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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHarold, The Last Of The Saxon Kings - Book 12. The Battle Of Hastings - Chapter 9
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Harold, The Last Of The Saxon Kings - Book 12. The Battle Of Hastings - Chapter 9 Post by :Chuks52 Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :2510

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Harold, The Last Of The Saxon Kings - Book 12. The Battle Of Hastings - Chapter 9

BOOK XII. THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS
CHAPTER IX


Close by his banner, amidst the piles of the dead, William the Conqueror pitched his pavilion, and sate at meat. And over all the plain, far and near, torches were moving like meteors on a marsh; for the Duke had permitted the Saxon women to search for the bodies of their lords. And as he sate, and talked, and laughed, there entered the tent two humble monks: their lowly mien, their dejected faces, their homely serge, in mournful contrast to the joy and the splendour of the Victory-Feast.

They came to the Conqueror, and knelt.

"Rise up, sons of the Church," said William, mildly, "for sons of the Church are we! Deem not that we shall invade the rights of the religion which we have come to avenge. Nay, on this spot we have already sworn to build an abbey that shall be the proudest in the land, and where masses shall be sung evermore for the repose of the brave Normans who fell in this field, and for mine and my consort's soul."

"Doubtless," said Odo, sneering, "the holy men have heard already of this pious intent, and come to pray for cells in the future abbey."

"Not so," said Osgood, mournfully, and in barbarous Norman; "we have our own beloved convent at Waltham, endowed by the prince whom thine arms have defeated. We come to ask but to bury in our sacred cloisters the corpse of him so lately King over all England--our benefactor, Harold."

The Duke's brow fell.

"And see," said Ailred, eagerly, as he drew out a leathern pouch, "we have brought with us all the gold that our poor crypts contained, for we misdoubted this day," and he poured out the glittering pieces at the Conqueror's feet.

"No!" said William, fiercely, "we take no gold for a traitor's body; no, not if Githa, the usurper's mother, offered us its weight in the shining metal; unburied be the Accursed of the Church, and let the birds of prey feed their young with his carcase!"

Two murmurs, distinct in tone and in meaning, were heard in that assembly: the one of approval from fierce mercenaries, insolent with triumph; the other of generous discontent and indignant amaze, from the large majority of Norman nobles.

But William's brow was still dark, and his eye still stern; for his policy confirmed his passions; and it was only by stigmatising, as dishonoured and accursed, the memory and cause of the dead King, that he could justify the sweeping spoliation of those who had fought against himself, and confiscate the lands to which his own Quens and warriors looked for their reward.

The murmurs had just died into a thrilling hush, when a woman, who had followed the monks unperceived and unheeded, passed with a swift and noiseless step to the Duke's foot-stool; and, without bending knee to the ground, said, in a voice which, though low, was heard by all:

"Norman, in the name of the women of England, I tell thee that thou darest not do this wrong to the hero who died in defence of their hearths and their children!"

Before she spoke she had thrown back her hood; her hair dishevelled, fell over her shoulders, glittering like gold, in the blaze of the banquet-lights; and that wondrous beauty, without parallel amidst the dames of England, shone like the vision of an accusing angel, on the eyes of the startled Duke, and the breathless knights. But twice in her life Edith beheld that awful man. Once, when roused from her reverie of innocent love by the holiday pomp of his trumps and banners, the childlike maid stood at the foot of the grassy knoll; and once again, when in the hour of his triumph, and amidst the wrecks of England on the field of Sanguelac, with a soul surviving the crushed and broken heart, the faith of the lofty woman defended the Hero Dead.

There, with knee unbent, and form unquailing, with marble cheek, and haughty eye, she faced the Conqueror; and, as she ceased, his noble barons broke into bold applause.

"Who art thou?" said William, if not daunted at least amazed. "Methinks I have seen thy face before; thou art not Harold's wife or sister?"

"Dread lord," said Osgood; "she was the betrothed of Harold; but, as within the degrees of kin, the Church forbade their union, and they obeyed the Church."

Out from the banquet-throng stepped Mallet de Graville. "O my liege," said he "thou hast promised me lands and earldom; instead of these gifts undeserved, bestow on me the right to bury and to honour the remains of Harold; today I took from him my life, let me give all I can in return--a grave!"

William paused, but the sentiment of the assembly, so clearly pronounced, and, it may be, his own better nature, which, ere polluted by plotting craft, and hardened by despotic ire, was magnanimous and heroic, moved and won him. "Lady," said he, gently, "thou appealest not in vain to Norman knighthood: thy rebuke was just; and I repent me of a hasty impulse. Mallet de Graville, thy prayer is granted; to thy choice be consigned the place of burial, to thy care the funeral rites of him whose soul hath passed out of human judgment."

The feast was over; William the Conqueror slept on his couch, and round him slumbered his Norman knights, dreaming of baronies to come; and still the torches moved dismally to and fro the waste of death, and through the hush of night was heard near and far the wail of women.

Accompanied by the brothers of Waltham, and attended by link-bearers, Mallet de Graville was yet engaged in the search for the royal dead--and the search was vain. Deeper and stiller, the autumnal moon rose to its melancholy noon, and lent its ghastly aid to the glare of the redder lights. But, on leaving the pavilion, they had missed Edith; she had gone from them alone, and was lost in that dreadful wilderness. And Ailred said despondingly:

"Perchance we may already have seen the corpse we search for, and not recognised it; for the face may be mutilated with wounds. And therefore it is that Saxon wives and mothers haunt our battle-fields, discovering those they search by signs not known without the household." (276)

"Ay," said the Norman, "I comprehend thee, by the letter or device, in which, according to your customs, your warriors impress on their own forms some token of affection, or some fancied charm against ill."

"It is so," answered the monk; "wherefore I grieve that we have lost the guidance of the maid."

While thus conversing, they had retraced their steps, almost in despair, towards the Duke's pavilion.

"See," said De Graville, "how near yon lonely woman hath come to the tent of the Duke--yea, to the foot of the holy gonfanon, which supplanted 'the Fighting Man!' pardex, my heart bleeds to see her striving to lift up the heavy dead!"

The monks neared the spot, and Osgood exclaimed in a voice almost joyful:

"It is Edith the Fair! This way, the torches! hither, quick!"

The corpses had been flung in irreverent haste from either side of the gonfanon, to make room for the banner of the conquest, and the pavilion of the feast. Huddled together, they lay in that holy bed. And the woman silently, and by the help of no light save the moon, was intent on her search. She waved her hand impatiently as they approached, as if jealous of the dead; but as she had not sought, so neither did she oppose, their aid. Moaning low to herself, she desisted from her task, and knelt watching them, and shaking her head mournfully, as they removed helm after helm, and lowered the torches upon stern and livid brows. At length the lights fell red and full on the ghastly face of Haco--proud and sad as in life.

De Graville uttered an exclamation: "The King's nephew: be sure the King is near!"

A shudder went over the woman's form, and the moaning ceased.

They unhelmed another corpse; and the monks and the knight, after one glance, turned away sickened and awe-stricken at the sight: for the face was all defeatured and mangled with wounds; and nought could they recognise save the ravaged majesty of what had been man. But at the sight of that face a wild shriek broke from Edith's heart.

She started to her feet--put aside the monks with a wild and angry gesture, and bending over the face, sought with her long hair to wipe from it the clotted blood; then with convulsive fingers, she strove to loosen the buckler of the breast-mail. The knight knelt to assist her. "No, no," she gasped out. "He is mine--mine now!"

Her hands bled as the mail gave way to her efforts; the tunic beneath was all dabbled with blood. She rent the folds, and on the breast, just above the silenced heart, were punctured in the old Saxon letters; the word "EDITH;" and just below, in characters more fresh, the word "ENGLAND."

"See, see!" she cried in piercing accents; and, clasping the dead in her arms, she kissed the lips, and called aloud, in words of the tenderest endearments, as if she addressed the living. All there knew then that the search was ended; all knew that the eyes of love had recognised the dead.

"Wed, wed," murmured the betrothed; "wed at last! O Harold, Harold! the words of the Vala were true--and Heaven is kind!" and laying her head gently on the breast of the dead, she smiled and died.

At the east end of the choir in the Abbey of Waltham, was long shown the tomb of the Last Saxon King, inscribed with the touching words--"Harold Infelix." But not under that stone, according to the chronicler who should best know the truth (277), mouldered the dust of him in whose grave was buried an epoch in human annals.

"Let his corpse," said William the Norman, "let his corpse guard the coasts, which his life madly defended. Let the seas wail his dirge, and girdle his grave; and his spirit protect the land which hath passed to the Norman's sway."

And Mallet de Graville assented to the word of his chief, for his knightly heart turned into honour the latent taunt; and well he knew, that Harold could have chosen no burial spot so worthy his English spirit and his Roman end.

The tomb at Waltham would have excluded the faithful ashes of the betrothed, whose heart had broken on the bosom she had found; more gentle was the grave in the temple of heaven, and hallowed by the bridal death-dirge of the everlasting sea.

So, in that sentiment of poetry and love, which made half the religion of a Norman knight, Mallet de Graville suffered death to unite those whom life had divided. In the holy burial-ground that encircled a small Saxon chapel, on the shore, and near the spot on which William had leapt to land, one grave received the betrothed; and the tomb of Waltham only honoured an empty name. (278)

Eight centuries have rolled away, and where is the Norman now? or where is not the Saxon? The little urn that sufficed for the mighty lord (279) is despoiled of his very dust; but the tombless shade of the kingly freeman still guards the coasts, and rests upon the seas. In many a noiseless field, with Thoughts for Armies, your relics, O Saxon Heroes, have won back the victory from the bones of the Norman saints; and whenever, with fairer fates, Freedom opposes Force, and Justice, redeeming the old defeat, smites down the armed Frauds that would consecrate the wrong,--smile, O soul of our Saxon Harold, smile, appeased, on the Saxon's land!

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BOOK XII. THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS CHAPTER VIIIThe two brethren of Waltham, Osgood and Ailred, had arrived a little after daybreak at the spot in which, about half a mile, to the rear of Harold's palisades, the beasts of burden that had borne the heavy arms, missiles, luggage, and forage of the Saxon march, were placed in and about the fenced yards of a farm. And many human beings, of both sexes and various ranks, were there assembled, some in breathless expectation, some in careless talk, some in fervent prayer. The master of the farm, his sons, and the able-bodied
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