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King Olaf's Kinsman - A Story of the Last Saxon Struggle against the Danes in - the Days of Ironside and Cnut
by Charles Whistler
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"Who are you, and what would you on these shores?" he asked before we had spoken.

Olaf laughed pleasantly in his quiet way, and answered:

"I must know who asks me before I say aught."

"Maybe that is fair," said the boy. "I am Godwine, son of Wulfnoth the earl."

"Then you have right to ask," answered our king. "I am Olaf Haraldsson. I am a viking, and come in peace to see and speak with your father."

The boy stared at the king in wonder for a moment.

"Are you truly Olaf the Thick, who broke London Bridge?" he asked.

"Well, I had some hand in it," answered Olaf laughing, "for I told the men when to pull, and when they pulled, the bridge came down. They did it and I looked on."

Then young Godwine laughed also, and bade the king welcome most heartily, adding:

"You must tell me all about the bridge breaking presently."

"Nay; but Redwald my cousin, or Ottar my scald here will tell you more than I may."

"Redwald is an Anglian name," said Godwine, taking my hand. "Are you English therefore?"

"Aye, young sir, from East Anglian Bures, in Suffolk," I answered.

"Are you Edric Streone's man then?" he said, dropping my hand suddenly and half stepping back.

"I am not," I said pretty stoutly, for I was angry with Streone's way with Olaf—and with other ways of his. "Ulfkytel is our earl."

"Aye, I have heard of him as an honest man," Godwine said.

"Come ashore, King Olaf, and you other thanes, and there will be good cheer for you."

"Can you steer us into the haven, young sir?" asked Rani, who stood by smiling to himself. "We must have the ships inside the island while the tide serves."

"Aye, that I can," said the boy eagerly; "I take my own ship in and out without troubling any other to help."

And with that he took hold of Rani's arm and showed him mark after mark, giving him depth of water and the like, while we listened and watched his face.

Presently Olaf said:

"Take command of my ship, Godwine, and lead the rest."

"You will take the risk, lord king," he answered laughing.

"Aye, and will hold you blameless if she takes the ground before she is beached."

Now there was no doubt that Godwine was used to command, and was confident in himself, for he made no more ado, but took charge, and bade Rani signal the rest to follow, while he went to the helm himself.

Then said Olaf to me while the boy was intent on his work: "Here is one who will be a great man in England some day, and I think before long."

And I had thought the same; for Earl Wulfnoth's son would rank high for the sake of his birth, and it seemed that he was fitted to take the great place that might be his.

So Godwine beached the ships well, in the lee of the island on which the great castle stands when the tide is high, and we went ashore. The castle gates were well guarded in our honour, for Godwine had sent the boat back with word who we were.

There greeted us Earl Wulfnoth himself in the courtyard of his great house. One went inside the castle walls to find almost a village of buildings, all of timber, that had grown up round the hall that stood in the midst, and that had its courtyard and stockading, as had our own house on the open hill at Bures. I think there was no stronger place than this castle of Pevensea in all Sussex, if anywhere on the southern coasts.

Now it were long to say how Wulfnoth the earl welcomed King Olaf, but it was after a kingly sort, for he was king in all but name in his earldom, shut off as it is from the rest of England by the deep forests. But he feasted us for two days before he would speak a word with Olaf as to what he had come to ask him, saying that it was enough for him to see the bridge breaker and the taker of Canterbury town, and to do him honour. For Olaf's fame had gone widely through all England.

Now Godwine would ever talk with me, for I could tell him of Olaf, and also of the long war, and of the Norman court, so that we became great friends. But he had no liking for Ethelred, which was not wonderful, seeing that Wulfnoth his father had not a good word to say for him.

At last, when Olaf told him plainly of the needs of England and of her king, and of what he feared of the return of Cnut, Earl Wulfnoth answered:

"Had you come to ask me to go a-viking with yourself, gladly would I have joined with or followed you. Godwine my son has yet some things to learn which a Norseman could teach him, and it would have been well. But Ethelred holds me as a traitor; and while Edric Streone is at his side I will not have aught to do with him. I will drive any Dane out of my land, and that is all. Neither Ethelred nor Cnut is aught to me. I and my son are earls of Sussex."

Then he rose up from his high seat and strode out of the hall, bidding us follow him. He led us to the eastern gate, and climbed to the broad top of the ramparts.

"See yonder," he said, and pointed eastward across the river and marsh. "There is the hill where our standard has been raised time after time since OElla and Cissa drove in flight the Welsh who had raised theirs in the same place before us. There will I raise it again against Cnut or Streone or any other of his men."

"Edric Streone is with King Ethelred," said Olaf; "he is not Cnut's man."

"He has been Swein's man; and if it suits him will be Cnut's. I will not alter my saying of him."

"Ethelred believes in him," answered Olaf, "and Eadmund the Atheling believes in him as in himself."

"So much the worse for them," said the earl; "you will see if I am not right. I know Edric Streone over well, and he knows it, and hates me."

"Come, therefore, and take Ethelred out of his hands," Olaf said.

"Not I. Let him inlaw me again first. I will not go and ask pardon for what I have not done."

And after that the earl would say no more on the matter, waxing wroth if Olaf would try to persuade him. So it seemed that our journey was lost; and Olaf began to be anxious to return to the Thames, where our ships should go into winter quarters. But the wind held in the east, and kept us for a while.

Wulfnoth was not sorry for this, for it was full harvest time, and he sent his housecarles out to his other manors to gather it, so that he had few folk about him. Godwine went with them to a place on the downs called Chancton, where was a great house of the earl. We parted unwillingly; but we might sail at any time if the wind shifted, and the earl would have him go.

"When you have done with fighting for Ethelred the Unredy," said the boy to me, "bring Olaf back here, and you and I, friend Redwald, will go a-viking with him. He says he wants to go to Jerusalem Land some day—and that would be a good cruise."

Now the day after the housecarles left Pevensea, there befell a matter which would have brought them back hastily had we not been in the haven. There was always a beacon fire ready to recall them, and they watched for it even as they wrought in the upland fields, or if they were among the woods. Turn by turn one would climb to a place whence it could be seen, for one may never know what need shall be on our English shores, and I was to learn that need for arms might be in a forest-girt land also, from foes at home.

Olaf and I were in the ships. The wind was unsteady, and it seemed that a shift was coming with that night's new moon, and we were preparing for sailing. And from our decks we saw a little train of people crossing the difficult path from the mainland to the island that folk can only use when the tide is low, and then only if they know it well or have a guide to lead them. They say that once the path was always under water, but that the land grows slowly, and that at some time the island will be joined to the low hills that are nearest to it on the northwest.

We went back almost as these folk came into the castle garth by the western gate, and met them in the courtyard. Then it was plain that there was trouble on hand, for the leader of the party was a thane whom I knew by sight, as he had been called to our feasting when first we came, and he had brought with him two ladies, who came in no sort of state; and, moreover, there were one or two wounded men among the twenty rough housecarles who followed them, and bore such burdens of household stuff as had been taken by us when we fled from Bures.

I had seen the like too often to mistake these signs, and I said to Olaf:

"Here is fighting on hand, my king."

And then before he answered, came Wulfnoth out of the great door and hurried up to the party, doffing his velvet cap as he saw the ladies.

"Ho, friend Relf," he said, "what is amiss?"

"Outlaws, earl," said the thane, "and in strong force."

"This is the pest of my life," answered the earl angrily, "for no sooner are our men gone harvesting than these forest knaves begin to give trouble.

"When were you last burnt out, Relf of Penhurst?" and he laughed in an angry way that had no mirth in it.

"Four years agone—after our trouble with Brihtric," answered the thane. "They have not been so bold since then; and the small fights I have had with them have not been so fierce that I must fetch you from Bosham to my help."

"Evil times make them bold," said the earl. "How many are there in this band?"

"Enough to sack the Penhurst miners' village," the thane said. "Men say that there are Danes among them; and I know that there are men who are well armed beyond the wont of outlaws and forest dwellers."

Then Wulfnoth called to us:

"See here, King Olaf, this is your fault; you have driven the Danes out of Kent into our forests, and now we have trouble enough on our hands."

"Then, Earl Wulfnoth," answered Olaf, "my men and I will fight them here again."

But when we drew near I was fain to look on one of the two ladies who still sat on their horses waiting for the earl's pleasure. One was Relf the thane's wife, and the other his daughter; and it was in my mind that I had never seen so beautiful a maiden as this was. It seemed to me that I could willingly give my life in battle against those who had harmed her home, if she might know that I did so.

But the thane was telling Olaf that there must be some three hundred of the outlaws and others.

"I had forty-two men yesterday, and I have but twenty with me now," said he.

"Then you fought?" asked Wulfnoth.

"Aye," answered the thane shortly, for it was plain enough that he had done so.

"Have they burnt your house?"

"Not when I left. They are mostly strangers to the land, and they bide where there is ale and plunder, in the old Penhurst village at the valley's head."

"Then," said Olaf, "let us march at once and save the thane's hall."

"That is well said," answered the earl, rubbing his hands with glee. "We will make a full end; there will be no more trouble for many a year to come."

Then he bethought him of the two ladies, and he called his steward and bade him take them in. At which, when they would dismount, I went to help the maiden, and was pleased that she thanked me for the little trouble, looking at me shyly. I think that I had not heard a more pleasant voice than hers, or so it seemed to me at the time. She went into the house with her mother, and I was left with a remembrance of her words that bided with me; and I called myself foolish for thinking twice of the meeting.

Then the earl and Olaf and Relf began to speak of the best way in which to deal with these plunderers; and as I looked at the stout fair-haired thane it seemed to me that things must have been bad if he had had to fly.

It would seem that his place was some ten miles from Pevensea, lying at the head of a forest valley, down which was a string of the old hammer ponds that the Romans made when they worked the iron. And the village, or town as he called it, was in the next valley, at the head of the little river Ashbourne, whose waters joined the river which makes the haven of Pevensea. The town was very old, and had a few earthworks round it, though the place whereon it stood was strong by nature. The iron workers in the old Roman days had first built there, and they knew how to choose their ground. Thence, too, the Romans would float their boatloads of iron down to the port of Anderida, as they called Pevensea; and there were yet old stone buildings that had been raised by them.

So if these outlaws chose to hold the place, it was likely that we should have some fighting, though this would not be quite after the manner of forest dwellers, unless it were true that Danes were among them.

"Whether there is any fight in them or not," said Wulfnoth, "I will have the place surrounded, and let not one get away."

"That is early morning work," Olaf answered. "How many of my men will you have?"

"It depends on what manner of men they are," said the earl. "All I know of them yet is that they are good trenchermen."

That pleased not Olaf altogether, for there seemed to be a little slight in the words—as though he had come to the earl to be fed only. And he made a sign to me that I knew well; and I thought to myself that Wulfnoth of Sussex was likely to wish that he had seen our warriors in their war gear before.

Olaf paid no heed to me as I went quickly down to the ships. The men were lying about and watching the sky, for it was changing. But at one word from me there was no more listlessness; and Rani called them to quarters. I would that in the English levies there was the order and quickness that was in Olaf's ships. Yet these men had been with him for years, and were not like our hastily-gathered villagers.

So in ten minutes or less they were armed and ready for aught; and Rani and I led them up to the castle, leaving the ship guard set, as if we were making a landing in earnest on an enemy's shore. Eight hundred strong we were, and foremost marched the men of Olaf's ship, each one of whom wore ring mail of the best and a good helm, and carried both sword and axe and round shield.

Wulfnoth stood with his back to the gate as we entered with the leading files. But when he heard the tramp and ring of warriors in their mail, he started and turned round sharply. I saw his face flush red, and I saw Olaf's smile, and Relf's face of wonder. And then the earl broke out—angrily enough—for his castle was, as it were, taken by Olaf.

"What is the meaning of this?"

"You wished to see my men, lord earl," said Olaf. "I sent for them therefore. King Ethelred, for whom they fight just now, was pleased with them."

Then the earl saw that Olaf tried one last plan by which to make him side with the king. Maybe he thought that this chance had been waited for, but it was not so. Therefore he choked down his anger that we should come unbidden into his fortress, and laughed harshly.

"Well for me, King Olaf, that you come in peace, as it seems. One may see that these men are no untried war smiths."

"There is no man in my own crew who has not seen four battles with me," answered Olaf. "Some have seen more. The rest of the men have each seen two fights of mine."

"I would that I had somewhat on hand that was worthy to be counted as another battle of yours, instead of a hunting of these forest wolves," answered Wulfnoth, seeming to grow less angry. "Supposing that you and I were to fight for the crown of England for ourselves—either of us has as much right thereto as Cnut."

"The Danes hold that England has paid scatt {6} to their king as overlord, and that is proof of right for Cnut, as they say," answered Olaf.

"They say!" growled Wulfnoth fiercely. "King and witan and people have been fools enough to buy peace with gold and not with edged steel. But that has been ransom, not tribute. When a warrior is made prisoner and held to ransom, is the man who takes the gold to set him free his master, therefore, ever after? Scatt, forsooth! I have a mind to go and teach the pack of fools whom Streone leads by the nose and calls a witan, that there is one man left in England who is strong enough to make them pay scatt to himself!"

Then Olaf said, very quietly:

"Why not put an end to Danegeld once for all by helping me drive out the last Dane from England? We should be strong enough as things are now.

"For Streone and his tools to reap the benefit? Not I," said the earl. "Come, we have forgotten our own business."

Now it seemed to me that Wulfnoth was eager to get our men back to the ships outside of the walls again, for there is no doubt that had Olaf chosen to take the place for Ethelred it was already done. But such thought of treachery to his host could never be in Olaf's mind, and it was the last time that he tried to win the earl over.

So Wulfnoth went quickly down the ranks and noted all things as a chief such as he will. But now and then he waxed moody, and growled in his thick beard, "Scatt, forsooth!"

So presently he asked Olaf to bring two ship's crews—about eight-score men in all—against the outlaws. Fifty of his own housecarles would go, and Relf's twenty. And they were to be ready two hours before dawn, as he meant to surprise the outlaws in the village at the first light.

Then he praised the men, and had ale brought out for them, and so recovered his good temper, and at last he said to Olaf with a great laugh:

"Verily you may go away and boast that you are the first man who has brought his armed followers inside Pevensea walls without leave, since the days when OElla and Cissa forced the Welsh to let them in. Now I wot that Ethelred has a friend who must be reckoned with."

"Nay, but you would see the men," said Olaf.

"Aye, and I have seen them," answered the earl grimly.

When we sat down in the hall that night I was next to the maiden Sexberga, Relf's daughter, at the high table. She was very different from the great ladies of the court, who were all that I knew. I tried to assure her that her home would be safe, and I promised her many things in order to see her smile, and to please her.

Yet when I went down to the ships presently, for none of us slept within Wulfnoth's walls, I was glad that there was no light of burning houses over Penhurst woods, as yet.



Chapter 5: How Redwald Fared At Penhurst.

It was very dark when we marched from Pevensea. We followed the earl's men, and save for remembering the muddy torchlit causeway to firm ground from the castle, and after that dim hill and dale passed in turn, and a long causeway and bridge that spanned the mouth of a narrow valley that opened into the great Pevensea level, I knew not much of what country we went through. After passing that causeway we came into forest land, going along a track for awhile, and then turning inland across rolling hills till we began to go down again. And as the first streaks of dawn began to show above the woods, the word was passed for silence, and then that we should lie down and rest in the fern on the edge of a steep slope below which shone the faint gleam of water.

Then came Wulfnoth and spoke to Olaf, and said that he and his men would go beyond the village so as to take the outlaws from the rear. He would send a man to us who would show us all that was needed.

After that we lay and waited, and as the sun rose and the light grew stronger, I thought that I had never seen a more beautiful place.

We were above a little cliff of red rock that went down to the valley of the Ashbourne brook. And all the valley from side to side was full of the morning mists so that it seemed one lake, while the woods were bright with the change of the leaf, from green to red and gold—oak and beech and chestnut and hazel each with its own colour, and all beautiful. The blue downs rose far away to our left across the ridges of the forest land, and inland the Andred's-weald stretched, rising hill above hill as far as one might see, timber covered. There were trees between us and the village that we sought; but above its place rose a dun cloud of smoke from some houses fired that night by those who held it, and that was the one thing that spoiled the beauty of all that I saw.

Now Olaf and I spoke of all this, whispering together, for we were close to the village, and already we had heard voices from thence as men woke. For Olaf was ever touched by the sight of a fair land lying before him. And while he spoke, a man seemed to rise out of a cleft of the rocks below us, and climbed up to us, and bowed before us, saying that he was to guide us.

He was a great man, clad in leather from head to foot, and carrying a sledgehammer over his shoulder. That and a billhook stuck in his belt were his only weapons.

"I am Spray the smith," he said, in a low voice. "The earl is ready, and the thane also. The knaves are all drunken with our ale, and we may fall on them at once."

"Have they no watch kept?" asked Olaf wondering.

"None, master."

"Are there Danes with them?"

"Aye; half are Danes. But I met one of them last night and spoke to him peacefully, being stronger than he, and I said that vikings had come to Pevensea, and that the earl was minding them. So they fear no one."

Then came a herdsman's call from the woods beyond the village, and the smith said:

"That is the thane. Fall on, master, and fear nought."

Whereat I laughed, and the men sprang up. The smith led us for a hundred paces through the beech trees and then across the brook, and the steep slope up to the village was before us. There was a little, ancient earthwork of no account round the place, but if there had been a stockade on it, it was gone.

Then came a roar of yells and shouts from the far side, and we knew that the work had begun, and ran up the hillside. Then fled a man in chain mail out of the place, leaping over the earthworks straight at us, unknowing.

Spray the smith swung his hammer, not heeding at all the sword in the man's hands. Sword and helm alike shivered under the blow, and the man rolled over and over down the hillside.

"That is the first Dane I ever slew," said Spray to me as we topped the ridge.

Then we were in the village and among a crowd of wild-looking, half-armed forest men, who fled and yelled, and smote and cried for quarter in a strange and ghastly medley. There was no order, and seemingly no leader among them, and an end was soon made. Before I had struck down two men they scattered and fled for hiding, and we followed them. Wulfnoth would have no mercy shown to these wretches who would harry the peaceful villagers—their own kin. They would but band together again.

Now I did a foolish thing which might have cost me my life. For two outlaws ran into one of the old stone buildings of which I had heard, and I followed them. As I crossed the threshold I stayed for a moment, for the place seemed very dark inside, and I could not see them. But I was plain enough to them, of course, and before I could see that a blow was coming one smote me heavily on the helm and I fell forward, while they leapt out over my body into the open again. Then I seemed to slip, and fell into nothingness as my senses left me.

Presently I came round, nor could I tell how long I had been alone, I heard far off shouts that were dull and muffled as if coming through walls, and then as my brain cleared, I saw that I was in what seemed to be a dungeon like those that Earl Wulfnoth had under Pevensea. All round me were walls, and the light came in from a round hole above me.

When I saw that I knew that I had indeed fallen into this place, and my sword, too, lay on the floor where it had flown from my hand as I did so. It was lucky that I had not fallen on it.

Now the shouts died away, and I thought that our men were chasing the last of the outlaws into the woods. When the silence fell, I waxed lonely, and began to wonder if I had been forgotten. But Olaf would miss me presently, and would surely return to the village before long. So I would be patient, and at least try to find a way out of this trap into which I had come so strangely.

But there was no way out unless a ladder or rope were lowered to me. The roof of the place was rounded and arched above me, and the hole was in its centre so that I could not reach it. Maybe the place was ten feet across and ten feet high under the hole, and it minded me of the snake pit into which Gunnar the hero was thrown, as Ottar the scald sang. Only here were no snakes, and the air was thick and musty, but dry enough. I could see the beams of the house roof above the hole.

Then I thought that if I could prise some stones from the old walls I might pile them up until I reached the edge of the hole with my hands, when it would be easy to draw myself up, though maybe not without taking off my armour. But when I tried the joints of the masonry with the point of my seax, I did but blunt the weapon, for the mortar was harder than the stone, which was the red sandstone of the cliff where we had rested.

So I forbore and sat down, leaning my aching head against the cool wall, to wait for Olaf's return. There would be time to shout when I heard voices again, and it was not good to make much noise in that place after the blow of a club that had set my ears ringing already.

Then I fell to thinking of Sexberga, and those thoughts were pleasant enough. And idly I began to sharpen my seax again on a great square stone that was handy in the wall as I sat, but it was very soft, and crumbled away under the steel without doing it much good.

Now, when one is waiting and thinking, one will play with an idle pastime for the sake of keeping one's hands amused as it were, and so I went on working the long slit in the stone, which the blade was making, deeper and deeper. The sand trickled from it in a stream, and then all of a sudden I became aware that I had pierced through the stone into a hole behind, and I bent over to see how this could be.

The stone was not more than an inch or two thick, and there was certainly a hollow which it closed, and when I saw that I broke and worked away more of it until I could get my hand in. Then I found that I could feel nothing, for the place was deep. So I made the hole bigger yet, and put my arm in. Then I found the back and one side of a stone-cased chest in the wall, as it were, of which the stone I had bored was the door, though this was to all appearance like several other of the larger blocks that the place was built of.

When I reached downwards my hand could just touch what felt like rotten canvas, and at that I began to work again at the hole. The stone was too strong to break, though it seemed thin, and I was so intent on this, that the voices I had longed to hear made me start.

"He was hereabouts, master, when I last saw him," said one whom I thought was Spray the smith.

"I will hang you up if he is lost," said Wulfnoth's voice.

Then I sprang up and shouted, and the vault rang painfully in my ears. It was Olaf who called back to me.

"Ho, Redwald where are you?"

"Under the house, in a pit," I answered, standing under the opening.

Then someone came tramping above me, and the next moment Spray's leather-hosed leg came through the hole, and he nearly joined me. Thereat others laughed, and he climbed up quickly enough, for it was an ill feeling to be hanging over an unknown depth.

"Lower me down a rope," I said, as I saw his face peering into the place with some others.

There seemed to be a ladder handy, for the next minute its end came down, and at once I picked up my sword and climbed out. Olaf stood in the doorway now with Relf.

"It is easy to see how my cousin got into that place," he said to Relf, pointing to my helm, which was sorely dinted.

The big thane looked and laughed.

"That is what felled him. But I knew not of this pit," he said, looking past me into the house where Spray and the men stood round the hole.

Then the smith said:

"Nor did I, master. But this has been found by the forest men—here are their tools."

And when we looked, all the floor of the house was broken up, and the stone paving was piled in corners, and a pick or two lay on them with a spade and crowbar.

"They have been digging for treasure," said Relf, "and that has kept them from my house. There are always tales of gold hidden in these old places. I have seen that they have done the like elsewhere in the village."

"Aye," said Spray, "they have heard some of our tales, and they have dug where we would not, for it spoils a house, and the wife's temper also, to meddle with the good stone floor."

Now it seemed to me that here was a likelihood that there was truth in the old tales, and that I had lit on the lost hiding place of which some memory yet remained even from the days when OElla's men took the town from the iron workers five hundred years and more ago, when the might of Rome had passed.

"There is somewhat that I have found in this place," I said. "Come and see what it is."

Wondering, Olaf and Wulfnoth climbed down the ladder after me, and Relf did but stay to find a torch before he followed us. Then I showed them the stone and the hollow behind it, and the earl called for the crowbar that was left by the outlaws, and with a stroke or two easily broke out the rest of the stone, and the glare of the torch shone into the place that it had so long sealed.

It was a chamber in the wall, and maybe a yard square each way. The stone had not filled all its width or depth of mouth, but was, as it were, a sealed door to be broken and replaced by another. Then we could see that the canvas I had thought that I had felt was indeed the loose folds of the tied mouths of bags that were neatly arranged at the bottom of this stone-built chest. And the canvas that I had reached and pulled at had easily parted, and through the rent showed the dull gleam of gold coin as the torchlight flared upon it.

The light shone too on letters scratched on the soft stone of the back of the chamber. I could read them, but Wulfnoth pointed to them, saying:

"Here may be a curse written on him who touches. I will have our priest read that which is there if he can."

Then I laughed, and said that it was no curse, but the name of some Roman who made the place, for all that was there was:

CLAVD. MARTINVS. ARTIF. FEC.

"Which means that a workman named Martin was proud of his work, and left his name there," I said when I had read it.

"And was slain, doubtless, lest he should betray the secret," said Wulfnoth.

And he put his hand out to take one of the bags from the place, feeling round the rotten canvas to get a fair grip of the mass of coin.

Then he drew back his hand with a cry that came strangely from his stern lips, for it sounded like alarm, and he stepped back.

"As I live," he said, "somewhat cold moved beneath my fingers in there."

Even as he spoke something crawled slowly on to the bag that was broken and sat on the red gold that was hidden no longer. There it stayed, staring at the torchlight—a great wizened toad, whose eyes were like the gold which it seemed to guard. And we stared at it, for not one of us dared touch it, nor could we say aught.

It is ill to waste breath in wondering how the creature got into this long-closed place or how it lived. But when I have told of this, many a time have I heard stories of toads that have been found in stranger places—even in solid-seeming rock. But however it came there—and one may think of many ways—it scared us. It seemed a thing not natural.

"It is the evil spirit that guards the treasure," whispered Relf to Olaf, edging toward the ladder.

"Fetch Anselm the priest, and let him exorcise this," said the earl. "It is some witchcraft of the heathen Romans."

"Were I in Finmark I would say that this was a 'sending' {7}," Olaf said, "but we are in Christian England, and this is but a toad."

Now I said nothing, but I wished the beast away, for I would see the treasure I had found. Then the earl bethought himself.

"Maybe it is but a toad," he said. "I will cast it out."

And with that he went to do so, but liked it not, and drew back again.

"Toad or worse," I said then, "I mind not their cold skin, and will see what it is."

So I took hold of the beast, and it swelled itself out as I did so, and croaked a little. That was the worst it did; but I will say this, that the sound almost made me drop it. But I cast it behind me into the shadow, and then put both hands into the chamber and took out one of the bags.

It was full of gold coin, as was that which had been torn open, and as were all the rest—ten of them—when we looked. And the coins were older than we could tell, being stamped with strange figures that bore some likeness to horses whose limbs fell apart, and a strange face on the other side. Many had letters on them, and these were mostly—CVNO.

"They are coins of the Welsh folk whom we conquered," said Wulfnoth. "I have seen the like before. They made them at Selsea, and we find many there on the shore after storms."

Now I think that we had found the hiding place of the tribute money that should be sent to Rome when some ship came thence or from beyond the Channel to fetch it, or maybe it was some iron master's hoarded payment for the good Sussex iron that they smelted in these valleys in the Roman days. More likely it was the first, for men would know that it had never been sent away. None can tell how the places of these hoards are lost, but times of war have strange chances. Then folk do but hand down the knowledge that, somewhere, the treasure is yet hidden {8}.

"Good booty had OElla and Cissa our forbears, but they have left some for us," said Earl Wulfnoth.

"Here is gold enough to buy a good fleet for Ethelred," said Olaf thoughtfully.

"Gold enough for you and me to win England for ourselves withal," said the earl in a low voice. "You take the Danelagh, and I the rest, and we will keep Ethelred for a puppet overlord."

"If Cnut wins there will be time enough to think of that," answered Olaf coldly. "Eadmund is my friend."

"Not Ethelred?" said Wulfnoth eagerly.

"I fight for him," answered Olaf.

"Well, well. I did but speak my own wish," said the earl. "You and I will not be agreed on this matter."

Then he turned to Relf, and began to give him some directions about a horse whereon to load the treasure. And Olaf and I went back up the ladder, leaving them, for the vault grew close and hot, and this was their business. The earl would take it back to Pevensea, where it would be safe. Word would go round quickly enough concerning the find, and of what value it was. Nor would that grow less in the telling, though none of us had ever seen so much gold together before.

I suppose that I had been in the place for two hours or more, and the morning sky had changed strangely since the fight began. The sun was hidden with a great mass of heavy clouds that were driving up fast from the southwest, although the woods around us were still and motionless in the hot, heavy air. The smoke that still rose from the burnt houses went up straight as a pine tree.

Olaf looked up at the sky, and seemed anxious.

"There is a gale brewing," he said. "I am glad Rani is with the ships."

Then he walked away to a spur of the hill that looked down the valley towards the sea. We could see all the tidal water, and almost to Pevensea, and there came a long murmur of the sea on the pebble beach, even to where we stood, so hushed were all things. Surely there was a heavy sea setting in to make so loud a noise as that. And all the hills and marshes seemed close at hand, so clear was the air.

Then came to us Olaf's ship master, and he was uneasy also.

"Tide is at its highest tonight," he said, "and if the wind gets up from the southwest, as seems likely, it will be higher yet than usual. See how the clouds whirl over us."

Then the king went back to the building and called to Wulfnoth, who came up the ladder asking what was amiss, for he heard that Olaf's voice was urgent.

"Here is a gale coming," the king said, "and we must be back with the ships."

Wulfnoth came out into the open and looked round.

"Aye; and tide will be high at the causeway. These spring tides run wildly at this time of year," he said. "We must be going."

Then was no more delay, but the horns blew the recall, and the men came in. We had lost none, but I do not think that many outlaws were left.

They brought a farm horse, with baskets slung across its back in the Sussex manner, and into them the gold was put. I looked down into the vault as the men left it, and saw that Relf was there, and that they had tried every great stone in the walls in search of another chamber, but that there had not been one. And when he came up I was about to draw up the ladder after him, and looked down for the last time.

There at the ladder's foot sat the elvish toad, and it seemed to me that it looked pitifully up at the light. How many years might it have been without sunlight or touch of dew or cool green leaves that it had loved? And I was fain to climb down and take it up in my hand and set it free on the grass outside the house, where a dock spread its broad leaves. It crawled under them in haste, and I saw it no more. Then I found that Spray the smith was watching me, and he said a strange thing.

"That is a good deed, master," he said. "I think that you shall never be in prison."

"May I never be so," I answered, wondering.

"I am a forest-bred man," he said, "and I love all beasts," and then he turned away, and went to the men who were waiting for the earl's word.

And when all was ready Relf came to me and said that he would go to his own place with his men, and that he would ask me to take word to his wife and daughter that all was safe at home. The outlaws had been too busy in the town to seek further for plunder, or had not cared to do so at once. So he went, as we started, and I was pleased with the chance of having speech with Sexberga.

Now there was a moaning overhead as we went through the woods along the ridge above the valley, and hot breaths of air began to play in our faces. The clouds raced above us more swiftly, and black masses of scud drifted yet faster below them from across the hard black backs of the downs to the westward. There was something strange in the feeling of the weather that seemed to betoken more than a storm of wind and rain, and we were silent and oppressed as we marched.

Now we came to the crest of the hill where the track goes down to the level of the river and marshes and to the causeway, which we crossed in the early morning. I could see now how narrow the outlet of the river was between the hills where it joined the main tidal waters, and the causeway was low, and both it and the bridge were very ancient. They call it Boreham Bridge, and it is a place that I shall not forget.

When we were halfway down the steep hill suddenly the first blast of the gale smote us in the face, and that with a roar and howl and rush that drowned all other sounds. The branches flew from the trees along the hillside, and more than one great trunk gave way at last to that onset. Then all along the coastline grew and widened a white line of flying spindrift that hid the distant gray walls of Pevensea on its low island, and shone like snow against the black dun-edged cloud that came up from out of the sea.

"Hurry, men," shouted Wulfnoth, "or the bridge will be down! Look at the tide!"

And that was racing up inland, already foaming through the wooden arches that spanned its course. I had heard that the tide reached this place a full hour after it began to flow at Pevensea, and even now it was thus, two hours before it should have been at its highest there.

Wulfnoth's men led, and then came the earl, riding beside Spray and the horse which bore the treasure. Olaf was riding just behind them, and I marched with our crew not ten paces after him. So we went down the hill, and so we stepped on the causeway, and came to the first timbers of the bridge. And hardly had I stepped on them than there came a great shout from the men behind us, while one seized my arm and pointed seaward across the marshes.

There came rushing across the level—blending channel and land into one sea as it passed—a vast white roller, great as any wave which breaks upon the shore, and its length was lost behind the hill before us, and far away to our left. So swiftly did it come that it seemed that none of us might gain the hill before it whelmed us and causeway and bridge alike.

Earl Wulfnoth grasped the bridle of the pack horse, and the man Spray lashed it, shouting aloud to us to hasten. And Olaf turned in his saddle and saw me, and reined up until I grasped his stirrup leather, and ran on beside him. And our men broke and ran, some following us, and some going back to the hill whence we came. And all the while the great white billow was thundering nearer, and my head reeled with its noise and terror till I knew not what I was doing, and let go my hold of Olaf's stirrup.

Then it broke over bridge and causeway, and through its roar I heard yells, and the crash of broken timber, before I lost all knowledge of aught but that I was lost in that mighty wave, and was being whirled like a straw before it, where it would take me.

I struck out wildly as if to swim—but of what avail was that against the weight of rushing water? I seemed to be rolled over and against broken timber and reeds and stones—and once my hand touched a man, for I felt it grate over the scales of armour—and my ears were full of roarings and strange sounds, and I thought that I was surely lost.

Then a strong grip was on me, and the water flew past me, and hurled things at me, for I no longer went with it. My feet touched ground, and other hands held me, and then I was ashore, and spent almost nigh to death. Well for me it was that in the old days by the Stour river I had loved to swim and dive in the deep pool behind the island, for I had learned to save my breath. Had I not done so, the choking of the great wave had surely ended my days.

It was Olaf who had saved me. Almost had we won to the high ground when I had let go his stirrup leather, and then the shoreward edge of the wave had caught me. But he had faced its fury as he saw me borne away, and had snatched me from it as it tossed me near the bank again. Now he bent over me, trying to catch the sound of my voice through the roar of the storm and the rush of the flood below us. But I could not speak to him though I would, and it was not all drowning that ailed me, for the blow which had felled me in the fight was even now beginning to do its work. Else had I clung to him all along, and had been safe as he was. For he won to shore ten yards beyond its reach as the wave came.

Now I know that Olaf and our men carried me into a place under the lee of a hill, and bided there till the gale blew over. There was a sharp pain as of a piercing weapon in my side as they did so, and after that I knew not much of being carried on to the house of Relf, the Thane of Penhurst, along a forest road where travelling was no easier for the fallen trees that lay across it. And after I was there I knew nothing. The blow I had had took its effect on me, and I had several ribs broken by some timber that smote me amid the tossing of the great wave of the flood.

Many are the tales that men all round the coasts will tell of the great sea flood that came on Michaelmas even. For it ran far into the land where no tide had run before, and many towns were destroyed by it, and many people were drowned. It will be long before the scathe it wrought will be forgotten. Many of the earl's ships were broken, even where they lay behind the island, and two of ours were lost—carried across the level where no ship had ever swum before. And eight of our men had been swept from the causeway and drowned. Two lie yet under the wreck of bridge and causeway, or in the Ashbourne valley amid wrack and ruin of field and forest that the flood left behind it.

But these things I learnt afterwards. Now I was like to die, and Olaf bided at my side and minded nought else, as men said.



Chapter 6: Sexberga The Thane's Daughter.

Days came and went by while I lay helpless. Olaf the king at last must needs leave me, and take the ships back to the Thames, there to watch against Cnut's return, in which he, almost alone in England, believed. But he would not sail before he knew that I would recover, and he left me in the kind hands of Anselm, the old Norman priest, who was well skilled in leech craft, and of Relf the Thane and his wife. So I need say nought of the long days of weakness after danger was gone, for there are few men who have not known what they are like, and well for them if they have had such tending as these good folk gave to me.

Yet it was not till November had half gone that I was able to ride hunting again at last, and to go out with Relf in the crisp frosts of early winter through the great woods of the Andred's-weald in search of wolf and boar, or when the mists hung round the gray copses, and the turf in the glades was soft, and scent was high, to follow the deer that harboured in the deep shaws. We were seldom without their spoils as we came homeward, and how good it was to feel my strength coming back to me as I rode—to find the grip on a spear shaft hardening, and the bow hand growing steadier against a longer pull on the tough string. And Relf rejoiced with me to see this, for he deemed that he owed me the more care because my hurt had been gained in fighting for him and his home. Honest and rough, with a warm heart was this forest thane, and we grew to be fast friends.

Now when I was helpless, Wulfnoth the earl and Godwine would often ride from Pevensea to learn how I fared. For Wulfnoth and Godwine alike loved Olaf the king, and Godwine thought of me as his own friend among the vikings of our fleet. But presently Godwine went away to Bosham, where the earl's ships were mostly laid up, to see to the housing of his vessels for the winter, and when I grew strong it was rather my place to go to Pevensea and wait on Wulfnoth, if I would see him. I think the earl came to Penhurst more often also, because he would dig for more treasure in all the old ruins in the town. But he found no more, as one might well suppose, for it was but a chance that our find had escaped the searching of the first Saxon comers. Yet I saw him now and then, and ever would he rail at Ethelred the king, who sat still and left the Danish thingmen in possession of the eastern strongholds even yet.

Now one day the thane and I rode together with hawk and hound eastward from Penhurst along the spur of a hill that runs thence for many a long mile, falling southward on one side towards the sea and lower hills between, and northward looking inland over forest-covered hill and valley. And we went onward until we came to the village that men call Senlac, where the long hill ridge ends and sinks sharply into the valley of the little river Asten, and there we thought that a heron or mallard would lie in the reedy meadows below the place.

But up the course of the stream came another party, and when we neared it, we saw that it was the earl himself with but a few followers, and he too was riding with hawk on wrist, and hounds in leash behind him, though it did not seem as if he had loosed either.

"Ho, Relf, good morrow. What sport?" he said.

"Little enough, lord earl, as yet," the thane said.

"Do you and friend Redwald come with me, and I will show you somewhat before you go home," the earl answered.

So we must go with him, willingly enough, for he was a great hunter, and very skilful in woodcraft.

Now we went back through the village and up the hill again on the same track by which we had just come, and when we were almost at the top of the rise, the earl bade the men wait while we three rode on. So they stayed, and we followed him, not at all knowing what he would do.

Then we came to a track leading to the right as we rode, and he took that way. It led to a place of which I had heard, for it had no good name among the people, but I thought that he would not go thither. Nevertheless he held straight on, and came to the place in the hillside that was feared. And it was very beautiful, for thence one looks out over the valley to the hills beyond, with the long line of the sea away to the right, and to the left the valleys that slope down to the inlet where Winchelsea stands, far off to the eastward. There is a well which they say is haunted, though by what I know not, save that men speak of ghostly hands that seize them as they pass, if pass they must, at night. Hardly was there a track to the place, though the water that comes from the rocky spring is so wondrously pure and cold that they call the place Caldbec {9} Hill. And there by the side of the spring was a little turf-built hut, hardly to be known from the shelving bank against which it leant, and to that the earl led us.

"Now," he said, "tie the horses somewhere, and we will go and speak with the Wise Woman."

At that Relf was not pleased, as it seemed, for he did not dismount.

"Come not if you fear her," said Wulfnoth; "bide with the horses if you will, while I and Olaf's cousin go in. Maybe there will be a message that he must take to his kinsman."

"I have nought to seek from the old dame," said Relf, "nor is there aught that I fear from her. I give her venison betimes, as is fitting. I will bide with the horses."

Wulfnoth said no more to him, and turned sharply to me. "You give her no venison—maybe you fear her therefore!" he said in a scornful way enough.

"I fear her no more than Relf," I answered, "but, like him, I will not seek her without reason."

"Maybe there is reason for you to hear what she tells me," the earl said. "I will have you come."

He seemed in no wise angry, but rather wishful that I should be with him, and so I got off my horse and went. But it crossed my mind that Wulfnoth the earl liked not to be alone, and suddenly I remembered the way in which two of our Bures franklins had spoken to each other when they would see Dame Gunnhild, Hertha's nurse. It was just in this same wise.

There was a blue reek of oak-wood smoke across the doorway of the hut, and at first the tears came into my eyes with its biting, and I could see nothing as the earl drew me inside. We had to stoop low as we crossed the threshold, and then the air was clearer at the back of the hut, which was far larger than one would think, seeing that its front did but cover the mouth of a cave that was in the sandstone rock. I heard the water of the cold spring rattling and bubbling somewhere close at hand.

There was a long seat hewn from the rock at the very back of the place and to one side, and Wulfnoth drew me down beside him upon it, and there we sat silent, waiting for I knew not what. A great yellow cat came and rubbed itself, tail in air, against my legs, and I stroked it, and it purred pleasantly.

Then I became aware that over against us across the fire sat the most terrible-looking old witch that I had ever seen or dreamed of, elbows on knees and chin on hand, staring at us. And when I saw her I forgot the cat, and could not take my eyes off her.

So for long enough we sat, and she turned her bright eyes from one of us to the other, letting them rest steadily on each in turn. And at last she spoke.

"What do Earl Wulfnoth and Redwald the thane seek?"

"Read me what is in the time to come. What shall be the outcome of this strife for England?" the earl said plainly, but in a low voice.

"Time to come is longer than I can read," said the old woman, never stirring or taking her eyes from the earl. "I can only see into a few years, and I cannot always say what I know of them."

Then she turned her gaze on me, and stretched out her hand and pointed at me. But her eyes looked past me, as it seemed.

"River and mere and mound," she said in a strangely soft voice—"those, and the ways of the old time of Guthrum, in the town that saw Eadmund the king. That is what is written for the weird of Redwald the thane."

Now at that I was fairly terrified, for it was plain that this old woman, who had never set eves on me before, had knowledge more than mortal. But if she had gone so far, I would have her go yet further. Black terror had been before the days of Guthrum grew peaceful, and I swallowed my fear of her and asked:

"What of Guthrum's days?"

"Danish laws in the Danish Anglia," she said, "and the peace that comes after the sword and the torch."

"Fire and sword we have had," I said. "Danish laws have ever been ours. But Ethelred shall be king."

"Ethelred is king," she answered; "but I speak of time to come."

Then Wulfnoth broke in:

"What is this that you speak of, dame? Tell me if I shall bear fire and sword into Ethelred's land, and give it the peace that shall be thereafter."

Then she turned her look away from us, and stared across the fire and out of the doorway.

"Not with you, nor with your son, but with your son's son shall fire and sword come into this land of ours," she said.

"Godwine's son!"

"Aye—Harold Godwinesson, who is unborn. Look through the smoke, lords, across the valley, and see if you can learn aught."

Then I stared out through the blue reek, and the earl looked.

"You do but play with me—I see nought!" he cried, half starting up in anger.

But I minded him not.

Many a fight have I seen—but that which I saw from Caldbec Hill through the smoke of the fire is more than I may say. No fight that I have seen was as that—it was most terrible. Surely, if ever such a fight shall in truth rage across the quiet Senlac stream and up the green hillside, the fate of more than a king shall hang thereon. Surely I saw such a strife as makes or ends a nation.

The old woman laughed.

"What has Redwald seen?" she asked mockingly.

The earl glanced at me, and so plainly was it written in my face that I had seen somewhat awesome, that he gazed at me in amaze.

And I rose up and said:

"Let me go hence—I will see no more."

And I was staggering to the doorway; but Wulfnoth grasped my arm and stayed me, saying:

"Bide here and say what you have seen—if it is aught."

"Ask me not, earl," I answered.

Then the dame spoke in her slow, soft voice.

"What banner saw you? Say that much, Redwald."

"The banner that flies from Pevensea walls—the banner that bears a fighting warrior for its sign."

"Ha!" said Wulfnoth; "was it well or ill with that banner?"

"I know not how it went; I saw but a battle—yonder," and I pointed to where, across the haze of smoke, valley and stream and hill stretched before me, and thought that surely the fight still raged as I had seen it—wave after wave of mail-clad horsemen charging uphill to where, ringed in by English warriors, Saxon and Anglian and Danish shoulder to shoulder, the banner of the Sussex earls stood—while from the air above it rained the long arrows thick as driving hail.

One thing I knew well, and that was that the warriors who charged wore the war gear of the dukes of Rouen—the Normans. How should they come here? and who should weld our English races into one thus to withstand so new a foe from across the sea?

"So—a battle?" said Wulfnoth. "That is the first fancy that a boy's brain will weave. Battles enough shall my banner see. No need of you, witch as you are, to tell me that!"

"Maybe not," answered the old woman. "Why, then, Earl Wulfnoth, come here to ask me to tell you things you know?" and she turned away towards the fire again as if uncaring.

Then the earl changed his tone, saying:

"Nay, good dame, but I would know if I shall take up arms at all at this time, and what shall befall if I must do so."

"I tell you, earl, that you have not any share in the wars that shall be seen. And let Godwine your son bide with his sheep—so shall he find his place."

Then the earl flushed red with anger and waited to hear no more, but flung out of the house, muttering hard words on the dame and on his own foolishness in seeking her.

Then the great cat sprang on my knee, and clung to me with its strong claws as I would set it down to follow him. And as it stayed me, the old dame spoke to me, and there was nought to fear in either her face or voice.

"Ask me somewhat, Redwald."

I wondered, but I dared not refuse. So I said:

"How shall fare King Olaf?"

"For him a kingdom, and more than a kingdom. For him fame, and better than fame. For him a name that shall never die."

"That is a wondrous weird," I said. "Tell me now of Eadmund Atheling;" for some strange power that the old woman had seemed to draw me to ask of her what I would most know.

"For Eadmund of Wessex? For him the shadow of Edric Streone over all his brave life."

"What then of Cnut, the Dane King?"

"Honour and peace, and the goodwill of all men."

"Not mine," I said.

"Yours also, Redwald—for England's sake and his own."

But I could not believe her at that time.

Now the angry voice of Wulfnoth called me from outside the place, and the dame said "Go," smiling at me and holding out her hand.

"No more can I tell you, Redwald. But I have this to say of you, that you have pleased me in asking nought concerning yourself."

"I would know nought beforehand," I said, speaking old thoughts of my own plainly. "It is enough to hope ever for good that may not come, and to live with one's life unclouded by fear of the evil that must needs be."

The dame smiled again, very sadly, as it seemed to me. "It is well said. Now I will tell you this, that over your life is the shadow of no greater evil than what every man must meet. Farewell."

So she spoke her last words to me, and sat down by the fire again. And it is in my thoughts that she wept, but I know not.

Outside stood the earl, staring over the Senlac valley eastward.

"This were a good place for a battle, after all," he said, as to himself. Then he heard me and turned.

"Well, what more has the old witch told you?" he said, trying to speak carelessly, though one might see that he longed to hear more.

As we went towards the horses, I told him, therefore, of what had been said of Eadmund and Cnut. And as he heard he grew thoughtful.

"Now," he said, slowly and half to himself, "if the shadow of that villain Streone is on Eadmund as on me, I will not strike for myself—as yet; and Cnut shall win other men's praise before I give him mine or go to him unsought."

"Eadmund needs a friend, lord earl," I said, mindful of Olaf's errand, yet hardly daring to say more seeing that he had failed.

"If there were no Ethelred—" said the earl, and stopped.

He said no more then until we were nearly within hearing of Relf. Then he turned and faced me, taking my hand and staying me.

"I would that Olaf and you were my friends," he said, "for you both speak out for those whom you love or serve. See here, Redwald, when you are tired of the ways of Ethelred's crew, come to me again, and we will plan together. And tell Olaf the same. I shall bide quiet, keeping my Sussex against all comers, until I think a time has come. And then, maybe, the old banner will go forward. I would have you with me then."

So it seemed that I had found a friend, though a strange one, and I thanked the earl, and promised him as he wished, for it bound me only to what I thought would surely never come to pass.

After that we went on to Relf, and rode to where we had left the men. Then the earl left us, making his way to his ships that lay at Bulverhythe, where some were in winter quarters. The great sea flood had changed the Pevensea haven strangely, and he mistrusted it.

I told Relf all these things, but he cared not much for aught but his free life in the Penhurst woodlands, where he had no foes or fear of foes left, now that the outlaws were done with.

"Well, if there must be fighting under the earl at some time," he said, "I am glad that you may be with us."

And he cared to ask no more about it from that day, nor do I think that he ever gave these matters, which were so heavy to me, a thought, being always light hearted. And now as we rode on silently, and I deemed that his mind was full of bodings, as was mine, he roused me from the memory of what I had seen and heard by saying, with a laugh:

"Saw you the old dame's cat?"

"Aye," I answered carelessly; "a great one, and a friendly beast enough."

"Was it so? Then I will warrant that the old witch was in a sorely bad temper," he said, laughing again.

"What makes you think that?" I asked, not caring if he answered.

"Why, our folk say that the temper of cat and witch are ever opposite. So when they go to ask aught of the old lady, they wait outside till they see how the cat—which is, no doubt, her familiar spirit—behaves. Then if the beast is wild and savage, they know that its mistress will be in good temper and they may go in. But if the cat is friendly, they may as well go home, else will they be like to get harder words than they would care to hear."

Then I laughed also, and said that there seemed nought strange in the ways of the great cat, but that it behaved as if used to being noticed kindly.

"That is certain," said Relf. "It is not well to offend either mistress or beast. But surely she was ill tempered?"

"There was nothing ill natured in her doing or sayings at all," I said. "The earl angered her a little, but that passed."

"Maybe that was enough to put her familiar into a good temper," said Relf, and was satisfied that the common saying was true.

Then I minded a small black cat that belonged to our leech at Bures in the old days. It would let none come near it but its master. Yet I have many times seen it perched on the shoulder of the town witch, and she hated the leech sorely.

So I fell to thinking of the old home and ways, soon, as I thought, to be taken up again. But at the same time there stole into my mind the feeling that I had grown to love this place.

Then with flap of heavy wings and croak of alarm flew up a great heron from a marshy pool, and in a moment all was forgotten as I unhooded my hawk—one that Olaf had given me from the Danish spoils at Canterbury. Then the rush of the long-winged falcon, and the cry of the heron, and the giddy climbing of both into the gray November sky as they strove for the highest flight, was all that I cared for, and we shook our reins and cantered after the birds as they drifted down the wind, soaring too high to breast it.

And when the heron was taken the dark thoughts were gone, and we rode back to Penhurst gaily, speaking no word of war or coming trouble, but of flight of hawk and wile of quarry, and the like pleasant things.

After this I saw no more of Earl Wulfnoth, and the winter set in with heavy snow and frosts, so that before long one might hardly stir into the woods, where the drifts were over heavy in the deep shaws to be very safe to a stranger. But we had some good days when word came that the foresters had harboured an old boar in a sheltered place. And to attack the fearless beast when he is thus penned and at bay amid snow walls, is warriors' sport indeed.

But while the snow fell whirling in the cold blasts from the sea round the great low-roofed hall I must needs bide within, and so I saw more of the maiden Sexberga than before, as she sat at her wheel with the lady, her mother, and the maidens of the house at the upper end of the hall, while the men wrought at their indoor work of mending and making horse gear and tool handles and the like, below the fire that burnt in the centre.

And so it had been like enough that soon I should have bound my heart to this pleasant place with ties that would have been hard to break, but for some words that came about by chance. For there had begun to spring up in my mind a great liking for the words and ways of Sexberga, who had been pleasant in my eyes from the very first time that I had seen her and her mother in Earl Wulfnoth's courtyard.

And I think that there is no wonder in this, for these ladies were ever most kind to me, and long were the days since I had spoken with any in such a home as this. Nor, as I have said, should I be blamed for forgetting old days at Bures in this wise.

Now, soon after Christmas, when there came one of those days when men must needs keep under cover, I sat by the fire trimming arrows, and presently it chanced that the lady and I were alone in the hall, for the maidens were preparing the supper elsewhere, and the housecarles had not yet come in from cattle yard and sheep pens. And we talked quietly of this and that, as her wheel hummed and clicked cheerfully the while, and at last some word of mine led her to say:

"I have heard little of your own folk, Redwald. I do not know even their names."

"After my father was slain, I had none left but my mother," I said. "We are distant kinsfolk of Ulfkytel, our earl, but we have no near kin."

"Was your mother's name Hertha?" she said, naturally enough, for I had never named her, always speaking, as one will, of her as my mother only.

I looked up wondering, for I could not think how she knew that name, or indeed any other than that of Siric, my father, and maybe Thorgeir, my grandfather, for Olaf had told them at first, when they took charge of me, to what family I had belonged, and how I was akin to him.

"That was not my mother's name," I answered. "It was that of a playfellow of mine. How could you know it?"

"One will go back in thought and word to old times when one is sick," the lady said, smiling. "This was a name often on your lips as I sat by you in your sickness. It was ever 'Mother' and 'Hertha'. Olaf said that you had no sisters, or I should have thought you called to one of them, maybe."

Then I remembered at last; and for a little while I sat silent, and my heart was sorely troubled. And the trouble was because my growing thought of Sexberga taught me, all in a flash as it were, when the remembrance of Hertha was brought thus clearly back to me, what tie bound me to Bures and to this more than playmate of mine. In truth, I think that had it not been for this, until I had been back in Bures again I should not have recalled it.

Now I was glad that I had said nought that might have made my liking for the maiden plain to her, and so things would be the easier. Yet for a few moments the thought of saying nought of the old betrothal came to me—of letting it remain forgotten. And then that seemed to me to be unworthy of a true man. It was done, and might not be undone by my will alone. I would even speak plainly of the matter; and at least I had not gone so far in any way that the lady could blame me for silence. So I hardened my heart—for indeed the trouble seemed great—and spoke quickly.

"Hertha was nearer to me than sister, for we were betrothed when I was but thirteen and she eleven."

I think the trouble in my voice was plain, for the lady deemed that there was some to be told.

"Where is she now?" she asked. "I hope that no harm came to her when the evil Danes overran your land."

"I know not where she may be, dear lady," I said. "We know that she was in safety after the first peril passed. Now our land is in Danish hands, and I have no news from thence for four years."

"There are many places here where one might hide well enough," she said thoughtfully. "I suppose her people could find the like in your country. But it would be a dull life enough."

Then I told her of Gunnhild the nurse and her wisdom, and said that none knew the land around Bures better than she, while she had friends everywhere.

"Then you may find your Hertha yet," the lady said at last; and as she spoke Sexberga, of whom my mind was full, came into the hall.

"You speak sadly together," she said, looking from one to the other, and noting that her mother's wheel was idle.

"It is no happy tale that our friend has told me," the lady said, and so told her all that she had learned from me.

Then Sexberga clasped her hands together, and said:

"Shall I ever forget the time when we fled to Pevensea before the outlaws? And to think of that terror—if it had lasted for days and weeks—and months maybe, as it would for your Hertha. Could you in no way seek her, Redwald?"

She knew nothing of the ways of wartime and of the troubles which must come to men who are weapon bearers, and I tried to tell her how I could by no means have sought Hertha, and how, had that been possible, and had I found her, I could hardly have brought her even to London in safety. I told her of good Bishop Elfheah and his death, and many more things, and yet she said:

"I think you have been over long in seeking her. And she has been in hiding for four years past!"

Now that was hardly fair, but what could she think else? Yet in my mind was the certainty now that I might have had no easy task to win this kindly maiden, who so little cared that I was bound elsewhere. Now I will not say that that altogether pleased me, for no man likes to learn that a fair maiden who is pleasant to his eyes has no like feeling for himself; which is nought but vanity after all. So when I turned this over in my mind I knew that I ought to be glad that she cared nothing, for so was the less trouble in the end, and I found also that what a man ought to be is not the same always as what a man is.

So I made no answer, and Sexberga went on:

"Now must you seek her as soon as you can, for that is your part as a good warrior—a good knight, as Father Anselm will say when he hears thereof."

"Surely I shall go back this spring with our earl," I said. "Then shall I find her, for she and her nurse will come back from their hiding when peace is sure."

"Aye; and you will not know her!" said Sexberga, clapping her hands and laughing. "She is a woman grown, as I am, by this time!"

Then was gone my little playfellow, and in her place, in my thoughts, must stand a maiden with eyes of sad reproach that must be ever on me. And maybe in her heart would be fear of me, and of what I had become, as she was bound to me.

And now Sexberga began to weave fancies of how I should meet this long-lost bride of mine, and I could make no answer to her playful railing, for I saw more clearly than she. And her mother knew that this must be so, and sent her away on some household errand, and I was glad.

Then she laid her hand on mine, and spoke very kindly to me.

"I fear, Redwald, that there is a strange trial coming for you; but I think that you will face it rightly. It is likely that you will hardly know Hertha when you see her; yet you are betrothed to her, and that is a thing that cannot be forgotten."

"She will not know me at all," I said.

"Women are keen sighted," the lady answered; "but it is more than likely that she will not."

Then said I:

"What if she has no love for me?"

"Or you of her? But I think that in her hiding she has thought of you ever, and well will it be for you if you come not short of her dream of you. But you have thought of her not at all."

"Blame me not, lady," I said humbly enough, though I thought I deserved blame more than she knew.

"I cannot," she answered, and then a half smile crossed her fair face; "nor should I have thought it wonderful if some other maiden had taken her place in your heart. But that would have been ill for three people in the end."

I sat silent, and maybe I was glad that the glow of the fire was ruddy on my face, for it seemed that she had seen somewhat of my thoughts of late.

"Now you must find Hertha," she went on, "and then if either of you will be released, I think that Holy Church will not be hard on you, nor keep you bound to each other, for things have turned out ill for such a betrothal."

"This is a hard case," I said, "for supposing that one longs for release and the other does not?"

"Why, you cannot be so much as lovers yet!" she said, laughing suddenly. "Here we speak as if a child's thoughts were aught. Now comes into my mind such a plan as is in the old stories. You shall seek Hertha as Olaf's kinsman only—as a kinsman who seeks for you, maybe, not letting her know who you are. Then may you try to win her love, if you will—or if you cannot love her, you may so work on her mind that she will not love you, and then all is easy. For if she will not love you when you would win her, you will not hold her bound."

"Surely not," I said. "This seems a good plan, if only it may be carried out. But it depends on whether Hertha knows me again."

"Or the old nurse, Gunnhild," she answered. "If she lives yet, you must take her into the plan."

So this seemed to me to be a matter easily managed, as I thought thereof, and I was content. And after we had talked a while longer, planning thus, I said:

"Now I must go back to Olaf as soon as I can. The winter is wearing away."

"Aye; the good king will be missing you," she said.

I was not ready to say more, for I meant a great deal by my words, as might be supposed. And the lady knew it, as I think, for presently she said:

"I wonder that you spoke not of Hertha before."

"There need be no wonder, lady," I answered. "I have lived but in the constant thought of war, until I must needs be quiet here. But for this, I should still have forgotten her."

"That is true; but you must remember her now," she said, looking quaintly at me.

"I will remember, lady," I answered, kissing her hand; and she smiled on me and was content.

Truly that one who teaches a man that he is worthy of trust is his best teacher of honour, and the name of the lady of Penhurst is ever dear to me.

So it came to pass that I had nought wherewith to blame myself in the days to come, and I taught myself to look on Sexberga as a pleasant friend only, though it was hard at first, to say the truth. And I think that her talk of Hertha, and her jesting at my unknown bride, as she would call her, helped me, for it kept me mindful.

Then at last came a messenger from Wulfnoth to bid me ride to see him at Pevensea, and I went, wondering what new turn of things was on hand. But when I reached the castle, I saw a ship that I knew lying in the haven—one of Olaf's own. For Ottar the scald had come to seek me with the first sign of open weather, bringing also many gifts of Danish spoil for Relf and his household, and many words of thanks also.

So in two days' time I parted from Relf and his people, not without sorrow. Nor could I say all that I would to them of my thoughts of what I owed them for their care.

Then Wulfnoth and Godwine gave me twenty pieces of the gold from the treasure, and bade me return ere long.

"And I think that you will come back presently with an itching to get home a sword stroke at one whom I care not to name lest I break out," said the earl grimly.

"At Streone?" said I, being light of heart.

"Aye; curses on him!" answered Wulfnoth, and turned away with a scowl of wrath.

Now Ottar had been to Penhurst with me, and we had come thence together to the ships. And when the old walls of the great castle were lost to sight as the vessel plunged eastward, he said:

"Relf's daughter is a fair maiden, friend Redwald. It is in my mind that she will long to see you back again."

"Not so," I answered; "she is but friendly."

"But she had much ado not to weep when you parted just now, and I saw her run home from the gate over quickly. These be signs," he said sagely, being a scald, and therefore wise in his own conceit about such matters.

Maybe I was glad to think that the maiden did care that I went, were it ever so little, though I would not believe that it was so.

So I came back into the Thames to Olaf, and glad was he to see me once more, and that I was in no wise the worse now for my hurts. And in his company it soon came to pass that I longed not at all for Penhurst, though at first it seemed to me that I should have little pleasure in life away from Sexberga. By and by I could laugh at myself for that thought, but I have never seen cause to be sorry therefor. There is no shame to a man that his mind has turned towards a maiden whom he knows that he could trust and reverence.



Chapter 7: The Fight At Leavenheath.

March and April went by, and Olaf had gathered good fleet enough in the Thames. But there was no word of Cnut's return, though the dread thereof hung heavy over all the land, in such wise that no man could plan what he would do without the thought rising up, "Unless the Dane comes," seeing that each day might bring news of him.

No man knows now what that terror and uncertainty was like—to have ever in one's heart the fear of that awful host that seemed to sweep from end to end of the land before a levy could be gathered to meet it.

There had been time to gather a levy now against the coming of Cnut, but naught had been done. Sick at heart and impatient was Olaf, for England's rulers would not take care for her safety.

Then came word of a great council to be held at Oxford, and we hoped much from that; but two days after it had been held there came to us, angry and desponding, Ulfkytel, our East Anglian earl, and told us how things had gone as ill as they might. Few words enough are needed to tell it, but none can know what harm was wrought thereby. Whereof Olaf says that a good leader will act first, and call his council afterwards.

All the best of England were there, not only Saxon thanes of Wessex, but also loyal Danes of the old settlement, and had the king spoken his will plainly, all would have been well. For of the Danish nobles, Utred of Northumbria and the two earls of the old seven boroughs, Sigeferth and Morcar, were at one with our earl and Eadmund for gathering a great levy, and keeping it together by marching through the Danelagh, and calling on the Danish thingmen, in the towns they yet held, to surrender.

That plan was good, and would have been carried out; but Edric Streone rose up and reminded Ethelred of how the march through Lindsey had done more harm than good.

"Cnut will not return," he said, "and messages to these Danish garrisons with promise of peace if they surrender will be enough. But if we fall on them, they will grow desperate, and will send for Cnut to help them. If we win them to peace, Cnut cannot come back."

Thereat Sigeferth of Stamford spoke hotly, minding Streone that the harm was done in Lindsey by pillage and burning wrought among peaceful folk, who were thus made enemies to the king. The thingmen would submit quietly if they knew they must; but if they were left, they would send word to Cnut that there was no force to oppose him.

But the words of Streone prevailed as ever, and the council broke up, and the nobles fell to feasting, while this foolish message was sent to Swein's veterans in their towns.

Then Sigeferth and Morcar made no secret of their belief that Streone was playing into Cnut's hands for reasons of his own. Wherefore Streone sent for them in friendly wise, as if to recall his words, and they went, and came from his house alive no more. Then their men went to avenge their lords' deaths, and were driven into St. Frideswide's church, and that was burnt over their heads.

"Now the seven boroughs will welcome Cnut," said Ulfkytel, "and Lindsey looks for him; so he has a clear road into the heart of England."

Then I saw that Streone surely wrought for Cnut, else was he a more foolish man than was thought, for all held him as the most skilful at statecraft in England.

Then said Ulfkytel:

"Utred has gone to mind his own land, and I have come to ask you to help me in East Anglia."

And in the end it came to pass that Olaf gave his new fleet into the hands of the London thanes, for Ethelred seemed to care nought for it, and took his own ships only, and we sailed first of all to Maldon. Little trouble was there, for the Danes who held the place submitted, being too few to fight us, and we gave their arms to the citizens, and mounted all of our men whom we could, and so left the ships and marched towards Colchester, along the great road that I had last passed as a fugitive in the years that seemed to me so long ago.

It was strange to me as we went, and the mist of time seemed to pass away, so that all began to be as plain to my mind as if that flight had been but yesterday. There was nothing of the wayside happening that I could not remember well.

But all the roadside was changed, for the cottages were gone, and the farmsteads stood no longer in the clearings. I know not what tales of terror I might have heard concerning the burnings of these homes. Where the thralls' huts had been were but patches of nettles and docks hiding heaps of ashes, and the farmhouses were charred ruins. And we saw now and then a man, skin clad and wretched, seeking shelter in the woods in all haste as we sighted him. But I had no need to ask aught—I knew only too well what manner of tales might be told here, as everywhere in Swein's track.

As we drew nearer Colchester, and the village folk began to learn who we were, and so would gather with gifts for the good-natured Norsemen who came to release them from the tyranny of the thingmen, now and then a face that I knew would start, as it were, upon me from among a little crowd. But none knew me, nor were they likely to do so. Hardly could I think myself the same as the careless boy who had watched his father ride away to the war. Indeed, I know that I changed less in the ten years that came after this than in the four that had gone by since that day. For in those four years I had become the hardened warrior of many defeats and but this one victory.

Now when we reached Coggeshall village, word came to us that the Danes were gathering in force in Colchester, and that they expected Olaf to besiege them there.

"I will waste no time under Colchester walls," he said, "but will strike inland a little; then they will come out and give us battle in the open to stay our march."

By this time the loyal freemen of Essex had gathered to Ulfkytel in good force, and Olaf thought it would be well that he should march along the road that leads from Coggeshall to Dunmow and take that town, which is strong, so that the Danish forces should not join against us.

Therefore he left us, and would go northwards from Dunmow, taking the towns from thence to Thetford and Norwich, and he should go to Ipswich and maybe to Dunwich after this. So would all East Anglia submit. And all went well with Ulfkytel until the time came when he must turn back in haste, as I must tell presently.

Now, after he was gone, Olaf thought that it would be well to cross the Colne and Stour rivers, and so cut off the Sudbury Danes from Colchester if it might be done.

"Then there is no better place than my own," said I, "for the road on either side of the Stour can be guarded at Bures, and I know all the country well."

That pleased Olaf, and he said that we would take up some strong position there, and so wait to draw the Danes into the open, where he thought that one battle would do all for us.

Thus I came hack to the home that I loved and longed to see again. And when we came in the early morning to the place where the great mound of the Icenian queen towers above its woods I know not how my heart was stirred. I cannot say the things that I felt, and Olaf said:

"Let us ride on alone and see your place."

Then we came swiftly to the crest of the hill, and I could see all that was mine by right. But it was a piteous sight for me, and my rage and sorrow made me silent as I looked.

The stockading that had been so good was broken and useless, and the church was in blackened ruins, standing among the houses where black gaps among them also showed that the Danes had been at work and that none had had heart to rebuild. Black were the ruins of my home on the hill above the village, and across the mere woods one burnt gable of Hertha's home stood alone above the hill shoulder to show where Osgod had dwelt in the hollow of the hills beside the ford.

Then we rode across the bridge and into the street unchallenged, for all the poor folk had fled from before us thinking that we were some fresh foes. Very strange the deserted place looked to me as I sat on my horse on the familiar green, and saw the river gleam across the gap where the church had been, and missed the houses that I had known so well.

"Call aloud, Redwald," said Olaf. "It may be that your name will bring some from their hiding."

So I called, and the empty street echoed back the words:

"Ho, friends! I am Redwald, your thane. Will none come to greet me?"

There was no answer, and Olaf lifted up his clear voice:

"Ho, Ethelred's men! here is help against the Danes."

Then from under the staging by the riverside where the boats land their cargo, crept two men and came towards us slowly. And one was that thrall of mine who would have gone to Wormingford for me on the night when we fled. His silver collar of thraldom was gone, for the Danes had taken it, and his face bore marks of long hardship, but I knew him instantly. So I called him by name, and he stared at me fixedly for a moment, and then cried aloud and ran to me and fell to kissing my hand and weeping with joy at my return. Nor could I get a word from him at first.

Then more of the people came from one place or another, timidly at first, but growing bold as they saw these two men without fear of us, and by the time that Olaf's warriors came over the bridge there were not a few folk standing round us and looking on. One by one I knew their faces, though years of pain had marked them sorely. But none knew me at first, though doubtless they would do so if I called to them as I had called to Brand the thrall.

Now was busy setting of watches and ordering of outposts, and Olaf went with me to the top of our hill and there set a strong post of our men, for there could be no better place for a camp either for rest or defence, and the people told him that every Dane in the countryside had gone to Colchester, where they thought to be attacked.

Now Brand the thrall had followed us to the hilltop, and while I sat and looked at the ruins of my home he left me and spoke to a group of countrymen who looked on at the warriors. There was one among this group whose face drew me, for I seemed to think that I ought to know him, though I could not say who he was. He looked like a poor franklin in his rough brown jerkin and leather-gartered hose, and broad hat, and he bore no weapon but a short seax in his belt, and a quarterstaff, and there was nought about him to claim notice. But I was watching for old friends of mine with a full heart, and scanned the face of each one that came near.

Then it seemed that the others spoke to this man with a sort of reverence, and presently one bared his head before him. Thereat I knew who he was, and my heart leapt with joy, for it was good Father Ailwin, our priest, who had gone back to his death as we had thought.

Then I made haste and went to him, dismounting before him.

"Father," I said, "have you forgotten Redwald, your pupil?"

He took my hand in silence, being too much moved to speak, and signed the sign of the cross towards me in token of blessing. I bowed my head, and rejoiced that he was yet living.

Then Olaf called me, and I said:

"When the warriors have dispersed, come to the house on the green that was Gurth's. The king and I shall be there. We have much to say to one another, father."

So I had to leave him at that time, for now Olaf would take eight score of our men in haste to Sudbury, which is but five miles away, and call on the townsfolk to rise for Ethelred and drive out any Danes who were left there.

We went away quickly, and took all our mounted men, for we could hear of no Danish force afield yet. It is likely that word of our force had gone from Maldon, losing nothing on the way.

We rode to Sudbury gates and called on the townspeople to open their gates. Then was some tumult and fighting inside the town, but they opened to us, and we rode in. There were some slain men in the street, for what Danes had been there had resisted the surrender to so small a force.

But the Sudbury folk rejoiced to see us, and hailed Ethelred as king very gladly. Then Olaf bade them raise what men they could and join him at Bures on the morrow with the first light. Thereat the old sheriff of Sudbury, whom I knew well, promised that we should have all the men whom he could raise.

"Nor will they be your worst fighters, King Olaf," he said, "for we have many wrongs to avenge."

It was late evening when we went back. And in the road where it winds between the river and the hill before one comes into Bures street waited Rani and some men with news. The Danes had come from Colchester, and already their watch fires were burning along the heath some four miles to eastward of us. It had fallen out, as Olaf wished, that they would try to bar our way into Suffolk, and we should have work to hand on the morrow.

Now men had gone with some thralls who could take them safely near the host, to spy what they could of the number and the plans of the Danes.

So it came to pass that I went no more into the village that night, but slept by a fire that burnt where our own hearthstone had been, amid the ruins of my home. And that was a sad homecoming enough. Moreover, in the first hours of the night a wonderful thing happened which seemed to be of ill omen, and was so strange that maybe few will believe it.

There was a bit of broken wall near the fire, and I laid me down in my cloak under its shelter, setting the sword that Eadmund had given me against it close to my head, so that I could reach it instantly if need were. After a while I slept, for the day had been very long and I was weary, else would sad thoughts have kept me waking. And presently there was a rumble and snapping that woke me up in a dream of falling ruin, and the man who lay next to me cried out and dragged me roughly aside.

The broken wall had fallen, crumbling with the heat of the fire, I suppose, and had almost slain me. But I was not touched, though the sword was broken. And when Ottar the scald heard of it he was troubled, not knowing what this might betoken. But Olaf thought little of it.

"It means that axe is better than sword for this fight," he said, for he had armed me like himself after the Norse manner, than which is none better or more handsome. He had given me a byrnie {10} of the best ring mail, and a helm gold-inlaid as became a king's kinsman, and axe and shield like his own. He and his men alone of all Norsemen in those days bore the cross on both helm and shield. Nor would Olaf have any unchristened man in all his host. Many a stout warrior did he turn away because he was not and would not be a Christian, for many Danes were yet heathen, and most Norway men.

Some of the men who had gone out to see the Danish force came back soon after midnight, and they said that there would seem to be close on a thousand of them in all.

After that we knew that a hard fight was before us, and the king bade us sleep and take what rest we might. Then, very early, came men to say that the Sudbury folk had come, and Olaf and I went down to the village to meet them. Close on two hundred men had come with Prat, the son of the sheriff of Sudbury, at their head, and they were not to be despised, for they were sturdy spearmen, and many had mail, though the most wore the stout leathern jerkin that will turn a sword cut well enough.

And Prat asked that they should have the first place in the fight, seeing that they fought for their own land.

"That is the place of my own ship's crew," said Olaf, "nor will they be denied it. Now shall you fight under Redwald, your own thane, and he will have the next place to me."

That pleased both them and me well, and after that Olaf sent me on as advance guard, for we knew the country.

We were nine hundred strong in all, and when I took my men to the hilltop I met a man who said that the Danes mustered some fifteen hundred strong. There were Anglian Danes there besides thingmen. But Olaf had said that we would fight two to one if necessary, and so I held on; he would send after me if he would make any change in his plans when he heard this. It was well that we had settled with the Sudbury force already or we should have had them to deal with besides.

We left Bures hill and went down the steep valley beyond it, and I thought that the Danes might wait for us in the wood that is on the opposite slope. But there were none, and we came out on the open ground that stretches away in a fairly level upland for many a mile northward and eastward before us. There I waited, for we needed no advance guard beyond these last woodlands. One could see to the dip that is by Leavenheath, and there the Danes would be. And indeed across the open rode a few men in that direction, and I knew that they were scouts who would take the news of our coming; but they were too far away to be stopped even had I wished to do so. Olaf would not be led far from Bures and the river, but would have the foe come to him.

So we stayed just beyond the cover, and the bustards ran across the heath as we roused them, and the larks sprung up and sang overhead, and the blackbirds called their alarm notes in the copse behind us, and the men talked of these things and pointed at the rabbits that sat up to look at us before they fled, as if there were no fighting at hand; for indeed I think that one notes all these well-known things more plainly when one's mind is strung up and over watchful, as it will be before somewhat great that is looked for.

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