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The King’s Hall


Chapter 1/X1X (continued)


That was the beginning.  But for a very long time nothing that we can describe as a parish came into being.  For the number of clergy was very limited.  A few Bishops had to divide the country among themselves, and, with the help of the clergy from one or other monasteries that began to be built up and down England; they had to arrange for religious services over miles of wild country to scattered groups of villagers.


A bishop must have been a hard-worked man in those rough days.  The modern bishop [19th century –early 20th] often has enough to do, and must jolt in a slow train through difficult country, after a hard week’s work, to some outlying parish, or drive over vile roads in his car when he would rather be seated comfortably at home.  Imagine his Anglo-Saxon predecessor, with neither train or car, nor even a bad road to move over, struggling on horse-back through swamp and forest to the same outlying village, which he has never seen before, and in all probability will never see again, and to which his coming is the event of a lifetime, for the villagers do not often see a priest, nor speak of a bishop.


Look for a moment at this village, for it is its story from that far-away day to the present [1932] that I am going to tell.  It lies under the crest of the downlands, cut off from the world by great wooded slopes where dwell the wolf and the boar: a little world in itself.


A straggling, rutted path runs between two rows of timber or wattle huts.  There is a rough hedge around a cluster of houses, and at each end of the village street a sort of gate that can be shut at night to keep out night-prowling beasts and night-prowling men; for there are men in the forest- Weahl, or Welshmen, the villagers call them- the scattered remnants of those who once owned the village.


Around the houses lies the usual spread of ploughland, cut up into long strips that wind serpent-wise across a huge field, for the clumsy wood plough will not cut a neat straight furrow such as our modern farmer at Souls Farm shows us with pride.  We shall come to Souls Farm again, later in our story.  At present the land where it lies is still virgin forest.


There are thin small cattle grazing upon the wide pastures that lie beside the ploughland, and thin fierce swine rooting in the forest, as the good Bishop has cause to know, for, with a savage grunt, one of them runs at his horse.  There is a sudden flurry as the startled horse rears and backs, and the Bishop tumbles from the clumsy saddle upon the muddy road.  The pig grunts again, stands shaking his wicked lean head, his little eyes agleam.  Hastily the Bishop rises from his feet and catches up his heavy staff.   It is a poor weapon, but he has nothing better.  Man and beast face each other for a moment.


Then, crushing through the bushes comes a man, wild-eyed and panting.  He is dressed in a course woollen tunic, shod with soft hide sandals, and, since the day is cold, has a cloak of crudely dressed skin wrapped about his body.  He whistles in a shrill, peculiar tone.


The evil-looking boar turns on the whistle, and the man runs to him, cursing fiercely, and kicks the brute’s thin ribs with his skin-shod foot.  The pig, ludicrously crestfallen after his late ferocity, squeals pitifully, though the kick cannot have hurt him, and scampers, tail in the air, away into the forest.  The man falls on his knees before the Bishop, and begins to talk in swift, guttural accents.


Good Bishop Elfwine brushes himself impatiently, for the road was muddy and none to soft, and strives to catch a word of the swineherd’s harsh chatter.  But the man might be a foreigner, for the Bishop cannot understand a word of the local accent.  He hopes that Thegn Alfric, at whose hall he is to sleep that night, will speak more clearly.  Meanwhile this man is frightened, as well he may be, for Alric would scourge him well if word of this mishap should reach him; and after all it is scarcely his fault – one man could not possibly look after all that wild herd of pigs.  How to make him understand he is forgiven?


The man is a Christian of some sort, thinks Bishop Elfwine, so he raises his right hand and chants a Latin blessing.  Ulaf the herd knows nothing of Latin, but he sees in the Bishop’s face that he is forgiven, and bows his head, understanding in a dim way that he is to receive a blessing.  The Bishop remounts his thin horse and continues his lonely way towards the village.


Every man who can leave his work is waiting at the entrance to the village street to receive him.  They are a rough, shaggy crew, clad like the swineherd in course wool and skins.  Their beards are shaggy and untrimmed, their hands hard and grimed with toil, their faces stupid and shy, a typical crowd of untaught rustics, cunning enough in all that concerns the soil whence they draw their living, but without other interests.


“Too much drinking of strong ale, too little else to cheer their lives,” thinks the Bishop, as he watches them, and sighs deeply.  Bishop Elfwine is a truly good man, anxious not only that his flock shall reach heaven at last, but that they shall have some of the decencies and refinements of life on earth.  And how shall he provide for either-one solitary man with several hundred miles of territory to look after, and but a few monks and a scattered priest or two to help him?


How shall he report to the new Archbishop when he meets him in conference, as has been commanded, some six months hence?  Theodore, the Greek, whom the Pope has sent to be Archbishop of Canterbury, is said to be earnest and eager man, a man after Elfwine’s own heart.  Perhaps he may be able to suggest something, coming as he does from the home of learning and culture.


The Bishop breaks off his train of thought to great with upraised hand and chanted benediction a tall soldierly man who has stepped forward to take his horse’s bridle.   This is Alric, Thegn of Holsham, and his host.   The man is dressed much as his villagers, in tunic, skin cloak, and hide shoes.   But his tunic, instead of a dirty grey is dyed blue, and embroidered with course patterns, and the skin of his cloak and shoes is softer and better tanned.  He wears upon his arm a twisted gold band of gold, and his hair and beard, though long, are neatly trimmed.


Behind him stand his two sons.  The elder is as tall as his father, fierce-eyed and strong of limb.  The bare legs beneath the tunic are tense-muscled and brown by exposure to sun and wind.  A true son, this, of the gallant old thegn.  The other is a slim boy, wiry and tough of frame, but lacking the robust strength of his father and brother.  He seems slightly lame in one leg.


The Bishop is lead by his host to the hall.  It is a low building of timber and thatch, just the one room for all purposes.  A rough wooden screen makes a sort of cubicle at one end, where sleep the thegn and his wife.  The rest of the inmates lie in the hall itself, wherever they can.  A great fire blazes upon a stone heath, and the smoke curles lazily toward the roof.  Bishop Elfwine has been much abroad lately in the open air.  He coughs a little as he comes into the smoky atmosphere of the hall.


Supper is ready, a huge meal of roughly dressed meat, bread, and beer.  There are no vegetables.  The only luxury is a jar of mead, sweet, sticky, and powerful, brought out in honour of the guest.  The Lady Elftryda is already waiting to wash her guest’s hands and welcome him to her hall.


Dinner over, the good Bishop retired to rest, but not yet to sleep, for the lame younger son of the thegn, Egbert, wanted to speak with him.  Wearily the Bishop sat up to listen.  Then suddenly his face brightened, for min the boy’s stammering words he heard an answer to his prayers and musings.


“I am no hunter, Father,” the boy said, “nor does the life I must lead please me, for I wont to know many things.  I want to know whence we come, whither we go, and why we are here at all?  Perhaps you, Father, might know how I could learn?”


The Bishop smiled.  Here was material ready to his hand: it but remained for him to mould it, and perhaps, even as this boy, others would come seeking what he had to give.   In a flickering glow of the fire the Bishop glanced at the earnest face of the boy.


“Perhaps,” he said gently, “if your father consents you shall come with me and begin to learn these things.  And afterward I have work for you to do.  Now let us commend ourselves to God, and sleep, for I have come far this day.”


The next day was Sunday, when the Bishop was to say Mass in the village.  There was no church- at least, nothing that we would recognize as a church.  There was, it is true, near the thegn’s hall another rather smaller, a bare, bleak room, at one end of which stood a great hewn stone.  This had been removed long ago, and cast outside the village enclosure, for here in days not so long past, sacrifice had been made to Odin and the fierce blood-loving gods of the north.  However, here, in this bare place, the Bishop set up a small trestle table as an alter, and sang Mass to the gaping congregation of villagers.


At his own request Egbert, prompted by the Bishop if need be, answered “ Amen ” to the celebrants chanting.  The rest of the people watched in dumb amazement something that they did not understand but that filled them with awe, especially as the language of the service was utterly unknown to them, giving it a flavour of magic and mystery that added to its impressiveness.


Mass finished, Bishop Elfwine talked long and earnestly to the old thegn.  At first there was much head –shaking on the thegn’s part.  He loved his younger son, little as he understood him, and had no wish that the boy should go from him.


“But” urged the Bishop gently, “ he will come back.  That is part of my plan for him, that when he has learned what I can teach him he shall come back here to his home and teach the poor folk her their duty to God and the saints, which now, in ignorance, they sadly neglect.”


“ I know little of God and the saints,” muttered the old thegn,  “ I learned in my youth of Odin and Thor.  But this new God of yours seems to have taken their place nowadays, and there is no Valhalla for the old fighting men like me.  Let the boy go, then; perhaps I will listen when he returns with his wonderful tales of your new God and the white Christ.  I am old now, and the world changes.  Let him go, then, but promise me he shall come back, for he is my son.   He shall have provision for his living if he comes, from me, or from Sigurd here if I am gone.


The silent elder brother, who had been walking behind his father, his arm linked with Egbert’s nodded.


“ He cannot hunt or fight, he growled, “ but by Od … by the saints, whoever they may be, he can tell a tale that warms a man’s heart to hear.  There shall be hall and provender for him as long as he live, and I’ll learn your new faith to boot, if it pleases him, and see that all my men learn it too.”


The Bishop smiled, a little sadly, realizing how far apart were the ideas of these rough, honest men and his own.  Still he had won his point, which was the main thing, and when he rode away from Holsham Bishop Elfwine did not ride alone.   With him went Egbert, mounted on his father’s best mare, a bundle slung before him containing food for the journey, and the best clothing that his mother could provide for him.  Behind him, in the hall that lay hidden now beneath the crest of the ridge, lady Elftryda sat weeping.  Her husband comforted her with rough sympathy.


“He will come home, wife, never fear,” he said, “and a learned man.  But I’d rather he had been a fine hunter like his brother here,” he continued beneath his breath, and strode to the door to watch with puzzled eyes and drawn brow the gap among the trees that marked the road along which his son had ridden away.


End of Chapter 1




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