"These are strange words," said Astrid in surprise; "I know not that I have ever heard the like before."
"Truly no," said Christian, "because the Word of G.o.d has not yet been sounded in the dale. Thou saidst just now that we cannot change the plans of the G.o.ds; that would be true if ye had said `the plans of G.o.d,'
for there is but one G.o.d, and His ways are unchangeable. But what if G.o.d had revealed some of His plans to man, and told him that this revelation was sufficient to guide him in his walk through this life, and to prepare him for the next?"
"Then would I think it man's wisdom to follow that guide carefully,"
"Such plans do exist, such a revelation has been made," said the hermit, "and the name that stands on the forefront of it is Jesus Christ."
As he spoke the hermit drew from his bosom a scroll of parchment, which he unrolled slowly. This, he said, was a copy, made by himself, of part of the Gospel. He had meant, he said, to have copied the whole of it, but war had put an end to his labours at the same time that it deprived him of his earthly joys, and drove him from his native land to be a wanderer on the earth.
"But if," he continued, "the Lord permits me to preach His gospel of truth and love and peace in Norway, I shall count the sufferings of this present time as nothing compared with the glory yet to be revealed."
"Christian," said Astrid, who appeared to have been struck by some reminiscence, "methinks I have heard Ulf talk of a religion which the men of the south profess. He saw something of it when he went on viking cruise to the great fiord that runs far into the land, [the Mediterranean] and if my memory is faithful he said that they called themselves by a name that sounds marvellously like thine own."
"I suppose Ulf must have met with Christians, after whom I call myself, seeing that my own name is of consequence to no one," said the hermit.
"What said he about them?"
"That they were a bad set," replied Astrid,--"men who professed love to their fellows, but were guilty of great cruelty to all who did not believe their faith."
"All who call themselves Christians deserve not the name, Astrid; some are hypocrites and deceivers, others are foolish and easily deceived."
"They all make the same profession, I am told," said Dame Astrid.
"The men of Norway are warriors," returned the hermit, "and all profess courage,--nay, when they stand in the ranks and go forth to war, they all show the same stern face and front, so that one could not know but that all were brave; yet are they not all courageous, as thou knowest full well. Some, it may be very few, but some are cowards at heart, and it only requires the test of the fight to prove them. So is it with professing Christians. I would gladly tell the story of Jesus if ye will hear me, Dame Astrid."
The matron's curiosity was excited, so she expressed her willingness to listen; and the hermit, reading pa.s.sages from his ma.n.u.script copy of the New Testament, and commenting thereon, unfolded the "old old story" of G.o.d's wonderful love to man in Jesus Christ.
While he was yet in the midst of his discourse the door of the hall was burst violently open, and one of the serving-girls, rushing in, exclaimed that the Danes were approaching from the fiord!
The Danes referred to composed a small party who had been sent off in a cutter by Skarpedin Redbeard to survey the coast beyond Horlingdal fiord, as he had intended, after herrying that district, to plunder still farther north. This party in returning had witnessed, unseen, the departure of the fleet of Northmen. Thinking it probable that the place might have been left with few protectors, they waited until they deemed it safe to send out scouts, and, on their report being favourable, they landed to make an attack on the nearest village or farm.
On hearing the news all was uproar in Ulfstede. The women rushed about in a distracted state, imploring the few helpless old men about the place to arm and defend them. To do these veteran warriors justice they did their best. They put the armour that was brought to them on their palsied limbs, but shook their heads sadly, for they felt that although they might die in defence of the household, they could not save it.
Meanwhile Christian and Alric proved themselves equal to the occasion.
The former, although advanced in years, retained much of his strength and energy; and the latter, still inflated with the remembrance of the fact that he had actually drawn blood from a full-grown bearded Dane, and deeply impressed with the idea that he was the only able-bodied warrior in Ulfstede at this crisis, resolved to seize the opportunity and prove to the whole world that his boasting was at all events not "empty!"
"The first thing to be done is to bar the doors," he cried, starting up on hearing the serving-girl's report. "Thou knowest how to do it, Christian; run to the south door, I will bar the north."
The hermit smiled at the lad's energy, but he was too well aware of the importance of speed to waste time in talking. He dropped his outer garment and ran to the south door, which was very solid. Closing it, and fastening the ponderous wooden bar which stretched diagonally across it, he turned and ran to the chamber in which the weapons were kept. On the way he was arrested by a cry from Alric--
"Here! here, quick, Christian, else we are lost!"
The hermit sprang to the north door with the agility of a youth. He was just in time. Poor Alric, despite the strength of his bold heart and will, had not strength of muscle enough to close the door, which had somehow got jammed. Through the open doorway Christian could see a band of Danish vikings running towards the house at full speed. He flung the door forward with a crash, and drew the bar across just as the vikings ran against it.
"Open, open without delay!" cried a voice outside, "else will we tear out the heart of every man and child under this roof."
"We will not open; we will defend ourselves to the last; our trust is in G.o.d," replied Christian.
"And as to tearing out our hearts," cried Alric, feeling emboldened now that the stout door stood between him and his foes, "if ye do not make off as fast as ye came, we will punch out your eyes and roast your livers."
The reply to this was a shower of blows on the door, so heavy that the whole building shook beneath them, and Alric almost wished that his boastful threat had been left unsaid. He recollected at that moment, however, that there was a hole under the eaves of the roof just above the door. It had been constructed for the purpose of preventing attacks of this kind. The boy seized his bow and arrows and dashed up the ladder that led to the loft above the hall. On it he found one of the old retainers of the stede struggling up with a weighty iron pot, from which issued clouds of steam.
"Let me pa.s.s, old Ivor; what hast thou there?"
"Boiling water to warm them," gasped Ivor, "I knew we should want it ere long. Finn is gone to the loft above the south door with another pot."
Alric did not wait to hear the end of this answer, but pushing past the old man, hastened to the trap-door under the eaves and opened it. He found, however, that he could not use his bow in the constrained position necessary to enable him to shoot through the hole. In desperation he seized a barrel that chanced to be at hand, and overturned its contents on the heads of the foe. It happened to contain rye-flour, and the result was that two of the a.s.sailants were nearly blinded, while two others who stood beside them burst into a loud laugh, and, seizing the battle-axes which the others had been using, continued their efforts to drive in the door. By this time old Ivor had joined Alric. He set down the pot of boiling water by the side of the hole, and at once emptied its contents on the heads of the vikings, who uttered a terrific yell and leaped backward as the scalding water flowed over their heads and shoulders. A similar cry from the other door of the house told that the defence there had been equally successful.
Almost at the same moment Alric discovered a small slit in the roof through which he could observe the enemy. He quickly sent through it an arrow, which fixed itself in the left shoulder of one of the men. This had the effect of inducing the attacking party to draw off for the purpose of consultation.
The breathing-time thus afforded to the a.s.sailed was used in strengthening their defences and holding a hurried council of war.
Piling several heavy pieces of furniture against the doors, and directing the women to make additions to these, Christian drew Alric into the hall, where the ancient retainers were already a.s.sembled.
"It will cost them a long time and much labour to drive in the doors, defended as they are," said the hermit.
"They will not waste time nor labour upon them," said Ivor, shaking his h.o.a.ry head. "What think ye, Finn?"
The women, who had crowded round the men, looked anxiously at Finn, who was a man of immense bulk, and had been noted for strength in his younger days, but who was now bent almost double with age. "Fire will do the work quicker than the battle-axe," answered Finn, with grim smile, which did not improve the expression of a countenance already disfigured by the scars of a hundred fights, and by the absence of an eye--long ago gouged out and left to feed the ravens of a foreign sh.o.r.e!
"If this had only come to pa.s.s a dozen years ago," he added, while a gleam of light illumined the sound eye, "I might have gone off to Valhalla with a straight hack and some credit. But mayhap a good onset will straighten it yet, who knows?--and I do feel as if I had strength left to send at least _one_ foe out of the world before me."
Ivor the Old nodded. "Yes," he said; "I think they will burn us out."
"I had already feared this," said Christian, with a look of perplexity.
"What wouldst thou recommend should be done, Ivor?"
"Nothing more can be done than to kill as many as possible before we die."
"I pray the Lord to help us in our extremity," said Christian; "but I believe it to be His will to help those who are willing to help themselves, depending upon Him for strength, courage, and victory. It may be that Ulf and his men will soon return from the Springs, so that if we could only hold out for a short time all might be well. Have ye nothing to suggest?"
"As to Ulf and the men returning from the Springs," said Finn, "there is small chance of that before morning. With regard to holding out, I know of nothing that will cause fire to burn slow once it is well kindled.
An hour hence and Ulfstede will be in ashes, as that sound surely tells."
He referred to a crashing blow which occurred just then at the north door. Nearly all present knew full well that it was the first bundle of a pile of f.a.ggots with which the a.s.sailants meant to set the house on fire.
"Had this arm retained but a little of the strength it once knew,"
continued Finn bitterly, as he stretched out the huge but withered limb, "things had not come to this pa.s.s so quickly. I remember the day, now forty years ago, when on the roof of this very house I stood alone with my bow and kept thirty men at bay for two full hours. But I could not now draw an arrow of Alric's little bow to its head, to save the lives of all present."
"But _I_ can do it," cried Alric, starting forward suddenly; "and if thou wilt show me the window in the roof I will--"
"Brave boy," said old Ivor, with a kindly smile, as he laid his hand on Alric's head, "thy heart is large, and it is sad that one so full of promise should come to such an end; but it needs not that ye should fall before thy time. These shafts may do against the crows, but they would avail nothing against men in mail."
"Is there not a warrior's bow in the house?" asked Christian quickly.
"There is," replied Ivor, "but who will use it?"
"Thou?" exclaimed Ivor, with a slight touch of contempt in his tone.
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