It chanced, however, that the two friends stopped short just before reaching the stone, so that Alric had to exercise patience while the girls contemplated the view—at least while Hilda did so, for on Ada's face there was a frown, and her eyes were cast on the ground.
"How lovely Horlingdal looks on such a day!" observed Hilda.
"I have no eyes for beautiful things to-night," said Ada pettishly; "I cannot get over it—such cool, thankless indifference when I took the trouble to dress his—his—stupid head, and then, not satisfied with telling the whole story over to thee, who cares no more for it than if it were the slaying of half a dozen sheep, he must needs go and pay frequent visits to Ingeborg and to Halgerda of the Foss—and—and—But I know it is all out of spite, and that he does not care a bodkin for either of them, yet I cannot bear it, and I won't bear it, so he had better look to himself. And yet I would not for the best mantle in the dale that he knew I had two thoughts about the matter."
"But why play fast and loose with him?" said Hilda, with a laugh at her companion's vehemence.
"Because I like it and I choose to do so."
"But perchance he does not like it, and does not choose to be treated so."
"I care not for that."
"Truly thy looks and tone belie thee," said Hilda, smiling. "But in all seriousness, Ada, let me advise thee again to be more considerate with Glumm, for I sometimes think that the men who are most worth having are the most easily turned aside."
"Hast thou found it so with Erling?" demanded Ada half-angrily.
Hilda blushed scarlet at this and said:
"I never thought of Erling in this light; at least I never—he never— that is—"
Fortunately at this point Alric, in his retreat among the bushes, also blushed scarlet, for it only then flashed upon him that he had been acting the mean part of an eavesdropper, and had been listening to converse which he should not have heard. Instead, therefore, of carrying out his original intention, he scrambled into the path with as much noise as possible, and coughed, as he came awkwardly forward.
"Why, the wicked boy has been listening," cried Ada, laying her hand upon the lad's shoulder, and looking sternly into his face.
"I have," said Alric bluntly.
"And art thou not ashamed?"
"I am," he replied, with a degree of candour in his self-condemnation which caused Ada and Hilda to burst into a hearty fit of laughter.
"But," said Ada, becoming grave again, "thou hast heard too much for thy good."
"I know it," he replied, "and I'm sorry, Ada, but cannot help it now. This will I say, however: I had no wish or intention to hear when I hid myself. My desire was only to startle thee and Hilda, and before I thought what thou wert talking of the thing was out, and now I have got it I cannot unget it."
"True, but thou canst keep it," said Ada.
"I can, and ye may rest assured no word or look of mine shall betray thee. I'll even try to conceal it from myself, and think it was a dream, unless, indeed, I see a good chance of helping thee in this affair!"
Alric laughed as he said this, and the girls joined him, after which they all went on towards Haldorstede together.
On reaching the place where Alric had intended to fish, Ada suggested that he should go and try his fortune, so he ran down to the river, and the girls followed him to the bank.
The spot selected was a rapid which terminated in a small and comparatively quiet but deep pool. We say comparatively, because in the state of the river at that time even in the quietest places there was considerable commotion. Just below the pool the river opened out into a broad shallow, over which it passed in noisy foam, but with little depth, except in the centre. Below this, again, it narrowed, and formed another deep pool.
Alric ran into the water till he was about knee-deep, and then plunged his spear. Nothing resulted from the first plunge, but the effect of the second was more tremendous than had ever before happened to the young sportsman, for the pole of the trident received a twist so violent that it would infallibly have been torn from the boy's grasp had he not held on with the tenacity of a vice, and allowed himself to be dragged bodily into the pool. As we have said, the pool was deep, but that was nothing to Alric, who could swim like a duck. The Norse maidens who watched him knew this, and although slightly alarmed, felt on the whole more inclined to laugh than to tremble as his head emerged and sank again several times, while the fish which he had struck dragged him about the pool. After a few seconds of violent and wild exertion it rushed down the pool into the rapid, and then it was that the girls perceived that Alric had struck and was clinging to one of the largest-sized salmon that ever appeared in Horlingdal river.
Fortunate it was for the boy that the fish took the rapid, for it had almost choked him in the deep pool; but now he scrambled on his feet, and began to do battle gallantly—endeavouring to thrust the fish downwards and pin it to the stones whenever it passed over a shallow part, on which occasions its back and silver sides became visible, and its great tail—wide spreading, like a modern lady's fan—flashed in the air as it beat the water in terror or fury. Alric's spirit was ablaze with excitement, for the fish was too strong for him, so that every time it wriggled itself he was made to shake and stagger in a most ridiculously helpless manner, and when it tried to bolt he was pulled flat down on his face and had to follow it—sometimes on his knees, sometimes at full length, for, over and over again, when he was about to rise, or had half-risen, there was another pull, and down he went again, quite flat, while the roaring torrent went right over him.
But no limpet ever stuck to rock with greater tenacity than did Alric to the handle of that trident; and it is but just to add, for the information of those who know it not, that the difficulty of retaining one's foothold on the pebbly bed of a river when knee-deep in a foaming rapid is very great indeed, even when one has nothing more to do than attend to the balancing of one's own body—much greater, of course, in circumstances such as we describe.
At last the salmon made a rush, and was swept over a shallow part of the rapid, close under the bank on which the girls stood. Here Alric succeeded in thrusting it against a large stone. For the first time he managed to stand up erect, and, although holding the fish with all his might, looked up, and breathed, or rather gasped, freely:
"Hoch! hah! what a fish! sk-ho!"
"Oh, I wish we could help thee!" exclaimed the girls, with flashing eyes and outstretched hands, as if they could hardly restrain themselves from leaping into the water, which was indeed the case!
"N-no! ye can't! 's not poss'ble—hah! my! oh there 'e goes again— s-t-swash!"
Down he went, flat, as he spoke, and water stopped his utterance, while the fish wriggled into the centre of the channel, and carried him into the deep pool below!
Here the scene was not quite so exciting, because the battle was not so fierce. The salmon had it all his own way in the deep water, and dragged his attached friend hither and thither as he pleased. On the other hand, Alric ceased to contend, and merely held on with his right hand, while with his left he kept his head above water. The pool circled about in large oily wavelets flecked with foam, so that there was a great contrast in all this to the tremendous turmoil of the raging rapid. But the comparative calm did not last long. The huge fish made a frantic, and apparently a last, effort to get free. It rushed down to the foot of the pool, and passed over the edge into the next rapid.
The girls shrieked when they saw this, for, unlike the former, this one was a deep rush of the river, between narrower banks, where its course was obstructed by large rocks. Against these the stream beat furiously. Alric knew the spot well, and was aware of the extreme danger of his position. He therefore made a violent effort to drag the fish towards a point where there was a slight break or eddy among a number of boulders, intending to let him go, if necessary, rather than lose his life. He succeeded, however, in getting upon one of the rocks quite close to the bank, and then endeavoured to lift the fish out of the water. In this also he was successful; made a splendid heave, and flung it with all his force towards the bank, on which it alighted, trident and all, at the feet of Hilda. But in letting go his hold of the handle Alric lost his balance, flung his arms above his head in a vain endeavour to recover himself, and, with a loud shout, fell back into the roaring torrent and was swept away.
A few moments sufficed to carry him into the pool below, to the edge of which the girls rushed, and found that he was floating round and round in a state of insensibility, every moment passing near to the vortex of the rapid that flowed out of it. Hilda at once rushed in waist-deep and caught him by the collar. She would have been swept away along with him, but Ada also sprang forward and grasped Hilda by the mantle. She could not, however, drag her back; neither could Hilda in any way help herself. Thus they stood for a few moments swaying to and fro in the current, and, doubtless, one or more of them would have soon been carried down had not efficient aid been at hand.
High up on the cliff over the scene where this incident occurred, Christian the hermit was seated on a log before his door. He sat gazing dreamily out upon the landscape when Alric began to fish, but, seeing the danger to which the lad exposed himself, after he had speared the fish, and fearing that there might be need of his aid, he quickly descended to the scene of action. He did not arrive a moment too soon, for the whole event occurred very rapidly. Running to the rescue he caught Ada round the waist with both hands, and drew her gently back; she was soon out of danger, after which there was no great difficulty in dragging the others safely to land.
At once the hermit stripped off the boy's coat, loosened the kerchief that was round his throat, and sought, by every means in his power, to restore him to consciousness. His efforts were successful. The boy soon began to breathe, and in a short time stood up, swaying himself to and fro, and blinking.
The first thing he said was:
"Where is the salmon?"
"The salmon? Oh, I forgot all about it," said Ada.
"Never mind it, dear Alric," said Hilda.
"Never mind it?" he cried, starting into sudden animation; "what! have ye left it behind?"
Saying this he burst away from his friends, and ran up the bank of the river until he came to where the fish was lying, still impaled on the barbed prongs of the trident. The run so far restored him that he had sufficient strength to shoulder the fish, although it afterwards turned out to be a salmon of thirty-five pounds weight, and he quickly rejoined his friends, who returned with him to Haldorstede, where, you may be quite sure, he gave a graphic account of the adventure to willing and admiring ears.
"So, granny," he said, at the conclusion of the narrative, to the old crone who was still seated by the fire, "thy prophecy has come true sooner than ye expected, and it has come doubly true, for though the good luck in store for me was a matter of small general importance, no one can deny that it is a great fish!"
TREATS OF ANCIENT DIPLOMACY AMONG THE NORSEMEN, AND SHOWS HOW OUR HERO TURNS THE TABLES ON A WOULD-BE ASSASSIN.
When King Harald heard the news of the defeat of Hake and the slaughter of his men by Erling and Glumm, great was his wrath at first, and Jarl Rongvold had much ado to appease him and prevent him from going at once to Horlingdal to ravage it with fire and sword. But when he had cooled a little, and heard the details of the fight from Hake himself, his anger against the young warriors changed into admiration of their dauntless courage.
Harald Fairhair was a kingly man in spirit as well as in appearance, and was above encouraging a mean or vengeful mood. He was indeed fierce and violent in his rage, and often did things which, when read of in the calm of a comparatively peaceful time, make one shudder; but it must not be forgotten that the age in which he lived was a cruel and bloody one, and, in Norway, without one touch of the gentle religion of Christ to soften its asperities. He could never have retained his power and rule over the stern warriors of his day, had he not possessed much of their own callous indifference to the horrors and cruelties of war.
"Thou hadst tougher work than thou countedst on, it would seem," he said to Hake; then, turning to Jarl Rongvold, with a laugh, "Methinks I would fain have this Erling the Bold and his friend Glumm the Gruff among my men-at-arms."
"I fear, sire, that they will not be easily induced to enter thy service, for they are both Sea-kings, and independent spirits."
"Such men have submitted to us before now," said the King, with a peculiar glance.
"Most true," returned the jarl, flushing; "but all men have not the same belief in your wisdom."
"That may be, yet methinks I could tame this Sea-king—this Erling. Perchance costly gifts might win him, or it may be that rough blows would suit him better. What thinkest thou, Hake? thou hast had some experience in that way."
"If you mean, sire, that you have a mind to receive rough blows at his hand, I will guarantee him both able and willing to gratify you. I know not the weight of Thor's hammer, but I am bound to say that it occurred to my mind when Erling's axe came down on my steel headpiece, and set a host of stars dancing in my brain."
"I believe thee," said the King, smiling grimly, "and thy visage speaks for itself."
This was indeed the case. The berserk's countenance was very pale. He still suffered from the crashing blow with which he had been felled, and his heart rankled under his defeat, for he was not aware that the blow, heavy though it was, had been delivered in mercy, or that if his enemy had not turned aside the edge of his axe it would have cleft him to the chin. Perchance, if he had known this it would not have improved the state of his feelings; for Hake possessed no nobility of spirit.
"It may be," continued Harald, "that thou shalt have another opportunity of measuring swords with this Sea-king. Meanwhile, Jarl Rongvold, go thou with Rolf, and bring round the Dragon and the other longships to the fiord, for I mistrust the men of this district, and will fare to the Springs by sea."
In accordance with these instructions the jarl brought the King's fleet round without delay. On the following morning they embarked, and set sail for the appointed place of meeting.
Here the fleet under Haldor and Ulf had already cast anchor. The ships lay close to the rocks, near the mouth of the river into which Erling had thrust his cutter just before the battle with the Danes; and a fine sight it was to behold these, with their painted shields and gilded masts and figure-heads, lying in the still water, crowded with armed warriors, while Harald's longship, the Dragon, and all his other vessels, came by twos and threes into the fiord, the oars tossing foam on the blue waters, and the gaily coloured sails swelling out before a gentle breeze.
The King laid his ship alongside of a point of rocks on the south side of the bay. Then, when all the fleet had assembled, both parties landed, and the Thing was summoned by sound of horn. It was held on the level ground where the recent battle had been fought. There were still strewn about many evidences of the ferocity of that fight; and when the King looked upon the host of stout and well-armed men who had assembled, not only from Horlingdal, but from the whole of the surrounding district, he felt that, however much he might wish to force obedience on his subjects, "discretion" was at that time "the better part of valour."
When the Thing was assembled the King stood up to speak, and there was probably not a man upon the ground who did not in his heart acknowledge that the tall, stout warrior, with the thick mass of golden locks, and the large masculine features, was, as far as physique went, a worthy wearer of the crown of Norway. It may be added that physique went a very long way indeed in those days; yet it is due to the Northmen to say that, at the same time, intellect was held in higher repute among them than among any of the feudally governed nations of Europe. One evidence of this was, that at the Things the best speaker, no matter what his rank, had a better chance of swaying the people than the King himself; while, in other countries, might to a large extent was right, and no one dared to open his mouth against him who chanced to be in power.
But King Harald Haarfager's power lay not merely in his personal appearance and indomitable will. He was also a good speaker, and, like all good speakers in a wrong cause, was an able sophist. But he had men to deal with who were accustomed to think and reason closely, as must ever be more or less the case with a self-governed people. There were acute men there, men who had the laws of the land "by heart", in the most literal sense of those words,—for there were no books to consult and no precedents to cite in those days; and his hearers weighed with jealous care each word he said.
The King began by complimenting the men of the district for their spirit, and their resolution to defend the laws of the realm; and he enlarged a little on these laws and on the wisdom of his own father, Halfdan the Black, and the men of his time, who had made and modified many of them. Then he went on to say that with time the circumstances of nations altered, and that, with these alterations, there arose a necessity for the alteration and modification of old laws as well as for the making of new ones. He deprecated the idea that he wished, as had been said of him, to trample the laws under his feet, and rule the country according to his own will and pleasure. Nothing was further from his intention or his desire. His wish was to amend the laws, especially those of them that touched on the relative position of King and people.
Up to this point the people heard him with respectful attention, and hundreds of those who were more addicted to fighting than to reasoning, especially among the younger men, began to think that after all, Harald entertained exceedingly just opinions, and appeared to possess a spirit of candour and fair play which did not seem to justify the outcry that had been raised against him. Even these, however, remembered that it was not very long since a small king of one of the northern glens had been summoned by Harold to submit to his views of government, and, on his declining to do so, had been burnt, with all his family and followers, in his own house, contrary to law! They therefore knitted their brows and waited to hear more.
The King then began to explain his ideas with regard to the royal authority over the chief men of the districts, some of which are already known to the reader. At this point the assembly listened with deep, earnest attention. Some of the men sat with hands clasped on their knees, and with stern downcast brows. Some gazed up at the clouds with the peculiar expression of men who listen and weigh arguments. Others leaned on their swords or shields, and, with compressed lips and suspicious gaze, looked the King full in the face, while a few regarded him with a sneer; but the expression on the faces of the greater part denoted manliness of feeling and honesty of purpose.
After Harald had stated his views, and assured them that his great aim was to consolidate the kingdom and to prevent the evils that flowed from the almost unlimited independence of the petty kings, he asked the assembly to aid him in carrying out his wishes, and to set an example of fidelity and obedience, which would restrain others from showing that unseemly opposition to him which had only resulted in severe and merited punishment.
He then sat down amid a murmur of mingled applause and disapprobation.
After a few minutes of animated converse among themselves, there arose an old man with a bald head, a flowing beard, and sightless eyes. He was the "lagman" or district judge, and law-expounder of Horlingdal. Deep silence ensued, and he said, in a decided though somewhat tremulous tone—
"King Harald, I am a very old man now, and can remember the time when your noble sire, Halfdan the Black, ruled in Norway. I have fought by his side, and lost my eyes in his service—in a fight in which our opponents gave us the tooth-ache. [Norse expression signifying 'the worst of it.'] I have also heard him speak those words of wisdom to which you have referred, and have seen him bow to the laws which were made not by himself, but by him in conjunction with the Thing legally assembled for the purpose."
There was a loud murmur of applause at this point.
"And now that we have heard the King's opinions," continued the old man, turning to the people, "and know that his intentions are good, although the manner in which he has set about carrying them into effect is undoubtedly wrong, my counsel is that we nevertheless submit to him in this matter, for we know that a great number of the small kings have already submitted, and it were better to have a beneficial change—even when not carried out exactly according to law—than to plunge this country into prolonged and useless warfare, in which much blood will, assuredly, be spilt, and nothing of any value gained."
The lagman sat down, but only a few of those present indicated their approval of his sentiments.
Immediately Haldor the Fierce stood up, and men could see that his spirit was stirred within him, for a dark frown lowered on a brow which was at most times fair and unruffled like the summer sky. There was deep silence in the assembly before he began to speak, and the King, despite the suppressed anger which rankled in his breast, could not choose but look upon his commanding figure with respect, also with surprise, for he recognised the strong resemblance between him and Erling, though he knew not their relationship.
"I agree not," said Haldor, "with what has just been said by our respected lagman. A change, even for the better, ought never to be accepted if not made according to law, No one can say that any change will certainly be for the better until it is tried; and should this one, perchance, turn out for the worse, then shall we have neither advantage nor law on our side. For my part I had rather see my country plunged into warfare—which no one, unless he is gifted with the foreknowledge of the gods, can say will be either prolonged or useless—than see her laws trampled under foot; for well do I know that, if the King be permitted to make himself an outlaw, blood will be kept boiling perpetually from one end of the land to the other, and it were better, methinks, that that blood should spill than boil. My counsel is, that the King be advised to call a Thing in the regular way, so that the changes he would make shall be fully considered, and either be made law or rejected; for, if he attempts to enforce his plans on us as he has done on other small kings, we will assuredly resist him as long as there is a man left in the district to wield a battle-axe."
There was a great shout and clash of arms when this was said, and the King's face became crimson with rage, for he saw clearly that the feeling of the majority was against him.
At this point Jarl Rongvold stood up and spoke in the bland tones of a man who wishes to throw oil on troubled waters.
He said that it was his earnest entreaty to the bonders and house-holding men, both great and small, then and there assembled, that they should calmly consider the proposals of the King, and not allow themselves to be carried away by unsound reasoning, although it might seem very plausible, for he was certain that the King's desire was the good of the country; and although circumstances had rendered it necessary that some of the rebellious should be punished, no one could say that the King was not willing and ready to do all that he did in a fair, open, and straightforward manner.
At this Erling was unable to restrain himself. He sprang up, and, with a passionate flow of words that burst forth like a mountain torrent, exclaimed—
"Thinkest thou, Jarl Rongvold, that our brains are so addled that we cannot distinguish between black and white? Is thy memory so short, is thy slavery to the King so complete, that thou must say evil is good and good evil? Hast thou and has the King so soon forgotten that two strangers came to the court with a message from one of the legal assemblies of this land,—that, trusting to the honour of the King, they came without following, and with only such arms as were needful for personal defence,—and that the honour to which they trusted was not proof against the temptation to send a noted berserk and nineteen men to waylay and slay them? Is all this clean gone from your memory, Jarl and King? or is your wit so small that ye should think we will believe in soft words about fair play when such foul deeds are so recent that the graves are yet wet with the blood of those whom Glumm and I were compelled to slay in self-defence?"
At this the King started up, and his face became white and red by turns, as he said—
"Ye shall, both of you, rue this day, Erling and Glumm!"
Erling made no reply, but Glumm started up and was in so great a passion that he could hardly speak; nevertheless he made shift to splutter out—
"Threats, King Harald, are like water spilt on a shield which can only rust if left there; I wipe them off and fling them away!"
He could add no more, but with a contemptuous motion of the hand he struck his fist violently against his shirt of mail, and the bonders laughed while they applauded him.
Then stood up a man in the troop of the Springdal men, who was of great stature and grim countenance, clad in a leather cloak, with an axe on his shoulder and a great steel hat upon his head. He looked sternly, and said—
"When rights are not respected then the crows flap their wings and caw, for they know that ere long they shall glut themselves with human blood."
He sat down, and immediately after Ulf of Romsdal stood up. Ulf had fully as much fire as Erling or Glumm, but he possessed greater power of self-restraint, and, as he spoke with deliberation, his words had all the more weight. He said—
"King Harald, when in the exercise of our udal rights we bonders elected thee to be our King at the Thing held in Drontheim, we stated and traced thy descent from Odin through the Vingling dynasty, proved thy udal right to the crown, and truly thought that we had placed it on the head of one who would walk in the footsteps of his father, and respect that authority and power in virtue of which he held his own high position. But we now find that thou hast constituted thyself a law higher than the law which made thee what thou art, and thou now wouldst have us, of our own free will, bend our necks so low that thou mayest with the more ease set thy foot on them and keep us down. We have served thee in all good faith up to the present time; we have readily met thy demands for men, ships, arms, and money, by calling together our assemblies and voting these supplies; and now thou wouldst rob us of this our old right, and tax us without our consent, so that thou mayest raise men for thyself, and have it all thine own way. This must not, shall not, be. Even now, we bonders will unanimously hold by the law if it be passed in the proper assembly and receives our yea, and we will follow thee and serve thee as our King as long as there is a living man amongst us. But thou, King, must use moderation towards us, and only require of us such things as it is lawful or possible for us to obey thee in. If, however, thou wilt take up this matter with a high hand, and wilt try thy power and strength against us, we have resolved among ourselves to part with thee, and to take to ourselves some other chief who will respect those laws by which alone society can be held together. Now, King Harald, thou must choose one or other of these conditions before the Thing is ended."
The loud applause which followed this speech showed that the bonders heartily sympathised with it, and indeed several of them rose and said that it expressed their will exactly, and they would stand or fall by what had been spoken.
When silence had been restored, Jarl Rongvold, who had whispered in the King's ear some earnest words, stood forth and said:
"It is King Harald's will to give way to you in this matter for he does not wish to separate himself from your friendship."
This brought the Thing to a close. Thereafter the two parties returned to their ships, intending to feast and pass the night in them.
The King was very affable, and invited Haldor and some of the others whose language had been comparatively moderate to feast with him, but they declined the honour, and retired to their own ships.
In the evening, while the sounds of revelry were heard everywhere, a boat approached Erling's ship. It was rowed by a single man, who, when it touched her side, leaped on board and went aft to where Erling was seated with Guttorm Stoutheart.
"King Harald would speak with thee," said the man, who was no other than Hake the berserk.
"Methinks his intentions can scarce be friendly," said Erling, with a grim smile, "when he sends so trusty a messenger."
"It may be so," replied Hake coolly, "but that is nothing to me. My business is to deliver the message and offer to conduct thee to him."
"And pray, what surety have I that thou wilt not upset me in the fiord?" asked Erling, laughing.
"The surety that if I upset thee we shall be on equal terms in the water," replied Hake gruffly.
"Nay, that depends on which of us can swim best," returned Erling; "and, truly, if thou canst fight as well in the water as on the land, we should have a rare struggle, Hake."
"Am I to say to the King that thou art afraid of him?" asked the berserk, with a look of scorn.
"Yea, truly, if it is thy desire to tell him a lie," retorted Erling. "But get thee into the boat, fellow; I will follow anon."
Hake turned on his heel and returned to the boat, while Erling took Guttorm aside.
"Now, art thou fey?" [death-doomed] said Guttorm. "What has made thee so tired of life that thou shouldest put thy neck under his heel thus readily?"
"Fear not, my friend," said Erling; "now that I have seen King Harald a second time, I think him a better man than at first I did. Ambition will no doubt lead him to do many things that are contrary to his nature; but I do not think he will violate the laws of hospitality after what has passed. However, I may be wrong; so I would ask thee, Guttorm, to go aboard of your ship, which lies nearest to that of the King, and, should ye see anything like a struggle, or hear a shout do thou haste to the rescue. I will have my men also in readiness."
While the stout-hearted old Sea-king, in compliance with this request, got into a small boat and rowed to his own vessel, Erling gave particular directions to his chief house-carle to keep a sharp lookout and be ready to act at a moment's notice. Then he went into Hake's boat, and was rowed alongside the Dragon, where the King received him with much condescension, and took him aft to the cabin under the high poop. Here he offered him a horn of ale, which, however, Erling declined, and then began to use his utmost powers of persuasion to induce him to enter his service. At first he tried to influence him by flattery, and commended him for his bold and straightforward conduct at the Thing, which, he said, showed to all men that he merited well his distinctive title; but, on finding that our hero was not to be won by flattery, he quickly and adroitly changed his ground, began to talk of the future prospects of Norway, and the necessity for improved legislation. In this he was so successful that he secured the interest, and to some extent the sympathy, of the young warrior, who entered eagerly and somewhat more respectfully into the discussion.
"But, sire," he said, at the close of one of the King's remarks, "if these are your sentiments, why did you not state them more fully to-day at the Thing, and why should you not even now call a meeting of the Stor Thing, and have the matter properly discussed by all in the land who have a right to speak?"
"Hadst thou had any experience of kingcraft, Erling, thou hadst not asked the question. If I were now to do as thou dost suggest, the numerous small kings who have already been put down by force would band against me, and bring such a following of opponents to the Thing that fair discussion would be out of the question."
Erling thought in his own mind, "One false step always necessitates another; you should have called a meeting of the Thing before putting down anyone;" however, he did not give utterance to the thought, but said—
"I think you are mistaken, sire; there may be many who, out of revenge, might oppose you, but certain am I that those who would vote for that which is for the wellbeing of the land would form a vast majority. Besides, it is the only course left open to you."
At this the King flushed with a feeling of anger, and, drawing himself up, touched the hilt of his sword without uttering a word.
"When I said the only course," remarked Erling, "I meant the only lawful course. Sorry should I be to see you, King Harald, draw the sword in a bad cause; but if you do, be assured that thousands of good blades will gleam in opposition."
At this the King's eyes flashed, and, turning suddenly upon Erling, he shook back the masses of his yellow hair with lion-like ferocity, exclaiming—
"Dost thou dare to speak thus to me in mine own ship, Erling?"
"It is because I am in your ship that I dare. Were I in my own, the laws of hospitality had shut my mouth."
"Knowest thou not," said the King, waxing still more angry at the rebuke conveyed in this speech, and laying his hand on his sword, "that I have power to shut thy mouth now and for ever?"
"It may be so, and it may be not so," replied Erling, stepping back, and laying his hand on the hilt of his own weapon.
At this the King laughed sarcastically. "And if," said he, "thou hadst the power and skill to overcome my feeble arm, hast thou the folly to think that ye could clear the Dragon of all her men?"
Erling replied: "The remembrance, King Harald, of the way in which I treated some of thy men in the woods not long ago, inclines me to believe that I could give them some trouble to slay me, and the thought of that transaction induced me, before I came hither, to make such arrangements that at all events my fall should not go unavenged."
For a moment or two the King's countenance lowered ferociously on the youth, and he ground his teeth together as if unable to restrain his passion; but suddenly he uttered a short laugh, and said—
"Truly thou shouldst have been styled prudent as well as bold. But go, I will take counsel with others, and perhaps thou shalt hear again of this matter."
Our hero retired immediately, but he observed in passing that Hake was summoned to attend the King, and that another man stepped into the boat to row him to his own ship.
"Is all well?" growled the rich voice of old Guttorm as he passed the vessel of that worthy.
Erling told the rower to stop, and, glancing up, beheld the stern yet good-humoured visage of his bluff friend looking over the rows of bright shields that hung on the bulwarks.
"All is well," replied Erling.
"It is well for the King that it is so," rejoined Guttorm, "for my hand was itching to give him a taste of our northern metal. Assuredly, if a mouse had but squeaked on board the Dragon, I had deemed it sufficient ground on which to have founded an immediate onslaught. But get thee to bed, Erling, and let me advise thee to sleep with thy windward eye open."
"Trust me," said Erling, with a laugh, as he pushed off; "I will not sleep with both eyes shut to-night!"
Getting on board his own ship, Erling said to his foot-boy—
"I will not sleep in my bed to-night, for I suspect there may be treachery abroad. Thou shalt keep watch, therefore, in case anything may happen in the night; and if thou shalt see me strive with anyone, do not alarm the men. Meanwhile go thou and fetch me a billet of wood, and let it be a large one."
The boy quickly brought from the hold one of the largest billets of wood he could find, and gave it to his master, who laid it in his own bed, which was under a small tent spread over the aft part of the vessel, close to the poop. Having covered it up carefully, he sent the boy forward, and went himself to lie down elsewhere.
At midnight a boat was rowed stealthily alongside. It was guided by one man, and moved so silently that the lightest sleeper on board could not have been awakened by it. The man stepped on board; lifted up the cloth of the tent over the bulwarks; looked cautiously all round him, and then went up and struck in Erling's bed with a great axe, so that it stuck fast in the billet of wood. Next instant the man felt his neck in a grip like that of an iron vice, and his face was thrust upon the ground and held there, while a heavy knee pressed into the small of his back, so that he was utterly unable to rise.
Erling's foot-boy saw the whole of this, and heard what followed, for the curtain of the tent was raised; but he moved neither hand nor foot, though he held a spear ready for instant action if required.
"It ill becomes thee, Hake," said Erling, "to seek my life a second time, after making such poor work of it the first. What! wilt thou not lie quiet?"
While he was speaking the berserk struggled with the fury of a madman to free himself, but Erling's grip (perhaps his own wisdom also!) prevented him from shouting, and Erling's knee prevented the struggles from making much noise. Finding, however, that he would not be quiet, our hero tightened the pressure of his left hand until the tongue and eyes of the berserk began to protrude, and his face to get black, while with his right hand he drew his knife, and ran the point of it about a quarter of an inch into the fleshy part of Hake's back. The effect was instantaneous! Hake could face danger and death bravely, and could hurl defiance at his foe with the best, when on his legs; but when he felt the point of the cold steel, and knew that the smallest impulse would cause it to find a warm bed in his heart, his fury vanished. Brave and bold though he was, and a berserk to boot, he sank quietly down, and lay perfectly still!
Erling at once relaxed the pressure of his fingers, and allowed Hake to breathe, but he let the point of the knife remain, that it might refresh his memory, while he read him a lesson:—
"Now, Hake, let me tell thee that thou richly deservest to lose thy life, for twice hast thou sought to take mine in an unfair way, and once have I spared thine. However, thou art but a tool after all, so I will spare it again—and I do it the more readily that I wish thee to convey a message to thy master, King Harald, who, I doubt not, has sent thee on this foul errand."
Erling here signalled to his foot-boy, whom he directed to bind Hake's arms securely behind his back. This having been done, Erling suffered him to rise and stand before him.
"See now," he said, taking a silver ring from his finger, "knowest thou this ring, Hake? Ah, I see by thy look that thou dost. Well, I will return it to thee and claim mine own."
He turned the berserk round, took off the gold ring which he had placed on his finger on the day of the fight and put the silver one in its place.
"By these tokens," said he, "thou mayest know who it was that cared for thee in the wood after the fight, and restored thy consciousness, instead of cutting off thy head, as he might easily have done. I know not why I did it, Hake, save that the fancy seized me, for thou art an undeserving dog. But now we will take thee back to thy master, and as our message can be conveyed without the use of speech, we will bind up thy mouth."
So saying, Erling gagged the berserk (who looked dreadfully sulky) with a strip of sailcloth. Then he made him sit down, and tied his legs together with a piece of rope, after which he lifted him in his arms to the side of the ship and laid him down.
"Go fetch me a stout carle," he said to the foot-boy, who went forward and immediately returned with a strapping man-at-arms.
The man looked surprised, but asked no questions, as Erling directed him in a low tone to assist in lifting the prisoner into the boat as quietly as possible. Then they placed the lump of wood with the axe sticking in it beside him. This accomplished, they rowed silently to the side of the Dragon, where a sentinel demanded what they wanted.
"We bring a prisoner to King Harald," answered Erling. "We have him here tied hand and foot."
"Who is he?" asked the sentinel; for there was not so much light as is usual at midnight of that time of the year, owing to a mist on the sea.
"Thou shalt see when he is aboard."
"Hoist him up, then," said the man, Erling and his carle raised Hake over the bulwarks, and let him drop heavily on the deck. Then Erling seized the lump of wood and hurled it on board with considerable force, so that, hitting the sentinel on the head, it bounded onwards to the after part of the ship, and struck against the tent under which Harald lay. The King sprang out, sword in hand, but Erling had pushed off, and was already enveloped in the mist. As they rowed away they heard a great clamour on board the Dragon, but it was quickly hushed by a stern voice, which Erling knew to be that of the King.
No pursuit was attempted. Erling got back to his own ship, and, setting a watch, lay down to rest.
In the morning no notice was taken of what had occurred during the night. The King evidently pretended that he knew nothing about the matter. He again met with the chief men of the district, and made them many promises and many complimentary speeches, but in his heart he resolved that the day should come when every one of them should either bow before his will or lose his life. The bonders, on the other hand, listened with due respect to all the King said, but it need scarcely be added that their lips did not express all their thoughts; for while the sanguine and more trustful among them felt some degree of hope and confidence, there were others who could not think of the future except with the most gloomy forebodings.
In this mood the two parties separated. The King sailed with his warships out among the skerries, intending to proceed north to Drontheim, while Haldor the Fierce, with his friends and men, went back to Horlingdal.
RELATES TO SUCH ELEMENTARY MATTERS AS THE A B C, AND TOUCHES ON LOVE-MAKING IN THE OLDEN TIME.
After the occurrence of the events just narrated, King Harald's attention was diverted from the people of Horlingdal and the neighbouring districts by the doings of certain small kings, against whom it became necessary that he should launch his whole force. These were King Hunthiof, who ruled over the district of More, and his son Solve Klofe; also King Nokve, who ruled over Romsdal, and was the brother of Solve's mother. These men were great warriors. Hearing that King Harald was sailing north, they resolved to give him battle.
For this purpose they raised a large force, and went out among the skerries to intercept him.
We do not intend here to go into the details of the fight that followed, or its consequences. It is sufficient for the proper development of our tale to say that they met at an island in North More named Solskiel, where a pitched battle was fought, and gained by Harald. The two kings were slain, but Solve Klofe escaped, and afterwards proved a great thorn in Harald's side, plundering in North More, killing many of the King's men, pillaging some places, burning others, and generally making great ravage wherever he went; so that, what with keeping him and similar turbulent characters in check, and establishing law and order in the districts of the two kings whom he had slain, King Harald had his hands fully occupied during the remainder of that summer, and was glad to go north to spend the winter peacefully in Drontheim.
The families and neighbours, therefore, of those with whom our tale has chiefly to do had rest during that winter. How some of them availed themselves of this period of repose may be gathered from a few incidents which we shall now relate.
In the first place, Erling the Bold spent a large proportion of his time in learning the alphabet! Now this may sound very strange in the ears of many people in modern times, but their surprise will be somewhat abated when we tell them that the art of writing was utterly unknown (though probably not unheard of) in Norway at the end of the ninth century, and long after that; so that Erling, although a gentleman of the period, and a Sea-king to boot, had not up to the time we write of, learned his A B C!
It is just possible that antiquaries, recalling to mind the fact that the art of writing was not introduced among the Norse colonists of Iceland until the eleventh century, may be somewhat surprised to learn that our hero acquired the art at all! But the fact is, that there always have been, in all countries, men who were what is popularly termed "born before their time"—men who were in advance, intellectually, of their age—men who, overleaping the barriers of prejudice, managed to see deeper into things in general than their fellows, and to become more or less famous.
Now our hero, Erling the Bold, was one of those who could see beyond his time, and who became almost prophetically wise; that is to say, he was fond of tracing causes onwards to their probable effects, to the amusement of the humorous, the amazement of the stupid, and the horrification of the few who, even in those days of turmoil, trembled at the idea of "change"! Everything, therefore, that came under his observation claimed and obtained his earnest attention, and was treated with a species of inductive philosophy that would have charmed the heart of Lord Bacon, had he lived in those times. Of course this new wonder of committing thoughts to parchment, which the hermit had revealed to him, was deeply interesting to Erling, who began to study it forthwith. And we beg leave to tell antiquaries that we have nothing to do with the fact that no record is left of his studies—no scrap of his writing to be found. We are not responsible for the stupidity or want of sympathy in his generation! Doubtless, in all ages there have been many such instances of glorious opportunities neglected by the world—neglected, too, with such contempt, that not even a record of their having occurred has been made. Perchance some such opportunities are before ourselves just now, in regard to our neglect of which the next generation may possibly have to hold up its hands and turn up its eyes in amazement! But be this as it may, the fact remains that although no record is handed down of any knowledge of letters at this period in Norway, Erling the Bold did nevertheless become acquainted with them to some extent.
Erling began his alphabet after he had passed the mature age of twenty years, and his teacher was the fair Hilda. It will be remembered that in one of their meetings the hermit had informed Erling of his having already taught the meaning of the strange characters which covered his parchments to the Norse maiden, and that she had proved herself an apt scholar. Erling said nothing at the time, except that he had a strong desire to become better acquainted with the writing in question, but he settled it then and there in his heart that Hilda, and not the hermit, should be his teacher. Accordingly, when the fishings and fightings of the summer were over, the young warrior laid by his sword, lines, and trident, and, seating himself at Hilda's feet, went diligently to work.
The schoolroom was the hermit's hut on the cliff which overlooked the fiord. It was selected of necessity, because the old man guarded his parchments with tender solicitude, and would by no means allow them to go out of his dwelling, except when carried forth by his own hand. On the first occasion of the meeting of the young couple for study, Christian sat down beside them, and was about to expound matters, when Erling interposed with a laugh.
"No, no, Christian, thou must permit Hilda to teach me, because she is an old friend of mine, who all her life has ever been more willing to learn than to teach. Therefore am I curious to know how she will change her character."
"Be it so, my son," said the hermit, with a smile, folding his hands on his knee, and preparing to listen, and, if need be, to correct.
"Be assured, Erling," said Hilda, "that I know very little."
"Enough for me, no doubt," returned the youth.
"For a day or two, perhaps," said the too-literal Hilda; "but after that Christian will have—"
"After that," interrupted Erling, "it will be time enough to consider that subject."
Hilda laughed, and asked if he were ready to begin. To which Erling replied that he was, and, sitting down opposite to his teacher, bent over the parchment, which for greater convenience she had spread out upon her knee.
"Well," began Hilda, with a slight feeling of that pardonable self-importance which is natural to those who instruct others older than themselves, "that is the first letter."
"Which?" asked Erling, gazing up in her face.
"That one there, with the long tail to it. Dost thou see it?"
"Yes," replied the youth.
"How canst thou say so, Erling," remonstrated Hilda, "when thou art looking all the time straight in my face!"
"But I do see it," returned he, a little confused; "I am looking at it now."
"Well," said she, "that is—"
"Thou art looking at it upside down, my son," said the hermit, who had been observing them with an amused expression of countenance.
"Oh, so he is; I never thought of that," cried Hilda, laughing; "thou must sit beside me, Erling, so that we may see it in the same way."
"This one, now, with the curve that way," she went on, "dost thou see it?"
"See it!" thought Erling, "of course I see it: the prettiest little hand in all the dale!" But he only said—
"How can I see it, Hilda, when the point of thy finger covers it?"
"Oh! well," drawing the finger down a little, "thou seest it now?"
"Well, that is—why! where is Christian?" she exclaimed, looking up suddenly in great surprise, and pointing to the stool on which the hermit certainly had been sitting a few minutes before, but which was now vacant.
"He must have gone out while we were busy with the—the parchment," said Erling, also much surprised.
"He went like a mouse, then," said Hilda, "for I heard him not."
"Nor I," added her companion.
"Very strange," said she.
Now there was nothing particularly strange in the matter. The fact was that the old man had just exercised a little of Erling's philosophy in the way of projecting a cause to its result. As we have elsewhere hinted, the hermit was not one of those ascetics who, in ignorance of the truth, banished themselves out of the world. His banishment had not been self-imposed. He had fled before the fierce persecutors. They managed to slay the old man's wife, however, before they made him take to flight and seek that refuge and freedom of conscience among the Pagan Northmen which were denied him in Christian Europe. In the first ten minutes after the A B C class began he perceived how things stood with the young people, and, wisely judging that the causes which were operating in their hearts would proceed to their issue more pleasantly in his absence, he quietly got up and went out to cut firewood.
After this the hermit invariably found it necessary to go out and cut firewood when Erling and Hilda arrived at the school, which they did regularly three times a week.
This, of course, was considered a very natural and proper state of things by the two young people, for they were both considerate by nature, and would have been sorry indeed to have interrupted the old man in his regular work.
But Erling soon began to feel that it was absolutely essential for one of them to be in advance of the other in regard to knowledge, if the work of teaching was to go on; for, while both remained equally ignorant, the fiction could not be kept up with even the semblance of propriety. To obviate this difficulty he paid solitary nocturnal visits to the hut, on which occasions he applied himself so zealously to the study of the strange characters that he not only became as expert as his teacher, but left her far behind, and triumphantly rebutted the charge of stupidity which she had made against him.
At the same time our hero entered a new and captivating region of mental and spiritual activity when the hermit laid before him the portions of Holy Scripture which he had copied out before leaving southern lands, and expounded to him the grand, the glorious truths that God had revealed to man through Jesus Christ our Lord. And profoundly deep, and startling even to himself, were the workings of the young Norseman's active mind while he sat there, night after night, in the lone hut on the cliff, poring over the sacred rolls, or holding earnest converse with the old man about things past, present, and future.
IN WHICH GLUMM TAKES TO HUNTING ON THE MOUNTAINS FOR CONSOLATION, AND FINDS IT UNEXPECTEDLY, WHILE ALRIC PROVES HIMSELF A HERO.
"I go to the fells to-day," said Glumm to Alric one morning, as the latter opened the door of Glummstede and entered the hall.
"I go also," said Alric, leaning a stout spear which he carried against the wall, and sitting down on a stool beside the fire to watch Glumm as he equipped himself for the chase.
"Art ready, then? for the day is late," said Glumm.
"All busked," replied the boy.—"I say, Glumm, is that a new spear thou hast got?"
"Aye; I took it from a Swedish viking the last fight I had off the coast. We had a tough job of it, and left one or two stout men behind to glut the birds of Odin, but we brought away much booty. This was part of it," he added, buckling on a long hunting-knife, which was stuck in a richly ornamented sheath, "and that silver tankard too, besides the red mantle that my mother wears, and a few other things—but my comrades got the most of it."
"I wish I had been there, Glumm," said Alric.
"If Hilda were here, lad, she would say it is wrong to wish to fight."
"Hilda has strange thoughts," observed the boy.
"So has Erling," remarked his companion.
"And so has Ada," said Alric, with a sly glance.
Glumm looked up quickly. "What knowest thou about Ada?" said he.
The sly look vanished before Glumm had time to observe it, and an expression of extreme innocence took its place as the lad replied—
"I know as much about her as is usual with one who has known a girl, and been often with her, since the day he was born."
"True," muttered Glumm, stooping to fasten the thongs that laced the untanned shoes on his feet. "Ada has strange thoughts also, as thou sayest. Come now, take thy spear, and let us be gone."
"Where shall we go to-day?" asked Alric.
"To the wolf's glen."
"To the wolf's glen? that is far."
"Is it too far for thee, lad?"
"Nay, twice the distance were not too far for me," returned the boy proudly; "but the day advances, and there is danger without honour in walking on the fells after dark."
"The more need for haste," said Glumm, opening the door and going out.
Alric followed, and for some time these two walked in silence, as the path was very steep, and so narrow for a considerable distance, that they could not walk abreast.
Snow lay pretty thickly on the mountains, particularly in sheltered places, but in exposed parts it had been blown off, and the hunters could advance easily. In about ten minutes after setting out they lost sight of Glummstede. As they advanced higher and deeper into the mountains, the fiord and the sea, with its innumerable skerries, was lost to view, but it was not until they had toiled upwards and onwards for nearly two hours that they reached those dark recesses of the fells to which the bears and wolves were wont to retreat after committing depredations on the farms in the valleys far below.
There was something in the rugged grandeur of the scenery here, in the whiteness of the snow, the blackness of the rocks which peeped out from its voluminous wreaths, the lightness of the atmosphere, and, above all, the impressive silence, which possessed an indescribable charm for the romantic mind of Alric, and which induced even the stern matter-of-fact Glumm to tread with slower steps, and to look around him with a feeling almost akin to awe. No living thing was to be seen, either among the stupendous crags which still towered above, or in the depths which they had left below; but there were several footprints of wolves, all of which Glumm declared, after careful examination, to be old.
"See here, lad," he said, turning up one of these footprints with the butt of his spear; "observe the hardish ball of snow just under the print; that shows that the track is somewhat old. If it had been quite fresh there would have been no such ball."
"Thou must think my memory of the shortest, Glumm, for I have been told that every time I have been out with thee."
"True, but thou art so stupid," said Glumm, laying his spear lightly across the boy's shoulders, "that I have thought fit to impress it on thee by repetition, having an interest in thine education, although thou dost not deserve it."
"I deserve it, mayhap, more than ye think."
"How so, boy?"
"Why, because I have for a long time past taken an uncommon interest in thy welfare."
Glumm laughed, and said he did not know that there was any occasion to concern himself about his welfare.
"Oh yes, there is!" cried Alric, "for, when a man goes moping about the country as if he were fey, or as if he had dreamed of seeing his own guardian spirit, his friends cannot help being concerned about him."
"Why, what is running in the lad's head?" said Glumm, looking with a perplexed expression at his young companion.
"Nothing runs in my head, save ordinary thoughts. If there be any unusual running at all, it must be in thine own."
"Speak, thou little fox," said Glumm, suddenly grasping Alric by the nape of the neck and giving him a shake.
"Nay then, if that is thy plan," said the boy, "give it a fair trial. Shake away, and see what comes of it. Thou mayest shake out blood, bones, flesh, and life too, and carry home my skin as a trophy, but be assured that thou shalt not shake a word off my tongue!"
"Boldly spoken," said Glumm, laughing, as he released the lad; "but I think thy tone would change if I were to take thee at thy word."
"That it would not. Thou art not the first man whom I have defied, aye, and drawn blood from, as that red-haired Dane—"
Alric stopped suddenly. He had reached that age when the tendency to boast begins, at least in manly boys, to be checked by increasing good sense and good taste. Yet it is no disparagement of Alric's character to say that he found it uncommonly difficult to refrain, when occasion served, from making reference to his first warlike exploit, even although frequent rebukes and increasing wisdom told him that boasting was only fit for the lips of cowards.
"Why do ye stop?" asked Glumm, who quite understood the boy's feelings, and admired his exercise of self-control.
"Be—because I have said enough."
"Good is it," observed the other, "when man or boy knows that he has said enough, and has the power to stop when he knows it. But come, Alric, thou hast not said enough to me yet on the matter that—that—"
"What matter?" asked Alric, with a sly look.
"Why, the matter of my welfare, to be sure."
"Ah, true. Well, methinks, Glumm, that I could give thee a little medicine for thy mind, but I won't, unless ye promise to keep thy spear off my back."
"I promise," said Glumm, whose curiosity was aroused.
"It is a sad thing when a man looks sweet and a maid looks sour, but there is a worse thing; that is when the maid feels sour. Thou lovest Ada—"
"Hold!" cried Glumm, turning fiercely on his companion, "and let not thy pert tongue dare to speak of such things, else will I show thee that there are other things besides spears to lay across thy shoulders."
"Now art thou truly Glumm the Gruff," cried Alric, laughing, as he leaped to the other side of a mass of fallen rock; "but if thy humour changes not, I will show thee that I am not named Lightfoot for nothing. Come, don't fume and fret there like a bear with a headache, but let me speak, and I warrant me thou wilt be reasonably glad."
"Go on, then, thou incorrigible."
"Very well; but none of thy hard names, friend Glumm, else will I set my big brother Erling at thee. There now, don't give way again. What a storm-cloud thou art! Will the knowledge that Ada loves thee as truly as thou lovest her calm thee down?"
"I see thou hast discovered my secret," said Glumm, looking at his little friend with a somewhat confused expression, "though how the knowledge came to thee is past my understanding. Yet as thou art so clever a warlock I would fain know what ye mean about 'Ada's love for me.' Hadst thou said her hatred, I could have believed thee without explanation."
"Let us go on, then," said Alric, "for there is nothing to be gained and only time to be lost by thus talking across a stone."
The path which they followed was broad at that part, and not quite so rugged, so that Alric could walk alongside of his stout friend as he related to him the incident that was the means of enlightening him as to Ada's feelings towards her lover. It was plain from the expression on the Norseman's face that his soul was rejoiced at the discovery, and he strode forward at such a pace that the boy was fain to call a halt.
"Thinkest thou that my legs are as long as thine?" he said, stopping and panting.
Glumm laughed; and the laugh was loud and strong. He would have laughed at anything just then, for the humour was upon him, and he felt it difficult to repress a shout at the end of it!
"Come on, Alric, I will go slower. But art thou sure of all this? Hast not mistaken the words?"
"Mistaken the words!" cried the boy; "why, I tell thee they were as plain to my ears and my senses as what thou hast said this moment."
"Good," said Glumm; "and now the question comes up, how must I behave to her? But thou canst not aid me herein, for in such matters thou hast had no experience."
"Out upon thee for a stupid monster!" said the boy; "have I not just proved that my experience is very deep? I have not, indeed, got the length thou hast—of wandering about like a poor ghost or a half-witted fellow, but I have seen enough of such matters to know what common sense says."
"And, pray, what does common sense say?"
"Why, it says, Act towards the maid like a sane man, and, above all, a true man. Don't go about the land gnashing thy teeth until everyone laughs at thee. Don't go staring at her in grim silence as if she were a wraith; and, more particularly, don't pretend to be fond of other girls, for thou didst make a pitiful mess of that attempt. In short, be Glumm without being Gruff, and don't try to be anybody else. Be kind and straightforward to her, worship her, or, as Kettle Flatnose said the other day, 'kiss the ground she walks on,' if thou art so inclined, but don't worry her life out. Show that thou art fond of her, and willing to bide her time. Go on viking cruise, for the proverb says that an 'absent body makes a longing spirit,' and bring her back shiploads of kirtles and mantles and armlets, and gold and silver ornaments—that's what common sense says, Glumm, and a great deal more besides, but I fear much that it is all wasted on thee."
"Heyday!" exclaimed Glumm, "what wisdom do I hear? Assuredly we must call thee Alric hinn Frode hereafter. One would think thou must have been born before thine own grandfather."
"Truly that is not so difficult to fancy," retorted Alric. "Even now I feel like a great-grandfather while I listen to thee. There wants but a smooth round face and a lisping tongue to make thine appearance suitable to thy wisdom! But what is this that we have here?"
The boy pointed to a track of some animal in the snow a few yards to one side of the path.
"A wolf track," said Glumm, turning aside.
"A notably huge one," remarked the boy.
"And quite fresh," said the man.
"Which is proved," rejoined Alric in a slow, solemn voice, "by the fact that there is no ball of snow beneath the—"
"Hold thy pert tongue," said Glumm in a hoarse whisper, "the brute must be close to us. Do thou keep in the lower end of this gorge—see, yonder, where it is narrow. I will go round to the upper end; perchance the wolf is there. If so, we stand a good chance of killing him, for the sides of the chasm are like two walls all the way up. But," added Glumm, hesitating a moment, and looking fixedly at the small but sturdy frame of his companion, whose heightened colour and flashing eyes betokened a roused spirit, "I doubt thy—that is—I have no fear of the spirit, if the body were a little bigger."
"Take thine own big body off, Glumm," said Alric, "and leave me to guard the pass."
Glumm grinned as he turned and strode away.
The spot which the hunters had reached merits particular notice. It was one of those wild deep rents or fissures which are usually found near the summits of almost inaccessible mountains. It was not, however, at the top of the highest range in that neighbourhood, being merely on the summit of a ridge which was indeed very high—perhaps five or six thousand feet—but still far below the serried and shattered peaks which towered in all directions round Horlingdal, shutting it out from all communication with the rest of the world, except through the fiord and the pass leading over to the Springs.
On the place where Alric parted from his friend the rocks of the gorge or defile rose almost perpendicularly on both sides, and as he advanced he found that the space between became narrower, until, at the spot where he was to take his stand, there was an opening of scarcely six feet in width. Beyond this the chasm widened a little, until, at its higher end, it was nearly twenty yards broad; but, owing to the widening nature of the defile, the one opening could not be seen from the other, although they were little more than four hundred yards apart.
The track of the wolf led directly through the pass into the gorge. As the lad took his stand he observed with much satisfaction that it was that of an unusually large animal. This feeling was tempered, however, with some anxiety lest it should have escaped at the other opening. It was also mixed with a touch of agitation; for although Alric had seen his friend and Erling kill wolves and bears too, he had never before been left to face the foe by himself, and to sustain the brunt of the charge in his own proper person. Beyond an occasional flutter of the heart, however, there was nothing to indicate, even to himself, that he was not as firm as the rock on which he stood.
Now, let it not be supposed that we are here portraying a hero of romance in whom is united the enthusiasm of the boy with the calm courage of the man. We crave attention, more particularly that of boys, to the following observations:—
In the highly safe and civilised times in which we live, many thousands of us never have a chance, from personal experience, of forming a just estimate of the powers of an average man or boy, and we are too apt to ascribe that to heroism which is simply due to knowledge. A man knows that he can do a certain thing that seems extremely dangerous, therefore he does it boldly, not because he is superlatively bold by any means, but because he knows there is no risk—at least none to him. The proverb that "Familiarity breeds contempt" applies as truly to danger as to anything else; and well is it for the world that the majority of human beings are prone to familiarise themselves with danger in spite of those well-meaning but weak ones who have been born with a tendency to say perpetually, "Take care," "Don't run such risk", etcetera. "Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;" and man has echoed the sentiment in the proverb, "Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well". Do you climb?—then do it well—do it in such circumstances that your spirit will get used to seeing profound depths below you without your heart melting into hot water and your nerves quaking. Do you leap?—then do it well—do it so that you may be able to turn it to some good account in the day of trial; do it so that you may know how to leap off a runaway carriage, for instance, without being killed. Learn to jump off high cliffs into deep water, so that, should the opportunity ever offer, you may be able to plunge off the high bulwarks of a vessel to save a sister, or mother, or child, with as little thought about yourself as if you were jumping off a sofa. Observe, we do not advocate recklessness. To leap off a cliff so high that you will be sure to be killed is not leaping "well"; but neither is it well to content yourself with a jump of three or four feet as your utmost attainment, because that is far short of many a leap which may have to be taken in this world to save even your own life, not to mention the lives of others. But enough of this disquisition, which, the reader will observe, has been entered upon chiefly in order to prove that we do not ascribe heroic courage to Alric when we say that, having been familiar with danger from his birth, he prepared to face a wolf of unknown size and ferocity with considerable coolness, if not indifference to danger.
Glumm meanwhile reached the other end of the ravine, and there, to his intense disappointment, found the track of the wolf leading away towards the open mountains beyond. Just where it left the ravine, however, the animal had run about so much that the track was crossed and recrossed in confusion. Glumm therefore had difficulty at first in following it up, but when he did so, great was his joy to find that it doubled back and re-entered the defile. Pressing quickly forward, he came to a broken part, near the centre, where, among a heap of grey, weather-worn rocks he perceived two sharp-pointed objects, like a pair of erect ears! To make certain, he hurled a stone towards the place. The objects instantly disappeared!
Immediately afterwards, a long grey back and a bushy tail were visible as the wolf glided among the rocks, making for the side of the precipice, with the intention, doubtless, of rushing past this bold intruder.
Glumm observed the movement, and promptly went in the same direction. The wolf noticed this, and paused abruptly—remaining still, as if uncertain what to do. The hunter at once put to flight his uncertainty by gliding swiftly towards him. Seeing this, the wolf abandoned the attempt at concealment and bounded into the centre of the ravine, where, with his bristles erect, his back slightly arched, and all his glittering teeth and blood-red gums exposed, he stood for a moment or two the very picture of intensified fury. The hunter advanced with his spear levelled, steadily, but not hastily, because there was sufficient space on either hand to render the meeting of the animal in its rush a matter of extreme difficulty, while at every step he took, the precipices on either side drew closer together. The brute had evidently a strong objection to turn back, and preferred to run the risk of passing its foe, for it suddenly sprang to one side and ran up the cliff as far as possible, like a cat, while it made for the upper end of the ravine.
The Norseman, whose powerful frame was by this time strung to intensity of action, leaped to the same side with the agility of a panther, and got in before it. The wolf did not stop, but with a ferocious growl it swerved aside, and bounded to the other side of the ravine. Again the hunter leaped across, and stood in its way. He bent forward to resist the animal's weight and impetus, but the baffled wolf was cowed by his resolute front. It turned tail, and fled, followed by Glumm with a wild halloo!
When the first growl was heard by Alric, it strung him up to the right pitch instantly, and the next one caused the blood to rush to his face, for he heard the halloo which Glumm uttered as he followed in pursuit. The distance was short. Another moment and the boy saw the infuriated animal springing towards him, with Glumm rushing madly after it. Alric was already in the centre of the pass with the spear levelled, and his body bent in anticipation of the shock. The wolf saw him, but did not check its pace—with a furious Norseman bounding behind there was no room for hesitation. It lowered its head, increased its speed, and ran at the opening like a thunderbolt. When within three yards of the boy it swerved, and, leaping up, pawed the cliff on the left while in the air. Alric had foreseen this—his only doubt had been as to which side the brute would incline to. He sprang at the same moment, and met it full in the face as it came down. The point of his spear entered the wolf's chest, and penetrated deep into its body. A terrific yell followed. The spear handle broke in the middle, and the boy fell on his face, while the wolf went right over him, yelling and biting the spear, as, carried on by its impetus, it rolled head over heels for several yards among the rocks.
Alric jumped up unhurt, and, for want of a better weapon, seized a mass of stone, which he raised above his head, and hurled at the wolf, hitting it fairly on the skull. At the same moment Glumm ran up, intending to transfix the brute with his spear.
"Hold thy hand, Glumm," gasped the boy.
Glumm checked himself.
"In truth it needs no more," he said, bringing the butt of his weapon to the ground, and leaning on it, while he looked on at the last struggles of the dying wolf. "Fairly done, lad," he added, with a nod of approval, "this will make a man of thee."
The boy did not speak, but stood with his chest still heaving, his breath coming fast, and the expression of triumph on his countenance showing that for him a new era had opened up—that the days of boasting had ended, and those of manly action had fairly and auspiciously begun.
SHOWS WHAT SOME OF THE MEN OF OLD COULD DO IN COLD BLOOD, AND TREATS OF HEATHEN FESTIVITIES AT HARALD'S COURT, MINGLED WITH PLOT AND COUNTER PLOT.
Winter—with its frost and snow, its long nights and its short days, its feasts in the great halls, and its tales round the roaring wood fires— at length began to pass away, and genial spring advanced to gladden the land of Norway. The white drapery melted in the valleys, leaving brilliant greens and all the varied hues of rugged rocks to fill the eyes with harmonious colour. High on the mighty fells the great glaciers—unchanging, almost, as the "everlasting hills"—gleamed in the sunlight against the azure sky, and sent floods of water down into the brimming rivers. The scalds ceased, to some extent, those wild legendary songs and tales with which they had beguiled the winter nights, and joined the Norsemen in their operations on the farms and on the fiords. Men began to grow weary of smoked rafters and frequent festivities, and to long for the free, fresh air of heaven. Some went off to drive the cattle to the "saeters" or mountain pastures, others set out for the fisheries, and not a few sailed forth on viking cruises over the then almost unknown sea. Our friends of Horlingdal bestirred themselves, like others, in these varied avocations, and King Harald Fairhair, uprising from his winter lair in Drontheim like a giant refreshed, assembled his men, and prepared to carry out his political plans with a strong hand. But resolute men cannot always drive events before them as fast as they would wish. Summer was well advanced before the King was ready to take action.
There was a man of the Drontheim district named Hauskuld, who was noted for ferocity and wickedness. He was also very strong and courageous, so that King Harald made him one of his berserks.
One morning the King sent for this man, and said to him—
"Hauskuld, I have a business for thee to do, which requires the heart of a brave fellow. There is a man near Horlingdal who has not only refused to submit to my will, but has gathered a band of seventy men or more about him, and threatens to raise the country against me. It does not suit me to go forth to punish this dog just now, for my preparations are not yet complete. Nevertheless it is important that he should be crushed, as he dwells in the heart of a disaffected district. It is therefore my purpose to send thee with a small body of picked men to do thy worst by him."
"That suits me well," said Hauskuld; "what is his name?"
"Atli," answered the King.
"He is my foster-brother!" said Hauskuld, with a peculiar and unpleasant smile.
The King looked a little perplexed.
"Thou wilt not have much heart to the business if that be so," he said.
"When you command, sire, it is my duty to obey," replied Hauskuld.
"Nay, but I can find other stout men for this thing. There is Hake of Hadeland. Go, send him hither. I will not put this on thy shoulders."
"Sire, you are considerate," said Hauskuld, "but this foster-brother of mine I count an enemy, for reasons that I need not tell. Besides, he is said to be a warlock, and for my part I firmly believe that he is in league with Nikke, so that it would be a service to the gods to rid the world of him. If you will permit me, I will gladly go on this errand, and as this Atli is a stout man, it would be well to take Hake and a few of the berserkers along with me."
"Do as thou wilt," replied the King, with a wave of his hand, as he turned away; "only, what thou doest, see thou do it well and quickly."
The berserk shouldered his battle-axe and left the hall. As he walked away the King stood in the doorway looking after him with a mingled expression of admiration and dislike.
"A stalwart knave," he muttered to himself, while a grim smile played on his large handsome features; "a good fighting brute, no doubt, but, with such a spirit, a bad servant, I fear."
"There are many such in your army," said a deep, stern voice behind him.
The King turned quickly round, with a look of anger, and fixed a searching glance on the huge form of Rolf Ganger, who stood leaning on the hilt of his sword with a quiet, almost contemptuous smile on his face.
"It is well known that birds of a feather are fond of flying in company," said the King, with a flushed countenance; "no doubt thou speakest from personal knowledge and experience."
It was now Rolf's turn to flush, but the King did him injustice, having no ground for such a speech, further than a knowledge that there existed between them mutual antipathy which neither was particularly careful to conceal.
"Have I done aught to merit such words?" demanded Rolf sternly.
Harald was on the point of making an angry rejoinder, but, placing a powerful restraint upon himself, he said—
"It may be that thine actions are loyal, but, Rolf, thy words are neither wise nor true. It is not wise to attempt to shake my confidence in my followers, and it is not true that many of them are untrustworthy. But, if thou wouldst prove thyself a real friend, go, get thy longships ready with all speed, for we fare south a few days hence, and there will be work for the weapons of stout men ere long."
"I go to prepare myself for the fight, King Harald," returned Rolf, "but I have no occasion to give thee further proof of friendship. The world is wide enough for us both. My ocean steeds are on the fiord. Henceforth I will fight for my own hand."
For one moment the King felt an almost irresistible impulse to draw his sword and hew down the bold Rolf, but with characteristic self-restraint he crushed down his wrath at the time and made no reply, good or bad, as the other turned on his heel and left him. When he had gone some distance the King muttered between his set teeth—
"Another good fighting brute and bad servant! Let him go! Better an open foe than an unwilling friend."
That night Hauskuld and Hake set sail southward with a small body of picked men; and Rolf Ganger, with a large body of devoted followers, left Harald's camp and travelled eastward. In the course of several days Hauskuld and his men arrived at the small fiord near the head of which stood the dwelling of Atli.
This Atli was an unusually intelligent man, a man of great influence in his district, and one who, like Erling the Bold, was determined to resist the tyranny of Harald Fairhair. A large force had been gathered by him towards the end of winter, and at the time of Hauskuld's visit he was living in his own house with about seventy chosen men. Unfortunately for these, the peaceful winter had induced them to relax a little in vigilance. Knowing from the report of spies that the King was still feasting in the Drontheim district, they felt quite safe, and for some time past had neglected to set the usual night watch, which, in time of war, was deemed indispensable. Thus it happened that when Hauskuld and his men came upon them in the dead of a dark night, they found everything quiet, and went up to the door of the house unchallenged. On trying the latch they found it fast, but from the sounds within they knew that a great many men were sleeping there. Hauskuld and Hake had approached the house alone. They now returned to their companions, who were concealed in the deep shades of the neighbouring woods.
"What dost thou advise?" asked Hake of his brother berserk.
"That we burn them all in their nest," replied Hauskuld.
"What! foster-brother too?" said the other.
"Aye, wherefore not? He is a warlock. So are most of the men with him. Burning is their due."
"There is wood enough here for that purpose," said Hake, with a grim smile.
Hauskuld immediately directed the greater part of his force to gather dry wood, and silently pile it all round the house, while he and Hake with a few men stood in front of the doors and windows to guard them. The work was accomplished in a much shorter time than might have been expected, for those who performed it were strong and active, and well accustomed to such deeds. In less than an hour the whole of Atli's house was surrounded by a thick pile of dry inflammable brushwood. When it was all laid the men completely surrounded the house, and stood with arrows fitted to the strings, and swords loosened in the sheaths. Then Hauskuld and several others applied lights to the brushwood at various points. For a few seconds there was an ominous crackling, accompanied by little flashes of flame, then a dense smoke rose up all round. Presently the rushing fire burst through the black pall with a mighty roar, and lit up the steading with the strength of the sun at noonday, while flame and smoke curled in curious conflict together over the devoted dwelling, and myriads of sparks were vomited up into the dark sky. At the same instant doors and windows were burst open with a crash, and a terrible cry arose as men, half clad and partly armed, leaped out and rushed through the circle of fire, with the flame kindling on their hair and garments.
Not less relentless than the fire was the circling foe outside. Whizzing arrows pierced the scorched breasts of some, and many fell dead. Others rushed madly on sword or spear point, and were thrust violently back into the fire, or fell fighting desperately for their lives. Some of the attacking party were killed, and a few wounded, but not one of the assailed succeeded in bursting through the line. Atli and all his followers perished there!
It is dreadful to think that such diabolical deeds were ever done; but still more dreadful is it to know that the spirit which dictated such atrocities still haunts the breast of fallen men, for the annals of modern warfare tell us all too plainly that unregenerate man is as capable of such deeds now as were the Norsemen in days of old.
Having fulfilled his mission, Hauskuld left the place as quickly as possible, and hastened back to Drontheim; not, however, without learning on the way that preparations were being secretly made all over that district to resist the King, and that, in particular, Solve Klofe was in the fiord at Horlingdal, with several ships of war, doing his best to fan the flame of discontent, which was already burning there briskly enough of its own accord!
On returning again to King Harald's quarters, Hauskuld found that energetic monarch engaged in celebrating one of the heathen feasts, and deemed it prudent for some hours to avoid his master, knowing that when heated with deep potations he was not in the best condition to receive or act upon exasperating news. He therefore went into the great hall, where the King and his guests were assembled, and quietly took his place at the lower end of one of the long tables near the door.
As is usual with men of inferior and debased minds, the berserk misunderstood and misjudged his master. He had counted on escaping notice, but the King's eye fell on him the instant he entered the hall, and he was at once summoned before him, and bidden tell his tale. While he related the details of the dreadful massacre Hauskuld felt quite at ease, little dreaming that the King's fingers twitched with a desire to cut him down where he stood; but when he came to speak of the widespread disaffection of the people in the south, he stammered a little, and glanced uneasily at the flushed countenance of the King, fearing that the news would exasperate him beyond endurance. Great, therefore, was his surprise when Harald affected to treat the matter lightly, made some jesting allusion to the potent efficacy of the sword in bringing obstinate people to reason, and ordered one of the waiting-girls to fetch the berserk a foaming tankard of ale.
"There, drink, Hauskuld, my bold berserk! drink down to a deeper peg, man. After such warm work as thou hast had, that will serve to cool thy fiery spirit. Drink to the gods, and pray that thou mayest never come to die, like an old woman, in thy bed—drink, I say, drink deep!"
The King laughed jovially, almost fiercely, in his wild humour, as he made this allusion to the well-known objection that the Norse warriors of old had to dying peacefully in bed; but for the life of him he could not resist the temptation, as he turned on his seat, to touch with his elbow the huge silver tankard which the berserk raised to his lips! The instantaneous result was that a cataract of beer flowed down Hauskuld's face and beard, while the rafters rang with a shout of laughter from the Sea-kings and court-men who sat in the immediate neighbourhood of the King's high seat. Of course Harald blamed himself for his clumsiness, but he too laughed so heartily that the masses of his fair hair shook all over his shoulders, while he ordered another tankard to be filled for his "brave berserk". That brave individual, however, protested that he had had quite enough, and immediately retired with a very bad grace to drink his beer in comfort out of a horn cup among kindred spirits.