Erling the Bold Part 26

Now, let it not be supposed that we are here portraying a hero of romance in whom is united the enthusiasm of the boy with the calm courage of the man. We crave attention, more particularly that of boys, to the following observations:--

In the highly safe and civilised times in which we live, many thousands of us never have a chance, from personal experience, of forming a just estimate of the powers of an average man or boy, and we are too apt to ascribe that to heroism which is simply due to knowledge. A man _knows_ that he can do a certain thing that seems extremely dangerous, therefore he does it boldly, not because he is superlatively bold by any means, but because he knows there is no risk--at least none to him. The proverb that "Familiarity breeds contempt" applies as truly to danger as to anything else; and well is it for the world that the majority of human beings are p.r.o.ne to familiarise themselves with danger in spite of those well-meaning but weak ones who have been born with a tendency to say perpetually, "Take care," "Don't run such risk", etcetera.

"Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;" and man has echoed the sentiment in the proverb, "Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well". Do you climb?--then do it well--do it in such circ.u.mstances that your spirit will get used to seeing profound depths below you without your heart melting into hot water and your nerves quaking. Do you leap?--then do it well--do it so that you may be able to turn it to some good account in the day of trial; do it so that you may know _how_ to leap off a runaway carriage, for instance, without being killed. Learn to jump off high cliffs into deep water, so that, should the opportunity ever offer, you may be able to plunge off the high bulwarks of a vessel to save a sister, or mother, or child, with as little thought about yourself as if you were jumping off a sofa.

Observe, we do not advocate recklessness. To leap off a cliff so high that you will be sure to be killed is not leaping "well"; but neither is it well to content yourself with a jump of three or four feet as your utmost attainment, because that is far short of many a leap which may have to be taken in this world to save even your own life, not to mention the lives of others. But enough of this disquisition, which, the reader will observe, has been entered upon chiefly in order to prove that we do not ascribe heroic courage to Alric when we say that, having been familiar with danger from his birth, he prepared to face a wolf of unknown size and ferocity with considerable coolness, if not indifference to danger.

Glumm meanwhile reached the other end of the ravine, and there, to his intense disappointment, found the track of the wolf leading away towards the open mountains beyond. Just where it left the ravine, however, the animal had run about so much that the track was crossed and recrossed in confusion. Glumm therefore had difficulty at first in following it up, but when he did so, great was his joy to find that it doubled back and re-entered the defile. Pressing quickly forward, he came to a broken part, near the centre, where, among a heap of grey, weather-worn rocks he perceived two sharp-pointed objects, like a pair of erect ears! To make certain, he hurled a stone towards the place. The objects instantly disappeared!

Immediately afterwards, a long grey back and a bushy tail were visible as the wolf glided among the rocks, making for the side of the precipice, with the intention, doubtless, of rushing past this bold intruder.

Glumm observed the movement, and promptly went in the same direction.

The wolf noticed this, and paused abruptly--remaining still, as if uncertain what to do. The hunter at once put to flight his uncertainty by gliding swiftly towards him. Seeing this, the wolf abandoned the attempt at concealment and bounded into the centre of the ravine, where, with his bristles erect, his back slightly arched, and all his glittering teeth and blood-red gums exposed, he stood for a moment or two the very picture of intensified fury. The hunter advanced with his spear levelled, steadily, but not hastily, because there was sufficient s.p.a.ce on either hand to render the meeting of the animal in its rush a matter of extreme difficulty, while at every step he took, the precipices on either side drew closer together. The brute had evidently a strong objection to turn back, and preferred to run the risk of pa.s.sing its foe, for it suddenly sprang to one side and ran up the cliff as far as possible, like a cat, while it made for the upper end of the ravine.

The Norseman, whose powerful frame was by this time strung to intensity of action, leaped to the same side with the agility of a panther, and got in before it. The wolf did not stop, but with a ferocious growl it swerved aside, and bounded to the other side of the ravine. Again the hunter leaped across, and stood in its way. He bent forward to resist the animal's weight and impetus, but the baffled wolf was cowed by his resolute front. It turned tail, and fled, followed by Glumm with a wild halloo!

When the first growl was heard by Alric, it strung him up to the right pitch instantly, and the next one caused the blood to rush to his face, for he heard the halloo which Glumm uttered as he followed in pursuit.

The distance was short. Another moment and the boy saw the infuriated animal springing towards him, with Glumm rushing madly after it. Alric was already in the centre of the pa.s.s with the spear levelled, and his body bent in antic.i.p.ation of the shock. The wolf saw him, but did not check its pace--with a furious Norseman bounding behind there was no room for hesitation. It lowered its head, increased its speed, and ran at the opening like a thunderbolt. When within three yards of the boy it swerved, and, leaping up, pawed the cliff on the left while in the air. Alric had foreseen this--his only doubt had been as to which side the brute would incline to. He sprang at the same moment, and met it full in the face as it came down. The point of his spear entered the wolf's chest, and penetrated deep into its body. A terrific yell followed. The spear handle broke in the middle, and the boy fell on his face, while the wolf went right over him, yelling and biting the spear, as, carried on by its impetus, it rolled head over heels for several yards among the rocks.

Alric jumped up unhurt, and, for want of a better weapon, seized a ma.s.s of stone, which he raised above his head, and hurled at the wolf, hitting it fairly on the skull. At the same moment Glumm ran up, intending to transfix the brute with his spear.

"Hold thy hand, Glumm," gasped the boy.

Glumm checked himself.

"In truth it needs no more," he said, bringing the b.u.t.t of his weapon to the ground, and leaning on it, while he looked on at the last struggles of the dying wolf. "Fairly done, lad," he added, with a nod of approval, "this will make a man of thee."

The boy did not speak, but stood with his chest still heaving, his breath coming fast, and the expression of triumph on his countenance showing that for him a new era had opened up--that the days of boasting had ended, and those of manly action had fairly and auspiciously begun.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.

SHOWS WHAT SOME OF THE MEN OF OLD COULD DO IN COLD BLOOD, AND TREATS OF HEATHEN FESTIVITIES AT HARALD'S COURT, MINGLED WITH PLOT AND COUNTER PLOT.

Winter--with its frost and snow, its long nights and its short days, its feasts in the great halls, and its tales round the roaring wood fires-- at length began to pa.s.s away, and genial spring advanced to gladden the land of Norway. The white drapery melted in the valleys, leaving brilliant greens and all the varied hues of rugged rocks to fill the eyes with harmonious colour. High on the mighty fells the great glaciers--unchanging, almost, as the "everlasting hills"--gleamed in the sunlight against the azure sky, and sent floods of water down into the br.i.m.m.i.n.g rivers. The scalds ceased, to some extent, those wild legendary songs and tales with which they had beguiled the winter nights, and joined the Nors.e.m.e.n in their operations on the farms and on the fiords. Men began to grow weary of smoked rafters and frequent festivities, and to long for the free, fresh air of heaven. Some went off to drive the cattle to the "saeters" or mountain pastures, others set out for the fisheries, and not a few sailed forth on viking cruises over the then almost unknown sea. Our friends of Horlingdal bestirred themselves, like others, in these varied avocations, and King Harald Fairhair, uprising from his winter lair in Drontheim like a giant refreshed, a.s.sembled his men, and prepared to carry out his political plans with a strong hand. But resolute men cannot always drive events before them as fast as they would wish. Summer was well advanced before the King was ready to take action.

There was a man of the Drontheim district named Hauskuld, who was noted for ferocity and wickedness. He was also very strong and courageous, so that King Harald made him one of his berserks.

One morning the King sent for this man, and said to him--

"Hauskuld, I have a business for thee to do, which requires the heart of a brave fellow. There is a man near Horlingdal who has not only refused to submit to my will, but has gathered a band of seventy men or more about him, and threatens to raise the country against me. It does not suit me to go forth to punish this dog just now, for my preparations are not yet complete. Nevertheless it is important that he should be crushed, as he dwells in the heart of a disaffected district. It is therefore my purpose to send thee with a small body of picked men to do thy worst by him."

"That suits me well," said Hauskuld; "what is his name?"

"Atli," answered the King.

"He is my foster-brother!" said Hauskuld, with a peculiar and unpleasant smile.

The King looked a little perplexed.

"Thou wilt not have much heart to the business if that be so," he said.

"When you command, sire, it is my duty to obey," replied Hauskuld.

"Nay, but I can find other stout men for this thing. There is Hake of Hadeland. Go, send him hither. I will not put this on thy shoulders."

"Sire, you are considerate," said Hauskuld, "but this foster-brother of mine I count an enemy, for reasons that I need not tell. Besides, he is said to be a warlock, and for my part I firmly believe that he is in league with Nikke, so that it would be a service to the G.o.ds to rid the world of him. If you will permit me, I will gladly go on this errand, and as this Atli is a stout man, it would be well to take Hake and a few of the berserkers along with me."

"Do as thou wilt," replied the King, with a wave of his hand, as he turned away; "only, what thou doest, see thou do it well and quickly."

The berserk shouldered his battle-axe and left the hall. As he walked away the King stood in the doorway looking after him with a mingled expression of admiration and dislike.

"A stalwart knave," he muttered to himself, while a grim smile played on his large handsome features; "a good fighting brute, no doubt, but, with such a spirit, a bad servant, I fear."

"There are many such in your army," said a deep, stern voice behind him.

The King turned quickly round, with a look of anger, and fixed a searching glance on the huge form of Rolf Ganger, who stood leaning on the hilt of his sword with a quiet, almost contemptuous smile on his face.

"It is well known that birds of a feather are fond of flying in company," said the King, with a flushed countenance; "no doubt thou speakest from personal knowledge and experience."

It was now Rolf's turn to flush, but the King did him injustice, having no ground for such a speech, further than a knowledge that there existed between them mutual antipathy which neither was particularly careful to conceal.

"Have I done aught to merit such words?" demanded Rolf sternly.

Harald was on the point of making an angry rejoinder, but, placing a powerful restraint upon himself, he said--

"It may be that thine actions are loyal, but, Rolf, thy words are neither wise nor true. It is not wise to attempt to shake my confidence in my followers, and it is not true that many of them are untrustworthy.

But, if thou wouldst prove thyself a real friend, go, get thy longships ready with all speed, for we fare south a few days hence, and there will be work for the weapons of stout men ere long."

"I go to prepare myself for the fight, King Harald," returned Rolf, "but I have no occasion to give thee further proof of friendship. The world is wide enough for us both. My ocean steeds are on the fiord.

Henceforth I will fight for my own hand."

For one moment the King felt an almost irresistible impulse to draw his sword and hew down the bold Rolf, but with characteristic self-restraint he crushed down his wrath at the time and made no reply, good or bad, as the other turned on his heel and left him. When he had gone some distance the King muttered between his set teeth--

"Another good fighting brute and bad servant! Let him go! Better an open foe than an unwilling friend."

That night Hauskuld and Hake set sail southward with a small body of picked men; and Rolf Ganger, with a large body of devoted followers, left Harald's camp and travelled eastward. In the course of several days Hauskuld and his men arrived at the small fiord near the head of which stood the dwelling of Atli.

This Atli was an unusually intelligent man, a man of great influence in his district, and one who, like Erling the Bold, was determined to resist the tyranny of Harald Fairhair. A large force had been gathered by him towards the end of winter, and at the time of Hauskuld's visit he was living in his own house with about seventy chosen men.

Unfortunately for these, the peaceful winter had induced them to relax a little in vigilance. Knowing from the report of spies that the King was still feasting in the Drontheim district, they felt quite safe, and for some time past had neglected to set the usual night watch, which, in time of war, was deemed indispensable. Thus it happened that when Hauskuld and his men came upon them in the dead of a dark night, they found everything quiet, and went up to the door of the house unchallenged. On trying the latch they found it fast, but from the sounds within they knew that a great many men were sleeping there.

Hauskuld and Hake had approached the house alone. They now returned to their companions, who were concealed in the deep shades of the neighbouring woods.

"What dost thou advise?" asked Hake of his brother berserk.

"That we burn them all in their nest," replied Hauskuld.

"What! foster-brother too?" said the other.

"Aye, wherefore not? He is a warlock. So are most of the men with him.

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