| In the Days of Alfred the Great|
|by Eva March Tappan|
|Story of the life of Alfred the Great, how at twenty-two he inherited a land overrun by savage pirates,—a restless, ignorant, defenseless land, and how he fought the Danes and restored the country to a condition of peace and safety. Ages 11-15 |
LIFE ON THE MANOR
THELSWITHA was gone, and Alfred was lonely, though his
nurse Hilda, who was always with him, roamed about
wherever he chose to go. They were wandering idly about
the place when suddenly they heard shouting and
screaming. Men were striking stones together and
beating bits of iron, and all the small boys of the
settlement were adding to the noise in every way that
"It is the bees," said Hilda. "Look! See them in the
air!" And there they were flying in a dense swarm,
slowly and in a vague, uncertain fashion. At last they
seemed to rest on their wings almost motionless. The
men drew back a little and looked at Hilda. She stepped
forward, and caught up a handful of gravel in each
hand. That in the left she threw over her left
shoulder. Holding her right hand straight up
 above her head, she looked at the bees, tossed the rest
of the gravel into the midst of them, and said in a
kind of chanting tone:—
"Lithe and listen, my lady-bees;
Fly not far to the forest trees."
The moment that her voice was still, the noise began
again louder than ever. The bees slowly settled down
upon the limb of a tree in a shining, quivering mass.
A hive made of braided straw was rubbed out with fresh
leaves and put over them, and the swarm was safe.
"The old charms have not lost their power," said Hilda
to the blacksmith.
"No, that they have not," said the blacksmith, "but
they will not work for every one."
"The king's religion is the true one, of course, and we
are baptized and go to his church, but the old gods are
angry if we do not remember them sometimes," said
Hilda. "The Christian God is good and kind, but the old
gods will often work one harm, and it is just as well
to say a good word to them now and then. You can say a
prayer in the church afterwards."
The smith picked up the heavy tongs that
 he had been beating to add to the din, and went across
the open place to where Alfred stood gazing curiously
at the beehives.
"Will it please you, sir prince," he said, "to come to
the forge? To-day I have finished my work on the king's
new sword. Will you see it?"
"Yes, I will," said Alfred, and they walked down to the
little valley where the forge stood. As they crossed
the brook, swollen by the recent rains, Hilda hurried
the little boy over the narrow foot-bridge.
"Be careful," she said, "and never look down at the
water, for that is where the black nixy-man lives. He
is angry when children look at him, and he snaps at
them, and drags them down and eats them." So they went
on till they came to the rude hut in which the smith
had built his great fire on a heavy stone hearth. The
sword was brought out, but Alfred was disappointed to
see that it did not shine.
"My father's sword shines," he said at last.
"So will this," said the smith, "but first it must go
to the gold-worker, and he will polish it and twist
gold cord about the handle, and
 put bands of bronze about it—and perhaps he will get
a wise man to cut a rune into it," he whispered to
"The king would not be pleased," said she.
"But it might save his life," said the smith. "Did you
never hear of the two kings, Jarl and Thorl, how they
fought; and each was a great warrior, and at the first
stroke each drove his sword clear through the body of
the other? Thorl's armorer loved him, and he had
secretly had a rune cut on the inside of the handle
where the king would never see it; but Jarl's armorer
hated him, and so there was no rune on his sword; and
the men stood, each with the other's sword run clear
through him. But Jarl's sword sprang out from Thorl's
body, and no one ever saw it again, and the wound
closed, and there was no scar. But Thorl's sword had a
rune on it, and so it did not spring out of the wound.
It grew heavier and heavier, and in a minute Jarl sank
down and died."
Alfred and Hilda had seated themselves under a tree not
far from the great rock that stood beside the little
hut of the smith. Alfred said:—
"Hilda, what is a rune?"
 "It's a strange mark," said Hilda. "Long ago, when the
gods used to live with men, they told a few very wise
men how to make these signs. The gods know what they
mean, and if a man cuts them on his sword, then the
gods will come to help him when he fights; but you must
not tell the bishop, for the priests do not like the
"Are they afraid of them? Is the runes' god stronger
than their God?" asked Alfred.
"No, I suppose not," said Hilda, a little doubtfully,
"but they will not let us use them."
Alfred thought a
minute, and then said:—
"Was Thorl a good man?"
"Yes," said Hilda.
"If Jarl had been a good man, would not his sword have
stayed in as well as Thorl's?"
"I don't know," said Hilda, a little hastily, and
looked around over her shoulder, for she was not a
little afraid of the evil spirits that she believed
were in the air all around. Then, too, she had just
seen an eagle fly by toward the left, and she knew that
this was a bad sign.
"Come a little way into the forest," she said, "and we
will gather flowers, and I will make you
 a crown, because some day you will have a crown of gold
and sit on the high seat on the dais; and you will ride
at the head of the fighting men when they go out to
battle, and when they speak to you, they will bow down
low and say, 'Hail, sir king.' "
They wandered on and on into the forest, for Hilda was
thoughtless of danger except from evil spirits. At last
they sat down on a mossy log to rest, and Alfred said:—
"Tell me a story about a king;" and Hilda began:—
"Once upon a time there was a king, and he was an old
"Was he as old as my father?"
"Much older," said Hilda. "He was so old that he knew
that he must soon die, and he told the thegns to build
him a beautiful boat. They must paint it white and put
a broad band of gold around it, and the sails must be
of gold woven into cloth. At the bow was a pillar made
of wood and gilded; and on the pillar was an image of a
mighty warrior, and this warrior was a great god."
"Did he use to live with men?" asked the boy.
 "Yes, but it was so long ago that no one can remember
his name," said Hilda.
"Perhaps if we knew his name and cut it on all the
swords, the Danes would never dare to come to the land
again," said Alfred. At this, Hilda looked a little
frightened, for she had been forbidden to tell the
prince of the heathen gods; but the child went on:—
"How did he look? Did he look like my father?"
"No one could ever see his face without dying," said
Hilda, "but his helmet covered it, so people could come
near and bow down at his feet and make him presents. He
had a blue banner in his right hand, and a great red
rose was embroidered on it. The crest of his helmet was
a cock, and on his shield was a lion with flowers
around his neck."
"You haven't made my crown," said Alfred. "Make it, for
I shall be a king; and tell me what this king did."
So Hilda wove a wreath of the pretty scarlet anemones
and put it on the boy's head, and went on with her
"The king told his men to hang all around the
 outside of his vessel the shields that he had used, and
behind every shield they were to put three spears
fastened together with golden chains; and on the mast
was the most beautiful shield of all, the one that the
king had carried in his greatest battle, and over it
was his banner, blood-red, with a bear in the centre.
And at the stern of the vessel was the king's coat of
mail, and it flashed like fire when the sun shone on
it. Then the king bade his men to pile up a great heap
of dry pine wood on the ship in front of the figure,
and over that to put fir, and over that oak, and to
bind it with golden chains, and to hang golden chains
from the masts, and to put many jeweled rings on the
prow. Men wondered what it might mean, but they must
obey the king, and so when he said:—
" 'Lay me upon your shields, and carry me on board the
ship,' they did so. Then he said:—
" 'Place me on top of the oaken wood, and put my sword
into my right hand, and the chain from the helmet of
the god into my left, and bind the helm straight for
the north, and leave me.'
"The thegns obeyed with wonder and fear and
 great sorrow, and they left the ship and rowed for the
shore; and they said afterward that they heard a sound
like strange music and like the marching of soldiers a
great way off, but before they had come to the shore, a
strong wind arose from the south. Only one of the
thegns dared to look at the vessel, and never until he
was about to die did he tell what he saw. Then he said
that he saw the king wave his sword. It made strange
runes of fire in the air, and the wood of the pile
began to smoke. Then the king pulled the golden chain
that hung from the helmet and looked straight up into
the face of the great figure; and the figure took the
king by the hand. All at once it was twilight, and afar
off there was a red glare on the waters; and then it
was dark, and the thegns—"
"That's a good story, woman," said one of three men who
suddenly appeared from among the rocks behind them,
"but we can't wait to hear another"; and he bound the
trembling Hilda fast with withes, while another caught
up the prince.
"There'll be a fine ransom for him," said the man.
"He's the son of some noble."
"Put me down. If I had my father's sword,
 I would run it straight through you," said the little
"And who is your father?" asked the third man, while
the others listened eagerly.
"My father is the king," said the child, "and I shall
be a king some day—don't you see my crown?—and my
father will kill you."
"Does he say true?" whispered one, in awe. "See the
silver thread around his tunic. This game is too high
for us. Fly! I hear the tread of horses," and the man
set the child down carefully, and the three all slid
into the dark shadows of the forest, leaving Hilda
lying bound. The hoof-beats grew louder, and four of
the king's hunters drew near.
"It is the prince," said one, "and where is Hilda?"
"There," said another, "and bound. Who has done this?
Grant that the prince be not harmed; it would kill the
Hilda was quickly freed, and she and the boy were put
on two of the horses, which were led by two men toward
"I'll never go back to the king with such a tale," said
 "I will," said another, "and the heads of the thieves
shall go with it. How dared they venture so near the
homes of the fighters of the king!" And so the two set
off, and when they returned late that night, they were
a grim sight, for their clothes were dusty and torn and
bloody, and they held the heads of the three robbers
high in the air on the points of their spears.
"We were two, but two thegns of King Ethelwulf can
well meet three thieves," said they. "We smoked them
out of their cave like bees from a honey tree, and they
will not bind women again." The next day the three
heads were carried afar into the forest and put up each
on the top of a high pole, that all the other robbers
might see and take warning.
Hilda was punished severely for her carelessness, and
never again was the prince left in her charge. Indeed,
Queen Osburga could hardly bear to have him out of her
sight for a moment; and when it was found out that
Hilda had been telling him the stories that she was
forbidden to tell, then the king banished her from his
court and sent her to a convent a long way off.
The queen was anxious about the king in those
 days, for he often seemed lost in thought, and many
times she saw his eyes fixed upon her and Alfred with
the same look of suffering and determination that she
had seen the night of the wedding; and one day when she
was in one of the rooms behind the dais, she heard him
pacing to and fro on the raised platform, and saying to
"It is all for my sins. I must atone—I must atone. It
is a warning." His voice was so full of anguish that
the queen did not venture to come in upon him then; but
her heart fell, for she was sure that some terrible
grief was coming to them.
As she sat in sadness and anxiety, the little prince
climbed upon her knee, and said:—
"Mother, won't you tell me a story? Hilda used to."
"My fear shall not make my child sad," she thought, and
"Yes, I will tell you a story, and I will show you a
story, too." And she called one of her women.
"Go to the carved oaken chest in the southeast corner
of the treasure room, and bring me
 the manuscript that is wrapped in a blue silken cloth."
The manuscript was brought, and the child watched with
the deepest interest while the queen carefully unfolded
the silken wrapping. She took out a parchment that was
protected by a white leather covering. At the corners
were bits of gold filigree work, and in the filigree
was traced in enamel, in one corner the head of a lion,
in the second that of a calf, in the third a man's
face, and in the fourth a flying eagle. In the centre
of the cover was a bright red stone that glowed in the
light of the great wood fire.
Then the cover was thrown back, and there was a single
piece of parchment. It was torn in one place and a
little crumpled, and one corner had been scorched in
the fire. It was covered with strange signs, most of
them in black, but sometimes one was larger than the
rest and painted in red, and blue, and green, and gold,
in brighter, clearer colors than Alfred had ever seen
in silk or in woolen.
"What is it, mother?" he cried. "Did the gods—the old
ones—did they give it to you? and did they tell you how
to make runes?"
"WHAT IS IT, MOTHER?" HE CRIED.
 "Hush!" said his mother, looking half fearfully around
and making the sign of the cross on the child's
forehead. "There are no gods but our own, but there are
evil spirits. We must not speak of the old gods. This
is a manuscript from Canterbury."
The older sons had come into the room and pressed near
to look at the treasure, Ethelbald who had stood beside
his father as man by man in the last war with the
Danes, Ethelbert, who was but a few years younger, and
Ethelred, who was also a tall young man.
"Does it mean anything? asked Ethelred.
"Yes," said his mother. "It tells a part of a story.
There must have been much more of it sometime. It was
in the convent at Canterbury, and when the Danes burned
it—you were a baby, Alfred—the roll was burned; but a
thegn saw this piece lying half hidden under a stone
where the wind had blown it. The bishop said he might
bring it to me, and I had the cover made for it. This
is what it says," and she repeated:—
"Once on a time it happened that we in our vessel
Ventured to ride o'er the billows, the high-dashing surges.
Full of danger to us were the paths of the ocean.
Streams of the sea beat the shores, and loud roared the breakers,
Fierce Terror rose from the breast of the sea o'er our wave-ship.
There the Almighty, glorious Creator of all men,
Was biding his time in the boat. Men trembled at heart,
Called upon God for compassion, the Lord for his mercy;
Loud wailed the crowd in the keel. Arose straightway
The Giver of joy to the angels; the billows were silenced,
The whelm of the waves and the winds was stilled at his word,
The sea was calm and the ocean-streams smooth in their limits.
There was joy in our hearts when under the circle of heaven
The winds and the waves and the terror of waters, themselves
In fear of the glorious Lord became fearful.
Wherefore the living God—'tis truth that I tell you—
Never forsakes on this earth a man in his trouble,
If only his heart is true and his courage unfailing."
The tall young man listened as eagerly as the child,
but when at the end she said:—
"I will give it to any one of you who will learn to
repeat it," Alfred spoke first:—
"Will you really give it to the one that will learn
"Yes," said his mother, smiling, "but you are too
little. Will you have it, Ethelbald?"
"Songs are good, but fighting is better, so I'll none
of it;" and Ethelbert said:—
"Saying poems is for harpers, not for princes;" and
Ethelred looked at the red stone
 on the cover rather longingly, and then at the torn and
scorched sheet of parchment, and said:—
"I don't care for
pieces of things. Alfred may have it." Alfred was
"Mother, I will learn it, truly I will. The priest will
say it to me, and I will learn it. Won't you let me
have it?" he pleaded.
"But what would a little boy like you do with it, if
you had it?" asked the queen.
"I'd send it to my sister Ethelswitha. Won't you let me
take it to the priest?" he begged. The queen yielded,
the parchment was rolled up, the silken covering
carefully wrapped around it, and a man was sent with
the child to find the priest. It was not many days
before the priest came with the little prince to the
queen and said:—
"My lady, the young prince can say every word of it."
So the boy was put up high on the king's seat in the
great hall, and the king and the thegns and the priests
and the women of the house all came in to see the
wonderful thing. To sing the old ballads, that was
 a man could do that; but to say off something that had
come right from a wonderful piece of parchment, that
was quite another matter. Some of them were not really
sure that there was not some witchcraft about it, and
they stood as near the middle of the hall as they
could, so that if the evil spirits should come in at
either end, they could get out at the other.
Nothing dangerous happened, however. The little boy
said the poem, and was praised and petted very much as
a child would be to-day for accomplishing some small
feat. Then the precious roll was laid on a golden
salver, and one of the king's favorite thegns carried
it to him, and bending low on one knee, presented it to
the little prince.
"And now may I carry it to Ethelswitha?" he asked
"It shall be sent to her," said his mother, "and the
thegn shall say, 'Your little brother Alfred sends you
this with his love'; but Ethelswitha's home is a long
way off, and I could not spare my little boy, not even
for a single day."
Again there came that strange look into the
 eyes of the king. He drew Osburga into a room back of
the dais, and said:—
"Could you spare your son to save your husband?"
"What do you mean?" Osburga asked. She felt that the
mysterious trouble that she had feared was coming upon
"Many years ago," said the king, "I wished to become a
priest. I gave it up to please my father, because he
had no other son; but I vowed to make the pilgrimage to
Rome as penance, because I had drawn back after I had
put my hand to the plough. My duty to the kingdom, and
I am sometimes afraid my love for you,—" and he put
his arm tenderly about her,—" has kept me from
performing my vow. A warning came. The child that I
love best was in the hands of robbers. God interposed
with a miracle, and he was saved; but there will not be
another miracle. I must not go to Rome, the kingdom
needs me. Shall I lose my soul for my broken vow, or
shall I send—?"
"Don't say it, I cannot bear it," begged the queen; but
the king laid his finger gently upon her lips, and
 "One must give that which he values most. Shall we send
"Not the child," sobbed the queen. "Send the older
ones, not the little one. Ethelswitha is gone, and
Alfred gone—I cannot bear it."
"One must give what he values most," repeated the king
gravely; "and again, it was about Alfred that the
warning came. Shall we leave him to be taken from us,
or shall we spare him for a little while to save him to
"Let me go with him," pleaded Osburga.
"And leave me alone?" the king answered. "Is it not
enough to spare my best-loved son?" and as she looked
up in his face, she trembled to see how pale it had
"No, I could not leave you," she said. "You are wise,
and I am not. You must do what is right, but how can I
The next morning there was great excitement, for every
one knew that Prince Alfred was going to Rome in the
care of Bishop Swithin.
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