which had looked him steadily in the face so long, ever since he was born till now.

She stood there still before him, with arms stretched downward, hands clenched; he seized her by the wrist, and almost shrieked out; “But what? [412] —Gertha! Gertha! before God, do you love him?”

Her colour came again as she looked him in the face, put very close to her’s now, so close that she felt his breath upon it; she said calmly, almost proudly, “Yea, I love him; how could it be otherwise?”

“Some token then, for Christ’s sake; quick, Gertha! and where will you be in the war time?”

“My father goes with me to-morrow to the city. I shall dwell at St. Agnes’ convent of nuns till Borrace is defeated.”

“Then some token!—here!” (and he tore down from the cottage eaves a bunch of golden stone-crop) “if you love him (think of God, Gertha,) kiss this.”

She bowed her head, and touched the yellow flowers with her lips; as she did so, he bent and kissed her forehead; then, with the flowers yet in his hand, he sprung impetuously to his saddle and gallopped as if for his life. The Devil was conquered at last.

“Poor knight!” said Gertha, looking after him pityingly, “then he loves me too; it seems wrong to feel happy when such a noble knight is so miserable.”

Yet she did feel very happy, and soon forgot poor Leuchnar and his sorrows, who was riding meanwhile wildly through the forest; yet, as he drew further from her, the madness of his passion abated a little; he gave his horse rest at last, and, dismounting, lay down on the ferns by the side of the forest-path, and there, utterly worn out in mind and body, fell asleep; a dreamless sleep it was at first, as deep as death almost, yet, as it grew lighter, he fell to dreaming, and at last woke from a dream wherein Gertha had come to him, shrieked out that Olaf was slain, then thrown her arms about his neck; but, as he tried to kiss her, he awoke, and found himself under the beech-boughs, his horse standing over him, and the bridle, hanging loose from the bit, dangling about his face; for the horse doubted if he were dead.

He rose from that dream with a great wrench of his heart, and, mounting, rode on soberly. The moon shone down on him now, for he had slept far into the night. The stone-crop was fading fast, and as he looked at it, he doubted whether to curse it or bless it, but at last raised it to his mouth and kissed it, knowing whose lips had touched it before, looking half-fearfully over his shoulder as he did so; perhaps he thought a little also how Olaf’s face would flush into perfect beauty for joy, when he saw it; for joy mixed with a certain regret for himself.

So, when he reached the palace, quite late at night, when the moon was already setting, he found Olaf standing in the great hall alone, looking pale and wearied.

Leuchnar came quite close to him, and said, taking his hand and smiling a sick smile, “Olaf, she sent you this, kissing it.”

Olaf caught the faded flowers, kissed them a thousand times, knelt, and held them against his heart, against his forehead. He murmured—what words I know not, or, knowing, shall not say; while Leuchnar stood by with that old bitter smile on his lips. Poor fellow! he had expected sudden clasping of Olaf’s arms about him, praise for his nobleness, consolation for his failure. Ah! did he not know himself what a passion love was? Then why did he expect from so true a man as Olaf protestation that he was the first when truly he was but the second? O! you all know what it is to be second in such a race; it is to be nowhere. Why he, too, if he had been successful, would have forgotten Olaf, and the way his sword flashed in the battle. It was only now in his disappointment that a certain natural instinct made him catch at all the love that came across him of whatsoever kind. That was why he thought so much of Olaf now. Yes, and in a little time he did think of all[413] this, and smiled no more. “Poor Leuchnar!” he said to himself, “you must be very far in the background now, know that for certain. Then, did you not know all this when you knelt here some twelve hours back? O! foolish Leuchnar! yet, poor Leuchnar, too!”

And he was now so far from smiling that, but for his manhood, he would have wept for self-pity. Moreover, Olaf came to him and said, laying his hands on his shoulders, and leaning forward towards his face:

“You are the noblest of all men, and will in nowise lose your reward.”

And Leuchnar knew that, or he might have gone mad; yet he prayed that his reward might be death presently, in the joyous battle.

So, on the morrow, they marched to meet King Borrace; and, on the evening of the third day, encamped but a little distance from his pirates.

And when, on the next morning, they stood in battle array, and the king rode up and down their line, Leuchnar saw in his helm the bunch of stone-crop, now quite withered.

Then that day, among the aspens, they joined battle.

Chap. III.— The Light of Israel.

Then, in the midst of them, the old man rose up and spoke, while all the rest sat silent, some gazing fixedly on the ground, some on the fair dead king, that lay there before them.

For he had been slain with one wound that had gone right through his breast to the heart, and his body was not hacked or disfigured. They had taken his rent armour from off him, and washed his corpse, and spread out his long yellow hair to right and left of his face, along the samite cloth, purple, gold-starred, that he lay upon; and, behind him, at his head, they had laid his sword and armour, the helm yet having that stone-crop in it, the ends of the stalks at least; for all the rest had been shredded off in that fierce fight. Great waxen candles burned all about him; two priests sat at the head and two at the foot of the bier, clad in gorgeous robes of deep sorrowful purple, gold-embroidered; for these men reverenced man’s body so, even when the soul was not so near to it as it had been, that, in those hours of doubt and danger, they thought the time well spent in making the body of their king, of him the best and most beautiful of all men, look as beautiful as God would ever have dead bodies look.

So, while some gazed on the ground, some on the fair dead king, none weeping, but all stern with thought; for they had to think of him as being present with them in their council, not dead,—while they gazed earnestly, the old man, Barulf, arose and said,

“Sons of the men that go from east to west, and round again to the east! I advise you this day to do such a deed of valour as you have never done yet. Death in God’s behalf, on the side of your friends, is not hard to bear, brothers, even when it comes slow and lingering; but how glorious to die in a great battle, borne down by over-many foes, to lie, never dead, but a living terror for all time to God’s enemies and ours, a living hope to the sons of God. And to die altogether, beholding, between the sword-strokes, the faces of dear friends all a-light with intensest longing—is not that glorious!”

Their stern faces lighted up with flushing of cheek and flashing of eye as he spake; for in their hearts was fear of something far worse than dying on that field between the aspens with friends’ eyes upon them. But Barulf went on.

“Yet, brothers, not this I bid you do. I give, as my counsel, that we [414] depart this night, taking with us nothing but our arms, some small provision, and this dear dead thing here: turn our backs upon the foe, and depart, that we may reach the mother city, where the women and children are; and I think I have good reasons for this.”

“And how then shall we face the women and children?” said a young man moodily.

“Brother,” said Barulf, “will you be a coward, indeed, from fear of being thought a coward? your heart does not counsel this, I know; and as for the women and children, are they mere beasts, so as not to understand this? will they not say rather? ‘These men are warriors, they cannot fear death; then are they the braver to be so faithful, to be without fear of reproach for fear, so faithful to us above all things; we will love them all the more.'"

“But why should we not die here, fighting, Sir Barulf?” said another; “are there not men left when we are all dead?”

“Yea, dear knight, men, but not men enough. Think awhile—Adolf with his ten thousand men, and God’s snow and storm that are tens and tens of thousands, guard the passes against the emperor. Good—they are enough as it is; but take away half for the defence of the cities, the mother-city above all, which is the weakest, the most beautiful, the fullest of women and children of all—and then would five thousand be enough to guard those passes? Even as it is, were not this summer a cold one and the snows deep, the emperor might drive his serf-soldiers, with whip and sword-point over our dead soldiers’ bodies: but suppose they were lessened, our heroes would indeed die in their places, and would doubtless slay many of the enemy; but suppose they killed and wounded twice their own number, yet two days afterwards some 200,000 men would be marching over our land within fifty miles of the beautiful city.

“Again, Edwin and his 300 ships, diligently sailing into every nook and strait of the pirate island, and every day and night solemnly passing to and fro, with the white red-crossed banner at their mast-heads, guard the coast well; but let him land half, nay a third only of his men for the defence of the city, and in a week the sea-port towns and villages, safe from all scath now, would be blazing very high toward the heavens, and King Borrace’s red and black ship-sides would gleam with the reflection of the Greek fire, as the dragons of it leapt toward the harbour-mouth.

“Moreover, the Lord Hugh, in his fortified camp, holds his own well enough now against the three Dukes; who prowl always like accursed cowardly wolves as they are, gnashing their teeth when they think that their provisions cannot last much longer, not more than another month; and, stamping on the ground, invoke the devil, their cousin german, when they remember that not a blade of grass or ear of corn is left in the country behind them, laid waste as it was with fire, by the cruel fools as they marched: they, howling too for very rage when they see the wains in long lines entering Hugh’s camp, and when they hear the merry sound of the trumpets, mingled often with the chaunting of the priests and the singing of men, singing about death that is no death. Ah! they howl, the wolves disappointed enough now; but suppose Hugh were to weaken his camp so as no longer to be able to send out his swarm of light-armed, who prevent the enemy from spoiling the yet un-wasted country; then, also, no longer fearing an attack, the Dukes march nearer to him, get themselves corn and wine, cut off his supplies, march past him at last with their 50,000 men, not easy to destroy then. For cowards as the Dukes are, and imbecile drivellers,[415] knowing nothing of war, yet have they along with them crafty captains, who, when their highnesses’ passions master them not, give good advice which is listened to, and the commoner sort, though robbers by nature and nurture, have yet a certain kind of courage, and much strength in body and skill of arms.”

In all the warrior’s faces you might have seen a gloomy conviction that his counsel was good; but they sat silent, it seemed such a shame to turn and flee before this enemy they had just beaten.

Yet never for a moment did they doubt but that their people would in the end prevail over the enemies that hemmed them in, whatever became of those 20,000 left alive there on the plain; and Barulf spoke to the better part of all their hearts, when he said:

“Does it then seem so hard a thing to you, sons of the men that go westward, that we, having fought for three days such a battle as this, should have at last to turn and flee, carrying our dead king with us? Oh! it is hard, very bitter and cruel, brothers; yet is it God’s will, and in his sight, doubtless, is as glorious as if we all died here in our places. And I am well assured that this and all things else only hasten us westward; it cannot be in any of your hearts that this people should fail. Nay, rather our sons’ sons in the after-time will speak of these as glorious days in which the nations hedged us about, but in which we prevailed mightily against them.—

“But for another matter”—and as he spoke, the memory came across him bitterly that the king they had chosen but two years since lay dead before them now: then his face changed, and so it was with all of them, now that they were free to think of that loss; for, but a little time back, he had been with them; even just now, as they talked in their old way of fresh battles, and thought of the swinging of the swords, he had almost seemed to be there alive; but now—

One of the priests who sat by him had fallen asleep, wearied out with tending the wounded and dying, and his head had fallen on his breast; another sat quite upright with his hands laid on his knees, thinking dreadful things of what was coming on the land; the third, a spare young man, black-haired and sallow-faced, in his nervous anxiety twitched at the border of his cope as he glanced about the tent, looking uneasily on the face, first of one, then of another, of those that sat there; the fourth, as he sat, sad-faced and great-eyed, thinking of his mother and sisters whom he had left in a castle of the lowland country, had taken one long yellow tress of the dead man’s hair, and was absently twining it about his fingers.

Then arose Leuchnar with about as miserable a look on his face as a good man can ever have, and said:

“Sir Barulf, I know what you were about to say, concerning the king” (a shudder ran through them all), “I have a message from the king to all of you. I was by him when the spear pierced his true heart; I drew him a little out of the fight; he said: ‘I am wounded to death; but, alive or dead, I must not leave this field, bury me just about where the enemy makes his last stand before he turns.’ For you see, knights, our dead lord was sure of this, that the fair city would be saved. Then the blood rising from his heart choked him somewhat, yet he said gaspingly: ‘Quick, Leuchnar, bend to my mouth.’ So I bent, and he said, faintly and hurriedly: ‘Undo my mail, and take the paper there, and give it to the lords and knights in council.’ So I took a paper from his breast over his heart; the spear had pierced it through, and had carried some of it into the wound, and the trickling blood had stained it; I took it from off the broken truncheon of the lance which was yet in the wound. I showed it to him, he bowed his head [416] in token that all was well, when he had looked at it eagerly; then he said: ‘I wish to go, draw out the truncheon, faithful and true! poor Leuchnar!’ I drew it out; there was a great rush of blood; he smiled on me, and died.”

Thereon Leuchnar stepped from his place, and, going up to Barulf, gave him the paper, very much stained and torn. Barulf read it.

“Good saints, how strange! do you know what is written in it, Sir Leuchnar?”

“Nay, I but guess, Sir Barulf; for I did not open it.”

“Listen, knights!” said Barulf, and he read: “Knights and lords, if I die in this battle, as I think I shall, then (if so be it seem good to you) let Gertha, the daughter of Sigurd the husbandman, be queen in my stead; she lodges in the mother-city, with the abbess of St. Agnes’ Abbey of nuns.”

“Yes, I thought so,” said Leuchnar, scarcely however speaking to them, for he was thinking to himself of himself; his sorrow seemed to have lessened much, even in the reading of that letter, for he thought: “Now she is queen, and has this sorrow on her, I can serve her much better, and my love will not trouble her now as it would have done, for it will seem only like the love of a good subject to his mistress; and I will lessen every grief of hers as it arises, loving her so, never vexing her in the least; O selfish Leuchnar, to be glad of her sorrow! yet I am glad, not of her sorrow, but of my service that will be.”

These thoughts, and how many more, he thought in a single instant of time; how many pictures came up to be gazed on as it were for a long time, in that instant! pictures of his life before he saw her, and of the things which in his mind belonged to her; the white sandy shore that the low waves broke on; the feathering beech trees, with their tender green leaves in the early summer; king Borrace’s burnt ships, great logs
clomb over by the briony and clematis; the high-roofed cottage, whereon the loving golden-glowing stone-crop grew;—they came up before his eyes to be gazed at; and the heavy waxen candles burnt lower, the sleeping priest breathed heavily, the others sat in painful silence, nursing their grief; which things Leuchnar saw not because of those sweet pictures, even as they say that the drowning man, when the first fierce pain and struggle is over, sees no more the green, red-stained, swaying water-weeds, that lap his eyes and mouth, sees rather his old home, and all the things that have been, for memory is cruel-kind to men.

Still the candles flared and flickered in the gusts that stirred the tent, for the wind was rising with the moon; and at last the one nearest the tent door was blown out by a long blast, and the priest who had been sleeping awoke, drew up his body with a start, trying to fix his blinded blinking eyes on Sir Barulf’s face, as waked men use to do.

Thereat suddenly Barulf sprung to his feet, as if he too was waking from sleep, and cried out aloud:

“Rouse ye, lords and knights, that we may march to our queen! for, for my part, our queen she shall be; all he said and did was right and true when he was alive; and he was, and is, the wisest of all men, and she too is a right noble woman; was it never told you, knights, how she saved her father when king Borrace’s men took him prisoner? What say you, shall she be our queen?”

And they all said “Yea.”

Then again said Barulf: “Unless lords Edwin, Hugh, and Adolf gainsay it (as I have no doubt they will not), God save queen Gertha!”

Then they all stood up and said: “God save queen Gertha!”

And Barulf said: “Send a herald round about the army to proclaim Gertha queen, and to bid all to be ready to march some two hours before the setting of the moon. Cause also the knight [ 417] who carries the great banner to be present, that we may bury the king.”

So when all was ready, the noblest of the knights, Barulf and Leuchnar among them, lifted up the bier whereon the king lay, and they marched together towards the burial-place; and the standard-bearer bore the great banner to flap above him, and the priests went before and after, chaunting; and a great body of knights and soldiers went with them as they marched over the plain; and the great moon, risen now, struck on their arms, threw the shadows of them weirdly on the dead that lay so thick among the trees, looked down on by the summer moon, rustled over by the full-leaved aspens.

They went a full mile, till they came to a place ringed about with aspen trees, about which the enemy that past day had been finally broken.

Here they buried him, standing about in a ring, in as thick ranks as ever in the battle; tearlessly and sternly they watched the incense smoke rising white in the moonlight, they listened to the

chaunting, they lifted up their voices, and very musically their sorrow of heart was spoken.

“Listen!” said king Borrace’s men, when they heard the singing; “Hark to the psalm-singing dogs! but by about this time to-morrow they will be beginning to leave off singing for good and all, for clearly the fools will wait to be killed, and we shall kill them all, and then hurrah for plunder!”

But the next day about noontide, when they, (not hurrying themselves, for they thought they were quite safe,) when they reached the camp, behold it was empty, for they all marched the night before, and were now still marching along the dusty road leagues and leagues from that battle-field.

Whereon king Borrace, instead of pursuing them, returned to his camp, where he gnashed his teeth for some half-hour or so, and held a great feast, he and his, and stayed on that field for three days,—“To give his army rest,” he said.

[499] Chap. IV.— Gertha the Queen.

And meantime how did it fare with Gertha?

The time passed slowly between hope and fear, and all the time was weary with a sick longing that would have been no less had he but gone out on a hunting expedition. She had pity too for those who were sick with love and dread, and all those who looked on her loved her.

Then one evening about sunset-time, as the nuns were singing in their chapel and she with them, as the low sun struck through the western window, and smote upon the gold about the altar till it changed it to a wonderful crimson, upon which the pale painted angels that flecked the gold showed purer and paler than ever—there came, on that sunset evening, far off and faint at first, across, over the roofs of the houses up to the hill whereon the Abbey stood, a sound of shouting mingled with the wailing of women, and the still sadder and more awful wailing of the great trumpets, which seemed to be the gathered sorrow from the hearts of the men, who themselves could not wail because of their manhood.

Tremblingly the nuns heard it, and their hymns fainted and died, as that awful sound of the indignant sorrow of a whole people going up to heaven rose and deepened, and swept onward: and Gertha turned pale even to the lips, and trembled too, at first, like an aspen-leaf, her heart beating so the while that she could hear the throbbings of it; but with a mighty effort she put back the trembling fever; she said low to herself: “He is dead, and I must not die yet.” Then she left her seat and walked, pale in her face like a marble statue, up to the altar; she turned round and faced the door and the sun, none hindering her, for they said, “she waits for news about the battle.”

The sun was on her forehead at first as she stood still, but it sunk lower till it touched her lips, and they seemed to quiver (though she held them still) in that flood of light.

So she stood, when lo! the clash of arms in the vestibule, and there entered armed knights without bowing to the altar or crossing themselves, Leuchnar first, then Barulf and some twenty lords following him; the others gazed about confusedly at first, but [500] Leuchnar going before them all, walked swiftly up to the place where Gertha stood, and fell before her feet, spreading his arms out towards her as he did so, and his iron armour rattled with strange echo about the vaulted roof; she did not look at him, her eyes beheld rather the far off battle-field, and Olaf lying there somewhere under the earth.

“Queen Gertha,” he began; but his voice failed him for thronging memories; Sir Barulf and the others drew reverently towards the two, and waited a little way off standing in a half circle: he heaved a great sigh, then bent lower yet, till his mail clinked against the step whereon she stood, then suddenly raised his passionate eyes to hers, and gazed till she was forced to look on him both with heart and eyes.

She beheld him pityingly: he said again: “Queen Gertha!” (thereat she started) “Queen Gertha, he is dead.”

“O Leuchnar, I heard the trumpets sing it so, therefore I stayed here for his message; what is it?”

“That you must be Queen over us yet awhile, Lady Gertha.”

“Ah! and must I be; may I not go to him at once? for do you know, Leuchnar,” (and she stooped down low towards him, and laid her hand on his head as he knelt) “do you know, I saw him just now lying pale and cold, waiting for me, his arms stretched out this way towards me, his changed eyes looking longingly.”

“O noblest,” he said, “know you not with how many perils we are beset? Whose spirit but his can help us through, and with whom does it dwell but with you?”

She wept: “Leuchnar, though He call for me so, yet perhaps that is because he is sick and weak and scarce knows what he says: and I know that in his heart he desires above all things the safety of this people that goes westward; so I will be Queen till the last foe is vanquished—tell them so.”

Then he took her hand; how strangely as he held it did the poor flesh of him quiver, how his heart melted in the midst of his body! he held her hand—and said, “I am Queen Gertha’s liegeman.” Then sprung to his feet and called out aloud: “Sir Barulf and Knights all, come and do homage to Gertha, our Queen!”

Then each man knelt before her, and took her hand, and said, “I am Queen Gertha’s liegeman.”

Afterwards all standing about her together, but lower than she, clashed their swords and axes across her that rang out joyfully, wildly, half madly in that quiet place; while the sun grew lower so that its light fell on her bosom, and her face above looked out sad and pale and calm from among the flashing steel.

So that day Gertha was made Queen. And then all throughout the city you might have heard the ringing of hammers on iron as the armourers did their work, and the clinking of the masons’ trowels as they wrought at the walls, strengthening them; for the walls had grown somewhat weak, as it was very many years since any enemy had threatened the city with a land army.

And on the sixth day came King Borrace, having wasted the land far and wide as he marched. Now when he had sent a herald to demand the surrender of that city, who had not even been suffered to enter it, but had been answered scornfully from the walls, he gnashed his teeth, and mounting a great black horse and armed with a mace rode about, ordering his battle.

Then also Gertha, leaving her hall of Council, went round about the walls with a band of knights: over her robes of purple and crimson her glorious hair flowed loose, and a gold crown marked her, circling her head; while in her hand she bore a slim white rod for a leader’s staff.

Very faithful and true were all those [ 501] in the town, both soldiers and women, but when she drew near to any, their faith grew so, that they seemed transported out of themselves; the women wept for very love, and the men shouted “Gertha! Gertha!” till all the air rang; and King Borrace muttered stupidly from between his teeth, “They are praying to their gods, the fools.” Then, turning about, he said to one who was master of his artillery; “Gasgan, son of a dog, bring up the catapults and shoot me down that woman there—there she goes, poking her head over the battlements—quick, O wretch begotten by the Devil’s ram.”

So Gasgan fixed his catapult and aimed the rugged stone at Gertha as she leaned over the wall, thinking, forgetting the fight and all, for him, just for a single instant.

He looked along the engine once, twice, thrice; once, twice, thrice he started back without letting the catch slip. “Dog,” said Borrace, riding up, “why shootest not?”

The man looked up with drops of cold sweat hanging to his brow, then stammered out,

“O my Lord, it is nothing,—that is, there is nothing there now, nor was there when I fitted the levers; but when my hand went to the bolt, each time I saw standing before me that man, the King who was slain the other day, his sword drawn in his hand, and frowning on me terribly; I cannot shoot, my Lord—O Lord, save me!” he shrieked at last, for Borrace, hitching up his great iron mace by its thong into his hand, began to swing it, putting back his lips from his teeth and setting his head forward.

“Son of a rotten sheep, can a ghost stop a stone from a petraria? go and join King Olaf.” So he struck him on the uplifted face, between the eyes, and Gasgan fell dead without a groan, not to be known any more by his wife or mother even, for the mace had shattered his skull.

“Now then,” said Borrace, “I will try the ghost of this fellow whom I slew once, and whom I will slay again, God being my help.”

He leapt down from his horse, and let his hand fall to the bolt, but just as he did so, before him, calm, but frowning, stood Olaf with bright-gleaming sword and yellow hair blown by the wind: “Art thou not dead then?” shouted Borrace furiously, and with a great curse he drew the bolt.

The stone flew fiercely enough, but not towards Gertha; it went sideways, and struck down two of Borrace’s own lords, dashing the life out of the first and maiming the other for life. Borrace flung on to his horse, howling out like a mad dog, “Witch! Witch!” and like a man possessed galloped toward the city as though he would leap wall and ditch, screaming such mad blasphemy as cannot be written.

After him very swiftly galloped some fifty knights and men-at-arms for his protection, and but just in time; for one of the city gates swung open, the drawbridge fell with a heavy thump, and out rode a single knight armed with a northern axe instead of a spear, slim in figure, but seeming to be good at war. He dashed through the first few of Borrace’s horsemen, who came up in scattered fashion because they had been riding as in a race, unhorsing a man to right and left of him as he passed through them, then made right at the King; as they met, Borrace struck out blind with rage at the knight, who putting aside the heavy mace smote him on the side of the helm, that he tumbled clean out of the saddle.

“Gertha! Gertha!” shouted the knight, and he caught Borrace’s horse by the bridle, and dashed off towards the gate again, where in the flanking towers the archers stood ready to cover his retreat; for some twenty yards as they galloped furiously on, Borrace dragged in the stirrup, then the stirrup-leather broke, and his horsemen [502] seeing him lie still there, gave up the pursuit of the victorious knight, which was the better advised, as the first flight of arrows from the bowmen had already slain three outright, and wounded five, and they were again getting their strings to their ears.

“Gertha! Leuchnar for Gertha!” rang from the knight again, as he turned just before he crossed the drawbridge; but the last of the enemies stood up in his stirrups and poised his lance in act to throw; but before it left his hand an arrow had leapt through his throat, and he fell dead. “Gertha!” shouted the archer. And then again the drawbridge swayed up, letting little stones fall into the moat from it, down rattled the portcullis, and the heavy gate swung to.

Then presently arose mightily the cry of “Gertha! Gertha, the Queen!”

But withal, when the pirates found that King Borrace was not slain, but only very much bruised, they advanced their engines, and the catapults and balistæ and rams shook the wall, and made many sore cracks in the older parts, and the arrows flew like hail, and the “cats,” great wooden towers covered with skins to protect them from fire, began to rise against the town.

Nevertheless, through all that weary day, though the defenders were so few for the great length of wall, they fought cheerfully and with good faith, like the men they were.

So that when they brought news to battered King Borrace, who lay tossing on his bed, concerning how little progress they had made, he gnashed his teeth, and cursed and was right mad.

And all the while through the thunder of the balistæ stones against the wall, through the howling of the catapult stones as they came among them into the city, through the gaunt uplifting of the misshapen rams, through the noise of the sledge-hammers clamping the iron bands of the cat-towers, through the whirr of arrows, through wounds and weariness, and death of friends, still rose the shout of “Gertha! Gertha the Queen! Gertha!”

Guess whether many people lay awake that night, or rather whether any slept at all, save those who were utterly wearied out by that day’s fighting or by their own restless excitement. Many did not even try to sleep, but sat round about the cold hearth telling stories; brave stories, mostly of the good old times that were fathers to the good times now; or else they would go about the walls in an eager fever to see what was going on; and some there were who stood all that night by the bed of some sorely wounded friend; and some, mother, lover, friend, stood also by bedsides holding the cold hands with bitter thoughts that were hard to bear.

That night was dark, with much gusty wind and a drizzle of rain, therefore, though it was August and the days long, yet it was quite dark by nine o’clock, and a little after twilight the enemies’ petrariæ left off playing, so that the besieged had rest: but before daybreak the drizzle had changed to steady rain, the wind having fallen.

Even before dawn the camp was a-stir, and two hours afterwards the cat-towers were again building, and the battering had begun again.

And so that day passed, through the rainy hours of it; and about two hours after noon the enemy tried to scale the lowest part of the wall near the harbour. Thereupon Gertha came to that part and looked on the fighters from a tower with a circle of knights round about. Therefore her people waxed so valiant, that though the pirates, fighting like madmen, fixed the ladders to the wall even through the storm of arrows and stones, (for the tide was out and there was no water now round about the wall,) they were nevertheless driven back with great slaughter.

[503] Also, on the other side of the town, one of the cat-towers was fired, and many perished miserably therein.

That evening Gertha sat and took council with her lords and knights; whereon Leuchnar arose and said, “Noble lady, we must make a sortie, and collect every man, and every boy too, to guard the walls meanwhile, for we are very few to guard so great a city, and the enemy is very many; half our men are utterly worn out with these two days’ fighting, coming so close upon their long march; the walls, either old and crumbling, or new and still damp, are cracked in twenty places: they are making a great raft for the crossing of the moat; go to the open window, lady, and you will hear, though it is night, the sound of their hammers busy on it. When King Borrace can put on his armour again, (would that I had slain him outright!) we shall be attacked in twenty places at once, and then I fear it will go hard with the fair city; we must make a night attack, and do all the burning and slaying that we may.”

“Dear knight,” said Barulf, “you are young and wise, this thing must be done: let some one get together two thousand of our best men, and those that are least wearied; let them be divided into two bands, and march out, the one by Gate St. George, the other by the East Gate; you, Sir Leuchnar, shall lead the one out of Gate St. George, and I will lead the other.”

He said this last quite eagerly, and the colour sprang up to his face: Gertha looked at him half shyly, then spoke to him.

“Nay, Sir Barulf, are you not then too old for blushing? Except for the last word your speech was very wise, but that spoilt it rather, for you must stay behind with us, some one else must go.”

She smiled serenely as she spoke; indeed she seemed quite happy now, seeing prophetically perhaps that the end drew near.

“And I?” said Leuchnar, “may I not go?”

“Go, fair knight, and the Lord keep you from all harm.”

But Barulf said, smiling also; “As for me, Queen Gertha, you know best, so I will stay behind, and hope to get a good drive at the three Dukes; they will keep, doubtless; may the Lord make their hands light! but who shall go in my stead?”

She looked round the noble assembly, and her eyes fixed on a young knight who sat over against her; their eyes met, and he seemed to Gertha to resemble somewhat her king, who was waiting for her near the poplar-trees. So she said:

“Sir knight, I know not your name; you I mean, with the blue surcoat and the golden Chevron on it; but will you take this service upon you?”

He had been gazing at her all the time they had sat there, and when he heard her speaking to him it must have seemed to him as if they two were alone together, for he looked this way and that, just as though he feared that some one might hear what they said one to the other; he rose and fell before her feet, not knowing if he were in Heaven or not, for his yearning was so strong that it almost satisfied itself. He muttered something almost inaudible about his unworthiness.

She gazed at him as he lay there with that inexpressible pity and tenderness in her face, which made all men love her so, trust in her.

“Wait, fair knight, and rise I pray you; have you Father or Mother alive yet?”

“No, Lady,” he said, still kneeling, like a suppliant for dear life.

“Any sisters or brothers?”

“None, Lady Gertha, now.”

“Have you a Lover?”

“Yea—one whom I love.”

Oh how the look of pity deepened in her eyes! what wonder that every nerve trembled in his body?

“And would she give it to your charge to lead a desperate sortie, [504] young as you are, with ‘life all before you,’ as men say?”

“Will she bid me go?” he said.

“Poor boy!—yet go—in the after-time we shall meet again, whatever happens, and you and Olaf will be friends, and you will see all his glory. What is your name?”


“Farewell, Richard,” and she gave him her hand to kiss; then he departed, saying no word, and sat outside for a minute or two, quite bewildered with his happiness.

Then came Leuchnar, and they went together to see concerning the men they wanted, and as they went they told each other that which was nearest their hearts: then said Richard:

“This is about the happiest time of my life, since I was a child; shall we not fight well, Sir Leuchnar?”

“Yes,” he said, “we ought both to praise God, Sir Richard, that, things being so, he has shown us so clearly what to do; I remember now how often in the past days I used after my fashion to torment myself, with thinking how ever I should pass the time if it chanced that my love (when it came, for love of all kinds was long in coming to my dull heart) should fail me; and now God calls us merely to spend a few hours in glorious fight, and then doubtless he will give us forgetfulness till we see her again: and all this I have not at all deserved, for though men’s lips formed themselves to speak my name often, praising it for my many good deeds, yet the heart knoweth its own bitterness, and I know wherefore I did such things, not for God’s glory, but for my glory.”

“Does not God then accept a man’s deeds, even if he stumble up to do them through mixed motives, part bad and part good? is it not written, ‘by their fruits ye shall know them?’—and your fruits—how often when I have heard men talking of you have I longed to be like you, so brave and wise and good!”

“Ah! the fruits, the fruits!” said Leuchnar, “when I think what the lawful fruits of my thoughts were, I shudder to see how near the Devil’s House I have passed. Pray for me in the battle, Richard.”

“You are very good and humble, Leuchnar,” he said, “and I know not what good the prayers of such an one as I am could do you, but I will pray. Yet I myself have been careless about deeds at all; I have loved beauty so much that I fear if any crime had at any time stood between me and beauty I should have committed that crime to reach it; yet has God been so kind to me, and kindest of all in this, that I who have done nothing all my life long yet, should do this and then die.”

“And it is good to do one thing, and then die,” said Leuchnar; “farewell.”

So they departed each to his own band; and by this time the rain had ceased, the wind had risen, and was now blowing strong from the sea; the clouds were clearing off somewhat, but it was not quite bright; moreover the moon, though it had risen, was pretty much behind the clouds.

The two thousand horsemen went, each thousand in its own direction, very quietly along the streets; they opened Gate St. George quite quietly also, and Leuchnar passed out at the head of his men. Now on each side of that gate was a cat-tower; so a hundred men were sent to each of these to burn them first; they were then to follow the main body, doing such damage as they could to the petrariæ along their way: now this side of the camp happened to be very carelessly guarded, scarcely guarded at all in fact; there was no one in the cats, and the guards about fifty in number, who ought to have been watching them, were asleep some twenty yards off; so both parties succeeded in firing the cats, taking care to put such store of tow and flax mingled with pitch into them that it should be impossible to drown the flames; moreover the guards awakened by the trampling of the horses and roar of the flames were put [ 505] to the sword as they rose, sleepy, bewildered, unable to use their arms: then the two hundred men, burning as they went along the altogether unguarded petrariæ on their path, soon joined the main body, and they all rode on swiftly toward the camp, just beginning to stir because of the noise, and the flare of the burning cats. A few minutes’ gallop brought Leuchnar to the foremost tents, which were fired, and then through the smoke and flame Leuchnar dashed into King Borrace’s camp at the head of his thousand horsemen.

At first there was scarce any resistance, the men were cut down and speared as they ran half-armed from out of the burning tents, and the flames spread in the rising wind; but the alarm too spreading, and many bands coming up in good order, Leuchnar was surrounded almost before he knew it; so in a pause in the fight he looked about him to see how he and his could die most to the advantage of the People; he listened and looked toward the East Gate, there were no flames to be seen in that quarter where Richard was to have fired the great balistæ and the rams and the raft for the crossing of the moat; for, to leave Leuchnar about to do something desperate, some of King Borrace’s men on that side had heard a stir in the town, and the bravest of them had gone to tell him: for at this time he was well nigh mad with his foil, and raged like the Devil himself, to whom indeed he must have been nearly related, and the service of telling him anything like bad news was indeed a desperate one. However as I said, some brave men plucked up heart of grace to go and tell him that the townsmen seemed to be about to make a sally on that side of the camp.

He answered them first of all by throwing four javelins at them, one after another; for he had a sheaf of those weapons put by his bedside for that very purpose; one of them was wounded by this javelin-flight, the others by careful dodging managed to avoid him: then at last he listened to them, and being rather sobered ordered 5000 horsemen to fetch a compass and charge Richard’s party in the rear when he was well drawn out towards the balistæ, which, as they were larger on this side, (for it was on this side that the enemy hoped most to make a breach,) were farther from the walls that they might be out of the range of the townsmen’s engines.

So when Richard came out of the East Gate very softly, this band of 5000 men was quite close to him, and the balistæ were guarded by a great body of archers and slingers; and neither horsemen nor archers could be seen, because, the night being gusty, the moon was at that time behind the clouds: so then Rolf coming near to one of the great balistæ sent aside fifty men to fire it, who were straightway attacked in front and flank by arrow-flights, so that all those who were not armed in proof were either slain or too badly wounded to retreat; the rest rode back in haste to the main body, which had halted as soon as Richard saw how matters went: then indeed would Sir Richard and all his men have died without helping Gertha, or the People that went westward, much, as men count help: but the Captain of those 5000 thought he would not attack Richard from behind, lest he should ride down his own people in the darkness, who he saw had already had some contest with the townsmen; but thinking that he would turn at once toward the town meant to fall on him as he retreated without order.

But Richard, seeing well how things had really gone, turned round to his men, and called out, “Keep well together, and fight well for Gertha”—then, “Sound trumpets, and Richard for Gertha!” So they dashed right at the camp at the gallop, and entered it close to Borrace’s tent, where it was not deep but straggling.

Now Borrace, thinking that nothing else could happen but that the townsmen should all be slain close to the walls, [506] was standing near his tent, talking to some of his Captains, and armed all save his helm; for he was now well, or nearly well of his bruises, and intended to lead an attack the next day. So there he stood, and four Captains with him, he twirling his mace about in his nervous excitement, and sometimes looking uneasily at those that stood by, as if he thought they were getting something out of him. Judge of his astonishment when he heard Richard’s shout of “Gertha,” and then the thunder of the horsehoofs.

“Curse that witch!” he ground out from between his teeth, “shall I never hear the last of her? only I think when I have seen her well burnt out of hand, after that”—

“For your life, my lord! for your life! they are coming this way, they will be over us in a minute!” and he turned and ran, and ran well too; and Borrace also began to run, and got clear out of the way of the main body, and would have escaped but that a certain knight, espying him, and knowing well the villainous wolf’s face of the man, as he looked over his shoulder, under the clearing moon, turned off a little and rode at him while he ran like ten men, crying out with a great laugh as he knocked him over, “Twice, O King Borrace!”

And indeed King Borrace was not knocked over thrice, for this time the brains were fairly knocked out of his smashed head by the great horsehoofs, the knight having disdained to use his sword on a runaway, and besides, being a genial sort of man, he had a kind of contemptuous pity for so stupid a brute, and thought to give him a chance.

However when the horsemen had ridden past, the Captains came back to see first of all what had become of their Lord and Master, for they had seen him go over, and with very mixed feelings. They found him as I said with his brains knocked out, and quite dead, whereat the first, Lord Robert, lifted his eyebrows and gave a long

whistle in utter astonishment that so slight a matter as a horse should have slain him, for his head seemed to be solid and mostly of oak. But Sebald, the second of them, lifted his foot and dug his heel deep in the already fearfully lacerated face of the dead tyrant saying as he did so,

“Beast and devil, remember my sister! I told you then I would do this one time or other,” (and again he stamped,) “said so openly, yet you took me into your service instead of killing me as I hoped you would, madman that you were.”

For in his madness of half-satisfied vengeance it seemed to him that he had slain him with his own hands; but suddenly it came across him how it was, and he said:

“Yet, O God! to think that I am disappointed in my revenge: yet still it is pleasant to do this, though another man slew him;” and again his heel came down on the dead King’s wretched face: then he stooped down and put his hands to the warm blood that flowed from the wounds, and raised them to his lips and drank, and the draught seemed to please him.

Meanwhile Gherard, the third Captain, who had at first stood still without saying a word and apparently in deep thought, suddenly started, and catching hold of Sebald by the shoulder said savagely: “Fool! can’t you stop that play-acting? Keep it till you are by yourself, for it is thrown away upon us, I can tell you; and don’t you see all of you that this must not be known? quick! quick! help me to carry him into the tent; here Sebald, man, lift and quick—ah!” he said, turning round and glancing about uneasily, “where is Erwelt? but you carry him while I”—

And he darted off after the fourth Captain (Erwelt), who had somehow disappeared, a man of mincing manners, very elaborately dressed.

So Sebald and Robert, as they lifted the body, saw Gherard as he ran in great bounds towards Erwelt; they [507] saw his hand slide down to his dagger, but there was no weapon in the sheath; he ground his teeth with vexation, but still went on till he had overtaken his man; then he touched him on the shoulder and said: “Erwelt, I want to speak to you.” “Well,” said the other, “what is it?” But his heart sank and he felt as if Death stood before him, dart and all, as indeed he did, for Gherard was a very strong man, and, as he saw Erwelt’s hand go down towards the dagger-hilt, he felled him with a quick blow between the eyes, then before he could recover was kneeling on him; he dragged the broad double-edged dagger from its jewelled sheath, and buried it thrice in Erwelt’s breast, then drew it across his throat from ear to ear; then, thrusting the dagger back again into its sheath, after he had carefully wiped it on the white and blue velvet of the dead man’s dress, he sprang up and ran back towards the King’s tent, leaving the body to lie piteously under the moon which was shining out from dark purple hollows between the clouds.

The light of it flashed on the poor fop’s jewels, shone on his upturned face and gashed throat and feeble nerveless hands. How much more dreadful was that one corpse than all the many, lying now nearer to the walls; than those even who lay with ghastly breakings of the whole frame torn by great stones; or slain by wounds that struck them haphazard in strange unlikely places: or slain as they lay already wounded; or who lay with their bodies twisted into unimaginable writhings brought about by pain and fear. All these and many more, many, very many of each sort, they were altogether less horrible than this one corpse of a murdered man.

The murderer found the others already in the tent, for Robert had said: “Sebald, don’t let us see that; you and I know nothing about it for the present; for we must hold together; and for my part I vote that we let Gherard work for us, he is such a clever fellow.”

Sebald made no answer; his eyes were dry, his throat was dry, his heart was dry with intense thinking if by any means he could extend his vengeance beyond the present world. He thought of all the curses he had ever heard; how meaningless and uninventive they all seemed when set beside his hatred! he thought so that I know not into what uttermost hell he had dragged his own heart; he certainly did not feel as if he were on earth; his head grew dizzy, he could scarcely walk under his burden, but somehow between them they managed to get the body into the tent unperceived.

Then he thought: “I can bear this no longer, I must think of something else just now; but I will make it the work of my whole life hereafter.”

So then Gherard burst in, muttering from between his teeth, “so much for one marplot:” and Sebald woke up and was in the world again.

So they began to talk, Robert sitting down and with his elbow on the table, stroking his cheek with his open hand; Sebald standing still, with knit brows, and blood-stained hands crossed over his breast; while Gherard walked up and down, twisting his fingers together behind his back, his cheek all a-flush and his eyes glistening—and Erwelt lay stiffening in the moonlight. So those three fell a-plotting.

Meanwhile such a hubbub and confusion had been going on before the walls as if the fiends were loose; for the archers, when Richard had passed beyond hope of pursuit, having sent a few arrows into the darkness at nothing, turned and looked about them.

Now they knew nothing at all concerning those horsemen who had been sent to take Richard in the rear, so, seeing some helmets glittering in the somewhat doubtful moonlight, they advanced a little towards them, and, thinking as a matter of course that they were from the town, sent two or [508] three flights of arrows among them as an experiment, getting ready to run away in case they should be too many for them, doing all this before the horsemen could shout out that they were from the camp; and when they did so, the townsmen, seeing clearly that Richard and his men were away, opened a heavy fire on everything that they saw, and Borrace’s archers believed that the horsemen lied, and still shot all they might.

Whereon the horsemen changed their minds, and settled that these were another band of men from the town whom they had not counted on, and so charged with a good will, especially as the long-bows and cross-bows and petrariæ were playing on them diligently from the city-walls.

Now the archers were more numerous than the horsemen, and, though not so well armed, fought stoutly, throwing away their bows and using their axes and swords, nor did they find out their mistake till many were slain both of horsemen and archers, and even then they were quite ready to go on with that work from sheer rage and vexation of heart; but restraining themselves, and being restrained by their leaders, they got separated somehow, and marched back to their own quarters, where one and all swore that they would stay, nor move again that night for man or Devil, whatever happened.

And so they fell to drinking all they might. But Sir Richard and all his, having won through the camp with but little opposition, (for the enemy were all drawn off other-where,) crossed the river that lay beyond, by a broad shallow ford that he knew well, (higher up it passed by that cottage,) then took mere bridle-ways and waggon-roads through the woods that lay beyond the river, after he had told his men that he intended making a circuit and falling from behind on that part of the camp where Leuchnar was. “For he is probably hard pressed by this time,” said he, “the sortie being from the first somewhat desperate and wild though necessary.” And he made this circuit lest he should be cut off before he could reach Leuchnar; had he known that there would be no pursuit, (there would have been but for Borrace’s death, and the happy clash between the horsemen and archers)—had he known all this he would certainly not have gone so far about, or gone through such intricate ways where the men could not help straggling.

So the rain-drops fell in showers on their armour as they past, from the low tree-boughs brushed by their crests and lowered spears; the moon flashed on the wet leaves that danced in the rushing sea-wind; with whirr of swift wings the wood-pigeon left the wood.

How often had Richard wandered here in the past days! what thoughts were his in those old times, of the glory of his coming manhood! what wonder at the stories of lovers that he read, and their deeds! what brave purposes never to be fulfilled! yet he meant them then honestly enough, yet he was to do one deed at the last if only one, that was something; and as he thought this he straightway drove thoughts of all other things from his mind, and thought of what he should do now.

He called a halt, and listened; then perceiving clearly that there was no pursuit at all, he led his men out of the woods, by a way he knew well, round toward Gate St. George, but cautiously and quietly for fear of an attack from the camp.

Then after awhile they halted again, and he heard the noise of the irregular mêlée I have told you about, and could scarce account for it; he heard the noise of the fight about where Leuchnar was; and he heard withal another sound that made his heart beat with hope: it was a far-off sound swelling and fainting in the rise and fall of the southwest wind that blew from over the sea, the sound of triumphant trumpets: he leaned forward from his saddle to listen better, and many a [509] soldier’s eyes sparkled as he cried out suddenly, “Victory! it is Edwin — quick to Leuchnar!” So away they went toward Gate St. George at a smart pace.

They drew rein when they came within a few minutes’ gallop from the camp that their horses might not go blown into the battle, then advanced with as little noise as possible, till they drew near and saw the enormous masses of the enemy surging round something which they knew well to be Leuchnar in a desperate case.

Then shouted their leader, “Richard! Richard for Gertha!” and with one mighty charge, which scattered the enemy to right and left, they were buried in the enormous multitude that was in vain striving to break Leuchnar’s array.

For he, trying to win his way back to the city that he might sally out at the East Gate to the aid of Sir Richard, beset as he thought he was, as he was doing this he was first cut off from the city and driven back towards the camp, and then surrounded.

Whereupon the horsemen having dismounted formed a great square with closely planted shields, and long spears set out like the teeth of a great beast, and on this square King Borrace’s horsemen, that were King Borrace’s no more now, had wasted their strength for long: for howsoever many men of it were slain by the arrows and slings or by the hurling of the long lances, yet the living filled up the places of the dead, and the square, though lessening every moment, was not broken when Richard made that charge, and joined Leuchnar: having hewn his way through with most of his men to that square of serried spears, “Brother!” he shouted, “hold out yet awhile, for Edwin is coming in triumph over the sea, and we must live till then.”

So they joined their two bands, and made a thicker and larger square than before, having cleared a space by one or two desperate charges, and soon the fight was fiercer than ever.

But the men fell fast before the arrow-flights and they grew utterly wearied with standing there on foot; in pauses of the fight very anxiously did Richard and Leuchnar listen, and they heard a snatch now and then of the dear trumpet-music, and hoped, or tried to hope: yet it seemed that they must die before help came, the greater part at least.

Then an arrow whistled, and Leuchnar staggered and bowed forward; he was wounded, not mortally indeed, but it dizzied and confused him. Almost at the same time the crowd opened, and there rose a shout of “Gherard! Gherard!” Forthwith a fresh band of horsemen charged, all armed in proof and splendidly mounted, with Gherard himself at the head of them.

How it all happened Richard scarce knew, but so it was that they broke the terrible hedge of spears, and presently each man found himself fighting separately or with one or two friends about him; tired men too against fresh ones, men on foot against horsemen, and all things seemed desperate.

Yet even then between all the clash of the battle Richard heard the roar of the bells from all the belfries and the shouting of the people. Edwin had landed. Then as he thought of this he grew half mad to think that they should die before the very eyes of their friends, and shouted out “Gertha! fight on, brave lads, and gather together all you may!” He with some half dozen of his own men tried to gather others again, but, while he struggled desperately, his great sword flashing this way and that, but rising duller from every stroke because of the blood on it, he was suddenly borne away, and Leuchnar beheld him alone amidst a ring of foes, saw his sword still flashing for a little, then saw him fall with many wounds and lie dead, at peace at last.

He himself, though surrounded by a band of friends, was sorely wounded; and, sick with pain and loss of blood, [510] he had nearly fainted; and the few around him were falling, falling fast under axe and sword and spear, when lo! the gates open, and the cry of “Edwin for Gertha!” rings all about, thousands pour out of the great gates, over the bridge, there is a sharp fight, and the bodies at least of Leuchnar and Richard are rescued.

For the pirates are driven back to their camp, not to stay quiet there for long; for even as they stand at bay about their tents the word goes that Borrace is slain; nor only so; the moon sinks, the east begins to redden, and within an hour after her setting many new spears fleck the clear light; the advanced guard of the Lord Hugh’s victorious army who have marched night-long to come to the help of the fair city.

Close them all about, brave sons of the men that go westward! Borrace is dead, Gherard is dead, Erwelt is dead, Sebald lies bleeding to death from four sore wounds, Robert fled soon, but was drowned in crossing the river.

The cats are on fire, the petrariæ are in ashes, all the camp is one blaze, everywhere the foe are throwing their arms away and crying for quarter, soon they are all slain, wounded, or prisoners.

Meanwhile a messenger, pale and worn out, is brought to Gertha, and kneels down before her feet; he says, “Lady, I have a message for you.” (O Gertha! words spoken before.)

“Quick, good man,” she says, “for these things draw to an end;” and a smile of quiet triumph passes across her pale face.

“Three days ago,” he says, “the Emperor strove to force the passes; he and three of his captains were slain, and my Lord Adolf will be here soon.”

“Thank God!” she says, “but you, poor man, what reward for you? ah! sleep has overmastered him:” for he has fallen forward before her so that his head rests on her feet; she touches him, takes his hand to raise him up; it is stonecold, he is dead.

But for these men of King Borrace—let the wounded go to our hospitals that they may learn there something of love which they have not even dreamed about as yet; let the slain be buried, and lie under the earth, under the grass among the roots of the land they came to conquer: let the prisoners depart unarmed, but with provisions for their journey, let them cross the frontier, and never trouble the good land more, lest a worse thing befall them.

Chap. V.— What Edith the Handmaiden saw from the War-saddle.

And in the fresh morning sat Gertha the Queen in the body, while her spirit was a long way off, and round about her sat the Lords and Knights with flushed joyful faces, she alone pale though calm and serene, for she too was joyful.

Then into the midst of the great hall they bore Leuchnar dying from his many wounds, not in great pain, for his spirit was leaving his body gently, as if he were worn out merely.

And Gertha rose from her throne and went to meet them that bore him, and there was a flutter along the tapestry that the hall was hung with, as the wind rushed through the opened door, and therewithal Gertha woke, her spirit came again as if Olaf had sent it.

So she gazed at him as he had hoped she might, as a Queen on her faithful subject: before this, often a certain uneasy feeling, not pity exactly, used to come across her when she saw him; it used to seem such a hard thing to her that it should be thus; it was just such a feeling as might have turned to love with one less constant than Gertha: but now even this was gone, and Leuchnar felt that it was so, even by the look of her eyes upon him.
And he, raising himself, hardly said to her, “Queen Gertha, I am come to say farewell for a little.”

“Poor Leuchnar, who loved me so!”

“Nay,” he said, “happy Leuchnar, who loves you still! in the time to come it may be that lovers, when they have not all they wish for, will say, ‘Oh! that we might be as Leuchnar, who died for Queen Gertha in the old time!’ ”

“True,” she said, “farewell, Sir Leuchnar.”

Oh! how eagerly he took her hand! “Happy Leuchnar,” he said faintly, then, “Domine, in manus tuas,” and he fell asleep, his head falling back.

For a short time she stood, holding his dead hand; then gently disengaged it and laid it with the other one, crossing them downwards.

Then they carried him out again silently; and again ran that tremour through the gold wrought hangings, and her spirit had gone away again.

And within a while, as the great sun rose higher, came the sound of trumpets, and the roar of the bells from all the belfries: Adolf was come.

How near the end drew.

That noontide was windless, cloudless, and very bright, except that a soft haze had sprung up everywhere from the moist earth, into which all things far and fair melted.

She came from the midst of that knot of Lords that had clustered about her, and with her dark hair loose, stood in the balcony above the people, and through the hearts of all thrilled her clear speech.

“God has been very good to us, friends, and we have conquered, and now you must let me go as you promised. And you may grieve that I must go, and wish me back often, but still I must go: it is not only because I wish to go that I must leave you, but I cannot help it: I think, nay am sure, that this also is best both for you and me. If I were Queen much longer you would be disappointed with me, yet would not say so, because you love me.

“Think now! I am but Gertha, the peasant’s daughter, and I know it was only the spirit of your dead Lord working in me that made you love me so. But if I were Queen for long I should come to be only Gertha again; so I must go. And if you will, let Barulf, who is old, but very wise, be King.”

There was sad silence for a little when she had finished, then a confused sound of weeping, and sobs, and earnest wishes went up towards the balcony, where she stood with her arms lying down her side: already she looked as if she were a different kind of being from them: she said,

“Will you have Barulf for your King? if you will, say so to pleasure me; then farewell.”

They shouted, “Barulf! God save King Barulf!” and lo! even in that shout she had vanished, like an angel that comes from heaven when God lends him, and goes to heaven again when God calls him.

Gertha walked over the field of battle; no meadow of sweet waving grass and lovely flowers, but something very horrible to gaze at, to pass over.

Yet she did not seem to take note of any of its horrors: her handmaiden was with her; but when they came within fifty yards of the aspen circle where he lay, she charged her to stop, and watch all that came to pass there, that she might tell the people hereafter.

So the handmaiden sat down there on the mournful battle-field on some great war-saddle that had been thrown down there.

But Gertha, when she had kissed her, left her and walked toward those aspen-trees; she was clad in her old peasants’ raiment again, and was quite without ornament of gold or jewels; only, her black hair hung braided on either side of her face and round about [512] her head was a garland of yellow flowering stone-crop, such as he wore in his helmet that battle-day: but now when she entered the circle of aspens there seemed to be silence over all the earth, except that when she first stepped among the shadows of the trees, a faint breeze rose out of the south, and the lightly-hung leaves shivered, the golden haze trembled.

Now although all the rest of the battle-field was trodden into bloody mud, dry now again, but loaded with all dreadful things, this spot yet kept the summer flowers, neither was there any mark of his grave.

So there lay down Gertha, and the blue speedwell kissed her white cheek; there her breath left her, and she lay very still, while the wind passed over her now and then, with hands laid across her breast.

Nevertheless this was what Edith, her handmaiden, said to Barulf the King, and his Lords and Knights:

“And so I sat on the war-saddle and watched, and as my Lady stepped forward to enter that circle of trees, I saw my Lord Olaf, the King, as clearly as before he died, step forward to meet her, and he caught her in his arms, and kissed her on the mouth and on both cheeks.

“And they two were together there for hours (talking it seemed), sometimes sitting on the flowers and grass;

(for that spot, my lords, is not trodden as the rest of the field is;) sometimes walking from tree to tree with fingers interlaced.

“But just about sunset time, I felt as if I must needs go and speak to my dear Lady once again, and hold her hand again: so I went up trembling; and lo! my Lord Olaf was not there any more, and I saw my Lady Gertha only, lying dead upon the flowers, with her hands crossed over her breast, and a soft wind that came from the place where the sun had set shook the aspen leaves. So I came away.”

Thereat the King and his Knights wondered.

And the People raised a mighty Church above the place where they lay, in memory of Olaf’s deeds and Gertha’s love: and soon about the Church there gathered a fair City, that was very famous in the after-time.

Yet it was strange that this Church, though the people wrought at it with such zeal and love, was never finished: something told them to stop by then they had reached the transepts of it: and to this day the mighty fragment, still unfinished, towering so high above the city roofs toward the sky, seems like a mountain cliff that went a wandering once, and by earnest longing of the lowlanders was stayed among the poplar trees for ever.


Text courtesy of the Rossetti Archive.