A low hut built of turf roughly thatched with rushes and standing on th_ighest spot of some slightly raised ground. It was surrounded by a tangle_rowth of bushes and low trees, through which a narrow and winding path gav_dmission to the narrow space on which the hut stood. The ground slope_apidly. Twenty yards from the house the trees ceased, and a rank vegetatio_f reeds and rushes took the place of the bushes, and the ground became sof_nd swampy. A little further pools of stagnant water appeared among th_ushes, and the path abruptly stopped at the edge of a stagnant swamp, thoug_he passage could be followed by the eye for some distance among the tal_ushes. The hut, in fact, stood on a hummock in the midst of a wide swam_here the water sometimes deepened into lakes connected by sluggish streams.
On the open spaces of water herons stalked near the margin, and great flock_f wild-fowl dotted the surface. Other signs of life there were none, althoug_ sharp eye might have detected light threads of smoke curling up here an_here from spots where the ground rose somewhat above the general level. Thes_light elevations, however, were not visible to the eye, for the herbage her_rew shorter than on the lower and wetter ground, and the land apparentl_tretched away for a vast distance in a dead flat—a rush-covered swamp, broke_nly here and there by patches of bushes and low trees.
The little hut was situated in the very heart of the fen country, now draine_nd cultivated, but in the year 870 untouched by the hand of man, the haunt o_ild-fowl and human fugitives. At the door of the hut stood a lad som_ourteen years old. His only garment was a short sleeveless tunic girded in a_he waist, his arms and legs were bare; his head was uncovered, and his hai_ell in masses on his shoulders. In his hand he held a short spear, an_eaning against the wall of the hut close at hand was a bow and quiver o_rrows. The lad looked at the sun, which was sinking towards the horizon.
"Father is late," he said. "I trust that no harm has come to him and Egbert.
He said he would return to-day without fail; he said three or four days, an_his is the fourth. It is dull work here alone. You think so, Wolf, don't you, old fellow? And it is worse for you than it is for me, pent up on this hummoc_f ground with scarce room to stretch your limbs."
A great wolf-hound, who was lying with his head between his paws by the ember_f a fire in the centre of the hut, raised his head on being addressed, an_ttered a low howl indicative of his agreement with his master's opinion an_is disgust at his present place of abode.
"Never mind, old fellow," the boy continued, "we sha'n't be here long, I hope, and then you shall go with me in the woods again and hunt the wolves to you_eart's content." The great hound gave a lazy wag of his tail. "And now, Wolf, I must go. You lie here and guard the hut while I am away. Not that you ar_ikely to have any strangers to call in my absence."
The dog rose and stretched himself, and followed his master down the pat_ntil it terminated at the edge of the water. Here he gave a low whimper a_he lad stepped in and waded through the water; then turning he walked back t_he hut and threw himself down at the door. The boy proceeded for some thirt_r forty yards through the water, then paused and pushed aside the wall o_ushes which bordered the passage, and pulled out a boat which was floatin_mong them.
It was constructed of osier rods neatly woven together into a sort of basket- work, and covered with an untanned hide with the hairy side in. It was nearl_val in shape, and resembled a great bowl some three feet and a half wide an_ foot longer. A broad paddle with a long handle lay in it, and the boy, getting into it and standing erect in the middle paddled down the strip o_ater which a hundred yards further opened out into a broad half a mile lon_nd four or five hundred yards wide. Beyond moving slowly away as the coracl_pproached them, the water-fowl paid but little heed to its appearance.
The boy paddled to the end of the broad, whence a passage, through whic_lowed a stream so sluggish that its current could scarce be detected, le_nto the next sheet of water. Across the entrance to this passage floated som_undles of light rushes. These the boy drew out one by one. Attached to eac_as a piece of cord which, being pulled upon, brought to the surface a larg_age, constructed somewhat on the plan of a modern eel or lobster pot. The_ere baited by pieces of dead fish, and from them the boy extracted half _core of eels and as many fish of different kinds.
"Not a bad haul," he said as he lowered the cages to the bottom again. "No_et us see what we have got in our pen."
He paddled a short way along the broad to a point where a little lane of wate_an up through the rushes. This narrowed rapidly and the lad got out from hi_oat into the water, as the coracle could proceed no further between the line_f rushes. The water was knee-deep and the bottom soft and oozy. At the end o_he creek it narrowed until the rushes were but a foot apart. They were ben_ver here, as it would seem to a superficial observer naturally; but a clos_xamination would show that those facing each other were tied together wher_hey crossed at a distance of a couple of feet above the water, forming a sor_f tunnel. Two feet farther on this ceased, and the rushes were succeeded b_ines of strong osier withies, an inch or two apart, arched over and fastene_ogether. At this point was a sort of hanging door formed of rushes backe_ith osiers, and so arranged that at the slightest push from without the doo_ifted and enabled a wild-fowl to pass under, but dropping behind it prevente_ts exit. The osier tunnel widened out to a sort of inverted basket three fee_n diameter.
On the surface of the creek floated some grain which had been scattered ther_he evening before as a bait. The lad left the creek before he got to th_arrower part, and, making a small circuit in the swamp, came down upon th_en.
"Good!" he said, "I am in luck to-day; here are three fine ducks."
Bending the yielding osiers aside, he drew out the ducks one by one, wrun_heir necks, and passing their heads through his girdle, made his way again t_he coracle. Then he scattered another handful or two of grain on the water, sparingly near the mouth of the creek, but more thickly at the entrance to th_rap, and then paddled back again by the way he had come.
Almost noiselessly as he dipped the paddle in the water, the hound's quick ea_ad caught the sound, and he was standing at the edge of the swamp, waggin_is tail in dignified welcome as his master stepped on to dry land.
"There, Wolf, what do you think of that? A good score of eels and fish an_hree fine wild ducks. That means bones for you with your meal to-night—not t_atisfy your hunger, you know, for they would not be of much use in that way, but to give a flavour to your supper. Now let us make the fire up and pluc_he birds, for I warrant me that father and Egbert, if they return thi_vening, will be sharp-set. There are the cakes to bake too, so you see ther_s work for the next hour or two."
The sun had set now, and the flames, dancing up as the boy threw an armful o_ry wood on the fire, gave the hut a more cheerful appearance. For some tim_he lad busied himself with preparation for supper. The three ducks wer_lucked in readiness for putting over the fire should they be required; cake_f coarse rye-flour were made and placed in the red ashes of the fire; an_hen the lad threw himself down by the side of the dog.
"No, Wolf, it is no use your looking at those ducks. I am not going to roas_hem if no one comes; I have got half a one left from dinner." After sittin_uiet for half an hour the dog suddenly raised himself into a sittin_osition, with ears erect and muzzle pointed towards the door; then he gave _ow whine, and his tail began to beat the ground rapidly.
"What! do you hear them, old fellow?" the boy said, leaping to his feet. "_ish my ears were as sharp as yours are, Wolf; there would be no fear then o_eing caught asleep. Come on, old boy, let us go and meet them."
It was some minutes after he reached the edge of the swamp before the bo_ould hear the sounds which the quick ears of the hound had detected. Then h_eard a faint splashing noise, and a minute or two later two figures were see_ading through the water.
"Welcome back, father," the lad cried. "I was beginning to be anxious abou_ou, for here we are at the end of the fourth day."
"I did not name any hour, Edmund," the boy's father said, as he stepped fro_he water, "but I own that I did not reckon upon being so late; but in trut_gbert and I missed our way in the windings of these swamps, and should no_ave been back to-night had we not luckily fallen upon a man fishing, who wa_ble to put us right. You have got some supper, I hope, for Egbert and I ar_s hungry as wolves, for we have had nothing since we started before sunrise."
"I have plenty to eat, father; but you will have to wait till it is cooked, for it was no use putting it over the fire until I knew that you would return; but there is a good fire, and you will not have to wait long. And how has i_ared with you, and what is the news?"
"The news is bad, Edmund. The Danes are ever receiving reinforcements fro_ercia, and scarce a day passes but fresh bands arrive at Thetford, and I fea_hat ere long East Anglia, like Northumbria, will fall into their clutches.
Nay, unless we soon make head against them they will come to occupy all th_sland, just as did our forefathers."
"That were shame indeed," Edmund exclaimed. "We know that the people conquere_y our ancestors were unwarlike and cowardly; but it would be shame indee_ere we Saxons so to be overcome by the Danes, seeing moreover that we hav_he help of God, being Christians, while the Danes are pagans and idolaters."
"Nevertheless, my son, for the last five years these heathen have been master_f Northumbria, have wasted the whole country, and have plundered an_estroyed the churches and monasteries. At present they have but made _eginning here in East Anglia; but if they continue to flock in they will soo_verrun the whole country, instead of having, as at present, a mere foothol_ear the rivers except for those who have come down to Thetford. We have bee_mong the first sufferers, seeing that our lands lie round Thetford, an_itherto I have hoped that there would be a general rising against thes_nvaders; but the king is indolent and unwarlike, and I see that he will no_rouse himself and call his ealdormen and thanes together for a united effor_ntil it is too late. Already from the north the Danes are flocking down int_ercia, and although the advent of the West Saxons to the aid of the King o_ercia forced them to retreat for a while, I doubt not that they will soo_our down again."
"'Tis a pity, father, that the Saxons are not all under one leading; then w_ight surely defend England against the Danes. If the people did but rise an_all upon each band of Northmen as they arrived they would get no footin_mong us."
"Yes," the father replied, "it is the unhappy divisions between the Saxo_ingdoms which have enabled the Danes to get so firm a footing in the land.
Our only hope now lies in the West Saxons. Until lately they were at feud wit_ercia; but the royal families are now related by marriage, seeing that th_ing of Mercia is wedded to a West Saxon princess, and that Alfred, the Wes_axon king's brother and heir to the throne, has lately espoused one of th_oyal blood of Mercia. The fact that they marched at the call of the King o_ercia and drove the Danes from Nottingham shows that the West Saxon prince_re alive to the common danger of the country, and if they are but joine_eartily by our people of East Anglia and the Mercians, they may yet succee_n checking the progress of these heathen. And now, Edmund, as we see no hop_f any general effort to drive the Danes off our coasts, 'tis useless for u_o lurk here longer. I propose to-morrow, then, to journey north int_incolnshire, to the Abbey of Croyland, where, as you know, my brothe_heodore is the abbot; there we can rest in peace for a time, and watch th_rogress of events. If we hear that the people of these parts are aroused fro_heir lethargy, we will come back and fight for our home and lands; if not, _ill no longer stay in East Anglia, which I see is destined to fall piecemea_nto the hands of the Danes; but we will journey down to Somerset, and I wil_ray King Ethelbert to assign me lands there, and to take me as his thane."
While they had been thus talking Egbert had been broiling the eels and wil_ucks over the fire. He was a freeman, and a distant relation of Edmund'_ather, Eldred, who was an ealdorman in West Norfolk, his lands lying beyon_hetford, and upon whom, therefore, the first brunt of the Danish invasio_rom Mercia had fallen. He had made a stout resistance, and assembling hi_eople had given battle to the invaders. These, however, were too strong an_umerous, and his force having been scattered and dispersed, he had sough_efuge with Egbert and his son in the fen country. Here he had remained fo_wo months in hopes that some general effort would be made to drive back th_anes; but being now convinced that at present the Angles were too disunite_o join in a common effort, he determined to retire for a while from th_cene.
"I suppose, father," Edmund said, "you will leave your treasures buried here?"
"Yes," his father replied; "we have no means of transporting them, and we ca_t ally time return and fetch them. We must dig up the big chest and take suc_arments as we may need, and the personal ornaments of our rank; but the rest, with the gold and silver vessels, can remain here till we need them."
Gold and silver vessels seem little in accordance with the primitive mode o_ife prevailing in the ninth century. The Saxon civilization was indeed _ixed one. Their mode of life was primitive, their dwellings, with th_xception of the religious houses and the abodes of a few of the great nobles, simple in the extreme; but they possessed vessels of gold and silver, armlets, necklaces, and ornaments of the same metals, rich and brightly coloure_resses, and elaborate bed furniture while their tables and household utensil_ere of the roughest kind, and their floors strewn with rushes. When the_nvaded and conquered England they found existing the civilization introduce_y the Romans, which was far in advance of their own; much of this the_dopted. The introduction of Christianity further advanced them in the scale.
The prelates and monks from Rome brought with them a high degree o_ivilization, and this to no small extent the Saxons imitated and borrowed.
The church was held in much honour, great wealth and possessions were bestowe_pon it, and the bishops and abbots possessed large temporal as well a_piritual power, and bore a prominent part in the councils of the kingdoms.
But even in the handsome and well-built monasteries, with their statel_ervices and handsome vestments, learning was at the lowest ebb—so low, indeed, that when Prince Alfred desired to learn Latin he could find no one i_is father's dominions capable of teaching him, and his studies were for _ong time hindered for want of an instructor, and at the time he ascended th_hrone he was probably the only Englishman outside a monastery who was able t_ead and write fluently.
"Tell me, father," Edmund said after the meal was concluded, "about the Wes_axons, since it is to them, as it seems, that we must look for the protectio_f England against the Danes. This Prince Alfred, of whom I before heard yo_peak in terms of high praise, is the brother, is he not, of the king? In tha_ase how is it that he does not reign in Kent, which I thought, though joine_o the West Saxon kingdom, was always ruled over by the eldest son of th_ing."
"Such has been the rule, Edmund; but seeing the troubled times when Ethelber_ame to the throne, it was thought better to unite the two kingdoms under on_rown with the understanding that at Ethelbert's death Alfred should succee_im. Their father, Ethelwulf, was a weak king, and should have been born _hurchman rather than a prince. He nominally reigned over Wessex, Kent, an_ercia, but the last paid him but a slight allegiance. Alfred was hi_avourite son, and he sent him, when quite a child, to Rome for a visit. I_55 he himself, with a magnificent retinue, and accompanied by Alfred, visite_ome, travelling through the land of the Franks, and it was there, doubtless, that Alfred acquired that love of learning, and many of those ideas, far i_dvance of his people, which distinguish him. His mother, Osburgha, die_efore he and his father started on the pilgrimage. The king was received wit_uch honour by the pope, to whom he presented a gold crown of four pound_eight, ten dishes of the purest gold, a sword richly set in gold, two gol_mages, some silver-gilt urns, stoles bordered with gold and purple, whit_ilken robes embroidered with figures, and other costly articles of clothin_or the celebration of the service of the church, together with rich present_n gold and silver to the churches, bishops, clergy, and other dwellers i_ome. They say that the people of Rome marvelled much at these magnificen_ifts from a king of a country which they had considered as barbarous. On hi_ay back he married Judith, daughter of the King of the Franks; a foolis_arriage, for the king was far advanced in years and Judith was but a girl.
"Ethelbald, Ethelwulf's eldest son, had acted as regent in his father'_bsence, and so angered was he at this marriage that he raised his standard o_evolt against his father. At her marriage Judith had been crowned queen, an_his was contrary to the customs of the West Saxons, therefore Ethelbald wa_upported by the people of that country; on his father's return to England, however, father and son met, and a division of the kingdom was agreed upon.
"Ethelbald received Wessex, the principal part of the kingdom, and Ethelwul_ook Kent, which he had already ruled over in the time of his father Egbert.
Ethelwulf died a few months afterwards, leaving Kent to Ethelbert, his secon_urviving son. The following year, to the horror and indignation of the peopl_f the country, Ethelbald married his stepmother Judith, but two year_fterwards died, and Ethelbert, King of Kent, again united Wessex to his ow_ominions, which consisted of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex. Ethelbert reigned bu_ short time, and at his death Ethelred, his next brother, ascended th_hrone. Last year Alfred, the youngest brother, married Elswitha, the daughte_f Ethelred Mucil, Earl of the Gaini, in Lincolnshire, whose mother was one o_he royal family of Mercia.
"It was but a short time after the marriage that the Danes poured into Merci_rom the north. Messengers were sent to ask the assistance of the West Saxons.
These at once obeyed the summons, and, joining the Mercians, marched agains_he Danes, who shut themselves up in the strong city of Nottingham, and wer_here for some time besieged. The place was strong, the winter at hand, an_he time of the soldiers' service nearly expired. A treaty was accordingl_ade by which the Danes were allowed to depart unharmed to the north side o_he Humber, and the West Saxons returned to their kingdom.
"Such is the situation at present, but we may be sure that the Danes will no_ong remain quiet, but will soon gather for another invasion; ere long, too, we may expect another of their great fleets to arrive somewhere off thes_oasts, and every Saxon who can bear arms had need take the field to fight fo_ur country and faith against these heathen invaders. Hitherto, Edmund, as yo_now, I have deeply mourned the death of your mother, and of your sisters wh_ied in infancy; but now I feel that it is for the best, for a terrible tim_s before us. We men can take refuge in swamp and forest, but it would hav_een hard for delicate women; and those men are best off who stand alone an_re able to give every thought and energy to the defence of their country.
'Tis well that you are now approaching an age when the Saxon youth are wont t_ake their place in the ranks of battle. I have spared no pains with you_raining in arms, and though assuredly you lack strength yet to cope in hand- to-hand conflict with these fierce Danes, you may yet take your part i_attle, with me on one side of you and Egbert on the other. I have though_ver many things of late, and it seems to me that we Saxons have done harm i_olding the people of this country as serfs."
"Why, father," Edmund exclaimed in astonishment, "surely you would not hav_ll men free and equal."
"The idea seems strange to you, no doubt, Edmund, and it appears only natura_hat some men should be born to rule and others to labour, but this might b_o even without serfdom, since, as you know, the poorer freemen labour just a_o the serfs, only they receive a somewhat larger guerdon for their toil; bu_ad the two races mixed more closely together, had serfdom been abolished an_ll men been free and capable of bearing arms, we should have been able t_how a far better front to the Danes, seeing that the serfs are as three t_ne to the freemen."
"But the serfs are cowardly and spiritless," Edmund said; "they are not of _ighting race, and fell almost without resistance before our ancestors whe_hey landed here."
"Their race is no doubt inferior to our own, Edmund," his father said, "seein_hat they are neither so tall nor so strong as we Saxons, but of old they wer_ot deficient in bravery, for they fought as stoutly against the Romans as di_ur own hardy ancestors. After having been for hundreds of years subject t_he Roman yoke, and having no occasion to use arms, they lost their manl_irtues, and when the Romans left them were an easy prey for the first comer.
Our fathers could not foresee that the time would come when they too in tur_ould be invaded. Had they done so, methinks they would not have set up s_road a line of separation between themselves and the Britons, but would hav_dmitted the latter to the rights of citizenship, in which case intermarriag_ould have taken place freely, and the whole people would have becom_malgamated. The Britons, accustomed to our free institutions, and taking par_n the wars between the various Saxon kingdoms, would have recovered thei_arlike virtues, and it would be as one people that we should resist th_anes. As it is, the serfs, who form by far the largest part of th_opulation, are apathetic and cowardly; they view the struggle wit_ndifference, for what signifies to them whether Dane or Saxon conquer; the_ave no interest in the struggle, nothing to lose or to gain, it is but _hange of masters."
Edmund was silent. The very possibility of a state of things in which ther_hould be no serfs, and when all men should be free and equal, had neve_ccurred to him; but he had a deep respect for his father, who bore indeed th_eputation of being one of the wisest and most clear-headed of the nobles o_ast Anglia, and it seemed to him that this strange and novel doctrin_ontained much truth in it. Still the idea was as strange to him as it woul_ave been to the son of a southern planter in America half a century ago. Th_xistence of slaves seemed as much a matter of course as that of horses o_ogs, and although he had been accustomed to see from time to time freedo_estowed upon some favourite serf as a special reward for services, th_hought of a general liberation of the slaves was strange and almos_ewildering, and he lay awake puzzling over the problem long after his fathe_nd kinsman had fallen asleep.